The sight is breathtaking. Thousands of huge bats, their graceful wings spanning three feet (1 meter) or more, sail directly overhead. Waves of grey-headed flying foxes, their bodies silhouetted against the deep-purple sky, rise from the surrounding forest at dusk and fly low over the handful of BCI members gathered on a bridge across a deep gorge at Australia’s Ku-ring-gai Bat Reserve. “This,” says Les Meade of Lexington, Kentucky, “is the second-best emergence of bats that I have ever seen. Number One is the emergence [of 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats] at Bracken Cave” in Texas.
And that was just the first night of BCI’s 2007 Founder’s Circle Ecotour of Australia and New Zealand – a 17-day expedition that featured a stunning array of habitats ranging from a tropical rainforest to a geothermal wonderland to the underwater magic of the Great Barrier Reef. “We didn’t do museums and cathedrals,” said Mary Read of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We just always headed for the wildlife. It was wonderful and very rare.”
Australia and New Zealand are rich in some of the world’s most unusual wildlife – as well as at least 75 bat species, some of them unique. The travelers marveled at encounters with kangaroos, wallabies, sugar gliders, a wild assortment of possums, colorful parrots, bowerbirds and other birds, kangaroo-like pademelons, little bandicoots, even a duck-billed platypus (a rather bizarre egg-laying mammal). The focus, of course, was on the bats, including nights of netting and up-close observation, as well as visits to inspiring Australian and New Zealand conservationists dedicated to protecting them.
The Ku-ring-gai Bat Reserve is a still-wild oasis tucked into an upscale suburb of Sydney, Australia. During the day, as many as 30,000 of the grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) hang like Christmas ornaments from the towering trees that have survived urbanization. The forest that shelters this flying-fox colony was about to become a subdivision in the mid-1980s. Local conservationists and scientists organized the Ku-ring-gai Bat Committee and leapt into action. BCI Founder Merlin Tuttle went to Australia two decades ago to help make the case for preservation. (Tuttle, as always, led this Founder’s Circle Ecotour.) The forest and its bats were protected and the committee has been working tirelessly to protect the area ever since. Committee members described their work to the Founder’s Circle visitors.
A four-day stay at Trish and Terry Wimberley’s unique flying-fox rescue and rehabilitation center on Australia’s Gold Coast was a special highlight for a number of the Founder’s Circle members. “This was the most amazing place,” said Miriam Schulman of Los Angeles. “They are first and foremost an animal hospital that cares for many, many bats, but they also take in other wildlife. They have a surgery center and a nursery for orphaned baby bats.”
The baby flying foxes “are adorable. They’re very affectionate. They snuggle against you and make little noises. They feel just like little kittens with wings.” The tiny orphans are wrapped in swaddling blankets, which, Schulman said, “makes them feel secure since they’re normally tucked up under their mother’s wings and held quite tightly.” They’re fed with tiny baby bottles and even have “little pacifiers that Trish makes for them. These tiny creatures would melt the heart of the sternest skeptic and turn him into a bat lover.”
“We enjoyed the ambience at large: the surrounding forest, with the varied animals, reptiles and birds that were cared for in the clinic with bats hanging everywhere,” said Connie Kruse and Tommy Angell. They cited “the added attraction of a frog chorus one night during a lighting storm, and the ever-friendly greeters at the door: Picka and Boo (the two dogs) and a duck named Dorothy. Every day was a new experience.”
The Wimberleys’ property of rolling hills, forests and streams is especially rich in wildlife. “We probably saw more wildlife at their place than at any other single place we visited,” Meade said. And the abundance of bats was impressive. “We netted across a stream under a canopy of low-growing trees,” Schulman said. “The myotis bats were hitting our net faster than we could get them out.” The most unusual bat encountered on the trip probably was the endangered short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata) found only in New Zealand. It has evolved into one of the most terrestrial of bats; several were netted, examined and released. New Zealand’s other bat species, the long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculatus), was trapped around roosting caves. These two insect-eating bat species are the only native land mammals in the island nation.
“One of the most extraordinary things we did in New Zealand was visit one of the [Waitomo] glow-worm caves,” Schulman said. Entered by boat, the dark, silent cave featured “a huge, cathedral-like domed ceiling covered with thousands and thousands of little pinpricks of yellow-green lights – the glow worms.”
The worms are larvae of the New Zealand fungus gnat. They spin nests out of silk and leave threads, covered with a sticky mucous, hanging loose like snares. The larvae emit a bioluminescent glow to attract insect prey, which become stuck on the threads. The effect, Schulman said, is “like little diamonds hanging down from the cave. It is very beautiful and very magical.”
The tour was limited to the northern half of New Zealand’s North Island, where some members were struck by the extent of deforestation in certain areas. “It was very sad,” Schulman said. “Forests were clear-cut and then monocropped, mostly with Monterrey pines, so that previously rich forests were replaced by row upon row of only young pines. Some areas had only stumps sticking up.” To Mary Read, the lost forests drove home the message that “destruction of native trees and forests is a terrible problem around the world. You come away realizing how important education is to tell the story of bats.
“This was a fabulous trip. Everything about it was wonderful,” she said. “We covered a lot of ground, but everything was so well-timed that we had plenty of time to see everything we wanted to see. And I came away just amazed … and very charged up about bat conservation. It was wonderful to see the devotion of so many people.
“Thank goodness for the women who banded together to save the forests and flying foxes [of Ku-ring-gai], and for the Wimberleys and the people at the Tolga Bat Hospital, where high school kids come after school to hand-feed the bats and clean the cages. It was an eye-opening experience.”