Revisiting old friends – Leadbeater’s Possum in the Central Highlands

Still coming down from the buzz of seeing my first Letter-winged Kite, I decided it was time to head back into the Central Highlands to look for Leadbeater’s Possum and other furry targets. I hadn’t had a chance to get out to see Leadbeater’s Possum this year so I decided it was definitely time to rectify that. Dan Ashdown (one of the discovers of the Letter-winged Kite earlier in the week) met me at the station and we headed east. We poked around Tarago State Forest and Reservoir not seeing particularly much but were stopped in our tracks as yet again this area of forest was closed due to a car rally!! So we drove a few other areas with the highlights being large numbers of Lyrebirds running off the sides of the roads.

It was starting to get dark so headed in to Powelltown to pick up a burger which we took back up the hill, sitting on the edge of a devastated logging coupe where a juvenile Sooty Owl screamed incessantly from across the valley. Rohan Clarke caught up with us and at our second stop we came across a few Leadies which gave good views but would not stop for pics. There were a couple of bats flitting around here with Gould’s Wattled Bat and Eastern Falsistrellus (which I still need a confirmed sighting of!) picked up on the bat detector. Over the next few stops we steadily picked up more Leadbeater’s Possum and other cool stuff like Bobucks, Sugar Gliders, Agile Antechinus and Bush Rat. The Leadies were quite reactive and gave a good show of their diagnostic squirrel like movement and a couple of them even propped for a happy snap or two. Eventually we found the only Greater Glider for the evening sitting in a mountain ash. A distant Boobook caused some confusion until we got better views – it was variously called Greater Glider, Sooty and Powerful Owl until we got our act together!

Leadbeater's Possum

Leadbeater’s Possum

We ended the night at a very recently cleared and burnt logging coupe right in the middle of the area that supports high densities of the Critically Endangered Leadbeater’s Possum. The devastation in these areas is absolute with the so called “habitat trees” that are left behind killed and blackened by the followup high intensity burning of the coupes. We need a Great Forest National Park to protect this area, the animals that live here, to protect our water supplies and to as the best carbon store in the world. To continue to clearfell this area is criminal. Somewhat deflated we headed home, dodging wombats and swamp wallabies.

Leadbeater's Possum

Leadbeater’s Possum

A surprise bat

Last week I met up with mates Geoff Jones of Barra Imaging and Dave Stowe http://www.davidstowe.com.au/ for a quick jaunt up to Powelltown to look for Leadbeater’s Possum and any other Central Highlands targets we could find. Unfortunately it was a school night so I was late out of the city and we did not arrive up in possum country until about 8pm. At the second stop we had a very curious Sooty Owl which trilled continually as we tried to get some clear photos of it but it remained frustratingly high and in the foliage – this was a new Aussie bird for Geoff! Of note were several species of micro bat flying around which were considerably more in evidence than other recent visits – it must be getting warmer. At one stage the Sooty Owl moved to a new tree and a small mammal scampered down the trunk and launched into the air spiraling down – a Feather-tailed Glider! Too far away to see any details but will be back to see if there is a colony in the area.

A bit further up the road we stopped with the wind starting to rise and I almost immediately got onto a nice Leadbeater’s Possum which gave some good looks to Geoff and myself but unfortunately Dave missed it. We poked around here a bit and did not turn up another although did add Ringtail Possum to the evening list. Further along Dave saw what was probably a Leadbeaters Possum at a known site but unfortunately we could not get enough to confirm. A few Bobucks were in evidence but the wind was now getting quite high so we decided that we were flogging a dead horse so headed back down the mountain. We were beetling down the mountain when at one stage I was watching a micro bat flitting around in front of the car when it suddenly veered around and got caught on the aerial of the car. I shouted to stop and we bailed out to watch the death throws of the poor little animal. At the same time a Tyto owl screamed nearby which sounded very like Masked owl. There was a sequence reminiscent of Benny Hill as I tried to collect the now dead bat, photograph it, call in the owl and all the time the wind getting stronger and stronger. In the end we left the owl in the field and headed home but I will be back soon. Later at home I examined and keyed out the poor bat – forearm length and penis shape as well as pelage and face shape indicated this was a Large Forest bat – Vespadelus darlingtoni – a bat I have probably seen thousands of times as it is common in these forests but the first time I have positively identified. All in all a brief but pretty good night – still need to get Dave a Leadbeater’s on the next visit and I did manage to get a surprise bat for the year list.

Large Forest bat

Large Forest bat

Large Forest bat

Large Forest bat

A feather for a tail

Earlier this week I knocked off work a bit early and headed up into the Central Highlands with Rohan Clarke http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/ with a couple of targets in mind. We arrived at a site near the base of Lake Mountain that is known for Broad-toothed Rat and poked around a bit while waiting for dark. From here we headed out towards Woods Point stopping in likely looking habitat for owls, possum and glider. At the first stop we had a couple of Bobuck and a Greater Glider so things were off to a good start. Rohan had use of a thermal camera which again proved very good at picking up animals that otherwise would have been missed by normal spotlighting. A second stop had a calling Sooty Owl and yet more Greater Gliders and what Rohan thought was a Feather-tailed Glider but he could not relocate. This is a species which was high on my wish list so I was a bit disappointed to miss it…. but the night was young!

Bobuck

Bobuck

We moved on again to a new spot and almost immediately had good looks at a Leadbeater’s Possum flitting around. After seeing them in Tarago, Powelltown and Toolangi recently it was good to add another population to my records. We moved on and Rohan picked up a very small but hot object on the thermal camera – flicking on the headlamp I saw it was a Feather-tailed Glider which was quite light shy, zipping down the trunk and going to ground, fantastic stuff! The small eucalyptus it was in had a fair infestation of lerp which we surmised it was likely feeding on. I was elated but the twitching part of me was a bit torn – I had good views of its feather tail as it scuttled along but Feather-tailed Gliders have recently been split into two species, Narrow-toed and Broad-toed and both occur in Victoria so was unsure which I had seen. About now my head torch batteries started to die so I stopped to change them and of course Rohan located another another Feather-tailed Glider! Running across with a handful of batteries and torches there was a Feather-tailed Glider frozen in the fork of a small tree. In the excitement I did not check camera settings so the photos are not as good as they could be but were good enough to show that it was a Narrow-toed Feather-tailed Glider! Lifer and a very wanted tick under the belt! it gave us a good couple of minutes of viewing before vanishing into the night. We spent a fair bit of time in this area and found another couple of feather-tails which showed we must have found a good colony.

Narrow-toed Feather-tailed Glider - Yarra Ranges State Forest

Narrow-toed Feather-tailed Glider – Yarra Ranges State Forest

Narrow-toed Feather-tailed Glider - Yarra Ranges State Forest

Narrow-toed Feather-tailed Glider – Yarra Ranges State Forest

We continued east, stopping regularly getting as far as Matlock before heading back. Plenty of Greater Gliders seen and we checked a known location for Leadbeater’s that Rohan had found previously and quickly found a couple of animals which gave a pretty good show with their diagnostic movements through the mid canopy. Another stop in a random location pulled in yet another Leadbeater’s Possum which sat and watched us for a while. We checked again the Feather-tail colony but could not locate any animals on this occasion but did hear some very distant wild dogs or dingos. Rohan tried his best howling impersonation and rather quickly the dogs came closer and closer until they were only a couple of hundred meters away. About now they must have realised they were being conned as they lost interest – still it was a fun experience! We were driving towards the campsite to call it a night when we rumbled a small looking boobook in the middle of the road. Rohan immediately suspected it a Tasmanian Boobook or Morepork and a quick couple of photos showed it to be the case with its heavily spotted underparts and phonebook yellow eyes. This is an excellent record and again is supporting evidence that small numbers of these birds winter on the Australian mainland. In many ways this was the sighting of an already excellent night!

Tasmanian Boobook (Morepork)

Tasmanian Boobook (Morepork)

We camped down towards Big River where a pair of Powerful Owls called repeatedly just before dawn which rounded the night out well. Up early and back to Melbourne in time for an 11 am meeting. All in all it was a very successful evening with 5 Feather-tailed gliders, 4 Leadbeater’s Possums, 25+ Greater Gliders, Agile Antechinus and four owl species as well as plenty of the more usual suspects. The Leadbeater’s Possum records have been reported to relevant authorities. Now it is time to find a Broad-toed Feather-tailed!

More Leadbeater’s Possum action

I had some spare time Saturday night so I headed out to the Powelltown area to meet up with a mate Stephen and two of his sons – Adam (10) and Liam (8) to try and show them a Leadbeater’s Possum or two. On the way there I tracked through Tarago State Forest and was fortunate enough to spot a Platypus in the Tarago River minutes after talking to a fisherman who told me he had never seen a platypus there as the water is too dirty. Well the water looks pretty clean to me and Tarago Reservoir is in service as part of Melbourne’s water supply so I was not surprised to see a trail of muddy water and then a beak sticking up briefly in the increasing gloom. Now I just need to find a platypus in Bunyip sometime! A Bassian Thrush on the side of the road and a few lyrebirds were nice as I zipped around to Powelltown for the 6pm meetup.

With the boys both desperately wanting to see Leadbeater’s Possum and Stephen only having seen one previously, we headed out to check out colonies found previously over the past year or so. It was a full moon night so I was a little skeptical how we would go but we pretty quickly got onto a very nice possum which sat nicely for all to see. After a couple of happy snaps it jumped even closer beside the car showing us all its diagnostic movement which best resembles a squirrel. With the main target out of the way we continued on to try and get some better views as well as try and rustle up an owl or two.

Leadbeater's Possum - Yarra State Forest

Leadbeater’s Possum – Yarra State Forest

After a couple more stops we arrived at an area of perhaps ten year old regrowth that has been very productive on previous visits. It seems that this is a great place for possums and gliders of all shapes and sizes to travel and feed in the abundant wattle from denning sites nearby. Over a number of visits here I have found Greater, Yellow-bellied and Sugar Gliders, Ringtails and Bobucks and of course Leadbeater’s Possum – it seems as long as there are stags nearby, possums will travel to feed into areas like this. We were fortunate enough to find a number of Leadbeater’s Possums sitting low for some great views and a couple of snaps. Towards the end of this wander we watched several Leadbeater’s chase each other round, calling continuously in what appeared to be a territorial dispute. This was fascinating as it was probably the first time I have seen demonstrable interaction between individual Leadbeater’s Possums. The call was a continual staccato tsi-tsi-tsi-tsi which was very different to the drumming call I had heard in the past. Perhaps this was a territorial call, while the drumming is threat related? We had not heard a night bird of any description which is not unusual on full moon nights in my experience. I was very impressed by Adam and Liam’s knowledge, questions and discipline throughout our jaunt and I think they are both excellent young naturalists.

Leadbeater's Possum - Yarra State Forest

Leadbeater’s Possum – Yarra State Forest

Leadbeater's Possum - Yarra State Forest

Leadbeater’s Possum – Yarra State Forest

With Liam getting a bit tired we headed back to Powelltown managing a nice Southern Boobook on the way down the mountain – still we did pretty well overall – just over two hours for nine Leadbeater’s Possum! After dropping them back at their car I had a bit of decision to make about what to do next. I decided to go again to Bunyip to chase owls despite the full moon – in hindsight a bad choice. Three and half hours wandering around Bunyip produced plenty of Yellow-bellied, Greater and Sugar Gliders but I could not even get a peep out of an owl of any description. Still they will be waiting for next time….

In possum country

The monthly Portland pelagic was cancelled so I was looking for something to do on Saturday evening. I decided to go spotlighting for a change as it had been a week and I was having withdrawal symptoms. It was late notice but Jono and Chris stepped up to the plate and met me out at Powelltown at 8pm – the Powelly pub was going bananas with at least 5 cars there but we resisted the urge to go in and evangelise in this hard core logging town on the virtues of the Leadbeater’s possum and a Great Forest National Park. We headed north to our first stop which was just on true dark – Jono heard a Sooty which was a good sign but it was a false dawn as it was the only Tyto heard for the night. I had recently acquired a low end bat detector so waved that around a bit and I can confirm that indeed there are bats around and I can hear them with the device. In fact bats were a feature of the night, at every stop we had many microbats of various sizes and flight patterns zipping around but unfortunately all remain unidentified aside from the White-striped Free-tailed Bat which was heard and even spotlit at most stops. After a bit of stuffing around it was time to get serious so we headed off to find some possums.

We stopped at a spot I had seen Leadbeater’s earlier in the year and after a bit of pishing Chris was able to get onto a couple of Leadbeater’s possums which got the night off to a good start. Further up the road there were a number of Geocrinia victoriana calling and then at least three Leadbeater’s possum zipping around the area. At one stage two were on a branch and I almost got a good pic but without time to setup properly just ended up with some blurred blobs. Still it was great to observe their behaviour and again we heard their drumming call. A lyrebird calling at 10pm was somewhat novel.

Two Leadbeaters in the one frame - pity about the focus

Two Leadbeaters in the one frame – pity about the focus

Further up the hill we went to an area of regrowth which is regularly frequented by various types of possums due to the prevalence of thick hickory and silver wattle. Tonight was no exception with good views of Sugar Glider and a number of Bobucks including one fatty that was as wide as it was tall. Also throughout this area we came across individual Leadbeater’s Possum that clearly travel into the area to feed from roosting sites nearby. I need to come back here during the day to see just how close the nearest suitable stags are as they are not immediately apparent from the road. Was fortunate enough to have one animal come quite close for photo opportunities but again I had a double failure – first failing to turn the flash on when it was closest and then not nailing the shot when it leapt from one trunk to another. Still we again got to observe these animals – the way they move is diagnostic with no other Australian mammal like it. I was now a couple of Canadian Club and dry cans in and with 8 or so Leadbeater’s under the belt it was turning into a good night. Here we had the standard nightly run in with some friendly boguns in a 4wd who were suitably amazed when we said we were looking for possums and owls although they understood better when I explained it goes well with a couple of cans.

Turn the flash on muppet

Turn the flash on muppet

This could have been great!

This could have been great!

From here we headed into new areas and at the first stop we jumped out of the car and heard a Limnodynastes calling. Whilst the others were chasing frogs I managed to pish up some Leadbeater’s quickly and we soon had 3 performing quite nicely. At one stage I had three on the same branch but it was too overgrown to get a shot!

Moving on again we stopped at the top of a likely looking hill and started walking down. This proved to be great country with Yellow-bellied Glider calling and good numbers of Bobucks and Ringtails. As we moved down we had two excellent Greater Gliders on a branch staring down at us – one was a white morph and one the more regular dark morph. I have only rarely seen the white morph in these forests so it was very cool to watch and photograph these cracking animals. Of course we were distracted from the Gliders by performing Leadbeater’s possum with a number of animals seen as we walked about 800 meters down the hill. It was now about 12:30 so it was time to call it a night with the drive back to Powelltown being largely uneventful.

A relatively slim Bobuck

A relatively slim Bobuck

This pair of Greater Glider was a highlight of the night

This pair of Greater Glider was a highlight of the night

Pretty good night really – out of 7 spots we had Leadbeater’s Possum at 6 of them with 3 of those sites being new for me. We saw a conservative minimum of 18 individual LBP but it was likely higher than this. Records will be submitted to the appropriate authorities for the LBP and Greater Gliders. Somewhat surprisingly the only mammals seen were possums and gliders (6 species) and the microbats and the only birds heard (by me) were Boobook and a single Owlet-nightjar. 3 species of frog rounded out the vertebrate list. It was a long drive back home from Powelltown but well worth it and I am already looking forward to the next night out. #GFNP If anyone wants to come and help identify the myriad of microbats out there please let me know!

Nice pair

Nice pair