My favourite wildlife watching is spotlighting after dark in the tall forests around Melbourne. There is nothing better than hearing the falling bomb call of a Sooty Owl piercing through the crisp, still winter night’s air and then the electronic trills as the bird calls it’s head off above your head. The tall forests of Mountain Ash, Messmate and Manna Gums host a wide range of denizens that only come out after dark ranging from owls, to gliders, bandicoots and even the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum. As I always say – you are never going to see them from the couch at home and the only way you are going to see them is to get out there and have a look.
Listen to a pair of Sooty Owls duet on the northern edge of Bunyip State Park
What do you need?
– A light source – a headlamp is ideal as it allows you to pick up the eyeshine of even very small creatures from a great distance. The light source does not need the power of 1000 suns.
I personally use a LED Lenser I am sick of Led Lensers breaking so have recently upgraded? to an Olight H2R head torch after a bit of research but so far have not had a chance to test in the field due to Covid restrictions. The day I bought my first Lenser I threw out my old spotlight but now I sometimes wish I hadn’t – the modern LED torches are light and powerful but produce a bright white light – the yellow light of older spot lights seems to hold animals better, particularly mammals. I also have a red LED Wolfeyes XBeam torch which is excellent – I certainly notice much more natural behaviour of mammals under red light. Owls seem far less phased either way. H14 H7.R2 headlamp using the more powerful setting to pick up the animal then lowering the power.
– warm clothes – in the hills around Melbourne the temperature can drop away very quickly, even in the warmer months.
– Binoculars – even when its dark it is amazing how much extra detail you can see with binoculars. Also very good for watching stags and hollows right on dusk.
– Good footwear – even if you are only spotlighting from the roads, many of them have potholes that are hard to see in the dark and a twisted ankle will ruin a night rather quickly.
– Map/GPS – if you are heading into unknown State Forest then a good map or a GPS is very useful. There are excellent 4wd maps available for the areas around Melbourne and beyond that will even show the smallest track. It is also worth GPSing likely looking sites during the day so they are easy to find again at night when every part of the forest starts to look the same.
– Insect repellent – I usually don’t bother, but if you attract mosquito’s and leeches it is worth applying some before heading out.
– Check weather conditions before heading out – some forest roads can become quite slippery and treacherous after inclement weather.
– A companion – it can get a little spooky and its always good to share the experience.
– Other random equipment that can be handy if you have access and depending what you are targeting include a bat detector, portable speaker and even better if you know a friend with a thermal scope.
A few hints for getting the most out of your spotlighting experience. Best bet is to experiment and see what works for you.
– Your ears are often your best asset – walk slowly along through suitable habitat listening and then look for eyeshine when you hear something. Even small mammals like Leadbeater’s Possums make plenty of noise as they move around.
– Use torches to look for eyeshine – this works best when held close to your eyes. My preference is to use a head torch as it also leaves your hands free.
– Squeaking or the limited use of playback works for some species but please consider your location and the time of year. Don’t use playback for large owl species during the winter breeding season and it quickly loses any effectiveness when used excessively in well known locations.
– With some larger sites it is best to drive and stop every kilometer or so in likely looking habitat – often a good idea to recce first during daylight hours.
– Drive along slowly and look for movement in the headlights – know that a calling owl can be heard above the noise of the engine so drive along with the windows down – on a really crisp, cold winter night set the heater on your feet and its manageable.
– Do your research! There is a wealth of information available online that can give you clues on where to search and what is around at a particular time of the year.
Where to go?
Below are a few ideas on where to start looking but really it is worth having a go in any interesting section of bush after dark. Organisations like BirdLife and the Field Nats occasionally run spotlighting or stag watching events so keep an eye on their websites. http://birdlifemelbourne.org.au/ and http://www.fncv.org.au/
A great place to start looking for nocturnal wildlife is in the streets and parks of suburban Melbourne. Almost every park (and many backyards) will have the common possums – Eastern Ring-tailed and Common Brush-tail Possums as well as Tawny Frogmouths and Grey-headed Flying Foxes. Many larger parks in Melbourne will contain more interesting animals including Sugar Gliders, up to 6 species of Microbat, Powerful Owls and a variety of frogs. Areas to try include the park system along the Yarra River, Shepherds Bush, Lysterfield Lake Park and even the Western Treatment Plant access roads for Boobook and Barn Owls.
Bunyip State Park
Note – Bunyip State park was burnt extensively in the fires at the start of 2019 – as yet much of it is still closed – hopefully these notes will become relevant again in the future. Bunyip State Park is my favourite birding location and is a great place to visit day or night. It has a wide variety of habitats attracting a good range of species and a lot of mature hollow bearing trees in the riparian areas which are excellent for owl roosting and the larger forest gliders. Unfortunately half the park was heavily burnt in the Black Saturday fires and is only starting to recover now – however this regrowth seems to be excellent for antechinus and both bandicoots. Bunyip supports a reasonable population of Sooty Owls and encounters can be expected on most evening visits. Other key species include White-throated Nightjar (Summer into early Autumn), Powerful Owl, Yellow-bellied, Greater and Sugar Gliders and Bobuck in the higher reaches. On a good night’s spotlighting it is possible to get 10 mammal species and 4 or 5 nocturnal avian species without too much effort. http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/bunyip-state-park
My recent nocturnal highlights at Bunyip State Park include Long-nosed Bandicoot, Eastern Pygmy-possum and Masked Owl – LINK
Close to Healesville, badger Weir is a popular spotlighting spot. Park at the gate and walk up to the picnic area and then there a couple of short loop forest trails. Sooty and Powerful Owls, Greater and yellow-bellied Gliders are often encountered here and the area can be nicely covered in an hour after dark. This can be used as a good jump off point for a night in the State Forest beyond. http://parkweb.vic.gov.au/explore/parks/yarra-ranges-national-park/things-to-do/badger-weir-picnic-area
Toolangi, Yarra Ranges and Tarago State Forests – part of proposed Great Forest Park #GFNP
There is an extensive area of State Forest surrounding Melbourne which in many ways has been used as a large plantation for Mountain Ash over the last century or more. It is also an excellent area for a number of threatened species and it is hoped that much of it will be protected in a Great Forest Park in the years to come. You can help by going out and exploring these areas and logging your threatened species records. My favourite areas are in the Tarago and Yarra Ranges parts of the forest where a night of exploring can yield the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum, Sooty Owls, Greater and Yellow-bellied Gliders and smaller animals such as Long-nosed bandicoot. A number of organisations looking to protect the area run stag watching nights which gives the amateur naturalist a chance to see a Leadbeater’s Possum although with a bit of experience they can be found in suitable habitat throughout the area. Check out the Great Forest National Park website for more information – http://www.greatforestnationalpark.com.au/
– East Gippsland is large forest owl central with Powerful, Sooty and Masked all in good numbers. White-throated Nightjar are found in numbers through the warmer months and there is a good variety of interesting frogs and mammals which can be targetted. The are around Cape Conran is excellent with a couple of nights stay targeting areas along the Conran-Cabbage Tree Road and Cabbage Tree reserve usually very productive for Sooty and Masked Owl. Pretty much all the area east of Bairnsdale is worth a look for Masked Owl – a good technique is to go out during the day looking for areas of tall open forest interfacing with heathland and checking them again after dark.LINK
– The Rawson and Walhalla area is an excellent area for Sooty Owl, Large gliders and Bobuck.
– Rushworth State Forest – Spotted Nightjar in the mallee areas near the town of Rushworth, while Phascogales, Sugar and Squirrel Gliders and Yellow-footed Antechninus all make use of nestboxes in the area and can be encountered on an evening spotlighting.
– Volunteer for a nestbox survey – http://regenthoneyeater.org.au/nest-box.php