Going a little batty

As someone who regularly goes out spotlighting in the forests around Melbourne I regularly encounter large numbers of microbats flitting around, particularly on warm Summer nights. Aside from the large and audible White-striped Freetail Bat these largely remain unidentified to the casual observer and at best get filed under microbat sp. There are apparently some 16 species recorded in the Greater Melbourne area (although only 5 make it into the inner suburbs) so I was keen to look at ways of exploring this under appreciated part of our mammalian fauna. A bit of googling found the excellent work done by Robert Bender and Steve Griffiths at Wilson Reserve and Organ Pipes with the ongoing bat box monitoring and bat banding programs – https://batboxes.wordpress.com/ On the website I noted that monitoring was on Saturday at Wilson Reserve so I came along to see what it was all about. Wilson Reserve is well known in birding circles as an excellent spot for Powerful Owls although I did not have a chance to have a look this time. At 3pm a couple of cars with ladders rolled in which I rightly assumed meant they were here to check the bats. Robert was very personable and quickly made me feel welcome and I was given the very important job of holding a bag of “important stuff” while we went around and checked the various bat boxes. There are 26 boxes up at Wilson Reserve over a space not much larger than a couple of acres and are roughly split into a forest and a meadow area. My group was given the task of checking the forest area which consisted of Robert climbing the ladder to a precarious height of 5 to 6 meters and reporting on the content of the boxes. In the forest area there was little found aside from a few Huntsmen guarding eggsacs. We moved on to the last few boxes in the meadow where we found two boxes with about 10 bats each – mostly Gould’s Wattled Bat and a few Eastern Broad-nosed Bats. It is not til you see these in someone’s hand that you realise how small they actually are. The bat’s are caught, bagged and taken back to Robert’s house for processing – this clearly does not stress these bats too much – they have been doing it for years and regularly retrap the same bats and have to follow strict ethical guidelines.

Gould's Wattled Bat ready for processing

Gould’s Wattled Bat ready for processing

Processing ran like a well oiled machine and I must admit I felt like a bit of a third wheel for a while until I found my niche as an umbrella holder shading the processors. To handle and process bats you need to have a complete rabies vaccination and some training which Robert and Steve are more than happy to help with. In addition to the processors there are scribes who record all the measurements and more importantly remind the processor what is missing – when there are over 50 bats to process this is very important. I was fortunate to meet “white-spot” – a female Gould’s Wattled Bat who has been around the 5 years of the WIlson Reserve banding program and has been re-caught over 40 times. There were 2 species caught across the day – the majority Gould’s Wattled Bat (~50) and around 5 Eastern Broad-nosed Bats. The EBN Bats are noticably smaller than the Gould’s and clearly occupy a different ecological niche – so much so that they are tolerated in the same boxes as the larger Goulds. There is a fantastic body of knowledge being built up through this program and a lot of thanks must go to Robert and his tireless work. Eventually I graduated to scribe duties where Robert gave me advice on the acceptable ranges for measurements to help eliminate human error in the records.

Eastern Broad-nosed Bat

Eastern Broad-nosed Bat

Gould's Wattled Bat

Gould’s Wattled Bat

I get the feeling that these programs – https://batboxes.wordpress.com/ – are running from the smell of an oily rag so always need volunteers – so if you are curious and want to get involved, come along and have a look – even if it is just to hold an umbrella or carry a ladder. I know I will be bringing Lucas along sometime soon to have a look at these fascinating mini-beasts.

Checking status of Gould's Wattled Bat

Checking reproductive status of Gould’s Wattled Bat

Unfortunately I couldn’t stay to see the bats released in the evening although I will certainly do so in the future. From the leafy suburbs of Ivanhoe I drove east an hour and half to Powelltown where I met up with Steve Davidson –  http://www.themelbournebirder.com/ and Jono Dashper – Flickr for a spot of spotlighting. Neither of them had seen Leadbeater’s Possum so that was to be the primary target for tonight’s somewhat limited time budget. We headed out north of Powelltown and reasonably quickly found a couple of Leadbeater’s Possum which gave good views although the photographic opportunities were limited. After a great experience we moved on – hearing a distant Sooty Owl at one site and encountering some Bobucks and YB Gliders at another. After a few frogs we left for a relatively early, but successful night.

Leadbeater's Possum

Leadbeater’s Possum

Litoria ewingii - recent morph

Litoria ewingii – recent morph

Epic couple of days

At the start of last year if you told me I would have had been able to see and photograph a wild Leadbeater’s Possum at close range I would probably not have believed you. But thank’s to the excellent field skills of Rohan Clarke – http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/ – I was able to spend a number of nights out in the Mountain ash forests around Melbourne having close encounters with Leadbeater’s Possum and even getting a couple of reasonable images. If it was possible to get good photos of the “critically endangered” Leadbeater’s Possum we wondered if the same could be done for another endangered possum – the Mountain Pygmy-possum. I spent a fair bit of time researching online information and chatting to some people in the know and hatched a plan to try and see Mountain Pygmy-possum in Victoria – Simon Mustoe http://simonmustoe.wildiaries.com/ was particularly helpful. Rohan and I had set a few days aside at the start of the New year to have a crack in the Victorian High Country but the report of the first Paradise Shelduck for the mainland turning up at Lake Wollumbulla in NSW caused a change of plan. The Shelduck is usually only found in New Zealand and there had been no confirmed mainland records for Australia so the bird was well lost. We would drive up to Lake Wollumbulla on New Years Day, twitch the duck and then head to Kosciusko National Park for one night trying to find the Mountain Pygmy-possum – sounds easy really.

It was somewhat strange to go to a New Year’s Eve party and hardly drink but it meant I could be up at a reasonable hour on New Year’s day for the trip up the Hume. We arrived with a couple of hours of daylight left and quickly found the duck and were able to spend a fair bit of time with it without interruption. We were somewhat surprised at the lack of people looking for the duck but I guess the Sydney locals would have already twitched it and the interstaters were still coming. At this point I realised I could no longer claim to have never gone interstate to twitch a vagrant bird – the start of a slippery slope towards becoming a twitcher perhaps? On the way out in the increasing gloom we managed to pick out the other famous vagrant at the site at the moment – the Hudsonian Godwit – a bird that more normally inhabits the Americas. I had seen a couple of times before in Victoria but it was still very nice to see. We spent a few hours spotlighting in the State Forest and National Park south of Lake Wollumbulla without much success – most of the forest roads were gated and there was ridiculous amounts of traffic on the roads for the time of night.

Paradise Shelduck

Paradise Shelduck – a long way from home

Up at dawn we were back at the duck and were able to spent a good couple of hours observing and photographing the bird. It was very wary and alert which made approach difficult and again was a point to it being a wild bird. Lake Wollumbulla is a great place with tonnes of birds and with the extra attention of birders is bound to turn up more interesting sightings over the next few years. As we left the first birders started to arrive with quite a crowd building up. The drive to Kosciusko was interesting, passing through a number of National Parks and reserves. At Jerrawangala National Park I saw my first Rockwarbler in over ten years at a site which must be getting close to the southern most part of their range.

Rohan approaching the duck

Rohan approaching the duck

After a stop off in Cooma for lunch and supplies we made it to the might Kosciusko National Park with plenty of time for reconnaissance and exploration. I had never been to this area before and it is quite spectacular – will need to return sometime to further explore. We identified a couple of rocky boulder/scree slopes with low heathy vegetation that is supposed to be the preferred habitat of the pygmy-possum. On dark we setup in locations with a good view of area to listen, watch and wait. The weather was closing in fast and the radar showed significant rain on the way. The first small mammal seen was a Bush Rat which seems to be quite common at this altitude. White-striped Freetail Bats were clicking around, several times nearly running into me – with no tree canopy they were much easier than normal to get a spotlight on. Eventually after hearing many soft little noises of small mammals we were able to get fleeting then excellent views and even photographs of the Mountain Pygmy-possum in between squalls of wind and rain. This had to be one of my best wildlife experiences to date and there were two very happy observers! I was extremely happy to get the few photos below – I missed the tail but I can live with that. I was quite surprised how chunky the animals were but I guess they need serious fat reserves to survive winters at this location.

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum playing peekaboo

We ended up being quite fortunate with the weather because no sooner had we packed up the camera gear and got in the car that the rain really started to pour down. We spent a bit of time driving around in the rain listening for the endangered subspecies alpina of the Verreaux’s Tree Frog without any luck – all we heard were a few Crinia’s. Still we could hardly complain after the cracking success of the evening! Further spotlighting and slow driving found some more common mammals including Wombat, Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Red-necked Wallaby, Swamp Wallaby, Brush-tailed Possum and near the park entrance a small group of Fallow Deer expanding their range. We drove the back route through the south of Kosciusko National Park to get home the next day which was impressive and had a brief stop at Burrowa-Pine National Park in NE Victoria which will require further exploration in the future. All in all a very successful couple of days and now time to work on the next target 😉

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum coming out to play

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum is curious

Mountain Pygmy-possum

Mountain Pygmy-possum posing on stage