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The swingers

Flying foxes in Sydney's Botanic Gardens. Photo: Rick Stevens
April 23 2003
They clock on at sunset and then party till dawn. Bat fan James Woodford hangs out with some of the city's high flyers.

Their extraordinary "fly-outs" are as much a part of the CBD sunset as the silhouette of a yacht's sail as it glides across the harbour. About 20 minutes after dusk, for half an hour or so, tens of thousands of flying foxes can be seen heading off in search of fruit and nectar.

It is indeed hard to imagine Sydney without its bats, flapping like vampires across the skyline, but when the first British colonists arrived the big bat colony near the present CBD did not exist.

Nine months after Watkin Tench stepped ashore with the First Fleet he had given up hope of finding any of the bats that Captain James Cook had seen in Queensland in 1770.

"Besides the emu, many birds of prodigious size have been seen, which promise to increase the number of those described by naturalists," the Captain of Marines wrote.

"But among these the bat of the Endeavour River is not to be found."

Leading bat researcher Dr Brad Law, from State Forests, has studied the early records of sightings in Sydney. He believes that it was the planting of native figs throughout city parks that led flying foxes to camp in the Royal Botanic Gardens. Nearly 70 years after Tench, the naturalist George Bennett wrote: "In the year of 1858, to my surprise, a number of these animals were observed suspended from the branches of the lofty trees in the Sydney Botanic Garden, hanging by their hind claws: it was an unusual event, asfor several years not a specimen had been seen at that locality." There were, however, bat colonies further away from the harbour.

In 1791 near Parramatta, Tench wrote: "An immense flight of bats driven before the wind, covered all the trees around the settlement, whence they every moment dropped dead or in a dying state, unable longer to endure the burning state of the atmosphere. Nor did the perroquettes [parakeets], though tropical birds, bear it better. The ground was strewed with them in the same condition as the bats."

We know that Tench was not exaggerating because earlier this year during the January heatwaves, a similar spectacle befell the bats of Sydney - in spite of the efforts of a team of wildlife rescuers, 3000 flying foxes died from heat exhaustion in a colony at Cabramatta.

The grey-headed flying fox is just one of at least 15 species of bats that somehow survive across the metropolitan area. Today the city boasts a population of more than 60,000 flying foxes. It is the largest representative of a group of mysterious and, to many, frightening creatures that don't hold the same appeal as a kookaburra or even a blue-tongued lizard.

Just park your car under a fig tree in Sydney and before long, the chances are it will be graffitied by bat poo. The size of flying foxes, the noise they make and their large gatherings add to their image problem. Some members of the anti-bat brigade also perceive them as being carriers of disease.

But the chair of the Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society, Nancy Pallin, urges Sydneysiders to learn to appreciate and enjoy the city's bats.

After all, their mess is probably no worse than Sydney's rainwater or bird droppings (with a pH of between 5.5 and 6.5) and watching them fly overhead poses no danger regarding disease.

Handling them is another matter, though. While they only rarely carry disease, the illness of greatest concern is lyssavirus and every wildlife carer or scientist who works with the creatures must be immunised. But, as Pallin explains: "To get lyssavirus you have to be handling a bat, it has to scratch and bite you and the bat has got to be a carrier. If you do nothing you will die. You should leave bats alone. Don't handle bats. If you want to have a look, go out there at night and put a spotlight on them - they are very entertaining."

And that goes for everyone in the bat family, which includes creatures both great and small. One of the tiniest mammals in the world is the four-gram forest bat. In between are a suite of creatures leading unimaginably complex lives while we sleep. In Glenorie lives a 10-gram bat with bizarre, disproportionately large feet that it uses as rakes to catch tiny fish and aquatic insects. It hunts in total darkness equipped with superb echo-location skills to detect ripples on the surface of suburban creeks. The body of the large-footed myotis - also known as the fishing bat - is smaller than a thumb and in its fur lives a parasitic insect that is found nowhere else.

Another colony of the fishing bats is known to live at Rouse Hill and at least one other hunts in the far-from-pristine creeks around Mt Annan.

Sydney's bats are divided into two main groups - the megabats and the microbats. The flying foxes are in the first group and can weigh up to a kilogram and have wingspans in excess of a metre. Grey-headed flying foxes do not use echolocation and so cannot fly within caves or even in complete darkness. It is, however, the great flapping flying foxes that can be seen most readily at dusk by almost anyone who cares to look upwards. Also, it is the flying foxes that are seen hanging upside-down from power lines for weeks or months after they have been electrocuted. As bat expert Sue Churchill explains, the reason dead bats can still hang off powerlines is because the tendons in their feet are designed to use energy only when they let go.

The flying foxes are cursed by orchardists and wreak havoc on the trees in the Royal Botanic Gardens but are a natural and extraordinary component of the fragile food chain that miraculously staggers on in Sydney. They are also important pollinators and help disperse seeds. The almost-invisible microbats, such as the large-footed myotis, make up most of the remainder. So unknown are these species that, often, when they are found injured and reported to the Wildlife Information and Rescue Service, residents think they have discovered a baby flying fox.

Adding to their invisibility, all but one of Sydney's microbats - the white striped mastiff bat - cannot be heard at all while flying because the noises they make are outside the range of human hearing. Even the mastiff bat's call, however, is nearly always confused with a cricket. Unlike the flying foxes, the microbats spend their days invisible to most of life in Sydney. They favour natural places like deep tree hollows but will also sleep in cemetery crypts, church steeple towers, underneath bridges, in abandoned buildings, old military bunkers around the harbour, crevices, caves and disused mine shafts. Other known locations are railway tunnels and there is even an important roost in the hollow of a fig tree in Centennial Park.

Even these tiny creatures, however, are visible to observant Sydneysiders at dusk. Some species of microbats are attracted to outdoor lights because of the insects that are drawn to any form of illumination. At first a microbat may be mistaken for a swallow returning late to its nest or a turbo-charged moth - their flight is incredible to watch as they seem to have complete mastery of manoeuvrability. They can wheel through the sky, ploughing through insects, as if they are riding on an invisible roller-coaster ride rather than flying.

Not all of the bats hunt as if they are top gun pilots. The audible microbat, the white striped mastiff bat is, according to Churchill, the author of Australian Bats, "capable of scurrying along with an unusual gait, on their thumbs and hind feet". It is thought that while the mastiff bat mostly hunts in flight it also catches beetles while on the ground.

Microbats are also renowned swimmers - researchers have found that if the creatures find themselves in water they can survive quite successfully.

State Forests' Dr Law says they are often seen hunting around street lights, even in places like Bondi Beach or suburban tennis courts. Most species, however, keep away from lights and so are almost never spotted by people.

"They really are very cryptic," Law says, "so it's not surprising that people aren't aware microbats are in Sydney."

In a single night a microbat can consume the equivalent of 1.5 times its own body weight in insects and other tiny prey. Their love of mosquitoes makes them a great friend of humanity. While flying foxes have gorgeous doe-eyed faces that have the same appeal as the pet dog, microbats have heads that are perfectly evolved for life in total darkness - they look as though they were created for science fiction.

While microbats are found right across the city it seems, says Law, that their numbers have decreased dramatically as development has become more intense. Their strongholds are the national parks surrounding Sydney. But microbats can be found in places in the suburbs where there is good bush, with big old trees full of hollows for them to hide in during the day. One of the last suburban bastions left is Cumberland State Forest in West Pennant Hills. Unfortunately, more and more old trees are coming down to make way for houses and the competition for safe, dark holes is intense among wildlife.

But once you recognise the distinctive "ting, ting, ting" call of the mastiff bat or have watched the lesser long-eared species catching insects or feel empathy for a baking flying fox, a dusk beer on a Sydney veranda will never be the same again. Watching bats silhouetted against the stars is one of the greatest, but little known, pleasures of life.

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BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats: The swingers
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