Flying Kangaroos

When you think about it, in Australia, marsupials have equivalents for pretty much all kinds of mammals (or used to). There are anteater-like marsupials (Numbat), squirrel-like marsupials (Gliders), mole-like marsupials (Marsupial moles), cat-like marsupials (Quolls) and there even have been rhino-like (Nototherium) and panther-like species (Thylacoleo) (now both extinct) but there has never been a bat-like marsupial. Shame… I think it would be really cool to have a marsupial bat… Imagine a little head poking of out of a pouch of an already really cute bat…

Juvenile Spectacled Flying Fox thinking about its future life, away from an unlimited supply of fruit...
The view at sunset from O'Reilly's. If you look closely, there should be a Pademelon or two.
The one and only furry diving log, the Duck-billed Platypus. Possibly the weirdest mammal on Earth.

After visiting all those small-ish Pacific Islands, such as Viti Levu, Guadalcanal and Grande Terre, I had to start seriously increasing my species list at some point. The easiest way to do that was to go to Australia. Australia is well known to be home to a whole range of creatures capable of killing you but it’s also home to many cute and harmless creatures as well. Amongst those are marsupials and bats, on which I focused, obviously with more attention to the latter.

Australia has 80-ish species of bats. The taxonomy of a number of groups is still very much poorly understood so this number could well go up in the near future.

Most of those are present in either Queensland, Northern Territory, or both. Naturally, I decided to visit those two states. Visiting the other states, while interesting wouldn’t have left me enough time to visit each of the places I wanted to visit.

Orange Hipposideros ater inside its matching coloured cave.

In Queensland, I first spent a couple of nights in Brisbane where I met Vanessa, who’s doing a PhD on bats in culverts (check out @i_live_in_a_culvert on Instagram to learn more about her research) and Luke, from the Botanical Gardens, both keen bat watchers. My first night in Australia was bound to be a success. And indeed it was, with 8 species seen/recorded not far from Mt Coot-tha. We missed Myotis, surprisingly. In fact, bat activity had pretty much died by 9pm…

During the following 10 days, I explored Tropical North Queensland. Having been hit by a storm a few days prior to my arrival, many roads were still closed and it was raining most days, albeit not constantly. This limited my opportunities to see and record bats. On top of that, I spent the majority of those days without a detector due to a technical failure. Some of the highlights include the Tube-nosed Bat (Nyctimene robinsoni) I saw up in Cape Tribulation and the tiny cave full of Hipposideros ater at Bramston Beach (campground, the owner is a great guy. Definitely worth a visit, either for the bats or for the view from the campground. Or both). Previous reports of Orange Leaf-nosed bats are this site are wrong. Some bats are indeed orange, that doesn’t make them Orange leaf-nosed bats though, a species absent from Queensland. 

I also visited the Tolga Bat Hospital. In November 2018, a heat wave struck North Queensland, combined with the seasonal tick paralysis outbreak, it left 900 Spectacled Flying Foxes orphaned. Tolga had 700 in care when I visited. There are few words to describe the people who work there, other than heroes. If you have a chance to visit, do. If not, visit their Facebook page and maybe consider making a small donation to help their titanic work! They truly deserve it.

Juvenile Spectacled Flying Foxes enjoying their time in the aviary at Tolga Bat Hospital.
A bower of a Satin Bowerbird. Mostly plastic but the diversity of objects is incredible.
One of the things that won't kill you in Australia, a Feather-tailed Glider

After that, I flew to Darwin for a few days. I got a new detector on my second day there, having been sent a replacement unit under warranty. Great job from Wildlife Acoustics and Faunatech! Up there, I visited Litchfield National Park, Tolmer Falls in particular as they are known to be home to Ghost bats (Macroderma gigas) and Orange Leaf-nosed Bats (Rhinonicteris aurantia). I saw the former, but unfortunately not the latter. Ghost bats are carnivorous and feed on amphibians, small mammals, including bats. Orange Leaf-nosed bats are understandably not too comfortable having a hunting Ghost bat nearby…

I also visited Fogg Dam. I had been told it was good for birds and bats but also for Crocodiles! I still hadn’t seen one and I didn’t want to leave the country without seeing one… Batting was outstanding, with no fewer than eight species recorded from the dam itself. Of course, being CrocWise, I didn’t leave the safety of my car. The dam was also the hunting ground for a couple of Night Herons and a handful of Barking Owls. As for the crocs, well, I did well not to leave my car as I saw a few, none really big though.

Kiwi, my travel companion and a lovely view of Tolmer falls.
A teddy bear surprised to have been caught after escaping a child's room. AKA, Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo
Deadly stare of an appropriately named Death Adder

When I arrived in Australia, I hoped to reach 50 species on my overall list, I was then at 19. It was ambitious but doable. When I had to send my detector for repairs, that goal seemed unrealistic. However, by the time I left Darwin, I had reached that magical number! Best of all, I still had a couple of nights left in the country!

I visited Mt Glorious but didn’t get a lot of bat activity, the rain probably didn’t help. The next day, I visited O’Reilly’s. They used to run the Mammal Week there, one week where the goal was to see any many mammals as possible. So the bat fauna in the area is quite well known. Bat activity was okay but the diversity wasn’t great. I still managed to add two more species to my list, Chalinolobus morio and the Golden-tipped bat (Phoniscus papuensis).

Of course, one cannot visit Australia without looking for some of the strangest mammals on Earth. I saw 19 species of Marsupials, Kangaroos, Wallabies and Possums. The highlights were the Striped Possum in Curtain Tree Fig, the Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo at Nerada Tea Factory and the trio of gliders (Greater, Yellow-bellied and Feather-tailed) I saw with Alan. That day, up in the Tablelands, I also met John Harris. Both Alan and John are great naturalists. If you happen to be visiting either Queensland or Victoria, make sure to get in touch with them!

Leaving the very best for the very last, I had the chance to accomplish a childhood dream, seeing a Platypus.

As usual, contact me for GPS coordinates or more information on locals contacts.

Full list of bat species:

  • Mt Coot-tha: Chalinolobus gouldi, Mormopterus ridei, Saccolaimus flaviventris, Pteropus alecto, Rhinolophus megaphyllus, Austronomus australis, Miniopterus orianae.
  • Perrin Park : Pteropus poliocephalus
  • Cairns township: Chaerephon jobensis, Pteropus conspicillatus
  • Cape tribulation: Mormopterus beccarii, Chalinolobus nigrogriseus, Pteropus scapulatus, Nyctimene robinsoni
  • Bramston Beach: Hipposideros ater. Previous reports of Orange Leaf-nosed bats are inaccurate, that species is not present in Queensland. Significant colour variation among the bats in that cave, some were bright orange.
  • Tablelands: Myotis macropus (under the bridge in Yungaburra, good spot for Platypus), Nyctophilus gouldi, Vespadelus pumilus, Nyctophilus bifax, Hipposideros semoni.
  • Litchfield NP: Macroderma gigas
  • Buffalo Creek: Nyctophilus daedalus, Pipistrellus westralis, Vespadelus caurinus
  • Fogg Dam: Scotorepens sanborni, Pipistrellus adamsi, Nyctophilus walkeri, Taphozous georgianus, Taphozous kapalgensis, Nyctophilus geoffroyi, Nyctophilus arnhemensis

O’reilly’s: Chalinolobus morio, Phoniscus papuensis

 

Full list of mammal species:

  • Duck-billed Platypus Yungaburra
  • Short-beaked Echidna Julatten (dead)
  • Northern Brown Bandicoot Darwin (dead)
  • Striped Possum Curtain Tree Fig
  • Yellow-bellied Glider Tablelands
  • Lemuroid Ring-tailed Possum Tablelands
  • Northern Greater Glider Tablelands
  • Green Ring-tailed Possum Tablelands
  • Feather-tailed Glider Tablelands
  • Short-eared Brush-tailed Possum Brisbane
  • Common Brush-tailed Possum Brisbane
  • Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo Tablelands
  • Mareeba Rock-wallaby Mareeba
  • Red-legged Pademelon Tablelands and Curtain Tree Fig
  • Eastern Grey Kangaroo TNQ
  • Agile Wallaby Fogg Dam
  • Common Wallaroo Chillagoe
  • Giant White-tailed Rat Tablelands
  • Red-necked Pademelon O’reilly’s
  • Whiptail Wallaby O’reilly’s (on the way back)
  • Black-striped Wallaby O’reilly’s (on the way back)
  • Common Ringtail Possum O’reilly’s

Bats of New Caledonia

France in the Middle of the Pacific

I really could not think of a better way to describe New Caledonia. And sadly, I do not mean this in a good way. After visiting Fiji and Solomon Islands, what a shock it was to land in New Caledonia. Apart from the climate, vegetation and the occasional Coconut Lorikeet flying over, there isn’t much to separate this from France. The people there are, unfortunately, quite far from having the kindness of heart of the people of the rest of Melanesia. As for the true Melanesians, they seem to be considered as inferior because of their way of life. Visiting a village in Poya reminded me a lot more of Guadalcanal than the rest of New Caledonia.

But you did not come here to hear me rant about this country, you came to learn about bats.

Sunset over Nouméa and the ocean nearby that I had visited while scuba diving earlier that day.
The very cute Yellow-bellied Flyrobin, endemic to New Caledonia.
View from deep inside the Park de la Rivière bleue, where I saw most of the endemic bird species.

On my first evening there I went up to Koghi, one of the few places where Nyctophilus nebulosus has ever been sighted. This extremely rare bat has rarely been observed, and its echolocation call has never been recorded. I was lucky enough to record it and even see it hunting. The identification of the call was fairly straightforward as it is the only Nyctophilus on the island and the calls of that genus are very distinctive. I compared my recordings with recordings from Australia where there are a number of Nyctophilus species. Another endemic, Chalinolobus neocaledonicus was also present as well as Miniopterus spp. According to the literature, M. australis and M. macrocneme are indistinguishable based on recordings. That is possibly due to a lack of research. Further down the road, on the way back to Nouméa, I had a few more contacts of Miniopterus spp, which seemed to be really enjoying the many street lights.

The New Caledonian bat fauna comprises 9 species, of which one, Miniopterus robustior, is restricted to Lifou and Ouvéa, two small offshore islands, to the North of Grande Terre, the main island. Of the remaining eight, I had seen two already, Pteropus tonganus and Miniopterus australis. Given than M. macrocneme isn’t reliably identifiable by its call, that meant I could see a maximum of five new species, all of them endemics.

The echolocation call of Nyctophilus nebulosus (with Chalinolobus neocaledonicus).

I managed to get to Poya and a nearby cave that is home to Notopteris neocaledonica, the New Caledonian Blossom Bat, a species closely related to the Fijian Blossom Bat I saw a couple of weeks earlier. Access to the cave was quite easy and it didn’t take me long to find them. The cave was also home to hundreds of Satin Swiftlets, they even had chicks. Once again I enjoyed the show of the Swiftlets navigating the cave using echolocation. I also discovered it was rather ineffective as I was hit repeatedly. Also present was a Barn Owl. Was it roosting in the cave or simply having a lunch break? It’s hard to tell. Judging by the number of feathers on the ground, it definitely wasn’t the first time a Barn Owl showed up in the cave and snatched a few Swiftlets! It is likely that they eat bats as well.

In a nearby cave, I found Miniopterus spp. as well as Chalinolobus neocaledonicus, a species not known to roost in that cave. This cave also had the most bizarre living organism I saw that day: plants growing in complete darkness. Yet, their leaves were greenish so they were producing chlorophyll. It could be that at some point in the day, light hits the cave just right and the plants get sunlight. I also found a rather cute gecko, as yet unidentified.

Notopteris caledonica, a vital pollinator for both crops and wild plants.
The biggest Flying Fox roost in New Caledonia, home to 10,000+ bats!
One of the caves I visited, home to hundreds of swiflets and a few bats.

In the evening, I visited the biggest Flying Fox roost in New Caledonia. The roost has Pteropus tonganus, P. ornatus, an endemic and the rocks below are home to P. vetulus, a small endemic flying fox favouring roosts under rocks or in caves. A census during the non-breeding period revealed that there were 9,000 bats roosting there. At this time of year, we could be anywhere north of that. Your guess would be as good as mine!

What a great way to end this trip. On the bat side of things, this trip was a success! As for the rest, I definitely will not go back…

Bats of Solomon Islands

The Guadalcanal Campaign

(This is mostly not about World War Two)

 When it comes to islands people struggle to locate on a map, the Solomon Islands rank quite high. They are located to the East of Papua New Guinea. Geographically, they comprise of two countries, PNG and the Solomon Islands (easy, right?). Bougainville belonging to the former, Choiseul, Guadalcanal, Makira, Malaita and Santa Isabel being the main islands of the latter.
 

 

Some of you may know Guadalcanal as the theatre of one of the bloodiest campaigns in the Pacific War and you would be right. You would also be right to think it was home to no fewer than 40 species of bats. Many of these are endemic to the Solomon Islands, some are shared with Papua New Guinea. However, most of them are poorly known. That is why I knew this trip would not be easy. Having said that, the literature is surprisingly easy to find, including information on bat calls [link].

On my first evening on Guadalcanal, I took a short walk around the house where  I was staying and I saw no fewer than eight species! Two of which I saw, Pteropus woodfordi (picture), the Dwarf Flying Fox and Macroglossus minimus, the Northern Blossom Bat, whereas the other six I identified using my bat recorder. I got Pipistrellus angulatus, Myotis moluccarum, Mosia nigrescens, Saccolaimus saccolaimus, Miniopterus tristis and Miniopterus australis. The taxonomy of the Miniopterus genus is still poorly understood in Oceania so it may well be that the taxa present on Solomon Islands will be considered as different species in the near future.  

 

Over the following days, I tried to find other species but I also learnt about the history of the island, and the Pacific War in general. The Vilu War Museum was very interesting with many planes and pieces of artillery found in the surrounding area. I did not have the chance to go diving but there are many wrecks, of both planes and ships off the coast of most islands in Solomon.

Alistair's children enjoying some Austrian glass...
P-38 Lightning wreck at the Vilu Outdoor War Museum
The cats in the Solomon Islands are rather odd...

On my last day on the island, I went up in the mountains, hoping to see different species. I went for a very tenuous (but luckily not too long) hike along and across a stream to visit a bat cave. When I got there, I was happy to see that the bats roosting in the twilight zone were Dobsonia inermis, a recent split from the widespread Dobsonia moluccensis and endemic to the Solomon Islands. On the way there, I also spotted a couple of Flying Foxes in the forest. They probably were Pteropus woodfordi again but they seemed bigger. I just couldn’t find any other species present on Guadalcanal that fitted what I saw.

It was challenging but definitely worth it!

Sadly, I did not get a chance to see either Pteropus admiralitatum or Pteropus rayneri, two species I really would have liked to see. They appear to be quite difficult to see on Guadalcanal but not so much in Western Province. Birding was alright on Guadalcanal, especially in the mountains but that too is apparently much better in Western Province. Next time then…

 

When I was up in the mountains, I had a fabulous view over the coastline, including Lungga Point. That is where most of the battles happened. It was hard not to think of all those people who died there, so far away from home. They had to deal with diseases, extreme humidity and heat in addition to the bullets, and had been ill-prepared. While this may have been a decisive battle, it was also absolute carnage.

Seeing the memorials in Vilu Museum was really humbling. It definitely was a reminder of the horrors of war. I did not mean to make this a depressing read but I strongly believe that it is important to remember them.

The most obvious remnant of the war? The Henderson airfield, now known as Honiara International Airport. Built partly by the Japanese, it is what lead the Americans to invade the island in the first place.

Honiara, the capital, is now a much happier place and the people from Solomon Islands are definitely some of the nicest people on the planet. It’s difficult to believe how different it must have been, 70 years ago.

Overall, this is an amazing country, rich in culture and buzzing with extremely kind people, always with a positive attitude. I really enjoyed learning about their culture and their relatively recent common language, Pidgin. Pidgin is a sort of broken English (their words, not mine) that originated from the words brought back by people working in farm in Australia. The written language is quite funny as it resembles phonetic with an Australian accent e.g. Hia for here.

 

One thing I only realised afterwards is how happy these people are. A country such as the Solomon Islands is usually described as poorly developed by Westerners. But there are no homeless people, unemployment per se isn’t a thing as those people will always help their community. No one is marginalised… Who’s the truly under-developed country?

Note on Dolphin View Beach

I’ve decided to write a few words on the place as I was really happy with my experience there and because I have read some negative comments in earlier reports. Alistair, the owner has been described in some wildlife watching reports as unreliable. I do not know if that used to be the case but it definitely isn’t now! He’s keen to help organising any part of a trip to the Solomons, always finds a solution and has always delivered on his promises. Yes, it is true nobody in the Solomon Islands owns a watch but that’s their way of life. Embrace it, you’re on holiday! No need to pack your day full like you’re used to do at home…
The place is lovely and so is the food. I highly recommend it for a few days of rest. Birding in the area isn’t the best but isn’t too bad and mammal watching isn’t bad either as you’ve read earlier. Alistair has plans to expand his business, adding a couple of bungalows. I’ll definitely go back there!

The rediscovery

Bula!

 

Fiji, another one of those places known for its white sandy beaches. Believe me, that is not solely how I choose my travel destinations. Well, it could be, but it’s also (mainly) for the really cool bats that inhabit the islands in the Pacific.

 

The bats of Fiji only number 6 species, of which 3 are endemic. Straight away, I knew two of those would be extremely tricky, even impossible. The first one, the Fijian Free-tailed bat, Chaerephon bregullae, only has one known roost, on Vanua Levu. Access was closed a few years ago to protect this endangered species. The second is the Fiji Monkey-faced Bat, Mirimiri acrodonta. While some of you may remember that species from my target list, I discovered I would not have the opportunity to see it. It took 40 days and a team of researchers to find the species in the cloud forest of Taveuni. While this species isn’t part of the Big Bat Year species list, it is poorly known and in dire need of research. This is one of the projects I would be really interested in working on in the near future, once the Big Bat Year is over.

 

Inside of the cave on Viti Levu, home to a colony of Notopteris macdonaldi

Onto the species I have seen then! Four left, one endemic. The endemic is the Fijian Blossom Bat, Notopteris macdonaldi. The biggest known roost is in a readily accessible cave, on Viti Levu (the main island).

 

I was guided around the cave by the chief of the surrounding villages. His knowledge of the cave was very interesting. I got to learn about their use of the cave in case of cyclones (they get a lot of those), their use of the bats and also, unfortunately, how little they understand them. I also discovered they had their water supply running through the cave. As far as long-term conservation measures go, a complete closure would be a significant problem for the village.

 

The inhabitants of the village hunt those bats, on certain occasions and have a big feast. It is not a casual meal as it is in other places. The chief told me they collected 100-200 bats every year. Estimates of the population are difficult to obtain due to the fact that the bats are high up on the ceiling. The chief’s estimate is “thousands and thousands”, probably endless in his mind. Chances are, this is not sustainable and contributes to a decline of the species.

The chief also thinks that they feed mainly on water and a few insects here and there and has no idea that they pollinate his crops…

Of the remaining three species, only two were believed to be present on Viti Levu, but I got three… The first two are Flying Foxes. Pteropus tonganus can be easily seen in the Presidential compound in Suva. I had a few Pteropus samoensis there as well, keeping their distance.

I saw the latter in its much more typical habitat, the forest above Suva, Colo-I-Suva Forest Park. That place has most of the endemic bird species too. (You can stay at Colo-I-Suva Rainforest Resort: it’s a lovely place to stay and not too expensive.)

I like to keep the best for last… The annoying thing about a website though, is that it’s hard to create suspense when you can simply scroll down. I hope you haven’t though as what I’ve said before is interesting, hopefully.

I still managed to keep it from you a few more seconds though.

Anyway, I have to tell you now. When I visited the cave on Viti Levu, at the other end of the main chamber with the not-so-endless supply of bats, I noticed a few smaller bats, flying high up against the ceiling.

The Presidential Palace in Suva and the trees where the Flying Foxes are roosting

They were quite distinctive from the many Swiftlets flying around too. In fact, the chief told me there were three species of bats in the cave that I understood were Notopteris macdonaldi, White-rumped Swiftlets and Emballonura semicaudata, thought to have been extirpated from the island (last seen in 1979).

 

The Swiftlets were amazing, being one of the few birds capable of echolocation. It’s interesting that they believe this echolocating, cave nesting bird species  to be a bat when many people in Europe think bats are birds! You can’t blame anyone for thinking that an animal echolocating and living in a cave is a bat!

The only local wildlife I got to see during the days of the cyclone
View of the exit of the cave where I saw Notopteris macdonaldi and Emballonura semicaudata
Pteropus tonganus coming back to the roost near the Presidential Palace in Suva
As with all the upcoming reports, if you want to have the exact locations of my sightings, you can visit my sightings page or contact me via the Contact form.