When you take a “bucket list” trip, there are certain places you very much want to visit, sights you’re eager to see, and experiences you don’t want to miss. When we went to Australia last year—a destination that had been on my bucket list since 1968—the number two item on my list was “see the flying foxes (aka fruit bats).” (Number one was to visit the Daintree rainforest, which as you will see, turned out to be an essential stop.)
I know that many people dislike bats. Perhaps it’s that they’re associated with witches and vampires, or maybe their scrunched up little face just doesn’t appeal. (I bet these same people don’t like mice, either.) It’s true that bats carry all sorts of nasty diseases, including some that are fatal to us humans. But bats have many worthy qualities as well.
A widely disseminated “fact” is that a single Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), a small creature common in the US, will devour up to 1000 mosquitoes in a single hour. That sounds wonderful but unfortunately it’s not exactly true—the number was extrapolated from how many mosquitos a captive bat ate per minute, then rounded up—but many bat species do eat bugs, including mosquitos, and mosquitos are even more virulent disease carriers than bats are.
Those bats that don’t eat bugs tend to feed on plants, specifically their nectar, pollen, flowers, and fruit. (The three vampire bat species live on blood. They’re only found in the Americas, from Mexico south.) Over 500 species of plants depend on bats to pollinate their flowers, including popular crops such as bananas, peaches, and mangos; cashews; agave (do you like tequila?); and cocoa. Yes, we have bats to thank for chocolate!
I’ve always found bats fascinating. Last summer we mounted a bat house under our eaves, and I have high hopes that the Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) I’ve seen flying around at dusk will come and accept our hospitality.
The bats we have here are relatively small, but flying foxes are huge. They’re the world’s largest flying mammals, with the biggest species sporting a wingspan measuring up to three feet across. They rely on their excellent sense of smell and good eyesight (similar to a cat’s) to navigate in the dark. That’s right. Contrary to popular belief, bats are not at all blind. While insect-eating bats use sonar as well, flying foxes do not.
Flying foxes play a significant role in the Australian ecosystem. Because they eat nectar, pollen, and fruit, they disperse seeds and pollinate flowers for a large number of native trees.
Being mammals, fruit bats give birth to live young. They only have one baby per year, which is a very low birthrate for an animal their size. The mothers are devoted, carrying their babies with them when they fly out to feed at night until the babies become too heavy, about four to five weeks after birth. Then they’re left behind until they learn to fly, at eight to ten weeks. By the time they’re three months old, they can provide for themselves. If something happens to the baby, the mother will hunt and call for it for days before giving up. Awwww.
Australia is home to eight species of flying foxes, four of them relatively common. I wasn’t going to be particular—a look at any of these would make my day. Flying foxes tend to congregate in large groups called camps, hanging from trees during the day and foraging at night. They move these camps from place to place depending on where food is to be found at the moment. I was eager to visit some well-known campsites.
Starting in Sydney in early spring (late September), we made our way north, but not a single bat was to be found. Not one. At the end of our second (of three) week, we visited a zoo in Brisbane where I took some photos of bats in a cage—not at all what I had in mind, but better than nothing (see the two photos above). Then we flew to tropical Cairns, in the far northeast.
The last week of our trip flew by. Using Cairns as our headquarters, we explored northeast Queensland, then spent two nights near Daintree. The Daintree Rainforest is a World Heritage site, and as I mentioned above, a visit was my most anticipated stop on our entire trip. We signed on for two two-hour boat rides on the Daintree River, one at dawn, and the other at dusk. Both were magical. Birds abounded, as did some seriously large snakes, and a couple of saltwater crocodiles.
Finally, we returned to the dock. Night had fallen, and we were leaving the next day. Then our guide pointed upward. “Look!” he breathed.
I looked up. Hundreds of flying foxes were passing by overhead, their silhouettes clear against the darkening sky! Entranced, I stood stunned for a long moment before I remembered my camera. Then I got busy taking photos. It was dark, so the images contain a fair amount of noise. The bats were high enough that even my telephoto lens wasn’t quite enough. But that didn’t matter. I saw them. I’m blessed.
Top photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain