Fabulous Fantastic Flying Foxes


Text by Liz McKenzie and Photos by Richard Nelson

Gray Headed Flying Foxes in huge colony along the river in the town of Inverell NSW. Mar 23 2013

Gray Headed Flying Foxes in huge colony along the river in the town of Inverell NSW. Mar 23 2013

Warning: Once again, I’m going to ignore the rules about short attention spans.  I’m one who is convinced that a few sentences just aren’t enough for the amazing stuff in our world.

Over the past couple of months, thousands of extraordinary animals called Flying Foxes (also known as Fruit Bats) have been roosting in trees along the river in a small Australian town named Inverell.

They look like ordinary bats…but on a science fiction scale.  Their wingspan is about three feet, roughly equal to a Canada goose.  And their body is about the size of a cat minus the long tail.   Unlike the tiny North American bats that snag insects in the air, Flying Foxes land in trees and clamber around like monkeys, feasting on fruit, nectar, and pollen.

There’s a staggering number of Flying Foxes roosting at Inverell–roughly estimated at 200,000.   They hang upside down in the trees like giant pears, and they’ve denuded the branches, broken limbs, bent trunks, and even killed good-sized trees.

Gray headed flying fox

Gray headed flying fox

Some people get upset about all this happening in their city park and lawns.  And there’s the smell from thousands of bats concentrated along a few blocks in a small town, plus the constant screeching racket.  Flying Foxes also eat valuable fruit, which doesn’t endear them to gardeners and orchardists.

But these aerial fruit-eaters also play an essential role in Australian forest ecology: they pollinate vast numbers of trees and shrubs, and the seeds that pass through their digestive tracts constantly replant and replenish whole vegetation communities.  Like so many ecological “services” freely provided by wild animals, the benefits are often overlooked while the “crimes” are easy to see.

People who grow up around Flying Foxes often take them for granted at best, or disparage them a destructive pest.  But for locals and travelers with a love for nature, these animals are unique, fascinating, beautiful, and downright astonishing.

Yesterday, I eased in to record the colony at close range…and while the screeching and caterwauling almost split my eardrums, I was totally elated.  This was an exaltation of life in almost unimaginable abundance.

The best thing about Flying Foxes comes at sunset.  That’s when the entire colony takes flight to begin the nightly feeding excursions.  As soon as the bats take wing, their shrill cacophony fades to intermittent staccato squeaks, and what you hear is a strangely muffled roar of wings…like a gale fluttering through a forest of fur.

Colony of flying foxes heading out for the night.

Colony of flying foxes heading out for the night.

Standing about a hundred yards from the colony, I saw the first mass of bats abruptly rise and shape itself into a long, narrow tongue, rounded at the front, widening and darkening back among the trees.  The it became a living, sinuous river of broad-winged bats that literally filled up the sky, and yet the mass of flying creatures just a few feet above my head was almost preternaturally quiet.

Through my camera’s telephoto lens, I watched the swarm of bats stretch away toward the horizon.  In the distance, they looked like insects, rising and veering, swirling back and forth, then coalescing as they rose higher and headed toward the flaming sunset.

It seemed as if the bats were shaping their massed congregation into a perpetually shifting aerial design, purely for their own pleasure…and just coincidentally for ours.

Compared to still photos, video gives an incomparably better sense for the number of bats and the spectacle of their congealed motion.  I hope eventually we can post a video or two on the Encounters website, along with a recording of the colony at its full, frenetic volume during the day.

I’ve now watched the bats fly out on two consecutive evenings and will do it again tonight.  It’s become an addiction, but the good kind that might add to a person’s expectancy, or at least make life seem longer through an inoculation of amazement and joy.

Maybe tonight I’ll just watch in silence instead of constantly muttering “Incredible!  Amazing!  “Unbelievable!”

But probably not.  After all, why shouldn’t I add my own voice to this mad celebration, in the magic and improbable world Down Under?    ~Richard Nelson

Mark Bethka