By Ruchira Talukdar
I live close to the Yarra, along one of its many bends, which is also home to a colony of flying foxes. The long evenings at this time of the year offer the perfect opportunity to gaze at these curious creatures as they take off on their nocturnal sojourns.
Last night I walked down to the Fairfield Boathouse, a two-minute stroll from my place. Standing at one of my favourite spots, the Pipe Bridge which looks across the Yarra Bend at the 19th-century boathouse and offers a bird’s eye view of the riparian forest, I inhaled the warm, thick air fresh with the ooze of gum sap.
In the astonishing stillness of last night, the river mirrored the forest. Giant red gums with sinewy branches lay reflected on its brown thick sheet of water. Time moved slowly at that place. It must have been close to nine and the colours in the sky had begun fading.The sounds of the night – the screech of the Nightjar, the scurrying of possums, the last laughs of the Kookaburras – charged the air in between pin drops of silence. The moon came out, its light mottled by clouds which snatched the last remaining shades in the sky – pink, blue and grey clouds. I could count seconds and minutes till the fruitbats, as flying foxes are also known, would start stirring.
Roughly in between the two historic boathouses on the Yarra – at Fairfield and Studley Park – lies the Bell Bird Reserve, home to Melbourne’s 20,000 strong fruitbat colony. These noisy, smelly mammals that play a crucial role as pollinators and seed dispersers, are believed to have migrated south from Queensland as Melbourne’s climate turned more tropical.
During the day they present the most curious site, hanging upside down from gumtrees by the thousands. From a distance, they could pass as strange tropical fruits ready for plucking, except that their characteristic acrid smell reaches the bushwalker or the kayaker long before she turns the first bend which brings the colony into view. I have passed under giant trees thick with roosting bats in various stages between restlessness and repose, some chattering, some flapping around and swooping down into the river for a drink, some napping with their meter long wings wrapped around like shawls. If during the day they appear as incoherent a community as possible, they present the very picture of precision closer to feeding time.
With dusk approaching, almost with an instinctive pulse of coordination, the whole colony awakens and takes flight. From their roost on the Yarra banks, streams of thousands of bats spread out in all possible directions in search of nectar, pollen and fruits from native gums as well as tropical fruits such as figs. Bat silhouettes stream continuously for close to an hour across the darkening skies till they have all taken off for their night’s foraging.
Bats feed through the night Every evening, through repetitive cycles of eating and shitting, these herbivores carry seeds and pollen away from parent trees to places where they can germinate and spurt new growth. The fig tree next door is one such favourite haunt for a pair of these nocturnal creatures. Often, passing under the fig tree at night, I have startled a feeding mammal, which has then flapped away in haste, missing my head by inches.
Back at my post on the pipe bridge on the Yarra, I hope for an opportunistic parting in the clouds, for the moon and stars to be visible enough to back the upcoming display. The rookery wakes. The fruitbats appear, little dragons silhouetted against the the fading orange sky, wings beating in a powerful motion pushing air downwards and backwards. Some fly so low that I can hear their beating wings like linen flapping on the line on a windy day.
Silent except for occasional shrieks, they push forth through the night. Their silhouettes soon reduce to mere black specks. A few stragglers flap past hastily, trailing far behind the main flocks. In the span of half an hour, the entire colony has woken and left. With uncanny coordination, they will return at the crack of dawn to their rookery, to rest another day.
The old tall trees they call home are themselves mere silhouettes by the time the nocturnal migration is over. With sight having almost faded by now, and the sounds of the night now infusing the still air, their characteristic smell is all that remains as a stamp of their home by the river.
I wonder why I feel drawn to these curious creatures. Their upside down life fascinates me. A childhood story comes to mind, about little Masha, who loved every other place but her own bed. One night, determined to find a better bed, Masha took off to the barn, first trying to sleep with the sheep that nibbled her hair, and then the chooks who clucked in disapproval till she stumbled upon the lone bat hanging in the corner. The bat neither resisted nor protested Masha’s encroachment, its enormous black eyes just stared back at Masha with curiosity. Encouraged, Masha hung upside down from the beam next to the bat. But only for a moment. Masha learnt that night how uncomfortable all other beds are, most of all those of the bats.
Masha hanging upside down like a bat used to captivate my child’s mind. When I first stumbled upon the rookery by the Yarra, within months of moving to Melbourne, this memory came tumbling out, and I started paying the colony regular visits. I soon found other groups of humans equally obsessed with the upside-down mammals. Entire groups of photographers with a full range of equipment make their way down to the Bell Bird Reserve around sunset. The sight of tens and thousands of bats taking off from the trees in splendid synchronicity is one worth a great capture. The fast fading light at that hour reducing sight down to silhouetted shapes makes the impressions even more mysterious; you can almost imagine yourself in a Jurassic jungle, surrounded by thousands of little flying dinosaurs.
Beyond the prospect of indulging in geological fantasies, these smelly creatures also bring me home. The landscape by the Yarra, where I have lived most of my time in Australia, is one I have grown to love and settle into. For me, this place is as inconceivable without the fruitbats, as they are without it. Them and me, we are both migrants from warmer climes, new neighbours, making a home far away from where home used to be. Thankfully I do not share Masha’s predicament. I can still hang out with the fruitbats without having to experiment with their curious existence.
- Featured image: Photo of Lin Onus’ Fruit bats artwork https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/395.1993.a-c/
- Fruit bats in trees by Neil Fahey
Ruchira Talukdar is a PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research compares the discourses of environmental politics in developed and developing countries. She is also a nature lover and never misses a chance to take a long walk in the mountains.