July 10, 2020
AUSTRALIAN NIGHT LIFE
By Dion Hobcroft
One of the interesting facts about Australia is that nearly all of our mammals are nocturnal. Throw in 10 species of owls, 3 species of nightjars, 3 species of frogmouths, and the ever-attractive Australian Owlet-nightjar, and you can see why we try to get out at night during our tours, if our location for the evening makes it convenient. We call this spotlighting, and with patience, persistence, and playback, we often kick a few goals.
In Sydney, we have made a habit in recent years to stroll across from our hotel in the center of the city to take in the Common Brushtails and Gray-headed Flying-foxes that feed in or reside in the giant fig trees and lillypillies. Up in the Northern Territory in Kakadu, the tropical heat can make it difficult to summon up the energy to get going, but, if you can, we nearly always find something of interest. There was a famous three-minute spotlight session in 2017 at the carpark that went Dingo, Northern Brown Bandicoot, and Barking Owl! Not often is it as lively as this, yet we consistently find Sugar Glider, Northern Brushtail, and have had memorable encounters with the giant Rufous Owl that takes on a whole new persona at night, or the beautifully patterned Spotted Nightjar. And I will never forget my lifer Black-footed Tree-Rat, very much endangered and striking.
At O’Reilly’s in the mountain rainforests of southeast Queensland, we have had consistent success with the Southern Boobook. This small, compact hawk-owl is quite common but can be surprisingly elusive. Sometimes we have found it perched on the cross of the small church, hawking for moths and beetles attracted to the lights. On the grassy edges, Long-nosed Bandicoots search for buried beetle larvae; trees on the forest edge hide the orange population of the delightful Common Ringtail; and sometimes fruit offerings in the guest house restaurant bring in the voluminously woolly Mountain Brushtail. Small forest wallabies called pademelons emerge to feed, while along the streams a great variety of native frogs can often be heard calling loudly and easily detected by eyeshine. With luck, we sometimes find the rarely seen Marbled Frogmouth and hear its peculiar bill-snapping.
In Kingfisher Park in far northeast Queensland, we are perfectly positioned to get out at night and wander about in the rainforest. Nearly every nocturnal wander turns up something of interest: the amazing Striped Possum, a Green Ringtail, a giant Scrub Python waiting to ambush bandicoots, or spectacular Spectacled Flying-foxes attracted to a fruiting tree. In the crystal-clear stream you can see rainbow fish, freshwater prawns and, if lucky, a Platypus out and about. It is quite surreal to see one in this situation.
Farther south, in Deniliquin, in the Riverina district, we take a night to search for the critically endangered Plains-wanderer. It is not that the Plains-wanderer is nocturnal; it is because you really just cannot find them in the daytime because of their extraordinary camouflage. The Plains-wanderer does live up to its name and is a nomad. It is typically difficult to find, yet over the decades we have had a remarkable strike rate searching for this most unusual shorebird. Like some of the other locations mentioned, it is quite interesting being out at night here. We can look for Barn Owl, Tawny Frogmouth, Inland Dotterel, Stubble Quail, and tiny marsupial carnivores like the cute, fox-faced Fat-tailed Dunnart. It makes for one of the great birding days on offer on the planet.
People also love Tasmania. Here the Apple Isle is free of destructive introduced Red Foxes, and the marsupial population is extraordinary. In Mountain Valley, the Tasmanian Devil may come to visit your cabin, as long as you stay awake long enough. In scenic Cradle Mountain, muddle-headed Wombats feed on the lawns, while the well-furred Short-beaked Echidnas search for ant nests as often in the day as at night. Even the Little Penguin takes advantage of the cover of darkness to return to its nesting burrow, safe from attacks by large gulls and sea-eagles. So, if you make it to Australia, try your luck coming out at night. Be prepared to give it a decent effort, and the rewards will come your way.
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