The sight is breathtaking. Thousands of huge bats, their graceful wings spanning three feet or more, sail directly overhead. Waves of grey-headed flying foxes, their bodies silhouetted against the deep-purple sky, rise from the surrounding forest at dusk and fly low over the handful of BCI members gathered on a bridge across a deep gorge at Australia’s Ku-ring-gai Bat Reserve.
“This,” says Les Meade of Lexington, Kentucky, “is the second-best emergence of bats that I have ever seen. Number One is the emergence [of millions of Mexican free-tailed bats] at Bracken Cave” in Texas.
And that was just the first night of BCI’s 2007 Founder’s Circle Ecotour of Australia and New Zealand – a 17-day expedition that featured a stunning array of habitats ranging from a tropical rainforest to a geothermal wonderland to the underwater magic of the Great Barrier Reef.
“We didn’t do museums and cathedrals,” said Mary Read of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We just always headed for the wildlife. It was wonderful and very rare.”
Australia and New Zealand are rich in some of the world’s most unusual wildlife – as well as at least 75 bat species, some of them unique. The travelers marveled at encounters with kangaroos, wallabies, sugar gliders, a wild assortment of possums, colorful parrots, bowerbirds and other birds, kangaroo-like pademelons, little bandicoots, even a duck-billed platypus (a rather bizarre egg-laying mammal).
The focus, of course, was on the bats, including nights of netting and up-close observation, as well as visits to inspiring Australian and New Zealand conservationists dedicated to protecting them.
The Ku-ring-gai Bat Reserve is a still-wild oasis tucked into an upscale suburb of Sydney, Australia. During the day, as many as 30,000 of the grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) hang like Christmas ornaments from the towering trees that have survived urbanization.
A four-day stay at Trish and Terry Wimberley’s unique flying-fox rescue and rehabilitation center on Australia’s Gold Coast was a special highlight for a number of the Founder’s Circle members. “This was the most amazing place,” said Miriam Schulman of Los Angeles. “They are first and foremost an animal hospital that cares for many, many bats, but they also take in other wildlife. They have a surgery center and a nursery for orphaned baby bats.”
The baby flying foxes “are adorable. They’re very affectionate. They snuggle against you and make little noises. They feel just like little kittens with wings.”
The tiny orphans are wrapped in swaddling blankets, which, Schulman said, “makes them feel secure since they’re normally tucked up under their mother’s wings and held quite tightly.” They’re fed with tiny baby bottles and even have “little pacifiers that Trish makes for them. These tiny creatures would melt the heart of the sternest skeptic and turn him into a bat lover.”