Spotlighting at Mulligan’s Flat
We pulled up in the carpark at Mulligan’s Flat and sat waiting in the dark. Kristi Lee, Mulligan’s Indigenous project officer, proud Githabul Bundjalung woman, wonderful snake lolly loving echidna whisperer and all-round deadly chick (try getting that on a business card) had offered to take us spotlighting around Mulligan’s on the buggy. The heater was making me sleepy when all of a sudden my phone buzzed. It was Kristi, she was going to be a few minutes late because she was picking up some hot chips. Chippies? We didn’t know this buggy tour was going to be catered! Headlights approached and a car pulled in beside us, time to go look for some animals!
While we’d been to Mulligan’s plenty of times during the day we knew a lot of the critters that live there are nocturnal. Going there at night (and not at 2am to check traps for quolls) was quite the treat. So when Kristi asked what we wanted to see I didn’t hesitate, sugar gliders and quolls please! Oh and an owlet nightjar would be great, I know making it difficult, but Kristi did see one there a few weeks earlier so fingers crossed it had hung around. We’d kept our gear very minimal tonight, just a flash on top of the camera and a telephoto lens each. We’ve never done this sort of photography before so it was just trial and error to see what worked.
Kristi drove the buggy out of it’s shipping container home and off we set along the track, one hand full of hot chips the other pointing the torch into the bush around us. This was the third time I’d ever been out looking for animals at night. It’s easy they said, just look for the eyeshine. Eyeshine? I thought the animals were possessed but no, a lot of animals (including invertebrates) have a layer of reflective tissue in their eyes (tapetum lucidum is the technical term for you science folk). This tissue increases the amount of light reaching the photoreceptors in the eye, kind of like bouncing light off a mirror. So, for animals this improves their night and low-light vision. There is a compromise though, the image they see can be blurry due to all the light reflection and absorption going on in their eyeball. Those animals with the brightest eyeshine, usually nocturnal predators, have compromised even further for great night vision and have less cone cells in their eyes resulting in little or no colour vision.
The colour of eyeshine varies depending on the minerals in the tapetum lucidum tissue and what angle you see the eyes from. We continued bumping our way along the track, when Mitch said ‘There’s a glider!’. Kristi hit the brakes and we all piled out, cameras and torches in hand to see if he was right. And he was, in the branches of a gum about five metres into the bush was a fluffy sugar glider. This was the first one I’d ever seen in the wild so you can image how hard it was not to squeal with excitement and scare the little critter off. The glider moved around the branch, wanting a shot of its better side we circled the tree. And what a cute face we saw! Huge round eyes peered down at us past an adorable pink nose. Whiskers jutted out at all angles and it’s big ears wiggled slightly. The glider was beautiful at first glance, grey fluffy fur covered its body except it’s tummy which was a soft cream. Black fur lined the edge of its gliding membrane which hung in folds while it sat in the branch, bushy tail dangling off the edge. There was a black stripe down the centre of its face and in patches around the ears and legs. Looking closer we could see how sharp it’s claws were, clinging into the wood.
Overseas, sugar gliders can be kept as pets, which seems a strange choice. Not only are they nocturnal but they have evolved to glide between trees up to 50 metres apart! Not sure how that would go in an apartment…Meanwhile, these adorable critters are an invasive pest in Tasmania. They are causing a lot of trouble for the critically endangered swift parrots who only nest in Tassie. Gliders are omnivores and find swift parrot eggs, chicks and even the adult birds an easy meal! Here in Canberra though the gliders at Mulligans are more likely feeding on the sap from wattle trees. While writing this I looked up more about these little fluffballs and found two adorable facts. One is that they commonly give birth to twins. Number two, in winter they sometimes sleep cuddled up with other gliders to keep warm, imagine how cute that would look!
Choosing not to stay and disturb the glider for long, we took a few pics then headed off into the night to see what else we could find. ‘So how did you spot him?’ I asked Mitch, hoping for more tips on looking for eyeshine. His answer was not helpful, ‘Oh I just saw something moving’. Hmmm, this spotlighting was harder than I thought! Lucky Kristi was fantastic, she could drive the buggy, keeping it on the track while hanging out the side with her torch and searching for critters at the same time. We quickly found something else – a tawny frogmouth! Not the usual sleepy kind, this bird had its orange eyes open. It peered down at us as if to question what we were doing here, getting in its way. We retreated to the buggy and set off. Mitch was telling Kristi how we’d met tawny chicks earlier in the year. These ones were in the care of an ACT Wildlife volunteer. They clacked their beaks at us and hissed, until their carer demonstrated they actually have very little beak strength and she could put her fingers in their beaks without losing them. No one was game enough to get close enough and test that with an adult tawny tonight though!
We stopped again soon after, finding another glider. Next, we came across a tawny which was sitting on a low branch, around Mitch’s’ head height. We were able to get a really good look at this fella, as we approached he hunched lower and swivelled his piercing orange eyes at us as if in a challenge to come closer. By now we’d travelled through the most forested part of the sanctuary and were coming into a more open, grassy section. Red eyes glowed around us, too high off the ground to be a quoll. Swamp wallabies and kangaroos were everywhere, hopping slowly away as we approached. In the torch’s beam we would see a bettong and pull over, attempting to get closer. As soon as we did though they’d bounce off into the bush super fast, we didn’t stand a chance! In a section Kristi knew was normally full of bettongs we left the buggy behind and walked into the grass, hoping to sneak up on some. Sadly though, we were outsmarted again and the few we saw were long gone by the time we got closer.
We kept going through the sanctuary. Around 8 o’clock the temperature dropped, puffy jackets got zipped up and we started eating the blondies Mitch and I had baked that afternoon (it was a very well catered spotlighting mission). We were now passing through what Kristi called the quoll area, so despite the cold we were getting very excited. Seeing quolls during the monitoring sessions is amazing, we’ve been spoilt seeing them up close and getting to photograph that. Seeing one roaming around Mulligan’s would be something completely different. A few possums on the ground kept us guessing. Suddenly Mitch and Kristi in the front seat saw a flash of spots! Bounding along at the very edge of the torch beam was a quoll. Kristi took the buggy off road and we continued into the bush, trying to get closer. When it got too rough we jumped out and headed on foot but unfortunately this little chocolate coloured quoll was long gone.
Back on the path Kristi was super lovely and kept the night going. Mitch was using the hot torch as a handwarmer but the batteries were dying so the light was starting to fade. We saw less critters as it got later, mostly possums. Brushtails were everywhere, one female (we saw it’s pouch) was hanging out at the very top of a small wattle tree. The branches didn’t look quite capable of holding her weight but the possum didn’t mind, she sat there quietly eating flower buds. Another possum was sneaking back into a tree hollow. A few times we saw two possums together, heading up different sides of the same tree.
Heading back Kristi stopped the buggy, why? There was nothing around! Amazingly on the opposite side of the road she’d spotted another sugar glider buried in the middle of a wattle amongst the leaves. Even though the tree was small we couldn’t find a good angle to photograph the glider from as branches and leaves were always blocking part of it. Kristi pointed out where the glider had been feeding. Where small holes had been bitten into the branches sap had leaked out. What sharp teeth and jaw strength the little fluffball must have because this tree had hard wood, which Kristi said was used by traditional owners to make clapsticks. She told us the glider’s staple food at this time of year was sap, it would have to wait until the trees flowered in spring to vary it’s diet with some nectar.
Back along the road we saw a dove perched sleepily in a tree, sorry for waking you up little one! The four plovers we’d spooked earlier in the night took flight again as we headed back. Once the buggy was tucked back into its container we walked out of the sanctuary, very happy with the amazing critter sightings we’d had.
Sadly, this buggy trip was bittersweet as we found out Kristi’s time with the sanctuary has come to an end. This girl is doing amazing things, and other people are starting to see that too as Kristi has been nominated for the ACT NAIDOC Caring for Country Award 2019, you go girl! We’ve had a blast with you Kristi, from meeting you at the echidna sweep last year, seeing baby quolls with you and Bel, and catching up in the middle of the night for bettong trapping. Thanks so much for taking us out into Mulligans’, we’re looking forward to crossing paths with you again, we’re sure there will be some cool critters involved.
Kristi, We can’t wait to see where your next adventure takes you and wish you the best of luck!
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