The country was touched with gold by the late afternoon sun as Darrell and I drove the last kilometres of gravel road taking us to Wadeye, an Aboriginal community formerly known as Port Keats. Darrell Lewis is often described as a legendary bushman. He had been in Wadeye a week earlier, and had sent a text saying there was a flyout that surpassed anything he’d ever seen. I knew that anything that awed him must be truly fabulous. The flying-foxes were camped by day in the mangroves. There were probably several hundred thousand of them, at the least. Just on dark they had been lifting off – hundreds of thousands of wings beating through the still air, fanning out across the country to flowering trees and shrubs where they would spend much of the night feasting on nectar and pollen. As the main pollinators and seed dispersers for numerous Australian trees and shrubs, they are identified by scientists as a group of keystone species.
Darrell offered to take me to see the flyout, if I could get myself to Darwin. I arrived a week later, hoping like mad that the flying-foxes hadn’t all decided to go somewhere else in the meantime. Everyone out there was talking about it, though, and Darrell was getting texts saying it was all happening. Still, one never knows with flying-foxes. The scientist Kerryn Parry-Jones and her colleagues reported on a camp of about 80,000 individuals in New South Wales where almost the whole mob decamped on one night in June 1989.
As we drove we saw smokes on the horizon where people were burning the country. Closer at hand, the fires had been and gone. The sun lit up the black trunks and brilliant new branches of cycads. We raced past ant hills with fluted tops, and past black and green cycad groves where new fronds formed shapes like wine glasses resting on top of tall black stems. We slowed down through paperbark swamps, and crossed small, clear running rivers. Through hot scrub and entrancing flats, we chased the lure of flying foxes.
Once we got to Wadeye we positioned the video camera, almost holding our breath as we waited. I filmed the sunset, and still we waited. The sky became a deeper mauve, the blue vault grew darker, and still we waited, watching the line where the mangroves met the sky.
When the first ones finally appeared, it felt like a treasure box had just sprung open. The horizon was almost black in intensity, and then it started to fragment as flying-foxes in their thousands separated from the trees and from each other, taking flight and heading off toward the west. Some travelled low across the sky, while others fanned out over our heads. The sky was thick with them, and we could hear their wings fanning the air. From time to time, one would turn and go back, but the vast majority kept going in the direction they had chosen for their night time feast. We were looking at ‘blacks’ – Pteropus alecto – one of the four Australian species. It is possible that ‘little reds’ (P. scapulatus) were there too.
We had no way of knowing how many there were. It is impossible to gauge the number of individuals in a fly-out unless one is an expert. And yet, large numbers are by no means impossible. Even in NSW where the numbers are in decline, there are reports of camps of 200,000 individuals as recently as the 1980s. I was reminded of what the naturalist Francis Ratcliffe wrote about his experiences with flying-foxes in his 1938 book Flying Fox and Drifting Sands. He described a cloud of grey-headed and little red flying-foxes in southern Queensland in the 1920s. At that time the populations were in decline because settlers had been killing them in large numbers. Here is his description of a flyout:
The scrub by that time was belching forth foxes. They rose up in thousands circled once or twice, and then joined the southbound stream. In three or four minutes a column of the beasts about a hundred yards wide was stretched away across the sky as far as I could see.
From a very rough census I estimate some of the flocks which congregate together for shelter in the daytime number hundreds of thousands. Not so long ago a few must have crossed the million mark.
Ratcliffe was writing at a time when flying-foxes were being heavily persecuted. He had, in fact, been brought out from England to carry out research with the aim of eradicating flying-foxes. Orchardists in NSW and Queensland had tried many methods; they’d they shot, poisoned, gassed, and burnt flying foxes. They’d cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for scalps, and even bombed them. In recent years other cruel methods have been used with the result that many flying-foxes live with increasing conflict and terror. And of course they are not alone in this: many animals, including humans, are today afflicted with terrible violence.
Like many people who spend time around flying-foxes, Ratcliffe came to respect and perhaps even grow fond of them. And so it was with a touch of regret that he concluded that while efforts to eradicate flying-foxes would probably not be successful in the short run, the populations were in steep decline and it seemed possible that ‘the problem’ would take care of itself. Today both grey-headed (P. poliocephalus) and spectacled flying-foxes (P. conspicillatus) are endangered, and are protected (in theory) in accordance with the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The awe I felt at seeing the Port Keats mob was tinged with the knowledge that in many parts of Australia flying-foxes are reviled and persecuted. Even as I treasured every moment of the flyout, I couldn’t help but hold in the back of my mind the sense that someday this sight might no longer be possible. For the moment, though, the experience was exhilarating.
We were not the only ones to feel the excitement. Darrell’s friend Mark Crocombe lives there, and he told Darrell that the previous night the flying-foxes had varied their track and flown directly over the community. The children were out playing, getting the most out of the last light of day when the flying-foxes flew over. The kids stopped their play, and they cheered!
Wadeye has its problems, as do many communities, but it also has its strengths. The great flyout was a wonderful moment for realising that this is how life is meant to be: country that is well cared for; animals free to lead their own lives of purpose and beauty. And amidst all this splendour, humans who respond in kind: the cheering children, the watchful and awestruck adults.
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)
The Home Video is now available!
Parry-Jones, K. A., and M. L. Augee 1992 ‘Movements of Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) to and from a Colony Site on the Central Coast of New South Wales’, Wildlife Research 19:331-40.
Ratcliffe, F. 1938 Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
For a longer essays on flying-foxes, see:
Rose, D. 2012 ‘Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time’, Environmental Philosophy, IX, 1, 127-140. (See: https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time)
Rose, D. 2011 ‘Flying Foxes: Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant’, Australian Humanities Review, 50: 119-136. (http://epress.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ch076.pdf)
For a conversation with the legendary bushman, see: