Animals aren’t at their most interesting when curled up asleep. Exceptions include wildlife behaviours that are easiest to observe when the animal is in a somewhat befuddled state.
A lunch time walk in Parramatta Park inevitably ended in the colony of Grey Headed Flying Fox. This is one of Sydney’s largest colonies and stretches for a couple of hundred metres either side of the river. A rocky bar crosses the river at one end of the colony, which means that you can stand in the middle of the river with the roosting bats on either side. On cold days the bats wrap their wings tight around their torsos, tuck in their heads and hang like large black tear drops from the branches. There is the occasional squawk but you can walk past and barely notice the thousands of animals high in the trees.
This all changes on a warm day. Instead of tightly wrapped the bats wave their wings wide to catch the breeze. There is a constant squabbling as extended wings intrude into another bat’s personal space and generate a loud complaint. Most shift a few centimetres to avoid a scuffle, but a every few seconds one takes to the air to find a less troublesome neighbour, swapping sides of the river before crashing to an undignified landing. At least a couple of bats are in flight at any point in time.
Photography is all about having enough light to record your image. Getting enough light is always challenging with flying animals, largely because of the fast shutter speeds needed to freeze motion. This is especially tricky with flying animals such as bats that become active as light levels plummet. The midday squabbles and shuffling in the Parramatta colony offered a rare opportunity to photograph the bats flying at close range and in strong light.
My second encounter with sleeping wildlife came while walking on the coast on Saturday morning. My walk took me along the cliff tops south of Bundeena and I’d just found a beautiful engraving of a whale near the top of one of the headlands. It is an engraving I’ve only seen once before and I was pretty thrilled to find it again. Glancing from engraving to the sea I saw the distinctive outline of a Southern Right Whale directly below. I must admit the coincidence was a bit disconcerting, a reminder that people have been spotting whales from these cliffs for millennia.
A Southern Right Whale made headlines as it meandered around Middle Harbour during July. It left the harbour a fortnight ago, so my first thought was that this might be the same animal. On closer inspection it was much smaller, only half grown at about ten metres long. I later sent pictures to a colleague who confirmed it was a different individual, lacking a distinctive white marking on the back of the Middle Harbour whale.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time watching whales on the Sydney coast including a few Southern Right Whales. They tend to move steadily from south to north and part of the trick to watching them is to predict the location of the next rise. Not so this animal. Instead of swimming actively along the coast it was simply lying at the surface for a minute, taking three or four slow breaths, then sinking below without any obvious movement. Ten minute later it would rise in the same spot and repeat the sequence. Perhaps there was some deep philosophical contemplation underway, but it looked very much as though it was having a long nap.
After watching it bob to the surface a few times I continued walking south. Returning an hour later I wasn’t surprised to find the whale in exactly the same spot. Soon after the weather changed, with winds rising and temperature dropping as a front travelled up the coast. In response the whale started swimming purposefully to the north. I followed it from the cliff tops for a kilometre before coming to a point where the track diverted inland. The young whale hugged the coast, rarely more than twenty metres from the rocks. The faster pace meant that the head emerged as it rose to breath, exposing the distinctive curved mouth and prominent white callosities of the Southern Right Whale. I suspect that it was heading for the Hacking River or Botany Bay to get ahead of the large seas that would accompany the weather change.
My final encounter with sleepy fauna took place the following morning out at Merries Reef, an important roosting site for waders and seabirds. A large flock of Crested Tern were resting near the landward tip of Merries Reef, with another group visible further out on the island part of the reef complex. I sat to watch the terns, most asleep with head tucked under a wing but a few taking the opportunity for a splashy saltwater bath in the shallow rock pools. Periodically an adult with the sharply defined black cap of breeding plumage would arrive to present its mate with a fish. The exchange of fish was quickly followed by mating. The Silver Gulls showed a bit of interest, their focus on the prospect of stealing the fishy offering. The rest of the Crested Terns kept their heads tucked away and slept. Many seabirds mate at their nest, but clearly not Crested Terns, as the closest breeding colonies are more than thirty kilometres to the south off Wollongong.
A week of sleepy but revealing encounters with Sydney wildlife.