. . . as we all do, here are a few suggestions from National Geographic today:
A personal update: Old-timers here will remember Mark Allinson. He lives in the southern NSW coastal town of Tomakin, one of the cluster of gorgeous places that you are seeing apocalyptic images of. He and his 95 year old mother were evacuated to the beach on New Years Eve, and were within two minutes of the deepest danger when the wind changed -- a southerly buster that drove the fire to destroy towns further up the coast. People in these small towns and villages have to boil their drinking water now. Water supplies have been "compromised" by the fires. Power and phone/internet reception is intermittent. Vehicles are driving up and down the streets delivering free water and bread and milk. Mark is safe for now. He saw this coming, and invested in a generator months ago. It's still really hard to think about all this, to keep it in your head, to talk about it.
These areas have been the inspiration for much of the poetry I've written. The south coast of NSW means the world to me. Over a year ago, a poem set right at the heart of the present fires was published by The Common, called The Meringo Hotel. You can google it or read it here:
Some of you heard me read it only a few months ago at our reading at the Newburyport Library. It's really my love poem to Australia.
Now, black eucalyptus leaves are falling from the sky there. It's going to take lots of work and time before things get back to some kind of normal on the Sapphire Coast, as we call it.
I live in southern Tasmania. And fires are burning in the north of Tassie. So far, the south is fire-free, although we're getting smoke haze from the mainland. And summer's barely begun.
If you can put something towards the recovery and restoration of all manner of habitats, please do! And thank you.
Thanks, Cally, for the concrete suggestions and the news from down under. It is so awful. I wish you easy breathing and safety. Best wishes to you and yours--and to grumpy old Mark, whom I still miss around here.
Thank you, Simon! Ha haha -- I'll pass that on to the old Grumpus (who, you will be astounded to know, can be the utmost ray of shine, too -- the ultimate, loveable contrarian!).
What I love watching, and hearing about from my friends and family in the deeply affected areas, is what's happening at street level. Help can't get there, or can't come fast enough, from government agencies, utilities etc, so households, street by street, are banding together, co-operating, bartering, basically helping each other get through hour by hour, one day at a time. It's inspiring, how tiny communities begin organising themselves to make conditions better, more bearable, for each member.
One of the big lessons being learnt about immediate survival is the neccessity of keeping cash on hand. Very few people carry it anymore. And when the power is gone, ATMs don't work, nothing works, so you need cash to buy food and water. Mark, catastrophiser that he is, had cash as well as the generator he bought. They use the gennie for two hours in the evening, which means he can cook a meal (from the tins he's been stock-piling!!!) and watch the evening news to find out what's going on. Most people are living without power, without phone or internet. Mark is without internet, which is probably driving him more crazy than anything!!! He's found a couple of spots locally where he can pick up a phone signal, so he rings us with updates most days.
Here is something I read today:
Flying foxes are dying en masse in Australia’s extreme heat
In three days before Christmas, thousands of the mammals died in 110-degree heat in one Melbourne park.
January 7, 2020
The 30,000 gray-headed flying foxes in Yarra Bend Park, just outside the heart of Melbourne, Australia, were having a fairly normal early spring.
In September and October—springtime in Australia and prime birthing season for the 11-inch long megabats—many of the flying foxes had returned to the park from their winter migration up the coast. Females were birthing pups as normal, says biologist Stephen Brend, who is in charge of monitoring gray-headed flying foxes in Victoria province, including at Yarra Bend Park, which is home to a significant colony of the bats. All was routine.
“And then the horror started,” Brend says. “It got too hot, too quickly.”
Bat rescuer Tamsyn Hogarth cradles a young rescued gray-headed flying fox in Yarra Bend Park. Hogarth runs Fly By Night, a flying fox rescue and rehabilitation clinic. She and other volunteers rescued 255 baby flying foxes from the park in December.
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
Incapable of surviving the extreme, relentless heat that gripped Melbourne in December, the flying foxes were dying. Across three days just before Christmas, when temperatues exceeded 110 degrees Fahrenehit, 4,500 of the park’s gray-headed flying foxes perished—15 percent of the colony’s population.
The tragedy for flying foxes in the park echoes scenes of wildlife suffering across the country and puts a spotlight on the perils of extreme heat, which for some species can be just as deadly as fire. Great and small, fast and slow, Australia’s endemic animals are falling victim to the heatwaves and fires that are ravaging the country at an unprecedented scale. It’s the hottest and driest summer in Australia in recorded history. As the planet warms, large-scale fires are becoming more frequent, and bushfire seasons are getting longer.
Firefighters from Melbourne's Metropolitan Fire Brigade spray water on the bats clumping on tree trunks in Yarra Bend Park in an attempt to cool them down in late December.
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
For gray-headed flying foxes, which are classified as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Yarra Bend event is not isolated. “The colony in Adelaide suffered even worse,” says Brend. Several thousand flying fox babies died there from extreme heat between November and January, says Justin Welbergen, associate professor of animal ecology at Western Sydney University and president of the Australasian Bat Society. On January 4, many thousands of flying fox babies died across multiple roosts in and around the Sydney region in New South Wales, where the temperature reached a record-breaking 121 degrees Fahrenheit. Welbergen’s team, which monitors flying fox heat stress conditions, is calculating a final death toll.
This summer’s extreme heat and extreme fires, which have imperiled Australia’s entire eastern coast—prime flying-fox habitat—“risk wiping out the 2019 generation” of newborn bats, Brend says. Some 80 percent of flying fox pups are born in October. They were young and vulnerable when heat waves and wildfires broke out late last year.
Kate Chamberlain, a wildlife rescuer, gives fluids to a dehydrated gray-headed flying fox in Yarra Bend Park.
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
Hour by hour in extreme heat
A day in the life of a flying fox in a heatwave is unforgiving. By 5:30 a.m., as dawn breaks, the bats have returned to their trees after spending the night feeding on nectar and fruit. By 8 a.m., Brend says, it’s getting hot in their roosts. The bats fan their wings to keep cool, but they can only do it for so long before they start to get tired, he says. By noon, they’re getting exhausted, and temperatures continue to climb. The bats start to pant, which accelerates dehydration.
At that point, they could fly into the river to get a drink (the Yarra River runs through the middle of the 640-acre park), “but it’s like us running to the shop in the middle of a heat wave,” Brend says. Flying takes energy, and when they’re exhausted and dehydrated, they’ll simply stay put.
Distressed and starting to panic, the bats try to find a cool spot. Mothers will deposit their babies on branches and separate, Brend says, searching for a tree trunk that might be cooler. The bats follow each other—spotting one on a trunk seems to signal to the rest that it’s a refuge. They start to clump together. “It’s like a football scrum of bats,” Brend says. “To the observer, it looks mindless.” The ones who got there first are now surrounded and smothered by dozens of others.
“At that point in time everything has gone wrong,” Brend says. That’s when his team, made up of park staff and volunteers, will step in to try to break up the clumps by spraying them with water, which cools them down and slakes their thirst.
Yarra Bend Park ranger Stephen Brend passes a wheelbarrow filled with dead flying foxes that he and volunteers collected from the ground. Brend, Victoria province's grey-headed flying fox project officer, describes the three-day death event in the park as "carnage."
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
Tragedy on the trees
On December 20th, at the height of the three-day heat event that killed 4,500 flying foxes, “it never got cool,” Brend says. At 9 p.m., the team was out spraying. But it was pitch black, tree limbs were falling, and there are venomous snakes in the brush. “We had to call it off. We couldn’t see. It was 38 degrees [100 degrees Fahrenheit]. It was deeply distressing,” he says. “It was carnage.”
“One falls, and the rest cascade on the ground, crushing and suffocating each other. Dozens if not hundreds of dead or dying bats are at the bottom of the tree,” says Melbourne-based photojournalist Douglas Gimesy, who documented the December rescue efforts. “You’re looking down at them and they’re looking up at you gasping. They’re smothering and heating up. Volunteers will go in and separate out bodies and find some that are still alive. But you’ve got 20 to 30 rescuers and 4,500 bats. It’s like a war zone. It’s sad and distressing and heartbreaking, and you know it will happen again and again and again.”
“Some we get to in time,” says Tamsyn Hogarth, one of the rescuers. “Others die in your hand.” By the third day, on December 20th, the air was thick with “the smell of death,” she says. Hogarth runs Fly By Night, a wildlife shelter in Melbourne dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing gray-headed flying foxes. She and other volunteers rescued 255 babies during the extreme heat events in December in Yarra Bend Park. Two dozen volunteers across Victoria province are currently caring for the bats, which range in age from two to 12 weeks old.
Wildlife rescuers Kate Chamberlain and Treycee Baker examine the body of a dead gray-headed flying fox they recovered from Yarra Bend Park in early January. The bat's wings were ripped from trauma.
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
Heatwave deaths are normal for the bats—but this is different.
Hot days causing bat deaths are normal in Yarra Bend Park. “We’re always worried about heat events. You’re not going to get through summer without having really hot days,” says Brend. Last summer, for example, a few hundred bats died, he says. One study found that between 1994 and 2007, approximately 30,000 gray-headed flying foxes died in extreme heat events in Australia.
Red dots show locations of fires detected in Australia the week ending Jan. 6, 2020.
The brown area shows the range of the grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus).
But the timing of this year’s extreme heat—right after birthing season—contributed to unusually high mortality. Because the young were still nursing, their mothers’ energy levels were depleted, and all of them—parents and new babies—are more vulnerable, Brend says. The first weekend in December was extremely hot, and it was followed by a succession of hot days all month, culminating in the three-day death event, reaching a peak of 110 degrees Fahrenheit in Yarra Bend on December 20.
“It’s emotional and frightening for the species. And this is happening across their entire range,” Brend says. While Yarra Bend Park hasn’t been hit by fires, much of the flying foxes' habitat lies directly in the fire zones along Australia’s east coast.
A mother gray-headed flying fox hangs from a branch in Yarra Bend Park as her baby clings to her chest. About 80 percent of flying fox pups are born in October. The timing of the extreme heat in December meant that a whole generation of newborn bats, still dependent on their mothers, were hit hard.
… Read More
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
A modern-day passenger pigeon?
A May 2019 national survey estimated that there are around 589,000 gray-headed flying foxes in Australia. Although their numbers are robust now, they face a host of threats, from routine extreme heat events to entanglement in urban infrastructure, such as nets and barbed wire, as well as harassment from residents who see them as pests.
The bats are nomadic. Much of their range is currently in the fire zones. Many travel north in winter, roosting in forests along the coast, which they may find scorched. The “bushfires have destroyed essential foraging resources on unprecedented scales,” says Welbergen. “There is no refuge for them,” says Brend. “It’s not like it’s bad in Melbourne but will be OK in northern New South Wales—it’s not OK anywhere.”
“That can’t go on for too many cycles before the population declines,” Brend says. “I don’t want to be alarmist or dramatic—there are still thousands of these bats—but there’s no reason to be confident anymore.”
“Our worry is we’ll have the new passenger pigeon,” he says, referring to what was once the most abundant bird in North America before being hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
Gray-headed flying foxes hang in trees in Yarra Bend Park. About 30,000 of the bats lived in the colony here before December 2019. The bats are vital to their forest ecosystem: They carry seeds and pollinate trees, gardening the forest by night.
Photograph by Doug Gimesy
‘Bats need the forest and the forest needs the bats’
Flying foxes play a vital role in the forest. “Their ecological role is as big, nocturnal bees,” Brend says. They carry seeds and pollinate trees, gardening the forest by night. “Bats need the forest and the forest needs the bats,” says Brend.
And it’s still the middle of summer in Australia. “We’ll battle on for our upside down friends,” says Lawrence Pope, a rescuer caring for five orphaned baby bats at home, “but things look very grim.”
“In this horror year, all species are suffering. It’s really frightening,” Brend says. “We’re hot, and they’re hot, and it’s a nightmare.”
Natasha Daly is a writer and editor at National Geographic, where she covers animal welfare, exploitation, and conservation. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Awful, isn't it, Martin? I used to live near Yarra Bend, riding my bike through there every day. The flying foxes are amazing to watch. Seeing death on this scale is awful.
There was a story on the news here the other night that kookaburras are becoming climate refugees. Although not endemic to Tasmania (where we are), they're moving further south due to the mainland heat, and have arrived in numbers in southern Tasmania. Because they are 'perch and pounce' birds, scientists are monitoring closely the effect of our new resident kookas on small native mammals.
I just watched a couple of videos about kookaburras. Their call is remarkable and complex and they are really cute birds. The only kingfisher that rarely eats fish (except the occasional pet goldfish).
Janet Kenny is safe.
Thanks, Catherine. JK and MA were two of my great friends when I first started here, and I miss them. I'm glad to know they're both safe through these awful fires.
I spent ten years in a specialist fire fighting group and saw a number of crown fires that I thought were horrific but nothing like these ravening monsters. Flames more than twice the height of the trees they consume.
A former bluestone courthouse in Kiandra (Snowy Montains) New South Wales was burnt the walls still stand but the glass in the windows MELTED!
Glass melts around 1400 degrees Celsius.
A couple of million acres have burnt not far to the south of me there has been some tension but so far we are lucky.
The danger for us is that the drought sits heavy, my dams are drying up and trees are dying, the grasses crunch underfoot. it is a tinderbox.
Kangaroos and wallabies have moved out onto the road edges for grazing and each road becomes a killing ground.
I am in wine country and it seems that there will be little to pick as all the grape that has survived is smoke tainted.
The disgusting part of disaster is the political posturing.
Martin, you would get so much joy from the birds here! I just read this in Australian Geographic about what the fossil record shows about bushfires.
Jan, I've been checking the map to see if you're safe. So glad you are, so far. Yes, I look around, and it's like we're all standing in a heap of kindling. At least it's cool here in the southernmost shire! I've been wearing a jumper for the last few days.
I saw an extraordinary image of strange fire behaviour sent by a friend -- fighting fire in the Blue Mountains. She filmed it with her phone. The fire looked like a pool of mercury spreading along the ground. Have you ever seen such a thing??
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