Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Trouble With 'Squirrel Gliding'

I invented a new hobby this month. Basically, you eat some dinner once the sun has gone down, then jump in the car and drive to a small suburban reserve of your choice. Then you walk around in the dark with a spotlight and camera, shining it up into the trees while trying to glimpse white furry bellies flying through the treetops. I call it 'Squirrel Gliding!'

Teneriffe to West End bus, outside Treasury Casino
Up until this month, I'd never seen a wild Squirrel Glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) before. Its range along the East Coast of Australia matches perfectly the area where human activity has altered the landscape the most, so it is considered nationally as a species in decline. That said, the Brisbane population is inspiringly persistent, with colonies surviving as close to the city centre as New Farm and Ashgrove. For this reason, the Glider has become a symbol of Brisbane to an extent, although its likely that the average member of the public mistakes images of it for the better-known Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps).

Cannon Hill Bushland Reserve
Bulimba Creek's Glider colony is considered to be the highest density population known in Australia, so I thought I'd best try out my new hobby there. Scouting potential locations in Cannon Hill revealed a small bushland reserve that featured my target species on the sign - a good start! Bordered by a busy road and a large shopping centre complex, I was somewhat sceptical of locating my quarry there, but hope won out. A Google Map satellite image reveals just how small and fragmented the Glider habitat really is. The smallest change - a disease or a development permit - and the population could be in real danger.

Cannon Hill Bushland Reserve (entrance between the two 'Wynnum Rd' labels)

A local community group has put some hard work into revegetating the entrance to the site, and the walk through this section along Bulimba Creek is very pleasant. I had thought that some of the old Forest Red Gums (Eucalyptus tereticornis) here might provide shelter for Gliders in their hollowed out boughs, but the spotlight only revealed a Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and a hand-sized Grey Huntsman Spider (Holconia immanis).

Forest Red Gum by day; Grey Huntsman on trunk by night

Further along, the track turns away from the creek and into a monsoonal-type woodland, featuring Paperbarks (Melaleuca species) and associated vines. This area is a good spot for birds during the day, with Olive-backed Orioles (Oriolus sagitattus) and Brush Turkeys (Alectura lathami) being two common species. The short track culminates at the top of a stony hill, where the woodland changes to a thin spread of Eucalyptus and Corymbia trees. It was here that I saw my first ever Squirrel Glider!

Brush Turkey

I had originally intended to go 'Squirrel Gliding' the week before, but heavy showers had upset those plans. The night I did make it out to Cannon Hill ended up being a full moon, which is less than ideal for spotting skittish, shadow-loving mammals, but beautiful none-the-less.

Moon-rise through a cloud bank

Squirrel Glider
My first Squirrel Glider sighting was of an individual rustling about in the mid-level canopy exterior of a tree. I had expected to see them much higher up, and for a moment, I thought I was going to be set-up perfectly for some great photography. How wrong I was! The trouble with 'Squirrel Gliding' is that it involves the photographic pursuit of a small, fast and nervous marsupial that can pretty much fly. Sure enough, my new little friend didn't appreciate me watching so intently, and opened up its skin-folds to sail deeper into the woods.

Squirrel Glider
Behind me on the other side of the track, I spotted another Glider in the distance, perfectly posed on a bare branch against the moon-lit sky. The distance proved too great for my camera's flash capabilities however, so it was yet another unsatisfactory image. I present it here though because it definitively identifies the animal as a Squirrel Glider, as the similar Sugar Glider has a thinner white-tipped tail.

There were most likely more of these beautiful little marsupials in the treetops, as they live and shelter in small groups. I thought I saw a few dark little shapes zipping between the tree crowns, but I couldn't locate them in my spotlight beam. After two hours of careful searching in the dark, navigating around at least fifteen Garden Orb-Weaver (Eriophora species) webs, I began to feel weary of my new hobby and called it a night. A light rain shower began as I headed back, but I paused briefly to watch a Common Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) illustrate where it got its name from.

Ringtail Possum, showing prehensile tail

Despite only getting fleeting views of the Squirrel Gliders, they made a great impression on me, and I will go back sometime to try for better photography results. I think what I like best about them is that they seem emblematic of a 'wilder' Australia. It's thrilling and strange to consider such a mysterious tree-top creature living next door to a shopping centre where most people are completely unaware of its existence. I found the Gliders on a stretch of track that was less than one hundred metres away from the shopping centre fence, the night air illuminated partly by the full moon and partly by the building lights. This to me sums up the fragile balance of 'Wild Brisbane', a place perched on the knife edge between ecological value and disaster. The fate of our city's wildlife is - like a Glider coasting through the trees - up in the air.

Squirrel Glider; Illustration by Marjorie Crosby-Fairall


  1. now you've got a taste for it Christian!! Would be nice being out in the cooler evening air; hopefully you can pick up new photos, it will keep you keen! Love the drawing by Marjorie C.F.

    1. Yes it's been sweltering here Carole! Will try my best with the photos :)

  2. Nice post - I managed to see Greater Glider a few years ago - and missed SG's on Fraser Island because I was fishing!!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

    1. Thanks Stewart. Greater Glider would definitely be amazing to see - a very strange looking possum! The Squirrel Gliders can be your "one that got away" on Fraser! :)

  3. Your night out with a torch is beautifully written Christian invvoking the element of suspense you evidently felt while searching for the gliders. Better luck next time. It is heartening though to think that the creatures can adapt to living next to a retail park.

    Best wishes from the UK for the festive period and the New year.

    1. Thanks Phil, glad you enjoyed reading it. Hope your Christmas was great too and that your New Year will involve many avian adventures! :)

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