18 May 2022
SEARCHING FOR HONEY POSSUMS
The world's only truly nectivorous (nectar-eating) marsupial weighs just 7-10 grams, is nocturnal and can be extremely difficult to find. On a trip to Western Australia, David, our monthly wildlife contributor, was determined in spotting the tiny honey possum, even though he knew it might be a lost cause...
When I ventured out onto the heathland at Cheynes Beach, I was by no means confident that I would have any chance of spotting a honey possum.
Miles of sandy flats covered in sedges and studded with Banksia shrubs stretched away on each side of the track. It was springtime and this corner of Western Australia, near the town of Esperance, seemed alive with a profusion of flowering Banksias.
Dotted across the plain were the vivid scarlet blooms of Banksia coccinea and the fulgent flower heads of yellow Banksias which shone in the sun like corn cobs that had been dipped in butter.
Apart from insects investigating the blooms and the occasional honey eater, the stretch of heath on the edge of the Great Australian Bight seemed devoid of wildlife. Then minutes later, as I topped a slight rise, I startled a grazing kangaroo at fairly close range. Sitting bolt upright as he saw me, the large buck raised his white-backed ears and stayed motionless, looking in my direction. His mobile bearing was spoilt slightly by a bunch of sedge drooping from one side of his mouth. My main impression was that the roo was noticeably browner in hue than the eastern greys with which I was better acquainted. He stared intently before bounding off.
The local honey possums, which were at the opposite end of the size spectrum to this western grey kangaroo, would not be so easy to spot.
The tiny creatures are not much larger than mice. They are only to be met with in this southwestern corner of the continent and, unlike kangaroos, are almost entirely nocturnal. I would have to wait for dusk to have any chance of seeing one.
The curious honey possums or ‘noolbengers’, fill the same niche as the large family of birds known as honey eaters, but operate the night shift, as it were. They scamper up the Banksia shrubs in search of pollen and nectar for which their oddly shaped long tongues are especially adapted, just like those of the diurnal honeyeaters. Like those birds too, they supplement their sugar-rich diet with insects, but only occasionally.
The miniature possum, often referred to as a ‘honey mouse’ by the early white settlers, is the only marsupial which has evolved to depend almost entirely on food extracted from flowers. Its habitat, being the second richest flora region on the planet (after the Western Cape province in South Africa on a parallel latitude), has plants flowering in profusion in each month of the year.
Consequently, the possums need never go hungry, unless there have been extensive summer fires locally.
Amazingly, during a fire, they will seek refuge in holes in the sand, I’ve been told, but it is not known if they can tide themselves over on an insect diet until flowers appear once more.
The people of Esperance will say to visitors, “if you don’t like the weather here, come back in twenty minutes”. Allowing for the obvious hyperbole in this local quip, it’s often quite true, owing to the town’s location on the edge of the Great Australian Bight.
As if to live up to its reputation, that very evening, the weathers mood began to change rapidly. Clouds blotted out the sun and a strong wind sprang up. Swirls of sea air buffeted the Banksias, and the first rain drops began to fall. As dusk fell, the sky blackened and what was once a bright, flower-studded scene, was transformed into gloomy blasted heath, a most worthy setting for a Shakespearean tragedy. In less than half an hour, again living up to its reputation, the wind gusts ceased and the expected deluge did not eventuate.
I drew my powerful torch from my jacket pocket and swept its beam systematically over the Banksia blooms again and again at different stopping points along the track but saw nothing. After a couple of hours, I trudged back to the caravan park, disappointed but not surprised. Looking for elusive wildlife is often like that. More often than not you tend to encounter some sought after kind of wildlife, as long as you are in the right habitat, completely unexpectedly and while searching for something else. For this reason, any aspiring naturalist has to have the patience of a fisherman. That night as I was trying to sleep in my small caravan park accommodation, the wind sprang up again and I could hear the rain coming in squalls as it fell upon the roof.
I awoke from a restless sleep in the early hours and well before dawn. I got up and prepared myself to try to find the elusive ‘wee beasties’ again. The wind had dropped entirely and the rain now came only in odd spatterings.
I returned to the same track across the heath and once more searched with the torch. The vegetation glistered in the beam of light and the chunky clumps of red and yellow Banksia blooms seemed almost artificial, as though someone had set gaudy scented candles amongst the branches of the saw-leaved shrubs.
I was about to give up the search when, on one large red Banksia flower, I absent-mindedly noted what appeared to be a fat grey slug. On a yellow bloom too was a second one. I focused the binoculars and stepped a little closer to the edge of the path. Holding the binoculars in one hand and the torch in the other, I obtained a better look and saw not a slug but a mouse-like creature with a long tail curved around the flower stalk. There were three black stripes on the back clearly visible in the beam as the creature turned its head to reveal a long-pointed muzzle. There was no doubt in my mind now that I was observing a honey possum. I shifted the torch beam to the second ‘slug’ and it too proved to be a ‘noolbenger’, as the local Aboriginal people once called it. Two, so close together! I was probably looking at a mated pair.
Both soon backed down and scampered along the branches momentarily before disappearing into the foliage.
It was hardly a prolonged observation and despite further searching, I failed to locate any others. But at least I had managed to see them at that. I had been lucky.
David Waterhouse has been fascinated by wildlife since he was a young boy. He first heard about WWF in 1961 in England. He became a supporter all those years ago and remains a supporter to this day. He intends his support to continue well into the future and has included a gift to WWF-Australia in his will.
David hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect what’s left. You too can join us in supporting the future of Australia’s wildlife by leaving a gift in your will.