Sugar glider seen in a garden, jumping from one tree to another

28 Nov 2023

SOARING SUGAR GLIDERS

WWF supporter and wildlife observer David Waterhouse writes about coming face-to-face with sugar gliders. Weighing as little as 120gm, sugar gliders can fit into the palm of your hand and can glide up to 50 metres using their gliding membrane. Having an appetite for nectar and sap, they can be found spending their evenings searching for sugary snacks.

David has left a gift in his Will to WWF so that sugar gliders and other native species have a fighting chance for survival into the future and so others can have encounters with them, too. can have encounters with them too. 

My first encounter with those quiet ‘flying’ marsupials known as sugar gliders was unexpected and dramatic. 

At the time, I was on an exercise with an army reserve regiment. This took place in a vast maze of sandstone ridges cut by twisting gorges off the Putty Road, which connected Richmond to Singleton in New South Wales. 

It was in mid-February and very hot. Like the rest of B Platoon, I was sweaty, dirty and weary. In the late afternoon of that particular day, we entered a clearing and were ‘harboured’ in a large circle before being put to work digging trenches all around our perimeter. It was almost dark before we were dug in for the night and made to ‘stand to’. Standing to in the trenches on dusk involved having all weapons at the ready and remaining still and silent, peering into the gloom. 

Suddenly, in the fading light, I spotted a strange shape soaring above the clearing. It was soon followed by three others, all on the same flight path. They were sugar gliders. They must have left their communal tree hollow where they would have slept all day before venturing out to search for insects and nectar. I only saw them for a few seconds, but that was long enough to note their extended side flaps joining wrists to ankles and their thick, flowing tails as they glided into the trees behind us. They were quite small, nowhere near the size of greater gliders, which resemble flying cats.

Sugar Glider on a twig
Sugar Glider on a twig © © Shutterstock / Arif Supriyadi / WWF

Despite my tiredness, I felt elated to have seen them, even though it had only been a brief sighting of the little family. Before first light, I managed to spot two of the gliders sailing across the clearing and faintly hear them scurrying along a limb to their tree hollow. 

Later, on a night patrol and during a halt alongside a faint track, we gratefully stood in a rare stream of cold air as the narrow gully we were plodding up acted as a wind tunnel. Near the top of the gully, the air became still once more. It was then that we all froze at the sound of a shriek. Soon afterwards, a yapping sound came from the treetops just below the ridge we were on. No one moved. We were all in shock and wonder. The corporal turned and tapped with two fingers on his shoulder. The gesture was transmitted rapidly backwards — to summon the officer in charge of the patrol. 

The moon was well up. It was a bright, full moon with no cloud to block it. Just before the lieutenant appeared, some of us saw two furry forms almost at eye level on a stringybark branch. We were looking at a pair of sugar gliders either courting or squabbling - hence the strange noises. 

We all relaxed, and the alarmed look on the face of the officer turned to relief and then scorn when we told him it was not a scared girl walking her dog along the ridgetop. We thought he would make some sarcastic or witty remark, but he merely said, ‘Who’da thought it?’ and walked back in a huff. He seemed disappointed. 

It wasn’t long before the weird barking sounds became quite recognisable on subsequent patrols, like the ‘ooming’ calls of the tawny frogmouths in the treetops or the nocturnal howling of a dingo pack on the wallaby track down in the gorges. 

Sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps)
Sugar glider (Petaurus breviceps). © © National Trust Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary / WWF-Aus

Another February, at Gan Gan Army Camp, near Port Stephens, I came virtually face-to-face with a sugar glider. At the end of one of the long huts, sited amongst the dunes, was a night light. Opposite was an old man banksia in full bloom. My eye caught a movement, and as I crept quietly up to the glow of light, I saw a sugar glider on one of the huge, candle-like flowers. 

On this occasion, I could make out the soft, grey fur, the off-white underside, the dark, blunt tail-end, and the stripe that seemed to bisect its head and back.  The little animal remained perfectly still except for its head delving into the blossom. There was no one else in sight, and I could watch it for a minute or two before it moved on to another flower outside the pool of light. 

Since that night, I have seen other sugar gliders only occasionally in various locations, including along the top of the Illawarra Escarpment behind Wollongong and sometimes, at dusk, just outside the Royal National Park Visitors’ Centre at Audley. There, they feed on droplets of gum exuded by wattles. 

At Blackbutt Reserve in Lambton, the warden once showed me a tree box. He opened the lid to reveal several gliders snuggled up together. It was during the day, and they showed their annoyance by making hissing sounds which ceased abruptly upon closing the lid. The brief glimpse remains in my mind, and the soft, grey bundle of bodies seemed to be the epitome of contentment. 

Like all small marsupials, sugar gliders have some enemies, which include domestic and feral cats, goannas (which seek them out on their daytime retreats) and powerful owls.  A resident of Oak Flats on the NSW South Coast once told me there had been a colony of the animals on or near her property, but all were taken by a visiting powerful owl. 

One evening, I was standing near the junction of Bola Creek and the Hacking River in the Royal National Park and picked up a large powerful owl pellet on the creek bank. It was a complete skull of a sugar glider, wrapped in a ball of its own fur. 

Despite such predation, the quaint arboreal creatures have so far still managed to survive in the eucalyptus forests of much of eastern Australia. Long may they continue to do so. 

Sugar gliders

Gliding phantoms of the night, furry wraiths in grey and white. 

Just on dark, they quit their hollow, one at first, then five to follow. 

What strange, fleeting forms are these, that seems to fly amongst the trees? 

No more were seen that frosty night, till they returned before first light. 

We heard their distant, yapping sound, like canine ghosts high off the ground.  

Sound of rustles in the trees, carried by the dawning’s breeze. 

Through the branchwork, home they wended, scurried, glided, forays ended. 

Side flaps stretched before they land, where the mighty red gums stand. 

Six with fur like thistledown, scampered then up to the crown.  

In seconds each had gone to rest, in their neat, communal nest. 

While David is an incredible monthly contributor of his wildlife encounters, he has also decided to continue his support by leaving a gift in his Will to WWF. If, like David, you value nature and wish to include its protection in your future legacy, please contact us at giftsinwills@wwf.org.au, or find out more about including a gift to WWF-Australia in your Will.