21 Nov 2023
TIGER CAT ENCOUNTERS
‘Don’t shoot it!’
‘I’m just looking at it through the ‘scope. I won’t shoot.’
We were three friends hunting rabbits on hilly farmland near Dungog in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. The grassy slope across the creek was riddled with holes made by rabbits, but none were to be seen.
A movement caught my eye as a strange animal, about the size of a cat, crept across the slope towards a burrow. One of us had a rifle with a telescopic sight and he had raised the gun to his shoulder. As he told me, he had no intention of firing and as he handed me the rifle and ‘scope, he said, ‘Is it some kind of possum or something?’
I used the scope hurriedly before the unfamiliar creature vanished down one of the holes and soon realised I was looking at what was then known universally as a ‘tiger cat’. It was in fact a spotted-tail quoll. The name is, admittedly, a better description of the predatory marsupial, but I still call it a ‘tiger cat’ as old habits die hard.
My two friends stood looking at me and after the quoll disappeared down a rabbit hole, I told them what it was. There was no mistaking the pattern of white spots all over the body and tail, though the background colour was black and not orange as depicted in reference books.
Incredibly, my first sighting of an eastern quoll (‘native cat’) in Tasmania, years later, was also of a dark-coloured individual. One eastern quoll in four is likely to be dark brown or black, often born in the same litter as normal fawn siblings, whereas the likelihood of a spotted-tailed quoll being dark-furred is much less, probably one in a hundred.
When we returned to the farmstead and told the family there what we had seen, the only person in the room to know what I was talking about was the landowner’s old father who seemed surprised. He told me that he remembered seeing tiger-cats now and then in his youth, but that was ‘before the first war’, meaning World War I. That meant they hadn’t been seen on the property for over half a century.
The old fellow went on to say that local farmers ‘back in the day’ would kill tiger cats on sight because they were notorious poultry thieves. If one gained access to a hen-house, it may well have killed a lot of the chooks, perhaps every one of them.
In the bush, up on the hills, he added, the tiger cats hunted prey both on the ground and high up in the trees, usually at night. They sought out a range of victims from moths to geckos as well as birds and their eggs and chicks.
I was told that a timber-cutter in his bed roll at night heard a magpie squark and saw a tiger cat, under a full moon, drop to the ground from the tree above with the bird in its jaws. It landed with a thud but quickly ran out of sight. I would love to have been witness to such an act.
At one time in the nineteenth century, the tiger cat must have been common all the way down the east coast of mainland Australia, into Victoria and Tasmania. Unlike the eastern quoll (a similarly-marked animal but more lightly-built with a non-spotted tail) it did not die out completely. However, numbers were severely reduced by an epizootic disease which in Tasmania affected not only the quolls but also the Thylacine and Tasmanian Devil.
Some years later, when I was camping on the Gloucester Tops, also in New South Wales, I encountered another Tiger Cat, this time at close quarters.
A friend and I were spotlighting on foot around the campground late at night. We happened to pass close to a rubbish bin and heard a scrabbling noise. We went to investigate. A cat-sized animal emerged from the bin on our approach and leapt to the trunk of a small tree close by. To our surprise, the light revealed not the expected Brush-tailed Possum but a tiger cat. It remained for several minutes, seemingly frozen to the trunk. I noticed that this particular specimen was orange-brown with white under-parts. We were close enough to observe the quivering whiskers and the prominent nose, which was pink and moist.
When we retreated and shifted the light beam, the animal scuttled up the tree, revealing the silver coin spots on its tail. We found out that tiger cats habitually visit camp sites for food scraps in a number of national parks in both New South Wales and Queensland.
Probably the best place to have a good chance of seeing tiger cats or spotted-tailed quolls is Tasmania, particularly in Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park, where they may be seen close to the lodge at night.
This is the second of two encounters with quolls that WWF supporter and naturalist David Waterhouse has shared with readers. David continues to share precious moments with wildlife with the WWF community in the hope that his stories will inspire many more people to protect them in the future as he intends to – through a
You can read of David’s first encounter in .