Rotary Park, a globally unique dry rainforest remnant, is culturally and spiritually significant for the Widjabal Wiyabal people of the Bundjalung Nation. One of only two urban rainforest remnants in NSW, the park’s circular walking track was opened in 1988 after substantial efforts by Lismore City Council and bush regenerators, led by Rosemary Joseph, to rid the rainforest of invasive weeds. This work is ongoing.
In September 2005 Lismore’s flying fox camp relocated from the riverbank at Currie Park, near the Lismore Racecourse, to Rotary Park where the camp remains today, protected from extreme winds, and at times extreme heat, by the parks unique microclimate created by the gully, creek and the tall trees. Scientific studies reveal that flying foxes’ preferred roosting habitat is where there are emergent trees, patches of dense foliage and an understorey.
More broadly, flying foxes prefer much the same habitat as we do - the east coast coastal lowlands. This has meant much of the tall coastal forest habitat that flying foxes depend on for foraging and roosting has been cleared for agriculture and human settlement. Flying foxes now depend on the pockets and remnants, like Rotary Park.
At times during summer three species of flying foxes can be found in the park; the Grey Headed Flying Fox (Pteropus poliocephalus), the Black Flying Fox (Pteropus alecto), and occasionally for only few days in the year the migratory Little Red Flying Fox (Pteropus scapulatus). Rotary Park is considered to be one of the largest maternity camps for the Grey Headed Flying Fox, listed as threatened due to declining numbers across the east coast population.
Flying fox populations are linked as one across the species ranges, with flying foxes travelling up to hundreds of kilometres at night in search for food - the flowers and blossoms of our tall native forests.
Flying foxes are a keystone species, pollinators that can see from kilometres high the blossoms of our tall coastal forest trees which open to the night sky. The flying foxes need the trees and the trees need the flying foxes to reproduce.
I joined WIRES https://www.wires.org.au/ Australia’s largest wildlife rescue and rehabilitation charity, in 2004 and before long our house was full of birds, possums and gliders. At home with a toddler, working as a casual lecturer in Environmental Science at Southern Cross University, meant wildlife caring had room in my life. My interest in flying foxes led me to being vaccinated with the rabies vaccine to allow me to work with these amazing creatures without any risk, however small, of contracting lyssavirus (it is estimated only 1% of the animal’s population carries the disease).
One warm day in 2008 I took a lunch break walk in Rotary Park. We were worried about the bats as that summer there was a blossom shortage. What I found that day in the park was a horror story unfolding. It was early December, and the tiny flying fox pups had been abandoned by starving mothers who had flown too far to return to their young in search of food.
Everywhere I looked there were pups crying out for their mothers, clinging for their lives on shrubs, vines, and trees.
Over the next week 180 baby bats were rescued from Rotary Park, as well as Lumley Park in Alstonville. The bat caring network went into full swing, with bats in care across the NSW east coast. That summer the release aviary, where the young bats learn to be bats and dehumanise from their carers, was extremely crowded. Other similar mass mortality events have occurred in Casino and SE Queensland in 2014, the NSW in 2016, the Northern Rivers in January 2018.
In Lismore this summer the WIRES Rotary Park release aviary has around 30 young bats, almost old enough and strong enough to be soft released to join the nightly fly out. These babies have come in as a result of becoming lost after falling off mum, being caught on barbed wire or in fruit netting. There is one Little Red Flying fox who was separated from his migrating colony and is slowly being transported back through the wildlife care network to North Queensland.
I am now lucky to live next to Rotary Park, working with others to restore and regenerate the neighbouring forest at Claude Riley Reserve, just behind Lismore Base Hospital. Every action taken to prevent further habitat loss, or to increase the area and condition of the remnant forests that are left, will help these important keystone species survive.
If people find a sick, injured or entangled bat it is important not to approach it. If you see a bat on the ground, adult or pup, please do not touch it. Although less than one per cent carry lyssavirus, there is always a risk. If you find an injured bat in the Northern Rivers call WIRES 6628 1898. Elsewhere you can call the WIRES Flying Fox only Emergency hotline 0405 724 635.