our massive tick season 07-08
 

 

Every few years we have a bumper tick season with over 400 orphans and 800 adults coming into care. This is the story of 2007-8.

The 07-08 tick paralysis season began calmly enough with the usual searches at Tolga Scrub, and numerous calls from the community. By the 3rd November we had 19 Spectacled flying fox (SFF) orphans in care - from mothers who had died from tick paralysis, entanglement on barbed wire, and electrocution on powerlines. The hospital had 6 adults in care - 4 from tick paralysis adults,1 from entanglement on barbed wire and 1 from entanglement in netting. We had plenty of time to prepare for a visit from Merlin Tuttle and Bat Conservation International people, to work on the Visitor Centre and even do some gardening. However all that changed overnight. Little did we know we were about to enter our worst tick paralysis season on record.

Many babies were found on dead mothers.

We had been receiving reports from the community that the Spectacled flying foxes were building up in numbers at Lakeside Scrub in Yungaburra. There were reports that small numbers of flying foxes had been camping there for many years, but that it was after Cyclone Larry in 2006 that larger numbers began arriving. This small fragment of forest, only 100 metres north/south and 200 metres east/west, was set aside as a 'green belt' when the surrounding land was developed as a residential area. A Wet Tropics revegetation project in the early 1980s planted it up further and put in walking tracks, but there had been no maintenance done for many years when we first walked in there in 2007. It is on the shores of Lake Tinaroo with houses all around, across the narrow stretch of water to the south, both sides east and west and across the road to the north.The presence of the SFFs resulted in considerable community conflict in early 2007, with some residents asking the State Environment Department to move the bats.

We walked into the Lakeside camp for the first time on 4 November 2007 and into a scene of mass deaths. Tick paralysis had obviously been affecting the camp for a few weeks. For the next 6 weeks we did daily searches of the camp. Each day we found 20 to 35 babies, 4-15 treatable adults most of whom were females with young, 15 - 25 untreatable adults (euthanased) and 10 20 dead. These daily searches initially only covered 50 to 70% of the total camp as it took us several weeks to establish tracks through the entire fragment of forest. It is anybody's guess how many bats were falling in the community, but we regularly received 2-4 calls a day from nearby residents. We estimate there were up to 20,000+ bats at Lakeside at the peak of tick season.

We did not encounter any hostility from residents, in fact just the opposite. The vulnerability of babies on dead mothers and the helplessness of paralysed bats on the ground brought out the best in people.

   
Ixodes holocyclus - the paralysis tick. We found multiple ticks on many of the bats,
more so than in any other year.
  The ironing board 'treatment table' we set up on the footpath in the afternoons. It was a lot cooler to work there in the shade, and the breeze kept the area free of mosquitos   On morning searches, we treated bats inside the colony as the footpath was in full sun at that time of day.

The work by Tolga Bat Hospital at the Lakeside colony involved:
1. Wildlife rescue, and ultimate release of 600+ SFFs back to the wild.
2. Collection of 100 euthanased bats for a CSIRO project.
3. Collection of euthanased bats for PhD project on leptospirosis in SFF
4. Community education: We received many phone calls from local residents with paralysed or dead bats on their properties. This was an excellent opportunity to encourage positive attitudes towards flying foxes, especially in people living close to a bat colony. We found this aspect of our work very rewarding, as It was an easy matter to encourage this concern and interest by providing information and listening to their experiences with the colony since December 2006. We issued a press release to the local paper on 12 November to help inform the local community of the situation. We were then contacted by a number of other papers, and did numerous television and radio interviews. A story even appeared in an English newspaper, and brought us 2 volunteers. We also had a film crew here from Animal Planet here for 3 days (9 11 November) making a 30-minute programme on the babies at the bat hospital.
5. Preventing the community from handling bats and incurring costs to Queensland Health for rabies vaccinations.
6. Research. Tolga Bat Hospital has microchipped over 1300 SFFs since 2003. This year one of the bats recovered was a microchipped female who had been treated for tick paralysis in 2002.

Some older babies climb off their dead mothers.

THE VOLUNTEERS
The main operation of the hospital up until early December was from 6am to 11pm daily, but lightened after that to a 9pm finish. There was a core group of 5 fulltime live-in volunteers and up to 8 community volunteers each day.

 

The first core group of volunteers: (left to right)
Ashleigh, Jasmin,Jenny (with Kauri the kelpie) Ani and Dan

  This was the night we came home with 34 babies and numerous adults to find the power had gone off. We worked into the night with camping torches and headtorches.

We had wonderful help from our local community and beyond:

  • Members of the local revegetation group TREAT helped to cook for us
  • The local School for Field Studies (American tertiary students) brought 3 students at a time 6.30am and 3.30pm most days for several weeks.
  • Janet Gamble, the wildlife officer from RSPCA Queensland gave us a full time worker for 5 weeks as well as a donation of 100 microchips. She also helped enormously by contacting the media and various agencies that have since helped us out. The local RSPCA inspector in Cairns Cameron Buswell has also been a great support.
  • The Cairns Wildlife Reserve is helping by keeping us supplied with 300 kgs of bananas each week. They pick up the bananas from the banana farm, pack them into boxes here at the hospital and spray them for ripening.
  • Australian Wildlife Hospital (Wildlife Warriors) sent us 2 volunteers on 12 December for 3 weeks, and is helping with the cost of some consumables.
  • Rhonda, Stacey, Petra, Lynette, Nicki, Aaron, Helen, Ceinwen, Danni, Daryl, Geoff all regularly helped at peak times.
  • Donations from Australian Tropical Research Foundation, Dominique T, Petra B, David Blair, Elke Sehmer, David Lennard, Jean Johns, Stephen Koci, Miriam M. and Rosemary B.
  • Donations from subscribers to Worldbatline, an email list for bat enthusiasts. These include the Flying Fox Conservation Fund, Randee S, Robin S, Vera B, Leslie S, Cynthia M, Cinnamon M, Sherry K, Brenda M, Carol B, Noreen M, Gail A, Deborah C, Connie K, Margaret L, Lisa W, Josephine W, Joyce S, Pat B and Linda C.
  • Carol B. has gone to great lengths to have an amazing doll's outfit (Ellowyne Wilde) designed and made by Judy, Brandon and Ted who all donated their time, skills and materials to make this possible. It was auctioned on ebay and raised $460! The doll community in the USA really got behind this auction and the winning bid far exceeded our expectations.
  • Bob and Jenny James for the huge task of organising the airlift of 50 orphans to Brisbane, their distribution to carers and supervision of care for 2 months.
  • Wyeth Australia for providing 810 cans of Infasoy, an infant milk powder (900gm cans). This has saved us an enormous amount of money that would otherwise have been spent on milk powder. 810 cans is valued at roughly $9000.

    (please let me know if I have left anyone off this list!)
 

Andrew S. and Lib R. (above) answered our desperate call for help over FFICN, an Australian email list for bat enthusiasts.

WE NEED HELP
We needed financial help to cope with the huge costs involved in running this unusually busy tick paralysis year. In the 7 weeks to mid December, we spent approximately:
$3355 in medical supplies
$800 in full cream milk powder to feed orphans.
$150 fruit juice
$800 fruit
$1200 volunteer food
$3200 for microchips. RSPCA and Wildlife Warriors have both donated 100 microchips, but we still need over 400 more. We purchase them in bulk and so get a good price of about $8 each.
Vehicle costs for travelling about 600 kms a week for 7 weeks
Numerous other expenses such as laundry detergent (about 5 loads of washing a day).
$200 airlifting 50 bats to Brisbane, will fly back late January.

The wet season eventually brought an end to tick season in January 2008, but then the work associated with releasing the orphans began. The adults were 'hard' released, but mothers with young 'soft' released though the release cage with the orphans. This meant they knew where to come for support feeding if necessary. The release meant daily trips to the colony for 2 months and then a tailing off of support for a further 2 months. Large quantities of food and milk are consumed over the 4 months, typically 80 kgs bananas, 35 kgs apples, 12 kgs milk powders and assorted other fruits (watermelon, mango) DAILY!

   

These are some of the lone babies we found, babies who'd climbed off their dead mothers
or whose mothers had not returned from their nightly foraging.

 
Maren D. from Brisbane/Germany
 
Ashleigh J. from Atherton

 

Some mothers needed to be euthanased but the babies were left on their mothers until we got back to the bat hospital. This kept them quiet, as we usually had at least another 20 noisy upset orphans.

WHY SO MANY BATS AFFECTED THIS YEAR?
This was been an extraordinarily busy year for the local vets treating cats, dogs and even horses with tick paralysis. There has obviously a lot of paralysis ticks, Ixodes holocyclus, in the environment this year. We found wild tobacco seed in the faeces of the Lakeside bats(Solanum mauritianum and torvum), more so than in any other year. We believe most of the bats were picking up the ticks while feeding on wild tobacco, a relatively low tree or shrub. There had been a proliferation of wild tobacco, and other weeds, in the wake of Cyclone Larry that devastated the area in March 2006. Ticks rarely venture more than a metre above the ground, and so flying foxes are unlikely to encounter them unless they feed in low vegetation. We don't know if the bats are feeding on wild tobacco by preference or necessity. We did a study in 2001 that proved the link between wild tobacco and tick paralysis.

 
Christmas by Daryl Dickson
 
Christmas by Stacey Gordon

 

A panoramic photo of the outside area of Tolga Bat Hospital. The babies go into the middle of the 3 cages (DAF cage - with the green roof sail) when they first leave the nursery, and then progress on to the large flight cage.

RELEASE AT THE TOLGA SCRUB
We began planning the best strategies for releasing the 500 babies. We realised these unprecedented numbers required the expansion of our release facilities. We had coped with releasing 300 babies in early 2005 by linking the 2 canopy cages with a wire rope that could increase the feeding area. It was decided to build a ground cage and luckily we had help from the Green Corps team from Conservation Volunteers Australia.

 

The team cleared the track into the colony, and carried in all the building materials - heavy railway sleepers, fencing panels, rolls of wire mesh and wheelbarrow loads of trench rock. It was a case of 'many hands make light work' with 10 Tablelands youth and their team leader Carlo taking 2 days to complete.

We started moving the orphans out to the cage as soon as it was completed. We needed to relieve pressure on the large cage at home which now had about 500 bats inside. First to go out to the new cage were the mothers with babies, and next the largest babies. Babies needed to weigh over 450gms and have a forearm length measure greater then 140mm.

 

We purchased a 'narra barra' for the release programme in early 2005. This is a narrow wheelbarrow designed for the narrow space between houses and fences in inner city areas. it is ideal for transporting large amounts of food through the rainforest. We needed to take in daily about 40 kgs of apples, 20 litres of banana smoothie, 10 litres of milk,10 kgs of bananas and about 6 litres of water.

Unfortunately torrential rain set in soon after we started the release. This made it very difficult for us as well the the bats. We had to cross a run-off drain to get from the car to the release cage, not really a problem as it was very firm under foot. However had it been fine we would have been able to park in this drain and have a shorter distance to transport the food.

We needed to bring home a few bats who sustained injuries and few who developed severe fungal inections on their wings with the prolonged wet weather. It was impossible for the young to become independent with this weather so large numbers were returning to the release cage for support feeding for longer than usual. It eventually fined up towards the end of March and the numbers needing support feeding immediately started to reduce.

We scanned the babies weekly (each had a microchip under the skin between their shoulder blades) to understand who was returning, though this was very difficult when there were the very large numbers. It's always exciting to see bats who have been released in previous years, but they can get very bossy with the babies around the food. We try to entice them to a separate area of cage.

 
Unloading the 810 cans of Infasoy.   Feeding the orphans at the new ground release cage.

We were very fortunate to have the Green Corps team helping handle the large quantities of food. Every month about 1000 kgs of apples arrived in 5 large cardboard bins. These need to be unloaded into crates that are then stacked into the coldroom. Every week a trailer load of bananas (about 300kgs) needed to be unloaded into crates, sprayed with a ripening agent and stacked into a storage area. And then once every 7-10 days we made large quantities of banana smoothie (about 100 litres at a time) and stacked thit in 5 litre buckets into the freezer. It was a mammoth operation.

   
Noodle fungus 1  

Ashleigh with food for the babies.

  Noodle fungus2

This interesting noodle-like fungus began growing near the release cage during the wet weather. It grew on the tree, and dropped off onto the ground below.