The following report is about Heather Thomas’s ( committee member of Strathbogie Ranges CMN ) father, Ted Harrison, who was a pioneer in the wildlife conservation world. Coincidentally Justus and Janet Hagen visited Mr Harrison’s sugar glider feeding spot in 1972 on a teachers college bush walking club trip.
Honey for Phalangers and Phascogales
The Victorian Naturalists Magazine, November 1961.
During late May 1959 Mr Ted Harrison of Warrenbayne was engaged in making a small dam across a gully in a timbered part of his property in the foothills of the Strathbogie Ranges. Occasionally he had with him his small son, Gordon, a lad of about six years. One evening, just on dusk, Gordon called to his father to come and see what he took to be a bird, that had crossed the gully through the air and landed on the trunk of a tree.
It was a Sugar Glider – the small phalanger is known to naturalists as Petaurus breviceps. The little animal was several feet up the trunk of a Long-leaf Box, busily licking away at sap which had exuded from a crevice in the bark. That particular tree was in flower at the time.
A Sugar Glider- presumably the the same one – was seen at the same spot each evening, for four or five days; then it was joined by a second one. Several days later, the sap began to dry up, so Mr Harrison augmented it from time to time with dabs of honey.
Other gliders found this; by the end of a fortnight six were coming, and after a three weeks there were at least fourteen. Some of them had lost their timidity and did not wait for the honey to be put in place for them. Instead, they came to lick the hand that was smearing it on the bark; and sometimes they even grasped the fingers with their fore-paws while they feasted.
That section of the Harrison property is lightly forested with Red Stringy bark, Long-leaf Box and Silver wattle, providing a sparse under-storey. A short distance away one finds Broad-leaf Peppermint, Red Box, Yellow Box and Victorian Blue Gum. Warrenbayne is a scattered farming community about five miles from Baddaginnie, near Benalla.
News of the feeding operation reached the Fisheries and Wildlife Department and three officers visited Warrenbayne to photograph groups of sugar gliders at the honey on the tree. During the early period of feeding, when the long-leaf box was flowering, the gliders were somewhat wary, and often gave voice to their characteristic alarm call- a “wok …wok …..wok”at intervals like the yapping of a young terrier. There was also a lower call almost like a grunt, presumably from young animals.
As the gliders became more used to his presence, Mr Harrison took note of their appearance. Measured from nose to tail-tip they varied from eleven inches to fourteen in length. This indicated that they were all younger ones, products of the previous breeding season. Shortly afterwards some older gliders became interested. One had a body of seven inches and a tail of 9.5 inches. The largest allowed itself to be measured and was seventeen inches in overall length and another appeared larger still. Many of the sugar gliders had characteristics enabling them to be identified individually and Mr Harrison named them accordingly. There was “Tip”, with the end of its tail white and its mate “Tippy”, with the same feature but not to the same extent. One had a dorsal mark broad and brownish; that one was called “Brownie”. “Rumpie” had some fur missing from its back and “Loppie” was missing part of one ear. The largest of them all, clearly a male, was called “Grampa”. The numbers increased. There were more with tiny white tail-tips. Four or five that appeared to be quite black except at tail base with a dorsal that was very wide. They were timid. “Big Tip”had at least one inch of white at the end of his tail and “Boss” was intolerant of his kind.
After the first few weeks of operations, a ladder was taken to the site, so that food could be placed well out of the reach of marauding foxes that might pass nearby. Gradually the visitors changed their habits, the first ones arriving well after dark . On bright moonlit nights in particular they did not appear until quite late. Their groupings and numbers were erratic, however, and there did not seem to be any regular pattern in their behaviour .
In July, evidence was seen of much activity on the trunks of the Red Stringybark trees. Strips of bark were found which had been loosened or removed- almost certainly by Sugar Gliders- in quest of insect larvae. In place the Red Box trees were similarly treated. Finally a Sugar Glider was seen at the incisions on one tree.It is interesting that there was similar activity in the roadside trees in the nearby clear country, indicating that the little animals work – or perhaps inhabit – the narrow belts of timber between open paddocks.
Here and there in the light forest Silver Wattles may be seen with the wood of small branches torn away, exposing holes originally occupied by moth larvae. Black Cockatoos do that kind of thing but as these birds do not visit the Warrenbayne forests , what is seen there is evidently the work of possums of some kind. It is likely that in this case the operator is the Sugar Glider. One of them was seen to glide down on three successive nights to a borer hole, but it may have been interested in exuding gum rather than in the borer.
One night in August , a count of thirty-five gliders was made, as they came in to the tree for honey. Allowing for several that returned for a second meal during the time concerned – five such were recognised- it was concluded that about twenty -eight different animals were noted for the evening.
The gliders came in from all directions, some making glides of forty fifty yards across the gully. Occasionally one was seen to swerve while in flight to avoid the foliage of a Silver Wattle . While gliding, the four limbs were spread out wide and from below, the animal, with the membrane stretched, appears to be square. But, within about ten feet of landing the space was changed to triangular. Usually the landing was quite gentle. Sometimes as many as four would glide to the honey tree – one after the other in quick succession.
When disturbed or frightened they disappeared to the opposite side of the tree but usually appeared again soon after. To shine a torch around the back of the tree would arouse quite a panic amongst the animals but otherwise they tolerated even bright torch light quite close to them as they fed.The gliders did not react to human voices or to loud noises but even a slight scraping or rustling sound would disturb them.
After a meal of honey an animal would quite often run up the tree, rest or sleep for ten minutes or so, and then return for a second feed.
When leaving the tree the gliders adopted various procedures. Sometimes the flight was short, steeply descending and very fast.Or, jumps of fifteen or twenty feet would be made without much loss of height. On other occasions the the flight took the form of a long, gently sloping , rather slow glide. Efforts were made to follow them through the bush to find out where they lived, but their mode of travelling took them away too fast. Extensive searching by day , and the investigation likely hollows disclosed numerous ringtails but no gliders. However, two sugar gliders did occupy a temporarily deserted Ringtail’s nest in a hollow sapling a few yards from the feed tree.
They used it for about three weeks and then returned, and finally went away again.
During July and August, when possums normally begin breeding , Mr Harrison investigated the abdominal area of many sugar gliders as they fed, identifying the pouch of the females and seeking evidence of the presence of young ones. However the observations were negative: apparently no female came to the tree with young on her back.
Observations indicated that the breeding season was in progress.In august the gliders came mostly in pairs. If two lots appeared at the same time , one male would drive the other male off, and the three remaining animals would then feed together. Pairs were often seen together sitting on limbs.
Fighting became prevalent. It usually took place high in the tree, accompanied by snarling, much scurrying about, and a shower of dislodged fragments of bark. The Sugar Glider’s anger call is like the turning over of a high pitched starter motor. Once “Boss” and “Grandpa” were fighting, and they fell, locked together. Ten or twelve feet from the ground they parted. “Boss” managed to land on a small sapling , but “Grandpa” landed in the dam. He got out, climbed a tree and spent twenty minutes cleaning his fur. On another occasion there was a fight between Boss and an animal that had refused to give way to him. They took up positions just within reach of each other, then struck out with one forepaw while hanging on with three legs.The same general pattern of behaviour continued until late September.
Then the warm weather became very warm, and the gliders disappeared for about six weeks. The red box was flowering at the time, and that may have been the reason.Then, a cold snap brought them back in force and they were very hungry. At that time an attempt was made to feed them on a mixture of honey and sugar. They rejected this , which is an interesting point in view of our name “Sugar-Glider” for the species.
During late spring , up until Mid-November , of the gliders that visited the tree, males outnumbered females by three or four to one. But still no young ones appeared.
From October upwards , a box was wired to the tree trunk, about ten feet up, and two small tins of honey were put in it, as well as some sweetened water. With the warm November weather , less gliders came, even though there was no major flowering of eucalypts in the district. The visitors drank water but took little honey. Few animals were in evidence in December and the last regular visits for the season ceased mid-January. Thereafter , an occasional animal came, but only to drink a little water.
Besides the abundance of Sugar Gliders about the Harrison property, there were other species of mammal in evidence during that period of feeding operations.
Yellow footed Phascogales found the honey. One was seen frisking about on the ground first, but after several nights it came to the glider tree. The yellow foot, Antechinus flavipes, is a mouse sized member of the carnivorous marsupial group. It feeds mainly on beetles and other insects , which it finds under loose bark or amongst debris on the ground. These phascogales are quite plentiful in the Warrenbayne area. They get into the crevasses of dead tree-trunks and make their leaf nests in the central hollows. On one occasion four individuals were seen at one nest. The number of Yellow Footed phacogales that came for honey was not ascertained , but there were at least three. There was one occasion when all three phascogales were at a small tin of honey, when one became impatient and began to chew at the back of another’s neck as the latter ate. The victim was too intent on its meal to take any notice , but when it really felt the aggressor’s teeth it left the scene hurriedly.
In July a Silver-grey possum appeared on the scene. The silver grey is our local form of the common Brush-tailed Possum, Trichosuras velpecula. An attempt was made to discourage it, in consideration of its large size and correspondingly big appetite. But, when hunted away, it climbed a neighbouring tree , crossed to the glider tree and descended to the honey.
So , a honey tin was set up on the ground a little distance away for the Siver-grey. And, because of its habit of appearing silently, out of the night, it was named “Spooks”. It became tamer than the gliders, and occasionally indulged in definite play activities. One of its games was to scamper past Mr Harrison as he walked away, climb a sapling, and turn to meet him, almost nose to nose.
At one stage, “Spooks” formed the habit of leaving the food tin, rushing up a tree, as if frightened. The reason for this soon became apparent : a Yellow footed Phascogale would occupy the tin when the possum left it.. However the two animals came to a mutually satisfactory arrangement. Yellow-foot would approach to within ten foot, then make a soft “shurring” noise, whereupon the Silver-grey would climb a tee-without calling. Then the Yellow foot, satisfied its hunger and left, after which the possum returned to its interrupted meal. Eventually, a tin of honey was provided for the phascogales, under a sheet of iron on the ground, and they preferred to feed there, under shelter.
Later, Spooks, who was a male, disappeared, and it was feared he had fallen victim to a fox. And about the same time, a female with a young one was notice nearby in the bush.
On several occasions during the past eighteen monthsI visited I visited Warrenbayne and acompanied Mr Harrison to his feeding point, to observe and photograph the animals that were coming there. The foregoing report has been compiled from verbal information which he supplied, and the following notes will serve to complement it.
The Sugar Gliders preferred to feed in the head down position, and a newcomer would usually squeeze in between others, or even push under them, rather than break this rule. That is also common resting position, and it is the one from which the little animals take off from a tree trunk, to glide to another tree. However, when there was too much of a crowd above the honey, others would approach it from the side or from below.
Perhaps the outstanding attribute of the species is the ability to scamper about, downwards, sideways or up ways -on the vertical trunks of trees. All claws are long and needle sharp, another gap is so sure that there is never the slightest uncertainty or hesitation. In particular, if one of them is frightened when feeding, it will reverse position in one single jump, disappear sideways behind a tree, and then be twenty or thirty feet up the trunk by the time one steps around to see where it’s gone.
Normally an animal that gives the Wok Wok alarm calls too well hidden to be observed. At Warrenbayne, the few that were seen when calling in this way were high up, flat against the trunk of a tree, and there they remained, quite still, “frozen” in the head- down position. Attempts to photograph the gliders flight met with little success. They were loth to take of when a light was directed at them, and it was impossible to tell from which direction, or when, the next would appear.
Furthermore , one’s reflexes are hardly fast enough to catch them in flight with a camera. Many hours of effort in this direction resulted in a single colour transparency- somewhat out of focus- of a sugar glider in flight. That little animal, blinded by the flashlight, landed on the ground at my feet, but was apparently quite unperturbed by the experience for a few seconds later it was several feet up the trunk of the feed tree, busily licking away at the honey.
The Yellow footed Phascogales were not satisfactorily photographed either. They were too timid to be approached closely when in exposed conditions : moreover the jerkiness and extreme rapidity of their movements made it very difficult to get any sort of a picture of one.
The common ringtail, is fairly plentiful in the area. These spend the day sleeping , in small hollows, usually, but a few make nests in clumps of mistletoe or in thickets of pomaderris.
When searching for ringtails any tree with a suitable hollow could be tested by reaching up with a stick a scraping the bark. This gives the impression of an approaching goanna and if a possum is there, it hastily emerges rather than being found at home by a marauding reptile.
The shortly grassed alluvial flats of the property show abundant evidence of the Long-nosed Bandicoot, (Peromeles nosuta) and the Echidna, (Tachyglossus aculeates) works the ant mounds there from time to time.
The story of the Sugar gliders and the other native mammals at
Warrenbayne is interesting enough, but matters took a dramatic turn early this year when the notorious Brush Tailed Phascogale, or Tuan, (Phascogale tapoetafa) appeared on the scene. That story is included in further observations that have been recorded by Mr Harrison in the form of a diary. This, we hope, will be published in a future issue of The Naturalist.
From The Victorian Naturalist, November 1961.
Retyped by J&J Hagen, June 4, 2018.