She didn’t need much. While I was busy with my own small worries, my own daily life, this last two years, she was just quietly getting on with her own.
I didn’t know it, but she was less than a kilometre from where I live, maybe a lot closer than that. For there are squirrel gliders living at the end of my street in the Deagon Wetlands. And I don’t live in some sort of rural paradise, way out in the bush. I live in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, not 14 km from the CBD. In one of its oldest suburbs: Sandgate, the first seaside resort frequented by the early settlers.
Sometime, when I was still making my daily commute to the city, in the winter of 2014, she was born. How many days did she snugly cling, eyes tight shut, a pink hairless grape, deep in her mother’s pouch? While her mother bounded effortlessly up those eucalypts fringing Third Lagoon to find the sugary lerps, or glided from tree to tree, to feast on the sweet-scented paperbark flowers of the Deagon Wetlands?
By the springtime of 2014, I was caught up in the care of the elderly, then the mourning for loved ones, now gone. I flew to Adelaide to attend a funeral. She stayed living quietly in the bushland fragments of Sandgate and Brighton. At night she was learning how to glide, where to find food, and what dangers to look out for. Daytime would find her curled up in a tree hollow, or nest box, with her family. A tangled swirl of squirrel gliders, all grey fluff and black wispy tails. It was hard to see where one ended, and the other began.
The autumn of 2015 saw me working at home – I’d taken a year off from my ‘real’ job – trying to write a book. All those days and nights I spent in my little room, typing, – what was she doing? Now an adult, was she roaming to find her own place in the world? Did she manage to cross the great gashes in the landscape – the wide freeways that indiscriminately gouge lines though built-up areas, forested areas, parklands and wetlands? Or did she stake out a claim in the small urban forest patch where she was raised? Squirrel gliders can glide between scattered trees, or even just poles, to make their way across the countryside. They don’t need to come down to the ground (like koalas often do) which means that they are less susceptible to attacks by dogs, cats or foxes. By gliding, they can cross busy roads that are a deadly peril to other wild animals.
She didn’t need much. Just a line of trees (or poles), or a rope bridge, to allow her to move across the roads and houses, between the fragments of forest.
Last summer saw more temperature records broken, and I found it hard to keep working at home on the steamiest days. I sought the cool of air-conditioned libraries as a refuge. The paperbarks were in almost continuous, bountiful bloom, for months. Where was she then? Perhaps in a hollow that was cool enough? Did she spend her nights guzzling nectar, and dozed blissfully, half-tipsy, during the day? By autumn she had found a mate. By winter there was new life swelling in her own pouch.
So now we finally meet, after all this time. Today she was found dead on a pathway around the back of Third Lagoon. Fresh blood on her nose and mouth. I don’t know how she died.
I can cup her lithe, slender body in one of my hands. Her fur is grey and black, and is incredibly soft. A narrow strip of creamy fur trims the edge of her gliding membrane. Her delicate paws are clenched shut in tiny fists. The little one died with her, and is still in her pouch – small, naked, and pink. His eyes are covered by translucent blue lids.
She didn’t need much. A hollow or nest box to sleep in. Flowers and insects to eat. A forest with trees, and some linkages across the landscape, to cross the roads, and to avoid the open areas, the sprawling built environment, the big ugly new houses that leave no room for gardens.
Her kin are still here, quietly getting on with their lives. A recent study counted over 30 squirrel gliders in Third Lagoon Reserve and the Deagon Wetlands. Wedged in between the houses of Sandgate and Brighton, Deagon and Bracken Ridge.
They don’t need much. They have survived in Brisbane for so long now, while in many other parts of Australia their species is sliding towards extinction. Meanwhile, our houses keep getting bigger, the freeways keep getting wider, backyards disappear and the bushland remnants shrink. The survival of squirrel gliders in suburban Brisbane becomes more tenuous each day.
But surely we can do just the little that is needed, to help the gliders quietly live on here, for many years to come? So that future Brisbanites can still proudly say: ‘I have gliders living at the end of my street!’.
To find out more about the squirrel gliders of northern Brisbane, and how you can help, check out The Glider Alliance on facebook.
I guessed the age of the glider by her tooth wear as described in this husbandry guide (click to download guide). Thanks to Melissa Cooper for the tip.