The Honey Possum and the Banksia.

Minang Country

There is a small marsupial that lives only in Southwestern Australia that feeds exclusively on nectar and pollen. It is surely a joke of nature that it weighs as little as 7 grams yet has the largest sperm, and also the largest testes, proportional to body weight (4.2%,) of any mammal! It is the beautiful Honey Possum or Noolbenger to give it the aboriginal name.

My first encounter with this species was at Cheynes Beach on Western Australia’s South Coast. I was spotlighting flowering heath and caught a flash of movement in the headtorch. The Honey Possum, for that is what it was, was extremely uncomfortable under white light, but after switching to a red light I was able to briefly observe the animal.

The second and third encounters were both early morning (within an hour of first light,) walking the Bibbulmun Track. One Honey Possum disappeared off a Bull Banksia spike on my noisy approach, the other animal darted across the track into some heath from where I was able to observe it for 30 seconds before it vanished. All three, entirely unsatisfactory views!

Earlier in the year I had set myself the task of photographing three of the Southwest’s more elusive mammals. The Yellow-footed Antechinus or Mardo was the first target achieved back in May, now it was time to try for my second target, the Honey Possum.

During a whirlwind trip around the Southwest on the September long weekend, I found myself at Cheynes Beach on the third and final night. I had booked a camping site at the Cheynes Beach Caravan Park and while checking in I enquired, as is my habit, about recent wildlife sightings. Much to my delight I found out Honey Possums had been seen that very weekend on a Candlestick Banksia (Banksia attenuata) nearby.

Map showing location of Cheynes Beach.

Honey Possums are found only in Southwest WA where they occur in heathlands on sandy soil. These heathlands support a year round supply of nectar and pollen from banksias, dryandras, grevilleas, eucalypts and bottlebrushes. In a study conducted near Cheynes Beach on the South Coast, it was found that Honey Possums collect food from at least 13 species of plants, with 10 of these being the Banksias.

This annual supply of nectar and pollen can be illustrated simply, by looking at the following three commonly found Banksias of the heathlands at Cheynes Beach. The Scarlet Banksia (Banksia coccinea) flowers from Winter into late Spring. The Candlestick Banksia (Banksia attenuata) flowers from Spring into late Summer. Finally, the Baxters Banksia (Banksia baxteri) flowers from Summer into Autumn.

Clockwise from left Scarlet Banksia, Candlestick Banksia, Baxters Banksia.

Later that afternoon I visited the appointed Banksia around 90 minutes prior to sunset and waited, and waited. Then, after the sun had set below the horizon, there was a flurry of activity, and a Honey Possum moved quickly between the three flowering Banksia spikes. Unfortunately, with daylight by now so low a flash was necessary for photography, which disturbed the Honey Possum, so I decided to return before sunrise the following morning.

Monday morning up at first light, I made my way to the Banksia bush and the waiting game began again. It was a long wait until 8am, the only time a Honey Possum made a short appearance. I managed to photograph the Honey Possum, but unfortunately only on the flowering spike furthest away, with a lot of vegetation between myself and the subject, and the light less than ideal.

Back in Perth I thought about the wonderful encounter and it occurred to me that considering most of the Banksia spikes on the bush I had visited were yet to flower, there was a chance that if I returned to Cheynes Beach, it was probable, now that I had an exact location, that I could have another Honey Possum experience.

I worked the following weekend so it was a fortnight before I was able to make the long drive back down to Cheynes Beach.

So two weeks after the initial visit I was back on the Albany Highway for the long drive South. I was going to arrive too late to access the caravan park so my bed for the night was to be the passenger seat of the car. More than once on the drive I questioned my sanity!

I stopped off at Two Peoples Bay for a quick spotlight once on the South Coast, and it was apparent that there had been recent showers, and as a result there were lots of frogs on the roads. A quick circuit of the paths near the Visitor Centre revealed several Quokkas and Kangaroos and there were also plenty of Motorbike Frogs enjoying the wet conditions.

Motorbike Frog.

I arrived at Cheynes Beach 45 minutes later around 11pm exhausted and ready for sleep. I rugged up in my sleeping bag in the car and promptly fell asleep. Throughout the night I was woken by the occassional heavy shower passing through.

I roused with an almighty crick in my neck pre-dawn, and made my way up to the Candlestick Banksia previously visited two weeks before, arriving at 5.45am. Almost instantly a Honey Possum climbed up from the heath below to feed on a flowering spike. Wow this looked like it was going to be worth all the effort!

Honey Possum.

The Banksia spikes that had been flowering two weeks previously had now done their dash, However, four more spikes had come into flower and these were right next to the track I was photographing from, really I couldn’t have planned it any better myself. Providing I made no sudden movements the Honey Possums were quite confiding when feeding.

Honey Possum Feeding on Candlestick Banksia.

Honey Possums were not the only nectar feeders visiting the Banksia, there was also a New Holland Honeyeater intermittently feeding throughout the morning. If it saw a Honey Possum on a flowering spike it would dive bomb the Honey Possum, which would then jump from the Banksia into the heath below.

At one time during the morning there were two Honey Possums on the Banksia at once. The dominant female didn’t tolerate the presence the male and chased it off the Banksia.

New Holland Honeyeater Feeding on Candlestick Banksia.

The Honey Possum is unmistakable, but there two unique characteristics that distinguish them from other small marsupials. The first is the long muzzle, the second a set of 3 longitudinal stripes running from behind the ears to the base of the tail. There is a distinct dark brown central stripe flanked by 2 outer stripes less distinct and pale brown.

Honey Possum Feeding Showing Diagnostic Stripes.

Conditions during the morning were clearly perfect for Honey Possums with overcast skies and the occasional light shower. Winds were especially blustery at times which coincided with the times of highest activity of the Honey Possums.

Honey Possum feeding on Candlestick Banksia.

The Honey Possums were active for over 5 hours until 11am but the standing around was never boring. Not only did I have the intermittent action on the Banksia to keep me occupied but also there was also other wildlife passing through the heath.

Western Grey Kangaroo.

As conditions cleared and the sun came out permanently the action on the Banksia ceased. It had been a lot of standing still in one spot and my back was starting to feel it.

After I had put up the tent I walked up a 4WD track to the top of the hill to take in the excellent views and saw my first Western Whipbird on the ascent. Once at the top I walked on an overgrown path, through thick heath, to granite outcrops from where I wanted to take photograph to the bay below. I very nearly trod on a sunbathing Carpet Python in the process giving us both a fright.

What a View! – Cheynes Beach.

After a nap back at the caravan park I drove to nearby Waychinicup National Park in the afternoon. One of the nicest views in the Southwest is across the inlet to the narrow gap in the granite that leads to the Southern Ocean. Wildlife at Waychinicup wasn’t bad either with all of a Southern Heath Monitor, Echidna and White-breasted Sea Eagle seen over the course of a few hours.

Waychinicup Inlet.

The following morning with bright sunny conditions in common with the Monday morning two weeks previous the Honey Possum action on the Banksia was limited, so I elected to strike camp and make the long drive back to Perth via Boxhill and the Stirling Range to look for reptiles on what was going to be a warm day.

A short walk into the bush near Boxhill revealed the first reptile of the day and one I had never seen before. It was perfectly camouflaged Wheatbelt Spotted Sand Dragon given away only by movement when I disturbed it basking in the early morning sun.

Wheatbelt Spotted Sand Dragon.

There were plenty of Bobtails active on the road in the Stirling Range including the individual below that I had to remove from basking on Formby Road South. As you can see from its reaction, it was rather salty at being removed from the warm tarmac.

Bobtail Lizard.

I encountered a number of Southern Heath Monitors in the Stirling Range including an individual killed by vehicle strike in front of my eyes. It was a truly ghastly sight to see this beautiful lizard writhing in the throes of death on the road. The Monitor Lizard below was more fortunate, crossing quieter Salt River Road.

Southern Heath Monitor.

By the time I had arrived back in Perth it was late afternoon and I was very tired. It had been a huge weekend of driving to the South Coast and back in 48 hours, but this was definately validated by the amazing Honey Possums. An encounter of a lifetime with one of natures wonders.


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