Guest tutorial by Naturalist and Nature Photographer, Jimmy Lamb.

Tonight was the night. I hoped the research undertaken earlier that day finding suitable stands of flowering banksia in Fitzgerald River National Park would pay dividends.

Conditions were perfect as I left Hopetoun Caravan Park in the early hours of the morning to arrive at East Mount Barren Carpark on what was a magical moonless night, and where a gentle breeze was perfect to mask the sound of my footfall.

I carried a thermal imager, switching it on as I scanned the banksias, and almost immediately found the intense heat image of a small mammal on a Banksia speciosa, the target species for the night—a Honey Possum (Tarsipes rostratus). Honey Possums are the world’s only truly nectivorous (nectar-eating) marsupial. Also known by its Aboriginal name, Noolbenger (ngool-boon-gor). The one I’d stumbled upon, was moving between the flowering cones of a Banksia, and was one of ten others seen feeding over the course of a few hours.

Often these shy marsupials will drop from the vegetation when viewed under white light, but occasionally one will freeze, allowing close views. Red light is much less disruptive for nocturnal mammals, allowing better observation. Moonlight also decreases the activity of small mammals, which is why moonless nights are best to look for this species.

It’s a common misconception Honey Possums are rare because we infrequently encounter them. They are actually the most common mammal in their habitat, however very tiny (weighing just 7 to 10 grams with a tail 88mm to 100mm—longer than its head and body combined) and adept at using foliage cover to avoid a vast array of predators.

Thermal imagers certainly help to find Honey Possums, but are not mandatory. The crepuscular behaviour of the species means early morning and late afternoon, especially on cloudy days with wind, can be good for spotting Honey Possums. It can increase sightings by using tracks and roads next to flowering heath, rather than crashing through the bush. Occasionally, a feeding Honey Possum can be rather confiding, and allow prolonged observation.

The prime habitat for this species is the flowering coastal heaths of Western Australia from Kalbarri to Esperance. Here, flowering plants and especially the banksias, provide a year-round supply of nectar and pollen, the entire diet of this most specialist of feeders. It is the only nectivorous terrestrial mammal in Australia, although some bats do also feed entirely on nectar and pollen.

What I love about Honey Possums is they are so unique amongst Australian fauna, not only in diet but also having tiny toes for climbing, in common with the Asian tarsiers, rather than the claws of other arboreal marsupials. The three longitudinal stripes running the length of the back make for a most attractive pelage. To watch this ancient mammal feeding in primeval Banksia Heathlands is to be looking back in time.

With time and patience a Honey Possum experience is entirely possible for the amateur naturalist, an experience never to be forgotten.

Learn all about this marvelous marsupial on bushheritage.org.au

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Follow Jimmy @quollingaround, and read about his adventures on: quollingaround.com

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.