I have been spending most of my time away from Melbourne doing fieldwork in Serendip Sanctuary. In short- I study the effect temperature plays on an Australian ant species, commonly called the meat ant. One of my experiments involved waking at the ungodly hour of around 4 am so I could stumble around in the dark in the savannah-type vegetation in order to record ant behaviour. On clear full moon nights, you can see the stars and everything is hunky-dory. Especially because most meat ant colonies are in forest clearings. Not too much thick vegetation is a good thing when you can’t see what is watching you or might crawl up without your knowledge.
But this is not an account of when everything was ‘smooth sailing’, because that’s not what one remembers many years down the line if one survives to remember.
It was a moonless night, the Australian Summer was dying and the winds were rustling through the trees. This meant I had only my flash-light throwing startling moving shadows on my way to the colony which obviously was inconveniently far from base. Funny how these things work heh! And on top of that, this colony was away from a well worn walk track, nestled instead inside a relatively wooded patch- close to short trees and bushes. I found the colony thanks to the GPS, set up my equipment and sat down in a spot relatively bereft of leaf litter hunkering down with my travel mug of hot chocolate for what I supposed would be an uneventful half an hour. The wind has almost died down and I was comforted by the warm chocolate waking me up while lulling me at the same time,a blissful experience when suddenly I heard a low rumble, something in between an angry growl and a loud snore coming from somewhere disconcertingly close. “Possums” I exclaimed and freezing for a few moments before I realised I was recording and must deter any drama. The house I was staying at was full of possums but they are usually nocturnal and we are separated by a roof and walls which is a relief because the sounds of possums erratic fighting and clawing the roof is enough to drive one crazy.
And here I was, completely exposed, listening to this weird Darth Vader-y laboured breathing growl I had come to know so well. I turned on my flash light because possums usually get startled by the light and freeze- its hilarious, provided you are at a safe distance….which I wasn’t but I wanted to make sure it/they would not go near my set-up.
The winds were back and every movement of the branches and bushes became more unnerving. The growl had stopped but started again soon enough- this time I was sure it was closer. I was kneeling now, ready to run and stand at a distance because I couldn’t discern the different sources of rustle as the growl stopped yet again. When….my great paranoia and overthinking brought to my memory an account I had read which said that when possums felt threatened or cornered they climbed the closest tall structure. SHIT! I thought and quickly sat back down as I would be the closest tall thing (for those who know how short I am- i give you permission to snigger). Rabies isn’t a thing here so at least I would not need to worry about that. The growls continued and now I was frozen in my sitting position, completely switching places with the possums I had annoyed, by startling them into freezing. I kept moving the flashlight around hoping to at least figure out where and how many possums there were when I felt something soft brush past me and head to the bushes less than 10 metres away. I hoped it was just a startled rabbit. After my heart restarted and I could hear it loud enough in my head, I slowly moved the flashlight in the direction towards which my mystery furry friend had headed all the while relieved that if it was a possum, at least it hadn’t climbed on my head.
My voice caught in my throat and my heart stopped yet again as I saw standing frozen- a red fox. We stared at each other for what seemed like a long time- for both of us I suppose. I thought I should stand, intimidate the fox so it knows I’m not some helpless thing but here lay my dilemma, the possum/s was still growling so do I sit or stand. Ignorance truly is bliss. But while I contemplated, there was another growl, the fox unfroze before I did and sprinted. The growls stopped suddenly and the wind died down. The clouds parted revealing some stars and I realised the possums were probably growling due to the proximity of the foxes and I was probably just a poor bystander who happened to be in the line of fire.
It’s funny how a bit of calm weather and chocolate can resurrect you faltering courage. Plus, I realised when I told my parents the story that this was one of those things that everyone would find funny. Believe me, I need a few anecdotes like this. I just wish it wasn’t this bruising to my ego. But hey, that’s why we have chocolate.
PS- I found a video of the noise and read the comments- turns out I am not the only one freaked out by it.