"She's a beautiful girl," coos Scott Mossman, as he looks at the baby resting on his chest.
The baby, named Eliza, gazes up at him, her eyes wide open.
"She's a little Daddy's girl."
Eliza is a grey-headed flying fox, estimated to be about 12 weeks old.
More than win Scott Mossman's heart, Eliza's life has been in his hands.
Scott Mossman and his wife, Ro-anne, have been caring for Eliza and 15 other flying foxes in their Dora Creek home. Eliza has been sleeping in their bedroom, hanging from a clothes dryer.
The Mossmans are volunteers at Hunter Wildlife Rescue. For Scott Mossman, Eliza is the little face of hope after a summer of carnage and heartbreak.
She was saved from what had been a large colony at Blackalls Park, in western Lake Macquarie. Thousands of flying foxes lived in bushland on the banks of Stony Creek.
"This is a maternity colony," explains another volunteer carer Ann Morgan, as she points to a few of the bats hanging in the trees. "They come up here to have their babies."
But the drought and the disastrously hot days during the summer of 2019/20 have torn through the numbers of this colony.
According to Judith Hopper, the Flying Fox Disaster Coordinator for Hunter Wildlife Rescue, about 7000 flying foxes have died at Blackalls Park. She estimates about 4000 of those were babies.
And this is only one site in the Hunter where flying fox numbers have been decimated during the past few months, due to starvation, dehydration and heat stress.
"It's the worst we've ever had," Ms Hopper says of this summer. "Over 25,000 have been lost.
"Talking about it now, it's a little difficult to breathe. It's been horrific."
The scale of loss is breath-taking. Judith Hopper says at Tenambit, about 7000 flying foxes have died. At East Cessnock, the estimated losses are up to 1400. At each of the flying fox camps at Clarencetown, East Gresford, Raymond Terrace, Carrington and Blackbutt Reserve, hundreds have died.
But the biggest loss has occurred at Tocal. It is estimated 10,000 flying foxes have died, nearly all of them babies.
"That was basically 98 per cent of the babies," Ms Hopper explains.
The reason for so many young dying is that their mothers had to abandon them. With so little food about, with not enough nectar in the eucalypt blossoms, the mothers could barely feed themselves, let alone their babies. As the carers explain, female flying foxes are attentive mothers, but for the sake of survival, many had to leave their young behind.
"They were literally little skeletons with a very thin layer of skin, and they were starving," Ann Morgan says.
Then came the extreme heat.
Scott Mossman recalls the oppressively hot day in December when his wife called, imploring him to come to Blackalls Park. He left work, dashed into the bush and confronted a nightmare.
"The stench of the dead bats, it was something you just wouldn't forget at all," he says, as we stand among the trees once blooming with flying foxes. "It was absolute carnage. It was terrible. Just so sad. Very, very sad.
"To find all these dead babies all over the place and knowing that they were the next generation that's gone. And they can't be replaced. It's like losing a complete town."
Scott Mossman and fellow volunteers got to work, trying to save as many flying foxes as they could.
He would dash into the bush and spray water on those animals who could recover sufficiently to be helped back into the trees. Those who were too weak would be bundled up and carried out to a first aid area, where Ann Morgan was frantically working to revive the flying foxes. She would wrap them in wet sheets and towels and give them fluids.
On that day, about 70 animals were rescued.
But the volunteers were soon back at Blackalls Park, dealing with the victims of more "heat drops". More animals were rescued each time, but they needed ongoing care. The numbers were overwhelming.
Many were transported to Judith Hopper's home at Millfield. She had set up a "primary triage centre" for the flying foxes.
"I had 300 from December 11 to mid January," Ms Hopper says. "They came in waves of between 50 and 70."
She explains a baby flying fox takes about 10 minutes to feed, and that occurs every four to five hours. As a result, with the numbers she was taking care of, Judith Hopper was "quite literally feeding for 24 hours", then snatching an hour or two of sleep, before doing it all over again.
Yet fatigue from feeding the living was preferable to the tragedy piling up outside.
Usually, when dead flying foxes were brought to her, Judith Hopper would record details, such as their weight, but not this summer. There were just too many.
"When you have 800 dead bodies on your back veranda, you don't process anything, mentally, physically, emotionally," Judith Hopper says.
"I couldn't process the dead, because my time was taken up with the living."
The rescued flying foxes were also distributed among other volunteers, to be cared for at home. Eliza initially went to Ann Morgan's place before being transferred to the Mossmans'.
"This little girl came in at five weeks old, and she'd been doing it tough for a while," recalls Miss Morgan.
If Eliza hadn't been rescued when she was, "she wouldn't have lasted [beyond] another day or two."
Other rescued animals from the Hunter camps were transferred to Queensland, including to Australia Zoo, and south to Taronga Zoo.
Flying foxes have been maligned, and are feared, by many people. They are known to carry the Australian bat lyssavirus and Hendra virus, which can pose a threat to humans. However, cases are very rare.
People also complain about flying foxes' noise and smell. In Blackalls Park, residents' complaints led to Lake Macquarie City Council formulating a flying fox camp management plan.
Ann Morgan says she doesn't understand why the flying fox is "demonised". The animal is vital for the health of the environment, more than ever after the devastating bushfires.
"These are the guys that pollinate our forests," Miss Morgan says. "We have a saying, 'Save our flying foxes, save our forests', and it really does get down to that.
"If we don't have them, we don't have our forests. Now we're in real trouble, because all the forests that have been burnt, and who is going to pollinate them?"
Help did come from the neighbourhood during the recent "heat drop" missions. Ann Morgan says residents were bringing wet sheets and towels and offering their homes and swimming pools to both rescuers and the rescued.
Ken Grant lives near the Blackalls Park camp, and while the flying foxes can be "a bit noisy", he says, "I don't want them gone".
He has been alarmed by the animals' diminishing numbers in recent times.
"That used to be full, squawking," Mr Grant says, pointing at the trees at the end of the street. "Now you don't hear or see them, only at night when you walk out."
However, there are still a few who want the flying foxes gone from the area. Ann Morgan recounts how a passing motorist recently shouted out, "I hope they all die".
Which is the great fear of the Hunter Wildlife Rescue volunteers.
In NSW, the grey-headed flying fox has been classified as "vulnerable".
After this summer, Judith Hopper says the nationwide numbers of grey-headed flying foxes may be below 200,000, and she wonders if she is providing "palliative care" for a species.
"We could be looking at the loss of a third of the grey-headed flying foxes, and I don't know that's sustainable," she says.
At Blackalls Park, Ann Morgan estimates the population has dwindled to a few hundred. The flying foxes will soon leave, as they do each year, before returning in spring.
"We don't know what we're going to get back next year," she says, while scanning the trees.
"Every single animal in here is so very precious, and they're so vital."
There's still hope. There's Eliza. She's on the road to recovery. Eliza currently weighs about 240 grams. Once she gets to 600 grams or so, she will leave the Mossmans and will spend time in a special "creche", where she will learn how to mix with her own species.
"Her future's going to be quite good," Scott Mossman says, as he looks at the little body clinging to his shirt.
"Hopefully she'll have lots of babies and keep the species going, which will be absolutely wonderful.
As he looks at the trees by Stony Creek, Scott Mossman smiles.
"I like to look up here with hope now," he says "We've been through the sadness. We've got to try and save what we have got now and look after these guys."
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