As I cycled along the dark gravel lane with only my dimming head torch for illumination, aboard a borrowed bike with a single semi-functioning brake, I had to face the possibility that this probably wasn’t normal behaviour.
The lane I was travelling circumnavigates the tiny landmass of Amherst Island, which I was visiting in an unsuccessful attempt to catch bats. Having spent the past two nights watching bats flying over, around but never into my nets, I decided my time would be better spent just watching bats and not worrying about trying to trap them. I borrowed a bike from my hosts and headed out. I took my Batbox Duet, which is still going strong after 10 years in the field. This is a heterodyne type detector that allows me to listen to bats in real time. While there have been a number of exciting developments in the world of bat detectors there is something about the immediacy and musical quality of heterodyne that I enjoy.
Watching bats in flight and listening to their calls is always a worthwhile exercise. The rapid twisting and turning of a bat catching airborne insects, combined with the frenetic sound of its echolocation calls never fails to return me to the initial fascination I experienced the first time I saw it.
As I headed around, with one hand on the functioning brake lever and my other holding on to my bat detector, I listened to the bats of the island – and there were many! It was rare for more than a couple of minutes to pass without hearing one and much of the time the calls were continuous. Mostly I heard big-brown bats. Sadly my confidence with identifying North American bats on a heterodyne detector extends only to distinguishing calls as ‘big-brown’ or ‘something else (unless it’s a strange big-brown)’, however I did also hear a number of bats in the something else category.
Much of my enjoyment from observing the bats of the world comes from knowing that most people forget that they are there. How many people give thought to the acrobats flying above them, as they drive along at night or lie in bed? Learning to find bats is like being let into a secret, or finding another world – except rather than being at the back of a wardrobe this one is just a few meters above our heads.
Being out at night also brings one into the realms of other creatures, unlikely to be encountered during the day. Pursuing bats mean that I saw much other nocturnal wildlife in the UK, including deer, badgers, foxes, hedgehogs and glis glis. Of course there must have been much more that I missed as I stomped noisily through the woods checking bat traps. On my ride around Amherst, I saw several groups of skittish deer, what I think was a mink and a number of domestic cats. I did not see any of the coyotes, perpetual enemies of the islands sheep farmers, which was a little disappointing if not unexpected.
To bring things to a close, I would encourage anyone who normally wastes their nights sleeping to head out and explore the new world on your doorstep. There is much to see, but if nothing else it’s the best time to watch bats. Doing so from a mechanically questionable bicycle is entirely optional.