Night Rider

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.

Night Bike
My rusty steed.

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.

Big brown bat
A big brown bat I photographed earlier in the year.

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.

Night bike bars
50% of these levers do things.

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.

Night drive

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.

The Beginning

I have given a number of talks recently, both academic to the general public, and have frequently used the story of the beginning of my interest in bats as an introduction to get people’s interest. Having recounted the tale an unusual number of times recently I was struck, as I came to think of a topic for the first post of my revived blog, that this could be a good opportunity to put things down in detail. It runs the risk of sounding somewhat self-obsessed, but I think my experience can be used to illustrate a wider point, and I’ll aim to do so.

Young me
Me around the age I first became interested in bats.

My interest in the natural world has existed as long as I can remember, but the point at which it became focused on bats is well defined. It wasn’t, however, on the first occasion that I encountered a bat. Around the age of five I went on a birthday trip to a railway museum and as we walked to the entrance we encountered a bat lying on the ground. Clearly that is not a healthy position for the bat, but I was excited by the prospect of trains and paid little heed – my father moved it from the path to some bushes and we carried on*.

Several years later bats got another chance. On a summers evening, at the age of eleven, my mother took me along to a ‘bat walk’ in our local park. There I listened to a talk about bats by the fledgling North Buckinghamshire Bat Group, followed by a walk around the park with bat detectors to listen to the bats as they flew above us. This clearly made some sort of impression on me, and so the next week we travelled across town to attend another bat walk and listen to bats in a different park. A week later we headed out once again, this time joining the bat group to capture bats as they flew from a roost inside a church. I was fascinated by the opportunity to see these strange animals, of which I had previously known almost nothing, up close and personal. To top it all I was allowed, with gloves, to hold a bat and examine it for myself.

Bedgrove Spinney
The park where I first watched bats.

I am always inclined to consider the time I first held a bat as the key moment that sparked my interest, however it would be wrong to ignore another factor. Following that first contact, the infatuation with bats that I had gained grew into a full on love affair (if you’ll excuse the crummy metaphor), as I learned to survey for, identify and catch them. The credit for most of that growth belongs to the myriad individuals who educated and encouraged me, or if nothing else went out of their ways to give me lifts to and from bat events around the county. If any of those people should read this they will doubtless know who they are, and I am grateful.

Natterer's bat
A natterer’s bat, the same species as the first bat I held.

This brings me to what I think is the important point. The interest in bats that has grown to consume much of my time, indeed has become my day job, resulted from a chance counter reinforced by a wealth of encouragement. If the people who provided that encouragement hadn’t, I might have had a much less interesting life. This is reason that I am always keen to give and arrange public talks about bats and my work with them, and I would encourage others (many already do) to do the same. Bats and the natural world are more in need of champions than ever – and you never know how far the next person you share your enthusiasm with will take it!

*If anyone in the UK encounters a grounded or injured bat I would encourage you to call the Bat Conservation Trust helpline, and they will endeavour to find someone to come and look after it. You should avoid touching the bat yourself.