For two nights, Cian and I chose to drag ourselves out of bed at 2:30 in the morning to go bat surveying with an ecologist up in the Preseli Mountains. You might think we are batty (not sorry for the terrible pun) but honestly being outside whilst the sunrises is such a different and humbling experience. Of course, watching bats fly over your head is pretty amazing too.
Night 1 – long ears and cramped attics
The alarm bleeped at 2:30 am. We shoot up straight away after having dreamt of the alarm all night in fear of missing it. We snuck down the stairs careful not to wake anyone else and got ready to be at the street corner by 3am. Groping our way through the darkness we waited for a strange man to come and pick us up, in the pitch blackness. Right on time there it was, a lone truck coming up the hill towards us. We climbed inside, being recited tales of the day in the life of an ecologist as we made our way to the site. It was still dead darkness and all silent when we found the house to be surveyed. Suitably spooky, for the connotations bats spring to mind especially after we had been watching a programme about ghosts earlier that evening. The ecologist showed us his kit; various bat detectors, torches and an infra-red telescope.
For the first hour we all watched the house, trying to locate were the bats may be entering and leaving (they don’t tend to use the front door unfortunately.) Bats use small holes and crevices close to the roof, which are incredibly hard to discern at 3 in the morning when the sky is a blanket of black. The ecologist pointed his infra-red telescope at the house, trying to find heat patches of bat activity. He let us have a quick look through, I saw nothing but Cian saw a bat on roof – apparently. After an hour light began to break through it was almost time for the main bat activity to begin. The ecologist let us use a bat detector, telling us we needed to keep it around 45-48kh to be to hear the bats. So we walked around the outside of the house testing it out. It’s amazing being able to hear the bats communicating and finding prey through this little device. I really want one for myself now! We detected three bat species, all calls different. One long-eared (Plecotus auritus), common pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and soprano pipistrelles (Pipistrellus pygmaeus, who have a higher frequency than the common pips.)
At 4:30 the bats started flying past us towards the roost. It was our job to count them as they flew inside. It was amazing to be able to see them after hearing their calls in the darkness for the past couple of hours. We counted around 60 bats that had flown into what had been established as a maternity roost of Soprano bats. At 5am the owners let us into their house so we could climb into the attic and assess the situation. We had to turn into detectives searching for signs of bat presence. Upon seeing the steep climb into the attic I began to feel really nervous but clambered into the loft anyway. The loft was massive, but only a very tiny surface that had flooring. We had to stay on the flooring due to health and safety which I was very glad about! As soon as we climbed up the ecologist pointed to bat droppings on the ground. Long eared bats he said, not recent. Then he shone the torch about our heads, pointing towards black markings on the roof where the bats had roosted “bachelor roost this one. You see the white staining on the wall, that is bat urine”. I observed with keen interests as he carried on searching for more signs of bat life, balancing across the beams in the floor still in need of flooring. Soon the owner of the house climbed up and the loft space was being to feel more and more crowded. She was very enthused to learn more about her bats, which is a great thing for bat protection. Not so great if you are afraid of tight spaces next to huge gaps like I am.
She was telling me and Cian all about her bats, she was clearly very proud to have them in her house. More evidence of long-eared bats was found a little further along. The ecologist surmised that they had moved to another part of the roof due to changes in temperature. While he was explaining this, is was convinced I could here a very faint high-pitched cry. Perhaps it was a bat? I thought. Then decided I must just be imagining it in apprehension of seeing one. Why would I be able to hear a bat when people need bat detectors to hear them? That is what I thought until the ecologist uncovered the main roost where we counted them flying in. The roost wasn’t very far from us at all. The ecologist walked around near the bats observing signs they left. I began to feel quite dizzy from the dust, lack of room and the proximity to the whole in the floor. I had to get down. I made my way down the steps and missed out on seeing the bats. That’s when I decided I’m probably not cut out to be a bat ecologist but it was an amazing experience non the less.
To be continued… Night 2: unexpected, close encounters