Celebrating Bats

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

With Halloween around the corner, a bat celebration is in order.

 

Bats occupy every continent except Antarctica, and represent 20% of mammals worldwide. There are 1,200 different species.

 

Grey-headed Flying Foxes, Sydney, Australia

 

Grey-headed Flying Fox, Sydney, Australia

I have only one memory of bats when I was young, and it was my grandmother getting hysterical because one had somehow gotten into the attic. It was a big thing for us girls, who were repeatedly warned that bats make nests in your hair. We all feared bats.

 

This is a curious memory, because I spent many nights outside, playing, and I am sure they were all around me. But all I remember is the bat in Grandma’s attic and my deathly fear of getting one in my hair.

 

Fortunately I grew up. Fortunately I found the beauty of bats.

Grey-headed Flying Foxes, Sydney, Australia

Grey-headed Flying Fox, Sydney, Australia

Bats have so many outstanding qualities, here are just a few. They…

  • navigate by echolocation  — use sound to see.
  • are the only mammal who can fly on their own power.
  • consume large quantities of pests — up to 1,000 mosquitoes a night.
  • are prolific pollinators — over 530 species of flowering plants rely on bats for pollination.

 

Bats — Wikipedia

 

Canyon Bat, Calif., in his favorite spot on our deck, inside the deck umbrella

I often go out in the dark to look at stars and listen for owls. Sometimes a bat will come near me, I feel their flutter. Even though I am a tall pillar in complete darkness, they zoom around me effortlessly. And no, they never get caught in my hair.

 

While traveling, I have had some fantastic bat sightings.

 

In Trinidad we came upon a species in the rainforest that we discovered came out every night from underneath our lodge. Fortunately we found them on the first night, and every night thereafter had the thrill of witnessing their emergence.

 

One whizzed by so fast I didn’t even see it, I just felt the breeze on my ear. A post I wrote about it: Enjoying the Bats. 

 

Long-tongued Bats emerging, Asa Wright, Trinidad

 

Pallas’ Long-Tongued Bat, Trinidad

My favorite place to see bats, however, is in Australia, because they have megabats on that continent. Big bats called Flying Foxes.

 

Megabats are the size of birds and assist in re-seeding forests. These days humans are taking down the forests at devastating rates, so having a mammal actually regenerate the forest is a refreshing change.

 

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

 

Pair of Spectacled Flying Foxes, Australia

 

I love this Australian Aboriginal cave art drawing of bats, because it’s a great reminder of how long bats and humans have been coexisting on our planet.

 

Aboriginal cave art, bats. Photo by Les Hall. Courtesy allaboutbats.org.au

 

More info about bats:

Bat Conservation International (This week is Bat Week)

Merlin Tuttle, bat conservationist and bat photographer. The real Batman.

White-nose syndrome. Caused by a fungus from Eurasia; mass mortality problems have not affected bats there, but the U.S. is suffering a loss.

 

“To the Batcave” (to borrow one of Batman’s lines):

Bat Viewing Sites Around the World

Bat-watching Sites in Texas, the state with the most bat species in the U.S.

 

So as the sun goes down on Halloween, while you’re out there tricking or treating, keep your eyes peeled on the sky. Look for silhouettes of what the ancients called flittermouse. One of these mammalian marvels is probably out devouring pesky insects, giving you a treat.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Grey-headed Flying Fox

Batman and Robin. Art by Jack Burnley. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Batty about Bats

Canyon Bat formerly known as Western Pipistrelle, Calif.

Canyon Bat formerly known as Western Pipistrelle–Calif.

If you haven’t seen any bats yet this season–and it’s summer where you live–I am hoping this post gets you outdoors at dusk or dawn, looking for these marvelous creatures that benefit our earth.

 

Bats are not only superb pollinators on our planet, but they also eat so many bugs that they are considered an alternative to pesticides.  There are about 1,000 species of bats in the world; they occupy all continents except Antarctica, and live where it is warm.

 

The most predominate bat at my house is the Canyon Bat, aka the Western Pipistrelle.   The smallest bat in the U.S., it is about 2-3 inches (5-7 cm) long with a wingspan no wider than your hand.  This is a microbat, and it mostly eats insects.  Other bats, like the Flying Foxes in Australia, are bigger; they’re megabats, and generally eat fruit.

 

The best way to see a bat is just when the light of day is leaving or arriving.  At dusk the bats are leaving their roost and going out for a night of feeding.  Vice versa in the morning when they’re returning.  By looking up at the sky, you can best see their silhouette.

 

Canyon Bat in patio umbrella

Canyon Bat in patio umbrella

A rural resident, lately I’ve had more luck with seeing them at dawn, about one morning a week I get lucky.  I watch him or her circle a few times, then disappear into a tiny crack; usually around the house, behind the eaves, sometimes in or around the boulders or trees.  In cities they like bridges and buildings.

 

We have a bat house where there is almost always a bat, and the all-time favorite bat hotel:  inside the folded patio umbrella.   The canyon bat roosts solo, unlike other bats who live in colonies.

 

Fortunately we’re living in a time when the beauty of bats is celebrated.  We can thank Merlin Tuttle for that.  The son of a biology teacher, Merlin started caving at a young age, made his own bat discoveries in the 1950s.  Since then he has studied and followed bats, directed programs, and brought conservation awareness to millions of people.  His incredible bat photography has educated the world.  Read more about Merlin Tuttle here.

 

To learn more about bats, you can start with Merlin Tuttle’s website.  To see a bat in the wild, break up your routine and take a walk outside one day at dawn or dusk…and look to the sky.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Flying Foxes of Australia

Grey-headed Flying Fox

Grey-headed Flying Fox

The flying fox bats of Australia are some of the most incredible mammals we have on this planet.  Although they congregate in large groups, called camps, they are not easily seen everywhere on the continent because their distribution is limited.  But when you do find them, they are a wildly chaotic phenomenon, and fascinating. 

 

There are two kinds of bats in this world:  megabats and microbats.  The flying foxes are megabats, and some are indeed mega.  The grey-headed, seen here, have a wingspan of up to three feet, and a body around 8 to 10 inches long.  There are four species of the flying fox, some are endangered, some are listed as vulnerable. 

 

As a bird watcher, I have no problem with watching flying creatures for hours at a time.  The first time I visited Australia in 1999, we came across trees and trees full of the grey-headed flying foxes in the Sydney Royal Botanic Garden.  Since then I have spent many hours on several different trips Down Under, bedazzled by this interesting creature.   

 

Spectacled Flying Fox

Spectacled Flying Fox

Each night around dusk they fly out to feed.  With a diet of native fruit, nectar and pollen, they transport pollen on their fur and disperse seeds, helping to provide a perpetual regeneration of native trees to Australia.  Unlike the microbats we have in the United States, the mega bats use their eyes to see.  We always hear that bats use echolocation, the process of locating bouncing sound waves, to find their way around.  Generally that is true for microbats, but not megabats like the flying foxes.  You can see from the photos how wide open their eyes are. 

 

During the day, they roost in tree tops.  When they roost it is not a sleepy, quiet event.  Some bats are tucked inside their stretchy wings, hanging upside down, sleeping soundly.  But many are socializing, flying about, inching up a tree limb, or jockeying for a better position.  Between the harsh squealing sound they make, all the moving and flying around, and the large volume of their colony, they are hard to miss.  They also give off a distinct fetid smell. 

 

Unfortunately the flying fox population has dwindled in the past, primarily due to loss of habitat.  Also, they can do a fair amount of damage to fruit orchards and ornamental trees, and are thought of as a nuisance by some humans.  But fortunately they have teams of scientists studying and protecting them, and the flying foxes continue their existence. 

 

Flying Foxes

Flying Foxes

As it always goes with wildlife, my favorite sighting of the grey-headed flying fox was completely unexpected.  One night as the sun was setting I was swimming with my partner in the rooftop pool of our hotel.  We had been all over the city of Sydney that day, doing touristy things like posing in front of the Opera House, walking in the cobbled streets near the harbour, and buying kangaroo souvenirs.  That night I was floating on my back, enjoying the orange and pink sunset blooming overhead, decompressing after a long day on the pavements of a busy city. 

 

I had my eyes open, staring up, when dozens and dozens, then hundreds of what looked like soaring black hawks crossed the amber sky.  All headed in one direction, they were about 150 feet above us, moving like a big black wave.  It was a spectacle, this mass of flying foxes crossing the city sky on their way to the forests to feed for the night. 

 

Some people dislike or are afraid of bats, especially big bats that fly in big groups.  But some people are afraid of a lot of things.  If you saw what we saw that night, this beautiful force of nature, you too, would have marveled. 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander