Urban Bats: A Night out on the Town
Friday night, and I’ve a rare night out on the town; but instead of heels, I’ve opted for pumps and instead of a handbag, I’ve shouldered my binoculars. In an inspired collaboration between our freshly refurbished local museum (West Berks) and our local Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) a series of wildlife-themed events, activities and a co-curated exhibition is bringing wild people to the museum and the wild to a new audience. We are here for a Bat Walk with local expert, James Shipman. James introduces us to our subject before we hit the town; his enthusiasm and passion for bats is youthful, refreshing and infectious and came as much of a surprise to him as it is a source of amusement to his friends. His aspirations for working with big African wildlife were eclipsed by the first bat he held.
He shows us a long-eared bat that had been rescued, but unfortunately died that morning. He folds the eponymous ears back to reveal the tragus, the receiving mast of these incredible satellite organs, and illuminates the complex membrane stretched between the long fingers of the ‘handwing’ with his torch. It is unearthly and beautiful.
And then we are out into The Wharf and Newbury at night, weaving in and out of the drinkers, the theatre-goers and the night-outers with our bat detectors, crossing the blue-lit Amercian Bridge by the Library. Tiny pipistrelles are already hunting by the canal, the detectors picking up the echolocation as a rapid series of ‘wet smacks’. These are soprano pipistrelles, coming in at a peak frequency of 55kHz, but we also pick up common pipistrelle, at 45kHz.
Towards Newbury Bridge, by the butchers and the bank, we wait for Daubenton’s bats to appear over the water. Lights from the eateries and pubs bounce off the water to wobble and pulse over the walls of the old town like disco lights. And then they come, the detector registering their signature ‘machine-gun matchbox-shake’ as they hunt over the water from right to left, coming west from the town Mills and flying low towards the A339, passing through our pool of torchlight and past the ankles of the oblivious drinkers and diners. As they come, one after another, they are serenaded by a raucous Happy Birthday from the Old Waggon and Horses.
I learn that two of our largest bat species also hawk the air high above Newbury too – an exciting revelation for me. Serotine and noctule, both with wingspans of around 36cm (14in), hunt alongside the screaming parties of swifts – now long gone.
We barely know what we have as we are losing it. Bats roost in places we’d never imagine, gaining access, perhaps, to the shallowest of roof spaces via a broken tile. They do no damage, but if the tile were repaired at the wrong time, a whole colony could be trapped and die.
My husband texts me on the way home ‘Have you all gone clubbing?’ ‘No’, I reply, ‘Exhilarating night. Just stopped off for a hedgehog.’
It wasn’t a euphemism. One crossed the road in front of me and I got out to watch its progress; pipistrelle bats whirled between me and the blackboard smudge of the milky way, expertly flickering figure of eights and suddenly appearing as a black paper cut out in front of my face. Tawny owls call. The night’s where it’s at. We really should get out more.