Taking a few moments to sit and watch wildlife is well known to help you relax and unwind. The advantage of bat watching is that it comes at the end of the day!
You also don’t need any special equipment to begin bat watching, but as we will see, there are a couple of things that can help expand your enjoyment and knowledge of the bats you are watching.
Before venturing out, take sensible safety precautions; remember you are going out after dark, perhaps near water, so try and let someone know when and where you intend to go, and consider taking a companion with you. Take a torch and your mobile, and if you are a magnet for midges, some insect repellent!
Now you are ready to go bat watching, but where should you go? Bats forage in a wide variety of habitats, but to maximise your chances of seeing lots of bats, perhaps of different species, you should head to where you know there are lots of evening insects. All our bats are insectivores, and flying uses a lot of energy, so bats wont be wasting that energy just milling about. They will be actively hunting insects, and given that they can eat two to three thousand a night, each, then you can see why you need to find those insect hotspots.
Your best bet is to find a place with water, whether river, lake, stream or pool, that has an element of tree cover adjacent, and perhaps some pasture fields too.
You can never guarantee bats being present anywhere, as weather, insect hatches, and of course the presence of a local bat population all contribute to your likelihood of encountering them. So, assuming you have located a good potential place, you need to get yourself in a good position by about 20 min after sunset. By this time the early emerging bat species, Pipistrelles and Noctules, will be leaving their roosts and heading to foraging areas. You may have to wait a little while for them to get to your chosen spot, and the earlier they arrive, the closer the roost is to you.
Try and find a spot overlooking the water with the setting sun in front of you, this makes it easier to see the bats as they will be silhouetted against the lighter evening sky. Bats will forage at different heights and places. Our largest bat, the Noctule, is a high flyer, so look up and keep an eye out for a large (swift size) bat, flying in straight lines with occasional diving stoops. Bats that are flying very close to and parallel to the water surface may be Daubenton’s. They catch insects that are emerging from the water, using their big gaff like feet. Many bats will forage generally above the water, between 0.5 and 5m, and without the aid of a bat detector it will be difficult to identify what they are. We will talk about bat detectors shortly.
While watching the bats, try and take note of the different way they fly. As already noted, the Noctule bat is a fast high flyer with rapid and stiff wing beats, interrupted by occasional stooping dives as it picks of large beetles and moths. Pipistrelles on the other hand are dynamic flyers, performing rapid twists, dives, and all manner of acrobatics, especially around vegetation. I like to think they have been hitting the high caffeine drinks a bit! If you are lucky enough to see Long Eared Bats foraging, they will look like giant butterflies, with their broad wings, they can hover in front of vegetation, listening for the movement of moths and other insects, before picking them off the leafs directly. This is called ‘gleaning’.
To us their world is silent, but nothing could be further from the truth. Bats are incredibly noisy animals, it's just that the echolocation calls are very high pitched, way above most peoples hearing ability. Being able to tune into their audio world elevates bat watching to a whole new level, and this is where bat detectors come into play.
A bat detector is an electronic device that converts the ultrasonic calls into frequencies we can hear. They come in a wide variety of types, and prices. For general bat watching and listening, you will need a type called a heterodyne detector. Think of this as like a radio, where you tune in to different frequencies to listen to a radio station. With this type of detector you are tuning into different parts of the bat call, and with a little tuition and practice, you will be able to identify a range of bat species, without ever seeing the bat, just by listening to the echolocation calls.
Worcestershire Bat Groups runs basic bat detector workshops each spring, but you could also come along to one of our public bat walks to find out more.
The video above was filmed at Hurcott Pool near Kidderminster. Sorry about the poor image quality, it was recorded on a small compact camera. The sound you can hear are the bat calls as heard on my bat detector.
There are Pipistrelles, Daubentons, and the loud chip chop sound are the Noctule's calls. This is what bat watching is all about!