John HawellA guest post by John Hawell of the Clyde Bat Group

24 August 2010. The nights are gradually drawing in and we start tonight’s bat walk a wee bit earlier, at 8:30pm. There is a strong and chilly wind blowing from the south-west and the cloud cover is almost complete  - but it’s bright, following a pleasant sunny afternoon, and dry.

We have a small group assembled tonight, just three adults and three children. After the usual introduction we set off. A fox dashes across the road behind us   ~   just a fleeting glimpse. We then hear our first bat at 8:58pm, a soprano pipistrelle. It takes a while before we see it. Only when the bat flies clear of the tree canopy and against the light sky does it comes into view. Soon there are others flitting about.

Red fox

Red fox from Skandinavisk Dyrepark, Denmark by Malene Thyssen.

Pipistrelles are our smallest and most common species of bat in the UK. In fact we have two species of common pipistrelles that until just a few years ago were considered to be a single species. Bat detectors alerted bat workers to the realisation that some bats were echo-locating at about 45 kHz, while others were echo-locating at about 55 kHz. Further research revealed that the bats looked different - those calling at about 45 kHz had black faces and because of their resemblance to bandits, now tend to be called bandit pipistrelles! The others, because they ‘sing’ at a higher level, are commonly called soprano pipistrelles.

Further research revealed that these two species don’t just look different, and have distinguishably different calls, they behave differently as well. Sometimes the two species are encountered in the same general area but normally one would expect to encounter either one or the other, depending what type of habitat you find them in.

Common pipistrelle by Hugh Clark / Bat Conservation Trust

Common pipistrelle by Hugh Clark / Bat Conservation Trust.

Of course, it is impossible to hear these echo-location calls without the aid of a bat detector. The electronic bat detector brings these calls down to a level that the human ear can appreciate. The high frequency calls emitted by the bat are bounced back off any objects in their path. Their brains compute the echoing sound and form it into an audio image of their surroundings. In this way bats can move about freely, and catch their food, even in total darkness.

Despite using high frequency calls, much higher pitched than human beings would ever be able to hear, bats do also make calls that we can hear  – and they have eyes too! Anybody that has stood near a bat maternity roost at dusk on a summer evening will hear bats twittering and chirping in their excitement to leave the roost as soon as it is dark enough. But once bats are airborne, their high frequency echo-location system kicks in and they become silent to our ears, unless we use an electronic bat detector: then their secret world is suddenly revealed to us.

From 9:05pm onwards there are loads of bats about. The bat detectors are busy and the two young boys in particular are excited by the sight and sound of so many bats whizzing about in the twilight.

We encounter another swarm of feeding bats in the farmhouse garden. This is great. From a distance we investigate a bat roost in an old tree but we don’t see any bats emerge  - they are probably all out and whizzing about by now. We hear feeding buzzes through the detectors. The bats are feeding  - on midges!

Common snail

Common snail (Helix aspersa) by the champ on Flickr.

It is time to move on. As we leave the garden, in the torchlight we spot a large garden snail being closely followed by a large leopard slug. The boys have never seen such things before and they are fascinated.

Limax maximum part of Blaschka models at National Museum of Scotland

Leopard slug or Limax maximum part of Blaschka models at National Museum of Scotland.

The full moon is rising higher into the sky as we make our way back through the farm to our starting point. We hear an occasional bat as we proceed but most of them are behind us now, still feeding in the vicinity of the large trees and old buildings. One of the black farm cats joins us now and seems very pleased to see us. We finally finish tonight’s walk at 9:45pm.

John HawellA guest post by John Hawell of the Clyde Bat Group

17 August 2010. Tonight’s bat walk at the National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride is the second in a series of six weekly walks taking place on Tuesday evenings. The walk is scheduled to begin at 8:45pm and it’s a wonderful, calm evening following a pleasant sunny afternoon.

We have seven adults and three children booked onto tonight’s walk and we are very pleased to welcome Anita from National Museums Scotland, in Edinburgh.

After our usual introductory talk and issue of bat detectors, reflective arm bands and torches, we set off. It isn’t long before we hear our first bat twittering through the bat detectors at 9:11pm. It is a soprano pipistrelle echo-locating at about 55 kHz. I am asked  ‘Do I give bats names’? Well no, but very soon we have a ‘Jimmy’ and a’ Fred’ flying round about us! There is great excitement as the bat detectors are increasingly busy with twitters and more bats come into view against the still bright sky.

Anita captures the moment with her camera. The results are excellent – take a look.

We move on and witness more and more bats joining the party. By 9:25pm there is a real buzz about the place. Bats, all of them soprano pipistrelles, are flying in all directions   – some of them come skimming quite close to us now as they fly beneath the tree canopy. It’s brilliant!

Of course, these bats are feeding and, like all our eighteen species of British bat, they eat insects. Pipistrelles specialise in eating midges   ~   lots of them. Apparently a single bat can consume about 3,000 midges in one night! One can’t help but think what a great job they are doing, but at the same time wish they’d eat more!

More questions are forthcoming  - ‘If bats damage their wings can the damage be repaired, and will it leave a scar?’, and ‘Can you identify individual bats, and young from adults, and males from females?’ I’ll try to answer them here. Small holes in bat wings heal up very quickly but larger tears are more of a problem and may never heal properly. Broken bones can have miniature splints applied and will repair as well as if we were treated for such injuries by the National Health Service. Young bats are distinguishable from adults, at least until the young go into their first winter hibernation. Apart from checking the obvious, male and female bats are pretty much indistinguishable to look at, but some of their calls are different.

Like other mammals, bats can sometimes be identified as individuals. Perhaps there is a bump on their face or a particular mark on their wing, and so on. In addition, bats have personalities and it is often the way they behave that identifies them. For research purposes individually numbered tags are attached to the bats.

At last we reach the farm and Mairi the Clydesdale horse comes across the field to welcome us. She seems pleased to see us but alas we have no polos to offer.  Maybe next time. The two black farm cats also spot us and come to say hello.

Mairi the Clydesdale at National Museum of Rural Life

Mairi the Clydesdale at National Museum of Rural Life

At the farm house garden we hit another hot spot for bats. Again, all of them soprano pipistrelles, but it’s great to see them and hear the bat detectors conveying their otherwise silent messages to us. It has been a really good evening.

Friendly cats at National Museum of Rural Life

Friendly cats at National Museum of Rural Life

We make our way back through the farm to our starting point. There is just an occasional bat now; they don’t like to fly over the open fields. The two cats follow us, both black in the darkness. Not easy to see but we know they are there. Last year we were worried they might get lost if they followed us, and follow us they did. Ewan and his dad used to take them back to the farm in their car afterwards. Not this year though - we’re now wise to their ploy for a free ride!

The walk finishes just after 10:00pm. It has remained calm, warm and dry throughout, and we’ve seen loads of bats - plus the bonus of Mairi the Clydesdale and the two friendly farm cats! We are all well satisfied and bid everybody a good night.

Anita BriggsBy Anita Briggs, Digital Media Content Creator

Life as Content Creator in the Digital Media team at National Museums Scotland certainly offers variety as I work with such a diverse collection over several sites.  I need to be knowledgeable in all things animal, vegetable and mineral on a world wide scale.  One minute I can be investigating a rare Pied Tamarin specimen from Brazil and then I can be looking at the facial reconstruction of an Ancient Egyptian Queen.

Qurneh Queen

Facial reconstruction of the Queen from the Qurneh burial.

Recently, I’ve been close up and personal with some characters that were taking part in our Slice of Life sessions. These historical characters, played by actors, tell visitors all about life in their day. The Punishment Wifie was first. This 17th century gossip describes the various different punishments meted out for misdemeanours during the reign of James VI. I visited her as she was performing next to The Maiden (our very own beheading machine).  I spent some 10 minutes stuck in the stocks while videoing the Punishment Wifie in action – it was not the most comfortable experience I’ve had but it did attract a quite a large crowd.  Next, I met with Douglas Hamilton, Amateur Geologist, he certainly rocked!

I’ve also been finding out a bit more about the bat species we have at National Museum of Rural Life, During August and September, a series of Evening Bat Walks takes place to monitor the two species we have at Wester Kittochside, the Common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) and Soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus).  Pipistrelles are the most common British bats, and a single pip can eat 3,000 tiny insects in just one night!

Common pippistrelle

Common pipistrelle by © Dave Fincham

Laura McQueenBy Laura McQueen, Visitor Services Assistant, National Museum of Costume

Last week, three “out of hours” alarm activations caused by one sensor in the shop at the National Museum of Costume brought out our security firm, who could find nothing amiss.

The following day, we contacted the security firm, believing there was a problem with the sensor. Martin from the security firm arrived late in the afternoon and was himself alarmed at finding a bat tucked into a crevice on top of the display cabinets near the sensor. It was a very weary pipistrelle bat. Margaret found our trusty bat box (an old margarine carton with holes punched in it and a bit of tissue to nestle into), coaxed the bat into it and put it aside until it could be released later.

On opening the box after 5.30pm she found a different bat – it was tiny, about the size of penny.  After some confusion mummy was found under the tissue – she had had a baby!

Soprano pipistrelle bat. Photo © Gemma Rogers/Bat Conservation Trust

Soprano pipistrelle bat. Photo © Gemma Rogers/Bat Conservation Trust

Later that evening Freda Seddon of the Dumfries Bat Group agreed to meet Margaret at Shambellie to assist in the release of the bats. So at 10pm we were both studying the contents of a margarine carton.  Freda was concerned that the baby bat was separated from its mother and decided not to release them but to take them home for some intensive care.

Sadly Freda reported that the baby bat died the next day. However, the mother continued to improve and was released back at Shambellie a few evenings later.

We know we have always had a colony of pipistrelle bats living at Shambellie House.  Mostly they live in the roof spaces and we don’t see much of each other.  We rarely get bats in the part of the house we “inhabit”, maybe 10 or 12 times a year; if they do appear they are usually there by mistake – in their effort to insert themselves in a comfortable crevice in the roof space to sleep they can slip into our bit.  Hence alarm activations in the middle of the night.  By the time we find them, usually on the floor or other flat surface, they are exhausted and unable to “lift off”.

In order to handle bats an extensive training has to be undertaken as they are both a protected species and carriers of rabies. The way we contain them does not require direct handling and keeps them safe until they can be released at dusk. Then they are coaxed onto a ledge or branch so that they can hang – the only position they can take flight from.  To leave them on the ground means they are stranded and vulnerable. We keep in close touch with the Dumfries Bat Group to ensure we are operating safely for ourselves and the bats.  Episodes like this really bring home what a great responsibility we have for our local (very local) wildlife.

To find out more about bats and how you can help these amazing but vulnerable animals, visit the Bat Conservation Trust’s website where you can become a member and discover the many ways you can get involved to do your bit for bats. The website is www.bats.org.uk and the free National Bat Helpline can be reached on 0845 1300 228.

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