On the hunt with Manx Bat Group

Pipistrelle bat. Photo by Dave Marshall

Pipistrelle bat. Photo by Dave Marshall

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Associated with vampires and haunted houses, bats have not always had the best of reputations.

And it’s easy to assume that anyone happy to stay up to the early hours to watch these creatures of the dark must be a little bit, well, batty!

On the look out for bats along the old railway line

On the look out for bats along the old railway line

But Nick Pinder, chairman of the Manx Bat Group which celebrates the 25th anniversary of its launch this year, insists that bats are misunderstood.

He said: ‘People think of them in their houses in the same way as mice but they don’t build nests, they don’t bring material in or chew or damage anything.

‘If you have a long-established colony you might get a bit of a smell and noise but that’s about it. I find them fascinating mammals.’

Island Life joined one of the group’s regular Bat Walks to find out more about these enigmatic animals, which are the world’s only flying mammal.

Manx Bat Group feature''Nick Pinder gives introductory talk

Manx Bat Group feature''Nick Pinder gives introductory talk

A group of about 15 of us assembled outside Marown School where the aptly named Sue Moon, accompanied by her ‘bat dog’ Billy, handed out hi-viz jackets and bat detectors.

Then after a brief introductory talk, we set off along the old railway track in the direction of the curraghs.

It wasn’t long before our bat detector started clicking and a tiny bat flitted above us, twisting and turning with remarkable agility. This was a common pipistrelle, one of seven species to be found in the island.

Contrary to popular myth, bats are not blind – in fact, they can see almost as well as humans.

The group, including Billy the 'bat dog', at the start of the walk

The group, including Billy the 'bat dog', at the start of the walk

But to fly and hunt for insects in the dark, they use a remarkable high frequency system called echolocation, which is like natural sonar.

Bats make calls as they fly and listen to the returning echoes to build up a sonic map of their surroundings.

Their high frequency calls are normally beyond the range of human hearing.

The detectors work by converting echolocation calls into a frequency that is audible to the human ear.

Features editor Jackie Turley with a bat detector

Features editor Jackie Turley with a bat detector

‘It’s a magical box of tricks that makes bat sounds normally inaudible to us, audible,’ explained Nick, who retired as general manager of the Wildlife Park in 2011.

At this time of year, bats group together in colonies of up to 200, and emerge at dusk to feed on night-flying insects, the first hour or two of darkness being a peak time. They are most active on warm, still evenings.

The most dedicated bat watchers go out at 4am to watch them return to their roosts.

Bat group member Jill Dunlop first became fascinated in these creatures following a close encounter.

Jill, education support officer at Anagh Coar School, said: ‘A number of years ago I was teaching at Andreas School which had bats in the loft. That captured my interest.’

Further along the track our bat detectors began clicking frenetically as more bats swooped overhead.

Different species can be heard at different frequencies.

A Nattarer’s bat, for example, makes a sound like burning straw, apparently. A Daubenton’s, however, sounds like machine gun fire, as we discovered when we retraced our steps and then crossed the road towards Glen Lough.

Nick said his favourite bat is the brown long-eared bat, which is widespread throughout the island.

He said: ‘They are in many ways the nicest. They are the ones that if you show them to people they go “aww”.’

At shortly after 11pm, we made our way back, a number in our group having seen a bat for the very first time in their lives.

Jill’s husband, Bill, said: ‘For the conditions it was a very successful night. If it had been absolutely still we could have expected to have seen a few more.’

The Manx Bat Group, which currently has 32 members, is marking its 25th anniversary this year by holding The Big Bat Count, with the aim of verifying all the island’s bat roosts identified since the group’s inception in 1990.

The group hopes that members of the public, including the owners of any houses in which bats have chosen to roost, will help.

Volunteers will be out and about around the island on summer evenings counting bats as they emerge from their roosts.

Anyone wishing to help with The Big Bat Count, or to report a bat roost, can get in touch with the organiser Nick Pinder on 897499 or by email to records@manxbatgroup.org

You can join the next bat walk, on July 25 around Ballasalla village and river, meeting at the ford at 9.10pm.

There is an International Bat Night walk around Andreas village on August 29, meeting at Andreas playing field opposite the church drive at 8pm and then on September 26, there is a bat-spotting walk around The Raggatt near Peel meeting at 6.45pm.

Check the group’s website for further details at www.manxbatgroup.org

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