Stars of the night sky
PUBLISHED: 12:39 12 October 2020
Have you ever had a brief encounter with a bat?
Not many of us are bat experts but there are those in this county who really do study and befriend them. The Berkshire Bat Group has been working hard to help the county’s bats for 35 years and it is thanks in part to them that we have such an incredible miscellany of these great little creatures to observe locally.
There are a number of myths about bats. They do not deliberately get tangled in your hair – the bat would freak out as much as you might if this happened. They are not all blind, they are not after your blood, they are not rodents (despite Die Fledermaus), they do not all carry rabies and they are not termites – some people have the idea that they will eat away at your infrastructure if they lodge in your attic.
Bats are our friends – they really are. Most of them are only interested in a diet of bugs and insects – just like spiders who also get a totally undeserved bad press – and they actually help to keep down the numbers of mini-creatures that could otherwise be both a health hazard and a nuisance.
It is worth remembering that bats are indeed mammals and mums are very maternal until the youngster is ready to branch out on its own. Mums are pretty clever too as they often commune together and organise a kind of nursery so that the young bats will be protected while Mum is out shopping for her own diet of bugs.
Don’t underestimate the intelligence of bats either – it took us thousands of years to learn about radar – bats have had it and have perfected it since the year dot.
Berkshire is actually fairly rich in bats with both common and uncommon species flitting through the air after sundown in town and country.
Most of us have heard of pipistrelle bats but there are several species of those. The one we see most often is the common pipistrelle. They are very small, easily fitting into the palm of your hand, weigh next to nothing and can eat for Britain in that they can get through as many as 3,000 mini-bugs in a night. Yes, really! They are extremely acrobatic and make the Red Arrows seem like freight planes.
You are more likely to have seen a pipistrelle than any other bat, especially in town, since they like to roost in houses. There is, by the way, also the magnificently named soprano pipistrelle, which does indeed reach a higher pitch than most other bats.
If you ever see something that looks like a flying rabbit, the chances are you have just seen a brown long-eared bat. There are a number of long-eared bats but the one you are most likely to see in Berkshire is the variety just mentioned. Those great ears give them an even more acute hearing and it is said that they can actually detect the sound of a small insect tip-toeing around on a leaf. Let’s hope they never wander into a heavy metal concert. These bats like to hang out in barns and older buildings.
The noctule bat loves woodland areas and likes nothing better than hunting over the tree-tops after dusk and spending the day snoozing in a tree trunk or indeed in a bat box. This is one of those species that finds bat boxes very accommodating and has no qualms about taking up long-term residence. It is the biggest of the bats that we are likely to see in Berkshire but it is far from being a pegasus as it can also fit into the average palm of the average hand.
The water gypsies of the bat world are Daubenton’s bats, which are often seen flying low of water surfaces, a bit like dambusters, but are in fact on the swoop for all the countless bugs that like to swarm over water. This bat is commonly called the ‘water bat’ and frequently seen around reservoirs, rivers and forest ponds. Easily identified by a white stomach area, bat spotters will often go to waterways where the water bats put on nightly performances throughout the summer months. It is like an overture of the air.
A natterer’s bat might appear to be one of our noisiest bats but, in fact, its name is taken from an Austrian naturalist called Johann Natterer who is credited with first identifying it. This is one of the more graceful of bats – most of them are pretty graceful really – because it has larger than average wings and is slower than most. It is at home in woodland areas but will also move into old buildings or a bat box.
Most of us have heard of horseshoe bats as well. There are two obvious species, the lesser and the greater. The greater is on the endangered list but likes life in Southern England in particular and is therefore very occasionally seen in our county. Its favourite haunts are caves but anything resembling a cave will do. The lesser has a brilliant ability to completely hide itself within its wings, although sadly it is uncommon in our part of the world, but worth watching out for.
Those who know something about bats have explained that the name comes from their strange horse-shoe shaped nose-leafs. What is a nose-leaf? It is a kind of nose decoration but it has a purpose since it plays a part in echo-location – radar to you and me.
Leisler’s bats have been seen in the county but are also very rare. They are also called ‘hairy armed bats’, which makes them sound like cartoon cave-men. That is a little nearer to the truth since they do have long hair but they do not have a special liking for caves. The Leisler’s bat will doss down just about anywhere and is generally noisier than most other bats. Perhaps these should be renamed ‘beatnik bats’?
There are many other species of bats, of course, and Berkshire does have its fair share. Like many creatures there is a constant threat to their environment and their livelihood. It cannot be stressed enough that these are fantastic little creatures that are nothing like the image created for them by the movie world. If you have ever been ‘bitten’ by a gnat or a mosquito then consider that it might happen more often if it were not for bats.
Keep watching the Berkshire skies – you may even be the first to spot a really rare bat.
Want to know more and especially how you can help them? Take a look at berksbats.org.uk or bats.org.uk and help keep the bats in our belfry