It’s very nearly Halloween – what better time to introduce you to the bats which haunt Grantham Canal when darkness falls…
I spent several nights this September cycling along Grantham Canal with an EM3 bat detector connected to a GPS unit, recording the bats in flight between the A1 to the east and Hickling Basin to the west. Bats use echolocation to navigate and hunt and the bat detector converts this ultrasonic sound into something we can hear. The sound emitted by the detector tells you when a bat is there, often which species it is and sometimes even what it is doing.
You might imagine that this is quite a sinister place to be, surrounded by bats on a moonlit night, but there really is nothing to be afraid of! As the detector tapped and pattered away to announce their, I could see bats flying before me in the darkness. But even though I was cycling towards them, they elegantly avoided me every time, never making contact and certainly never tangling in my hair. This is one of the most enduring myths about bats but their fantastic echolocation abilities mean that they can ‘see’ and avoid obstacles on even the darkest of nights.
I recorded at least five species in September, some calls with ‘buzzes’ indicating foraging and some with ‘song flight’ where male soprano pipistrelles emit lower frequency social calls to attract mates. These are just on the edge of human hearing and can be heard without a detector – you may have heard the very high frequency chirrups if you walk outside at dusk in the autumn.
The common pipistrelle is our most abundant species in the UK, and was encountered throughout the route of the canal, particularly where there are more trees as this species specialises in hunting along ‘edge’ habitat which is typically along hedges, tree lines and other landscape features.
The soprano pipistrelle is very similar morphologically and was not even identified as a separate species until 1992. Now they can be told apart confidently in their hand, and with fair reliability acoustically as the soprano pipistrelle calls at 55 kHz compared with the common pipipstrelle at 45 kHz. In England, the soprano pipistrelle is often found associated with water and so it was no surprise to find them along the canal. An interesting observation however is that there appears to be much more activity to the east, near to larger water bodies. Denton Reservoir lies just beside the canal towards the eastern end and is likely to be an important foraging resource for this species.
The vast majority of the recordings related to these two pipistrelle species – the other bat species were found at much lower frequencies.
The noctule bat is our largest species and tends to fly high and early, often the first bat to appear around sunset and can be seen in the skies as the swifts are still on the wing. Only one noctule was heard during the transects, between Denton and Woolesthorpe and picked up again near Muston. This bat is large and the sky was light meaning I could watch it flying my way, foraging as it flew to the west. This is a widespread species which favours roosting in trees, but numbers are generally lower than the pipistrelles.
Brown long-eared bat
Brown long-eared bat is one of our quietest but most charismatic bats. Their large ears make them quite charming to behold, and they are frequently found roosting in barns and other buildings. I only picked up a single instance of this bat, but their very quiet echolocation means they are generally under-recorded.
The myotis bats are considered to be some of the most difficult to identify from sound alone. Daubenton’s bats are the myotis species most frequently associated with water as they specialise in flying low over still waters and taking insects on the wing or from the water’s surface. Natterer’s bat is another myotis species and some of the calls recorded along the canal in September are characteristic of this species. Whiskered and Brandt’s bats are the other two myotis species which are likely to be present in this part of the country. These two bats are very similar to one another and are difficult to separate even in the hand. Some of the calls have the characteristics of one (or both) of these two species. Whilst these species are not commonly associated with aquatic habitats, the canal also boasts hedgerows, copses and grass bank margins which provide great terrestrial habitat as well.
I encountered a whole host of other species whilst cycling along in the afterglow of sunset including barn owls, tawny owls, hares fleeing down the towpath and badgers snuffling in the hedgerows. The canal is stunning in the daytime but at night it comes alive with a whole host of new species – a walk around sunset might reveal creatures which you would not normally be privilegedenough to watch.