Thursday 1 October 2015

2015 National Bat Conference by Charlie Hearst

A collection of enthusiasts running around, flapping their capes to the tunes of Danny Elfman going ‘nananananananana’ was one of multiple misconceptions I endured from friends and family upon informing them that there is such a thing as a Bat Conference. Yes, there’re live bats. No, there isn’t fancy dress. And no, there aren’t late night screenings of Batman (although I did meet an Adam West but I’ll get into that later). The National Bat Conference is not the Goth’s answer to comic-con, but an annual event showcasing the latest in technology and research gone into conserving and understanding this fascinating mammal group.

After a drinks reception hosted by one of the events’ sponsors we head off on a bat walk around campus at the University of Warwick led by, none other than head of the National Bat Monitoring Program, Phillip Briggs. Thanks to the University’s abundance of greenspaces and close proximity to a nature reserve, the place bristles with wildlife. Nowhere is this more evident than by the lakes close to the halls. In the daytime, the water teems with carp whilst swans, coots and moorhens lazily drift along the surface, you may even see the occasional heron fly past. Skip to nightfall and the air seethes with bats in a feeding frenzy. Our bat detectors convert their ultrasonic calls to an audible level treating our ears to a cacophony of smack, knock and fart sounds as the bats acoustically feel their surroundings.  We can see dozens of Daubenton's bats skittering dangerously close to the water surface like mini-hover crafts, chasing down swarms of insects or trawling the water with their elongated feet for larvae. Higher above, common and soprano pipistrelles bank, swoop and dive through the air like little fighter pilots as they hawk midges and mosquitoes.  Even higher, our detectors pick up the low chirps of the common noctule, our largest bat species in the UK.

The next morning, we’re in the lecture theatre anticipating the day of talks and demonstrations. Theme of the day is evolving methods for surveying bats, from the latest hardware to novel survey strategies we are treated to a range of talks from professors, students and professionals (admittedly the work  sells better than the speaker at times, but that’s scientists for you). On the gadget end we’re shown footage of bats shot in stunningly crisp detail by the latest in thermal image technology; the Selex-ES (Merlin Camera).  Currently the only HD infrared camera in the world, sensitive to temperature differences on 0.02 degrees, I think the presenter mentioned liquid nitrogen in the detector, I don’t even know what that means but I want it! At least until I realise I could buy a house for a similar price.

Some of the latest innovations are in developing software, such as a dauntingly ambitious PhD in which a program was developed to automatically ID 87 Mexican bat species from their calls. Another involves a mathematical model for estimating population density just from using bat calls. Bear in mind how many call sequences a single bat going in circles will generate and you’ll appreciate just how impressive an achievement this is. But it’s not all pimped out gear and fancy programming, the genius of some projects lay in their simplicity or resourcefulness. Take the Norfolk Bat Survey for example. For this project, anyone with an interest could rent out high quality bat detectors from monitoring centres that had been set up around Norfolk, survey a designated patch and return their recordings for analysis. Not only has this project succeeded in achieving standardised monitoring on a large-scale (786 square kilometres surveyed since it started in 2013) but has made surveying all the more accessible by tackling obstacles that could otherwise discourage newcomers such as buying equipment, finding a site and analysing recordings.

We finish the day of talks with a series of workshops to choose from. Whether you want to learn how to handle a live bat, work with a software program or make your own felt bat, the variety we’ve had over the years cater to all kinds. ‘But what kind of a person goes to these events?’ I hear you ask. Glancing around the room I can pick out the likes of academics, ecologists, bat workers, carers and enthusiasts. Admittedly, the occasional ‘I ♥ bats’ shirt pops up but nothing as drastic as clip on wings, although what we do at other events is another matter (see exhibit A). But why bother attending? Well for people such as myself, seeking the knowledge is a reward in of itself, but the talks also have a far more practical side, outlining new techniques or projects for people to get involved in. As one attendee by the name of Adam West put it (no relation to the ex-batman) ‘a few things have inspired me to go out and generate my own records, particularly the talk about where all the pips go in winter, that’s something I’ve often wondered about and hope to try out in my hometown’.

The talks mentioned is far from exhaustive. There was a broad range of fascinating talks from how LED lights affect bat-avoidance behaviour in moths to using the urban soundscape to monitor biodiversity. If you’d like to know more you can read the abstracts which will be available shortly on the BCT website, also watch this blog space as we will be publishing an interview or two from some of the speakers.

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