I found out last year that there is an annual bat walk at the Welsh Harp, and I immediately wanted to go. The idea of not having to go to the countryside, and that bats were flapping rather wonderfully right next to the A5, intrigued me. As well as the imaginings of who was going to be on this walk.
I wasn’t disappointed.
Having had cold feet at the last minute, I persuaded my son – who is as fond of British eccentrics as me – Marlon to come along.
And so at 8 45pm one Wednesday, we found ourselves in the darkness that is the evening Cool Oak Lane. I spotted a large gentleman with binoculars on the bridge and concluded wrongly that this must be Roy Beddard, our leader and avid Welsh Harp conservation expert. It wasn’t. It was Derek, a veteran birder and ‘batter’ who has been visiting the Welsh Harp since 1960. However, Roy and Derek are a bit of a comedy duo. Derek starts telling us about a birdwatcher he used to know who wore a raincoat and bicycle clips for his batting excursions. Even though he drove to the destination. “Those were the days when you had to balance your telescope on your knees and no-one carried tripods,” he smiles knowingly.
There’s an initial assessment of the night insects. “There are a lot around tonight,” says Roy. Which means it should be a good night for bats because they eat them. Apparently the common pipistrelle (our most common bat) can eat up to 3,000 insects per night. In fact seven varieties of bat have been seen at the Welsh Harp.
Gradually, a motley crew of about 12 turn up. And then, there’s the bat detector revelation. I hadn’t even considered equipment beyond the humble binoculars. But suddenly there are a gaggle of men in anoraks wielding bat detectors. They turn out to be the key ingredient of the evening. As opposed to the actual bats themselves.
I am – no surprise here – a bat detector virgin. And intend to stay that way. We head off into the darkness and pick up the small group already on a viewing platform. They’ve already seen a common pipistrelle – the UK’s smallest bat, its body is the size of a pound coin. We make our way through the trees and I am certain I can smell wild garlic. Marlon is adamant that I can’t, and later explains that it is the man walking behind us who keeps burping up his garlicky evening meal.
As we come out into a clearing, our eyes are keenly trained on the late dusk skies. I hear a sound that I think is a woodpecker at first, it’s kind of violent knocking. Of course, it isn’t a woodpecker, it’s a bat detector picking up a noctule, one of the bigger bats.
“I’m on 45,” says Roy to another ‘batter’. This is one of the leifmotifs of the evening.
“I’m on 25,” says the other gentleman with a grey beard. The one with the garlicky breathe.
They are talking bat frequencies, and the frequency dictates the sort of bat they will pick up. The common pip – 45, the noctule – 25.
At this point, I actually see the shadowy flicker of what I take to be a common pip. Note – I am now down with the batology. It is barely detectable against the dark moonlight. That turns out to be my sighting of the evening.
Oh, how I long for that evening last year in northern Kerala when crowds of huge fruit-eating bats flapped by us in their twilight way.
We press on down another night-drenched footpath. The woman in front of me, hangs on to her overweight partner as though she is here merely as his travelling appendage with no will of her own. We stop and stare at tall sycamore trees that may have bats abounding but we can’t see them. We are fixated by patches of the sky that might suddenly witness a battty visitor. To no avail.
There are plenty of churpings – the common pip – and low knockings – the noctule, but they are mechanical as opposed to natural. There are diversions as the detectors pick up neighbouring crickets and even someone’s keys in their pocket. Bats themselves are there obviously, but we can’t see them.
Roy is a bit of a one in his baseball cap. Derek wears one as well. The former regales us with a tale of discovery in compensation. “As recently as 1996, a new bat was discovered in this country,” Roy explains. “Scientists discovered that there were pipistrelles that operated at 55 rather than 45, and they were another sort of pip, the soprano pip. We get them here too.”
But not tonight. Well, not visibly. Although a few “I’m on 55”s can be heard amidst the 25 and 45s. It’s a funny old bat world.
We turn back. There are cars racing up the A5 nearby, a new tower of flats going up, a light that is shining far too brightly over the lake and a younger, posher man from Primrose Hill who is just back from kayaking and wildlife-visiting in Uganda.
What on earth is he doing on the Welsh Harp bat walk? “It is a bit of a poor partner,” he says jokingly, “I sometimes come bird watching down here, so I thought I’d pop over. Mostly I come if a rare bird has been seen.”
Ah, hot birds. How far would he go to see hot birds? “I’d go quite a long way,” he laughs extending the joke, “but you have to be careful because there’s a lot of scamming that that goes on in the bird world. It’s easy to be disappointed.”
Derek accompanies us down the final pathway. Has he been excited by any bird sightings recently?
“It gets harder as time goes on. I used to be excited by seeing oyster catchers but they’re commonplace now. To be honest, I’m into orchids now,” he admits.
He wonders if we’ve heard the urban myth about parakeets. I’d read they arrived in the 1930s but I’d always assumed they’d started multiplying in the 1980s because that is when I first noticed a flock in Syon Park. “Well, it is said,” he says in hushed tones as though he is imparting a treasured secret, “that they escaped when they were filming The Wizard of Oz.”
The others are waiting at the first viewing platform. We’ve just missed a fish owl in flight across the lake. Roy is standing still, his detector aloft. Derek makes an interesting observation. “Listen, did you hear a kind of raspberry noise, that is the pip eating an insect, they do a little loop round,” he tells us.
Now that is incredible. Experiencing a pip feeding via a frequency. Who would have thought it.
And then, he asks a brilliant question – “Do bats hear in colour?”.
I’ve no idea but if they do, does that make them synaesthetes?
I’ve learnt a lot, I tell them both, but I haven’t seen a lot!
“It’s my fault,” confesses Roy, “we should have come half an hour earlier.”
Oh well, only another year to wait.