Friday, September 3, 2010

GOING BATTY

Twilight.
It has been a while since the sun disappeared over the western horizon. I've watched the sky above the tops of the tall sycamores lining the river's far bank change through the usual cycle of ever-darkening blues—azure, sapphire, cerulean, cobalt, indigo. Its present hue is a deep navy with hints of purple. A lovely rich color, mysterious and vaguely familiar—the exact same shade, I realize, as that great oceanic river of the Gulf Stream that sweeps northward along the Atlantic coast, and which I once crossed through between Florida and Cuba.
In time, all color will disappear and the sky will become merely a lighter darkness within a field of black. But for now, there's still that fathomless blue above the trees—and a movement which catches my eye. Swallow? Nighthawk? No, the fluttering is hurried, distinctive…bat!
Moments later there are two, then five or six—fluttering, spiraling, twisting, turning, tumbling, dipping, diving, even flying upside down. Quick, erratic, moving so fast it's often hard for the eye to follow. Watching them, I could see how the world's best aeronautical engineers might simply end up weeping. Nothing they might imagine—never mind design—will ever fly half so well. Bats aren't simply the masters of the air, they seem to control the physics of flight, bend the rules to suite their needs, defy gravity.
The pool below the rapids, and directly in front of the cottage, is rich in aquatic insects—mayflies, midges, caddis, etc. Many of these "bugs" hatch at night, often at twilight. Thus it's a popular feeding spot for all manner of birds—and once the sun sets, bats. On a good, bug-rich evening, I'll have 20-50 bats feeding fast and furious over the pool, routinely zipping within a yard or less of where I stand on the deck overlooking the water. Sometimes a bat will pass so close to my face that I can feel their wake against my cheek. The wild show lasts perhaps 30 minutes before the bats move their mealtime madness elsewhere.
If I were a better naturalist, I'd be able to tell you the species of bats which visit. I'm convinced, given a noticeable difference in sizes, flying patterns, and feeding styles, that there are at least two different species involved, maybe three. But in fact, I'm perfectly content to watch and simply be awed by them…though lately I've been trying to capture a few images.
Should you ever be in the market for a photographic challenge, you need look no farther than the nearest bat colony. I'm pretty sure that expression about being "driven batty" was originally coined for and applied to those poor souls who tried taking their photos—photos of the bats, I mean, not of the frustrated photographers. Trying to photograph feeding bats can turn a teetotaler into a rum-swilling derelict. Those of a nervous disposition are apt to wind up needing years of deep analysis and subsequent therapy. I wouldn't suggest it as a shared spousal activity, either, because of the likelihood of ending up spouseless.
Yes, given the right equipment, the task would be far easier. I don't have the right equipment. All I'm using is my old Nikon D-70 and its built-in flash, with an 18-70 mm zoom. Autofocus doesn't work on high-speed targets flying through the darkness. Moreover, I'm still having trouble with my eyesight—not that anyone is capable of manually focusing on a feeding bat. I simply pre-focus at about six feet and fire away. Human reflexes being what they are (mine, anyway) I manage to catch something about 70 percent of the time—most of which proves to be a bat wingtip way over on the edge of the frame, or maybe a blurry blob fairly well centered. About one in twenty images will be okay, and about one in fifty of those slightly better than okay.
I still haven't managed what I consider a dandy bat shot; so far, this is the best of the lot.
———————

18 comments:

Jenn Jilks said...

I was thinking of your batty shots from last year. We are about to move, and I hope to be able to try to get some at the new place. Not crossing y fingers, tho. My videos left something to be desired.

George said...

Please allow me to begin with the indelicate phrase that has been ringing in my ears since first laying sight on your photo of the bat. "How the hell did he do that." Being a student of good photographers like you, I have closely read your account and I am still in awe. I've tried that approach with darting birds before, only to be left with a series of abstract blurs. Taking on a bat, however, doubles the challenge. I still don't know how you did it. This I will say, however. It's a great shot and one that captures the more majestic qualities of the bat world. As for the less majestic qualities — well, I will just wait for your next series of bat shots.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jenn…

My first attempts at still shots of bats left something to be desired, too—so don't give up. Hope the move goes well, though I'm sure you'll miss your lovely lake.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

George…

I would guess the bat in the photo was maybe six feet away. I'm shooting at 800 ISO. My zoom lens, the 18-70 mm, was at about 35-40 mm, so with the digital crop, call it 50-60 mm. Just the little built-in flash.

When I made my first attempts at this last year, I often shot 300 frames per evening…and the first half-dozen times, didn't come out with one useful image. I tried every combination I could figure as to lenses, settings, etc. I need a better flash (a big one with a couple of slaves would be ideal) and firing multiple frames per second would help, as would infrared triggering.

But, what I use is what I listed. I've just come in from a shortened session (cooler weather, fewer bugs and bats) and abut 50 % of my frames have bats in them. Don't think there are any really great ones, though.

My situation here is really ideal for bats and bat photography, so lots of opportunities and much practice has been possible. Usually, over the space of a half hour, I'll have a couple hundred bat passes within, say, 2-10 feet of where I lurk, camera waiting. It's the old "blind hog finding the occasional acorn" syndrome more than anything. But I'll tell you—this bat photography is near impossible, but addictive!

Finally, the more I photograph these creatures, the more amazed I am at their flying skills. Even in the photos which, for one reason or another, I end up tossing, I can still see them catching insects by flying upside down, at right angles to the ground, looking one way and flying another, in poses you just can't believe. I know of no other creature that comes anywhere close.

Gail said...

HI GRIZZ-

Great picture of the bat in fight, in night. WOw, And I love your words that define the evening - was like I was sitting with you and we were "looking" together. Thanks for settin'-a-spell'!!

We have many bats here. I love to watch them criss cross in flight and dive and soar - they feed off the pond I am sure.

I am still healing. Phew.

Hope you and have a nice Labor Day Weekend. We were spared the brunt of "Earl" and it is suppose to finally clear and cool down and dry out tomorrow. At least I can get outside and breathe. I have felt kinda of somber and dark in here.............I can't travel too far, well, not at all yet, but I have cabin fever due to the oppressive heat and my needing to stay in the A/C. I will feel free being able to set on the deck and in the yard.

Love to you always
Gail
peace and hope.....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Glad you could "sit" on the deck with me and enjoy watching the twilight and the bats.

I wondered how Earl might factor into your weather. Good to hear you're all okay. It's always kind of exciting to hear a big storm is heading your way—but in the end, it's better when it sort of fizzles on the way. You then get the pre-hit buzz and none of the aftermath damage.

Speaking of which…your blog photos looked awfully painful. I'm so sorry you got hurt, but really glad it wasn't any worse. Don't let this spook you too much, or keep your amazing spirit down. You're bound to have the occasional mishap; we all do. You'll get better at setting your own safety boundaries—not limitations, but workarounds to keep you free. Heal up, be happy…life is good. And I wish you and yours a happy holiday weekend. You're in my prayers…

Bernie said...

In all honesty I don't think I would stay around to take a picture of a bat.......but I do like your picture.....:-)Hugs

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

Well, I guess you could watch from just inside the sliding glass doors. But honestly, it's amazing to stand on the deck, elevated maybe 10 feet above the river which is directly below, and have that whirlwind of bats feeding at eye level and arm's length. And you'd be perfectly safe.

Jayne said...

Well, holy cow! I figured that was a Google image as who could get a shot like that??? That is awesome! I love seeing them come out at dusk and I stand watching them flit through the sky enjoying the feast.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think that is a brilliant bat shot Jim. We have two bats here and they flit about just after dusk - there never seem to be any more though.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jayne…

Well, that's mighty flattering and I'll try not to, as they say, get the "big head." Actually, it's just luck and numbers—shoot enough misses and you're bound to make a hit or two. But it's really exciting to watch them fly so close, and crazy exciting trying to make a pix as they zip past, zigging and zagging and diving, at incredible speed. Presetting everything, the reflexes of a cat, and snap shooting are the keys…and luck. I manage two of the four most of the time, three of the four occasionally, and all four about once every 300 exposures. Lots of close-but-no-cigar shots.

BTW, I think I've only used one illustration ever on this blog that wasn't mine—a cartoon of an obviously sick guy with a thermometer stuck in his mouth…and that because I had the flu, was writing about being sick for days on end, and though I COULD have shot a pix of the real thing in all my sorry messed-up state, decided to have mercy on my readers or rob them of a good laugh, depending on their sympathy level. So while every shot may not be good enough to call mediocre…they're my sub-mediocre shots.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I wouldn't want to try and guess the number of bats flitting around over the Cottage Pool on one of the prime evenings—but 50 would surely be a reasonable estimate, and it might be more. There are hundreds of sycamores up and down this river just within a few hundred yards of here, and most have hollows in their huge trunks. So bat housing is never a problem, which means it comes down to food resources—and again, the river hatches out more aquatic insects per evening (as well as during the day) than a thousand bats could ever consume. So it's a good place for bats. And I consider this one of the real bonuses of where I live!

TheChicGeek said...

Ohmigosh, Scribe, awesome picture!!! You are too modest. That is a very large bat too! Aren't they usually much smaller? You make me laugh when you say, "trying to photograph feeding bats can turn a teetotaler into a rum-swilling derelict."
Always a treat to visit at the river :) I trust you and yours are well and happy...I certainly pray so.
I think you all best get out your garlic necklaces :)
Hugs to You, Scribe :)
Happy Labor Day!
Kelly

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Kelly…

Tiz not false modesty but fact… successful bat photography is, for me, a matter of luck. Yes, I've worked out and preset exposure and focus (though both are still mostly a guess) but after that, it's just snap away and pray. And when there are a bunch of 'em flying fast, I get cranked! It's really exciting—but nerve-wracking because they're going like lightening—heretheregone!—and the only way you have a hope of getting an image is to keep your reactions on the hair-trigger mode. I get so breathlessly buzzed that I'm afraid one of these evenings I'll accidentally sling my Nikon in the river!

Okay, FYI, that's just an average-size bat at about 3 feet.

Finally, Happy Labor Day to you, in return—and most of all, it's always great to have you visit the riverbank. Best…

TheChicGeek said...

LOL, Scribe :) Don't fling the camera in the river!!!! We love your photos!!
And wow, I really thought they were much smaller creatures. I can see where photographing them would be nerve racking :)

Thanks, and Best to You and Yours Too :))

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Kelly…

They ARE small, lightweight creatures—most well under an ounce (often under a half-ounce) or about the weight of a common house mouse or a goldfinch. The photo is just foolin' ya. They are tiny little things, though they always look much bigger up in the air against the sky—and of course the wings contribute to this illusion.

I'm not kidding…I get so excited trying to aim the camera and fire the shutter in a split-second at a fast-flying bat, that I forget to breathe, or I breathe too fast. You've heard of buck fever? I experience bat fever!

Brenda said...

Fantastic photo, Grizz! We have been the hosts to many bats this year and they were fascinating to watch until one night when we were sitting in our living room and one flew over our heads! Many screeches and blankets over the head later, we never did find the thing! We left our doors and windows open the next day so like to think it flew out.

Hope you had a wonderful weekend!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Brenda…

So far, none of the many bats which hunt nightly over the Cottage Pool and at other locations nearby up and down the river, has managed to find their way into the house. I can just imagine the scene in your living room! My main room's ceiling is about 15 feet high at the peak, and the room itself is about 22x24 feet, so there's a lot of flying room—it would be quite a circus trying to catch, or even herd, a bat in there.

You do know that bat was doubtless as appalled to find itself in your living room as you were to see it there, right? Consider the matter from the bat's perspective.

You slip into a little opening in this building, thinking you've found yourself a safe, cozy haven until the next night's hunt. You take your snooze, wake up, and get lost on your way back outside. Whoops! There you are in a living room—no apparent exit, no bugs to hunt, thus no supper. Plus a bunch of crazy people who may mean you serious bodily harm are screeching and panicking, and trying to do who knows what to you with those blankets as you flap around trying to figure how to get of of the maze.

Nope, no place at all for a peace-loving bug-gulping bat.

Hey, hope you had a fun-filled, bat-free weekend!