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.