By Daniel Hargreaves
Following a 6-hour road journey from Bangkok we arrived at our first destination, the painted bat village. With only two hours left before sunset, we split into two teams. One assisted Merlin with setting up the flight studio. The other went to find a painted bat to photograph in the studio that evening. Team two headed out in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors. They quickly spit into small groups furiously searching the dried leaves of banana plants for bats.
Riding in carts pulled by two-wheeled tractors to find painted bats.
It wasn’t long before we found a single male painted bat (Kerivoula picta) hanging in a dried leaf about a meter from the ground. The bat had been banded for research, so although a good candidate, we didn’t disturb him and continued our search for more. Less than 200 meters away we found another male this time without a band. We quickly checked his weight at 4.6 grams (less than the weight of a U.S. nickel) and decided he was a perfect candidate for flight cage training.
This one was carefully placed in a soft bag, and to ensure picture and set authenticity we took the bat and the leaf he was roosting in back to the village. (There was no shortage of such leaves.) Leanne Townsend balanced precariously on the back of a moped, holding the bat and set material, as it sped to the village in order to setup for the night’s photography. As our Thai hosts prepared a banquet for their guests, Merlin got to work on the set, helped by an enthusiastic group of members fascinated to watch the master at work. As soon as the set was ready, we fed and watered the little star and released him into the studio. The group looked on as his shallow wing beats resembled that of a butterfly. He investigated every corner of the studio until he was sure there was no easy escape, then entered his now relocated roost.
Merlin and Daniel Hargreaves waiting for our painted bat to enter its roost in Merlin’s studio set beneath the farming family’s home. The bat soon entered his roost, having learned that the quicker he entered his roost, the sooner he’d be rewarded with food.
The bat performed amazingly well. Each time he returned to his roost we rewarded him with a juicy mealworm and a drink. For the next two hours the group switched back and forth assisting with the photography and enjoying a delicious Thai dinner.
As we called it a night, there was one last job to do. We returned our little star to the wild, releasing him where originally caught. He now had a full belly, nearly half a gram heavier than when originally captured, not to mention having a unique story to tell!
Kate Yates preparing to hand our star a meal worm following a return to his roost.
The next day after breakfast the whole group spread out around the rice paddies hoping to see more painted bats in the wild. It was not as easy as the previous afternoon, but after a couple of hours in the searing heat we found a pair of painted bats – a male and female roosting in a green banana leaf that was in full sun. In fact, we spotted the bats by their silhouettes. The group took a few photos and then as we enjoyed lunch, Merlin got to work photographing the bats in the blazing hot sun and was rewarded with photos of the male attempting to protect his mate.
Painted bats are remarkably tame, making them easy to observe and photograph close-up. However, with shifting breezes moving the leaves, getting a great photo took lots of patience and luck!
After a picnic lunch beneath shade trees in the rice paddies, our group returned to the hotel to cool off while I and two villagers continued searching for bats.
We eventually found a pair that were not banded and would be perfect for further studio photography. Again, for set authenticity we used their dead leaf roost and associated banana leaves to build a set. This enabled group members to take their own photos of the bats entering and exiting their roost, using Merlin’s flashes.
Eager photographers prepare to shoot painted bats emerging from roost using Merlin’s flash arrangement.
Again, the bats performed incredibly well and whilst the photographers were kept busy the rest of the group were buying silk made at the village and listening to P’Kwang as he told the story of how he originally discovered the painted bats and convinced the villagers to protect them. Shortly before midnight we started to pack up the studio and Kate and her daughter Alyson sped off on the back of mopeds to release the duo.
Our visit to Thailand’s only known painted bat location was a rare privilege for which we gave a small gift to each host family member.
Painted bats range widely across Southeast Asia but are seldom seen except where cleaver individuals have learned how to find, capture, and mummify them, and sell them to naïve tourists who fail to understand the harm they’re doing. These tiny, insectivorous bats weigh less than five grams (less than a U.S. nickle), yet are among the most intelligent animals Merlin has been privileged to work with. None of our group will ever forget them!