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My First Field Trip with Merlin

I just returned from a 10-day jungle adventure with Merlin. We were photographing rarely seen bats for our next educational program. Led by local bat enthusiasts, Henry “Bat Henry” Alfara and Emanuel Rojas, we sometimes had to hike miles to find the most needed bats.

Bats were everywhere, if you knew where to look, but they could be extremely difficult to find. They roosted either alone or in small groups in hollowed out tree stumps, in leaves cut to form tents, in hollowed out termite nests, in shady areas on extra-large tree trunks, and even in the crawl spaces under our rooms!

However, despite exceptional guidance, considerable skill was required to spot well-camouflaged bats. One of my favorite photos from the trip is of a group of chestnut sac-winged bats (Cormura brevirostris) nestled deep within a fallen tree stump. Merlin and I had trouble seeing them, let alone photographing them, even when Henry had shown us exactly where they were.

During that shoot, our attention was constantly divided between the bats, a nearby column of army ants, and giant leaf-cutter ant guards that attempted to defend the nest where Merlin had to sit. Meanwhile, a single false move or sudden sound could have frightened the bats into flight and ended everything. Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with the results. We scored a whole series of great photos at that location – including the first Merlin had obtained of these bats’ unique shingle-like clustering behavior.

Merlin seated on a wet leaf-cutter ant nest photographing chestnut sac-winged bats in a hollow formed by a fallen tree while warding off “soldier” leaf-cutting ants who objected to his intrusion. It took more than an hour of patiently slow approach to acclimate the bats sufficiently to overcome fear.
This group of chestnut sac-winged bats was nearly invisible from a distance, their color perfectly matching the background.

It was jaw-dropping to learn through firsthand experience how much work has gone into taking the nearly 150,000 photos in the Merlin Tuttle Bat Photo Collection. Hearing the stories of how this collection was built was one thing. But spending up to 10 hours without a single success or sitting directly on a leaf-cutter ant mound to get a shot was another entirely.

Once we found the bats, we typically had to hike more than a mile of slippery, rain-soaked trails and steep hills to get whatever equipment was needed out of our 100+ pounds of gear. When we were extremely lucky, some photos could be taken with just a camera, telephoto lens, and hand-held flash; others required four or five flashes, an infrared triggering beam, and tripods for each piece of equipment. It sometimes took hours to adjust flash positions and intensity without frightening the bats. Meanwhile, unexpected rain could force us to quit at any time or risk ruining the equipment. Overlooking a single battery or adaptor could, and sometimes did, quickly become serious. Those were just a few of many problems we faced daily!

Even so, we occasionally struck gold. A particularly charming bat on Merlin’s bucket list, a Thomas’s shaggy bat (Centronycteris centralis), practically decided to pose for us, just 20 feet straight above our heads. We had some minor difficulty with our subject drifting in and out of focus. The culprit was a faulty zoom, that couldn’t be locked into position at that angle. However, after some quick thinking, we solved the problem with a piece of duct tape – with dazzling results.

Merlin pointing out a roosting Thomas’ shaggy bat to Duncan.
A tiny Thomas’ shaggy bat roosting alone on a leaf. These bats roost in the open without altering their roost sites and are thus exceptionally difficult to find.

On the flip side, at one location we were completely defeated. On two successive evenings we carried our equipment to a small tree hollow containing barely visible bats. It took nearly three hours to set up a triggering beam, camera, and flashes. But just as the bats were ready to emerge, a swarm of glowing click beetles – enticed by the tiny red lights on our beam transmitter – made photography impossible. The next night we hid the lights, but the bats still managed to exit without striking our beam. Despite some 10 hours of hiking and preparing, Merlin and I are still wondering what kind of bats we missed. A bat not checked off the list was the thumbless bat (Furipterus horrens) – a species that Merlin hadn’t seen in 50 years! On our final night, after automated shooting of more than 700 photos, we only got three with bats in-frame. None of them of Furipterus. Nevertheless, as a consolation prize, we got a beautiful shot of a common big-eared bat (Micronycteris microtis) carrying a freshly caught beetle back to its roost.

Merlin setting his camera, four flashes, and a triggering beam in front of a small tree cavity in hope of photographing tiny bats as they emerge.
One of the brightly incandescent click beetles that spoiled a night’s photography. The bright spots only appear to be eyes -- its real eyes are in front of the glowing eye-like spots.
The light trail left by a glowing beetle while the camera shutter was open waiting for a bat to strike a triggering beam that would fire Merlin’s flashes for a photo.
This photo of a common big-eared bat carrying a beetle was our consolation prize for a night when we were hoping for photos of rare thumbless bats (Furipterus horrens) that failed to strike our triggering beam.

The trip wasn’t all exhausting stealth or go-go-go schlepping equipment and assembling sets. I crossed cable bridges high above a beautiful whitewater river and lushly forested valleys. I saw countless stunning plants and flowers in all colors and sizes. I carefully stepped over columns of leaf-cutter ants as they shuttled along miniature highways. I discovered Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba) roosting in Heliconia leaves they cut to form “tents,” and lesser white-lined bats (Saccopteryx leptura) high up in shady patches on large tree trunks. To my untrained eye, the white-lined bats could only be described as looking like miniature hotdogs with perfect condiment squiggles down their backs. I also honed my ability to find other easily overlooked wildlife, including my new favorite bird, the scarlet-rumped tanager, a three-toed sloth, and an astonishing number and variety of poison arrow frogs. At one location, I witnessed spider monkeys who defended their territory by wildly shaking branches and hooting at us from 50 feet overhead. I took pictures of everything I could. Above all else, I got to experience an incredible place through the eyes of experts. 

Sarapiquí river

I was fascinated by the seemingly endless strategies used by bat-pollinated and seed-dispersed plants to attract their nightly visitors, and I especially enjoyed Merlin’s explanations of how frog-eating bats identify frogs by their courtship calls, safely avoiding the numerous poison arrow species.

Fellow bat enthusiasts and MTBC members were also much appreciated. Daniel Hargreaves, Steve and Fiona Parker, and Melissa Donnelly, provided field assistance on our final two days – y’all were the best traveling companions one could ask for! Your kindness, willingness to share your additional knowledge, and help with equipment carrying was invaluable, and Merlin and I (and our backs) thank each of you!

To Kristal Barrantes and William Comacho at Pierella Gardens, Emanuel at Tirimbina, and Henry at Selva Verde – from the bottom of my heart, thank you for guiding us to the hidden beauties of your incredible rainforest homes. Without your help, we would have searched much longer and found much less.

Finally, I must extend my deepest gratitude to Mindy Vescovo, who generously sponsored my portion of this trip. None of this would have been possible without your support, and I am so grateful for this experience and chance to learn from everyone who helped us along the way. I can’t wait to put everything I’ve learned to use and take MTBC to the next level.

We’ll have more on this shortly, but the photographs of seldom-seen bats from this trip will be used in our forthcoming program on Costa Rican bats. Subscribe to our mailing list if you want to be the first to see what we’ll do with them next!

These deadly poison arrow frogs advertise their toxicity through bright coloration. The colors warn predators to avoid them.

Overall, this trip was an exhausting, fascinating, stressful, delightful experience! It was a chance to throw myself into a completely new world, and not just fall back into old routines in new places. I can’t wait to do it again, and I hope many additional MTBC members will be able to join us in the future.

Hope to see you in the field! 

Duncan Hicks is the Strategy and Operations Manager at Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation.

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Michael Lazari Karapetian

Michael Lazari Karapetian has over twenty years of investment management experience. He has a degree in business management, is a certified NBA agent, and gained early experience as a money manager for the Bank of America where he established model portfolios for high-net-worth clients. In 2003 he founded Lazari Capital Management, Inc. and Lazari Asset Management, Inc.  He is President and CIO of both and manages over a half a billion in assets. In his personal time he champions philanthropic causes. He serves on the board of Moravian College and has a strong affinity for wildlife, both funding and volunteering on behalf of endangered species.