We are home in Austin after 22 hours of travel from Sofia, Bulgaria. Merlin took more than 7,000 photos of 13 European bat species. Of these, the 91 best images were donated for use in conservation and educational programs and materials, providing a strong basis for expanded conservation education in Europe with special emphasis on Bulgaria. In addition, he and Antoniya Hubancheva appeared on nationally televised news, provided a well-attended press conference and planned future conservation priorities in Bulgaria.
The last time Toni and Dani fed our bats before releasing them back to the wild
Toni and Dani’s exceptional expertise in care and training of bats proved invaluable. We hated having to say goodbye to our well-trained bats, but even more will miss Toni and Dani, both of whom have become deeply appreciated friends. Merlin looks forward to helping them in every way possible as they work toward PhD degrees in bat biology. He is confident that both will be leaders in the future of bat conservation.
These are the final two species we photographed on the morning of our departure.
Our next bat adventure will begin on August 10 when we arrive in Brunei to photograph tiny bats that live in pitcher plants.
Every field season, it’s a tradition for the field station to hold a barbecue and invite friends and local bat researchers like Teodora Ivanova (holding her baby) who, together with Bjorn Siemers from Germany, started the Tabachka Bat Research Center. Seated two seats back from Teo is one of Bulgaria’s very first bat researchers, Eberhart Undzhyan. Hristiyana “Chris” Stomoayalova (front right) is the landlady for the station, who promptly responded to our calls when the refrigerator and the washing machine broke down. Thanks to all of the friends of the Siemers Bat Research Center for keeping Bjorn’s dream alive!
After several entire nights of near misses, our bats finally performed flawlessly. Both Dani and Toni worked long hours helping these bats overcome their fear so that they would perform naturally catching prey in front of a camera. Having finally gotten the pictures, we’ve released the bats and they are finally back home in their cave.
Merlin needed lots of grasshoppers and crickets for the photographs he intended to get of bats catching prey, so he made a wager. He bet us that he could catch more grasshoppers/crickets than the three of us put together.
Dani, Toni and I wanted to get out of the field station for the day and visit the nearby village of Cherven where there are ruins of a Medieval fortress. So we left Merlin behind in Tabachka to find grasshoppers, and we drove to Cherven for culture and also search for grasshoppers.
On the road to Cherven, there’s an overlook where below, on a hilltop, you can see what’s left of medieval Cherven and the modern village of Cherven. According to Wikipedia: this area has been occupied since the time of the Thracians, was a Byzantine fortress in the 6th century, in 1235 was the seat of the Bulgarian Orthodox Bishopric, by the 14th century a center of craftsmanship for gold and iron, and in 1388 conquered by the Ottoman Turks during the Bulgarian-Ottoman Wars. Today Cherven is a small peaceful village.
After a quick look down at the ruins from this hilltop, we proceeded to look for grasshoppers. We were ready to get back into the vehicle, when Toni said, I don’t think this is a good place for — I found one! She cautiously corralled it out of the tall grass and into the hand net she carried. It was the biggest grasshopper I’ve ever seen. We thought this an excellent start of good things to come! We continued on down the road, through the village to the ruins, paid 4 lev each to a friendly English-speaking guide, then hiked up to the top. We had a look around at the remains of this historically significant site, all the while looking for grasshoppers. If the bet were for the most damselflies, we would’ve one hands-down. But all we found were small grasshoppers. We walked to our car, and just as we got inside, Toni cried, Look! We were parked in front of a dead tree with a beautiful hole for augered into it. This was another photo prop possibility for Plecotus austricus, the Grey long-eared bat, who we caught and the gals were training. They sometimes roost in such places. Toni asked the folks where we paid our admission fee for permission to cut it off, and it was granted. Now all we needed was a saw!
We decided our best chance to find a saw was at the local bar/shop to inquire of the locals. Walking past the outside tables to go inside, I stopped to greet a friendly border collie. The dog’s owner asked, Are you English? American, I said. That was how we met Jan and Doug from Scotland. For the past four years, they’ve been living in Cherven. Jan Hannah is an artist. Drawings of Bulgarian village life is what she’s been magically capturing with pencil and paper. Doug MacPherson is a master bagpipe craftsman who can make them anywhere, and Bulgaria’s warmer than Scotland, after all. Most of the Bulgarian villagers do not speak English, so the pair were happy to speak with three English-speaking lasses. We bought ice-cream in the shop and joined them at their table to get acquainted–and ask a favor. We told them who we were and what we were doing in Bulgaria generally and Tabachka specifically and how we were challenged by Merlin to find grasshoppers and had failed so far, but we wanted to bring him a special tree hole for a photo prop, but we had no saw. “Do you have a saw we could borrow?”
Not only did they have a saw, they had a chainsaw! The picture below shows Dani climbing to see if anybody’s home. Just a bunch of ants! Merlin said he won’t likely use it because he prefers to show bats emerging from a bat roost, not an ant roost. Details, details!
It’s been great fun gathering plants and rocks from the area and re-creating the scene inside the photography studio. Photographing Bulgarian bats has proven far more difficult than anticipated. For the past five nights Merlin, Toni and Dani have worked all night, shooting hundreds of images nightly of which only about one in hundreds have been really great. Sometimes they worked all night two or three nights in a row without getting a single usable picture.
Building authentic-looking sets has been hard work, but finding sufficient natural prey for the bats to capture in the sets has been even more problematic. Rains and cold nights have continued to hamper activities, however at about 4:30 this morning we finally got some really nice photos.
Daniela ‘Dani’ Schmieder can train bats to fly to her hand for food. This comes in handy for photographing them in the studio, as they can be called to a specific location. They become used to her and let her pick them up for the next photo op, without having to chase them all around the photo studio. As soon as the bats are captured in the wild, we must work with them and keep it up each night, until we get the desired results. Each of these photos required an entire night of work and hundreds of images with Merlin and Dani collaborating. I made a short video of Dani working her magic with the bats.
Our first night in the field we set a bat trap in the entrance of Orlova Chuka Cave where we caught six species of bats, four of which we were able to photograph. The others were nursing mothers we had to release. We haven’t been able to capture more bats for the last three days due to unseasonably cold, rainy weather.
Several of these bats will now be kept in captivity for several days, during which time we hope to train them for photographs of catching insects. Antonia Hubancheva is training the Myotis and Daniela Schmeider is training the Rhinolophus. The next post will probably be a video of training the bats.
Merlin’s talk in Sofia, Bulgaria at the British Council, the educational arm of the British Embassy in Bulgaria, was broadcast on one of Bulgaria’s most popular news programs. The talk was an introduction to bats worldwide. Afterwards, several interested attendees were invited to join us for lunch in a nearby cafe.
After the talk, we drove five hours to the Siemers Bat Research Field Station in the village of Tabachka where neighbors enthusiastically greeted us, having just seen Merlin on television.
Our Friday the 13th flight from Paris to Sofia was uneventful. From my window seat on the plane the views of the Alps were spectacular. I hope to go there some day. But this trip we are working in Bulgaria! My Lonely Planet travel guide says:
“wild wooded mountain ranges speckled with remote villages and enchanting monasteries to vibrant modern cities and long sandy beaches hugging the Black Sea coast, Bulgaria rewards exploration.”
This is a country of mountains, forests and rivers and a wide diversity of plant and animal life. The Bulgarians tell me they still have bear, wolves and lynx. I’m impressed!
We are at the Siemers Bat Research Station in the quaint village of Tabachka. There’s a church, a post office and two stores in the village where we can get essentials. And the most essential of essentials is yogurt. Bulgarians are crazy about their yogurt. A favorite summer starter is cold cucumber-yogurt soup called “tarator.” In addition to cucumbers and yogurt, it consists of walnuts, which grow all over the village, and fresh dill. The store was out of fresh dill and promised to provide it later. At dinnertime the dill was retrieved and we were handed a bunch of plants freshly pulled from someone’s garden. That’s what I call a custom order! This place is going to be fun!
One of the locals, Georgi, welcomed us with a pail of milk straight from his goat, still warm. He brought photographs of some of the bat researchers he met two years ago, when a workshop was held at the station, and a bat photo postcard. He was thrilled to learn that Merlin was the photographer and got his autograph. I’m looking forward to a festival the village is having on June 28th, when we can meet all the local talent!
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 50 years of in-depth knowledge and experience Merlin Tuttle, renowned bat expert, educator and wildlife photographer founded MTBC with one true goal in mind; teaching the world to understand and appreciate the vital contributions bats make to human beings and the world we live in.