For me, our trip highlight was the visit to the Khao Chong Pran Cave in Ratchaburi Province. Nearly 40 years ago Buddhist monks who owned the cave had asked my advice. Their monastery relied on bat guano fertilizer sales for support. But in 1981 production was plummeting. Of course, and the monks wanted to know why.
Before dawn the next morning, my then young field assistant and interpreter, Surapon Duangkhae, and I discovered poachers using large fish nets to capture bats at the cave entrance. They were selling them to local restaurants. We hired two of the poachers to help us document the extent of the problem, then advised the monks to hire a game warden to protect their bats.
We arrived at sunset at the OurLand Nature Reserve in Kanchanaburi Province, our home for the next 5 days. We quickly set up a few mist nets and a harp trap and were rewarded with a brace of lesser false vampire bats (Megaderma spasma) and several cave nectar bats (Eonycteris spelaea). Merlin took the opportunity to show the group how to train a bat. Unfortunately, the chosen bat was unusually difficult. However, just over an hour later it eagerly permitted Merlin to approach, enticing it to drink from a syringe filled with sugar water.
The next morning, we climbed 200 steps in search of roosting bats located in two caves above a monastery occupied by Buddhist shrines.
Initially, we captured a long-winged tomb bat (Taphazous longimanus) but as the group was looking at that one, I netted two bumblebee bats (Craseonycteris thonglongyai). Both were females weighing around two grams. They were delicately held by group participants while I explained the species’ anatomy, ecology, and conservation status.
Several hours after leaving the painted bat village, we arrived at the Wat Chantaram, Buddhist temple, in Ang Thong province. The monks protect Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in the courtyard. We explained the ecology and diet of the species and how the group should approach the colony to minimize disturbance. Slowly approached, most of the bats remained calm allowing us to watch them grooming as they prepared to depart for the evening. The bats steadily increased their activity and their chattering became louder as they started to fly out in all directions, leaving the temple grounds in search of fruiting or flowering trees. As the bats were leaving, we could hear the monks chanting inside the temple providing a magical backdrop to the evening.
Lyle’s flying foxes (Pteropus lylei) in Jantraram Temple courtyard, protected by monks in Thailand.
The following morning, we headed to Bang Pahan village in search of a second Lyle’s flying fox camp (a colony roosting site). The bats had set up camp alongside the river and after several attempts we discovered a spot where we could get closer.
Our focus was on photographing these roughly four-foot wingspan bats as they flew among roost trees. These weren’t as well protected, and something had made them nervous. They had a right to be, as some had wing membranes were perforated with holes from apparent shotgun pellets. Our group looked in awe as hundreds of these flying giants took to the sky, moving farther along the river.
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.
During both weeks of our workshops, we encountered periodic rain showers, keeping the normally hot, dry-season temperatures far more comfortable than anticipated. The downside was that we had poor netting results on three nights during the second week. We shared the forest with some interesting characters, such as a black jaguar, which fortunately left us alone, though it likely observed our activities. This one was photographed on a trail camera near one of our netting sites.
We set up a triple-high mist net almost every night, both weeks.
During our two-week stay in Panama’s Cocobolo Nature Reserve, we recorded more than 600 bats of 53 species, more than half the total number known for the entire country. Additional species were netted nearly every night, including two on our final evening. Over our two-weeks of workshops, common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus) and greater fishing bats (Noctilio leporinus) were participant favorites, though an incredible variety of fruit-, nectar-, and insect-eating species were seen. The hardiest of our group members often worked till dawn, bringing in a steady stream of species for portrait photos, especially during the first week. By the second week much more time was devoted to training bats to come on call, especially to locations where Merlin could photograph natural behavior, such as catching katydids.
The new group arrived successfully and with bells on for Week 2.
We have three bats in training. Merlin trained a hairy big-eared bat (Micronycteris hirsuta) for photography. Within 15 minutes it was flying to his hand on call, rewarded with meal worms. Janell Cannon, the famous author of Stella Luna, trained a white-throated round-eared bat (Lophostoma silvicolum) to eat from her hand. Her bat has a very calm temperament. Alexis and Amy trained a Niceforo’s big-eared bat (Trinycteris nicefori) for photography, a very sweet and eager gal.
We’re just finishing up an incredible first week at Cocobolo and already caught 44 species of bats, everything from fishing bats to vampires, not to mention a wide variety of fruit, nectar, and insect eaters. Merlin added 10 additional species to his collection! Pygmy fruit-eating bats were found roosting in leaves they had cut to form “tents”.
Chestnut short-tailed bats were all around camp, feeding on piper fruit.
We caught more than 20 Common vampire bats. Frontier campesinos keep a few livestock not too far away, explaining the presence of so many vampires. Most of these seem to have lots of personality, enabling Merlin to get this cool photo. The trip participants had loads of fun shooting videos of the vampires running around on the ground on all fours.
MTBC’s Bat Adventures in Panama Week 1 group started out from our base camp for an energetic hike to the top of the mountain ridge. Some did it in 3.5 hours, some 6.5 hours, and everything in between. My GPS said I hiked 19,190 steps (about 10 miles!) and burned 2,701 calories. Some will go back at night to net for bats in this cloud forest where they hope to find different species than the ones found at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve banana plants, and along the lower river forest.
Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation is the most recent contribution by Merlin Tuttle to the world of bats. With over 60 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.