What is it like to travel the world, looking for bats?

It’s now been a little over six months since I left home to start a journey around the world, trying to see as many bat species as possible. No one has ever attempted anything like this before and now I can easily understand why… 

To celebrate making halfway through my journey, I thought I’d write a short blog post explaining what it is like to be on a Big Bat Year.

Logistics

This is probably the part that is most similar to what has been attempted before. Travelling the world already has its challenges because of all the different destinations but when it is as fast paced as a Big Year, it becomes even more challenging. While I book my international flights well in advance, the rest of the logistics are sorted as I go along. This includes transport and accommodation. As often as possible, I try to use public transport for cost-saving reasons but also because it significantly reduces the overall carbon footprint of my journey, which is already quite high. 

Regarding accommodation, I tend to stay away from towns and cities because they usually don’t have many bats (Botanical Gardens always are an exception in large cities, often harbouring some nice species). That means I usually stay in remote places, where choices are few, and tourists, quite rare as well. I have rarely come across any foreigners during my travels actually… Not that I’m complaining, as meeting local people is much more interesting to me than meeting other tourists. And I do quite often meet local people.. 

Quite frankly, the biggest challenge is that I cannot simply send an email to hire a guide for a few days/weeks to arrange everything for me as is possible in most places for birdwatching. At times, it would feel quite nice to not have to care about all the logistics, on top of finding bats. 

Each bat caught is measured and weighted. The researchers also estimate its age and determine its sex.

Finding bats

One advantage with looking for bats and not birds is that I can usually rely on local people more. While they probably won’t be able to tell you to find your much sought after Tapaculo or Laughingthrush, they will know about bat caves, if there are any. And I’ve visited many caves, known only to locals that people were kind enough to guide me to. The language barrier can be an issue but it’s always an interesting experience, during which I end up learning a lot about local culture, and their perception of bats in particular. 

Bat caves don’t always harbour rare species but bat caves always have bats. And I’ve never been disappointed by a bat cave, despite visiting dozens, I’ve almost always managed to find a new species in them. 

When it comes to finding non-cave roosting bats, that’s where the real challenge lies… When they echolocate, I can hope to record them at night and then hope to identify them based on those calls. However, this is highly limited by the references available for the identification process. 

For fruit bats in the Old World, usually people would know Flying Fox roosts and walks at night near fruiting trees got me a number of other species as well. 

In some cases, published scientific papers included location of study sites that I was able to visit again. And in really rare cases, previous trip reports proved reliable enough to be used to find some good locations to find bats. 

In certain regions, I had to rely on my instincts, and satellite views to find areas that had good potential. And then I had to cross my fingers! Results have been surprisingly good for this method. 

Personal life

Travelling the world, solo, on a journey as challenging as the Big Bat Year isn’t easy for me personally. Being constantly on the move, most often in remote locations means I’m alone most of the time. I regularly get homesick and of course, I miss my friends and family. When I left home, I was in a relationship, however, it did not survive the emotional stress this journey is putting on me. 

As for my daily life, it is a very strenuous journey. While it isn’t particularly fast-paced, given my days aren’t that fully packed, the schedule I have is exhausting. Looking for bats at night is fine on its own. But sometimes, I want to combine that with birding in the early mornings and other times, I have to travel the next day, not always in easy and well planned out ways. This means I can’t stick to one schedule and I have to constantly change my sleep and wake up times. Being someone who suffers from insomnia, it can be very challenging to keep up.

Expectations vs reality

Before embarking on this journey, I had read lots of mammal watching reports, I had closely followed Arjan’s and Noah’s Big Years so I thought I had a good idea of what I was getting myself into. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so wrong in my life (and I’m often wrong!). This is nothing like what I had imagined! 

I had no idea how emotionally challenging this would be. I’ve never been much of a social person and yet, I have been forced to realise how much I rely on people to keep my motivation levels up. This was challenging at first but once I embraced it, I started meeting lots of amazing people! 

I also had no idea how challenging finding the bats would actually be. Trip reports make it sound easy but the reality is very different. The rules I have set myself probably didn’t help in that regard as they have cost me a number of species but I had to set some limitations and I decided to be quite stringent with them. 

The last thing I didn’t expect is you, my followers. I didn’t expect my journey would interest so many of you, bat and non-bat people alike. It is truly heartwarming to see such support from you all so thank you so much!

 

Bats of Thailand

My trip to Malaysia, both Sabah and Peninsular was a huge disappointment in terms of both wildlife and travel experience so I have decided not to write a report. I have seen 24 species, of which 16 were new for me. 

What a contrast with Malaysia! This trip turned out to be an absolute blast!

The reason I chose Thailand over let’s say Cambodia or Laos is not necessarily that it has more bats, but it’s because of BatThai. This group is studying bats all over the country, including Kerivoula picta, a species that’s very widespread and fairly common but extremely hard to find for the uninitiated.

Before meeting the people from BatThai to go look for Kerivoula picta, the Painted Bat, and Craseonycteris thonglongyai, the Bumblebee bat, I spent a few days in Kaeng Krachan, a national park well known for its exceptional birding. 

The rules of the park forbid leaving the camping grounds after sunset. The elephants roaming around seem like a reasonable explanation for it, despite it being quite frustrating! 

This meant all I could do to find bats there was to walk around the grounds with my recorder. I still managed to get Rhinolophus malayanus and R.lepidus, two common species in SE Asia as well as Tylonycteris robustula, also quite common but not easy to record. 

The signs in Kaeng Krachan were somewhat exotic...
Kiwi posing with what must be one of the coolest bat stickers out there
On our way to find some Painted bats in East Thailand

After this short introduction to Thai fauna, it was time to head back to Bangkok before heading to East Thailand for the Painted bats. It’s an extremely long drive with not much happening on the way but it’s definitely well worth it! 

 

Upon our arrival in the village, we were told the villagers hadn’t yet found Painted bats that day. So we waited…but not very long! We hopped on a local tractor and were on the way to a banana plant, hosting the little orange fur ball. When seen on photos, it’s hard to believe this bright orange coat acts as camouflage. When observed roosting inside a curled up dead banana leaf, it’s a completely different story! No wonder very few people manage to find the species on their own… After taking some photos, we released the bat back into the wild, observing its butterfly-like flight (hence why it’s sometimes called Butterfly Bat). We then were on the move again to see two more. 

This village protects the Painted bats and is happy to show them to visitors. This village only has very moderate income, from Ricefield Rats and some textiles. I will not give the location of the village because I do not want anyone to go without making sure the villagers’ efforts are rewarded. However, do contact me if you are interested in going there, I’d be very happy to put you in touch with the right people. 

Does this bat really need a caption?

After this incredible experience, it was time to move on again, because of my tight schedule. We headed back to the West of the country, to an area with lots of caves. On the way, we stopped at a colony of Pteropus lylei in Ang Thong. 

In Kanchanaburi, we visited a total of 7 caves. Three of them had Craseonycteris thonglongyai in them, though this species was usually in an inaccessible part of the cave. This species is protected in Thailand. Again, no exact locations on this blog but contact me if you’re interested. 

Other notable species we found include four species of Rhinolophus, Taphozous spp. and one of the highlights of the trip, Aselliscus stoliczkanus. This could be the most reliable location in SE Asia, unknown before this trip when a monk told us about this cave. 

Taphozous melanopogon
Unidentified snake protecting the cave
A couple of Aselliscus stoliczkanus

This trip far exceeded my expectations and I had an amazing time there! I would really recommend contacting BatThai if you’re planning a trip there. You may be able to do some of the things on your own but the language and cultural barriers will stop you from accessing a number of key sites. 

Total: 29 species, of which 19 were new.

The smallest bat in the world, and also likely the smallest mammal in the world, Craseonycteris thonglongyai

The itinerary, part II

After having travelled through Oceania, Asia, North America, it’s time to head to Africa. 

Africa is tricky for bats because the problem of lack of research is especially true there. Fortunately, literature can actually be surprisingly easy to find. We’ll see how things go…

I’ll try to cover a few different regions / ecozones during my time there.

First stop, Madagascar, Africa’s biggest island. Its bat fauna is as unique as its lemurs (which I will also be looking for). I will do my very best to see the sucker-footed bats, Myzopodidae, a family endemic to Madagascar. 

Myzopoda aurita, a species endemic to Madagascar

I would have loved to visit the surrounding islands such as Comoros and Mauritius, especially with the culling issue the latter is facing (read more). However, timing is an issue here. I also visited the Seychelles a few months ago. You can find my trip report here.

Next up, Tanzania, a well known safari and bird watching destination, and batting should be equally good. I won’t be spending that much time there though, I’ll only be visiting Pemba and Mafia, two islands which both hold a special species of flying fox. Pteropus voeltzkowi is endemic to Pemba and an endemic subspecies of Pteropus seychellensis is present on Mafia.

After that, I’ll be spending two weeks in Kenya, looking for all the bats this amazing country has to offer. That is if I don’t get too distracted by the staggering birding there… My two targets are Yellow-winged Bat (Lavia frons, pictured) and Heart-nosed Bat (Cardioderma cor ).

Finally, South Africa. I’ll start with Kwazulu-Natal the entire time. When I was there in 2013, I really liked the diversity of habitats over short travel distances. I may visit Western Cape after that, to look for different bird and bat species. 

So, that’s Africa sorted. There are two continents left after that, Antarctica and South America. As the former doesn’t have any bats, I can focus solely on the latter.

However, because I’ll still be missing a number of bat species from the Western Palaearctic, I’ll be visiting Sardinia, Crete and Israel, along with trying to see all Belgian species! 

In South America, I will visit most of the large biomes: the Atlantic forest, the Amazon and Pantanal in Brazil, the Amazon in Peru, cloud forest in Ecuador and the rainforest in Costa Rica. 

All these countries have an incredible diversity of bats so I cannot really list all my targets here. One thing is certain though, I have to see all three species of Vampire bat! During my trip to Mexico in June/July, I got 2 of them, only one left, Diaemus youngi!

In Peru, I’ll be joining the Fauna Forever team. If you’re looking for a place to volunteer or to do research in the middle of the Amazon, look no further! I have no doubt my stay there will be an absolute blast! 

In Costa Rica, I will be one of the leaders of a bat bioblitz in Fiona Reid’s newly acquired property. If you want to join us, you are more than welcome! Contact Fiona for more details. I definitely intend to give this journey the end it deserves and meeting a bat bioblitz with like-minded people from all around the world definitely sounds like a suitable ending!! Of course, my main targets will be the “white bats”, Honduran White Bat (Ectophylla alba, pictured), Northen Ghost Bat (Diclidurus albus), etc

As a bonus, I will also be visiting Monteverde Bat Jungle. I am having a hard time to think of a better ending for this journey. To be honest, I don’t really want to think about its end right now…

Bats of Texas

My tight schedule meant I had very little time in the USA for bats, though it also has relatively few species compared to most countries on other continents. After booking my flights, it turned out I had even less time than expected because flying directly from Japan to the USA was unreasonably expensive. So I had a quick stop in Belgium. Why was that cheaper? No idea… Go figure! 

All this meant I could only choose one state, and preferably one city from which I could do some day/night trips. What better city for this than the Bat City: Austin, Texas? 

When I realised I’d have very little time, not even enough to go to Big Bend NP for example, I decided temporarily to drop the listing aspect of my Big Year and not chase as many species as possible during my four days in Texas. Instead, I decided to use this opportunity to meet like-minded people, who are also into bat conservation. And Austin has a number of them! The first name that would come to many of us is Merlin Tuttle. Despite my tight schedule, we managed to meet twice! Once over lunch which was lovely. It was truly incredible to get to meet and converse with a pioneer in bat conservation, and a leading figure in this area! This was also a great opportunity for me to get to meet the Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation’s staff and their amazing work of outreach and fighting misinformation. I strongly recommend you have a look at their website, their resources are very good and definitely well worth a read. There are a lot of “journalists” out there who should definitely read them… 

We then planned a very last minute trip to Bracken Cave, a show I could not miss. It may not make sense in a Big Year, because Tadarida brasiliensis would be the only species I’d get that night, even if I got to see millions of them. But seeing the largest bat colony in the World is something I simply could not miss! 

It’s a short drive from Austin and we got there early so as not to miss the emergence. It can be fairly unpredictable, it was around 20:30 the day we arranged our visit on the phone, almost an hour earlier the day after that and 15 minutes after our arrival the day after that! Lucky! 

Strangely enough, all the mosquitoes had disappeared once the sky darkened with bats. Vastly more effective than DEET as a mosquito repellent (see this video on pest control by bats)! I wish I could fit a thousand or so of them in my bag for the rest of my trip (I would certainly have needed them in some places in Mexico!). 

Lee and Dianne from the Austin Bat Refuge
A lump of baby Eastern Red Bats (Lasiurus borealis)
The "Bat Bridge" in Austin, TX

Another visit that immediately made it to the top 10 experiences this year is the visit of the Austin Bat Refuge. The dedication of this couple, Lee and Diane, is simply incredible, and humbling! At this time of the year, they are overwhelmed with baby Eastern Red Bats, Lasiurus borealis, and yet, they are giving each and everyone of them the care and attention they need to be released in the wild. 

Check out their Facebook page to follow their amazing work! 

On the boardwalk along the Colorado River, not too far from the Congress Avenue Bridge, I recorded Lasiurus intermedius, the second and last species of my stay in Texas.

The Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge hosts the world’s largest urban bat colony! Merlin is responsible for saving them from extermination in the 1980’s and Austin continues to benefit from them today. 

If you’d like to visit these bats be sure to check out AustinBats.org before planning your trip to get the inside scoop!

Two species in four days is pretty bad by my standards and yet, this trip was one of the best I’ve had so far. Getting to know people who are doing incredibly valuable work for bat conservation is worth sacrificing a few bats for my record!