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!

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *