Bats

Daubentons Bat

Daubentons Bat

Blossom, daffodils, blue, green, pink; my wool winter coat has been cast to back of my wardrobe, the windows beam with sunlight and birds chatter at dawn. It seems that spring is finally blooming here in London, drawing out shy flowers from the hard winter soil and gently waking up a whole range of animals from hibernation. Snakes, hedgehogs, bats, frogs, and bees all (very sensibly, if you ask me) escape the cold winter weather by hibernating in special habitats, before spending the balmy afternoons of springtime seeking food, a place to roost, and a mate. Bats will be struggling the most in this transition – according to the Bat Conservation trust, all of Britain’s species are endangered. It is a very sad thought that they are struggling to maintain their numbers: bats are intelligent and unusual animals, and an integral part of British wildlife. The image of a cloud of bats flitting in great arcs over roofs at the arrival of dusk is something that is quintessential of the British countryside; an important part of the landscape we must do our best to preserve.

Bats have gained an unfair reputation as blood-sucking, rabid little vermin, but really they are lovely, shy creatures who mind their own business and actually play an important part in keeping natural spaces healthy and thriving. None of the 17 British varieties of bats will sink its fangs into you and drink your blood – ours are all insectivores – and the three vampire bats that do exist (in Central and South America) are harmless, painlessly extracting inconsequential amounts of blood from pigs, chickens and other livestock. The association between bats and all things spooky and supernatural stems from the ancient Celtic summer festival of Samhain, when huge bonfires would attract insects and, naturally, their predators – the bats. The Celts believed that the spirits of the dead were present at these events, so they instinctively linked bats to messengers or signs of the spirit world.

Long-eared Bat

Long-eared Bat

Some cultures say that it’s lucky to have a bat in the house, but you’d be just as fortunate to have them in your garden. Just one of these little mammals can eat 2,000 – 6,000 insects in a single night, and even the teeny tiny pipistrelle bat can get through about 3,000. As for calling somebody “blind as a bat” – I suppose it could be taken as a compliment! Bats can actually see perfectly well in black and white, and have evolved echolocation to navigate in the dark and find prey. [‘Echolocation’ is a system used by animals whereby the creature emits a (usually high-pitched) sound that reflects off the object and returns to the animal’s ears. The animal then works out the distance of the object from the time it takes for the echo to return.]

You can make your garden bat-friendly, helping to boost their dwindling population and thrive post-hibernation, in a number of simple ways. You can encourage insects by extending the flowering season for as long as possible, and plant hedges, trees, and bushes to provide navigation aids and good roosts. Ponds and standing water without fish are a haven for insects like hoverflies, mosquitoes and midges, and you’ll soon see bats swooping over the water’s surface to catch their prey. For the ambitious, installing bat boxes on mature trees or the side of buildings is the ultimate bat-friendly act, and you can find out more on the Bat Conservation Trust website. Such small acts pile up to form a barricade around these elusive and misunderstood creatures and allow them to thrive, flinging their tiny bodies over the horizon at dusk and darting like tadpoles through the growing gloom.

'Ophelia' by Arthur Hughes, 1852

‘Ophelia’ by Arthur Hughes, 1852

A Daubenton’s bat is added to the corner of Hughes’s Pre-Raphaelite painting to portray a scene of rural English whimsy. Daubenton’s bats are sometimes known as water bats as they feed insects on the surface of the water. This one hunts in the bottom-left corner underneath the willow tree.

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Magpie Moth

I have always been strangely fond of moths – where most people react with annoyance and a swift swipe with a rolled-up newspaper whenever one traipses in from outside, I’m always very glad to see one. I like their tiny feet, phantom wings, and silent flight. When I was at university in Durham I often used to sit with window open, trying to catch one as it flew into the light cast by my desk-lamp. I once caught a buff ermine moth down by the river Weir – after goading it into my hands I began the insurmountable task of trying to get my friends to touch its soft and fluffy coat, though my efforts were met with shrieks and flurries of feet pounding in the opposite direction.  Many of the moths in England are truly beautiful creatures – you’d be forgiven for thinking that all British moths look like those little brown things that tumble over the window sill like scraps of parcel paper, but many are astonishingly striking and exotic-looking.

 

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Magpie Moth (Abraxus grossulariata)

The magpie moth is a common sight throughout the summer, and loves light and shiny objects as much as its corvine namesake. These pretty moths were once a great favourite with collectors because they could easily be bred to create forms with new and unusual patterns – they were the perfect guinea pig. Their black spots and yellow splodges to me look like the ink splodges one might find in a psychiatrist’s office, or the print of a dress, reminding me of how often silly images can overlap human and nature.

 

 

[Small elephant hawk moth (Deilephila porcellus), caterpillar, and pupa].Elephant Hawk-Moth (Deilephila elpenor)

This colourful little splodge is widespread in our gardens, parks and open country, cutting through the gloom with its rich pink and green colouring. The most astounding thing about these moths is their eyesight, which is perfect colour-vision, even when it is too dark to see at all. Its young larvae are especially striking – the moth gets its name from their long, trunk-like noses.

 

 

tumblr_lzxtrlQpyW1qk931ho1_500Death’s Head Hawk-Moth (Acherontia atropos)

A summer visitor from Africa, you may recognise these creatures from a certain well-known movie poster. If you look closely, you’ll spot an astounding pattern on the moth’s back, an eerily distinctive skull-shaped pattern. This huge (and huge they are – we found two in our garden shed last summer and my mum mistook them for mice!) and relatively rare moth loves honey, and will often sneak into beehives in search of its favourite treat. Once there, it displays another peculiar characteristic: it squeaks. It’s thought that this noise pacifies the bees, but if you pick one up it will make the same noise, so it may also be a defence mechanism. Or perhaps it just has a very excitable personality!

 

 

images (2)Large White Plume Moth (Pterophorus pentadactyla)

The white plume moth looks like a wispy, skeletal fairy; a moth shape cut out from tissue paper. Its feather-like wings and long, spindly legs can be found especially dotted on wasteland.

The London Naturalist Pt. One

Living in London, it can be rather difficult not to feel completely cut off from the natural world. Most of the greenery I see all week comes from walking down a tree-flanked dual carriageway towards the Strand, and the abundance of wildlife in the capital can really be limited to an overgrown population of pigeons and the odd mouse scrabbling about on the tube-tracks. Luckily, though, the city becomes a wealth of fascinating natural history once you know what to look for. So here’s the start of a sequence of blogs on exactly that – little things to keep an eye out for that small enough for you to catch on your way to work or outside your window, but big enough to give you an idea of what’s going on in another world besides our human one.

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Firstly – the budding shoots of wildflowers, a sure sign that winter is singing a bitter swan-song. Taking a walk recently I was cheered to discover a green stalks, white flowers and dots of orange and purple of a cluster of snowdrops and crocuses all braving the odds in an old abandoned flower-pot. Bluebells clung to long grass like glitter to wool along the woodland paths, and  the crocuses and snowdrops splattered the old greens and browns of the countryside with rolling trails of colour. As soon as these wild-growing flowers start appearing, you can be sure that warmer weather and longer days are on the way, and best of all, that we are one step closer to summer.

Another thing I’ve been noticing recently are big clumps of twigs and grass in the skeletal winter branches, about the size of basketballs. I saw a lot of these in Regent’s Park, which is incidentally one of my favourite places to catch up on nature’s projects and indulge in some wildlife-spotting in the middle of the bustling city – as well as its famous collection of rare and exotic waterfowl, here (even in my limited experience!) you can catch glimpses of herons, butterflies and the odd hedgehog. It’s a lot quieter than the other royal parks in the centre – presumably because everyone is looking at the exotic animals in London Zoo next door rather than bothering with the quotidian offerings of  the park. Anyway, a bit of research told me that these constructions are made by magpies, and are the beginning of these birds’ especially impressive nests. These nests are amazing, really: huge, spherical, layered, intricately woven, and incorporating thousands of miscellaneous pieces. They are big messes but they’re strong – some smaller mammals,such as foxes, will live in them for years when they have fallen to the ground.

Magpies are also a very underrated bird, I have always thought. They have an absolutely terrible reputation as pests – their populations are soaring at a time when songbirds and garden regulars are struggling to survive. Their hoarse, cackling call  doesn’t endear them either, imitating their literary and folkloric associations with evil and misfortune .

Magpies will always remind me of my dad – when I was little, he told me a silly story about it being very good luck to salute whenever you saw one and greet them with “Morning Major!” (I still have to clamp my tongue down now to avoid any public embarrassment).The ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent described them as “usually nonchalant and absurdly dignified”, which I think is quite a perfect description. They are opportunists and scavengers – inquisitive, curious, talkative, and skilled in disclosing things that have been concealed. If they were people, they’d undoubtedly be journalists or academics, picking and picking at whatever they can find, putting together scraps of information to build strong and artful projects.

Everyone knows what magpies look like: they are truly striking birds. Look out for its bright patches of white off-setting an elegant black iridescence of bronzes, greens, blues, reds, and purples, like colours rippling on the surface of a deep lake.

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And next time you see one, remember to count them – you can read your future with this rhyme! (Yet another of my silly dad’s stories!)

“One for sorrow

Two for joy

Three for a girl

Four for a boy

Five for silver

Six for gold

Seven for a secret never to be told.”