Field trip - Part 1

· science ·

At the weekend, I heard an interview with a family who make and use bat detectors and rescue injured bats, on John Peel's Home Truths. It reminded me of a field trip I went on when I was an undergraduate.

At Bristol, there were Botanists, Zoologists and Biologists (like me) all in the same department, but the Botanists went on different field trips to the rest of us. Their course T-shirts read "Botanists have all the best trips" superimposed on a picture of a marijuana leaf. This was something of a triple entendre--while the Botanists got to sun themselves in Corsica[1], we Biologists/Zoologists languished in the drizzle of Gloucestershire. We consoled ourselves with the idea that they had to spend two weeks staring at boring plants, while we would have exciting animals to look at, all the while entertaining the rebellious thought that it would be nice to look at exciting animals somewhere a bit sunnier.

Despite the less-than-glamorous location, it was a fantastic trip, and something of a defining moment for me. I had known when I was quite young that I wanted to study Biology, but I think it was this field trip that convinced me that I loved it with a passion strong enough to build a career on. I'm hoping that in writing about it, I might be able to rekindle some of that feeling again, and perhaps give my weary academic cynicism a bit of a holiday.

We covered a lot of material, but my favourite experiences were the bat walks (with bat detectors[2]) and the small mammal trapping and radio tracking. Bat detectors are amazing things, opening up a completely hidden auditory world. One moment there's a still, quiet night, and the next (assuming that there are some bats around), there's a cacophony of clicks, squeaks, rasps and trills. All that noise, and it's a completely closed world to us. It's incredible to think that they are finding the shape of the world by calling and listening. Like all new bat detectorists, we made the rookie mistake of getting very excited about discovering a new species of bat, only to find that we'd succeeded in detecting the change in the pocket of the person in front. Keys and coins give off an amazing amount of ultrasound when jangled.

We listened to--and saw glimpses of--pipistrelle and noctule bats, and then came back to a potential horseshoe bat roost. This was an old and abandoned Gothic chapel in a grassy valley, which was covered with graffiti. There are few things as surreal--or creepy--as lying on your back in the wet grass at night, looking up at a Gothic chapel dark against the stars and clutching bat detectors which crackle with static every now and again. Glow worms shone like gentle green stars in the long grass. We never did find any horseshoe bats, but it was a wonderful experience.

[1] I think it was Corsica--it might have been Corfu. A sunny Mediterranean island, anyway.

[2] This always seems so 'superhero' to me: "We've no time to lose--to the Bat Detector!"