I asked my old friend, 'The King of Bat Walks', Graeme Wilson, to pen a guest blog. Graeme is the most prolific leader of public bat walks I have ever come across, doing dozens of them most years and having a major positive impact on public perceptions of bats across the Lothians and Borders.
I could write about my year long project, called 'My Wildlife Year', where I am editing together a video every week covering what I’ve been up to but I won’t. (Don’t let that stop you looking for 'My Wildlife Year' on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube though!)
I could write about the community wildlife project I am starting up that is hopefully going to get those that live in my local patch in and around Denholm in the Scottish Borders learning about and caring for wildlife, but I won’t.
I thought instead I’d write about the ups and downs of leading bat walks. A bat walk, if you have never been on one, involves someone talking about bats for a wee while and then you having the opportunity to listen to bats on bat detectors, as well as seeing them flying around.
I attended my first bat walk over 20 years ago and unfortunately the person that had been brought in to lead it was not very good, though I was really impressed by hearing bats for the first time. The bat walk leader’s knowledge was passable, but he lacked passion and the kids that attended it were not left enthused. I am trying not to be overcritical as it is not easy to stand in front of an audience and talk on a subject that is not your speciality. The person that had organised the bat walk told me I was leading the next one!. A year later he got me to lead my first bat walk. That was my first of many.
Over the years I have refined my bat walks and learnt to aim at the right level for my audience and try to inject a bit of humour where I can as well as teaching people to love and respect bats. I now lead between 20-30 bat walks a year, or I was up to Covid coming along, Though I still managed 5 socially distanced bat walks in late summer/early autumn 2020, when restrictions had eased.
Each time I lead a bat walk, I still get nervous. I know my subject and I am confident that I can answer most questions, though occasionally someone will ask a question that is unexpected and I don’t know the answer to. There is nothing wrong in that situation with taking their details and going to research the answer to send to them. What makes me nervous is questions like how many people are going to turn up? And are the bats going to show?
The numbers turning up can vary so much. I prefer to run bat walks that are pre-booked so that you know the size of your audience, but one organisation I lead walks for advertises them as events to just come along to with no booking. I don’t blame them for advertising like that, as it is all down to their funding. They get grants based on head counts at events rather than the number of events or the quality of the events. I think the smallest number I have had turn up at one of these bat walks for this organisation is 2 but that was a bit of a wet and windy night, though we still had a Soprano Pipistrelle or two turn up!
Technically, I did once turn up to lead a bat walk for the same organisation and no one turned up. It was actually for a group of adults with a learning disability that were supposed to be picked up by a minibus and brought to site but the minibus driver never appeared so walk was cancelled. Even though I got paid whatever happened, I felt disappointed for all those that had been sitting waiting to be picked up and looking forward to a bat walk only for no one to collect them.
At the other end of the scale, I was booked to lead a bat walk for the same organisation in Edinburgh. We were meeting on a grassy area next to a walkway/cycle path. I got there with a couple of minutes to spare, but there was no one there! I was about to call the person who was organising it when she called me. I explained I had just arrived and she replied, “Graeme, can you see the crowd of people walking away from you in the tunnel?” I replied I could. “Well, I am at the front of it leading them to a park!” So many had turned up there was not room for them all so we had to move to a local park that was big enough to accommodate a crowd over 200!
How do you lead a bat walk with 200 people, you may wonder? Well, the answer is with difficulty! It usually (yes, usually, as I have led several bat walks of between 100-200+) involves me standing on a bench and projecting my voice, which is just a polite way of saying I shout! If I suspect it is going to be a bat walk with high double figures or even triple figures, I never book another bat walk for the following night to give my voice time to recover.
Bat walks with high numbers like that involve very little walking. It just isn’t possible to keep everyone together, so we usually just stay in one locality. The bat walk I referred to earlier was supposed to involve walking away from the park, along the walkway/cycle path. However, as there were so many we just stayed in the park and after I had done my talky bit people could explore the park with bat detectors. Fortunately, we had quite a few, but it was still one between several people. Being in one location like that has some benefits, such as it is easy for people to find me to ask individual questions.
I have to admit, I prefer a much smaller group. Not just because it is easier on my vocal chords, but because I feel those attending a bat walk that has limited numbers get a much better experience. That isn’t to say that I haven’t had really positive feedback from people that have attended one of the massive bat walks I have led but it is all relative. A smaller group get more access to me and it can be a bat detector each or one between two or three depending on the size of group and the number of detectors available.
Giving out bat
detectors to those attending is always a risk, but only once has one disappeared,
never to be seen again! One went home with someone by accident but its return
was arranged and another time one disappeared but a quiet word with the right people and they soon returned it.
One question I often get asked on bat walks is what is the best bat detector to get? I always recommend the Magenta Bat 4 which retails at around £60-65. It is cheap, robust, and is a great detector. There is the Magenta Bat 5 which is about £30 dearer and is exactly the same as the Bat 4, except it has a big digital display rather than a dial with frequencies written on it. The extra expense is only worth it if you have problems reading small print.
The other thing I regularly recommend purchasing is the Field Studies Council’s foldout Guide to British Bats. It costs £3.30 so doesn’t break the bank and has a lot of useful info including flight patterns, description of echolocation calls and peak frequencies, as well as frequency ranges.
As I mentioned earlier, Covid affected the number of bat walks I led last year and who knows what it will mean this year! However, I have decided not to wait and see if I will lead bat walks later in the year but have led them now. How can I do that, I hear you ask! Or I imagine I hear you asking! Well, I have run virtual bat walks on Zoom.
This has involved me recording various bits over a few weeks and editing it all together into some sort of coherent order. One thing I have been able to include is some footage and photos of some bats I have rescued over the years, which is obviously not possible at an in person bat walk. I’ve only done one so far and have made a couple of tweaks for the next couple I have in the pipeline. Maybe I’ll see you at one of my future bat walks, either in person or online.
I post info about bat walks I am leading, as well as other public events and training workshops I lead on my social media: Facebook, Twitter & Instagram @graemebwilson
Graeme and I have collaborated on many wildlife projects and organisations over the years. He can turn his hand to identification of almost any species group and is a brilliant wildlife educator, but I think the highlight has to be Rona and my wedding, when Graeme made a hilariously witty speech in his role as 'Spokesman for the Best Dog'!
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