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Tuesday, 13 April 2021

The ups and downs of leading bat walks - Guest Blog by Graeme Wilson

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.

Hi! This isn’t David. My name is Graeme Wilson and I am a freelance ecologist and wildlife educator. David asked me if I would be a guest blogger and of course I said yes! On the subject of what he wanted me to write about he said, “Bat-related would be good, but… could be something else - whatever you like.” That leaves me with quite a lot of options!

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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Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Goliath II - harp trapping bats, taken to extremes

Over the years, one subject in this blog that has gained a lot of interest is the building and use of harp traps. Back in 2008 I described building a trap with permanently stretched strings, slightly smaller than the commercially available traps (see The kitchen table harp trap). Since then I've had more queries about that than about all the other posts I've written combined.

The ever-reliable 'Kitchen Table Harp Trap'

I've also written about several occasions when we put the kitchen table harp trap into use after building it. I'm happy to say that it has been a very successful trap and has caught many hundreds of bats for us. Well over a decade later, it is still in regular use and I have only ever had to replace a handful of strings. 

I've written three posts about how it fared in practice:

In 2014 I started experimenting with larger harp traps, inspired by Merlin Tuttle's original harp trap and I described a massive one I built, using a similar technique to the kitchen table harp trap, but on a grand scale (Goliath - the Daddy of harp traps, March 2014).

Although Goliath was successful in catching bats, it had a couple of major draw-backs. When assembled, a post obstructed the centre of the trap. This wasn't part of the original design, but was necessary to resist the intense power of hundreds of strings hauling the top and bottom bars together. But a bigger issue was transport. As I built it with a light yet strong aluminium alloy frame, it was light enough to move about, but because of its size it had to be transported on a car roof rack, making the strings vulnerable to tree branches catching and ripping them in transit. Storage of the trap was a bit of a challenge too! 

After a couple of seasons, I reluctantly decided that permanently stretched strings weren't really viable for such a gigantic trap. I went back to the drawing board and the eventual result was Goliath II.

The Goliath II harp trap before I adjusted the height of the bag. The immense pull of hundreds of taut nylon lines causes the slight bow in the top and bottom beams.

For Goliath II I used many of the parts from Goliath, converting it to a roll-up harp-trap, similar to the commercially built ones, but noticeably bigger at nearly five metres high. The bag is fairly shallow and, after shredding my fingers whilst sewing the canvas and sheet plastic for the "Kitchen Table Harp Trap" bag, for Goliath II I wimped out and made a temporary bag out of lighter material, with seams closed with heavy duty tape. This has been so successful that I've never seen the need to update it.

You get a sense of the size of Goliath II, when you see it indoors. I set it up inside so that I could stretch and tie the hundreds of nylon lines with fiddly double-grinner knots whilst they're under tension. Trust me - this job is best avoided.

A later addition was two arms to support the trap bag, lifting it so that the edges were above the bottom of the trap, after we'd lost a few bats through that gap. The bag sits just above the ground, different to most traps. This has the double benefit of making it less of a visible obstruction to bats in free flight than traps on longer legs and removes the need to block the space between the legs to prevent bats from flying under it. Occasionally we have also attached vertical arms to create a rubble net obstruction above the trap, to funnel higher-flying bats through it.

Goliath II, during erection, showing a mesh extension at the top.

There's a knack to rolling and unrolling a regular harp trap without catching or tangling any of the strings or getting them wrapped around the ends. Doing it with Goliath II is an even bigger challenge, but with practice it became easier. Trap strings have to be unrolled and kept under tension at the same time - letting them become loose is a recipe for chaos and damage. Once they're fully unrolled they are stretched to full height by adjusting telescoping poles at each side, aiming to get the strings to where they make that reassuring "plink" noise when you pluck them, showing that they're just right!

Putting the trap together in open space prior to tensioning. The triangular bipod on the left is one of two which rotate as we erect the trap, allowing it to rise, whilst keeping its feet on the ground.

Because of its height, the trap has to be held in place vertically by two angled guy-ropes, from the top corners to stout pegs in the ground. Raising it has a definite hint of Amish barn-raising about it (if you don't know what I mean, you really must watch the 1985 film "Witness"). It's relatively easily done by a team of four or five, but two people who know exactly what they're doing can manage, with the help of a couple of pulleys attached to the pegs. The four short legs stay on the ground, rotating around the base of the trap as it is pulled vertical with the guy-ropes.

Doing the reverse procedure in the dark has its challenges. Here the tension is being released, prior to rolling up each side.

A side view of the trap fully extended and erected, though this picture doesn't show the arms, which were later added to lift the bag.

One of the leg bipods, showing the bearing which allows the trap to rotate into position and the arms, which were later added to support the bag.

The trap has been very successful over the years since I built it and has many captured bats to its credit. One of its first outings was to a Northumberland castle, where it was used to capture Daubenton's bats emerging from an open-ended cellar. The space was so large that we had to use rubble-netting to surround the trap, but it caught a substantial proportion of the merging bats, as well as several foraging Pipistrelles. Since then it's had many outings to catch bats in free flight, which is what it was really designed for.

Goliath II, seeing service as an emergence trap at a Northumberland castle, surrounded by rubble-netting, to funnel bats into the trap.

Here Goliath II is in use for its intended purpose - catching free-flying bats.

Like all bat-workers, I'm looking forward to returning (hopefully soon) to catching and handling bats within some of our research projects. I just hope that, after a year's absence, we can recall how to put Goliath II together. I'm sure we'll figure it out!

Keep coming back and soon I'll tell you about another addition to our stable of harp traps.

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Thursday, 1 April 2021

Further news from the gods of bat-work

I recently wrote about the gods of bat-work - small, mischievous god-lets, who entertain themselves by making our lives complicated (Ignore the gods of bat-work at your peril). So many people seemed to enjoy discovering the truth behind those niggles and problems in their professional lives that I thought I'd tell you a little more about them.

Have you ever wondered what happens to a bat ecologist who shrugs off their mortal coil? As with all things, the gods of bat-work have a part to play in this, and it may surprise you to hear that there are close parallels with the Norse world. When a viking warrior died in battle, a beautiful, shining winged valkyrie would bear him off to Valhalla, the feasting-hall of the Norse gods. In our case, it's more likely to be a couple of tatty Pipistrelles who owe you a favour, but it's the thought that counts.

On arriving at the chiropteran feasting-hall, one or two differences between it and Valhalla may become apparent. Like the vikings, we will spend the rest of our days feasting with the gods, but we'll do it in a more appropriate manner. The vikings would sit at their feasting-benches, imbibing great foaming tankards of ale and goblets of mead, whereas for us of course it will be luke-warm cups of Costa coffee and out-of-date cans of Red Bull. You see, the gods of bat-work would like us to feel at home after we switch off our detector for the last time.

Not for us the roasted sucking-pig or great sides of beef, whilst talking of battles and wars - that would be simply wrong. Until the end of days we shall feast on service-station sandwiches, tupperware boxes of left-overs and many strange Ginsters products, whilst arguing yet again about whether that bat three years ago really was a Barbastelle...

There will also be some strange burgers made of compressed midges and there'll be meal-worms, served squeezed-out or not, according to taste. After all, this is the feasting-hall of the bat-gods, and their delicacies can't possibly taste worse than our filling-station menu, can they?

But who will serve this largesse to us? For the vikings, that was easy. If they didn't have enough serving-wenches, they could simply capture some more on the next raid. Clearly, for us, in the 2020s that is not appropriate, especially as professional ecology has more women than men, most of whom are a better fit for the role of feasting shield-maiden than serving-slave. So the gods of bat-work, recognising this problem, have found a solution. Unscrupulous developers who have destroyed bat roosts without a license will serve the feasts. After all, until recently the fines for this were so small that they must surely be due further punishment in the afterlife? To add to their punishment they might be shaved, oiled and forced to wear the sort of leather gear that Holywood thinks Roman slaves wore, but that decision is probably best left to the shield-maidens.

So, once we've partaken of the food and drink that the bat-gods know we love (after all, we eat and drink so much of it?) what entertainment will await us in this chiropteran feasting-hall? Viking warriors would spend their days at Valhalla re-fighting their favourite battles. For us it will clearly be re-runs of our favourite surveys - you know, the ones where it definitely was a Barbastelle, and you got a clear view of it foraging. Or will it? The gods of bat-work cannot resist a little mischief and think perhaps we would prefer to spend long hours analysing thousands upon thousands of bat calls, whilst desperately short of sleep. After all, this is how we spend our lives, isn't it?

At least spending the rest of our days in this batty Valhalla will give us the chance to meet and feast with some of the lesser-known bat-gods.

  • You may encounter the bat-god of creaking timber, who amuses himself by making old beams creak and groan, just as you put your weight on them. You know they're sound, but that little bat-god voice in the back of your head suggests otherwise.
  • You'll meet the bat-god of thermos-hammering, who can take the stoutest of coffee flasks and shatter them. He's also branched out into making unbreakable flasks utterly useless for keeping your coffee warm.
  • The bat-god of bugs might introduce himself and, with great amusement, tell you that all those caddisflies you swallowed during a survey last year were his pets, as was the Elephant Hawk-moth that head-butted you.
  • A sudden squeaky-squawky kind of undescribable sound behind you will herald the bat-god of unidentifiable ultrasound (also known as "Middleton's Nemesis").
  • Meanwhile, the bat-god of SD cards will amuse himself in the background, playing air-hockey with a pile of SD cards. But at least, from the Valhalla of the bat-gods, you'll be able to see them being snuck back into your former colleagues' equipment. And, as you watch the cards fail on a survey and see the anguish that causes, maybe you'll experience just a little of how much fun it is to be a bat-god.

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Friday, 26 March 2021

The bat-worker’s library Part 1 - The essentials

I was recently asked to recommend some books on bats for someone starting out on their bat-working career. It created an interesting conundrum: you can only buy so many books at a time (though I confess I’m a massive bibliophile and that doesn’t apply to me), so should I focus on the books which fascinate and inspire, or on the ones which contain essential information? Tricky. So, I’ve decided to do both.

Here is my essential library of bat-worker books: the ten essential books that I hope somebody would point me towards if I were starting off with bats and intending to take it seriously. I’ll write another post soon, with my list of books that get me off the couch and fired up to look for bats.

The bat-worker’s manual (3rd edition) Mitchell-Jones & McLeish 2004

If bats were cars, this would be the book you find in the glove-box, to tell you how to make all the gadgets work. Although due an update, it is still an excellent and fairly comprehensive manual, filled with practical reference information essential for anyone involved in bat conservation. If you're working towards your bat license, this is your bed-time reading. If budget is an issue you can download it free of charge from the JNCC website.

Bat surveys for professional ecologists good practice guidelines (3rd edition) Collins, 2016

I'm not a huge fan of how the content of this book is presented, but for anyone who works or hopes to work with bats in ecological consultancy it is an essential reference for the appropriate methods to carry out effective and compliant surveys. If only more people would recognise that it contains guidelines and not rules! Each edition has improved and built on the success of the previous one and I'm looking forward to seeing how the 2022 4th edition turns out.

Bats of Britain and Europe Dietz & Kiefer, 2018

This chunky paperback has a permanent place in my bat handling bag. All the identification info. you could possibly need, in a portbale format, including the best key to bats I've ever come across. If you're handling bats at all, this is an essential field guide.

Bats of Britain, Europe and north-west Africa Dietz, von Helverson & Nill, 2007

A massive hardback with comprehensive information on bat species. I tend to think of this as the expanded version of 'Bats of Britain and Europe.' Think Baby Stace and Scary Stace, if you know your botany field guides! If I could only have one bat book, this is the one I would choose.

Bat roosts in trees Andrews, 2018

Henry Andrews was in my MSc group and even then it was obvious he wasn't going to let go of this subject until he'd worried it to death, like an angry terrier. Henry is responsible for a massive step-change in our understanding of tree-roosting bats and their roosts. It's a very useable field guide to tree roosts and how to survey for them.

British bat calls Russ, 2019

John Russ' book was a long time coming, but worth the wait. Bat call analysis is a core skill for anyone surveying for bats and John's book is the central guide to the characteristics of the calls of each species. It has gaps and weaknesses, but they are down to gaps in research, rather than to Jon. I understand he may be working on a new version. Bring it on.

Social calls of the bats of Britain and Ireland Middleton, Froud and French, 2014

When Neil Middleton and I collaborated on a bat reserach project on the central lowland canals back in the early noughties, it was apparent he had a book or two in him. Together with Andrew Froud and Keith French, Neil has brought together a wide spread of research into bat social calls and given them widely-understood classifications, with clear information about each. A very useful companion to Jon Russ' book.

Atlas of the mammals of Great Britain and Northern Ireland Crawley, et al, 2020

The result of a huge piece of research, led by the Mammal Society, this book has the most accurate distribution maps for each UK mammal species currently available. When it was published last year it represented a huge step forward - previous bat distribution information was woefully out of date and didn't reflect the advances achieved by modern bat detectors. Plus it has all the other UK mammal species too!

Designing for biodiversity – a technical guide for new and existing buildings (2nd edition) Gunnell, Murphy & WIlliams, 2013

I've lost count of the number of times I have pointed architects and developers towards this book. Co-published by the Bat Conservation Trust and the Royal Institute of British Architects, it contains ideas and technical guidance for building bat boxes and bird boxes into a wide range of new-build structures.

Bats in traditional buildings Howard & Richardson, 2009

This is effectively the building restoration companion to 'Designing for Biodiversity'. Co-published by English Heritage, The National Trust and Natural England, with input from the Bat Conservation Trust, it is again the book that I point many clients towards. It brings together a great deal of useful information on how to take bats into account when managing, restoring and repairing historic buildings.

As soon as I get time I'll write about the bat books that inspire me. Watch this space!

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Monday, 22 March 2021

An under-rated bat detector - the Peersonic RPA3

I first bought a Peersonic bat detector in 2014. Having tried it out I rapidly bought a further seven and I’ve just ordered another four. So what is it about this detector that makes me part with money so willingly, in a world which is increasingly cluttered with bat detector models and (in the case of at least one manufacturer) some quite vocal marketing?

Peersonic RPA3 bat detector

When you first pick up a Peersonic RPA3 (the current model) it doesn’t scream “Buy me, use me, I’m a really good detector.” In fact, it looks unprepossessing and, if appearance is a factor in your choice of machine you’ll probably walk away and look at some of the many shiny, well-marketed options available from Anabat, Wildlife Acoustics or Elekon.

Bats, as well as occupying a lot of my spare time are also my profession, so, whilst professional image is important, functionality is what really floats my boat when we’re buying sets of detectors for our team to use. Do we want fancy colours or gadgets? No. Do we want visible sonograms to distract our team members from where we really need them to be focussing - the building they’re surveying? Of course not. So for our purposes the bland cream case of the RPA3 is absolutely fine. (By the way, our supervising ecologists are mobile around our survey sites with machines which DO show live sonograms).

So what does it do? Well, it records full-spectrum WAV sound, whilst allowing you to listen to frequency division or tunable heterodyne output. The optional date and timestamp module does exactly what it says on the tin. Recording is to an SD card, mounted internally and the unit is powered by three AA batteries and we’ve seen no evidence of it being power-hungry.

The screen is small, but displays sufficient information to be useful. It displays the menu items as you scroll through using a rotary knob on the side (which also doubles as the heterodyne tuning control) and a button on each side for enter and back. When in use it displays the peak frequency of the sounds currently heard – useful for on-the-hoof Pipistrelle species ID, it also gives an amplitude reading in dB, which I don’t find too useful, though the matching bar-graph is handy. You can choose to record bat passes manually or automatically and in the latter mode the screen is blocked for a moment or two whilst the machine finishes the recording, which can be mildly irritating.

You’ve got to be tough to do bat surveys north of the border – an RPA3 in action, with hundreds of hungry Scottish midges.

In use we’ve found the detector to be as sensitive as most other detectors currently available and more so than some. It fits nicely into the hand, depending I guess, on the size of your hands. The case has a wrist-strap (yet ours still get dropped occasionally. Go figure.) and a threaded hole on the rear, which allows tripod mounting, if you’re so inclined (Peersonic also make a static monitoring version, which utilises this).

The ability to switch in use between FD and Het. is useful, especially when supported by the peak frequency indication. We tend to use FD mostly, but when Pipistrelle foraging activity is high, the ability to switch to Het, and listen for later-emerging species by tuning down to around 35-40kHz is handy (possibly less so in areas with a broader species assemblage than Scotland). As the machine records in full-spectrum, regardless of what mode you are listening in, this gives a measure of security from missing anything inportant.

One possible weakness, depending on how you use your detector is that the RPA3 lacks a loudspeaker, so you use headphones. Purists will tell you (rightly) that this is the best way to listen to bat calls, if you want to hear them clearly. However, I’m not a purist and I’m not keen on random, possibly dodgy people being able to sneak up behind our surveyors at night. We also like them to be able to hear their two-way radios, so headphones don’t work well for us. And this is where another factor comes into play. Peersonic is a UK-based company, run by engineer, Peter Flory, who isn’t just willing to help with random requests, he positively seems to relish them. So our machines were modified by Peter to work with mono earpieces, rather than stereo headphones.

We have now racked up several thousand surveyor hours using these machines and we’ve really only had three problems, all of which were easily rectified. Firstly, if a machine is dropped (which you really shouldn’t do, but hey, it’s dark, it’s cold and we’re tired…) it will sometimes stop working. However, the fix for this is easy, as it is simply caused by the internal SD card being dislodged. Undo two screws, pop it back in and you’re back in action. We’ve had a couple of machines ‘skipping’, when moving through the menus. This turns out to be caused by the nut on the rotary knob being too tight and slackening it slightly resolved the problem.

One of our survey kits, ready for use with personal radios, torches, batteries and four RPA3 detectors

The only other issue we’ve had was a case cracking slightly around the battery compartment. The problem here was that the battery holder grips the batteries tightly, so we tend to lever out the AA batteries, putting a strain on the case. One of our cases developed some cracks after this had been done a few hundred times and had to be replaced. It’s the only one though and at about £40 it didn’t exactly break the bank, which raises another angle on Peersonic. In an age of built-in redundancy and frequent upgrades Peter assures me that the RPA3 has been designed to be future-proofed and repairable.

So to sum up, the Peersonic RPA3 is a sensitive and effective bat detector, doing everything you need for commercial bat surveys and, but I’ve saved one factor to the end. The price: At the time of writing, Peersonic retail the standard RPA3 at just £245 + VAT and carriage. I’ve told Peter he could and should double that price, but he’s committed to making the machine freely available - for bat group or casual use this is a lot of bat detector for an affordable price. So whatever you do, don’t overlook Peersonic, just because there are shinier machines out there, made by companies with bigger marketing budgets.

Peersonic website:

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