It seemed like such a nice idea. I’d been reading up on bats for a chapter of my ‘Darwin book’. I’d also been eavesdropping on the local bats with my bat-detector. It suddenly dawned on me that I might be able to record a short piece about watching bats for Melissa Harrison‘s lovely nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. Rather than thinking things through, I immediately pitched the idea to Melissa. She liked the sound of it. My brief: please keep it to three minutes maximum, and avoid recording when it’s windy. Fair enough. I was sure I could stretch what I had to say to three minutes.
The next few weeks bore witness to the kind of ineptitude that gives fiascos a bad name, as I struggled manfully with all manner of incompatible technologies, and carried out a number of spectacularly unsuccessful dry runs.
The idea was to capture simultaneous recordings of bat-clicks from the bat-detector, and me giving a running commentary via a lapel-microphone. I’ll spare you the technical details. During the first dry run, instead of capturing the intended bat-clicks, I managed to record 15 minutes of me, off-mic’, stumbling around in the dark, treading on slugs and swearing at bitey insects. It turned out I’d used the wrong type of cable. In the second dry run, my voice totally drowned out the recordings of the bats. After more tinkering, I finally cobbled together an admirably inelegant and complicated solution that I was 50% confident might just work. The following evening, I was all set to go, but the weather turned windy. I made a couple of test recordings of bat-clicks, just to prove I actually could, then decided to wait for calmer weather.
Next morning, I discovered I’d somehow managed to fry my bat-detector. It was totally dead. I contacted Melissa to say things weren’t looking too peachy. Then I remembered my two test recordings from the night before. Maybe I could use those! So I retrieved them from my trash folder and switched to Plan F. Plan F was much less ambitious: a simple piece to microphone, interspersed with the recovered bat recordings I already had safely in the can. What could possibly go wrong?
It took a week for the unseasonably strong winds to subside. Finally, the perfect evening arrived: clear sky; still air; crescent moon. Serenity reigned. As I waited for the first bats to appear, I clicked the record button on my phone, and began to deliver my intro…
It’s about an hour after sunset, and I’m standing in my garden looking across the Hebden Valley towards…
Suddenly, somewhere in the middle-distance, a small crowd of people began to sing. The noise grew. There seemed to be some celebration taking place—here, in the middle of nowhere, 230 metres above sea-level in the West Yorkshire Pennines! In my 19 years living on this tranquil hillside, I’d never heard such a commotion. Bloody uncanny timing! I decided to give the celebrants a few minutes to calm down. While I waited, I checked the news on my phone… Ah… Mystery solved! After a gap of 30 years, Liverpool F.C. had just become English soccer champions! #YNWA
When, after 30 minutes, the celebrations showed no sign of subsiding, I decided to trust to luck and hid behind a tree, hoping my microphone wouldn’t pick up the distant strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Come on, Richard: three minutes on bats. Strut your stuff! A little bit of science, a little bit of history, a couple of jokes… how hard can it possibly be?
Two hours: that’s how hard! Two whole hours! This thanks mainly to my inability to talk into a microphone for more than ten seconds without tripping over my own tongue. The neighbour’s dog barking at the weirdo talking to himself in the next garden didn’t help either. Neither did the local tawny owl that decided to start hooting midway through a very promising take that was immediately rendered unusable due to my expletives.
Somehow, I got there in the end. I was frankly astonished when the first edit of my piece came in at a little under six minutes. To meet the brief, I had to do a lot of trimming. Out went most of the science and history; in remained most of the crap jokes. With scalpel-like precision, I even had to excise a few phrases from the middle of sentences in order to squeeze in under the three minutes with an entire second to spare.
You can listen to my final three-minute edit on episode 16 of Melissa’s podcast. As for the full-blown original version, I went through quite a bit of hassle putting it together, so I’m damned if I’m not going to make use of it somewhere. So why don’t I post it here, in all its unexpurgated wordiness?
Very nice piece, Richard. I shall listen to the podcast edit soon; I've got a few episodes to catch up on first. Shame about your bat detector.
I like the bit about the evolutionary solution to deafening themselves with their clicks. I'm pretty sure my son also disables his malleus, incus and stapes when he's being told it's bedtime.
I used to be able to hear some bat sounds, but lost that ability around my late-20s. It didn't sound anything like the bat detector's interpretation – just high-pitched squeaks.
I once spent a week doing some conservation work with someone who had done their PhD on bats. She was able to translate, or interpret, every type of sound coming through the bat detector. It was fascinating, but I also enjoy listening to it as a sort of avant-garde techno, too.
My (vague) understanding is that, due to the way in which the electronics adjust the pitch, the sound emanating from the detector isn’t remotely like that made by the bats. But we can hear it, and that’s all that matters.
I can only interpret one of the sounds made by the bats… As I say in the extended version of my piece (above), bats vastly increase the click-rate when going for the kill. If you listen to my recording of bats within the piece, you can hear this happening at one point. It sound like a very high-pitched fart, as if something has gone wrong with the recording, but it always seems to happen as the bats suddenly jink sideways after an insect.