Many Mammals, One Evening
Lawrence Kasmir joined a special bat survey conducted by SPNI experts
A few days ago I celebrated my five year aliyahversary – (the anniversary of my immigration to Israel). For the past 3 and a half years I’ve been working for SPNI, learning a great deal about nature and sustainability – but apart from my frequent visits to the pet shop to see the latest baby hamsters, I’ve not had that many encounters with Israel’s wild mammals. I decided that it was time to change this. I was going on an adventure to meet some.
According to IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are 103 mammal species native to Israel. That’s a lot for such a small country, bearing in mind that my native England has only 41. It was clear to me, being the paragon of efficiency that I am, that I needed to see a lot of species in one go. Fortunately, I had a plan. One third of Israel’s species are bats – the only order of flying mammalians, so I was going to see them – there were only 3 problems – 1) bats fly 2) they are active at night so are hard to spot 3) I enjoy using my nights for sleeping. However, I had set myself a challenge and made the decision to sacrifice a night of sleep, I took up an invitation to join SPNI’s annual bat survey.
The Bat Survey
SPNI has been carrying out bat surveys for over a decade. The purpose is to gather basic data on Israel’s bats, such as species, gender, age, and also collect samples of fur and DNA for further analysis. This research plays a key role in developing policy and conservation activities, in Israel including the Ministry for Environmental Protection and Nature and Parks Authority.
The bat survey takes place over the course of the same week every year in a different site every night. As they emerge from their roosts, in this case as they fly over the water to drink, they are caught in nets (like badminton) strung up to catch them. I joined the researchers halfway through the week.
Arriving at the Banias National Park in the Golan Heights, for the bat survey I was somewhat surprised to realize over ver 100 parents and children who also came to the site to learn some more about the bats. Though really I shouldn’t have been – it was a public event and who would pass up an opportunity to see bats close up, and learn about these fascinating creatures from the experts.
I also spotted my first new species – a rock hyrax, enjoying the last of the sun, on the lookout on top of the gatehouse. As darkness began to fall, the nets were opened, and the excitement among the spectators increased.
As the stars came out so did the bats. Within minutes of the sun going down bats started flying overhead. The crowds were scaring the bats away from the river but fortunately arts and crafts activities were provided to distract the younger ones while the teenagers managed to keep a respectful distance. Soon our patience was rewarded with the first bat caught in the net.
The bat was (very) carefully disentangled, and much to the crowd’s disappointment was taken first to the team of bat scientists led by expert Eran Amichai (of SPNI and Tel Aviv University). His team had recorded each bat’s vital statistics including the species, their age, sex, forearm length and weight. Samples of fur were trimmed and logged to undergo analysis for traces of heavy metals and DNA samples were also taken. From here the bats were taken to what can only be described as a mobile photo studio, where they got their close ups done as part of a soon to be published guide on Israel’s mammals.
After posing for the cameras the bats were finally ready to be presented to the adoring crowd. Most impressive (for me anyway) was that even the older teenagers were just as enthusiastic as the youngest children – pushing their forward to get a proper look and feel of the bats (they feel fluffy). A guide explained how the bats use echo-location to hunt, how their hands and arms are similar to ours, and that their wings are made of skin, not feathers. From seeing the reactions of the children (and their parents) it’s clear that they won’t forget this experience or look at bats the same way. Considering that a team from a Ramle school won a science competition with a device to scare bats away this is vital.
And as for my mission - I got to see 6 bat species up close (common pipistrelle, Kuhll's pipistrelle, Savi's pipistrelle, serotine bat, Geoffroy's bat and an Egyptian fruit bat) while learning about them from Israel’s top bat experts. In addition, I definitely heard a wild boar snuffling through the undergrowth. On the drive back I even got a glimpse of an Egyptian mongoose, meaning I got to see 8 species of animals I had never seen before in one evening – not bad at all. More importantly I had an unforgettable experience learning about bats with some very enthusiastic young people.
I’m already thinking of how to meet some wild rodents …