Photographing Bats at World’s Largest Cactus Species

Last night in the Mexican desert Merlin was perched on the roof of Fred and Paul’s suburban alongside a giant cardon cactus. He mounted his camera on a tripod with a flash nearby. While we raised a second flash on a tripod duct-taped to three 10-foot poles to create a super tripod. And that was it–simple, huh? No way!

Bats often passed within 2-3 feet of a flower more than a dozen times before deciding to pause for a drink, and we could barely see them coming in the dim light. Catching the split-second action was a real challenge. It took two hours to get even half a dozen useful shots.

Pallid bat (Antrozous pallidus) visiting cardon cactus

Pallid bats arrived first, as the flowers were barely opening. But once the Long-nosed bats showed up, we didn’t see even one more Pallid bat. Apparently Long-nosed bats still rule the cardon.

Lesser long-nosed bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) pollinating cardon cactus

 

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Western Yellow Bat Portrait

Western yellow bat (Lasiurus Xanthinus)

Last night our amazing bat-catching team: Fred Frick, Paul Heady and their friend and colleague, Marm Kilpatrick, succeeded in capturing a Western Yellow bat, a species which Merlin wanted to add to his portrait collection. On their way back to us, they called ahead and we got the set ready. No night off for us, but that was okay because the bat was a very handsome male in its prime, and we were able to eventually get great portraits.

Initially, this bat was about as cantankerous and uncooperative as any Merlin has ever seen. However, we were able to greatly improve his disposition with a bribe of mealworms.

Tonight we will attempt, for the first time, to photograph bats pollinating cardon cactus in the wild, a major challenge considering that most of the flowers are 12 to 25 feet above ground, and Merlin will have to manually trigger in time to catch a rapidly moving bat, all in very low light!

 

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Flight shots of Pallid bats

Merlin entering our studio to photograph Pallid bats at cardon flowers

Everything doesn’t go so great all the time. We have our bad nights too. On our second night with bats in the studio, we shot 300 photos, most really good ones. Two nights ago we only got a few useful images, mostly because we were attempting an extremely difficult shot, namely bats in their final approach to flowers instead of actually at the flowers. This was more difficult than would normally be the case for nectar-feeding bats which routinely hover in front of flowers. These Pallid bats appear unable to hover and simply land on the flower. In so doing the wings are often in front of their faces, during the final approach.

To get that shot, we had to rig an infrared beam an inch in front of a flower then wait for long periods of time before our one bat who is working, La Contessa, would decide to visit the flower again. As the evening wore on she, of course, had filled her belly and had less incentive to visit. Because the beam has to be rigged to trigger flashes instead of cameras, in order to capture a split-second event, we had to shoot on bulb in very low light to prevent premature exposure. In the very low light, it is extremely difficult to tell when the bat is making a final approach to the flower, when often two to three bats would be circling nearby. The shutter had to be open just a split second prior to a bat breaking the beam as it approached the flower. The timing, combined with the low light and lack of visibility, made for many missed shots, complicated by the fact that, even when timing was correct, wings in front of faces often ruined even the best timed shots.

Here’s a short video clip of Merlin feeding mealworms to the bats: Merlin feeding pallid bats The one bat that did cooperate often completely drained the flower in a single visit and then wouldn’t be hungry again for another 30 minutes or more. Getting photos of our one cooperating bat departing from the flower with its face covered in pollen proved even more difficult, since after a Pallid bat lands on a flower to feed, there is absolutely no way to predict how soon it will depart. The camera shutter must be reopened after the bat lands, in order to catch its departure, but correct timing was a real challenge. With such difficult shooting, we only were able to get a half dozen good images in more than four hours of attempts. Merlin was so tired after three consecutive nights of working till 4 or 5 a.m., combined with weakness from his recent surgery, that at times he was performing about as effectively as if he had been drunk, slow reflexes and bumping into critically positioned beams and flash stands. Despite all that, Merlin got some nice flight shots of Pallid bats flying away from cardon flowers with pollen-covered faces.

On review today of photos so far taken, Merlin has concluded that all the critical project goals have been achieved, so we’re about to release the pallid bats, though some photography will continue.

Tonight we’ll only stay up late if Fred and Paul succeed in capturing a Western Yellow bat, a species which Merlin hopes to add to his portrait collection. The moon will be relatively bright tonight, and it’s not very hot today, so we’re not optimistic that they’ll be able to capture Yellow bats at their watering hole. We have mixed feelings: if they fail, we’ll get a night off, but Merlin also really wants a Yellow bat portrait.

Tomorrow night we’re hoping to photograph Lesser long-nosed and Pallid bats pollinating cardon cactus in the wild—a very big challenge!

 

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Next Stop: Baja California Sur for Bat Photography

It’s been a long time coming, but we’re back on the road again! It’s springtime in the gorgeous Sonoran Desert.

This next adventure takes us to Baja California Sur of Mexico.  We’re hoping to provide the first photographic documentation of insect-eating pallid bats pollinating the world’s largest cactus, the cardon, which lives exclusively in Mexico and is especially abundant in the arid Baja.

Some 25 years ago Merlin first observed pallid bats visiting saguaro cactus flowers near Kino Bay, Mexico, but could not be certain that they were actually playing a significant role as pollinators.  Now bat biologists Fred Frick and her husband Paul Heady have not only documented that these normally insect-eating bats routinely visit cardon flowers, but also that they are highly efficient pollinators.

On this trip we’ll meet them at their study site in Loreto on the Baja Peninsula in an attempt to further document their findings.   Merlin has previously photographed pallid bats capturing scorpions and centipedes but considers this to be a substantially greater challenge. We’ll arrive tomorrow, and I’m very much hoping to report progress in the coming week.

 

 

 

 

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