Our Night Out With The Bats !
Bats ! … what an unlikely company to hang out with !
But here is a small account of two wonderful evenings which we spent with the bats. It was a phone call from our dear friend KT one evening, which set up this unusual date. “ … there are bats feeding on * mahua flowers …” he said and added, “ … you will have to hurry … these flowers are not going to last too long ! ”
And hurry we did …
We decided to visit the spot the very next day. We have bats as our neighbours, a huge colony of ‘fruit eating’ bats – Pteropus giganteus - near our residence. We have spent quite a few mornings observing and photographing them and continue to do so even today. But this colony is their roosting place and now we were presented with an opportunity to see them in action. The ‘fruit bats’ actually feasting !
Of course, we did not wish to miss such an opportunity.
It would seem to be a very unlikely spot for such an event in the daytime !
So away we went, carrying all our camera gear, to this spot in Parel, right in central Mumbai. This is an extremely crowded location and the traffic is very heavy, both vehicular as well as pedestrian. But now it was the end of the day and the peak rush hour was over. There were a few people, mostly locals hanging around or the residents returning home after the day’s work. We spent a little time, observing the lone * mahua tree. It stood tall and rising from the ground below. There were hardly any leaves. This was in the month of April. Fortunately we were on a bridge and already more than ¾ of the level to the top. And the bat activity was immediately noticeable. Because of this height advantage, the visual angle was not very steep. But as I set up the camera on the tripod and peered up, I realized that I was required to crane my neck … not a very comfortable position.
The tree was laden with flowers and later, when I looked at the images closely, I could see that they had also attracted insects … it was indeed a feast for the bats !
By now we had attracted a fair number of curious onlookers. They wanted to know what we were after. When they realized that we were looking at the bats, some of them quickly lost their interest. Others were quite helpful and would point out to the bats, as they descended on to the tree, from almost complete darkness. Someone correctly identified the tree as * ‘mahua’ and added that they have often witnessed such scenes in their village. But those who were typical Mumbaikars were not able to relate to this, even when they were residents from the same locality.
“ अरे, ते ‘डिस्कव्हरी” वाले आहेत ! ” ( … arre, te Discovery wale ahet !) – they are from Discovery – ” said somebody and it felt mighty wonderful
The bat activity was incessant. They came out of the darkness and descended on the tree. We could make out two types of bats because of their size difference. They also showed a variation in their feeding. The bigger ones, the ‘fruit bats’ or the Pteropus giganteus , settled on the branches, gradually made their bat like advances to the flower site and were enjoying their treat in an unhurried ‘gourmet’ style. But in spite of the abundance of the flowers, conflict was inevitable if the bats got too close !
The smaller ones seemed to be in for some ‘fast food’ treats. They swooped right on to the flower, gobbled it up and were away in flash. They were so fast that we had difficulty in identifying where they would land next … forget about photographing them. But a good idea was to identify some flowers and anticipate their arrival and it did work on occasions. It was however, a shade easier to look out for the larger fruit bats. Ujwala, would shine the torch up in to tree and that would help me to focus in almost total darkness higher up in the tree. The light streaks from some passing vehicles was not helping either.
Ujwala was also the principal communicator on the site … she talked about how we wanted to see the bats ‘in action’ and wanted to take pictures as well. Our audience was suitably impressed. Some of them wanted to know even more about the bats and soon a small discourse on bats was delivered to the best of our ability.
It was amazing to see the flowers disappear right in front our eyes. The sheer speed with which the bats were devouring them was incredible. The target was the blossomed ones … it was remarkable to see that the smaller bud like flowers were not being touched … they were allowed to be ready as a treat for later. During the course of time that we were there, it could be easily be made out that the tree was getting bare. Of course, there was no way to know whether they were the same bats returning or all together different ones visiting the tree.
Shooting these bats in action was a little frustrating. Blame it on the very poor light, the fast bats in action or my technique … whatever ! The awkward posture that I had to assume was not helping either. So we decided to pack up for the night.
It was a tiring but an exciting evening and we did get some acceptable shots. After some debate, we decided to visit the next evening again. The scene at the tree was very different. The flowers had all but disappeared. The bats must have had a flowery banquet the previous night, all night long. They are known to travel long distances in search of food and such flowering and fruiting trees are not too frequent to be seen in Mumbai. Even the number of bats seemed less. Perhaps our enthusiasm was a little lower compared to the previous night. But I did set up my camera and took some pictures in a clinical fashion. This photo session was over quite fast and we headed right home.
We have also seen the fruit bats feeding on the * Umbar or the Indian Fig Tree fruits. Other fruiting trees which would be on a bat’s radar are of the ficus variety and even the commercially grown varieties like the Guavas, Chikoos. They feed even on nectar. They are known to travel long distances in search for food, often up to 30 to 40 kms in the night and return to their roosting places in the early hours of the day.
Now, whenever we see bats flying out in the evening sky, we cannot help but remember our night out with these amazing creatures of the night !
* Mahua - Madhuca indica / longifolia
This tree is revered by the tribals of the country, esp central India and all its parts are put to use. The seeds yield oil, the cake becomes a fertilizer, the flowers are edible, are used to make a syrup for medicinal purposes and are also used to brew liquor, called ‘mahuwa’ … a drink integral to the tribal culture, such as that of the Santhals, the Koyas and the Waralis.
** Umbar or Cluster Fig or Indian Fig or Goolar Fig - Ficus racemosa