It’s an impossibly idyllic early summer season night on the Backs of Cambridge. A blackbird flutes as a person pressure-washes a desk outdoors a resort. Mating flies drift on the breeze, alongside a whiff of marijuana. A pupil lies flat on the riverbank, toes within the water.
Punting on the river Cam has stopped for the night time however one boat slips into the gathering nightfall: the Bat Punt Safari.
The allure of crashing into overhanging willow branches in the dead of night in pursuit of principally feared nocturnal mammals is, unexpectedly, one of many hottest tickets on the town. This Friday, the curtain lifts on the brand new bat-punting season, which has raised £36,000 for Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust over latest summers.
Bat professional Iain Webb from Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust. Photograph: Martin Pope for the Guardian
“It’s the best bat experience in Britain,” says Iain Webb of the Wildlife Trust, who devised the idea and is approaching his 100th safari. “The fantastic thing about nature is that you don’t know what you’re going to see. You’re constantly surprised every time you go out.”
The most shocking factor Webb has seen on these nocturnal excursions? A unadorned pupil swinging from a bridge. Our first unusual sighting of the night is a surfboard, adrift on the river, with none hint of an proprietor. “Surf’s down at the minute,” stated Webb.
Scudamore’s Punts, which operates the safari, has taken bookings from everywhere in the world, with one couple flying in from New Zealand for a second time to repeat their expertise.
Almost as excited because the vacationers is Samuel Harris, an artist and part-time punt “chauffeur”, who stands on the rear of the boat and expertly navigates fallen bushes and the notorious “Dead Man’s Corner” the place many a punter loses their quant (the pole) in a treacherously deep riverbed gap. It’s Harris’s first journey to search for bats. “I get a great view from where I am,” he says. “It’s a lovely thing to do on a Friday night.”
The safari punt, chauffeured by Sam Harris. Photograph: Martin Pope for the Guardian
A tawny owl calls and Webb deciphers the “ak-ak-ak” of a juvenile heron, unseen within the riverside willows. Then, a flit of bat towards the darkening sky.
It makes a moist slapping noise on the small bat detectors we maintain as much as choose up their echolocating sounds, that are too excessive for all however the youngest of human ears. Webb identifies it as soprano pipistrelle; quickly we drift by a feeding pack of half a dozen beneath a busy street bridge.
Webb factors out how their echolocation noises pace up – sounding like somebody blowing a raspberry – because the bat closes in on its prey.
Each bat species sounds subtly totally different – the high-pitched wibbling of a lesser horseshoe bat is “like a 1960s alien,” in keeping with Webb. We don’t hear that one however we’re quickly selecting up the “random hand-clapping” beat of a serotine bat, which seems noticeably larger towards the indigo sky.
Small bat detectors choose up echolocating sounds. Photograph: Martin Pope for the Guardian
Bats declined massively in Britain throughout the 20th century with the loss of draughty roofs for roosting and the destruction of insect-rich wildflower meadows, however many species seem like slowly growing in quantity once more this century.
Cambridge stays a bat hotspot, with a plethora of cavernous previous school roofs to roost in and loads of bugs on the river Cam’s preserved water meadows.
Later, Webb takes out a high-powered lamp and sweeps it over the river. It illuminates a bat virtually skimming the floor: Daubenton’s, also referred to as the water bat for its behavior of seizing bugs simply above the water. With its pale stomach and dipping flight, it seems like a nocturnal swallow.
What’s the enchantment of bats? “We’re diurnal ground-based, slow-moving mammals and they are completely the opposite,” says Webb. “There’s so much mystery, and it’s amazing how much is still being learnt about bats.”