The French Connection: New Species Discovery in Cumbria

Frank Sinatra’s version of September Morn is one of my favourites from his extensive repertoire; if it    wasn’t for Frenchman Gilbert Becaud co-writing the song with Neil Diamond we wouldn’t have heard it at all.  However at the top of my cultural favourites list is the painting entitled September Morn by French artist Paul Chabas.  Disregarding the charming focal point of the painting, it’s setting could have been the west shore of Windermere.

When you have pulled yourself away from studying that painting on Google and now that the scene is firmly in your mind’s eye, try to imagine three bat surveyors standing around an “L” shaped building on the west shore of England’s largest lake at dawn.  Dawn is always the best time of day for me; it has a magic that I rarely encounter these days apart from having to be in the proximity of a building waiting for bats to return to their day roosts.

Imaging the outside of the “L” against the lake on the two sides.  I had chosen to stand in a position allowing a perfect view along one elevation and Toby was not far from me, near the corner looking along the other edge of the building in the opposite direction.

Arriving at the location an hour and a bit before sunrise, bats could be seen flying in the area as soon as we kitted up at the vehicle.  To get to the outside corner of the building Toby and I had to take the same route along the edge of his elevation.  Headphones on and detector coupled to digital recorder I made my way to the corner along the bottom of Toby’s tall stone wall.  A loud rhythmic pulse heard through the headphones was put down to an electronic communications set up inside the building close to the corner.

I got in position and the three of us checked our radios before concentrating on the task in hand.  I could still hear the faint constant rhythmic pulses when Toby popped his head round the corner of the wall and said, “’Ere, come and listen to this.”  My immediate concern that I was going to miss any returning bats to my area of observation was thwarted by Toby kindly suggesting that we swapped positions.  As we stood together for a minute or so, we listened to that rhythmic pulsing.  “What do you think that is?” said Toby.  I told him that I had been inside the building earlier and had seen the mass of electronic gubbins and strongly suspected it was the source of the broad spectrum frequency pulsing.

“But listen – carefully”, advised Toby and left me to it.  I did just that and realised that it was not what I had thought and perhaps carelessly dismissed.  Not quite metronomic, the pulsing had an infrequent slight syncopation and as the sun rose, so did the realisation in my dawn jaded brain that I was listening to a bat above me, roosting on the outside of the building near the corner just below the eaves.  After recording this social calling for a good number of minutes, the bat flew away from exactly where my eyes were focussed.

I watched the bat fly out over the lake and continue to feed along a route back and forth a short distance from me and my bat detector.  Toby could hear it too from his position and soon we were discussing the frequency over the two-way radios.  Now fully awake and with gathering interest we agreed that the bat was using a constant 38 kHz.  It was bang on with no variation; nothing heard at all at 45 kHz!

As the morning light increased in strength the bat flew off to the south and was not seen or heard again.  Returning home, the priority was to download the recordings to confirm what we had heard.  Yes – there it was in full colour – sonograms of the social calls and flight echolocation.  Who would believe it?  Rational thought suggested the recordings should be verified by Jon Russ who hosts a website dedicated to the species known to frequent lacustrine habitats and use the 38 kHz frequency.  Duly emailed, a reply was prompt confirming that this bat was, as you’ve probably guessed by now, a Nathusius’s pipistrelle.

My first confirmed English Nathusius’s pipistrelle with souvenir recordings, sonograms to match and the first Cumbrian record on Jon Russ’s distribution map.

What a mid September Morn!

John Martin


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