A Maine neighbor recently said there were vestibular bats roosting at her house. “Vestibular?” It’s her idiosyncratic locational, not species, description. The bats hang upside down in her vestibule in the middle of the night, resting and digesting for a while before flying off for another meal. On the dock for tonight’s twilight swim I discovered umbrellic bats (bumbershootal bats for Anglophiles). The lake, completely calm, reflected a reddish-orange band of light filtered through the low clouds on the horizon. Entranced by the sunset I did not initially register the nearby squeaks. They persisted, I heard them, and knew bats to be their source. Two market umbrellas on the dock are the only places a bat could hide; the squeaks came from the larger umbrella on the right. I loosened its ties, slowly spread its ribs, and looked inside. A furry brown knot perched at the top of the pole, a short distance from the umbrella’s highest vents. It was difficult to distinguish the knots features but it looked to contain at least two bats. I did not want to disturb it further, gently closed the umbrella, and sat with one eye watching the sunset and the other watching for the bats to crawl from beneath the canvas. Ten minutes later the sun was down. Despite many squeaks from within the umbrella no bat emerged. I tired of waiting and returned to the house.
I arrived at the lake a few minutes after midnight after teaching the first class in Current Topics in Law and Ethics at the Chelmsford “campus,” a pleasant suite of classrooms and offices in a suburban office building. I parked my car in the shade outside the first-floor classroom, windows and sunroof open, to keep an eye on the dogs. The drive north was much longer than I expected. I unpacked, opened windows to air out the stuffy interior, found a towel and flashlight, and went to the dock. The moon had not risen. Stars dotted the sky, the Milky Way a pale smudge. Walking parallel to the lake I heard a distinct splash hear shore. A fish? I heard another splash, then another, and then more as I walked on the dock. They didn’t sound like the splashes fish make when they jump, and there were too many. I listened mystified, playing the flashlight beam over the lake’s glassy surface. There was a splash to my right. I turned and saw concentric ripples and, at the edge of my vision, a flitting shadow. I heard another splash in front, then one to my left, and I understood. Bats were darting about catching insects, swooping low, drinking from the lake, then resuming their hunt. I raptly watched and listened for ten minutes. The lake and night were perfectly still, no sounds save the cries of loons and the splashes from the leathery flying acrobats. I broke from my reverie and dove in. Unfortunately my splash was louder than the bats’. It alarmed the dogs back in the house, who starting barking. They wouldn’t stop until I walked back and shushed them.
In Maine the other day I opened the door to my workshop. It’s a homemade barn-style door that hangs from galvanized rollers inside an eight-foot long galvanized track. As I slid the door aside something flew from behind it, past my head, and out over the door. “Weird place for a bird’s nest” I thought, with little room between the outside door and screen. As I looked for straw, twigs, or other signs of a nest something again flew close to my head and lit atop the sliding door. It paused momentarily, then tucked its leathery wings to its side and sinously crawled over the top of the door, its tiny muscles and bones flexing and reaching under its skin. No bird, this, but a bat. I angled the door away from the workshop for a better look. The bat was at the top, closest to the wall, so close that I feared squishing it if I let the door hang normally. I propped the door away from the house to give my new friend time to consider its options. Shortly the bat crawled into a narrow recess in the door, no doubt the same refuge from which I disturbed it. Years ago I mounted a bat house on a tree at the edge of the woods. I followed the directions to the letter as to the bat house’s location, orientation to the sun, height above the ground, and color. As far as I can tell it is still bat-free. Now without trying I’d provided a bat habitat that followed none of the rules and rolled back and forth, to boot. I decided I could try co-existing with my workshop bat but it settled the issue by moving on. A week later the bat has not returned.
Not to say I’ve been bat-less. That same day I took a twilight swim as the sun dropped below the horizon. The sunset was spectacular, the lake reflecting blood-red light that spanned the western sky. The lake was calm. I floated on my back in the deepening dark when I noticed winged shapes flitting and darting erratically above. Raising my head I saw a dozen or so bats hunting insects over the lake. I perched on a submerged rock to watch. The bats swooped, abruptly changed direction, flew low over the lake and spiraled 20 feet in the air. Watching any one bat in particular was impossible. I couldn’t keep track of their movements. Occasionally a bat would fly straight at my head, coming as close as a foot, only to veer aside when it realized I was not on the menu. Their mid-air agility is wondrous.
I’ve returned to this spot at twilight a number of times, watching the aeriel show from shore. The complex, zany flight patterns continue to fascinate, as does the bats’ utter silence. Their wings make no sound as they zig and zag.