Not every animal that flies is an aviator. June bugs and mosquitoes fly without any particular destination in mind; they just seem to flit around, hoping to detect a random meal. In my way of thinking, to be called an aviator you have to navigate, to use the air as a travel medium with a destination in mind, either consciously or subconsciously. By definition, navigation is not random; it is purposeful. Migrating Monarch Butterflies qualify as navigators and aviators, and so do migratory Bats.
I was just one of hundreds (maybe thousands) of tourists waiting on and around the bridge to see the show that night. Once downtown I was told that about half of the 1.5 million strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony had already migrated to Mexico for the winter, but the remaining bats might put on a good show at sundown. They did.
Once the skies had fully darkened, I saw what looked like a soundless horizontal waterfall of bats erupt from underneath the crevices of the bridge structure. Can you imagine 1000 planes a second leaving a major airport at the same time, using all available runways, with no controllers and no collisions? That’s how it seemed.
I watched with morbid fascination as a very fat bug made the biggest mistake of its short life by blundering near the bat departure pattern. At least five bats peeled out of the pattern and within milliseconds honed in on the hapless target. The first bat to the target must have gotten a meal because the squishy bug disappeared out of the traffic pattern with nary a puff of smoke. No NTSB investigation needed.
Walking up on the bridge for a different view I saw an even more incredible sight. Every once and awhile a bat jetting up the departure pathway would make a high speed 180° turn and head straight back into the torrent, without getting hit, best I could tell in the midst of the furiously flinging wings. It made the head-to-head passes of the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels look like child’s play. Why they did that I don’t know; maybe just for the adrenaline rush.
On the other hand, even the best aviators can screw up. I saw evidence of this back in Panama City while looking out at my pool one evening. In the dim light I could see ripples in the usually glass smooth surface of the pool. On investigating, I found a Little Brown Bat in the pool, spreading its wings to support itself by the surface tension of the water. They really were — dare I say it — water wings. But it was clearly tired and in danger of drowning.
Had his bat radar gone on the fritz? Or did he just mess up like the occasional seaplane pilot who becomes disoriented by a glassy water surface. On the one hand, bats can maneuver safely through a storm of oncoming high velocity fellow bats, but could be foiled by something as innocuous as a still water surface. Strange.
I guess even great human pilots have messed up for lesser reasons.
I scooped up the bat in a net and laid the wet furball on the ground to recuperate. Oddly, after a minute’s rest, the bat started crawling forward towards my foot using the hooks on its wings to pull himself along. Then he climbed onto my shoe. My Granddaughter who was watching the whole scene thought that was very strange. I did too.
But then the little water-soaked bat started climbing up my slightly nervous leg. I assure you the sensation of having a bat crawl up your leg can be discomforting, but my sense of curiosity was far more compelling. I was trusting he wasn’t looking for a place to bite me. However, as he got closer to my most sensitive region, that thought began to really concern me. Fortunately all he wanted to do was climb, to safety from predators I assume. At least he didn’t consider me a predator. Maybe he thought I was a tree: I was, after all, standing oh so still.
As he approached my neck I began to wonder whether he was a werebat, looking for a succulent neck. Then it occurred to me that fleshy earlobes might be ripe for biting — like fat bugs perhaps, in a bat’s mind. Yet strangely I didn’t feel threatened, even when I could feel his hooked wings gently grab a “handhold” on my neck.
I then realized that once he reached the top of my head he had nowhere to go. And the thought of a bat sitting on my head for a while was not all that appealing. I wasn’t about to pick him off my head without a thickly-gloved hand. They do have teeth.
So I choose a non-confrontational course of action. I leaned my head into a tall pine tree trunk, and sure enough the soaking wet little bat kept on going. The photo below taken from behind him shows him (or her) continuing the ever-so-slow climb.
I have mixed emotions about the fact that my granddaughter did not take a picture of me leaning my head against the tree — with a bat on my head.
Moral of the story for human aviators? The little guys are absolutely awesome fliers, with unbelievably fast reflexes, unerring navigation, and the best possible terrain avoidance equipment. But even they can screw up. And when they do, their survival depends on the help of others; others willing to take a risk to help the fallen air-critters.
I was pleased to share this Nature moment with my Granddaughter. After all, it’s not every day you get to watch a bat climb your Grandfather, from his toes to his head.
Below is one of the most endearing videos I’ve found of a Little Brown Bat. The teenager in the video is clearly enthusiastic about one of nature’s smallest aviators. (Video borrowed from http://www.chesapeakebay.net/fieldguide/critter/little_brown_bat.)