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Welcome to bat country: A day trapping 'little flying machines' in Darwin's nature parks

The Top End bush is a dusty oven and everybody is grunting as they haul large metal frames across the dirt.

Setting up bat traps is undeniably tough work but it can also result in a living "lucky dip" for scientists.

"You just never know with bats what you're going to get," said Dr Damian Milne, a senior spatial scientist at the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management.

"You might get nothing; you might get a hundred bats in there. It's a random sort of event."

Dr Milne has spent the last decade monitoring Darwin's microbats - the tiniest types of bats - for a long-term study about their health and population.

He said bats are critical to local ecosystems, so studying their long-term data is a good indicator of overall changes or disruptions to the environment.

Relatively little is known about Darwin's 20 native bat species or the broader bat population in Australia.

How to safely capture a bat

Dr Milne and his team catch the five-gram flying balls of fur with harp traps.

He has brought three semi-assembled harp traps to Holmes Jungle, a nature park on the outskirts of Darwin.

A group of NT Parks and Wildlife officers stand back to watch as he sets up the three-metre tall contraption.

Twenty minutes later, he has assembled a vertical frame with a plastic bag at the bottom and a long row of translucent fishing wire.

PHOTO: The harp-like wire gives the trap its name and is thin enough that the microbats can not detect it with their primary form of vision: sonar. (105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)

"[The bats] fly into these vertical fishing lines [and] slide down the fishing line into the bag at the bottom of the trap," Dr Milne said.

"They crawl up underneath the plastic that's at the bottom of the trap - it's like a funnel - so they can crawl into the bag but they can't crawl out again."

The team sets up the rest of the harp traps and lines them up in a row across a dirt road in the bush.

PHOTO: Traps that run across roads or large footpaths are more likely to catch microbats. (105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)

Bats often use man-made roads and footpaths as easy flying routes when they come out to feed at night.

"Most people don't realise but there are a lot of bats flying around at night time," Dr Milne said.

"A bat will eat up to half its body weight in insects at night and there are hundreds and thousands of these bats flying around.

"If we didn't have the bats flying around, we'd be inundated with insects."
Checking the microbat 'lucky dip'

Six hours later, the group returns to Holmes Jungle to check on the harp traps.

Dr Milne once came back to a trap to find he had caught roughly 150 bent-wing bats, a common species in Darwin.

His theory is that one bat got stuck in the trap and called his mates for backup, and they ended up having a party.

Tonight the bush is calm and silent, and there are no promising noises coming from the traps' thick plastic bags.

Dr Milne buries his hands inside the traps for a minute before he smiles and pulls out a little black ball.

Tonight's undertaking has caught two different types of bat, both of which are quickly put inside hessian bags to be documented.

PHOTO: Pygmy long-eared bats eat insects and are common to the Darwin region. (105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)

One of them is a male pygmy long-eared bat that squeaks like a mouse as Dr Milne holds it in his hands.

Its translucent wings are 5cm long when outstretched, and its body is smaller than a thumb.

"These guys are the most beautiful little creatures. They're incredibly delicate," Dr Milne said.

"They're amazing little flying machines."

The second specimen is a hoary wattled bat, a black species with white tips which give it a slightly frosted appearance.

The two bats are promptly weighed, measured and documented in the back of a truck under the light of the rangers' head lamps.

PHOTO: This park ranger in training was on his first night of bat trapping in Holmes Jungle. (105.7 ABC Darwin: Emilia Terzon)

After the paperwork is done, Dr Milne pulls out an electronic device that briefly picks up the bats' echo location calls: an alien ticking usually inaudible to the human ear.

It is then time for the bats to be released back into the bush.

Dr Milne smiles at one of the bats as it sits in his palm for a quiet moment before flying off into the inky night.

"Not many people get to have this experience. It's a bit of a shame they don't," he said.

"Their fur is just the softest fur you'll ever feel. Their skin membrane in between the fingers on their wing, you can barely feel it.

"They're an amazing little creature but they're so incredibly common.

"They'll be flying around your house every single night and many people wouldn't even be aware of it."

First posted 6 Nov 2014



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BatsRule!: Welcome to bat country: A day trapping 'little flying machines' in Darwin's nature parks
Welcome to bat country: A day trapping 'little flying machines' in Darwin's nature parks
Welcome to bat country A day trapping 'little flying machines' in Darwin's nature parks
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