Meeting a Microbat

Macro photography: Take 1

While shooting the ACT Wildlife 2020 calendar (we started early okay, we know its 2019) we get to do some really cool and unexpected things, like photographing a baby microbat. In early January 2019 we found ourselves snaking through the northern suburbs of Canberra on a dusty, windy morning when it was already over 30 degrees before 10 o’clock. We’d come to meet a microbat called Caroluna.

Microbat implies small, but we weren’t ready for just how small. Caroluna was four weeks old and only weighed four grams – which is a little less than an A4 piece of paper! Caroluna was delivered to ACT Wildlife on the very last day of 2018 after being found at a back door in the Canberra suburb Fisher. It’s not known how the bat got there, but she may have fallen through a hole from a roost in the eaves.

This little bat is kept in a special humidicrib to keep the temperature around 30 degrees and the humidity between 60-80 percent. These conditions help the microbat maintain its temperature without wasting its precious energy or being dehydrated. While we were there Caroluna was given a drink of water. Well, more a drop of water, less than 0.1 grams was given to her, any more and her stomach could burst from being too full.

Caroluna has a lot of growing to do to reach the adult size of 14 grams and 7 centimetres. She will stay in care being fed a special microbat formula until she is fully furred and can fly. She will then be transferred to the microbat flight centre in Windellama, near Goulbourn, where she will get her flight strength up before finally being released where she was originally found.

view of microbat in hand from above
…being held like this is quite comfortable

According to the Australian Museum there are over 90 species of bat in Australia. Microbat species are anywhere from 3 to 150 grams at adulthood, with wingspans up to 25cm. Compared to ‘megabats’ (or fruit bats), your more typically seen bat, who can weigh anywhere up to 1 kilo with one metre wingspans – ‘micro’ becomes more and more apt. Luckily the ACT Wildlife carer was happy to share her knowledge on bats and told us Caroluna is a Gould’s Wattled Bat (Chalinolobus gouldii for those who like pronouncing hard words). This species has maternity and overwintering roosts in Canberra and a very strange way of having babies. The mother bats will store sperm in Autumn but postpone getting pregnant by delaying fertilisation, keeping the embryo dormant (embryonic diapause) and delaying birthing. All of this just so she can give birth in spring or early summer when weather conditions and the insect supply is just right.

Gould’s Wattled Bat’s can give birth to twin babies. This means when adult females come into care the number of bats can quickly multiply. Caroluna’s carer told us last year she had five female bats arrive after they were found in a horse rug. They all gave birth to twins, so she soon had 15 bats in the house! Luckily, they were all good mum’s and were able to feed the babies themselves.

Mother bats and their babies or ‘pups’ have distinct individual calls allowing them to find each other in a busy bat roost. We’ll take that for granted, to us it just sounded like a lot of adorable high-pitched squeaking. These social calls are within our hearing range but when microbats echolocate to find their insect food, the noises they make are at ultrasonic frequencies – well above human hearing! There are some exceptions though, as the echolocation calls of the White-striped Freetail Bat can be heard by people.

Of the 90 mega and micro bat species in Australia, 43 of these are either locally or nationally threatened. According to the 1999 Action Plan for Australian Bats published by the Department of the Environment and Energy, and more recently as part of a 2016 fact sheet by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, 35 of these species are microbats. Habitat loss and disturbance of roost sites are the biggest contributors to the declining numbers of theses incredible creatures. Given their role as insectivores in the Australian environment, a continued decline in populations is of serious concern for long term biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Taking the photos

Photographing this baby microbat was something of a challenge, due to her extremely small size and endearing (frustrating) quality of keeping her head in almost constant motion. A friend from my photography course and fellow Nikon user graciously lent me her 105 mm macro lens which made this impossible task achievable. Being the first time I’d used a macro lens and having a bat that moved faster than my camera could autofocus made for a tricky situation.

microbat in open pair of hands looking at camera
Cooperating

The shoot began with the bat in an open pair of hands, this was more to feel out how cooperative our subject was going to be (image below). It was at about this point that Mitch went from photographer to lightstand, a 35mm lens just wasn’t going to cut it today with such a small animal. We used a continuous LED light panel as a primary light source, with window light for some fill. The open hands provided some great shots of stretched wings and the texture over her back; however, our subject was definitely not a cooperative one. There are more photos of tail then head with this pose.

microbat spread across two palms looking over shoulder
Sort of Cooperating
tail end of a microbat in open hand
Definitely not cooperating

We settled on having the carer wrap the microbat in her hands, this ‘hand straight jackettm’ method helped stop Caroluna from turning around, and around, and around. Then it was a case of balancing a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the head motion against the f-stop needed to give some depth of field to a thumbnail sized head.

Interesting side note, the head movement was a constant search for food, because the carer is a surrogate mum the scent and proximity work as a trigger for young Caroluna to search for a teat.

behind the scenes of a microbat photo shoot
Is this my good side?

Luckily the carer was extremely patient and was happy to hold the miniature model for us while we took over 1000 photos. Here’s a few that just happened to be in focus. We’re definitely happy with our results.

microbat held in tissue between thumbs
Trapped!! But at least I’m pretty…

The fun didn’t stop here, as we also met Dax, a juvenile grey headed flying fox hanging out on a folding clothesline out the back. In slightly more familiar territory (this is our second flying fox shoot, practically makes us experts) we set to work capturing the shy creature. These common, fruit eating bats are the noisy neighbours you might have noticed in Commonwealth Park, Canberra. Known for large colonies, mum and bub usually travel together every night on the search for food. We focused on capturing the expressive eyes on this little guy. Being nocturnal the large eyes can reflect a great catchlight from the right angle. We again used the LED panel for primary light, and sunlight for fill. The dummy in his mouth is a surrogate teat that helps to keep him calm.

I’m cute and I know it

Microbat macro photography guide

We’ve put together a few photography tips for those lucky enough to photograph baby microbats:

  1. Work with an extremely patient carer willing to stand or kneel in a hot room holding the bat while you take an absurd number of photos.
  2. Fast memory cards, that absurd number of photos has to load into a card, the faster the card (Speed 10 for SD, at least 95mb/s for CF cards) the less time you need to spend waiting for the images to buffer.
  3. Don’t handle the bat. While lyssavirus was only found in one microbat species (the Yellow-bellied Sheathtail Bat) it is assumed any bat in Australia could carry the virus. Carer’s are vaccinated against this disease which spreads from infected bats to humans through bat saliva (e.g. bites or scratches). To test if a bat has lyssavirus it must be euthanised – this obviously goes against the reason wildlife organisations are caring for these animals.
  4. Use a macro lens – it’s 4 grams guys you can’t do this without one – and the highest f stop the light levels allow.
  5. Add more light with a continuous light source, using a flash would scare the animal. We used an Aputuretech Amaran HR672C LED panel at 80% power. Please don’t use hot lights (e.g. tungsten), you don’t want to cook the talent.
  6. Don’t forget a stand for the light source, or if you can afford to feed one, another photographer will do just as well to hold the panel.

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Postscript

Sadly we have to share that Caroluna passed away several days after this photo shoot. Not every orphaned or injured animal makes it to release, and losses like this make the successes of wildlife carers even more remarkable.

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