spirits of the night

fruit bat circling beneath a palm

Monday, January 16

I was reading a book last Thursday evening on the patio, waiting for a 7pm talk sponsored by Smithsonian to begin at the nearby Yenzi Club.  The day had slid into twilight, shadows had overtaken the camp, crickets and katydids drowning out the last cries of the ibis.  A little bat, smaller than any I have seen before, was dodging through the tree branches above, zipping over the carport, stabbing under the eaves, following closely the same looping circuit over and over, a tiny sliver of black ushering in the curtain of night.  Perhaps a little pipistrelle, its wingspan not exceeding 15 centimeters, was catching its dinner of mosquitos on the fly.

full moon rising in an African sky, January 9
a closer look reveals a pup hanging from this female

I went back to my reading and moments later heard a sound not unlike a flock of doves taking flight.  From across the garden, up under a neighboring palm tree dropped a horde of bats in one mass of confusion, wings flashing in every direction, an invasion spreading through and under nearby trees with such force that leaves were fluttering in their wake.  Much larger than my earlier visitor, I estimate the colony of approximately 150 bats to have wingspans close to 25 or 30 centimeters.  For a brief moment they were everywhere, the suddenly-stifled chirping of crickets creating an other-worldly hallucination of silence.  Many appeared to hover just beyond the leafy tree canopy before plunging in among the limbs to scramble onto branches, others a glittering black shadow cutting a zig-zag course beneath the trees to melt into the soup of darkness.  Once dispersed, their presence became an intermittent flash under a streetlight or carport.  The few minutes of excitement soon settled into the routine of night, the crickets accented by frogs, with an occasional exclamation of some bird surprised in its roost.

Creating an ambience of their own, the night world was soon colored by the solitary, larger fruit bats, their 40 centimeters of wingspan passing through on more direct courses, marked by a  heavy flapping rhythm of flight in contrast to the fluttering of their smaller cousins.  As I stand in a clearing between the trees, they circle back, curious of my presence, sometimes coming in so close I feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

There seem to be more of them now.  We see them illuminated in car headlights crossing the roads.  I have surprised them from their roosts in thick jungle tangles, and they hang beneath the metal roof at the squash court here in Yenzi.  Maybe it is the short dry season, creating a plethora of flowering and fruiting vegetation that carries them in on a scented night breeze.



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