On the wing
As anyone living here will know, Wiltshire, along with the rest of Britain, was plunged into the freezer in the second week of February. On the 10th, fifteen weather stations across the UK recorded their lowest-ever overnight February temperatures, with the Met Office's station in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, recording a temperature of minus 23C - the lowest in the UK since 1995. Jo and I have been living in this old stone building for nearly twelve years now and while we've seen snow and ice a few times, we've never felt a wind cut through us like this.
Which is not a plea for sympathy at all. Just a preamble to explain why seeing a bat flying around the garden just a few days later was so surprising.
A survey three years ago by professional ecologists, which covered both the Manor next door (aka 'the big house') and our small, semi-detached cottage, recorded a total of twelve species of bats (including both Horseshoes and several Myotis species hunting over the 'fish pond' just metres away on the other side of the garden wall). Three species (the near-identical Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, and Brown Long-eared Bat) appeared to emerge after dark from the roof spaces right over our heads, presumably slipping out between gaps between the old (very old) roof slates or through cracks in the mortar which allowed them into the roof space. Either way, given the lack of insulation up there and just how cold stone gets in mid-winter, we'd always assumed (without any evidence now I think about it) that once a bat slipped into hibernation it would stay that way for months...
Which brings me to noticing a distinctly bat-shaped silhouette zipping past the window late afternoon on February 15th. The external temperature had risen to between 7c and 10c, which was statistically slightly above the seasonal average according to the Met Office but still not exactly warm. Mild enough for a few winter midges (or winter gnats as the experts at Buglife prefer to call them) to emerge, though, and it was presumably these that our bat was looking for as it rolled and dipped and twisted around the garden.
I managed to grab a few photos with our brand-new camera which has such a large sensor that I was able to zoom in to the apparently unimpressive images I captured to reveal something that was - well, definitely a bat of some sort. Neither of us are experts, and it's difficult to judge size when you're more used to semi-seeing bats at dusk than in the afternoon anyway, but we think this was a Pipistrelle: it was small and fast, anyway, and had tiny ears. The excellent folk on Twitter weren't prepared to offer an identification based on the one photograph I posted (and who can blame them) but they didn't disagree either, so I think the chances are good...
While we don't know how long it (we've no idea whether our Pipistrelle was a he or a she) had been flying around before we saw it, our unexpected visitor was only out for about another fifteen minutes before landing halfway up the lichen-decorated roof of next-door's old apple house (an evocatively-scented building where apples from their orchard slowly fall apart over the winter) and scuttling into a small 'hole' between the slates (we couldn't be certain which, but the header image at the top of this blog was taken afterwards and points to the most likely spot).
So not from our own roof after all, but a gap between slates in one roof must look and function very much like a gap between slates in another - especially when they're adjacent to each other.
Mammals are pretty darn smart but how amazing that an animal half the weight of a AAA battery can not only sense the temperature change from beneath a layer of stone but can decide that there will (or at least might) be food available too. At least that's one interpretation. The other might be that our Pip's fat reserves were so depleted by the sub-zero temperatures of the week before that he or she had no option but to go and look for something to eat - which would have been risky for a tiny animal on the edge of starvation: the energy required to fly is huge, and bats seem to have evolved to fly at night to avoid predators. Our resident Jackdaws certainly seemed interested in this potential food source anyway. It's a good job bats can vanish into holes so remarkably quickly.
Jo favours the 'creative thinking' scenario, while I tend towards a slightly more instinct-based 'we all have to do what we need to do to survive' script, but whatever caused our bat to be out and about, we can only hope that it managed to grab enough precious calories to sink back into a deep sleep long enough to make it through to the Spring. If come April we see a small form with a tear in the membrane between the third and fourth fingers of the left hand whipping around our heads, we'll certainly be raising a glass to celebrate the resilience of life...