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September 17, 2015

Bat Photography

When I was in my teens, I worked for a while for Fred Webster, a scientist who studied bats. Fred's lab was a large Quonset hut in the back yard of his house (which was, appropriately, right next to the Mount Auburn Cemetery). His yard was large enough to also contain a huge, professional quality trampoline in its own building. Fred was proud of the fact that, at the time, it was the largest trampoline east of the the Mississippi. My job included helping to photograph bat flight patterns, develop and print the results and take care of the animals. I still have a small scar on my arm from the subcutaneous anti-rabies shots I had to have in order to work there.

I worked with the little brown bat (Myotis Lucifugus) and one of my favorite tasks was defrosting them. They hibernate well and if you keep them in the freezer compartment of the lab's refrigerator, all you have to do is take them out and let them thaw for a while. I'd go to the lab refrigerator and open the freezer to take out an ice crusted lump and place it in the bottom of a cage. A short while later with the frost melted into a pool around it you could see that it was furry, curled up on itself and small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.

Later in the day it would shake itself awake and climb the wires of the cage to hang upside-down. As I remember we gave them a couple of days to acclimate before flying them.

On one side of the hangar was an expanse of black velvet to provide a non-reflective surface to photograph against. Positioned in front of that backdrop was an electronic cannon that let us fire mealworms into the air to a relatively predictable height. High on the opposite wall was a "gun camera,” a repurposed piece of military hardware that was intended to track and confirm air combat hits. We used a Graflex 4x5 plate film back.

We'd release the bat and, as it flew circles around the hangar, we’d load the little mealworm cannon. Firing the cannon simultaneously started the camera. The bat would dive for the treat and the camera would fire about six sequential exposures in about a second. When the plate was developed we'd have a record of the swoop, loop and capture all on a single plate.

I used to have examples of the photos, but they are lost somewhere.