The freebee magazine that comes through the letter box packed with information of what to do and where to go included a few sentences about a Highland Council Ranger-accompanied walk – a dusk stroll around the Merkinch Nature Reserve looking for bats and moths and other nocturnal life. The meeting place would be revealed if one phoned and booked a place, as if this were some illegal activity that could get raided by the police! I phoned and was unable to book a place. Knowing there was only one possible meeting place I planned to gate crash.
I knew from the start I wasn’t properly dressed. A friend of ours currently living in Germany told us that if they send out their children badly dressed they get reprimanded. If only we were in Germany that might what followed last night might never have happened. The other walkers were dressed up warmly, armed with stout walking boots. I had must-replace trainers and a light jacket.
Our first stop along the trail was a bush that had been doused in beer. My initial thought was that it was a naturally produced night time fragrance. The wonders of nature. I pictured addicts licking leaves when the liquid version ran out. The ranger had doused the tree before we arrived with the intention of attracting moths. We would, she promised, be able to see them on the way back.
With the light fading, we were seeing less. Colours had faded to greyscale. Now, was the time to awaken our sense of smell and hone in on the sounds we could hear. An experiment. I failed to listen properly as she handed around plastic cups, foil tops with a number written on top, slashed open with a mushroom knife, and asked us to identify the smell. There was nothing unusual about smelling coffee or a slices of apple concealed beneath the foil but my mind had linked the smells to the nocturnal life about to come alive. I thought the smells were wild life smells. How was I supposed to know what bats smelled of, or roe deer? That some species of night life smelled of coffee impressed me. It’s a Friday night. Please don’t expect my brain to make sensible connections.
We moved on. The ranger was a source of interesting information. As we waded through a field of meadowsweet, inhaling its almond fragrance, she told us about its healing properties. It’s an active ingredient in pain killing. I had an opportunity to put it into practice later on that night but, you know how it is, in through one ear out the other.
We moved on. There is a board walk around the outskirts of part of the reserve, the wetland part. Dark spots on darker spots at that time of night. Someone spotted a family of ducks on a late evening swim. Someone else spotted a heron standing among the reeds. My eyes and my glasses were not up to the task and I just took their word for it.
At this point the ranger distributed the bat gadgets. Bats echo-locate things but the frequency is too high for humans to hear, too high even for the dog in our midst to respond to. The gadget located the sounds and translated them to a lower frequency. Cool. Seriously cool. We switched on the gadgets and set the frequency at 50 something, or 40, and aimed it at the sky.
We were surrounded by bat noises. It was the sound of the “triffids” from the old TV programmes – swift, slapping, clacking sounds. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. In torch light the ranger showed cardboard cut outs of various bat sizes. It was the smallest one that we could hear. They eat midges, she said. If only they would eat the midges eating me, I thought. Apparently bats save the government millions of pounds they would have had to spend on pesticides. Well done, bats! Is there anything else you can do the help the government to make savings?
We moved on. The canal had a different species of bat – bigger ones – bats that skimmed the water and ate the bugs that floated on top. We were ordered to set the bat gadgets to 30 something. Not only could we hear them but we might also see them.
The moment approached.
Did I say I was probably the youngest person in the group? The ranger was younger than me, and there was a child with trainers that lit up lights as she walked, but bar them, I was the youngest. We crossed a railway line to get to the canal path. I was following someone whose torch was bobbing about the path ahead of me. There as a step up to the part of the path across the lines. I didn’t make the step and came hurtling down solidly across the lines. Yes despite being the almost-youngest, I fell over.
Railway lines are not ideal places to fall over. Did I imagine on-coming lights? Actually, yes. We had seen a train earlier. I wanted to just lie still for a moment for before dragging myself up. No one knew the train timetable and insisted I got up straight away. Eventually I was helped to my feet. I hurt everywhere - knees, elbows, my left shoulder and both hands. I couldn’t see the damage but I could feel it. I wanted to cry but cheerfully insisted that only my pride was injured!
I have to confess that the whole walk lost its magic at that point. I lost my interest in the bats as too much of me squealed with pain. We watched the waters of the canal. It was very still and there was an unruffled reflection of the houses on the opposite bank.
Someone insisted the plop and the ripples by one of the locks was an otter or a seal, but the ranger corrected him saying that otters and seals rarely plopped and rippled the water. It was much more likely to be a duck. She talked about otters. Apparently they had an otter expert out when the reserve was first being reclaimed and the boardwalk built. He looked around and declared the absence of otters on the reserve and went online to say so. Pictures flooded in over the next weeks and months of otters sunbathing on the boardwalk, and splashing about in shallow water pools.
The water-skimming bats were a no-show and the hour was late so we turned back to return to our starting point and check the beer-infused tree for moths. I approached the railway line crossing with uncertainty. Falling twice seemed unlikely but I was still feeling shaky on my feet.
The moths were a no-show. We collected a profusion of leaflets the ranger put out on a picnic bench table on moths and bats and went our separate ways.
In the light of day I examine my injuries. The top layer of flesh has been scraped off my hands. My elbows are as pointed as ever and sore to the touch, the left knee is quite bruised and the shoulder tells me I will never play championship tennis ever again.
Was it worth it all – my scraped hands and bruised knees? Absolutely, yes. Exploring a side of nature I never get to see, with an expert, was great. It amazes me that we can see, hear, smell and touch such a variety of life – and yet we choose to live in such a narrow strip of it.
And of course it amazes me that God made it all!