Epauleted bats were not in my plans in 1982 when I accidentally became aware of their extraordinary characteristics. They and other species of flying foxes are among Africa's most interesting and important animals. (Indeed, the decline of fruit- and nectar-eating bats here and elsewhere poses a very real threat to the survival of tropical forests—but more of that later.)
On my first adventure in Africa I was mist-netting for other bats on the Sengwa River in Zimbabwe. Alone in the dark at 2 a.m., knee-deep and shivering in the cold water, I was more than a little nervous about the many unidentifiable sounds. Lions and hyenas called, and a herd of Cape buffalo rustled the tall grass nearby. One sound, particularly, was memorable and tantalizing—a continuous singsong honking. What creature spoke with this voice? In the next few nights I netted several epauleted bats, but weeks passed before I discovered that the haunting call was the courtship song of this member of the flying fox group.
I set out to capture on film a courting epauleted bat. Yet my many attempts invariably failed. The animals were extremely shy and alert; they simply wouldn't permit intrusion into their private lives. So my 1982 African journey ended without my seeing even one courting epauleted bat.
My next encounter with this intriguing creature came in 1984, during research on frog-eating bats in Kenya. Dr. Michael J. Ryan, a frog behaviorist from the University of Texas at Austin, was recording evening frog calls beside Lake Victoria when he summoned me to come quickly.
Mike had spotted an epauleted bat performing in a nearby tree. We watched from a few yards away one of the most fascinating of mammalian displays. The bat was simultaneously singing, beating half-closed wings, and flashing the long tufts of white shoulder fur from which it takes its name. Except during courtship, this fur is withdrawn into shoulder pouches. Glands in the pouches are believed to secrete attractive odors, which the long epaulet hairs and beating wings help waft to cruising females.
Distinctive, too, are pouches in the cheeks of the males, inflatable sacs that act as resonance chambers to enhance their calls, rhythmic honking audible for 200 meters or more, with a frequency sometimes exceeding one per second.
I made up my mind to photograph this amazing behavior. Canceling homeward plane reservations, I returned with my camera equipment and Kenyan assistant Paul Kabochi to our previous observation site in the Kaloka Veterinary Research Station.
That evening I was ecstatic when epauleted bats resumed their courtship. The next day we spent seven hours rigging and concealing flashes, remote tripping devices, and other photographic equipment. Our bat returned at dusk, as we had hoped, but before a single picture could be taken, a sudden tropical storm terminated his display and nearly wiped out our gear. A change in weather foiled further attempts.