Meeting a Microbat

Macro photography: Take 1

While shooting the ACT Wildlife 2020 calendar (we started early okay, we know its 2019) we get to do some really cool and unexpected things, like photographing a baby microbat. In early January 2019 we found ourselves snaking through the northern suburbs of Canberra on a dusty, windy morning when it was already over 30 degrees before 10 o’clock. We’d come to meet a microbat called Caroluna.

Microbat implies small, but we weren’t ready for just how small. Caroluna was four weeks old and only weighed four grams – which is a little less than an A4 piece of paper! Caroluna was delivered to ACT Wildlife on the very last day of 2018 after being found at a back door in the Canberra suburb Fisher. It’s not known how the bat got there, but she may have fallen through a hole from a roost in the eaves.

This little bat is kept in a special humidicrib to keep the temperature around 30 degrees and the humidity between 60-80 percent. These conditions help the microbat maintain its temperature without wasting its precious energy or being dehydrated. While we were there Caroluna was given a drink of water. Well, more a drop of water, less than 0.1 grams was given to her, any more and her stomach could burst from being too full.

Caroluna has a lot of growing to do to reach the adult size of 14 grams and 7 centimetres. She will stay in care being fed a special microbat formula until she is fully furred and can fly. She will then be transferred to the microbat flight centre in Windellama, near Goulbourn, where she will get her flight strength up before finally being released where she was originally found.

view of microbat in hand from above
…being held like this is quite comfortable

According to the Australian Museum there are over 90 species of bat in Australia. Microbat species are anywhere from 3 to 150 grams at adulthood, with wingspans up to 25cm. Compared to ‘megabats’ (or fruit bats), your more typically seen bat, who can weigh anywhere up to 1 kilo with one metre wingspans – ‘micro’ becomes more and more apt. Luckily the ACT Wildlife carer was happy to share her knowledge on bats and told us Caroluna is a Gould’s Wattled Bat (Chalinolobus gouldii for those who like pronouncing hard words). This species has maternity and overwintering roosts in Canberra and a very strange way of having babies. The mother bats will store sperm in Autumn but postpone getting pregnant by delaying fertilisation, keeping the embryo dormant (embryonic diapause) and delaying birthing. All of this just so she can give birth in spring or early summer when weather conditions and the insect supply is just right.

Gould’s Wattled Bat’s can give birth to twin babies. This means when adult females come into care the number of bats can quickly multiply. Caroluna’s carer told us last year she had five female bats arrive after they were found in a horse rug. They all gave birth to twins, so she soon had 15 bats in the house! Luckily, they were all good mum’s and were able to feed the babies themselves.

Mother bats and their babies or ‘pups’ have distinct individual calls allowing them to find each other in a busy bat roost. We’ll take that for granted, to us it just sounded like a lot of adorable high-pitched squeaking. These social calls are within our hearing range but when microbats echolocate to find their insect food, the noises they make are at ultrasonic frequencies – well above human hearing! There are some exceptions though, as the echolocation calls of the White-striped Freetail Bat can be heard by people.

Of the 90 mega and micro bat species in Australia, 43 of these are either locally or nationally threatened. According to the 1999 Action Plan for Australian Bats published by the Department of the Environment and Energy, and more recently as part of a 2016 fact sheet by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, 35 of these species are microbats. Habitat loss and disturbance of roost sites are the biggest contributors to the declining numbers of theses incredible creatures. Given their role as insectivores in the Australian environment, a continued decline in populations is of serious concern for long term biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Taking the photos

Photographing this baby microbat was something of a challenge, due to her extremely small size and endearing (frustrating) quality of keeping her head in almost constant motion. A friend from my photography course and fellow Nikon user graciously lent me her 105 mm macro lens which made this impossible task achievable. Being the first time I’d used a macro lens and having a bat that moved faster than my camera could autofocus made for a tricky situation.

microbat in open pair of hands looking at camera

The shoot began with the bat in an open pair of hands, this was more to feel out how cooperative our subject was going to be (image below). It was at about this point that Mitch went from photographer to lightstand, a 35mm lens just wasn’t going to cut it today with such a small animal. We used a continuous LED light panel as a primary light source, with window light for some fill. The open hands provided some great shots of stretched wings and the texture over her back; however, our subject was definitely not a cooperative one. There are more photos of tail then head with this pose.

microbat spread across two palms looking over shoulder
Sort of Cooperating
tail end of a microbat in open hand
Definitely not cooperating

We settled on having the carer wrap the microbat in her hands, this ‘hand straight jackettm’ method helped stop Caroluna from turning around, and around, and around. Then it was a case of balancing a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the head motion against the f-stop needed to give some depth of field to a thumbnail sized head.

Interesting side note, the head movement was a constant search for food, because the carer is a surrogate mum the scent and proximity work as a trigger for young Caroluna to search for a teat.

behind the scenes of a microbat photo shoot
Is this my good side?

Luckily the carer was extremely patient and was happy to hold the miniature model for us while we took over 1000 photos. Here’s a few that just happened to be in focus. We’re definitely happy with our results.

microbat held in tissue between thumbs
Trapped!! But at least I’m pretty…

The fun didn’t stop here, as we also met Dax, a juvenile grey headed flying fox hanging out on a folding clothesline out the back. In slightly more familiar territory (this is our second flying fox shoot, practically makes us experts) we set to work capturing the shy creature. These common, fruit eating bats are the noisy neighbours you might have noticed in Commonwealth Park, Canberra. Known for large colonies, mum and bub usually travel together every night on the search for food. We focused on capturing the expressive eyes on this little guy. Being nocturnal the large eyes can reflect a great catchlight from the right angle. We again used the LED panel for primary light, and sunlight for fill. The dummy in his mouth is a surrogate teat that helps to keep him calm.

I’m cute and I know it

Microbat macro photography guide

We’ve put together a few photography tips for those lucky enough to photograph baby microbats:

  1. Work with an extremely patient carer willing to stand or kneel in a hot room holding the bat while you take an absurd number of photos.
  2. Fast memory cards, that absurd number of photos has to load into a card, the faster the card (Speed 10 for SD, at least 95mb/s for CF cards) the less time you need to spend waiting for the images to buffer.
  3. Don’t handle the bat. While lyssavirus was only found in one microbat species (the Yellow-bellied Sheathtail Bat) it is assumed any bat in Australia could carry the virus. Carer’s are vaccinated against this disease which spreads from infected bats to humans through bat saliva (e.g. bites or scratches). To test if a bat has lyssavirus it must be euthanised – this obviously goes against the reason wildlife organisations are caring for these animals.
  4. Use a macro lens – it’s 4 grams guys you can’t do this without one – and the highest f stop the light levels allow.
  5. Add more light with a continuous light source, using a flash would scare the animal. We used an Aputuretech Amaran HR672C LED panel at 80% power. Please don’t use hot lights (e.g. tungsten), you don’t want to cook the talent.
  6. Don’t forget a stand for the light source, or if you can afford to feed one, another photographer will do just as well to hold the panel.

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Sadly we have to share that Caroluna passed away several days after this photo shoot. Not every orphaned or injured animal makes it to release, and losses like this make the successes of wildlife carers even more remarkable.


Welcome to Scratchings, the Swimming Wombat Photographics Blog!

Swimming Wombat Photographics?

That’s us, Christine (Chris) Fernance and Mitchell (Mitch) Baskys. We’re photographers, explorers and wildlife lovers, currently based in Canberra, Australia.

We share a passion for photography and have 18 years of combined experience. This by no means makes us experts, but our passion drives us to capture images that best represent us, what we love doing and the world around us. We love working in all photographic genres, and try to push ourselves to try new techniques and experiences to grow our style and what we capture.

We have a soft spot for underwater and wildlife images. This evolved from our backgrounds in marine biology and science. While learning about the underwater world we developed a strong desire to share what we found. We are both keen SCUBA divers and have expanded our skills into underwater photography. This lets us share the environments and animals we encounter with anyone we can.

We’ve spent time living and travelling along the east coast of Australia, in Coffs Harbour, Townsville, Cairns and Huskisson to name a few places.

A lionfish caught in the spotlight on the Nui Marine 6 
Papua New Guinea

We were also lucky enough to make multiple trips to Papua New Guinea over the past couple of years, living for a month or two in Port Moresby with Mitch’s Dad. It was during this first trip that we really began to consider writing about our experiences. This led to our first published article “Diving on your Doorstep: Bootless Bay”, in Niugini Blu a national water sports and diving magazine. We’re extremely proud of this article, sharing our images and the story with all of Papua. Since then, we’ve travelled to Tawali Leisure and Dive Resort to capture images above and below the waves for the resort. Its true to say New Guinea has a way of capturing you and we continue to plan return trips as often as possible.

Wombats swim?!

It’s a little-known fact that wombats can swim (if you count walking across the bottom of a river as swimming). When rivers dare to get in their way, wombats take the direct route. This stubborn, dogged attitude inspired our name and reflects our own determination to capture images without letting things (like rivers) get in our way. A swimming wombat also links to our interest in the aquatic world and Australia’s unique animals, some of the many things we love photographing.

Sleeping it off in a thistle…
Maria Island TAS

So, Scratchings?

It’s our brand new blog! Somewhere for us to share more of our images and the stories behind them. Over time we hope this becomes an amazing collection of our adventures that are shared with everyone.

Father and strange son (wombat Ridge)

It’s our aim to tell the stories of the places, animals and people we meet, visit or trip over (the trip over is mostly wombats). Whether it’s the story of Abel Peter, the Papuan New Guinean security guard from Tawali, or Ridge the first wombat Mitch rescued we want to tell these stories and share the images they produced. We also want to share how we took these images, why we love them, and what we learnt from each shoot.

Abel Peter, security guard, ex-naval officer, landholder and gold miner
Tawali PNG

Oh, you meant the name? Well wombats spend most of their time scratching. Scratching on trees, the ground, their left leg, their right leg, their back, their nose….. you get the idea.

It’s our collected writings, musings, or scratchings, if you will, that we want to share with you and the world.

So, we called it Scratchings. Welcome to our blog!

About us:

Wombat cuddles!

My name is Chris and I’m from Coffs Harbour but moved to Canberra for work in 2016. I’ve been taking photos on and off for about nine years, starting about the same time I began uni, because studying and working full time wasn’t enough to keep me busy. I also did as much volunteering as possible and went on field trips to some amazing places during my degree in Marine Science and Management, so having my camera with me was always my highest priority. It was my goal to visit all the islands on the Great Barrier Reef with the best diving and I’ve done ok so far going to Heron Island three times, Orpheus, Pelorus, Lady Musgrave, spending two months on Lizard and going to Lady Elliot Island twice, most recently for two months as an activities intern.

Poser! very obliging one though
Lizard Island, QLD

Two months straight on Lady Elliot was one of the most amazing experiences of my life but I’d already signed up to do an honours project so had to come home. My honours research involved looking after 30 clownfish and fifty sea anemones. From that year I learnt you can stick anemones to their aquariums like post it notes and all fish have different personalities (and need appropriate names to go with these – I miss you Cheech and Chong!).

Tiger the toughest clownfish in the east
Coffs Harbour NSW

Loving both photography and the ocean it still took me awhile to take a camera underwater. I’ve been diving for almost 12 years but only started taking underwater photos with a DSLR in 2015. I finally upgraded my camera and emptied my bank account to get all the gear to take it underwater in time for my first trip overseas – Papua New Guinea! It was totally worth it, we both fell in love with the place, it’s people and every time we leave we know we’ll be back soon. I love shooting wide angle underwater because I can capture more of the amazing aquatic world. Over unders are also a favourite to show what’s happening both above and below water at the same time.

The incredible wall of Deacon’s reef at Tawali, overhung by the jungle canopy, one of my all time favourite dives!
Papua New Guinea

Last year I finally signed up to do a Certificate IV in Photography and Photo Imaging, something I’d wanted to do since first picking up a camera! Two months into the course we went on a two week trip of Tasmania. It was during this trip I spent a lot of time confined in a van with five other people, all our camera gear and a wearable panda head. Luckily these people were incredible company and became my three best photography friends (I’ll link their work below, check it out,  I think they’re all doing some amazing stuff!).

As well as travelling, I also love hiking and animals so try to incorporate taking photos of these as often as possible. Last year we began working with ACT Wildlife and Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary so got to spend a lot of time learning how to shoot animals (in the good way). We also got to hold baby wombats, possums and quolls – it’s a tough job.

Mitch and I have had some incredible experiences through our business and love of photography. By starting a blog we hope to share some of these while practicing our writing so we can work towards being published in more magazines, and maybe one day even write a book!

Its cold… and yes that’s an octopus on my head
Cradle Mountain NP, TAS

I’ve been taking photos semi professionally for about 8 years. I started on an interesting path, it wasn’t on land, but underwater that I wanted to capture images. Shortly after completing my PADI Advanced Open Water course I received a Canon point-and-shoot and Ikelite housing for Christmas. It was this camera and housing that pushed me to expand on my skills both as a diver and photographer, and to this day I’ve taken some of my favourite images with it. I’ve upgraded slightly along the way and now love capturing all the tiny critters that call the ocean home. In particular I’ve become taken by Nudibranchs and sea slugs, a collection of strange molluscs that seem determined to have the best colours and patterns on the reef.

Various, PNG

I studied Marine Biology at University and graduated with Honours in 2016. My science background really pushes me to learn about the animals and places I see and take pictures of. I really enjoy learning the stories and love sharing this information. Hopefully I manage to do so in a fun and engaging way.

I’m micro-batman with hunting doll eyed snake
Townsville, QLD

Chris pushed me to improve my skills as we both explored old WWII bunkers around Townsville together, discovering microbat colonies and snakes hunting. I love watching us both come away from each trip or shoot with a variety of different images, both of us not even aware we aren’t focusing on the same subject until we get home and show each other what we’ve taken.
When I’m not taking photos, or working as a VALS (Voice Activated Light Stand – Chris loves Strobist!) for Chris, I like painting and building wargaming miniatures, and playing boardgames.

Thank you for taking the time to read about us and what we want to share with you.

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We look forward to sharing our stories with you 🙂

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