The big bats of Kampala

A few nights ago, I ended up on the roof of the hostel enjoying a sundowner along with most of the other guests here. We shared our travel stories and plans while watching the horizon turn to orange through the hazy Kampala air. I found myself a bit distracted from the conversation after a little while, instead lending my attention to the dozens of Yellow-billed Kites sailing overhead, probably in search of their last meal before heading to roost. They didn’t flap much, gliding for minutes on end without moving their wings. Then, for reasons unknown to me, they would make sudden, sharp turns, recovering with just a few buoyant flaps. These kites are one of the most common birds here in the city. During the day, you are sure to find several of these raptors with just a quick scan of the sky—some appear as distant specks against the ever-present cumulus cover, others barely clear the tops of buildings.

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A Yellow-billed Kite soars over my hostel in Kampala

 

After the sunset faded, I heard a soft chattering emanating from a palm tree behind me. The call wasn’t reminiscent of any birds I knew, but then again, I’m not yet fluent in Ugandan bird vocalizations. The noise stopped for a bit, so I turned around and rejoined the conversation. Hmm. About ten minutes later, a deafening cacophony of chatters and squeaks suddenly came from that same tree. In seconds, hundreds and hundreds of giant bats emerged from the fronds and began swarming around the tree. It was not a particularly large palm, yet what seemed like an endless stream of bats came out of it.

And when I say giant bats, I mean GIANT. So much so that it took me a moment to realize I was actually looking at bats. Back home, our most common bat species have wingspans of at most a foot. Our largest species, the seldom-seen Hoary Bat, can boast a span of up to fifteen inches. However, the wingspan of the bats here appeared to be nearly three feet. THREE FEET. Something that amazed me perhaps more than their sheer size was their ability to sustain flight with extremely slow wingbeats. I don’t totally understand why they weren’t falling out of the sky.

It turns out that these bats are Straw-coloured Fruit Bats, members of the family Pteropodidae, the Old World fruit bats. This particular species can be found from the Arabian Peninsula across to Sierra Leon and as far south as South Africa. Seeing a few hundred of them was spectacular, but this species is known to form colonies as large as one million individuals. I can’t even imagine.

All of us on the roof ignored each other for a moment as we stared in awe at the chiropterid spectacle in front of us. Eventually, the swirling mass of bats lifted up and headed south over Kololo District, chattering the whole way. We all took a moment to take in what we had just witnessed. Then, we raised our glasses for a toast.

***

Today, I was back on the roof around midday, this time working on my graduate school applications and enjoying a gentle breeze, which is something I had not yet experienced here in Kampala. Just as I wrapped up my work around noon, I once again heard chattering coming from the nearby palm tree. This time of day, the tree was illuminated, and as I looked closely, I began to notice the bats. Dozens of them hanging upside down, wings clinging around their furry bodies. The more I looked, the more bats I found.

“I’ll have to sit up here with my camera tonight,” I thought. But, I didn’t have to wait that long. About five minutes after I first noticed the bats, a kite soared a little too close to the palm, causing the roosting bats to erupt into the sky. I raced downstairs to grab my camera, returning just in time to see the group stream off from around the palm.

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Most of the bats looped south before returning to the very same tree, circling it a few times before deciding to land. They were restless, or perhaps nervous, though. After returning to the tree, most of them took flight again, completing another circle over Kololo.

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The bats eventually settled after a few minutes of flighted frenzy, returning to their tree and quietly tucking themselves into the fronds. Silent and hidden, as if they weren’t there at all. Waiting for dusk, I suppose.

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One comment

  1. bonnielbowen says:

    Truly an awesome sight.

    Like

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