How to Photograph Bats in Your Backyard

All photos: Bill Bouton/flickr.

Bill Bouton may be retired from teaching college-level biology, but that only means he has more time to dedicate to his favorite hobby: photographing pretty much anything that breathes. With an unflagging interest in every living creature, he has turned to photography as a way of getting closer to wildlife. And that includes some midnight experiments in flash photography on bats that visit backyard hummingbird feeders.

Bouton recently created an amazing series of images of the nightly activity of the nectivorous lesser long-nosed bat (an IUCN-listed vulnerable species). This is one of the many species of bats that rely on nectar as a food source, and thus are important pollinators. But they don't always focus on flowers if there is another, easier food source available such as a hummingbird feeder left hanging up after sundown. In Madera Canyon, in the Santa Rita Mountains of southeastern Arizona, Bill discovered the nightly visitors and decided to train his lens on them.

Bouton explains how he captured these fantastic photos of these backyard bats — with a camera, a flash, and a remote trigger that makes taking pictures akin to playing a video game.

nectivorous bat at birdfeeder

"I was visiting friends who were renting a house in the canyon for the month of April," Bouton says. "There were a dozen hummingbird feeders hanging from the eves just outside of a large, wrap-around porch. In the evenings, we would take down all of the feeders except one, because the bats would otherwise empty them all overnight. I’ve heard from other people living in southeastern Arizona that they have nectivorous bats at their feeders at night. Most of these folks have implied that the bats are pesky, in that they make messes when they spill sugar water, and that they cause the extra work of refilling feeders first thing in the morning (so that the early hummingbirds will have food when they arrive)."

Because there are only a few species of nectivorous bats native to the United States, Bouton knew he had an interesting opportunity on his hands.

bat feeds from a nectar feeder in Arizona

"I used a Canon 7D single lens reflex camera, with a Canon 100-400mm lens, and a Canon 580 EX II flash with an attached Better Beamer flash extender. The Better Beamer is a very inexpensive device that slides onto the flash and focuses all the light on a small area of subject, rather than broadcasting it widely. Additionally I used a manual remote shutter release so that I could very quickly push the shutter button without jiggling the camera," Bouton says of his set-up.

"Never having done this sort of photography, I made a guess at settings and, luckily, all my shots turned out properly exposed and sharp. I set the camera on “manual” program, exposure at 1/2500 of a second, aperture at f/8, ISO 800. A light was shown on the feeder. The bats ignored me and the light and I was thus able to sit quite close to the feeder. My actual zoom setting with the 100-400mm was as short as only 135mm."

side view of a bat at a nectar feeder

Sitting on a porch at night waiting for a bat to zoom into the light, and pressing a remote trigger fast enough to capture an image before the bat takes a sip and zooms away, is a wildlife photographer's version of Whack-a-Mole or Duck Hunt -- simultaneously challenging, frustrating, and certainly entertaining enough to make looking through the images you captured feel like opening presents on Christmas morning.

"It was great fun photographing these bats. It took a short while to become quick enough with my trigger finger, since each bat spent only a second or less at the feeder. But, at least for a while after dark set in, there were quite a few individuals and the feeder was seldom unattended. I could tell that I was getting shots I wanted simply by occasionally stopping to look at a few of the images on the LCD on the back of the camera."

2 bats feed at nectar feeder

The possibility of trying this again, perhaps with other species of bats, is on Bouton's radar. "If I were serious about doing this again, I’d use a different style of feeder that I could hide within real flowers to hopefully have a more realistic result."

As mentioned earlier, nectivorous bats are important pollinators. Pollen is dusted onto the bats' fur as they travel from flower to flower during their feeding activity. "Notice that, in at least one of the images, the bat is colored quite yellow," Bouton says. "This is pollen, perhaps from agave blooms in the desert below the canyon where these images were made."

If you have nectivorous bats in your area, give this photography strategy a try and see what amazing images you can capture! Meanwhile, see more of Bouton's wildlife photography on his Flickr photostream.