Bat Photography – Flying Foxes drinking on the wing

During the record-breaking heat on 8th January 2018, I decided to photograph flying foxes drinking on the wing. These animals are very vulnerable to extreme heat and to stay hydrated they dip their bodies into the water and lick the moisture from their fur.

The colony at Sydney’s Parramatta is well known, and with the ambient temperature at 44ºC, I knew I should be able to get some nice bat images of this unique behaviour.

Sadly, flying fox colonies can be hard hit by heat waves and this one is no different. The local WIRES (volunteer wildlife rescue group) took in at least 40 animals due to heat exhaustion that day.

I was sitting in the water up to my shoulders with my camera and lens mounted on my tripod/ Wimberley Head barely 15cm above the river itself. I was nice and cool in the water. Unfortunately, the heat was not kind to the other mammals. Two were eaten by two separate Red Foxes across from me on the opposite bank and one dropped out of a small tree right next to me. I was not able to help that little one. It was beyond all help and died of heat stress.

UPDATE: I’ve since found out that an estimated 1,000 flying foxes were lost across Sydney during this heatwave on this January day in 2018.

There are a number of things that are vital to successfully photographing wild animals and especially getting bat pictures that will really make an impression. You need to know your equipment, be confident in changing settings on the fly and be aware of your safety at all times since getting the best point of view means standing in water that’s quite deep.

But none of those mean anything if you don’t know anything about animal behaviour. You don’t have to be an expert to become the best at wildlife photography but spending time just observing the animals you want to capture, teach you a lot about how to read their body language and what to anticipate with regards to action.

For example; if you see a bird on a perch and it has just defecated, chances are it will fly off shortly. Little cues about things most of us would not normally notice will become the exact cues successful animal photographers employ every time they shoot in the field. Strive to be a good naturalist as you are honing your photographic skills getting you closer to mastering wildlife photography.

Once the temperature gets into the high 30s the flying foxes (I’ll refer to them as bats) will start to cool themselves by flying over the water, skimming the surface, then licking the water from their fur, often even as they fly back to their roost tree.

The first time I saw this type of on the wing drinking behaviour in late 2010 or early 2011 near the Nepean Weir in Sydney. I was walking my dogs right on dusk and I was immediately astounded when I saw the bats dipping into the water to cool off. I wanted to photograph this behaviour since that day. However, life had other ideas and I focused much more on bird photography for many years after seeing the behaviour.

You really need a long lens for bat photography, so you can stay well away for their own welfare and also to be able to pan with your lens as you follow their path over the water. It is not easy though, but being further away makes things easier. With any flying subject, the closer they get to you the more difficult it becomes to capture a sharp frame as panning is much more difficult, if not impossible, due to the speed at which the subject travels closer to you.

A DSLR or preferably mirrorless camera with good high ISO capability, a solid AF system and a very fast frame rate is best so you can shoot a burst of images and pick out the one with the best pose of your subject. I have a very particular taste for photographing birds (or other animals) in flight that I had developed over time with mentoring by some of the world’s best bird photographers, so having the right bird photography equipment is important to achieve the best possible results to meet my expectations.

Ideally, when photographing birds in flight, the subject should be as close to eye level as possible, it would be slightly angled towards the camera and the wings would be in the full up or down stroke positions, or held about as level as can be.

Knowing the bird photography equipment is essential and learning to use the nature camera in full manual mode is even more important. Spot metering, for example, is completely useless for flight photography as are aperture priority or shutter priority modes. Simply put, understanding the histogram, how to shoot to the right, and staying fully manual (except the focus of course) is the best way to approach photographing flying subjects. 

Light is at a premium due to tall trees blocking the late afternoon sun at this location and also a lot of activity may take place in the middle of the day, during which, under normal circumstances, I would be snoozing under a tree or in the aircon at home, because the light is not so nice. But to me, nature photography is the essence of capturing wildlife when they are being wild and I’ll gladly take a chance under not so ideal conditions if the situation requires it.

In a perfect world, everything would be bathed in the stunning golden hues of the setting sun. On this particular day, it was stormy and horribly overcast, forcing me to shoot at up to ISO 10,000 to get a half decent shutter speed and that was with the lens wide open at f/4. 

Safety is also important. Being immersed in a river up to my shoulders while I squat is not easy. Also, I am a hand held shooter, meaning I cannot stand using a tripod, as for me they are cumbersome and just get in the way. In this situation, it was a necessary evil though. I missed many opportunities, as I did not have the liberty of holding my gear in the hand like on a normal photography outing, because I wanted the lowest possible perspective just above the river’s surface.

Having camera equipment a mere 6 inches above the waterline is enough to give most photographers a coronary. One slip in any direction and I could knock my tripod, which in turn could fall into the water with nearly 20 thousand dollars worth of kit on it.

I approach every shooting situation with the same sort of preparation I learned from my teenage years rock fishing along Sydney’s eastern beaches. Check the location, assess the water flow (if any), check depth by first walking in slowly without my gear, let my loved ones know where I am and when I am expected to finish.

Once I know that there are no big holes or other submerged surprises waiting, I will lock down my gimbal head and walk carefully, slowly placing one foot at a time. There is no point rushing at all.

Another thing to be aware of is possibly pollution in the water and whether you have any cuts on your skin, which could become infected. I have heard of photographers using waders, which is a good piece of equipment, but when it is hot, the last thing I want is to have my body encased in a plastic suit that would boil me alive.

I prefer to be in board shorts and a long-sleeved rashie and a hat. I ensure I apply sunscreen to my face and exposed parts as well. Cannot take the risk of burning lightly, even though I am slightly olive-skinned.

In my next post in this series, I discuss my hints and tips for capturing these incredible animals.

Are you interested in developing your bird photography skills?

2Mad Photographers offer a range of wildlife development courses as well as photography trips in Australia and abroad, helping you learn the art of bird photography with professional, engaging and expert advice.

2 thoughts on “Bat Photography – Flying Foxes drinking on the wing

  1. Deborah Martin says:

    Thank you, Akos, that’s such useful information and advice. I’m not planning to emulate you by getting in the river, but I do remember the heat stress event at Parramatta in 2018 and this weird guy with a camera up to his neck in the water taking photos.

    1. Ákos says:

      Thank you Deborah. I wonder who that weird guy was. 🙂
      I need to get back out there again, when there is a hot day, but last summer was not that hot, which is not a bad thing really. I know how much we all love our flying foxes.


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