It’s Friday evening in North London, there’s a nip in the air and I’ve joined physicist Martin Zaltz-Austwick as he sneaks out of a birthday party to listen to bats.
The hum of Caledonian Road is off in the distance. We spot some after-work revellers out on the town, but can’t really hear them because we’re away from the street, at the mouth of the canal tunnel. The sun’s setting and darkness is creeping in. There’s the sound of a few birds, amongst the traffic, trains and planes, but our ears are focused to a pair of bat detectors.
The kit we’re using is simple, less than a tenner in larger toyshops. Serious bat enthusiasts shell out over £60, sometimes well over £100, for more specialised equipment. But ours do the job well enough. The devices transform the noises of the bats – which we think are in the trees, perched ready to come out to feed on insects on the canal – into a sounds that the human ear can detect. We had to wait a while, twisting the dials to different volumes and frequencies, just as you might an FM radio. Zaltz-Austwick got into bat watching – or batting as he refers to it – walking home through Crystal Palace park. He noticed loads of bats around the lake just after dusk. He’d see swifts overhead, and then the bats. They flap around the old, Victorian dinosaur models displayed there, floating in and out of the trees as they feast on insects on the water.
The detectors extend the reach of our meagre human perception, alerting us when the bats are close, so we know to look up, and offering us a chance to perceive even those bats that are out of sight. I’m surprised by how much it adds to the experience. Zaltz-Austwick’s wired two of these toy detectors together to make a stereo version. Total cost: £15 and a bit of soldering. “I really like that batting is quite an immersive experience, because they fly all around me” he says. “I thought it’d be nice to hear them in the same way, to get the acoustic soundscape in stereo.”
Zaltz-Austwick’s not the only person using tech to add something to the routine of everyday nature watching. Not by a long way, and nor is such activity new. Binoculars, compasses, cameras, particular types of clothing; wildlife enthusiasts have relied on kit of sorts for as long as it has been a pastime. But social media and cheaper domestic versions of more specialised tech are offering new ways to mediate and extend our exploration of nature. As well as buying equipment – hacked or otherwise – we can watch webcams, download apps or join collaborative mapping exercises. There’s a lot more to animals online than pet cats.
Finn Arne Jørgensen, an academic at Umeå University in Sweden who specialises in the history of technology and environment sees a clash between such a cyborg approach and traditions which prioritise a raw, bodily experience of the outdoors. This reflects a point made by science writer Sujata Gupta. In a recent New Yorker piece on drones in Yosemite, Gupta discusses her experience of working as a park ranger at the point iPhones arrived, and concerns that shareable mobile photography somehow spoiled the “spirit” of the parks. She ponders: “Could a park simultaneously let one connect and disconnect?” Jørgensen sees this tension strongly at work in Europe, but argues that increasingly people want more than just their own, human perceptions. Sensors and webcams etc, Jørgensen argues “offer more than you can be with just your body.”
As part of this process of being more than just our individual selves, nature watchers increasingly use social media tap into a ‘hivemind’ of other people’s expertise too. It’s not just technological kit extending our perception, but other humans too. A powerful example of this is iSpot, a citizen science project developed by the Open Air Laboratories, which connects beginner nature-watchers with experts and other enthusiasts. Share a picture of something you’ve seen, and the iSpot community will help you learn more.
Della Thomas, a biomedical scientist based in London, first came across iSpot last May whilst trying to identify a type of mouse in her mum’s back garden. “I took a couple of photos and thought I’d search images on the internet to compare. I realised that I’m terrible at pinpointing the fine details that make or break an identification because I couldn’t tell the difference between a house, wood or field mouse. I needed some extra help.” A friend suggested iSpot, and it wasn’t long before she had an ID. “I just love putting names to things” she says. She likes that there is a sense of trust and expertise built into the system, as uses can build their reputation, and identifiers can mark how confident they are in the ID, which can in turn be backed or usurped by other identifiers. “I also love the idea that there are probably hundreds of identifiers just waiting for the next batch of photos to be uploaded. By sharing my photos and asking for help, I’m feeding their passion, too.”
Jørgensen compares this sort of new nature watching experiences to the tradition of documentary film. Natural history television shows, he argues, are equally technological, and the BBC in particular really likes to show this off. “But it is clearly structured, a particular narrative mindset which is supposed to be spectacular” he adds, “and I’m interested in the slow, unedited mediation that happens on the webcams. It’s still very carefully framed, the web camera is put in a particular place with a particular purpose, but often nothing happens. They can be quite boring.”
“This boring I find very interesting”, he adds, comparing it to the Norwegian Slow TV movement. “With Attenborough shows, it’s a very packaged product, made with specific artistic, scientific and technological purposes in mind, but the things people do with sensors and cameras is much more messy. This mess is interesting.”
Could this mess be democratising the mediation of nature? Jørgensen agrees it might, but warns democracy is a messy process too, referring back to drones in Yellowstone. Thomas’s experience of iSpot offers another side to this. She’s unsure about its default setting, which publishes the exact location of each spot. Nature-watching can be a very personal thing, situated in domestic spaces, and as people share these experience online they can end up sharing more than they expected. “You can always edit afterwards” Thomas notes, “but I do think it shouldn’t default this way.”
But back to those bats by the canal. We waited a while, but heard little more than the buzz of the traffic (and Zaltz-Austwick playing with the noise the detector made if he scratched his beard next to it). We were starting to think we wouldn’t find anything. Then a boat went under the tunnel, and it maybe disturbed something because the detectors went crazy
“Wow, that’s an insect-biting call!” Zaltz-Austwick exclaimed, and started to explain how different calls apply sonar for greater accuracy as they corner in on their prey. We forgot the party we were missing, engrossed in the mediated noises of the bats – and still not spotting any with our eyes, but able to perceive a previously-hidden world around us.
Bat photo by Wil, used under a Creative Commons license