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Another Batty August

On a warm August evening, my husband Bruce and I sat in our living room, reading quietly. Suddenly, we were not alone. A bat, flying close to our heads, circled the room.

Bruce called our son Dave up from the guesthouse to help shepherd the bat outside through the open front door, but it wouldn’t shepherd. Round and round the bat went as they tried to guide it out with jackets used like matador capes. Always it missed the open door because it flew too close to the ceiling.

Several times the bat landed on top of our books in the bookcase and peered down at us. By then, I had gotten my binoculars, which gave me a close-up look at its little face. Its expression reminded me of a naughty child hiding from its parents.

After fifteen minutes of watching the men in fruitless pursuit of the bat, I searched around for something else to persuade it to leave. I handed my old mop to Bruce who held it near the ceiling above the open door. The next time the bat circled toward that corner of the room, Bruce wiggled the mop slightly. That caused the bat to swoop lower, sense the open door, and swoop out into the night. Bruce quickly closed the screen door, and as we looked outside we could see the bat circling our front porch, no doubt already in pursuit of the mosquitoes that had driven us inside earlier in the evening.

It seems as if every August a bat finds its way into our old farmhouse. Last August’s visitor was a little brown bat or myotis, one of Pennsylvania’s most common bats. Probably it was a youngster or “pup” that was exploring the nooks and crannies of our house in search of a roosting place.

Our batty August continued when our granddaughter Eva arrived for a short visit. She and I, and her mother Luz, planned to attend Canoe Creek State Park’s Third Annual Bat Festival. The brainchild of Heidi Boyle, the energetic environmental educator for the park, the free festival highlights bats in a series of family-oriented programs ranging from bat games for kids and information about bat caves, to meeting live bats and watching the evening emergence of a bat maternity colony. That colony, incidentally, is the largest known maternity colony of little brown bats east of the Mississippi River.

It had been fifteen years since I had attended a bat program at the park. Then Roy Boyle had been park naturalist, and he and park superintendent Terry Wentz had been part of a crew that had climbed to the second floor of a nearby old country church to get some idea of the bat population there, which nearby residents told them had been present for many summers. At that time, they estimated the maternity colony held 5,600 little brown bat mothers and pups.

Since then Canoe Creek State Park, the church, which the park later bought, and the nearby gated Hartman Limestone Mine that protects thousands of hibernating bats in the winter, have become world famous for their bats and bat research. (See my column for August 1996).

Back in 1988, though, Roy Boyle and Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife technician Cal Butchkoski, otherwise known as the “Bat Man of Pennsylvania,” initiated the first bat program at the park. Rumors of their fabulous program had reached me, and I spent an evening watching Butchkoski and Boyle convert 125 bat-haters into bat-lovers within the hour.

While the kids were willing, their parents were not. “I hate those things,” one woman confided loudly to another before the program began. And when Butchkoski started the program by asking, “What comes into your mind when I say ‘bat?’,” two women yelled, “Kill!”

Remembering that, I was amazed when we arrived at the bat festival. More than six hundred men, women, and children had come from as far away as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Many were bat enthusiasts, eager to learn more about their favorite critters. While I attended the kid-friendly programs with Eva, my daughter-in-law, who knew nothing about bats, went to the adult-oriented programs.

Eva and I crammed ourselves into the standing-room-only crowd at the park’s education center to learn about caves from Ann Molosky of nearby Lincoln Caverns and to build a model of a bat cave out of a Big Mac container. The enthusiasm was high and remained so at the next activity–bat games for kids.

In the meantime, Luz joined a group that learned how Game Commission scientists use telemetry to track bats for research. She followed that up by attending a program on the Indiana bat by Cal Butchkoski. Butchkoski’s great discovery, since my last visit, had been that federally-endangered Indiana bats, which are known to hibernate in the Hartman Limestone Mine, were using the “Bat Condo” he had erected near the church, bat boxes, and the church itself as maternity roosts.

“Up until that point in time, Indiana bats had never been documented using a manmade structure as a maternity roost,” said Jerry Hassinger, Wildlife Diversity supervisor for the PGC’s Bureau of Wildlife Management until his recent retirement.

Typically, Indiana bat summer maternity roosts are found in tree cavities or under loose bark. Using telemetry on the Indiana bats they found in the church, Butchkoski and Hassinger discovered that those same bats also used trees as alternate or secondary roosts even though they gave birth and raised their young in the manmade structures. Further research revealed that Indiana bats foraged mainly in a nearby large block of mature lowland forest, habitat that is harder and harder to find because it is popular for development.

Bat Festival attendees had the chance to visit the Bat Condo, church, and Hartman Mine, all of which remain important components in the PGC’s bat research. But probably the most popular program at the festival occurred near dusk.

Hundreds of people made their way to the bat church and settled themselves in the old graveyard to watch the nightly emergence of the bats. While naturalist Stan Kotala told us about the bat maternity colony, Cal Butchkoski showed us what was happening inside the church. Previously he had set up infrared cameras with infrared lighting in the church that sent a signal to a receiver outside the church. He then plugged the receiver into a video projector that produced the images on a screen for us to watch of bats flying about inside the church before emerging.

Finally, though, as daylight faded, first a few bats flew outside through a second story back window, then more and more–a river of bats that fluttered off to “act as an all-natural pesticide,” in the words of Michael Gannon, an associate professor of biology at Penn State Altoona who also uses the Canoe Creek bats in his research on bat calls. Gannon says that, “A single little brown bat can catch 300 to 3,000 insects per night, and a nursing mother little brown bat eats half her body weight or more each night.” No wonder the farmers living near the park use less pesticides than farmers in the rest of the state.

My granddaughter Eva was enthralled at the emergence, along with all the other children in the audience, but they were probably unaware that they were witnessing a once common natural phenomenon few people today have the privilege of seeing.

Bat numbers are dwindling for many reasons. Most people still think “kill” when they see one. In addition to human persecution, as well as habitat destruction, bats, in our part of the Appalachians, face still another hazard–wind turbine farms. Developed as an environmentally-friendly alternative to conventional power plants, the graceful, white turbines rise more than 340 feet above the ground at both the Meyersdale, Pennsylvania and Backbone Mountain, West Virginia wind farms.

Already castigated for causing too many bird deaths, the discovery of thousands of dead bats at those facilities was an unexpected shock. But bat conservationists have swung into action in an effort to discover why bats are dying and what can be done to prevent their deaths. A collaborative research initiative called the Bats and Wind Energy Cooperative has been developed with Bat Conservation International, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American Wind Energy Association, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Last summer they conducted daily searches at both facilities and found that the turbines’ ultrasonic emissions did not attract bats as previously suspected and that more bats died during nights of low wind speed. At the Meyersdale facility more adult and male bats were killed than juveniles or females. Altogether, at Meyersdale, between July 31 and September 11, searchers found 290 bat bodies of seven species–hoary, eastern red, eastern pipistrelle, silver-haired, big brown, little brown, and northern long-eared. In addition, the researchers concluded that bats are dying all year long at the site, not just during migration.

The mystery continues, and so will the research until scientists figure out, as Merlin Tuttle of Bat Conservation International puts it, why wind turbines are “bat veg-o-matics.”

Our own batty August ended with Dave’s and Eva’s bat watching at the guesthouse portico one night as a couple little brown bats swooped around the portico light catching insects.
Then one bat climbed into the crack between the end of the guesthouse roof and the side of the house to groom itself. Training a flashlight on the bat, they watched what Dave said looked like “a big-eared mouse chewing on a tiny umbrella.”

As he later wrote in his Via Negativa blog post entitled “Little Brown Myotis:” “Only when he worked on the surface of an open wing did we get a look at his face, dimly visible through the thin membrane of skin…He spent most of his time on the wings, with only a few nibbles at his abdomen…When the bat finished grooming, he turned his listening face full on us for a few seconds, then, rather than flying out the way he came, scuttled up feet first through a crack in the [roof] tiles and disappeared.”

Needless to say, Eva will not forget her batty August and neither will we.

For information about the upcoming Fourth Bat Festival, check Canoe Creek State Park’s online Calendar of Events or call the park at 814-695-6807.

2 thoughts on “Another Batty August

  1. Wow. I would have loved to be in that church at the grave site to see all the bats emerging. It sounds awesome. I held a bat once at an animal park and it was really weird. They are really fascinating createures and it’s sad to hear that they are on the decline.

  2. If you live anywhere in PA or nearby states, you should get on the Canoe Creek State Park website and check their program schedule for the summer. They do several trips to the churchyard during the season for whoever comes and PA state parks are free.

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