Whenever I drive I’m always watching wildlife. It’s reflexive — scanning the roadside for eye-shine or craning my neck to follow a bird overhead. “Look, a fox!” or, “See the crows mobbing?” I’ll point out to my passenger, who rarely gets as excited. My memory is too rotten for me to ever be a decent naturalist (and the details that distinguish a red-tailed hawk from a red-shouldered are lost on me at 65 mph) but I watch compulsively anyway. On the drive up the Northway from Albany on Saturday, I counted 8 hawks and 2 turkey vultures. Then on Route 73, I saw something else.
That night I wrote the following email and sent it to two scientists I googled, one in Canada and one at Cornell University:
…As I drove from Chapel Pond to Keene Valley along Rt. 73 this afternoon at around 1 PM, I suddenly saw bats — probably five or six at a time — winging over the road. At first startled glance I thought they might be starlings but I’m a reasonably adept birder and these had no tails — and were moving like bats, slightly quavery, upward, and singular, for lack of a better description, not in the smooth unison of small flocks of songbirds. My friend, the children, and I probably saw 50-60 bats over the highway before we came down into the flats of Keene Valley.
I was guessing Little Brown Bats simply because they’re common, and these were small, but I really have no idea. I wondered if you would have any idea why bats might have been out at 1 PM on a sunny winter day? All I could think was that the heat of the highway was attracting bugs, which attracted the bats? But I couldn’t understand why the daylight hunting.
Thank you for any ideas.
Sunday I had a reply from the Canadian bat specialist, who found the observation “most interesting” and said he was cc:ing my email to bat specialists in Albany and Boston. Yesterday I heard from Albany.
Thank you for taking the time to notify us of your observations; it is important to us to know of such things. Unfortunately, you are not the first to report bats flying around Chapel Pond this winter, although earlier records involved far fewer animals.
What you witnessed is being repeated daily throughout the Northeast. It is the final days of individual bats infected with a disease called White Nose Syndrome. Hundreds of thousands of bats have died in New York alone in just the three years since this disease first appeared in Schoharie County, NY. It is spreading rapidly and is now in Virginia and West Virginia and has killed >95% of the hibernating bats in most infected sites that we have been able to count. There is not yet solid
evidence of survivors.
Chapel Pond is 11 miles from our closest known hibernacula. That seems quite a long way for diseased animals to travel. I suspect that there is a hibernacula in the Chapel Pond area
that we have never known about.
You can Google White Nose Syndrome or visit the US FWS web site for further details.
Endangered Species Unit
NYS Department of Environmental Conservation
Before I received Alan’s note I had googled “bats flying in daytime” and guessed the problem. This short, comprehensive article in the New York Times about White Nose Syndrome — a mysterious fungus killing most of the bats in the Northeast — quotes all the scientists copied on my email. Neat to think I could make a tiny contribution to their information.
Hiberniculum (Latin literally for “place where animals hibernate”) is fancy talk for “bat cave.” Chapel Pond is one of the top climbing areas in the Adirondacks. DH and I shared the same immediate thought: surely the local rock jocks could find this hiberniculum.
However Alan and I corresponded throughout the day yesterday and he believes that as it hasn’t been found yet, the opening to the cave must be quite small. And as the cave is obviously infected with the fungus, it may soon be empty. Finally, the easiest way to find it would be to track any surviving bat with a radio tag next fall. (When he first mentioned this I enjoyed the mental image of a bat wearing a miniature radio collar.)
I felt sad all day thinking about some awful fungus decimating our bat population. Though I have the usual shudder when one’s trapped inside — something about their fluttery flight pattern makes you think, even while knowing all about echolocation, that they’re bound to run into you — I like bats. They’re the swallows of the night-time, eating half their weight in insects every night. Read that again: half their weight! (This would be like me eating 70 lbs of groceries a day.) It’s a joy to see them swooping around the barn and fields at dusk. That we may lose them is inconceivable.
I may try to write an article about this bat problem in the Adirondacks.