Holy Bat Cave, Batman!

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.

Best wishes,

SW

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.

Dear S,

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.

Alan Hicks
Mammal Specialist
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.)

Alan Hicks's photo of Little Brown Bats with WNS

Alan’s photo of Little Brown Bats with WNS

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.

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7 Responses to Holy Bat Cave, Batman!

  1. Noodles says:

    The first few sentences of this entry brought me back to riding through the Alabama countryside with the author and our mother in 1995. The thread of the general conversation was constantly punctuated by the quiet exclamations of one or the other of them drawing attention to one bird after another. Odd girl out, I never saw these birds, but they both did. That particular Maria Selden wildlife vision!

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      I don’t remember this — probably because I am always looking, so it wasn’t unusual. What I do remember is driving us home from the airport after England, very late, with Mom in the passenger seat and you in the back, and you announcing that you’d been watching both of us rub our heads (a reflex when exhausted) and been reminded of chimpanzees picking insects. I catch myself raking my hand through my hair all the time when I am tired, driving, and I always smile, remembering!

  2. Jane Welker says:

    That’s too bad about the fungus. That is so sad. I hope you know that I have saved about 5 out of about 10-12 bats that have come in my house swooping from a room to room. I have to swat them down (as gently as possible) with my tennis racquet (screaming the whole time) and then I put a towel on them and put them outside. Once I saw a bat fluttering above my head as I was taking my makeup off! I saw something funny in the mirror behind me. I got that one with just a towel in my shower and put him out on the balcony and let him go.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Good for you getting them out and releasing them! I love the image of the bat in the mirror as you put on mascara! I’m not great with bats in buildings, either, though I’d probably use the towel idea. We get birds in the house more often than bats.

  3. Jon says:

    ha ha, I honestly laughed out loud when I pictured Aunt Jane screaming as she knocked down bats with her tennis racket.

  4. Amy says:

    Oh, that is so sad! The other evening we were driving the country road to check on our herd on summer pasture and hit a bat as it flew low (right into the corner if the windshield). It was so strange I thought for sure it was a bird flying late, but then we noticed many bats flying low over the road. There must have been an insect hatch or something.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      I am terribly happy when I spot a bat these days, because post-White Nose Syndrome the event has become so rare. My neighbor speculates that Large Brown bats will move into the niche left by the disappearing Little Brown bats. So far I haven’t seen it happening.

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