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Fly by Night

They rise on silent wings from the caveís gaping space. They make the dusk-lighted stone appear to flutter and pulse as they pass. They form a cloud of dark splotches that swirls upward, stretching off into the sky like a massive organic form of increasingly smaller black dots that break off and spread out across the desert, disappearing from view. Watching hundreds of thousands of bats rise out of the earth is pretty awe-inspiring. This was the largest bat gathering Iíd ever witnessed. I was particularly impressed with their ability to avoid midair collisions with their fellow flying mammals.

I saw these bats back in June when I was in southern New Mexico at Carlsbad Caverns, a national park located in the Guadalupe Mountains, just north of the Texas border. After hiking on a couple of cool (around 56 degrees) trails in an amazing world of stalactites and stalagmites and stone columns, hundreds of feet below the desertís surface, my 19-year-old son Noah and I headed out to a market where we got some food for a picnic. We ate dinner on a table overlooking the Chihuahuan Desert near the cave entrance. Then we caught the bat show.

The main cave at Carlsbad has a branch where spelunkers are not permitted. It is here that the bats hang outóclose to a million of them. During the day, thousands of cave swallows congregate at the caveís mouth, circling, calling, diving, landing and taking off from thick aggregations of dried mud nests. As the sun sets, the swallows cede the cave entrance to the awakening Mexican free tail bats. The bats head out to hunt down tons of insects, and help pollinate the desertís plant life before returning to their subterranean abode as the light of dawn begins to brighten the sky. With the rising sun, the swallows (who also dine on bugs) again rule. This insect-hunting tag team of bats and swallows keeps down the number of pests in a wide range around the caveís entrance. Somehow, these two very different flying species have worked out an air-traffic control system that avoids collisions and conflicts as they enter and leave the cave.

In the visitors center at Carlsbad, the bat has been raised to the level of celebrity. The bookstore has a large bat section, bat videos are constantly playing, and informative displays detail the life and beneficial environmental effects of bats. An amphitheater that can hold about a thousand people was built just outside the caveís entrance and provides seating space that one would associate more with music concerts and the performance arts than animal watching. It was somewhat reassuring to see so much positive information and activity around an animal that has often been burdened heavily by alleged negative attributes based on little more than folklore.

While the massive exit of bats from Carlsbad was certainly the most dramatic bat scene we encountered in our Southwest summer adventures, we ran into bats and their good works at a number of the places we camped. In a remote canyon in southeastern Utah, we watched bats take quick sips of water on the wing from a small water pool as they also zigzagged about, snagging insects from the air. Iíd never seen bats drink before and came to appreciate the difficulties they face. Unlike birds, bats cannot land on the ground and take off. They need some altitude to drop into their flight. This requires that they fly low, close to water sources, and take quick fly-by sips. We sat on a rock ledge a few feet from the pool where the winged wonders drank and flew through erratic patterns in the air above. One bat demonstrated its sophisticated echolocation and airborne agility by flying through the narrow gap between the two of us sitting there watching. We were impressed.

While camped on a sandbank along the Gila River in the Gila River Wilderness in the mountains of southwestern New Mexico, we had another memorable encounter with bats. I had moved a powerful lantern off to the side of our camp and placed its cover next to it, in order to block the light coming in our direction. This allowed us to lie on the ground and watch the dramatic starry sky above. A bright yellow-golden meteor added a bit of spectacle to the view. We then began to notice a small group of bats performing aerial acrobatics directly above us. Our lantern had attracted a mad rush of light-crazed insects, and the bats were swooping down to feast on the bugfest. Some would swoop down to within a couple of feet of us. We laid there watching stars and bats, enthralled at natureís free show.

But you donít have to go off to the southwest to appreciate bats. Youíre likely to find them wherever you live. In this area of New York there are six species winging about: Keenís, red, hoary, silver-haired, big brown and little brown bats. If youíve seen a bat zigzagging around town, it was most likely a little brown. Research indicates that this little wing-flapping mammal may consume as many as 1,200 mosquito-size insects during an hour of flight time.

Young little browns are also the most likely candidates for inadvertent home visits locally. Bats donít like our houses any more than humans like having them there. Shoo the bat into a room with an open window and it will likely leave of its own accord. Never touch a bat directly. While only a small percentage have rabies, one should play it safe and avoid direct contact. Pet owners should be sure the vaccinations for their furry friends are up to date. If you need assistance in deciding how best to handle a bat situation, contact your county health department.

Remember, for every healthy bat killed, a bunch of bugs will bite. For more bat info, check out Bat Conservation International and its links at www.batcon.org.

óTom Nattell


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