Nocturnal Friends- A visiting photographer

A very long over due post…

This past summer I had the lovely honor of having a very talented wildlife photographer join me in the field to photograph bats and other creatures he came across. Michael Durham made his bed in the corner of our living room floor crammed between the couch and the wall attempting to sleep through the daily morning commotion of Porter Cove for the better half of the month. One of my techs named the dead end road we lived on, Porter Cove, as Mr. “Pappy” Porter seemed to own most of the land in Unicoi- his extensive family were scattered throughout the trailers sprinkled within the cove. Michael slept in his living room nest or in the forest with us in an extra tent. That summer we all slept on either air mattresses or sleeping pads on the floor in the house or on the forest floor. He battled the constant thunderstorms right there with us and with all of his fancy, expensive and non-waterproof gear.

Almost as soon as he arrived into town, we were out in the field, actually I think we left just 4 hours after he arrived to Unicoi, TN. It was the hottest and most humid night of the year and I also had to tell him that he’d be driving his rental car on a road that had begun to wash away down the side of the mountain. As long as it’s not raining…too much…we should be ok.

Every night we could go out, Michael went with us. We would set up our nets to catch the bats and other equipment to record bat calls, while Michael set up his extensive high speed camera equipment inside a family-sized tent on the edge of a dirt road, often surrounded by stinging nettles and poison ivy. Each bat we’d catch, we’d record the basics and if s/he was a species of interest, Michael would let an individual bat fly in the tent, catching their precise movements as they swooped around- their mouths open as they sent out calls too high for us to hear, the sounds bouncing back to their ears as they dodge every obstacle in their way. I’m not going to even attempt to go into his set-up because I would only fail to explain the details, but these details and his passion for wildlife photography are the main ingredients to the photos that allow us to witness the beauty of these nocturnal creatures that all too often escapes us.

Bats often only conjure up images of fear, or are rarely thought about. But I want to share some of Michael’s photos from my field season with all of you. Within those few short moments he spent with each bat, he captured what most people never have the opportunity to see up close. Maybe you are reading this because you already love bats, or you are curious, or perhaps you are an excellent friend and enjoy reading what I write. And maybe it’s something else all together. Either way, his photos offer a glimpse into the life of bats and their nocturnal friends- including wildlife photographers and biologists alike.

Male northern long-eared myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) photographed in the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. (digital composite)

Male northern long-eared myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) photographed in the Cherokee National Forest, Tennessee. (digital composite)

Visit his site, DurmPhoto.com
photo captions taken from Michael Durham’s photo descriptions. Thanks!!

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Pond Mountain Wilderness

We try to control our surroundings everyday.  We hide in rooms where we control the temperature.  We attempt to control the sounds around us by drowning them out with headphones or closing our windows.  We turn dials in our vehicles to create sounds we want to hear and to cool or warm ourselves.  We turn on lights when the sun fades.  The door to our house latches shut, an attempt to keep out what we don’t want in our homes.

We shut out the natural world everyday, and yet we constantly try to manipulate it.  Our actions and daily routines have impacted our climate, but we cannot control the weather.  Everyday that I work outside I am reminded of this- and I respect this constant awareness.  Sure, I’ll admit that this summer has been full of frustrations as it has stormed and rained almost every single day.  We take the risk of setting everything up to catch bats for the night, only to have a storm rush in ruining our chances at a full night of bat surveys.  Rain is only a reminder that I’m not working in a controlled environment-  I am exposed to the rain, wind, humidity, heat, cold, insects…. I have no control, nor do I want to control the wilderness.

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We could see lightning off in the distance, perhaps too close, but we heard no thunder.  We keep the nets open, stretched out across the old gravel road, between two metal poles- 20 feet tall.  The lighting becomes brighter, more frequent and the rain is quick to follow.  We close up for the night, but by the time our gear is packed my clothes are soaked, plastered to my body, and my hair is heavy with rain.

We’re out at Dennis Cove, near the pond and the Appalachian Trail crosses our site.  My crew departs for home, but Kyle and I make our way through the field and into the tent.  The rain continues for hours, and when it finally lets up I catch the sounds of bullfrogs and spring peepers scattered through the moments that I awake through the night.

I’d hardly had time to even think about where we could hike the next day- my first true day off since the field season began.  I browsed over a map in a region I knew we’d have to work- immediately attracted to the Pond Mountain Wilderness.  The trail climbs up a ridge and we can walk to the trail head from my work site plus it deposits us back into civilization at Watauga Lake- a jump into the lake after our hike.  A quick internet search, revealed little information about Pond Mountain Trail- most of what I found of the Pond Mountain Wilderness was in regards to the portion of the AT that cuts at an angle across the western portion.  I wanted to avoid the clutter of people, a wilderness trail is always more intriguing.  All I knew was that it was 4.5 miles long and runs along the ridge top, seems easy enough.  I only took a quick glance at the topographic map.  Hey, why not add on a bit more- just a quick, easy hike before starting the Pond Mountain Trail.  Laurel Fork Trail (39) next to Dennis Cove Campground would lead us south, where we would connect with FS-50F to head back North.  It would end where FS-50 crosses, and on the opposite side is where Pond Mountain Trail (40) begins.

Nine creek crossings followed by a 2.2 mile hike up a winding gravel forest service road was my definition of a “quick, easy hike.”  Well, it was actually easy but the whole taking our boots and socks off to cross 9 portions of the creek within a couple of miles- surveying each crossing for the least sketchy area to cross- made things not so quick.  The rain left the creek high, hiding any rocks that may have once been available for scurrying across with our boots on.  Other crossings found the creek to be up to my thighs.  With each crossing, we became more careless.  Looking at the topo maps now, it’s so clear to see that the trail crosses the creek many times- perhaps when it’s not a summer full of rain, a shoeless entry may not be required.

Trail 39 and 50F meet up near an open field- we filter water and what we had hoped to be our final creek session knowing that finding a water source on the ridge would be unlikely.  As we reach FS road 50F, the clouds begin to darken but only a small amount of rain finds its way down to us.  We pass the only two people we see on the trails, as they casually stroll through our last creek crossing with their fancy boot gaiters.  The next couple of miles were drowned out by the sound of gravel crunching under our boots with each step, our pace steady as we followed the road that would take us up along Rough Ridge and to Pond Mountain Trail.

We reach an open gate, 50F ends at FS-50, I point directly across the road, “That’s our trail.”  Kyle is doubtful as he looks across the gravel into the forest, no evidence of a trail to be found.  We look again at the map, Pond Mountain Trail should be directly in front of us.  It’s a wilderness trail, so I’m not really surprised that as we look ahead we see only vegetation- we hike in.  Maybe I saw a faint blue blaze, but soon enough we come across a post confirming that we are on the right path.  Suddenly it’s quite obvious, as we are on an old timber road, faded into a two track- the clearest portion of the trail.  It’s, of course, in the easiest portion of the trail that I trip over a downed tree sending myself flying through the air and slamming into the damp but still hard ground.  The fall is only a reminder that we skipped lunch, my head feels light but I’m laughing at my fall. Handfuls of almonds, pecans and some dried fruit allow me to regain my energy.

The trail narrows as it climbs the ridge.  We hike through rhododendron tunnels along the sloping slides, the path is relatively clear, the blue blazes are solid and bright but as we ascend both the blaze and the path begins to fade.  The steepness of the trail is suddenly a slap in the face as we bear right with a clear view of what lies ahead.  There are no switchbacks.  We climb the steep grade, our steps slipping on the forest floor full of decaying leaves that have absorbed weeks worth of rain.

Kyle pauses above me, periodically to wait for me to catch up to his pace.  We continuously check to make sure we are still on some sort of trail but all of a sudden we are on these large bolders, covered with lichen and surrounded by brambles with a few trees that have managed to squeeze life between rock.

The blazes are gone, there is no path.

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Bats-n-Bridges plus One Less Dam

You know you love your job when you volunteer to do similar work on your day off.  A couple of days ago, I met up with Dottie Brown (an incredible and inspiring field technician and all around outdoors woman).  She’s working for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.  Her job is to net sites that have previously been netted for bats.  Some of these sites are known for having high activity & I can’t imagine netting them all alone.  So a few of us volunteered to help Dottie out that night, and I’ll admit I did it not only do this to help her but also because I was excited to catch a lot of bats.

Before we went out for the night, I met Dottie in the morning and we went out to document some other known bat roosts. Human-made roosts. The first site we went to was in Dillsborro, North Carolina. Dottie informed me that they had just recently, get this, REMOVED a dam. Can you believe a dam was actually removed from a river, not built?  ONE LESS DAM! Studies are being conducted on the impacts this will have for the fish, the birds, the amphibians, invertebrates, the plant life, the bats, and more.  I’m going to make an educated guess that these will be very positive impacts. The Dillsoborro dam was fragmenting many aquatic populations and the energy company (Duke) wanted to remove it due to its inactivity.  The Tuckaseegee River must feel like it has been unshackled, well for at least that portion of it.  Many of the articles I’ve browsed have focused on how great this will be for humans (i.e. recreational sports, anglers, paddlers, birders, etc.) But hey guess what, this will be excellent for non-humans as well. The Fish & Wildlife actually do a decent job explaining the benefits to wildlife and a summary of the process.

How does this relate to bats? Well, while the dam was in place, it was doing one good thing, providing a home for bats.  Sorry bats, your home was also destroying the homes of others.  Duke Energy provided a few bat houses near the area.  Dottie and I found that the bats were using their new homes, we could hear them chattering and the piles of guano under the houses were also a good sign. Dottie calls this the Duplex Condo, complete with predator guards.

Our next stop was the Big Brown Bat Bridge, where we found hundreds of Big Brown Bats (Eptesicus fuscus) roosting between the bridge joints in the hot midday sun.  I literally squealed with excitement seeing them all smashed in there together. Rows of bat butts and plump cheeks. Big Brown Bat & Friends

Well for me, you can never see too many bats, after going for a swim in a dammed damned river turned lake, Dottie and I set out to meet others and go netting for bats.  I far surpassed my previous netting record (I’m not quite sure what that was actually).  We caught 70 bats!!! that night, with 4 net sets.  Time flew by as we were constantly untangling bats from the nets and recording data on them.  Thanks for such an awesome experience Dottie!

From Michigan to Georgia

I had a few days off of work and made my way back to Michigan. Before I even left Tennessee pretty much every day of my trip home was already jam packed with things to do. They consisted of: spending as much time with Matt as possible, getting Fender Bender /USSF things together and hanging out with Liz, riding bikes with friends, visiting my family, oh and yeah, presenting my thesis defense so I can finally get my Master’s. I had to do all of this in 4 full days with an additional 2 days of driving.

How did that all go? Excellent! Although there is never enough time to do all that I want to do and spend time with friends and family I was still able to fit lots in. My first night home I swung by The Hub where I ran into many excellent people, the Fender Bender open shop just ending. Liz and I were nearly hit by a car on our run to share a giant hug. Immediately after, Matt and I jumped on our bikes (this being our first time riding our Surly LHTs together!)- we rode to Xochimilco’s in SW and filled up on delicious Mexican food that I had been craving.

Matt with our bikes: Brown Trout & The Bumble

Liz & I spent a great deal getting things together for the Fender Bender workshops at USSF. Things went really well and I felt so inspired getting to be productive with Liz. She’s putting her all into FB and beyond. Plus providing so much love and an excellent home for Fatty Pants kitty.

Spending time with my family was also much needed. My nephew and niece grow taller everyday. As they grow taller my grandparents grow older and this aches my heart, but having everyone together felt incredible.

My beautiful niece, Izzy

All of this rush led me up to summing up my 2+ years of graduate work down to 1 hour: Thesis Defense. The Mom & Steve & Matt and others came to listen to me ramble on about bats and their wing preferences. Matt said I hit my stride. I felt confident & things went better than I expected. My thesis in its entirety is submitted. Now I just wait.

Saying good bye is always difficult but I was lucky enough to end my time in Michigan on a bike ride to Belle Isle with Matt and Liz where we met up with Andrea and her awesome dogs.  We hung out at punk beach, played with the dogs and had a picnic. Lucky for me, Andrea came back to Tennessee with me.  We camped (at the same site as my trip down with Matt, but far less water this time), hiked, netted for bats and then headed to Atlanta. Did you know that Atlanta has this incredible co-op called Sevenanda and that they have not only a Soul Veg, but 2 Soul Veg restaurants? Needless to say we spent a large portion of our day filling up on vegan food and then attempted to walk some of it off checking out the city and checking out people’s dogs and bikes at the park.

Now I have moved from the Tellico Plains area in TN to the Great Smoky Mountains.  As soon as I arrived at the Twenty Mile house in the evening I unloaded the truck, put on my headlamp and hiked up the trail to find Max & Joy.  We had a very successful night of netting- 29 bats: 2 Indiana bats which we are now tracking and found 1 tree for thus far.  Plus a handful of Little Brown Bats, Big Brown Bats, Northern Long-eared bats, Tri-colored Bats, & our first 2 Rafinesque bats of the year! yay!

Oh, the next morning before heading out to track, I looked out the house window and across the creek I spotted a black bear, just hanging out, scoping out the creek. Which also reminds be that 2 days prior while tracking out on a ridge I saw some leaves rustle, my eyes focused and I realized, as did the deer, that we were just 10 feet apart.  Next thing I knew her white tail was in my direction and she was darting down the steep edge.

Now I must end my time on the internet and go find a new place to bike!

For more photos summing up all of June, head here.

First Indiana Bat

First Indiana bat of the year, that is! We caught her on May 29 and I’m pretty sure I literally jumped with excitement and skipped all the way back to the table, or maybe I was just so excited it felt like I did all of that.  I can’t really recall.

Indiana Bat from last year (I'm cheating and using a photo I took last year, sorry!)

Anyway, the point is, we still have Indiana bats in the area. I was getting a little nervous that White Nose Syndrome was hitting the bats harder than we thought in this area. Well, I’m sure it won’t take long, but for now we will  gather what information we can.  It often hits me really hard that bat populations are being completely wiped out.  I think I’m going to save that for another post, and try to focus on our recent finds.

We caught her in the Nantahala National Forest, recorded information, and I was able to apply my first transmitter to a bat.  She felt so small and frail while I held her and waited for the glue to dry on her back.  She was calm and didn’t even bite me once.  I can’t imagine how terrified she must have been, but soon her encounter was over as we let her fly off to finish foraging and head back to a roosting tree.

Also another I took from 2009, but this gives you an idea of the transmitter and bat size.

Joy, Caroline and Amanda tracked her yesterday.  Don’t worry, I’ll soon update what tracking entails, with photos of course.  She led them to a stand of pines with decent roost potential, however she was roosting solo.  Joy and Caroline are out tonight to see if she has moved to a new tree and joined a colony.

It seems weird not being out in the field for a couple of days, but I put in my days this past week.  I love the adventure of tracking a bat.  If all goes well, I’ll have plenty of opporunities this summer.

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That netting night also allowed me to see and handle my first ever Seminole bat (Lasiurus seminolus).  I’m bummed that I forgot my camera that night.  I took a few photos of our evening with Joy’s camera though.  I promise I’ll get better at updating with photos.

Concrete Jungle Hazard

If you know me, you know that despite my middle name, I am not graceful. Luckily so far I’ve managed to stay afoot while hiking through the forest- a couple of close calls though.  Well the other day didn’t turn out so well, but I can’t blame downed trees and tangles of briers for this one. While waiting to meet with Dottie and her intern Robin before heading out to our net site, Max and I were on the other side of the street so I could run into this health food store. I know right, a health food store, in what seems like the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of Murphy, NC.  I had to check it out. I drooled a little when I saw that they had Mocha Rice Dream Frozen Pies, and couldn’t resist. I also picked up little tart cherry juice to have later in the night.  Excited about my find, I skip along the wooden barrier between the two parking lots, making my way back to the truck. I spot a dollar bill in the grass, and jump off the barrier to snatch it up. (I somehow manage to not fall during all of this). Now I’m really stoked that I just found a dollar and I have delicious vegan treats.  I’m hopping and yelling to Max about my sweet finds and all of a sudden I’m soaring through the air as I run around the truck. I smash into the pavement hard on my left side.  I start laughing really hard because I can’t stop thinking about how hilarious that must have looked to Max seeing me all of a sudden disappear. My mocha pie is a bit smashed, luckily the glass container the cherry juice is in doesn’t smash, the seal just breaks.  Cherry juice kind of looks like blood when it’s all over your arm.  My elbow, knee, hip and shoulder are bruised, scraped and bloody but I can’t stop laughing… because c’mon… people falling, sometimes it’s funny.  I look to see what the hell sent me to the pavement, and laugh harder when I see that it’s a parking “bumper curb (wheel stops)” — I had to look that term up.

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On a side note, it’s memorial day weekend, which to me means too many people in the forest. I opted out of biking up the river road today so I could avoid the million motorcyclists and other people filling up the forest fast.  Instead I’m zoning out on the internet. I’m not sure which is worse. I need to get back to biking now that I’m not too sore after my tumble in the parking lot.

More netting tonight, I’m really hoping that we catch an Indiana bat soon… no such luck yet.

Starting work…

Joy (who I am working for) and Max (field tech I am working with) have arrived eager to get in the field. We have spent a couple of days organizing and labeling gear, creating lists, filling out forms, going over protocols, hazards, etc. A lot of time has been spent going over the new rules for netting bats now that White Nose Syndrome (WNS) has been confirmed in Tennessee.  We have to use completely separate gear, including clothing for each state and we have to decontaminate everything while we are netting and after we net.  It’s a long detailed process and I have to be constantly aware of what I am touching.  Decontaminating mostly consists of lysol and hand sanitizer. Although I’d like to hope that this will lessen the spread of WNS, I fear that our impact is minimal when fighting against this rapidly spreading fungus. Better than not doing anything at all though.

Once we got everything together and figured out our new methods, we set out for netting in the Nantahala National Forest.  Sorry, no pictures this time around- I was too focused on working up bats and not wanting to worry about decontaminating my camera if I touched it at the wrong time.  It was a slow netting night, only 3 bats, but it’s early in the season.  It was probably for the best because we all had to be extra aware that we were following the new WNS protocol, plus I had to remember techniques from last year as well.

Realizing that some of you do not know what “netting” really entails I should probably fill you in, somewhat briefly.  Basically we set up mist nets that usually range from 5-9 meters wide (sometimes more or less depending on the area) and we stack them as a “double high” net when we can. This ends up being a huge net stretched out on two 20 ft high poles, the net reaching to almost the top of the pole and going almost to the ground. The mist net is placed in a clear pathway or across a stream that a bat would use for foraging and navigating. The net has slack pouches in it, so a bat will fly into the net and then get a little tangled in, often dropping into the sag of the net.  We check the nets (we usually have at least 2 nets set up, often more) every 8 minutes looking for bats.  A pully system is used to lower the nets and get a bat out.

We then “work up” the bat at our station in the field. This takes only a few minutes and then the bat is released. We record various measurements, look for WNS wing damage, put a band on the wing (a little piece of metal with a label/number on it that just closes around the wing) and gather some other useful data.  If the bat is an Indiana bat (and endangered species that we are tracking this summer) we place a transmitter on the her so we can track her to the tree roosts she is using.  I’ll get into that later when it happens.

All in all, things have been pretty slow but smooth.  They’ll be picking up soon I’m sure.  Netting tonight!