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!!

Study Site

I’ve spent countless hours becoming acquainted with my field site- Cherokee National Forest North (CNF – North) in Tennessee.  Even so, I have explored such a small percentage of it.  Thus far most of our scouting has consisted of pouring over maps and GIS, followed by driving for hours, attempting to match up “roads” to out of date USGS topographic maps.  This leads to trails that no longer exist, trails that are now roads, trails that are now driveways to private property, names that rarely match, wondering if you are going to fall off the edge of washed out roads, strategically turning a vehicle around on an old forest service road once you realize that nature has taken it back and a whole variety of other scenarios.  I actually love it!  We see some pretty incredible things and I’m obsessed with maps so it’s interesting to see how my imagination from looking at a topo map compares to the actual landscape.

roadsandcreeks

We drive for hours in search of a site that qualifies as a potentially good net site to catch Indiana bats.  Indiana bats that have yet to be found in this region of the forest-  emphasis on the yet.  We find something with decent potential- take photos, measurements, GPS the location and record other useful information for our possible return to set up nets, acoustic recording devices (more on that later) and hopefully catch lots of bats and more specifically, lots of Indiana bats.  More on all of this later…

The mountains are never boring and the CNF has not let me down.  Many of you have been curious about where I’m living this summer, so perhaps this will help you.  CNF-North is located on the border of North Carolina, ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains andnorth to Virginia.  Previously I have worked in the Smoky Mtns and CNF- South, plus the Nantahala National Forest, which borders both of these in North Carolina.  The Forest Service summarizes this new region quite nicely:

Cherokee National Forest North

Unaka Ranger District

There are about 170,000 acres in the Unaka Ranger District located in Cocke, Greene, Unicoi, and Carter counties. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere in the district year-round unless areas are otherwise designated. There are over 250 miles of trails, including 30 miles of horse trails and 24 miles of trails for ATVs and motorcycles.

Watauga Ranger District

The Watauga Ranger District (approximately 170,000 acres) is mountainous, with elevations ranging from 1,500 feet in the river valleys to 4,321 feet on Holston Mountain, 4,880 feet on Rogers Ridge, and 4,329 feet on Pond Mountain. This district contains two wilderness areas, two scenic areas, developed campgrounds, 177 campsites, 181 miles of trails, including 20 miles of horse trails, 300 miles of U.S. Forest Service roads, seven developed picnic areas, three developed swimming areas, four boat ramps, and two shooting ranges. All this falls within the four northeastern counties of Tennessee: Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, and Unicoi.

 

(taken from US Forest Service)

 

 

Bats and Pools Survey

Please take a moment to participate in a research project conducted by Zachary Nickerson and Dr. Joy O’Keefe at Indiana State University’s Center for Bat Research, Outreach, and Conservation. If you use, own or manage a pool please participate in this survey about bats and pools. Even if you have never witnessed bats at your pool, your response will be valuable to this research project.
Thank you for taking a moment to participate and allowing all of us to increase our knowledge on bats and their behaviors.

Bats and Pools Survey

You are being invited to participate in a research study designed to gain a better understanding of how bats use swimming pools across North America. This study is being conducted by Zachary Nickerson and Dr. Joy O’Keefe, from the Center for Bat Research, Outreach, and Conservation in the Department of Biology at Indiana State University. This study is part of an undergraduate research project, and the first phase was funded by the ISU Center for Student Research and Creativity. This survey is being distributed across the United States and Canada, and the targeted respondents are pool owners or those who use or maintain pools on a regular basis.

Most North American bats are small, active at night, and difficult to observe, so we have very little information on how bats interact with their environment. Anecdotal reports suggest bats use swimming pools for drinking, perhaps especially in areas where natural water…

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Nerd Adventures

As I wonder if each snow fall will be the last of the season, my need to return back into the field grows.  I have spent the winter knowing that my job will continue onto the next season, all the while I have been patiently waiting on news for a possible new adventure.  Perhaps the grandest of them all…. thus far.  And finally my future adventures have been confirmed.

I have fed my cravings for nature with random hikes in nearby state parks.  Some to Raccoon Creek State Park to trudge through inches of snow on the trails and admire the layered icicles of the frozen mineral springs.  Another trip on that off day where the snow melted as the temperature rose to a warm 60 degrees in the midst of winter.  None of this has been quite enough to battle the 40+ hours a week of working in front of the computer.  Even now I feel guilty as I type this, as it only means that I am yet again, in front of my computer.  But then I cough uncontrollably for a moment, a reminder of the fatigue this bronchitis has caused- cough attacks are constant, and increasing as I breath in the cold air- making hiking next to impossible. But the cough will fade and hopefully it will be replaced with an increase of energy and ambition.

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Next weekend I will return to the forest, as our searches for bat and bird carcasses will soon begin.  My return will also mark 1 year in Pennsylvania.  My time in Pennsylvania has been balanced with 2/3 of my time in the forest and a 1/3 of my time in Braddock.  Through the winter in Braddock, friendships have grown.  We’ve shared vegan meals, some large potlucks and many last minute dinners and lunches in one house or the next.  Laughter over cartoons while eating cookies, candy and breakfast anytime of the day.  Hikes through the forest and around the city.  Long talks with cats in our laps.  Bowls of popcorn and mugs of tea.  Punk shows in the city and in the warehouse with the sounds of skateboards between sets.  Lifting weights and holding planks.  Friendships that will last even though I have to add this place to the long list of places I have once lived.

Ready for a new chapter in my life.  One that I have dreamed of reaching since a very young age and now I have the opportunity.  The opportunity to earn a PhD in biology.  My field research begins in May.  Summer adventures (research!) in the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee in search of Indiana bats and then to Terre Haute, Indiana in August to study at Indiana State University under the advisement of Dr. Joy O’Keefe.  I have really missed academia since graduating with my master’s in 2010 and am looking forward to the challenges ahead.  More details soon, but this next month is going to be a busy one with moving around and training the new PA wind energy crew before I depart.  I am quite excited about all of this!

Adventures of Not Sleeping

Rather than writing and thinking about sleep, I should be actually sleeping.  Often times I function on too little sleep, perhaps due to not being able to take advantage of the sleep cycle that suits me best.  I read this article  a few months back on a sleep study observing patterns of sleep and think of it too often, check out the whole thing, but here’s a sample.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects had settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep.

Two sleeps? That’s exactly what I need.  I think of when I function the best… and when I hardly function at all.  When able to create my own schedule, I find myself staying up past midnight only to awake around or just past sunrise- prime birding time.  I have this terrible habit of being the last one to sleep and the first to awake.   Frustrated knowing that I didn’t sleep as much as I should, I try to force my self back to sleep- this only results in having to experience the most disturbing of dreams.  Sometimes I’m awake and functioning for a couple of hours, reading or cleaning, thinking…just being awake.  Sometimes after a couple of hours I scold myself for being awake before I “need” to be up and then I find myself feeling exhausted between 9-11am.  Other times I make it through those hours only wanting to crash between 1-4pm.  I am reminded of wandering the streets in Argentina, wishing I could eat lunch somewhere but alas- everything was closed between lunch and dinner.  They’ve got it right.  I should have been napping.

With the leaves transitioning into their fall hues, I find myself anxious for adventure.  Around me all of the creatures will begin to prepare for migration and hibernation.  And I wonder what it must be like to sleep most of the cold season away.  Tempting as it may be, and many of us struggle to not be dormant during harsh winters- hiding under piles of blankets, instead I am already thinking of ways to stay active during our winter.  No hibernation, and this year no migration to the South.

I type out my thoughts into this post, a reflection of what filters through my mind each night.  Rather I lay awake thinking of what adventures I can complete before the snow blankets the forest floor.  How many times can I jump in the river before the days grow short?  Already searching for those perfect winter hikes-  Pennsylvania/ West Virginia mountain hikes this season Let’s see how long I can stay in one place.  But before the snow falls I have a to escape for a fall backpacking adventure in the wilderness and a quick bike tour to DC from Pittsburgh.  As you will find other animals preparing for our next season, accomplishing all that needs to be done- September will also find me filling each day in preparation or in action whether it be thoughts or hikes or sleeping under the night sky, breathing in that September air.

Project Setup

I’ve watched the sunrise everyday this week.  The search crew has to get out to the site and start searching at sunrise.  Shortly after, the scavengers will be searching for their breakfast and we want to find what deceased animals we can before they do.  This makes it sound like we are fighting with crows every morning, but the nights have been too cold for much activity and the crows use their wits, not their strength.

So wait, all of this might sound confusing.  What are we doing out here? Scavengers? Carcasses? Sunrise? You may have gathered a few things from my previous posts, but I’ll explain more.  In case you forgot, I’m working on a bats & wind energy project.  Worldwide wind energy is becoming more common and I can support this, but wind energy companies and wildlife biologists need to work together to lessen and hopefully one day even prevent the negative impacts wind turbines have on wildlife- especially bats and birds.  Thankfully some companies are very willing to have this crucial partnership.

But back to the bats and birds.  Last week we all worked together to set up our transects.  We are searching the area under randomly selected wind turbines on the site.  Our particular wind farm is on ridge tops, so many of our transects are on slopes.  The searchers walk about 21 transect lines for each plot, but this can vary depending on the habitat and slope under the turbine.  We set up and labeled stakes and used flagging to define each transect line stretching north and south.  The searchers walk at a slow pace looking 3 meters out to each side in an attempt to find any bats or birds that were killed by the turbines.

So yes, we witness the direct impacts of wind energy and see dead bats and birds.  But when I compare wind energy to mountain top removal for coal and other coal energy sources, hydraulic energy and the impact of dams, oil drilling, and in general the use of these energy sources and their long term effects, their direct and indirect impacts on the environment- wind energy isn’t perfect, but in comparison I’d say it’s a much better option for the environment.  And if it’s something we are going to head towards and use less of these other options we need to do the research now and be sure to fully understand the impacts and what we can do to prevent or at least lessen them- and find ways to make it more efficient.

I’ve decided to not include images of fatalities, as many of my readers may not be comfortable with these images and also I can’t publicize a lot of this.  I’m ok with witnessing the fatalities, even as a vegan, and perhaps especially so.  I want to be aware and I want to help these animals.  (Duh! That’s why I’ve dedicated so much to conservation!)  The research will be published at some point though and previous project information can be found here.  I’ve included some photos of the turbines (they are HUGE- about the height of a 17-story building!) and our plots, that way you have a better idea of what these things look like.  Turbines are in restricted areas so most of you have probably never seen one up close, let alone stood directly underneath one.  It’s required that we wear hardhats, protective eyewear, orange vests and steel toed boots everyday.

When the field crew members find a bat or bird, I meet them at the location to identify the species and we collect all of the necessary data and photo documentation.  This week while they were searching I was recording habitat descriptions and collecting plot information using a Trimble GPS for the GIS analysis.  It’s a bit different to go from working with live bats to dead ones, but it feels good to be a part of such important research and too broaden my experience. And I LOVE working outdoors.  More to come soon, but I have the day off and I need to go out and enjoy it!

(Also, what I write in my blog expresses my personal views and may not represent those of the organization I work for.)