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.

Continue reading

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.)

2012 International Year of the Bat

The United Nations has declared that 2012 is the International Year of the Bat.  What does that even mean?  The main purpose of Year of the Bat is to raise awareness and appreciation for bats all over the world.

The Year of the Bat is a two yearlong global species awareness initiative undertaken by The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and The Agreement on the Conservation of Populations of European Bats (EUROBATS).

Did you know that bats are found on every continent except for Antarctica?  Bats are amazing and unique animals and with over 1200 different species we have a lot to celebrate.  They specialize in controlling insect populations that we regard as pests to our crops and comfort, they pollinate flowers, they disperse seeds in rainforests and they specialize in being awesome.  They are essential to balancing ecosystems.

I could really go on and on about how incredible bats are and how much I love them, but let’s look at some things that YOU can do to celebrate the Year of the Bat!

  • Dedicate your life to raising awareness about bats and conservation.

Ok…. well, maybe we should start easy, but feel free to make that one happen.

  • Learn about the bats in your area.

Do you know how many different types of bats live in your region?  Do you know what they look like?  What they eat?  Where they live?  When to see them flying around and know that it’s a bat and not a bird?

Take some time to enjoy the night sky.  Those of us in the colder regions will have to wait until spring to see the bats flying about again, but that gives you time to read up and browse some images of bats you may have munching on insects in your neighborhood.  Below is a bat found throughout much of North American, the hoary bat.  We caught/released this one back in 2009 in the NC/TN region.

Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus)

In Michigan we have 9 different kinds of bats.  Those of us in Detroit- the Big Brown Bat is our most common species around here.  Respect and love this bat, especially the urban gardeners and farmers- they are eating LOTS of your crop pests and their guano is very high in nitrogen. Do you have a bat house?

  •  Put up a bat house or three.

It doesn’t matter if you live in an urban, suburban or rural area, bats will benefit from a bat house.  You can build your own or buy one from the Organization from Bat Conservation (OBC) that directly supports bat conservation and that has been designed and researched to the needs of bats.

For those of you that don’t know me, I’ve been working with OBC for the past five years (minus the times they let me leave to work in the field and travel around).  Since I’ve been back, I’ve been spending a lot of time adding bat house content to their website so rather than rewriting everything here, please check out the information on OBC’s website.  Find out the importance of bat houses, how and where to attach them, instructions on how to build your own and more.

  •  Attend an event near you!

For those of you around Michigan, we are hosting a lot of bat events this year, including our Annual Great Lakes Bat Festival in September and this year it’s FREE!  We also have some other awesome bat celebration events and you can visit the Bat Zone any weekend to learn about and meet bats.  Some of my favorite animals (human and non-human) live or spend a lot of time at the Bat Zone.  Perhaps I’ll add a new post all about this soon.

The Year of the Bat website also has a list of events going on around the world as well, keep checking back as they regularly add to them.

  • Create your own event! 

Host a free or fundraising event offering information and facts about bats such as a potluck, art auction, bat viewing night in the park, bike ride, punk rock show… the options are endless.  And you can get free promo material at Year of the Bat as well for your event.

  • Donate to bat conservation.

Become a member of OBC, sponsor a bat, or just make a donation in honor of Year of the Bat in your name or for a bat loving friend of yours.  They make excellent birthday gifts!  😉

  • Spread the word!

There are a lot of myths about bats and just straight up false information going around that is hurting the conservation of bats.  White-nose Syndrome is devastating and killing millions of bats- we don’t need to add phobias based on false pretenses to their cause of death and misunderstanding.  They need all the help they can get, so post on your blog, twitter, social media site about Year of the Bat, share a fun fact about bats in your area or anywhere in the world!

The bats need you and we need them so let’s celebrate 2012 Year of the Bat this year and every year.

Tracking Bats

I’ve spent the last few days tracking three of our Indiana bats that we’ve caught, trying to find their roost trees. We are tracking one in the Cherokee National Forest and two in the Nantahala National Forest. Maybe you’ve never tracked a bat before? It’s ok, I’ll explain in brief. I love it, it’s like a really rad scavenger hunt through the forest where you encounter things that make you itchy for weeks, steep slopes, fallen trees and venomous snakes.

First you’ll need a permit, then you’ll need to strategically place your nets to catch a bat, in our case, the Indiana bat. Apply an expensive little device called a transmitter. The next couple of weeks you’ll be tracking her. Sometimes you’ll find her, sometimes she’s hiding in her super secret spot.

You’ll need a receiver (plus a back-up in case the batteries die), a coaxial cord (plus a back-up because it’ll probably break on you in the middle of the forest when you are just about to find a tree) and an antenna. Set the frequency to match the transmitter. Drive and hike to high ridges to get a good listen of the area. Hopefully you can triangulate on the direction of the strongest beep.  You do this by getting to three places where you can pinpoint the direction of the beeping transmitter that your receiver is picking up. You try all directions and then use a compass to get a bearing of the direction. Find where you are on a topographic map, lay the compass on a map (and line it up) and draw a line in the direction of the strongest signal. Sound confusing? This dude probably explains it better than I just did.

Once you have a general idea of where she might be, you hike into the forest, listening and waiting for the beep to become stronger, hiking towards it.

Max listening for our transmittered bat.

Sometimes you get to hike up and down ridges, other times she is closer to a road or a trail. Max and I went through an area covered in poison ivy (usually the case in Hurricane Branch), plus lots of fallen trees that we had to climb over. An excellent combination!  On some occasions you get the added bonus of a venomous snake camouflaged amongst the leaf matter, under the shadows of the poison ivy.  Luckily for the both of us (the snake and I), I noticed her when my foot was just inches away, about to take another step. She’s a beauty though!

Can you find the copper head snake?

Shortly after, Max and I made it down to the huge white pine snag he spotted from the ridge with the signal was leading him in that direction.  We agreed after listening all around the tree that she was definitely roosting in there, and had to have some bat friends up there as well.

Later that night we hiked back to the tree and sure enough she was roosting under sloughing bark with 51 other adult bats (and I’m sure some pups as well in this maternity roost!). An excellent find.  Watching the bats emerge from the tree- I love this part of my job.  You never really know how many bats will be in there.  Even though my neck feels like it might just break off from constantly staring at the tree, it’s worth it.  Standing there, listening and watching the forest shift as the sun sets – the nocturnal creatures emerging as the diurnal animals struggle to get their last few calls in as the sun fades.  If you have never experience the forest at night, please do.

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.