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,
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.


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)



SMW Fall Century Ride

You know you have awesome friends when they come all the way from Detroit, MI to Tellico Plains, TN so they can camp and ride 100 miles with you.  Well half of us completed the 100 miles – Liz and Jason blasted through those hills like they didn’t even exist, completing the Fall Century.  Matt and I turned our century ride into a metric century (62 miles) but we did this on the 100 mile route, getting scooped up by the Vulture.  Before I got to the end of this, I should have started at the beginning.

We camped just up the road from the house I’m staying at in the Cherokee National Forest.  The night before the ride we made this huge dinner- vegan of course!  I really miss being around other vegans and making food with people who enjoy devouring vegan deliciousness.  We had a super high carb dinner consisting of pasta with a sauce I call my Mountain Mac ‘n’ Chz (lots of nutritional yeast, etc).  The pasta also had broccoli in it, and we dumped in some sweet potatoes for extra carbs.  We also made a side of sauteed onions and tempeh covered in barbecue sauce.  We ate our dinner by the glow of our headlamps and then strapped the bikes to the cars for the next morning.

At 5:30am the next morning we all crawled out of our tents into the cold, damp and dark morning. Peanut butter and jellies were made while water boiled for the oatmeal. As prepared as we felt, we ended up arriving in Loudon for the start of the century ride just moments before it was to begin.  Bikes needed to be adjusted after being taken off of the racks, we had to check in and scurry around getting other things together for the ride. We took off almost an hour late! Yikes!

Matt, Me, and Jason

During this ride I realized that I ride really slow, but I felt ok to great most of the way, minus my morning of congestion.  My plan was to ride slow and steady to complete the full 100.  We only passed a couple of people to the first rest area.  Around the half way point I was feeling better than I have ever felt after riding 50 miles.   I was making sure to eat and drink a good amount and I think this helped a great deal.  Matt rode strong for the first half, almost always ahead of me, but the rolling hills weren’t enjoyable after 50 miles.  We decided to end together at 62 miles.  I wanted this to be an experience for both of us, I had been telling Matt how much harder it has been for me to ride down here versus riding in Detroit.  We also needed to gauge about how many miles we could accomplish together in one day.

The weather was perfect though and we couldn’t have asked for it to be better.  Upper 70s to lower 80s, hardly any wind and no rain.  The morning was cold and foggy but didn’t last long.  Dave and the rest of SMW did a superb job organizing the event and even made sure to have vegan food for us.  There were plenty of snacks at the rest areas and the routes were well marked.  I highly suggest riding this century!

I felt comfortable as well and wasn’t even sore the next day.  I’m sure Matt and I will be riding multiple century rides soon enough!

After the ride we went into Maryville for some vegan pizza and cupcakes at The Tomato Head. Tired and worn down we crawled into our tents that evening with a sense of accomplishment.

Matt, Liz and Jason headed back to Detroit the next afternoon leaving me to realize how much I truly value our friendships and having a social life.  I love the forest and riding my bike but they are amplified when I have friends here to share the experience with.

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.