Volume 37, Issue 1, 2018

Stars of the Evening

Bat walks shine a light on our mysterious nocturnal fliers

By Michelle Z. Donahue

By day, Danielle Gustafson is a digital strategist on Wall Street. Come sundown, she is Gotham’s Batwoman.

But unlike the comic book character, she’s eager to share her secrets. With a utility belt loaded with facts, a bat detector, and an abundance of enthusiasm and awe, Gustafson and her spouse, radio journalist Brad Klein, plunge visitors into the leafy darkness of Central Park to look for things that go flap in the night.

They want to share the wonder of bats with anyone even remotely curious. There seems to be plenty of interest: the four walks per season she has lead every summer since 2004 have always sold out.

Brad Klein and Danielle Gustafson educate visitors to the American Museum of Natural History
about NYC's resident bat species
Courtesy of Danielle Gustafson

Tupelo Meadow, a stone’s throw from the American Museum of Natural History, which sponsors the walks, is one site where the group often pauses to look up. Bounded by rumpled treetops, the meadow is transformed at night to a cinema screen upon which bats frolic, flitting past in stark contrast against the glowing New York sky.

Walkers know when and where to watch thanks to the bat detector Gustafson always brings along on tours—and never leaves home without. As the bats close in on prey, their ultrasonic clicks and buzzes increase in frequency. The bat detectors provide the cues for looking up at exactly the right moment, and it never fails to impress.

A recent addition to the technology stable has gone a step further, and turns sound into pictures. Wildlife Acoustics’ EchoMeter Touch 2 device plugs into a cell phone or tablet and, with the help of an app, displays the converted ultrasonic calls as wave signatures on the device’s screen. It also offers up profiles of likely species, with photos, based on a pre-existing catalog of bat calls.

“We’re out here, at night, looking for these hidden species, busy finding food at frequencies we can’t hear,” Gustafson said. “And now we have a way to visualize it. It’s magic. It’s showing people bats directly overhead, bats they probably never knew were there.”

Gustafson, who co-founded the New York City Bat Group and also serves as a BCI board member, added that she thinks the walks’ popularity is due to two things.

“There’s been a change in how bats are perceived,” she said. “The public is starting to recognize that they are incredibly beneficial creatures, but that we don’t know much about them. And that makes people more curious.”

“Being outdoors and watching wildlife can quickly bond strangers with shared experiences and bat walks are no different,” added BCI Executive Director Mike Daulton, “They channel a universal, familiar warmth of a shared nature experience, but they also bring something fresh and original and a bit mysterious. Many people have not seen a bat fly by in the moonlight, and spotting something truly new and interesting for the first time, whipping by you overhead, is thrilling.”

Local Resources

Since 2004, John Bassett has run the summertime bat walks in Seattle for Bats Northwest. People turn out even on rainy evenings, though pleasant weather in August has attracted as many as 50 people for the lakeside walks. He draws upon several decades' worth of accumulated knowledge and personal experience to introduce the area’s resident bats, but he considers himself less of a guide than a docent.

Husband and wife team Brad Klein and Danielle Gustafson
lead the NYC Bat Group
Courtesy of Kimberly Weinrich

“The goal is to get the audience to pose questions, because then they set the program for themselves,” Bassett said. He often brings along an empty tequila bottle, prepared to talk about bats’ role in pollinating agave, but sometimes the bottle goes unnoticed as the conversations wend in different directions. Then the bats show up, right on cue, as they have for years. Big browns, silver-haired, then myotis. People who stay late enough can listen for hoary bats with Bassett’s basic acoustic detector.

“We discuss all these things as we’re sitting there waiting for the bats to show up,” he said. “Then the live bats flying by make for a very nice finale.” Though Bats Northwest is one of few organizations that have been running bat walks over the long-term, there are several other groups that have started to test the waters. Washington, D.C., held its first bat walk this past summer, and residents of Milwaukee visited the city’s Mitchell Park for a bat walk to learn about their local bats.

The availability of technology for anyone, anywhere may help spark a shift. Indeed, several libraries around the country have bat detectors available to loan out: the Haines Borough Public Library, north of Juneau, Alaska, on the state’s panhandle, loans out bat detectors as part of a citizen science program monitoring for White-nose Syndrome. Residents of San Juan Island in Washington state can borrow bat detectors for personal use, and in Toronto, Canada, High Park Nature Centre loans out detectors that can be used on one of their weekly urban bat walks.

“I believe the future of conserving the world is about this connection between consumer technology and citizen scientists,” Gustafson said. “Now would be a good time to engage and save the world.”

Across the Pond

Bat walks have long been a popular engagement in the United Kingdom, where the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) helps more than 80 local bat groups run hundreds of the events every year.

Because all of the U.K.’s 18 species of bats are protected by law, people do have a higher awareness of bats and the effects of human activity, said Lisa Worledge, BCT’s head of conservation services. But people turn out in droves for the walks for the opportunity to participate in something a bit offbeat.

Armed with bat detectors, attendees brave rainy weather to participate
in a bat walk in the UK.
Courtesy of Bat Conservation Trust

“How often do you go wandering at night in your local park? People just don’t,” Worledge said. “But bat walks let you go somewhere you normally wouldn’t be.”

Walks can easily cater to myriad interests as well. There’s hardware, like bat detectors, for the tech-inclined; there are animals, for the wildlife lovers. Walks are an outdoor activity appropriate for family of any age, and, as Worledge suggested, are an opportunity to experience a familiar place in a novel way.

“When I led my first bat walk, I didn’t have a lot of experience,” Worledge said. “You just need to know a few facts. If you have a bit of enthusiasm, it gets other people enthused, as well. And it helps bring bats more to the fore of people’s minds.”

With increased engagement comes increased activity on behalf of bats, and walks are just one way to accomplish that. The learning opportunities themselves create an important bridge to understanding bats—and valuing them.

“I would love to see bat walks bringing together like-minded nature lovers in every city in America,” Daulton said, “If you like being outside at sunset, if you like the moonlight, if you’re even the slightest bit intrigued by bats, it’s worth a try. Bat walks are fun and exciting and bring instant community to those involved.”

Gustafson added there is a lot of room for bat walks to take hold in the United States, but that even just a few new people participating can have a profound effect. “If each one of the people who comes to one of our walks goes out and tells 10 of their friends about bats, that starts to have a real impact,” she said. “And when you start learning about a species more deeply, you start caring differently.”


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