The making of a bat-conservation educator
by Chris Woodruff
Bonnie Miles’ fascination with bats began years ago, in concert with her love and appreciation for nature. For some reason, bats stood out from the rest of the wildlife crowd: “I believe them to be the most interesting of the mammals,” she says. “I just plain want to know all that I can about them.”
Already a Virginia Master Naturalist and a volunteer at a nature center in her hometown of Lynchburg, Bonnie decided to take her commitment to bats a step farther by signing up for a BCI Bat Conservation and Management Workshop.
BCI has held these intense field-training sessions for almost 20 years – bringing wildlife professionals and serious bat fans together for six days filled with daytime lectures and nighttime bat-capture outings. Bonnie arrived at the session in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains last June hoping to satisfy her curiosity about bats. She left overwhelmed by the experience. “I can’t say enough about how much I learned at the workshop,” she recalls. “It was exhausting, but exhilarating.”
Upon returning home to Virginia, Bonnie wasted little time putting her new knowledge into action. A skilled puppeteer who uses marionettes to educate schoolchildren about Virginia’s diverse wildlife species, she recognized a need for bat education.
Barely a month after completing the workshop, Bonnie worked with the Naturalist in Residence at Sweet Briar College to raise community awareness by hanging a large mobile at the community farmers market consisting of 400 glitter-studded and uniquely decorated paper Virginia big-eared bats (Corynorhinus townsendii virginianus) designed by local youngsters. She followed this by writing a bat-centric article for the Virginia Master Naturalist Newsletter. Then she was quickly scheduled to give her first public presentation on bats and the threats facing them, especially White-nose Syndrome.
As it turns out, schoolkids aren’t the only ones who need the facts about bats. During a visit to a health professional, Bonnie says she mentioned the Arizona workshop, to which the doctor replied, “The only thing I know about bats is that they have no eyes and are blind.” Her immediate thought: “There is much work to be done.”
In August, Bonnie delivered a bat presentation to more than thirty people at the National Park Service’s NatureFest, held on the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. The audience was enthusiastic and particularly enjoyed seeing a series of photos by bat photographer John Chenger that helped her put faces on bats. “The talk following mine was on bears, and I have to admit the bear cub faces got more ‘ahhs’ than the bat faces,” she laments.
Building a more-positive image of bats among the general public is a huge challenge, but one that BCI and its members have been overcoming through education for many years. At all of her talks, Bonnie distributes BCI brochures with bat-house construction information, as well as “Facts on the Fly” handouts. She also fashioned her own “Bonnie’s Bat Trivia” sheet.
“The best news is that I had more requests for presentations from people who attended NatureFest,” Bonnie reports. These requests included a presentation for the Central Virginia Master Naturalist chapter and another program for the National Park Service. She was also invited to speak at a Rotary Club meeting in a town 100 miles away, where, she notes, the local newspaper covered the talk and “the bats made the front page!”
Her efforts demonstrate how BCI’s dedicated members can make a real difference for bats in their communities.
Ironically, Bonnie says she initially feared that BCI would consider it a “waste of resources to educate someone not directly employed in conservation.” Clearly, those resources were invested well. The welfare of bats everywhere would be greatly improved if there were more Bonnies in the world.
Dear Bear Grylls
“I love your show! But how is it that I am a 9-year-old girl and I am not afraid of bats and you are? Bats are great things.”
Bear Grylls, host of Discovery Channel’s Man vs. Wild television series, outraged bat conservationists last spring by cheerfully killing bats with a club after throwing a flaming torch into a bat cave to drive them outside. The episode was entitled “Bat Tennis” and video clips were posted around the Internet.
“I am very disappointed with that video. … My question is: Why, why why? I think you should come to Austin and meet a real bat that is not being swatted and killed. I still can’t believe you did that.”
Among the most upset were third-grade students who had been learning about bats from their teacher, Laura Wright, at Eanes Elementary School in Austin, Texas, hometown of Bat Conservation International. The youngsters decided to do something about it.
“We love bats here at Eanes. They are so cool and loving. They will not hurt you. Come and we’ll let you know about bats.”
The students met at Ms. Wright’s house and BCI staffers dropped by to display Zoey, BCI’s celebrity fruit bat. “Our little community really came together that evening,” the teacher reports. The children wrote personal letters to Grylls, inviting him to visit Austin to learn about bats.
“I hear you don’t like bats. I think you might want to come to Eanes Elementary. We’re experts on them. I met one once and they’re actually really cute.”
The grade-school effort won the endorsement of Texas Governor Rick Perry, State Senator Kirk Watson, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Westlake Mayor Dave Claunch and BCI Executive Director Nina Fascione. All of them wrote letters formally inviting Grylls to Austin.
“It is okay if you are scared of bats. A lot of people are. Bats are not as scary as you might think they are. … It’s not like a flesh-eating bat is going to sneak up on you at night and suck all the blood out of your body. Nothing like that is ever going to happen.”
Ms. Wright gathered up all the letters from the kids and officials and sent them off to urge Bear Grylls to come to Austin for a little bat education.
“I really want you to come and visit our school so we can teach you about bats. Bats are nice creatures and good for our environment. They sleep during the day and go out at night. They are cute and not scary.”
The response: The class received an autographed photo of Bear Grylls. But they’re not giving up. A petition drive is being planned.
“Please consider this cause. Think about the bats! Do it for the children!”
WNS Fighter Retires
Wildlife Biologist Alan Hicks, the man who first raised the alarm about White-nose Syndrome and who remains a key figure in fighting and publicizing this horrific bat disease, has retired from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.
After 33 years with the department, Hicks accepted early retirement as part of a state cost-cutting effort. He describes himself as “a conservation guy working to protect the wonders of the natural world for those who will follow us.” He says he’s still “working on WNS issues on a daily basis and sorting out how I can be most useful.”
“One of Al’s greatest contributions is the passion he has inserted into scientific discussions of White-nose Syndrome,” says Mylea Bayless, Bat Conservation International’s WNS Response Coordinator. “When he began warning the bat community about this new threat, he wasn’t afraid to let his emotions show. For me, the passion he demonstrated was instrumental in convincing us that WNS really was a crisis. Now, three years later, we all share those emotions that we saw in Al the first year. I think that’s a big part of why he is so good at getting things done.”
In March 2007, a Department of Environmental Conservation team discovered thousands of dead bats, including some with faces dusted by a white substance, at a cave near Albany, New York. Over the next few months, Hicks reported the bat deaths and began requesting information about bats with “this white nose condition.” He has hardly slowed down since, as he fills his days surveying caves, encouraging and focusing research, seeking funding and spreading the increasingly distressing word about WNS.
He said the department’s bat program is in the excellent hands of Carl Herzog, whose “years of experience and those of the staff have made for a seamless transition.”
Summing up these past three years, Hicks told BCI: “Most people in the field of conservation, myself included, are blessed/cursed with a sense of purpose that has always roused them every morning, sustained them through their day, and put them to bed eager for the coming dawn. It is fueled by the certainty that the natural world which surrounds us is an extraordinary but vulnerable gift, a gift that sustains us both physically and emotionally and one that we are obligated to protect for the endless generations that will follow us.
“We in the bat community share the great sadness of witnessing the carnage of WNS, but we also share the privilege of it being our day – our fight to win. This is our opportunity to make this story one we can tell our grandchildren with pride. We can make the difference here, we have to, and I fully intend to help see that we do.”
Capture and identify a stunning array of bats and learn the latest bat research and management techniques during Bat Conservation International’s unique field workshop. The 2011 session (May 8-13) in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains features six days and five nights of unequaled hands-on training designed for professionals and serious amateurs. Space is extremely limited for this exhilarating experience, so sign up now.
BCI is also offering a new Advanced Capture Techniques Workshop and an Acoustic Monitoring Workshop for more experienced wildlife biologists, researchers and consultants.
All three 2011 workshops are based at the American Museum of Natural History’s renowned Southwestern Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains – within easy reach of habitats that range from lowland deserts to coniferous forests and support an amazing diversity of bat species. Participants can expect to catch and release as many as 18 species in a single evening, then return to the lodge and watch endangered long-nosed bats visit hummingbird feeders outside the front door.
The Bat Conservation and Management Workshop, led by veteran bat biologists from BCI and Arizona, features field trips to examine bat habitat, training with mist nets and harp traps, radio-tracking equipment, night-vision observation and acoustic monitoring. Daytime lectures cover habitat assessment, conservation and management challenges, management, conflict resolution and current research findings on White-nose Syndrome. Graduates will return home with a wealth of new knowledge that will prove invaluable almost anywhere in the world.
Due to the threat of White-nose Syndrome, participants at all BCI workshops will learn and follow approved decontamination guidelines.
The Advanced Capture Techniques Workshop (May 14-18) will help professionals develop their own bat-monitoring program, using the most sophisticated monitoring and capture techniques. The workshop explores both capture and noncontact methods for bat inventory and survey programs. Topics include active and passive bat-detector monitoring, video monitoring and mobile acoustic-transect inventory plans, with the overall goal of developing accurate programs for sampling bat diversity at varied sites.
The BCI Acoustic Monitoring Workshop (May 19-24) offers researchers guided, hands-on experience in recording and analyzing bat-echolocation calls. Participants work directly with AnaBat/AnaLook and SonoBat software developers Chris Corben and Joe Szewczak, respectively, to learn techniques for collecting, recording and analyzing bat calls in the field. The session covers heterodyne, frequency-division, time-expansion and direct-recording detecting using AnaBat, Pettersson and BAT equipment. Participants learn to use their own equipment more effectively and to choose proper protocols and platforms for designing an acoustic-inventory project.
BCI Members win $100,000 for Philippine bats!
Bat Conservation International’s members and friends came through for bats – as they always do. We asked for your help in online voting to determine how Disney’s Friends for Change: Project Green would distribute $250,000 in conservation funds. Although BCI was by far the smallest of the five organizations in this recent competition, your commitment made the difference: we won by a landslide. BCI is receiving $100,000 to save beleaguered bats in the Philippines.
“All of us at BCI are so grateful to have such dedicated members and friends,” Executive Director Nina Fascione said. “They always come through when we need them. Our achievements for bat conservation would not have been possible without the enthusiasm and loyalty of BCI members.”
The Disney Friends for Change initiative encourages children to participate in varied environmentally friendly activities and causes. Among other things, it highlights select conservation projects and distributes funds based on public votes cast through its website.
The Philippines, one of the world’s top five biodiversity hotspots, is home to more than 70 bat species, but many are severely threatened by loss of habitat, overhunting, improper guano mining and other hazards. BCI has been working with government, academic and nonprofit partners in the Philippines since 2006, helping to nurture a small but energetic band of bat conservationists.
This Disney grant will help expand bat conservation around the country through targeted programs of research, education, outreach and training.
Meanwhile, BCI is applying for other Disney grants, so stay tuned: we may need your votes again.
A long-awaited gate
Eagle Creek Cave in southeastern Arizona once sheltered one of the largest maternity colonies of Mexican free-tailed bats in the United States, with many millions of bats reported in the 1960s. But the cave’s easy access brought repeated disturbances, including major acts of vandalism. The population crashed until barely 30,000 bats remained by the 1970s. Eagle Creek was clearly in need of a bat-friendly gate.
Conservationists, including Bat Conservation International, have been struggling to gate the cave, which is beneath both private and public land, since at least 1986. But one effort after another failed for a variety of reasons. Until now. “It is with great joy that I am able to finally announce the successful gating of Eagle Creek Bat Cave!” BCI’s Western Subterranean Program Coordinator Jason Corbett said in November. “Now the future is brighter for the bats who will be able to roost and raise their young undisturbed.”
This long-sought success results from a partnership of BCI, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, Freeport McMoRan Inc., the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Wildlife Habitat Council. Corbett especially praises Ann George of Freeport McMoRan and Jeff Conn of the BLM for their enormous contributions to this critical achievement.