Volume 35
Issue 1
Bracken Cave

BCI relies on dedicated volunteers to maintain Bracken Cave Preserve
and educate those who come to see the bats’ nightly emergence.
Credit: Jonathan Alonzo.

Home remodeler, retired schoolteacher, college student, property appraiser. The roster of people who donate their personal time in the name of bats is as diverse as any cross-section of American life. Yet BCI volunteers share a common fervor: a fascination
for bats and a desire to help others better appreciate an oft-misunderstood creature. For them, the line between volunteer and private citizen is often blurred, as many BCI volunteers carry their message through their daily lives.

At Bracken Cave, volunteers clear brush, maintain the trails and grounds, and conduct hundreds of tours and talks each summer. At Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, docents come four nights a week to help educate thousands of visitors who come to
watch the bats nightly emergence during the summer months. Elsewhere, volunteers contribute time toward countless unseen tasks.

Fran Hutchins, director of Bracken Cave Preserve, started out as a volunteer in 2001 with a caving group, Bexar Grotto, that has been helping maintain the privately owned property since BCI purchased it in 1992. Today, Hutchins relies upon dozens of unpaid
helpers who donate an estimated 5,000 hours a year to maintain the Bracken Cave Preserve that BCI owns, as well as the adjacent Cibolo Bluffs Preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy. Together, the two properties total 3,462 acres.

My girlfriend wouldnt know what I look like, Hutchins laughs, musing on life without volunteers. Many people, he says, come because of a love for the outdoors, but stay for the bats.
Seeing a bat flight plucks some emotional cord, Hutchins says.
It piques their interest in bats, and thats usually what gets them coming back.

Bettina Jary-Mathis, who has been involved with BCI since 1991 and who currently serves on its board of directors, says shed love to see more youth involvement, noting that as kids become involved in outreach, so do their families. When I was growing
up, we knew about conservation, but there wasnt the education like there is today, Mathis says. Kids now are more environmentally aware and more motivated to educate others, no matter where they are, to protect it. They get their parents involved,
too. Dianne Odegard, BCIs manager of education and public outreach, coordinates volunteer activities at Congress Avenue Bridge. The strength of BCIs volunteers is their very diversity, she says. They not only share information and dispel
the myths surrounding bats with the public, who have come from all over the country and world, but also with their friends, families, organizations and communities, Odegard says. It really has ripple effects.

What follows are just a few of those ripple-effect stories about BCI volunteers who have found a way to give back through bats.

Kurt Menking

Bracken Cave volunteer since 1978

A fixture in Kurt Menkings life since he was a youngster in the 1960s, the area around Bracken Cave was where Menking would hunt, swim and fish with family friends. Often, while leaving, theyd see bats begin to swirl out for their nightly foraging.

Other hunters came, too, to witness the same spectacle. But rather than merely watch, Menking describes how theyd sometimes unload shotgun rounds into the sinkhole, trying to goad bats to come out earlier, or compete for the most creatures they could
knock out with a single blast when the air was thick with wings.

Checking out karst feature

Bracken Cave volunteer. Credit: Kurt Menking.

He struggles to find words to describe those moments. Ive always had a fascination with caves, and seeing the abuses and silliness going on out there was … Menking breaks off. The ability to show people that bats are friendly, and an important
part of the ecosystem, has always been important to me.

As a volunteer with the Bexar Grotto Cavers group before BCI acquired Bracken Cave, Menking took many church and scouting groups on informal tours at the previous owners behest. Today, he does fewer talks but still helps with whatever Fran needs me
to do.

Ive watched the protected area go from five acres around the entrance to almost 4,000 acres, he says. I really believe the hundreds of thousands of people who have watched the bat flights over the last 50 years helped create the groundswell to protect
it. And it was the volunteers and staff who helped spread education about bats, so that when it came time for action, it all could happen.

Don and Edith Bergquist

Bracken Cave and Congress Avenue Bridge volunteers since 2006

Don and Edith Bergquists home in San Antonios hill country overlooks a valley etched with a small, winding gravel road. After moving to their house in 2005 upon retiring, the Bergquists got to chatting with a neighbor, who informed them there was
a bat cave down that road. Stunned and intrigued, the Bergquists quickly joined BCI.

Don Bergquist

Don Bergquist enjoys teaching Bracken Cave volunteers about the
fascinating world of bats. Credit: Jonathan Alonzo.

Theres just something that drew us there, Edith says of the cave. We thought it would be a great idea for us to give some of our time. Don, a self-described introvert who reads voraciously about bats, and Edith, active in a local quilting
group, say their volunteer activities have given them an unexpectedly rich outlet. They give talks and lead tours at the caveSome of the most insightful questions come from children, Don saysand have also inspired many of their own peers to become
involved with bat conservation. From a handful of other neighbors who were BCI members when they joined, the couple estimates that probably 60 percent of their neighbors are now BCI members and volunteers.

It was something we were excited about, to share that excitement with friends and neighbors and even people you run into at the store, Edith says. Its amazing how many families have joined BCI and come to the cave just by talking about it.

Lee Mackenzie

Congress Avenue Bridge volunteer since 2008

As a remodeler of older homes, Lee Mackenzie often runs into critters whove set up shop in a cozy attic: squirrels, raccoons, rats and, naturally, bats. He met his wife, BCIs Education Manager Dianne Odegard, through wildlife rehabilitation groups that
helped relocate the animals; Mackenzie and Odegard still rehabilitate bats together.

Lee and Don

Don Bergquist (left) and Lee MacKenzie (right). Credit: Dianne Odegard.

After meeting Odegard, Mackenzie started volunteering with BCI, particularly at the Congress Avenue Bridge, where he interacts with visitors every Thursday through Sunday night, on top of a physically exhausting day job. He has also monitored NOAA Doppler
radar every night for the last four years to watch bat emergences around the area, which helps him share more detailed information about the bats activities once they depart from their bridge roosts.

Mackenzie adds that he loves to share facts with the public that help alter their view of bats and their role in the world.

When people see a little bat in your gloved hand, they can look in their tiny eyes and see how fragile and beautiful and delicate they are, he says. That can be a life-changing moment for a lot of people. The more you see something, the more curious
you are, and the more you learn, the more passionate you become. Thats the process that led me to want to share all that Ive learned.

Christie Gardner

Congress Avenue Bridge volunteer since 2012

Growing up, Christie Gardner often visited a great-uncles farm, exploring the fields, forests and streams when the adult conversation inside became tedious. As an elementary school teacher, Gardner conveyed her passion for nature to children through
an environmental club she ran for 20 years. And after exhaustively researching bats and spiders for several Halloween-themed lessons, Gardner joined BCI, and came to aspire to volunteer for the organization.

Woman reading to kids

BCI volunteers help with forming educational outreach. Credit: Dianne

Now retired after 36 years, shes far from finished teaching. BCI is the holy grail of bats, laughs Gardner, who started spending weekend evenings at the Congress Avenue Bridge. The bridge is a kind of educational nirvana. People can come and
see one of natures true wonders, and volunteers get to be hands-on and talk to people who want to learn.

The greater awareness she and other volunteers bring to people helps make connections she feels are often lacking today. Though the myriad devices of modern life open windows into nature, they are mere introductions, she asserts.

So many people are so cut off from the natural world, Gardner says. Were stuck in our homes with our screens, and you cant experience the world through a screen that well. You have to get out and see it. As volunteers, we can help make people aware
of whats going on and bring awareness to bats.

Sarah Gorton

Bracken Cave volunteer since 2012

Having volunteered at the San Antonio Zoo from the time she was in 8th grade, Sarah Gorton has learned to snag the attention of passersby with occasionally gruesome facts: Did you know that if your hands were like bat wings, your fingers would be three
to four meters long? shed ask unsuspecting visitors. Or that if you ate the same as a bat eats every night, it would be like eating 30 to 60 large pizzas?

Now a freshman at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Gorton still volunteers at the zoo, but relays what she absorbs as a Bracken Cave volunteer back to zoo visitors.

When I go to the cave, I learn something new every single time, Gorton says. Volunteering doesnt have to be physically doing something. It can be as simple as talking to people. At the zoo, Im constantly telling people to go check out Bracken.

Research support

BCI volunteers find many ways to get involved, including research
support. Credit: Sarah Gorton.

Initially thinking she might want to study zoology, she is now pursuing communications after realizing how engaged people become when theyre not aware theyre actively learning something new.

I love informal learning, when people dont realize theyre learning, she says. If you show your heart, that reflects on whatever cause youre supporting. Sometimes sheer enthusiasm is enough to convince people.

Crave the Cave?

The Bracken Cave 2016 BCI Member Night schedule will be announced April 1. For more updates, sign up for BCIs Bat Chat e-newsletter at batcon.org/getnewsletter or go to batcon.org/bracken.