Bats and Fireworks and Night Skies

Fireworks aren’t the only things in the night skies around our county in summer – and they may not even be the most interesting. Homey got me thinking about this when he reminded me of the pleasure I have taken from watching bats do their magic across an evening sky in the dying moments of sunset. “So where do we take the kids for a batty ‘watch and learn’ experience?”

We are bat blessed here in Paradise, even as a good many bat populations in the Pacific Northwest are in one or another level of stress. Among at least a dozen species, perhaps millions of bats inhabit our state. Most live entire lives without human contact. They spend days in caves, crevices and behind loose tree bark, house siding and shutters, emerging to eat the insect pests which often mess up our evenings.

You may have heard that bats – mammals – can’t really fly; they can only glide. Not so. Bats are skillful flyers, using tissue-thin wings attached along their sides and back legs. Wingspans are commonly three times or more their average four-inch body length – a ratio greater than most birds – so bat flight is fairly simple. Wings and bodies weigh far less than you might suspect; the tiny western pipistrelle, Pipistrellus hesperus, is three inches long, but weighs only 1/10th of an ounce, and our little brown bat, Myotis lucifugus, is three and a half inches long, weighing well under an ounce.

Bats are strong flyers, too, often hitting 40 miles per hour in spurts, skimming low over ground or water to catch insects and drink. The brown may travel 50 miles in a night of foraging.

The tiny mammals are good friends. A little brown bat will eat 3,000 mosquitoes in an evening. A flock of 100,000 insect-eating bats (not uncommon) may consume more than a ton of insects in the same time period. They sometimes fly into gatherings of insects, crippling them with their wings and scooping them into folds between their legs to be consumed as they continue to hunt.

“Blind as a bat?” Hardly; bats easily see predators and landscapes. For catching food, however, they use sonar, calling up to 200 times/second when “locked-on” to a target. From the return echoes, the bat learns what it needs to precisely intercept its insect meal. (In the minds of some scientists, bat sonar may still be superior to any we have created.)

After spring breeding, males and females separate. One or two babies may still be nursing on the wing while clinging to mother. Most babies will be flying at one month.

There is so much more to know. Check our Bat Conservation International (BCI) at www.batcon.org. BCI’s web page is one of the most amazing ways you and your family might spend an hour or so. There you will find all you ever wanted to know about building houses for bats, getting them safely out of yours or becoming part of something worldwide. The photography is remarkable, too.

Closer to home, you might be interested in the work and meetings of Bats Northwest, headquartered in Seattle. They have regular bat-watching tours around Green Lake and a web page (www.batsnorthwest.org/meet_our_bats.html) with a wealth of information about the status and health of Northwest bat populations.

Our bats are insect eaters, of the Vespertilionid family. Genus Myotis (the little brown) is most common, with Lasiurus (hoary) and Lasionycteris (silver-haired) often seen in wooded country. Most varieties have bodies around four inches long and wingspans of 10 to 12 inches; our largest bats may reach six inches, with wingspans of 16 inches. Bats are at home across the state. Most of ours hibernate here. Others fly south with the hoary bat to Chile or Argentina.

Now then, about Homey’s request. I like the beaver ponds up French Cabin Creek and along the hills on the west side of Lake Cle Elum, but pick most any pond, stream or arm of a lake (less than 100 feet across) in Paradise. Sit on the east side at dusk, and watch the bright western sky over the water until full darkness. Use insect repellant.

Grab a field guide and find a copy of Randall Jarrell’s “The Bat-Poet” (HarperCollins Publishers). This is the story of a small bat who stumbles across the joy of daylight. Exploring his sensitive artist self, ignored by his bat buddies, the bat poet begins to write poems about the fascinating things “normal” bats never see. He delights in the activities of birds, chipmunks, and others, writing poetry to describe daytime joys. Pen and ink sketches by Sendak complete the book. Read selections such as:

“…The mother drinks the water of the pond

She skims across. Her baby hangs on tight.

Her baby drinks the milk she makes him

In moonlight or starlight, in mid-air…”

Go watch. You will soon differentiate the species of bats, each with its own way of flying, hunting and drinking. Some may sing their songs of evening for you.

There are more – and more interesting – things than just fireworks in the night sky of Paradise.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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