Visiting Bracken Bat Cave: the BatsLIVE partnership

 Ann Froschauer with Rodrigues fruit bat (photo credit: Sandy Frost)In my role as White-nose Syndrome Communications Leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I’ve been really lucky to get to be a part of an amazing partnership called BatsLIVE.  Led by the USDA Forest Service and Prince William Network (a division of Prince William County School district in northern Virginia), BatsLIVE is dedicated to helping Americans and people around the world learn about the value of bats and the conservation challenges they face.

The BatsLIVE series included several really cool webinars and two live webcasts.

Rob Mies and Ann Froschauer during BatsLive Distance Learning Adventure (photo credit: Sandy Frost)The first webcast, held May 17, 2012, was hosted by Sandy Frost, Partnership Liaison for the USDA Forest Service. The webcast featured Rob Mies from the Organization for Bat Conservation, me, and Chelsea Corcoran-Quadt from the Service. An estimated 70,000 viewers tuned in to learn about bats and bat conservation during this “Distance Learning Adventure."
 

Bracken Bat Cave entrance (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer)Our second webcast was live from Bracken Bat Cave near San Antonio, Texas. This broadcast featured Sandy Frost and Dennis Krusac from USDA Forest Service; James Eggers, Dianne Odegard, Jim Kennedy and Fran Hutchins from Bat Conservation International; staff from the San Antonio Zoo; and me.


Mexican free-tailed bat (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer)Bracken is home to the world’s largest concentration of mammals, with millions of Mexican free-tailed bats living here each spring through fall. Every evening they swirl up and out of the cave to travel as far as 100 miles to nearby agricultural fields to feed on TONS insects. The emergence of millions of bats lasts for 3-4 hours, and is so huge it can be seen on radar! In the early dawn, they return to care for their pups and rest for the next evening’s hunt. This is a maternity colony of bats, and by September, both females and their pups head out on the nightly forays. The September 18 live broadcast brought this amazing natural event to audiences throughout North America, and the world.

I’ve been working with bats for almost a decade now, and the experience at Bracken Bat Cave is definitely in the top 10 of coolest things I’ve seen in my life. Fortunately, we got to go to Bracken the day before the live broadcast to get the cameras set up, make sure all our satellite uplinks and technology worked, and do a full run through of the hour and a half program. This also meant we got to see the emergence unfettered by our roles in the live broadcast.

Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from Bracken Bat Cave (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer)It’s a good thing we did…   I was totally mesmerized and rendered completely speechless as the bats started swirling up out of the sink and disappearing in ribbons out over the Central Texas horizon. There was no stopping the tears of joy as I was invited by Bat Conservation International Bracken Preserve Manager Fran Hutchins to walk down into the sinkhole amidst the swirling vortex.

A few things I don’t think you could ever be prepared for if you’ve never been to Bracken Bat Cave and seen the emergence of Mexican free-tailed bats:

  • Mexican free-tailed bat on cactus (photo credit: UFWS/Ann Froschauer)The smell. The maternity colony of MILLIONS of bats creates TONS of waste. And it is STINKY. As the bats come swirling out of the cave and do their 7 or 8 laps around the sinkhole to clear the edge and head out to feed, they suck an unimaginably odoriferous wind of ammonia out with them. It actually burns your eyes and nostrils.
  • The sound. I’m always amazed at how quietly  bats fly- but millions of flapping bat wings all at once  sounds like standing at the base of Niagara Falls.
  • The gale force winds. Well, maybe not exactly gale force, but wind flowing over the edge of the sink combined with the wind the bats are creating is pretty amazing. It blows your hair like you’re riding a bike. It also blows bats all over the place. Into the ground, into cacti, into the waiting maw of raccoons, snakes, skunks and other predators.
     

Dianne Odegard shows a Mexican free-tailed bat (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer) Working with bats and white-nose syndrome is one of the most amazingly rewarding and most personally difficult jobs I’ve ever had. It is an honor and a privilege to be part of something as meaningful and important as the conservation work the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our partners are doing every day.


Sandy Frost and Fran Hutchins (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer)I am humbled by the dedication and enthusiasm of all of our partners who work with bats and white-nose syndrome: biologists, researchers, managers, communicators. Not to mention all the bat champions we have out there in the world! I wish every one of you could have been there at Bracken with me to experience the absolute wonder and joy of seeing millions of HEALTHY bats. Thank you for all you do!

One last experience from Bracken I want to share. I got up at 5:30 am the day of the broadcast and went out to the cave with Fran Hutchins, Dennis Krusac, and Sandy Frost to watch the bats coming home. Less than 100 people have done this since BCI bought the cave, so I felt like a rock star.

Mexican free-tailed bats (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer)Mexican free-tailed bats forage at up to 10,000 feet (!!!!), and when they come home for the day, they gracefully “dive bomb” their way back into the cave. Starting hundreds of feet up, the tuck their wings and dive towards the sinkhole, opening their wings at the last second and then flutter gently into the cave mouth. This sound- like a zipper followed by a flag snapping in brisk wind- is like nothing I’ve ever heard.

 

Welcome home, bats. Welcome home.

 

BCI and USFS staff excited about bat emergence (photo credit: USFWS/Ann Froschauer)To watch the archived BatsLIVE webinars and webcasts, visit:  http://batslive.pwnet.org/

For more photos from the BatsLIVE broadcast from Bracken Bat Cave, visit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/sets/72157631588253092/