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Mystery on the Wing | Clearing the cobwebs of myth about bats
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A Western long-eared bat makes its nightly emergence from a "rocket box" on Otto's property, ready to eat the insects it finds using echolocation. The signals it sends can detect an object as fine as a human hair. It spends daytime hours inside the box cuddled next to others in a maternity colony.

AS DAY TURNS to night, a half-moon casts sallow light on a rotting pier that stretches into Olympia's Woodard Bay. A lone harbor seal snorts and grumbles in the distance, like a petulant child protesting bedtime, but the coast is clear.

It's the bat shift now.

The tide has risen to within a foot of the wooden pier, yet that's plenty of room for the first one to drop head-first from its roost beneath the sagging planks and zip into the night. Each that follows takes a similar path — strafing, veering, darting, swooping — before vanishing into the trees and toward a lake beyond for the nightly feed.

Although their initial launch takes them right past us as we stand where the pier meets the shore, a glimpse is all we get. They are too fast and motivated and we are too hampered by darkness. Our best hope is the warning Margaret Gaspari's bat detector gives. She is a wildlife biologist and co-founder of the advocacy group Bats Northwest, and her detector, the size of a transistor radio, captures signals from the bats' shouts. Our ears aren't powerful enough to hear them without it.
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This rare Townsend's big-eared bat was a surprise to Dr. Trish Otto when she realized it was different from all the other bat species she has welcomed on her property near Bellingham. It hung out in her barn, and inspired an effort to erect another type of bat box to see if others would use it. Its claws are actually its thumbs.
Bats emit what amount to sonar signals so they can judge the echoes and get an image of the food and obstacles ahead. Their system is far more sophisticated than anything we have devised. The detector also reveals what chatterboxes they are, shouting from the moment they leave the roost. When this particular species, known as big brown, hones in on bugs to devour, the Geiger-counter cadence speeds until it blends into one distinct sound, sort of like the metallic groan of rubbing ball-bearings.

The pier, which once serviced a Weyerhaeuser log-dump rail, is blocked by a barbed-wire fence. But it is perfect for bats. It's private and safe, and steel plates that once supported the track add a measure of warmth to the underside. By day, the bats roost upside down in huddles, tight and thick like banana bunches, to stay warm. The Department of Natural Resources, which manages the conservation area, pegged the summer's peak population within the maternity colony at about 2,500, making it perhaps the largest in the state.

The nightly exodus — what bat biologists call "an emergence" — takes about an hour. The critters leave in squadrons, six or seven at a time, and show remarkable speed, grace and purpose. That's why the flailing of one tiny black bat is so startling and arresting even against the dim backdrop of night. It's a baby, perhaps on its maiden voyage, furiously flapping yet hovering like a helicopter before plopping into the bay, just 5 feet from shore.

"Oh no!" Gaspari yells. "C'mon, little guy!"
Bat defenders caution humans to see beyond their initial reaction to a bat showing its teeth; they say we should see it as a self-defense response from a shy, nocturnal creature.
After rescuing "junior" when he plopped into Woodard Bay on what was perhaps his first flight, Margaret Gaspari, left, watches over him as he dries out.
It paddles in place until Gaspari takes off her socks and shoes and wades to it. She picks the bat up, warning me never to do it (she's had pre-exposure rabies shots), and places it on a stump so it can get a little hang time for its next attempt at flight. The wet bat wastes no time. It takes off and . . . plops right back into the water. Gaspari rescues it again and, this time, sets it on the side of a tree. The bat crawls into the foliage and out of sight. Perhaps it will dry off and survive. Perhaps not.

When Gaspari's bat detector falls silent, the bay, so inviting at dusk and so bustling at emergence, is suddenly unsettling. The bats are shrieking in the night somewhere, but we're deprived of the sound — and our sight. She wants to save her dying flashlight batteries, so we stumble and shuffle our way back down the rutted quarter-mile trail to our cars.

It feels as if we're alone, but we're not, of course. Neither are you. Washington has 15 different species of bats, and through much of the year, they are far closer than you know or would suspect. We just aren't sharp enough to detect them. Besides, they find us as dull as stumps.

BATS SHARE our turf, but work the night shift. Other than the occasional stray bat that wanders into a bedroom or roosts in a garage or attic, they are careful to stay in the shadows and mind their business. That's fine for both bats and humans. They make us nervous. If we can't see, we lose our advantage, and if we lose our advantage we don't feel secure. And if we don't feel secure, we tend to lose our good humor. We're taught early that the creeps lurk at night.
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One aide to bat survival is that mothers can delay fertilization after breeding so babies are all born at the same optimal time and can be cared for in a maternity colony like this one in the attic of the Hovander House. The restored 1901 manor of Hakan Hovander is in Ferndale's Hovander Homestead Park. The home is open for tours.
Those like Gaspari, though, who study and protect the creatures, are, simply, batty about them. Mystery accounts for much of the allure. So little is known about them that vexed scientists succumb to moments of gee-whiz chitchat. Bats have swooped into the work of writers like Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare and Theodore Roethke, the famed poet who used to teach at the University of Washington.

Bats have spawned enduring folklore, campy TV shows, scary movies and cheesy fiction. They have winged their way into our slang and onto products from liquor bottles to cereal boxes. Their image has crashed our Halloween costume parties, but in true bat style they are long gone from our Northwest skies by then, off to either warmer climates or secret hibernation roosts. Their poor public relations, thanks in great part to Bram Stoker and his Dracula creation, obscures amazing facts. For instance:

• Bats are the only mammals capable of sustained flight.

• While Northwest bats look somewhat like mice with wings, scientists believe they are more closely related to primates than rodents.

• They are relatively long-lived, as much as three decades, and fossils indicate they were around at least 50 million years ago.

• With more than 900 species in the world, bats account for about one-quarter of all mammal species. The smallest weighs less than a penny; the so-called Flying Fox of Southeast Asia has a wingspan of about 6 feet.

• Each female usually produces one baby a year. She breast-feeds and cares for her offspring until it's ready to make its own way. Remarkably, female bats can delay fertilization and synchronize so they give birth all at the same time — generally in June.

• They are prolific bug-eaters, fancying everything from mosquitoes to moths to scorpions.

• Their echolocation signals can detect an object as fine as a human hair.

The scientific classification for bats is Chiroptera, which means, "hand-wing." A thin, skin-like membrane stretches over four freakishly long, jointed fingers and a thumb. When not flying, the bat wraps its wings like a cloak around a furry body. It looks tiny then, but appears three times as large in flight because its wing span is so much more impressive than its body. Those wings can cradle pups as deftly as they can scoop up prey in mid-air.
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Some bats, like this big brown that wildlife rehabilitator Barbara Ogaard cared for, look a little like mice with wings, but scientists believe they are more closely related to primates than rodents.
While caring for the injured young bat in her Bothell home, Ogaard groomed it because it wasn't able to do it on its own. Bats spend a lot of time grooming themselves.
Ogaard also nourished the bat with meal worms, hoping it would get well enough to fly again some day. Despite her effort, the bat died last month.
Some call them ugly, but their faces are built for utility, not beauty contests. The mysterious Spotted Bat, which lives on the east side of the Cascades, has relatively huge ears and the ability to hear sound from far away. Its calls are so low-frequency that it is the only state bat humans can hear without a detector.

Bats living in Western Washington trees, parks, backyards, attics and dormant buildings are tiny insect-gobblers from the myotis (or mouse-eared) group. There are about seven kinds. The Keen's myotis, believed to live only in coastal forestlands of British Columbia and the Olympic Peninsula, is hardly ever seen. The Townsend's big-eared bat sets up colonies in abandoned buildings, which makes biologists concerned about its survival.

WHATEVER THEIR kind, bats endure our instinctive revulsion and fear. The most legitimate concern is rabies. Bats are the Northwest's only known reservoir of the disease, according to the state Department of Health, but only two people have died from the virus since 1940. Both deaths occurred in the mid-'90s and both were blamed on bats.

But in random tests done a few decades ago on bats captured in the wild, less than 1 percent were positive for rabies. In other testing, done on bats already showing signs of illness, the levels rose to between 5 and 10 percent, says state veterinarian John Grendon. Then there's the concern they'll suck our blood. It turns out there are only three species of so-called vampire bats, none of which seem to care for human blood and none of which are anywhere near North America — or Transylvania, for that matter.

Realities and myths aside, the bat's image remains in need of a makeover, a task that the Texas-based Bat Conservation International has been undertaking with some success for the past two decades. If there is a Batman, he is Merlin Tuttle, founder of the nonprofit group. He travels the world studying, photographing and teaching about bats and their roles as pollinators and pest controllers. His organization has grown from a handful of volunteers into a respected clearinghouse of information and a worldwide catalyst for bat appreciation.

It has led to chapters across the country, including Bats Northwest. In 1996, Gaspari and Kathleen Bander of Camano Island started the local chapter — a nonprofit group of biologists, naturalists and bat lovers who maintain a tiny, generally unstaffed office, a once-a-month meeting schedule and a full Web site. Members lead summer bat walks and give bat talks.

Over the past 15 years or so, Bats Northwest member Barbara Ogaard has nursed more than 200 ill or injured bats to health in her Bothell home. She feeds a baby mealworm formula through an eyedropper, cleans a cat-bite wound, provides a safe place for a broken wing to mend. If recuperation is short, she releases the patient where it was found so it has a chance to rejoin a colony.

Her license plate reads, "Bat Lady," her golf clubs are protected by bat covers, the shed that serves as a bat ward is topped by a bat weather vane, she owns enough bat knickknacks to open a bat boutique. But she is very serious about her work. With a degree in zoology and years of wildlife rehabilitation, Ogaard, 62, is generally the person called when an injured bat turns up.

Meg Lunnum, whom Ogaard mentors, nursed 10 baby bats at the same time during the summer. Eight were found at a Tacoma school when construction workers tore down a wall, stumbled onto a maternity colony and spooked the mothers into dropping the young. Three of the babies died soon after Lunnum took them in, but she released the five others at the recovery site.

Ogaard's summer started slowly, but by mid-August she had about 17 in her care. They all have personalities, she says. A few are "obnoxious," but one in particular seems almost housebroken. She keeps the sicker ones in a cage not far from her bedroom. Those closer to being released stay in the shed she built just for them. When she picked one up to show me, its tiny mouth opened wide and trembled. It was wailing, but beyond my hearing range. A bat in the shed was close to being released and flitted around the cramped space, occasionally bonking her. Its collision carried the force of a Nerf ball, and Ogaard never even blinked.
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Anatomy of a bat: photo illustration
Why does she do all this? "Even as a kid I would want to help animals that other people would swat and step on. I don't know, I suppose you could say I've always gravitated to the underdogs."

BATS SURVIVE because they are wily, adaptable, unpredictable and live on a different schedule. That also makes it tough for biologists to determine how to help them or even how much they need.

"They're smart little critters; anyone who has studied bats knows that," says John Fleckenstein, a zoologist for the Department of Natural Resources. "They have been out there all around us for a long, long time and we still know very little about them. We're out there stumbling around in the dark and they are completely unfazed."

Researchers and wildlife protectors have gotten more organized the past decade. In 1994, Eric Larsen, an energetic state wildlife biologist, started the Washington Cave Habitat Work Group, which found important roosting sites. That led to the Washington Bat Working Group. Now, a broad coalition of state and federal agencies, advocacy groups and timber companies known as the Northwest Bat Cooperative coordinates and finances habitat research.
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Although it is a sunny mid-afternoon and the bats are tucked away in their "rocket box," Otto shines a flashlight into the recesses to see if she can catch a glimpse.
Michael Baker, a University of Kentucky researcher, co-directs a project funded by the cooperative and designed to learn what tree-roosting bats seek so foresters can better manage habitat. Through the summer, Baker's team captured bats in central Washington and Oregon by setting up volleyball-style mesh nets in front of water holes. They attached half-gram transmitters to females and used telemetry equipment to trace them back to dying trees and locate maternity colonies.

The state's most productive habitat-research site is a coulee near Vantage, where 13 of the state's 15 bat species reside in the summer. It has ideal bat requirements: warmth, fresh water, lots of bugs to eat, trees, cliffs, remoteness. It is also ideal for researchers. While they don't do it in Western Washington, where fresh water is plentiful, researchers stake out ponds so they can capture or survey the bats that will visit.

The coulee hosts some of the state's most distinctive bats. The hoary is relatively big and, unlike most bats, flies straight and high. It likes to swoop and scoop up beetles. The Western pipistrelle, known for its unique "pip" call, likes cliffs, canyons, even lava fields. The pallid attacks scorpions and is immune to its prey's venom.

Bats don't just stay in trees and coulees, though. The Townsend's big-eared gets special attention because it often establishes colonies in abandoned human structures yet is particularly sensitive to disturbance. As a result, biologists pursue protection projects around the state. For instance, state wildlife agent Howard Ferguson saved an old cabin near Spokane by bartering a compromise with landowners who were going to remodel. Now it holds a healthy Townsend colony and a research video camera. On the Olympic Peninsula, atop a hill overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a World War II-era bunker is gated to keep humans away from the Townsends roosting inside. The population has risen from four to 200.

Fleckenstein is coordinating a project to build a bat box, the equivalent of a birdhouse, in the mud flats of Woodard Bay where I watched the emergence.

"Before we logged the Woodard Bay area, these species used large trees, roosting in the bark and in cavities," Fleckenstein says. "The number of bats found in the area around Woodard Bay may have been similar to the numbers that use the pier today, but they roosted at many locations across the countryside rather than all in one location."

The maternity colony of browns and yumas, which has existed at least since 1990 beneath the pier, needs spaces that are warm by day and retain the heat at night, enabling the fetuses and young to develop quickly.

The bat box, which may be erected this fall so as not to disturb other wildlife in the conservation area, will be 8 feet long by 4 feet wide by 5 feet high. It will be partitioned into spaces only an inch or less wide because bats are tiny and like things cozy. It will be mounted on pilings 10 feet above high tide to allow bats to drop and begin flight and avoid predators. The state wants to put it up before the pier gives out so the bats can get acclimated to it.

But no one knows whether they will use it.

DR. TRISH OTTO has about 100 wildlife homes arrayed around the 100 acres she owns near Bellingham; 20 of those are reserved for bats. There are some by a slough, a pond she and her husband formed, on hillsides, near their small home and tacked to a barn. Otto, an obstetrician, installed bat boxes several years ago because she wanted to attract maternity colonies.

Some of her bat boxes are new-generation "rocket boxes," so-named because they are tall, thin and pointed at the top. The opening of a bat box is always at the bottom so bats can drop and fly but predators can't invade. She is helping Bat Conservation International test three tube-shaped stucco boxes attached to the top of one 15-foot pole. Each box is about 4 feet high, painted its own colors and dotted with differing numbers of air holes to provide temperature alternatives.

Bat boxes can help make up for disappearing natural roosts and give bats an alternative to your attic, garage or other warm crannies. The colonies move around the boxes on her land for no known reason, so she checks for guano accumulating on the four-sided shelves below the openings to get an idea about which ones are being used.

Influenced by her mother, Lorrie, a naturalist and author, Otto has been a birder since she was a girl, but encountered bats in a big way when she attended an Arizona seminar led by Tuttle in 1994. "I found bats fascinating, and when I held one I got lost in them," she says. "They have their own behaviors and personalities."

One warm day just before noon last summer, she walks into a large, remodeled barn, past tools, machinery, hockey sticks and posters of Larry Bird and Wayne Gretzky to a stairway that leads to an attic. There, along the second flight of steps, are three square bat boxes, designed by an Oregon farmer who uses several hundred of them as pest controllers on his land. Although midday is the worst time to see bats, one suddenly appears on the wall. It sits there, holding its ground, staring down at us. Otto identifies it as a Western long-eared myotis.

Two weeks later, I return to her home, this time at dusk, to watch the emergence. Her husband, Dr. David Wisner, stops tending his garden and expresses amazement that photographer Tom Reese and I would drive all that way to see bats. "I'm not as crazy about bats as she is," he says. Yet he joins us in front of the rocket box and braves the swarming mosquitoes — part of the nightly bat menu — while she tunes her detector.

As we wait for the Western long-ears to emerge, big browns are already swooping high above, and through the detector we can hear their metallic-sounding calls.

Shortly after 9, the long-ears finally shoot out in dribs and drabs, registering the familiar Geiger-counter groan I had heard at Woodard Bay. After they zoom off, Otto plays with the frequency setting one more time and points the detector straight up to catch the late-arriving "mystery bat" that feeds above her property. Its call is even more bizarre: like the hollow sound of someone waffling a saw blade back and forth.

Before leaving, we compare Reese's photograph of that lone barn bat to shots in an illustrated book of Northwest bats. The more she looks at the photos, the less sure she is about the bat. In fact, it turns out to be a rare Townsend, which is big news to Otto.

Since then, she has watched the lone bat with renewed interest and is entertaining the international conservation group's proposal to erect another bat box, this one made of cement, to see if the Townsend — a species that usually avoids bat boxes — would use it.

"That's the thing about bats," she says. "As a birder, I would have noticed if a bird was doing something different and would look more closely. But here is a bat surrounded by bat boxes, yet not using any, and it never occurred to me that this could be a different species. That's how mysterious bats are!"

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine reporter. Tom Reese is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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