One Batty Adventure: Notes from the Field

Bats are found all throughout Oklahoma and have experienced population decline as a result of habitat loss and climate change. Bats are an indicator species, meaning that by measuring their population health, conservationists are able to assess an area’s environmental health.

Determining environmental health by indicator species can be achieved by observing and recording factors like population growth, population decrease and population density. Therefore, regular studies of the state’s native bat populations are crucial for understanding the health of Oklahoma’s ecosystem in the midst of these ongoing threats. For several years now, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden has partnered with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) to provide staff support for its annual bat biodiversity survey every August.

This August, the Zoo’s Director of Information Technology, Matthew Word; Lead Education Animal Caretaker, Andrea Brenner; Exhibit Installation Technician, Cliff Casey; and Carnivore Caretaker, Katie Templeton, drove the Bob Moore Subaru ZOObaru to Cheyenne, Oklahoma, to assist with ODWC’s bat survey. Matthew Word shared his personal reflections from his first time helping with the bat survey:

At first, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Other colleagues of mine who have gone in previous years clued me in on the overall survey experience at the Wildlife Management Area (WMA), maintained by ODWC biologists. With their insight in mind, we set off for Cheyenne to meet Melynda Hickman (Mel), ODWC’s wildlife diversity biologist and leader of our “batty” adventure to be briefed on our roles in the survey process.

Before heading to the final survey spot, we were tasked with relocating a swift chimney bird tower from a park in Cheyenne to another determined spot elsewhere. Larry Weimers, another ODWC biologist, met our team at the park to provide us with tools and equipment to take the chimney tower down safely. After ODWC and Zoo team loaded up the chimney tower into ODWC’s trailer, we all headed over to a local burger restaurant where I had one of the best chocolate milkshakes ever. During our lunch, Mel briefed us on the journey ahead, as well as on all of the excitement that was to come. Afterward, we settled into our cabins at Boiler Springs State Park and regrouped to drive out to the Hal & Fern Cooper WMA, where we’d be surveying bats, to get a feel for the land and determine a plan for the next few days of research.

Later that Monday evening, Mel took us to the Selman Bat Cave for a very unique and humbling experience. Right at dusk, like clockwork, we all sat quietly as we observed thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats leave the cave over the span of 45 minutes to begin their nightly ritual of hunting for insects in the area. Playing an important role in this particular ecosystem, the colony is known to “cave hop” from the south to the north during the summer months. They then travel back south every winter.

The following morning, we headed out early to meet up with Larry at ODWC’S Cimmaron Hills WMA. Larry needed some assistance mounting cattle gates. We were more than willing to help him out, though none of us had mounted cattle gates before. However, over the course of the next three days, we became professionals at it. A hard stop was set for around 11:30 a.m. that morning to prepare for the bat survey at the Hal & Fern Copper WMA.

At that time, Mel and the Zoo team met up with Alabaster Caverns State Park Manager, Mike Caywood, who would be joining us throughout the survey. When we returned to the Hal & Fern Copper WMA, the six of us surveyed the back part of the WMA and found what appeared to be a prime habitat for bats. A prime bat habitat consists of a plethora of insects for feeding purposes and is located where bats can funnel through naturally, such as rivers, dry river beds and tall grassy areas with trees.

Once we found the bat survey location, Mel and Mike gave us a quick rundown of how the mist net system worked. Mist nets are used by ornithologists and bat biologists to gather wild birds and bats for banding or other research projects. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net. When properly deployed in the correct habitat, the nets are virtually invisible. That night, we assembled two mist nets and prepared for the bats’ arrival.

At dusk, Mel utilized an acoustic recording unit to record bat echolocation calls and determine the bats’ location, as well as their species. As soon as Mel turned on the device we saw it light up, notifying us of the various bat species flying around us. As we waited in the dark, Mike and Katie periodically shined flashlights to observe the bats’ movement and to check the nets to see if any individuals had flown into them. By 10 p.m., three bats were caught in the nets. At this point, my adrenaline starting pumping - mainly because of the excitement of actually catching the bats.

As we started lowering the net, two of the bats managed to escape the net. The last bat was removed from the net, and Mel and Mike quickly identified it as a male Northern Myotis species of bat. After completing survey paperwork, the bat was immediately released back into his environment. We waited until 1 a.m. for more bats to potentially fly into the nets. At that point, we decided to pack up for the night. This successful survey experience left the group in high spirits.

The next day, we headed back to Cimarron Hills WMA to mount more cattle gates. Once we finished, we geared up for a second night of surveying bats.

That night, spirits were even higher. Mel and Mike decided it would be best if we moved one of the net systems to add a third. We also adjusted the height of the poles so that the netting would be low to the ground. This adjustment was made with an objective of catching a pallid bat, as pallid bats are known to swoop lower than other bat species. This is because pallid bats can detect the footsteps of their prey on the ground. The fact that pallid bats can hear the footsteps of insects crawling around blew my mind!

Several hours passed and not a single bat flew through the area. During this lull, we all sat quietly, waiting patiently for the bats. The night sky was brightly lit up with stars, and you could even see bits of the milky way, which was truly an amazing experience within itself. It wasn’t until around 10:30 p.m. that we detected bat presence. At 12:45 a.m., a pallid bat was detected on Mel’s recording unit. The pallid bat stuck around for a decent amount of time, then flew off, completely avoiding the net systems. Sometime after 1:15 a.m., we called it a night. The following morning, we helped mount a few more cattle gates before heading home.

Working for the Zoo has provided me with some truly unique opportunities that I, as a technology professional, would never get to experience elsewhere. What makes my career at the Zoo precious to me is working alongside my colleagues at the Zoo, as well as through the Zoo’s longstanding partnerships, such as ODWC and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Coming out of this bat survey, I have a better understanding of the environmental importance of bats and the natural beauty that the state has tucked away. And, I don’t want to forget to mention that I can now properly mount cattle gates.

-              Matthew Word, director of information technology

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