Bats, Birds and Beauty in the Canyon

Aug 11, 2011
On Bat Night, adults and children alike were excited at the prospect of seeing a bat up close. Tom Rodhouse, Ecologist with the National Park Service, was our expert for the evening.

By Lisa Bagwell

What better way to end July, and truly appreciate this long-awaited summer, than by spending an evening along Whychus Creek at Rimrock Ranch? While those of us in Central Oregon have numerous opportunities to enjoy summer, few are quite as unique as waiting for nightfall and the creatures that come with it. That’s right, it was BAT NIGHT!  Big kids (adults) and small (as young as 4 years) alike were excited at the prospect of seeing a bat up close. Tom Rodhouse, Ecologist with the National Park Service, was our expert for the evening. To get started, he stretched three mist-nets, long gauzy volleyball-style nets, across the creek. He made sure to hang them high enough above the water so when a bat was caught in the net its weight wouldn't sag the net into the water below and drown the bat.  Every precaution is taken to ensure the bats are safely caught and handled.

While we were anxiously waiting for the arrival of bats, Tom shared with us what species we were likely to see in the area and what to expect. He also explained that we were not just catching these bats for fun, but for very important studies they are conducting on bats here and around the country. In order to research and protect bat populations, scientists catch and examine each bat, taking down various statistics and measurements. Forty percent of the nation’s bat species are threatened or endangered, so these studies are very important.

Although we were there to see and learn about bats, the adults in the group agreed we were just happy to be enjoying such a beautiful summer evening in such a stunning spot along Whychus Creek. The kids were equally joyful running along the stream and through the meadow. But the real excitement came as the sun dipped below the canyon rim and dusk arrived. Tom recommended that we stay away from the creek and keep as quiet as possible (good luck with about a dozen excited kids!), so that we didn’t alert the bats to our presence. Tom became the perfectly patient Pied Piper of Rimrock Ranch. Where Tom went, a line of children-- and some adults--followed. It was wonderful to watch as the kids transformed into little explorers and scientists!  

Identifying a Myotis bat.  Photo: Jim Anderson.
Identifying a Myotis bat. Photo: Jim Anderson.
Identifying a Myotis bat. Photo: Jim Anderson.

With dusk we knew that soon the bats would wake and leave their roosts to forage for the night. It didn’t take long before we witnessed the first feeders, their dark figures easily identifiable by their erratic flight patterns across the sky above the meadow. “There’s one!” exclaimed Von, a bright 7-year-old boy visiting Central Oregon and staying with his grandparents for the summer.  What a treat these kids–and all of us–are in for, I thought.

Tom, with kids in tow, made frequent checks of the mist-nets while the rest of us chatted and anxiously awaited the first bat. “We caught one! We caught one!” All gathered excitedly around Tom, first a ring of children, followed by the adults. We were all so eager for our first up-close glimpse of a bat! But wait, what’s that?! This winged friend had…FEATHERS! Our first visitor turned out to be a spotted sand piper!  As surprised as we were, she looked even more so. Tom released her and she immediately went down by the stream. He thought she probably had a nest down there. With dusk still hanging on, another nocturnal surprise was in store for us. This time a common nighthawk!  His wide eyes expressed that he clearly did not expect to wind up in an ecologist’s hand when he set out for a nighttime snack!  He was truly a lovely bird to see up close.

With darkness upon us, the kids were given the job of headlamp and flashlight-holders and mist-net checkers. When it was time, off they’d go, nothing but a string of lights bobbing up and down behind the tallest light perched on Tom’s head. While we waited, we learned and shared more about bats. Did you know one bat can consume 1,200 mosquitoes an hour?!  Frankly, we were quite thrilled about that!  

Common nighthawk.  Photo: Land Trust.
Common nighthawk. Photo: Land Trust.
Common nighthawk. Photo: Land Trust.

Then it happened...the unmistakable squeal of delight announcing our first bat had arrived! He--and yes, as part of the research, we confirmed gender--was a feisty little guy. Tom identified our nocturnal friend as a California Myotis (Myotis californicus), carefully holding him with leather-gloved hands. He looked like a little mouse with wings (the bat, not Tom). That mouse look-alike had a mouth with very sharp teeth that he bared to show his displeasure at being plucked from his feeding time. Now came the time to weigh him. Tom hung a small cloth bag from a special scale that is held at its top by hand rather than set on the ground. The scale is set to zero with the bag hanging from it. Now only the bat’s weight, and not the weight of the bag, is measured. This guys weighed in at 5.0 grams. I carefully recorded all the information for Tom in his notebook to add to the research. The bat’s hissing was interesting, but it indicated his fear and irritation (upon later reflection, my husband and I likened it to what it must be like to be abducted by aliens…but that’s another blog), so we said farewell and set him free to forage the rest of the night.

During the break between bats and conversation, we heard and Tom positively identified a spotted bat (Euderma maculatum) from its call overhead. Excited murmurs followed and another line of lights went off to check the nets. They returned this time with a silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans), another adult male, weighing 9.4 grams.

As we wrapped up for the evening--grabbing one last bat-shaped cookie (thank you, Gayle!)--and made our way across the meadow to our vehicles, I hoped the kids (big and small) remembered this experience in nature with reverence and awe, inspired to continue to protect special places like Rimrock Ranch. I, for one, was thankful for not only the intimate encounter with nature, but the peace that is out there when all is still. No cars, trains, or barking dogs…just the rustle of the trees and an occasional bat seeking its next meal. And the stars…oh, the stars...