Historic Rivers Master Naturalists Launch Bat Monitoring Program

In the coming months, you might notice some slower-than-usual vehicles creeping through the rural parts of James City, York, New Kent, and Surry counties, and the Jamestown section of the Colonial Parkway. If you look a little closer, you might notice a Bat Monitoring sign and a device emerging from the roof. The project is a new initiative of the Historic Rivers Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists.

The bat monitoring project officially launched on July 1. It's a terrific example of how citizen science contributes to the conservancy of wildlife. But why bats? Brenda Uekert and Wendy Nelson, co-leads of the project, explain that "bats play a vital role in the ecosystem by controlling the pest population, including insects that destroy crops and those pesky mosquitos!" The group is using rather sophisticated methods to document the local bat population over time. A specialized microphone is mounted on a pole that extends about two feet above the car roof. The microphone cable is connected to a laptop, which runs a program called SonoBat. The software converts bat calls, which cannot be heard by the human ear, into high resolution full-spectrum-spectrograms. When a bat is detected, the program will convert the call into a chirping noise, display the spectrogram, and identify the species. The most commons species in this area is the red bat.

The bat population in North America has been in tremendous decline, due to white-nose syndrome. It's a disease that affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus. Essentially, the fungus makes the bats "awaken" more often during hibernation, using up important fat stores that they need to survive the winter. The team is documenting the extent and location of bats and is particularly interested in the presence of endangered and threatened bat species in this area, such as the Virginia big-eared bat.

There are plenty of logistics involved in monitoring bats. For one thing, the routes and locations selected for the monitoring project are not random. Instead, teams mapped out safe driving routes that correspond to 10 x 10 km transects that were provided by the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat), which is run out of the U.S. Department of the Interior. And online tools are used to organize "bat squads" who navigate the 16-mile routes in each transect. There's a lot of enthusiasm for the project, with 24 master naturalists now trained on the protocol and the use of the equipment.

Even though the project is in its early stages, results are intriguing. For example, preliminary data show that the Colonial Parkway is especially rich in both number and species of bats. While the free-tailed bat is common on the parkway, the same species was a rarity in the New Kent transect. The group is excited by the ability to use data to scientifically determine geographic variations in bat populations over time.

Bat monitoring is seasonal - requiring temperatures above 50 degrees. The bat squad expects to end "bat season" in October. But as the project develops, the master naturalists anticipate seeking assistance from the community in identifying bat roosts and areas where bats congregate. Plus, the chapter plans to hold educational sessions for people to learn more about bats and conservation efforts. For more information, contact Dr. Brenda Uekert (docbku@cox.net)
or Wendy Nelson (vawendy@gmail.com).

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