Monday, October 31, 2016

Going batty this Halloween…

We attended the 1st annual Halloween Bat Count yesterday at Sunrift Adventures in Travelers Rest. Sponsored by the SC Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and Sunrift, the bat count was a great way to celebrate these awesome creatures of the night around an especially appropriate holiday.

What is now Sunrift, an outdoor outfitter specializing in cycling, backpacking, climbing & paddling, was once Brown’s Feed and Seed. The large building that stands behind the store dates back to 1904 as part of the cotton gin, and the old scales on which cotton was weighed still stand at the back of what is now called the Boat Barn. Along with the barn, the new buyers inherited a colony of bats that had moved into the roof of the building. It took the installation of eight bat houses and several years of plugging holes to keep the bats outside!

Why do we need bats here in the Upstate? Not only are bats major consumers of insects including mosquitos and various agricultural pests, but they contribute to our economy as well as our ecosystem. According to a 2011 study bats provided an annual pest suppression service of $115 million to the state's agricultural industry, and with the use of less pesticide they also help reduce the impact of these chemicals on other native wildlife species.

However, bats are in serious trouble. White-nose Syndrome is a disease that has devastated bat populations across North America, killing well over six million bats so far. Originally documented in New York in 2006, it was found in Pickens county in 2013; the mortality rate is 90-100%.  While the disease doesn’t affect humans, species such as the little brown bat have become locally extinct from their northeastern hibernation sites. Locally, tri­colored bats have tested positive for white-nose syndrome, their populations plummeting 60% in just a few years.

Of the fourteen species of bats that live in South Carolina, two call Sunrift home: the Big Brown Bat (Eptesicus fuscus) and the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis). SCDNR biologists gave a quick lesson on bats to those gathered for the count, and armed with paper and pencils, everyone headed towards their assigned box as the sun started setting.

As the bats woke up and prepared to leave their boxes, we could hear them squawking and chirping. Knowing we would be distracted by the boys, we chose to observe (and leave the counting to others) and settled in at a picnic table with a view of three of the boxes. It wasn’t long until the first bat dropped down and then swooped up and away, departing on its nightly hunt. The seconds ticked by, and then a river of bats would flow from the house, sometimes in a trickle, but sometimes filling the sky for a few moments. The flight would cease from one box only to resume from the next, and as I sat in awe of the sheer numbers the boys zoomed around us, squealing in delight.

We have a bat box in our yard, but it has sat empty for a couple of years. Armed with a new desire to see a family of bats move in, we will soon be relocating the house to ensure it is suitable for habitation. I hope you’ll consider adding a bat box or two to your property; not only will it help with mosquito control, but the beauty of the bats surging out at sunset was a sight to behold…

Wishing you a batty Halloween from our little cat, George Washington, and Thomas the Train!

Find the US Fish & Wildlife fact sheet on White-nose Syndrome here, and the SC DNR info page here.

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