It was a steamy July evening in the Talladega National Forest in east Alabama, and an eclectic group of biologists, researchers and enthusiasts from across the Southeast were ready to snag some bats.
It’s the “Bat Blitz,” where experts and trained bat lovers converge to capture, count and study the bat population in a particular region. This year, about a dozen teams fanned out to survey bats in different locations over three nights, from the Shoal Creek District of the Talladega forest up to Little River Canyon.
It was the first time since 2008 that the regional bat blitz took place in Alabama. Last year’s blitz was in South Carolina, with next year’s tentatively planned for a site in Kentucky.
The festivities kicked off July 24 at Jacksonville State University (JSU), where multiple organizations hosted the Alabama Bat Festival. The event provided a forum to educate the public about the benefits of bats, and how to protect them – mainly by not disturbing them or their homes: in caves, trees and other places where they roost.
Bats are voracious bug eaters, and serve as natural controls on insect populations. Their eating habits help reduce insect damage to forests and crops, and certain bat species can also help pollinate plants.
But bats are on the decline in Alabama, and across the country – adversely affected by human disturbances to their habitat, as well as disease.
There are 16 bat species found in Alabama. Three species – the gray bat, the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat – are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Nicholas Sharp, a nongame biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), said the gray bat has recovered somewhat since receiving federal protection. But the Indiana and northern long-eared bat continue to suffer in the state.
He said the regional bat blitz is an opportunity to “generate a lot of data in a short amount of time,” which can help experts refine conservation efforts.
Jeff Baker, a biologist at Alabama Power, spent a couple nights participating in this year’s mega bat blitz. Baker and other environmental specialists at the company regularly take part in Alabama’s smaller, annual bat blitzes as members of the Alabama Bat Working Group. The group was formed in 2009 to bring together individuals, organizations and agencies interested in conserving Alabama’s bat species.
“It’s a part of our efforts to be good environmental stewards,” said Baker. He noted that as one of the largest land and water managers in the state, Alabama Power can aid efforts to protect bats.
He said bat blitzes typically take place in summer, after many bats have migrated to their summer roosting areas. Last year’s Alabama blitz took place in the Conecuh National Forest, near the Florida line. This year, with people coming in from across the Southeast, “we’ll be able to do a lot more sampling.”
To capture the bats, teams set up mist nets, typically made from nylon or polyester mesh that doesn’t interfere with bats’ echo-location systems. The tall nets are positioned at bat “flyways” where they are known to travel. When bats hit the nets, they are gently entangled, giving researchers an opportunity to examine them up close.
Experts quickly identify the captured bats by species and gender. They also check a bat’s weight, condition and reproductive status before releasing it. Some bats may be tagged, so that their migratory patterns can be tracked, should they be caught later in another bat blitz.
Organizations active in this year’s bat blitz include ADCNR, the U.S. Forest Service, JSU’s Environmental Policy and Information Center and Field Schools, the Southeastern Bat Diversity Network, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“With everyone coming together to study bat species, it’s a wonderful time to help the public understand the importance of bats in the ecosystem,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Tammy Freeman Brown.