How To Listen For A Spotted Bat

Jul 18, 2014

When you think of bats, this guy might be the first thing that comes to mind.

“I am Dracula.”

You may find bats scary. But one group of nature lovers doesn’t. They recently spent a night out tracking bats in central Washington. They wanted to check-in on how bat populations are doing in the state. EarthFix reporter Courtney Flatt has more.

An Insect-Eating Spotted Bat.
An Insect-Eating Spotted Bat.
Credit Paul Cryan / U.S. Geological Survey

Moses Coulee is a bat-lovers paradise. You can find 14 of 15 these mammals in Washington at this one speck of land – about 45 minutes north of Ephrata. It’s is also home to one of the most rare bats in the state: the spotted bat.

And there’s one thing especially cool about this bat: people can hear its echolocation.

Warner: “Listen real carefully and above the crickets you should hear another very insect-like call. Let’s see if you can hear this.”

Chuck Warner is with The Nature Conservancy.

Warner has been organizing volunteers to listen for spotted bats for 14 years. The volunteers provide a census of the large area all at once.

Warner: “We’re hoping that we can use this information as a surrogate for how the bat species are doing in general in this area.”

Bats are a keystone species. They eat insects. They help pollinate. They can even help reforestation after a wildfire. That’s why The Nature Conservancy wants to know how they are doing.

Neal Hedges started studying the bat population in this area in 1992. He helped the researchers who first discovered spotted bats in the Northwest.

Hedges: “This has the most spotted bats of any place in Washington that we found.”

Courtney Flatt: “Moses Coulee?”

Hedges: “Yeah, this part of Moses Coulee.”

Hedges was the first person in Washington to trap a spotted bat. Biologists here have only caught them twice.

Hedges: “It’s a striking bat. It’s black and white, and it’s got really long ears that are kind of pinkish. It’s got one of the longest ears of any of the bats in Washington. It’s a beautiful bat.”

Spotted bats are also found roosting on high cliffs in Eastern Oregon and Idaho.

Hedges leads two volunteers out to a spot close to where he caught the spotted bat.

Hedges: “You know, once you guys learn this call, it’s going to drive you crazy at camp.”

Burgart: “Didn’t think about that. The one time I forgot my earplugs.”

Stephanie Burgart says she can’t wait to hear the spotted bats flying around the coulee – even if the sound might make it harder to sleep.

The group decides on a good listening spot. Soon after, a large bat swoops down.

A bat flying right over your head might make most people jump. Not Burgart.

Burgart: “They’re one of the uncharismatic creatures that people just don’t give a lot of attention to. And so they’re a little less known, and I just think they’re super cute.”

The spotted bats haven’t come out yet. But the sun is quickly setting, and the moon is rising. The spotted bats will soon leave their roosts on the high cliffs.

That’s when Burgart and her husband will start counting the bat’s echolocation clicks. They listen for clicking noises. That’s how they know a bat is flying overhead. The sound is pretty distinctive once you know what you’re listening for.

All in all, Burgart and her husband heard 15 bats flying overhead.

The Nature Conservancy’s Chuck Warner says the bat counts were slightly lower than normal. Most of the counters heard about 22 bats over one hour.

Warner: “By and large, I’m surprised that the count isn’t higher because it’s so still tonight – at least where we were. But the bugs were so loud you couldn’t hear anything else.”

The Nature Conservancy is using tactics like weed management and controlled grazing to restore habitat in this part of Moses Coulee.

The conservation group is hoping that will attract more moths and insects. With more food, they hope, will come more bats.

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