Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the July 22, 2001Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

One reason I find myself at this precise spot in the forest at Laurel Hill Plantation is that there's an old cistern here. It's like a 20-foot-deep, 10-foot-wide Grecian urn buried in the ground, with its 4-foot-wide and 3-foot-high neck sticking above the ground's surface. I would not be surprised to learn that the cistern was placed here during slave days, to provide for a cluster of slave homes. This cistern was supposed to provide me with water. I built my outside kitchen so that water from its tin roof would drain into the cistern.

Just days after I arrived and cleared the thicket of honeysuckle overgrowing the cistern's neck, both bats and Chimney Swifts moved into the cistern. They are still there. At first light each morning the bats flutter into the cistern after their night of feeding, then a while later Chimney Swifts streak out of it. Then at dusk the operation is reversed.

Of course this situation presented me with three choices: 1) drink water filled with bat and bird doo; 2) cover the cistern and keep the critters out, or: 3) turn the cistern over to the critters and get my water elsewhere.

Naturally I chose the last alternative, and I consider it an honor to share my space with these interesting and beautiful beings.

I've learned a good deal from the bats, which the books name Southeastern Myotis (sometimes Mississippi Myotis), and whose Latin name is Myotis austroriparius.

First of all, I've learned to not leave buckets next to the cistern, because twice I've found dead bats in the buckets' bottoms. Bats use a sophisticated form of echolocation -- bouncing high-frequency sounds off objects to figure out where things are -- and clearly to bat SONAR an empty bucket looks a lot like a cistern's entry hole.

I've also learned that bats can do mysterious things. Last fall I was sleeping outside beneath the mosquito net on my 4-foot-high sleeping platform when I was awakened by a bat inside my net, fluttering back and forth the net's length. The bat must have pushed its way beneath the netting, which was draped onto the plywood surface heavily enough to keep all mosquitoes out. That night with a flashlight I was able to take a long look at my captive from six inches away as it hung on the inside of my netting. It's an amazing looking thing. Of course as soon as I lifted one side of the netting the bat nonchalantly flew out and immediately began darting among flying bugs. You can see a picture of a Southeastern Myotis and read some extra information about them at http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/myotaust.htm

I'm thinking about bats nowadays because for the last week each dawn I have seen more bats fluttering inside my outside kitchen than ever before. Their many wings cause a considerable whir in the morning air and though several may dart between my legs as I'm conducting my stretching exercises before jogging, they never touch my skin. They do often touch my beard, however, but that's because bat SONAR doesn't register a hermit's beard-hairs.

This Sunday Morning, the moment the first Cardinal sang and I couldn't even see that the western horizon was lighting up yet, I slipped from beneath the mosquito net and took a seat next to my cistern's neck, with my face about two feet away. It wasn't five minutes before the first bat entered. Ultimately I counted 752.

Two different forms were clearly present, a small, black one and a larger, paler one. However, I don't know whether this means that I have two different species, or whether there are just larger older ones and smaller young ones. I suspect that it's the latter. That's because several bats missed the basketball-size hole in the metal plate covering my cistern, and fluttered around on the cover for a second or two before regaining enough composure to dive through the hole, and all of the hole-missers were the small, black kind. According to the Web site mentioned above, at this time of year juvenile Southeastern Myotises should be for the first time joining their elders on foraging expeditions, so those small black ones may be inexperienced young.

In nature there's a general rule that the more sophisticated an animal species is, the fewer offspring it produces. Couples of most Myotis species produce only one young per year, but Southeastern Myotises typically give birth to twins. I suppose that this means that my bats are among the less sophisticated species in the large, smart family of Myotis bats. Still, the general low bat reproduction rate hints at the truth: That all bats are extremely complicated, highly evolved, marvelous beings. Also, that bats are very vulnerable to man's predations, because after any disaster affecting their numbers bats will need a long time to recoup their numbers.

Yes, I am very proud of my 752 bat neighbors.

from the July 22, 2001Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

In my Newsletter of July 22 I reported counting 752 Southeastern Myotis bats entering my cistern at dawn one morning. This Sunday morning at the first hint of dawn I was at the cistern head again.

When I arrived there I was surprised to hear a good number of bats already inside the cistern, so my count was doomed to be an undercount. Nonetheless, this time I counted 715 entering as they returned from their night's foraging, so probably now there is about the same number as counted in July. Maybe the reason some bats entered so early was because of the almost-full moon's brightness, or maybe with the cooler weather there are fewer insects and the early returners just didn't think staying out late was worth the effort.

In July I noted that there appeared to be two kinds of bat entering -- a small, black one and a larger, paler one -- and I decided that the black ones must have been juveniles. Now they are all large and pale. However, a few still missed their hole and fluttered about on the metal plate covering the cistern neck, before composing themselves and diving inside.

from the August 4, 2002 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

As soon as a hint of dawn's first light appeared in the eastern sky, last year on Sunday, July 22, I hunched next to my cistern's head and counted 752 bats entering after their night of foraging. I'd identified the bats earlier as Southeastern Myotis, MYOTIS AUSTRORIPARIUS.

This Sunday morning, August 4, I have repeated my census and once again I have simply been amazed. This time I counted 1,783!

Assuming that half of last's years 752 bats were female, and reading that a couple typically produces two offspring a year, that would yield an expected population this year of only 1,128, assuming no mortality. Apparently new bats have moved into the cistern from elsewhere. I had suspected that that might be the case as I counted them this morning, for this year some of the bats seemed larger than what I saw last year, and with reddish coloration, though in the dim light I could have been mistaken about this.

Whatever the case, I am thrilled with this new census, and glad that the population finds my companionship so congenial.

from the November 17, 2002 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

On Friday night two researchers with Mississippi State Government came to document the bat population in the cistern beneath the roof of my outside kitchen.

This Friday, bats began emerging from the cistern's head around 5:30 PM, when there was barely enough light to see them. At first only a few came out but when it got completely dark we shined red light on them and watched them emerging too fast to count with confidence.

We caught about a dozen individuals with nets, weighed them, measured their forearms (part of their wing), then released them by simply opening the hand and letting them fly away. Some bat species need to drop from an elevation in order to catch air in their wings before then can begin flying, but that's not so with our species.

Mother bats of this species give birth once yearly, to twins. During the youngs' early days, when the mother flies out to forage at night, she carries her brood with her, and I find this fact enormously touching. I can imagine how the young feel clinging to their mother high in a moonlit sky, the all-encompassing wing-fluttering beating the air around them, the rush of the wind, the heat and odor of their mother's body in the chill night air, the sense of relief upon return to my cistern at dawn...

As bats go, Southeastern Myotises are small bats. In fact, when the researcher measuring their forearms found her gloves to be too clumsy she removed them and though the bats tried to bite her they just couldn't set their teeth in her too-big, too-tough fingers. Most of our captives didn't seem very upset with our handling and only a couple fluttered, made noises and fought. The sound was a rapid, woody click.

Populations of Southeastern Myotis are losing ground rapidly as their habitats are destroyed. The species is considered a "Species of Concern" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a step sometimes preceding an organism being placed on the Rare and Endangered List. I am astonished to learn that my population may be the second-largest known to occur in Mississippi. I feel honored to live next to these fabulous little creatures.

from the December 22, 2002 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

The old cistern, which contains a foot or two of water, stays warm inside even when it's cold outside. On a recent morning when the thermometer in my Waxmyrtle stood at the freezing mark a thermometer I'd dangled on a string to near water level about 20 feet below the cistern's neck (6 meters), read 65° (18°C).

I've been watching to see what happens on cold evenings at the time when the bats emerge. Because I can hear their peeping, my impression is that at that time the whole colony is awake and active in its warmish home. At sundown the first few bats begin emerging but instead of all of them streaking off to parts unknown, a few do depart, but most flit about the kitchen awhile before returning into the cistern, and a few turn back the instant they feel how cold it is. As time passes, the great exodus of bats does not materialize but rather a few bats continue flitting through my kitchen as others fly into and out of the hole. Then for a while there is a general retreat back into the cistern, and before long all is quiet, and the long, cold night remains batless.

from the February 23, 2003 Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi, USA:

The bat researchers returned here early this week. We were lucky enough to catch, measure, weigh and determine the sex of over twenty Southeastern Myotises as they fluttered inside my outside kitchen over the cistern hole, plus in a nearby culvert we accomplished the same thing with an Eastern Pipistrel and a Big-eared or Rafinesque's Bat. Since this area is so batty, our bats are being incorporated into a long- term study; the researchers will be coming back on a regular basis.

For me the most interesting moment of the visit came when one bat turned out to be infested with several external parasites, or "ectoparasites." They looked like small ticks and fleas, plus there was a mite half the size of a housefly, looking a bit like a spider, and it quickly emerged from a certain spot in the fur, skittered across the bat's back, then burrowed back into the fur, all in less than a second. That was a spooky sight.

Ever since seeing that I've been imagining what it must be like to be a bat with all these creatures stuck to me and being unable to scratch. Also, just imagine being that fast-moving critter snug in the bat's fur, riding through the night air -- the flutter of wings, the bat's high-pitched squeaks, and then later, back in the cistern, feeling your host wedging into the mass of fellow-bat bodies, and then being able to run across the entire heap of them, sniffing out the most inviting host for the next flight.

Just what does it mean that the Creator has come up with all these manners of being -- with amazing, very complex lives that are lived completely beyond the notice of us humans? Maybe the great Hebrew scholar Maimonides, who lived between 1135 and 1204, had asked himself the same question when he came up with this opinion:

"It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of the existence of man. On the contrary, all the other beings too have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of anything else. "