Volunteers track threatened Sussex bats after sunset

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LEWES, Del. (AP) — Just before sunset, Jackie Conklin set up a chair facing a house in Lewes, got her flashlight at the ready and fed a treat to a dog quietly resting in a kennel.

"That's my companion," she said.

Companionship is important, because it takes a great deal of patience to count bats. She sat and waited for more than an hour for the first one to appear, swooping out of a specially crafted box on the side of the home.

"These guys tend to not come out until a few minutes past sunset," she said.

Then they started flying out two or three at a time, faster than a person's eyes could keep up with in the dark. To help her see better, she shined a light just below the boxes and kept counting.

Conklin monitors bat colonies as part of a volunteer program for the state. In May and June she counted how many bats were in the colonies, then in July she counted them again, this time after the mothers had given birth.

What she found this year was disheartening: at the Lewes location, her numbers were down from last year. Bats gather in the summer to give birth to pups, and they huddle together in colonies for warmth.

In 2014, Conklin counted 67 little brown bats before the pups were born and 82 after.

"Even that is not a great number, because you hope for one pup for each bat," she said.

This year it was even worse: she counted 57 before and 67 after. It could be a few things, from the hard winter to a chance occurrence at the site.

"I don't know what's going on," she said. "I didn't have good luck this year."

And it might take a year or two of monitoring the colony to find out, she said.

Being a bat volunteer only takes up a few nights a year, but she gets a lot of enjoyment out of it. Her interest in the environment and animals is what drove her to participate, even though she was initially afraid of the bats.

"I was nervous the first couple times I did it," she said.

She made a little contest for herself, rooting for her bat counts to go up each year. She also got to see baby bats for the first time.

"If people don't learn about it and understand it and participate in little things like this, then no one is going to care about protecting (wildlife)," she said.

That is especially important for little brown bats in Delaware, which saw major population declines due to white-nose syndrome, a type of fungus that is associated with nearly 6 million bat deaths in the United States and Canada.

The syndrome was first observed in 2006 in New York, and didn't reach Delaware until 2010.

"The disease itself is still ravaging populations in the Southeast and it's moving west," Holly Neiderriter with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources said. "Our little brown bat population colonies are clearly declining or gone because of white-nose syndrome."

At one site in Delaware, a colony of 250 bats disappeared. However, Neiderriter said the issue appears to have leveled out for now, with some locations in other states stabilizing or making small increases.

"There's a little glimmer of hope here and there," she said.

While the bats at Neiderriter's site in Lewes have decreased, at another colony about 6 miles away a bat box in the backyard of Denise and Butch Kates is bursting at the seams with little brown bats.

They've had the box since 2004, and between 2011 and 2015 the colony population after pups are born has tripled, from 66 to 182. The Kates originally installed the box to help control mosquitoes in their backyard, and said there's been a big improvement.

One of the big advantages of a healthy bat population is pest control, according to Conklin.

"They're out there getting those beetles and bugs and things that might damage crops," she said.

The bats also eat mosquitoes, reducing the risk of diseases such as West Nile Virus.

The state is looking for more colony sites in Sussex County, particularly a large site with more than 70 bats they can use as a benchmark for their research.

"If people know of colonies, we'd love to hear about them," Niederriter said.

Also, if you have bats in your home or attic, consider waiting until the end of the summer to do an exclusion, which basically means making it so the bats can't return. That way no baby bats get stuck inside when they're too young to fly.


Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/

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