The third walk back into the woods to check the mist nets proved the charm. An eastern red bat was tangled in the fine mesh of the net stretched over a trail, and a big brown bat was caught in the net over a shallow stream.
The two bats were placed in cloth bags and gently carried back to the parking lot at Hawn State Park. Under the glare of headlamps, they were inspected for age, weight, health and gender. A black line was drawn on their wing with a marker to identify the bats if they were caught a second time.
Erik Otto, an interpretative resource specialist with Missouri State Parks, wore gloves for protection as he collected data on the eastern red bat. The little ball of rust-colored fur was armed with tiny teeth used to crunch insects.
“These reds are my favorite,” said Ron Colatskie, a state parks natural resources steward who had done the data work on the big brown bat.
Job done, Otto walked into the woods and opened his hands to release the bat, which disappeared into the dark with a few silent flaps of its leathery wings, the only mammal with the gift of flight.
Otto and Colatskie were joined in their bat-catching venture by two wildlife researchers with the Missouri Department of Conservation – Tony Elliott and Shelly Colatskie, who is Ron’s wife. The four are part of a bat-monitoring team that has visited half a dozen state parks in recent months.
Wildlife ecologists in Missouri are establishing a baseline of bat populations to detect any changes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service are partners in the effort.
Their work has uncovered some unexpected finds, especially at Big Oak Tree State Park, which is an island of forest and wetlands in the agricultural land along the Mississippi River near Missouri’s Bootheel.
The four bat researchers at Hawn began the evening by erecting three mist nets, which look something like volleyball nets made of fine mesh. They spread them across “flyways” in the forest, in this case two small streams and a trail with open areas that funnel bats into the nets.
Ecologists also conduct winter cave surveys in state parks, counting and photographing hibernating bats.
Another more passive effort is using acoustic monitoring equipment that records the bats ultrasonic “echolocation” calls as they search the woods for insects. Tony Elliott, the resource scientist with the Conservation Department, had a hand-held device that picked up a few scattered bat calls before the nets captured the eastern red bat and the big brown bat.
A one-night mist net survey at Dr. Edmund A. Babler Memorial State Park, which is surrounded by suburbia in west St. Louis County, snared eight different species of bats, including endangered Indiana and gray bats. The team affixed a small radio transmitter to an Indiana bat, which led them to a tree where more than 100 Indiana bats were roosting.
The survey team had some surprises while working at Big Oak Tree State Park. They captured three juvenile Southeastern Myotis, a small bat found in the southeastern United States. They also documented a female Rafinesque’s big eared bat that had recently given birth. It was the first evidence that the two southern species were reproducing in the state.
A Green Oasis
Many state parks become a haven for rare and endangered plants and animals. They are important for preserving and monitoring wildlife populations. Missouri has 15 species of bats, including three listed as endangered.
“In Missouri, we are blessed to have a wealth of intact ecosystems and private land throughout the Ozarks as the lands were often too rough to develop,” Colatskie said.
In spring and fall, parks become resting and feeding areas for the millions of birds and waterfowl that migrate over the United States. Parks like Pershing and Cuivre River stick out to a flying bird like a green oasis amid the corn and soybean fields.
“It’s easiest to see in a park like Big Oak Tree,” Colatskie said of the park in Missouri’s southeast corner. “It’s a postage stamp of what the Bootheel landscape of swamp and bottomland hardwood forest used to be before it was cut and drained for agriculture. If you look at an aerial photo, it’s essentially an island of biodiversity.”
Parks are important because they are reservoirs of nature, where efforts are made to preserve Missouri’s historic natural environments. Through prescribed fire, exotic species control, restoration and endangered species management, the parks are kept healthy and rich with native plants and wildlife.
“These bat surveys will prove invaluable as they will provide baseline information that can be used to detect changes to populations in our state parks over the years,” Colatskie said. “Because of the conservation role of parks, visitors can find within them rare species and outstanding examples of our historic natural landscape.”