- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 27, 2006

CLAYTON, Ga.

To catch a bat, you’ve got to think like one. With that in mind, a dozen or so bat specialists headed down miles of gravel road and dirt paths, over rocky crags and shallow streams, to find a remote wilderness where bats thrive.

At the edge of the Chattooga River, near the South Carolina border, they rigged up barely visible black nets where they figured bats would most likely swoop by.

As night fell, they crowded around a fold-out table, quietly cracking soda cans and jokes as they waited for the soft thud of bats flying into taut nets.

Like the few other teams fanned out across the area, the squad was part of the latest Bat Blitz, a gathering of scientists and students who devoted three nights this month to capturing, tracking and measuring as many of the night creatures as they could.

Their mission was to try to log all the bat species fluttering around the hills of northeast Georgia while training students and scientists how to trap bats.

Behind the blitz is Susan Loeb, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist who helped start the project five years ago after she heard of a similar inventory for insects. If they can do it with earthworms, she reckoned, then we can do it with bats.

More than 60 volunteers answered her bat signal, converging each night at a summer camp just across the South Carolina border to chow down on dinner before dividing into groups.

Joy O’Keefe, a graduate research assistant at Clemson University, led her team to a prime spot at the tip of a windy backcountry road. They worked quickly and quietly, staking 10-foot poles into the sandy beach and dense forest, and settled in for a long night.

About 8:30 p.m., fingers excitedly shot into the air. The first bats were venturing out, slowly circling the skies as if scoping out the network of traps below.

One net spanned the shoreline with the Chattooga, just behind the charred remains of a bonfire. Squad members were stretching another 120-foot net across the river. Just beyond a clearing, five more cut off narrow paths.

Miss O’Keefe was feeling confident. “We will catch a bat tonight,” she vowed.

About a half-hour later, the sky had grown dark enough to force the team members to switch on their headlamps. Katrina Morris, a wildlife biologist, plodded in from the river, a wide grin spreading across her face. “It’s starting to be bat time.”

The team retreated behind a group of cars, a stone’s throw from their traps, and gathered around a folding table to wait quietly. And then, success.

Peeking its head from a tiny yellow bag, a big brown bat angrily smacked its teeth at Craig Walker, a Department of Interior ecologist.

“You got him?” asked Jim Ozier, a wildlife biologist.

“He’s got me,” Mr. Walker answered, shaking the bat free of his finger, which was protected, appropriately, by a batting glove.

He gently pulled the bat from the yellow bag, holding its tiny head between his thumb and index finger while pressing the bat’s skull to keep it immobilized.

Then he and Miss O’Keefe tagged and measured its body and wingspan before tossing it into the air, where it fluttered briefly before climbing out of sight.

The team would catch six more bats before leaving, exhausted, in the wee hours of the morning. But it was the wily eastern pipistrelle that left them scratching their heads.

Chris Burney, a University of Florida wildlife ecology student, decided the best way to track the bat’s path was to glue a tiny glow stick to its belly.

The neon speck in the sky fluttered around a bit before becoming motionless on a tree branch for a suspiciously long time.

Confused scientists wondered why it had decided to perch atop the tree for so long. Then they realized the bat had simply nibbled off the marker.

Even the most dedicated bat sleuths can be outsmarted by their prey.

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