- Associated Press - Sunday, July 19, 2015

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - As a citizen scientist volunteer, Lynne Stevens loves watching bats emerge from their roosts at night — but her first experience with the animals didn’t end well.

“When I was in high school, a tiny bat landed in my dad’s carport,” she wrote in an email. “I guess the image of bats then was of rabid, bloodsucking little relatives of Dracula. He went outside and beat it to death with a broom. It made me feel terrible, and it is something I remember vividly. Now seeing these amazing little flying machines that eat thousands of mosquitoes and other night insects just gives me a feeling of delight.”

Stevens and several hundred other people across Southeast Alaska, about 200 of whom are in Juneau, are citizen scientist volunteers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Diversity program. The program focuses on species “of greatest conservation need,” especially those that are vulnerable or endangered.

“It’s all about awareness, I think, in the bat world,” said ADF&G; wildlife biologist Michael Kohan. “The citizen scientists allow us not only to gather data, but also to provide education and awareness for something that is pretty much unknown.”

Volunteers have called the Alaska Department of Fish and Game about maternity roosts in their chimneys, roofs and overhangs, sometimes hundreds of bats strong. They’ve driven up and down local roads with a microphone magnetically attached to their cars, listening for the sound of bats converted into a frequency the human ear can hear. And they’ve built heated bat houses — “more like bat condos,” Stevens says — to give them shelter when they need it.

The program’s citizen science outreach started in Gustavus and Haines last year; this year, they’ve expanded to Juneau, Craig, Sitka and Petersburg, largely reaching out to people through libraries and in partnership with librarians. Some communities are making maps of where maternity roosts are located.

A separate part of Fish and Game’s ongoing research involves winter hibernacula, where the bats that stay in town spend the winter.

Most of the bat roosts around Juneau this summer are female little brown bats, looking for a warm, batty environment to raise their one pup a year. They give birth in mid-July. Right now, the department is monitoring five or six large roosts in the Juneau area, Kohan said, though a roost can have a single bat or thousands.

Like Stevens, volunteer Cathy Botelho got her start with the program at a Mendenhall Visitors’ Center Fireside Lecture Kohan gave last winter.

“It was stunning to realize that the ten to fifteen foot span of the roof overhang from the two story building was home to nearly 600 bats that night,” Botelho wrote of the maternity roost count she was involved in a few days ago. “At dusk when we arrived, we could hear a faint cluster of high pitch sounds. Each of us had a tally counter to track numbers as individuals flew from the eaves and were silhouetted against the sky.. As a retired biologist, this was right up my alley.enumerating creatures!”

Though some see it as exciting, not all who call the department to let them know about roosts are thrilled about the bats in or around their homes. Some people want to learn how to “exclude” bats from their house — get rid of them. The most important thing, Kohan said, is to wait until after the mothers and pups have left at the end of September.

“If you exclude or try to seal up houses that have tons of bats, you’re basically just killing the population,” she said. “For the Juneau area, the timing is what’s most important.”

The department has been studying bats through a state wildlife grant since 2010, Kohan said.

Botelho and her next-door neighbor, also a retired biologist, plan to start doing driving surveys once nightfall comes a little sooner, she said.

In Juneau, volunteers are slowly driving from North Douglas to Lemon Creek and from Echo Cove to the end of Engineers Cutoff with microphones magnetically attached to their cars, listening to bats click, buzz and beep while marking the location according to a GPS. It’s also possible to tell a bat’s species by the sounds it makes. Some local hot spots are at Fish Creek on Douglas and Twin Lakes.

Citizen science is becoming a big push nation-wide, Kohan said. The data local volunteers gather will become part of the continent-wide North American Bat Monitoring Program, and will help inform scientists about larger bat population trends.

“It’s become more of an issue to understand how certain things like white nose (syndrome) can affect bats at a continent-wide level,” Kohan said.

White nose syndrome is disease fatal to bats that is spreading west.

As the citizen science bat program is a monitoring project, it could last for ten years or more, Kohan said. It could even become something like the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count — an ongoing survey that’s been providing nation-wide information for decades.

“The responsibility citizen scientists have is actually pretty big,” Kohan said. “There’s a lot of integrity that goes along with what they’re doing. these are data that we can use at a research level.”

In the future, ADF&G; scientists hope to expand their citizen science efforts to amphibians.

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Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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