Sunday, July 5, 2009

"Bamberger's Folly"

This may be an old story to those more familiar with all we have to show here on the ranch. ~ Forgive me please if this is the case.

I served nine years on the Board of BCI – that’s Bat Conservation International – headquartered in Austin, Texas. My biggest contribution to that wonderful organization was working with the extended family some whom owned Bracken Cave and all of whom owned all the land surrounding it. After the purchase was completed, I was appointed to the chairmanship of Bracken Cave and as such recruited volunteers to make the sight more visitor friendly by building trails, “remodeling” old buildings, developing interpretive signs and primitive seating. When Margaret came into my life, we conceived the idea of “members only” night and handled all the communications and logistics which were necessary to bring BCI members to see the spectacular one hour emergence of an estimated twenty million Mexican Free-tailed bats (Chiroptera molossidae Tadarida brasiliensis). My son, David, and I along with our volunteers from the Bexar Grotto handled everything for three years. It was during this time that I came up with the idea of building a cave! Sounds kinda oddball doesn’t it? The Bexar Grotto – a group of cavers, had searched the ranch (Selah) very thoroughly in the hope that we had an accessible cave. We had a number of indications of underground caverns, but they were unable to open any of them.

What I wanted to demonstrate was that manmade habitat could mitigate the damage that man was causing to the environment with our highways, high wire lines, shopping centers and subdivisions.

From the very beginning in 1997 the building of a cave made me look like a crackpot. There’s a lot more to this story than time or space allows on this posting, but I’ll go on and briefly get to the good stuff. We consulted with many well respected bat biologists to get help in designing our cave. We took all of their advice and surprisingly all were really intrigued over the project and thought it would attract bats. Upon looking at our home drawn plans, the scientists estimated our cave could host one million bats!

Bats, in science, are in an order called Chiroptera – it basically means “hand winged.” Margaret and my son, David, came up with the name “Chiroptorium” a contraction of chiroptera and auditorium. David even submitted it to our three leading dictionaries – that’s another story – but I believe you’ll soon see it as an accepted word.

Since there wasn’t a war on in 1997 and 1998 when we were building our cave and the economy was not faltering and unemployment was not a problem, the media folks were hungry for something to report on. Some found us and that lead to another and another and another from local television, newspapers across the country, magazines – local and national, to The New York Times, National Public Radio then to Europe. Delegations came from Japan to see it as well as from a few cities in Texas. The only thing that didn’t come were bats! Well, a few did but they didn’t stay – and that’s another story, too.

As you would expect a good reporter to do, after a few years they check back to see how this grand experiment was performing. Getting fatigued on my evasive answer to the question, “How many bats do you have?” which was “I can’t really tell you, but they cost me one thousand dollars each,” one reported and others followed calling what is now our very successful chiroptorium “Bamberger’s Folly.”

Chiroptorium on June 30, 2009. Photograph taken by J. David.

The population began building in the later summer of 2003. It was almost like they found the chiroptorium overnight. Biologists told me they could have been a migrating group and not to expect them back. The number was estimated at 20,000.

Scientist and Wanna-be Scientists. Left to right: Lauren Snyder, Boston University, Biology major; Kristen Lear, Ohio Weslyan, Zoology major; Dr. Gary McCracken, bat biologist and head of the Department of Biology, University of Tennessee and also scientific advisor to the Bamberger Ranch Preserve; Elizabeth Braun de Torrez, Ph.D. candidate Boston University; Dan Katz, Bard College undergrad, starting Ph. D. at University of Michigan Forest Ecology and Cory, David’s dog. Photograph taken by J. David.

In 2004 scientists began developing a system that could count bats as they emerged from caves. Their work centered here at Selah. What developed was an infrared computerized camera system that took the pictures and a logarithm system that worked in conjunction that would count all those white dots that the infrared saw. This was quite an accomplishment. The project was under the direction of Dr. Tom Kunz of Boston University with a grant from The National Science Foundation. Ph.D. candidates and undergrads are here on the first of every month, April through October, conducting our census.

Learning about the Research. Photograph taken by J. David.

Elizabeth Braun de Torrez, left, is the lead person on the census this year. She is a Ph. D. candidate at Boston University. Some of the equipment can be seen on left corner of the photo. Here she is explaining her work with Colleen Gardner, our Executive Director. Notice her journal in her hand.

Kristen Lear and Lauren Snyder undergrads who are along to learn and to assist Liz Braun de Torrez. Photograph taken by J. David.

Here you can see $75,000 worth of equipment. The infrared camera is left foreground. What a wonderful opportunity and experience for the young people to spend their summer.

Still Attracting Publicity. Photograph taken by J. David.

National Public Radio KUT 90.5 in Austin sent journalist Erica Aguilar to observe and report on the research. Here she is taping Liz for the program which will air on two days the week of July 5th.

Awesome! I never get tired of this! Photograph taken by J. David.

The May 30th census recorded 54,000+. Liz reported that from her observation there were 3,000 of another species named Cave Myotis . These are easily identified in flight as they have shorter wings and fly low under trees. I have even had them brush my shoulder as they flew by.


It’s to be our First Annual Bat-a-Thon. Check our website July 15th. Win our Chiroptorium tee shirt and someone will win the privilege of bringing 10 of your friends to Selah for an emergence. I’ll personally host you and tell all the stories I skipped over at the beginning of this posting. Check the ranch's website starting July 15.

1 comment:

Lorilee said...

Wow, that would be a treat! I'm sure it is MUCH more impressive than the emergence of evening bats from my little 200 capacity bat house. I only had found one baby that had fallen out of the house this year. I did have to put him back twice!