Monday, March 12, 2012


My story about Gabe Reyes, as it ran in the Lumberjack Jan. 18. I added more photos for the blog:

Jenna very carefully removes a little brown myotis from a mist net.

Gabriel Reyes catches bats.

I first met Reyes at a rock concert. When he was not catching shows, he told me, he was usually catching bats. During his last semester of graduate school at Humboldt State University, Reyes was batting up to five nights a week.

Reyes is quiet and polite, which belies his passion for rock 'n' roll and Krav Maga, the Israeli Army's brutal self-defense discipline. He is up for any challenge, anything that requires physical and mental endurance. When he starts talking bats, his soft-spoken nature disappears. His eyes get wide and his voice shakes.

Reyes' passion for bats drives him to trample through unmarked forest with heavy gear. It is not uncommon for him to be out until 5 a.m. He shares his study sites with mosquitoes, elk, bears and mountain lions. Most of the night he waits.

Reyes always liked animals. As an undergraduate at San Francisco State, he devoured zoology courses. He became fascinated with bugs and bees. Then he took a bat course.

Reyes became enthralled by bats. Bats are rarely studied, making them a groundbreaking study topic. He feels connected to them. “They're nocturnal and I'm nocturnal,” Reyes said.

At the same time, Reyes is intrigued by the mystery that surrounds bats. "I like the idea of studying an animal you can't see, you can't hear — and they're really smart. It's an endless challenge."

Bats are not extensively studied because they are very hard to catch. But bat researchers relish the challenge that bats pose and understand their enormous importance in the ecosystem.

A little brown myotis bares fang as Gabe gets its digits.

Joe Szewczak, biology professor at HSU who specializes in bats, was Reyes’ advisor. He said one-fourth to one-fifth of all mammals are bats, but people encounter them so rarely they are largely overlooked. They are the world's main insect predator, which means they cut down on physical insect damage and insect-borne disease. Bats clear the air of agricultural pests, benefiting the cotton industry alone to the tune of millions of dollars by distributing guano, bat manure which contains phosphorus and nitrogen content. Perhaps most importantly, explained Szewczak, bats pollinate the agave plant.

"No bats, no tequila,” Szewczak said. “That's near and dear to many people."

Reyes' particular fascination is the hoary bat, or Lasiurus cinereus. It is the second largest bat in North America. They are long-range migrants, roosting in trees as they travel at night from Canada to Mexico and back. Reyes tells me that the hoary bat is the only native mammal in Hawaii. They have big ears, soft brown fur and faces that looks like they are always smiling. It is easy to see why Reyes fell for them.

On this particular fall afternoon, I meet Reyes a little before dusk and we drive an hour north to Prairie Creek. Reyes is joined by Jenna Breckel, a biology undergraduate who is nearly as enthusiastic about field work as he is.

Reyes pulls more equipment out of the back of his sedan than it looks like we can carry. He begins loading into his backpack a giant battery, a tripod, speakers, cables, a power strip, a camera, laptop computer, snacks, notebooks, lab equipment and boxing gloves. He pulls on waders and gloves, hoists his backpack up and grabs a handful of netting and poles.

Bushwacking down to Prairie Creek.

We climb over stumps and through brush down to the creek's edge. Reyes does not hesitate to wade into the creek and push his way downstream. My waterproof hiking boots immediately overflow with water, adding several extra pounds to the bottom of each foot. A hundred yards downstream Reyes' waders break, filling his right leg with water. Mild fall weather means the creek is warm and calm.

Climbing down into the creek with heavy packs.

We drop our gear on a small gravel island, and Reyes and Breckel begin planting tall poles on either side of the creek. They stretch a 40-foot wide, nine-foot tall net across the creek. It is a strictly catch and release process, but there are dangers to bats. Reyes is careful to make sure that the bottom of the whole net stays out of the water, or the bats will drown when they get caught in the net. He once saw a raccoon pluck a bat out of a net.

By now it is completely dark. We tromp several hundred yards downstream where Reyes sets up a tripod with a small recording device. He will later pore over hours of recorded sound looking for bat calls.

We crawl up a slick, muddy tunnel covered by stinging nettles and thick blackberry branches.
Finding a narrow deer path, we trudge out into a small meadow. Reyes erects a second net and sets up his “home office” — an impressive array of gadgets.

A very expensive speaker broadcasts ultrasonic bat calls .

"The hoary bat is charismatic, cool and being hammered by wind energy," Reyes said. Five or six years ago, bat scientists in California noticed huge mortality rates of bats that were flying into wind turbines. Trying to cut down on bat deaths, scientists tried a number of different tactics, including broadcasting owl, hawk and and hoary bat calls.

The hoary bat calls were effective in keeping most bats away from the turbines. Though little is still known about hoary bats, there is anecdotal evidence that suggests that they are bullies of the bat world. They are solitary and aggressive and may even eat other bats.

Szewczak had concerns about broadcasting hoary bat calls at turbines. "But what about hoarys?” Szewczak asked. “It's going to attract them."

Scientists have looked at methods to track hoary bats during migration, but studying their social behavior is more realistic, Reyes said. He hopes his study will determine whether hoary bat calls are safe to use on turbines.

Reyes’ experiment is simple. A large, ultrasonic speaker plays recorded hoary bat calls for 30 minutes at a time, alternating with 30 minutes of silence. The net over the creek provides a control group, which is unaffected by the broadcast bat calls. The 30 minutes of silence at the field net provides a second level of control.

Gabe and Jenna stretch a mist net across Prairie Creek.

Catching bats is not easy business, but Reyes' methods yield results. Szewczak said his own early research was adapting audio equipment to study bat calls. Now, Reyes can call hoary bats into his nets.

"He's gone out and caught more hoary bats than anyone else has," Szewczak said. Still, the numbers of bats that he can catch are a tiny fraction of the bats out there. "At night, up high, you can't hear them, you can't catch them," Szewczak said.

Hoary bats typically fly 30-40 feet in the air, catching bugs. They are silent, agile fliers. And they are smart.

Mist nets – the kind at Reyes' field site – are made of ultra fine material. After dark they become invisible to the human eye from less than a foot away. But bats can still see them. Reyes sets up night vision cameras along the nets to get a record of bats that respond to the calls but manage to escape the net. Reyes said he often sees bats fly up to the net and abruptly turn parallel when reviewing videos. Other times they hit the net and bounce off.

The office. Gabe's set up, including a laptop, speaker on a tripod, night vision video camera and a car battery to power it all.

By the time Reyes and Breckel set up the field net and recording equipment it is completely dark. Reyes presses play on the loop of recorded bat calls. A loud, high-pitched, almost painful yelp bursts out intermittently. Gabe smiles. A glow from the moon starts to appear behind trees to the east. That fevered excitement enters Reyes' voice. "Oh, there's bats out now."

As we slip down the muddy path to check on the creek net, Breckel stumbles across fresh bear scat, filled with berries. She stoops to examine it as Reyes offers sage outdoorsman advice: "Remember, you don't have to outrun the bear. You just have to outrun whoever you're with."

Does a bear shit in the woods?
Back in the creek, there are no bats. Reyes is used to mixed results. The previous summer in New Mexico, Reyes was catching 50-60 bats a night. Other times he goes five nights in a row without seeing a bat.

"Sometimes I question myself - is my project completely insane?" asks Reyes. That discouraging thought never lasts. "A slow night batting is better than a day in the office."

Reyes uses downtime as an opportunity to do other things - cast animal prints, eat berries, look at bear shit and spar with whatever undergrad assistant is helping him that night. After a sweaty boxing session on the gravel bar, it is back to the nets.

Spar on the gravel bar. Something to keep the blood flowing on chilly nights.

Reyes moves faster than me so I'm still stumbling over submerged logs when I hear him call out. "We have bats!"

By the time I catch up, Breckel is carefully extracting a tiny brown bat from the net. It squirms and looks so fragile I cannot imagine how she even holds it without crushing its body. It is about half the size of her palm with its little fingers gripping the mesh net.

Wearing plastic gloves, Reyes and Breckel crouch on the gravel bar and begin to study their catch. It is a little brown myotis, Reyes tells me. Myotis lucifugus. Much smaller than the hoary bat. Though it is not Reyes' bat of interest, he dutifully records and measures while Breckel gently holds and stretches its wings.

They determine the sex, weight, age (juvenile or adult is as close as they get), and take a hair sample. Reyes points out mites in the bat's fur, which can carry disease. They change gloves after each handling to prevent white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease from Europe spreading across the U.S. and threatening bats.

Gabe stretches the wing of a little brown myotis for measurements.

As the hours pass, we tromp back and forth between the net sites, never waiting long enough at one to get cold or bored. The night goes quickly, though the results are scant. We have been out for more than six hours and no hoary bats. Reyes clearly adores the little brown myotis, but it is not why he is there.

As I prepared to leave, Reyes said he might call it an early night, but his enthusiasm is resolute, his energy unflagging.

I’m exhausted. As I climb out of the stream bed — dozens, maybe hundreds of unseen mammals flying overhead — I hear Reyes call out. "Hoary bats. Oh yeah!"