If you’re ever driving the 20-mile stretch from the North Carolina/Tennessee line into Todd after sunset during the summer, and you find yourself stuck behind a car that’s cruising at a cool 20 mph, don’t flip out; chances are it’s West Jefferson residents Nancy and Stephen Shoemaker participating in the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s annual bat count.
The couple have taken part in the bat count for the past four years, according to Nancy Shoemaker.
“We go out twice each summer,” Shoemaker said, as she was en route to drop off an Anabat bat detector at New River State Park late last week. “Each time is within a month period.”
During their bi-monthly bat count, the Shoemaker’s attach a microphone to the top of their car and monitor the sounds from inside the vehicle.
“We drive for 20 miles at 20 miles per hour,” Shoemaker said. “That’s when we record the bat sounds on the Anabat box.”
The Anabat is an audio recording device that monitors bat calls for species identification and activity measurement.
“The Anabat was developed in Switzerland during a time when Europe experienced a massive dying-off of bats,” Shoemaker said. “That’s when they started this process.”
According to Shoemaker, the Anabat picks up noises from insects and bats, but bats have a very different, distinct sound.
“When you hear it, you know you’re hearing a bat,” Shoemaker said.
“We go out 30 minutes after sunset, and we use a statewide guide that tells us when sunset actually occurs,” Shoemaker said.
Because their route runs closer to Boone, they start their run 30 minutes after the sun sets over Boone.
Of the bat species that occur in North Carolina, seven species are listed as either endangered, threatened or of special concern. These days, the greatest concern to environmental and biological specialists is white nose syndrome, a disease which first appeared in the U.S. in 2006.
White nose syndrome
The disease has been associated with the deaths of at least 5.7 million to 6.7 million North American bats and gets its name from the distinctive fungal growth around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats. It was first identified in a cave in New York in February 2006.
Since then it has rapidly spread and as of 2013, the condition had been found in over 115 caves and mines ranging mostly throughout the Northeastern U.S. and as far south as Alabama and west to Missouri and into four Canadian provinces.
White nose syndrome was first discovered in North Carolina bats in 2011.
In an effort to track the spread of the disease and monitor the state’s bat population as a whole, the Wildlife Resources Commission conducts monitoring studies in various areas across the state, primarily in the western and far eastern parts of the state, where bat populations are largest.
“Several years ago, state wildlife groups were getting concerned about white nose syndrome,” Shoemaker said. “It first started affecting bats in the New England area, but it soon started travelling down the Appalachian Chain.”
Shoemaker said initially, groups would conduct studies in caves during the winter and summer, however, the process of entering the caves disturbed the bats.
“Now, they try to limit going into caves,” Shoemaker said.
Thus stands the reason behind the bi-monthly summer bat count via automobile.
From Tennessee to Todd
“They (Wildlife Resources Commission) chose rural routes that don’t have a lot of traffic and are near caves, where there’s less noise,” Shoemaker said.
The lack of noise helps for better bat detection on the highly sensitive Anabat device.
Shoemaker said there are 11 different bat species that reside in the area, each one possessing a sharply different, distinct sound.
“We drive with flashers on and have a sign on the back of our car that lets other motorists know we’re conducting a wildlife survey,” Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker’s husband drives and both listen for those distinct bat sounds.
“We record wind speed, temperature, whether you can see the moon, cloud cover,” Shoemaker said. “Wind speed must be under 15 mph and you can’t run it (Anabat) when it’s raining or foggy because it will mess up the sound.”
While the European bat population has come back from its lowest levels, the North American bat population has only started to deal with white nose syndrome.
“In Europe, they nearly lost all of their bats but now they’re coming back,” Shoemaker said. “There’s been a resurgence of bats.”
In Ashe County, there have been “some signs of white nose on the bats,” according to Shoemaker. However, “they have not died as of yet.”
This year was better than last in terms of the number of bats heard.
“We had more hits this year than last,” Shoemaker said.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.