Research Report #58 — Bats of Ulster County

Little Brown Bat © David Johnson

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Reports: Bats of Ulster County, A Preliminary Report, with Notes on Banding. 1 March 1963. Daniel Smiley. John Burroughs Natural History Society, Research & Records Committee, Natural Science Note Series

Bat Banding Returns and Recoveries. May 1985. Paul C. Huth and Daniel Smiley. Mohonk Preserve Research Report.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: Dan and I were many times surprised at the relationships forged between people and wildlife. As we have clearly documented, some human activities during the last 300 years have unfortunately resulted in devastating impacts to landscape dependent species. Today, under the ownership and management efforts of Mohonk Preserve and Minnewaska State Park Preserve, among other partners, ridge-wide management is focused on the integrity of large scale natural communities and wildness. However, for some species, human activity and areas of transitional landscape, or edges, especially adjacent to open farm land and suburban sprawl, provide opportunities for food and cover. Many interesting examples of these adaptions involve proximity to our local farmsteads and nearby homes, plantings, and buildings. I always like to say on Preserve programs, that there is a group of mammals, birds, and insects that live in the “shadow” of people and take advantage of the opportunities we have to offer. It is always interesting to get participants to think about some examples that they might have experienced first hand. And, everyone usually has some to share!

Brook Farm Fields at Sunset © Michael Neil O’Donnell

Being frequently out on Preserve carriage roads, Dan and I always stopped to look for mammal tracks in particularly soft or wet surfaces, or to inspect a prominent Coyote scat, sometimes full of blueberries in the late summer and fall, or deer hair in the winter, deposited on a prominent stone sticking up in the middle of the carriage road surface, marking its territory. Many species, like Coyotes, use Preserve carriage and woods roads as their trails to get around. However, I was surprised by the unexpected discovery that some species of bats use our carriage roads as feeding flight paths through forests too.

At Mohonk, Dan, and his brother Keith, began “recording” bat observations as early as 1930, while obviously for decades previous, bats were undoubtedly part of the Mohonk Mountain House’s seasonal wildlife. In the old days of rock scrambling there was even a destination called “Bat Cave.” In 1932, Keith Smiley prepared an annotated listing of Shawangunk mammals, compiling descriptions and ranges of eight bat species from library resources that he and Dan had at hand, including Miller and Allen’s The American bats of the genera Myotis and Pizonyx, Anthony’s Field Book of North American Mammals, G. M. Allen’s Bats, Stone and Cram’s American Animals, and Seton’s Life-histories of Northern Animals.

One of the first detailed records by Dan Smiley of an Eastern Pipistrelle Bat at Mohonk. Species Card File. © Mohonk Preserve Daniel Smiley Research Center Archives. Paul C. Huth.
1931 record of an Eastern Pipistrelle Bat (above), written on the back of a recycled daily menu card from the Mohonk Mountain House (below). © Mohonk Preserve Daniel Smiley Research Center Archives. Paul C. Huth.

One of the first detailed species records made by Dan of a bat for his permanent Species Card File was of Pipistrellus subflavus obscurus, the Eastern Pipistrelle or Tri-colored Bat, “Found 8–8–1930 hanging to wall just inside Roof Garden Door, Mohonk Lake, N.Y. Liberated (after measurements were taken).” Another, documented and measured, was on 8 July 1931 “….found on the wall upstairs in Oak Cottage,” recorded on the back of a recycled Mohonk Mountain House menu card! An early record of our largest bat, the Big Brown, dates from 30 July 1933. A male, it was “Caught in house. Oak Cottage. Mohonk Lake”, and had a “wing spread (of) 12.5.” Dan noted “Skin in collection, Mohonk Museum #599.” Now, nearly 90 years later, it is still part of the extensive collections of the Daniel Smiley Research Center.

Study Skin of Big Brown Bat, a male, on right, dating from 30 July 1933, Mohonk Museum #599. On left, banded Little Brown Bat, male, collected by Fred Hough and Dan in Kripplebush. © Collection of Mohonk Preserve Daniel Smiley Research Center. Paul C. Huth.

In the April 1936 issue of The Auk (LIII), under “Correspondence,” Dan saw a letter from Dr. Donald R. Griffin, Harvard University, entitled “Bat Banding-A Request for Cooperation,” where Dr. Griffin requested “field ornithologists” to “watch for(and report) banded bats whenever they have an opportunity.” He goes on to say, “most of the bat banding work has been done in the Northeastern states…so this request for cooperation is directed especially to ornithologists in this district.” Dr. Griffin also felt it “desirable to locate all of the large bat colonies in the New England region, in order that the bat banding studies may be as complete as possible.” In March 1937, Dan wrote to Don, saying that he was “impelled to write...(since) I am interested both in bird banding and the study of mammals…Occasionally a bat is brought to me, which has flown into our house here and has been captured. The majority of these are pipistrella subflavus obscurus.” In May 1938, Dan sent Don a letter, reporting that “I have never found any caves in this (Mohonk) vicinity which contained a number of bats, although we have quite a few so-called caves which are really crevasses in our quartz conglomerate which have been filled by detritus and darkened. Once or twice I have seen a single bat in these which are judged to be pipistrele.”

In this 2016 photo, a healthy Tri-colored bat hibernates on the wall of the Black Diamond Tunnel in the North Georgia mountains. © Pete Pattavina/USFWS.
Hoary bat © Tom Benson
Eastern small-footed bat © Al Hicks/NYDEC

In April 1954, Dan, as a founding member of the newly formed (in 1950) John Burroughs Natural History Society (JBNHS), and Chair of the Research and Records Committee, prepared a table of a “Comparison of Bats-Ulster Co. Possibles.” In his characteristic long-hand, Dan listed nine species, with their body measurements, weights, and general characteristics helpful for identification. He included the Little Brown, Small-footed or Leib’s, Indiana or Social sodalis, Northern Long-eared or Keen’s, Silvered-haired, Eastern Pipistrelle or Tri-colored, Big Brown, Red, and the Hoary Bat. The Red, Hoary, and Silver-haired Bats are considered “tree” bats, where they “live….in trees….the reds and hoarys roost alone from branches, hiding among leaves, the silver-haireds form small colonies and use crevices and hollows in trees.” These three “tree” bat species leave the area and migrate south for the winter season. The other six species of bats, the Little Brown, Small-footed, Indiana, Northern Long-eared or Keen’s, Eastern Pipistrelle or Tri-colored, and Big Brown Bat, are considered “cave” bats, because they “spend the winter hibernating in caves and mines where they live off stored fat reserves.” Some of these, as Dan noted, “make considerable journeys before retiring for their winter rest,” returning back to their ancestral winter hibernacula. In the warm seasons, these “cave” bat species are widely distributed, roosting in a wide diversity of places, attracted to many parts of our structures, including attics, barns, in the eves, under shingles, and behind shutters, but also use cliffs, crevices, and boulders, as well as cracks in tree trunks and under exfoliating tree bark. The species considered “cave” bats, as Dan and Keith recognized, “are identified by their lack of fur on their tail membranes….” The “tree” bats, in contrast, “have fully furred tail membranes which they can curl up around their bodies like a blanket.”

“Comparison of Bats-Ulster County Possibles”, prepared by Dan Smiley, April 1954. © Collection of Mohonk Preserve Daniel Smiley Research Center. Paul C. Huth.
Northern long-eared bat © Dave Thomas

On 29 June 1953, Dan corresponded with his friend and fellow naturalist, Fred Hough, also a member of the JBNHS Research and Records Committee, reporting to him, “last week a bat was caught in the Mtn. House. I spent a couple of hours running it down and now believe it was a Say’s (Myotis Keenii Septentrionalis),” or the Northern Long-eared Bat. “I have the skin and skull and will want to get them checked by someone. This is a ‘first’ for me.”

Little Brown Bat © David Johnson

Careful closeup observations of the hunting behavior of a Little Brown Bat were made by Fred during October 1955, at the end of the active season. They were published in the Journal of Mammalogy, in February 1957 (Vol. 38, №1: 121–122). Recording all that he could at the time, Fred found the “length of stay (of the hunting bat, which “would seldom deviate from its chosen path”) was somewhat correlated with the existing temperature.”

On 2 July 1961, Dan received a general letter to “Bird Bander & Fellow Naturalist” from Dr. Wayne H. Davis, Department of Biology, at Middlebury College, Vermont, inquiring about knowledge of “summer bat colonies.” This, in connection with an extensive research project being conducted by Drs. Davis and Harold B. Hitchcock, involving the banding of Little Brown Bats in their winter hibernacula and summer roosting colonies to learn about their phenology, life history, longevity, and dispersal. The researchers, from geological resources, had become aware of the existence of “locally famous cement mines,” and directly contacted Dan. Dan responded in early August, that he had “been in a few of these,” and had conducted small mammal surveys “at the entrances of abandoned mines….and found a little brown bat dead on a rock ledge….in early spring.” Dr. Davis wrote to Dan on 30 November 1961, that he had also heard from local National Speleological Society cavers, and on 29 October, explored with them, a mine with “a good colony of bats near Rosendale.” He goes on to say, “we plan to meet again next Saturday, camp out, band the bats in the one mine, and do some exploring. Want to join us?”

Indiana bats © K. Lott/USFWS.

On 5 November 1961, Dan wrote that he and Fred, “had the welcome opportunity to join Dr. Davis and one of his students for a day of banding at an abandoned cement mine...several thousand bats were found roosting on the roof of two galleries…” In all, 1,992 bats, of four species, were banded. 1,976 were Little Brown Bats, 2 were Indiana Bats, 1 was an Eastern Pipistrelle, and 13 were Big Brown. A second banding visit to the same mine on 17 March 1962, and 357 more bats were banded. These included 278 Little Brown, 3 Northern Long-eared or Keen’s, 4 Indiana, 5 Small-footed, 3 Eastern Pipistrelle or Tricolored, and 64 Big Brown. Of particular interest to Dan was Dr. Davis’s take on the two banding episodes in the same hibernation period, “since we banded about all we could find on November 5, it seems there was quite a turnover of individuals. Total population was about the same. This is a typical finding.” So, it seems, “that in the cold weather period between November and March there had been considerable exchange of individuals between this hibernating place and other mines or caves in the vicinity.”

Big Brown Bat © Marty Molitoris

In the 1985 Mohonk Preserve Research Report we co-authored, we wanted to update Dan’s 1963 preliminary report and add additional information. Dan had recorded that on 29 January 1968, Dr. Hitchcock, “banded a few bats at the same mine.” One of the animals banded then was a Big Brown Bat, that was later recorded dead on 30 August 1973, “3 miles North of New Paltz.”

Wing band on little brown bat © USFWS/Ann Froschauer

Dan and Wildlife Biologist Joel Hermes of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, visited the mine where the 5 November 1961 and 17 March 1962 banding took place, in part, to see it there were any individual bat returns. On at least four field trips over the next two decades, 26 individual banded Little Brown Bats were still found returning to the same cave and were able to be documented. Remarkably, three of the oldest individuals were recorded by Joel as still returning to the cave on 22 March 1982, 21 years after they were banded! As an aside, one of the oldest Little Brown Bats on record, banded in 1961 at another site in New York State by Davis and Hitchcock, was recaptured 34 years later, in 1995!

Little Brown Bat in flight © Shane Kemp

Of interest, in addition to the bat returns, was the data gathered from individual bat recoveries, or from those that were documented at a distance from the initial point of banding in their hibernaculum. These revealed the migration direction and distance bats flew to their summering and breeding localities. Of the Little Brown Bats, 41 were recovered in the next 13 years after they were banded on 5 November 1961 and 17 March 1962. One Big Brown Bat was also recovered from the initial banding. A Little Brown that flew the greatest distance, was one recovered on 22 September 1963, 99 miles South-southwest, in Chatham, New Jersey. We noted that “These recoveries, from what we presume were summering colonies, were mostly to the southeast and some southwest in a pie shaped area of some 8,000 square miles.”

Little brown bat; close-up of nose with fungus, New York, Oct. 2008. © Photo courtesy Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Bat populations and their hibernacula and roosts have long been an underlying concern to naturalists and conservationists for decades. Many mines have been sealed, and many roosts have been destroyed or have had their entrances closed. More recently, starting some 14 years ago, a new disease, called the White Nose Syndrome, apparently introduced from Europe, has devastated populations of at least six species of hibernating bats, including that of the Little Brown Bat, once the most common regional bat species. Today, some five of the six species of “cave” bats have New York State rarity status, and two, the Indiana and Northern Long-eared have Federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

In his 1963 Preliminary Report, Dan said, “The benefits of bats to humans are well understood by ecologists, but are not sufficiently tangible to be obvious to the average person.” Dan hoped to “present a fair picture of the interrelationship of people and bats in this part of the State.” “They are a part of the balance of nature, and have a proper place in the scheme of things.”

Little Brown Bat © David Johnson

Read the Reports: Bats of Ulster County, A Preliminary Report, with Notes on Banding. 1 March 1963. Daniel Smiley. John Burroughs Natural History Society, Research & Records Committee, Natural Science Note Series

Bat Banding Returns and Recoveries. May 1985. Paul C. Huth and Daniel Smiley. Mohonk Preserve Research Report.

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.