Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My Costa Rica Travel Journal

As everyone who knows me knows, I cannot say enough good things about Costa Rica! I have finally typed out my travel journal from the trip my husband and I took there in June & July of 2008. To this I have added my photos and informative links. The intent is to share my love of this country and perhaps provide some useful information for anyone considering or planning a trip there. I am dating the entries with the original dates, so you will have to go back to these dates to read the posts. Here is the first post: Costa Rica: day 1 - Adventure, Exploration and Relaxation.

(Please note that this has been quite an undertaking. I will be posting these in batches as they are ready. I apologize for any errors I might have made, as I have not been able to fully proofread everything. I will slowly be doing this after I post everything.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

White-Nose Syndrome

Little Brown Bats exhibiting WNS symptoms
photo courtesy of Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation

I'm going to switch gears now and tell you about something quite serious that is devastating bat populations in the Northeastern United States and continuing to spread. It is called White-Nose Syndrome, or WNS, and since its discovery in a cave near Albany, New York in February 2006, it has wiped out an estimated 1 million bats in 9 states - with some caves experiencing a 90-100% mortality rate! - and scientists have yet to figure out the how's and the why's.

So far, it has affected 6 different bat species, all of which are insectivorous and hibernating species - the endangered Indiana myotis (Myotis sodalis), the little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus), the big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), the tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus), the northern myotis (Myotis septentrionalis), and the eastern small-footed myotis (Myotis leibii).

To begin, let me provide a bit of background information concerning hibernation (because this appears to be when the bats are dying). During this state, the bats' body temperature and heart rate slow down dramatically (sometimes within 1 degree of the temperature of the cave!) and they live off of their previously stored body fat. If a bat is disturbed too many times during hibernation, it is likely to die because all of the fat reserves are used up, and the bat cannot go out in search of more food because it is the dead of winter, and there are no insects to be found.

Again, it is at some point in their hibernation that these bats are dying. The dead bats are found inside their hibernation caves or just outside of them. They are emaciated and have a never-before-seen white fungus on their noses, ears, and/or wings. However, it is not yet clear whether it is the fungus, named Geomyces destructans, that is killing the bats - there is no evidence that a fungus has ever killed a mammal - or if the fungus is an opportunistic invader, coming in after the bats have been weakened by something else. What can be said of the fungus is that it thrives in the same temperature range and dark, moist conditions in which the bats hibernate. It is not known how the fungus - which is genetically similar in all of the cave sites - was introduced. It is known, however, that the fungus is transmitted from place to place via fungal spores, which could be carried on the bat's fur, the clothes or shoes of humans, or through the air.

Now, I mentioned that the dead bats found are emaciated. What appears to be happening is that the bats are losing their body fat mid-winter, so that they either die before they are able to wake from their torpor, or they wake prematurely and fly outside in search for food and freeze. (The few bats that do survive the winter are found to have wing damage from frostbite and/or the fungus.)

Some scientists have hypothesized that the loss of body fat is due to an inadequate supply of polyunsaturated fats that are supplied by certain insects, which are dying off because of pesticides. (Pesticides that shouldn't need to be used in the first place because these bats act as nature's pest controllers by consuming these insects.) It has also been suggested that the bats perhaps rouse prematurely because of irritation due to the fungus, which reaches their dermis, or living part of the skin. The fungus could also have physiological effects on the delicate wing membrane which regulates body temperature and blood pressure, thus interrupting hibernation. The warm or variable winter weather is also a hypothesis as to why the bats are waking mid-winter.

Unfortunately, the money needed to fund WNS research is slow-coming. So far it has come mainly from Bat Conservation International, the National Speleological Society and other non-governmental sources. The scientific community is trying to obtain more funding from the federal government, but according to BCI's website, the Senate Appropriations Committee report "contains only $500,000 of the $11 million identified by the scientific community for immediate WNS funding."

Such a devastating loss in bat populations doesn't just mean that 1 million bats are dead. The loss of 1 million bats means that the organisms supported by the guano on the cave floor will die, the pest population that the bats are no longer consuming will increase, you will get more mosquito bites, the increased number of agricultural pests will damage more crops, the crops will be sprayed with more pesticide... And - if the pesticide/polyunsaturated fat hypothesis holds true - more bats will die. Of course, the greatest thing at stake here is the potential extinction of entire bat species.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why Bats Are So Amazing, Important & Misunderstood - part III

adult White-Winged Vampire Bats (Diaemus youngi) - photo by Daniel Riskin

So Why the Misunderstanding...
Like most misunderstandings, it comes down to people's ignorance. Through research, the myths surrounding bats have all been dispelled:
  • They're not blind.
  • They don't get tangled in your hair.
  • They don't carry rabies any more than any other wild animal.
  • They're not mice with wings.
  • They're not bloodsuckers.
  • They're not ugly.

Why Bats Are So Amazing, Important & Misunderstood - part II

Tamana Cave, Trinidad - photo by Daniel Riskin

Some Amazing Bat Trivia
click on the links to view a photo of the bat/s*
  • The world's smallest mammal is the bumblebee bat of Thailand, weighing less than a penny.
  • Giant flying foxes that live in Indonesia have wingspans of six feet.
  • The common little brown bat of North America is the world's longest-lived mammal for its size, with life spans sometimes exceeding 34 years.
  • Mexican free-tailed bats sometimes fly up to two miles high to feed or to catch tailwinds that carry them over long distances at speeds of more than 60 miles per hour.
  • The pallid bat of western North America is immune to the stings of scorpions and even the seven-inch centipedes upon which it feeds.
  • Fishing bats have echolocation so sophisticated that they can detect a minnow's fin as fine as a human hair, protruding only two millimeters above a pond's surface.
  • African heart-nosed bats can hear the footsteps of a beetle from more than six feet away.
  • Frog-eating bats distinguish between edible and poisonous frogs by listening to the male frogs' mating calls. The frogs counter by hiding and using short, difficult-to-locate calls.
  • Red bats, which live in tree foliage throughout most of North America, can withstand body temperatures as low as 23 degrees Fahrenheit during winter hibernation.
  • Tiny woolly bats of West Africa live in the large webs of colonial spiders.
  • The Honduran white bat is snow white with a yellow nose and ears. It cuts large leaves to make "tents" that protect its small colonies from jungle rains.
  • Vampire bats adopt orphans and have been known to risk their lives to share food with less fortunate roost-mates.**
  • Male epauleted bats have pouches in their shoulders that contain large, showy patches of white fur, which they flash during courtship to attract mates.
  • Mother Mexican free-tailed bats find and nurse their own young, even in huge colonies where many millions of babies cluster at up to 500 per square foot.
(taken from a BCI booklet from the 1990's "Amazing Bat Trivia")

* Note that you are linking to photos on other people's websites and these photos are/may be copyrighted by the owners.

** This is a fascinating altruistic behavior that is exhibited by vampire bats. Reciprocal Altruism (wikipedia)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why Bats are So Amazing, Important & Misunderstood - part I

Lesser Short-Nose Fruit Bat (Cynopterus brachyotis)
photo by Jose Iriarte-Diaz & Arnold Song*

Some Important Bat Facts
click on the links to view a photo of the bat/s**
  • Nearly 1,000 [now 1,100] kinds of bats account for almost a quarter [now 20%] of all mammal species, and most are highly beneficial.
  • A single little brown bat can catch 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in just one hour.
  • A colony of 150 big brown bats can protect local farmers from up to 33 million or more rootworms each summer.
  • The 20 million Mexican free-tails from Bracken Cave, Texas, eat approximately 200 tons of insects nightly.
  • Tropical bats are key elements in rain forest ecosystems, which rely on them to pollinate flowers and disperse seeds for countless trees and shrubs.
  • In the wild, important agricultural plants, from bananas, breadfruit, and mangoes to cashews, dates, figs, rely on bats for pollination and seed dispersal.
  • Tequila is produced from agave plants whose seed production drops to 1/3,000th of normal without bat pollinators.
  • Desert ecosystems rely on nectar-feeding bats as primary pollinators of giant cacti, including the famous organ pipe and saguaro of Arizona.
  • Bat droppings in caves support whole ecosystems of unique organisms, including bacteria useful in detoxifying wastes, improving detergents, and producing gasohol and antibiotics.
  • An anticoagulant from vampire bat saliva may soon be used to treat human heart patients.
  • Contrary to popular misconceptions, bats are not blind, do not become entangled in human hair, and seldom transmit disease to other animals or humans.
  • All mammals can contract rabies, however, fewer than one-half of one percent of bats do, and these typically bite only in self-defense. Bats pose little threat if people simply do not handle them.
  • Bat are exceptionally vulnerable to extinction, in part because they are the slowest reproducing mammals on earth for their size. Most produce only one young a year.
  • More than half of American bat species are in severe decline or are already listed as endangered. Losses are occurring at alarming rates worldwide.
  • Loss of bats increases demand for chemical pesticides, can jeopardize whole ecosystems of other animal and plant species, and can harm human economies.
(Taken from a BCI booklet from the 1990's "Important Bat Facts". The text in brackets reflects updated information.)

* This photo was part of research done at Brown University by Kenneth Breuer and Sharon Swartz on the aerodynamics of bat flight.

** Note that you are linking to photos on other people's websites and these photos are/may be copyrighted by the owners.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Buffalo Bayou Park Biking Trails

Trails run along Buffalo Bayou, in between Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway, from Shepherd Drive in the west to Bagby Street in the east.

To me as a mountain bike beginner, aside from a few "steep" hills and a couple of sandy parts that are pretty slippery, this trail is easy. The circuit is a little over 6 miles long. Most of the trail is not shaded, so use sunscreen.

Midday Sunday in the summer doesn't seem to be that crowded, nor as hot as one would think. Weekday evenings tend to be fairly crowded. On a bike this means a lot of maneuvering around walkers, joggers, and dogs.

Ample parking is available in the lots to the side of Sabine Street Lofts, off of Memorial Drive. There is also the Eleanor Tinsley parking lot off of Allen Parkway.

Interesting Notes:
Along this trail, you will cross paths with the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony. You'll know it when you start smelling the guano.

If you take the trail all the way east, you end up in Sesquicentennial Park. I must say I had no idea that this area east of Sabine Street was so nice! I took some not-so-great pictures on a camera phone, and we chatted about the peculiar culture of Houstonians and why more people weren't out enjoying this. In fact, in this area of the park, there were more homeless people than people hiking/biking.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Camping & Hiking - Now Let's Try Biking!

I thought it was going to be way too hot to bike in Houston during the summer. This is why I wanted to hold off getting our bikes until the fall. However, a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had gone to Memorial Park to see what the trails would be like, and we were pleasantly surprised. As we entered the woods, both of us had that feeling that we were camping. The part that we walked (the entrance was to the left of a baseball field) was completely shaded, so it actually felt very nice, despite it being 95+ that day. This is where I became sold and gave in (after poor Nick wanting to get bikes for several months now!) I will say that I want to become very familiar with my bike before attempting this trail, as we saw some pretty steep and narrow parts.

We took our first ride yesterday on the Buffalo Bayou trails. It was a lot of fun! We loaded up our Camelbacks with ice and water and brought along some dried fruit and nuts. Had plenty of sunscreen because the majority of this trail is not shaded. I guessed we biked for for 1 1/2 - 2 hours, didn't really notice the time. We kinda made a clockwise loop starting from the south side of Allen Parkway where we found parking, up the Waugh Bridge - after passing the bat observation deck - then traveled east along the Bayou, crossing the bridge at the Sabine Promenade, then headed toward where we started. It was a good beginners trail. I walked my bike at a few parts that I thought were too steep, but that's because until I really get the hang of this, I'm going to be very cautious (i.e. wimpy!) Being an urban trail, there's a lot of traffic noise, but the views are nice.

I'm compiling a list of area biking trails (because I am a list junkie!) and will write about them as we do them. So far I have:
  • Buffalo Bayou Park (b/w Memorial Dr & Allen Pkwy from Shepherd Dr to Bagby St)
  • Memorial Park (E of 610/S of I-10, along Memorial Dr)
  • Hermann Park/Rice U Loop (Inner Loop, by Zoo)
  • Terry Hershey Park (b/w HWY 6 & Beltway 8, S of Memorial Dr)
  • Bear Creek Park (N of I-10 b/w HWY 6 & Eldridge Pkwy)
  • Cullen Park (just N of I-10, W of HWY 6)
  • Jesse Jones Park & Nature Center (Humble)
  • Brazos Bend State Park (Needville)
The Houston Nature Walks blog is a good source for area trails.

We hope to bring along our bikes to future camping trips in Fredericksburg and Pedernales, and if we're really ambitious, Big Bend.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Waugh Bridge Bat Colony Pontoon Boat Tour

This past Friday evening we went on the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony Pontoon Boat Tour on Buffalo Bayou. It departs near the Sabine Promenade then takes you near the Waugh bridge and stays there so that you can see the bats emergence from below. When it's over, the boat takes you back to where you started.

As you wait for the bats departure, volunteers give you some information about the colony. A specimen and photos are handed around. These volunteers also record data, like times of emergence and weather conditions.

As sunset approaches, more and more bats come out of the crevices underneath the bridge - the expansion joints are the perfect size for Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis). At first they just fly around underneath the bridge. Some speculate that they do this as a kind of exercise, as a prelude to their nightly flight. Others speculate that the first bats that come out are scouting out the conditions and any potential threats. They will sometimes create a vortex under bridge before flying out, though they didn't do it this evening.

I kinda imagined that all 250-300,000 would come out at once, but it didn't really happen that way. It was more of a constant, steady flow but a very long flow indeed, as they weaved among the trees of the bayou eastward in search of tons of tasty insects.

You can sort of see some bats flying underneath the bridge, but there are much better photos of this on the web.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fruit Bats at Carruth Natural Encounters

Again, these were taken with my point-and-shoot camera set to HI ISO. They're not spectacular, but I was happy to capture at least something without using a flash, which I don't think you should do at a zoo, especially for the nocturnal animals. Anyway, this is a great exhibit. You can really observe a lot of interesting bat behavior.

Fruit bats, also known as flying foxes or megabats, have sweet faces and rely on sight and smell, not echolocation for navigation and foraging (the exception being the Egyptian Fruit Bat). Some eat fruit, aiding in seed dispersal; others drink nectar, actually pollinating the plants. Although not all megabats are necessarily large (the smallest is only 2-3 inches), the largest of the flying foxes reaches a wingspan of 6 feet!

The bats at the Houston Zoo (shown above) are Straw-Colored Fruit Bats (Eidolon helvum).

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cottoncandy Tummy-aches Are the Best Tummy-aches! or My Trips to the Houston Zoo

After two failed attempts to go to the Houston Zoo on the weekend with Nick (it was perfect weather both times so everyone wanted to be there and there was absolutely no place to park!) I finally made it there with my mom last week. Of course, the parking situation didn't seem much better - school buses were taking up half the parking lot and cars the rest. It only dawned on us why this was when we got up to the entrance, after miles of walking, and saw the huge Earth Day banner. Oh, yeah!

The place that we parked had a 3 hour time limit, so we had to get moving. (And I had to get cottoncandy! I'm not a huge fan of sweets but pure sugar in cloud-like form is still heavenly to me. And I eat it like there's no tomorrow! Hence the tummy-ache.) We managed to see quite a bit.

Wake Up, Toby!

The "world's cutest animal" is always napping! (Because Red Pandas, also known as firefoxes, are crepuscular, or most active at dawn and dusk.)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Waugh Bridge Bat Colony

photo by Dale Martin

How neat is that? Houston plays host to its own urban bat colony! I had discovered it upon moving back to Houston's inner loop, after 4 years in New York. Exiting Waugh from Memorial Drive, I noticed a sign for the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony. I got home and googled it and found out the colony of 250,000-300,000 insect-eating Mexican free-tailed bats took up residence under the bridge in 1993. Unlike most other Texas bat colonies that migrate to warmer climates in winter, these little critters stay here year round. Though it's said they don't come out if the temperature goes below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

I will be writing more on this topic in upcoming posts, but meanwhile you can read more at the following sites:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Houston and Beyond

I am proud to call this my first official outside-oriented blog. And this is my first official blog posting. Nature, wildlife, travel, camping, bats - I'm very excited to be able to share these things that I love!

I envision hey little bat! as a journal of outdoor activities in and around Houston, in Texas, and in faraway places that my husband and I are fortunate enough to visit, as well as a chronicle of thoughts on these subjects. Retrospectively, I plan to "digitize" the travel journal that I kept of our amazing trip to Costa Rica last year, as well as write about some of our wonderful camping experiences in Big Bend National Park. Let's see what unfolds...

Through all of this I hope to encourage people to enjoy and respect nature and animals, to travel and go camping, and to provide some practical information and advice about some of the places I've been. Finally, I hope to give people an appreciation of my favorite animal, the bat.