Bats in the Unprotected Pine Bush of Guilderland

By Grace Nichols

Albany County is home to many bats, from the rare Myotis genus species, so vulnerable to White-nose syndrome for which we were a ground zero, to the more common Large Brown Bat, Hoary Bats, Red bats, Silver-haired Bats and Tri-colored bats. They come in a variety of sizes and colors and they are agile flyers, plucking insects from the air, hunting with both eyesight and special echolocation, using calls far above the frequency of sounds audible to the human ear.

I like to think of them out there wheeling about in the night sky, having their own purposes, thoughts and hunting strategies; their own customs and ways of life.

I am somewhat familiar with the myotis species, Little Brown Bat, which gathers in a maternal colony in a barn at Five Rivers Educational Center, swooping out into the night sky, chasing mosquitos and other prey in June, when citizen scientists come once a year to count them. I still remember the year that the count plummeted from the normal upwards of 400, down to 43 individuals. I cried. Later, we realized that the decline was one of the first pieces of conservation data pointing to the wildlife emergency caused by Geomyces Destructans,(now renamed Pseudogymnoascus destructans), a fungus lethal to many bats. The fungus was characterized by science conducted by the Wildlife Pathology Unit in Delmar, NY. (Current data describes Little Brown Bat population as having been reduced by 82 % overall in New York State.)

But flash forward to the current times, and bats are still in trouble. Lepidoptera, the family of species including butterflies and moths has experienced massive declines throughout its species; insect declines are impacting all genera of what were once thought to be species too numerous to impact. In fact Albany County passed the following resolution to address insect declines last year. These declines have had immediate impacts on our splatter-free windshields and also on the ability of bats and birds to get the food they need to thrive; when animals are starving — and have low fat reserves — they tend to fall victim to an epizootic, the animal equivalent of an epidemic.

WHEREAS, Albany County has a history of protecting rare and endangered invertebrates such as the Karner Blue Butterfly, which has been brought back to healthy population from the brink of extinction, and

WHEREAS, the recent swift and dramatic global declines in insect populations forces us to face the reality that humans are entirely dependent upon pollinators in our gardens, crops, food chain and ecosystems, making it necessary to continue our commitment to their protection, and

WHEREAS, there are now eight (8) endangered species of bees in the United States, one of which, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee, was native to Albany County, and

WHEREAS, recent research data has recorded dramatic insect declines globally, estimates from one 2014 study found that three has been a forty-five percent (45%) drop in the abundance of invertebrates, a majority of which are insects

WHEREAS, neonicotinoid pesticides remain in the pollen and nectar of plants for thirty-six (36) month, causing neurotoxic effects on visiting insects, and

WHEREAS, declines of insectivorous (a diet of insects, worms and other invertebrates) birds have been documented as high as thirty-three percent (33%) decline since the 1970’s, the most rapid drop in population in any bird group, and

WHEREAS, Albany County has been a leader in protecting our partners in agriculture, wildlife and conservation, now, therefore be it RESOLVED, that Albany County is hereby declared a Pollinator Friendly County,– Albany County Resolution passed 2019

In April 2020, immersed in a pandemic and State Environmental Quality Review Hearings regarding proposed development of Pine Bush lands, a small group of Amateur Naturalists formed to take a look at the species of the as yet unprotected pine bush slated for apartment buildings, a Costco, and a gas station by the Crossgates Mall owners, Pyramid LLC. We had discussed the possibility of there being bats at Site 1, 2 and 3 of the proposed development, and found four families who live adjacent to Site 1 who had observed bats every summer for decades. Of course, we had to wonder why the Species Inventory for the land submitted to the Town of Guilderland by the Pyramid Corporations listed no bat species as being present.

So we decided to investigate. Armed with little handheld bat detectors, we sent 6 bat observers out to hear bats on April 10th. It was a chilly night and we heard some clicks and noises on our detectors and dutifully logged them; then we came back the next week on a warmer and the detectors came alive in our hands, amplifying loud knocks and chirps and squeaks up and down the scale of kHz from 18 through 48. We were really intrigued — and then, we started to look up and see the bats.

It’s a funny thing to be out at night, under a starry sky, standing on the sidewalk or the side of the road, aiming your little machine at the woods or meadow and waiting. You often see other wildlife just cross your path as you get real quiet. Cynthia came running towards me down Gipp Road — “Grace there is a big white snake!” I went to take a look, and there on the side of the road was a garter snake, belly up, with its gleaming bluish white underbelly glowing in the moonlight — we took pictures.

So why would I, an amateur naturalist, be intrigued to see a garter snake, one of the most common species in the Northeast? Only because the species inventory for this site had announced there were no reptiles on the site, no snakes at all, was a garter snake an interesting find; if this one was on the grass next to the trees, wouldn’t there be others in the 19 plus acres of this site alone? If Pyramid’s surveyors could not find garter snakes, why would we believe they were truly looking for the rare hognosed snake or Eastern Worm Snake (one of which the DEC had found next to the site in the past)? We were full of questions.

As a former science teacher, there is nothing more exciting than to be out taking down data with a group of likeminded observers and see how everybody gets hushed, intent and then rushes over with their voices an octave higher than usual! I heard “Clunk, Clunk at 36 kHz… what do you think it was?” We had some charts showing the overlapping ranges of the local bat species but we knew we needed an expert to interpret the data.

Fortunately, there is a local expert named Conrad Vispo, who works as an agroecologist. He was willing to place some nifty Anabat recorders at the properties on Westmere and other sites to listen in on the bats. We waited impatiently for the copious data of sonograms which represent bat calls to be analyzed. He found that, for sure, hoary bats, large brown bats, red bats and silver-haired bats were present at the site 1 and 3. We presented his testimony to the Guilderland Town Board.

He also allowed us to go back and do some recording from our cars in the ghost neighborhood at site 2; again we found large brown bats, red bats and unusual calls that are still being analyzed. We plan to return to see if we can identify other bats that are calling on this land.

Bat species are pollinators in the tropics where they eat fruit and in the American Southwest where they pollinate Organ Pipe Cactus and other desert species; here bats are in tune with the insects and help us keep the lid on mosquito density. They have taken a real hit from declines in their food supply, the ability of climate change to make adjustments in the distribution of flying insects and timing of insect life cycles, and they also are common casualties of wind farms which have not been sited correctly; work in ongoing to make wind farms safer for bats.

As our Naturalist Study Group continues to examine flora and fauna of the pine bush slated for development, we get to socialize with Crossgates Security, which often comes by to say hi, as well as the deer, the plethora of birds and other wildlife which uses this land despite its proximity to businesses, highways and a gigantic mall. As we slow down, become aware, and become unexpectedly joyful with our humble neighbors of the night, we start to perceive all of suburban/urban green space as vitally alive and hungry for our respect.

Amateur Naturalists include: Cynthia Johnson, Hugh Johnson, Susan Longtin, Susan Dubois, Diana Wright, Diana Morales, Andy Arthur, Chris Kielb, Francis Magai, Wendy Dwyer and Zack.

Published in July/August 2020
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