Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Batquest 2012: where have all the bats gone?

There once were abundant bats in Maple Ridge. Some of my earliest memories are of going to my old elementary school field as dusk descended to watch the bats fly overhead. My friends and I, standing in the back parking lot of a local bar - not one of us older than seven years old, I'd guess - would throw rocks, not aiming to HIT the bats, but to deke them out into thinking that a singularly large moth or mosquito had entered their sonar range. We made a bit of a competition out of it, as I recall: a successful throw was a throw that a bat actually mistook for a bug and dived for, which they often did. Sometimes, the bats would actually catch the rock, scooping it up in their tail membrane, then inspect it midflight, discovering that it was inedible; we would laugh and cheer as the bat - which often seemed, perhaps from an anthropomorphic perspective, at least a bit pissed with us - "threw the rock back at us," or so we would describe it amongst ourselves. I heard that some of the crueller, bigger kids would do a similar thing with fishing rods and tied flies, hoping to snag a bat, which I recall hearing they did, once, but I was never on hand for such a thing and feel nothing but sorry for the bat in such an instance, since I imagine these guys, being bully-types, most likely killed it. Don't judge them too harshly, though, these boys: this was around 1975, before VHS tapes, personal computers, Super Nintendo or so forth had made their way into Maple Ridge, and they had no Street Fighter type games or extreme horror movies or such to help them sublimate their natural primate aggression. And there wasn't even that much to keep gentler, more cerebral children like myself amused in the evening, especially if there was nothing good on TV. As strange as it may seem to kids today, throwing rocks for bats to catch seemed as valid an amusement as turning over boards and looking for snakes and salamanders, or catching bees in jars, or digging holes in the front yard so I could bury myself up to my waist, or putting leeches on myself at the local frog pond (long since made into a condo) to see how difficult they were to get off, all of which I also did in my childhood. The other kids in Richmond Court swapped stories and half-baked childish theories with me about rabies, or about bats trying to get into your hair. We went to our elementary school library to read up on bats - I remember big illustrations of how bat sonar worked. Bats were a part of our lives, back then, something - even without the influence of horror movies - that occupied a corner of the imagination of at least some of the children of this town. They were neater than raccoons or squirrels, and thanks to the rock trick, we could make a game out of interacting with them: go throw a rock at a raccoon and see where it gets you. Somewhere back there, as I recall, I even dreamed I was a bat, flying through the skies above this town.

In the late 1990's, I left Maple Ridge. At that time, it was commonplace to see bats pretty much anywhere in the town at night, swooping and diving around streetlights, feasting on the huge swarms of flying insects that sought out the light. There were never a lot of them - if you saw more than two around one light, it was something to remark upon, and very often there'd be no bat at all - but they were present nonetheless, in pretty much the same numbers as they'd been in the 1970's. I remember, in my mid-20's, sitting at dusk on the banks of the Alouette River, a couple miles north of town, and watching in delight and amazement as bats swept along the surface of the water, catching bugs, but also occasionally dipping into the water itself for a drink - a brief splash that made it look rather like someone was standing downriver and skipping a bat against the current. Hell, in the late 1990's, I even recall seeing a small bat clinging to the stucco'd wall of the local bingoplex, which - now mostly filled with slot machines - is just around the corner from where I write this. I examined it from all angles before leaving it alone; if I'd had a cellphone, I'd have taken its picture. As far as memory serves me, there were bats aplenty, right up to 1999, when I moved to Japan.

I don't want to spend too much time talking about the bats of Japan, or the bats of Vancouver, when I moved there in 2002 (because unless memory fails, I did see the odd bat around Kits Beach at night). I'm not obsessed about bats or anything - I just kind of like them. Flying mammals, creatures of folklore, nearly blind, hunting by sound, eating the mosquitos that would otherwise feed on us - they're funky little creatures for whom I have lingering fondness. Sufficiently so that, after I moved back to Maple Ridge in October 2009, after awhile - when spring and summer 2010 rolled around, say - I started to notice a curious absence. There are no bats to be seen anywhere in this town, these days - certainly not in the downtown core (or what used to be the downtown core; development has been creeping further and further west in recent years). In fact, the same streetlights where bats once flew now barely even have any bugs around them, these days. And both of these developments worry the hell out of me, in the same quietly paranoid way that I've been worried about colony crashes in the bee population, because if there IS some problem being caused by GM foods - if, say, some genetically engineered pesticidal gene has leapt the barrier from one food crop to other plants, and spread throughout North America, which is what I'm afraid might be happening - then we would start to notice that other insect species are also declining, and that the predators that prey on them - like BATS - would also be dwindling, along with their food supply.

I mean, maybe there are just a lot more condos in Maple Ridge, and a lot fewer barns for bats to roost, but like I say, this whole part of town hasn't seen that much development in the last ten years or so; most of the major new malls and townhouse-clusters and so forth are happening closer to Pitt Meadows. It's been over two years since I've seen a bat, though, on these same streets where they once were quite commonplace. There may be an entirely undramatic explanation for this absence - but until I encounter that explanation, some small corner of my mind is growing slowly more and more concerned. Especially since I doubt very much that if there were sharp declines in the mosquito or moth populations of North America - which might explain a concomitant drop amongst bats - it would attract a lot of public concern or worry. We noticed the decline in bee populations because we humans get something from bees. If moths, on the other hand, or other such insects that we count as a nuisance if we deign to notice them at all, suddenly started to also disappear, how long would it take before anyone kicked up a fuss? Since I've heard no one else remark on this phenomenon, I wonder if it's possible that I'm seeing something no one else is. Do I just have way too much time on my hands, or are there a whole lot of other people out there wandering the streets in the countryside, looking up, hoping to see a bat swoop by, and not remembering the last time they did?

I was restless and feeling the need of a bit of exercise tonight, and since - then as now - I don't always want to just stay home and stare into a screen, for my evening's entertainment, I decided, as dusk fell - around 9pm - to deliberately walk out into the country north of here, to stroll down 224th until the townhouses and condos gradually start to be replaced with farmhouses and fields and deer crossing signs and the odd clump of horseshit on the gravel shoulder. It's not exactly summer, but the day has been temperate, enough so that I wore only a thin fleece for the walk; it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that on a night such as tonight in the 1970's, or 1980's, or 1990's, there would have been bats around at least every second streetlight, increasing in number as I got further out into the sticks. As you might expect, though, during my half-hour walk north, I saw not a single bat. I sat down by the Alouette river on some concrete siding and looked back and forth from streetlight to streetlight, at either end of the bridge. I leaned over the railing, to see if bats could be seen flying up and down the river, as I'd seen before. I didn't, given the past two years of total batlessness in Maple Ridge, expect that my conclusions would be anything but thus, but still, I'm disturbed: there really are no bats here. And there sure seem to be fewer bugs around, too.

Again, I have yet to establish why any of this might be. Part of it might be due to the fact that in the more recently-developed areas, what I presume are halogen streetlights are being used, which seem to attract fewer insects than old fashioned yellow light. Until I caught onto this, I was rather freaked out by the near total absence of insects in the white light - and kept a count for several blocks of what few bugs I did see (averaging about one a block - a lone cranefly, a small moth, a couple tiny specks glimpsed flying with a streetlight in the background). But once I got to the river, out into the areas where people keep stables and some farmer, based on the odd kya-KYAAA cries I heard, apparently keeps a peacock on his property - the lights were all yellow, and I was relieved to see that there WERE lots of little bugs - small motes of reflected light, moving in odd patterns, like ash floating in the wind or particulate from a 3D movie. None of them were very big - I only saw one moth the entire walk that was big enough to cast a notable shadow, as it flitted about a light. But there was at least SOMETHING of a recognizable cloud of life swarming in the yellow.

Still no bats, tho'.

I must persist in my investigations, to see if this is the same elsewhere in town, or in other parts of the world... I wonder if I Google "where have all the bats gone," if I'll get many hits?

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