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Meet the Bat Guy of Olympia in our Q&A

Greg Falxa gives us the scoop on Puget Sound bats


Measuring wings

View a photo of a bat researcher measuring age through the bats wing joints.

An unusual encounter in the dark that might have been with a bat sent Greg Falxa to his doctor for a rabies shot, and launched him on a new career as a bat researcher.

Now a noted bat researcher with Cascadia Research Collective, Falxa worked with Conservancy biologist Sanders Freed on a bat survey at Fort Lewis, which holds some of the last best older conifer forests and lowland prairies remaining in Puget Sound.

We checked in with Greg to get the scoop on Puget Sound bats.

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nature.org/washington:

How did you get interested in bats?

Falxa:

It was an accident. I had announced my intention to leave the computer work that I'd done for over 20 years, and a job announcement for a summer bat study came along at the right time. The project director, Michael Baker, took a chance on me, since I was one of the few applicants from Washington who had been vaccinated for rabies, and I had a strong background in radio-tracking.

His generosity in showing me everything he knew about field work got me interested in studying bats, and I enrolled at Evergreen State College to get a biology degree. And it doesn’t hurt that I'm a nocturnal type.

nature.org/washington:

How long have you been studying bats?

Falxa:

I was hired on to a bat study in the Washington Cascades during 2001. We were a six-person crew that studied the maternity roost preferences of one of our forest dependent bats, the long-legged myotis (Myotis volans). They strongly preferred big dead trees with big sheets of peeling bark. Forests have been logged, so we don’t have many of the giant trees any more, and the standing snags have been eliminated.

nature.org/washington:

Why should we care about bats in western Washington?

Falxa:

Bats are on decline worldwide, and the land practices here are taking a toll on our bats as well. Though bats are not studied enough to allow an easy checklist of benefits, we do know that they consume massive numbers of insects, some known to be crop and forest pests, as well as insects that annoy humans. Beyond that, they are among the unsung heroes of the nutrient transfer system— by eating aquatic insects then "spreading the wealth" across the upland landscape. They're also a source of food for owls and, as we observed this summer in Olympia, for peregrine falcons out on an early evening hunt.

nature.org/washington:

What’s the coolest thing you know about western Washington bats?

Falxa:

All the bat researchers thought that our bats hibernated in the winter, but I discovered that at least two species are active all winter in the Puget Sound region – silver-haired bats and California bats. Bat researchers have been taking the winters off, but these bats haven’t been taking a break! I was getting reports of bats seen flying during the winter, so I went and checked them out, recording their calls and generally seeing what they were up to.

What I found is that they will come out to feed on any halfway-decent winter evening. Some of the behavior was so similar to summer behavior that I suspect it’s the same bats hanging around all year. I’ve documented this over the past several years, and it was published in Northwestern Naturalist in 2007. It turns out farmers in the area knew this about our bats, I just put a name to them and tracked the temperatures and all.

nature.org/washington:

What have you learned that really surprises you?

Falxa:

Two related things, really. First, that many people are interested in knowing more about bats. And second, that we know so little about the biology of bats, and their relationships to the environment. A lot of what we know about wildlife is based on what gets funding. The 'cash crops' get a lot more funding for study than non-game species, and nocturnal animals are even lower on the hierarchy, so we know a lot more about salmon and deer than we'll ever know about bats! So we have a general public that comes out to bat walks by the hundreds, and lots of biologists that know little about bats.

nature.org/washington:

What can we do to protect bats in our communities?

Falxa:

The two things bats need are roosts and foraging areas. Out-buildings and old trees are the most likely roost sites, but bat houses that are more creative than the standard 'flat box' design could replace the diminishing supply of sheds and snags. For foraging areas, some bats need trees, other bats need open water.

This summer, the Conservancy, Fort Lewis and I have been collaborating on a “bat barn” for a local population of Townsend's big-eared bats, one of the species on the state's sensitive species list. Our tracking of them has shown that they have their maternity roosts in the town of Roy, yet most of their feeding is around the mature woodlands on Fort Lewis. We've discovered that they have been unwelcome guests in some of the structures where they have taken up residence in Roy, so we hope that by creating a specialized roost structure nearby on Fort Lewis they will adopt it as a safe place to raise their young, and therefore help provide for healthy forests in the area.

Keeping harmful chemicals out of the water is important, especially since the insects that bats eat can concentrate some of these chemicals, which might be approved as safe at levels in the water, but not at the levels found in the bats' diet.

It’s also important to promote reasonable attitudes about bats and public health. Although bats are one of the carriers of the deadly rabies virus, people are much more likely to live to be 100 years old than to contract rabies. In Washington, there are two cases on record. Many bats live in close proximity to people, whether we are aware of it or not. Exterminating the ones we discover is not likely to make the world a safer place. However, non-hysterical information on the safe handling of downed bats is very important (use gloves, and don't get bit!).


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