|Carlsbad Bat Flight|
by Stormy on June 28, 2005
Each night some 400,000 bats take flight from Carlsbad Caverns in search of food. This midnight snack adds up to several tons of insects a night!
The last event of the day at Carlsbad Caverns is the nightly bat flight. Bat flights are larger in size in the summer months, when the cave becomes a nursery for newborn bats. Some 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats make the cave their summer residence and the sight of all these bats in flight is nothing short of phenomenal.
The bat program starts about an hour before sunset. A ranger comes out and talks about bats in general and about bats living in the park. The goal is to have the talk finish before the first of the bats take flight. Most of the time this works perfectly well, but once in a while some bat decides to head out early and starts an unexpected mass exodus. I can not help but wonder how or why that first bat decides on the right time to go catch bugs. If it was left up to my stomach, I'd be stuffing myself full of fresh greens and flowering stalks all the time.
Bats, by the way, eat bugs. While marmots may occasionally snarf down a bug unlucky enough to have parked on a plant destined to be a meal, most marmots frown on eating bugs. Good thing we've got bats to fill this niche!
About the only rule of the bat flight program is that flash photography is not allowed. There is a lot of debate in bat ecologist circles as to whether or not bats really care about being photographed. Most scientists claim that bats don't have large enough egos to care if they make the front cover or not, but the debate is also more specific, questioning if flash photography harms bats or impacts their flight patterns.
From everything that I've read, any seeing animal will notice a flash as an item of curiosity. Some will ignore it, some will shy away and some will take a closer look. Over time exposure to flashes desensitizes animals to the flash phenomenon and they start to ignore the light.
The National Park Service does not seem to agree on this matter and they do not allow flash photography at all. Offenders will find themselves assaulted by park rangers. I don't really know what happens to them after they are tackled and carried out.
Nonetheless, I had my camera ready and the flash turned off as bats took to the skies this night. The bat flight started just as the sun was setting and it was nothing short of amazing. At first it was just a trickle of bats, then the stream increased in volume, then the sky was tinted with clouds of departing bats.
Watching nature in action is an interesting experience. Hundreds of thousands of bats taking flight can be called a major migration and while each individual bat weighs only half an ounce, 400,000 of them weigh just over 6 tons. That's an incredible magnification of scale! And because bats are assumed to eat their own weight in bugs each night, one bat can fill up fairly quickly, but 400,000 bats sure put a dent in the insect population!
The bat flight is a fascinating experience that I expect all armchair ecologists, biologists and naturalists to find interesting. If you're ever in the Carlsbad area and don't have time for anything else, stop by and see the bats leaving for the night or coming back in the morning to see them returning.