Wonder And Fear Mingle At Night On The Shores Of Green Valley Lake

“Something is amiss or out of place
“When mice with wings can wear a human face”
From “The Bat” by Theodore Roethke

“Something is amiss or out of place “When mice with wings can wear a human face” From “The Bat” by Theodore Roethke Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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The twilight gathered.

The children chattered.

The swifts retreated.

The sunset reflected

And all the while the little cluster of the curious gathered close around the Bat Lady, with her outlandish hat and thick leather gloves as she drew aside the veil of the night.

They all came for a glimpse in darkness of one of the most interesting, misunderstood and vital creatures of the night — the bats.

Perched here on the shores of Green Valley Lake, that little gaggle of warm-blooded nature lovers were just eating out of the gloved hands of the Bat Lady, known also as Nancy Renison back when she drew a salary from the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Now, she laughs and chortles in her floppy bat-wing hat silhouetted against the sunset — and helps her eager, but ever-so-slightly creeped-out audience of sun worshippers understand a creature that can eat up its own weight in mosquitoes every night.

To make her point and hold the fascinated attention of the kiddos, she pulled exasperated, but docile, bats out of their little enclosures, to display the leathery wings, the alert and disquieting faces, the furry cuteness, the utter strangeness of the only mammal to have mastered the art of flight.

Bats have survived and specialized for some 60 million years, evolving to fill every possible niche. Most eat insects, but many lap up nectar or blood. Some live on ripening fruit; others pluck frogs and fish from the water. Most take their meals on the wing, guided by the echoes of cries too high-pitched for human ears. But some land on the desert floor and hunt scorpions on foot. Others lap up blood from bites laced with saliva that both numbs the flesh and prevents the blood from clotting.

Some carry rabies — that’s true enough, although most people who get bit are foolish enough to pick up a sick bat on the ground. But the bats more than pay their way by gobbling down untold trillions of insects — protecting crops and people alike. Nectar-sipping bats pollinate saguaros, agave and other cacti — their continent-spanning migrations perfectly calibrated to the flowering of the cacti.

The 1,100 species of bats make them second among mammals only to rodents, with their 2,277 species. Bats account for an astonishing 20 percent of all mammal species, ranging from the inch-long, .07-ounce bumblebee bat to the 22-inch-long, three-pound giant flying fox, with its 6-foot wingspan. Bats nest in attics and caves and beneath bark and in leaves they roll into tubes. They partner up and have sex in every possible combination — mated pairs, harem-herding males, female-oriented clatches, pickup spots where males try to catch the eye of a passing beauty. They’ve adapted a set of genes humans use for speech and birds use for songs to perfect a sonar sense so exquisitely tuned that they can track a gnat from 15 feet away — somehow ignoring the echoes of any other bat calls. They can undertake unerring migrations that cover 2,000 miles, finding their way at night with the help of some still mysterious sense.

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Nancy Renison uses a live bat to educate Paysonites.

But after a 60-million-year run, they’re in trouble all across the world — especially in North America. Humans have disturbed roosting caves and so wiped out populations in the millions. A mysterious fungus is laying waste to cave-roosting bats in the eastern half of the country. Pesticides, warming trends, habitat loss and introduced predators have resulted in dramatic declines in a host of species. In North America, more than half of our 45 bat species are endangered or threatened.

Still, Arizona boasts 28 bat species, second only to Texas’ 32. They’ve survived the asteroid that wiped out the last of the dinosaurs — but they may not survive us.

But not if the Bat Lady has anything to do with it. She warmed up the crowd masterfully, exploding myths, dropping bat-sized factoids and cooing to her resigned little visual aides, with their leathery wings silken with fur and pulsing with life.

Then she turned to the lake, like a magician at the climax of her act.

Only a moment ago, the cliff swallows had darted and dipped across the surface of the lake as the sun slid below the horizon.

Now, she gestured dramatically to creatures skimming across the water, all fluttery and acrobatic — chaos and grace.

“Every night,” said the Bat Lady, “at just this time, the Yuma bats come back.”

Out on the water the creatures with 11-inch wingspans and weighing no more than a coin, veer in crazy, drunken patterns as they chase down moths and caddis flies. Many of the moths have sensors that warn them when they’ve been pinged by bat sonar, prompting the moths to dive and spiral. The Yuma bats mostly forage over water, often flying substantial distances to water each night. By day, many hide in roosts where pregnant females form large maternity colonies, leaving the males to go their nearly solitary way.

So the little cluster of the curious stood a long while on the shores of the night and watched the bats dip and swerve and veer across the still waters of Green Valley Lake.

The breezes softened.

The children marveled.

The Bat Lady hovered.

The darkness thickened.

And the ancient dance of the night went on long after the light had gone, leaving only the silent cry that has so long terrorized the moths and eluded dinosaurs and human beings alike.

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