22 September 2023

The thrill of night with citizen science projects

Written by: Alesha Weiland

One of the tasks I have taken on as part of my seasonal ranger and visitor services intern position at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge this year has been assisting with our volunteer coordination. This has involved corresponding with our volunteers including getting several new volunteers on board with their initial paperwork and discussing various volunteering opportunities available to them at our refuge. Organizing weekly schedules, sign-ups and training new volunteers to participate in our bat exit counts (otherwise known as bat emergence surveys) on the refuge has been one of the most frequent and best ways I have been able to help facilitate connecting people with active wildlife research on our refuge. Anytime there is an opportunity to engage the public in citizen science projects and research I get very enthusiastic.  

This probably stems from an unexpected opportunity I had to participate in a citizen science project, while traveling in the middle of the Mexico one winter. I was visiting a friend in the Peace Corps in Jalpan de Serra when I made my way through narrow winding gravel roads up into the mountains of Santa María de los Cocos. My mission was to observe and count Military Macaws. I remember waking in the middle of the night, gathering with local teens and riding a burro up the mountains in total darkness. We were at such a high elevation we were above the clouds, all of us perched around the rim of a sótano, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the birds as the sun rose beneath us. Sótano literally translates to basement in English but in this case it referred to a massive sinkhole which created a unique physical geographic feature for the macaws to gather and mate. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.

While a trip to Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge’s bat condo is not as time-consuming and will not present as many potential perils as my trek through the Mexican mountains did, it helps me relive a little of that mysterious anticipation and share a similar excitement with our volunteers. Our volunteers gather about a half hour prior to sunset, carrying clicker counters, a clip board with datasheets to record observations and headlamps. They trek a short distance along a mowed prairie path behind the refuge maintenance shop towards the edge of the forest where our 8x8 foot Bat Condo resides. Volunteers will position themselves on either side and condo, ready to count as bats exit from both sides of the condo's eaves. Our refuge gates typically close at dusk to the public, but this task allows for special privileges as the bats only begin to emerge at dusk. The bats will often swoop out and circle the condo, before heading straight for the woods to feast on mosquitos and other insects. An evening of counting bats not only allows volunteers to experience hundreds of bats flying overhead but often other intimate encounters with wildlife as well; whether it is deer passing nearby, nighthawks and owls feeding, or hearing a chorus of coyotes; there is something profound about experiencing wilderness at night. I have been thrilled to help connect people with nature through this unique on-going conservation effort at the refuge and hope the memories stay with them for many years to come.

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