Thursday, August 30, 2007

Bat Caves of the Armendaris

Imagine 3 million warm blooded mammals, packed side by side into the crevices of the lava tubes. Each bat follows a precise daily pattern, a clear violation of the first rule of predator avoidance. The lava tubes of the Armendaris Ranch, on the Jornada del Muerto (dead man's journey) are home to the second largest colony of Mexican Free-tailed Bats in North America. Every night, just before sunset, the winged mammals emerge from the safety of their subterranean dwelling to seek sustenance. Each bat consumes nearly twice its weight in insects each night, and may travel up to 40 miles to the feeding location.

Our group of ten was here to witness the incredible nightly flight, seen by few other humans. For the bat caves are tucked away among the vast lava field on Ted Turner's equally vast ranch in central New Mexico. Because we (Hawks Aloft) conduct research on the ranch, I had permission to lead a tour for our organization. Although I've watched the bat flight several times, it never disappoints me, and tonight was no exception. We were not alone while we waited for the bats to emerge.

Other winged predators wheeled and screamed above, whipping themselves into a feathered frenzy of activity. First there were the falcons, the pair of American Kestrels weighing only about a quarter pound themselves, flying into the entrance of the cave and perching nearby. And, the young Peregrine Falcon, climbing so high that it became a lint speck on my binoculars before stooping down and then pulling up, and repeating this over and over. Perhaps this young bird was practicing its aerial acrobatics in anticipation of the meal it hoped to secure for itself. Then there were the Swainson's Hawks, eleven in all, screaming as if to beckon the bats from their roost. Their circles tightened as they spun in ever faster formations, and the screams intensified. For the bats, the predatory birds formed a veritable death gauntlet which the smaller mammals must successfully negotiate in order to survive.

As if by an unspoken bat agreement, the first bat appeared to have been tossed out by its compatriots to check out the nightly threat. A Swainson's was first on the scene. The lone little bat flitted from one side to the next as the hawk closed in on its prey. At the last moment, though, a deft and sharp turn, saved it from an untimely end. The gauntlet was not yet over, for the Peregrine waiting high above, tucked its body into a stoop and dove on the hapless bat. Feet tucked into yellow fists, the Peregrine streaked ever closer. Perhaps this bat had played this game before, for at the last moment it rolled to one side and avoided the clutch of the falcon's talons. Then, it was the Kestrel's turn. Again, the little bat out maneuvered even this small falcon. The bat would live to see another day!

The bat flight continued for several hours, until it was too dark to see any longer. Not often visited by humans, these bats fly all around their human visitors, their fluttering wings like fairy kisses on your face as they pass, never actually touching you, and never leaving any unwelcome droppings.

I thank Tom Waddell, ranch manager, for making this trip possible, and for being such an excellent steward of the land. I also thank Ted Turner, for setting aside vast tracts of American lands, where wild things can continue their existence in a natural setting.


Molokai Girl said...

Wow...what an experience! Sounds like it was an incredible outing! (note: I am refraining from using corny puns like, going batty, etc.)

Jonah Brown said...

I visited these bat caves this week with my high school biology club. it was a fantastic experience, and there were (literally)a ton of bats.