The best part of being an ecologist is field work. Being outside, focused on a particular corner of the natural world, is the reason many of us do this. It’s also fun hanging out with collaborators, catching up on our lives and research, and sharing cool observations. Or troubleshooting problems that come up with whatever materials are at hand. Sadly, for most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic brought all of that to a halt. This project was delayed for over a year. Even then, we had to cram in a lot of prototype trial and error work, along with a limited number of flying nights. So, we didn’t make the progress we had hoped for. But it was still great to hang out and focus completely on this project, and let the noise of regular life fade away for a brief time.
My collaborators on this project, shown above in our rented farm house, include Dr. Scott Pedersen, my PhD advisor Dr. Gary McCracken, and my academic “sister” Dr. Erin Gillam. Gary has many years of experience with high-altitude bat research with the University of Tennessee. I flew his aerostat during my dissertation research. Erin is a professor at North Dakota State University and is an expert in bat behavior and acoustic research. Scott, my husband, is a professor at South Dakota State University, where he runs the human anatomy program. He also has tons of experience studying bats in the field, and tinkering with machines in his shop.
We had occasional help from additional collaborators during this expedition. Dr. John Westbrook, a meteorologist and entomologist now retired from the USDA, is a long–time collaborator and friend. John was part of a pioneering group of cross-disciplinary researchers using balloons and radar to track migratory movements of insect pests. Also joining us for a night or two were Lee Mackenzie, with the Austin Bat Refuge, and Dr. Sara Weaver, Senior Environmental Manager at Bowman Consulting. Sara studies bat behavior at wind energy installations. She also documented their increasing tendency to remain in the area in winter instead of migrating south to Mexico, which makes them vulnerable to extreme cold weather. Brazilian free-tailed bats move across the region in complex seasonal patterns we do not fully understand. Lee and Sara have extensive experience with what is actually going on there, and it was really exciting to compare notes and hatch plans for future projects.
For this expedition, Scott and I drove to Texas in a South Dakota State University van packed with Mothra, Pichi, and all the gear and tools we might need. We brought our dog Rosy along as well. Gary and Erin flew down for the first week of our expedition. We stayed at a charming farm house south of San Marcos, where we could spread out our equipment. We kept the fridge stocked with beer and guacamole and salsa. The first person up in the morning made coffee. There was a pond outside the front door, and the garden was full of butterflies and dragonflies. A typical morning consisted of downloading and analyzing data, or tweaking equipment, or maybe watching birds around the pond. In the afternoon there might be a trip to the hardware store, followed by the main meal of the day. Normally we enjoy the awesome Mexican restaurants in the area. Since COVID infection rates were still high in Texas, this time we just got takeout or cooked at home to be safe. Then we headed to the hanger site an hour or two before sunset, aiming to get Mothra launched before the bats arrive.
Our research site
We have been truly lucky to have a field site that checks all the boxes for this Aeroscope project. It is far enough from airports, developed areas, and power lines to fly safely. It’s close enough to a weather radar station (New Braunfels) to be able to incorporate that data into our results. Bats flying out from nearby Bracken Cave, home of the largest bat colony in the world, regularly show up on weather radar. There are also many bat colonies under highway bridges in the area. That means there are plenty of bats in the sky at night.
But the best part about our site is the small aircraft hangar, which the owner very generously lets us use to store Mothra and other equipment during the day. In my earlier research, I used U-Haul trucks to shelter Elphaba, our smaller Helikite, from the hot Texas sun. That was not an option for her big sister Mothra! As it was, we barely had enough room to get her out through the large hangar doors.