I recently ventured high up into the belfry (actually the attic) of a local building to see the bat colony residing therein. The presence of the colony had been known for some time, but I wasted no time in checking it out because the season is late and the gang might shift locations at any time. Initial reports indicated “20 or so” individuals, so I was hoping for such. Armed with a camera and a weak flashlight, I ascended the creaky pull-down ladder and entered the dark void above.
True to expectations the place reeked of guano – the pungent musty odor of a million bat droppings. In this black hot space the smell was, if not overpowering, definitely “hanging thick.” My flashlight flickered to life after whacking it a few times on my palm. The beam dimly illuminated a tight circular space defined by a block wall and a wood ceiling. Piles of guano covered the floor (see below). I swept the light across the upper wall to search for the bats. Unfortunately, there were only three bats in evidence but I was not disappointed. They were Big Brown Bats who, in spite of their name, are only about 3 inches long.
Two of the individuals were hanging close to each other and the third was hanging tight to the far corner. All were suspended upside-down (how else?) near the top of the wall were it met the ceiling. The block surface was sufficiently rough to provide a grabbing surface for their feet and singular thumb claws. Although they were roosting, the bats were quite aware of my presence. They shifted and sniffed the air every time the flashlight beam hit them and skittered along the wall whenever the beam left.
In order to get pictures, I had to put the flashlight beam on them with one hand and get a focus fix through the camera viewfinder held by the other. My view of them was limited to the temporary flash of the camera. At one point, one of the little beasts smiled a gap-toothed smile as if to welcome me to hell (see beginning photo). I say this because after a few minutes in this space the heat was beginning to get to me. It was around 88 degrees F outside but well over 100 degrees inside. I could only imagine what sort of nasty fungal dust I was kicking up while in that pungent space. The camera viewer was fogging up and my flashlight flickered nervously.
I wondered where the other bats had gone, since the earlier report was from only a week earlier. This question was answered when I turned to get closer look at the lone corner bat (see above). This fellow was lower and more approachable than the smiling pair. I popped off a few shots before he bolted. Literally running along the wall, the creature scurried to the top edge and then ducked into the narrow space at the top of the block (see below). It was then that I noticed the numerous dark “rub” spots where countless other bats performed the same procedure (see here). I believe most of the other bats were actually in the block wall itself. On this hot day they may have sought the slightly cooler outer surface.
After ten minutes I had enough and gladly left the inferno for the cool light space below. Along the way I gathered two dried dead bats that were on the floor. Both of the specimens were mummified from long exposure to dry attic heat. One of the bodies was that of a young bat (officially called a “pup” but who cares). This particular find was exciting because it indicated that this place served as a breeding colony at some point. I would have to return early next summer to see some living batlets (the breeding season is long over by this time of year).
As it turns out, there is another reason for me to return. Later, down in the bright light of day, I re-examined my photos and realized that I had indeed encountered a blood-sucker in that dark hole. No, our Michigan bats are not blood-suckers (big browns specialize in flying beetles as a matter of fact) and there was no personal concern on my part other than ingesting too much poop dust during my investigation. In my pictures of the timid corner bat, however, there appeared the image of a wingless insect on the block immediately next to him. This was a “bat bug” (see enlarged image below).
Bat bugs feed on bat blood. Close relatives of bed bugs, they depend on regular blood meals to complete their growth cycle. In the absence of bats they have been known to sneak in a human meal or two, but members of the bat clan are their main fare. This individual appeared to be freshly full from a recent meal and was probably sneaking back into the woodwork when my camera pin-pointed him in the pitch darkness.
I will return to this colony next year and see if, along with recording baby bats in action, perhaps add a bat bug or two to my collection. I will place them next to my set of beaver bugs.