NORWALK: August Froehlich is hunting for the proverbial needle in the haystack.
He is searching Ohio for the little-known Indiana bat, a federally endangered species and Ohio’s rarest bat.
Ohio only gets reports on a few hundred Indiana bats each year. It was one of the first species put on the federal endangered species list in 1967.
Froehlich, a staffer with the Nature Conservancy, arms himself with sophisticated recording equipment for his hunts.
His mission is to digitally record the echolocation calls of flying bats seeking insects for food. Specially designed software is then used and can identify the different species recorded.
He drives 30-mile routes at speeds of 20 miles an hour up to four times with a microphone attached to the roof of his vehicle. It is wired to a device that records not only the location, but translates the bat sounds into electronic chirps and squeaks that are recorded and that humans can hear. The sounds are later shown graphically.
This summer, he has investigated seven sites in northern Ohio for the Indiana bat. To date, he has struck out as none was detected.
But Froehlich is undeterred.
“We’re not surprised,” he said. “We’re not disappointed. We’re learning a lot about the distribution of bats in Ohio. ...We’re helping advance bat science. That’s awesome. And that’s important.”
The program he explains is “a big first step.”
Bats are in the spotlight these days. The insect-eating mammals are facing challenges from wind turbines in western Ohio and perhaps along Lake Erie and from Utica shale drilling in eastern Ohio. Additionally, a mysterious fungus, the white-nosed syndrome, is decimating bat populations in Ohio and other states.
The Nature Conservancy’s Ohio office teamed up with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to look into the distribution of the Indiana bat in Ohio.
The nonprofit national land conservation group used advanced computer mapping to predict ideal summer maternity habitats for Indiana bats across Ohio in a report released last December.
The Nature Conservancy sent Froehlich and his microphone on the road from June through August to explore those predicted habitats to find what resident bats might be present before any migrant bats fly in.
What he is seeking are female Indiana bats that roost under the bark in dead trees in groups of up to 100 with their young in the summer. This is the specific habitat or niche needed by the bats and they will return to trees used previously if they are still standing.
Males in the summer hang out alone or in small groups.
Two potential Ohio hot spots for Indiana bats are along the Huron and Vermilion rivers near Norwalk in north-central Ohio, according to the Nature Conservancy modeling and mapping. This is about 85 miles west of Akron.
This is what led Froehlich to undertake a recent Wednesday night cruise in Huron County, where he battled heavy fog.
The trip produced mixed results.
There was bat activity, especially along streams and near outdoor farm lights that draw insects that in turn attract bats. There were perhaps 35 to 40 chirps and squeaks that were bats that flew within 100 feet of the microphone.
The results were a little slower than previous trips and a little sparser than Froehlich had hoped for, he said. A good night would produce 100 to 200 bats, he said.
The fog, he believes, may have played a factor.
Those in the vehicle had to focus to hear the chirps and cheeps against the steady clicking of the low-speed vehicle’s flashers that were a constant background noise. Insect sounds are also recorded.
Froehlich heard a few chirps and immediately knew that they had come from big brown bats or Eastern red bats. “I’ve done this enough to know,” he said.
According to Froehlich, the bats were heading out for breakfast, might return to their roosting trees to rest and then are likely to head out again between 10 and 11 p.m. After feeding again, it is siesta time back at the roosting trees, he said.
Bats may be active from dusk to dawn, but the most activity is in the few hours after sunset, he said.
Froehlich, a geographic information system analyst, almost never sees the bats he is recording, although he may see flashes of bats in the farm lights.
He admitted he feels a sense of relief on every trip when bat sounds are actually heard. “You always hope but you’re not sure until you hear the first one,” he said.
He has also investigated Whetstone Creek near Marion, Peterson Creek and the Tiffin River near Defiance, the Maumee River near Napoleon and the Sandusky River south of Tiffin.
He also checked for bats at Ashtabula County’s Morgan Swamp, a 1,400-acre wetland on the Grand River owned by the Nature Conservancy.
The Nature Conservancy is planning to continue Froehlich’s bat recording program next year, he said.
Froehlich said it is surprising how little we know about the Indiana bat, even though the bat has big impacts on Ohio.
Highway and development projects in Ohio are prohibited from cutting down trees at certain times of year to protect potential Indiana bat habitats.
It is estimated that there might be as many as 457,000 Indiana bats in Ohio and 13 other states, although that estimate came before the white-nosed fungus.
The bat likes riparian corridors along streams and likes edges between forests and pastures, Froehlich said. It also likes spaces away from roads.
It is small, weighing a quarter of an ounce or about three pennies. Its fur is dark brown to black, It has a wing span of 9 to 11 inches. It has mouselike ears and is very social. Large numbers will cluster together in hibernation.
The bats retire to caves for the winter, generally in southern Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana.
“The Indiana bat is nowhere and everywhere,” he said. “It is cosmopolitan. It’s not very fickle on where it’s found, but it’s very fickle on where it will go. ...We just need to keep working and to test a little harder.”
For more information, go to www.nature.org/ohio.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.