A Night at Capitol Lake
It is summer 2008, the year Bats About Our Town was founded. The time
is twenty minutes before a late July sunset at Capitol Lake in the center
of downtown Olympia. The calm lake surface reflects the state capitol
dome and the air gradually cools after a sunny day.
A group has gathered for a bat walk with
biologist Greg Falxa of Cascadia Research Collective. I’m standing
along the Deschutes Parkway near lamppost 39, a favorite lookout point
for the early-arriving Big
Brown Bats. My back
to the lake, I’m looking up at the ridge above me. Huge trees
stamp black filigree silhouettes against a sky darkening to deep
Big Brown Bats: The First Arrivals
I’m concentrating on the spaces between the trees, keeping my eyes
in soft focus so I can see a wide panorama. Watching as the bats
arrive is like watching for shooting stars, silent and fast. One
moment, a flutter at the top of the ridge; the next moment, a form
just above my head, plummeting down to the waiting lake.
The Big Brown Bats are not silent, of course. I just
can’t hear their calls, which actually are so loud they might be
called shouts. They are flying open-mouthed, pulsing out their
high frequency calls. Like whales and like submarines, bats can navigate
using sound. The bat that just flew by my shoulder knew exactly
where I was—she saw me with her eyes, and she heard the echoes of
her calls bouncing off me. Her sonar works up to a 30 foot
distance. Beyond that, she must use her eyesight alone.
Hunting for Insects
Now this bat dodges over the lake and into the shrubby margins, hunting.
She is looking for small flies, small moths, midges, and other
insects. Like all the other bats soon to arrive at the lake,
she may catch an insect in her mouth, but she has another option. She
can scoop her prey into the membranes of her wing or her tail. Then
she reaches down into the membrane pocket, supple as my cat licking
her hind leg, and eats the insect. This can happen several
times a minute. After eating, she may change directions,
doubling back for another nearby insect. With the eating
and the doubling back, her flight can look clumsy and fluttering
to me, when in fact it is extraordinarily efficient.
Yuma Bat Catching a Moth
(Click on the image to see a larger image)
Photo © Merlin Tuttle
The bats aren’t just scooping up insects. They scoop the air
as well with their webbed wings, just as a duck’s feet move it through
water. Bats are the only mammals that can fly. Our fantasy
angels have wings on their backs, but bats row the air with their
Time to Use the Bat Detectors
Quickly it becomes too dark for me to see well with my eyes. Yes,
I notice the bats crossing the lamplight ringing the lake—if I’m
lucky. They fly very fast. Now I do as they do, “seeing”
with my ears. I have an electronic device called a bat detector. Mine
is about the size of an old-fashioned telephone handle. The
detector ramps down the bat calls into sounds I can hear. When
the sounds speed up, a series of harsh rapid clicks, the bat is closing
in on an insect.
New species of bats are arriving now, half an hour after sunset.
As a beginner with simple equipment, I can’t identify the bat species
on the spot. Greg Falxa, with his researcher’s equipment, his
researcher’s honed ear, and his many nights’ experience at the lake,
gives us his best guess about what is flying by. (The recorder
attached to his equipment can be used to verify all this later—and
indeed my detector can be attached to a recorder too for later analysis.)
California and Silver-Haired Bats
Greg tells us that the smallest bat in our area, the California
Bat, may be flying by. These tiny bats drink water from
the lake but feed along the lake edge among the shrubs, and up in
the tree canopy near the lake. They find the midges, tiny like
Now we hear the calls of a passing Silver-Haired
densely furred bat emits a flat, even call about three times a second. Relatively
uncommon, these bats are solitary or roost in small groups, and live
Yuma and Little Brown Bats Will Come in Groups
We are eagerly awaiting the main event of the night, the arrival
of thousands of small Yuma and Little
Brown Bats, customers at the
abundant Capitol Lake cafeteria since late spring. These are
mother bats who live in large maternity colonies. Roosting
together helps them conserve body heat. Now their pups, born
a bit late because spring 2008 was very cold, huddle together at
the roosts while the mothers come to Capitol Lake for food. The
mother bats emerge about fifteen minutes after the sun goes down,
resetting their internal clocks every day.
Three Known Bat Flyways
Unlike the other bats we have seen so far, these mother bats don’t
just wander over to the lake. They come in groups, following regular
flyways that have been in existence for many years. At this point
they are navigating by sight as well as by echolocation. While flying
above the tree canopy they use tall trees that reach above the canopy
as navigation points, passing one tall tree and then another. Their
path is quite predictable, and if you know which are the navigation
trees, you can watch the bats stream by after sunset. You also can
watch them follow a particular street for so many blocks, go single
file down a specific alley, and veer left around that big fir tree.
We know of three bat flyways coming in from the north and west.
- The flyway starting in The Evergreen State College
area sends 600-1000 bats to the lake. They start arriving at
the lake 30 minutes after sundown, with the peak at 45 minutes,
and the end about an hour after sundown.
- The Cooper Point/Eld Inlet/Totten Inlet flyway sends about
1000 bats, arriving a little later than the Evergreen group.
- From Woodard Bay in the North Olympia
area, 3000 mother bats are taking half an hour to make their 8
to 10 mile trip to the lake—16 to 20 miles round trip. This
is the largest known commute in North America for Yuma and Little
Brown Bats, weighing about what a nickel weighs. While nursing
their pups, the bats often make the trip twice a night.
Greg Falxa’s research shows that the mother bats leaving the lake
probably don’t mix from one of the three social groups to another
goes home to her specific roost and her waiting pup. Quite
possibly, other bat flyways reach the lake from the south,
arriving from using volunteers acting as bat detectives
(to learn more, see the volunteer form under How To Help).
Yuma and Little Brown Bats Arrive
We are walking north along the lake. The bat detectors begin
to talk as the hungry mother Yuma and Little Brown Bats arrive, flying in above the West Side of Olympia. Occasionally
we see a rapid flicker as a bat plummets down by a street lamp on
her descent to the lake.
Some of us contine north, crossing below the Fifth and Fourth Avenue
bridges to arrive at the boardwalk by the Bayview Thriftway grocery
store. Many of the far-flung Woodard
fly in under the boardwalk until they reach the riprap boulders along
the shoreline by the east end of the Fourth Avenue bridge. Then
they dodge under both bridges, hugging the sides, emerging at last
at the lake after half an hour’s journey.
Video Camera Helps Us See Bats
The lake now is embroidered everywhere by tiny bats feeding on the
midges and other insects that hatch regularly throughout the summer,
providing a rich, reliable food source. We cannot see the bats,
though. We turn back to join the group at lamppost 43, where a video
camera feeds images into a TV monitor sitting on a card table. The
camera points at the bright rectangle of light cast on the lake surface
by a hotel east of the lake. We can see constantly moving bats,
almost as dense as the swarms of midges they enjoy eating. Some
people are watching with binoculars trained on the pool of light.
Books about bats may talk about bats taking a rest during their
night feeding. Some of Greg Falxa’s Yuma and Little Brown
Bats wearing radio transmitters did no such thing. They fed
for up to six hours straight before heading home—and these research
bats all came from Woodard Bay, a good hour’s round trip commute
away, amounting to seven hours of constant flight.
Midnight at the Lake
It’s midnight. The night air, seemingly silent except for
the hum of a passing car, in fact is vibrating with high-pitched
sound. Thousands of bats continue their stuttering flights
above the water, pausing several times a minute as they catch midges,
caddis flies, an occasional moth. Each bat has her preferred
section of the lake where she spends most of her time hunting, thus
helping distribute the bats evenly above the water’s surface.
A Townsend’s Big-Eared Bat makes a cameo appearance by the
Interpretive Center at the south end of Capitol Lake. Extremely
rare, on the endangered species list in fact, this bat hunts moths. In
the dance between predator and prey, moths have evolved very sensitive
hearing—and these bats have evolved very soft echolocation calls,
hence their huge ears.
A light summer rain peppers the lake. Bats come and take refuge
under the Percival Cove bridge, where they hang out, so to speak,
waiting for the rain to stop. The corrugated surface under
the bridge is like an egg carton, an ideal place for bats. After
a few minutes of no rain, the bats charge back over the lake to resume
feeding. Their calls, inaudible to humans, are in fact extremely
loud—think of five car thousand horns honking. Bats have evolved
to cope with all this noise. Each bat has a specialized hearing
apparatus that filters out most other bats’ calls before they reach
the bat’s brain.
Half an Hour Before Sunrise
Final departures from the lake are beginning. All night bats have
been coming and going. Woodard Bay bats while nursing
their pups may make two trips to the lake, for example. Typically
end their first feeding between midnight and 2 AM, go home, then
return for another meal. Only the
stragglers are left at half an hour before sunrise, and they hurry
home. As the sun rises behind the Eastside Olympia hill, as
humans wake and start their day, the bats and their pups are tucked
away in cracks and crevices all around Thurston County, starting
their long daytime sleep.
Visit Capitol Lake for the history
and future prospects of the lake.
Create Your Own Bat Walk at the Lake
- Bring a pair of binoculars with good light-gathering capacity.
- Arrive ten minutes before sunset (for the guided tour people
come earlier in order to hear an interpretive talk)
- Position yourself at lamppost 39 along the Deschutes Parkway,
near the bus stop shelter halfway between the 4th and 5th Avenue
Bridges and Marathon Park. Look west up at the ridge
to see Big Brown Bats arriving.
- As the light fades, walk north along the lake, noticing any bats
that zoom past the lampposts as they approach the lake.
- Cross Fifth and Fourth Avenues to arrive at the walkway by Bayview
Thriftway that terminates at the Fourth Avenue Bridge, and look
for bats flying low along the boulders and then under the bridge.
- Return to the Deschutes Parkway, going to lamppost 43. To
see bats hunting insects, train your binoculars on the large rectangle
of light cast by the hotel.