Weeks of searching for a roost for the rare Florida bonneted bat around a Coral Gables golf course, with scores of volunteers training smart phones and iPads to the night sky to detect high-frequency calls, ended quietly early one morning last month when a lone dog walker heard a call coming from a nearby house.
Tucked in between barrel tiles of the rundown vacant house a block from the greens, the roost is the first documented in Southeast Florida, according to wildlife officials.
“As soon as I saw it I knew right away how significant it was,” said nurse Ingrid Navas, who discovered the roost on a routine walk with her three dogs and is part of the Bat Squad, a team of citizen scientists enlisted by Florida International University biologist Kirsten Bohn.
“It’s like the greatest story ever,” said Bohn, who has traveled the world studying bats and started researching the Gables colony after moving to the neighborhood in December 2012.
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Once Bohn confirmed the bats zipping in and out of a gap in the tiles were indeed the trumpet-eared, endangered Eumops, which number in the hundreds, she alerted U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials. The agency has been trying to reach the house’s owners to alert them of the rare find, said wildlife biologist Paula Halupa.
“The best scenario would be that the owner wouldn’t mind having bats in their roof,” she said.
The property owner did not respond to a message left with a business associate.
Finding the roost means Bohn and other scientists can study how the bats live in an urban setting and what steps they can take to better protect their habitat. Up until now, bonneted bat roosts have only been found in a handful of rural settings. In 1979, a small group was found roosting in a wildlife management area in Punta Gorda. Another colony lives in backyard bat houses in Lee County.
But in east Florida, where their native pine rockland habitat has dwindled to just two percent of its historical size, roosts have not been seen since the 1960s when some were thought to live in limestone outcroppings near the University of Miami. A 2011 search with trained dogs failed to find a single roost.
For years researchers knew the bats foraged around the Granada Golf Course, but never found a roost, said wildlife veterinarian Frank Ridgely, the research and conservation director at Zoo Miami, where bats search for food in the county’s last large tract of rockland. The bats fly high and fast and roost in small groups of four to eight, making them harder to study than other bats that fly low and roost in great numbers.
“The population around the golf course just kind of baffles us,” Ridgely said. “They’re using the golf course, surrounded by urban sprawl and somehow they’re existing there and persisting for a long time.”
With the roost, researchers can study the bats’ guano to determine what bugs they eat, which could help explain how they forage and whether they’ve changed their eating habits in city settings. Halupa said the roost also could help researchers study mating habits and how long juveniles nest.
The urban roost also might tell biologists what to look for in other developed areas.
“They love golf courses. But it may be that they love golf courses because that’s the only [open] thing left,” Halupa said. “They can’t turn very easily so they need open spaces.”
Coral Gables now is beginning to draft plans for improving the golf course. But city officials say they will consult with federal wildlife officials before making any changes.
Bohn also hopes to expand her research with her growing corps of volunteers. Aided by Bacardi Rum, which has made a video and provided free refreshments at volunteer nights, the Bat Squad has increased from about 80 to more than 200 and received international attention. Bohn hopes to deploy them to Fairchild Tropical Garden and Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, where bats have been spotted, as well as Cutler Bay and possibly the Deering Estate. She’s also working with another FIU professor to develop an app that would let volunteers record bat calls and locations to better compile data.
“It’s an exciting time for the bonneted bat,” Halupa said. “The fact that a volunteer found [the roost], that’s just an amazing thing. We need more of that, more citizen scientists.”