Bats and Herps at my Naturalist Class

Tonight we had two critter lectures, went out into the field for about an hour, and then had another hour of general lecture, so it was a busy night.  We heard first from Sam Bachinni who’s a self-taught herpetologist (snakes, reptiles, etc.) and botanist.  He showed us photos and told us about the different kinds of reptiles, amphibians, turtles and tortoises we could find in the surrounding area.  I now have a whole checklist of new critters I want to go searching for, hah!  He told us that the best time to go look for amphibians, for example, is in the winter and spring months before it gets too hot, in areas where there’s fresh water that doesn’t have a lot of fish in it… And for the best viewing go out on full moon mornings because that’s when the Tiger Salamanders are out and about.  Get up above 800 feet in elevations, too, or pickings are slim. Now, see, THAT’S the kind of information I need!

Sam also said that the easiest way to tell a turtle from a tortoise is to look at its hind legs.  Tortoises have “elephant legs” in the back – short stumpy legs with a flat bottom – whereas turtles have more splayed feet that turn out to the sides.  I didn’t know what.

When Sam was finished with his presentation, we heard from Dan Neil.  He’s a bat expert, who is also into wild flower identification, insects and mycology.  He was a far more engaging and interesting speaker than Sam, but was pressed for time – our instructor John wanted to get us out into the field, and Sam had talked a bit longer than expected – so he whizzed through his presentation.  His talk included information on “megabats” (large bats, like fruitbats, that have small ears, large eyes, and don’t use echolocation) and “microbats” (which are the small ones we most often think of as classic bats with large ears that do use echolocation..  The bats most commonly found in our region include: Big Brown Bats (which have a lot of complex vocalizations), Great Mastiff Bats (who’s echolocation sonar is actually audible to human ears…”chip, chip, chip!”), Pallid Bats (light colored guys that roost in crevices), Hoary Bats (large furry bats with silver tips that are usually solitary and like to hang out in foliage), Western Red Bats (that look like winged pug dogs and live in riparian habitat), Mexican Free-Tailed Bats (that live in huge colonies under the Yolo Bypass and under the franklin Road bridge; their tails aren’t connected to their wings by webbing like most other bats), and Canyon Bats (that look like Siamese cats: blonde body and a black face).  More critters to add to me “I want to see these” list!

Things to look for when you’re searching for bats, Neil says, (besides guano) are urine stains on trees or buildings/construction and “pissicles” (really, that’s what they’re called) which are stalactites of crystalized urine.  Also look for “exfoliating trees”, trees where the bark is loose and shedding off, because bats like to climb in under the bark to roost.  When we went out into the field after the talks, we found several exfoliating trees on the nature preserve grounds, and checked out one of their bat boxes… no bats, though.  Sam said the best way to tell birds from bats in the low-light of dusk and dawn is that bats flaps their wings constantly and birds flap-and-glide.  “If it’s gliding, it’s not a bat.”  Good to know.

As an aside, I have the opportunity to go to a bat rehabilitation training in Placer County on June 6th.  Even though I don’t have any experience in it – and can’t handle the bats because I don’t have a pre-exposure rabies vaccination – I think I’d like to go just for the learning experience.  It only costs $10 to attend, but it’s about a 2-hour drive one way to the rehab center.  I’ll have to think about, but it sounds like a kewl thing to watch.

Anyway, during our field exercise for the night, we also went to another small made-made pond on the preserve surrounded by rushes, grasses, sedges and other vegetation, and learned a children’s poem to help tell them apart:  Sedges have edges… Rushes are round… and grasses, like asses, have holes.  Hah-ha-ha-ha-ha! Along the route we also came across a large deer skeleton.  It still had some of the hide on it, but all of the meat and organs were gone.  I took a few photos, and some video of Sam speaking and our teacher John trying to see if there was an owl in a tree (there wasn’t.)  He also has an app on his cellphone with bird calls on it, and he held his phone up and played a Screech Owl call… and a dog in an adjacent yard started barking in response.  D’oh!


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Then it was back to the nature center for a short lecture on producers, consumers, and decomposers in the animal kingdom before we headed home for the night.