The Kloepper Lab

of Bioacoustics and Animal Behavior at Saint Mary's College


June 2018

Second Chances

By Morgan Kinniry

If we have crossed paths in any capacity over the past calendar year, then you probably know that last summer I was an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Kloepper’s summer field trip to the bat caves in New Mexico—and LOVED every minute of it. When I got back from the field, I got such a rush out of sharing experiences I had in the field, or the current work the bat data was bringing me to at the time whether that was a conference, a Bat Lab outing, or senior comprehensive work. I was a woman charmed by the bats.

As the school year went on, my senior comprehensive work drew to a close, and it seemed as if the field trip to New Mexico and time in the BatLab would begin to become a memory. I had my sights set on grad school and graduation. However, life had other plans. Soon enough, I found myself with a shiny new bachelor’s degree and a year of free time! While I tried to make sense of the whirlwind of transitions beginning in my own life, the opportunity arose from Dr. Kloepper for me to join the Bat Belles to their Summer 2018 field trip. Without any hesitation, I knew that was where I was supposed to be and signed on for a second summer in New Mexico. I was given a gift few can claim—a second chance.

The entire experience of having a second chance to experience a place that holds such meaning and had impact on me a year ago has been so surreal. I am able to witness things that I once thought I would never see again. A year ago, all of the New Mexican experiences I had were a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. Yet somehow, I found myself getting to experience another cross country road trip, another stay at the ranch, another bat emergence, another buffalo encounter, another green chili cheeseburger, another mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, another desert sunset, and another starry night sky. Life has a funny yet remarkable way of working out this way and sometimes it’s as if the next right move falls right into your lap. To add to this joy, I also get to experience the amazement and wonder in the eyes of Kate and Lily who are experiencing this for the first time.

Amid all of the pressures of young adult life that come with being a new college graduate, time in New Mexico away from the “real world” doing something I truly love and enjoy has given me the clarity of mind to recognize an important perspective: life should be spent pursuing the experiences that bring joy. This has been particularly meaningful to me at a time where the pressure is on to chase the “right” post-grad moves that our culture of comparison seems to direct me towards. So many things seem to get in the way of this simple truth.

Luckily, each night as I look up at the bats taking flight, I am remembered in a spectacular way to embrace the moment, enjoy where I am, and forge fearlessly ahead to wherever life takes me next.

To The Bat Cave!

by Lily Zusi

Wow! We arrived in Truth or Consequences only three days ago, and I hardly know where to begin. We left South Bend at 4:00am on the 30th, and after a full day of driving we spent the night in Amarillo, Texas. We enjoyed a pretty good night’s sleep and woke up to a Texas-shaped breakfast (you know, in case we forgot where we were).

A wholesome Texas-shaped breakfast

We had a lot of fun music downloaded for the trip in anticipation of the 23-hour drive, but Dr. Kloepper’s newfound podcast proved to be the most entertaining thing we listened to. The podcast followed a team of people who completed a year-long simulation of what life on Mars would be like for a colony of humans right now. The simulation took place on an island in Hawaii, and sounded surprisingly similar to what was in store for us- conducting research while physically isolated from the rest of the world, experiencing a lag in outside communication, living in a reduced space with several people you have never lived with before, and all in an exciting and alien environment! Their description of going outside the living space and into the Martian atmosphere in the Mars simulation sounded a lot like what Dr. K’s description of entering the bat caves would be like. The podcast was entertaining and well done, and made me even more excited than I already was to start my summer research experience.

Crossing the Rio Grande

We got to T or C about midday the next day and after shopping and settling into our bunkhouse, we got into our field clothes and snake guards and headed to the cave to observe the bat emergence. We ended up waiting for about 3-4 hours outside the caves before emergence began, but it was well worth it! A few thousand bats suddenly emerged from the depths of the cave in their column shape and flew right over our heads as they went to start foraging for the night. As if that wasn’t cool enough, nine Swainson’s Hawks showed up soon after emergence began, and began swooping at the bats just a few feet above us. I felt like I was in some National Geographic documentary- it almost didn’t register.  It was magical and wonderful and I still can’t believe I get to watch it happen EVERY NIGHT!

The next day we spent assembling our bird blinds, which we use to keep ourselves more hidden from the hawks to encourage them to stay close so we have a better view of their behavior. I personally learned a lot that day- what grommets are and how to make and use them, and that a PVC cutter is potentially the coolest tool ever. We turned on some middle-school throwback tunes and took turns grommet-ing to the beat.

Yesterday we actually got to go inside the caves with Dr. Kloepper, which was yet another amazing experience. We headed out early in the day to beat the heat (it was already 85 degrees at 8am), got fully suited up in our respirators and full-body Tyvek suits, [picture?] and took turns being led by Dr. K through both caves that the bats live in. It was such a unique and wonderful experience to walk around in the bat guano (I must have chosen the right major) and to be able to see where the bats roost in their clusters – they really pile up on top of one another, it just looks like a conglomerate blob until one pops out and flies around! They flew so closely around me that I kept thinking they were going to bump into me, but they always managed to avoid me at the last second. It was very, very cool.

Our first two nights (yesterday and Friday) recording the hawks and bats during emergence were hectic and challenging, yet super fun. Our fancy cameras have really come through for us, and we’ve taken some amazing footage of the hawks and bats already. Both emergences took place against a breathtaking New Mexico sunset!

Sneak peek of the footage we’ve captured
It’s easy to see why they call it the Land of Enchantment

Although we are only a few days in, we’ve been having a lot of fun and already have many traditions- whether it’s putting up our own “__ Like A Champion” signs each day, bringing a small ceramic bird stolen from Kate’s aunt’s kitchen table and affectionately termed “The Jester of Birmingham” as our good luck charm to emergence

The Jester of Birmingham

, or lining up and fist-bumping our hawk mascot, Robert Hawkins, before heading to the field. Other things that I predict will become tradition are making household items into workout equipment, whether it be turning water gallons into weights or bathroom mats into yoga mats, and Kate and I discovering even more random interests we have in common (Marvel, musicals, ballet are just a few of the things we’ve found we have in common).  I have already absolutely fallen in love with New Mexico- the ranch we are on has a gorgeous landscape and beautiful wildlife. In addition to Brazilian free-tailed bats and Swainson’s Hawks, we’ve seen all sorts of things I wouldn’t see in South Bend -jackrabbits, nighthawks, antelope, oryxes, quails, all kinds of lizards, herds of bison, and even a female bison with a newborn (like-just-born-five-minutes-ago) calf. I haven’t seen any cougars or heard any rattlesnakes yet, but then again, I’ve only been here for three days! I can’t believe how much has happened and how much I’ve learned in just these last few days alone, and I can’t even imagine how challenging, rewarding, and amazing the next few weeks will be.


Belle Bats forever!

Another field season is underway!

By Dr. Kloepper

Another field season is underway! We left the road at 4am on May 30 from Saint Mary’s with a rental Suburban full of field gear and positive attitudes. This year we had a full car–Kate and Lilly (rising seniors) and Morgan (SMC Belle Bats alumna). We prepped for a long day on the road with enough snacks for 20 people and plenty of upbeat playlists. We all shared driving duties, rotating every 2 hours, which allowed people in the back to get some much-needed naps. We also listened to the entire Habitat podcast, about people living in a small house for a year isolated from everyone else, unable to leave except in a space suit. Habitat is a real research project funded by NASA to help understand the psychology of humans living on Mars. We joked at the remarkable similarities between living on “Mars” and living in our small bunkhouse for a month, isolated from all signs of civilization.

The drive went by remarkably fast. We stopped in Amarillo, Texas, for an overnight in a hotel, then pushed on through to New Mexico the following day. We enjoyed the sites on the road, like this massive wind turbine blade:


And made sure to stop to get a picture of the girls (Lily, Morgan and Kate) when we hit the New Mexico border:


Just outside of Albuquerque, we stopped to say hi to Belle, who was busy being trained for her upcoming field work next week:


We stopped in Truth or Consequences to stock up on groceries, then continued on to the ranch. We had plenty of time to unpack and get the house squared away before we went to see the emergence. It was so rewarding for me to see the look on everyone’s faces when they watched the bats—Kate and Lily seeing emergence for the first time, and Morgan experiencing it for year two. I think I spent more time watching them than watching the bats!



After the first night of observing, it was time to get to work! The next day we built our bird blinds, which allows us to video the hawks that feed on the bats. By being hidden away, we reduce the chance of our behavior influencing the animals. The girls learned how to grommet and we had fun pounding away the rest of the afternoon. We assembled our blinds right outside of the cave, and we have now had two nights of successful data collection. We are all doing focal follows of hawks—Kate and Lily with video cameras, and Morgan and me with binoculars. We have started to get into the routine of data downloading, archiving, and analysis…we are all settled in and ready for a month of intense fieldwork and data analysis!

Dusty, Sweaty, Happy

By Kate McGowan

The Belle Bats successfully completed our second full day in the field! During our first two days, we prepped and sorted equipment, created game plans for data collection this summer, built two pretty awesome bird blinds, and spent two eventful days in the field! We are sweaty, dusty, and having a great time. Here are some things we have learned in our first couple days:

  • First, there’s no way to describe the magic of seeing your first bat emergence. Videos and words cannot do justice to how awe-inspiring it is to watch thousands of bats fly directly over your head from the cave, especially once the Swainson’s Hawks begin swooping in and out of the emerging swarms against the backdrop of a sunset sky. Truly nature at its finest.
New Mexico Sunset
  • Self-teaching ourselves to manually focus and zoom on fast moving objects was challenging, but well worth the videos we are able to capture of hawk attacks on the emerging bats.
Bird mascot “The Jester” taking field notes
  • Learning to grommet was much more exciting than expected, and we discovered one way to judge the quality of a song is by how successfully you can grommet to its down beat.
  • We do a lot more collecting and throwing rocks than anticipated: grabbing rocks for throwing at other rocks to check for rattlesnakes, moving sharp rocks out of the dust rock to avoid tire damage, collecting rocks to weigh down our bird blind, marking locations of equipment with piles of rocks, stabilizing the SM3 Acoustic microphone tripods with large rocks, etc. Lots of rocks in desert field work.
  • Whether you wanted to or not, you will develop new appreciation for Sweet Home Alabama (car ride theme song).
  • Jackrabbits appear to place little value upon their lives. This is demonstrated by how frequently they choose to run towards the car headlights rather than away from them.
  • Being inside bat cave is the closest thing to scuba diving on land that I have ever experienced. Like diving, you move through an alien land with limited visibility, focusing on keeping your breathing controlled through your respirator, looking through your mask in awe at the foreign scene around you. It’s truly a unique and bizarre environment. Some differences from diving, however, include that the cave is exceptionally hot and rather than a wet suit, we are clad in a Tyvek suit (feels like someone wrapped cling wrap around you in 100-degree heat). Also, the dunes in the cave are not composed of sand, but mounds and mounds of soft, dried guano. I was also surprised to observe that the bats are not spread throughout the cave, but cluster together in a large clump of thousands on the cave ceiling. I feel so fortunate to have such an incredible experience.
  • No matter how fast they may be trying to flee from you, all the quails I’ve seen still run in a single file line.
  • Verizon may actually be “America’s Most Reliable Network,” as only those with Verizon have signal on the ranch (I have AT&T). While I may occasionally miss sending a text or making a call to friends or family, having no service can be refreshing. We’ve spent time drinking coffee while looking at the mountains, getting in extra camera practice, reading, doing group yoga, having meals together, trying to figure out answers to weird questions ourselves rather than googling them, etc. Or if you are Kate and Lily, you may spend a great deal of your time having repeated conversations surrounding the plot of Infinity War or various Marvel theories (no spoilers).
View from backyard
Camera Practice with Lily
  • Lastly, bats will make you wait, but bats will wait for no one.

Looking forward to many more lessons and life skills! Today, we are headed into Truth or Consequences, where I’m really looking forward to trying the green chile cheeseburger that Morgan and Dr. K keep talking about. Bats forever.

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