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).
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.
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!
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
, 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!