Birds, Photography, Key West, Whatnot

Another Old Column About Bats

Stalking the Velvety Freetail
From The Key West Citizen
July 31, 2005

By Mark Hedden

The goats, standing on top of the Seminole Battery, reared up, butted heads, then nuzzled each other in the waning light.

Just afterwards a cop car came down the street towards where I sat, slowed, then stopped between me and the goats. A few seconds later the window came down and the cop sat there staring at me.

Finally he said "You all right"

I said, "Yup."

There was an expectant pause which I debated on filling.

Part of me realized that the officer was just trying to do his job, and that a long-haired white guy sitting on the curb and staring off into space at the intersection of Fort and Olivia, a block away from the easiest place to buy drugs in Key West, was arguably suspect.

But part of me thought, this is America, damming, and I should be able to sit on the curb and stare into space without having to explain myself.

"What're you doing" the cop finally asked.

"Looking for bats," I said.


"Fifteen hundred of them," I said, and then explained.

The bats were locally famous for a while. They lived in a gap in the walls in the Monroe County School Board storage building on United Street. Just after dusk every night, when it was warm enough for the bugs to be active, they came flying out of a hole surrounding a second floor drain pipe.

It wasn't clockwork but it was regular. If guests came to town, going to see them was a nice activity that didn't involve either mixed drinks or fried food.

You hear about places like Austin or Gainesville, where the bat colonies seem to explode all at once and move around in the air together in big massive clouds. These bats didn't do that. It might have been because the drainpipe was so narrow, but these bats came out two or three at a time in endless small waves, and after they came out they skittered around for a few seconds, then dispersed for the night.

The one time you did see them form a cloud was in the morning, just before the sun came back up, presumably because they had to wait their turn to get back in through the drainpipe.

It was when they were circling one morning that Tony Barroso -- an early riser whose plumbing company shirts bear the slogan "The No. 1 Man in the No. 2 Business" -- noticed them. He told Fran Ford, doyenne of the Florida Keys Audubon Society. Fran told everybody else.

Soon there were small groups of people gathered every night to watch the show.

The species had about six different names -- Cuban house bat, velvety free tailed bat, Pallus mastiff and Molossus molossus tropidorhynchus among them.

Estimations of the colony's population varied between 1,500 and 3,000 bats. (They were hard to count precisely.) Mixed in, to keep you on your toes, were a half-dozen albino individuals.

In the spring there was an American Kestrel that would show up just before dusk, wait outside the hole, and nab one of the bats for an easy evening meal. (It was kind of like the bats had to live out a version Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" every night.) There was a less regular Chuck-will's-widow that did the same thing, though where the kestrel liked to shred his meal slowly, the Chuck tended to swallow his live and whole. (This seemed closer to Jonah in the belly of the whale story-wise.)

For a while the School Board made rumblings about wanting to get rid of the bats, of wanting to wait until they went out one night and then sealing off the hole. Apparently there was a fear of rabidity.

Fran Ford lobbied heavily against this plan, pointing out that no member of the species had ever been known to have rabies and that the bats were beneficial, as they ate half their body weight in insects every night, and also that if you sealed them out you'd kill all the young inside, which would smell, and the bats would then probably just find their way into another part of the building anyhow.

In the evenings she went down to the colony and handed out flyers to people, telling them to call their district's school board members.

Anyone who knows Fran Ford knows that she is very charming, as well as both an unstoppable force and an immovable object.

Eventually the School Board did the smart thing and said the bats could stay.

Rejoicing ensued. Fran got her picture in Audubon magazine for her efforts. All was right in the local world of bats.

Then one night the bats didn't come out. It wasn't anything dramatic. It wasn't like they all ate some kind of poison and died. (Again, you'd smell it.) Apparently they'd just moved on.

You'd think it would be impossible to lose track of 1,500 of anything, but that's what happened.

In the year and a half since there have been sporadic sightings of individuals, but no leads as to where the new colony or colonies might be.

Then last week I was coming out of Bucco's Courthouse Deli when I ran into John Vagnoni, manager of the Green Parrot. He said he'd been driving on Fort Street with his son at about ten o'clock one night when his son pointed out a cloud of a few thousand bats circling in the pink glow of a street light. It was amazing, he said. He even went and got his camera to take pictures. (They can be seen on the Parrot's blog, on the June 14 entry.)

Which is how I ended up sitting on a curb in Bahama Village, explaining myself to a cop who, once he realized I wasn't up to anything nefarious, seemed kind of interested in the bats, saying as he left that maybe he'd stop back later, just in case they showed up.

I figured if they were anywhere in the neighborhood they were in the batteries, the abandoned piles of dirt and old concrete just over the fence on the Truman Annex Navy Base.

I pictured the sun going down and the bats coming out, maybe an explosion of them this time, maybe a cloud so big they startled the small herd of head-butting goats the Navy keeps on top of the battery to keep the weeds from getting out of hand.

But it never happened. The sun went down, the mosquitos bit at my ankles, the cop stopped back, looked a little bit disappointed that there were no bats, then went about his rounds.

Eventually I just went home.

Which means the bats are still out there somewhere. If you see them let me know.