It has been a busy baby season at Rockfish. In fact, we’ve already broken our record number of patients (841 and counting) We’ve seen our fair share of critters, from Killdeer to Barn Owls to plenty of raccoons and Virginia opossums. That being said, we did have some especially exciting new patients at RWS this summer: big brown bats! Bats are fascinating flyers, but we have never had the ability to rehabilitate them due to our lack of a bat flight enclosure. Bats require a highly specialized enclosure to accommodate their unique adaptations and behaviors. The space must be octagonal or circular, with fine mesh walls and soft hanging obstacles to allow them to safely practice flying, roosting, and occasionally falling - especially when pups are clumsily figuring out this whole “flying” thing. We were lucky to have our proposal for a bat flight enclosure funded by the Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation in late 2019. We excavated a footprint and built the enclosure’s platform. Spring 2020 then rolled around, and we all know what that means: Covid. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a pause in our batty plans. Bat rehabilitation in Virginia was prohibited as we were not yet sure how transmissible Covid would be between humans and our bat populations.
Flash forward to early summer 2021 when that ban was reversed – just weeks before pup season would normally start in the wild - our first pup patients were coming to RWS. Our rehab staff and summer interns got to work in our nursery, feeding our young pups every three to four hours around the clock – yep, that included overnight as well. Once they began to grow teeth, we introduced a mealworm “smoothie” to their diets. While we much prefer a mixed berry smoothie, making mealworm smoothies allowed our bat patients to get acquainted with their primary food source in the wild: insects. Bottoms up! Soon our pups were practicing flapping and needed an upgrade. Director Brie to the rescue! She brought in an old camping tent which we pitched in our nursery. We attached heat pads to the outside of the tent and suspended soft fleeces inside so our pups could crawl, climb, and hang upside down. It worked out perfectly. As Director Brie said, “This is what happens when you regularly camp and backpack but don’t regularly rehab bats.” Our pups were soon were completely eating on their own in their tent enclosure and ready to head outdoors. We put the finishing touches on our new flight enclosure just in time. The structure was designed for bat rehabilitation from the bottom up – from its round shape to the springy turf lining the floor to the pool noodles hanging from the ceiling to act as soft obstacles mid-flight. Lastly, we installed two UV lights on the ceiling to attract bugs for the bats to hunt. Two years and one global pandemic later, our orphaned bat pups had a new home where they could practice flying and foraging safely before being released back to the wild. The bats quickly learned that hunting for themselves was way more fun than a bunch of humans giving them food by hand. Ironically, one of the best parts of wildlife rehabilitation is when your patients want nothing to do with you anymore. We even stuck around after dark one night to see them in action and to assess their hunting ability. They did not disappoint – our once tiny, helpless orphaned pups deftly navigated the nighttime air and used echolocation to catch flying insects in their enclosure. After a month of living in our brand new enclosure, our inaugural bat patients were ready for release. We let them go using the release doors built into their enclosure.
From mealworm smoothies to pup tents to pool noodles, bat rehabilitation has been quite a wonderful and successful adventure at RWS this summer. We look forward to rehabilitating bats for many years to come!