Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Sept. 14, 2021

Talking Bats with Kathy Nolan

Talking Bats with Kathy Nolan
Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Spotify podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge
Amazon Music podcast player badge
Castro podcast player badge
RSS Feed podcast player badge

This week... it's the only mammal capable of flight. And it can catch 1000 mosquitos in an hour! We're talking bats with Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Senior Research Director, Kathy Nolan, who joined me among the little brown bats of Shandaken, NY.

Thanks to our sponsors: the Catskill Center; and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, hosting the 17th annual Cauliflower Festival.

Thanks also to Robert Burke Warren, for the use of his song, "It's a Bat!" And to Raimund Specht, Avisoft Bioacoustics, for the bat recordings.

--- Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/kaatscast/support


Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via https://otter.ai

Brett Barry  0:03  
Welcome back to Kaatscast, the biweekly podcast featuring history, interviews, arts and culture, sustainability, and the outdoors in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. This week, it can catch 1,000 mosquitoes in an hour. It's the only mammal capable of flight. Yep, we're talking bats with Mountainkeeper's Senior Research Director, Kathy Nolan, who joined me outside among the little brown bats of Shandaken, New York.

Kathy Nolan  0:36  
My name is Kathy Nolan and I work as the Senior Research Director for Catskill Mountainkeeper and I came to the Catskills a little over 30 years ago to study Zen and have been studying Zen since then. I'm a pediatrician by training and I have been using my medical training and scientific training for protection of the environment and public health initiatives. I enjoyed living in the Catskill Park and it's been really important to me to protect the park. I feel fortunate to work with Catskill Mountainkeeper because that's my job assignment.

Brett Barry  0:36  
So the reason we're meeting today, we could talk about a number of things, but there was a post from Catskill Mountainkeeper about bats. What is your background with bats? Why do you know so much about bats?

Kathy Nolan  1:30  
I am someone who appreciates bats. I couldn't call myself a bat expert, but bats have been a being that I have always felt a little bit attracted to. I had mice when I was a high school student, and bats are sometimes called flying mice. A lot of the bats do resemble mice, but there are only flying mammal, and they have so many unique features. The smallest bat weighs less than a penny, and bats are often misunderstood, so maybe I feel a little sympathetic towards them that they seem to do a lot that's really good for our environment, and for even human health...and yet, a lot of people are either afraid or very standoffish about bats.

Brett Barry  2:21  
Are you misunderstood, Kathy?

Kathy Nolan  2:25  
I would say that everyone is misunderstood at least some of the time, and really, it's a question of what shows up when we get examined closely. Most recently, I came across a study that is of bat vocalizations, so it turns out that bats actually talk to each other quite a lot and the way they talk carries meaning, which we have thought would only apply to mammals like dolphins or apes and gorillas and chimps, but, bats do communicate not in words, but in tone of voice, if you will...and so they will squeak to each other to indicate anger or affection...anger we interpret because they basically are trying to get their near neighbors to move away, so we call that anger and affection is actually mating calls. The thought that these squeaks that we can sometimes hear from bats are communications is pretty wonderful.

Brett Barry  3:29  
Humans can hear frequencies up to 20,000 Hz, but bat spectrum is 10 times that range. They can call and be heard up to 200,000 Hz. Only by recording these ultrasounds with special microphones and pitching them down within the scope of human hearing...are we able to listen in on these seemingly silent fliers? What kind of bats do we have here in the Catskills? Is it one species?

Kathy Nolan  4:07  
We have several species it's mainly the little brown bat. They're quite a few bat species across New York State. There are some 1,400 bat species across the world, and quite a lot of variety. Populations are in decline. Some species hit very hard. Part of what we were trying to alert people to is Catskill Mountainkeepers post on this is that the insecticides that we use, that are intended to protect crops, they are certainly hurting our insect populations, and also birds and bats. It's easy to see why that would be. Bats eat insects, hundreds of insects like 700 insects an hour...and so if the insect populations are being hit as they are intended to be by the insecticides, then the bats are going to have less food, but worse than that is that the insecticides do bioaccumulate...that is, as the bat eats insects that themselves have been poisoned, but aren't yet dead. The bat gets the insecticide that's in each of those insects...and so 700 times what an insect would get, if the bat eats those 700 insects...so both through the direct ingestion and also from the decline in the food source, bats are really being unintentionally hit hard by the insecticides.

Brett Barry  5:38  
The effected insects that they're eating, are they visiting farms or personal properties or where are these insecticides that are working their way up that little food chain?

Kathy Nolan  5:48  
Insecticides in New York State and across the country are now being found in a lot of places outside of the farms where they're intended to act. The neonicotinoids, which is a word that means a new nicotine like compound are particularly bad insecticides in this regard. They're water soluble, which means they can go long distances, and the chemical companies are painting them on seeds like corn, soy, wheat, and then those seeds are planted. Most of the insecticide gets washed off into the ground and groundwater, but the insecticide that remains in the plant saturates the plant, the stem, the leaves, the roots, the fruit, then bats, which are particularly good pollinators because they eat the fruit itself and its seeds. They can travel long distances...and then their bat guano, which is otherwise valued as a fertilizer is now spreading insecticide far beyond the fields. This use of neonicotinoids is particularly bad because it's also preventive kind of treatment that is the crops are not damaged by insects or insect pest at the time that...that chemical is being applied. The chemical is applied to keep the pest away. In human medicine, we've learned that it's not good to use preventive antibiotics because you get resistance to those antibiotics and you...you get more harmful side effects. I think the same thing is true with these neonics...we call them for short, we're putting them on fields that don't need them...and then we risk getting resistance to that insecticide family, and we're having a lot of collateral damage if you will in our birds and bat populations.

Brett Barry  7:42  
It's a huge problem, what can we each do to help alleviate it and I would imagine that it's not only using other techniques to keep weeds at bay on our properties, but also in the way we shop for our food that's grown elsewhere?

Kathy Nolan  7:58  
Plants that are sold in a lot of stores have been treated with neonics...and so people can have an impact just by checking with the seller to make sure that the plants are not treated. There is exposure to insects and pollinators, bats and birds through ornamental uses around the house...and so that's an easy one that we would like to see people take into their own hands, as well as take action through laws. So in New York State, there's a birds and bees protection act, which would forbid the sale of these seed treatments on corn, wheat, and soy, and forbid the use on ornamental plants and things like turf golf courses...things like that. So people can support the eradication of the problem from the neonics...a support basically what amounts to a ban on this preventive type approach with them. Farmers and others would still be able to use neonics, if there were (a) particular pest problem where that chemical class was needed.

Brett Barry  9:04  
I'm going to jump ahead. I was going to ask about your run for Ulster County Legislature and last time you were in...we wound up with a plastic bag ban. Is this neonic issue something that you would possibly pursue, if you were to rejoin the legislature?

Kathy Nolan  9:23  
I was very happy to be a part of and helped to draft parts of the plastic bag ban in Ulster County, which served as a model for the statewide ban that then came into effect soon after...with neonicotinoid insecticides, it's a little more complicated because the FDA and the EPA and state level agencies have authority and we don't have authority to act at the county level...what we can do is we can support pollinators through pollinator gardens, pollinator pathways, and when I was in the legislature previously, we enacted Ulster County as a pollinator-friendly county. Some towns in Ulster County have done that as well. Olive and Marbletown have very protective language in their town laws for pollinators.

Brett Barry  10:13  
What other issues do you hope to take up, if you regain that seat in the legislature, particularly related to the environment?

Kathy Nolan  10:22  
Ulster County is already such a leader on the environment that it is, I think, good for the legislature and the executive to continue on the course we have been, that's included putting in our own solar fields. Recently, community solar. We are reducing our waste production, so I would really want to continue in that leadership role. Two of the towns in the district...I hope to represent which is the western part of Ulster County have not yet become climate smart communities...and so I'd like to have all of Ulster County towns and cities be climate smart communities, which is collecting information about how we're using energy, and then making a transition to use less carbon intensive fuels, as well as become more resilient. Flood resiliency...I think is really important...and so I'd like to work with the towns on that. Ulster County itself is a silver-level climate smart community and Kingston is a silver-level climate smart city, so I'd like to see more of the towns and cities in Ulster County try to catch up to that silver-level and maybe even head for the gold.

Brett Barry  11:38  
Where we sit right now...are we a climate smart community?

Kathy Nolan  11:42  
Yes, Shandaken and Olive, but are both climate smart communities. The benefit to the town is that there are subsidies for certain kinds of things, the towns might need like solar generator as a backup, which is a great way to have generated electricity after a storm. When we think about what we have here, clean air, clean water, and soils that will grow food to feed all of us if we needed them to do that. It's pretty amazing.

Brett Barry  12:16  
During the pandemic, I've felt really particularly lucky to be able to live up here and be able to get outside and have the space that you wouldn't have in the city.

Kathy Nolan  12:28  
The Catskill Park and the Trail Network that we have in Ulster County that I have urged us to build and expand was very helpful during 2020. We were able in Ulster County to keep our trails open, other places in New York State closed, and what we saw was a lot of people were able to get out and recreate safely with social distancing and stay healthy...and also not have cabin fever and be tempted to do less safe kinds of recreation. I don't think a lot of people also discovered the benefits of getting outside and running or bicycling and establish some good habits.

Brett Barry  13:09  
After the break...more on bats, Catskill Mountainkeeper, and Kathy Nolan's favorite things about the Catskills. This episode of Kaatscast is sponsored by the Catskill Center, featuring its recently reopened Catskills Visitor Center on Rte. 28 and Mount Tremper. Situated on 60 acres of forest fields and wetlands. The Catskills Visitor Center is home to a visitor information center and gift shop; the 80-foot tall Upper Esopus fire tower, ADA accessible trails, picnic areas, and a covered pavilion. Open daily from 9:30 to 4:00, and by the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, hosting the 17th Annual Cauliflower Festival! Saturday, September 25, 2021 (11:00 am to 4:00 pm) in Margaretville, New York. Celebrate (Catskills) farming, cooking and culture at the Village Park. For more information, visit margaretvillecauliflowerfestival.org. When people think about bats, what do you think the first thing is they think about are some of the misconceptions or myths?

Kathy Nolan  14:24  
Many people think that all bats are blood sucking. There is a bat that does indeed sustain itself on blood (the vampire bat)...and so that...that has perhaps given other bats a bad name, but even that bat is fascinating. The vampire bat has an amazingly fine teeth, and then a structure that allows the collection of blood, and the bat injects an anesthetic and it has an anticoagulant in its saliva, so that the blood will continue to flow. If you were back on a farm (hundreds of years ago) and you saw this happening to a farm animal, you might get a pretty icky feeling about the vampire bat and I'm sure that's the origin of Count Dracula and those stories, but most bats do not do that. Most bats are very, very happy eating just insects or fruits like bananas and other plants that bats do help pollinate and the bat has an amazing ability; most bat species to catch their prey in flight. They use echolocation to find the food, but then instead of catching the insect in the mouth, the bat uses its tail and scoops up the insect and then flips it into its mouth, like an infielder will flip up a baseball and then throw it over to first base.

Brett Barry  15:54  
So we don't have to worry about vampire bats here in the Catskills. We have mostly the little brown bat, right...and last time that I heard a lot about the little brown bat was a few years ago when there was the white-nose syndrome affecting so many of them. Where are we with that now?

Kathy Nolan  16:12  
White-nose syndrome has been devastating for bat populations. White-nose syndrome comes from a fungus that affects the bats, and the concern initially was that it was actually humans coming into bat caves that were stressing the bats during hibernation. Most bat species will hibernate and their metabolism drops, but their immune system also is less geared up...and if they are disturbed, it uses up fat from their body that they don't really have during the winter when they can't feed there; the insects aren't out...and it also seems to hurt their immunity. White-nose syndrome was seen in...in a few locations, and then was tracked through epidemiology that it was going with people who were entering the caves in different locations...and so regulations went out to keep us from doing that. It also looks like neonicotinoid insecticides may reduce the resistance of bats to white-nose syndrome, so it's another reason that we should be concerned about the neonics.

Brett Barry  17:25  
Since those regulations have come out in terms of keeping people away from caves and leaving bats to hibernate and peace has that had a positive effect. I know that a few years back, we weren't seeing any bats, but now I'm starting to see them again. Is that just here or is there really some good news here?

Kathy Nolan  17:42  
It seems like the regulations are having a beneficial effect. It's harder for scientists to say with precision because we're no longer going in to count the bats in the same way, but it does seem that bat populations are rebounding...and in a couple of cases, species that were at the brink of extinction, you know, entering the threatened and an endangered list have come back, and I think people are also more aware of the potential benefits of bats. Because they eat insects, they can be wonderful to have around a house or a farm...and so people are putting up bat houses, which is something I highly recommend. People understandably may not want bats in the house. Bats are as a wild mammal species that can carry rabies. The idea that you might have an animal in the house that can carry a disease is worrisome, so bat houses outside the house, a very good alternative. They have to be very high because bats do need a lot of dropping area before they can take flight. Bat houses need to be constructed in a way that the bats really like and they need to be located in a...in a way that the bats feel comfortable that they're safe...and then also that they have that nice drop for their flight.

Brett Barry  19:03  
I put up a bat house years ago and nothing ever inhabited it, and then recently, when I saw the Catskill Mountainkeeper post, I clicked on the link about how to mount a bat house and I realized that it's probably just committed and mounted correctly. It has to be...as you said, a certain height...it shouldn't be on a tree. I think mine was on a tree...maybe even just put it on the eave of your house. They have that drop zone. I thought that was interesting, so I might give it another shot.

Kathy Nolan  19:26  
Yes, pull that out! A bat house can work in a tree. The bats can be a little concerned that they're predators in the tree...and so a freestanding pole is a good option like a...on a flagpole or under the eaves of a house, if the eaves are up high enough is nice. The bat house also needs to be constructed, so that has a very tight entrance. It almost looks like no bat could ever get in there, but they squeeze their bodies way down and they get in and then they feel safe...and in the northeast, the interior should be black.

Brett Barry  20:00  
Having something to do with warmth...keeping them a little toasty here?

Kathy Nolan  20:03  
In the northeastern states, you would have colder temperatures in the winter...and so that would allow that...that a little more collection of the heat.

Brett Barry  20:11  
I'm looking around because it's about that time and we'd probably see one flying around, but I'm not seeing it yet...and again...I, you know, I used to see a lot more of them, but recently, we've been starting to see them at all again, which is really nice. So there's, you know, usually a couple flying around.

Kathy Nolan  20:26  
Going outside in the evening at dusk, it's very nice not to have to put on insect repellent, the bats will do that and it's also nice to watch them swoop around. So to me, they're a really...a very attractive element for a home, certainly for a farm, they're going to protect you more than they're ever going to do you any harm...and the things that people are worried about with that tend to be things that are extremely rare. A bat bite is rare and anything being transmitted from bats to humans is extremely rare, so I think it's more the sense that what is that thing...do I really know about it...is it like what I've seen in scary movies...and so getting to know more about that for me has just meant I come to appreciate them more and more.

Brett Barry  21:28  
Tell me a little bit about Catskill Mountainkeeper: how it was formed, what the purpose is, what its mission is, and your relationship with that organization.

Kathy Nolan  21:38  
Catskill Mountainkeeper was organized about 15 years ago. It's a nonprofit and the founders came together because they wanted to live well in the Catskills and the mission was primarily going to be to advocate for the Catskill Park to bring more resources from Albany and New York State into the Catskills. Before that, effort really got started. A farmer came in and said, "There's this guy who says he's a land man and he wants to get a lease on my land to do this thing called fracking." Do you know anything about that and we didn't at that time, but the young organization went down to Pennsylvania and started talking to people out in the west that didn't know about this and really sounded the alarm about fracking...and so opposing fracking in New York State became an early mission. Our continuing mission is to speed our transition away from fossil fuels to sustainable forms of energy and to promote smart development in the Catskills. We will respond if there's a threat to the environment if communities reach out to us or if we see something that we think is...is problematic. I joined the organization a little over 10 years ago because the main office was in Sullivan County and we wanted a presence in Ulster County, so I work in Woodstock and take a particular interest in the Eastern Catskills.

Brett Barry  23:12  
Is it Catskills wide? Is that the reach of the organization?

Kathy Nolan  23:15  
Yes. We work in all four counties of the Catskill Park and the surrounding counties. Because of our initial work on fracking, which was to help the people in Sullivan County and the Southern Tier, we become a statewide organization as well and even national and international. I've traveled to Canada and Argentina to help communities there that are dealing with fracking or fracking infrastructure.

Brett Barry  23:46  
Remind me when the election is...are you already on the ballot?

Kathy Nolan  23:52  
The election that I'm running in is for Ulster County Legislator in the 22nd District...and so the ballot for that will be on November 2nd. I'm on the democratic and working families party line. The 22nd District is Shandaken, Olive, Denning, and Hardenburgh. Very rural communities on the western part of Ulster County and my feeling has been that this part of the county...these towns haven't really received as much attention as I would like them to have. I was able to serve in the legislature a few years ago. I'm eager to get back.

Brett Barry  24:32  
What is it about the Catskills and where you live that has kept you here (these 30 years)?

Kathy Nolan  24:39  
The Catskills are an amazing place in themselves. The mountains and rivers, streams and hollows, the protected lands of the forest preserve in the Catskill Park. Am I like the people, the Catskills draws a kind of rugged individual...in many instances and there's a lot of iconic kind of characters here in the Catskills that I enjoy meeting and getting to know, and there's a very strong community spirit. We've seen that when we've had natural disasters of people pulling together and really helping each other and I very much like Ulster County serving as a leader in the transition to deal with climate change, and keeping our air and water and soil pristine. I love going to a stream and seeing trout in that stream and seeing birds in our skies and I hope bats and our evening skies...it's a place where there's a lot of wild ecology, the forest preserve is set aside is forever wild and I'm drawn to a place that has that as its moniker...forever wild is a good slogan, I think.

Robert Burke Warren  26:02  
What's that?

Kids  26:06  
It's a bat!

Robert Burke Warren  26:06  
Lying through the trees...what's that?

Kids  26:12  
It's a bat!

Robert Burke Warren  26:14  
But he won't bother me. Here he comes. There he goes. Eating those mosquitoes. I said, "What's that?"

Kids  26:26  
It's a bat!

Brett Barry  26:32  
Thanks to Kathy Nolan and to our (Fall 2021) production intern, Keith Kortright. Thanks also to Raimund Specht and Avisoft Bioacoustics for the ultrasonic bat recordings and to Robert Burke Warren (aka Uncle Rock) for the use of this song. Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. Thanks again to our local sponsors and to you our listeners for your contributions to the show. If you'd like to contribute, just click "Support" at kaatscast.com. Until next time, I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.

Robert Burke Warren  27:26  
Shh! What's that? It's a baby bat sleeping on his mama's belly. What's that? Baby bat scat!

Kids  27:38  

Robert Burke Warren  27:39  
Sure is smelly. Well, the sun goes down and the bats come out. They fly around and we all shout. We say, "What's that?"

Kids  27:52  
It's a bat!

Robert Burke Warren  27:54  
What's that?

Kids  27:58  
It's a bat!

Robert Burke Warren  27:58  
What's that?

Kids  28:00  
It's a bat!

Man  28:04  
Let's talk about the bat.

Robert Burke Warren  28:06  
He's the only mammal. A capable of flight and he's nocturnal, which means he loves the night. It's a bat!

Kids  28:27  
It's a bat!