Our boats, one canoe and seven kayaks were spread out in the channels of open water that wound through lily pads on Black Moshannon Lake. We sat watching the full moon rise out of a low bank of clouds in the east. The bass of bullfrogs broke through the silence. Peepers called from bogs surrounding the streams that feed the lake. Earlier, some of us had paddled south to the mouth of a long arm that stretched into the west and watched the sun set. It was a perfect evening, but the focus of our evening had not yet arrived.
This was a Full Moon Bat Paddle, a Canoe Club of Centre County outing that has remained a favorite of club founder and president Joyce Furfaro. Full moons throughout the summer are the time of the outings — bats are the focus.
Boat Launch Area No. 3 was the meeting place. At the June bat paddle, some paddlers arrived early, at about 7:30 p.m., and paddled away to explore different areas of the lake. Spatterdock and some water lilies are blooming.
Spatterdock — Nuphar lutea — has large heart-shaped leaves and a yellow flower that resembles a yellow golf ball. It keeps the ball-like look even as it opens. Leaves and flowers sprout from a large rhizome that is anchored to the muck beneath slow moving water. Beavers eat the rhizomes, deer browse the leaves. Its fragrant flowers attract pollinating insects, and fish will hide under its large leaves. Paddlers often find the large rhizomes uprooted and floating in the water.
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Water lilies — fragrant water-lily or Nymphaea odorata — have large round leaves with a distinctive slit in the leaf and are usually a white, but sometimes pink, flower with between 20 and 30 petals. The flowers are beautiful and fragrant. The plant also provides both food and habitat for wildlife.
The south end and the several arms of Black Moshannon Lake are thick with aquatic growth, which is great cover for fish. Fish occasionally break the surface with a splash and spray that could almost be mistaken for the smack of a beaver’s tail as it dives to underwater security.
After sunset, paddlers began gathering together in an area of open water east of Boat Launch Area No. 3. As the dusk sky darkened, voices hushed and we waited. The shoreline was now a dark mass. Comparatively, the sky was a light but deepening blue. The glowing orange full moon slowly rose.
There was no breeze. It was silent. Finally, the bats arrived.
With more than 1,300 species, bats are almost everywhere. You would have to be at the north pole, the south pole or on a remote island to be somewhere on earth where there is no chance of seeing bats. They have different roles in different habitats. Here they eat insects.
Bats eat a lot of insects, up to 1,000 insects per hour. Each night pregnant and nursing bats can match their weight in insects eaten. Bats provide more than $3.7 billion dollars per year in reduced crop damage and reduced pesticide use. Bats are good for agriculture, as well as for the health of our forests.
Bats are not blind. They see as well as most mammals, but it is by using echolocation that they excel. The sophisticated sonar system allows them to navigate and catch insects.
Most bats do not have rabies. However, as with all wild animals, they should not be handled. If a bat is approachable that is an indication that the bat is not healthy and should not be handled.
The little brown bat, Myotis lucifugous, used to be the most common bat at Black Moshannon. White-nose syndrome, a fungal disease, has decimated the bat population in Pennsylvania, as well as at Black Moshannon. Park environmental education specialist Michelle McCloskey said that when she began working there in 2006 “there used to be bats flying everywhere over the lake, and now it’s ‘look there’s a bat!’ ”
Little brown bats spend winter in tunnels, caves and mine shafts. They emerge at the beginning of April. The females live together in summer nursery colonies, whereas the males stay by themselves, finding shelter under loose bark or bark-like places and rock crevices. At Black Moshannon, bat boxes provide shelter for the colonies. McCloskey said, “there used to be 400 to 500 bats in each box, while in recent years one box had two bats and another had ten bats.”
Many biologists say that in our lifetime we will never see as many bats as we did in the past. While white-nose syndrome has had a major impact on bat populations, it is not the only threat that bats face. As the United States moves away from relying on fossil fuels to generating energy, we are increasingly turning to wind. The giant wind turbines are causing further deaths in an already decimated population.
Bats at Black Moshannon are following the pattern of nationwide decline.
When the bats arrive over Black Moshannon Lake, they skim the water for a drink. Then, they get serious about hunting for insects. As an occasional mosquito buzzes around me, I am cheering for the bats. The aquatic plants we were admiring earlier in the evening provide an excellent habitat for insects. The insects flying over the lake attract the bats, and the bats eat well.
The bats are most easily seen when they are silhouetted against areas where the water reflects the lighter sky. Bats occasionally pass just above the bow of our kayaks. Another nice view occurs when a bat threads its way between the stern and bow paddlers in a canoe, such as Joyce Furfaro and her husband John Lynch, who were floating 10 yards away from me.
The bats darting around us are likely big brown bats — Eptesicus fuscus — which are now the most common bats flying over Black Moshannon lake.
Bats are very good navigators, have no interest whatsoever in getting tangled in your hair and in fact have no interest in you at all. The bats are feeding, doing us a favor by eating insects and helping to keep an ecosystem in balance.
The Canoe Club of Centre County full moon bat paddle is an excellent opportunity for increasing your comfort level in several ways. Paddling with a group may motivate you to paddle after the sun has set. Paddling with a group may help you to become more comfortable being around wildlife — you are likely to gain a better appreciation of wildlife species, such as bats. Paddling with a group may also provide a focus for seeing and experiencing things you have not seen or done before.
Gary Thornbloom is the co-chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IF YOU GO
Directions: From State College — Take U.S. Route 322 west, then Exit 68 west of State College. Stay right and continue 6 miles. Take ramp on right to Alt. U.S. Route 220 north for 5 miles. Turn left at park sign in village of Julian to take Beaver Road for 8 miles to the park.
Resources: Canoe Club of Centre County website, www.ccofcc.org .
Black Moshannon State Park has also offered pontoon and kayak outings on the lake in the past. Black Moshannon State Park will offer a full moon paddle in September.
Opportunity: Black Moshannon State Park is looking for volunteers to count bats three times this summer as they emerge from the bat boxes. Call the park at 342-5960 and ask to speak to Michelle McCloskey.