The last two weekends have been absolutely amazing, providing opportunities to see both areas of New Mexico that were new to me and seeing a previously visited place in an entirely new way. At the end of September, Bud and I joined fellow members of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance on a trip into Otero Mesa, the last great Chihuahuan Desert Grasslands in New Mexico. While there, we spent a day with Steve West, the alliance’s staff scientist. With Steve, we traveled to locations around the mesa and listed birds and plants we spotted. As an amateur birdwatcher, I was impressed with Steve’s extensive knowledge of birds. He helped those of us with less experience spot the important identifying marks for many species and soon even Bud could identify a Vesper Sparrow flying up from the grasslands along our path.
This adventure led to another the very next weekend. Steve told us about an on-going effort that stemmed from his college project 30 years ago: banding cave swallows at Carlsbad Caverns. My husband, Brian, and I were planning a trip to Carlsbad the very next weekend to see the bat flights, which occur in the evening during the summer as the thousands and even millions of bats leave for their evening feeding. It turns out that the bird banding happens in the late afternoon when the birds are returning to the caves and just before the bats depart. The highlight: seeing the bat flight from INSIDE the cave rather than from the usual tourist seating in the outdoor amphitheater. The deal was sealed: we planned our trip to Carlsbad.
We left Las Cruces, in the southern part of the state, at 8 a.m. and arrived at the caverns about noon. We ate a quick
picnic lunch, then bought our tickets for a trip do
wn into the caverns. My husband has been fascinated with these caves since childhood, watching movies such as “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which was filmed there. This was our third trip, but he was just as excited to get und
erground as he was the first time!
If you have the knees, stamina and time, you should definitely travel into the caverns by foot through the natural entrance. This way you travel deeper and deeper into the caves, exploring the formations along the way. Without those three elements, the quick and easy way to the Big Room is on the elevator. You are transported to the cave floor in moments and walk into a unique destination.
We spent a few hours traversing the caverns, then, w
orried we would be late for our appointment with our banding expert, David Culp, we took the elevator back to the visitor center. At the appointed time, we met David and another volunteer who were waiting for us near the amphitheater. It turns out that despite the incredible opportunity the little bit of volunteer work affords, since they band swallows every weekend while these migratory birds are here, they are sometimes short-handed. It looked as though there would only be four of us, which is not enough to handle the work. Fortunately, a couple was waiting for the bat flight and was quickly recruited. Then, as we headed through the mouth of the cavern, a family that had driven from Albuquerque in order to see the caverns - they were from back East in Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta and had been told they just HAD to see the caverns, not knowing that they would not be allowed entrance after 3:30 p.m. - and were trying to get a peek through the entrance. They, too, were recruited with an offer they couldn’t refuse: not only could they at least come into the first section of the caverns, they would also see something very people others get to enjoy: the bat flight up close and personal.
Now 10 strong, we moved into position about eight switchbacks down into the cave. David explained our jobs and
assigned responsibilities. We had a long length of black netting attached to poles. It would be raised by two workers. Once a few birds were entrapped, the net would be lowered and others would carefully extricate the birds. Then David would measure their wing spans, tail length, weigh them, attach a band if it was the first time the bird had been captured, then set it free. It sounds easy enough, right?
The net went up and very quickly we had four birds caught, some holding quite still as though they knew that struggle would only make it worse. Others flapped about wondering what in the world had stopped them in their tracks, err, flight. David showed us how to carefully remove the birds from the net, encouraging them to let go of the net with their feet. Then a captured bird could be placed in a cotton bag while it waited to be banded. Sometimes birds were removed from the net q
uite easily. Other times it was difficult to determine which side of the net the bird had approached from - and therefore, which side of
the net to remove it. If we tried to remove birds from the wrong side, we only made them more entangled. Quickly, we became more proficient at our tasks and more confident in approaching the birds and calming them. In all, we captured almost 50 birds, with at least two-thirds being first timers who were banded. This allows the scientists to track the birds if they are again captured on the southern portion of their migration.
The highlight of the evening was quickly approaching. Brian was manning one of the poles while I worked to remove birds from the net. He told us he could see larger shapes flying about deeper in the cave and David confirmed that the bats were stirring. It was time to get the last birds out of the net and lower it for the evening.
As I struggled to remove a particularly entrenched swallow, I could hear a sound above and around me. I looked up to see hundreds of bats flying in wide swirls towards the cave entrance. It was hard to focus on the bird, which definitely deserved my full attention, when bats were flying so close. I was engrossed with their departure, but finally managed to extricate the patient swallow from the net, which was then immediately lowered fully to the ground.
Now I was able to focus all my attention on the spectacle around me. David showed us a ledge from which we would get the best view of the bat flight. From there, as the ba
ts flew higher and higher in a swirling pattern, they flew straight towards us before again moving higher. Bats by the thousands rose to the cave entrance, passing within inches of us. The sound of their wings was like water tumbling over rocks down a waterfall or, Brian said, like a burning fire.
I looked at Brian and the others to see if their faces expressed the same sense of excitement and wonder as I knew mine had. We all sat in silence, except for when we just had to whisper to someone nearby about the intensity of emotion the experience inspired. I knew that this was one of those exceptional moments in life that will never be forgotten. It reminded me of scuba diving in Hawaii with Manta Rays, when they, too, looped about just in front of and above me. Incredible!
David had warned us that as long as we didn’t make any sudden moves, the bats would be able to avoid crashing into us. Brian says a bat wing feathered against his
cheek, which gave him a brief moment of personal interaction with these amazing creatures.
The bats, commonly called Mexican Freetail Bats, but more properly Brazilian Freetail Bats, will soon leave New Mexico and head south for warmer winter weather. Then in the late spring, they’ll return to Carlsbad Caverns and spend the summer. I know that Brian and I will be there to greet them, looking to again have the opportunity to see a marvel of nature within a finger’s reach.
Sorry, no bat photos are allowed at the caverns, so you'll just have to use your imagination!
- Posted by Cheryl Fallstead