By Annette Hinkle
Tucked in the woods off a relatively quiet road in Sagaponack lies Sagg Swamp, a hidden gem of a preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The small, 105-acre preserve sits at the southern end of the Long Pond Greenbelt system. It contains a freshwater stream that bisects a wild swamp which visitors explore via an elevated boardwalk that winds through the heart of the wetland.
On a recent rainy Sunday visit to Sagg Swamp, it wasn’t the newly emerged patch of skunk cabbage or the flowing spring waters beneath the boardwalk that attracted notice, but rather, a microphone and a small green box attached to a tree just off the path. A sign on the box indicated it was the property of the New York State Department of Conservation (NYSDEC) and that it should not be disturbed.
Turns out, coming across evidence of a project like this isn’t unusual at a TNC property. As Kevin Munroe, preserve director for the Long Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, explained, research projects take place on the organization’s properties all the time.
“It’s something that has gone on throughout TNC’s history,” Munroe said. “The organization is 70 years old now and from the very beginning, TNC has been science-based, data- and information-driven. We have partnered and coordinated with scientists from the beginning and continue to do that.”
TNC has 50 preserves on Long Island, 22 of which are open to the public, encompassing every habitat from pine barrens and woodlands, to meadows and marshes. Because TNC preserves not just land, but often entire ecosystems in the midst of areas facing heavy development pressures, these properties can and do function as living laboratories for more than a dozen organizations, including research universities, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service and, locally, the Peconic Estuary Program.
“We have over 20 different research projects happening now on 13 different preserves on the East End,” said Munroe. “It really is a focus for research.”
A call to the NYSDEC soon revealed that the recording device in Sagg Swamp was placed there to detect the presence of Myotis septentrionalis, aka, the northern long-eared bat, which is listed as a threatened species both federally and in the state of New York under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Let’s face it, bats have historically gotten a bad rap. From the Dracula legend and that old wives’ tale about getting tangled in people’s hair to being the suspected source of several viruses — including COVID-19 — these misunderstood creatures of the night have been blamed for a lot of human misery.
But bats are amazing creatures that perform vital functions in the ecosystem. Not only are they voracious mosquito eaters, they are also extremely effective pollinators of seeds and fruits.
Addie Cappello and Samantha Hoff are wildlife technicians for the NYSDEC and the Sagg Swamp recorder is part of a wider study they are conducting on the behaviors of the northern long-eared bat in coastal areas of the state.
The species has typically lived in places far from the shore, like upstate New York, where it roosts in caves and old mines. But in recent years, the northern long-eared bat, an insectivorous species that hibernates through the winter, has been discovered in ever greater numbers on Long Island — especially the East End — and other nearby coastal regions including Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.
The reason for this shift is believed to be Pd or Pseudogymnoascus destructans, a fungus that grows in caves and causes what is known as white-nose syndrome in hibernating bats. Though the fungus itself isn’t believed to be harmful to the bats, it irritates them so much that it can awaken them in the midst of winter hibernation. With just enough fat reserves to survive until spring, when bats awaken early they can quickly starve to death if insects aren’t readily available.
“It grows in skin membranes and it’s disturbing,” said Hoff of Pd. “But there’s some research into the mechanism that indicates what would make a bat die could have to do with dehydration.”
First spotted in a small cave in upstate New York in 2006, white-nose syndrome has now spread to some 33 states and several provinces in Canada. It has decimated northern long-eared bats in the Northeast where populations are thought to have plummeted by 90 to 100 percent at many hibernation sites.
But while upstate populations are crashing, the northern long-eared bat seems to be doing quite well on Long Island — particularly here on the East End.
“We started doing our large scale project in 2017, with a focus on summer and looking at species across Suffolk County,” explained Hoff. “We do leave some microphones out in winter as well, because we found that bats were active into late fall and we wanted to see where they were hibernating.”
In addition to Sagg Swamp, Hoff and Cappello have placed microphones all over the East End, including on the North Fork, in Riverhead and in TNC’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. But they have had the best luck finding northern long-eared bats in Montauk, and, as it turns out, they have determined that they do, indeed, hibernate here on the East End.
“We thought they’d fly back to the mainland because there are no caves or mines here, but instead, we found them spending the winter in an old bunker in Montauk, or in attics, culverts and other human structures,” said Hoff. “It may be something they’ve always done and they have probably done this for a while.”
“We have found a good amount of bats hibernating on the island. The bad thing is we had no knowledge of them before white-nose syndrome arrived,” added Hoff, who noted that the only previous known study on the long-eared bats was done way back in the 1970s.
One reason Hoff feels the bats may overwinter on Long Island is the fact that the coastal climate tends to be warmer than inland upstate regions. If the bats are afflicted with white-nose syndrome, shorter hibernation periods mean the fungus has less time to progress and if the bats do wake up mid-winter, they stand a better chance of finding insects to eat than in colder climates.
“You have a lot more insects and a shorter hibernation,” she said. “They can stay active until November and begin activity again in late February into March.”
“It’s also possible there’s some genetic population in coastal areas vs the mainland,” added Hoff, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Albany and using the bat study as the subject of her thesis. “I think they’ve always spent the winter on Long Island and we never knew it. This species may be more resilient and adaptable than we thought before. As the fungus continues to spread throughout the range, we are hoping our coastal bats can hang on.”
Part of the study involves actually catching northern long-eared bats and affixing them with radio transmitters so that more can be learned about their behavior and roosting spots. But Cappello and Hoff will tell you that catching a bat is no easy task, and one accomplished by placing a very fine mist net between two poles in an area where bats are known to frequent.
“In order to determine where we’re going to try to catch, we put the detectors out first,” explained Cappello. “Sam knows the hot spots where they are and where they most likely will be caught.
“It’s similar to catching birds. We sit out for many nights and don’t catch them,” said Cappello, adding that bats that are caught are fitted with tiny radio trackers using a skin glue. “The radio trackers do fall off and they only have a battery life of about a month. Sometimes, the battery dies before we find a hibernation site. Some bats are very feisty and will rip them off.”
To find the bats in the first place, Cappello and Hoff rely on 12 detectors, like the one in Sagg Swamp. They have divided the island into grid cells with each cell receiving a ranking of one to five, depending on the amount of canopy cover (these bats like dense forests).
“We place three detectors per cell in three or four cells at a time,” explained Cappello. “They get left out for a specific number of nights — usually five to seven per time — and then once we’re finished, I’ll pull off the data and move them.”
Cappello explained that though bats echolocate at a frequency higher than the human ear can hear, the detectors are able to pick up the frequencies of all sorts of bat species flying in the area.
“Each bat has a different sound shape, which is recorded on SD cards. The microphone is set to start a half hour before sunset and record until a half hour after sunrise,” said Cappello. “We can download the data and use a scanner program to look for specific frequencies. We can’t tell individual bats, but we can tell different species depending on the shape of calls and the frequency.”
She added that detectors are placed at all sorts of sites — from public and private lands, to commercial and residential properties.
“Any of the properties we use that at are not state owned, we always talk to them beforehand and ask permission,” said Cappello. “Some, like Suffolk County and New York State parks, give us research permits and some people allow us to use their residences. Afterwards Sam makes up a report for them to let them know what we found.
“We have one Southold farmer who’s super into it” she added.
When asked what they have learned about the bats of Sagg Swamp, Hoff said, “That was a cool little property. I had never heard of it before. We were looking for a new spot to net, I put a detector there ahead of time and was getting a ton of activity by northerns.”
“It’s pretty small compared to others, like the state parks at Montauk, and it’s surrounded by a residential area,” she added. “We tracked a bat to a red maple tree and he was roosting in a little crevice. What’s also interesting is I think you have just the right style of houses around there. Some are older, some newer, but a lot them have crawl spaces where bats could be hibernating.”
Which means it’s very possible that bats are spending their winters close by. For that reason, Hoff and Cappello are always happy to find homeowners willing to let them place their equipment on their property.
Who knows… you may find that you’ve had a winter tenant all this time and didn’t even know it.
“A lot of the people we come across in our fieldwork are actually really interested in hearing about the work and it’s mostly positive favorable reaction,” said Hoff. “On the South Fork, people enjoy hearing you have a threatened species here and it’s one of the only areas they’re surviving and doing well.
“They take pride in the fact that the community is supporting that.”