The Remarkable Patience of the Staten Island Bat Watchers

Yet bats have long been overlooked by scientists. Until recently, they’ve barely been studied in the U.S. And until 2016, there had never been a published survey of the bats of New York City at all.

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Danielle Fibikar holding a trapped bat.

Credit
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Ms. Fibikar, a Staten Island native, began surveying bats inside Freshkills in summer 2013 for her master’s degree at the College of Staten Island. When she approached Richard Veit, a biology professor, to advise her, she was the first student who had ever asked him to work on bats.

And with good reason, he acknowledged. “They carry rabies, you have to be out at night, and they do bite,” said Mr. Veit, a veteran ornithologist with a pick-up truck and a ponytail who joins Ms. Fibikar here any night he can. “They’re kind of a pain to work with.”

Netting bats — in Freshkills, mostly Eastern red and big brown bats — is a team effort. The fine-mesh mist nets take time for the students to mount on special poles, and removing the ensnared creatures from them requires skill. Ms. Fibikar, who now has her master’s degree, says she likes to cup the bats’ bodies in hand while carefully unwinding the cord from their feet and wings. That’s before the bats are identified, fitted with tracking bands, weighed, measured and checked for fungus.

“Some of them are really stubborn,” she says. “But they’re so small, so delicate in my hands. You kind of fall in love.”

Ms. Fibikar and Mr. Veit’s work represents some of the first systematic data ever collected on bats in New York City. It’s a small but important addition to a body of bat knowledge that is growing only now, as the fatal white nose syndrome threatens bat populations across North America. With nearly seven million bats dead since the disease emerged from a cave in upstate New York 2005, the scale of mortality is unprecedented among wildlife disease outbreaks, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Little brown bats have been particularly devastated. Once one of the most common bat species in the U.S., they have virtually vanished from New York and other eastern states. The last one Ms. Fibikar recorded at Freshkills was in 2013.

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A bat ultrasonic detector.

Credit
Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

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