Bat Monthly featured contributor of October 2020

Kaleigh Norquay, MSc, Lab Manager of the Willis Bat Lab at University of Winnipeg

I am the lab manager for the Willis bat lab in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Our research focuses on small mammal physiology and ecology, with a focus on bats and I have been a member of the lab nearly continuously since 2008. My current role involves administrative support, training students, coordinating fieldwork and participating in outreach. I love bats. I love talking about bats to all who will listen, glimpsing a hidden world while participating in fieldwork and cultivating friendships with the passionate and brilliant people I’ve met. Rather than share my cv, I thought I would share a collection of experiences that stand out from my years of research.

Each winter we visit a cluster of caves on snowmobile in central Manitoba to conduct bat counts and collect other data. On most of these trips, it has been -30°C, before the windchill. The caves are limestone and appear out of seemingly nowhere, roughly 60 cm square holes in the ground, giving way to above freezing sanctuaries, home to 10s to 100s of hibernating bats. In 2016, we were on this trip and I was the first to climb down the 20 foot ladder into the small cave below. But instead of landing on the rock bottom, I landed on a tarp. My colleague came down after me and it was clear that this was covering something smooth and large. We were totally spooked but went about our business swabbing the cave walls and photographing the bats, trying to ignore the ‘elephant’ in the room. Before she left, my colleague was brave enough to check under the tarp. It was not an elephant but a moose, presumably left by poachers. A terrible smell filled the cave and she vacated as quickly as possible. Our guide worked for Manitoba conservation and reported the incident. Likely, poachers had killed a moose that they were not allowed and rather than being caught, threw it down the hole.

In 2017 we visited a sacred site, which normally housed roughly 10 000 bats. The cave ceiling is mottled with small domes, each holding a cluster of bats. This year was different than previous visits. The bats were sick. White fungus was visible on their muzzles and forearms. A few bats lay dead, but worse, bats lay dying. I expected to see the death when White-nose syndrome reached these study sites but I did not expect to see the suffering. For a week I wandered around in a daze, the only other relatable experience I’ve had was mourning. When we downloaded the trail camera at the cave entrance we saw a few species of mustelids entering and exiting the cave, explaining why we found so few dead.

In 2020 I visited again, my first return trip after pregnancy and maternity leave counted me out of winter fieldwork for a couple years. I was quite nervous given the power of the last visit but when we descended into the hibernacula, I was happily shocked. The bats hung from the ceiling, in smaller numbers to be sure (about 2000), but none were visibly ill. The fungus was detected by swab on the bats and on the walls, but the disease was not and I felt something uncommon to many ecologists these days, hope.

I am so grateful for the incredible experiences I’ve had in the field; helicoptering to a remote site in northern Manitoba, watching northern lights night after night, radiotracking on shores of Georgian Bay on the Bruce peninsula and catching bats (and the occasional owl) at Long Point Bird Observatory. I am also grateful for the smaller joys, like releasing a bat into the air and watching it disappear into the night.

Submitted by Kaleigh Norquay.


This guest blog is part of our Bat Monthly newsletter of October 2020. Click here to read the full newsletter.

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