I’ve always been fascinated by nature, so when, at age 17, I discovered thousands of gray bats, now referred to as gray myotis, doing things that, according to books of the day, they weren’t supposed to do, I was immediately intrigued. It all began in April 1959 when a high school acquaintance told me about a bat cave near my home west of Knoxville, Tennessee. Baloney Cave was named for its baloney-shaped formations, and it was said to sometimes shelter thousands of bats.
The next weekend, I easily persuaded my father, who was always open for new adventure, to help me find it. We headed out on a beautiful spring afternoon. The sun was bright and the air was scented with honeysuckle blossoms as we followed a barely visible trail along a fence, then into the shade of stately old oak and hickory trees. A half-mile later, we found ourselves staring into a gaping pit about 12 feet in diameter at the top, sloping down like an antlion funnel. Limestone walls adorned in moss and ferns dripped from recent showers. This clearly was the cave my friend had described.
Wondering if the bats would still be there, we carefully climbed down into the cooler entrance, jumping the last few feet to the floor.
Before venturing into the dark interior, we retrieved our new miner’s caps and carbide lamps from our knapsacks and added fuel. Each lamp included an upper and a lower chamber. We added quarter-inch chunks of carbide into the lower ones and poured water into the upper ones. When water contacts carbide it produces acetylene gas. And when the gas exits through a tiny nozzle in the middle of a shiny, metal reflector, it can be lit with a spark from an embedded flint. This provided each of us with a half-inch flame for light. We could alter the brightness by adjusting a lever, which controlled the rate at which water dripped onto the carbide. Even at their brightest, these lamps were dim compared to today’s LED lights, but they were the best we had.
After allowing our eyes to adjust to the yellowish glow of our lamps, we began to look around, first noticing a room the size of a small bedroom on our left. It was strewn with old moonshine still paraphernalia, broken Mason jars, and parts of wooden barrels. The ceiling was smoke-blackened from the distilling process. Far more concerned about finding bats, we would later regret having assumed that moonshine stills in Baloney Cave were limited to the far distant past.
This was our first venture into a cave. My father led the way, as we stepped carefully around slick spots on an uneven floor, our hands often supporting us against the moist limestone walls. After going by several side passages, my father exclaimed, “Wow! Look at this.” We were just entering a room the size of a two-car garage, which our dim lights barely covered. Along one side, baloney-shaped formations ran down a wall into a pit; because the bottom was beyond the reach of our lights, it seemed endlessly deep.
“I sure hope the bats don’t live beyond that,” I commented, pointing into the chasm.
So far, we hadn’t seen any bats, though the cave floor was often strewn with a soft, dry accumulation of old droppings, commonly called guano. Although we were a little nervous about becoming lost, we decided to search the side passages. Some were quite narrow, requiring tight squeezes. My father finally suggested we return to the entrance and try to follow the most recent bat droppings like a proverbial trail of bread crumbs. As we were beginning again, we noticed a big difference between bat and rodent droppings.
Bat droppings were similar to mouse pellets, about a quarter-inch long by less than an eighth-inch wide. However, unlike those of deer mice and pack rats, which also frequent caves, once bat droppings dried, they easily crumbled into dozens of tiny fragments that reflected our lamps’ light in a rainbow of colors. The reflections came from tiny bits of insects the bats had eaten. Rodent droppings were composed mostly of plant material; they were hardened like bits of gravel and failed to reflect light.
By following only the freshest trail of evidence, we were able to move ahead with much greater confidence. A few minutes later, through a small hole in a wall, I heard my first chittering bats.
On the far side of a small room, I could barely make out a furry mat of several thousand gray myotis covering the ceiling. They apparently had heard us coming and were rapidly waking up. Clutching my butterfly net in one hand, I desperately attempted to scramble through the hole in time to catch a few before they could escape, but to no avail.
Suddenly the air was virtually saturated with flying bats. Dozens were landing on my head and shoulders, because I was inadvertently blocking their escape. They were crawling down my neck and into my shirt sleeves — no need for a net! But I soon realized that they meant no harm and were only seeking places to hide. In fact, they had far more to fear than I did.
This was my first lesson in the gentle nature of bats, especially those that form large colonies. They neither scratched nor bit me as they swarmed over me, though I did have to hold quite still in order to avoid inadvertently crushing them. When the pandemonium finally cleared, my father helped me retreat from the hole clutching a couple of struggling specimens, which we gently placed in a cloth bag.
Back at the cave entrance, we got out my father’s PetersonField Guide to Mammals to identify our bats. Based on their unicolor gray fur, we easily identified them as gray myotis (Myotis grisescens). All other cave-dwelling bats of North America have bi- or tricolored fur — that is, each hair has a dark base and lighter tip or is banded dark, light, and darker from base to tip.
Curious to see how many bats would emerge to feed that evening, we waited in the cave entrance. The first individuals left about a half-hour after sunset, followed by a steady stream of thousands. We sat quietly, listening to the flutter of wings, which sometimes passed within inches of our faces. I was enthralled. Where were they going, and when would they return?
Several nights later, when we brought my mother back to see these bats emerge, we had a big disappointment. The few books of the time that mentioned gray myotis stated that they lived in a single cave year-round. Nevertheless, ours had disappeared. Speculating that perhaps gray myotis just didn’t come out every night, we returned repeatedly to check their roosting area and watch for emergences at the entrance. But they were gone. They returned in September, then mysteriously disappeared again. Had they gone somewhere else for the winter? I was determined to find out.
With help from my father and some high school friends, I thoroughly explored even the innermost reaches of Baloney Cave on the chance that our bats had simply found a remote area where they could hibernate undisturbed. But we found no sign of them.
When our bats briefly returned and left again the following spring, I was convinced they must be migrating, despite books I’d read that said they didn’t migrate. Armed with field notes, documenting when the bats were present versus absent, and two museum-type voucher specimens to substantiate my identification, I convince...