The Bats of Central Park

by AMNH on

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The old saw that New York is the city that never sleeps holds just as true for its animal denizens as for humans. This July, you can join guides on evening walks in Central Park to encounter some of the most famous nocturnal animals in the world.

Little Brown Bat Photo
Little brown bats (Myotis lucifugus) are among the most common bats in North America.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The walks, led by members of the New York City Bat Group, begin near Balcony Bridge, a stone bridge near 77th Street and the Park’s West Drive overlooking the Lake. It’s a great place to see many of the bats of New York, all of which live on a diet of insects such as gnats and mosquitoes that are plentiful near water. During the summer months, the park is home to numerous species, including little brown bats, ginger-furred Eastern red bats, and hoary bats, which can be identified by the silvery tips of fur that give them a slightly frosted look.

Some bats live in New York all year round, hibernating during the winter, while others are visiting during the warm weather. Some species make their homes under bridges or in caves, others live in trees, and some even roost in built spaces like attics.

“During the day, Eastern red bats look just like little red leaves hanging off of trees,” says Bradley Klein, a member of New York City Bat Group who has led bat walks for the Museum for more than 10 years. While they are most active at night, the early bat gets the bug. Plenty of bats can be spotted at dusk, before night has truly fallen. Eastern red bats can sometimes be found out hunting around dusk and dawn if it is particularly cloudy, says Klein, though you need to know where to look.

Eastern Red Bat photo
During the day, Eastern red bats (Lasiurus borealis) can be mistaken for leaves hanging from trees.
Image courtesy of C. Harshaw/Wikimedia Commons

Appearing against the backdrop of the night sky, bats aren’t as easy to spot as some of the park’s other wildlife, so seasoned bat watchers employ a suite of specialized gear, starting with ultrasonic microphones that can pick up the high-pitched sounds bats use to hunt in darkness. When the calls, made mostly at frequencies too high for human ears, bounce back as echoes, they help bats to hunt and navigate at night.

Even if you can’t see a hunting bat, listening closely to these echolocation calls is a good way to determine what kinds of bats are in a given area. “Each bat species has a distinct echolocation call, and you can use these calls to distinguish between species,” says Klein.

In addition to the classic ultrasonic mics used by bat enthusiasts for years, there’s now a new tool: ultrasonic sound detectors that can plug into mobile devices. Paired with tablet computers, these detectors can not only pick up inaudible bat chirps but, thanks to an accompanying app, can also suggest which species it might be—a helpful assist for first-time bat watchers.

Hoary bat photo
A hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus) like those that can be seen in Central Park. 
©P. Cryan/USGS

These swing-shift sojourns aren’t just for bat-lovers, either. All sorts of animals enjoy the nightlife in Manhattan’s most expansive green space. Insects like the swamp darner dragonfly can be found, as can fireflies lighting up the evening sky in early July. Birds like the fast-flying, insect-eating chimney swallow and the black-crowned night heron, which uses the lakes and wetlands of the park as a summer breeding ground, are also spotted regularly by bat walkers, showing a different side to even the best-trodden Central Park paths.

“The bat walks are a great way to introduce people to the natural history of night in New York City, and how it is different from the day,” says Klein. “They can help people see a new world in a familiar environment.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Member magazine Rotunda.