NEW HAVEN — Donald Mitchell, former Middlebury College professor turned bat savior, has converted his New Haven farm into a sanctuary for bats.
Mitchell tells the story of this experience in a book titled “Flying Blind,” which explains the reasons why he optimized his land for bat habitat, shows what was done to make it more suitable for the flying mammals, and chronicles a mental journey that Mitchell went through while accomplishing his work.
How did a former English professor become interested in bats and their habitat? It begins in 2006 when the state’s leading bat expert approached Mitchell.
“He asked if he could trap bats here,” Mitchell said. “Because of some of the features of the landscape he thought there might be bats here.”
Mitchell lives in close proximity to Snake Mountain, where there are many bat caves. Because of this proximity to a dense bat population, Mitchell’s land was chosen for research. During the trapping period the researchers didn’t find just any old bats, they found two Indiana bats, which are endangered.
“They’ve been endangered since the very first endangered species list that came out in 1967,” Mitchell explained.
The winter after the researchers came to Mitchell’s land, white nose syndrome began to spread among the bat population and the number of bats in Vermont plummeted. Suddenly studying bat habitat became very important.
“I wound up in the hands of a program called the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP),” Mitchell said. “And as things shook out, the federal government was willing to pay a small amount of money to enhance the habitat in my woods for bats.”
Mitchell received a small incentive from the federal government and he began the work on his land.
“Because of the protocols of WHIP,” Mitchell said, “I was required to eradicate different invasive species off of the forest floor. Because some trees were going to be cut down, the forest floor was going to get more sunlight. That light then will allow the invasive species to grow and take over. So before I could actually optimize the habitat for bats I had to spend around four months picking these wildflowers off of the forest floor.”
In that activity is where Mitchell’s book was born. Mitchell is anti-authoritarian and he found himself doing work for the government, an authoritarian institution in some people’s eyes, and thinking about his father, who was an authoritarian figure in his life.
“It gave me a lot of opportunity to think about my life and my values and how I came to be the person I am,” he said. “My father had just died and I was dealing with a lot of issues. My father was a profoundly authoritarian figure in my life. So the book became not just a record of this habitat improvement project but also a memoir. It is an interwoven narrative involving personal history, reflections upon personality and the experiences that formed me, in the context of working on this eco-sensitive project.”
Some of the work centered around two specific trees; bats choose these trees to sleep in during the day.
“They choose either a dead or dying tree, called a snag tree, in which the bark begins to loosen and the bats crawl up beneath the bark,” Mitchell explained. “The other habitat that they choose is a shagbark hickory tree, and because of the way the bark exfoliates like shingles off of the tree the bats can sleep under the bark.”
Bats will not choose an exposed tree because when they emerge at night they risk predation by owls. However, a tree that bats sleep in will also require direct sunlight so that they can stay warm while they rest. Another bat expert came to Mitchell’s land and walked around the woods and pointed out which trees would be optimal for bats and what trees should be cut down around them.
Donald Mitchell is inviting people to come visit his farm on Saturday mornings from Aug. 3 through Nov. 2. Visitors will be treated to a 90-minute hike around the farm to see the prime bat habitat locations, and to also experience what Mitchell reflects on in “Flying Blind.” For more information call 802-545-2278 or visit treleven.wordpress.com.