Children and adults filtered in to the Mountain Mist Amphitheatre at Rifle Falls a few at a time. Parents towing children, children towing grandparents, and siblings scrambling to get the best seats for the "Wild About Bats" program.
For Terry Wise, a retired Front Range special education administrator who has served as park naturalist and environmental educator at the Rifle Gap State Parks Complex for the last three years, bats have become a hobby. Although she's the first to admit she is not an expert, what she might lack in the form of a degree or credentials related to wildlife, she more than makes up for with her passion for the program.
Wise, with help from her 7-year-old granddaughter, Kaylie, visiting from the Denver area, started with a question for the gathered group: "What do you think about when you think of bats?"
The children and adults, with some prompting from Wise, supplied suggestions from "Batman" to "Twilight" to "Harry Potter." Wise showed the audience a picture of Dracula's castle in Transylvania and "The Munsters" television program and then explained why some of the reasons our dark, scary, Hollywood-based ideas about bats are incorrect.
Bats are not only harmless to humans, they are helpful to mankind. A single brown bat, the most common kind in this area, can devour between 600-1,000 mosquitoes or other insects in an hour, making them far more effective than any man-made "bug zapper," Wise said.
Wise called her volunteer helpers, dressed in bat costumes, forward to read a poem about bats, then proceeded to have more young helpers display a bat fossil, a bat skeleton, a bat skull, and several frozen bats. One young lady demonstrated how bats fly, using wings made from black plastic sheeting. Bats are, in fact, the only true flying mammal, she said. Some squirrels can "glide," but bats are the only mammals with the ability to fly under their own power.
"It's true, powered flight," Wise explained.
As she wrapped up her part of the presentation, a bat fluttered overhead, as if on cue. With flashlights, headlamps and lanterns, the 25-30 people at the program followed Wise up the trail to the pond at the top of Rifle Falls.
In the deepening twilight, resident bats rewarded the audience with their own demonstrations overhead, while Wise answered questions about everything from echolocation to rabid bats to bat reproduction to White Nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that has threatened bat colonies on the East Coast and is spreading West. At this time, the infection has not been found in Colorado, but caves in Colorado have been closed to hikers and spelunkers for more than a year as a preventative measure.
This year has been named the "Year of the Bat" by Bat Conservation International, which encourages care and education for bats and their habitats worldwide. The children in attendance at the Rifle Falls program received free posters and stickers to remind them of the important roles bats play in our ecosystem.
The educational presentation is part of a series of free programs offered at the Rifle Gap State Parks System between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The programs and presentations include everything from a campfire singalong at Rifle Gap to lessons about living near predatory wildlife like mountain lions and bears. The programs are paid for by Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO) funds. Wise reminded the adults present that GOCO funds come from the sale of lottery scratch tickets, not Powerball tickets, and are also used to pay for park upgrades and improvements.
Wise said attendance at the summer presentations averages anywhere from 20-70 people of all ages.
"About 70 percent of them are from the Denver-metro area," she said.
Wise will host one more "Wild About Bats" program this Sunday, Sept. 2, beginning at 7:50 p.m. at Rifle Falls.