Mostly Cloudy   86.0F  |  Forecast »

Bats in the Belfry

“Bat Lady” Shari Blissett-Clark is dedicated to helping bats shake their bad rap

Blissett-Clark travels the State of Florida, emphasizing the unique role bats play in our lives, gardens and ecosystem. “Bats really are the most unique mammals on Earth,” she says.

Blissett-Clark travels the State of Florida, emphasizing the unique role bats play in our lives, gardens and ecosystem. “Bats really are the most unique mammals on Earth,” she says.

Surrounded by a huddle of eager 5- and 6-year-olds, Shari Blissett-Clark, the “bat lady,” extracts two small creatures from a netted cage and nestles them into the palm of her hand. Extending her arm so her audience can get a closer look, she strokes the soft, furry bodies and velvety ears and points out the variations in color and form. Both are Brazilian free-tailed bats — a species commonly seen in Florida — but one is brownish-gray while the other is taupe. Their facial features, noses and ears are different, too, even though they are both male and from the same family. “Within the species mix, there are coloration differences just like hair color in humans,” Blissett-Clark explains.

Up close, they hardly look like the spooky creatures depicted in horror movies and Halloween haunted houses. They actually appear quite endearing with their wings tucked snugly against their bodies — and quite small. These particular bats have been injured and are in Blissett-Clark’s care for rehabilitation. When healthy and in flight, they have a wingspan of 12 to 13 inches, weigh between 13 and 17 grams and can fly up to two miles high to capture their evening meal of mosquitoes, beetles and moths.

Using an ultrasonic system called echolocation to navigate and find their prey, bats emit high-pitched sounds to monitor the sound waves bouncing off objects in their path. While these high-frequency sounds are inaudible to the human ear, today we are hearing a lower-frequency wavelength “chatter” with the aid of a monitoring device Blissett-Clark has brought with her.

Blissett-Clark is president of the Florida Bat Conservancy and owner of Bat Belfrys Inc. in Merritt Island and has been an observer and lover of bats her whole life. “My personal education is in wildlife biology, and I’ve always had a deep interest in conservation efforts, land management and individual species as well as bats,” she tells me. “My dad was in the Air Force and would take us out to the streetlights to see bats. I remember being a little girl in Germany, a little girl in France and the United States looking for bats and watching them fly. They were so fascinating. It was a guiding principle in our upbringing where our parents instilled in us conservation values long before the importance of conservation was understood.”