In Search of the Bonneted Bat

A Rare Species of Bat Made Coral Gables its Home. But are They Still Here?

By Mike Clary

April 2019

Available for occupancy: Cozy Coral Gables duplex on the golf course. Hardwood floors, spectacular view. Limited square footage, no utilities, free rent. Only bats need apply.

The property listed – a “bat box” placed atop a 25-foot utility pole on Granada Golf Course several months ago – has remained vacant since it went up. But city officials, along with scientists, remain hopeful that a colony of endangered Florida bonneted bats could move in any day. “What’s amazing about this species is that the bats are living in the middle of a major metropolis, and this golf course is an oasis for them,” says Frank Ridgley, head of conservation and research at Zoo Miami. “It appears to be a hot spot of activity.”

Hot spot may be a bit of an exaggeration. The bonneted bat – named for its large, funnel-shaped ears – is considered among the 10 most endangered animal species in the country. According to biologist Kirsten Bohn, a former Florida International University researcher now at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, there may be as few as 500 left.

The “bat box” placed atop a 25-foot utility pole on the Granada Golf Course

Public concern in Coral Gables for the brownish-gray bats, which live only in coastal Southern Florida, grew after Bohn discovered them on the Granada Golf Course when she moved here in 2012. Bohn, an expert in bat songs, began recording their high frequency chirps; with the help of a sound-activated recording device on the golf course, she recorded more than 100,000 chirps between 2013 and 2016.

Bohn was also helped by the “Bat Squad,” an informal group of volunteers who spent evenings on the golf course scanning the skies and, at least once, sipping free rum provided by Bacardi, the Coral Gables-based distiller with a bat in its logo.

The bat frenzy was ignited in 2014 by the discovery of
a bonneted bat roost under the barrel tile roof of a vacant house on Alhambra Circle. That discovery put a hold on plans to restore the aging house, until finally the U.S. Fish and Wildlife confirmed that no mating had taken place, allowing the owners to evict the bats and rebuild.

Where those bats went, or whether there are bats today on the Granada course, remains the quest of both scientists and locals. On March 4, Ridgley and his crew used a camera on a pole to check for occupancy and found the bat house remains vacant. But, he said, “We know they are in the area and on the golf course nightly.” They could be visiting the house, but just not settling in yet, he said.

What makes the bonneted bat so elusive, despite a 20-inch wingspan, is that it’s a high-flying mammal, roosting in small colonies and emerging only after dark. They are tough to see and hear. Last October, three conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the bat, alleging the species was on the brink of extinction. In the lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity said that while the bats received federal protection in 2013, the government had failed to designate a habitat to save the species.

We know they are in the area and on the golf course nightly…

Frank Ridgley, head of conservation at Zoo Miami

To help provide habitat, 16 bat houses have been erected in Miami-Dade County, including one in Matheson Hammock Park, at a cost of $5,000 each, said Ridgley. The funds have come from Zoo Miami, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, FPL and various grants. One Gables resident, Grace Carricarte, had a bat house installed under her roof. “I installed a bat box onto the side of my home about two and a half years ago,” says Carricarte. “It can take years for them to come if they come at all, but it’s nice to provide them options apart from vacant home attics.”