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Back Then: Where have the bullbats gone?
On Aging

Where have all the bullbats gone and the leather-winged bats and lightning bugs and mosquito hawks? Where have they all gone?

Back then, "bullbats" was the name given to a bird species that were aerial acrobats of the evening. They got the name because of the deep "skromp" that came at the ends of their repeated dives. They are not bats but birds. The more proper name is nighthawks, but they are not hawks either.

They are nightjars, close cousins to the whippoorwill and the chuck wills widow, eating insects caught on the fly. Incidentally, back then, folks hearing the evening calls of the chuck wills widows called them whippoorwills and, like the bullbats, they are going, going and perhaps soon gone.

Sitting on the porch at twilight time, my family enjoyed entertainment provided by nature. The bullbats climbed on their long, narrow wings, calling "speerk, speerk" as they rose high into the air before diving steeply until their strong wings ended the descent abruptly, making the "skromp," which gave them their common name. There might be several working the sky at once.

Meanwhile, true bats darted about in pursuit of insects, changing speed and direction constantly. Across the road among the pines and down in the McSwinny Branch at the end of the field, lightning bugs put on a miniature fireworks display while chuck wills widows called from their nesting spots. The entertainment was the center of soft and easy conversation, and it was free.

Every year there came an evening in late August or early September when there were many bullbats in the sky. They circled rather than climbing and swooping. The next day they were gone. Some cue from the lowering angle of the sun or the shortening of the days set off their annual migration to southern Florida or further south, some place where they would be safe from the cold that was sure to come, some place where there were insects to fill their craws until the warmth of spring brought them back to Georgia. The chuck wills widows did the same, but they did not gather into flocks, just quietly slipped away.

There were similar days when the mosquito hawks (dragonflies) filled the air before disappearing. Mating season over, the lightning bugs turned off their blinking lights and moved into semi-hibernation. The show was over, but soon huge flights of robins and blackbirds filled the sky and they descended upon open fields, gallberry flats and Carolina bays to flourish where nightjars could not.

Now they really are gone — or nearly so — all of these aerial acrobats and singers of night songs, not just for the season, but truly gone. It is rare to see or hear a swooping bullbat from that porch where I sat with my family. One is more likely to hear them in the middle of towns and cities. The repeated cries from chuck wills widows that once could be heard from many spots at once have been reduced to one or none. When the winter birds come, they arrive in small numbers. The exuberant calls of robins can sometimes be heard, but they do not flood gallberry flats and Carolina bays with sound. They have not all gone, but they are fewer.

So, where have the bullbats gone? They, like the other nightjars, have lost reproductive habitat. They nest on bare ground in mostly open, sandy places. Such places have disappeared. The rolling sandhills have been turned into Bermuda grass pastures for cattle or hay production. There is no bare ground and if there were, nests would be destroyed by heedless hooves or hay mowers.

Back then, they could nest in the natural open spaces among longleaf or slash pines. Annual burning kept the understory of weeds and wiregrass under control. Now, piney woods are pine plantations with trees planted close together in rows. No sand shows through the pine straw and flight is nearly impossible.

Where have they gone? No doubt they have been affected by farm pesticides, paralleling the decimation of the sparrow hawk (AKA kestrel, killey hawk or spar hawk). The only kestrel I have seen in recent years is winter loner. Nightjars are voracious insect eaters and pesticides are still here in the earth, in water and in the bodies of insects that survive. The nightjars are gone with the kestrels.

What about the real bats? They are being wiped out by disease. Their homes have been destroyed by the clear cutting of hardwoods, including the hollow oaks that provide homes for many forms of wildlife. Bats eat insects, vast numbers of insects, including some with bodies full of pesticides.

And what about the bob-white quail, the bird that is far more the soul of South Georgia than the brown thrasher, the putative state bird? Back then, their territorial call could be heard from half a dozen spots at a time, musical but with plenty of carrying power.

Similarly scarce are field larks. (There are no meadows in South Georgia, so ours are field larks, not meadowlarks.) They took to the fields after harvest for the bounties left there but they were creatures of the open woodlands. Like quail, they ate the seeds of native weeds and grasses there, finding a home in the tufts of wiregrass. They sang their trilling summer song from the high boughs of longleaf pines. Sometimes they gathered in small coveys and flushed from the wiregrass like quail.

Last summer I saw a couple of lightning bugs near my house. It was not like the hundreds that my children and others in the neighborhood used to chase in the wooded area in which we lived. There were just two or three. I watched them until they blinked their way out of sight. But I did not see or hear a bullbat, not even one.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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