Al Zagofsky witnessed a weird phenomena along the Lehigh Canal in Weissport on Monday.
It was daylight and chilly, yet numerous bats were flying around. Making the scenario even more bizarre, a bat fell from the sky and landed right next to Zagofsky.
Bats are nocturnal. They hibernate in the winter, and generally don't leave caves or mines until very late March or early April.
Zagofsky, an avid outdoorsman, suspects the bats were suffering from a fungus known as white-nose syndrome.
Experts on bats and environmentalists agree that white-nose syndrome, which has been decimating bat populations from Virginia to Vermont over the past half decade, has hit home locally.
Susan Gallagher, chief naturalist with the Carbon County Environmental Education Center, said the center has received well over 100 telephone calls already this year from people who have found dead bats on their properties, including on porches, sidewalks and in the home.
She said most of the calls have come from the Jim Thorpe, Summit Hill and Tamaqua areas.
This has caused several concerns.
One is that people are petting them and actually trying to keep them warm. This is dangerous since bats can carry rabies.
The other concern is that if a large number of bats die, the mosquito and insect population will increase.
Gallagher said there is no evidence that white-nose is contagious to humans or other animals. It does appear contagious among the bat population, in some cases wiping out entire colonies.
Virtually any environmentalist or scientist will agree that bats are among man's best friends. The only mammal that flies, bats consume all sorts of insects. A brown bat can catch 600 mosquitoes in just one hour, according to Bat Conservation International, based in Austin, Texas.
A healthy bat has an average life span of 20 years, although some have been known to live as long as 30.
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park says white-nose syndrome was first discovered in a cave near Albany, N.Y. in February 2006. In some caves, it has killed 90 to 100 percent of the bats.
The fungus covers the nonhairy parts of its victims – mainly their noses and wings – with white fungal fibers, giving the affliction its name.
Presently there is no cure for white-nose syndrome.
Gallagher said this is the first year it was detected in Carbon County. There were cases of it last year in Luzerne County, she said.
Dennis Knauss of Lansford, an avid outdoorsman who assists with programs at Tuscarora State Park, said it was observed in Schuylkill County last year.
"It's very sad and very scary," Gallagher said. "They believe the fungus was brought over accidentally from Europe."
In Europe, white-nose syndrome has been around for some time but doesn't appear to be killing bats. There's a theory that bats might have grown resistant to it in Europe, with the killoffs from the fungus occurring a number of years ago.
Fred Merluzzi of Lehighton, wildlife conservation officer, has begun visiting local mines to study bat populations. What he has found so far has him concerned.
At one mine in Tresckow, "there is a large die-off," he said. Mines on the Buck Mountain and in Coxville have some die-offs, but not as disastrous as in Tresckow.
"It was actually sad to see the bats laying all over the place in the Tresckow mine," he said.
Merluzzi said in some cases, bats will rouse from their sleep around this time of the year, fly around a bit, then go back to sleep.
White-nose syndrome is causing bats to wake up before they're supposed to. They look for food that doesn't exist, then hang on branches and buildings where they die from either freezing to death or from starvation.
"I've been getting calls of bats in homes, single bats, a little more than usual," Merluzzi said. "I've been sending them out for testing. They've been coming back negative on rabies."
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park said it may be that the fungus thrives in cold temperatures and only strikes bats in winter when they are hibernating. When hibernating, the immune systems of the bats are shut down, the fungus zaps the bats' fat reserves, and they die of starvation.
So far, only the little brown bat, which is common locally, and the endangered Indiana bat, are affected by white-nose syndrome.
Because of the prevalence of sick bats, Gallagher urges parents to warn their children to stay away from any they find lying around. There is still a potential the bat could have rabies.
If bats are found dead, you should only handle them with shovels or gloved hands, she said. They should be placed in a bag, the bag should be turned inside out, and then they should be double-bagged before being tossed into outside garbage.
The site where the bat is found should be cleaned with disinfectant.
If there is a chance you were bitten or scratched by a bat, contact your doctor or visit the emergency room.
If a bat is flying around a room, opening a door or window will generally provide an escape route, said the chief naturalist.
For more information about getting tested after making contact with a bat, call 1-888-PA Healthy.
There is information about bats, including rabies, on the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.
Merluzzi said he is interested in finding more mines in Carbon County where bats might be located. Anyone knowing the location of such mines, including mines in Hacklebernie, should contact him through the game commission's Dallas office at (570) 675-1143. He said he will return all calls.