The Interpretive Perspective: Disproving Myths about the Bats of Devil's Den

Article follows the photos:
Sandstone caves harbor a large bat population.
Sandstone caves harbor a large bat population.
Visitors are welcome to explore the park's unusual geological features.
Visitors are welcome to explore the park's unusual geological features.
Interpreter Harry Harnish, a.k.a 'Batman'
Interpreter Harry Harnish, a.k.a 'Batman'
May 2, 2003


The Interpretive Perspective:
Disproving Myths about the Bats of Devil's Den

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By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

He's no Bruce Wayne, but he's definitely Batman. Harry Harnish, park interpreter at Devil's Den State Park near Winslow may not be "the caped crusader" of crime fighting, but he does occasionally don a black cape and bat-wing mask in an effort to educate people about bats and their needed protection.

"It gets their attention," he explained.

Harnish has been employed by the Arkansas Parks Department for 24 years. When he first arrived at Devil's Den nearly 19 years ago, he knew nothing of bats or the park's sandstone crevices they call home. Interested in the endangered creatures and the geology of the area, Harnish began to study them. His focus has lead to one of the most popular annual events at the park, "Bat-O-Rama."

Batman Harry always appears during Bat-O-Rama, an entire weekend of programs dedicated to one of the world's least understood and most maligned creatures. This year the 14th annual Bat-O-Rama will take place June 13-15. Programs include slide presentations and videos, a bat house building demonstration, exploration of the sandstone crevices at the park and a guest speaker.

During the summer, Harnish also shows a slide program on bats every Saturday night at the park amphitheater. On Monday night he demonstrates the bat detector, which enables visitors to hear the ultra-high frequency sounds the bats make as they fly from their shelters in search of food.

"People help me count them," Harnish said. "They definitely can see bats if they come to Devil's Den in the summer. You can see hundreds of them flying over the lake." On the hottest days of the year, the bats move from the shelter to roost in the rafters of the café pavilion. "So people can go down there anytime in the summer and see the bats hanging out in the open," he added.

Bats can also be found hibernating in the park's crevices and caves, which are some of the most unique elements of the park. "I've plotted about 60 caves," Harnish said. "Most visitors know of only two -- the Devil's Den and the Devil's Icebox. But up above that trail there are crevices twice as deep. They're not off limits any time, but most people don't know they are there because they're not on the trail maps."

Bats hibernate in the caves at Devil's Den about five or six months out of the year. The eastern pipistrelle, a common bat which is not easily disturbed, can be found in the caves, as can two endangered bats, the Indiana and the Ozark big-eared. The latter is the second rarest species in the country. Because the endangered bats are easily awakened, the cave in which they hibernate is closed to the public.

"A lot of people are just downright afraid of bats and are surprised to learn they're not going to attack them," Harnish said. "If you leave them alone, you have nothing to worry about. A lot of people also think all bats have rabies. It's possible for them to get rabies, but if they do, they get sick and die and flop on the ground. The only time I'm really careful is when I see one on the ground."

Devil's Den also has a large colony of big brown bats. This year there are more than 80 pregnant bats, which usually give birth to twins. The pups will be born around Memorial Day weekend.

In addition to bats, Harnish's specialty interpretive topics at Devil's Den are geology and Civilian Conservation Corps history. Numerous interpretive programs are offered by Harnish and the park's other interpreter, Kim Richter. The duo provides a wide variety of slide programs -- on snakes, owls, vultures, butterflies. Trail walks are also popular, including a twilight adventure hike. Harnish said the 1.5-mile Devil's Den Trail is especially nice because of the variety of topography it offers, including a creek, waterfall, bluff and the sandstone crevices and caves.

When You Go

Camping and cabins are available at Devil's Den; but the cabins are usually booked early. Group camping is also available. Devil's Den has hiking, mountain biking and backpacking trails that lead to caves, crevices and bluff overlooks. There is a café and swimming pool overlooking the lake and a store offering groceries and gifts. A horse camp area includes riding trails and a bathhouse.

To reach Devil's Den, travel eight miles south of Fayetteville on Interstate 540 to exit 53 at West Fork, then proceed 17 miles southwest on Ark. 170; or take I-540 to exit 45 at Winslow and go seven miles west on Ark. 74. Note, trailers longer than 26 feet should use exit 53. For more information, phone (479) 761-3325 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"