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  Field Notes From
Bat Patrol

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Gary McCracken

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From Author

Gary F. McCracken

Jay Dickman

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Jay Dickman

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (top), and Brian Strauss

Gary F. McCracken On Assignment On Assignment
Bat Patrol

Field Notes From Author
Gary F. McCracken
Best Worst Quirkiest
One summer morning before daylight, we launched our hot-air balloon just north of Uvalde, Texas, to follow bats and migrating insects. A chase vehicle kept radio contact below. We were sighting bats and having a great time when we lost contact with the chase crew. It was almost dawn, and we needed to land, but the terrain was quite rugged and sparsely populated. The only place we could find was a dirt road leading to a very modest house. So we began our descent.
An old woman came out of the house and looked up at us. Then she ran back inside, which made me nervous because I thought she might be going for her gun. The pilot landed the balloon on a nearby dirt road. After a quick assessment, I was designated as the one to go talk to the old woman.
She stepped outside, and I was relieved that she was carrying a camera instead of a gun. “Watching you land was absolutely beautiful!” she told me. After helping us locate the chase crew, Hallie Chisum—our 82-year-old host—put on a big pot of coffee and fed us cookies for about an hour. We still keep in touch.

I had just met John Westbrook when we started our work on high-altitude flying bats. John had been using helium balloons to track the wind patterns that carried migrating moths, so I proposed attaching small radio microphones to the balloons to detect ensuing bats. I ordered three customized microphones at one thousand dollars each. Since they hadn’t arrived by the time I joined John in McAllen, I had them FEDEXed to my hotel. They hadn’t been field tested, but I powered the first one up with batteries, attached it to a balloon, and floated it. But instead of the balloon reaching a certain altitude and coming back down near us, it went down on the huge King Ranch. After two days of searching, we gave up looking for it. 
I had no choice but to send the second one up. It ascended to beyond 2,500 feet (750 meters) and just disappeared. By the time I got to the third one, I was afraid to send it up. But John said, “Why’d you have ’em built if you aren’t going to use them?” I couldn’t argue with that, so I let it go. The third time was the charm.

We were flying the hot-air balloon out of the Uvalde area on another day when the local radio station and police department started getting reports of aliens being sighted. When we landed, the county agent came up and asked, “Hey, are you guys aliens?” Being from New York, I thought he meant aliens in UFOs. But this was South Texas. He was talking about illegal aliens from Mexico.

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