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Riding Bikes and Searching for Bats on Permanent Car-Free JFK

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By Kristin Tieche

Something historic and extraordinary happened on Tuesday, April 26th at around 9pm. After an epic 12-hour Board of Supervisors meeting JFK Drive – once a high injury corridor in our city – became JFK Promenade permanently. After decades of mobilizing for a car-free space in San Francisco’s largest park, this 1.5 mile strip of asphalt was suddenly transformed. As I watched the Supervisors cast their votes, I remembered that I had scheduled a slow, social ride starting at the Conservatory of Flowers in search of bats for the next evening. I realized that our ride might be the very first wildlife observation ride on the newly permanent car-free JFK. History in the making!

As BAS readers may already know, among the many species of wildlife that call Golden Gate Park home are several species of bat. And bats aren’t just a Halloween phenomenon, they live here year-round! They eat bugs like mosquitoes and a number of plant-eating pests that might otherwise chomp away at some of the park’s beautiful gardens. During the evening I like to take leisurely strolls on JFK Promenade, with my 8-lb chihuahua Zizou, looking and listening for bats.

In fact, since 2020, JFK has turned into one of my favorite places to walk at night, period. Skaters whiz by on illuminated wheels. 20-somethings gather for a silent disco. And night picnics speckle the lawn for the light show at the Conservatory of Flowers, while the same five songs from the 60s loop on repeat. JFK has become a destination for people day and night in search of enjoyment, health, community and peace.

The Myotis yumanensis (Yuma myotis) is just one of the bats you can find in Golden Gate Park. Photo by Daniel Neal/Wikimedia Commons.

So when President Walton pounded the gavel and car-free JFK became permanent, I knew our Bats & Bikes ride on April 27th would double as a victory lap on SF’s first permanently car-free street. I couldn’t wait to join my bike friends and nature lovers for a unique experience that could be the first of many. A car-free street inside our park will not only allow for nature and wildlife to thrive, but inspire us humans to slow down and pay attention to what’s all around us.

When I tell people that I’m a filmmaker, the next question they usually ask is what I make films about. “Bats and bikes,” I reply. And that’s basically how I came up with the idea for this ride. Until May 11, 2022, I’m running a Seed&Spark campaign in support of my film The Invisible Mammal, a film about bats in North America and the phenomenal women in science working to protect them. This social ride up and down car-free JFK in search of bats is a fun way to engage folks with my film, and with wildlife they may never have previously encountered in Golden Gate Park.

We began the ride at Conservatory of Flowers for a bat chat with wine and cheese.

Photo by Alec Hawley

Since everyone tells me my dog looks like a bat, I had to dress Zizou up accordingly. He was a big hit, especially with the kids.

From there we rode to Spreckels Lake and waited for the sun to go down and the bats to come out. I plugged a bat detection device into my iPhone, which translates bats’ echolocation frequencies and automatically identifies what species of bat is flying overhead. We waited at Spreckels until 8:15 pm, and after detecting zero bats, moved to our second location.

Photo by Alec Hawley

As soon as we piled our bikes against a tree at Lloyd Lake, I took out my bat detector and immediately started picking up echolocation sounds. First bat at 8:26 pm!

Photo by Alec Hawley

We had numerous readings of Mexican free-tail bats (one of the most common bat species in North America), a few big brown bats and a western yellow bat. I passed my iPhone around, so everyone had a chance to see the echolocation sounds being detected live.

Photo by Alec Hawley

At this point, since it was April, the sky was too dark to actually see the bats flying above our heads, which prompted one person to comment, “I can see why you call them invisible mammals!”

Our next stop was Stow Lake, my personal favorite spot to go “batting.” During the summer when it’s light out until 9pm, you can see (not just detect through an app) bats flying around eating mosquitoes and other insects. There, we detected big brown bats, some more Mexican free-tails, and a pocketed free-tail bat, which was a brand new species for me!

Photo by Alec Hawley

We stayed at Stow Lake until after 9pm, sipping wine and detecting bats as they hunted for their bug-filled dinner. When we ran out of wine, we called it a night. Though a little cold, I returned home fulfilled that I was able to share two of my favorite passions into one unforgettable event.

The next day, many friends inquired about when I would lead another Bats & Bikes ride. I gladly scheduled another event right away. The more I can encourage folks to get out and experience wildlife in The City, the better. And the more I can help people see bats, and appreciate the values they provide to our shared ecosystem (like eating mosquitoes), even better. So that first wildlife observation ride on JFK Promenade will most certainly not be the last.

The next Bats & Bikes ride will happen on Thursday, May 5th, 2022. 


Kristin Tieche is the director of The Invisible Mammal, a feature documentary about bats in North America. To learn more about the film, or to make a donation, please visit: tinyurl.com/iheartbats

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