Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2008

Observe Pennsylvania’s Largest Bat Colony at Canoe Creek State Park

by Dr. Stan Kotala

One of Pennsylvania’s great natural spectacles can be observed this time of year at Canoe Creek State Park near Hollidaysburg, in Blair County. Every evening, you can watch almost 17,000 little brown bats emerging from an abandoned church in the park. This is the Commonwealth’s largest little brown bat maternity colony.

The church’s human congregation left long ago, but the building was home to thousands of bats by the 1990s. Since it was adjacent to Canoe Creek State Park and could serve an educational purpose as well as a refuge for bats, the church and its surrounding acres were purchased by the Wild Resource Conservation Fund in 1995. Thanks to the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the church was improved to make it more amenable to the thriving little brown bat population.

In addition, the bat colony benefited by the addition of a bat condo along Canoe Creek, about 100 yards downstream of the church. Soon after the construction of the bat condo, a garage adjacent to the church and additional acres were purchased for the growing colony.

Turkey Valley Church

Abandon by its human congregation years ago, the Turkey Valley Church is now sanctuary to almost 17,000 thousand bats.

The bat colony in Canoe Creek State Park’s Turkey Valley Church consists mostly of female little brown bats and their pups, but a few federally endangered Indiana bats have been found in the church as well. As a matter of fact this is the first site where Indiana bats have been found to use a human-made structure.

Each bat in the maternity colony has only one or two pups annually, and the young are born in June or July. The pups nurse for two to three weeks and are capable of flight within three weeks.

Little brown bats use echolocation to find and capture prey. The bats use the echoes to determine the object’s distance, size, and shape. They feed on flies, mosquitoes, wasps, moths, and beetles. Typical summer foraging areas include forest edges, especially along streams and lakes, and cultivated fields. Each little brown bat eats about 3,000 insects per night. The Canoe Creek bat colony, numbering almost 17,000 bats, eats 60 million insects each night. The ecological services provided by this colony are enormous! Because bats are the single most important factor in maintaining balance in the forest ecosystem, they are known as a keystone species.

Canoe Creek State Park and its adjacent landscape are important for bats of many species. An abandoned underground limestone mine on Moore’s Hill serves as a hibernation site for almost 30,000 bats of six species. In addition, the low hills along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River are the major feeding grounds for Canoe Creek’s Indiana bats.

In 2001, the Pennsylvania Biological Survey designated the Canoe Creek Watershed as an Important Mammal Area (IMA) because of its value to bats and other mammals. Of the 11 species of bats recorded in Pennsylvania, nine have been found within the Canoe Creek IMA. Of these nine, one is endangered (Indiana bat), one is threatened (eastern small-footed myotis), two are rare (northern myotis, silver-haired bat), two are uncommon (red bat, hoary bat), and three are common (little brown bat, eastern pipistrelle, big brown bat ).

If you’d like to take part in a guided program about bats at Canoe Creek’s Turkey Valley Church, then you should meet at Pavilion #1 in Canoe Creek State Park on Sunday, July 27 [2008] at 7:45pm. Heidi Boyle, the park’s Environmental Education Specialist, will take you on a twilight walk into the mysterious world of bats during which you’ll be able to sit and watch 20,000+ bats emerge from the “bat sanctuary” as they head out for a night of foraging on insects. Bring a flashlight for the return walk.

If You Go: From State College, take Rt 26 south to Pine Grove Mills. Continue straight at the light in Pine Grove Mills on Rt 45 and follow Rt 45 west to Rt 453. Turn left onto Rt 453 south and follow it to Rt 22 at Water Street. Turn right onto Rt 22 west and follow it for 11 miles to Canoe Creek State Park. Turn right onto Turkey Valley Road and follow this road past the Turkey Valley Church (on the left side of the road) to the main park entrance. Turn right and follow the main park road to Pavilion #1 for the program.

If you’d like to visit the Turkey Valley Church on your own, then just park in the small gravel lot across from the church on Turkey Valley Road and watch the bats from the observation area behind the church.

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Dr. Stan Kotala is the Endangered Species and Wildlife Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club. Moshannon Group outings and programs may be viewed on the Outings Page.