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Paul SwensonPaul Swenson

Paul Swenson: Taking Flight.

The Big Brown Bat in Paul Swenson's hand is tiny - four inches long and weighing about a half an ounce. Its folded wings poke out like miniature stilts around its black, cone-shaped ears and furry face. Swenson positions a small, metal band on the animal's forearm and the bat clamps down, biting Swenson's finger hard enough to make the Willamette University senior grimace in pain.

Swenson, a biology major who is also a Morton E. and Jessie G. Peck Scholarship recipient, remains calm and blows gently on the bat. It's usually a sure-fire stop-bite trick, but it doesn't faze this creature. The bat's shiny black eyes peer unblinking at Swenson.

The young researcher is in North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains studying how logging impacts bats. He blows on the bat again, ruffing the dun-colored fur. The animal doesn't move. Swenson gently shakes his finger. He resists the temptation to pull the bat off, which could injure it. Finally, after several long minutes, the bat simply releases his bite. Swenson holds up his bleeding finger. "That'll leave a scar," he says.

During his two-month research stint, Swenson has been bitten dozens of times. It's a small price to pay, he says, to be able to study flight. "I've always wanted to fly," he says. "When I was young, I wanted to be a pilot." A study-abroad trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands in his sophomore year and one last year to Hawaii kindled his interest in flying animals.

He stands up and stretches wearily. His finger throbs slightly. This is the tenth bat he's banded out of the 15 he has caught tonight. Several nights this week, he and other researchers have stretched netting across forested bat corridors hoping to harmlessly capture the animals in the fine mesh. They then band the bats and outfit some of them with radio telemetry tags so they can track the animals' movements. "During the day, we try to find out where they're roosting so we know what part of the forest they're using," Swenson explains.

Other nights, he uses recording devices called AnaBats. "These record the bat calls so we can analyze what kind of bats are making the calls," he says. "If we record for a number of nights, it also tells us about their relative activity. You can't tell exactly how many bats there are, since the calls may come from one bat or from 200 bats, but it gives us an idea of the bat activity in certain areas."

The bats are active only at night. However, the researchers also need to track them and conduct vegetation surveys during the day. It makes for a grueling schedule. Swenson is paid for 40 hours a week, but he often works 80. "It's very common for us to start vegetation surveys and put out recording devices at 10 a.m., come back for dinner, and go back out until 3 a.m. It's a lot of work."

The next morning, after just a few hours sleep, Swenson tromps through the forest, marking off the study areas. He will study bat activity in four types of clear cuts: a control area with no cutting; an area with a 30-foot buffer between the stream and the clear cut; one with a 100-foot buffer; and one with no stream buffer at all. "The cuts will happen next year," Swenson explains, pulling the measuring tape through the brush. "There will be two summers of pre-treatment data followed by a year of post-treatment activity to see if there's a change in the overall activity of the bats around these headwater streams."

The work is important because bats, who are voracious insect eaters, are imperiled due to habitat destruction, disturbance of their colonies and widespread use of pesticides on insects. "All the bats in this forest are insectivores and they control a lot of insects like moths and mosquitoes that would not otherwise be controlled," he says. "Some moth species are especially good at camouflage during the day. At night, it's a different story and the bats help control them. Unfortunately, a number of bat species are endangered."

One of the most surprising things Swenson found out about bats was their individualized behavior and temperament, even within the same species. "Some bats are quite docile and will just lie on your hand, even if you aren't holding onto the tail," he says. "Others are very aggressive and bite continuously. Still others bite only when you manipulate them like when you extend the wing to measure it. Some will scream like the dickens. Others don't make a sound. Each one is really unique, with individual personalities."

Swenson wipes his brow. The day is heating up and he still has a number of vegetation surveys to complete and several AnaBats to set before the day is done. "I didn't expect to figure out what I wanted to study for the rest of my life," he says wistfully. He plans to pursue movement ecology, the study of animal movements and their environments, which encompasses his interest in animals, ecology and flight.

"This experience has helped me realize that I've stepped beyond just taking information and putting it down on a test," he says. "Now I can take in concepts and use those concepts to construct an idea to try to explain something."

This year, Swenson's Peck scholarship will free him to focus more on his studies. It will also enable him to take the next step and conduct some original research, including some avian research he's proposing. "There's a red honeycreeper called the Iiwi in Hawaii that we don't know enough about," he says, his dark eyes shining with excitement. "After breeding season, the bird takes off, but no one knows where it disperses. If we knew, we could implement certain management techniques to help the population that's decreasing."

He gazes across the undulating landscape of the Appalachias. "This year, I don't have to worry about making enough money to pay for school and it's my scholarship that's made the difference," he says. "I can concentrate on my senior thesis and my own research. It will let me apply my own ideas and knowledge to the real world."

Swenson has found his own wings.