Seeing Bats? Who You Gonna Call?

me and livingstone's fruit batBy Christina Davy

“Twinkle, twinkle Little Bat, How I wonder where you’re at…” (With apologies to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, 1865)

The winter of 2014 has been a bleak one, with record-breaking cold snaps. Most bats in Canada are hibernating (the exceptions are the species that fly south for the winter). West of Lake Superior, bats hopefully won’t emerge from hibernation until the snows have thawed and their insect prey have emerged. But to the east, it’s a different story.

Ontario is the current Canadian front-line in the fight against bat white nose syndrome because that’s where the current moving edge of the fungus’ distribution is located – next year, that line may be farther west or north, in Manitoba, Alberta or even the Northwest Territories. Bats only get WNS during the winter, and infected bats may display unusual behaviours. They may emerge early from hibernation, before there are insects for them to eat, and are sometimes observed flying during the day in the winter.  There are other circumstances that can also trigger winter flight in bats – but if you see a flying bat this winter, it could be an indication of WNS.

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Little Brown Bats hibernating in a mine in eastern Ontario show symptoms of white nose syndrome. (Photo courtesy of Lenny Shirose, CCWHC).

The fungus that causes WNS is moving inexorably westward, and we need to keep track of its progress to figure out what effect it is having. If we don’t know where the fungus is, we can’t track its effects from year to year. And we won’t know where to look for potential population declines  – or for more encouraging evidence that some bats might be able to survive the disease.

The Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre (CCWHC ) is the national organization that monitors health and disease in wildlife populations. Part of its role is to track the spread of WNS and coordinate a Canadian response.

The trouble is, we need to know “where the bats are at” before we can respond. Observations of day-flying bats are made by whoever is in the right place at the right time – often not the people monitoring the population.

This conservation crisis requires direct action from the public. Please help us to help the bats! It’s simple:

1)            Who you gonna call? Report day-flying, sick or dead bats this winter by calling the CCWHC! Report the location as precisely as possible, along with the date that you saw or found the bat, and the bat’s behaviour. If you find a dead bat, they may ask you to send the bat to CCWHC so they can test for signs of WNS (instructions for reporting and/or shipping are available here ). If you find a live, injured or unwell bat it can be sent to a local wildlife rehabilitation centre (please see this link  for instructions on safely handling injured or trapped bats).

Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island CCWHC Atlantic Region 1-902-628-4314
Quebec CCWHC Quebec Region 1-450-773-8521 ext. 8346
Ontario and Nunavut CCWHC Ontario/Nunavut Region 1-866-673-4781
Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Yukon CCWHC Western/Northern Region 1-306-966-5815
Alberta CCWHC Alberta Region 1-403-210-6678
British Colombia B.C. Animal Health Centre 1-604-556-3003

2)            Haven’t seen any bats this winter? You can still make a big difference. Email the CCWHC contact information to everyone you can think of. This way, as many people as possible can report their sightings.

3)            Post the CCWHC contact information on your Facebook page, or re-tweet it! Get your friends to help you spread the word.

4)            You can also report bat sightings to local government wildlife biologists.

CCWHC staff prepare to enter a hibernation site to check for signs of white-nose syndrome. (Photo courtesy of Lenny Shirose, CCWHC).

CCWHC staff and affiliated researchers use reports to pinpoint potential WNS-positive sites. When a previously unknown hibernation site is reported, it can be tested for the fungus that causes WNS, and added to the list of known hibernacula in Canada. When a dead bat is submitted to CCWHC, it is tested for the fungus, as well as for other potential diseases such as rabies. Genetic samples can also be taken for studies of Canadian bat populations. Sampling dead bats submitted to CCWHC allows research projects such as mine to collect genetic samples without increasing stress on populations that are already under a lot of pressure. Finally, the information obtained from tests of bats or of soil at hibernation sites is shared among Canadian and U.S. agencies. This way, the spread of the fungus can be monitored across its expanding North American range.

But this all requires reports from members of the public when they observe sick or day-flying bats. With your help, we can make sure everyone knows who to call!

Who is standing on guard for our Canadian songbirds?

Image By Kevin Fraser

They heed no political borders, have no passports, and wing their way across the lines we have drawn on the map. Are they ‘our’ migratory birds? Or are they tropical visitors to Canada each summer?

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Lili Chavarria holds a Wood Thrush wearing a light-level geolocator that will track its migration from her nature reserve in Nicaragua to breeding sites in north-eastern North America.

During this particularly cold January in the temperate zone, it is nice to think about our breeding songbirds that have now migrated to lush, humid tropical forest. If you happen to live in the tropics and like birds, you may excitedly anticipate their return each year between September and November. My Nicaraguan friend and colleague Lili Chavarria, often rhetorically asks temperate visitors to her nature reserve (El Jaguar), “Are these ‘your’ birds? Are they ‘my’ birds?” It is not a simple question, because tied up in these musings are not just ‘whose’ birds they are, but ‘who’ is responsible for their conservation.

Some 350 species that breed in North America migrate in fall to the Caribbean, Central and South America. Many of these species likely evolved from tropical non-migratory ancestors. Selection favoured migratory behaviour in some cases because birds were able to avoid the abundant nest predators reducing reproductive success in the tropics and to capitalize on the burst of insect food available in the temperate spring (and the longer day length for foraging). Despite the fact that these birds accomplish a critical portion of their life cycle in North America (i.e. breeding), they are here for a relatively small portion of their annual cycle.

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A male Purple Martin outfitted with a geolocator (photo Nanette Mickle).

My Liber Ero-supported research focuses on tracking migratory songbirds year round using new, miniaturized technology (Fraser et al. 2012, 2013a, 2013b). Among other important data, I can determine exactly how long birds spend at different geographic locations. For example, Purple Martins that I tracked from a breeding site in Alberta spent, on average, just 26% of the year (or 95 days) at their breeding site and 47% (174 days) at their overwintering sites in Brazil, with spring and fall migration making up the difference. To get back to the question of conservation, does that mean that Brazilians hold more responsibility than Canadians for the conservation of Purple Martins in Alberta?

The answer of course, is that we need to foster range-wide and international partnerships to protect migratory birds (and other animals) year round, wherever they are found. One of the hurdles is that while the birds do not recognize political boundaries, the funds that can be used to protect them often do. Much of the available funding to conserve migratory birds is for regional projects, not range-wide or full life-cycle efforts.

One pioneering solution to this problem is an Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies program in the U.S. called “Southern Wings”. Through this program, state funds that would normally have been restricted to protect migratory birds locally, can be applied to conservation initiatives outside of the U.S., either to protect important stopover sites along migration routes or specific wintering sites. The program helps to protect state investment in migratory species and is also cost- effective; migratory songbirds tend to be more concentrated on their overwintering ranges than at breeding sites in North America, thus threats in the tropics can have a bigger overall impact on populations, but so too can conservation action.

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A male Golden-winged Warbler captured during its overwintering period at El Jaguar, Nicaragua. This species is Threatened (SARA) in Canada.

To make projects like this work, we need to determine how populations are linked. We are only just beginning to figure out how populations are connected across the vast distances that birds travel. For Wood Thrush overwintering at Lili Chavarria’s nature reserve and coffee farm, we know from our recent tracking studies that some breed in Pennsylvania, which enabled the U.S.-based Southern Wings program to direct state funds to the restoration of migratory bird habitat in Nicaragua.

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A Tennessee Warbler on a banana feeder at El Jaguar, Nicaragua. Despite the name, most of this species’ breeding range is in the boreal forests of Canada.

What about birds that breed in Canada, but winter in the tropics? This category includes 38% (or 171) of our 451 bird species, many of which are species at risk. Currently there is no formal government program to fund the conservation of Canadian-breeding Neotropical migratory birds and their habitat once they leave our borders. Considering that breeding birds like Purple Martin are in Canada for just 26% of the year, conservation effort employed only within our borders will have limited success. Clearly, there is critical gap in our conservation efforts for long-distance migrants, and we desperately need programs like Southern Wings in Canada, with important links to our Species At Risk Act.

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Kevin Fraser with Lili Chavarria and her husband Georges Duriaux. Their coffee farm and nature reserve in the cloud forests of Nicaragua can be seen in the background. This site provides rich overwintering habitat for birds that will migrate to Canada, like Wood Thrush, in addition to preserving habitat for hundreds of tropical resident species.

For now, birds that migrate to protected areas such as Lili Chavarria and George Duriaux’s El Jaguar reserve in Nicaragua are some of the lucky few that may survive to breed another season in North America. For the future, we need to collectively work to make the connections and establish the programs that lead to full life-cycle conservation of our migratory species at risk.