Communing with bats at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

Alex MacDonald, of Nature Canada, demonstrated how to find bats using a small hand-held detector.

Alex MacDonald, of Nature Canada, demonstrated how to find bats using a small hand-held detector.

by John Davidson

“I can hear one, I can hear one!”

The excited cry cut through the night at the same time as the device in the young boy’s hands burst into a cacophony of staccato crackles.

This was the first time he, or any of the other 20 or so people around him, had ever “heard” a bat.

“But you can’t hear bats,” we can hear you, remembering your high school biology, starting to protest.

Oh, but indeed you can, thanks to a handheld device, about the size of a smartphone, which translates the ultrasonic (and hence inaudible to human ears) echolocation signals that flying bats constantly emit into audible sounds. Loud, crackling, audible sounds.

And not only can we now “hear” bats, we can even identify the particular species of bat by the frequencies the device registers.

It was the night of June 29. About 20 people, many of them young, were out to participate in a bat detector workshop put on by Nature Canada under its Naturehood program. And for some, children in tow, it was obviously a family outing.

Both adults and kids huddle together over the detectors waiting for the staccato sounds that indicate a bat is flying overhead.

Both adults and kids huddle together over the detectors waiting for the staccato sounds that indicate a bat is flying overhead.

After a short briefing at the FWG Resource Centre on how to operate the bat detectors, devices were handed out to participants, and off we went over toward the wetland pond.

The magic of the night

The short walk over to the pond was magical. The darkness of night sky — moonless — obliterated all the familiar trails and landmarks of the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, leaving all us a little disoriented, as if we were in a strange and new territory, relying on the stabs of flashlights to guide the way. But it was the sounds of the night that captivated us most of all. Our hearing suddenly became more acute. The deep, regular bass of frogs, the soprano whirring of insects, an occasional bird: the nighttime symphony was present and compelling. And along the way, fireflies hovering in the underbrush flickered greetings as we passed.

Workshop leader Alex MacDonald wasn’t sure how much bat activity there would be, or if there would be any at all. But on the wooden bridge crossing the pond, barely five minutes in, the first detector erupted with a crackle. The closer the bat, the louder the sound, and it was soon obvious that bats were making the most of the early evening. Most of the action overhead could only be heard on the detectors. But every once in a while, as the bats crisscrossed the pond in their search for flying insects, we could see their ethereal silhouettes flitting against the dwindling light of the night sky.

Alex says, “The Fletcher Wildlife Garden is ideal for this sort of exercise since it’s one of the most diverse wildlife habitats in the urban centre here in Ottawa.”

The workshop was not only a valuable experience for urban nature lovers, it fulfills an important scientific purpose as well.

Endangered bat species: you can help!

Endangered bat species found locally. Photos courtesy of Nature Canada

Endangered bat species found locally. Photos courtesy of Nature Canada

As Nature Canada explains on its web site, “We’re not doing this for just any reason. Here’s the scoop: Have you heard about White-nose Syndrome (WNS), an introduced fungal disease (Pseudogymnoascus destructans) that’s decimating many bat populations in North America? Estimates place the death toll from WNS at over 6 million bats since it was first detected in North America in 2006…. Sadly, populations of up to 7 bat species found in and around Ottawa have been impacted by WNS, and 3 of those species currently legally designated as ‘endangered’ by the government of Ontario: Little Brown Myotis (Myotis lucifugus), Northern Myotis (Myotis septentrionalis) and Eastern Small-footed Myotis (Myotis leibii). Given this situation we need to understand the habitats these bat species are using and how local populations are doing. That’s where the bat detectors — and YOU — come in.”

So, while part of the workshop was to create greater awareness of the issues facing bat populations, Nature Canada also wants to engage “citizen scientists” to help in data collection. Anyone can borrow one of these detectors through Nature Canada’s lending library, and use it to help feed data into the program on the local presence (or absence) of these endangered species. Complete information about the program is available at on its web site.

What’s in your “Naturehood”?

The way Nature Canada sees it, if you can get urban people — especially young urban people — out and about in nature, they will develop an early and lasting appreciation for the environment.

That’s the thinking behind Naturehood, a program to connect urban residents to nearby nature. And the Fletcher Wildlife Garden has all the necessary criteria for an ideal Naturehood: a diverse wildlife habitat and close to the city centre. That’s why Nature Canada chose it to launch its bat detector workshop program.

Kinship

Bats have always remained enigmatic creatures — rarely seen and often misunderstood. But after an hour listening to them through our machines, and hearing from Alex about their lives and the challenges they face, we felt a certain — what’s the word I’m looking for? — a certain kinship with these champions of the night. We returned to the city, reluctantly, but content that we had been able to learn a little more about nature that night. And to connect with it.

More about bats and a glimpse of the workshop

The Bat Detectors from John Davidson on Vimeo.

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