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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FWG volunteers tour AAFC’s plant, fungi and insect collections

by Lynn Ovenden, FWG Volunteer

Volunteers listen attentively and pensively.

On November 2, 13 of our volunteers were treated to a tour of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada‘s plant, fungal and insect collections. In scientific literature, these collections are known by the acronyms DAO (Department of Agriculture, Ottawa) for plants, DAOM (National Mycological Herbarium) for fungi and CNC (Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes).

We began in the Saunders Building, which houses several AAFC researchers who use the specimens in their work. Gisèle Mitrow and Jacques Cayouette showed us the vascular plant herbarium, a room where genera and species are traditionally arranged by classes, in folders, on compactable shelving units. In the folders, are paper sheets, each with one or a few dried plants. Downstairs in the preparation room, Amanda described how plant specimens are dried in a plant press, frozen to kill tag-along insects, then arranged and fastened to a paper sheet.

The label on each collection sheet shows the date, location, collector’s name, initial plant name, and the accession number, e.g. DAO20396. When another scientist uses that collection, for example, to revise the identification or to remove some tissue for DNA analysis, he/she notes this activity on the label; annotations increase the value of the collection.

The DAO collection began with James Fletcher’s 1886 personal collection of 3,000 dried plants. It now contains 1.5 million specimens from about 50,000 mostly North American species. There are 4,000 “types,” i.e., a specimen that was selected to exemplify a species (What is a type specimen?). Overall, the DAO collection is rich in species of agricultural significance, cultivars, pests, and potentially invasive non-native plants. The specimens are actively studied by scientists in Ottawa and elsewhere, via a busy exchange and loan system with other herbaria. The collection is also used to help identify plant fragments submitted by law enforcement and border security officials.

Next, we went upstairs to the fungal herbarium – a chilly room with push-button motorized compacting shelves. The National Mycological Herbarium contains 350,000 dried fungal specimens, which vary from microscopic dots on plant leaves and thin mushroom slices (both of these are stored in paper packets glued to a herbarium sheet) to bulkier mushrooms in cardboard boxes. Scott Redhead and Jennifer Wilkinson showed us a few examples of the diversity in the collection, carefully unwrapping each specimen: dots of a rust species on its host leaves, small boxes containing small brown spheres (puffballs), a polypore that yields an orange dye.

Scott opened one of the exsiccati (a formalized exchange set of dried specimens) from the 1800s, collected by an amateur naturalist in a ribbon-wrapped, book-like binding full of small packets, well-preserved but redolent of whatever toxic dusts were used at the time. The DAOM collection now includes several collections donated by other institutions and individuals such as John Dearness (1852-1954), a remarkable, largely self-taught Canadian naturalist and pioneer plant pathologist. Much of the collection comes from AAFC research programs on plant disease/host relationships in agricultural crops and fungal diversity of national parks.

The fungal collection is arranged in a functional filing system based on traditional morphologic patterns within the different classes. However, fungal nomenclature has been diverging from this traditional system, since mycologists started using gene-sequencing tools to develop phylogenetic relationships. The traditional notion that similar-looking species had a common evolutionary path has not been supported for many groups of fungi. Furthermore, international nomenclature rules now require a single name for both the sexual and non-sexual stages of a fungal species. This will be a significant change for the many species which have had separate names in their different stages.

Donning our coats, we then hurried over to the Neatby Building where we met Owen Lonsdale, one of several curators of the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes. The CNC is huge, at over 17 million specimens, including 11,000 type specimens. It reflects decades of exploration and expertise by AAFC on the northern insect fauna and pests of Canadian crops. The dried insects are stored attached to pins in rows, in small boxes, in large wood trays, on shelves, in row after row of compactable units and storage cabinets in the back wing of the Neatby Building. There is also a wet collection for broader bodied critters that don’t dry well: each little jar contains dozens of specimens in alcohol. Every jar and every dry pinned insect bears a label with written information so tiny it is hard to read. We saw battalions of pinned horseflies, gorgeous “charismatic” moths, forlorn mosquitos swirling in amber-coloured alcohol and much more.

We also saw the research library that supports AAFC research and expertise on cultivars, crop pests, biocontrol and biodiversity of Canada. All of our tour guides consider three things necessary for excellence in their service to Canadians: the library, the collections, and interaction with their colleagues.

Ed: Like many things known only to the academic community, the collections are an amazing knowledge resource funded by tax dollars. However, jars of preserved mosquitos aren’t especially trendy for budget makers, so if you get the chance be sure to let your MP know that you value the work done by these groups and the many volunteers who return after retiring to keep our world-class collection healthy! Another great scientific resource that Canadians can access from the comfort of their homes are publications through the National Research Council Canada.

Join in on the Ottawa-Gatineau 2012 mid-Fall Bird Count

Location: Around Ottawa, HQ at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden Interpretation Centre

3PM on Saturday, 20 October to 3PM on Sunday, 21 October

Come out for this great traditional birding event in the Ottawa-Gatineau area! You don’t need to be an “expert” birder to join in – even counting birds at your feeder from the comfort of your own home can be an important contribution. The more participants the better – to discover what’s out there in our area during the fall and winter seasons!

Volunteer for a few hours, or if feeling hardcore volunteer for the entire 24! Go solo, bring your kids or have a spotting party with friends – this is an opportunity to be involved in citizen science and develop a better understanding of local bird populations.

Ottawa is divided into zones, so you need to sign up first to receive or request an area as well as times and methodology.

The post-count compilation (free pizza, coffee, soft drinks and dessert for all participants!) will be held after the count on Sunday, at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden Interpretive Centre from approx. 4:30 – 8 pm.

For more information, please contact birdcounts@ofnc.ca

Get out into the great green and learn!

FWG Volunteer Katherine Forster is one of the minds behind Ottawa Urban Wild Tours, an initiative sponsored through Transition Ottawa to provide an opportunity for residents to get out and learn more about nature in the City. Through monthly tours on various topics with invited guides, OUWT is a great way to get taste of nature near you.

Of course, tours run by the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (FWG’s parent organisation) are another fabulous way to get outside and learn. Events include tours and workshops, and vary in level of technical ability.

Citizen Science in the Ottawa Area

Written with C Hanrahan │ FWG

Citizen scientists can be any age. The Macoun Club is a great way for your child to learn about nature (and yourself, should you decide to tag along!) Visit their website to learn more.

The word ‘scientist’ may conjure up test tubes, glasses and white lab coats, but an ecological scientist is more likely to be tramping around in Gore-Tex and North Face hikers. Nevertheless, ‘scientist’ also connotes a high level of post-secondary education and access to the ivory towers of academia. But anyone can be a scientist if willing to practice in an organised fashion – after all, a scientist is really just a person with knowledge, interest and the willingness to exercise due diligence over the quality of information he or she collects.

A citizen scientist might be you or your child. With the advent of interactive technologies, citizen science is taking off as a valuable tool for monitoring our natural world. Citizen science is simply where many people without specific qualifications but who do have the interest and time can participate in the collection of information for scientific analysis. You can be a seasoned naturalist or perhaps you can only recognise two butterfly species, but either way you can participate by sharing your knowledge and observations to create a mega sample across many geographies. With shrinking research budgets, especially in conservation ecology, citizen science is an ideal way to create large datasets for analysis. Continue reading