Sneak Preview of “Bats of Ontario”

This week Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Toby J. Thorne, who wants to share with you a sneak peak into the “Bats of Ontario” field guide he wrote. Check out the end of the post for where to purchase it!

Most field biologists will consult a field guide at some point in their careers. Whatever critters you’re studying, it helps to know what they look like, along with basic characteristics or measurements! Certainly I have accumulated my own small collection of field guides over the years. Field guides are exciting: filled with aspiration, and the promise of new adventures and discoveries. They are also working books. A true field guide is intended to be well thumbed, stuffed into packs, and referenced in all weathers.

But despite my love of field guides, I never gave much thought to where they come from. At least, not until someone suggested I write one.

For the past few years I have volunteered with the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. Founded by Phill and Sue Holder, the fund is in memory of their son Matt, a keen naturalist who died unexpectedly young. The fund’s goal is to provide opportunities for young people to get involved in nature, and Phill hopes to support the fund through the sale of field guides. To this end, he produces a range of well put-together guides. To date these include books on birds and moths in Southern Ontario, along with several checklists for Thickson’s Woods in Whitby, where the fund’s activities are centered. When he suggested I should write one for bats in Ontario I couldn’t say no!

A good guidebook is important when working with bats. In the tropics there can be hundreds of species, many of them understudied. In more temperate regions such as Canada, there are fewer species – for example, Ontario is home to just eight. Yet while there are not many species to learn for Ontario, figuring out how to tell them apart can be quite tricky. To add further confusion, there are two distinct identification methods for bats.

One way is to catch them and have a close up look. This works most of the time (if you have the appropriate skills and permits to do so), but sometimes it’s easier said than done. I have previously caught two species of European bats whose key differences are a tiny tooth cusp and penis shape. The second of those is only useful about half the time!

hoary bat in flight

A hoary bat, Ontario’s largest species, in flight. Although the bat’s open mouth and bared teeth may appear aggressive, this is actually just the bat echolocating to ‘see’ its way. Photo by Brock Fenton.

The second way to identify bats is to monitor them acoustically. Due to the difficulty and invasiveness of catching them, this is often the preferred method. Acoustic monitoring involves listening to the echolocation calls bats make during flight. The calls allow us to determine where bats are, and get a relative measure of bat activity. We can also try to differentiate between species of bat by their differing calls.

In practice, using calls to identify species is not simple. Bat echolocation calls depend on an individual’s environment and what it is doing. This means that different species of bats that are doing similar things can sound similar.  Also, to make it more confusing, the same bat can sound quite different depending on what it is doing!

These difficulties keep life interesting when you’re trying to ID bats, and made assembling a field guide seem like an attractive challenge. When I started, there was an excellent earlier guide still available, but at ten years old it is a little out of date on a few things, so producing my own guide was also an excellent opportunity to share some more up-to- date information.

An initial problem (and the one that worried me the most), was assembling suitable illustrations. Most of my own photo collection is of UK species, as that was where I first learned about bats before moving to Canada for my MSc. Since arriving in Canada I’ve managed to photograph some species, but not them all.

Luckily, Phill came up trumps on this front. He was able to negotiate the use of artwork by Fiona Reid, an incredible wildlife artist, for the guide. Fiona is the author and illustrator of the Peterson Guide to Mammals of North America. Phill has set the layout of the book around life size reproductions of Fiona’s illustration of each species, and the use of her artwork has elevated the book to something much better than I could have hoped.

Once Fiona had agreed to contribute her illustrations, I really started to feel the pressure to match her efforts with equal effort of my own! Over the past few years, living in Ontario and working with bats, I have become familiar with the local bat species. However, writing the species descriptions for the guide called for some research. It was necessary to fill in a few gaps and check for knowledge I’d not come across. Also, this was an opportunity to check the things I already ‘knew’. It’s always good to question ourselves!

little brown myotis bat in flight

A little brown myotis bat in flight. Previously widespread, many populations of this species have declined massively in Ontario and eastern North America in recent years. Photo by Brock Fenton.

While species accounts are the key parts of a guide, I found that I also enjoyed writing the introductory sections, which included background information about bats. There are also several sections aimed at beginners interested in learning how to watch bats.

Overall, producing the book has been a great experience, and I learned a lot in the process. It is great to have the chance to share that knowledge and hopefully encourage more interest in these amazing animals! Currently, bats are facing several worrying conservation threats (particularly in North America), and they need all the friends they can get!

Bats of Ontario is available online here:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/shop/

All proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. If you want to learn more about the fund, attend events or get involved, check out:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/

Toby caught his first bat at the age of eleven, and has been chasing them every since. After spending his teenage years catching and learning about bats in the UK and completed an undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Oxford. He moved to Canada in 2013 to undertake a researcher masters supervised by renowned bat researcher Dr. Brock Fenton. Since graduating he has continued to work on bat projects, and currently divides his time between the Ontario Land Trust Alliance and the Toronto Zoo, where he is spearheading the Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program.

Pushing the limits

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest blogger Laura Hancock, a Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who tells us why she loves fieldwork.  For more about Laura, see her bio at the end of the post.

Field work can be great. Sometimes field work means being outside in the warm sun, or camping under the stars. I love field work. In fact, as a second year Master’s student, I feel like I’m not doing nearly enough field work. I don’t miss field work because I love being outside (which I do), but I miss pushing myself, discovering how much I can do, and what I’m made of. As cliché as this sounds, I felt like I discovered myself when I had my first field experience during my freshman year in college. A graduate TA of mine invited me out to help him and some other graduate students measuring tree growth in a created wetland. This was the opportunity I had wanted for a year and couldn’t wait to get out there! I even skipped studying for a quiz because I was so excited about the opportunity (as someone who at the time was a perfectionist and had a 4.0 GPA, this meant a lot). As soon as I was out in the field, knee deep in mud and dirt, I knew I was in the right place and had made the right choice of activities at the time and overall in my life. I loved the work, the fresh air, talking with people who loved ecology, and like me, loved being out there. But what I found was the most invigorating was how real and raw everything was. This might seem like a complete “duh” (you’re outside for gosh sakes, how much “realer” does it get than trees, dirt, sun, and bugs?), but everything just clicked for me. I was able to let go of being a perfectionist or thinking about getting everything done. I felt like what I was doing made a tangible difference to someone and the environment.

I continued to do various field work projects through my senior year in undergrad – and then I got the opportunity of a lifetime. One of my favourite professors works with bats (possibly the most interesting group of animals on the planet). He offered me a position after I graduated where I would help monitor and track an endangered species of bat out in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of course I said yes, and patiently waited until I could finally graduate, not because I hated school (which I don’t), but because I wanted to be outside in one of the coolest places on Earth – Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

In June of 2013, two graduate students, a Death Valley park ranger, and I were tasked with the job of going out to monitor a maternal roost site in an abandoned mine. (Bats really love roosting in abandoned mines, especially in areas where humans have destroyed natural caves.) The best part? The mine was a 7 mile hike each way, off any paths accessible to regular park goers. Even better? It was June IN DEATH VALLEY. Hellooo, heat stroke!

Right now some of you might be thinking I’m being sarcastic, I’m 100% serious. I was SO excited for this. I grew up as not the healthiest kid. I was constantly tired and got sick a lot, on top of other issues. However, as I got older most of that stuff went away. As that happened, I realized how important it was to me to have a healthy body. I liked pushing my limits and seeing what I was capable of; when you put yourself in extreme conditions you have to be hyper aware of you, your body, your surroundings, and how you’re feeling. It’s like yoga, but for thrill seekers.

Now back to Death Valley in June. I was really excited to push my limits and hike 14 miles in one of the hottest places on Earth, in the middle of the summer. Turns out there was a “cold wave” the week the crew and I were there, so it was only 112 °F . Just kidding! That’s still PRETTY hot! The crew and I made the trek to the mine early on in the day, hiked to another mine a mile away over sand dunes and headed back. By the time all the work was done, it had been 10 hours and over 16 miles of hiking. I was by far the happiest and most energetic person on the field crew that night. We just hiked 16 miles in 112 °F heat – what couldn’t we do!?

Now that I spend most of my day e-mailing and reading papers as a graduate student, I long for those days when I got to be out in the field. I love the feeling of accomplishment and mental growth, but air conditioning isn’t bad either.

Laura HancockLaura graduated from Christopher Newport University with a B.Sc. in Biology in 2013.  Now she is a second year Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researching metapopulation and source-sink dynamics of garlic mustard.  Her background is in plants and plant-insect ecology, but a few years ago, she took a nine month break from plant and insect work to study bats and has missed the work every day since!

 

What did the bat say? A night of listening in the dark

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Toby J. Thorne, who tells us about some of his adventures wandering the deep dark night in search of bats.

Bats are rather mysterious creatures. Most people I talk to about bats think they are interesting, but don’t know much about them. It’s not all that surprising; unlike more obvious wildlife such as birds, people don’t encounter bats very often. After all, they are active at night, when people like to sleep, and even then it’s hard to spot small and flying creatures in the dark.

A Natterer’s bat taking off from a tree roost in the UK.

A Natterer’s bat taking off from a tree roost in the UK.

Happily, surveying bats is easier than you might think. Most bats (and all the ones found in Canada), find their way around in the dark using echolocation: emitting sounds and listening to the echoes to avoid obstacles and find prey. We don’t hear these sounds because they are at higher frequencies than we are able to hear, but a variety of devices known as ‘bat detectors’ can convert the sound into our hearing range, or record the bats (there are several more affordable bat detectors available if you want to learn more about your own bats!). With a bat detector in hand it is as if the bats are flying around shouting ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ What’s more, different species make different sounds, so it’s sometimes possible to identify the species of a bat based on its echolocation calls – though some species are more difficult than others, and the technologies, although improving, are far from perfect!

A big brown bat – in my experience, the most commonly encountered bat in southern Ontario. If you have bats in your garden or home there’s a good chance it’s one of these! Please note that the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation more than aggression.

A big brown bat – in my experience, the most commonly encountered bat in southern Ontario. If you have bats in your garden or home there’s a good chance it’s one of these! Please note that the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation more than aggression.

I’ve listened to bats for a variety of projects, along with my own enjoyment, including recording several million calls during my master’s research. Last year (2015) I was approached by Thames Talbot Land Trust to survey for bats at Hawk Cliff Woods, a site they are in the process of acquiring. Before heading out to survey, I used maps and satellite images in order to pick a transect route to walk. Hawk Cliff has a mix of forest, meadow and a field that is currently being farmed, and I wanted to cover as much as possible as different bat species have differing habitat preferences.

At Hawk Cliff setting off on my transect.

At Hawk Cliff setting off on my transect.

I arrived a little before sunset, giving myself some time to look around in daylight. I also took the opportunity to record a few waymarks that I thought would be difficult to locate in the dark with my GPS. Then it was time to get my kit together, and wait for the bats to arrive. I had a heterodyne ‘bat detector’, which allows me to listen live to bats’ echolocation and get a constant idea of activity – even when I can’t see anything. I also had an ultrasound sensitive microphone that records onto a tiny laptop in my backpack, I can review these recordings later to confirm species that I missed or couldn’t identify on heterodyne. I also had a smartphone with GPS and maps, to find my way and record it so I can geotag my recordings later. Lastly, I had a notebook and a couple of flashlights – nocturnal biologists love flashlights!

I try and time the beginning of my survey to be when bats start to become active, although this varies depending on how close you are to a roost and how dark it is, cloudy vs. brightly moonlit light for example. Activity at twilight is perhaps the most important. At this time, it’s unlikely that bats have travelled far from their roosts, so hearing them early suggests they are living close by. Also, for a brief time at twilight enough light remains that I can see the bats. This is something anyone can do without any special equipment; just go out in the twilight and look up (obviously this works best in the mid-summer, when bats are most active, and is pointless in winter). Bats’ fluttery flight is quite distinct from the more direct flight of birds. I love watching the aerobatics of bats in the dusk light, and it’s often possible to identify if bats are close to a roost – they sometimes fly around the entrance – or are feeding, characterised by sudden, rapid changes in direction to intercept prey on the wing. On my transect at Hawk Cliff, twilight activity was mostly made up of big brown bats, the species I encounter most in Ontario, with a few eastern red bats bringing variety.

As the darkness draws in it becomes impossible to see bats even when they’re flying over my head. But with my bat detectors in hand I can still tell when they are there. Activity can become less intense as the night goes on. Many species gorge themselves at sunset and then take things easier for the rest of the night. Activity is also diluted as individuals disperse through the landscape.

A closer look at my bat detecting setup. In my hand is my heterodyne detector, with my ultrasound microphone attached to the side with highly technical elastic bands. I usually like to have my laptop running in my backpack so I’m not distracted by the screen, but here I have it out to check the microphone is functioning correctly. It is, as demonstrated by the big brown bat echolocation calls visible in the spectrogram on the screen!

A closer look at my bat detecting setup. In my hand is my heterodyne detector, with my ultrasound microphone attached to the side with highly technical elastic bands. I usually like to have my laptop running in my backpack so I’m not distracted by the screen, but here I have it out to check the microphone is functioning correctly. It is, as demonstrated by the big brown bat echolocation calls visible in the spectrogram on the screen!

Finding my way at night, even at sites I am familiar with, often leads to interesting times. At Hawk Cliff I had planned part of my transect to pass through the forest. For the first half of this section I was able to follow a trail, and things were easy. I then crossed a ravine, luckily without too much difficulty. Finding my way out of the forest was more difficult as there was no trail, but I made it with the minimum of bushwhacking. However, things were more complicated a few weeks later when I returned to repeat my survey. This time the ravine was filled with goldenrod that had grown up above my head, and it took me almost forty minutes to find a safe route to cross. The effort was worthwhile though, as in and around the forest I heard several rarer species, such as the threatened little brown bat.

Another picture of a big brown bat, showing the wing extended and the general size of the bat. This bat can give a painful bite, which is why I am wearing a thick glove.

Another picture of a big brown bat, showing the wing extended and the general size of the bat. This bat can give a painful bite, which is why I am wearing a thick glove.

I usually wrap things up a few hours after sunset. Bat activity is usually lower through the middle of the night, so it’s a case of diminishing returns – and I still need to sleep. After a survey it’s nice to head home to bed – although at Hawk Cliff, that wasn’t to be. To maximise my coverage I had decided to stay the night and repeat the transect at dawn, so I bedded down in a sleeping bag in the back of the car instead…

Even when I did get home, there was still work to do. I have to go through the recordings from my microphone to confirm the identifications of bats I heard and then cross reference them with my GPS file to get a map of bat activity. I like to do this step as soon as I can, while observations are still fresh in my mind, and then write my final report.

A picture of a little brown bat along with a spectrogram of its echolocation call. Spectrograms are visual representations of the frequency, temporal and amplitude characteristics that are used by bat biologists to try and identify species based on echolocation calls. Again, the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation, rather than in aggression.

A picture of a little brown bat along with a spectrogram of its echolocation call. Spectrograms are visual representations of the frequency, temporal and amplitude characteristics that are used by bat biologists to try and identify species based on echolocation calls. Again, the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation, rather than in aggression.

Learning to listen to bats is a great way to experience wildlife in a rather novel way. Of course there is a limit to what we can learn just by listening and to answer some questions we have to catch bats, and I enjoy doing that too. However, I’ll always love seeing bats in their element – even if sometimes my ears have to do the seeing.

HeadshotToby first encountered bats at an event in his local park in the UK at the age of 11. Two weeks later, with a local enthusiast group, he caught his first bat and got an up-close look. He’s never looked back. Toby spent his adolescence listening to, catching, banding and radio-tracking bats around the south of England. In 2013 he moved to Canada to undertake a master’s studying bats at the University of Western Ontario, as well as for fun! For more information check out Toby’s website: http://www.tobythorne.com/

 

 

Making with the ha-ha

We are excited to welcome the super-talented Liv Monck-Whipp to the blog today. Liv is the creator of Tails From the Field and write for us about how she uses humour to share her fieldwork stories. Make sure you check out her site – it’s hilarious!

It was shortly after getting attacked by a Ruffed Grouse in Algonquin Park that I decided to start making comics about fieldwork. I had been making my way out of the woods after monitoring some thrush and warbler nests, and I accidentally strayed into a mamma grouse’s domain. She did not take kindly to this (I am a big scary predator lookin’ thing, or at least so I like to tell myself), and while her brood flew hither and thither, she flew straight at my eyes. Luckily I was able to brush her off before she did any serious damage, and she set about buzzing by my head, perching on my shoulder to flap into my face. She continued her assault until she decided a broken wing display was more effective, and I thankfully escaped with my life. True story.

Photo of a toad that says toad-a-lly awesome

And my friends thought my dramatic re-enactment of this story was pretty hilarious. Much in the way so many of us gathered to guffaw around #fieldworkfail, stories of minor mishaps and equipment failing*, or weird study subject behaviour, if told with a dollop of humour, can be used to grab the attention and interest of non-fieldworkers and fieldworkers alike. And it’s not just the fails that amuse us. I know that you know that your field biology and/or naturalist friends have some of the cheesiest nature puns and jokes out there (and please send them all to me!). These are the product of true geekery – being so into your subject that you can’t help but inject it into everything with a grin.

That harrowing grouse encounter was pretty early into my field days. My second season out there, and I was starting to appreciate how hilarious field work could be. From the surrealness of explaining to my relatives that I couldn’t visit unless it was raining, to waking up covered in slugs, there were a lot of funny-weird, and funny-ha-ha things. And I loved it. And I wanted to communicate about how awesome it was.

I’m a web comic addict (often catching up on them once the field season is over!). So when I wanted to tell stories and in-jokes, I thought in comic-terms. Comics, if you think about it, are a really elegant way of delivering a story or idea in a short amount of time. They allow for the nuances of facial expressions, and the hyperbole of exaggerated figures to come through without using up text. The messages are usually quick, and humorous.

11.FieldNotes

For my first few field seasons I was an assistant for graduate students working on bird and turtle studies out of Algonquin Park. Then I decided I wanted to do my own graduate work, and began studying bats in farmland. Somewhere in there, I worked for a large land trust doing conservation work, and I also got to radio track snakes and turtles for another study. This actually left me with a lot of “thinky” time in the field: hiking or canoeing long distances, or quietly getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while waiting for a bird to return to its nest. In this time I started to come up with comics and jot them down in my notebook**. Positive feedback from friends and co-workers convinced me that there would be a niche (geddit, geddit?!) for field work and ecology themed comics.

Laughter is a universal language. While I wanted to amuse others involved in field biology, I firmly believe that jokes and funny stories are some of the best ways to engage people about subjects you love, no matter their background. Humour can help to reduce the “stuffy scientist” image a bit, or lighten up an academic lecture. By sharing our sillier sides with each other and with the public we can gleefully spread our enthusiasm, and demonstrate just why fieldwork is so dang interesting.

So crack jokes in your talks, do that wacky impression of your study species’s mating call, and by all means, include that anecdote about “this one time we were out in the field and…”

8.LateBiologists

*LET ME TELL YOU SOME STORIES ABOUT SETTING UP MICROPHONES TO AUTO-RECORD…

**Always have a notebook. Always.

ProfilePhoto

Liv just finished her MSc at Carleton on the influence of crop arrangement and composition on bats. She did her BSc in Zoology at the University of Guelph, and then took off into the woods for awhile to assist in studies investigating nest protection for turtles, road mitigation for reptiles, and the effects of logging techniques on birds and vegetation communities. She also enjoys contributing to citizen science projects and is the creator of Tails From the Field, a web comic about field biology and nature.