Autumn Nature Notes: Birds, bats, wasps and eels
Nature is full of surprising curiosities. There is always something to learn.
Bird facts never cease to amaze me.
- Each year, one to three billion birds of more than 300 species spend the summer in the forests and bogs of Canada’s boreal forest. This 1.2 billion acre area supports more than 80% of the Western Hemisphere’s breeding populations of cavity-nesting Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker and Boreal Chickadee. Some 80% of waterfowl species, 63% of finch species, and 53% of warbler species in North America breed in our boreal forest.
- Terns are graceful in just about everything they do, including their courtship behaviour. Royal Terns perform much of their courtship in an aerial ballet, with the pair circling and spiraling high in the air in synchronized flight. But they also court each other on the ground, with ritualized feeding, posturing and bowing. Some Arctic Terns fly an average of 90,000 km on the round trip – the longest migration known. During their lifetime of about 30 years, terns may travel well over 2.4 million kilometres. That is equal to three or four round trips to the moon – a mind-boggling achievement for a bird that weighs only about 100 grams. Because Arctic Turns experience the summer at both poles, they see more daylight each year than any other creature on Earth.
- In most true shorebirds, such as sandpipers and plovers, the downy young are able to feed themselves as soon as they hatch. But the specialized feeding habits of American Oystercatchers take more time to learn, so the adults will feed the young for at least their first two months, teaching them how to open shellfish and find other kinds of prey. Most kinds of birds defend territories during the breeding season, driving away other birds of their own kind.
- Although Northern Gannets may mate for life, members of a pair might not see each other for months at a time. After wintering out at sea, they return to their nesting colony in spring and are reunited at their traditional nest site. Rebuilding or repairing the nest is an important part of their breeding-season ritual, with the male bringing most of the material and the female adding it to the nest. I think we could learn from this behaviour.
Bats are often forgotten and not much liked animals. Canada is home to 19 different species of bats and each and every one of them is important to our environment and also our economy. You may have bats in your home. This news might freak out a lot of people, but don’t put your house up for sale just yet. It’s easier to cohabit with bats than you’d think. But why are they there in the first place? In one word, the reason is roosting. Female bats scout out spots to roost and raise their young way back in the Spring. Those babies are usually born between June and August. So if you’ve got bats in your attic now, there’s a very good chance that there will be babies too. Bats seem to return time and time again to the same maternity roost each year.
Here’s why it’s so important that you take a step back and really think about it. So many of Canada’s bats are at-risk. The Tricoloured, Northern Long-eared and Little Brown Bat are all listed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as endangered. The Pallid and Eastern Red Bat are listed as threatened. The Fringed, Spotted, Townsend’s Big-eared, Western Small-footed, Yuma Myotis and Free-tailed Bat are considered species of special concern.
The biggest threat bats face is habitat loss. They simply don’t have enough places to call home. Considering that their survival relies less on high birth rates and more on high survival rate, and that they only have one or two young ones a year, it’s critical that they find shelter for them to survive.
Canada’s bats have some mighty challenges. And now researchers are concerned that they could be dealing with yet another threat – neonics. Neonics have been introduced into insecticides that get right into the plants – from the roots to the leaves. Neonics have a devastating effect on bees, butterflies and other pollinators, but it seems bats are very likely to be affected by them too.
Living with a bat doesn’t mean you have to share a bathroom with it. In fact, you really shouldn’t notice that you’re living with a bat at all. Bats can be relegated to the attic. By retrofitting your home, you’ll be providing bats with a safe roosting spot. Blockages, partitions and specific entry/exit points encourage bats to hang out in a specific area of the attic, where they do no harm.
Wasps don’t have the best reputation either. They’re not exactly a welcome sight at BBQs or outdoor picnics. Studies show that wasps are more disliked than their fuzzy bee relatives. Unfortunately, the negative feelings toward wasps are very likely due to the fact that there is significant lack of knowledge and education regarding the substantial benefits wasps bring to the planet’s function, health, and sustainability. However, these hard-working critters are actually one of humanity’s most economically and ecologically essential organisms. Wasps play a role in pollinating crops and flowers, and there are 30,000 identified species. Wasps can be found everywhere except in Antarctica. They can recognize another wasp by identifying the individual from their unique facial patterns. They are also incredibly proficient at managing pest populations. Social wasps use their stingers as a defence, whereas solitary wasps use their stingers and venom for hunting. Only female wasps have stingers, and the stingers are actually a modified egg-laying organ. Wasps come in any colour imaginable including red, orange, green, blue, and, of course, yellow and black.
American Eels are an important part of Ontario’s ecosystems. They were once one of the most common fish species in Ontario and supported important commercial and indigenous fisheries. These amazing fish swim 5,000 kilometres from Ontario to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda to spawn. Their offspring then start the long journey back as babies and finish several years later in Ontario as juveniles. In the early 1990s, biologists sounded the alarm about a drastic decline in eel populations in Ontario. The number of juvenile eels returning to Lake Ontario from the ocean had dropped from about one million per year in the early 1980s to merely tens of thousands.
Despite this warning, eels were not listed as endangered in Ontario until 2008. Unfortunately, this listing has done little to protect eels in this province because the government has still not finalized their action plan for the species. This action plan, called a Government Response Statement, outlines what steps the government of Ontario plans to take to ensure the protection and recovery of the species. The good news is that the government has issued a draft of their response statement. The bad news is that the draft statement still does not set out immediate and clear requirements for the recovery of the species in Ontario, and instead proposes another three years of planning. The main threat facing eels in Ontario are hydropower dams, which block juveniles from migrating upstream, and whose turbines kill adults when they try to return to the sea to spawn at the end of their lives. Getting eels around hydro dams is not easy, but a variety of solutions exist. Let’s hope for the best.
Final thought: without a sense of wonder there can be no conservation. As kids, we are in awe of nature. As we grow up, it is our duty to protect it.
Sources: Canadian Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy Canada, World Wildlife Fund-Canada, Toronto Wildlife Centre, National Audubon Society, Toronto Field Naturalists, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and personal field notes
Nature Notes are posted as blogs on the website of Nature Canada. Earlier editions are archived on the websites of the Rouge Valley Conservation Centre and of the Rouge Valley Naturalists.
This blog is written by Steve Gahbauer and edited by Sam Nurse.