Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Winter Bat Activity

We tend to think of winter as a time when bats hibernate and won't be seen again until spring. In fact hibernation is not as simple as that: bats do awaken at times and move around. Indeed, they are sometimes seen flying in the midst of winter.

This afternoon whilst walking the dogs I spotted a Pipistrelle foraging over the River Esk. It was flying round in circles in the clockwork flight pattern typical of the genus and occasionally dropping down to catch an insect. A feature of winter bat activity is that it happens in daytime, as the higher ambient temperature means there is a greater likelihood of catching enough insect prey to offset the energy costs involved in coming out of hibernation.

I tried unsuccessfully to interest the dogs in the bat, as I have an idea it could be rather useful to have a dog trained to listen for bat calls and alert me when there's a bat nearby. Unfortunately, my pair of canine delinquents find the command "sit" quite challenging, so they aren't likely to succeed in training as bat-dogs.

When I passed by later on at dusk the bat was still hard at work hunting and seemed to be having some success, despite the ambient temperature being only 3 or 4 degrees. I have heard several suggestions as to why bats occasionally feed during the winter. It may be that individuals have been forced out of hibernation because they have failed to build sufficient fat reserves to see them through the winter, but it seems more likely that fluctuations in temperature may cause individuals to take advantage of the opportunity to forage on insects which have become active.

Different bat species have differing requirements for hibernation. Here in Scotland Myotis species, such as Daubenton's (Myotis daubentonii) or Natterer's Bats (M. nattereri) seem to be particularly exacting, hibernating below ground in caves and mines which feature a steady, low temperature, low airflow and high humidity. They usually hibernate in crevices or ledges where the microclimate may be particularly stable.

Brown Long-eared Bats (Plecotus auritus) are less exacting. When found underground they tend to hibernate on walls or hanging from the roof and are often closer to mine entrances than the Myotids.

The least exacting bats are the Pipistrelles, which are rarely found underground, instead selecting relatively exposed holes and crevices, which are more likely to be influenced by changes in the weather. Whether there are differences between the two Pipistrelles is difficult to judge. As they are impossible to differentiate without handling, they tend to be lumped together in hibernation surveys.

Last winter I wrote about a castle where a group of Pipistrelles and a Brown Long-eared were hibernating in crevices within a cellar (See "Hibernating Pipistrelles", February 2008). The castle sits atop a hill and there is a constant breeze blowing through the cellar. Unsurprisingly, no Myotids were found hibernating there.

A hibernating Pipistrelle

Carol and Nigel Terry, our local bat carers noted that a casualty Pipistrelle kept through the winter in a cold room tended to wake up and feed every 10-14 days. It may be that Pipistrelle autecology makes use of winter foraging opportunities and that they choose hibernation sites which better allow them to respond to these opportunities.

My website: David Dodds Ecology

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