Friday, 10 April 2009

An early spring...maybe?

Last night I took a group of ecology undergraduates to a 200 year-old kirk (that's church to those without a Scottish education) in East Lothian, to watch for bats. I had my fingers firmly crossed on the way there: although I know the church and churchyard to have plenty of summer bat activity it is still very early in the season for bats to be at all dependable.

In the summer the kirk has a Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus) maternity roost within the roof structure and also has Brown Long-eared Bats (Plecotus auritus) inside the kirk itself - during the summer there is usually a light scattering of droppings over the pews. Last year I watched one flying up and down inside the kirk, warming up before going out to forage.

The most I could really hope for was that there might be one or two individual Pipistrelles foraging around the kirkyard - it's in a secluded, tree-lined valley, alongside a burn (or stream if you prefer), so it's good foraging habitat, even this early in the season.

When we arrived and walked round there were no droppings inside the kirk, althought there were some on the exterior, making me hope that at least a few of the Pipistrelles may be present.

At sunset a few Soprano Pips overflew the kirk at first, commuting from other locations in the valley. Then there came an excited squawk over the radio, announcing that someone had seen a bat emerge from the edge of the kirk roof and we watched about 30 Sopranos emerge from the same spot where I watched several times that number come out in the autumn last year.

I am sure that there will be many more than 30 bats in that roost in mid summer, when Soprano Pipistrelle females gather in large numbers to rear their young - these are probably the first arrivals. Interestingly, we also heard a male Soprano in songflight, the string of mating calls designed to attract mates. This is primarily an autumn activity, but seems to occur a little in spring as well.

It's not hard to see why the bats are active so early in April. The chart below shows night-time temperatures at the Met Office's Gogarbank station, near Edinburgh. There have been two weeks of fairly consistent temperatures around 7 to 8 degrees, which seems to be the level at which bat activity in this area picks up. As a happy coincidence, last night was also the warmest night of the year so far.

However, this might not be the end of the story. It's still very early in the year and weather is never as reliable as we would like. As you can see below, last year April started off warm like this and then went into a cold period for a couple of weeks, causing bat activity to fall away until nearly the end of the month. Only time will tell what will happen this year.

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