Biology in Action

The count was 24 hours of rain, excitement & adventure on St. Patrick's Island!

Despite the driving rain, the cold, and a spring that just didn't want to show up, research teams involved in the St. Patrick's Island BioBlitz on May 24 and 25 still managed to count 455 species in just 24 hours. That's some pretty impressive BioBlitzing.

The wildlife treasure hunt was led by Dr. Steven Handel, senior ecologist on the St. Patrick’s Island redesign team and a renowned specialist in urban ecology. In weather that was better suited to searching for an extra blanket and retiring to the couch, BioBlitzers scoured eight study zones to catalogue all the flora and fauna living on the island. The thrill of the hunt kept researchers from the University of Calgary, Mount Royal University, the Calgary Field Naturalists’ Society, as well as some hardy members of the public, in high spirits. For one chilly but enthusiastic pair of amateur bat surveyors, it was date night. “We were here for the earlier bird survey as well; we may be here all night,” they laughed.

Over steaming cups of coffee in the field tent, researchers tallied up the critter counts and shared their knowledge with rapt groups of graduate students and civilian biologists. Cold and rain may have kept the bats from venturing out of their roosts during the Friday night bat survey, but that didn't stop the dozen or so BatBlitzers from talking about them post-hunt. “Bats just shut down to save energy during lousy weather; they go into torpor and drop their body temperature,” explained bat-man Dr. Robert Barclay, head of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary. With no insects flying about on a cold rainy night, and with raindrops messing up their echolocation, the island’s bats had wisely chosen to snuggle up in the roost instead of hunting.

BatBlitzers learned that bats send out short bursts of high frequency sounds to detect insects and to keep from bumping into things as they fly. High frequency sounds bounce off objects, instead of going around them the way low frequency sounds do, but they don't travel very far. That's why bats dart around as they fly. Even though we can't hear those sounds, they are extremely loud. “It's like standing right next to a fire alarm when it goes off,” said Dr. Barclay.

During the 24 hour count, searchers were especially excited to discover a family of great horned owls fighting off magpies that were bothering their two chicks; starlings and yellow-eyed ducks; a big beaver hanging out by the pond; a giant diving beetle that was attacking other smaller beetles; and beautiful fields of star-flowered Solomon's Seal in bloom.

With the planned rejuvenation of St. Patrick’s Island adding many new plant species and enriched habitats, more animal species will make the island their home. That will make the park a more interesting and sustainable destination for all critters, including us.