Friday, January 09, 2009

Something Is Killing Our Bats

Little Brown Bat. Illustration Credit: USFWSBats are a common part of Central Park's wildlife population,though unknown to most visitors . Five species of bat have been recorded in the park:the Big Brown Bat, Little Brown Bat, [pictured above] Red Bat, Silver-haired Bat, and the Long-eared Bat. [My book, Central Park in the Dark tells about our discovery of a Long-eared Bat, and includes several other bat stories.]

Now our bats are are in trouble. The article below, from the US Fish and Wildlife website, summarizes the problem:

The White-Nose Syndrome Mystery

Tens of thousands of hibernating bats died this winter in the northeast, and we don't know why. In and around caves and mines in eastern and upstate New York, Vermont, western Massachusetts, and northwestern Connecticut, biologists found sick, dying and dead bats in unprecedented numbers. In just eight of the affected New York caves, mortality appears to range from 80 percent to 100 percent since WNS was first documented at each site, based on winter surveys.

These bats often have a white fungus on their muzzles (hence the name "white-nose syndrome") and other parts of their bodies. Despite the continuing search to find the source of this condition by numerous laboratories and state and federal biologists, the cause of the bat deaths remains a mystery. Recent identification of a cold-loving fungus could be a step toward an answer.

Little brown bats with white-nose syndrome, New York  Credit: Photo courtesy Nancy Heaslip, New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Bats are an important part of our ecosystem. One bat may eat from 50 percent to 75 percent of its body weight in flying insects a night during the summer months. Because females produce just one pup a year, the plunging number of bats — apparently as many as 90 percent loss in some hibernacula — translates into a crisis in bat populations in four states with no end in sight and potentially far-reaching effects, an ecological disaster in the making.

At least one of the affected species, the Indiana bat, is protected by the Endangered Species Act. Little brown bats, the most numerous bats in the Northeast, are sustaining the largest number of deaths. Also dying are northern long-eared and small-footed bats, eastern pipistrelle and other bat species using the same caves.

Biologists are not certain if the bats are transmitting white-nose syndrome among themselves, if people are the vector, if both bats and people are spreading it, or if it is comes from some other source. Affected dead and dying bats are usually emaciated, and those found outside are often severely dehydrated.

Bat white-nose syndrome occurrence by county in Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut 11-3-08

At the beginning of April 2008, we had identified white-nose syndrome in 18 sites in New York; five sites in Vermont; three sites in Massachusetts; one site in Connecticut; and three possible sites in Pennsylvania. The states of New York, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts are investigating the geographical extent of the outbreak, revisiting sites to determine the amount of mortality, and providing bat specimens to laboratories throughout the United States for analysis to help determine the cause of bat deaths.

This summer, people are reporting dead and dying little brown bats at their summer roosts in attics, barns and other outbuildings in the four states with confirmed white-nose syndrome and in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, neither of which have confirmed white-nose syndrome in winter hibernacula. While doing surveys of forested areas, biologists have also caught bats with abnormal wing tissues, including white spots, holes and tears. We are also seeing a higher than usual number of pups falling and dying. We do not know if these summer bat deaths are directly caused by white-nose syndrome or if the bats are weakened from fighting off white-nose syndrome in the winter hibernacula and have not been able to recuperate.

The bat conservation community is concerned and involved in exploring the possible cause of the disease and raising funds to assist in the research. National and regional caving organizations are coordinating with state biologists to help assess the situation, providing the most current information to the caving community regarding advisories, and documenting cave visitations to determine if cavers could be spreading the cause of the outbreak.

If you have observed potential signs of white-nose syndrome in bats during a caving trip, or if you have dead or dying bats in your area, send information to the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Forthcoming lecture:

Next Tues, January 13, 2009, the New York Linnaean Society is presenting a program entitled WHITE NOSE SYNDROME: DARK TIMES FOR BATS. The speaker will be Alan Hicks of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation The meeting is at the American Museum of Naturtal History, in the Linder Theater, at 7:30. Admission to all lectures of the Linnaean Society is free.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Pale Male [or Lola] with twig

Courtesy of -- Pale Male with twig, 2004

Hope springs eternal. Today the first report of the season arrived in an e-mail from Susan Baxter:

I am a lover of Central Park and all the wildlife. Thought you would be interested in knowing that this morning on my walk to work I witnessed Pale Male or Lola fly above me by the Hawk Bench around 7:20 am with a twig in their beak which they flew to their nest with. They are already getting ready for hopefully a successful breeding season this year. Best wishes. I love your web-site.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In memoriam Eleanor

I knew Eleanor Tauber as a Central Park birdwatcher and photographer and posted many of her photos on this site, including the three below. Now I'm sad to tell you that she died during the last days of 2008. Only when I read her death notice last Monday [also included below] did I learn of this talented woman's other great talents.

Three photos by Eleanor Tauber

From the NY Times, Jan 5, 2009

Eleanor J Tauber

1937 - 2008
ELEANOR J. TAUBER � actress, singer, artist, writer, photographer, and bird watcher � passed away at age 71 on December 20 at Calvary Hospital following an illness. Eleanor understudied Dina Merrill in the lead role of Mrs. Manningham in the Broadway production of Angel Street in the 1970's. She played Mrs. Oxenham in the Star Package Tour of The Hot L Baltimore with Jan Sterling and was a member of the Hypothetical Theatre Company, Inc. and the performance art group DADAnewyorkDADAnynyDADA.

Off-Broadway, Eleanor performed in several plays at the Pulse Theatre on Theatre Row, including O'Keeffe, Sunset of an Artist, a one-woman show about George O'Keeffe. On television, she played featured roles on All My Children and One Life to Live, as well as the U.S. Steel Hour, Robert Montgomery Presents, and the Lux Video Theatre.

Eleanor was born Eleanor Blumberg in Philadelphia on January 15, 1937 and was previously married to William Tauber. After graduation from high school, she was offered a fully paid four-year scholarship to Bryn Mawr. The pull toward acting was too great, however, so she turned down the scholarship to study with Jasper Deeter at the famed Hedgerow Repertory Theatre in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania, where she performed several roles in the Repertory Theatre, including Anne Shakespeare in A Cry of Players, Esther in The Price, and The Widow Quinn in Playboy of the Western World. Among the other roles she played during her career are Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, Maria in Twelfth Night, Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Gertrude in Hamlet.

An avid member of the Central Park birding community, Eleanor was a devoted supporter of causes related to nature, animals, ecology, and humanitarianism. As an Audubon Society volunteer, she spent many mornings working with Project Safe Flight, rescuing stunned and injured birds that collided with the City's skyscrapers during the night. She could often be found watching her favorite red-tailed hawks, Pale Male, Lola, and their brood, from the "hawk bench" in the Park.

In the last few years, Eleanor realized her dream of becoming a nature photographer when she purchased a digital camera, which gave her a whole new avenue of creative expression. Her talent is unmistakable in the hundreds of images she created, primarily of birds, landscapes, plants, insects, and other wildlife in her beloved Central Park.

Eleanor was a very spiritual person who had an unwavering childlike awe and reverence for the beauty and soulfulness of nature. She touched many lives, and she is and will remain sorely missed.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Will this be the year for Pale & Lola?

Pale Male & Lola on Beresford -- Jan 1, 2009

Our friend John Blakeman, the Ohio falconer and biologist, writes:


Soon, diligent hawkwatchers will begin to see the 2009 breeding season commence. Out here in Ohio we’ve already seen a few meager sexual flights. In a few weeks, and especially in February, breeding behaviors will resume in earnest among experienced pairs. Although it’s still hard winter, we can always look forward to spring with the resumption of the breeding behaviors of Red-tailed Hawks, which will start to occur at any time now.

Once again, we’d all delight in having eyasses once again at 927 Fifth Ave. I have a heretofore unannounced explanation for what may have happened last year. If this new perspective is true, there can be great hope that Red-tail reproduction at 927 will gloriously resume this spring.
After learning of the observations of hawkwatchers and falconers here in Ohio during the summer and fall of the past year, it is now clear that the 927 nest was not the only one to fail last spring. In October, at the height of the migration period, when immature Red-tails moving down from Michigan and Ontario should have been in abundance, very few immatures were seen this fall in Ohio.

I and two other falconers spent about six hours on five different days racking up almost 200 miles of travel on each day, all in the search for migrating immature Red-tails. We counted ample and typically high numbers of adults, from about 25 to 40 different adults each day. Ohio did not lack for mature Red-tails this fall. Their numbers were wonderfully high (as they have been in the last 20 years or so).

But we were seeing only one or two immatures on each of these back-roads hawk watching trips. In normal years, the ratio of adults to immatures in October would have been between about three to one, on down to five to one. Three adults to every immature is the usual range. This year, it was ten or twenty adults to one immature. On one day, we saw about 30 adults, and not a single immature.
Something was wrong.

Since October, I’ve talked to a number of my falconer friends in Ohio, along with some information from over in Pennsylvania. These people discovered exactly the same thing. There were very few immature Red-tailed Hawks in Ohio this year, and probably reduced numbers to the east.
The explanation I offer is this. One of my former apprentice falconers, a man who is now an expert master falconer, who also (like so many falconers, for obvious reasons) watches wild Red-tails in his area in eastern Ohio, gave me his explanation for the dearth of immature Red-tails this year.
In October I mentioned the difficulties I was having trying to find wild, migrant immature Red-tails here along the southern shores of Lake Erie, in rather wild areas that normally abound with these and other migrant raptors. My friend said, “John, don’t you remember that horrible wet, windy, rainy snowstorm we had last spring, either in the last week of March or the first week in April?” I said, “No, I don’t.”

My friend said that just before this aberrant weather hit, he was watching a local Red-tail sitting on a nest, one that he could easily scope out near his house. He said that after this weather hit, the female left the nest for excessively long periods of time. It returned and completed incubation, but the eggs became cooled and no eyasses fledged from that nest last spring.

And that’s my explanation, at least for the paucity of immature Red-tails in Ohio this year. In talking with other Red-tail watchers and falconers in the region, we now agree that there had been a general regional nesting failure in the spring of 2008, an event that probably happens once every 10 to 20 years or so. These infrequent failures have no discernable affects on the adult population, as they all easily survive the cold, wet, rainy, windy weather in March or early April. But as with the nest of my friend, two things apparently can happen to terminate successful incubation.

In the worst case, enough snow can fall so as to obscure the hawks’ primary prey, the common field vole. After expending herself laying two or three eggs, a sitting female Red-tail can get rather hungry. If her tiercel mate is having difficulty finding voles under the snow, even for a day or so, she may get hungry enough to leave the nest and go hunt for herself, there by lethally cooling the eggs.
The second egg-killing event probably does not involve the obscuring of prey by snow. If there are persistent strong, cold, rainy winds, even in the best wild nest, too much cold air can get down through the nest and cool the eggs, especially when the mother has to stand up and slice (defecate), or when she stands up to start tearing some prey her mate has brought her for food.
In most years, in all but the most severe weather conditions no lethal egg-cooling events occur. But my falconer friend diligently observed this at his wild nest, noting the absence of the female for short periods of time during the extremely foul (or, anti-fowel) weather.

All of this raises the question (for which I have no definitive answer), were there one or two days in Manhattan last March or April that were extremely windy, cold, and wet? Could the one or two days of really bad weather Ohio had have blown right into NYC? If so, this may well be the explanation for 2008's 927 nest failure.

Someone may have access to NYC weather records from mid March through mid April, and could more accurately determine the possibility of a severe, aberrant weather event there. There is no doubt it happened here. It was closely noted at one Ohio Red-tail nest, and there were very few immatures seen in the state during the summer and autumn. There was a marked hatch failure here last spring, and the only explanation is severe weather, involving mostly excessive cold wind and drenching rain during incubation.

If that’s what happened at 927 Fifth Ave last spring, there is renewed hope that eyasses might again grace the nest structure at that site.

One last point. Many have been concerned that Pale Male, old as he is, might not be able to produce viable sperm. I assert once again that his is highly unlikely. In autumn, I talked to a long-time falconer friend and biologist in Kentucky, raising the question of the healthful age of old Red-tails. This good man pointed out that he had a male falconry Red-tail that he had trapped as an immature bird, in it’s first year, and that he had hunted with it for 34 straight years. All the while it remained in good health and hunted successfully the entire time. In comparison, Pale Male is not geriatric in any sense.

Here’s hoping for 2009, both with my wild Red-tails in Ohio, and especially for the iconic ones at 927 Fifth Ave in NYC.

–John A. Blakeman

PS Please send in answers, if you have any, to John Blakeman's question in bold letters above,