What do you think of when you hear the word “winter”? Does the word invoke visions of crunching through snow, a toque low on your head, a scarf tucked carefully in your jacket, and your toes warmed by thick socks? Do you picture walking through the forest in a regional park, hearing rain patter on the ground and children laughing as they explore?
When I think of ‘winter’, I think of all those things and how we’re lucky to be living on Vancouver Island. Southern Vancouver Island has the mildest winter climate in Canada. We don’t have metres of snow or bitter winds. The Olympic Mountains in the United States help shield intense winter weather. This means we can generally go for walks in our regional parks year-round!
Even with mild winters, animals in our regional parks have to adapt to the changing climate in different ways. Some of these animals are so few in number, they’re considered to be at-risk. How can Townsend’s bats, sharp-tailed snakes, and Marbled Murrelets survive winter in our Regional Parks? And how can we help?
Bats, the only true flying mammals, either migrate south to warmer climates or hibernate here during the winter. Townsend’s bats are one of the few bats that consistently overwinter in BC. They have a wingspan of about 30 cm (almost one foot) and enormous ears that are half their body length. They spend their winter hibernating in a cave, where they hang by their 10 toes, fold their wings in tight, and then coil their ears tight like a spring to reduce surface area and heat loss.
Easily woken up, these bats waste precious fat reserves relocating if their hibernation place is disturbed. Without these fat reserves, they may not survive the rest of hibernation. Since they only have one offspring a year, their population is slow to recover if numbers decline. While we may not see the bats when we’re out in regional parks in the winter, we can help them by staying on the trail to protect hibernation sites and wetland areas that provide homes for the insects the bats eat in the summer.
Snakes, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of flying south for winter. As thick as a pencil and a bit longer than a ruler, the sharp-tailed snake is the smallest snake on Vancouver Island. They have a sharp scale at the end of their tail (hence their name). Being elusive nocturnal creatures, these snakes are hard to find.
In BC, these snakes are found only on Southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in open woodland habitats, which are found in some regional parks. While the snakes do hibernate during the cold months, more research is needed about their winter habitat. In one study, researchers found one snake had a home range only the length of two school buses (25 metres)!
With encroachment from development, these snakes live in increasingly fragmented habitat. If you think you’ve seen a sharp-tailed snake, take a picture and report it to the BC Conservation Data Centre. These sightings help researchers know where these snakes live and therefore which areas to better protect.
One of my favourite birds, the Marbled Murrelet, is a black and white robin-sized seabird that is usually found foraging within a few kilometres of the shore in winter. While some migrate south for winter, others stay in protected waters in the Salish Sea, such as Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park. These sheltered coves and bays provide protection from the cold winds and high waves of the ocean—important when you’re a tiny seabird!
While diving for schooling fish, these birds can reach up to 100km/hr and “fly” underwater using their wings. While Marbled Murrelets feed in the ocean, they have a surprising summer breeding location—old-growth forests up to 80km inland. But with old-growth forests disappearing due to logging, these birds can have trouble finding large mossy branches to lay their eggs. For the Marbled Murrelets, protection of the ocean and forests is vital.
These animals are just three of the over 1,800 plant and animal species considered at-risk in BC and it’s not the challenges of surviving winter that put them at risk. Habitat fragmentation and human development means their small numbers could get even smaller. That’s why regional parks are so important. While they provide a place for recreation for us, they also provide homes and food for species we may not even see. Balancing recreation and conservation is everyone’s responsibility and teaching this to our families today allows future generations to also appreciate regional parks.
So when we’re out in regional parks in the winter, we can still crunch through the snow on the trail, but we can also be mindful of our family’s impact on other animals that rely on the park. By reporting sightings, respecting hibernation sites, and supporting the protection of habitat in regional parks, we can all help ensure these bats, snakes, and birds can survive many more winters to come.