If you have been anywhere in the Palearctic during the past 48 hours then you can’t have missed the fact that we experienced that most rare of astronomical phenomena, a solar eclipse. The eclipse was total only as far north as the Faroe Islands and Svalbard; further south it was partial and here in Northampton the eclipse was perhaps 80-90% total.
It’s been big news with lots of public interest. As well as explaining the astronomy of eclipses, various commentators on current affairs and science programmes have talked about how animals respond to eclipses. This is a topic that’s intrigued me ever since the August 1999 eclipse. During that event I was carrying out field work in a Northampton grassland and as the eclipse reached its maximum the bumblebees and butterflies on the site stopped flying and foraging, and settled into the grass. Once the eclipse had passed they carried on as before. I don’t have any hard data to demonstrate the effect, it was purely an observation of what was happening around me.
Since then I’ve waited over 15 years for the next opportunity to observe how solar eclipses affect animal behaviour. Unfortunately there are few pollinators flying at the moment so I had to content myself with watching the gulls, woodpigeons, carrion crows and other birds on the Racecourse park adjacent to the university.
This time I took some video footage before, during and after the eclipse, noted the birds’ behaviour, flying, calls and singing. And guess what? As far as I could tell the eclipse had no effect on the birds! They behaved as if nothing was happening. Even a mistle thrush than had been singing all morning from a perch in one of the boundary lime trees continued its song as the moon passed in front of the sun.
That really surprised me! I was expecting the birds to at least reduce their activity as has been noted in previous eclipses. But they didn’t as far as I could tell. Perhaps it was the type of birds I was observing? Or the time of year? Or the fact that the eclipse was only partial? Lots of questions but it’s difficult to do repeat observations for this kind of science – the next British total eclipse is not until 2090!
What did you see? Did you notice any effect of the eclipse on animal behaviour? Or did you, like me, see no effect of the eclipse. I’d be interested to hear your observations.