Fighting fire with bikes: University of Alberta researchers use fat bikes to study birds in the wake of the Fort McMurray wildfire

Among the many impacts of the Fort McMurray wildfire this past spring, one of the less discussed is the disruption of research in northeastern Alberta. Although not devastating the way the loss of homes and businesses was, the 600,000 ha wildfire was a major wrench in planning for many research programs. There is a lot environmental and biological research in northeastern Alberta, due in part to the industrial development in the area. Not only did the wildfire burn many research study areas, it destroyed field houses and research equipment, rendered field sites inaccessible during critical times, and created logistical difficulties in an area of the province that is already challenging to work in.

This past spring was a stressful time in Dr. Erin Bayne’s lab at the University of Alberta. Our research group, the Bioacoustic Unit, conducts a large proportion of our research in northeastern Alberta. During the peak of the Fort McMurray wildfire in early May, at least five of Dr. Bayne’s graduate students, myself included, scrambled to develop contingency plans for our research, which we had carefully planned over the previous 9 months as if they were our babies. Our lab sat glued to the news and the live-updating fire layer in Google Earth, as Dr. Bayne updated us on how many of the lab’s acoustic recording units had burnt to a crisp. All told, our lab lost over $30,000 in field equipment, in addition to the countless time and money spent contingency planning.

A crispy acoustic recording unit (ARU) retrieved after the Fort McMurray wildfire

A crispy acoustic recording unit (ARU) retrieved after the Fort McMurray wildfire

Ironically, I study a bird that thrives in post-fire boreal habitat, and my study area is a five-year old wildfire. My study species is the Common Nighthawk—a highly understudied nocturnal bird that is listed as Threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. I chose to study Common Nighthawks near McClelland Lake in northeastern Alberta because the burned, sandy jack pine forest there is home to one of the densest populations of Common Nighthawks on the planet. The McClelland Lake area is the southern extent of the Richardson burn, which was even larger than the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, burning 700,000 ha of sandy jack pine forest and threatening Fort McMurray from the north in 2011. In addition to the nighthawks, the area is a haven for otherwise rare species; there are Canadian toads calling from every puddle, Olive-sided Flycatchers practically grow on trees, and Yellow Rails abound in the spectacular patterned fen that covers half of McClelland Lake itself.

Male Common Nighthawk roosting during the day. Photo: Emily Upham-Mills

Male Common Nighthawk roosting during the day. Photo: Emily Upham-Mills

An aerial view of the McClelland Lake patterned fen and the burned jack pine forest surrounding it.

An aerial view of the McClelland Lake patterned fen and the burned jack pine forest surrounding it.

During the first couple days of the Fort McMurray fire, I overhead someone ask Dr. Bayne how our lab was impacted; he said we were okay, except “she’s totally screwed,” pointing his finger at me. Yikes. My study area at McClelland Lake is at the very end of Highway 63. The only way to get to there is through Fort McMurray, which at the time was threatened by a massive, raging wildfire nicknamed “The Beast.” This created two major problems for my research: first, I wasn’t sure I could get to my study area at all! Highway 63 is the only access point to the McClelland area, and it was closed for much of May with an advisory that it could be closed again at any time due to the ongoing active fire in the area. The second problem was that even if we could get to the McClelland area, we could no longer rely on Fort McMurray for supplies and emergency support, and there simply was no alternative up there.

As any graduate student can attest, I was hyper-invested in my PhD thesis and determined to collect data. In the spirit of “Alberta Strong,” I buckled down for some creative contingency planning. Field ecology is a logistical nightmare on a good day, and this was one of the greatest logistical challenges I’d faced in my 10+ years as a field ornithologist. During May, I planned three different field seasons: one at my original study area near McClelland Lake, one north of Lac La Biche, and one in the Bruderheim area northeast of Edmonton. For McClelland (if we could get there), we would have to bring everything with us for four people for at least a month in case the highway closed again. So at the end of May, we rented a 400 L slip tank for gas, bought enough blue jugs to hold 500 L of water, cleared out a grocery store, gathered together the penultimate first aid kit, wrote a new safety protocol, and loaded up a truck and utility trailer with research equipment.

Truck and trailer with everything four biologists need for a month.

Truck and trailer with everything four biologists need for a month.

But there was also a third challenge: even if we could get to one of our three potential study areas, we had no way of getting around that study area because there was an ATV ban in place. ATVs pose a substantial fire risk because their mufflers can ignite fires, and Alberta was under extreme wildfire risk in May. Like other boreal researchers, our lab has traditionally used gas-powered ATVs to slog through the challenging terrain of Alberta’s boreal forest. Additionally, walking was not going to be effective for studying Common Nighthawks because these highly aerial birds can quickly travel large distances. As an avid cyclist, I joked offhand to Dr. Bayne about using bikes for field work. And then I remembered that some of the earliest fat bikes, those bikes with wide tires that Albertans ride in the winter, were actually designed for sand and all three of my planned field sites were sandy. I took a borrowed fat bike to a site in Bruderheim and was immediately convinced that fat bikes would be an effective, and fun, way to get around our study areas. Fat bikes would also reduce our carbon footprint, our fire hazard, and were sure to be a good workout. Above all else, fat bikes would ensure we could go wherever we needed to go without relying on ATVs.

Time-lapse test of a fat bike on the sand dunes of Bruderheim, AB. Photo: Jonathan DeMoor

The next step was to find fat bikes for the summer, and the Edmonton bike community had our backs! The University of Alberta’s Office of Sustainability was excited about the low-carbon aspect of our initiative, and lent a helping hand by approaching local bike shops and pushing the project forward. We eventually teamed up with two local shops—United Cycle and Hardcore Bikes—to put the plan into action. Fat bikes are expensive because of their specialized components and both community-minded bike shops saw that fat bikes would make our research possible, so they generously loaned us two bikes each! Our team of four would now be able to get around and do the research we had planned.

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-Fat bikes to the rescue! On loan from United Cycle and Hardcore Bikes.

So our team loaded the fat bikes into our utility trailer with the rest of our gear and started driving north in late May. To our great pleasure and my fortune, the brave folks fighting the Fort McMurray wildfire had battled it down enough for us to get through town and to the McClelland area just in time for the nighthawks to arrive. And the nighthawks did not disappoint! These nocturnal creatures were back again in large numbers, and we were able to carry out one of the most intensive studies of the species to date. My thesis objective is to study the variation in the sounds that Common Nighthawks use to learn more about their habitat use. This year, we tagged and tracked several dozen birds within grids of acoustic recording units (ARUs) to determine whether their acoustic behaviour varies between activities.

Elly Knight and Matt Timpf attaching a miniature radio transmitter to the tail of a male Common Nighthawk. Photo: Azim Shariff

Elly Knight and Matt Timpf attaching a miniature radio transmitter to the tail of a male Common Nighthawk. Photo: Azim Shariff

A male Common Nighthawk prior to release. Photo: Matt Timpf

A male Common Nighthawk prior to release. Photo: Matt Timpf

The fat bikes also did not disappoint. They allowed our team to get everywhere, including down roads that would otherwise be inaccessible because of fallen burnt trees. We travelled to study sites by bike, tracked birds from bikes, and deployed acoustic recording units by bike. Often we biked at night, because Common Nighthawks are nocturnal, which made for Go-Pro videos with a very “Blair Witch Project” feel to them. We had so much fun on the fat bikes that when the ATV ban was lifted mid-season, we continued to use the fat bikes and left the ATVs in Edmonton. At an average fuel consumption of 2.5 L/day, we estimate our team saved over 400 L of gas this summer by using fat bikes instead of ATVs.

Fat bike in the field. Taking a break during acoustic recording unit deployment.

Fat bike in the field. Taking a break during acoustic recording unit deployment.

The team of 4 with fat bikes. From left to right: Elly Knight, Matt Timpf, Azim Shariff, Orla Osborne. Photo: Hedwig Lankau

The team of 4 with fat bikes. From left to right: Elly Knight, Matt Timpf, Azim Shariff, Orla Osborne. Photo: Hedwig Lankau

Looking forward to next year, I plan to head back to the McClelland Lake area to study Common Nighthawks and I’d like to take fat bikes again. Regardless of whether there’s an ATV ban in place, fat bikes are more sustainable, not to mention easier to maintain, safer, and more fun. Within Dr. Bayne’s lab, we’d like to explore using fat bikes in other study areas too. They won’t work everywhere because there’s too many wetlands in northern Alberta, but we think they might be a realistic alternative in some of our lab’s forested study areas. As for the Fort McMurray wildfire, the aftermath provides a wide range of ecology research opportunities, and our lab is excited to get out there and study the animals that live in post-burn areas. There is a whole community of animals that rely on wildfire to create habitat for them in the boreal forest, including my study species, the Common Nighthawk.

Here’s to future adventures with fat bikes & birds!

A good omen: rainbow over the McClelland Lake study area at dusk.

A good omen: rainbow over the McClelland Lake study area at dusk.

-Post by Elly Knight

 

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