An adventure in the far north – Deline, NWT

 Deline in the Sahtu region, NWT

One of the perks of graduate studies are opportunities to go to remote places that few other people get the chance to see. Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to travel to a remote fly-in only community in the Northwest Territory. The purpose of the trip was not directly related to my thesis, but to help start a local community bird monitoring program in two communities in the Sahtu region of the NWT, a project that the Bioacoustic Unit at the University of Alberta (http://bioacoustic.abmi.ca/) and my supervisor, Erin Bayne, is involved in. So in June, I travelled to Deline on the shores of the Great Bear Lake, and another graduate student, Michelle Knaggs travelled to Tulita on the MacKenzie River. Our roles were to bring autonomous recording units (ARUs) to the communities and start deploying them at various locations nearby with the help of locally hired guides.

The day I arrived in Deline was summer solstice and National Indigenous Day, and the following day was another holiday, Sahtu Day. The festivities involved a delicious BBQ cooked over a wood fire, a variety of games including egg tosses and obstacle courses, and a drum circle. These two days of local celebrations served as an excellent introduction to the community of Deline and gave me the opportunity to meet many of the locals.

In the week that I stayed there, I deployed the ARUs in several different locations around Deline. Though Deline is probably the furthest north I’ve ever been in Canada, the habitat was quite familiar. This area is still within the boreal forest, and the predominant habitat here is black spruce forest.

Black spruce forest in the area surrounding Deline

There were only a few roads and trails, so the access was relatively limited in the first couple of days because there was still so much ice on Great Bear Lake. Talking to people in the community, it was not that unusual to still have ice on the lake in mid-June, and it was largely dependent on the wind direction.

Ice on Great Bear Lake

Finally, the wind changed direction and pushed the ice out into the middle of the lake and away from the shores of Deline. In the last couple days I was there, I was able to get out by boat on Great Bear Lake and put some of the ARUs along the shore.

Boats along the shore of Great Bear Lake

The lake in the evenings was truly mesmerizing, flat as glass and incredibly clear, I could still see the rocky bottom several hundred meters out from shore. It was calm and peaceful being out in a boat on the lake in the evenings. The long days meant there was no rush to get things done before it got dark.

View of Deline from a very calm Great Bear Lake

There was a diversity of birds on the lake including Common Loons, and a variety of ducks such as Northern Pintails, Mergansers, and Scoters. In town, there were large numbers of Ravens and Herring Gulls.

A Raven and Herring Gull, abundant in town and especially at the town dump

It’ll be really interesting to see what birds we get on the recordings, the listening will be starting this fall. Since this area is so far north, it’s at the northern limit of the distribution of many birds. For me, it was a unique experience in the far north, one that I won’t soon forget.

  • Photos and blog post by Julia Shonfield

 

Field Fun Friday

A grizzly bear rubs against a tree in Clayton Lamb‘s British Columbia study area. Clayton uses hair samples from grizzly rub trees to identify individual bears and further our understanding of BC’s grizzlies. Bear claws are one way to identify the bear species. Black bear claws are short and have a darker color. Grizzly claws are long (about as long as human fingers!) and light-colored.

Photo by Clayton Lamb.

Squirrel Baby Boomers are Masters of Timing

New research and a great paper from the Boutin Lab and Kluane Red Squirrel Project!

Published in the journal Scientific Reports on 24 August 2017:
Hämäläinen A., McAdam A., Dantzer B., Lane J., Haines J., Humphries M., Boutin S.:
“Fitness consequences of peak reproductive effort in a resource pulse system”
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-09724-x

A North American red squirrel in search of spruce cones to cache away for the rainy (or rather: snowy) day. Photo by: Anni Hämäläinen.

For a squirrel baby boomer, timing is everything
It is mid-winter and the forest rattles with frenzied squirrel activity – they chatter and chase one another in ongoing negotiations about fleeting romance. This year, the stakes are high and the squirrels know it. Using cues unknown to us, they have correctly anticipated times of plenty in the coming fall, as the spruce trees in their forest are about to fill their branches – and the squirrels’ larders – with more cones than all the squirrels in the forest can eat. This kind of an opportunity comes once in a squirrel’s lifetime, as spruce “mast” seeding only happens every few years at an unpredictable frequency. When it happens, however, there is enough food around to support many more squirrels than at times of low cone production, and any babies born on the eve of such abundance will have a much higher chance of surviving the harsh winter ahead, relying on a pantry full of cones.

Evolutionary processes have ensured that the parents take full advantage of this prospect, because producing more offspring in such years can significantly increase the parents’ reproductive success and pass on those genes to future generations. Researchers working on squirrel populations of the Kluane Red Squirrel Project in the Yukon have previously discovered that squirrel females can produce multiple litters in the breeding season preceding a mast year, and “teen moms” are more common in those years, as yearling females are more likely to breed in mast years. For our latest study (Scientific Reports in August 2017), we analyzed the detailed breeding histories of female squirrels in those populations since 1986, and estimated how accurately squirrels match their reproductive efforts to the mast years. We then asked exactly how important it is for a squirrel’s fitness that their timing is right. To answer this question, we compared the total numbers of surviving offspring produced by those females that maximized their breeding efforts in anticipation of a mast year, relative to those who failed to do so.

To test the importance of the matching of mast years with high-intensity reproduction, we examined the annual number of babies a female produced over their lifetime. The typical squirrel lifespan is approximately 3 years, but some squirrels survive to 8 years of age. They can start reproducing in the year after they are born, or delay their first litter to 2 years of age or older. What happens in between varies significantly among individuals: some never succeed in producing a litter, while others breed in every year of their life, producing between one and fifteen pups in a given breeding season. Focusing on those females that successfully gave birth at least once, we determined the age at which they produced their highest number of pups, or their reproductive “peak”.

We then assessed whether females were able to match their reproductive peak to a mast year or not. This showed us that females were much more likely to achieve their personal high score in terms of pup production in a mast year if they were lucky enough to live through one – and for good reason. As we marked all pups individually soon after birth, we were able to then check which babies survived their first winter and thus reach maturity. This led us to discovered that when females matched their reproductive peak to a mast year, more of their pups survived to maturity. These females that maximized their breeding efforts in a mast year were less likely to survive long past that year, but her legacy would endure thanks to her genes that were passed along to the next generation of squirrels.

Most animals live in unstable habitats, in which breeding can be a gamble. Producing and raising offspring takes a lot of time and energy, and often reduces the lifespan of the parent when those resources are limited. An ability to interpret cues from the environment that allow the parent to anticipate opportunities available for their prospective offspring may change their reproductive “decisions” so that they forego breeding in one year, or give it everything they have in another year. In terms of evolution, this makes perfect sense: those individuals that solve this equation in the best way will contribute more to future generations, in a prime example of natural selection.

The average squirrel, like many other mammals, produces their highest number of offspring sometime in prime adulthood, with an increase in pup production in early life followed by declining performance at old age. There is vast variation in this age profile among individuals. It turns out that the timing as well as intensity of peak reproduction matters: females that can match their reproductive peak with favorable environmental conditions will produce more surviving offspring, and females that are able to produce more pups at their peak also contribute more squirrels in total to the next generation.

This youngster is receiving tags so that we can follow him through life. At this age, he is still being looked after by his mother, but in a few months’ time, he will have to leave home to find a vacant lot in the neighborhood and fill a pantry with cones that will get him through the winter. Photo by: Anni Hämäläinen.

 

Field Fun Friday

Two Canada lynx kittens from a family of five captured on a remote camera in Kluane, Yukon Territory last summer. When food is abundant, lynx have big families, like this one. When food is not abundant, females have fewer kittens or may forego having kittens altogether. Kittens stay in their mother’s den for several weeks after birth in May. In the peak of the summer, they begin to explore the world outside their den. This camera captured images of the family on one of its first trips out of the den.

Females will soon be establishing new dens and having new litters of kittens in Kluane. Food is abundant for lynx in the study area, and researchers expect big families again this year.

Photo and post by Darcy Doran-Myers.

Owl Calls 101

This is the time of year to get outdoors and listen for owls calling. From mid-March to early May is owl breeding season in northern Alberta, so they’re actively calling to defend their territories. In previous years, I would be out right now doing owl surveys for my PhD research, but this year I’m stuck in my office trying to finish writing my thesis. You may not have seen very many owls, but they are out there, and you’re far more likely to hear them than you are to see them. Owl species have easily recognized calls, and learning them is pretty easy because they are so distinctive. So for all of you that are interested in learning owl calls or heard one recently and want to find out what species it is, here is an easy guide to owl calls! Below are details for species found in northern Alberta with clips from recordings I’ve collected during my PhD research over the past few spring seasons.

For best listening of these clips use headphones and increase the volume if need be, some clips are more faint than others‎.

Great horned owl

You all know this one! This is probably the most typical sounding owl call. It consists of 4-5 hoots in a distinct pattern. Both the female and male will call in duets, and they’re relatively easy to tell apart, the female call is a bit higher in frequency (i.e. pitch) than the male. Great horned owls are very common, so you’ve got a good chance of hearing one. They are Alberta’s official bird, a great choice considering they are found everywhere in Alberta and in almost every kind of habitat. In the first clip you can here a female Great horned owl calling very close, and in the second clip you can hear a male and female duet:

Great horned owl female:

Great horned owl male and female calling in a duet:

Barred owl

Barred owls will also call in duets, though it’s harder to distinguish the male and female calls of this species. Their typical territorial call is the two-phrased hoot, commonly referred to by its mnemonic: “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all?”

Have a listen to this clip and see if you recognize this call:

Barred owl two-phrased hoot:

Another call that can be often by heard is the ascending hoot, this call has a similar ending as the two-phrased hoot. Here is a clip of what that sounds like:

Barred owl ascending hoot:

 

Great gray owl

This species of owl has the lowest frequency call of all the owls found in northern Alberta. It consists of several low hoots in fairly rapid succession. Take a listen to this clip of a great gray owl male calling:

Great gray owl male calling (with a boreal owl calling in the background):

The female great gray owl will also give a ‘whoop’ call, this isn’t very commonly heard, but it sounds pretty neat. Here’s a clip of the ‘whoop’ call:

Great gray owl female ‘whoop’ call:

 

Boreal owl

This species tends to call quite consistently. They are generally found in coniferous forest and are relatively common in the boreal forest of northern Alberta. Its call sounds like a trill:

Boreal owl call:

 

Northern saw-whet owl

The sound of this species call sounds like the backup beep of a truck reversing:

Northern saw-whet owl call:

 

Northern pygmy owl

This species is more commonly found in the western part of the province in the foothills and mountains, however I have heard them in northeastern Alberta as well. This is Alberta’s smallest owl species. They are active and hunt during the day and can be heard calling during the day as well. This species call is quite similar to the Northern saw-whet owl but with greater spacing between the hoots:

Northern pygmy owl call:

 

Long-eared owl

This species’ call is probably the most boring owl call, but it’s exciting to hear them because they are not too common. It gives a series of simple hoots that are fairly widely spaced out:

Long-eared owl call:

 

Julia Shonfield is a PhD student in Erin Bayne’s lab researching the impacts of industrial disturbance on owl habitat use and distribution in relation to oil and gas infrastructure in northeastern Alberta. For her research she conducts owl acoustic surveys and has focused on three of the species mentioned above: great horned owls, barred owls, and boreal owls.

Field Fun Friday

What do -38°C, a spacesuit and a wooden post have to do with songbird research?
I could only hold the camera for a couple seconds before my fingers froze. My field partner, Logan, and I had just snowmobiled a half an hour from our truck parked on an ice road ~80 km south of the Nunavut border, in the tundra of the NWT. We were not actually wearing spacesuits, but our big onesies, snowmobile helmets and steel-toed winter boots made it look like we were. Our task was to collect acoustic recording units (ARUs) deployed by Environment & Climate Change Canada (ECCC). The ARUs were deployed last year when the ice road was open, but started recording in the spring, after birds had arrived. Winter is the only time this northern boreal/tundra transition area is accessible. 100 ARUs, mounted on trees and wooden posts (when there are no trees), span a 400 km south-north transect along the ice road. After retrieval, recordings will be analyzed to identify bird species. This marks the start of a long-term monitoring project to identify and track the northern limits of songbird ranges, a topic of great importance in the face of a changing climate. Students from Dr. Erin Bayne’s lab collaborate with ECCC on songbird research using ARUs.
Collaborators: Samuel Haché (Environment and Climate Change Canada)
Location: Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road, Northwest Territories

-Post and Photo by Emily Upham-Mills

Winter Fieldwork in the Yukon

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
– Robert Service, “The Spell of the Yukon”

Field assistant Bailey, Kluane resident Peter Upton, and Bubba the dog snowshoe across the ice on Kluane Lake.

I spent January of this year in the boreal forests of Kluane, Yukon. My goal was to collect pictures, fur samples, and tracks of Canada lynx in order to estimate density of lynx in the Kluane area. My Master’s project compares methods of density estimation to improve lynx research and management. Every few months I head to my field site in Kluane. I have experienced every season of the year in the Yukon, from the midnight sun in summer to the deep dark and cold of winter. No time of the year is quite like January. 

Most of my time in Kluane, regardless of season, is spent hiking. This becomes particularly challenging in winter. This year, temperatures dipped to -35 Celsius and snow was thigh-deep in many places. Bailey (my field assistant/ hiking buddy) and I looked to lynx for advice on how to traverse long distances in deep snow. Lynx have disproportionately large feet, making them look funny in summer but helping them keep up with their prey in winter. Their feet function as snowshoes to distribute their weight and help them float on top of the snow. So, Bailey and I got some snowshoes. Not just any snowshoes; modern, lightweight snowshoes were ineffective in snow that deep. In order to make it to all our remote cameras and fur snag sites, we had to borrow extra-large, old-school snowshoes from a local outdoorsman. After a steep learning curve where we learned to walk without tripping (sometimes), the snowshoes became indispensable to our everyday hikes. 

Bailey and I in our snowshoes, on a long hike through a frozen creek bed. We set out this day to collect lynx fur samples from a snag. (Photo by Lindsay Potts)

Cold temperatures were less easily dealt with. Lynx grow big fur coats every winter, with a beard around their neck for a scarf and thick fur between their toes for boots. All Bailey and I could do was outfit ourselves in the human-made substitutes. No matter how much we layered up, we still lost heat throughout the day and had to manage it as best we could. When temperatures were low, lunch breaks to eat our (frozen) sandwiches were limited at five or ten minutes, or until the cold caught up to us. Taking off our mittens even briefly to check cameras or to make a note was painful. Camera screens wouldn’t work, handheld GPSs would turn off mid-hike, and even pen ink would freeze. The Yukon cold did not make our fieldwork easy.

A Canada lynx notices a remote camera set atop a ridge in Kluane.

Despite the deep snow and the deep cold, Bailey and I headed outside each day to take advantage of every hour of daylight available. A key lesson that I learned this field season is that tough conditions are not as tough when you have a friend by your side to experience it all with you. Long sunrises and sunsets, Northern Lights to light up the night, and expansive white landscapes can help counter the extreme conditions with extreme beauty. And the real reward for the tough times was a lot of data. We collected about 250 pictures of lynx and 100 fur samples for analysis in that month. Every successful camera or fur snag and every lynx track in the snow is another piece of the puzzle to understanding lynx populations and improving our management of an ecologically, economically, and culturally important wildlife species.

The sun rises at 10 AM and lights up the sky above the Alaska Highway.

I will return to Kluane for the last time in June. I look forward to experiencing yet another side of the North. By June, everything will have turned from bright white to bright green. The winter challenges of cold and snow will be exchanged for mosquitoes and mud. Long days will keep me outside for hours on end, and I look forward to returning to camp every day tired and happy. But I will certainly miss the Kluane winter and everything it offers. Again in the words of Robert Service:

There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh it beckons and beckons,
And I want to go back- and I will.
– “The Spell of the Yukon”

Dream team.

Darcy Doran-Myers