Where do the Warblers Wander? Migratory Connectivity of Canada Warblers and Connecticut Warblers

This summer, biologists from the University of Alberta and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center were back in action in Alberta’s boreal forest. In an effort to find out more about where boreal breeding birds spend the winter, and what routes they take during migration, our crews have been putting tracking devices on a variety of bird species including: Broad-winged hawks, Rusty Blackbirds, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Common Nighthawks, Palm Warblers, Canada Warblers, and Connecticut Warblers as part of the Migratory Connectivity Project.

I have spent the last two years researching Canada Warblers for my M.Sc. thesis, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with the Smithsonian’s Michael Hallworth (post-doctoral fellow) to catch both Canada Warblers and Connecticut Warblers and fit them with light-level geolocators: tracking devices that record ambient light levels which are then used to determine locations. An estimated 85% and 95% of the breeding populations of these species, respectively, occur in Canada, and these neotropical migrants make the long journey to and from South America each year. Canada Warblers are listed as threatened in Canada, so there has been plenty of recent interest in finding out more about the drivers of population declines, and in what part of their range these impacts are occurring. Connecticut Warblers are highly under-studied, and known for secretive behavior during migration, so information on their migration ecology is scarce.  img_3031
Photos: Male Canada Warbler with distinct black necklace (left) and male Connecticut Warbler with full grey hood (right)

We headed out to Lac La Biche, Alberta to begin a whirlwind 10 days of “warblering”. Because both Michael and I had previous experience conducting research on Canada Warblers, and because I had worked on Canada Warblers in this area the previous year, we thought this species would be a good place to start. Using mist-nets, playbacks of male territorial songs and a decoy (“Agro Al” made by Hedwig Lankau) to lure them in, we set out to capture some birds. Within three days we had captured our quota of 15 Canada Warblers, including recapturing two of the males that I had colour-banded in 2015 (pictures here). This means these 10 gram birds had successfully migrated to South America and back, returning to the exact same breeding location in Alberta! We fitted all captured males with geolocators as well as unique identifying coloured leg bands to make them easier to relocate next year if and when they return to their breeding grounds.20160608_111640cawacrop220160608_104720Photos: “Agro Al”, our decoy, checks out a caterpillar while trying to lure in a territorial Canada Warbler (left); Anjolene fits a geolocator on a Canada Warbler using a leg loop harness (centre); This male shows off his geolocator light sensor, which will use ambient light to track his location during migration (right).

With the Canada Warblers taken care of, we set out to catch our second species, the potentially more elusive Connecticut Warbler. With our relatively limited knowledge of this species, we were anticipating a lot more difficulty finding and capturing them. We started our day planning on bushwhacking our way ~1 km to an area where this species had been previously detected. However, seconds after opening the door of our truck, we heard a Connecticut Warbler singing its heart out only 50 metres off of the highway. We hurried over and were able to capture the male fairly quickly and fit him with a geolocator. While we were processing our first bird, we heard another not too far away, and so the trend continued for the next few days, in which we caught our 15 Connecticut Warblers (including two in the same net!).

20160607_113110img_3027cawacrop3Photos: Michael extracts our first Connecticut Warbler from a mist-net (left); This Connecticut Warbler displays his new colour bands, which will be used to identify him next year (center); Michael fits a male Connecticut Warbler with a geolocator using a leg loop harness (right).

With the captures complete for this year, we now wait with anticipation until summer 2017 to recapture our males, collect the geolocators and find out where they’ve been!

-Post by Anjolene Hunt

A Grizzly Bear Population Inventory in the Threatened Kettle-Granby Grizzly Bear Population Unit

Between June and August of 2015, field crews led by Clayton Lamb conducted a grizzly bear population inventory in the threatened Kettle-Granby Grizzly Bear Population Unit. Crews set 124 bait sites across the ~8,000 km­2 area, which consists of rotten cow blood enclosed by barbed wire to non-invasively collect grizzly bear hair, which is then used to identify individuals through multi-locus genotyping. The bait sites were checked for hair samples at two week intervals, with most sites being checked four times throughout the summer.

A total of 1360 hair samples were collected, and field staff visually identified 29 percent of the samples as grizzly hair. The hair samples are currently at the genetics lab (Wildlife Genetics International) in Nelson, and we expect to have the genetic results back before March 2016. During fiscal year 2016-17, the genetic data will be used to generate population estimates and address questions regarding population size, composition, connectivity and the distribution of grizzly bears within the study area.

The study area for the 2015 Kettle-Granby Grizzly Bear Population Inventory, with the locations of the 124 baited hair snag sites identified by coloured circles. No grizzly bears were detected at the turquoise circles, while grizzly bears were detected during at least one check at the purple circles. While grizzly bears were detected throughout the study area, they were more commonly detected in the area in and around Granby Provincial Park. Note: Hair samples were classified as grizzly samples in the field based solely on visual indicators.

The study area for the 2015 Kettle-Granby Grizzly Bear Population Inventory, with the locations of the 124 baited hair snag sites identified by coloured circles. No grizzly bears were detected at the turquoise circles, while grizzly bears were detected during at least one check at the purple circles. While grizzly bears were detected throughout the study area, they were more commonly detected in the area in and around Granby Provincial Park. Note: Hair samples were classified as grizzly samples in the field based solely on visual indicators.

Post by Clayton Lamb.

Non-invasive sampling provides insights into carnivore ecology via mark-recapture, occupancy, and genetic connectivity for elusive top predators such as jaguars and tigers

A fully grown adult male tiger photographed by a camera Trap, photo by Marcella Kelly.

A fully grown adult male tiger photographed by a camera trap set up by Marcella Kelly’s lab.

Marcella Kelly, an Associate Professor at the Virginia Tech Dept. of Fish & Wildlife Conservation, will be presenting a seminar at the University of Alberta this week. Her talk will be in the Biological Sciences Building room M149 at 2pm on Friday, September 11.

Jaguar photographed by a trail camera set up by Marcella Kelly's lab.

Abstract: Remote camera trapping and molecular scatology have enabled researchers to gain valuable information on previously intractable, elusive top predators. For jaguars in Belize, camera trapping techniques have enabled us to examine the co-existence of multiple predators simultaneously to determine whether jaguars function as an umbrella species or whether meso-predators are suppressed by high numbers of the top predator. Additionally, using scat samples collected with the aid of detector dogs, combined with molecular scatology, we find evidence of a generally well-mixed jaguar population in Belize, yet a faint hint of population sub-structure exists, pointing to the importance of maintaining targeted wildlife corridors. For tigers in Nepal, camera trapping in the forested, hilly habitat known as the Churia, previously considered unsuitable, has revealed a healthy (albeit lower density) tiger population and a potentially thriving leopard population. Unlike Belize however, landscape genetics from molecular scatology in Nepal has revealed a highly structured tiger population with low levels of gene flow among tiger sub-populations. Habitat restoration or targeted translocations may be necessary to maintain genetic connectivity across the landscape.

A Day in the Life of a Wildlife Ecologist

When people ask what I do for a living and I say “I follow birds around the forest”, I often get strange looks. In reality, that is only a small part of what I do. Research in Ecology and Conservation often involves fieldwork (the running around the forest part) and/or lab work, data analysis, and writing of results. In my case, my main research goal is to investigate how a threatened forest songbird species (the Canada Warbler) selects habitat in areas affected by forestry activity. I hope to provide information on what habitat features need to be protected, and recommend best management practices to forestry companies to aid in the recovery of this species at risk.

Here is what a typical day of fieldwork looks like for a Canada Warbler researcher:

 

3 AM: We are up with the birds and taking our breakfast by the light of a headlamp.

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

4 AM: We quad, hike and bushwhack through dusty, muddy, log-strewn trails, cutlines, and thick forest to reach our study sites.

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

5 AM: We enjoy misty sunrises by the lake while trying to pick out the melodious song of the Canada Warbler among tens of other songbird species.

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Torin Heavyside

Photo by Torin Heavyside

7 AM: We use recordings of territorial male Canada Warbler songs to lure other males into a net. We gather information such as the bird’s age, weight, and wing length. To distinguish between individual males, we attach specific combinations of tiny colour-bands to their legs.

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Kiirsti Owen

Photo by Kiirsti Owen

10 AM: Armed only with our binoculars and GPS units, we follow each marked bird throughout the summer, taking GPS locations, and observing them find food, find mates, and raise their young. These tracking bouts, combined with habitat surveys, help us to determine home range sizes and gain insights into the habitat types they use.

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Evening: We enjoy the simple comforts of camp-cooked meals, guitar music, and naps in the great outdoors!

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Anjolene Hunt

Photo by Christine Kuntzemann

Photo by Christine Kuntzemann

All in all, wildlife ecology fieldwork makes for an unconventional, but unbeatable career! Stay tuned for the results of this study….

Post by Anjolene Hunt

Influence of anthropogenic development on Burrowing Owl habitat selection and fitness

Corey_Scobie_with_Burrowing_Owl_Photographer_Kent_Russell

Corey holding a burrowing owl, photo by Kent Russell.

Bayne lab member Corey Scobie is defending his thesis on Wednesday, June 3, 2015 at 9am at the University of Alberta in Biological Sciences Building CW313. Come check out his public seminar: “influence of anthropogenic development on Burrowing Owl habitat selection and fitness.”

Anthropogenic development may influence the choices animals make and their resulting fitness. I examined habitat selection of Burrowing Owls at several scales and their resulting breeding season fitness. First, I identified the types of landscapes features Burrowing Owls prefer to have around their nest and examined the relationship between these preferred features and fitness. They prefer to nest in landscapes with more annual crop and more road surfaces; features that had an unexpected positive influence on fledging rate. Second, I tracked adult male Burrowing Owls with GPS dataloggers and examined owl space-use during the day and night. During the day, Burrowing Owls spent more time near fences and posts, but avoided roads with high traffic speeds. At night, human infrastructure influenced where owls spent time more than artificial sound and light. However, owl selection of landscape features at night did not predict reproductive success. Instead, I found owls that spent more time near the nest burrow at night had the greatest nest survival and fledging rates. Burrowing Owls are a generalist species that is able to breed successfully in developed landscapes.

BUOWonFencePost_JanetNg

Burrowing owl on a fence post, photo by Janet Ng.

Alberta’s boreal birds and climate change

PhD candidate Diana Stralberg’s research was featured on The Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute’s Blog:  It’s Our Nature to Know.  Check out the post here:  http://blog.abmi.ca/2015/03/12/dealing-with-uncertainty-how-will-albertas-boreal-birds-respond-to-climate-change/#.VSvbnpOxUVd.

Are songbirds disappearing?

Be sure to watch SongbirdSOS, on the Nature of Things.  This episode of the nature tv series will detail the threats facing songbirds and the researchers studying these species.  Our own Dr. Erin Bayne will be in this episode!

SongbirdSOS debuts Thursday, March 19, 2015, at 8 pm on CBC-TV.  Read more here:  http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/m/blog/are-songbirds-disappearing.

 

Wolf culls and Woodland Caribou

Check out this article – a good summary and perspective on some controversial work that has recently come out of the Boutin lab.

Some additional words from Emma Marris that didn’t make the 700 word cut:

A spokesperson for Alberta Energy, Natasha McKenzie, said, “the actual approval to go in and actually drill is AER.” A spokesperson for AER, Bob Curran, blamed Alberta Energy, saying, “If the province of Alberta sells mineral rights, what they are saying is you are okay to develop. By the time it comes to us, that policy decision has already been made.”

Kyle Fawcett, Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said that current reduced level of timber and oil and gas activity, combined with wolf control, is holding caribou populations in the province stable while the details of the range plan are hammered out. “The premise our range plan is that this is a working landscape. There are multi-millions of dollars worth of investments; you don’t just sterilize them overnight.”

But while Fawcett says the province plans to keep oil and gas and timber active in the area, under the forthcoming range plan there will be “significant changes in how industry operates.”

Animal rights advocates were shocked to learn from the study the high number of wolves killed each year. Mark Bekoff, a retired ecologist and advocate of “compassionate conservation,” says even studying these wolf kills was unethical. “I just would have said, I am not partaking,” he says. And he says the killing would not be justified even if it were the only way to save Little Smoky caribou. “If you claim that killing the wolves is the only way than caribou can rebound, then the caribou have to go,” he says.

Such a triage approach is also supported by industry. Brad Stevens, Vice President of Western Canada Operations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says, “It makes sense apply resources in the areas with the greatest effect. The woodland caribou are right across Canada.”