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 ( 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


Kluane Lynx Research Feature

Lynx research out of Kluane, Yukon will be featured in the 4th episode “Winter” of the CBC documentary series “The Wild Canadian Year.” The Wild Canadian Year airs on Sundays at 8 PM / 8:30 NT on CBC Television. The Winter episode premieres this Sunday, October 15th. University of Alberta students in the Boutin lab worked with filmmakers to help catch unique footage of lynx for the documentary.

Watch a preview of the series and find more information about the Winter episode HERE.

Watch a sneak peek of a lynx chasing a snowshoe hare HERE.

Bayne lab flies high at ‘Birds in the Anthropocene’ ornithology conference in Michigan

In the first week of August a joint conference was held by the American Ornithological Society and the Canadian Society of Ornithologists in East Lansing, Michigan. The theme of the meeting was ‘Birds in the Anthropocene’, which aligns well with the research in the Bayne lab on understanding impacts of human-caused disturbance birds. Erin Bayne was invited as a plenary speaker and delivered an excellent talk entitled “How many birds will I kill in my lifetime directly vs. indirectly: Which matters more?” In this talk Dr. Bayne compared the estimated number of birds killed directly by window collisions and domestic cats to the number of birds killed due to habitat loss by forestry and other industrial operations. It was a compelling talk that forced us to think more critically about where to invest money for bird conservation.

Photo: Erin presenting some of the work from the Boreal Avian Modelling project during his talk on human-caused bird mortality.

Several students in the Bayne lab also presented their research at this conference including myself (Julia Shonfield), Emily Upham-Mills, and Natalie Sanchez. I presented my research in a symposium on ‘Mechanisms underlying avian responses to energy development’. It was a fascinating symposium with examples of impacts on birds from three regions of energy development in North America: Alberta, Wyoming and Virginia. The research I presented was on the impacts of energy development and disturbance in northeastern Alberta on barred owls, great horned owls, and boreal owls at multiple scales. Owls, unlike many songbirds, do not show avoidance of areas affected by industrial noise at the scale of a home range.

Photo: Julia presenting during the symposium on avian responses to energy development.

Natalie Sanchez presented part of her PhD research in her talk titled “Beak morphology predicts vocal features in songbirds: Understanding vocal responses to chronic industrial noise”. She presented in the session on ‘Communication and Song’. The main finding of her talk was the relationship between vocal features of birds commonly found close to compressor stations in Northern Alberta and those avoiding noisy sites with the shape of their beaks. She suggested the use of beak morphology as a trait to predict sensitivity to chronic noise in passerine birds.

Photo: Natalie presenting her talk on beak morphology and vocal features of songbirds.

Emily Upham-Mills presented part of her MSc research in her talk titled “Use of song rate to infer breeding status in the Olive-sided Flycatcher” in the ‘Breeding Behaviour’ session. Her presentation focused on how the amount and rate of singing declines as male flycatchers cycle through the breeding phases; pairing, incubation and feeding young. She also presented some initial results on using acoustic recording units to monitor song variation and the application of this knowledge in avian conservation.

In addition to great sessions of scientific talks, the conference also organized a number of fun social events. There was a quiz bowl of bird trivia where only the biggest bird nerds stood any chance of winning! Followed that evening by a fantastic live band called ‘The Ragbirds’. The banquet on the final evening featured very local dishes, with dairy products and pork produced right on the Michigan State University campus.

Photo: Natalie, Emily and Julia at the banquet.

For Emily and myself, our final day in Michigan was spent on one of the field trips of the conference. We left early in the morning for Shiawassee National Refuge, a beautiful and extensive wetland complex with abundant wildlife. Certainly there were many interesting bird species with some of the highlights including indigo buntings, gray catbirds, green herons, a bittern, black-crowned night herons, and a peregrine falcon. A great way to cap off a fantastic conference!

Photo: A panoramic view of the wetland complex at Shiawassee National Refuge.

Post and photos 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.

Previous Boutin lab student takes a first look, attempting to define habitat recovery for woodland caribou.

The public pushes for habitat restoration and protection to save caribou – one of our many conservation tools that can hopefully be a long-term solution while still managing in the short term. But, what does “restored” mean, and how can we evaluate it? Check out this paper that makes the first attempt at using a mechanism linking linear features like seismic lines to caribou declines: wolf movement on linear features.

Photo by: Craig DeMars

Linear features are thought to increase wolf movement speed, thereby increasing encounters with caribou and caribou predation. Presumably, when linear features are no longer linked to increased movement rates, the benefit of these human disturbances to wolves is decreased. Previous Boutin student Melanie Dickie used this logic to evaluate how much vegetation is needed on linear features before wolves slow down, and use them less. Dickie found that wolf speed dropped drastically when the shortest, sparsest path reached 50 cm tall. Beyond that, there were minimal effects of additional vegetation. However, wolves still moved faster on linear features until they exceeded 4.1 m. 

Photo by: Craig DeMars

So what does this mean to caribou? In a nut-shell, restoration should work to increase vegetation or other physical blocking (like fallen trees) up until 50 cm to mediate the largest effect of linear features on wolf speed. However, it will take time until linear features are fully recovered and are no longer perceived as a benefit to wolves. These results could be used to prioritize lines that have not yet reached 50 cm of regrowth, more efficiently using limited conservation resources. Additionally, restoration can be used in conjunction with other short-term management practices, until enough time has passed for vegetation to reach sufficient heights and densities. More research is needed to define final restoration goals, and this study takes the first leap.

Photos by: Melanie Dickie

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.