Counting Pellets at Yaha Tinda

Last week, Amanda D and Eric went to Ya Ha Tinda Ranch to help Jodi Berg, from the Merrill lab, do pellet surveys. The ranch is located in southwestern Alberta and is a 4-hour drive away from Banff National Park. The ranch’s grasslands and coniferous forests are surrounded by the beautiful, snow-capped Rocky Mountains, which make it an absolutely stunning environment for fieldwork!

YHT1They set off for Ya Ha Tinda early Monday morning with a convoy of conspicuous white university pick-ups. They arrived in mid-afternoon and eagerly headed off to the field. Their task consisted of counting pellets to estimate the relative abundance of ungulates (notably elk and deer). They used a handheld GPS device to locate the pellet sampling points, which were distributed along a grid, and counted the pellet clusters that fell within a circle. Pellet clusters were recorded and aged (either “fresh” or “old”, depending on how moist the scat was), and attributed to a taxon: elk, deer, lagomorphs etc. They also recorded the habitat type (e.g. wetland, conifer, grassland, shrubland) and recorded the average height of grasses.

YHT3Of course, being out in the field meant that they got to see lots of wildlife! They saw feral horses, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and elk. Even cougar and grizzly bear tracks! On their way back home, they saw two grizzly bear cubs (from the security of their pick-up) next to a spot aptly called “Bear Creek”.



Needless to say, they were really happy to get out to the field, if only for a few days, and experience the beautiful vistas and wildlife of the Rocky Mountains. Amanda and Eric wish Jodi and her team the best of luck in their fieldwork and research, and hope to have the opportunity to help out again soon.


More information on Jodi’s project and Ya Ha Tinda Ranch:

What Happened to “The Early Bird Gets the Worm?”

Our Ferruginous Hawk crew had been installing tiny digital cameras near hawk nests to record how much food is delivered by the parents, hawk behaviour at the nest, and even prowling predators.

Not every minute is action though, as this sleepy FEHA is obviously not a morning bird.


Click on the photo to download a video of a sleeping Ferruginous Hawk.

Guess its a good thing FEHAs are raptors, not worm-eaters!


NACW and Honorary Squirreling

This past week Melanie, Rob, Craig, and Stan went Nest2off to the 15th North American Caribou Workshop (NACW) in Whitehorse, Yukon. All had a great time hearing about the workshop theme of “what is working” in caribou conservation, catching up with old colleagues, and spending time in beautiful Whitehorse. Melanie and Craig also represented the University by giving spectacular presentations about their work. Check out Melanie’s page for more info on her project, and keep an eye out for upcoming news about the 16th NACW in 2016 to be held in Ontario.

But what is a trip to the Yukon without squirrel IMG_0029camp? Melanie decided to tag along with Stan and Barb to see what the Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) is all about. Doing what she does best, playing in the outdoors and calling it “work”, Melanie became an honorary squirreler.

Melanie helped a team of grad students and technicians locate nests using telemetry on collared females. She also helped climb trees to catch the pups, take measurements, and tag their ears. There are plenty of really interested projects out of KRSP, and it would take a novel to tell you about all of them, so check out the website –

And of course, Stan showed everyone how it’s really done…

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Forget the Robin, returning Ferruginous Hawks are the true harbingers of spring


Each spring, Ferruginous Hawks return to the Canadian Prairies from their wintering grounds and our research team is ready to greet them. These provincially endangered and federally threatened Hawks return from the United States and Mexico in mid-March, when they form pairs and build their nests.


“Everything went South for Ferruginous Hawks” Southward migration paths for 11 Ferruginous Hawks monitored using GPS satellite telemetry in 2012 and 2013.

Ferruginous Hawks generally return to the same territory and nest as the previous year, but this isn’t always the case. Some nests are used for 10+ years and others are abandoned after only one year. Understanding what influences their habitat selection between years could be crucial for their habitat conservation.

Our team heads out first thing in the spring to tour southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. We check on historical Ferruginous Hawk nests and seeing who has returned home. Encountering a spring snow storm is pretty typical for our early spring field work, but it’s nothing that North America’s largest Hawk can’t handle.


A FEHA nest in a spring snow storm. That nest looks pretty cozy to me.

Sometimes Hawks choose to nest in a new spot because they had a lousy run the previous year. Our study has found that Hawks that had a successful nest the previous year are more likely to come back and use the same nest. Hawks that didn’t fledge any young were more likely to change nests the next year. This means that, like many bird species, Ferruginous Hawks will hedge their bets. If they did well last year, they’ll try the same thing again. Last year was terrible? They’ll try something new and hope for the best.P1P4

A female Ferruginous Hawk sits in the nest prepared for another breeding season. You get pretty good at identifying Hawks from just their foreheads, which are sometimes the only thing visible through a spotting scope 300 m away.

Other factors can also influence re-occupancy of nest. Winter storms can knock nests out of trees and other species will even steal a Ferruginous Hawk’s old nest. We’ve encountered Great Horned Owls, Red-tailed Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Common Ravens, and Canada Geese in old Hawk nests.


A female Great-horned owl incubates her eggs in a nest which was occupied by Ferruginous Hawks in previous years.

Our team’s research will be ongoing throughout the summer of 2014 with the ultimate goal of improving Ferruginous Hawk conservation and management strategies. But, in the meantime, we are happy to already confirm nearly 200 “Ferrug” nesting attempts this breeding season!

Stay tuned for more updates,

Cameron Nordell, Jesse Watson, and Janet Ng

Our research group is the Raptor Ecology and Conservation Team (REACT) in Dr. Erin Bayne’s lab, partnered with Dr. Troy Wellicome with Environment Canada.

Spotted: Melanie’s Elusive Wolves

The middle of Melanie’s study area has been a data gap – we were unable to collar wolves there two years in a row. Oil and gas crews always report wolf sightings, but when we manage to find them by air, which is not often, they are in locations that are too difficult to catch them in.

This  past week Natasha was in the area doing amphibian surveys. Lo and behold, she was following…


That’s right, Natasha found some of Melanie’s illusive wolves! Too bad the collaring season is over.

It seems like the wolves are taunting Melanie, but she has renewed hope that collaborators will be able to collar these wolves during the upcoming winter.