Birds of a Different Colour: Ferruginous Hawk colour morphs on the Canadian Prairies

The Raptor Ecology and Conservation Team (REACT) is in the midst of the “trapping stage” of our 2014 field season. We trap adult male Ferruginous Hawks and attach solar powered GPS Satellite Transmitters which broadcast, to us via satellite, minute-by-minute hawk locations.


An adult male modelling his new transmitter. Photo Credit: Jesse Watson.

As of June 19th, Jesse Watson and his crew members have capturedand attached transmitters to 6 adult males in the interest of quantifying home range sizes, priority foraging and perching locations, and migratory pathways. Telemetry data will also be used to define critical habitat under the watch of Species at Risk Biologist, Dr. Troy Wellicome.

These data are enormously powerful and we are very fortunate to have a dataset with such a wealth of information from which we can derive a wide variety of complex and fascinating research questions.

Our trapping efforts have also yielded another interesting outcome. We have captured 2 Ferruginous Hawk “Dark Morphs”, a plumage color morph that deviates strongly from the typical Ferruginous Hawk morph (see above). Rather than the characteristic “ferruginous” rusty coloration and white belly, these birds exhibit dark plumages with minimal rusty reds mixed in (see below). The Dark Morph is said to make up only ~ 5 – 10 % of the population, so we consider ourselves lucky see these birds up close and personal.bdc2 bdc3


Contrasting dark morph (left) and light morph (right) Ferruginous Hawk captures in June 2014. Photo Credits to Adam Moltzahn.

Follow the light

Neotropical migratory songbirds breed in North America and overwinter in Mexico, Caribbean Islands, and/or South America. Although the wintering range of many species has been well documented, it remains unclear whether individuals breeding in western Canada occupy the same wintering range than those from Eastern Canada. Understanding migratory connectivity of songbirds (i.e. extent at which different breeding populations are occupying the same wintering area; mixing) is critical to elaborate sound conservation plans. Indeed, researchers acknowledge the importance of understanding the ecology of these migratory species throughout their annual cycle.

Archival light-level geolocators are being used by members of our lab to track the migration of the Ovenbird which is a small (ca. 20 g) songbird breeding in relatively high densities in Canadian deciduous forests. It overwinters in Mexico and Caribbean Islands, but it is unclear whether breeding populations across Canada are mixing on the wintering ground. The current technology does not provide small enough GPS units that would allow us to track Ovenbirds migration from the comfort of our office. Hence, we have to rely on tiny light sensors (0.5 g) to provide the required information.


In 2012 and 2013, we installed geolocators on male Ovenbirds that record light intensity every minute providing values between 0 (minimum; night) and 64 (maximum; day). The data (i.e. light value, date, and time) is then saved onto the memory included with the device. These sensors have been attached to individuals at three locations in Alberta (Fort McMurray, Slave Lake, and Cypress Hills) and in New Brunswick. Each individual fitted with a geolocator also received color bands to allow us to relocate them the following year. At the end of the breeding season (August), males fitted with their new ornaments started migrating south to their wintering ground.

Teams from the Bayne’s lab are currently in the different regions trying to recapture as many returning individuals as possible and retrieve geolocators. Expected return rate is similar to those reported from band recovery studies which show relatively high fidelity to their breeding territory (i.e. return rates of 40-60%). Once recaptured, light values saved on the geolocator’s memory are downloaded into our computer and processed through a series of programs, each with a specific task. For example, Bird Tracker uses time of sunrise and sunset for a given day to calculate the location (latitude and longitude) of each bird. We then use the coordinates to map the wintering area of each individual for which we retrieved the geolocator in ArcMap). Preliminary results from individuals recaptured in 2013 and this summer suggest that there would be little overlap in the wintering areas of western and eastern Ovenbird populations. Our team is working hard to increase our sample size to allow us to make stronger inferences. We already recaptured a couple of Ovenbirds this summer and will provide more details on this exciting project at the end of the summer!


Locations of two male Ovenbirds during summer 2012, winter 2012/2013, and summer 2013. The first individual was captured in Slave Lake, Alberta (A), whereas the second was captured in St-Léonard, New Brunswick.

Principal investigators: Erin Bayne and Samuel Haché

Assistance: Easwar Vasi and Hedwig Lankau

Collaborators: Marc-André Villard (Université de Moncton), Owl Moon Environmental (Kenneth Foster and Chris Godwin-Sheppard, and the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory.

Funding agencies: University of Alberta, Alberta Parks and Alberta Conservation Association

Workshop: Project Management

Looking to hone your project management skills such as leadership, planning, and scheduling? Mitacs Step is hosting a workshop (and its free for graduates and post doctoral fellows!) on July 9th and 10th 2014.

Check out the workshop details:

Job Posting: Biodiversity Specialist

Environment and Sustainable Resource Development is hiring for the position of Biodiversity Specialist in Edmonton, Alberta
Job ID: 1024457
Closing Date: 06/24/2014

If you are not an employee of the Alberta Government –

Note:  If you cannot access the job posting it maybe because you
are not eligible to apply for this competition, which is limited to
Government of Alberta salaried employees.

If you are an employee of the Alberta Government –

Note:  To access the jobs listing you must enter your Alberta
Government ADS ID and password, and then search for the job

Counting Beaks and Butts


Baby Ferruginous Hawks look up at our Tree Peeper camera. Photo: Janet Ng.

Our Raptor Ecology and Conservation Team (REACT) is running North America’s largest Ferruginous Hawk nest monitoring program.  In order to study Ferruginous Hawk ecology and potential cumulative effects, we check on hawk nests once a week to compare nest success across the Canadian Prairies.

We use an extendable painter’s pole with a camera mounted on the top to peer into nests.  We call them our “Tree Peepers”, trademark pending.  This method is effective and fast, thereby reducing disturbance to the nest. Check out the video below to see how’s it done.


We check on nests until the young fledge (i.e. naturally leave the nest) or until the nest is done.  If the nest didn’t fledge any young, we record reasons for failure.  Was it predated?  What kind of animal was the predator?  If the nest was successful, then we record the number of young fledged, when they left the nest, and other similar data.

All the data goes into our huge database (cue computer noises) and is readied for our analyses.

Nice view, guys!  Photo: Janet Ng

Nice view, guys! Photo: Janet Ng

Yukon River Quest Fundraiser

On June 25th 2014 one of our colleagues, Pete Knamiller and his buddy Jeremy Matlock are competing in the longest river race in the World, the daunting 715km (445 mile) Yukon River Quest. They will be kayaking in a tandem boat alongside 70 other teams from 15 countries. The name of the game is to paddle the Yukon River from Whitehorse (the territories capital) the 715km to Dawson City as fast as you can! You may be asking yourself…”and why?”…. and they are too.

Knamiller Fundraiser2During Pete’s training on Knamiller Fundraiserthe rivers, in the Yukon, he found himself thinking how amazingly lucky we are to have these beautiful clean rivers and seemingly endless water, something that millions of people in other parts of the world don’t have! His Dad has done a lot of inspiring work for WaterAid in the UK and this adventure seemed the perfect event to complement his efforts.

They are hoping to raise $500 for people who don’t have access to clean water and sanitation, and Pete would like to ask you, for your help to change this! Here is the webpage  for  WaterCan (the Canadian section of WaterAid). Please follow the link to make a donation. It can be as little as $5.

On this sight you can learn more about the work WaterCan does around the world and how your donation will be used to help.

Here are the details on the race:

If you are interested you can live track their progress during the race – June 25th – 28th depending how long it takes, they are hoping for 60 hours, but will be happy to just complete it in one piece…and still to be friends?

We all greatly appreciate whatever you can give, and thanks in advance for helping to provide the most basic requirement of life to those who still remain without it!

Listening for owls this spring in NE Alberta

Owl surveys started way back in March, when the landscape in northeastern Alberta was entirely snow covered and all the lakes still frozen. The field work wrapped up in early May, and it was a successful field season. This year was a breeze compared to last year, when the snow was so much deeper and it took ages to snowshoe out to the points.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Snowshoeing down a seismic line

As part of my project looking at the effects of industrial noise on owls, I survey for owls acoustically using automated recording units (ARUs) at noisy and quiet sites. The best time to do this is between March and early May, this is the breeding season for owls and is when they are most actively calling. Since these acoustic surveys are passive, I don’t often get the chance to see any owls, but this year I was lucky enough to see a Great Gray Owl and a Great Horned Owl.


A recorder set up on an aspen; Great gray owl

It can be very challenging to conduct field work in late winter/early spring. It starts with snowshoeing and snowmobiling in pretty cold conditions. Then things start to melt, and it turns into that awkward time of year when neither a snowmobile nor an ATV seems like the best method to get around. The roads start to get all muddy, and roads that were totally fine to drive on earlier in the year become completely impassable. Despite the difficulties, it’s a beautiful and peaceful time of year to be out in the field.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hoar frost on a chilly morning

Now that owl season has wrapped up, I’m busy planning for the other component of my project, which will involve small mammal live-trapping to look at the dynamics of animals that owls prey on (primarily mice and other rodents).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA



Red-backed vole

Photos and text by Julia Shonfield

Citizen Science Event

Check out this great event:
Citizen Science: a greener world where science gets social
Featuring Dr. Kamaljit Bawa and Dr. David Schindler, two of this spring’s honorary degree recipients
When: 7-8 p.m. Tuesday June 10, 2014 (Q & A to follow)
Where: ECHA L1-490 (Edmonton Clinic Health Academy), University of Alberta
Cost: Free

Job Posting: Curatorial Assistant in Zoology

The Royal Saskatchewan Museum is seeking an energetic and highly motivated Curatorial Assistant to work in its zoology programs. The successful candidate will be responsible for a wide variety of roles to support the zoology programs at the RSM, including working closely with museum research scientists on the development and implementation of research projects, collecting and preparing specimens, cataloging and recording data, using MS Excel and KE Emu (database), overseeing field and laboratory activities, organizing collections and significantly contributing scientific content in the development of museum exhibits and programs.

The successful candidate must have knowledge and ability in preparing museum-quality animal specimens; the use of large databases; working in a wide variety of laboratory and field settings; cataloging museum collections; and an understanding, appreciation and dedication to disseminating information about Saskatchewan’s natural history to public audiences.

The competencies required for this position are typically gained through obtaining a M.Sc. in biological sciences.

Permanent Full-time
Salary range: $21.908-$27.456/hr (= ~ $42,500 to $53,300/year)
Closing date: 22-June-2014

Apply on-line at:
Position Title = Curatorial Assistant – Zoology
Competition Number = MUS000181