Trail cameras catch wildlife (and biologists!) in the act

If you wanted to monitor wildlife all across Alberta, how would you do it?

That’s a question that the Alberta Biodiversity IMG_0213Monitoring Institute and the University of Alberta have been looking into, and the most efficient solution we have so far is to use remote trail cameras. Trail cameras have infrared and motion sensors that trigger when an animal passes, so basically, you can put one out in the woods, come back a couple months later, and get photos of whatever creatures have walked past.


Sounds awesome, but as scientists, we worry about things like sampling bias. What about if there’s a lot of vegetation – will the camera trigger, or will it seem like there are no animals living there? Are animals more attracted to certain features, like fence lines (as opposed to placing the camera in the open)? And how do different camera brands compare? Although ecologists have already been using trail cameras in research, IMG_0384we don’t really know the answers to these questions. But thankfully, where there’s a question, there are usually a couple of scientists working it.

Amanda Kelley and Kate Broadly have been putting various trail cameras through their paces this summer, trying to get an understanding of what they’re capable of, and where there might be serious biases. Most if it involves taking photos of themselves, and the occasional non-target canid.


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Science-dog Hannah leads the way

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Amanda Kelley does her best Vanna White while testing the detectability of a camera

But we have set out some cameras on fences and open areas (in pairs), and we’ve gotten some neat (and useful!) wildlife photos from those.

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 Amanda Kelley apprehensively gazes into a camera box where a spider has built its nest. Hey, it’s not all fun stuff.

The scent of research

I have utilized many of my senses during my research of Ferruginous Hawks: vision to identify the hawks as they appear from tiny pinpoints in the sky or perch cryptically on dirt mounds, sound to identify incoming adults as they scream their piteous cries as we approach their nests for monitoring, touch when grasping the hawk legs with enough power to restrain, but not enough to crush fragile bones (I also often experienced touch when the hawks touched me with their talons that sunk deep into the flesh of my hands).

During my first day banding chicks, I was immediately impressed by the smell of the Ferruginous Hawks and their nest. And I cannot say that I was smitten. It was putrid, with equal parts decay, ripe feces and an underlying oiliness. “That’s the smell of rotting ground squirrel guts mixed with excrement” my advisor informed me. I mentally retched.

My mantra during thatMelynda_1 first day Melynda_2was breathe through my mouth and let my fascination with the species over ride my protesting senses. Over the course of my field work, the Ferruginous Hawk aroma changed, or at least my perception of it did. As I worked with the nestlings (banding them and marking their downy heads and legs with color) and then the fledglings (when the chicks are as big as adults, with a few bristles of down sticking up through contour feathers, giving the impression of gawky teenagers with bad bedhead), I noticed I started appreciating the scent of these large prairie hawks. Their scent changed to a musky odour that was clean, earthy and sharp. I started to take pleasure in the redolent

Unwittingly, I became expert at detecting this scent, and once when opening a technicians field truck, I exclaimed in surprise “There’s been a Ferruginous Hawk in here!” The field tech assured me that she wasn’t hiding baby Ferruginous Hawks, but had retrieved a chick that had been accidentally force fledged (when a nestling decides to bail from the nest before it can fly ade  ptly). She had Melynda_3returned the chick to the nest and the gloves that she had been wearing were in the truck. I inhaled deeply.

Our sense of smell is a powerful evoker of memories and conjurer of emotions.   To me, the thought of Ferruginous Hawk scent will always be linked with expansive prairies, endless driving of questionable range roads in relentless search of radio-telemetered hawks, and the elation of watching young Ferruginous Hawks, who have survived the risky period post-fledging period, finding their coordination and soaring strongly, yet effortlessly, on thermals as they prepare to begin their first migration south.

Written by Melynda Johnson

Adventures in the sub-Arctic

Drog_arc_1On July 3rd, Amanda Droghini flew out to Diavik Diamond Mine, located on an island on Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories. She was going there to help Fred Noddin, a fellow Master’s student supervised by Dr. B ill Tonn. Fred and his team are conducting field research on the movement of Arctic grayling, a freshwater fish species. This research is in collaboration with Diavik’s habitat compensation project, which seeks to increase connectivity of fish habitat and fish productivity.

For Amanda, most of the work consisted of catching 90 adult Arctic grayling, measuring them, and inserting Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags in each one. The fish were then transferred to an artificial stream equipped with six PIT tag antennae. These antennae scan the fish as they move up- and downstream, enabling us to track their movements. A water pump was used to manipulate stream flow, so as to mimic conditions at earlier Drog_arc_2times of the year (i.e. during snowmelt). As a side project, the team also caught and measured young-of-the-year graylings at three different sites.

After his field season, Fred will analyse the data from these antennae to determine where grayling moved and how changes in water flow affects their movement patterns. Being out in the tundra with Fred and his team was so much fun (field experiments are awesome!). Amanda is really happy to have helped out and is excited to hear about Fred’s results.

Wild Weather

Photo: Janet Ng.

Photo: Janet Ng.

Spring snow storms, tornado warnings, hail storms, and thunder storms are all part of field work. While we can take cover in our houses and trucks, Ferruginous Hawks are left out in the storm to fend for themselves.

It can get pretty rough out there. In fact, Ferruginous Hawk nests can actually blow right out of the tree, usually killing the eggs or young. Our nest monitoring program has found that 20% of nest failures are due to nests blow-outs and climate change scientists are worried that this will happen more often when storms become more frequent and more severe.