Thursday, December 8, 2016

Beginning of Project FeederWatch 2016

It is that time of year again; it is time for Project FeederWatch!   Project FeederWatch is a citizen science initiative put on by Bird Studies Canada and Cornell University.   This program runs from November to April each year.  As a participant you choose two days a week to watch your feeders, for however many hours you can, and record the species and number of individual birds that you happen to see.  These data are then submitted online and used for a variety of research such as these found here:

New to the program this year is a feature that allows you to also enter in behavioural interaction data.  This gives a little more insight into the different bird interactions that are happening at your feeders.  For example, last week I reported blue jays that were frequently displacing our purple and goldfinches from our feeders. 

It never is too late to join, so if you are interested in putting up a feeder and counting some birds click here:

With the lack of snow at the beginning of the feederwatch season, we hadn’t seen too many birds other than Black-capped Chickadees.  However within the last week Parry Sound has been seeing a little more of a cold front come in bringing temperatures down closer to 0 degrees; with this change in temperature also brought a few inches of snow within the last day or two.  Our feeders have been very active with the Black-capped Chickadees and Goldfinches.  Daily we will also see one pair of Purple Finch drop in for an hour or two.  I’ve heard of some places reporting Pine Siskins being back, however we haven’t seen a single one this season yet!

With the snow came two exciting finds for Mike and I here in Parry Sound.

The first, while probably boring in most other parts of Ontario, was our very first Cardinal.  Mike has been here for 4 summers now, with me visiting off and on, and we had yet to find a cardinal as this area is just slightly out of range. So we were very shocked one day to see this lovely female picking up seeds from the ground.  She has been to our feeder everyday since and, I imagine, will likely be a regular visitor throughout the winter.

The second bird was incredibly exciting as it was a lifer for both Mike and I.  While I was visiting Peterborough last week, Mike had sent a text with a photo of a beautiful yellow bird at our feeder, knowing that I would be incredibly jealous.  I have been working from home for the last month or so, rarely leaving the house, so it is only natural the day I finally did leave a lifer would come to our feeder.  What was it?  An Evening Grosbeak!  Luckily (for him!) a flock of them came by again the next day when I arrived back home!  They haven’t been back over the last few days, but hopefully we will see them off and on throughout the season.

While in Peterborough, I also went on a quick trip downtown to see the Red-throated Loon on Little Lake.

There are quite a few months left for my FeederWatch counts, so I am excited to keep you all updated and hopefully something else excited drops by throughout the winter!  (Keep your fingers crossed for some Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, or a Boreal Chickadee for me!)

Monday, December 5, 2016

Arctic Work 2016: The Murres

Now finally for a post about the entire reason I was up in Nunavut to begin with. Thick-billed Murres. I was there first and foremost to help collect data for both a long-term dataset on the Murre colony as well as assist with some Masters research for a student at McGill University under the supervision of Dr. Kyle Elliott.
Thick-billed Murres

Cliff site panorama view

This study site on Coats Island has been running since 1981 and over the years a variety of data have been collected for many different studies such as reproductive success, feeding habits, food selection, contaminate research, migration, etc. Doing a quick google scholar search on any of these leads you to a wide array of past publications from Tony Gaston (Environment Canada), Dr. Elliott (McGill), and others. For a more recent list of some publications that have come out of the McGill Arctic Ecology lab click here.
Thick-billed Murre
It has been noted that this field site is unique in Canada because it is the only site where the reproductive history of individual non-passerine birds has been followed closely for over a three decade time span. Similarly, it is also the first site to have the diving behaviour of an auk and has one of the best datasets of dietary preferences.  So needless to say, not only was this field sight visually beautiful, it had some pretty interesting and amazing findings coming out of it.  This was my very first time working with a seabird, and while I love my Bank Swallows....these guys were pretty neat!

Thick-billed Murre flying to colony

A typical day was spent heading down to one of our plots at the colony. At first upon arrival most of the Murres had not yet laid eggs, and so there was nothing yet to count other than trying to understand which pairs occupied what space and also who was a pair.  With a number of Murres just standing around on a cliff, this could be a little difficult.  However, sometimes (as shown in the photo below), it was easier to determine pairs!

Mating Thick-billed Murres
 Once eggs began to hatch, tried to determine how many pairs there were on a ledge and which of these had an egg (each lays only one).  Most of the murres were also colour banded, so we tried our best to determine their colour and, if we were close enough, actual band numbers (which was incredibly difficult for me!)

Thick-billed Murre with colour band
Emile at his blind

Murres sitting on their eggs.  Single egg showing on right.

After about two weeks of looking for eggs, we began to start noting the eggs pipping (or hatching).  Generally it takes a day for the young to fully hatch, but it is very exciting knowing the next time you visit there will be a tiny Murre!

Parents watching their egg hatch

And are the young not just the cutest things?  Look at those feet.

Unfortunately, since we had to leave the island early, we were not able to watch these young grow and fledge. Hopefully one day, if I ever get the chance again, I'll be able to see this!  Once there were young at the sites we also began taking notes as to what food the adults were bringing back and also how often they were eating.

Murre with fish

Throughout the days there were also other tasks on hand that I was often a part of or able to watch.  Some of this included blood sampling (to look at heavy metals) or other sampling.  I should mention that all of these captures and sampling were done with the upmost care and caution (for both us and the birds!), and all required permits. We are also all trained for proper bird handling.

Living life on a cliff, in a beautiful location, isn't as great as one would think. The ledges were often fairly crowded, and these birds had to be careful to not have their eggs roll or be kicked off. On top of having some very close and loud neighbours (as you can see in the first video below!), those which were sitting on eggs tended to get covered in the feces of their neighbours and those on the cliff above them.  It was rather smelly. 

Thick-billed murre...covered in feces
Along with living life "on the edge", these birds have another threat to their own individual survival and the survival of their young.  This threat is the Polar Bear.  We saw quite a few bears this season, many of them attempting (and succeeding) in depredating the Murre colony.  As you can see in the photo below, many times this consisted of eating all of the eggs and young once the adults flushed.  Some adults, weren't so lucky and also were depredated.

After polar bear depredation
Often times these bears were spotted below the colony attempting to get at birds nesting in lower and easy to reach places.

Polar Bear swimming below colony

In this final video, I was trying to just capture the scenery and the sound of the murres when I noticed a Polar Bear swimming quite a ways below. You can see him swimming and presumably diving to try and either catch murres under the water or sneak up on them.

And now for a final few photos:

Murre getting ready to fly

Murre peaks over grassy cliff edge
View from observation blind

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Arctic Work 2016: Flora

When you think of Tundra, the first thing you often think of isn't plants. However, in a landscape where it is barren of trees, it was amazing to see a landscape where flowers, grass and moss dominate. While in the North, I tried to document much of the flora that I came across. Here is just a small collection of them. you will find their English name and then Latin and Inuktituk name in brackets.  Many of the plants have a variety of names depending on the dialect, so I will try to just include one.

The first plant that I will start out with is Arctic Fireweed (Chamerion latifolium; Paunnat). Arctic Fireweed is also knows as Dwarf Fireweed and River Beauty Willowherb.  It can often be used in tea and can also be eaten. While I didn't try it out while I was up there, I definitely will be putting it on my "to do" list for the next time *fingers crossed that a next time comes along!*.

Another flower that was Moss Campion (silene acaulis; Airait).  We saw these flowers in large clumps throughout the arctic.  It reminded me so much of a ground cover my mother used to grow in our gardens at home.  In the photo below, you can see another plant creeping along the ground called Arctic Willow (Salix arctica). 

Mountain Avens (dryas octopetala; Malikkaatwere one of the first flowers that I learnt the name of in Nunavut.  By July, we could see them stretching across the landscape and they can be seen in almost every photo that I have taken!  In researching a little bit about the different Arctic flora I saw, I learnt that the Inuit word for Mountain Avens is 'malikkat', which means the follower. What does it follow?  The sun of course! If you watch closely you will notice that throughout the day the flower rotate the direction it is facing to follow the sun.

Purple Saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia; Aupilattunnguat) is one of the plants in the Arctic that I did try and eat!  Often times we would find them along our hikes and they provided to be a nice little snack.  Purple Saxifrage is also the most northern flowering plant in the world!  It is also the official territorial flower of Nunavut!

Another favourite of mine was the Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatumIgutsat niqingit). Something about poppies always make me smile, so spotting these along the landscape was something special for me.  I recently learnt that poppies are also on the Nunavut Coat of Arms representing the summer flowers.

Arctic thrift (Armeria maritima; immulik) was another purple flower that I often came across on our hikes.  It reminded me of flowers that you often see on chives.

Long-stalked Starwort (Stellaria longipes; Miqqaviat) was another species of flower that I came across.  These flowers were most often seen in a cluster and in sandy (or more disturbed) areas.  It reminded me of the Arctic version of a Daisy!

I will now end with one last favourite, Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium; Puallunnguat).  I often see cotton grass in swampy areas here in the Parry Sound region, but on the tundra it held a special beauty. I would see them often times as an individual along the landscape, however sometimes there were large clumps of them that just looked amazing!

And lastly, a final plant that I have yet to ID.  If anyone knows their arctic flowers and happens to know this one before I get to look further into them...please feel free to comment your ID suggestions!!

UPDATE:  Thanks to Allen Woodliffe for helping ID this plant!  It has been successfully ID'ed as Arctic Wintergreen (Pyrola grandiflora)


There were so many other flowers on the landscape that I either didn't take photos of, or they came out embarrassingly blurry. To see some more flowers found in the Arctic, take a peek at this amazing online guide that I found:

The flowers along the landscape added so much to an already beautiful place.  Seeing a "barren" land trickled with colour made me realize even more that this place isn't as barren as people imagine it to be.  It is alive with colour and life.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Perry Sound Update

It has been a whirlwind month between returning from Washington, D.C., to moving to Parry Sound (again) and trying to jump back onto the thesis bandwagon. Arctic blogs are on a little bit of a hold until I can find a program to restore two of my memory cards.  NAOC 2016 conference blogs....are to come!
Excited chipmunk at Killbear Provincial Park

Post-conference I have been back in Parry Sound to finish writing my thesis, however I have been getting out and about for a little bit of birding and herping.

Migrants have been slowly trickling into the Parry Sound area. This past Monday, I headed out onto Lookout Point Trail in Killbear Provincial Park to scout for a walk I was leading Thursday morning.  The trail was rather quiet with 15 species seen.  The most exciting were Red-necked Grebes off the top of the lookout! On our way back, I was surprised to hear the drumming of a grouse.  The drumming was so close by and I was able to find it, just a few steps away!

Grouse with camera flash

And then without the flash!

Further along the trail we also ran into a group of deer that consisted of a doe and her two fawns.

Thursday, while there are no photos (sorry!), we had a much better birding day at Killbear.  We had a total of 26 species!  7 of these species were Warblers and our biggest surprise was a Savannah Sparrow at the lookout! 

Mike has been working with Wildlife Preservation Canada this year in Parry Sound on their Massasauga Rattlesnake project.  On weekends, I have been helping him out with some field work and it has been such a treat seeing Massies again this year.  If you are further interested in this project...feel free to check out his portion of Wildlife Preservation Canada's Blog ( and/or follow him on Twitter (@OutdoorsColley)

My first day out with him, while relatively slow on the snake front, had an exciting treat in store! We noticed a little head peaking out of the trap's coverboard and once we opened it up, out popped a long-tailed weasel!  The little guy was incredibly curious and hung around the trap long enough for us to snap a photo!

On my second day of trapping out with Mike, we caught a tiny neonate snake (snake that had been born this year). While the close-up photo makes it look like a relatively decent size, you can really tell how small it is once Mike is in the photo! 

Well!  That is my fast update for now....hopefully soon I will get a chance to post a little more about both D.C in August and a little bit more about the Arctic (so many photos to share!).

Hope everyone is enjoying the start to fall!