Saskatchewan Scientist Studying Impact of Pesticides

Christy Morrissey is in a race against time to prove that neonicotinoid pesticides are causing steep songbird population declines in the Canadian prairies. An ecotoxicologist at the University of  Saskatchewan, Christy has been researching how these powerful pesticides are seeping into the surrounding wetlands and poisoning the food chain.

We filmed with Christy last year as she collected her first wetland samples. The results were troubling. Of her 80 test water samples, all but two were contaminated with neonicotinoid pestcides. We checked in with Christy to see how her research is progressing this year. Christy and her team collect spring wetland water sample

Christy Morrissey

A portion of her study involves measuring the clutch size and body condition of Tree Swallows in different regions across the prairie. Could there be a connection between weaker birds and pesticides?

Christy and her team are in year three of their Tree Swallow study and are developing a stronger understanding of the birds’ diet. In spite of disruptions in their food supply, the birds maintain their diet of midges and mosquitoes, even if they are in short supply.

“We hypothesize that birds at agricultural sites must work harder to deliver to the chicks,” she said. “They will either increase the number of foraging trips or increase the amount of time spend attending the nestlings.” She hasn’t been surprised to notice that the birds are generally weaker in areas with more intensive agriculture and higher concentration of pesticides.

Pest damage

The flea beetle is an incredibly damaging pest for farmers if left untreated

Her team has also started to use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on the tree swallows to record the number of feeding trips they make to their nests. This new possibility opens up doors to exciting research opportunities; Christy can now relate the number of feeding trips by each sex to their stress response.

This summer will be a busy and exciting time for Christy but at the same time, troubling. During filming, Christy made an interesting comment about her complicated relationship to her research. “I get excited about the results,” she said. “The fact that there are neonicotinoids in the water, seeing impacts as a scientist makes me excited because it’s interesting. But as a naturalist and even just a mother I guess it makes me concerned that…very little work has been done from the regulatory perspective to address this.”

Boreal Alberta: 6 hours, 13km and a Coin Laundry

The SongbirdSOS crew (Daniel Grant, Jason Milligan, and Josh See) arrived at the airport in northern Alberta to film at the Boreal forest. We rented a very large SUV, loaded our camera and sound gear and drove straight to Slave Lake. Away from the city, I realized our SUV was tiny compared to the monster trucks that rule the road in Alberta. Like our shooting in the Netherlands, we were cursed with rain. Since all of our work is outdoors, this makes filming quite tricky. If you listen closely to the sound in the boreal forest scenes in the documentary, you might even hear the drip drip drip of rain.

Boreal

Mourning Warbler

We were heading to Calling Lake, where our Boreal host, Dr. Erin Bayne, keeps a small research cabin. Erin was concerned about the road to Calling Lake. It has been raining for days and the road was very soft and muddy. But we made it into the cabin all right and had a great day filming.  Erin netted an oven-bird for us, as well we documented two of his researchers doing Point Counts. You can see the stats for Boreal songbirds at the Boreal Avian Modelling Project website.

Boreal Oven Bird 4

Calling Lake Alberta

Calling Lake Alberta

However, it was the trip back to Athabasca that Erin was really worried about because if we had any more rain, we risked being stuck at the cabin. Well, it poured. But we had to go. So we packed our gear, loaded the ATV’s and truck, and headed down the road through the depths of the Boreal forest. 

Loading out of CallingLake

Loading out of CallingLake

As Erin suspected, the road was far too soft and the truck sank into the mud. A few kilometers into the journey, we were stuck. Very stuck.  After numerous attempts to free ourselves, we eventually walked. For a camera crew this means we had to walk, carrying our gear (ten very heavy  cases loaded with expensive equipment as well as our personal back-packs) in a kind of convoy. After a few kilometers, we were rescued by ATV’s that shuttled us to a spot where we would eventually be rescued by a relief biology crew – aka Our Heroes!  It took us six hours to travel a mere 13 kilometers. Seven hours later we were wiping ourselves down in the Athabasca Super 8 motel. Good thing they had coin laundry.

Enjoy this one minute cell phone video of three bird biologists and four filmmakers stuck in the mud.

Listening to Boreal Birdsong while filming SongbirdSOS

When the SongbirdSOS crew was shooting in Alberta, I was keen to wake up with the birds and document Erin Bayne’s team listening to Boreal birdsong, doing point counts near Calling Lake Alberta. One challenge when you are working at such northern latitudes is that dawn is around 4 am! But to hear the Boreal birdsong was well worth the effort.

Diana Stralberg - point counts in Boreal

cabin at dawn, calling lake alberta

A point count is a field method used to study avian population trends. The data fuels research for many scientists and can be found on the Boreal Avian Modelling Project website. A familiar favourite for many people (for me this songbird is synonymous with forest)  is the white-throated sparrow. Eighty-five percent of the population of white-throated sparrows breed in the Boreal. Sadly, these songsters are also in decline, as their population has dropped by thirty percent since 1966.

white-throated sparrow

Below is a sample recording of Boreal birdsong. Listen for the Tennessee Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Fox Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco.

Another great resource for Boreal birds and how you can help is the Boreal Songbird Initiative.

 

Songbird photos by Joshua See.

Shooting in Costa Rica: Songbirds and live Fences

Shoot Day: Feb 23, 2014

Here’s Alejandra Martinez-Salinas with Jacques Avelino near CATIE , standing beside a newly planted “live fence.  A live fence is basically a double row of trees (different species) that line a crop field. It may seem like a tiny step (and it ain’t no rainforest) but it is a miracle to be able to convince a poor local farmer to give up an 8 feet strip of valuable crop from their already small farming plot for trees. The live fence can provide a corridor for animals and link forest patches. One benefit is more birds, and more birds equals more natural pest control, which is a big step in the right direction for sustainable agriculture – and for songbirds.

Songbirds in Costa Rica: The Proyecto Monitoreo de Aves (PMA)

Shoot Day: February 22, 2014 I had never been to Costa Rica, so filming there was amazing experience. After driving for hours on the single traffic-choked road that winds from San Jose we finally arrived at CATIE. CATIE is a Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Centre, located near Turrialba in Costa Rica. Here Alejandra Martinez-Salinas works both on research with the number one coffee pest – the Coffee Beetle Borer as well as manages the The Proyecto Monitoreo de Aves (PMA) .

Alejandra: “When I started working with songbirds I fell in love with the migrants because they were so tiny and fragile but also so strong and determined — I mean they really want to get somewhere and they usually get there! They move through so many different countries, it’s special just to hold an animal that’s been travelling so much, that’s been to so many different places …”

On our first morning of shooting we followed Alejandra and her associate Almilkar through their early morning songbird monitoring routine. At CATIE they monitor songbirds in different agricultural uses like abandoned coffee and cacao plantations. When we were filming they banded a few neo tropical migrants including a juvenile indigo bunting and a mourning warbler. The mourning warbler was a repeat band – it had already made the journey to North America and back and was re-captured one year later, near the exact same spot as the previous year. Even though I knew about this, to experience it was truly remarkable.

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