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.

Breeding Bird Survey Provides Valuable Songbird Population Data

It’s that time of year when many die-hard birdwatchers go out to count birds.  For some birders, the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is simply a fun tradition, but the BBS has become a valuable, one-of-a-kind resource for biologists, and conservationists.

Being able to identify two to three hundred songbird species by their vocalizations is a skill in and of itself. BBS participants will often inherit their routes from birders that have mentored them for years.  That was the case for Sheldon McGregor, who assisted a more experienced birder as a teenager and eventually took on the route when he was ready to pass it on.

We filmed with Sheldon and his birding partner Jim Blakelock on their last annual route in southern-central Ontario. “I’ve been doing my route almost 30 years,” said Sheldon. He’s noticed his route has grown quieter over the years. Especially absent are some field birds, such as meadowlarks and bobolinks.

The BBS has grown into a continent-wide population-monitoring program involving 2000 participants each year.  Close to 500 BBS routes are run by over 300 volunteers each year in Canada while more than 2300 routes are run in the U.S. Canadian participants run their routes between the May 28 and July 7.

Our documentary crew also went to Maryland and met with Chandler Robbins, who launched the BBS all the way back in the 1960’s.    The survey he created was standardized with skilled observers stopping 50 times along a route approximately 24.5 miles long. With every stop, the participant listened and watched for songbirds & other birds for three minutes and recorded the number of each species they saw.  Almost half a century later, except for some new gadgets, the process remains relatively the same.

When we walked into the basement at the Breeding Bird Survey headquarters at the USGC Patuxent Wild Life Research Center in Laurel MD,   it felt like we were stepping back in time. Over 100 cardboard boxes filled the archive room in rows of metal shelves. Each box was filled with carefully logged data sheets containing bird detections from regions across North America.

“We have 48 years of Breeding Bird Survey data in total. Over 80 million bird detections, “ said Keith Pardieck, Head of Operations at the BBS. “Those data are used to monitor the status and trends in North American bird populations, over 400 bird species.”

In 1962,  Rachel Carson used some of Chandler Robbin’s early bird population data research when she herself noticed some songbirds were dying while writing her revolutionary book Silent Spring.   Her book alerted the public to the disastrous consequences of DDT pesticides and was key to the start of the environmental movement.

Pardieck hopes that the Breeding Bird Survey’s alarming population data can be the inspiration behind a similar movement. “Birds are bell weathers of their environment. So, if we know that they are in trouble, I think it’s pretty clear that there could be things coming down the road that will be affecting us as well.”

The Breeding Bird Survey is always looking for experienced birders to volunteer in Ontario and British Columbia.  Check out their website for more information.

FLAP recovers three species at risk from bird collisions

Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) just released a sobering news release about three federally listed species at risk that they have recovered from building collisions in Toronto. We’ve written about FLAP on our blog before, they’re an incredible group of volunteers committed to advocacy and rescue work surrounding bird collisions with buildings.

If you’re in Toronto’s financial district in the very early morning of spring or fall, you may spot someone scurrying along the sidewalk carrying paper bags and a butterfly net. That’s a FLAP volunteer, scanning the street for a stunned bird that they can rescue or a dead one they can lay to rest.

So far this spring, those volunteers have recovered a live Red-Headed Woodpecker, a dead Golden-winged Warbler and one live and six dead Wood Thrushes. All these birds are protected under the federal Species at Risk Act and we can’t afford to lose anymore of them.

Last year, we filmed with Keith Pardiek at the Breeding Bird Survey, a joint American-Canadian songbird population-monitoring program. While there, he shared some distressing statistics with us: since 1966 Wood Thrush populations have declined 62%, Red-Headed woodpecker 70% and Golden-winged Warbler 70%.

“These birds play a vital ecological role,” said Michael Mesure, Executive Director of FLAP, “There are many commercially available, aesthetically pleasing solutions that can help to reduce bird collisions with buildings. Urban structures can be made safe for birds.”

We have filmed with FLAP several times over the course of shooting our documentary. The footage is inspiring and we can’t wait to share it with you. The story isn’t all doom and gloom either; there are reasons to be hopeful. FLAP’s advocacy work has led to some especially deadly buildings to be treated with bird-friendly window decals.

The same day FLAP published this news release, The New York Times published a feature about a large-scale research collaboration with New York City Audubon, the American Bird Conservation and Fordham University focused on various types of glass and their ability to deter birds. The goal of the project is to help conservationists and ornithologists understand and prevent this needless carnage.

FLAP Canada is asking anyone who finds a bird that has collided with a building to report the incident on FLAP Mapper – a live web tool that they have developed. Users can easily report a collision on an interactive map, as well as view locations of others.

 

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