Tagging along on the Great Trail

One of the reasons Amanda, Sarah, and I started this blog five years ago (!) is because we wanted to use stories to share some of the amazing places field biologists get to work – places that often aren’t accessible to everyone.  And over the years, we’ve highlighted a lot of stories from these places, from Sable Island to Line P in the Pacific Ocean to an uninhabited islet in Cape Verde.

But you don’t necessarily have to be doing field biology to access amazing places.  In many cases, all you need is enthusiasm and possibly a healthy dose of determination.

This spring, hikers Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton sold their house in Simcoe and the majority of their possessions, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.  Over the next three years, Sonya and Sean plan to hike across Canada from coast to coast to coast, along the 24,000 km Great Trail.  Obviously, this will be no small feat – in fact, as Sonya has pointed out, fewer people have finished this trail than have gone to the moon.

So why do it? Sonya and Sean are undertaking this epic journey with one major goal: to inspire people to connect to the natural world.  In collaboration with Bird Studies Canada, they hope to encourage this connection with nature through birding, and will be sharing information about ways to help birds, bird citizen science projects, and Important Bird Areas across Canada with the people they meet on their journey.

On the morning of June 1st, Sonya and Sean set off from Cape Spear – the most easterly point in North America.  To start them on their way, Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (a local naturalist group) had organized a group hike to keep them company for the first few kilometers, and I was lucky enough to tag along on this hike.

It was a cool, overcast morning (as far as I can tell, Newfoundland is several weeks behind the rest of Canada when it comes to spring), but the crisp air turned out to be perfect for cooling down after long scrambles up rocky slopes.  The air was quiet and calm, unusual for these normally windswept coastal barrens, where the trees are bent from bracing against the wind, and the grey-blue water turned the most amazing shade of turquoise where the waves met the rocky coast.  Of course, the highlights for me – as a newcomer to Newfoundland – were the two icebergs we came face to face with along the trail.

I also learned something important about hiking in Newfoundland.  What counts as an ‘easy’ trail here is not the same as an easy trail in Ontario.  When I set out that morning, I couldn’t find my hiking boots or clothes in my pile of suitcases – but I figured it was an easy trail, so I threw on a pair of jeans and some sneakers and assumed that would be good enough.  I quickly came to regret that decision, as I slipped and slid my way up and down the steep ascents and precarious descents.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the end of that first trail segment (only about 3.5 km away from where we’d started – but those 3.5 km involved an awful lot of ups and downs!).  It’s embarrassing to admit just how happy I was to stop and take a break – particularly since I had made the walk completely unencumbered, while Sonya and Sean were loaded down with their huge packs.  It was impossible not to be impressed by their determination and energy as we waved goodbye to them, and they continued on their way to St. John’s, their destination for the day.

As they make their way across the country, Sonya and Sean will be blogging about the places they see and the people they meet, and we will be reposting some of those blogs on Dispatches from the Field.  But to keep up to date with them, learn more about their travels, or find out how you can help, check out their website.

Safe travels and good luck, Sonya and Sean!

 

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Origins of a Naturalist

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome Megan Quinn, the Coordinator of Conservation Biology for Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to share how she ended up working for the environment. For more about Megan, see the end of this post. 

Most people working in conservation have a story about how they got into the field. In my case, environmental work wasn’t my first, second, or even fifth career choice, but it did turn out to be my favourite. Although it took some time for my dream career to go from veterinarian, to actress, to radio DJ, to journalist, to author, and eventually to naturalist, in hindsight there were some clues in my childhood that might have gotten me there a lot quicker.

My family tells the story of taking four-year-old Megan to the park, where I just lagged further and further behind. They couldn’t figure out what I was doing, until my coat had grown two sizes from stuffing my pockets with rocks, twigs, and pine cones. Turns out that 20 years later, I’m still doing the exact same thing. I am now the Coordinator of Conservation Biology for Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which means I manage over 28,000 acres of land, and spend my day identifying the plants, animals, and natural features that live there.

Megan checking out the grass

Here’s two recent pictures of me on holiday in England and the Netherlands. Although this time I left the nature in its place.

Growing up, the place where I did the most exploring was my Grandma’s garden. Her garden was unlike anywhere else I knew: a maze of stone paths with brilliant insects to discover, delicious raspberries to eat, and a new world to explore. The Troddy Nature Book – Things to Collect in a Bag came into my life just as I was starting to explore the world around me. Like a lot of things at Grandma’s house, nobody is entirely sure where the book came from, but it was an instant family favourite.

“Things to Collect in a Bag” is one of four books in a series written by Stuart Cowly, and published by Brian Trodd Publishing House Limited. There is also “Things to Collect in a Bucket”, “Things to Collect in a box”, and “Things to Collect in a Jar.” Together, they are the Troddy Nature Books.

The book guides children through nature projects they can “collect in a bag”. It offers activities such as making a herb pot, learning about fossils, and drawing a wildlife map. At the back of the book, there is “Troddy’s County Code”, a set of rules for young environmentalists to follow. Looking through them, I realised that I’m still following the code today.

T – Take home all litter

When I’m out in the field, my team and I always spend time collecting rubbish that has been left in, or blown into, the area. By getting into the habit of carrying a garbage bag and a pair of gloves, you can make a big impact in your neighbourhood. Spring is a great time to get outside, and clean up any litter left behind by the melting snow.

R – Recycle whenever possible

It’s inevitable that we’re going to use resources. As conservationists, we try our best to reduce our impact by recycling materials. Doing simple things like using printed pages for scrap paper and re-using signs, and materials, saves money (thus ensuring more money goes towards conservation), and reduces our footprint. Over the past few years I’ve been paying more attention to my own consumption habits. Small changes like forgoing plastic bags, and bringing reusable containers while shopping are things that everyone can integrate into their lives.

O – Observe, but never interfere with nature

Unnecessarily interfering with nature can negatively impact organisms and the ecosystems they inhabit. Like with all rules, there are exceptions, but it’s important to consider what you are doing. If you are picking up a turtle to help it safely cross the road, then you’re performing a positive act, but if you are just picking up a turtle so you can take a cool selfie with it, then you’re likely causing more harm than good. The energy animals have to put into getting away, or the stress caused by unnecessary handling, could impact their survival. I think even the most seasoned conservationists are guilty of this sometimes, but it’s important to take a step back, and evaluate what we’re doing.

D – Don’t ride when you can walk

I do a lot of walking as a conservation biologist. Some field days I get over 40,000 steps. I find that taking the time to walk in nature slows down my mind, and helps me to appreciate the world around me. It can be as simple as a walk in the park, or around your garden, or even sitting by a window to watch the environment outside. We are lucky to have so much accessible nature in Canada, and this point reminds me to appreciate it.

D – Do join a wildlife or nature club

Getting involved with the work that organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada are doing across the country is a great way to contribute to the environment. There are many ways you can do this: getting out and exploring a local natural area, such as NCC’s Nature Destination Properties, donating to a cause, or volunteering at conservation events. Every little bit helps, and you may find yourself picking up a new favourite hobby or past-time.

Y – YOU ARE THE FUTURE

This doesn’t just mean youth! Although it’s the young people that will inherit the earth, the actions that all of us take today will impact the future. We can choose to make that a positive impact by engaging with nature in a sustainable way.

This book has followed me throughout my environmental career, and even though it’s almost 30 years old, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today. When my grandma passed, the Troddy Nature Book made its way across the ocean to Canada, where I still have it today. It may seem a bit silly to base my conservation values on a 30-year-old book, but looking back, the lessons it teaches are valuable. The Troddy Nature Book will always have a place on my bookshelf, and one of these days, I may actually complete all of the activities in it!

Megan is the current Coordinator of Conservation Biology, Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. She was inspired to pursue a career in the environmental field after moving to Canada in 2004, and studying Ecosystem Management at Sir Sandford Fleming College. In her spare time, Megan is a an avid horse rider, competing in eventing horse trials with her horse, King. 

Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

Fun in fens

One of my recent stories was about some unintentional “swamp-wading” I did when I was taking the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System course in North Bay, Ontario. If you recall, we were venturing out to a fen, but first we had to cross the swamp that surrounded it. Neck-deep in muck, soaked from head to toe, we made it…just barely.

A couple of days later, we ventured out to another fen, this one called Frair Lake. This fen was a little different though. As was becoming routine, all of the course participants piled onto a big, yellow school bus. The bus chugged along for a good half hour along winding country roads and finally turned onto a dirt road that led to a quarry. We all filed off the bus and then headed down the road, passing the quarry entrance and leaving it behind to the left. We hiked down a wooded path off the dirt road, passed through some dense forest and then there it was – the stunning, dark blue water of Frair Lake. It was 30 degrees C that day and the sparkling ripples of Frair Lake called our names, trying to lure us in for a refreshing splash…but we had to resist. We had lots of important field work to do and only about 7 hours to do it!

Working in groups of 4, our task was to conduct a field visit of the wetlands surrounding Frair Lake, and prepare our own wetland evaluation for the site. I won’t get into all the details of what a wetland evaluation involves, but it broadly covers characteristics of the wetland including size and condition, the types of wetlands present (i.e. bogs, fens, swamps or marshes), hydrological components (i.e. flood attenuation, water quality, etc.), biological components (i.e. wetland productivity, soil type, etc.), social components (i.e. presence of wild rice, furbearers, etc.) and various special feature components (i.e. presence of species-at-risk, winter cover for wildlife, etc.).

Eager to get the day started, we set off on our journey around the lake. At first there was some swampy habitat with lots of towering black spruce trees, but because of the high temperatures and lack of rain, the ground was relatively dry, so this was an easy hike around. We quickly collected data on the vegetation forms and communities present, took some soil core samples to determine the different soil types and continued on with our day. “This is sooooo much easier than navigating that swamp,” I thought quietly to myself.

But then we reached a transition point in the wetland, where the tree cover disappeared and we were left with what appeared to be very mossy and low vegetation. As we stepped onto this we noticed that the ground was certainly not stable. We had just arrived at what are lovingly referred to as the Frair Lake floating mats. These floating mats were actually considered fens, another type of wetland. True fens are not really common in southern Ontario, and I had never experienced fens until this course. Fens are peatlands, which simply means they are peat-covered lands. They have little tree cover, are dominated by mosses and sedges and have a higher pH than bogs. In fens, floating mats of Sphagnum moss often extend out into the water, with poorly decomposed peat at the top, and more well-decomposed peat towards the bottom, giving them a squishy and sinking feeling under your feet.

Stepping out onto the fen, I took a few small and nervous steps. Despite being soft under my feet, it was actually quite easy to navigate and kind of felt like walking on a cloud. But we quickly learned though that the stability of this floating mat was not consistent throughout. We first noticed this when a member of another group was walking towards us and, well, the next second he wasn’t. One of his legs had pushed through the floating mat and into the water of Frair Lake below. We helped pull him out and he was just fine, despite a very wet leg. I had a few close calls throughout the morning myself, losing my footing or almost sinking deep enough to break through the peat. We continued around the lake on the floating mats, identifying lots of unique fen species, searching for species at risk and admiring the beauty of this spot.

frair lake

A photo of Frair Lake taken while standing on a floating mat

frair lake1

Another photo of Frair Lake – You can see my group member Bill standing on the floating mat.

As the day came to a close, we finished the loop around the lake with wet feet, covered in sweat and a good number of deer fly bites, carrying notebooks filled with data and having acquired a very deep appreciation for the beautiful wetlands of northern Ontario. I have spent a lot of my time in the wetlands of southern and eastern Ontario, but there is something so different about the wetlands of the north. It might just be the fact that they are much bigger and much more pristine than their southern counterparts, or that many of the wetland types in the north are different from those in the south. It all felt so new and exciting to me. Whatever it was, it has me longing to go back and experience even more.

jack

One of many gigantic pitcher plants growing on the floating mats

Wow, time flies!

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that we started Dispatches from the Field four and a half years ago, back in June 2014.  Where has the time gone?!?

2018 marked a busy year for all of us. Catherine and Amanda both received their Ph.D. and started new jobs, while Sarah started a Ph.D. That didn’t stop any of us from getting out into the field though! Some of our notable blog posts from this past year include Catherine learning to love mornings, Amanda falling into a swamp, and a fox getting the better of the nests at Sarah’s study site.

We’re excited to have welcomed guest bloggers who added new markers to our map, including Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Israel’s Red Sea. We also learned what a real field work resume might look like, the (maybe not so) best way to make a first impression, and how to fall in love with fieldwork.

We shared some sentiments familiar to anyone who does fieldwork (for example,  You’ve got to be kidding me!) and learned some new sayings appropriate to situations such as having all of your gear washed out to sea (Morabeza!). And a number of our posts raised important issues, such as what it’s like being a parent in the field, the importance of citizen science (first, second), and how fieldwork is more than just data.

I guess time flies when you’re having fun! Stay tuned for more of the good, bad, and ugly of fieldwork on Dispatches in 2019. We will be posting every other week to give everyone more time to enjoy each story! If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please email or tweet us!

at the convocation ceremony

Catherine (left) and Amanda (right) receive their official Ph.D. documents! Finishing the degree was worth it to wear the red robes & funny hats (and to collect lots of funny field stories!).

 

Algonquin Adventures

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Alex Sutton, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada to share his adventures chasing Canada Jays in the beautiful Algonquin Park. For more about Alex, check out his bio at the end of this post!

One of the things I enjoy most about field work is being immersed in an environment every day, and, as a result, having the opportunity to see things that many others do not get to experience. Over the past four years I have been lucky enough to spend countless months following Canada jays (formerly known as gray jays) throughout Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario.

Russ Rutter, a former chief park naturalist, first started studying Canada jays in Algonquin in 1964. He was interested in understanding the natural history of this fascinating bird and was one of the first people to use colour-bands as a way to follow individuals throughout their lifetime. After he retired from the park, Dan Strickland, another former chief park naturalist, continued studying the jays, following them throughout the year and collecting information about their nesting behaviour for over 40 years!

This long-term dataset has allowed us to track how the population of Canada jays in Algonquin Park has changed over the last 54 years. Unfortunately, since the 1980’s we have observed a decline of over 50%. The Algonquin population appears to be experiencing more severe declines than other Canada jay populations, which may be because Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of the Canada jay’s range in Ontario. Understanding the drivers of this population decline, the main focus of my PhD research, will hopefully allow us to predict how other populations may respond to climate change.

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

These nestlings are all 14 days old and ready to receive colour bands. Photo credit Alex Sutton

To figure out what factors are causing the Algonquin population to decline, we need to follow Canada jays throughout the entire year. In autumn, while enjoying the beautiful fall colours of maples and tamaracks, we determine which territories are occupied and which individuals are present on a given territory. The autumn is an important time of year for a Canada jay because during this time they begin caching food that they will rely on throughout the winter for survival and reproduction. Amazingly, one Canada jay can make thousands of food caches in a day and return to these caches months later! Throughout the autumn, jays will actively seek out humans because they see humans as a good source of food, making it one of the best times to see them (and their colour bands!).

After determining which territories are occupied, we return in the winter to begin monitoring each pair throughout the breeding season. Unlike most other Canadian songbirds, Canada jays begin building nets in late February. This means that for most of the breeding season I travel through the landscape on snowshoes and have to bundle up to brave temperatures as low as -30°C! But despite the cold, there are few things as rewarding as finding jay nests. Sometimes it can take weeks to find a single nest, and it often requires some imaginative use of natural features like beaver dams to avoid getting soakers (when your boots fill with water) in the sub-zero temperatures.

Alex carrying a ladder to a nest. Photo credit Koley Freeman

As winter slowly becomes spring, eggs that have been incubated through freezing temperatures and snowstorms begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, we monitor each nest for about two weeks before we return one last time to band the nestlings. We typically carry ladders through the forest and sometimes across frozen rivers to each nest tree. Once the ladder is in place, we carefully scamper up the rungs to collect the nestlings for banding. This is one of the most rewarding parts of the field season, because all the hard work we have put into finding and monitoring each nest has finally paid off with the sight of several fluffy Canada jay nestlings trying their best to emulate Einstein’s signature hair-do.

One of my fondest memories of my time in Algonquin is of banding a nest last spring. The adults were circling around us while we banded their young and the male had a full mouth of food he was bringing back for the nestlings. As he got closer, my colleague held up the nestling being banded. Remarkably, he landed on my colleague’s hand and fed the nestling right then and there! This was the first time I had ever seen something like this and I will remember that moment forever! (Video of this encounter here).

Canada Jay in hand

This young Canada jay has been outfitted with a radio tag. Photo credit Dan Strickland

As spring turns into summer, the young Canada jays begin to fledge from their nests – and my fieldwork continues, as we follow the dispersing fledglings. Beginning in May, I and another PhD student, Koley Freeman, track radio-tagged juveniles while they move around their natal territories. Each radio tag ‘backpack’ emits a unique frequency and allows us to track down birds, even when we cannot see or hear them. After about six weeks, these juveniles start to leave their parent’s territories and disperse across the vast Algonquin landscape. These young birds can travel over 15 km, so to follow them, we need to track them from the air! Being in a plane flying over my study area provides a great perspective of the vastness of the landscape and gives me a new appreciation of how diverse Algonquin is.

Each year in Algonquin has been an exciting experience that has taught me something new. With each passing field season, I learn more about the jays and how they cope with the ever-changing environment. Canada jays are resilient enough to survive harsh boreal winters throughout North America, but climate change is wreaking havoc on their breeding success. Changing fall conditions negatively influence their cached food, contributing to the record low number of nestlings produced that I have observed over the course of the last three field seasons.

The view of a Canada jay territory from the air. Photo credit Alex Sutton

I am lucky to have called Algonquin a home away from home for the past four years, and had so many great experiences in the park. I would like to thank Dan Strickland, all the staff of Algonquin Provincial Park, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, and my partner in crime Koley Freeman for helping with field work and making every day in the field more exciting than the last.

For me, the joy of fieldwork comes not only from pushing yourself to learn from and about your study species, but also learning to appreciate the beautiful places that this work can take you. I will always remember the sights and sounds of Algonquin, the Canada jays, and the unexpected experiences I have had over the course of the last four years of fieldwork.

 

Me with the Canada jay – Photo credit Koley Freeman

Alex Sutton is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. During his undergraduate degree, he worked throughout North and Central America studying the population ecology and habitat use of migratory songbirds. If you would like to keep up with his ongoing research follow him on Twitter @Alexsutto.

Life with owls

This week, Dispatches is excited to welcome a good friend of ours, Lauren Meads.  Lauren is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC – and is in the enviable position of working with some of the most charismatic (micro)fauna around.  For more about Lauren and the BOCSBC, check out the bio at the end of the post.

As the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia, I’m often asked how I wound up working in this field. I don’t have a simple answer. My path to this career — which I love — has been somewhat meandering. And honestly… birds?! I never thought in a million years that my passion for birds, specifically owls, would be such an important part of my life.

I’ve always loved animals and growing up had dreams of being a zookeeper. This led me to an undergraduate degree in Biology and then an internship working with exotic cats in the US. To further my career, I went back to school for my master’s degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh. My first job after finishing that program was at a zoo that focused on conservation, which drew me into the world of breeding animals for the purpose of reintroduction into the wild. My expertise in working with mammalian carnivores led me to working with raptors. And from there, I found myself working on the beginnings of the Northern Spotted Owl breeding program in BC.

Remember how I said the route was meandering? Well, after two years working with spotted owls, I decided it was time to move on to another job. During a co-op placement in my undergraduate degree, I had dabbled a bit in lab animal work and I decided to give that a try again. This was a short-lived decision, as I quickly realized that world was not for me. I longed to get back into conservation and working in the wild. Luckily, I had kept in contact with my colleagues from the Northern Spotted Owl project. When I reached out to them, they alerted me to an opportunity to work in the field with burrowing owls. That was ten years ago, in 2008. And ever since then, I have been deeply involved with burrowing owls. First volunteering, and then working in the field monitoring releases, and now overseeing the breeding and reintroduction of a native grassland species throughout British Columbia. As you can tell by the length of time I’ve been working at this job, I finally found my calling working with the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea).

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

I fell in love with burrowing owls as soon as I started working with them. I love how unusual they are among owls. While they do fly, like all owls, they also spend a lot of time on the ground hunting and roosting. They nest underground and are active during both day and night.

Unfortunately, burrowing owls are also currently threatened across North America, and endangered in Canada. Populations in Manitoba have been extirpated, while in Alberta and Saskatchewan they continue to decline.  And where I work, in British Columbia, burrowing owls have been extirpated since the 1980s. While the causes of these dramatic population declines are complex, we do know that losses of burrowing mammals, such as badgers, have played a major role in the owls’ decline.  Despite their name, burrowing owls don’t excavate their own burrows, but instead use those abandoned by other animals – so without animals like badgers, they have nowhere to nest.  Other issues facing the owls include pesticides, increases in populations of aerial predators such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, road construction, and climate change.  Conservation efforts are underway in all four Canadian provinces, as well as several places in the States.

In 1990, volunteers in British Columbia initiated a comprehensive re-introduction program, including three captive breeding facilities, artificial burrow networks and field monitoring research. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (formed in 2000) produces over 100 owls each year to release in the Thompson-Nicola and South Okanagan grasslands of BC. In recent years, improved release techniques have resulted in higher adult survival and greater numbers of wild-hatched offspring with the potential to return in following years.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release. (Photo credit: Mike Mackintosh.)

What my work looks like varies greatly depending on the season. Right now, in winter, I’m busy with the joys of writing reports and grant applications, as well as fixing the breeding facilities, installing artificial burrows in the field, and providing outreach to the public. Come spring, I and a field assistant (more than one, if funding is good!), plus some dedicated volunteers, will check each of the ~600 active burrows across our field sites. Our task is to check each one for owls returning from migration, and to ensure the burrow is in good working condition. In April, we will take the 100 owls bred in our facilities and release them into our artificial burrows. We have placed these burrows on private ranches, land owned by NGOs, Indigenous band lands, and provincial parks. This work requires a LOT of driving — sometimes up to 3-5 hours per day as we go from site to site.

After the release, we continually monitor the nesting attempts of the released owls, as well as those returning from migration, and provide supplemental food to help them raise their chicks. Along the way, we band the young born in the field. We monitor them until they all leave in September and October to head south.

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Where exactly the owls go during the winter is still something of a mystery. We sometimes get reports of sightings of our banded owls, and we also get data from groups in the US and elsewhere in Canada that have deployed satellite tags.  (We’d love to use satellite tracking tags ourselves, but they are expensive, and our organization runs on limited funds!) Based on the information we’ve received, we know that BC owls have been seen throughout the western United States, and most likely spend the winter in Mexico.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of owls that return to BC in the spring; however, currently we still don’t have a self sustaining population.  Our next step is to work on understanding the owls’ migration movements, and determine ways  to increase survivability.  This will involve working across Canada and internationally.

Something else I’m often asked is what the next steps are for burrowing owl conservation. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question either. While there are many organizations dedicated to conserving these unique owls, they all run on limited funds and resources. BOCSBC uses almost all of its funding breeding and releasing owls, as well as creating and maintaining the artificial burrows they use.  Certainly, this is essential for the species’ recovery, but we also need to tackle the many unanswered questions about the causes of their decline before we can hope to reverse it.  At the moment, there’s still so much information we’re lacking, including where the birds’ winter, issues of migratory connectivity, changes in prey availability and shifts in climate across their range.

The path that brought me to working in burrowing owl conservation was unconventional. But ten years into this career, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be!

Photo credit: Lia McKinnon.

Lauren Meads is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC.  She has worked with owls for over 10 years, although she still has a passion cats both big and small.  She lives in the South Okanagan Valley in BC with her husband Tim and their three (small) cats.  To learn more about the ongoing effort to reintroduce burrowing owls in BC, check out this video from Wild Lens.  If you are interested in helping out with this project, you can contact the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC at bocsbc@gmail.com or donate via Canada Helps.