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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.