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.

Clash of the cattle

In my tenure as a field biologist, I’ve experienced and had to deal with many problems…unfortunate events…hideous disasters…whatever you want to call them. Catherine’s blog about the revenge of the ruminants from earlier this month got me thinking about an encounter that I had with these beefy creatures way back at the start of my time doing fieldwork.

Back in my first field season in the summer of 2009, our lab was setting up a long term experiment (about 10 years) to assess the effects of climate change on temperate grassland communities. The first step after getting the overall design and relevant details in order was to find an appropriate field site. We trekked around all over QUBS’ properties, and eventually found a good-sized piece of land on the Bracken tract. It met all of the criteria including having a high species richness, easily accessible by foot and was relatively flat. There had been some cattle grazing allowed on the property but the farmer assured us that they were now back on his property, and for good.

This particular study had 240 replicate 1 x 1 m plots. Treatments included plots with excess water added each week, control plots, and those with rainout shelters to minimize the access of water. There were also nutrient addition plots, and those with herbivore exclosures. Needless to say, it was a huge experiment. We spent a solid week mapping and measuring out the field. We set up the 240 plots and then used 6 different colours of flags to mark them all with their respective treatments. By the end of the week, we had made serious progress. We even left early that Friday just because we had worked so hard.

bracken shelters fence shot

An example of what the rainout shelters look like. 

We came back Monday ready to start putting up some of the shelters and fences together for the treatments. But the field wasn’t exactly as we had left it. In fact, it wasn’t even close to the condition we left it in. This would have been early June, so the grass was well over a foot tall and there were buttercups ad hawkweeds blooming galore. At least, there were when we had left the field on Friday.

Now the grass was barely an inch tall. The flags were no longer upright. Some were crushed. Some were torn to shreds. Some were just completely gone. And the source of this damage didn’t cover it up well. They certainly left their mark. There were cow patties all over the field site.

This led to a very awkward and upsetting call to our Supervisor about the state of the field, and the wasted hours of work put into setting it up. The next week a bunch of guys came down from Queen’s and installed a barbed wire fence around the site to prevent this from happening again. Luckily, the story has a happy ending because this ended up being an isolated incident and the cows have never broken into the field site after the fence was installed, and the experiment is now going into it’s 6th year.

The cows make an appearance now and then, and in large numbers, often around 70 at a time. As free-ranging beef cattle they aren’t exactly friendly or unfriendly. If you look them in the eyes, they run the other way. But 5 minutes later you’ll see their heads poking out of the bush wanting another look at what you’re doing. Occasionally one gets stuck in the barbed wire trying to get a taste of the grass in our site. They have at least a hundred acres to roam free on, but of course, the grass is always greener on the other side…or so they say.