February 7th 2020
Well I meant to write a blog post about my second field season at Rocky Point Bird Observatory (I banded my first northern pygmy owl!) but things have been a little bit crazy for the last 6 months because I've lost my mind, moved to Kelowna, and started a PhD.
I'm researching cougar-prey dynamics in southern British Columbia!
Why cougars? Well, when I was working for fRI last winter we caught a few cougars on camera playing and sniffing around our deer traps. And I was more excited by this than any other large mammal field work moment I've encountered, for some reason. Cougars are just so mysterious, stealthy, and not really talked about a lot in wildlife management.
In my Master's thesis acknowledgements, I thanked my lab mates Gillian and Sandra for their help and support throughout my time at UVic, and said I hope we get to collar large cats someday.
That day is here, or at least on December 13th 2019 it was when I collared my first cougar!
I officially started my program in January 2020 at UBC Okanagan with Karen Hodges and Adam Ford. To date, we've collared 11 cougars between the west Okanagan and the east Kootenays, and next week we are going to try to deploy some collars in the Boundary region in between.
At this point, I am busy doing literature review, collaring cougars, and trying to visiting GPS clusters of the cougars we've collared to examine their kills and hunting habitat. I have not flushed out my thesis chapters yet, but I want to look at predation risk by cougars to mule deer and bighorn sheep and understand what habitat characteristics and features make these prey susceptible to cougar predation. I also want to examine habitat connectivity for cougars, density of the population, and the effects of wildfire and roads on survival, predation rates, and habitat selection.
Stay tuned for a website dedicated to this project, and how you could be involved in this research!
Once I visit more clusters I'll write a post about the field work and what we're finding :) so far, it's an uphill battle to snowshoe to the sides of mountains in the hopes of finding a half-eaten deer. What fun!
Scroll down for updates!
I defended my Master's research this month and moved to Hinton Alberta to start a position as research assistant with the Foothills Research Institute's Caribou Program.
Here I'll be helping with important research for caribou conservation in Alberta including working to collect data on their apparent competitors - white-tailed deer - the subject of my Master's research.
For then next 8 months I'll be working on two main projects 1) Developing Resource Selection Functions (habitat models) for woodland caribou in response to mountain pine beetle infestation and 2) Assisting with the capturing and collaring of white-tailed deer using baited traps. I'll be taking an Avalanche Safety course this month and a Chemical Immobilization course in the new year to learn how to safely handle drugs to sedate wildlife.
With Jasper only 25 minutes away I'm pretty excited to live in this small northern Alberta town (population ~ 10,000) despite promises of days well below -30 in the winter. Winter field work will be something new for me and I've come prepared with Muck Arctic Sport boots rated to -40 and several layers of down. Bring on the frigid temps!
In my spare time I'll be checking out the Beaver Boardwalk and Jasper National Park for owls and large mammals. I might have to take up cross country skiing to access some of the sites when the snow starts getting deep! It's probably a good thing that I'm taking avalanche safety training this month.
Update Dec 23rd 2018
It's been nearly two months since I moved to Hinton and I've already seen some new species and learned new approaches to habitat modeling and field techniques.
Last month I set up camera traps as part of a new deer and cutblock study which monitor deer activity in cutblocks of different age classes around west central Alberta to help us understand how to better manage cutblocks to reduce deer presence and apparent competition with caribou. Similar to my study in the northeast of Alberta, we are interested in uncovering how deer select habitat within caribou ranges.
This month, we're gearing up for deer trapping in the new year which means a LOT of preparation. I spent 5 days driving back roads within the Little Smoky (LSM) and Red Rock Prairie Creek (RPC) ranges looking for deer sign (tracks, trails, actual deer...etc.) in the hope of determining some sites to pre-bait with oats and hay.
I was lucky enough to see the Willmore Wilderness Area while I was in Grande Cache which spans over one million acres and is home to elusive species like the wolverine, caribou, cougars and many other wildlife. It is also a key study region for the Mountain Legacy Project.
While in the nearby RPC range I saw all kinds of wildlife tracks which tells me these mountains provide important habitat for many large mammals. Some of the tracks I could identify were snowshoe hare, Canada lynx, cougar, wolf, coyote, moose, mule & white-tailed deer, elk and caribou!
While searching for deer sign I saw first-hand the expansive industrial activity surrounding and within the boundaries of declining caribou herds. The Little Smoky herd is almost entirely surrounded by clear-cutting and linear features. We saw a few old signs of caribou tracks, but no sightings of caribou.
In January, our team will be returning to RPC and LSM ranges to deploy baited deer traps in an effort to capture and radio-collar 20 individuals. This data will help us model deer space-use within important caribou ranges and provide recommendations for better deer and cutblock management practices.
Update January 25 2019
Trapping is underway and we've had some changes to our plans so far. Trapping deer in the foothills is trickier than we anticipated. Instead of trapping in both RPC and LSM, we are focusing our efforts in Little Smoky this year.
So far we have 6 traps set up with several other bait sites on the go, each equipped with a remote camera, a pile of hay, buck jam, alphalpha cubes, corn, and salt. The pre-baiting aspect of this project has been largely trial and error - and now, we're giving it everything we've got to attract deer!
Each day a team of two (one of which is a trained wildlife vet) head out to LSM and check all of the deer traps and re-bait, check the cameras for deer, and look for tracks. Though each trap is set up with a triggered alarm in the event a deer enters, we check the traps each day in case an alarm malfunctions. This means a lot of driving, and sometimes through the night.
We've had a few traps triggered by snowshoe hares visiting our traps, resulting in us re-stringing the trip-wire so that small mammals can't set off the traps. We've also had a few unexpected visitors show up on our cameras, including coyote, martens, and a cougar!
The good news is, to-date we've caught three deer in the traps and we collared two of them! I was happy to be present for two of the captures, the first a large doe and the second a bull fawn. To sedate these deer, we have to physically restrain the deer inside of the trap before the vet can inject them with sedatives by hand.
This is much harder than it sounds, since the deer becomes frantic as we approach the trap and we're basically entering a confined space with a crazed animal (we do wear helmets though, of course). Two of us essentially enter the trap, with the first person throwing a blanket over the deer's head and grabbing the front legs from under them while the second person pushes down on the rump. Once injected, it takes about 4-6 minutes for the deer to calm down and we can remove the trap, place the deer on a carry blanket, and fit a GPS collar and take hair, blood, and fecal samples.
Once samples are collected, we clear the area move the deer away from the trap where the vet injects reversal drugs. These drugs counter-act the Butorphanol and the Medetomidine allowing the deer to wake up and walk away, resuming natural behaviours in about 10 minutes.
We did not collar the male fawn since males grow significantly more than females. Instead, we collected some hair and blood samples without sedating him and let him go.
That's all of the excitement for the time being! I wrangled my first deer, and discovered that clover traps actually do work after a lot of baiting and patience.
Update March 6th 2019
We're nearing the end of deer capture and we're up to 8 collared deer! It doesn't sound like a lot, but we've had a few captures where we couldn't collar the individual (too small or too large for a collar) and we've had two mortalities from predation.
Tracking a mortality signal was a new experience for me, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I mean, I figured I'd find a dropped collar or MAYBE a whole animal carcass, but I didn't expect it to find an active kill site with remnants left.
The collars emit a signal when no movement has occurred over a certain period of time. This tells us that either the collar has dropped off, or the animal is no longer alive or not doing well. We first had a mortality signal from our 3rd collared deer, blue and yellow. We set out with the last known GPS coordinates of the collar and an antennae and receiver in the Little Smokey range. Due to recent cougar activity at our traps, we suspected our doe might have been predated by cougars and therefore brought along our SPOT, bear spray, and a loaded rifle.
We tracked her about 800 meters from a well site road, and about 900 meters from where we originally captured her. We found cougar prints in the snow by a deer bed, and blood marks where the head likely was. Then, we saw drag marks in the snow with blood smears leading to the carcass under a tree. The cougars had buried her head in snow, and plucked her hair, scattering it all over. We collected the ear tag and collar, and recorded the kill site location, and sign of predators.
Our second mortality came a little over a week later, when the fawn of blue and yellow was predated by wolves, also near the trap line. We suspected the fawn wouldn't make it very long after her mother was predated, however we were not expecting the predator to be wolves in this area. We had already seen cougar and coyote sign in the immediate area, and wolf sign a few kilometers away. This was interesting to me given my Master's research on deer habitat in Alberta's boreal forest and how wolves will select where deer are.
In other news, all of our recent deer captures have been adult males! We captured 3 bucks in 3 days, and I was lucky enough to bring along my partner Dave to wrestle one in the trap with me. He went in the trap first, of course. We caught one of them at night and he was 218 lbs, so that was an interesting tackle. I then wrestled another buck the very next morning, we were on a roll.
Just 3 weeks left of deer trapping until the end of our season. It's been such a great learning experience and I hope to be involved in next year's capture.
This week I had the opportunity to tag along with the Government of Alberta's Caribou team to pick up fecal samples in the Red-Rock/Prairie Creek herd near Grande Cache.
It was my first time doing surveys by helicopter so this was a pretty exciting moment for me! Our task was to complete 37 transect lines along the caribou range in search of cratering sites, which are pits in the snow that caribou dig to find food.
We flew with Gemini Heli and our pilot Shane was great - he thought I might be sick since I'm prone to motion sickness so he took extra care to fly smoothly over the ridges. Thankfully, I didn't get sick but I did have 2 gravol in my system.
We had two teams fly over the transects, one starting at either end. Our team flew over the Willmore Wildnerness with steep slopes and valley bottoms, where the other team started in the more disturbed foothills region.
On day 1 we flew most of the day without landing, circling spots where we identified tracks from the air to determine if they were caribou or moose tracks. Moose generally travel along the valley bottoms and can be identified by the length of their stride, absence of cratering, presence of bedding prints, and single or double tracks. Caribou in comparison tend to occur in larger group sizes and on top of ridges with lots of cratering. We saw several moose and 8 mountain goats but no caribou.
On day 2 we were closer to the core of the caribou range, moving away from the tallest ridges. We found a group of 10 caribou and later a group of 8! We were able to land at these sites as the caribou moved off the cratered areas and collected samples. We used whirl packs and tongue compressors to scoop poop, leaving the tongue compressors behind to mark samples we had already collected. For every caribou, we need to collect 1.5 samples. For example, we collected over 15 samples for 10 individuals. These fecal samples will be analyzed for the DNA on the surface of the poop to identify individuals, and ultimately estimates for the population.
On day 3 we finished off in the disturbed part of the range as we were weathered out of the mountains. No caribou this time, but plenty of moose, bighorn sheep, and elk.
I had a great time on these surveys not only because of the scenery and pristine wilderness, but because I could see first-hand the habitat that caribou live in and the extreme contrast between in-tact and disturbed boreal forest. This experience allowed me to visualize the impact that industrial activity has on this majectic species, and provided me with a more personal connection to the individuals that I model in GIS every day with fRI Research.
I'm back on the west coast! This past month my partner and I have been working at Rocky Point Bird Observatory as banders to monitor fall migration on Vancouver Island. While the skies have been full of smoke, birds are on the move and we've had some pretty cool ones turn up at our stations.
RPBO runs two banding stations - Rocky Point (limited access) and Pedder Bay which are both located in Metchosin BC about 5 minutes away from each other. Dave and I are staying on site in a cozy trailer at the Pedder Bay Marina which makes it easier for us to get to work every day, and to spend our afternoons going on adventures around Metchosin and Victoria. #Trailerlife
My first day here was immediately after returning from the CSEE conference in Guelph ON in July, so needless to say I was running on fumes after a busy few days of networking and giving a talk on my latest thesis chapter.
On day 1 I was at Rocky Point and one of the first birds I got to band was a familiar eastern face - a Northern Parula! Quite a rare occurrence in BC and only the 21st record for the province. Later in the day I also got to band a violet-green swallow, so things were off to a fantastic start.
It's now been one month since we started the season and collectively we've banded ~ 1500 birds. This year we are a part of a 4 bander team including returning bander Blair Dudeck and Donna Talluto from Belgium. Most of the daily team includes volunteers from the community, ranging in age and skill level to extract, band, scribe, and complete daily census.
Operating RPBO wouldn't be possible without volunteers, and we always need more people. One of my missions this season is to encourage students at Camosun and UVic that are interested in biology or nature conservation to come out and develop some field skills. As I've learned, you need more than good grades to get opportunities when it comes to field biology! Being able to teach and mentor new volunteers at the Pedder Bay station is one of the best parts of this job.
While developing my supervisory skills, I'm still trying to get my banding numbers up. Right now I've banded 750 individuals of 76 species, with 27 of these species from RPBO in the past month. My personal goal is to reach over 1200 birds banded of 85 species by the end of October.
Dave and I both got our banding ticks for Black-Throated Gray Warbler - RPBO's logo bird that we don't catch very often, about 10 per season.
Some of my other banding ticks so far include Townsend's and MacGillivray's Warbler, Violet-green and Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Pacific Wren, Western Tanager, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hutton's and Warbling vireo, and Anna's and Rufous Hummingbird.
Learning to band hummingbird's here was a real treat for both Dave and I since neither of us had ever banded them before. Other than extracting Ruby-throated hummingbirds from our nets out east, this was an entirely new experience for us!
The wildlife on the west coast is pretty incredible and though I've been living in Victoria on and off for 3 years, there are still some encounters I've yet to experience. One of the most exciting for me so far has been to see and hear the coastal wolves.
Almost every day at Rocky Point we hear howling coming from the back fields and see wolf scat on the trails near our net lanes. One morning while I was setting up the scope I took a peak to look at some seals and there was a wolf swimming with them to shore! Dave has also seen the wolves at Rocky in the front field and had great looks at an alpha female and her pup.
Other sightings have been humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, a sea otter (!) and about a million black-tailed deer. The diversity and excitement that we get to experience each day makes it pretty hard to complain about our jobs ;)
One month down and migration is still picking up - I can't wait to see what we get in September and October when owls and raptors arrive in large numbers.
Each Saturday our banders write a weekly update on RPBO's blog, which you can read here for a more detailed report.
Here are some of the highlight photos so far this season:
This field season I am working as a nightjar field technician with the University of Guelph's Norris lab and Master's student Elora Grahame to monitor, capture, and radio-tag Common Nighthawk and Eastern Whip-poor-wills in the Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Preserve in the Muskoka Lake district.
Common nighthawk are listed in Ontario as special concern and Eastern whip-poor-wills are threatened. The barrens are important breeding grounds for both species, which are ground nesters and susceptible to human disturbance and predation.
This summer we are deploying insect traps, remote camera traps, nest searching, and mist-netting, banding and attaching transmitters to adults and chicks to collect data for Elora's project. One of her questions is to assess whether roads act as ecological traps for these species, where the feature is selected and utilized by birds as a preferred site despite the risk presented by human activity and potential predators.
Not unlike my own study system in the Alberta boreal forest, the barrens house many trails for ATV and snowmobile use as well as hiking trails, gravel, and paved roads. Large mammals use these features as travel corridors and to-date we have spotted moose, fox, and coyote tracks along these trail networks. Others in the area include Algonquin wolves, black bears and white-tailed deer (my study species).
To-date we have conducted point count surveys across most of the barrens to detect both species. Surveys are 6 minutes in length and are completed during the dusk period when activity is highest. Whip-poor-wills were present at the barrens at the beginning of May and nighthawks arrived on May 15th.
Nighthawks can sound like American woodcock due to their distinctive "pe-ent" call, however upon hearing both species calling in the barrens we've learned to distinguish between the two - hence our excitement when we finally heard our target species and saw them flying high overhead. Male nighthawks will also make a unique "boom" sound. Whip-poor-wills have an unmistakable, quick, repetitive song and we've had as many as 5 singing at once from a survey point, indicating a dense breeding population.
Update June 07 2018
Nest searching is underway! After a quick visit to Long Point Bird Observatory to practice mist-netting and transmitter harness attachment, we are nearly ready to start catching nightjars in the field. We are in the process of registering the nano tags, organizing harness kits, and programming the camera traps.
We set up a camera trap in our yard to catch the compost-destroying culprit, bets were on raccoons and black bears. This morning the results were in - a black bear has been getting in to our compost and we've got the video to prove it!
Now we're out conducting surveys and nest searching at night. We're using the eye-shine from adults to find the nest and so far it's been pretty quiet in the barrens - but it's still early days. Last night we stumbled upon a common nighthawk nest by accidentally meandering off the main trail and onto a game trail. This nest was just a foot away from the game trail which is a very questionable decision. After taking a GPS point for this nest, we spotted eye-shine further down the trail on the barrens. It was another nighthawk sitting next to the trail but this time there was no nest - strange. We suspect she may be in the process of laying her first egg.
Update June 14th 2018
Nest searching has been somewhat successful so far - we've found a total of 3 common nighthawk nests, all with two eggs and incubating. Eastern whip-poor-wills have proven to be much more difficult to find. Both species like to nest on leaf litter on the edge of the barrens however we've had no luck so far finding these ladies. We're moving on to plan B - catching the whip-poor-wills in mist nets, tagging them, and tracking them to find their nests.
We've put together some stellar decoys to help us lure our target species with the help of audio playback. Meet whip-poor-will Vincent Van Gogh-in-the-nets and Maurice the common nighthawk.
Next we will be deploying the camera traps and insect traps to find out what predators are around the barrens, and what species these aerial insectivores might be munching on. So far we've seen many signs of black bear including rubbing trees, scat, and fur, moose, deer, and coyote tracks, fox, and mysterious wolf-like fur and accompanying howling under the full moon (no joke!).
Update June 17 2018
The camera traps are out and the birds are in! We've deployed 8 cameras in the Torrance Barrens which will be rotated every 3 days or so on a grid of 40 points. We'll find out soon if we've caught any potential ground nest predators in the area. So far we've lost one CONI nest to predation (the one next to a game trail, sadly).
We've started mist-netting, banding, and tagging nightjars with 3 male Eastern Whip-poor-wills sporting new nano tags and 1 male Common Nighthawk banded to date. One of our EWPW was already banded from a previous study which was exciting. We're hoping to catch some females soon so that we may track the females to their nests to monitor success and eventually attach transmitters to the chicks.
Update June 21st 2018
It's the first day of summer and we've got some news to share. Last night our team found TWO Eastern Whip-poor-will nests with chicks! After much nest-searching in the dark without luck, we've focused on deploying transmitters on adults for the past week.
Our new strategy to find nests is to track adults to the nest from their roosting sites and it works! Last night we tracked a male EWPW to his roost site in a cluster of trees and waited for the signal to change - we followed the male about 100 meters to a new spot and began searching for nests. The male flushed while we were searching and began singing across the barrens; however, after a few more minutes of searching the chicks were found on some leaf litter underneath juniper on the edge of the barrens. Mama EWPW came just moments after we began weighing the chicks, fluttering above our heads as we moved quickly to process the chicks.
We've finally got some EWPW nests, 5 adults with transmitters and 1 adult CONI. Tonight we are going to try to catch a nesting CONI and give her a tag.
Stay tuned for more project updates and follow me on instagram @siobhandarling for more photos
Another day, another doe - black-tailed deer capture with the Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society in Oak Bay, BC
The Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society (UWSS) is implementing a research project to better understand Columbian black-tailed deer movement and population density in the Oak Bay area of Southern Vancouver Island. In February and March 2018, 20 adult females will be fitted with radio-collars for two years of data collection. These results will inform the BC government's long-term wildlife management plans.
In the field
So how do we collect data on deer movement? The UWSS team is using Lotek satellite GPS collars which take fixes in real time every few hours on the location of the deer. These collars are programmed to fall off after 2 years and are carefully fitted to allow room for potential growth during this period.
The Capture team includes a wildlife veterinarian who is responsible for sedation and animal health & care as well as expert scientists, graduate students, and other volunteers from the UWSS.
The capture process involves surveying for deer by car within the boundaries of Oak Bay, BC. Once an adult doe has been identified and sedated by a veterinarian, the capture team collects blood, hair, ear biopsy, and fecal samples and fits the doe with the GPS collar & ear tag.
To date, 13 does have been successfully collared. This has been my first experience with capture & collar methods for large mammals and it has been absolutely great! I have been analyzing telemetry data for white-tailed deer for two years without having that hands-on experience of actually fitting the collars on the animals, so this has been a special experience for me.
***UPDATES*** March 21 2018
Today we captured & collared the 20th and final doe of the project which was very exciting for the team, but bitter sweet because this field work has been a lot of fun.
As with any field work, there were some obstacles along the way but I am quite impressed by the preparedness of the UWSS and the wildlife vet in terms of public safety and awareness, team communication, and the utmost care and consideration of the animals.
During the course of the collaring period we had 3 defective collars which were replaced in time for us to recapture does with our permit. Though an inconvenience, we were able to use manual VHF tracking to locate the collared does and quickly swap out the defects (Phew!).
Some of the sweetest moments from the past few weeks for me were being a part of such an incredible, knowledgeable and dedicated team. I feel very grateful to have been a part of this project and to work alongside some top notch people. Special thanks to our wildlife vet who showed me how to collect all of the samples, and for patiently teaching me how to successfully collect blood!
Other nice moments were watching yearlings reunite with the does once they had woken up. These were precious moments that I was lucky to capture in some cases.
And finally, the amount of support coming from the Oak Bay community has been overwhelming. As part of the collaring process, we spoke with homeowners about the urban deer project and asked their permission to sedate does that were on their property. We received permission from almost every house which made our jobs that much easier (because it's not always easy to capture large mammals!). Many people expressed their support of finding more science-based, long-term management solutions for urban deer that do not involve culling. With this data, the UWSS will be able to provide the best recommendations possible for moving forward with deer management.
Stay tuned with the UWSS for project updates and the next phase of the research project administering immunocontraceptives.
Haven't you heard - birding is the new cool, obscure thing to do. If you have an interest in studying wildlife or wildlife photography there is no easier subject than a bird. Birds are everywhere and becoming a birder only requires binoculars and a bird guide to get going. And no, birding is not just for the retired folk - birding requires a lot of practice and young people can actually hear bird calls much more effectively. We need more young birders to get involved with counts and monitoring efforts for conservation.
So where to begin?
1. Buy a pair of binoculars
If you're serious, consider investing in a good pair of waterproof 8x30s or 8x42's. You can buy Nikon prostaff bins between $200-300, or Monarchs which are around $500. Vortex are another quality brand in the medium price range. Remember you might have them well into retirement.
2. Buy a sibley field guide
Sibley is one of the best bird guide brands because of its detailed images and extensive notes about each species compared to others like National Geographic or Peterson. You can purchase Eastern or Western North America (depending on where you plan to bird) for $30 or less.
3. Download a bird guide app
Sibley also has its field guides available in app form for purchase for $20. Alternatively, a free option is Merlin Bird ID. I recommend Merlin as a solid cost-saving guide for beginners, and it has the bonus option of loading your photos and obtaining a list of potential identifications. I've tried Merlin's photo ID option on many blurry, distant photos of birds and it usually correctly identifies it.
4. Practice ID by sight in your backyard
Before learning some bird calls, you'll probably want to practice successfully identifying species by sight. The easiest way is to go for a walk with your bins and guide and practice identifying the birds you see. Start becoming familiar with your songbirds, seabirds, waterfowl, birds of prey and other groups. Get to know the species that live in your area during that time of year, because some birds migrate and others don't.
5. Create an Ebird account
Ebird is a great resource for birders for finding birding hotspots and for documenting the birds you see and hear. Once you become more confident in your ID abilities, create an Ebird profile and submit your observations - noting the species you saw, how many, and where/when you saw them. Ebird will keep track of the species you have yet to see called your "Year Needs List" so you can find out what you haven't seen yet in your area.
6. Learn your bird calls
Birds move a lot and many are cryptic. One of the benefits of birding is that birds are very vocal in the mating season and their calls are species specific. This mean that you can listen to a bird calling and identify it without seeing it. Dendroica is a great resource with dozens of audios for North American species. Practice the calls and songs for common birds you see regularly to get a handle on distinguishing between species. Warbler songs are perhaps some of the hardest to learn and require lots of practice.
7. Use Psh-ing to rustle up some birds
Ever go for a walk and hear birders going "Psh psh pshhh" toward a random bush? They may be trying to get birds to pop up and pay attention to them.
That time I watched a wolf pack and a male grizzly descend upon a bison carcass in Yellowstone National Park
In the summer of 2015 I was embarking on the biggest and scariest move of my life. I was leaving Nova Scotia behind to start a Master's project in British Columbia, but first, I was going to spend two months living in Montana and exploring Yellowstone National Park. The most exciting part was that I had been dreaming of seeing Yellowstone's famous geysers, hot springs and wildlife for years. A budding ecologists' dream come true.
In my undergraduate degree I had learned about the classic example of predator control that was Yellowstone. Wolves removed, coyotes and elk released, willow extensively browsed - and then decades later the famous re-introduction. I knew that I was interested in conservation and specifically, conservation within National Parks. However, my visit to Yellowstone solidified my love of understanding predator-prey dynamics.
My first week in Yellowstone was spent visiting your classic tourist attractions: Old faithful, the grand prismatic spring, the canyon, and mammoth hot springs. I was surprised to see elk laying in the grass next to the visitor's centre at Mammoth where hundreds of people were wandering around. But of course, there was pretty much a guarantee that no wolves would bother them there. Myself and another student hiked into the park where we saw elk again, laying in a heavily forested area in a valley bottom, well away from the known wolf dens. Seemed to me that elk were playing it smart.
On a hike around Lewis Lake in the southern region of the park, we saw canid and bear scat, and what we thought could have been wolf or coyote tracks. Disappointed that we didn't see any large mammals, we headed back to our campsite only to see a coyote just up the road. This confirmed our suspicions of canid activity. I was pretty satisfied with our day, considering we had also seen several bird species such as trumpeter swans, western tanager, cliff swallows and a common nighthawk.
The real wildlife excitement came in the park's northern region, the Lamar valley which largely spans the width of the park to Cook city and north into Montana. On this stretch we saw hundreds of bison close to the road, black bears, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, white-tailed deer and mule deer. The mountain goats were perhaps the most difficult to find, as we spent several hours scoping cliffs in the eastern part of the valley until we finally found a family of 5.
My favourite and most memorable encounter in the Lamar valley was on one of my last days visiting the park. About an hour from Cook city there is a known wolf den, and lo and behold, a bison had died just outside of it the weekend I was there. The great thing about having lots of people around in the summer is that wildlife sightings are easy to find when driving around, largely because people are pulled over on the side of the road with cameras and well- that's a pretty obvious clue. Two of the wolf dens in Yellowstone are accessible to visitors, and fortunately we were equipped with multiple spotting scopes and rubber boots. The viewing spot was a short walk from the main road and was easy to find as at least five others were already waiting with their scopes set up. We arrived, set up and waited for the sun to set. We didn't have to wait very long. Moments after we saw incredible wildlife action unfolding.
There was the bison carcass, this large mass easily discernible on the open, yellow grass. On top of the carcass was a large, male grizzly bear. Approaching the carcass were what looked like six little dogs running up to it and grabbing chunks of meat. Of course, those were the wolves! We watched in awe as the wolves actively pursued the carcass while the male grizzly tried to roll the carcass away from them. In the corner a few feet away from the action were two young wolf pups, and the alpha female was running back and forth to them with mouthfuls of food. Unsurprisingly, she was the most aggressive towards the bear. About thirty minutes later we saw a second grizzly approaching from a distance. She was smaller, with two cubs at her side. We watched as the female walked by the scene behind some trees, as if assessing the situation and deciding that it was too dangerous to join. We watched until the dark made us pack up for the night, as we knew this was possibly a once in a lifetime wildlife encounter.
I couldn't have asked for a better experience watching wildlife and learning first-hand about some of the conservation issues in the park and management challenges. To see up close pieces of browsed willow by elk and to see their behaviour in a landscape with wolves was sublime. Yellowstone is a must-see for anyone studying ungulate and carnivore communities, or simply anyone who has a passion for wildlife and geology.
A few pieces of advice when planning your trip to Yellowstone:
As a Haligonian (a person from Halifax, Nova Scotia) I’ve had little experience with the province of New Brunswick. I’ve driven through with my family, and I’ve camped at Kouchibouguac National Park with friends, but that’s about it. I now work at the NCC office in Fredericton, NB, but I’m not always at my desk. With NCC, I have been able to travel to several New Brunswick protected areas so far, including the Musquash, Escuminac, and New Horton Nature Reserves.
In Musquash, our field team visited Black Beach which holds up to its name with graphite sand and cliffs where we hiked the 4 km loop trail to look for areas needing maintenance. We then visited the Five
Fathom Hole trail in Musquash which is a five kilometre linear trail along the Musquash River and estuary, where 86 percent of the coastline is protected by NCC and other conservation groups. This trail was very rustic and provided many lookout points over the river and estuary where you could see red spruce and fir trees all around the coastline. As a novice birder, I relied on my fellow interns to help me identify birds by sight and sound. During the first CV event of the season, Musquash Trailblazers, I was able to hike the trail again, only this time I shared the experience with local volunteers, showing them what NCC has protected.
On our way to Escuminac to scout, we stopped in Miramichi and Kouchibouguac to promote our next event Escuminac Bioblitz & Clean-Up. I never realized how many rivers there are in New Brunswick until now; the landscape is surprisingly different from Nova Scotia. Finally, I arrived in Escuminac and walked the south beach with my fellow interns to monitor NCC properties. This area has peat cliffs that are over 10 feet tall and 9,000 years old at the edges of the coastal bog. Within these peat cliffs, we saw hundreds of little holes along the top layers which are created by bank swallows for nesting. As we walked along, these swallows would fly out of the holes behind us and fly in pairs over our heads. From the lighthouse at the point, we could see peat cliffs on the beaches at either side, and see out into the Northumberland Straight. During this CV event, our volunteers helped us collect marine debris from the beaches, and we were fortunate enough to have an expert zoologist show us how to catch and identify butterflies in the bogs and fields that I had come to know.
A few weeks later, we drove up to the New Horton Nature Reserve; a trip which took us through the beautiful Fundy National Park and town of Alma where there are massive hills and views of the Bay of Fundy. We hosted the CV event New Horton Trailblazers and trimmed back sections of the trail that were overgrown down to a small and pristine beach where we collected a few bags of garbage. The tide was in and Tom’s island was surrounded by water, a small but very tall island with vegetation that seems strangely out of place. Despite the blood-thirsty mosquitoes eating my arms and legs the entire time, this may have been my favourite spot to date.
My most recent trip with NCC was to the five Murray Harbour islands in Prince Edward Island where we hosted the CV event Murray Harbour Kayak & Clean-Up. Here, NCC has helped to preserve Reynolds
Island, and is currently working to protect Thomas Island. We had a great turn out for this event, with 22 volunteers participating in kayaks to clean-up marine debris. Some of my family members are islanders so
I visit PEI every summer, though I’d never been to Murray Harbour before. Kayaking out from this little beach out into the ocean to Thomas Island was exhilarating for a nature-lover. There were thousands of jellyfish on the red sands, cormorants feeding off the water, juvenile bald eagles and osprey soaring, and curious harbour seals poking out of the water now and again. Together, we collected around one ton of marine debris off the islands which was a very satisfying and rewarding experience.