Biodiversity Monitoring Project – Living the Summer Dream

I didn’t think I was going to get the job.

After three or four years of watching the Biodiversity Assistant STEP position as a high school student, I was finally able to submit an application as a hopeful 1st-year college student last April. This is a position working with David Mossop, a biologist, professor, and researcher through the Yukon Research Center, participating in his many bird monitoring projects across the Yukon. This was a position I had dreamed of getting for a very long time, but when the interview came and went I felt less than hopeful of getting it. One of the interview questions was about the life history of Peregrin Falcons, and my answer was weak and conveyed a total lack of knowledge on the topic. It was my major nerves speaking however, as when I hung up the phone the correct answer based on my years of field observations flooded back into my head. Other questions were great though, in particular I had fun with the bird ID questions. Evidently, the interview went well enough to get me hired.

According to Dave, this is what I get paid the

According to Dave, this is what I get paid the “Big Bucks” for…. this and keeping him alive!

I already knew Dave as the teacher of my Natural History of the North class in the fall term at the Yukon College. He is a very interesting guy with years of experience under his belt, and as many or more great stories to accompany it. We hit it off, and so far working with him over the summer has been an interesting and fun experience!

Dave and I at Work

Dave and I at Work

The majority of the work we did at the beginning of the season in May was lab work – just skinning and preparing some of his many frozen dead birds as study skins for the Yukon College study collection (you can read a newspaper article about my work with this here). This I already had plenty of experience with as I had worked through the winter for Canadian Wildlife Service doing the same thing. It’s a relaxing task (though sometimes disgusting), but I looked forward to a change of pace in upcoming field work.

Study Skins

Study Skins

The duck surveys were among the earliest field work to come up. Every Friday for the month of May Dave and I would spend a day checking nearly every little pond between Whitehorse and Carmacks for ducks. These duck surveys record species, pairs, and flocks of ducks (flocks being from 5 birds and up in a single group). This was really interesting as we found a few active nests along the way (Trumpeter Swan, Red-necked Grebe, Green-winged Teal, Hairy Woodpecker, and Swainson’s Thrush) and got to see a female Hooded Merganser – an unusual Yukon migrant.

American Wigeon Nest

American Wigeon Nest

Red-throated Loon Nest

Red-throated Loon Nest

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

The very first field trip we took was for a ptarmigan survey up the Chilkat Pass on the Haines Road. It was a beautiful winter drive through snowy landscape, and when we started the survey at around 7am the display calls of several dozen males echoed off the hills within our 1km area. The purpose of this survey was to get a sample size of breeding pairs of Willow Ptarmigan per square kilometer. Dave conducted another one up the Dempster Highway without me while I was in a field course, Principles and Practices of Heritage Interpretation with Brent Little. Then he started up a new ptarmigan survey along Little Fox Lake after getting a report of Willow Ptarmigan calling from in the burn area and having the sightings confirmed. You know it’s going to be an interesting day when you get sprayed in the face with bear spray first thing in the morning! Dave had unknowingly lost the safety on his can of bear spray which he wore on his belt while doing the Fox Lake survey. When he climbed up on the car to close the car topper, he leaned on it and got me directly in the face. For the next hour I couldn’t open my eyes at all, and my face burned excruciatingly for at least 4 hours! The car had also filled up with the spray which meant every time we got in and out and stirred it up we would cough and choke. That night when I showered, the spray on my face stirred up again, causing red pepper burns on my neck and hands. It was surely an adventure, one we hopefully won’t repeat!

Dave Recording Data

Dave Recording Nest Data

Once the duck and ptarmigan surveys finished for the season, nest box checks took priority. Dave and I spent several days checking nest boxes for American Kestrels and Boreal Owls around Whitehorse, through Lewes Marsh (by the Yukon River Bridge heading south on the Alaska Hwy), between Whitehorse and Carmacks, from Carmacks to Dawson, and all along the Dempster Highway, as well as Aishihik Lake. So far we’ve checked around 65 boxes, in which we found 3 active Bufflehead nests and 7 active American Kestrel nests containing about 34 eggs. the other boxes contained either old remains of kestrel or owl nests, squirrel nests (most commonly), or were not there at all having fallen down with a tree or torn apart by a bear.

American Kestrel Nest

American Kestrel Nest

This week Dave, his grandchildren and I went back to the active kestrel nests to band the flightless young – this is a part of the kestrel monitoring process that holds the potential to allow tracking of individual birds via recapture, and has made for a fun couple of work days!

Kestrel Chicks

Kestrel Chicks

Kestrel Banding

Kestrel Banding

Dave's Grandkids were in charge of carefully holding the chicks so we could more easily band them.

Dave’s Grandkids were in charge of carefully holding the chicks so we could more easily band them.

When we went up the Dempster we got to stay in Tombstone Campground for the annual Weekend on the Wing celebration. Though I had been wanting to participate in this event for many years, this was the first time I made it up there. It was a fantastic time; the campground was filled with birders, birdwatchers, biologists, interpreters, and researchers from across the Yukon. Many of the people who attended were familiar to me including my mentor Cameron, as well as several other Yukon Bird Club members. I was happy to meet a few new people and be able to put faces to names I have seen frequently over the past several years including Scott Cameron from the Yukon Wildlife Viewing program.

Our Tents

Our Tents

Dave gave a talk on his American Kestrel monitoring project during the Friday evening, and on Saturday I participated in one of the day hikes that the event coordinators had organized. There were three groups, one of which went up the famed Surfbird Mountain (famous for the Surfbirds breeding on its peak), another went on a river hike (I think), and my group went up Charcoal Ridge, which is directly across from the Tombstone Campground. Cameron took the lead for this hike, and was lucky to find nearly all of the focus species for our hike. The hike was much longer than I had anticipated, and it was steep in the beginning. I quickly lost my breath and as the afternoon wore on my asthmatic lungs began to burn. But with the aid of a puffer and the lack of spruce pollen in the mountain air I was able to hike right to the end of the mountain ridge and survive, a feat I felt fairly proud of!

Me overlooking Charcoal Ridge where we hiked. Photo by Cameron Eckert.

Me overlooking Charcoal Ridge where we hiked. Photo by Cameron Eckert.

Cameron and I

Cameron and I

The 5 hour hike ended up taking up closer to 9 hours, but the birds we saw were a huge reward. We got very close views of male Rock Ptarmigan, fairly good looks at a pair of Northern Wheatear which were nest building, and the few of us that continued hiking to to top of a peak at the end of the ridge were lucky enough to see a Surfbird. This was really cool, because Surfbirds generally inhabit rocky salt-water coastlines, such as what you see taking a ferry to Juneau. However, these birds migrate north into the Yukon (where they’re considered a rare bird) and nest in the rockiest, most desolate-looking mountain peaks that can be found in the Dempster. They are fascinating birds.

Surfbird Tracks in the Mountain Snow

Surfbird Tracks in the Mountain Snow

Surfbird Breeding Habitat

Surfbird Breeding Habitat

Male Rock Ptarmigan

Male Rock Ptarmigan

It was a fantastic day, and definitely a hike I would love to do again one day despite the fact that my hips and legs ached so much for the next few days all I could manage was a stiff waddle when walking! I’m out of shape I guess. The next day (Sunday), Dave and I traveled further north into Eagle Plains, where we spent the next couple of mornings doing Breeding Bird Surveys at 3:30am. We were pretty tired for the second one, not just because we had been camping for nearly a week but also because a large brown Black Bear visited our camp during the night and woke us up. There was no way I was going to sleep well for the rest of the night after that! The bear went away no problem after Dave shouted at it, but it retreated seemingly without a care in the world. It really is unbelievable how habituated bears, particularly Black Bears, are to people.

Cliff with a Gyrfalcon Nest

Cliff with a Gyrfalcon Nest…. Can You Spot the Nest?

The summer has been interesting and a lot of fun so far. We still have another month of work yet to go, and most of that time is going to be spent up north canoeing the Yukon, Eagle, and Porcupine Rivers as part of a falcon monitoring project. We will  be spending time in Dawson, Old Crow, Inuvik, and hopefully Herschel Island as well. It’s going to be a very long month trip, and I’m trying to prepare by expecting the worst. However, I know that I’ll be seeing some incredible sights and gaining a valuable and rare lifetime experience with one of the Yukon’s most experienced field biologists.

My next blog post will be in August after work ends, and I’ll recap the last half of my summer’s work for anyone who may be interested. Until then, thanks for reading, and enjoy your summer! Soak up that sun and enjoy birding in warm weather 🙂

Wolf Track

Wolf Track

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