Mark, Shanti & Isabeau

study Arctic birds

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It was nice...

 'Twas a nice bear.

- Isabeau Pratte

It's kind of like the Wild West.

- Mark Maftei

So we actually had a total colony failure.

- Shanti Davis

This was my second time working in the Arctic, last summer I worked on Bylot Island. So I knew I really liked those kind of place... the North and the Arctic.

The work that we do is largely for the High Arctic Gull Research Group, which is a small group of researchers that study Arctic birds all around the Arctic, in Canada, in Russia...Norway... My  main project right now is on Sabine's Gulls. So we've been looking at mostly their migration, putting on these little tags that track where they go. And they go all the way down to Peru, and back, every year. So it's a pretty neat long distance migration for Arctic species.

My project is looking at Ross's Gulls, which are a very poorly known species. So a lot of what I was doing was just collecting super basic data like when do the birds breed, do the males and females both take care of the eggs or not, what do they eat, how do they attract mates. But generally what we do up there is sorta opportunistic, and all of the little specific projects tie into the idea of using the island as a baseline to compare data from the same species in other parts of their range.

What makes Nasaruvaalik Island unique is that it is biologically and ecologically a very rich area. So most of the surrounding islands in the larger general area are pretty barren. But because there are these small polynyas, a lot of bids can feed there, so many birds end up breeding there.





Polynyas are ecologically important because they allow marine mammals access to air, and allow land mammals or birds access to water.


It's not an even distribution. We've surveyed, by now, like 50 or 60 islands. Something like 80% of all the birds in the Queens Channel are on like 3 or 4 islands. And those same islands are the ones that are really close to polynyas, and those same islands are the ones where we find whale bones and stuff like that. So even 5-6 hundred years ago these islands were also the islands that  humans chose to base their hunting because they were the closest to water, they were the closest to resources. In this environment it's such a basic food chain and resources are so predictably concentrated in certain areas... like an Arctic tern and a human are both going to go pick the same spot as being the good spot to go get food.


When you start flying over big areas, it's like wow, all the action is really concentrated in a couple of key sites.


And then you get vast areas that are just lunar. Like there's nothing out there. Like nothing.

The last two years we've done helicopter surveys of the area. It's mostly just counting from the air, so the helicopter comes close, you have observers in the helicopter, and you are able to get a general estimate of the number of birds.

Just about every major seabird colony in Canada received a lot of attention 40 to 50 years ago, and then they really didn't receive much attention until 20 or 30 years ago. Sometimes those numbers, the counts, differ by an order of magnitude or more.


It's really difficult to say that, did the colony really drop by 80% in the last 40 years, or did someone just, you know, say "Holy shit, that's a lot of birds, that must be 100,000 birds", and then someone else went in and said "Holy shit, that's a lot of birds, that must be 10,000 birds".


It's really tricky.

And then also with breeding birds, a lot of them, both males and females, will sit on the eggs. But they take turns.


So depending on - if you go in the early season when they are still in courtship display, both members of the pair will probably be at the site. Whereas if you go later in the season when you get into incubation, one member of the pair will be off foraging while one is on the eggs.


So you could potentially get twice as many birds if you go earlier on than if you go later.

You just need to get a knack for doing it, year after year.

It's really hard for people to understand migration.

It leaves an impression on you when you see the track of an individual bird. When you tagged the bird one year and untag it the next year, and think that in the time between it had flown to Peru and back.


People don't realize that the birds that migrate south past BC or the whales, that they are the same species that go up to the Arctic.

People think the Arctic is this isolated ecosystem, that it is closed off...

but it's not because of migration which can affect animals far away.

Some people thrive in this environment. No running water, no Internet, disconnected. We all love being in that environment.

It's nice because you're so close to the nature, and it's really far away from the civilization. So you just step out of your cabin and everything is in front of you, the ecosystems and all the species are just... They are really close and it's really easy to just observe them, to ask questions about how does that work. Yeah, it's amazing...

I think a lot of the work that we do has to do with the disturbance effects on ground nesting birds.


So that, for example, if a mining company wants to build an exploration camp or they want to build an airstrip or something, we can say "Look, based on our research, we know that if you stay 200 meters, or 800 meters, or 1 km or, you know, x distance away from these birds you won't disturb them" or we can say "Well, helicopters don't disturb these birds but ATVs do." So like practical information we can use to have a relevant and practical effect. As opposed to saying "Oh, we shouldn't disturb these birds", we are actually figuring out, well, how much can you disturb these birds, how much is it safe to do so.


So I think that most of the work that we have tried to focus on is a very practical application of science to determine how our data can relate to development.


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This little device is attached to the bird's leg to track its migration patterns. It uses light levels to estimate latitude and longitude, with an accuracy of  200 km. Each unit costs about $500, weighs 2 grams, and needs to be retrieved back from the bird the following year to download the data it collected.

Ross's Gull

Arctic Terns fly from the Arctic to Antarctica!

View past profiles

Sabine's Gull

Sabine's Gull