Snow Geese at Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary. Images courtesy of Dr. Ray T. Alisauskas.
The largest bird reserve in the world is the site for long-term research on the life history of several species of waterfowl.
The focus of the current research at Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary are Ross's Geese, Snow Geese, White-fronted Geese, King Eiders, and Long-tailed Ducks, said Dr. Ray T. Alisauskas, research scientist and adjunct professor based at the Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Centre of Environment Canada, on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.
"The research started with a focus on understanding what role spring nutrition and arctic climate play in driving population biology of arctic-nesting geese," he said. "Also, we were interested in understanding how annual survival of geese changed and whether there were any longer-term trends in survival. With each additional year, it became obvious that we were in a unique position to address other unknowns about species for which there were conservation concerns such as King Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks. So, we exploited our presence in the area, to expand our focus on more than the species we were originally interested in."
This season's efforts will include "studies of body condition and nutrient analysis of harvested geese, sampling of nest density, species composition, habitat selection, breeding effort and success" of the nesting geese and sea ducks, according to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry. Researchers will also monitor, on an incidental basis, nests of gulls, loons, terns and other waterfowl.
The number of people involved varies with the number of objectives each year, Alisauskas said. "This summer there should be about 12 people involved at one time or another during the summer," not including pilots for the fixed and rotary wing aircraft used for access to and from the sanctuary, and to reach remote study sites.
A base camp at the Karrak Lake Research Station will be occupied for all or part of the period from 1 May to 31 August.
During part of this year's field season, a British Broadcasting Company film crew will accompany some of the staff "during their daily activities, in an attempt to film arctic wildlife for a documentary on polar regions," according to the environmental assessment.
"One of the most important benefits of the research is that it helps us to understand not only what the natural ecological factors are that influence populations, but also what role humans might play in this," Alisauskas said. Once we know this, we can make recommendations about how to manage human behavior that affects a population either positively or negatively.
"By marking birds, we can estimate annual survival rates, and also population size in some cases, depending on the source of the information about when marked birds are re-encountered. So, we can start to understand how much of changes in population growth/decline is due to changes in survival or production and recruitment of new young. Once you know which of these two components of population growth is more important to changes in population growth, you focus on the priority and start to investigate the main ecological factors that are influencing either survival or recruitment. It is hoped that once there is knowledge about the ecological problem (climate change, predation, toxic chemicals), then it may be possible to offer prescriptions for conservation."
Researchers prepare for an aerial survey of waterfowl.
Research that spans many years is essential to help understand the dynamics of the breeding geese and ducks.
"Long-term research is not only valuable, but necessary, since it is difficult to know if annual changes in population size or survival between two years are just random or part of a longer-term trend," Alisauskas said. "If part of a trend, then it requires more years to detect this. Another reason is that, depending on the species, they don't mature and begin to breed until they are at least three years old, and some individuals may not be detected as first-time breeders until they are 7-8 years old. So, a study has to continue longer than this to be able to detect and estimated such things.
With the bird sanctuary recognized as having the largest variety of nesting waterfowl in North America, a variety of topics have been investigated during recent decades. Surveys of nesting waterfowl were started in 1949, and determined the distribution of nesting Ross's geese and the lesser Snow Goose. Additional aerial surveys have been done in 1976 and during several years in the 1980s.
There have been several reports published that describe results of the research. Recent examples, published by Alisauskas and a number of other investigators, including university students earning advanced degrees, include:
- Previously unrecorded colonies of Ross' and Lesser Snow Geese in the Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary; in 1994, which showed an expansion of nesting range for both species, due to increasing populations
- Diet and growth of Glaucous Gulls at a large Arctic goose colony; in 1999
- Nest-site selection, interspecific associations, and nest success of King Eiders; at Karrak Lake, in 2003
- Comparative reproductive strategies between Long-tailed Ducks and King Eiders at Karruk Lake: use of energy reserves during the nesting season; in 2005
The Queen Maud Gulf area is the "largest bird sanctuary not only in Canada, but in the world apparently," Alisauskas said. "It has been relatively isolated, and because of its size, difficult to get around in without using aircraft. There are also logistical challenges because fixed-winged aircraft cannot land in many areas, and we have to rely on helicopters. So the isolation and size of the sanctuary can make it overwhelming to work in."
Alisauskas, however, finds "the landscape itself is beautiful to my eye. My main motivation for working in the Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary is that it supports a diverse array of arctic waterfowl, some of which are extremely abundant. However, the fact that there are few modern developments in the sanctuary is an added bonus. The solitude and isolation are enjoyable."
The Queen Maud Gulf Bird Sanctuary, designated as a Ramsar site on 24 May 1982, sprawls across more than 63,000 square kilometers, extending from just south of the arctic circle and north to the gulf, and from the Kaleet River south of the Adelaide Peninsula, west to the Tingmeak River basin. Most of the land is federal Crown Land, with small portions owned by the Inuit of Nunavut.
A management plan for the area is currently being evaluated, and is expected to be released this summer.
- Report on mapping of the land cover with illustrations of the waterfowl habitat