Arctic Tern. Photo: Sarah Trefry
For Sarah Trefry, a graduate student at the University of New Brunswick, the past summer provided a unique opportunity to compare some Arctic bird populations to those present twenty years ago.
“The surveys were just one part of the much larger ongoing ecological research program of Dr. Greg Henry, a professor at the University of British Columbia,” Trefry said. “His multidisciplinary program monitors bird, animal, insect, and plant populations over time.”
Dr. Henry “knew about my interest in birds, and suggested that I conduct bird surveys of the lowland to compare with earlier surveys done by Dr. Bill Freedman of Dalhousie University. I was also interested in comparing Dr. Freedman's survey technique with a more intensive ‘rope drag’ technique, as a measure of the proportion of breeding birds that get 'captured' through a walking census.
“Breeding bird survey were done at the same site in the early 1980s,” she explained, and “breeding bird populations have also been infrequently monitored at the site since 1980.”
The past summers field work by Trefry (a summer between her MSc project investigating collared pika vocalizations in the Yukon and PhD project on sexual dimorphism and sex ratios in Magnificent Frigatebirds) was the first year she was involved with research at Alexandra Fiord.
The field season’s “climate was slightly unusual for the Canadian High Arctic. At our camp, spring melt-out came late, but arrived without warning. All snow at the site melted over two days in mid-June. The last two weeks of June were warm and sunny. July was much cloudier and cooler. ‘Winter’ arrived when it typically does in mid-August.” this information actually came from James Hudson, since his project has been working with the climate data. You could attribute this quote to him.
Sarah Trefry and James Hudson on rope-drag. Photo: Carolyn Churchland.
The breeding bird surveys at Alexandra Fiord and Ellesmere Island conducted from mid June to late July - with the assistance of James Hudson (studying plant ecology) – were done by “walking transects and rope dragging within five plots, to obtain a measure of how many birds were being spotted on the walking transects.”
The surveys showed “very similar results in breeding bird species and abundances compared to the earlier surveys done at the site.”
“We found few changes in bird densities and species present in the lowland compared to earlier surveys,” Trefry explained. “A few species formerly breeding in low numbers on the lowland were absent, such as Arctic Terns, but these were nesting in high density on a nearby island. The walking census seemed to perform quite well compared to the more labour-intensive rope drags, which James and I spent many hours doing.”
Eight species were found breeding in the lowland habitat, according to the international breeding conditions survey posted on Arctic Birds network: “Snow Buntings, Hoary Redpolls, Lapland Longspurs, Parasitic Jaegers, Long-tailed Ducks, and Baird's Sandpipers. There was also evidence of Rock Ptarmigan, Arctic Turns, and a pair of Gyrfalcons nesting (though the Gyrfalcon nest failed this year). The following numbers of probable and confirmed nests by species were found at the lowland: Snow Buntings: 132, Hoary Redpolls: 2, Lapland Longspur: 19, Parasitic Jaegar: 2, Long-tailed Duck: 2, Baird's Sandpiper: 6.”
Female Long-tail duck on nest. Photo: Sarah Trefry
Lapland Longspur chicks. Photo: Sarah Trefry
“Species like jaegers and ducks were very susceptible to Arctic Fox and Gray Wolf predators if their nests were found, and the jaegar pairs this year at our site were not successful. Climate data for the site shows ambient warming in temperature over the past twenty years, but as of yet the breeding birds appear to be relatively comparable over time.”
“These results are interesting because there was no significant change in the composition of bird species during the breeding season in this area, whereas other Arctic research sites have been noted as having declining breeding bird populations, Trefry noted.
William Brown and Carolyn Churchland relax in the Ellesmere sun. Photo: Sarah Trefry
Trefry, originally from Alberta, has “always enjoyed working in the Canadian Arctic. It is a visually stunning, invigorating, and inaccessible place to work, and one feels very special to get the opportunity to be there. There are few species of animals, but those that are there you often get good looks at, and one cannot help but admire their adaptations for survival in northern climates. I loved the sunshine in June, 24 hours of constant light as the sun makes its circuit around the sky. It makes you feel like you can go forever. Tundra naps are also a highlight - the sun is also appreciated then!
“Alexandra is a neat site because it has a history of Royal Canadian Mounted Police living there with Inuit families, and evidence of them living there remains. On the nearby islands there are also remains of Thule whalers who hunted for Bowhead whales, which are no longer found in that area.
“The locations also means that you are very isolated. This became a challenge when James had a bit of a medical condition and I came into camp while he was flown to a hospital in Iqaluit. However, a second Twin Otter brought him in a week later. And with the isolation comes a forced self-sufficiency, and often the opportunity to become fast friends with those you are working with. And we had a really great crew this year, who were a delight to work with.“
"Support for the project came from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Government of Canada International Polar Year Program, and ArcticNet graciously provided financial support for our 2008 field campaign. Invaluable logistical support was given by the Polar Continental Shelf Project. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association, Nunavut Department of Environment and Royal Canadian Mounted Police authorized our research in 2008."
Alexandra Fiord field crew, 2008. L-R: Sarah Trefry, Tammy Elliott, Adrian Leitch, William Brown, Carolyn Churchland. Photo: James Hudson.