Collage of duck eggs, prey and wolf, prey and cougar, and nest probability map

It always starts with unpredictable inclement weather, which generally includes snowstorms and temperatures below -10. But then it happens, the temperature climbs above freezing, the snow melts, and the moment the ice begins to break up on the smallest wetlands, there are ducks on the pond. This is my happy place. It’s spring in Alberta’s boreal forest and everything is literally coming to life. Spring marks the return of birds to the boreal, which is home to millions of breeding birds and charismatic megafauna that call this mosaic of forests and wetlands home. For many people, this is the wilderness and it represents some of the world’s largest expanses of remaining intact forest. However, not only is the boreal rich in wildlife, but also in natural resources and energy.

Over the last 2 decades, the expansion of industrial development (forestry and oil and gas) in this region has resulted in large scale habitat loss and fragmentation. Canada’s iconic woodland caribou populations have plummeted with compelling evidence pointing to forest fragmentation from industrial development as one of the primary causes. There is much to be gained from the research that has focussed on the impacts of energy development on large mammals from this region, but what about other species? For example, the boreal forest is the second most important breeding area for ducks on the continent. Would you be surprised if I told you that there is almost no research that has been conducted on their nesting ecology and how this development might impact them?

My PhD research investigates how industrial disturbance affects ducks. For a duck, the most important decision you can make is where to put your nest, because that decision has the greatest influence on your fitness (an individual’s contribution to the next generation). That decision is so important, because everything wants to eat you, eggs are a calorically dense, easily digestible meal for predators, and nest depredation is the most common cause of nest failure for ducks. Therefore, I am interested in 1) where ducks nest in the boreal, 2) what predators eat duck nests, 3) what factors influence nest success, and 4) how landscape change affects predator communities.

To answer these questions, I spent 3 field seasons (April-July) in northern Alberta along with 4-5 dedicated field technicians collecting data. First we had to find nests, which we accomplished by systematically searching around wetlands in teams covering as much ground as we could to flush an incubating female. This might sounds easy, but navigating the boreal landscape, particularly where ducks like to nest, is no easy task. There were many tired legs and flooded boots at the end of each day of work. When we found a nest, we recorded relevant data (e.g., species, number of eggs, age of nest) and we installed camera traps on a sample of nests so that we could identify any predator that came to eat the nest. We also inserted temperature probes (called iButtons) in nests to monitor nest attendance. We would revisit nests every 7 – 10 days to determine their fate and then we sampled the vegetation at each nest site and a non-nest location following the hatch date. To improve our sample size, we also used artificial nests, which consisted of a technician created nest bowl and chicken eggs, to understand predation risk on the landscape, and to identify nest predators (50% of nests had cameras).

In addition to nest searching and monitoring, we simultaneously monitored predator occupancy with camera traps at each site we searched. Camera traps were baited with a scent lure and included a barbed wire fur snag to collect fur for future genetic analysis. The traps are triggered by an infrared motion detector, so when an animal passes the trap, a series of 5 pictures are taken over 15 seconds to capture the species present. These traps were installed in early May annually and remained deployed until late July to help us understand how industrial development might influence predator occupancy.

Now that the field work is done, I spend most of my time in front of a computer organizing and visualizing the data we collected over the years. We located over 150 nests of 8 different species and deployed 360 artificial nests. Species that ate ducks or their nests included: black bears, Canada lynx, weasels, coyotes, common ravens, and red-tailed hawks. I am also building statistical models to understand how habitat and industrial development influence nest site choice and survival at multiple spatial scales. Finally, I processed over 5000 images from our camera traps to build capture histories and am modelling predator occupancy and how it is affected by industrial development. To develop the modelling skill-set required for my project, I have completed independent study courses and had the opportunity to attend a Camera Trap modelling course at the George Mason School of Conservation Biology in Front Royal, Virginia and a survival analysis workshop at the American Ornithological Society’s meeting in Anchorage, Alaska.

With our approach, we hope to gain better insight into boreal duck nesting ecology by simultaneously investigating the effect of industrial development on both duck nests and their predators. Our research is the first ground-based study of duck nesting ecology in Alberta’s boreal forest and the knowledge generated from our study will be used to inform decision making and industrial best practices for the region.

We are thankful for our conservation partners who supported our research including: Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Waterfowl Research Foundation, Wildlife Habitat Canada, Alberta Conservation Association Grants in Biodiversity Program, Alberta North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), Ducks Unlimited Canada MBNA Fellowship, MITACS Canada Accelerate Grant, Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and The Dave Ankney & Sandi Johnson Waterfowl and Wetlands Graduate Research Scholarship. Financial support from Wildlife Habitat Canada is generated through the purchase of the Canadian Wildlife Habitat Conservation Stamp, which is purchased by hunters and waterfowl enthusiasts.