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Purple Martin Project – Stories From the Field
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Purple Martin Project – Stories From the Field

The first phase of the Purple Martin Project has been completed! Over the second week of July, nearly 60 adult birds were fitted with tracking devices in order to find out more about what kind of risks this declining species might be facing on their migratory journey to Brazil. In this blog I’ve included a summary of our fieldwork, some of my favorite photos, media coverage and links, as well as our goals moving forward. [separator headline="h2" title="Field Work Summary"] Over the course of the week, we had a dream team of researchers, volunteers, naturalist groups, hosts, and landlords (purple martin caretakers) participate. Field work was lead by researchers from York University and the University of Manitoba. Approximately a dozen volunteers received training which included banding, taking wing and leg measurements, taking feather and blood samples, and fitting the birds with tracking devices (GPS and geolocators). Our field work brought us to some very scenic places surrounded by nature, particularly since Purple Martins tend to nest in close proximity to bodies of water. All three of our field sites were encompassed within an Important Bird Area (IBA). IBAs are recognized globally for their significance to bird populations and there are approximately 600 of these sites across Canada.  Our first field site, the Nepean Sailing Club in Ottawa, is located on a beautifully maintained property next to the Ottawa River. We also had field sites on both Amherst Island and Wolfe Island; charming rural farming communities which must be reached by ferry from the Kingston area. At each of these locations, we were treated to gorgeous sunrises over Lake Ontario. [caption id="attachment_14467" align="alignnone" width="960"]Fieldwork began at sunrise on Amherst Island (photo by Megan MacIntosh) Fieldwork began at sunrise on Amherst Island (photo by Megan MacIntosh)[/caption] In Ottawa, we were joined by local volunteers, our partners from the Innis Point Bird Observatory (IPBO) and the colony landlord, Peter Huszcz. Peter custom built the two very large martin houses which can be lowered for easy maintenance. Every year Peter and the IPBO hold community events to band the nestlings. In recent years they have noticed a steady decline in the number of nestlings which they are very concerned about. Our first day of work in Ottawa was delayed by heavy rain, yet it was the busiest of all our field sites. Not only was the colony very large (approximately 50 adult pairs), but there was also significant amount of media attention, and visitations from curious passersby. We set mass traps by installing trap doors held up by fishing line above the cavity entrance holes. The traps were triggered later that evening by cutting the fishing line once the birds were safely settled in their cavities for the night. We returned again at sunrise to conduct our work with the captured birds. Despite weather delays, we managed to deploy 29 tracking devices. The story of our work was covered by CTV Ottawa, CBC Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen, and Ottawa Metro. The story was picked up by newspapers across the country including the Calgary Herald, Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal, and Regina Leader Post. [caption id="attachment_14469" align="alignnone" width="960"]Waiting to begin our field work during a heavy downpour at the Nepean Sailing Club. (Photo by Ted Cheskey) Waiting to begin our field work during a heavy downpour at the Nepean Sailing Club (Photo by Ted Cheskey)[/caption] The majority of the nestlings at Wolf Island and Amherst Island were much older than what we observed at the Nepean Sailing Club - some had already fledged! This presented a bit of a challenge to trapping the adult birds. This is because the adult birds do not often enter the cavity once the nestlings are old enough to begin feeding at the entrance holes. In addition, the bird houses at these locations could not be manually lowered. We had to get a bit creative with our methods, which turned out to be a lot of fun. We used a tall ladders (and tall people) to sneak up on the bird houses at night and cover up the entrance holes. At sunrise, our team returned to find that we had captured more birds than expected, but still not enough to reach our goal. So we remained onsite throughout the afternoon and proceeded with target trapping with some success. We were treated with great hospitality and kindness in these communities. The Kingston Field Naturalists had a key role to play in assisting with our work in this area.  An article was written in the Kingston Whig-Standard about our work on Amherst Island, and Nature Canada also made an appearance on CBC Ontario Morning. [caption id="attachment_14470" align="alignnone" width="960"]PhD Candidate Patrick Kramer from York University reaches for captured birds as Martins fly overhead (photo by Ted Cheskey) PhD Candidate Patrick Kramer from York University reaches for captured birds as Martins fly overhead (photo by Ted Cheskey)[/caption] [separator headline="h2" title="Looking Forward"] We are thrilled to see the public as excited as we are about Purple Martins and their conservation. News stories about this project have initiated a wonderful response from the community. At Nature Canada, we get phone calls and e-mails everyday from folks who are interested in becoming involved. We absolutely love hearing from you! It is a privilege to be a part of this project and to be working with such fantastic people. We are very much looking forward to August when we will begin the second phase of the project: a search for sites called ‘roosts’ where Martins gather by the thousands before they undergo fall migration. Determining the location of Martin roosts in the Eastern Ontario region will be an important piece of the puzzle in helping to unravel the mystery of why these birds are experiencing such a startling decline. Check back near the end of August for another update from the field!

Nature Canada launches Purple Martin Project
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Nature Canada launches Purple Martin Project

"PUMA":  Don't worry, Nature Canada is not about to sell athletic clothing or wrestle with large cats. PUMA is also an abbreviation (called an alpha code) that scientists often use to talk about a species of bird called the Purple Martin. My name is Megan MacIntosh and I am thrilled to join Nature Canada as the Purple Martin Project Coordinator. There are many mysteries surrounding the life history of the Purple Martin that make it an interesting species to study, and there are many reasons to be excited about this project which I would like to share with you. The Purple Martin is the largest North American swallow. It belongs to a guild of species called aerial insectivores which are specialized at feeding on insects while in flight. Other examples of aerial insectivores include swifts, swallows, fly-catchers, nightjars, and Whip-poor-wills. Aerial insectivores have experienced widespread population declines of up to 70% over the past several decades, and Purple Martins are no exception. Why the startling decline? The exact cause of this unnerving trend remains unclear. Mortality from exposure to pesticides, wind power projects, decrease in food availability, inability to adapt to climate change and corresponding habitat changes have been suggested as possible culprits. To add to the mystery, population declines follow a geographic pattern and are most pronounced in the north-east of North America. A decline of 5 – 7.5% annually has been recorded in the lower Great Lakes/St. Lawrence region leaving the 2013 population estimated below 15,000 individuals. Interestingly, Purple Martins have a strong connection with humans. They are diurnal (daytime) migrants that breed throughout North America and travel to Brazil for the winter. West of the Rocky Mountains they nest predominately in natural cavities, however, in eastern North America they are entirely dependent on apartment-like nest houses provided by their human ‘land lords’. For a long time, little has been known about the timing and movements of migratory songbirds since their small bodies could not accommodate most tracking devices. As technology improves and tracking devices are made increasingly smaller, researchers are finally able to collect critical knowledge on these birds as they travel continental distances – information which will be crucial to their conservation. The goal of the Eastern Ontario Purple Martin Project is to address knowledge gaps in the species life-cycle by determining their local, regional, and international movements, roost site locations, and post-breeding behaviour. The project aims to significantly contribute to the conservation of Purple Martins in anticipation of aiding the overall plight of aerial insectivores and related environmental issues. If you’re interested in becoming involved, please feel free to stop by Nature Canada’s upcoming Bird Day Festival event on May 31st from 10am- 4pm at Andrew Haydon Park in Ottawa where I will be set up with a booth. You can also look towards upcoming volunteer opportunities such as banding and helping us locate local roost sites.

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