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BirdLife Report Sounds New Alarm for the Rufa Red Knot
Claudio Timm
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BirdLife Report Sounds New Alarm for the Rufa Red Knot

Ted Cheskey, click for contact informationThis post was written by Ted Cheskey, Naturalist Director at Nature Canada. The feature image above was taken by Claudio Timm. BirdLife International released a report recently about an alarming drop in numbers of the Endangered Species at its key stopover site at Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America.  The report revealed that January 2018 surveys of this area, led by Guy Morrison, renowned Canadian shorebird scientist and pioneer of shorebird conservation in the western hemisphere, found only 9,840 individuals, a 25% drop in the number of birds over the same period last year, and the lowest number ever recorded since the surveys began. [caption id="attachment_36300" align="alignright" width="300"] Horseshoe Crab, photo by Marc Peck.[/caption] It is speculated that the decline was driven by a bad year for Horseshoe Crab populations on the north Atlantic.   Much of the Rufa Red Knot population migrates north in the month of May in a non-stop flight from Brazil to the Atlantic coast of the USA.  Most birds take refuge on the beaches of Delaware Bay for a week or two, to take advantage of the billions of Horseshoe Crab eggs, freshly laid in the sands by female crabs emerging from the ocean, to restore their spent fat supplies, the fuel that powers their migration.  In 2017, the crab numbers were low and the timing of their emergence delayed, meaning that there was less food at this key stopover when the migrating Knots needed it most.  Many birds likely left Delaware Bay, en route to the Arctic with lower fat supplies, meaning that they arrived on their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic in a compromised state.  The theory is that this compromised state results in lower reproductive output as the window for breeding is extremely short in the arctic and birds need to be in top health when they arrive on the breeding grounds to have a successful breeding season. This plummet in the population of the Rufa Red Knot, related to Horseshoe Crab population fluctuations, was already noted in the early 2000s.  Human harvest of the crabs, and possibly climate change are implicated as likely reasons for the decline.  A small population, like that of the Rufa Red Knot is vulnerable to extinction, especially because of its dependence on a relatively small number of sites during its mammoth 30,000 km annual migration.  Even when something negative happens to one site, most or all of the birds can be impacted.    Recognizing, protecting and managing key stopover sites in favour of these birds is essential for their survival. [caption id="attachment_36305" align="alignleft" width="300"] Lillian Trapper at Delaware Bay 2011[/caption] Here at Nature Canada we are trying to do our bit to help the Rufa Red Knot.  For example, Nature Canada, with the support of the Commission on Environmental Cooperation, supports the Moose Cree First Nation’s efforts to nominate and recognize a Western Hemisphere Reserve Network Site within their homelands along James Bay.  Southern James Bay is of tremendous importance to the Rufa Red Knot, especially for the flight south from the breeding grounds.  There are no Horseshoe Crabs in James Bay, but there are tiny clams and other invertebrates on which the Knots and hundreds of thousands of other shorebirds feast.  Rufa Red Knots stop over along James Bay by the thousands starting in late July with the adults followed by juveniles from mid August to early September.  After fattening up, they continue on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Atlantic coast of Canada and the USA, before flying over the Atlantic to the north coast of South America, on route to Tierra del Fuego. The Moose Cree have become increasingly involved in shorebird conservation and monitoring since Lillian Trapper of the Moose Cree participated in WHSRN’s 25th anniversary celebration on Delaware Bay in 2011.  As well as being one of the presenters at the official ceremony, Ms Trapper also participated in shorebird capture and banding on Delaware Bay, led by renowned Red Knot scientist and advocate Dr. Larry Niles.  In the past few years, more Moose Cree have participated in summer shorebird camps on their homelands, organized by the Canadian Wildlife Service and in the spring at the Delaware Bay.  This involvement is building local interest and capacity to monitor shorebirds and promote conservation and awareness within their Nation at this extremely important site for the Knot, which is also of extreme importance to geese and other waterfowl that are a staple in the local Cree diet.  The Moose Cree’s interest and determination to ensure a healthy ecosystem for all wildlife and protect this and other areas in their homelands is inspiring. [caption id="attachment_36303" align="alignright" width="300"] Red Knots, photo by Paul Smith.[/caption] Since 2012 Nature Canada has also worked to protect shorebirds in partnership with the Cree Nation Government, the Cree Nation of Waskaganish, the Cree Trappers Association and the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board, in the Eeyou Istchee region (James Bay Cree – Quebec) of James Bay thanks to financial support from Environment Canada’s Habitat Stewardship program (HSP).  We have succeeded in proving the importance for shorebirds and species at risk, including the Rufa Red Knot of Rupert Bay, of the southeastern side of James Bay, including the islands within the homelands of the Cree Nation of Waskaganish.  Much of this area is part of a new candidate Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA).  To learn more about the importance of James Bay Cree homelands to shorebirds, check out this short Youtube video.


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Birding in James Bay
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Birding in James Bay

[caption id="attachment_16448" align="alignleft" width="150"]Ted Cheskey Ted Cheskey, Senior Conservation Manager[/caption] Last summer, Nature Canada led an expedition to Charlton Island in James Bay in the Cree Nation of Waskaganish's traditional territory for 6 days and had observed over 10,000 shorebirds, including nearly 100 endangered Red Knots and new breeding records for the threatened Horned Grebe. This year, we are returning for 10 days with a bigger crew to do more thorough searches! Charlton Island is a 3 hour boat trip through Rupert Bay, and is situated in the south eastern side of James Bay. It has a rich and amazing history, but is also an incredible place for wildlife. In addition to very large numbers of shorebirds, Charlton is regularly visited by Polar Bears and Walruses, who are occasionally observed on the beaches. Nature Canada's senior manager Ted Cheskey will be accompanied by Marc Antoine Montpetit, an expert birder from Mont Laurier, Quebec, and five local team members including Garry Salt and Clayton Jolly, both returning from last year's expedition, and new members Jordan Rabbitskin and Jeremy Stevens. Elder Bill Jolly and Clayton will be the boat pilots and local guides. [caption id="attachment_28425" align="aligncenter" width="664"]Image of Workshop with Cree Nation of Waskaganish Workshop with Cree Nation of Waskaganish. Photo by Ted Cheskey.[/caption] One exciting additional activity to this year will be installation of a MOTUS wildlife tracking tower on the island. Garry Salt will oversee the installation of the tower on Charlton, after helping with installation at the Waskaganish CTA office last week. The MOTUS tower antennas receive signals from any animal carrying a nanotag - a tiny transmitter that sends pulse of information about the identity of the animal carrying it. These antennas have the ability to detect a signal from up to 15 kilometres away! The tags used in this project have been deployed on shorebirds on the western coast of James Bay, as well as many other species of birds elsewhere in the Americas. [caption id="attachment_28426" align="aligncenter" width="404"]Image of a MOTUS Tower Ted and Marc Antoine Montpetit at the new MOTUS tower at the Waskaganish CTA office.[/caption] The people in Waskaganish who are participating or aware of this project are very excited about the MOTUS system and learning what bird are coming into their territory!

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International Day of Biological Diversity
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International Day of Biological Diversity

[caption id="attachment_16443" align="alignleft" width="150"]Eleanor Fast Eleanor Fast
Executive Director[/caption] Today is International Day for Biological Diversity, an opportunity for everyone around the world to focus on the incredible diversity of species on earth and our interconnectedness with them. At Nature Canada, we focus on protecting Canadian wildlife, but everyday our work shows us the truly international nature of biodiversity, and the importance of worldwide efforts to protect it. For example, protecting the Monarch butterfly cannot be achieved simply by actions in Canada, although they are important. We need coordinated action across the Monarch’s migration route, with Mexico and the United States. Our work in protecting migratory birds, such as the Canada Warbler, Purple Martin and Red Knot similarly depend on international collaboration throughout their entire range. May is a special month for Nature Canada members as we celebrate International Migratory Bird Day with events across the country. Next year, 2016, will be particularly special as we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Convention. Plant milkweed to protect monarch butterfliesThe Migratory Birds Convention is a great example of countries working together to protect wildlife, and Nature Canada was pleased to see the importance of these types of agreements recognized in the recent signing of a trilateral agreement with Mexico and the US to protect bats, as well as the commitment of the leaders of the three countries to protect monarchs. We look forward to seeing Canada match funding commitments from other countries to give teeth to these recent agreements and allow the urgent action needed to protect these species before it is too late. canada-warbler-2015North American collaboration is an important focus for Canada in wildlife conservation, but so much more is possible. On this United Nations International Day of Biodiversity let’s remember than the UN’s Office of the Convention on Biological Diversity is located right here in Canada, in Montreal. That gives us a special relationship with United Nations efforts to protect biodiversity, yet Canada has not signed the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Canada has all the ingredients to be leading the world on issues of biodiversity – majestic wild spaces and awe-inspiring wildlife, strong legislation in the Species at Risk Act (SARA), a recent re-commitment to biodiversity goals and targets, international agreements to protect wildlife, and neighbours who have put money on the table. But as a country we need to step up and do more to preserve habitats in Canada and around the world for our treasured biodiversity.

Species Spotlight: Red Knot
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Species Spotlight: Red Knot

Get to know some of the species at risk in the Lac Deschênes IBA with the Species Spotlight, aka “Sp-Spot”. Today meet the: Red Knot [caption id="attachment_14839" align="alignleft" width="300"]Red Knot Red Knots in flight[/caption] Scientific Name: Calidris canutus SARA status: Least Concern Ontario: Endangered Taxonomic Group: Birds Size: 23-26 cm in length, 47-53 cm wingspan Red Knots are medium sized shorebirds with a short, straight bill and olive-coloured legs. It is named for its brick-red face, throat and breast when in breeding plumage. Its back is a speckled grey-brown colour. In the winter, they are mostly grey with a white belly. The Red Knot feeds on invertebrates such as small snails, bivalves and crustaceans. The Red Knot makes one of the longest yearly migrations of any bird, traveling 15 000 km from its Arctic habitat to Tierra del Fuego in southern South America. They are generally found in marine habitats, near coastal lagoons, and they breed in drier tundra areas. The population of Red Knots in South America during migration season has decreased over 50% from the mid 1980s to 2003. The main threat is the loss of key resources at their migration sites. Another threat is the habitat destruction due to pollution, recreation and development. Where Else Can You See This Species? The coastal mudflats along the southwest coast of Hudson Bay and James Bay are important spring and fall migration sites for the Red Knot. They can also be seen during the fall along the Great Lakes beaches. Around mid-summer, Red Knots can be found in the Delaware Bay, feeding in large numbers on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. Did You Know? • Red Knot eggs camouflage very well with the bare tundra, which is very helpful since their nests don’t offer the best protection from predators. • During courtship, a male Red Knot will fly up into the air, start singing while gliding around and then they will land with his wings pointed upwards. Check back every week to read about a different species at risk that can be found in Lac Deschênes. You can report sightings of this and other rare species to the Canadian Wildlife Service at (819) 997-2800 or on the MNR Natural Heritage Information Centre website. A photo and a location are very helpful!

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We would like to thank our guest blogger Kelsey Ha for this post. Kelsey is a high school student volunteer at Nature Canada and is interested in biology and environmental sciences.

Five days in the field on Rupert Bay, one to go
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Five days in the field on Rupert Bay, one to go

Report from the field by Ted Cheskey Planning travel on Rupert Bay is a gamble.   Its broad reach, oriented to the northwest, from where blow the prevailing winds, mean its shallow waters can easily be whipped into a frenzy.   The team of myself, Aurelie Bourbeau-Lemieux, a biologist working for the Cree Nation Government, Gary Salt, a local resident familiar with the capricious Rupert, participant in our March workshop on bird identification, and representing the Cree Nation of Waskaganish and the local Trappers Association, and Marc Antoine Montpetit, an expert birder and atlasser, volunteering on behalf of the Breeding Bird Atlas project of Quebec, were ready to go on Monday morning, but weather and various delays meant we were stuck in the community until Wednesday.   One plus about the delays was that we were able to present our project and talk about birds to a group of 15 local youth taking a course on the environment, and recruit three from the group to join us in a few hours for our final trip (just for the day) to a few places we could not get to yet. Our work is being funded by Environment Canada's Aboriginal Fund for Species At Risk, and our focal species are the Red Knot, Hudsonian Godwit (not yet on the list), Yellow Rail, Common Nighthawk, Short-eared Owl, and Olive-sided Flycatcher.    Marc Antoine is focussing his efforts on breeding birds, gathering evidence of breeding of all of the species we observe, and targetting a few specialties for the area, including Little Gull and LeConte's Sparrow .  Over five days we visited five different locations, being transported to each by boat from two different camps.  Families have hunting camps around the bay, and we have been able to arrange accomodation with the camp owners, as they are used infrequently this time of year.    It rained every day, some days more than others, and the biting insects would be severe for the faint of heart.  Some of our days involved trudging over 10 kilometres through boot sucking mud, waist high soaked vegetation with no terra firma, and tricky passages concealled benath the vegetation, that were riddled with a minefield of bottomless pools of muck that could be trip-enders.  It wasn't all like that.  Some areas where realatively dry (truly a relative concept here), and there even are stretches of sandy beach in places between the mud flats and the limits of the boreal forest.  But, working on these surveys is very physically demanding, and one must not be easily discouraged by challenging conditions.  I certainly admire the great work that has been done on the Ontario side of James Bay by CWS, MNR, ROM, Moose Cree, BSC, OFO, more many years. The birds have been pretty impressive.  We have been able to sample most of the habitats that we had targetting, though not all.   Some highlights from the first day were seeing several Little Gulls, a species that is rare in North America, but which seems to be breeding locally here.  Though we did not find a colony, we did observe a few adults and juveniles.   Another breeding bird target was the elusive Yellow Rail, one of the most secretive birds around.  Previous studies by Michel Robert, coordinator of the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Quebec, suggested that this bird is abundant in one particular part of the Bay called "Cabbage Willows".   The rail makes a sound like clicking stones together in a 2-3 rhythm mostly.   We were very successful, finding 18 territorial males on transects through their soggy sedge and forb habitat.  We were also successful in finding the two sparrow specialties of the coastal marshes: Nelson's Sparrow and LeConte's sparrow, counting about 200 territorial males of the former and at least 30 of the latter. We have observed several Common Nighthawks in different locations both in Waskaganish and along the coast.  Finally the shorelines of Jacob Island, a small Island at the mouth of Rupert Bay, appears rich in migrating shorebirds, as we identified 15 species in a few hours of surveying three kilometres of shoreline, including over 200 White-rumped Sandpipers, over 100 Hudsonian Godwits, a Marbled Godwit, and 14 of the endangered Red Knots. We are grateful for the Cree Nation of Waskaganish and Environment Canada for supporting this project, which we hope to continue into the future as we build connections in the community and continue to gather evidence in support of eventual Important Bird Area designation. [caption id="attachment_14939" align="alignnone" width="300"]Ted Cheskey, Marc Antoine Montpetit, Gary Salt, Aurelie Bourbeau-Lemieux Ted Cheskey, Marc Antoine Montpetit, Gary Salt, Aurelie Bourbeau-Lemieux[/caption] Aurelie with storm in background by Ted Cheskey Aurelie with storm in background by Ted Cheskey [caption id="attachment_14941" align="alignnone" width="300"]LeConte's Sparrow by Ted Cheskey LeConte's Sparrow by Ted Cheskey[/caption] [caption id="attachment_14943" align="alignnone" width="300"]Cabbage Willows - Yellow Rail habitat Cabbage Willows - Yellow Rail habitat[/caption] [caption id="attachment_14945" align="alignnone" width="300"]the mud flats on Jacob Island, Rupert Bay, by Ted Cheskey The mud flats near Cabbage Willow, Rupert Bay, by Ted Cheskey[/caption] [caption id="attachment_14947" align="alignnone" width="300"]Juvenile LIttle Gull, Rupert Bay by Ted Cheskey Juvenile LIttle Gull, Rupert Bay by Ted Cheskey[/caption]  

Nature Canada Linking Communities Together
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Nature Canada Linking Communities Together

Twenty two dedicated educators from three countries met in Swift Current Saskatchewan for the love of birds, shorebirds to be specific.  They met to share stories and refine their efforts to educate and inspire children and the public to protect the several species of shorebirds that they share, and the habitats on which they depend in their three communities along the central and western flyways.  The species include American Avocet, Piping Plover, Snowy Plover, Marbled Godwit and Wilson ’s Phalarope among others. [one_half] [caption id="attachment_12670" align="alignleft" width="300"]American Avocet American Avocet, Ted Cheskey[/caption] [caption id="attachment_12720" align="alignleft" width="300"]Red Knots Reed Lake Saskatchewan Red Knots on Reed Lake Saskatathewan, Ted Cheskey[/caption] [caption id="attachment_12713" align="alignleft" width="300"] Principal dressed up as bird Principal of Central School in Swift Current dresses up as a bird[/caption] [caption id="attachment_12725" align="alignleft" width="300"]Aurora boreallis, Chaplin Lake Aurora boreallis, Chaplin Lake, Ted Cheskey[/caption]   [caption id="attachment_12749" align="alignnone" width="300"]Ted Cheskey and Mexican Linking Communities Partners Nayarit educators and Ted observing lots of birds[/caption] [/one_half] [one_half_last]The alkaline (salty) wetland habitats in Chaplin, Reed and Old Wives Lakes in Saskatchewan, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, USA, and the Marismas nacionales in Nayarit State of Mexico support very large numbers of these species at different points in their life cycles, in addition to other shorebird species such as the Sanderling and the endangered Red Knot.  Each site carries a badge of honour as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site.  Canada has only seven of these special areas, and the Chaplin area lakes are one of the most important. Bird conservation in Canada requires international partnerships.  Four of every five of “our” bird species migrate outside of our borders each fall, most passing through or over-wintering in the USA, Latin America or the Caribbean.  A full life cycle approach to conservation that addresses species’ needs and threats in each phase of their annual cycles is essential for effective conservation.  Canada’s shorebirds, including sandpipers, plovers and phalaropes, have declined 42% in the last 40 years.  Arctic nesting shorebirds have declined over 60%.  Evidence is pointing to stop-over sites as perhaps holding the key to the fate of many species. “Linking Communities Wetlands and Migratory birds” is a project inspired by a recognition of this ‘full life cycle approach,’ initiated nearly 15 years ago by visionary conservations from each country.  The program has evolved organically, with different partners and supporters coming in over the years.  Rio Tinto Kennecott, who operates a large mine on the end of the Great Salt Lake, has provided project partners with significant support over the past five years. One element of this project that has recurred several times is  an educational exchange during which small groups of educators from the three countries get together to share experiences and collaborate towards educating their communities and protecting their species and habitats.   Often a common project is developed during these gatherings such as producing post cards that incorporate art from children from each country. In addition to education, this project encourages the exchange of knowledge and methods for monitoring bird populations, researching species ecologies, addressing threats, encouraging stewardship and promoting ecotourism through festivals.  Each partner holds a festival to celebrate shorebirds.   Our meeting coincided with Chaplin’s Shorebird festival which is always held at the beginning of June. Nature Canada is honoured to be one of the Canadian partners of Linking Communities, along with Nature Saskatchewan and Chaplin Tourism who run the Chaplin Nature Centre, a must visit for anyone travelling along the TransCanada highway between Moose Jaw and Swift Current, Saskatchewan.  We all tip our hats to the volunteers in Chaplin Tourism who did a tremendous job of welcoming our partners from the south, and making a meaningful and rich meeting over the past few days. One of the highlights for me was being able to share with our Mexican friends one of Canada's most beautiful and mysterious natural phenomena:  the Aurora borealis. [/one_half_last]

IBA Caretakers on James Bay, Canada: Moose River Estuary by Brett Hare
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IBA Caretakers on James Bay, Canada: Moose River Estuary by Brett Hare

[three_fourth]Moosonee, Ontario is a small municipality located near the mouth of the Moose River on the south-west corner of James Bay in Northern Ontario.  Moosonee is only accessible by plane or train, as there is no permanent road access to the community.  The town itself rests within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, which comprises one of the largest wetlands on Earth. Christina Nielsen has been a part of the Moosonee-Moose Factory community for over 15 years, and along with her husband Don Cheechoo, Vice Principal of the local high school in Moose Factory, have both become Caretakers for the Moose River Estuary IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area). “We’re always on the river in the summertime,” explains Christina. “I was always interested in birding and the idea of conservation." The Moose River Estuary is part of the Moose Cree First Nation’s traditional territory which expands to the mouth of James Bay, covering hundreds of square kilometres of boreal forest and muskeg.  The IBA comprises both fresh and salt water bodies, blending land and water together to create a site that is beneficial for a wide range of migratory birds from shorebirds to waterfowl, by providing a natural environment that caters to a variety of ecological demands and niches.  Large congregations of geese during their spring and fall migration are a traditional staple in the diet of many Moose Cree families.   The seasons play a dramatic role on the accessibility of the site, from snowmobiling and snowshoeing in the winter across frozen rivers and lakes, to canoeing, boating, and traveling by helicopter or float plane during the summer months. “The estuary really defines the area,” Christina explained. “It’s not all land and it’s not all sea, it’s constantly changing. The seasons are dramatic, in the spring we’re anxious to see when the ice will breakup and in the fall when the rivers will freeze.” Since 2010, Nature Canada and the Moose Cree First Nations Lands and Resources Department have collaborated closely to raise awareness amongst the Moose Cree people of IBA’s and to engage the community in bird conservation.  The Moose Cree First Nation’s administrative offices are located just across the river from Moosonee on Moose Factory Island, though the traditional Moose Cree territory, also referred to as “homelands”, extends from Hearst, Ontario in the west to the Quebec border in the east, and from south of Highway 11 to points north of the Albany River, including much of the southern portion of James Bay.  Within this traditional territory are seven IBA’s, including the Moose River Estuary IBA. Christina’s family has spent a great deal of time interacting with the natural bounty that nature has provided them through the Estuary. “It’s a part of our family’s life, every weekend in the summer we’re out on the river,” she declares.  “There are so many different species of birds including eight species that are part of a new project they are involved in called: Avian Species at Risk in the Moose Cree Homelands.” The project includes the following species at risk: Rusty Blackbird, Common Nighthawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Red Knot, Short-eared Owl, and Yellow Rail, and two additional species of concern, the Hudsonian Godwit and the Marbled Godwit. One of the features that makes the site special for Christina and Don as Caretakers is the variety of birds they observe during the varying seasons.  The Moose River Estuary is part of a major migratory bird flyway, one of the key factors making this IBA an essential stopover site for many birds as they migrate north or south depending on the season.  Occasionally unexpected species turn up in their yard, which borders the Moose River.  Some of the most memorable for them include Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Mountain Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal, all well out of their normal ranges. A Facebook group (Moose River Estuary – IBA ON138) was created for the IBA to encourage community involvement and to promote awareness, contributing to the overall well-being of the community’s natural environment.  “I’m very pleased with the success of the Facebook page,” Christina explained.  As IBA Caretakers Christina and Don have increased awareness of the various bird species by promoting activities such as the Great Backyard Bird Count and re-initiating the Christmas Bird Count in Moosonee and Moose Factory.  Another project that Christina took part in was the collective purchase of sunflower seeds for many winter bird feeders, “we purchased 500 pounds of seeds and had the palette shipped by train from Cochrane to Moosonee before the CBC,” she laughed.  “Our group also conducted a Common Nighthawk observation study last August in conjunction with Moose Cree First Nation – Lands and Resources and NatureCanada.”  This year’s plans for the IBA include a few more boat trips towards the mouth of the Moose River, promoting the ASAR to the youth of the communities, and conducting Year 2 of the Common Nighthawk survey. [/three_fourth][one_fourth_last] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of an iced road Ice road in January between Moosonee and Moose Factory
Photo by Ted Cheskey[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of Moose River Estuary Aerial view of the Moose River Estuary. Photo by John M. Rickard.[/caption] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="320"]Image of a Northern Hawk Owl Northern Hawk Owl Photo by Ted Cheskey[/caption] [/one_fourth_last]

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