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Saving Our Swallows – A Conservation Internship
Barn Swallow
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Saving Our Swallows – A Conservation Internship

Aerial Insectivores (birds who eat insets while flying, including swallows) are the species of birds that are declining the fastest in Canada[1]. Over the past few months, I have had the privilege to work with Ted Cheskey, the Naturalist Director at Nature Canada, as a practicum student through my program at Carleton University.  Although I have worked on other projects, the focus of my work at Nature Canada is the Save Our Swallows (SOS) initiative.  This initiative, which is supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, aims to mobilize specific communities for the conservation and recovery of Ontario’s declining swallow populations.  To this end, I have been tasked with developing methods to identify and delineate bird roosts in Ontario, using weather radar. The purpose of this is to give us the ability to remotely monitor the size of roosts in Ontario, and create a database with the approximate size of birds dating back to the early 2000’s.

Figure 1. Graph showing the population trends of birds, aerial insectivores shown in pink. (State of Canada's Birds, 2012).

WSR-88D radar is a series of weather stations operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which covers the contiguous United States.  However, we are only interested in four main sites: Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit and Fort Drum.  These four sites allow to identify roots from Windsor to beyond Kingston, with the largest roost located on Walpole Island. In order to identify the roosts, we look for tell tale shapes that we have dubbed the “donut” or a semi-circle.

Figure 2. Screenshot of a roost signature, showing the "donut" signature over Walpole Island.

These shapes appear best in the morning between 05:45 and 07:00 when the birds are leaving their roosts for the day. Information on how to access, download and visualize radar data is coming soon! By improving out ability to identify roosts remotely, it is our hope that we will be able to increase the understanding surrounding where and when swallows roost to advance conservation efforts in this regard. If you are interested in this subject, please feel free to check out our Save Our Swallows initiative here.
[1] www.stateofcanadasbirds.org/results_national_indicators.jsp

Nature Canada’s webinar with ALUS
Barn Swallow
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Nature Canada’s webinar with ALUS

Much like the rest of the aerial insectivores, swallows are currently undergoing a dramatic decline in their population, with no single cause to blame for their rapid disappearances. In fact, the most likely answer is that there are various anthropogenic stressors, which Ontario’s swallows have been unable to adapt and cope with. The fact that swallows are migratory birds that fly to South America during the winter months makes understanding the cause of the decline much more difficult. Nature Canada’s campaign Save Our Swallows is an ongoing project, which aims to halt the long-standing declines of Ontario’s swallow populations by mobilizing communities and constituencies in to taking action towards conservation of these beautiful and once innumerous songbirds. As such, one project within the umbrella of the campaign is to build strong, lasting relationships in rural Ontario by working with farming organizations to improve conditions for swallows, particularly on farms. To that end, Nature Canada has held multiple webinars in the past few months on swallows, conservation techniques, and to share new resources to provide guidelines to swallow stewards all across Ontario. Most recently, Nature Canada invited ALUS members from southwestern Ontario to attend a webinar on Thursday, February 7. Ted Cheskey, Nature Canada’s Naturalist Director and an expert on all things pertaining to birds, and Aly Hyder Ali, a Conservation Intern, who joined Nature Canada through the Green Spaces, hosted the webinar. Lindsay Buchanan, the regional coordinator of ALUS Lambton attended the webinar with her staff. Amanda Blain, the coordinator of ALUS Chatham-Kent also attended the webinar. The webinar primarily focused on the exchange of resources, as well as promoting Nature Canada’s survey. The survey is a key component which is used to inform Nature Canada of farming practices currently in place in rural Ontario, as well as the attitudes and knowledge of rural residents as it pertains to swallow conservation. Towards the end of the webinar, a question period was established where participants had the opportunity to ask for individual advice for their own swallow stewardship projects. Nature Canada intends to hold more webinars in the coming months, as well as holding workshops on rural properties in southern Great Lakes region of Ontario. The purpose of the workshops is to have a gathering of local community members who are encouraged to share swallow stewardship experiences with their neighbors. They will also have an opportunity to learn more during a presentation that will be held by Nature Canada staff. To learn more about Nature Canada’s Save Our Swallows campaign click here! To participate in the survey, and to learn how you can enter a draw to win a T-14 Purple Martin housing unit, click here!

Tag, you’re it! – An update on Nature Canada’s new Save our Swallows initiative
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Tag, you’re it! – An update on Nature Canada’s new Save our Swallows initiative

Aerial insectivores (birds that feed on flying insects while airborne, including swallows) are the most rapidly declining group of birds in Canada. Earlier this month, I returned from five days of very exciting fieldwork where, in partnership with Dr. Kevin Fraser of the University of Manitoba’s Avian Behaviour & Conservation Lab, we deployed 54 Motus tracking tags on Purple Martins along the shores of Lake Erie. This was Nature Canada’s fifth year conducting fieldwork to track Purple Martins, but it was one of the first opportunities for fieldwork as part of our exciting new Save Our Swallows initiative. This project, supported by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, aims to mobilize specific communities for the conservation and recovery of Ontario’s declining and at-risk swallow populations. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System is a collaborative research project (operated by our partners at Bird Studies Canada) which tracks the movement of small flying organisms (like birds) across an array of automated radio telemetry receiver stations around the world. This is done with tiny, ultra-lightweight radio transmitters that broadcast a unique signal several times each minute. Consider the small radio transmitter (or Motus tag) like a backpack: first, we affix the backpack on the backs of Purple Martins before they begin their long migration down to Brazil for the winter. If during their journeys, these tagged Purple Martins come within range of one of the over 300 Motus receiver stations distributed throughout North and South America, the signal emitted by their backpack will be detected by the station. When detections across multiple stations are combined, we are able to map the journey of these incredible long-distance migrants across thousands of kilometers! [caption id="attachment_38053" align="alignright" width="225"] Adult female Purple Martin sporting a Motus tag & tracking band (© Brodie Badcock-Parks)[/caption] Purple Martins, the largest member of the swallow family, have been experiencing steep population declines since the mid-1980s[1]. It is estimated that the species is currently experiencing a decline of about 4.5% per year in Ontario. The reasons for this decline are complex but are likely due to a number of threats that occur between their North American breeding grounds and South American over-wintering habitat – which is why it is very important to learn more about their movements and behavior through migration-tracking research. Some other local threats to the population could be due to pesticide use, weather impacts due to climate change, or factors associated with their pre-migratory roosts. Our first set of Motus deployments this season was at Holiday Beach Migration Observatory (HBMO) near Amherstburg, Ontario. Over two days at Holiday Beach, we worked with partners from the Observatory, as well as from the Ontario Purple Martin Association to deploy 31 tags at the HBMO Purple Martin colony. We then traveled up to Sparta (near Port Bruce), where we deployed the remaining 23 tags. In total, we tagged 16 adults and 38 nestlings, including five complete families! One of the reasons for tagging complete families (i.e. both parents & all nestings) is to determine whether entire families migrate as a unit to their wintering grounds (like a long family vacation!) or if they travel separately. [caption id="attachment_38055" align="alignleft" width="254"] A 17-day-old Purple Martin nestling outfitted with a Motus tag (© Ted Cheskey)[/caption] Furthermore, it is our hope that the data that comes out of these deployments will provide more information regarding critical swallow roosts along the Southern Great Lakes. At the end of their breeding season, Purple Martins, as well as other swallows, will form large roosts (think of them like large dormitories) along Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, before they start their journey to the Northern region of Brazil. These roosts are largely a mystery in terms of their composition and dynamics, but one thing we do know is that they contain many, many swallows, including Purple Martin: some roosts contain thousands of swallows, while others contain hundreds of thousands - large enough to be detected by weather radar! Overall, Nature Canada’s trip down to Southwestern Ontario to deploy Motus tags on Purple Martins was a big success! It is our hope that through this exciting research, we can learn more about the life cycle of these declining species, as well as focus on ways that we can work together to save our swallows in Ontario.


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[1] Nebel S, Mills A, McCracken JD, Taylor PD. 2010. Declines of aerial insectivores in North America follow a geographic gradient. Avian Conserv Ecol. 5(2):1. [online] http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ACE-00391-050201

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