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Nature Canada’s trip to Howe Island
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Nature Canada’s trip to Howe Island

On Monday, April 29, I, along with Ted Cheskey (Naturalist Director, Nature Canada) went down to Howe Island, Ontario to meet with Aric McBay. Aric is the Membership Development & Special Projects Manager, of the National Farmers Union. The intent of our visit was to provide advice and guidance on Purple Martin stewardship. Kurt Hennige (Kingston Field Naturalists), a man with a wealth of knowledge and experience with birds and nature, was also invited to share his expertise. Along with Aric, Tracey Guptill and Tim Dowling were also present and keen to learn the tricks of the trade of Purple Martin stewardship.

what we did

During our time visiting the farm, we learned that they had recently switched from a dairy farm to a grass-fed beef-selling farm. We were pleased to learn that they were all passionate about sustainable, ecological farming and that protecting nature was a high priority for them. Almost as if we were being welcomed by nature on a farm that prioritizes protecting wildlife, we saw four Broad-winged Hawks high in the skies in the midst of their return migration to the north, followed by a darting Eastern Meadowlark searching the pastures for some insects. After the excitement of seeing these beautiful birds had waned a little, it was time to check out the newly installed Purple Martin housing units. Even though Purple Martins had not yet arrived on Howe Island, a few Tree Swallows had began piling twigs in some compartments in preparation of attracting a mate and building a nest. While we were checking the compartments, Kurt Hennige and Ted Cheskey were busy sharing multiple lifetimes’ worth of insights that will help Aric in becoming a great steward of Ontario’s largest swallow species.

the highlight

The highlight of this visit was to see farmers and naturalists come together and discuss how to protect vulnerable species by using the knowledge bases that each group possesses. Partnerships between these two groups is essential in protecting wildlife and nature. Many species that naturalists fight to protect are often found on farmlands, and by working together we can increase the chance of saving these species before it is too late. To end our visit, we were invited inside for some tea with fresh milk from the farm. It was a great opportunity to sit and share ideas about sustainability, protecting bird species and continuing collaboration in future endeavours.

Installing Purple Martin Housing Units in Southern Ontario
Wetlands in the Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario
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Installing Purple Martin Housing Units in Southern Ontario

Nature Canada’s Save Our Swallows campaign, funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation, is set to head into its second year of conception. Save Our Swallows is an overarching campaign focused on halting the long-standing declines of Ontario’s swallows and supporting the recovery of their populations by mobilizing communities in Southern Ontario.

Saving Our Swallows

One key element of this campaign is to provide 30 high-quality Purple Martin housing units, over the 2019-2020 breeding seasons. These units can house up to 420 pairs of Purple Martins in the southern Great Lakes region of Ontario. The addition of these housing units will add up to 1500 birds to the declining populations of Purple Martins in Ontario. Purple Martin, the largest member of the swallow species in North America have adapted to breed exclusively in human provided structures since at least the 1700s. This is when Indigenous Peoples of North America would hang gourds up to dry, thus creating breeding habitat for the swallow.

What has been done so far

In December 2018, Nature Canada contacted Aaron Miller from Norwich, Ontario to construct 18 state of the art Purple Martin housing units to be deployed in April 2019 at eight sites in Southern Ontario. The sites were located in southwestern Ontario (Essex, Wallaceburg & Pelee Island), northern shore of Lake Erie (Port Rowan & Sparta) and eastern shore of Lake Ontario (Amherst Island & Howe Island). The installation of the new units near the Great Lakes ensures that the returning Purple Martins have many opportunities to forage on rich feeding habitat to have a successful reproduction cycle. [caption id="attachment_50013" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Here are a few Purple Martin's at a newly installed Purple Martin housing unit in southwestern Ontario. © Rob Buchanan[/caption] The last of the units for 2019 were installed on Howe Island, on April 11. This date was chosen because it is prior to the expected return of the beloved Purple Martin to Ontario that tends to occur in late April – early May. The reception has been great, from the recipients of the housing, regarding the quality of the structures that were created by Aaron Miller. Nature Canada is already in talks with Aaron to construct the remaining 12 structures, which will be delivered prior to the 2020 breeding season. To learn more about the work we are doing to protect Ontario’s swallow species, please visit naturecanada.ca/SOS.

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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