Monday, December 5, 2016

Arctic Work 2016: The Murres

Now finally for a post about the entire reason I was up in Nunavut to begin with. Thick-billed Murres. I was there first and foremost to help collect data for both a long-term dataset on the Murre colony as well as assist with some Masters research for a student at McGill University under the supervision of Dr. Kyle Elliott.
Thick-billed Murres

Cliff site panorama view

This study site on Coats Island has been running since 1981 and over the years a variety of data have been collected for many different studies such as reproductive success, feeding habits, food selection, contaminate research, migration, etc. Doing a quick google scholar search on any of these leads you to a wide array of past publications from Tony Gaston (Environment Canada), Dr. Elliott (McGill), and others. For a more recent list of some publications that have come out of the McGill Arctic Ecology lab click here.
Thick-billed Murre
It has been noted that this field site is unique in Canada because it is the only site where the reproductive history of individual non-passerine birds has been followed closely for over a three decade time span. Similarly, it is also the first site to have the diving behaviour of an auk and has one of the best datasets of dietary preferences.  So needless to say, not only was this field sight visually beautiful, it had some pretty interesting and amazing findings coming out of it.  This was my very first time working with a seabird, and while I love my Bank Swallows....these guys were pretty neat!

Thick-billed Murre flying to colony

A typical day was spent heading down to one of our plots at the colony. At first upon arrival most of the Murres had not yet laid eggs, and so there was nothing yet to count other than trying to understand which pairs occupied what space and also who was a pair.  With a number of Murres just standing around on a cliff, this could be a little difficult.  However, sometimes (as shown in the photo below), it was easier to determine pairs!

Mating Thick-billed Murres
 Once eggs began to hatch, tried to determine how many pairs there were on a ledge and which of these had an egg (each lays only one).  Most of the murres were also colour banded, so we tried our best to determine their colour and, if we were close enough, actual band numbers (which was incredibly difficult for me!)

Thick-billed Murre with colour band
Emile at his blind

Murres sitting on their eggs.  Single egg showing on right.

After about two weeks of looking for eggs, we began to start noting the eggs pipping (or hatching).  Generally it takes a day for the young to fully hatch, but it is very exciting knowing the next time you visit there will be a tiny Murre!

Parents watching their egg hatch

And are the young not just the cutest things?  Look at those feet.

Unfortunately, since we had to leave the island early, we were not able to watch these young grow and fledge. Hopefully one day, if I ever get the chance again, I'll be able to see this!  Once there were young at the sites we also began taking notes as to what food the adults were bringing back and also how often they were eating.

Murre with fish

Throughout the days there were also other tasks on hand that I was often a part of or able to watch.  Some of this included blood sampling (to look at heavy metals) or other sampling.  I should mention that all of these captures and sampling were done with the upmost care and caution (for both us and the birds!), and all required permits. We are also all trained for proper bird handling.

Living life on a cliff, in a beautiful location, isn't as great as one would think. The ledges were often fairly crowded, and these birds had to be careful to not have their eggs roll or be kicked off. On top of having some very close and loud neighbours (as you can see in the first video below!), those which were sitting on eggs tended to get covered in the feces of their neighbours and those on the cliff above them.  It was rather smelly. 

Thick-billed murre...covered in feces
Along with living life "on the edge", these birds have another threat to their own individual survival and the survival of their young.  This threat is the Polar Bear.  We saw quite a few bears this season, many of them attempting (and succeeding) in depredating the Murre colony.  As you can see in the photo below, many times this consisted of eating all of the eggs and young once the adults flushed.  Some adults, weren't so lucky and also were depredated.

After polar bear depredation
Often times these bears were spotted below the colony attempting to get at birds nesting in lower and easy to reach places.

Polar Bear swimming below colony

In this final video, I was trying to just capture the scenery and the sound of the murres when I noticed a Polar Bear swimming quite a ways below. You can see him swimming and presumably diving to try and either catch murres under the water or sneak up on them.

And now for a final few photos:

Murre getting ready to fly

Murre peaks over grassy cliff edge
View from observation blind