Response of animals to change in vegetation (behavioural and population-level responses and the relationships between them).
My research centers on understanding the cumulative ecological impacts of human activities on biodiversity. We use a combination of behavioral, population, and community ecology in combination with cutting edge techniques in wildlife monitoring, survey design, geographic information systems, and habitat modelling. Our goal is to provide recommendations on how biodiversity reacts to various types of human and natural disturbance with the goal of achieving better conservation outcomes. This includes understanding interactions between native and invasive species, interactions between climate change and land-use, and economic – ecological trade-off assessment. While many in the lab work on birds, there is no particular taxonomic bias to our research. We work closely with government, industry, and conservation organizations to facilitate better conservation decision making.
The impact of energy sector activity on bird communities
My research seeks to assess the impact of energy sector activity on bird communities. Throughout northern Alberta, oil well sites constitute a major source of ecological disturbance. Understanding the responses of birds to these features is critical for evaluating the overall environmental impact of energy development, and for improving industry practices regarding well site development and reclamation. My research will use sound localization to pinpoint the locations of vocalizing birds. Sound localization involves the deployment of an array of microphones to triangulate the source of a sound. Over the course of hours and days, the locations from which birds sing is expected to approximate the habitat preferences and movement patterns of each bird in the area. This will help assess of whether birds alter their behaviours in the vicinity of well sites, and whether species differ in their tolerance of energy sector developments. By collecting localization data at well sites in a variety of habitats (e.g. wetlands, conifer forest, deciduous forest) and at various stages of reclamation, my research will pinpoint characteristics and reclamation practices that increase habitat recovery. Throughout, the research will focus on bird species of conservation concern, such as Rusty Blackbirds, Yellow Rails, and Olive-sided Flycatchers.
Understanding why certain songbirds are more or less tolerant to chronic industrial noise
The oil sands industry in Alberta is creating a new acoustic environment for songbirds inhabiting the boreal forest during their breeding season. Noise generated by road traffic, construction, and production by energy infrastructure can reduce the quality of adjacent forest and animals might avoid noisy areas. The chronic noise (e.g. produced by compressor stations) might affect vocal communication in songbirds. I’m studying how songbirds are dealing with chronic industrial noise, evaluating vocal plasticity to determine if this can explain why some species can persist in noisy areas while others avoid such areas. For this, I’m measuring song features such as frequency, amplitude, bandwidth, and syllables types from recordings of songbirds with territories in noisy and quiet areas. The identification of vocal traits affecting vocalizations and communication in the acoustic space limited by noise are fundamental to explain why certain species may be more or less sensitive to noise. Additionally, I will relate vocal plasticity with beak morphological measurements since beak morphology has been related with variability in vocal performance for passerine birds. In this project, I will be also using the Big Grid data to estimate where the birds occur in different contexts of noise. Therefore, the main objective of my research is to understand what makes a songbird species tolerant, sensitive, or negatively affected by industrial noise and to provide insights into what the most appropriated mitigation options might be.
Predicting songbird occupancy using LiDAR-derived structural metrics
The vertical vegetation structure of forests plays an important role in shaping bird communities. However, species distribution models (SDM’s) describing the habitat attributes most associated with species presence often rely on Forest Resource Inventories (FRI’s) for habitat attributes. While useful, FRI’s tend to lack detailed information on vertical structures, particularly sub-canopy features. Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) has the potential to address this limitation with its capacity to directly measure the three-dimensional distribution of sub-canopy structures. My research investigates the potential for LiDAR to improve SDM’s for birds occupying different forest strata. LiDAR-derived structural metrics will be used to evaluate forest occupancy of canopy, understory, and shrub layer songbirds including Canada Warbler. The specific structural conditions associated with their occupancy will be identified, and the relative performance of SDM’s for species occupying different forest strata will be compared. Furthermore, the strength of the LiDAR-based models will be compared to SDM’s built from coarser FRI’s. Results from this work can help guide forest management practices by better identifying the specific structural conditions associated with the presence of federally listed threatened species like Canada Warbler. It may also help improve the accuracy of bird models while avoiding the costs of boots-on-the-ground vegetation surveys.
(Please note that Brendan is a student on an NSERC Strategic Project Grant at UofA and will undertake this research as one of his chapters in collaboration with BERA in the Ecological Team.)
How Understory Protection Influences Bird Communities in Northern Alberta
The forestry sector alters the structure and composition of forests which in turn has effects on biodiversity. My MSc research is focused on understanding how different logging practices facilitate retention of songbird community. I am specifically focusing on a practice known as Understory Protection, which involves the harvesting of mature trees without disturbing understory white spruce to see what proportion of the original bird community can be retained. I am using Automated Recording technologies to conduct these bird surveys to compare bird communities found at understory protection harvest sites with those found at traditional harvest sites and unharvested sites. I am also modelling the effects of the age and size of understory protection blocks to determine how these variables influence individual species of birds. My final objective is to understand how fine-scale habitat differences amongst understory protection harvest blocks are influencing both the community as a whole, as well as certain species of interest. The goal is to direct future logging practices with this more fine-scale information and use data from drones and photogrammetry to determine the exact vegetation conditions birds are responding to.
Connor’s project was completed in summer 2017 with a Masters thesis and a journal publication on “Avian community response to understory protection harvesting in the boreal forest of Alberta, Canada”
The effect of SAGD disturbances on Canada Warblers and the influence of scale
Well pads and linear features associated with Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) operations are a main source of fragmentation within boreal forest ecosystems. Successful mitigation requires that the effect of these disturbances are accurately captured using the most appropriate response variable, technology and scale of measurement. How songbirds position their territory in relation to a disturbance can be an effective indicator of how they perceive that feature but whether this leads to population level impacts is not clear. My study will use acoustic localization to understand how Canada Warblers, and similar upland songbirds, behave around seismic lines at different stages of recovery. I will then use these behavioural data to predict the population level consequences of recovery. Large-scale grids of ARUs are being used to estimate the cumulative effect of different energy sector disturbances at the landscape scale. By modelling behavioural data at the local scale I will assess if I can predict the landscape level response of bird populations to linear feature and well pad restoration. This will help to define what is recovered from an ecological perspective and can help to inform future industry standards.
Songbird response to vegetation recovery on reclaimed well sites in the boreal forest
Industry is required to reclaim oil and gas well sites in Alberta with the intention of recovery to an equivalent ecological function as prior to disturbance. Bird community response to forest regeneration following forest harvesting is well studied. However, limited information exists on how bird communities change with vegetation recovery on reclaimed well sites. This study will use biacoustic methods to determine how bird communities are influenced by well site reclamation efforts. Grids of GPS time synced autonomous recording units (ARUs) are deployed in order to use the method of acoustic localization. This method uses the time of arrival difference of a vocalization to subsequent recording units, to triangulate the singing locations of individual birds. The potential to use bioacoustic methods to collect spatial data on birds will be evaluated. These results will provide insight into the strategies that have been effective in promoting ecological recovery of reclaimed well sites. Data from drones and ground based photogrammetry will be used to identify the specific vegetation conditions used by singing birds on well pads.
Scott’s projects was completed in summer 2017 with a Masters thesis and a journal publication currently in review.