Biologists to track bird movements of sea ducks from White Rock up to Northwest Territories

Male Scoters pictured swimming in the Semiahmoo Bay. The white patches on the birds’ foreheads indicate their age; the bigger the patch is, the older the bird is. (Sobia Moman photo)Male Scoters pictured swimming in the Semiahmoo Bay. The white patches on the birds’ foreheads indicate their age; the bigger the patch is, the older the bird is. (Sobia Moman photo)
A close up of a male Surf Scoter being held. (Photo courtesy of Sean Boyd)A close up of a male Surf Scoter being held. (Photo courtesy of Sean Boyd)
Male Scoters are often found in large numbers around very few female Scoters before the breeding period starts. (Sobia Moman photo)Male Scoters are often found in large numbers around very few female Scoters before the breeding period starts. (Sobia Moman photo)

In order to track where sea ducks travel on their migration journey, biologists will be spending time at the White Rock pier in the early-morning hours over the span of a few weeks.

Starting Monday, Nov. 21 — if weather permits — until Dec. 16 at the latest, research lead Megan Ross, and other biologists with Environment and Climate Change Canada, will be set up at the pier in the early morning darkness with their nets, ready to capture Scoters (sea ducks) which will be tagged with GPS transmitters.

“We’re trying to capture … White-winged and Surf Scoters and find scale habitat use and movement in the Salish Sea,” Ross explained.

White Rock pier is a hot-spot for both species of Scoters because of the number of varnish clams — an invasive clam that Scoters love to eat — the area has to offer.

According to Sean Boyd, research scientist emeritus with Environment Canada, the clams were nowhere to be found some 40 years ago, but now, between west beach and the U.S. border, there are roughly 1 billion varnish clams because of how prolific they are at breeding.

A similar process of tracking movement patterns on Scoters was done with last year’s population of birds in the area.

“Last year, we had a male that bred in the Northwest Territories, then he travelled to Alaska, then moulted off the coast of Alaska now he’s just come back to the Salish Sea,” Ross said.

The GPS trackers are accurate within a couple metres of the birds’ movement.

Although the data is fascinating for Ross and her counterparts, it can also play a large role in emergency response and helping the birds if needed.

“We need to know where the birds are, how many of them there are and at what time of the year, so that we can respond if there was an emergency like an oil spill,” she said.

For roughly one month’s time, Ross’ research team will be attempting to get their 25 GPS transmitters tagged on the birds, with the help of a veterinarian.

Stationed in boats with nets floating on top of the water and using decoys, they will wait for the Scoters to fly to the nets in order to be tagged. Researchers will also use feces samples to gather information on not only which habitats the birds are using, but what they are eating besides the clams in those locations.

The data will be used to assist the national emergency response teams to aid them in their mission to protect the birds, Ross said.


@SobiaMoman
sobia.moman@peacearchnews.com

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