Monday, 22 July 2013

Canadian canoe odyssey

Howdy folks,

Since my last post I've managed to get out and see a bit more of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Mostly I've been getting out and about visiting many of the islands on Lac La Ronge, which is about 350km north of Saskatoon, as well as a few other lakes and rivers somewhat further North in the Churchill River uplands. The trip North from Saskatoon to the Churchill River catchment is a fascinating one, as it covers three iconic ecotones (an ecotone being a broad classification of major ecosystems at the subcontinental scale). Saskatoon sits near the Northern border of the great North American plains, where massive herds of bison once roamed prior to European colonisation.  Heading north, one then passes through the boreal transition zone, comprised of a mosaic of grassland with deciduous trees, such as trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), on gently rolling hills. 

From there it's onwards through the boreal forests, situated on thick glacial deposits from the last ice age. The forest here is a mix of deciduous hardwood trees, such as birch (Betula papyrifera, the Saskatchewan's provincial tree) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), and conifers such as white and black spruce Picea glauca and P. mariana). Also present is tamarack (Larix laricina). Tamarack are an unusual member of the coniferous class of plants as they (along with the other fifteen or so larch species) are deciduous. Lac La Ronge itself sits astride the edge of the famous Canadian Shield. The Canadian Shield (also known as the Precambrian Shield or Laurentian Plateau) covers an area of some 4.4 million square kilometers, and consists of the oldest rocks to be found on the North American continent. Repeated glacial advances and retreats through the ice ages up until 10,000 years ago have scraped away the surface resulting in a complex network of lakes, and left behind vast areas of exposed bedrock. The Canadian Shield is also rich in valuable resources, such as gold, uranium and platinum. 

With such a wealth of rivers and lakes in the area, there seemed no better way to explore than in a canadian canoe (wanting to indulge in the canadian experience, of course). So with a few buddies I headed further north to the mighty Churchill River catchment for five days of paddling, fishing and camping. In the early days of european exploration of the continent this was an important river, with coureurs de bois ('runners of the woods') exploring inland by canoe to trade european goods for furs with the native tribes from the early 17th century. As the area is only sparsely inhabited, there are vast areas of pristine wilderness and it's an ideal place to forget about the hectic pace of modern life. With the beavers slapping their tails, the fish biting, and the eagles soaring it's also an easy place to slip into the mindset of a modern day 'runner of the woods'. 

Until next time folks,

Southern Bird Geek out.

Big skies and big water. Evening on the water in northern Saskatchewan.

Modern day coureurs de bois. Erin in the back, Southern Bird Geek in the front. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Southern Bird Geek flies again

Howdy folks,

Well, what a busy time it's been since I last wrote. The PhD is done and dusted and a second scientific paper from this work, Resource availability and foraging of Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) in urban trees, is out in Emu: Austral Ornithology. I also spent seven months working for the Department of Conservation in the beautiful mountains and fiords of South West New Zealand, while maintaining my involvement with protection efforts for the critically endangered grand and Otago skinks (Oligosoma grande and O. otagense) in central Otago. Come the first snow dumps of the southern winter, however, I was ready to take flight and head north. Quite a ways north. A chance meeting with a colleague from Canada last  year has now culminated in the opportunity to visit the land of big skies and big lakes in Saskatchewan, Canada. While here I'll be participating in a few research projects, and engaging in valuable exchange of knowledge in wildlife management and research methods. 

While I will no doubt be exploring and writing about some of the more remote parts of the province, as usual my bird geeking activities began at my point of entry into the area: the city of Saskatoon. Much as I love getting out into wilderness areas, towns and cities can provide some rich wildlife viewing that is all too often overlooked despite being right under our noses (if you browse my earlier posts you'll find plenty along this line). From an ecological perspective urban areas are fascinating, with just about every imaginable component of the ecosystem being modified. For example hydrology is heavily impacted by the sealing of surfaces with concrete and asphalt, temperature is affected (the 'urban heat island' phenomenon), and the importation of ornamental garden plants results in a highly exotic plant community with all sorts of flow on effects through the various trophic levels. As these impacts are relatively constant no matter where in the world your town/city is, there are likewise many commonalities in the ecological communities in urban areas throughout the world.

This morning I took the opportunity to head out for a walk with my host Iain along the banks of the Saskatchewan River as it flows through Saskatoon and get my bird geek on. Unfortunately my binoculars suffered a fatal blow recently in the hills which made identification of some of the smaller species difficult, but even so a great time was had. As we don't have snakes in New Zealand, the chance to get acquainted with a couple of garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) was a highlight. 

Rivers through towns and cities are often bordered by strips of vegetation (riparian vegetation), as such areas are unsuitable for building on due to unstable substrates and flood hazard. These riparian zones are, however, a vastly under-utilised resource, and have the potential to provide some real neighbourhood gems. While urban riparian vegetation can provide oases for a range of wildlife, there is huge room for improvement. Such vegetation typically suffers from heavy infestations of exotic weeds, and while there certainly exceptions, exotic vegetation generally supports exotic arthropod and bird communities leading to further degradation of the conservation potential (a topic I touched on in a previous post, Globe trotting birds)

So here's my vision for such riparian strips. Worldwide there is an increasing groundswell in conservation towards community led initiatives. Riparian vegetation not only along urban rivers, but also other features such as railways, is ideally suited to such community led projects. The land has little commercial or development value, and is immediately accessible to locals of all ages. Despite the weed infestations, the vegetation is often mature and as such contains the structural diversity needed to support a rich bird community, and allow movement of the birds through the landscape to access localised food resources. The inclusion of shared paths for cyclists and pedestrians can extend these benefits from the avian inhabitats to the human, resulting in options for cheap, healthy, and immediately available recreational opportunities. All in all a win-win situation promoting healthy lifestyles, healthy communities, and of course, healthy birds. 

So remember my ongoing message throughout all my posts: getting out into the wilderness is great, but don't forget the wildlife viewing opportunities right under your noses! Check back soon and hopefully I'll have a few tall tales and photographs from the Canadian wilderness.

Until next time, Southern Bird Geek out. 

Another tough day in the office in the depths of Fiordland National Park and World Heritage Area, south west New Zealand, during the southern summer.

The south branch of the Saskatchewan River as it flows through Saskatoon. The anthropogenic hydrological modifications, riparian vegetation containing infestations of exotic invasive weeds, and water quality issues are typical of urban rivers around the world. It ain't all bad news though.

Urban garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), Saskatoon, Canada.