Cholera found in Migrating Snow Geese

Over the past several decades, anthropogenic effects (human activity) are increasingly tipping the balance in favour of some species over others in North America; and heavily one-sided dominant forms of competition between species have the potential to explain global declines in species’ populations and reduced global diversity.  With agricultural intensification, land development, and human waste management, some species flexible to changing landscapes are likely influencing their community structure through disproportional abundance, which allows them to compete more aggressively for space and food resources. Effects of both invasive species and disproportional growth in select species is a global concern and has been for several decades (Garrott et al. 1993).

Invasive European Starling populations out compete other native birds for space and food resources.
Invasive European Starling populations out compete other native birds for space and food resources.

If you are a hunter, or an avian biologist then you definitely have hard or seen first hand the exponential population increases in North American Lesser Snow Geese. Flocks of millions of birds move through the mid-continent twice a year either heading to or away from their arctic tundra breeding grounds. Biologists have been monitoring this growth pattern and implementing game management strategies.

Flock of Snow Geese

Snow geese population numbers cannot increase to infinity obviously. At some point something has to give; habitat space, food resources, disease, or a combination of those things. For the past few years I’ve been interested in seeing how the snow goose populations are changing and projected to change based on research by a number of fantastic goose biologists in both Canada and the USA.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow biologist whom is heavily immersed in the game management and hunting community. An American-based hunting outfitter had contacted him regarding several dead fully intact snow geese found in an open field. Over several days ~50 birds were seen dead, many with a mucous coming from their nostrils. This hunting trip was located in Saskatchewan for the spring hunt. Long story short and a long email thread later, I had contacted one goose biologist, who contacted multiple other biologists and a Curator at the University of Saskatoon was interested in receiving the dead carcasses for inspection and testing.

This outfitter company graciously delivered the birds to the University.

As it turns out, these dead birds were confirmed for Cholera. This is an unusual and rare appearance of this lethal disease in this species and particularly in Canada. As populations grow, densities of colony species or socially aggregate species effectively can transmit disease between each other or get infected through common sources of water or food.

As a biologist, this finding was exciting. And I quickly realized the power of a network within our avian community. Once the formal report for this disease comes out, I will provide the link here.


SHOREBIRD LEG FLAGS; how to make the perfect leg flag.

The North American Banding Council has designated that as scientists capture and tag birds, we do so in a structured way so that everyone can access one database and determine who, what, where, and when that individual bird was tagged. Banding and recapturing is how we first made strides in determining where migratory birds went after they left the breeding grounds or migratory stopover locations when they were headed…well, somewhere. It’s also how we have been able to determine proximate ages for individual birds and for species. How long does a little bird live? Believe it or not, some small songbirds can live over 10 years! And likely that is a conservative number. All that has been possible due to banding efforts where we capture birds, place uniquely coded bands on each one and record all the information about where it was banded, the species, other measurements etc.

Sanderling. Photo by: Nick Docken
Sanderling. Photo by: Nick Docken

In many cases, birds are mostly resighted and not recaptured, meaning that someone was looking through their binoculars and noticed a bird has some kind of marking on it. It’s wonderful, especially if the bird has a marking that is unique to THAT bird. Smaller birds can be given leg flags that have unique colour and code on them to help us identify from afar who they are and where they were tagged. These leg flags are colour coded by country which is even more fun, especially when you are in the Canadian Arctic and you see a red knot with an orange flag….Hello Argentina!!!! That bird has come a long way to breed.

Photo by: Nick Docken
Photo by: Nick Docken

It is however not a right but a privilege to handle birds. Each person is registered and has applied for a permit to capture and handle birds only after weeks to months of mentorship from experienced banders at permitted banding stations in the country. Code of ethics, safety, banding regulations all need to be followed precisely. “The bird comes first” before anything, so it’s safety and proper handling is our number one priority. With this responsibility comes not only the proper care and handling but the proper administering of any item being placed on the bird, such as the bands, flags or markings.

Making the perfect leg flag for smaller birds (band size 1A, 1B, 3 etc)

Things you need:

  1. Darvic plastic or the new Salbex plastic products 1-2 mm thickness cut into strips 1cm x 10 cm

2. Small but hardy clamp that can tolerate some heat

3. An assortment of nails that fit the measured diameter for the bands designated for your target species




Sourced from:

4. Heat gun


Take your flat pre-cut Darvic plastic piece and press around the nail sized to your leg band requirement. Then pinch in place as close to the nail as possible:

Hang your heat gun (I used Mastercraft’s model), and turn the heat setting on low. Place one side of the band with the curved side facing out under the heat for 5 seconds. You will see the plastic mold nicely to the shape of the nail. Then turn and heat the other side for 3-5 seconds until shaped. *Do not heat for too long, after the plastic gets too soft, it will droop and will not return to the right shape, aka the flag is garbage.

Let cool for 5 seconds and remove from clap. If the opening is not flush and forms a V shape this is a no no.

Flip the flag in the claps so the tail end is sticking out and give it a 3 second blast of heat, then pinch with your fingers being careful to not burn yourself. Don’t press too hard or the plastic may bend.

And Voila, the perfect leg band. Now trim and they are safe for use.


Attaching nanotags – a grad student perspective

If you study plants, studying how they change can be pretty easy (from a logistical stand point). Sessile plants and animals can be found where you left them. Awesome. It saves guess work or the laborious task of tracking individuals to even start and continue studying your target species in any longitudinal research. However, for many of us, studying living creatures means accommodating the fact that they move around. Sometimes across fields, across lakes or even across continents.

I study migrating birds, but not just any migrating birds; long-distance arctic-breeding shorebirds. These species fly some of the longest recorded migrations known on the planet. They never stay in one place for very long so we have to work hard and fast when they are around and prepare to monitor movement once they decide to leave.

Black-bellied Plover arriving to the breeding grounds on Southampton Nunavut. Photo by: Kevin Young
Black-bellied Plover arriving to the breeding grounds on Southampton Nunavut. Photo by: Kevin Young

Historically, the larger the animal, the easier it was track. Not only are larger animals more conspicuous but larger animals can carry larger markers like flags on their legs or brightly coloured collars around their necks. They can also carry around heavier devices which are ideal for satellite tracking requiring larger heavy batteries and larger antenna to transmit signals out into space.

Unfortunately for many of us, we could only dream of tracking our much smaller highly mobile animals across large distances. And we are still dreaming. But until some wonderful engineer makes our dreams come true and designs a satellite tracker weighing less than half a gram, we have devised (meaning lots of people, not including me) ways of tracking animals using other kinds of information-transmission other than satellite signaling.

I track and monitor migratory movements of small shorebirds weighing between 50 and 300 grams using radio telemetry. Telemetry has been around for a long time but was only really used locally where a handheld receiver could detect signals on foot for a kilometer or so depending on terrain. But collaborative efforts with academics, along with provincial and federal governments, we now have the MOTUS wildlife tracking system ( .

3 sizes of nanotags
3 sizes of nanotags

Small radio tags emit pulses in unique patterns on the same radio frequency that can be detected by towers set up all over Eastern Canada and the North-East coast of the US. Density of towers in the Southern Ontario region basically cover the entire area so we can monitor “microscale” movements of birds through the Great Lakes region.

An almost complete map of towers on the MOTUS Wildlife tracking system detecting transmitting nanotags
An almost complete map of towers on the MOTUS Wildlife tracking system detecting transmiting nanotags

Battery life ranges in the tags from 60-180 days and then will fall off when the bird molts . Tags are only glued to the body feathers which are “shed” twice a year (once for breeding plumage and once for winter plumage in most species). Tag size ranges based on how long you want them to transmit; larger the battery, the longer the life.

I would like to share a few tips and tricks regarding nanotag attachment on shorebirds. These little guys change body shape during migration, putting on fat and losing fat quickly over a short time frame, and when I say get bigger I mean, almost doubling their weight in some species. So we can’t place harnesses on their body in the event the body shape and size change a lot. So we go with a “semi-permanent” external attachment aka, glue that bugger on. Here is how we do it:

Fiskar scissors; good quality!

Gel super glue, not the liquidy stuff

Your tags, tag activator, receiver to check that the tag is actually on

***Activate the tag, I do this before leaving my field camp and carry the activated tags in my bag with me for the day. It saves the trouble of carrying the gear for 20 km.

  1. Cut the feathers above the oil gland on the back of the bird leaving the strongest part of the feather (the base of the shaft) intact.

    Photo by: Nick Docken
    Photo by: Nick Docken
  2. Place glue on the tag, just a decent blob, enough of a blob it covers the back of the tag at the round end, label facing up
  3. Don’t glue yourself to the bird. To avoid this, I use something thin and solid to put slight pressure on the tag to the bird but not using my fingers.
  4. TAKE A PHOTO. This can be the only evidence of who is wearing what tag if there is data entry error or you forget to write it down. I have gone back and referenced photos with time stamps in case the tags weren’t right. So important.

    Photo by: Nick Docken
    Photo by: Nick Docken

**And what about those ROUND TAGS……..

It’s not convenient to glue a marble to a flat surface, which is what the NTQB4-2 tags feel like. So I buy a non-stretch, non-fray material, to help increase the surface to glue ratio.

  1. ACTIVATE the tag. If you glue anything to the tag before activating it, it likely won’t fit in the activator hole…..bad news bears
  2. Glue the mesh square to the tag
  3. Glue the whole lot to bird. Don’t be shy with the glue, the bird only wears it for a handful of weeks and with the cost of the tag itself, you want it to stick.

There are many ways of doing this and this is simply what works for me. I have not had problems with tags falling off and the extra mesh on the larger tags may even help prevent the bird from pulling the tag off. Good luck scientists and happy tracking!


Life is too short to spend it counting red blood cells

I wrote and successfully ran my first Macro….I have no idea what Macro means but I know it’s a piece of code used to perform a function on my computer.

I have entered the phase of data analysis in my PhD. If feels like my entire life is trapped within this little black box supposedly filled with 2 terabytes of digital what-not. As a potential future doctor of philosophy I have been stretching and yoga-ing my brain muscles and attempting to use higher order thought processing (in other words, how can I get more done in less time).

One of the numerous digital hurdles I’m entering into, is dealing with blood smears. On the tundra during summer in Nunavut our team captures breeding shorebirds and takes a variety of quick samples including a drop of blood. This drop (or even smaller than a drop) is smeared on a glass slide to generate a single layer of red blood cells so we can see them under a microscope.

Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) Red Blood Cells
Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus) Red Blood Cells

Each slide contains hundreds of thousands (or even gazillions) of cells. Often scientists report the number of different cells or the prevalence of infection/disease within an observed 10,000 cells. It’s easy to miss the odd infected cell so the greater the number of cells the better. That’s all fine and dandy but counting 10,000 cells per blood slide for over 150 birds is just not what I want to be doing for 6 months of my life straight. My time is much better spent using my brain to do ‘science’ interspersed with watching Netflix or knitting baby hats.

So I took to the world of code and programming to solve this seemingly impossible endeavor.

Little did I know…..stuff like this can be really easy. There is definitely some trial and error but free software (Imagej) and a macro (some code thing) can run a batch containing all my images and count the cells for me.



Download Imagej if you are ever counting cells. And process your image using a macro like mine:

Convert the colours in the image to something recognizable for the program and then tell the program to count the number of those things…..

Hit the process button under a Batch function to run the macro for a whole suit of images and watch the magic happen (or don’t watch; just walk away and let your computer work). I was able to count 10,000 cells in just over 200 images in 10 minutes. I would have walked away and done something fun like eat cookies but I was sitting on a plane on my way to Seattle. Plus, I was so stoked ‘something was happening’ that I sat starring at the screen praying my computer didn’t suddenly self-destruct.

So next time you are faced with the challenge of managing large amounts of data, or with technology in general, try to experiment with some different options out there to save you time. Most of the papers out there say “we counted 10,000 cells per slide for the 1000 individuals of mice to determine….something something”, and what it should say is, “A poor unsuspecting undergrad student was roped into volunteering to count slides for 12 hours per week for 2 whole years to determine…..something something”. Likely most of us don’t have the luxury of hiring technicians or bribing undergrads with Tim Horton’s gift certificates to work endlessly on something mind numbing. So scientists, “don’t always just work harder, work smarter”, so you can free up time to have fun, (like get on a plane to somewhere exotic) life is too short to count red blood cells.


Life is like…..nest searching; ups and downs of field work and research

As we get older and move through life we experience; ups and downs, moments we will never forget, moments we wish to forget, and all the stuff in between. Short term 1, 2 or 3 months of field work feels like a whole lifetime in itself. You grow from being a newbie, completely unaware at the beginning of the field season to a master of your own little study site. You swing from limb to limb of successes and failures on an hourly basis. At the end you stand victorious and proud with usually minimal scaring.

Our field season in the Canadian Arctic over a 2 month period is both the most rewarding and the most challenging time in my life. I’m never happier than when I’m cut off from the civilized world, with no running water, 24 light on the beautiful tundra walking 20 km a day. Our daily goal is to walk as far as possible and cover as much ground as possible in an attempt to find shorebird nests. These little ground nesting birds make divets in the ground with barely a nest cup to speak of. Then they proceed to lay 4 highly camouflaged eggs barely visible to the untrained eye. You have to take great care to not step on them and crush the delicate eggs.

KEEN in the Arctic
KEEN in the Arctic

For example,

Arctic Facts: Shorebird eggs are natures tundra camo

After a day of hiking, each of my 5 crew members return to camp to carb-load and chat about the day’s events. Our most prevalent discussions revolve around the challenges of finding those cryptic little shorebird nests and all the mental challenges and self-evaluation that goes along with 8 hours of walking and finding only one nest. Life is like a field season of nest searching, some days you win and some days you lose and on those days you lose, there is always a hot bin of water to soak your blistered feet.


PhD Student Field Work Comic


Catching Birds: Easy homemade trigger pin for the Aggressor Radio Control System

Most of the time, I use Youtube to find out how to do things; knitting is a prime example, and also to watch hilarious Jimmy Fallon videos. But this week I posted a ‘how to’ video because I couldn’t find what I needed.

This video demonstrates a very simple, easy to use and easy to make trigger pin for a deployment system for bownets, commonly used to catch birds. Remote Control for Bownets —CURRENTLY BEING REDESIGNED. CHECK BACK MARCH 2015One thing about research is that there is more ‘behind the scenes, trial and error, design work and crafting’ than you could imagine. In fact, we spend more time than anything figuring out HOW to do something than actually doing it. So, if you ever use a bownet, watch this video and eliminate the design process and trail and error that comes with your fieldwork preparation. Lucky for me, I have a super handy father, so all credit goes to him.

We started with this bownet (pictures below), an amazing net I inherited from another researcher. I love the net, it works great, light weight, perfect size for the shorebirds I catch and I’m in the process of getting more like this one made. The original pin was a nail taped to fishing line wound on a reel. This manual deployment system was good but not perfect. Sometimes the fishing line would get caught on rocks, scrub willow and in general was kind of a nuisance. So, we got these great radio control systems that use a radio frequency to deploy a trigger. Aggressor HiTech Radio Control System. The question was, how does the trigger work with a net? Online, people just showed them deploying the trigger mechanism and catching hawks, owls, showing off the “cool factor” but no one zoomed in well enough for us to see what the heck they were doing.

Long story short, here is a simple pin you can make at home, and a basic and reliable way you can use the Aggressor radio control system for under $3. You don’t want to get caught with a specific one-of-a-kind pin and have it get lost so keep these supplies kicking around your field camp and you can whip up another pin if one gets lost.

I’ve also posted a video of the use of this bownet in the field catching an American Golden Plover. There are several up close pictures of the bownet featured below and the second video shows the pin design and how it’s used with the radio trigger.

Happy catching everyone. Don’t forget, the birds come first so practise using your net well before trying it in the field.


Bownet when it's open
Bownet when it’s open
Spring for loading the bownet
Spring for loading the bownet

bownet pin placement


Trapping incubating shorebirds; try, try again.

In animal field ecology, when studying your species of interest for the first time, there is always a steep learning curve. What do the animals do? How do they respond in different conditions? Most importantly (for me), how may this animal out smart me? I’ve trapped many birds before but until this past summer I had never attempted to trap a shorebird using a bow net. Trapping is an essential part of my work and research. During my first field season on the Southampton Island tundra, Nunavut, I had little time for failed attempts and trial and error when it came to trapping shorebirds. I’m a devoted field ecologist/physiologist and as it says on one of my t-shirts purchased at Bass Pro, “I don’t retreat, just reload”. So, needless to say, after a couple of failed attempts at trying to catch the Black-bellied Plover with eyesight like a mother with three kids under the age of 5, I was not about to accept that this bird was out smarting me. On several occasions, after failing to capture this bird, I would ominously walk away from the nest gear in hand, whispering under my breath, “I’ll be back bird”. Day 1 of trapping: Me; zero, Birds; 1.

Female Black-bellied Plover
Female Black-bellied Plover

Just like many aspects of data collection in the field, you persevere and eventually you succeed. I did alright over the summer, adapting new techniques, being patient and for the most part, keeping a light attitude towards the struggles. Of course, the wonderful crew members of 2014 helped to remind me that things were going pretty darn good so the odd unsuccessful day wasn’t the end of the world. And just to entertain ourselves, we could relive the failed attempts captured on video as many nests had a camera to monitor incubation behaviour. I have a nice play by play reminding me that when in doubt, try, try again.

Just to cap off this learning curve, I was rewarded with some precious gems; recovering geologgers that were attached to two birds. This little device stays on the bird from initial capture to another year when we hopefully get an opportunity to recapture it. Geologgers collect the light cycle and time of day to determine where they are on the planet. Its little battery can keep the recorder alive for up to three years recording the bird’s whereabouts. The day I cut off my first recovered geologger, I was on cloud 9, shaking like a leaf with excitement. It’s moments like this that make any unsuccessful day a distant memory.

Black-bellied Plover
Black-bellied Plover