Giving a hoot about owls begins with knowing that the Alberta Wildlife Act protects active raptor nests from any disturbance by people!
Free OWL QUIZ when you finish reading this blog!
January marks the beginning of owl nesting season
Many species of raptor (Owls, Hawks, Eagles, Falcons etc) begin their mating and nesting seasons earlier than most Albertans might think. Great horned owls for example may begin establishing nesting territories and setting up nests as early as January. That’s an awfully crisp and cool time of year to be sitting on a pile of sticks trying to hatch an egg!
Owlets on the edge!
When most people think of nests, they think of deep, basket-shaped, feather-lined structures, but the truth for great horned owls can be much different. The platform nests they often use can leave their eggs and their young exposed to the Alberta elements, that is unless mom is there to keep them toasty warm. As a result, its easy to see why survival of baby owls can be pretty tenuous. Unattended owlets can easily succumb to the elements, or fall prey to ravens, and a host of other predators. Thats why it’s very important that the parents are not disturbed by human activity during the nesting period.
Alberta’s owls and their nesting habits are diverse
Great horned owls aren’t Alberta’s only owls, but they do happen to be one of the earliest nesters. Some other owls we might find nesting in Alberta include species like Saw-whet Owls which nest in tree cavities, Long-eared Owls that nest in abandoned crow & magpie nests in scrubby tree & shrub stands, Short-eared Owls that nest right on the open ground, and Burrowing owls which nest underground.
Owl nests are protected
The vulnerability of nests and nestlings is so important for all raptors (owls, hawks, eagles, falcons) that the Alberta Wildlife Act protects active raptor nests from any disturbance by people. That means that any land clearing or industrial activity happening in or near tree / shrub stands, or even fields and grasslands during their nesting season (January through July) could not only be causing some dangerously chilly and unhappy baby owls, but could also be a violation of the law! Thats why you should call a professional wildlife biologist for advice before doing any land clearing or causing any ground disturbance.
Give us a hoot!
Where the heck do you find a professional wildlife biologist? That’s a good question, just contact us and we will put you in touch with a good one!
To say that 2020 has been a strange and challenging year is of course an understatement, but for us at Fiera, it hasn’t been all bad. I am proud of the resilience, resourcefulness, and perseverance that our staff has shown over the past 12 Months. It’s nothing new, but it is none-the-less inspiring to see our team pull quietly together and face what comes with skill and confidence, while continuously caring for and about the wellbeing of one another. Along with the the canceled celebrations and missed opportunities that this year-of-the-pandemic has brought, there have been some very positive things and we’d like to share with you our top five.
So without further adieu, the Fiera Top Five Highlights of 2020:
An ecosystem service is defined as any benefit the people derive from nature, and includes things such as food, fresh water, flood protection, and recreation, to name only a few. The natural asset inventory developed by our team was then integrated into the Town’s existing Asset Management system, so that the value of the services provided by natural assets in the Town can be considered along side all of the other other municipal assets when making decisions about land management. Complicated problems like this need to be worked on collaboratively with subject matter experts like Nichols Applied Management Inc. who provided the economic component to this work, which leads us nicely to highlight number 2 for 2020.
3. Talent. While the economy suffered under the weight of COVID-19 and the unpredictable leadership south-of-the-boarder, our little company grew by two. We brought back our summer student from 2019, Jacey Bronson, on a short contract basis, then quickly realized we didn’t want to let her go, and made her full time & permanent in September. She’s pretty dynamic in the skills department: rock solid in the field, has advanced wetland ecology experience, and can handle herself on the GIS end of things too. We followed that smart hiring decision with another, and brought aboard Calum Grimshaw, a talented and hard-working GIS specialist to bolster our growing powerhouse of GIS and Remote Sensing capabilities. While Jacey occasionally takes a break from GIS duties to wade knee deep in wetland fieldwork, Calum has been up to his eyeballs in GIS and Remote Sensing work ever since his starting day.
4. Tracks. It’s no secret that Fiera has some special skills when it comes to the identification and interpretation of the tracks and signs of western Canada’s wildlife. In 2020, Fiera expanded its offerings of wildlife tracking skills development courses and workshops from a single course aimed at improving the skills of wildlife professionals, to four separate opportunities that cater to the general public, through to the experienced professional. We also became one of only two Alberta tracking schools with an instructor certified in wildlife track & sign interpretation. While 2020 did not provide us with the opportunity to host any of our new courses and workshops, we are very much looking forward to delivering them in 2021 and beyond.
5. Riparian Assessments. Throughout 2020, Fiera has been working with several of Alberta’s amazing Watershed Planning Advisory Councils (WPACs) to assess the condition of riparian areas adjacent to many of Alberta’s lakes, rivers, and creeks. It’s incredibly important work that will help to target future conservation and restoration efforts. In 2020, we reached nearly 40,000 km of assessed shoreline – that’s a longer linear distance than the circumference of the Earth. Wow! Have I mentioned “our growing powerhouse of GIS and Remote Sensing capabilities”?
Despite everything else, including missing our families, the worry, the dry hands from constant washing, cancelled events, and all the uncertainty, there are many things about this absurd past year that we at Fiera are extremely thankful for, and that are worth celebrating. Thank you for reading the Fiera Top Five Highlights of 2020, and from everyone at Fiera, I hope you have an amazing 2021. Happy New Year.
Remote Sensing and GIS as tools for environmental management
What is Remote Sensing and GIS?
Remote sensing is the science of obtaining information about an object or area that you are not physically in contact with. It often describes interpreting and analyzing aerial or satellite-based images, but can also refer to wildlife camera traps, acoustic recorders, weather balloons, and telescopes.
A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a computer-based tool for creating, managing, analyzing, and presenting geographic data. GIS helps us better understand the location, spatial relationships, and distribution patterns of things we are interested in.
Why are Remote Sensing and GIS useful tools for environmental management?
Landscape patterns that may be significant for the management of wildlife or their habitats can be identified across large areas in a more cost effective way than relying on field work alone
The availability of archived imagery allows for the assessment of landscape and habitat change through time
The maps we create can easily and effectively convey important information to our clients and other project stakeholders
How does Fiera Biological use Remote Sensing and GIS?
1. Creation of land cover and habitat modeling to identify and prioritize sensitive or significant environmental features.
Current and accurate spatial data are critical for reliably mapping and assessing environmental features, and because of this, our Remote Sensing Specialists routinely create land cover inventories from air photographs or satellite imagery.
Existing spatial information, such as reported locations of rare or threatened species or key zones for wildlife, can also be obtained from a variety of sources.
Our team routinely uses these types of spatial data products to map the locations of sensitive habitats and species, as well as to model how changes in land use may impact the occurrence or movement of species. Land managers can then use this information to avoid highly sensitive areas, or to prioritize lands for restoration or special management.
2. Riparian habitat assessments
Riparian areas provide a multitude of ecosystem functions and benefits, including water quality improvement and flood reduction, but over the last century, the loss and impairment of riparian lands in Alberta has been significant.
In order to prioritize riparian areas for restoration and to track change in condition through time, Fiera Biological has developed a new and standardized GIS method to rapidly assess the intactness of riparian areas.
The first step in completing a riparian assessment is to identify the stream and lake shorelines of interest. This can be a single water body or an entire watershed.
The next step is to create a land cover classification, which is used to assess the type and extent of disturbance present within a 50 m shoreline buffer. We then determine the intactness of a stream based on how much disturbance is present along its shoreline.
The assessment results can be summarized and mapped for the entire watershed, or for an individual stream or lake. This information can then be used to target areas with lower intactness for restoration or conservation.
This novel GIS method allows us to effectively assess remote or inaccessible shorelines and to evaluate streams within watersheds spanning thousands of square kilometers. As of November, 2020, we have used this method to evaluate more than 32,700 km of lake, stream, and river shoreline in Alberta, and work is currently underway to do much more. For examples of our riparian assessment see the following links: Modeste Watershed Riparian Areas Assessment; Blindman River Riparian Assessment.
3. Wetland inventories and assessment of wetland condition
The provincial Wetland Policy aims to conserve, restore, protect, and manage wetlands to sustain the benefits they provide to Albertans. At present, this goal is elusive because the information that is currently available about the location, extent, and condition of wetlands is unreliable, incomplete, or out-of-date.
I’m often asked how to age tracks. The tracks in the photo below were made by the same foot of the same person wearing the he same boots, however one was made 3 weeks prior to the photo, and the other was made 30 seconds prior.
A simple trick used to help age a track is to compare the subject track to those just made by the observer, or to tracks of a known age.
Tracks erode or decay over time causing sharp edges and steep slopes to soften. Tracks in different substrates will age differently, as will those exposed to different environmental / weather conditions. Find or make a fresh track, then return daily to observe how it changes with age. Tracks made in wet clay followed by a long stretch of dry weather may age/decay/erode very slowly, but will show other signs of aging such as cracking and litter accumulation. Tracks made in snow may age/decay/erode very quickly depending on photo period, ambient temperature, wind conditions, and the type/condition of the snow itself at the time the track was made.
You can also use environmental events evident in the track, or not evident in the track, to help age it. For example if you know it rained yesterday, and the tracks you see have evidence of being rained in, you can deduce that the tracks were made before it rained.
Tracks made by some animals will age differently than others. Hard footed and heavy animals like a moose for example can make tracks that will last for years because they are capable of leaving an impression in hard and erosion resistant substrates due to their weight and the hardness of their hooves. The tracks of a soft-footed animal of similar size, like a bear for example, are likely to age/decay/erode faster than those of a moose, in the majority of substrates. A light and soft-footed animal like a snowshoe hare may make tracks that age very quickly in many substrate types.
As you can see, as with most aspects of tracking, there are a lot of variables to consider when aging tracks, and the answers sought are often not just in what we can see on the ground, but in our awareness of the environment, our knowledge of local species and region, and in the breadth of experience we bring with us.
It takes some practice, and even so, some studies suggest that the best even a very good tracker can do with reliable consistency is to classify tracks into either fresh, or not fresh.
The footprint above (posted to social media on May 25, 2020) is the footprint of a Snowshoe Hare in snow, photographed on March 24th, 2020, in Elk Island National Park, Alberta, Canada.
The track patterns of snowshoe hares are very recognizable, but most people haven’t looked very closely at the details of a single print, so when they encounter a print without a track-pattern, they may not recognize it. A snowshoe hare’s foot is fully furred making details hard to pick out in most conditions, but that in itself is a detail that can lead you to a correct identification. Though the toes may register as distinct appendages, a palm pad (interdigital or metatarsal) will never register clearly, nor a heel pad with snowshoe hare, so the lack of those feature is a good clue.
Another good clue is the toe arrangement in the tracks. Four toes will register in front and hind, and that is different than most rodents which register four toes in the front tracks, and five in the hind. In addition to the number of toes, take account of the symmetry of the arrangement in an individual print. Note how the toes are loaded all to outside of the foot.
The claws of snowshoe hare are thin, fine, and sharp. They don’t always register, but the first time you see them clearly register in a splayed print, you may doubt for a moment that you are looking at the print of a bunny, and think rather that it might be something more dangerous like a lynx, a wolverine, or a dragon.
Earlier I mentioned that snowshoe hare track patterns are very recognizable, so I’d better explain. Snowshoe hares are very consistent in their use of a bounding gait. I the gait the front feet land first, and then the hind feet swing around on either side, and register ahead of the front feet. The hind feet land simultaneously, side by side.
The most likely animal you may have difficulty distinguishing from snowshoe hare in the Edmonton area would be black-tailed jackrabbit. Jackrabbit are similarly sized and shaped animals, and so they leave similar tracks. Habitat is probably your best clue for distinguishing these two species. Jackrabbits prefer open areas where they can see predators coming and use their powerful speed to escape across open terrain. Snowshoe hare on the other hand like to stay in or near the forest where they can put rose bushes, deadfall and thickets between them and any predators. Another indicator is the frequency of off-set hind feet positioning. Where a snowshoe hare only rarely positions its hind feet off-set to one another, a black-tailed jackrabbit will frequently do so.