It's for the Birds

It’s for the birds


More than 89 bird species are found around PetroChina Canada’s (PetroChina Canada) MacKay River Commercial Project (MRCP).  They’re part of a special bird monitoring study led by Environment Canada (EC) in partnership with PetroChina Canada as part of Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM), a federal-provincial initiative to monitor biodiversity and habitat disturbance associated with oil sands development.

This study is a unique opportunity to align the MRCP bird monitoring program, which is a requirement of our approval for the construction and operation of MRCP, with the JOSM bird monitoring program.  In addition, it’s one of the first to specifically look at lowland bird species —something Alberta hasn’t done much of in the past as it was more focused on forestry and upland habitats because that’s where the resource impacts existed.

But now that there’s a lot of below ground resource industries in Alberta (conventional, bitumen, peat moss extraction) it’s critical to start looking at these different types of habitats and impacts on wildlife. With MRCP being a soon-to-be SAGD production site and a predominately lowland area, it’s the perfect spot for Dr. C. Lisa Mahon, wildlife biologist at EC, Thea Carpenter, wildlife technician at EC and graduate student at the University of Alberta, and their team of wildlife technicians to explore the effects of SAGD development on bird behaviour.

“We’ve implemented a detailed local scale study with 10 25-hectare study sites to examine effects across a gradient of SAGD stressors such as seismic lines, winter roads, exploration, observation, and SAGD wells for the entire lowland bird community and for two focal lowland species (Palm Warbler and Dark-eyed Junco), says Lisa. “The community study will examine differences in bird abundance and density, while the focal species study will examine differences in how individual birds locate a suitable home range, select and avoid disturbed and undisturbed habitats, and attempt to reproduce.”
This work will help EC, PetroChina Canada, and the entire industry understand the behavioural responses of birds to a range of SAGD stressors that differ in size and composition.

“Early results suggest that some bird species can use disturbed habitats but more work is needed to document how stressors influence density, home range size, and reproductive activity”, says Cindy Robinson, senior environmental advisor at PetroChina Canada. “The information gained from this work will be used to understand sensitive nesting periods and areas so that we can plan activities at MRCP to avoid bird disturbance and to plan reclamation activities that support bird habitat.”

Generally, people think that birds only nest in trees. However, the majority of birds in lowland systems such as at the MRCP, are ground nesters. Some birds have evolved to building nests on the ground to protect their young from predators.  These nests are typically very difficult to find and therefore, are very susceptible to incidental damage and destruction.

Lisa is the project lead for EC’s cause-effects monitoring program for landbirds within JOSM.  Announced in February 2012, the Governments of Canada and Alberta committed to implement scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated and transparent environmental monitoring of the oil sands region to ensure this important national resource is developed in a responsible way.

“This is a really neat opportunity for industry and government to align. It’s a real collaborative effort between PetroChina Canada, EC and the University of Alberta,” says Lisa. “All of the work we’re doing at MRCP fits nicely within the bigger program I’ve been running in JOSM looking at regional effects in the Athabasca Oil Sands, where the majority of SAGD work happens. It will be helpful to compare responses of lowland birds at local, landscape, and regional scales.”

Did you know?

• During the 2014 bird monitoring program 89 different migratory bird species were detected and more than 3000 bird detections were recorded during a six-week period. Fifteen species had more than 80 detections (Gray Jay, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Wilson’s Snipe, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-Eyed Junco, Palm Warbler, Hermit Thrush, Canada Goose, White-Throated Sparrow, Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Swainson’s Thrush, Less Yellowlegs, and American Robin).

• Six species of conservation concern were detected within the whole study area, including olive-sided flycatcher, yellow rail, rusty blackbird, common nighthawk, barn swallow and the Canada warbler.

• Common nighthawks have been found to roost in exploratory and observation wells.

• It’s a federal offence to disturb or destroy a migratory bird’s nest and kill/harm/disturb nests and eggs, nestlings, fledglings, or adults.

• Monitoring season is May to July because that is when birds are mating, nesting, and fledging young.

What is a bog?
Bogs are one of North America's most distinctive kinds of wetlands. They are characterized by spongy peat deposits, acidic waters, and a floor covered by a thick carpet of sphagnum moss. Bogs receive all or most of their water from precipitation rather than from runoff, groundwater or streams. As a result, bogs are low in the nutrients needed for plant growth, a condition that is enhanced by acid forming peat mosses.

What is a fen?
Fens are peat-forming wetlands that receive nutrients from sources other than precipitation: usually from upslope sources through drainage from surrounding mineral soils and from groundwater movement. Fens differ from bogs because they are less acidic and have higher nutrient levels. They are therefore able to support a much more diverse plant and animal community. These systems are often covered by grasses, sedges, rushes, and wildflowers. Some fens are characterized by parallel ridges of vegetation separated by less productive hollows. The ridges of these patterned fens form perpendicular to the downslope direction of water movement. Over time, peat may build up and separate the fen from its groundwater supply. When this happens, the fen receives fewer nutrients and may become a bog.

Bog and fen definitions come from

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