DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 36 – Challenges of Studying Waterfowl in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic

World-renowned snow goose ecologist Dr. Ray Alisauskas joins the show

© Michael Furtman

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited Podcast, the only podcast about all things waterfowl, from hunting insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese, and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you. The DU podcast with your host, Dr. Mike Brasher.

Mike Brasher: On today's show we're really excited to bring you, I guess you would say it's an introductory discussion about a group of waterfowl that are responsible for one of the most iconic spectacles in the bird world, and quite frankly, one of the most iconic spectacles in nature. And those would be the snow geese and Ross geese of North America. During migration in winter on their staging wintering grounds they will amass in flocks that easily number in the tens of thousands and oftentimes the hundreds of thousands. And it really is just a sight to behold. We have a very special and distinguished guest on the show today to help us with this conversation.

Mike Brasher: I'm really excited to bring in Dr. Ray Alisauskas. From a research scientist, from the environment and climate change Canada, Ray studies arctic ecosystems and waterfowl conservation and management. Ray is with the Prairie and Northern Wildlife Research Center in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Ray is also an adjunct professor in the department of biology at the University of Saskatchewan. Advised numerous graduate students and contributed a wealth of information to our current understanding of the ecology and conservation of light geese across North American. And it really is an honor to have you on the show Ray, thanks for your time and welcome to the show.

Ray Alisauskas: Pleasure to be here, Mike.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. So we want to start this off by giving you an opportunity to tell us and tell our listeners a little bit about what you do, your personal story if you're interested in sharing some of those background pieces. And also your professional career, where you are now and where you've been over your career. So tell us a little bit about you Ray.

Ray Alisauskas: Okay. Well, I grew up in Montreal and as a little kid, I didn't come from a hunting family, although my parents, they were quite outdoors-y and enjoyed gathering berries and mushrooms, and all kinds of wild stuff like that. Fished but didn't hunt. But I remember as a little kid going to school, I lived by the Saint Lawrence River and you could hear the duck hunters blasting away in the fall. And I thought that was cool. I always enjoyed marshes and water birds and we'd eat duck often. So eventually I met my future advisor, Dave Ankney, and we started hunting together. And you probably heard of Dave, and he's had quite an influence on the waterfowl world. And in fact he's relevant to this whole snow goose discussion because I think he caused a paradigm shift and how these birds were viewed in terms of their effects, perceived effects in Arctic ecosystems and so on.

Ray Alisauskas: But anyway, yeah, he had an influence on me. And I did a masters with Dave Ankney at Western Ontario, University of Western Ontario. And I sought Dave out because of course he'd done his own PhD with snow geese on McConnell River there in West side of Hudson Bay back in the 70s. And I just thought that was a really cool paper and everything was so quantifiable how nutrition was so important to these birds and how they reproduce. And how they can reproduce from year to year depending on how fat and muscular they end up, showing up on their nesting grounds after migration. So that's something that eventually led to my PhD work was the spring nutrition of snow geese. Again with Dave, I did a master's with Dave studying coots, and that was a good training ground and how to do science through Delta waterfowl on the famous Delta Marsh.

Ray Alisauskas: And then I stayed on with Dave for my PhD and traveled up and down the central Mississippi flyway, mostly because we start in winter and my focus was spring nutrition as I said. And we quantify and tried to learn and understand what was important to these birds in terms of the habitats they use, and their behavior, their diet specifically. And then now how that influence how they fatten up and bulk up on their way north before they start nesting. And then I finally got a job, well I did a post doc through Delta, University of Manitoba with Dr. Bruce Bat, he was my supervisor I guess. And then eventually I applied for a job here. At the time I worked for Canadian Wildlife Service in 1989. I've been here ever since, although we've been reorganized a little bit. And I'm with Wildlife Research division, although my colleagues in CWS, we work very closely together in terms of banding operations and analyses and that thing. So I'm still here. And kind of a long winded intro, but there you have it in a nutshell, I guess.

Mike Brasher: I appreciate that Ray. How did you first meet Dave? Did you reach out to him for your master's work or was there some meeting prior to that?

Ray Alisauskas: No, it was all by correspondence. At the time I was, going to McDonald College, where they had a wildlife program, a renewable resource program. And I was finishing up and I go, "I don't know what I'm going to do." And although I applied to Delta waterfowl, and I got a... I forget what they're called now, I'm drawing a blank. But a summer internship.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, great.

Ray Alisauskas: And I had read this snow goose paper by Dave Ankney several actually, but there was one that was pretty influential. It ended up being a citation classic eventually. And so I wrote to him and he wrote back. And I was doing some blackbird work at the time in the summer. And he actually came to visit, but we actually didn't meet because I had to go to France to play rugby for three or four. I couldn't turn the opportunity down. So anyway, he showed up and I was gone. But he really cut me some slack.

Ray Alisauskas: I Ended up meeting Dave finally at Delta waterfowl at the marsh, the research station in 1980. And we hit it off. And yeah, I came up with a project which I did on the nutrition of coots and how would that affected clutch size. And which I did in 81 field season, and then I started my PhD again with Dave in 1983 starting down in Texas and Louisiana, focusing on those snow geese. So a bit of a shift from the coot to the spectacular snow goose. And yeah, it was quite a trip, learned a lot and still learning.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. There's a joke in there somewhere. You started with blackbirds and moved to coots, and then went to snow geese. And Ankney having a role in that ladder. There's a joke in there somewhere. And so but I'll-

Ray Alisauskas: We'll disentangle it someday.

Mike Brasher: Yeah, that's right. But just from a personal perspective, selfishly I enjoy the opportunity to do this because I'm going to learn a little bit about your personal background that I didn't know. I wasn't aware that you were a rugby player. It doesn't surprise me, knowing you, but I guess I didn't know that.

Ray Alisauskas: Well I'm not anymore. And I quit when I was 50, playing that is. I still refereed. But the old arthritis is creeping in so I just prefer to watch and watch the other guys have all the fun.

Mike Brasher: And I'll have to get you to teach me the rules of rugby one of these days. It's something I just haven't figured out yet.

Ray Alisauskas: We can arrange that.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. So onto the discussion here, you've referenced already your history of studying light geese, where it all started. And then you moved to Saskatoon. And what we want to eventually do here is really focus this discussion on the longterm studies that have been conducted and continue to be conducted on snow goose nesting colonies across the Arctic. So help me understand a little bit. When did those begin and what was your role in starting some of those studies?

Ray Alisauskas: Well, there's a longterm study that is still ongoing. It's in the sub-Arctic near La Perouse Bay, I believe. And Fred Cook initially got that going back in 1968, I believe. It was a small colony at the time and it has grown since. And compared to the colonies farther to the North currently it's still one of the smaller ones. And it's on the Southern end of the range. But that has provided a lot of important genetic information and things that affect the basic biology of these birds during nesting. And things like recruitment and so on, survival. A lot of good works come out of there. And currently Dr. Robert Rockwell, he's in charge of that operation. But when I joined Canadian wildlife, that had a big influence in that showed me the importance of longterm studies. Okay?

Ray Alisauskas: But the one thing that I wanted to do was get to the Arctic and understand these guys had worked on snow geese. There was very little known about Ross geese in terms of their population biology. And so there had been some pioneering work done by Bob McLandrus, and Dr. John Ryder, and others in the central Arctic where the Ross geese were thought to be pretty well restricted at the time. And so I was interested in trying to understand. And we knew that there was snow geese up there in Canada, Central Arctic, south of a place called Queen Maud Gulf, and it's in a bird sanctuary. It's actually, I think the largest bird sanctuary in the world, Ramsar Site. And so it's very important for a wide variety of Arctic waterfowl, and shore birds, and wildlife in general. But we knew the Ross geese were pretty well confined to that area.

Ray Alisauskas: And so they had started increasing. And then at the time, the conversations with Dave about how abundant birds seem to be becoming and so on got me thinking, well maybe we should get in on the ground floor if these populations are increasing, maybe we could try to understand better why. And so I started going to the Arctic in 1989, I proceeded the work with snow geese since about 83, 84 and during their migration and so on. But I wanted to get at what made the population tick. And so that's why I started focusing in the Arctic. And I got up there in 89 we started banding birds with colleagues there. Richard Kurbis was a guy who had done a bunch of work in the Arctic with Canadian Wildlife Service. And he was in my office so I accompanied him in 1989 to the Queen Maud Gulf bird sanctuary. And we were banding snow and Ross geese and neck collaring them. Because we had this program on the go at the time that hunting was restricted to the fall and winter in the migratory bird framework. You couldn't hunt birds, spring at the time.

Mike Brasher: Right.

Ray Alisauskas: So these collars allowed us to make observations of birds outside the hunting season. So that was the idea at the time. And then being there, I visited some of the colonies and we banded around there. And I saw an opportunity at Karick Lake where John Ryder had done work, and Bob McLandrus and there was a substantial number of birds, at the time I didn't know how many. So in 91 we actually started doing fieldwork there and doing the nesting studies, and the banding in the surrounding area. So those two things are the major activities that let you get at what's producing new goslings, is these nesting studies.

Ray Alisauskas: Right? And the banding data that hunters really supplied again through citizen science supply the information on the band returns, and also their submission of tales and wings and of other waterfowl to understand total harvest. That information is critical to what we do on the banding and survival end of things. And then on the production end of things, we use these nesting studies. So the two, understanding those two ends of the equation I guess, and how they contribute to population growth is why we wanted to have a two handed approach in trying to understand what makes these populations tick.

Clay Baird: [ADVERTISEMENT] Be the first to know when ducks are on the move. Sign up for DU's waterfowl migration email alerts and receive ongoing in depth updates on the latest habitat conditions, weather changes, and hunting reports for your flyway. Visit Ducks.org/MigrationAlerts.

Mike Brasher: There are nesting colonies, you've referenced the location of a few of those. The Queen Maud Gulf bird sanctuary at Karick Lake, Bylot Island, Baffin Island, I think we're getting over into some of the greater snow geese once we go a little bit east there. Banks Island and probably a few others. How many of those nesting... Then you go really far west and you get to Wrangel Island, which is just off the coast of Russia over there.

Ray Alisauskas: Yeah, it's in Russia.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. How many of these nesting colonies have you been associated with from the standpoint of the studies that are actually occurring there?

Ray Alisauskas: Well, I actually focus my presence and direct activity to the Central Arctic. So that includes the Queen Maud Gulf bird sanctuary. And within that is like a constellation of colonies of light geese, like over 100. Now that's changed. When I started there, there was at least 100 colonies or pushing 100. But most of those were very small on islands and lakes. And they were largely Ross geese. And the reason the Ross geese would like these lakes is because they were shallow lakes and they would fall out before all the other water bodies because they were shallow. Right? And then if you nested on these islands surrounded by water, you had a bit of... you deterred foxes from swimming through that water and getting your eggs. So that's where Ross geese were there.

Ray Alisauskas: But then snow geese had moved into the region over the 70s and 80s, and started building probably from the west coast, the Hudson Bay, to the south east of the Queen Maud Gulf region. And the snow geese started coming in and nesting alongside a lot of these Ross geese, and the numbers just ballooned. And eventually there were probably maybe eight colonies that were huge. We're talking 100,000 to a million birds each. And Karick Lake was one of these. And what happened there over time is you could just see the colony grow like a city, in real time over 20 years. And it was like a human city just expanding like an ink stain I guess. And these birds that just started occupying more and more area to nest in, and the snow geese were joining these, and the numbers became so huge they spilled off the islands onto the mainland.

Ray Alisauskas: And once birds get to 100,000, they swamp the predators that are there. So there might be 20 foxes and they might eat 1,000 eggs each, but they're just overwhelmed. And things take off. And so that's like the growth of these population, the snow and Ross geese in the Central Arctic fueled by about probably six to eight large colonies in the Canadian Arctic. But as you say, there are other colonies that form the mid-continent population. And the snow geese at Karick Lake alongside, if people look on a map, they can check these names out. And Southampton Island, there's over a million snow geese nesting there. On Baffin, the great plain of the Koukdjuak it's called on Baffin Island, it's like a great grassy plain with ponds studded throughout it. And perfect for an herbivore like a snow goose during the summer. You mentioned Bylot Island, that's a bit to the north and that's largely composed of snow geese that tend to go through Quebec and end up wintering in the Atlantic flyway.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. And those would be the greater snow geese, right?

Ray Alisauskas: That's right. Yeah. The greater snow geese. Yeah, bigger bird, noticeably bigger if you've held them in your hands, they're quite a bit bigger than a snow goose. And certainly way bigger than a Ross goose. The diminutive Ross goose.

Mike Brasher: Are there ongoing longterm studies on Bylot Island and Baffin Island still? And who's responsible for those if there are?

Ray Alisauskas: In terms of nesting studies, yeah, Dr. Gilles Gauthier, he's with Laval University. He's been up there since the mid-eighties I believe, looking at not just the snow geese, but how they interact with the ecosystem, the surrounding ecosystem on Bylot Island. And when I say ecosystem, I mean all the members of the plant community, the animal community, the shore birds, Arctic Fox and so on. And we do the same kinds of work. Although, Jill's been a much more wider, much more facets to the whole question of how these birds, the snow geese and greater snow geese interact with other species and influence the ecosystem. We do similar work in that we have longterm studies of Arctic Fox in addition to the geese. We monitor lemmings and the associated vegetation in the region and how that changes over time and so on. So yeah, Jill's been there with his students and colleagues on Bylot for, oh over 30 years I think.

Mike Brasher: And then over in Russia, Wrangel Island. Remind me of the researcher in charge of that operation?

Ray Alisauskas: Yeah, in the early days, I think in the 70s you have [inaudible 00:18:57] was there studying birds, and a few other colleagues whom I don't know. But now there's a gentleman Vasiliy Baranyuk who's there, he basically lives there. I understand pretty well alone. But he does such detailed work and understanding where the birds are nesting and what the production is on Wrangel Island each year. And there's some changes going on there. I guess they're doing really well compared to how they had been, probably 10 years ago. Age ratios seem to be high is my understanding, and I think, if I understand the story correctly is one of the things that happened is the wolves were introduced, Arctic wolves to the islands and which take out the local fox population or certainly dampen it. And of course that reduces any predation on eggs that the nesting birds or that the nesting snow geese might experience. Now that's just a thumbnail sketch. I've never been to Wrangel, but just speaking them to Vasiliy understand that kind of situation is going on over there.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. And you have other people that are involved in some of these studies. I know Jim Lafluer, with the Canadian Wildlife Service is involved in some of these, Dana Kellett, Keel Drake, and a few other influential people that are now highly visible in continuing a lot of the work that you are actually responsible for helping get underway. And so there's... One of the things that I want to paint for our listeners here is a picture of just how much effort goes into studying snow geese and Ross geese in these very, very high latitude areas. It's easy when you're down here at the southern end of the flyway to not truly appreciate, because I'm guilty of this, you see these massive concentration of birds and you think, well they just come from up north somewhere.

Mike Brasher: And it's not until you really stop and think about, and look at a map as you were saying, how far they travel. I was just doing some calculations before I came on here. Looking at the map from Banks Island down to the Texas mid-coast, you're looking at 3,200 miles from Wrangel Island to the Skagit Valley in Washington, you're looking at 2,400 miles. And so these birds travel just a phenomenal distance every year. And the researchers that then go north to study these birds on their nesting grounds have to travel similarly very long distances. And there are no highways to get to those locations. Right? With exception of maybe a couple of the more southerly locations.

Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. I think you can drive to some of these colonies, like La Perouse Bay is close enough to Churchill that you... The logistics a little less complicated than for example, where we are at Karick Lake, we're on the mainland we're 300 kilometers from a place called Cambridge Bay. So everything's got to be flown in. And unlike geese, which is just decide, "Oh I'm going to start flying." We have to book travel and we have to deal with paperwork and so on. And yeah, and you mentioned the collaboration. That's certainly true. No one person can do this stuff alone. Although in the old days guys like Soaper, these guys used to go in on by dog team the year before over winter at a nearby community, and then we'd start working the next spring. And have to have all their stuff with them and live off the land. So we don't have to do that, although that's quite the adventure I guess, to be able to do that. But there is quite a bit of prep time.

Mike Brasher: But it's still very primitive location. Yeah.

Ray Alisauskas: Yeah, exactly. You still have to prepare nevertheless. You have to get your fuel in place at each of these locations because again, you have to fly in and out. You could ski, do 300 kilometers sometimes if... you have to replace boats. We hired some local folks there in Cambridge Bay to get on their qamutiiks or snow sleds. And they'll haul out sometimes our supplies and new equipment to Karick Lake. So again, it's 600 kilometers in a straight line. And so they have to cross the ice ridges and pressures and travel over land. And so that in itself is a big adventure.

Ray Alisauskas: Yeah. And then of course you've got to supply, the number of people at a camp over the summer you have to figure out the logistics and how much food to have, how much fuel, ammunition, everything. Bear bangers and so on. And you mentioned Dana Kellett and she's my colleague, she's my technician. And the two of us do a lot of the planning and implement getting all the logistics in place, booking travel for volunteers and so on. So yeah it takes a lot of prep, but goes with the territory.

Mike Brasher: That's right. All to study some snow geese. Man, who would've thought that you'd be... Whenever you started this, you mentioned the value that you saw early on in your career of longterm studies. When you helped start these studies in the Central Arctic. Obviously you would want them to persist for a long period of time, but looking back, are you surprised that you've been able to keep things going the way they have and even expand them the way it's happened?

Ray Alisauskas: Well, it does help to look backwards sometimes and revisit things. But I don't dwell on it too much. I look at the data and I see the value of having 30 years of data instead of two or three years. And then you try and figure out what's going on with like less than a generation time for a snow goose or... You've got to play the long game to get an understanding of, when you're dealing with population dynamics and even the human population from one year to the next, it's seven billion, but that number only means so much more when you put it in the historical context. So same with the birds. The time series gives you the reference or the perspective to understand, "Well, what does it mean?"

Ray Alisauskas: It gives you a historical perspective and context. Like if there's a million birds, is that a lot? Well, it depends what happened before. And so every year, and looking forward every year is an adventure because you could study things forever, and everything's got a shelf life, but it's always full of surprises and there's always a drive to understand, "Well, what's the next step? What's going to happen?" This cannot go on forever, right? With snow geese, how can they grow forever? It turns out they're not. And we don't need to talk about this today, but they've probably leveled off and maybe they're even declining now for a number of reasons. So that kind of dynamic is interesting to understand and you only get it with longterm studies.

Mike Brasher: As a waterfowl hunter, as someone that appreciates the waterfowl resource, as a waterfowl scientist, I offer my thanks to you and all the hard work that's gone into getting those colonies up and running and the incredible volume of data that you've been able to assemble over the years, the difficulty with which it is to operate in that environment, and just the determination that you guys have used to make sure that happens from year to year. So I offer my thanks for that and appreciate you coming on the show and sharing some of this with us.

Ray Alisauskas: Hey, it's no problem at all Mike. And it's been a pleasure.

Mike Brasher: A special thanks again to our guest today, Dr. Ray Alisauskas for taking time out of his schedule and sharing with us some important insights from the work that he's done over the years. We also thank our producer Clay Baird who produces the show and keeps us all sounding good. And then most importantly, we thank you, the listeners, and thank you for your time for tuning in, we thank you for your commitment to wetlands and waterfowl conservation.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU Podcast. Be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to the show, and visit www.ducks.org/DuPodcast for resources based on today's topics as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.