"Without support from GIRTA, I would not have been able to travel to Anchorage and be accommodated between field outings."

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Travel Report: Lena Ware

Lena Ware, a master's student in the Department of Biological Sciences, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in Alaska.

August 27, 2019

As a long-time avian enthusiast and field biologist, researching the movement ecology of a coastal shorebird has been an excellent opportunity for me to develop new skills and chase my passion. My travel award allowed me to conduct field research in Alaska on Black Oystercatchers during the summer months of 2019. While the oystercatchers in BC are considered sedentary year-round, in Alaska they consist of a mix of migratory and non-migratory individuals, many spending the winter in BC. This phenomenon, known as partial migration, has puzzled ornithologists for decades. I am testing hypotheses for partial migration in Black Oystercatchers breeding in Alaska using a combination of light sensitive and GPS tracking technology, morphological measurements and stable isotope analysis.

With these data, I will test three hypotheses for partial migration in the Black Oystercatcher and determine whether migration is a fixed or plastic trait that varies with the phenotype of an individual. The hypotheses are listed below:

  • Body-size Hypothesis: Larger birds that can tolerate adverse winter conditions remain resident. Prediction: Females, the larger sex, are more likely to remain in Alaska.
  • Arrival-time Hypothesis:  Individuals that benefit most from early arrival remain resident. Prediction: Residents return to their breeding territory before migrants. Residents hold “higher-quality” territories than migrants.
  • Dominance Hypothesis: Dominant individuals access limited resources and force subordinates to migrate. Prediction: Adult males remain resident in Alaska.

In collaboration with Gulf Watch Alaska researchers in Anchorage, I traveled by boat across coastal Alaska as a member of their nearshore ecosystem monitoring crew (7-12 people). The field season consisted of four trips along the coast: west Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kachemak Bay and Katmai National Park and Preserve. During the trips, I helped the crew complete their monitoring protocols which included intertidal sampling, marine bird and mammal surveys and oystercatcher nest surveys. In return, I was provided with boat access to remote locations to trap, band, measure and deploy tracking devices on adult black oystercatchers.

Without support from my collaborators, I would not be able to access the remote areas with high densities of partially migratory birds. Without support from GIRTA, I would not have been able to travel to Anchorage and be accommodated between field outings.

This project in Alaska is paired with a second study investigating how migratory Alaskan oystercatchers and sedentary BC oystercatchers share their winter habitat along the BC coast. Oystercatchers depend entirely on shoreline habitat and have been identified globally as an important indicator of intertidal ecosystem health. Using these data collected in Alaska and BC, I will determine whether habits vary depending on the breeding or migratory status of individuals and what predicts habitat use in the winter. My research intends to advance the understanding of the drivers of wildlife movement and improve the effectiveness of using Black Oystercatchers as an indicator of ecosystem health in the Northern Pacific intertidal zone.