Grad student living the dream with bird migration research

Claire Sanders was finishing an undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta when her fascination with birds began. Now she’s living her dream.

“I took an ornithology class in my final year and I’ve been hooked on birds ever since,” she said. “I start talking about birds and I can’t stop.”

A master’s student in the biology lab of professor Dan Mennill, Sanders studies the effectiveness of using acoustic recording technology to track the night-time migratory patterns of a variety of song birds, some of which travel twice a year all the way from South and Central America to the Canadian Arctic.

“I never imagined I’d be living out here,” she said during a quick break from banding warblers at the Hillman Marsh Conservation Area last week. “This is really an incredible place for birds in Canada. It’s always been a dream to come to this area. I’m really fortunate to have the opportunity to study out here with the University of Windsor, with Dan and with this incredible group of volunteers. It’s pretty amazing.”

The volunteers she works with are from the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory, local birders who help band birds that stop over at the conservation area in the spring and fall as they migrate. Sanders, who earned her undergraduate degree about 10 years ago, was doing some work with the group – which has a long-standing relationship with the Mennill lab – when the professor asked her if she’d like to do a master’s degree under his tutelage.

Since then, she’s help set up seven digital recorders in locations around Essex County. Programmed to record ambient noises from sunset to sunrise, the recorders are equipped with four 16-gigabyte SD cards, and she now has more than 12,000 hours of recordings of bird songs from two migratory seasons to analyze. Advanced computer software converts the recordings to spectrograms – visual representations of the noises – so she can pinpoint the bird calls to study.

“We’re trying to determine what kind of activity is happening at night,” she said, adding that most migration occurs at night and that various bird sounds are made for different reasons, ranging from warnings about potential predators to obstacle avoidance. “It’s challenging because the sounds they make at night are so tiny.”

Besides the acoustics study, she helps with the field work of catching, banding and releasing birds. Fine “mist” nets are set up out in the marsh, where along with the other volunteers like Matt Watts, an undergraduate honors thesis student in Mennill’s lab, Sanders trudges through the mud in her rubber boots to help release the birds, put them in cotton bags and transport them back to the barn where they’re measured, weighed, recorded for gender and age, banded and then released.

Ultimately, the work is all about studying long term changes in bird populations to better understand if climate change is having any impact on their numbers.

“Most importantly, we’re trying to track populations, and if we do it consistently over a number of years, we should start to see population trends,” she said. “I think a lot of these song birds are in trouble and we don’t understand enough about their migratory routes. And so much of their mortality happens along these migratory routes.”

Sanders expects to defend her master’s thesis in July.

Claire Sanders works to free a bird from a mist net before taking it back to the barn for banding and data collection.