I’d heard of the Liard River. Years ago, in my canoe tripping days when I read everything I could get my hands on regarding canoe travel, I came across The Dangerous River, by R.M. Patterson, which chronicled the exploits of a couple of adventure-seeking prospectors. One character they wrote about grabbed my imagination, an old (even then) trapper, Albert Faillie. For many years he made his way up the Liard to the Nahanni; then up the Nahanni to Virginia Falls. At that point he would break down his boat (it was more like a long rowboat than a canoe – no motor) and portage it piece by piece and his gear, pack by pack, up around the falls, at which point he’d reassemble it and keep going deep into virgin fur country. Then, when he’d got all the furs he could carry, he would reverse his route back to “civilization” where he could sell them and then outfit himself for the next year. There was actually a documentary film about Albert Faillie. At the time of the film he was an old man and it caused me physical pain to watch him struggle up that long portage. I wanted to scream out to the cameraman: “For god’s sake, give him a hand!” but that was the old fellow’s life. To do otherwise, for him, would be an admission of age and decrepitude.
Now, on my last evening, standing by the Liard (in southwestern Northwest Territories) I watched the river flowing by. Swollen with meltwater from distant mountains it surged by at 4-5 knots. How did he ever move upriver against a current like that!? Regularly, large branches and small trees swept by. They appeared to be poplar so I’m not sure whether they had been gouged out by the flood or taken down by beavers. I had just finished 3 weeks of working in the Fort Liard area in the heart of northern boreal forest country and I was trying, mentally, to put it into perspective. Looking across the river at the largely unspoiled forest rising up from the far shore I couldn’t help but think about Patterson’s lines in his foreword to the Canadian Edition: “The D.R. [Dangerous River] tells of trips made in the North just before the aeroplane made all places accessible to any kind of man, however soft he might be and however useless in the bush. Those of us who had the good fortune to be on the South Nahanni in those last days of the old North may, in times of hunger or hardship, have cursed the day we ever heard the name of the fabled river. Yet a treasure was ours in the end: memories of a carefree time and an utter and absolute freedom which the years cannot dim nor the present age provide.” That, I think, was a different breed of men.
For three weeks (four for the rest of the crew) we wended our way along old roads and obscure trails or, more usually, bushwhacked through many kilometers of foot-grabbing alder tangles and blowdowns. And I must say that, although I’ve got a fair amount of experience in the bush, age has made me soft and it was hard work. But we weren’t looking for gold. Or, rather, we were searching the boreal forest for another sort of gold: birds. The main aim was to try to ascertain whether bird point counts in relatively wild undisturbed forest would mirror Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) counts done in the southern, but more developed, parts of the boreal.
Also known as the taiga, “the boreal region in Canada covers almost 60% of the country’s land area. The Canadian boreal region spans the landscape from the most easterly part of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador to the border between the far northern Yukon and Alaska. The area is dominated by coniferous forests, particularly spruce, interspersed with vast wetlands, mostly bogs and fens…….. Canada’s boreal forest is also considered to be the largest intact forest on earth, with around 3 million square kilometres still undisturbed by roads, cities and industrial development.” -Wikipedia
For a number of years now, people have been trying to answer the question: are bird numbers and species declining before the onslaught of mankind? A number of counts/methods have been developed and used over a long period of time: Christmas Bird Counts, Migration Monitoring Stations (Ruthven is one), and Breeding Bird Surveys are some of the better known counts/methodologies. For species that breed or spend the Winter in the southern parts of the country, these methods are effective. But how do you get a valid count on species that spend their Winters far south of Christmas Bird Counts and breed high in the boreal? While there are Breeding Bird Survey routes for the boreal forest, these tend to be along roads that are largely confined to the southern part of it. Further, this is complicated by the fact that the roads themselves, and the development they service, may influence the make-up of bird species and numbers encountered.
A Breeding Bird Survey follows a relatively simple format: the observer covers 50 points along a road in his/her car. At each point (they’re 800 m apart), he keeps track of every bird heard and/or seen during a 3-minute period. Then it’s off to the next point. In order to cover all 50 points and be finished within 4 hours of sunrise, the observer must start just before the sun is up and go steadily.
But do these counts truly indicate the numbers and species of long-distance migrants of the boreal forest or are they biased by the fact that they are conducted along roads and in the southern part of the boreal forest?
To try to get at this question, Environment Canada scientist, Craig Machtans, 17 years ago set up a comprehensive array of approximately 200 point counts in the relatively undisturbed boreal forest of the Fort Liard area. The points were distributed in various habitat types in proportion to the incidence of those habitats in the area. Points were sampled every three years and each point was done twice – at the beginning and at the end of June. Counts were 10 minutes long (but broken down into 3 minute, 5 minute, and 10 minute groupings for comparability to other count methodologies) and were separated by at least 300 meters to minimize double counting.
This year the “count team” was made up of Sam Hache (Senior Landbird Biologist). Rhiannon Leshyk (Junior Landbird Biologist – and former Ruthven “graduate”) and contract workers Emilie D’Astous and Miles Zurawell. And I have to tell you, my hat goes off to these folks as they had to penetrate some very impenetrable bush over long distances amid swarms of mosquitoes and blackflies to accomplish their counts…..and they ALWAYS came up smiling.
[My job was much easier in comparison: the counters would note where they encountered Canada Warblers and I would go in and try to net them. If successful, I would band each bird, take a variety of measurements, pluck a couple of tail feathers (for DNA, stable isotope, and feather mite studies), and take a variety of pictures of different aspects of their plumage as well as habitat. Interestingly, I tended to have the most success at the points that were the hardest to get to – like #17-3 which I’m sure is one of Dante’s levels of Hell. After awhile we referred to dense tangles of alder with blowdowns and thorny wild rose under a relatively open canopy as simply “Canada Warbler habitat”. As these birds have been deemed a Species at Risk we had a permit to band no more than 40. We were able to reach this goal.]
Craig Machtans recently published an article [Reference below] that chronicles the point count work. Among other things he found that: “Significant increases in our study area [Ft. Liard area] outnumbered decreases by 12 species to 6, an opposite pattern compared to Alberta (6 versus 15, respectively) and Canada (9 versus 20). He goes on to suggest that: “…the tendency for BBS route coverage to disproportionately sample more southerly, developed areas in the boreal forest could result in BBS trends that are not representative of range-wide trends for species whose range is centred farther north.”
Excluding this year’s results, counters have encountered 120 species. Below I’ve listed the Top Ten counted and the numbers seen. Note that 6 of them are long-distance Neotropical migrants:
Tennessee Warbler 5,447
Swainson’s Thrush 5,329
Magnolia Warbler 3,919
White-throated Sparrow 2,569
White-winged Crossbill 2,522
Chipping Sparrow 2,306
Red-eyed Vireo 1,868
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1,859
Western Tanager 1,568
Getting back to Patterson’s book, I had to chuckle at his comment: “…I am glad to say that we added little to the world’s biggest curse – its stock of scientific knowledge.” At this point in our human history I would have to say that it’s this “curse” we need more than ever – especially if we are going to make good decisions about preserving the ecological richness that we still have.
Machtans C. S., K. J. Kardynal, & P. A. Smith. 2014. How well do regional or national Breeding Bird Survey data predict songbird population trends at an intact boreal site? Avian Conservation and Ecology 9:5.