Summer with the Black Brant

Written for the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Alumni Magazine, 2014

There was nothing to see but an unbroken sea of snow and ice when Maureen McClintock arrived at the Tutakoke Bird Camp in April 2013. She and three other wildlife biologists took a charter plane to Cheevak, Alaska, snowmobiled about 30 miles to a point located by GPS, and then began digging. They set up a single tent on the first wooden platform they excavated from six feet of snow, and then they waited.

McClintock was hired as a seasonal research technician to work on a long-range population study of black brant, a goose that is one of the avian species that has a breeding ground in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta in Alaska. She laughs and remembers that it was an unusually cold and delayed season, so for three weeks she waited in a tent with three near-strangers for the snows to melt and the birds to show.

She wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “It’s estimated that 40 percent of the bird species in the western flyways nest there [in the Y-K Delta],” McClintock said, “So the breeding season is incredible. It’s just – it’s covered. There are birds everywhere. I was there to study brant but got to see so many other species, including some endangered species.”

This population of black brant winters in Mexico and travels up the California coast to the Y-K Delta breeding grounds each summer. There are other groups of brant, says McClintock, but this is the largest. This study, headed by Jim Seddinger at the University of Nevada Reno, has been continuously monitoring this population since 1987.

The brant is almost exceptional in its unexceptionalness, which makes it perfect for this kind of study that can provide lessons for other species as well. McClintock says numbers of the brant and other water fowl dropped precipitously in the 1980s, and this study was part of an effort to determine what was happening and what sort of management practices might reverse the trend. Although numbers of brant have stabilized, she says, some other birds have not rebounded the same way, and what they learn about the brant can help guide management practices that affect many other species.

“And they’ve been doing it continuously,” she explains, “and this allows us to look for long-term trends and changes in the population; by looking this closely and in depth at the same individuals throughout time, managers can do more than say ‘Oh, it looks like there are fewer birds.’ We can try to pinpoint what’s going on and try to address them with proper management strategies.”

Many of the challenges faced by the birds are threats to the environment. For example, they feed on aquatic vegetation, so when water quality is degraded there is less high quality nourishment available, and population size just cannot be sustained. In addition to indirect threats through habitat encroachment, hunting is a problem in the wintering grounds and in many of the staging areas where they stop for rest during the long trek north.

A population study like this one aims to know every single animal in the group and follow their reproductive costs and successes over generations. To do this, each researcher walked over an assigned section of the brant breeding ground each day, hunting out nests as they appeared and taking notes. They would record laying intervals, note which individuals made up each breeding pair, and tag goslings as they hatched. Each bird has a coded band, unique to the individual, and researchers track everything. They know who comes back each year, who has a new mate, who has a successful breeding year, and sometimes they have information from other sightings along the migratory route. More than that, they can look at an adult and know not just its history since youth, but pinpoint its parents and know their story.

She says that this kind of study is not just valuable to ecologists, but allows for a more in-depth look at basic biology questions, such as the costs of reproduction or the effect of environment on individuals. “It’s really cool, because it helps you make good management and ecology decisions, but lets us answer some of those neat biology questions that are really the backbone of management – they’re just a little more elusive.”

Working so closely with an animal, a researcher is bound to develop feelings.

“They’re a neat species – they’re cute as a button!” says McClintock. She spent each day walking through her section, which would be densely covered with nests just a few feet apart. A black brant nest is simply a shallow depression scraped out and lined with a little grass and breast feathers from the mother.

She witnessed mating pairs squabbling over prime nest sites, and domestic disturbances between neighboring males when nests ended up too close for comfort.

“They’re just hanging out right there on the tundra, and the males are so protective.” Although the females do most of the nest sitting, she says, the males would ferociously guard the nest, occasionally making her job hazardous. “They’ll run around, they’ll fly in to your head,” McClintock says, unaccountably chuckling. “I have scratches on my arms; they will fly over you and poop on you until you go away – and it’s adorable. It’s horrifying, but adorable, the dedication these males have.”

A mating pair and their young stay together for the duration of the breeding season. The brant have an annual complete molt during this time as well and are flightless alongside their young for a time toward the end of the season. She and her colleagues would flush out the flightless birds in a survey of which families had a successful breeding year. In other words, which goslings survived.

Although it was a good year in terms of breeding – many pairs got nests and laid eggs – it was a less successful year in terms of who survived, perhaps explained by a heavy rain, while the goslings were less than a week old, and lower-quality food due to the lateness of the breeding season. As for fidelity between mates, she says that it seems to hinge on reproductive success. Most of the time, they keep doing what works. A pair that loses its offspring will usually be paired with different mates the following year.

And then, abruptly, the season is over, and as quickly as they arrived the birds have flown away.

“You know, I got there and it was just covered in snow,” she says. “I got to watch this really cool transition as the snow melted and revealed brown, dead earth. And then birds came back and plants started growing and then birds nested and successfully had young. Not just the brant I studied, but songbirds and shorebirds, ducks and geese – everything running around. And then you see them get big enough and fly away. You say that bird’s headed south – that’s a success. That’s what I loved, being able to see the entire cycle just condensed and happening so quickly.”

For her master’s research, McClintock looked at the costs of reproduction in wood ducks in the Southeast. “It’s actually really neat for me – the questions Dr. Hepp and I are asking are similar to the ones they’re asking with brant up in Alaska,” she says. The questions involve subjects such as costs of reproduction, what makes a bird successful vs. non-successful in producing young, and exactly how much food do they need to produce healthy offspring.

They measure the cost of reproduction in terms of energy, and that boils down to one thing—food. Duck mothers have to make tradeoffs between gathering food and time spent on the nest. They expend energy passing heat to eggs or neglect themselves to spend more time on the nest. “You can compare it to being an actual human parent,” she says.

To understand the choices mother wood ducks make, they manipulated nesting conditions by reducing the down layer and watched to see whether females changed their behavior to compensate for a cooler nest. A properly warm nest is vital not just to the eggs and their development, but it can have repercussions to successive generations. They learned that female ducks do make choices that balance their own needs with their offspring.

The summer in Alaska was a slow progression from a choice she made as an undergraduate at the University of Maine. McClintock got her first research job by approaching a professor and just asking for work her freshman year. She was counting birds in digital photos for hours upon end, and it was less than exciting. But it led to another position at a bird refuge in Maine, and from there to Alaska, and from there all over the world. She has studied honeycreepers in Hawaii, puffins and auks in the Aleutian Islands, satin bowerbirds in Australia, and oiled seabirds in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. “I’ve traveled the globe doing this,” she says. “It made me a better scientist and graduate student because I had the hands-on field experience and the drive to want to follow up and publish my research.”

And now, in a move that she might not have predicted a few years previously, McClintock made the decision to apply for teaching fellowships during her last semester of her master’s program. She says that she feels like everything she’s learned will come back around to serve her in the classroom. “Even though it’s not your traditional path to being a high school teacher,” she says, “I think because of my experiences I am going to have a lot more to say. I’m excited because I’ve been all over the world, and I think it’s going to make me a great teacher.”

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