Into the woods

- March 1, 2018

A scene from Mirabai Alexander's NSERC video, exploring Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
A scene from Mirabai Alexander's NSERC video, exploring Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Masters of Environmental Studies student Mirabai Alexander is one of 75 finalists in Science Action!, a video contest hosted by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Each video is a 60-second explanation of the student’s research, presented in unconventional ways.

“I am so pleased there is a way to communicate this in a less academic and stuffy format,” says Mirabai. “It’s nice to see a forum where people can watch and see cool things like in our video, with all of the aerial drone shots, provided with permission from the park.”

Video link: A Change Can Do You Good

Her video focuses on bird species’ adaptability to landscape changes occurring to North Mountain, Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Moose-browsed grasslands

In response to the rise of the spruce budworm, moose populations have increased within the national park over the years, disturbing the park’s landscapes. Previously controlled by wolves in the area until they vanished from the park years ago, moose have been continuously munching on their favourite food source — trees. Then there are changes in hydrology, which has allowed certain shrubs to dominate over native tree species.

In large sections of the park boreal forest is replaced by a patchy green mosaic of grass, shrub and fern instead.

“Even if you attempt to get the moose populations down, the spruce budworm reoccurs every 30-40 years, which makes the highlands due for their return,” explains Mirabai “This will cause a lot of tree mortality for spruce trees in the park, so the solution isn’t simply taking out the moose.”

To the birds

When Parks Canada noticed this, they collaborated with Bird Studies Canada to look at how forest birds were adapting to the non-treed areas (non-treed meaning the grass, shrub and fern).

Mirabai was inspired to take that initial review to the next level, conducting her own research. Following her initial visit to the highlands almost three years ago, she returned in October 2017 to complete her first formal field visit.

In the spring, Mirabai began collecting point count data, where she and her assistant went to 55 pre-established locations on North Mountain and counted the number of birds seen and heard. This would allow Mirabai to see whether birds were adapting to the different habitats,

“What I found so fascinating was there were tree swallows using tree snags — dead trees — to nest in, which is interesting because tree swallows are not a typical boreal species. Lincoln’s sparrows and white-throated sparrows are also using the new mosaics as a  habitat.”

Song data — that is, the sounds the birds make — was also collected during spring to explore the meaning of black-and-white warbler songs and whether the male has a mate, just from his song.

“There are two types of  songs, ‘A’ song or ‘B’ song – when singing an A song multiple times in a repeat mode ‘A song, A song, A song,' etc., a lot of the time or most of the time we can ascertain it doesn’t have a mate in some species. Whereas if it sings in serial mode — A song plus alternative songs, going back and forth a lot and repeat mode less — we can assume they do have a mate.”

This pairing status and song data has been explored for other warblers but it hasn’t been extensively specific to black-and-white warblers since the 1950s. Mirabai says it’s Dr. Cindy Staicer’s unpublished data on the warblers that inspired her research.

Following the spring, Mirabai returned to the Highlands again to collect vegetation data she couldn’t obtain earlier in the year due to bird species nesting seasons.

A change can do you good?

As described in the title of her video, Mirabai views her research optimistically, saying it’s important to the National Park to protect the ecological integrity of the area the highlands.  

“The grasslands are a novel opportunity for open-habitat species and maybe more forest generalist and shrubland bird species — birds who can survive in open areas and alder thickets— to make use and do well within this habitat. Although we know some of the birds who can only survive in thick forest — forest interior birds —are declining. It doesn’t have to be framed as a problem, since it will always go through flux.”

The top 25 videos that receive the highest number of views on YouTube by March 2 will advance to the judges’ panel where they’ll be critiqued on clarity, creativity and technical qualities. The top 15 videos that are chosen by the judges for showcasing the best stories will have a chance to win cash prizes and be included in museum exhibits, sciences fairs, as well as, Science Odyssey and Science Literacy week.

Mirabai credits support and funding resources provided by Dalhousie and Cape Breton University for enabling both her and her contest entry, as well as the faculty members and peers who’ve helped her along the way.


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