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SOI Educator Q&A with Garry Donaldson

Garry Donaldson is the manager of migratory birds and habitat conservation for the Canadian Wildlife Service (Atlantic Division). This will be his seventh Arctic expedition with Students on Ice and we are thrilled he’ll be returning!


How did you get involved with SOI?

I met Geoff Green the SOI Executive Director many years ago at a community meeting in Chelsea, Quebec. At the time I was looking for ships in the Arctic to put biologists on to conduct seabird surveys and Geoff was looking for a biologist to provide seabird content on the SOI ship so it made good sense to team-up. It was a great example of serendipity that has evolved into years of collaboration.


What first inspired you to work with migratory birds?

Garry capturing a thick billed murre

Garry capturing a thick billed murre

Many of the people I work with came into the migratory bird world from one of two main directions. Some were avid birders and developed a passion for feathered wildlife through that activity, others come from a hunting background where the conservation ethic is very strong. I chose a different path or, perhaps more accurately, description that path chose me. I’ve always enjoyed being in the natural world be it through canoe trips, hiking, cycling or other activities and did complete a Bachelor’s degree in biology which sounds like a great start to becoming a wildlife biologist but I chose a major in molecular biology and landed a job in an agricultural biotechnology lab after I graduated. That was all good but it didn’t get me super excited so I eventually left to work in a wildlife toxicology lab at the National Wildlife Research Centre, a job I learned about at a party I went to by chance. That work also didn’t excite me greatly but it was located in building full of biologists working on all aspects of ornithology so I was surrounded by people doing things that were exceptionally cool . One day at lunch I overheard people talking about a problem an Arctic seabird scientist was having locating someone to work at a seabird colony on Coats Island in northern Hudson Bay which was to me exceptionally cool so I dropped by his office to see if I could help out. A few weeks later when I arrived at the colony, I instantly knew that this was the type of work I was made for.


What are some of the challenges and opportunities that come with working with migratory birds?

Garry climbing bird cliffs

Garry climbing bird cliffs

One of the great things about migratory birds is that they are migratory; this mobility across landscapes and seascapes leads to many challenges but also brings some special opportunities. For many (maybe most) species, we only have a crude idea of where they go and how they get there. Up until very recently, we’ve had to rely on information we get from birds that we tag with metal bands. Only if a banded bird is either caught or found dead on migration or during the winter can we get a sense of where they go but for most species, only a very tiny proportion of banded birds are ever found again so we don’t really know much. This makes it tricky if we detect that a species is in trouble as it’s tough to tell where the problem might be. All of this would be challenging if we were working only within one country but birds that breed in Canada may travel to other parts of North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Asia, Antarctica, Europe or Africa. Yikes. Things are done differently in each country birds fly to or fly through so conserving one species my require the efforts of a mini United Nations. Thankfully, in almost every country I’ve had the chance to work with, there are government departments and/or conservation organizations that have a passion for conservation so, once we get the right people together, either in person or via whatever technology can connect us, partnerships form and lots of great conservation work results.


In the years you’ve been visiting the Arctic, what are some of the changes you’ve seen?

One of the cool things about monitoring seabirds is that they can tell you stories about what is happening under the surface of the ocean. During field seasons at the Thick-billed Murre colony on Coats Island, we would watch parents bring fish in to their chicks so we could get a sense of how well their food supply was doing. If all is well, parents can make quick trips to find the really nutritious fish but if all is not well, they take a long time to find the more crappy fish. For these guys, Arctic Cod is the best fish they can catch and it made up most of their diet until about 1996 when quite dramatically the cod disappeared and most of the fish brought in were capelin which are not quite as good. Arctic Cod needs cold water to survive while capelin likes warmer water. Because of climate change, ice was leaving Hudson Bay earlier and the water was warming faster and the marine food chain was shifting as a result. It’s hard to see these things happening under the water so our observations of seabird chick food were some of the first observations of the impact a warmer climate was having on Arctic marine life. For a number of years chick development was impacted by the new food source but in time we’ve seen the birds learn how to fish the new species so now their chicks are as healthy as they were back when cod was their main food so after showing a climate change impact, we were able to show how wildlife may adapt.


What are some of your favourite SOI memories?

This is a tough question to answer because after eight SOI expeditions. I have a ship-load of really awesome SOI memories and could write pages and pages in answer to this question. Sometimes the best experiences are born from the unexpected like a really special say we spent at the head of the Saglek Fjord in Nunatsiavut. It was intended to be a stop to stretch our legs and absorb the stunning landscape in Torngat Mountains National Park but the day quickly evolved into a celebration with SOI participants, park staff and elders that included lots of country food and conversation. Another unexpected gem occurred on an expedition to Antarctica when during a presentation on Antarctic treaties Geoff announced over the PA system that there were Humpback Whales about. Indeed there were, quite a few of them who took great joy in showing off for us by repeatedly breaching out of the water beside our ship. One day in the Arctic we were on a Zodiac cruise among some awesome chunks of sea ice when we came across a young Polar Bear just finishing its Ringed Seal lunch; he didn’t seem to mind us hanging around so we all had a nice relaxed opportunity to see a Discovery Channel-style documentary in real life! My passion for the Arctic began at a seabird colony so I’m always stoked when we can visit one with SOI. There’s no greater place to talk about seabirds than from a raft of Zodiacs bobbing below 1000s of them on the cliffs above (watch out for falling poop!). I also have many fond memories of the many many one-on-one conversations I’ve had with students and staff in the dining room during meals, in the Zodiacs as we explore our surroundings, on hikes through amazing Arctic landscapes, and on the deck of the ship as we steam along past icebergs or jaw-dropping Arctic landscapes. That’s a few just for tasters.


Tell me a bit about your workshop onboard the ship, and why students should take it?

There are a few workshops where I hope to engage students and staff.

One is a hands-on session on wildlife monitoring where we’ll learn about why we monitor creatures and how we do it. During the workshop we’ll conduct a survey and the results of our work will go into the Environment Canada Seabirds at-Sea database to be used by biologists to better understand how birds use the marine environment and to help inform decisions on human activity where we’ll be sailing. This is an opportunity to learn and contribute to our knowledge of wildlife in Arctic oceans.

Another is workshop on biodiversity where we’ll explore the relationships among the many critters that make the Arctic oceans their home. People are an integral part of Arctic ecosystems, sometimes in harmony with the other plants and animals and sometimes not. We’ll explore some of the recommendations identified in an Arctic Council report titled Life Linked to Ice to ponder questions like which are the most urgent issues and what can be done to solve them. For those interested in how to achieve conservation results, this might be a workshop you want to attend.


What are you looking forward to most about this summer’s expedition?

One thing is for sure, traveling with SOI never gets old as each expedition brings a collection of old friends that I look forward to re-connecting with as well as all the new students and staff that I look forward to meeting. From my seabird perspective I hope the same may be true as we visit colonies I’ve worked at in the past (especially Prince Leopold Island) as well as a few I’ve never been to before like Cape Graham Moore, a site that we recently worked on as a joint project of Environment Canada, Students on Ice and the Baffinland mining company. We’ll be steaming through prime waters for Narwhal which I have never seen before so I will be very excited if a few decide to come see us on the ship or in our Zodiacs. All of those are really great things to be looking forward to but maybe the one thing I’m most excited about are the experiences that will present themselves to us unexpectedly during the expedition that when we get home we’ll all remark “wow, that was really cool!” I can’t say what those will be but I know that they’re going to happen.

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