Arctic avian raptors project thrives thanks to collaborations
“When I talk about relationships, in all honesty, that is what has kept us going. Nothing else"
Lars Qaqqaq has held fuzzy baby gyrfalcons and felt the strength and tenacity of an adult female peregrine falcon while he banded its leg for tracking.
But there’s nothing like the moment when you hold the bird aloft and let go and watch her spread her wings wide, and fly away.
Qaqqaq, 21 from Baker Lake, is talking about his work for Arctic Raptors, a research project that has been around since 1980 that monitors mainly gyrfalcons, peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawks.
“It took a while to get used to. When they twitch and try to get away, it can be stressful. But I got pretty good at it. You have to hold them still for a while,” said Qaqqaq, explaining what he does as biologists measure and weigh the birds and take blood samples.
“I really enjoyed it. When we take the hood off the bird, and you hold it up and you release it, that’s my favourite part.”
Now lead by Alastair Franke, a wildlife ecologist and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Arctic Raptors is a unique program supported by generations of researchers, northern residents, industry and government.
Born out of the peregrine falcon population decline in the 1970s due to pesticide contamination, Arctic Raptors has tagged, measured, sampled and monitored hundreds of avian predators north of 60 every summer for 37 years.
In the beginning, researchers had a roster of sites they would return to annually but they have recently expanded their reach, teaming up with Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. to conduct raptor research near the Mary River mine in North Baffin and Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. to gather baseline raptor data for their Amaruq property, about 50 kilometres from the Meadowbank gold mine.
Southern student researchers, who spend weeks in the field visiting nests, monitoring broods and banding the juvenile birds, are paired with local people who are invaluable as guides on the land and as research assistants.
Franke met Qaqqaq when the young Inuk was working for Agnico Eagle as a wildlife monitor in 2016. When Agnico Eagle contracted Franke to gather information and report on avian predators near the Amaruq site, they paired him up with Qaqqaq.
Qaqqaq said they spent about two weeks together that first summer and he really enjoyed the work.
“The site, it was a small lake, surrounded by really huge rocky cliffs. There’s a lot of that landscape near Amaruq and I just love the area,” said Qaqqaq, a budding photographer and scientist.
“It’s very cool to see [the birds] up close. A lot of times when we’re at those sites, there will be peregrine falcons and rough-legged hawks. I’ve seen them fighting in the air.”
Franke, who has been involved with Arctic Raptors since 2003, says it’s encouraging to see the program last as long as it has because it’s hard to compete for attention, and dollars, with polar bears and caribou in the North.
A lot of the support he gets is in kind—use of a Nunavut Arctic College cabin on the land, for example and use of Government of Nunavut storage space for vehicles and equipment.
He also receives financial support from research consortium, ArcticNet and the GN’s environment department.
But it’s the knowledge and enthusiasm that local people bring to the project that make the research so rewarding, Franke said.
“When I talk about relationships, in all honesty, that is what has kept us going. Nothing else,” Franke said.
He talks about elder Andy Aliyak as one of those important relationships.
Aliyak, a widower and father of three, has been working with Arctic Raptors for more than 10 years. Reached at home in Rankin Inlet Sept. 1, Aliyak said he loves to get paid to be on the land and he always brings his rifle in case he sees a caribou to harvest.
“They told me, ‘You never know, you might be holding these birds.’ And myself, I said, ‘Man, he’s crazy to say I’ll be handling these with my hands.’ But sure enough, in a year or two, I was holding them up,” said Aliyak, a Canadian Ranger and heavy equipment operator.
“There’s never a dull moment. You’re on the sea one day, on the land the next… I want to do it all my life.”
Peregrine falcons, known as kiggaviit in Inuktitut, have bounced back now that the offending pesticides have been banned, so researchers have turned their focus to monitoring how climate change might be impacting falcons and other avian raptors.
But the answer to that question is complex: temperature, precipitation and other climate factors vary year to year, and place to place. Researchers can, however, document how certain conditions lead to negative outcomes for those migratory birds in the Arctic.
For example, the Kivalliq region experienced a late spring storm in 2013 which brought about a metre of snow over three days. When the snow melted, not only did it fill ponds to brimming, excessive run-off brought extra nutrients to those waters. All that lead to an abundance of black flies.
With motion-sensitive cameras now mounted near known nesting sites, researchers can monitor what happens in those nests and in 2013, the results were grisly.
In one nest, researchers observed how four nestlings were killed in a period of seven hours, “from the direct effects of severe bites attributed to black flies,” said an academic paper Arctic Raptors researchers published in 2016.
Its authors noted nestlings in eight other sites also suffered the effects of black fly swarmings that year, resulting in 13 of 25 nestling deaths. The news isn’t good for humans either.
Black flies seem to thrive at certain temperatures—about 9.5 C, in fact, according to Franke. So, as the Arctic warms up, more areas will start to average that temperature over summer and that, coupled with an increase in precipitation, likely means more black flies across the Arctic.
Local knowledge often helps researchers solve puzzles and craft experiments, Franke said.
In 2005, for instance, researchers went to nesting areas and were hard pressed to find any nestlings where, in previous years, there had been dozens. In talking to local residents, they learned of a torrential rain storm on Nunavut Day. In fact, a local photographer had captured young birds drowned in a nest.
That led to an experiment where researchers created nest boxes that provided shelter to the young to see if that had an impact on nestling mortality. Indeed, coupled with other factors (birth order, date hatched, etc.), the sheltered nests contributed to nestling survival.
Posing questions, and answering them through study and observation, is a huge motivator for people like Franke, Qaqqaq and Aliyak.
But the act of travelling to remote places in Nunavut, spending hours observing animals on rocky cliffs and through yawning valleys, under a huge Arctic sky—that’s a big motivator too.
The Arctic Raptors Facebook page, here, has some stunning photographs and videos of their work, including this one of a peregrine falcon dive-bombing Alex Paiement as he changes a memory card on one of the nest sites in 2016.