AMBI; the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative

April 19, 2016 by jenn

Recently I have started working on a new project, the Arctic Migratory Bird Initiative (AMBI). AMBI is a project under the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group. As I wrap up my PhD, this opportunity came up and at first I thought that I couldn’t possibly take this on, but was convinced by a friend that I should at least apply. Well, several months later, and I now have a 20% position dedicated to working on Canada’s AMBI projects.

For the purpose of AMBI, the world has been separated into four flyways that Arctic migratory birds utilize. This is a bit simplistic, but works well for this purpose. Below you can see the Americas Flyway (in blue), the African-Eurasian Flyway (in tan), the East Asian-Australasian Flyway (in green) and the Cirumpolar Flyway (in brown). The first three have been recognized for many decades as important paths for migratory birds, and the circumpolar flyway was identified under AMBI as important to consider in and upon itself as a number of species stay in the Arctic/Sub-Arctic region all year.

AMBI Flyway maps

AMBI working flyways

I am involved in two of the flyways. While the Circumpolar flyway’s priorities deals mostly with seabirds, a group that I am pretty comfortable working with, the Americas flyway’s priorities focus on shorebirds, a group that I have always loved, but don’t have much experience on. For both flyways I am learning quickly on my feet as I join the ongoing project and team that have already been working on this for the last 2 years.

AMBI is exciting for a number of reasons, but here are a few that I think make AMBI particularly exciting. First, AMBI is the first project lead by CAFF that has actions outside of the Arctic region. This has a few benefits. Importantly, AMBI recognizes that to really protect Arctic migratory birds, in most cases you need to think about conservation all along the flyways. For example, you must protect critical habitat on the breeding grounds (in the Arctic), in the wintering grounds (for some this means regions of South America), and at points in between (for shorebirds this means intertial habitats along eastern North America). This is a true flyway approach to conservation. Because AMBI has actions along the flyways, it also provides an opportunity for Arctic Council observers (see here for a list) to be part of an international conservation program that benefits biodiversity in all regions. In essence, this means that conservation projects such as AMBI, that have been approved at a high political level, can be used to help rally groups and countries to action because of the connection to the Arctic Council. This may not seem important, but when working with biodiversity conservation, any little bit helps.

Second, most of AMBI priorities aim to harness the energy and knowledge of the international community to protect and conserve Arctic species that have a a distribution sometimes across as many as 20 nations. This can happen at both the large and small scale. First, because it is an Arctic Council project under CAFF, AMBI can, and has, get the attention of departments often outside the environment sphere, and can leverage support from a variety of resources to help achieve its goals which are often much more than just birds. Second, the real benefit of working with migratory birds, everyone knows what a bird is, and even if a species is only in your backyard (both figuratively and literally) most people seen it as ‘our’ birds. With this in mind, AMBI aims to take on the ground conservation actions in multiple regions that benefit both people and birds.

I hope to write more about AMBI in the coming months. We just had an AMBI Steering Group and Implementation meetings in Texel, the Netherlands, hosted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (a great demonstration of how Arctic Observer countries can support the program, and how AMBI can gather support from departments not necessarily often working on biodiversity issues). Both Arctic Council countries and observers participated with the aim to plan the next steps in the African-Eurasian and East Asian Australasian flyways.

Meeting on Texel

At each step I am learning more about both on the ground conservation work, and how research findings eventually weave their way into helping to shape priorities and eventually conservation policy. I hope that I can keep learning, and keep incorporating this into my own work on conservation issues. So far the biggest lesson, even in areas where we know a lot, there is still much to be done, both in terms of research and how policy reflects these findings.

Plastics and contaminants, studying the link

February 20, 2016 by jenn

The overall research objective that I find myself continually, and increasingly, drawn to is how wildlife are affected by, and deal with cumulative effects. In wildlife for example we are concerned about how contaminants may affect birds (see here for more on mercury and birds). Additionally,  for many birds we are also concerned with the impacts from the habitat destruction, increases in predation, changes in parasitism, decrease in their prey species such as fish stocks and for some species the effects of regularly ingesting plastic pollution. When a species experiences more than one, and sometimes many, of these stressors or burdens that can led to negative impacts we refer to it as cumulative effects. It is basically like a double whammy. If each of the burdens is independently causing a negative effect, when they have multiple burdens they are potentially being kicked when they are already down.

I have posted some of the work that we do with looking for ingested plastics in marine birds (here and here). To date I have mostly worked on looking for and categorizing plastics in marine birds as a way to demonstrate that plastic pollution is widespread, and birds even in the High Arctic are not immune to this type to pollution. This is just a sample of some of the plastics we find in Arctic marine birds.

Plastics from a thick-billed murre breeding in the Arctic

Plastics from a thick-billed murre breeding in the Arctic

Ingested plastics from a northern fulmar breeding in Arctic Canada

Ingested plastics from a northern fulmar breeding in Arctic Canada








We know that plastics can lead to a number of negative impacts in birds. Ingested plastics can also damage and physically obstruct a bird’s digestive tract. This can lead to reduced feeding by birds that have ingested large pieces or quantities of plastics. Studies have also shown that birds that have higher levels of plastics have slower growth rates. In some extreme cases, for example, Laysan Albatross chicks eat so much plastic as chicks that it has been suggested that many chicks simply starve before they can even really leave the nest.

With the study of plastics growing there have been several groups that are investigating the link between what I think of as micro-contaminants (i.e. chemicals) and macro-contaminants (i.e. plastics and other debris). Plastics themselves are made with a large range of chemicals, including  bisphenol B and phthalates which have been shown to have negative effects on metabolic processes. Once plastics are in the ocean they also pick up additional micro-contaminants from the water such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Marine plastic pollution has been shown to concentrate PCBs and other chemicals resulting in higher levels of these contaminants to be found on the surface of these plastics than in the water environment. So the question becomes, if there are all these contaminants on marine plastics, what happens to those when the plastic is ingested by a marine bird?

With new support announced on February 17th now we are going to be able to take our work one step further and help add to the growing number of people who are examining the link between plastics and contaminants in wildlife. Along with colleagues at Memorial University, Acadia University and Environment and Climate Change Canada we have been awarded a grant from MEOPAR (as part of a larger project) that will allow us to examine northern fulmar tissues and the plastics they ingested for plastic associated contaminants. The idea is to examine if fulmars that have higher levels of ingested plastics also have increased levels of some plastics associated contaminants.


This project is ongoing, and we are excited to now have the resources and support from MEOPAR to continue to project. The northern fulmars were collected in Lancaster Sound in 2013 and the Labrador Sea in the summer of 2015 as part of two Environment and Climate Change Canada research programs. All the birds have been dissected at the Nunavut Arctic College in Iqaluit as part of the wildlife contaminants workshop. I currently have an honours student working in our lab who is categorizing and quantifying the plastics from the fulmar stomachs. And now with the MEOPAR funding, we will be able to take this work a step further and analyse both the plastics and the fulmar tissues for plastic associated contaminants.

The team is busy currently working to bring on a MSc student to work more on the analytical side, while I hope to join the program as a Post-Doc in the fall (funding dependant), and I will be sure to post more as the project progresses.

World Seabird Conference, Cape Town – 2015

December 1, 2015 by jenn

The World Seabird Conference might be one of my favourite meetings. I get to meet with many of my all time favourite collaborators. Some who live in Canada, but funnily enough we sometimes hang out more at international conferences than we do on home turf. Also, because it is all about seabirds, there is hardly a moment to sit down as there is always likely 2 to 3 talks that I want to see all at the same time. The WSC was first held in Victoria, Canada in 2010, and now for the second time in Cape Town, South Africa in 2015.

During this year’s WSC I was involved in three sessions. First, I was a co-convenor of the Impacts of Marine Debris symposium. We had a very short window and lots of researchers who wanted to present so we opted for a series of short talks, followed by some 3 minute poster presentations. This kept things moving at a rapid speed as we tried to keep on time, and allow everyone to share their research on marine plastics and seabirds. I presented a poster on the work that we have done reviewing how much we do know about seabird and plastic interactions in on all three of Canada’s coastlines. The poster is based on this paper.

Provencher et al. Poster

Second, I was lucky enough to contribute some of the work I have done for my PhD research to the symposium on Seabirds as Indicators of Ocean Health.  My talk focused on an examination of mercury and parasites in a large sample of eider ducks that I worked with hunters in Cape Dorset to collect. I am hoping to submit this paper/chapter for review soon.  It uses path analysis to examine the direst and indirect pathways of both mercury and parasites in eider ducks. Interestingly, we found that both mercury and parasites have several shared pathways and patterns in eider ducks, complicating how the effects of these burdens can be assessed in wildlife.

S6.2 Provencher causes of Hg

Lastly, because my PhD crosses a few disciplines I also presented some of the thesis in the Host-Parasite Interactions session. For this section I presented on the experiment I have carried out on East Bay Island during 2013 and 2014. The general idea is that I manipulated female parasite load by giving half of the banded females a commonly used de-worming medication (often used by vets to de-worm dogs and cats). The question we were interested in was whether gastro-intestinal parasites affect marine bird reproduction in the wild. By removing the parasites from  some females we tested whether these anti-parasite treated birds were able to lay their eggs sooner, or lay more eggs as compared with females that were given a water placebo treatment. It is a very cool experiment, and East Bay Island is one of the few places in the world where such an experiment can be carried out. What we found is that for birds that arrive early, and often in good condition, the treatment of parasites did not make a difference to their reproduction. When we examined just the late arriving birds, those often in poorer condition, the removal of parasites did make a difference. In the late birds those given the ant-parasite treatment were more likely to stay and breed then their placebo treated counterparts. And when those late arriving anti-parasite treated birds did stay, they often only laid one egg. It was like there were just able to get up enough energy to squeeze just one out.

S11.6 Provencher et al parasites

Lots of work to be done still on these last two papers, but it is great to talk to others interested in the topic and get ideas and new perspectives on the work.

Wildlife Contaminants Workshop 2015

October 15, 2015 by jenn

2015 marks our 8th year of holding the Wildlife Contaminants Workshop (previously the Wildlife Dissection Workshop as funded by the Nasivvik Centre, née the Seabird Dissection Workshop under the Canada’s seabird International Polar Year project, and the 9th class Environmental Technology Program to take part (due to doing both the first year and second year class in all years of the workshop). The program is currently being funded by the Northern Contaminants Program, and hence why we now focus on wildlife contaminants rather than the broader health metrics and birds as indicators with which we started with.

This year we focused on seabirds (my personal favourite group) and seals (led by Derek Muir and Magali Hudon). We asked Derek if he would like to contribute after some feedback from students that it would be great to learn about seals. The workshop for many years just focused on seabirds (2007-2013), but in 2014 we added Mary Gamberg and caribou to the workshop roster with great success. The students love the hands-on aspect, and they are very interested in country food species, those that are still harvested and eaten today. This year to help with the seal dissections and learn about local traditions we also invited Glenn Williams from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI).


With some seals that we got from a  local hunter Glenn taught the students about seal adaptations to living in northern waters. He showed the students how to prepare the seals so that the skin could be used for making fur products. Lastly, he had the students help him dissect the seal’s organs and tissues, and with the help of Derek and Magali, collect tissues for contaminant analysis. The seal meat was then collected and given to the food bank program at the Nunavut Arctic College.

We also did bird dissections again this year. Every year what we do is a bit different. This year we dissected northern fulmars that had been collected in the Labrador Sea. The students were trained to take over 20 samples and metrics from the birds that will be used to study a variety of contaminants including mercury and PCBs.


We try to maximize any samples we take from these birds, so we end up taking many different things from each individual that we dissect. We are very excited to have these student dissected birds going on to be part of a project funded by MEOPAR, that will examine the links between plastics ingested and plastic-associated chemicals in bird tissues. For this project we collected a number of internal tissues as well as preening oil. We also took the stomach of the birds which will be examined for ingested plastics. The collection of both internal and external samples will allow us to test if we could do the same tests on live birds to test for plastic ingestion. We also collected feathers and blood this year for some collaborators in France who are conducting a pan-Arctic mercury study in seabirds.



With the success of this year not even dimmed we have already starting thinking about next year. My vision for the future of the workshop is that it will continue to be a platform for people working on contaminants in the north can use to communicate their research and ideas to a group of people who are themselves training to be researchers, research reviewers and communicators, technicians and many other science roles in both northern and southern Canada. I think about it as a place to communicate with future communicators and decisions makers. The Environmental Technology Program students are the people who are going on to be on management boards, conservation authorities, and science teams. These students will likely be at the forefront between the public and research as they take jobs and positions in communities around the territory and beyond. An extremely important group of students!