Savannahs on the plains

Researcher profile: Bridget Antze

U of M Natural Resource Institute master’s candidate Bridgette Antze has birds on the brain – savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) in particular.

The savannah sparrow is a ubiquitous North American migratory songbird species, with breeding ranges extending into Canada’s high north. During the breeding season, these birds primarily subsist on insects; on their winter range, seeds become the staple dietary item. A variety of regionally specific savannah sparrow subspecies exist, each with slight differences in dialect and plumage colouration. Though variations do occur, common distinctive features include a dash of yellow colour running before and above the eye, and an insect-like song that sounds like “tickety-zee-zay or “take-take-take-it-eeasy.

“I am interested in whether noise produced by oil infrastructure masks or otherwise interferes with alarm calls that savannah sparrows use to communicate threats close to their nests,” Antze tells the Gradzette.

“There is increasing evidence that anthropogenic [human produced] noise can be harmful to birds and other wildlife; however, the mechanisms by which noise threaten wildlife are not entirely clear. My research is helpful in that it directly tests one mechanism [oil infrastructure] by which noise may affect birds.”

Antze has been developing skills as a wildlife professional since the age of 17; spending a summer as an Ontario Parks’ ranger; volunteering with a Costa Rican leatherback sea turtle recovery program for a time; working for five summers as a naturalist in Killarney Provincial Park, Ontario; participating in a research project studying acorn woodpeckers in California; and completing her undergraduate thesis research at Dalhousie University on grooming behaviours of buton macaques in Sulawasi, Indonesia.

Although that diverse track record looks to be comparatively light on ornithological (bird) experience, Antze is an avid birder and has also spent the last two summers working with birds in Alberta’s grassland region under Nicola Koper, her U of M master’s supervisor and authority figure in the landscape ecology and conservation of songbirds and prairie ecosystems.

Birds are generally regarded as practical model species in the field of ecology for several key reasons.

“They are abundant, widespread, environmentally sensitive, and behaviourally interesting,” notes Antze. “Grassland songbirds are particularly important to study from a conservation perspective, because as a group they are declining at a faster rate than songbirds of any other ecosystem in North America.”

Antze’s study sites are scattered about Southeast Alberta’s badlands: specifically, her field research takes place at oil extraction areas, with industry-associated noise presence, located in the mixed-grass prairies of Brooks, Alta.

The homogeny of light beige grasses provides camouflage for a great many, equally inconspicuously coloured, prairie-nesting songbirds, making them hard to place in the field. Well hidden they may be, in two-person teams, researchers like Antze ably drag sections of taut rope along the grassy ground. It’s a crude, if not effective, approach: upon the rope brushing over top of nests, the incubating parent flees in a start, exposing the nest’s location. From there on, Antze and her field technicians monitor the nests’ brood.

“Once the nestlings have hatched, I conduct playback experiments, in which I play [prerecorded] alarm calls close to savannah sparrow nests, and measure the responses of parent birds,” says Antze. “This allows me to determine whether birds react differently to alarm calls in noisier areas.”

Alarm calls are those vocalizations uttered when, for example, a potential predator is detected somewhere in the general vicinity.

“I also record alarm calls of parent birds, to determine whether they change the amplitude or structure of their calls in noisier areas, to compensate for noise interference.”

Studying grassland birds comes with its own set of logistical challenges unfamiliar to the garden-variety laboratory-bound scientist. Fickle weather conditions are forever threatening to compromise the ability of seasonal researchers like Antze to conduct observational surveys in the field.

“Weather can be unpredictable out on the prairies, and there’s nothing scarier than being stuck out in the middle of a field when a storm is approaching,” says Antze. “To make matters worse, the dirt roads around my field sites turn to mud when it rains, making them inaccessible. It only took getting a truck stuck once to learn that lesson!”

That being said, Antze reflects that it is the conditions and time spent outdoors doing fieldwork alongside interesting coworkers that makes her graduate school program worthwhile. The time commitment, workload, and “challenge of maintaining a good work/life balance” during grad school are things she is unlikely to miss upon completion, however, as she is enthusiastically looking forward to getting into the workforce.

“I’d like to work for government or an NGO, in a parks/resource management type setting. My ideal position would allow me to maintain some creative control over my research, but would also allow me to conduct research that influences policy. I’m not ruling out the possibility of a PhD eventually, but I’d like to get a career established with the education I have first.”

This article was originally published in the Gradzette.