Eyes on the sky

species in the oil sands reclaimed area

When COSIA member Syncrude wanted to gain better insight into local Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK) and hear directly from people who are close to the land and the environment, it formed the Reclamation Engagement Focus Group (REFG) in 2017. The group is made up of participants and traditional land users from each First Nation and Métis Local in the oil sands region. 

As a part of REFG engagement, the company hosts tours of reclaimed areas so that group members can see first-hand what’s happening on the ground. On this tour, the REFG got a closer look at the company’s wildlife monitoring program.

In June 2020, the Reclamation Engagement Focus Group (REFG) visited a reclaimed area on Syncrude’s site, called Demo Pond, where bird monitoring and tracking were underway. Each year, Syncrude hires researchers to conduct surveys as part of the Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship (MAPS) program. This continent-wide effort gathers information on bird (avian) population trends. The data helps monitor large scale, long-term changes in bird populations, and assesses both habitat quality and the responses of birds to their environment. 

The REFG group learned about the data being collected, which includes age, sex, weight and size. They also witnessed the return of a bird banded in 2017. Among the birds netted and banded on the day of the visit were three alder flycatchers, five clay-colored sparrows, one red-eyed vireo and two yellow warblers. 

While visiting the area, some community members acknowledged that species were returning to the land but wondered if there was evidence of breeding. The group then checked some of the bird boxes set up around the area and found tree swallow eggs. Inspections in previous years have also confirmed the boxes are used regularly. 

During the 2018 MAPS program, over 1,700 birds were captured and released at eight stations. This included over 1,000 birds of 47 species at six stations located on reclaimed land. Since the program began in 2011, 149 species have been detected on Syncrude’s reclaimed areas, including 31 species of concern. 

Automated audio recordings collected over the years have also detected a diversity of birds using the reclaimed areas. Further wildlife monitoring occurs at Syncrude every year and monitoring stations equipped with motion detection cameras have recorded numerous animals on reclaimed land. Over the years, this has included coyote, black bear, gray wolf, Canada lynx, moose, fisher, mink, muskrat, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, red fox, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, American marten, weasel, northern river otter, beaver and raccoon.

Did you know? Cowbirds are infamous for laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise the cowbird young alongside their own. However, the yellow warbler doesn’t give in so easily. In fact, the warbler will often then build a new nest right on top of the cowbird’s egg, preventing its incubation. Six layers of nests are not uncommon.