The Saint John River floodplain winds through New Brunswick like a snake, creating a lush valley perfect for farming, boating, hiking, and home to a diversity of wildlife. High in the trees near the water’s edge, for example, waterfowl species like the colourful wood duck, common goldeneye and hooded merganser can be found.
University of New Brunswick graduate student Heidi Harding and her field assistants have spent a lot of time trudging through this abundant landscape, looking for these birds and their nests. As part of a research project, which she’s undertaking in partnership with DUC, and with support from Wildlife Habitat Canada, she’s trying to determine how many natural cavities exist on the floodplain and how well they’re used as nests. She’s also tracking the use of constructed nest-boxes, which have been installed and managed over the past three and a half decades by DUC nest box stewards.
Harding and DUC are hoping this research will indicate how waterfowl are being affected by development and other land-use practices in the floodplain, and what kind of impact the stewardship program is having on these tree-nesting species. This project is part of a larger conservation project DUC is undertaking in the Saint John River floodplain to make sure critical wetland areas remain on the landscape for wildlife like the wood duck, goldeneye and hooded merganser. Over the next 10 years, we’ll be restoring 2,000 hectares of wetland habitat here.
“There’s been a lot of development along the shore of the Saint John River, and forestry closer to the headwaters,” says Harding. “But so many wildlife species are dependent on the landscape features we’re altering. I want to figure out how we mitigate that impact.”
Original DUC nest box volunteer key to research
From May through August of 2019, Harding and her field assistants walked around the floodplain with binoculars, looking for clues. Once they found a natural tree cavity, they used a camera attached to the end of a telescopic pole to spy inside, checking for signs that a duck had nested there in the spring. Was there a female in it? Were there eggs? Were there eggshells? It’s tedious work, but they had an easier time finding the human-made nest-boxes, thanks to a long-time DUC volunteer.
Bill Cooper was one of DUC’s original nest-box volunteers. An avid waterfowler and long-time supporter, he’s been installing nest boxes on the floodplain in the Queenstown, N.B. area since DUC first launched the program in the 1980s. Each spring when the river valley is flooded with water from melted snow, Cooper gets into his boat and installs the boxes high in the trees. It took about five years to see results after the program first started, but eventually, birds started to use the boxes in droves.
“Bill has been amazing,” says Harding. “He’s been collecting data since the 1980s and gave us this massive binder of information,” she says.
In 1984, DUC staff gave Cooper 15 or 20 nest boxes to start out, and he ended up managing more than 500 at the height of his tenure. “The more I did, the more I enjoyed it,” he says. He still maintains and monitors 150 boxes in places like Hog Island, Upper and Lower Musquash Islands, and Long Island.
Last summer, Cooper even spent some time in the field with Harding and her team, showing them where his nest boxes were, and which ones were being used. And Harding’s using new mapping software to update Cooper’s data, and the locations of nest boxes installed by other volunteers. That kind of knowledge sharing is invaluable to long-term conservation.
There’s been a lot of development along the shore of the Saint John River....But so many wildlife species are dependent on the landscape features we’re altering. I want to figure out how we mitigate that impact.
Research will help guide future development and wetland conservation decisions in New Brunswick
In Harding’s first year of research, she and her team found 44 natural cavities and monitored 88 nest boxes. Not one natural cavity had been occupied by a duck that year, but 57 per cent of the constructed nest boxes were being used. In 2020, Harding and her team explored more remote backwaters and creeks to see how waterfowl are using natural cavities and nest boxes there.
“The focus of my project has moved towards looking at the habitat characteristics influencing which nest boxes are used versus unused, so we can hopefully determine where it would be best to place nest boxes in the future. I’ll also be looking at what impact nest boxes have on the populations within the regions,” says Harding.
This work could not only guide future development and wetland conservation decisions in New Brunswick, it will help DUC understand the full impact of its 35-year nest-box stewardship program.
“I’m very interested in how humans and wildlife interact in places where there’s overlap,” says Harding. “How can we live together better?”