Friday, October 14, 2022

Can audio attract rails to habitat? A fieldwork reflection

By Dustin Brewer, Graduate Student Fellow

Dustin Brewer, wearing a hat and jacket, standing in front of a canoe on the waters of a foggy marsh

Can rails, a group of marsh birds, be attracted to appropriate Great Lakes coastal wetland habitat during spring migration by speakers that are broadcasting rail calls? That is the research question that I’ve been focusing on as a MISG Graduate Research Fellow. Now that the 2022 field season is over, I’m preparing to do my best to answer this question by analyzing data that I’ve collected in the field.
When I don’t tell myself to slow down, often I find myself moving forward to the next goal and forgetting what got me to where I am. For example, I might become laser-focused on completing steps needed to publish a scientific article after I’ve done the hard work of designing an experiment and collecting data. However, I’ve decided to take the time to reflect upon some initial field experiences that led to my current point of this research project. It has been an adventure!

My goal was to get audio playback equipment set up in the marsh before the rails were migrating north this spring. That way, the nightly audio playback would be ready for them when they arrived from the south during their nocturnal migration. So, that meant that I had to get myself and the equipment out into the icy marsh in March (which I thought of as "marsh madness!").

Luckily, my dad offered his skills and designed a platform system for the audio gear which could easily be assembled and disassembled:

A black cart sits in the back of a truck full of tools for marsh fieldwork

So, I was able to cut my way through the ice in a canoe and then assemble the platform for the audio gear in the marsh. Here is what an assembled platform, in the marsh, looks like:

A small green platform on metal legs sits among snow and ice in a wintery marsh

I got some of these platforms set up on March 17, well before I expected the first rails to arrive. This allowed me to test them out and to make sure that the ice wouldn’t shift and break the platforms, etc. I also expected that there could be spring flooding. However, I didn’t expect that the flooding would be as extreme as it was! This is what I saw on March 25 when I was trying to access one of my field sites:

A road flooded with water and ice, blocking a vehicle's access to surrounding marshlands

So, for the day, I didn’t access that site. I drove to a nearby site and went out into the marsh and set up some more platforms as well as a couple autonomous recording units (ARUs). My plan was that by having these recording devices deployed, I’d be able to better pinpoint when the rails arrived. When I came back the next week, I was shocked to see that the already-high water had risen another 2 feet! As you can see in this picture, my platforms were submerged and my ARUs narrowly avoided inundation.

A small green platform sits just below the water, visible next to a green canoe on the surface of a marsh

For me, this was an important lesson about how dynamic wetlands are. Water levels can change fast. And year-to-year conditions are often different, which could be one reason that rails might need to pay attention to the calls of other rails when trying to find appropriate habitat (which there isn’t much of anymore) in a given spring. With my understanding of water level fluctuations better established, and some new sites chosen, I set up my audio playback gear on the platforms and (I think) succeeded at getting the calls going before the rails began arriving. Here is a playback station with the speaker, timer, and battery in a secure plastic tote:

A small green platform stands in a marsh with a clear plastic tote on top of it, which is full of recording and broadcasting equipment

For the rest of the field season, everything was more or less "smooth railing." Every week I arrived to my study sites before sunrise and then got to spend a morning with the birds. I hope that my time in the field will help determine if more rails occurred near the audio playback stations compared to sites where nightly audio playback didn’t occur. If so, that could indicate that audio playback might be a helpful tool for guiding rails to appropriate habitat. I look forward to finding out! 

If you are interested in learning more about this research, and don’t want to wait for the scientific article that I’m working on, you can check out this story by Interlochen Public Radio: Thin As A Rail | Interlochen Public Radio.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Adventures in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

By Cassidy Beach, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Intern (learn more about Michigan Sea Grant's summer internship program)

This summer I began my internship with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (TBNMS), a partner of Michigan Sea Grant. The sanctuary is located in northwestern Lake Huron and aims to protect a nationally significant collection of nearly 100 historic shipwrecks in Lake Huron. Through research, education, and community involvement, the sanctuary works to ensure future generations can enjoy these underwater treasures. TBNMS also facilitates other sciences to study climate change, invasive species, lake biology, geology and water quality.

Map of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Shipwrecks. Credit: TBNMS

Over the past few years I have really gotten to know the wonderful staff at the sanctuary. Two summers ago, I received my Open Water Dive certification with Stephanie Gandulla, who is now my research mentor here. She welcomed me like family into the sanctuary’s crew and now I get to play an important role here. Stephanie, the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL) and I are working on the first ever acidification research in the Great Lakes! When I heard about the importance of this project, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. What makes this internship even more special is that we are researching and teaching the public about a very pressing topic right in my hometown!

Acidification has been known to occur in the ocean and now we are beginning to research it in the Great Lakes. The process begins with an excess of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere from burning fossil fuels and large scale forest fires mainly. Over time, carbon dioxide is absorbed by oceans and lakes. It reacts with water to create carbonic acid which is known to be harmful in these ecosystems. It can promote the growth of harmful algal blooms which oftentimes block oxygen and sunlight from reaching deeper waters. Organisms below need these sources of nutrients to survive. Acidification can make it difficult for fish to grow, reproduce and metabolize. Carbonic acid also eats away at shells and makes calcium carbonate less available to organisms that need it to build shells and skeletons. This means they become thinner and more brittle. This is clearly an issue happening around all of us! An important thing to know is that you can make a difference by advocating for renewable energy sources, promoting public transportation and carpool options, shopping locally and many other things! If you're interested in learning about more ways to combat climate change and ocean/freshwater acidification feel free to contact me at!

This topic is very important to all of us here at TBNMS so we were ecstatic to start this project. Typically, we go on the research vessel every week to collect water samples. The dive team at TBNMS is taking samples at depth and I am in charge of sampling the surface waters. To do so, I am using a peristaltic pump to squeeze bubbles out of the water and an instrument called a YSI (Yellow Springs Instruments- digital sampling instrument) to collect data on temperature, depth and salinity of the water. Three samples are collected at the surface each time: one to measure total carbon, one to measure dissolved organic carbon and one to measure total alkalinity, which is the water’s capacity to resist acidic changes in pH. After we finish the sampling process we send them to GLERL [NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory] in Ann Arbor for Dr. Reagan Errera to analyze for important water chemistry indicators.

Stephanie (left) and Cassidy (right) collecting water samples on a research vessel. Credit: NOAA

RV Storm docked in front of the offices of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Credit: NOAA

This project really has been a great experience thus far. We are really trying to engage our community in the science behind this project. We have a station at the TBNMS visitor center set up for me to talk to the public about freshwater acidification and how it works. We will create a social media campaign and a one pager for more people to join in and learn about it as well! Overall, this project has been very rewarding and it has only been a month since I’ve started! I have experienced so many new things: working on a glass bottom boat, educating tourists and locals about climate change, meeting Viking Cruise passengers, participating in a news interview and most importantly working with scientists!

Cassidy educating visitors about freshwater acidification. Credit: Caleb O'brien