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Collaboration key to continuing field research during COVID-19

As the Research Scientists of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) head into another uncertain season of field work due to pandemic restrictions, we are taking a look at one collaborative research project between ECCC and the En’owkin Centre that successfully continued during the unprecedented year of 2020.

British Columbia-based ECCC Research Scientist, Christine Bishop, has collaborated with the En’owkin Centre in the Okanagan Valley in the interior of the province for the last twenty years to advance their mutual interest in the conservation of the Western Yellow-breasted Chat. Despite not being able to travel to Penticton in 2020, Christine says the strong foundation in partnership between the two organizations, combined with an adaptive field work protocol, empowered the En’owkin Centre to continue the research project. “When you have a long-term database, you might think one year is just another dot on the graph,” she says. “But it’s actually really important, when you are talking about wildlife populations, to be able to track them from one year to the next because things can change a lot between years.”

A charismatic little bird, the Yellow-breasted Chat attracts researchers and birders alike. The bird doesn’t sing so much as ‘chat’ in many forms, earning its name. Known to put on entertaining flight displays, chats can be elusive, nesting in dense thickets like wild rose. In 2001, the Yellow-breasted Chat was listed as an Endangered Species. “As a research scientist, my interest is factors that affect Species at Risk,” Christine says. “In terms of why they declined and what can we do to recover the population.”

When the research project began, there were only 25 known breeding pairs of chats in the Okanagan Valley, with only one pair detected on the En’owkin Centre’s ECOmmunity Place Locatee Lands – a complex of protected areas established on a portion of the Penticton Indian Band Reserve. Survival of the chats critically depends on the protection and restoration of riparian habitats, which are shoreline vegetation bordering lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands, where chats like to nest. Over the past 20 years, habitat protection and restoration activities informed by ECCC’s collaborative research has helped to significantly increase the Okanagan chat population that is now estimated to be at least 254 pairs. At least 22 of those pairs are now consistently breeding on the ECOmmunity Place Locatee Lands. “This collaboration has been incredibly successful,” says Conservation Ecologist, Michael Bezener. He emphasizes that the Species at Risk recovery work at the En’owkin Centre – an Indigenous-led non-profit charitable organization – includes both western science and Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge. “That combined set of perspectives, priorities, protocols and practices really informs the way we go about our work.”

“I’m First Nations, so I come from that background,” says, Ecology Technician, Taylor Lezard. She spent the summer waking up with the birds to moni tor the chat population. “In working with Michael, I get to learn all the Western Science. So that’s really nice combining those two,” she says. 2020 was Taylor’s first year working on the chat research project. “I switched my whole career path to dive into protecting the land and the animals. It’s where my heart truly is.”

In a typical year, Kristina Hick, a wildlife research technician who worked on Christine’s team, would travel from Vancouver to work alongside the En’owkin Centre team for a month in the field. In 2020, she found herself coordinating equipment shipments and spending time on video and phone calls instead. “These birds are not the easiest to research,” says Kristina. “They often nest in habitat with poison ivy that is taller than you. In addition, it is hotter than 30 degrees, so you are sweating in your protective clothing. There are definitely challenges! It just shows how passionate and excited about this research the En’owkin Centre is to still continue.”

From May through July, Michael and Taylor worked with a few vital volunteers to ensure there would not be data gaps for 2020 while respecting and adapting to all recommended COVID-19 prevention measures. “We travelled to location in separate vehicles and maintained physical distancing. We each used our own set of equipment so we weren’t sharing back and forth,” and Michael adds with a chuckle that hand sanitizer and masks became essential components of their field equipment kits.

Not knowing what the spring of 2021 will have in store, Christine knows this research project will continue even if travel restrictions and physical distancing protocols stay in place. “One of the many great aspects of working with the En’owkin Centre is that they understand the progress we have made in the last twenty years and despite pandemics, despite whatever happens, they will continue doing this work year-to-year. We know that in this partnership, they are committed to be there, too.”

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