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Vol. 2, No. 2

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Wildlife biologist Peter Hicklin
Unearthing evidence that mud matters

Sackville, New Brunswick Image: Peter HicklinA career built on mud. Barefoot commutes through knee-deep mud. Ending a day of work covered in mud, when "freshening up" means dumping buckets of water over your head. "From June to September [each year] I lived on the mud flats," says wildlife biologist Peter Hicklin, a 20-year veteran of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).

Hicklin has spent those seasons studying the two- to two-and-a-half million semipalmated sandpipers that migrate to the Upper Bay of Fundy from Alaska and Labrador each year. There, they feed voraciously for several days on tiny mud shrimp called Corophium, doubling their weight in preparation for their 7,400-mile/4,600-kilometer flight to South America.

Hicklin says a consuming curiosity about the unknown drove him to uncover information about the shorebirds, and about the Fundy mud flats, once thought too dangerous to explore for fear it had the same qualities as quick sand. "The true pleasure to me is the pleasure of discovery in a most fascinating ecosystem. Much of what we know in the Bay we've learned in the last 20 years but we're just starting. Almost every day there's something new that comes up," he says.

Hicklin began embracing new situations early. An Acadian from northern New Brunswick, Hicklin arrived at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick in 1969 speaking only French. To "get a firm grasp" on English, he pursued his first undergraduate degree in contemporary French Literature, combining both languages in his study. He earned his next degree, in biology, at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, writing his honors thesis on seabirds of arctic Canada in Davis Strait around Baffin Island.

But the mud flats of the Upper Bay of Fundy beckoned to Hicklin in 1977 when he began working as an assistant to Richard Elliot, an Acadia University graduate student and later, colleague, friend, and now his supervisor at the CWS.

Muddy issues

Image: Semipalmated sandpiperAs Hicklin and Elliot studied the sandpipers' roosting behavior in fields and beaches along the upper Bay of Fundy shoreline, they limited their daily observation time to only the couple of hours around high tide, and they avoided the mud flats altogether.

"Everybody thought then that you'd sink and you'd never come up again," Hicklin recalls. But his curiosity eventually overtook him. Says Elliot, "He was the first one to really get his feet muddy. You go up to your ankles and even up to your knees trying to walk in the stuff." But slogging through the sediment in bare feet and shorts proved to be the best way to traverse the gooey terrain, Hicklin found. He learned soon enough that the flats were not, in fact, full of sinkholes waiting to swallow up hapless scientists. But he was sucked in, nevertheless intrigued by the enigmatic ecosystem. He decided to make it the subject of his master's degree work at Acadia University.

When CWS asked Hicklin to project the potential effects on the sandpipers of a proposal to dam the Bay of Fundy and build turbines to provide electrical power to all of Atlantic Canada, he says, "I made it very clear it would have a significant impact." A dam would have altered the sediments in the Bay, affecting the Corophium on which the birds feed. Also, said Hicklin, "The bay is one big bowl of red mud," and its sediments would have blocked the turbines completely. Hicklin was later offered a position at CWS where he continued his research.

Spending most of every summer in the field, Hicklin observed the semipalmated sandpipers and banded them (22,744 in all) so they can be tracked to see how environmental changes are affecting the birds and their use of habitat. Most of the banded birds were also tagged with a leg-flag to identify them as Fundy shorebirds. Later sightings at their wintering grounds in Surinam (Dutch Guyana) on the northeast coast of South America, and on a spring migration through the Great Plains, confirmed their circular migration pattern for the first time.

"Everything I was doing was new. It was intense and exciting," says Hicklin. Elliot clearly recalls him sitting, like a misplaced vacationer, in a lawn chair he'd haul out to the flats, looking through a telescope at the sandpipers foraging close by. "The birds will come within 10 to 15 feet [three to five meters] if you're very still," Elliot says. On other occasions, Hicklin and his field crew would return from the flats encased in mud, having spent the day collecting sediment samples with a coring device. Elliot remembers photos of them. "All you can see is eyes."

Now, field research on sandpipers has expanded, and two hemispheric reserves have been established for the species one in the Bay of Fundy, and one in Surinam. With so much other research going on in the field, "I don't need to be there 24 hours a day," Hicklin says.

Visionary Award winner

Last winter, the Gulf of Maine Council presented Hicklin with a Visionary Award in recognition of his efforts on behalf of the ecology of the Upper Bay of Fundy. Pleased and surprised by the praise, Hicklin also credited long-time residents along the Fundy shoreline with playing a valuable role in his research by sharing their observations about changes they see taking place in the environment.

Hicklin hopes to arrange forums where farmers, naturalists, clam diggers, fishermen, and others who have lived and worked around the upper Bay of Fundy can discuss changes in landscape. "Those are observations that are very valuable. It gives us an idea of where to focus," he says.

These days, Hicklin is mired in paper more often than mud, spending most of his time in the office compiling his research on sandpipers, and setting up research plans for white-winged, surf, and black scotors. These sea ducks stop in the Bay of Fundy to fuel up during their spring migration south and fall migration north. All three populations are declining, and scientists don't know why, he says, noting that the US and Canada are about to undertake a new joint venture to study and protect the birds.

Tiny shrimp plays big role

Image: Semipalmated sandpipers visit the Bay of Fundy's mud flats each summer where they feed on corophium   tiny mud shrimp   before making the long trip to South America for the winter.Though Hicklin no longer spends most of his time in the field, he continues to be fascinated by Corophium and its important role in the region's ecosystem. The mud shrimp provide summer feeding for 95 percent of the world's population of semipalmated sandpipers. Additionally, the shrimp that the sandpipers don't eat decompose and the resulting nutrients enter the bay, supplying the whole food web, says Hicklin.

Corophium also help stabilize the mud flats. As they tunnel through them, they enable oxygen to enter the sediments. This provides a hospitable environment for single-celled algae, or diatoms, that grow between the mud particles and produce an organic chemical that binds the grains together, creating a firm mud flat in which the Corophium can live. "A lot of it [the sediment] would be kept in suspension in the tides if not for the algae," Hicklin explains. The algae also serves as a food supply for the mud shrimp. Hicklin finds the structure exquisite. "It all works so well together nature is such a fascinating system. It works a lot better than we do."