Scott Grindal is a wildlife biologist at ConocoPhillips.

Innovation Profile: Scott Grindal and bird migration

ConocoPhillips wildlife biologist coordinates Smithsonian partnership on research to improve migratory bird conservation.

It’s twilight in June in Western Canada. In the sky above, you can hear unique buzzing and dramatic booming sounds: the noises made from vibrating wings as shadowy figures dive and soar in breathtaking movements. These are nighthawks—insectivorous birds engaging in their ritual displays and nocturnal feeding. They’ve travelled as far as 20,000 kilometres on their round-trip between Brazilian wintering grounds to summer breeding habitat in the boreal forests of northern Canada.

This is a scene Scott Grindal has witnessed many times in his 30 years as a wildlife biologist, but it still fills him with awe. It also impresses upon him the importance of conservation research and the unique role that oil and gas producers can play in conserving wildlife and improving conditions for biodiversity in Canada.

Studying nighthawks, a species at risk

Nighthawks are a species of neotropical migrant birds. They typically spend winters in the tropical savannas and rainforests of Brazil. After an astonishing journey spanning two continents they arrive at the boreal forests of northern Alberta in the spring, where they nest and raise their young before making the long trek back south in the fall.

Understanding the migratory patterns of birds like the nighthawk, and the habitats these birds depend on along their vast trek between hemispheres, is key to conservation efforts. That’s why the prestigious Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center is leading an initiative called the Migratory Connectivity Project (MCP). The project seeks to track and study species of migratory birds across their entire life-cycle: from their summer breeding grounds in North America to their winter habitats in Central and South America, and all the places in between.

Scott Grindal is the senior environmental coordinator for biodiversity and water for ConocoPhillips Canada. He sees the Smithsonian project as a unique opportunity for the oil sands producer to assist in better understanding the ecology of a species at risk, while fulfilling its objective of developing Canada’s natural resources in a sustainable manner.

From saving the Mauritius kestrel to working in oil and gas

Grindal grew up on a farm near Strathmore, Alberta, where he developed a love of the outdoors and wildlife. As a child, he was curious about how animals lived, and how their populations were maintained. This led him to pursue a career in wildlife biology, completing degrees in ecology, biology, and endangered species management.

A key moment in Grindal’s career as a wildlife biologist occurred soon after his university studies—when he played a role in preserving the Mauritius kestrel. At one time, this was the rarest bird in the world.

Armed with a scholarship from the Wildlife Preservation Trust Canada, Grindal travelled overseas to work with endangered species. He studied and conducted conservation field work in the U.K. Channel Islands, Madagascar, and Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.

Scott Grindal is a wildlife biologist working for Canada’s oil and natural gas industry. One area of focus is understanding migratory bird routes to help in conservation efforts. Photo by Jason Dziver.

There he focused on recovering populations of endangered species, including the Mauritius kestrel. At one time, the Mauritius kestrel teetered on the verge of extinction with only four individuals remaining in the world. More than 25 years later, due to the success of a captive-breeding program and the dedication of a veritable army of wildlife biologists and ecologists (including Grindal), there are now an estimated 300-500 Mauritius kestrels in the wild.

“There was something very meaningful to me: being able to help bring those species back from the brink of extinction,” says Grindal.

After Mauritius, Scott spent 12 years as an environmental consultant, and then moved to ConocoPhillips Canada as the company’s senior environmental coordinator for biodiversity and water. When asked “Why ConocoPhillips?” when many of his biology peers favour careers in academia or conservation groups, Grindal says he wanted to work at an organization that “had the resources to make a difference, and where there was a high value put on environmental sustainability.”

“At ConocoPhillips, I have the opportunity and support from the organization to do things much more proactively to minimize impacts,” he says.

Helping to create a unique partnership

Grindal is part of the Sustainable Development team at ConocoPhillips. The team guides the company in integrating environmental management practices into every phase of its operations. The team also works with industry peers, the government, environmental NGOs, Indigenous communities, and industry associations to advocate policy change to improve outcomes for species at risk, biodiversity, and habitat conservation.

Grindal also works to identify relevant, high-value conservation opportunities. It was Grindal who brought the Smithsonian Migratory Connectivity Project (MCP) to the company’s attention. As it happens, a past colleague of Grindal’s—Dr. Pete Marra—is the founder and principal investigator for the MCP at the Smithsonian. Grindal understood the value of Dr. Marra’s work, and the potentially positive impact the research could have on bird species that nest in areas close to where oil sands producers operate.

Dr. Pete Marra (Smithsonian Institute) removing a captured nighthawk from a mistnet in Fort McMurray in June 2015. Photo by Scott Grindal.

“The project,” says Grindal, “is one of critical importance to improving the collective understanding of bird migration routes, and how we and others may impact bird populations, and the habitats they rely upon across their entire life cycle.”

The data collected through this project can enable scientists to gain a better picture of what factors and risks may be causing population declines. This can then inform conservation initiatives—both in the boreal forests of Alberta and beyond. An understanding of important habitats throughout a species migratory cycle can allow scientists to take a coordinated approach for more effective conservation.

Grindal adds, “If impacts to the studied populations are seen to be happening in Alberta’s boreal forest, we can provide guidance to the oil and gas sector, and other land users, to manage and preserve important breeding habitats.”

State of the art tracking and data collection

The partners on the MCP include the Smithsonian, the University of Alberta, ConocoPhillips and other agencies. Together, they have applied new technologies to study the migratory patterns of birds, including tagging birds with tiny satellite transmitters. The transmitters weigh just over a penny (about 3.5 grams). They are small enough to be carried by medium-sized birds like the nighthawk, yet powerful enough to regularly transmit data to satellites.

Satellite tracking tags are attached to the birds using a backpack-style harness. (The tags are recovered when birds are re-captured the next year). Photo by Janet Ng.

The MCP research is ongoing and has already yielded fascinating results. Six nighthawks were tracked from breeding home ranges in northern Albert to wintering grounds in central Brazil. One surprise is that the nighthawks were expected to migrate overland through Mexico; however, they instead migrated through Florida and Cuba, crossing the Gulf of Mexico.

It was also found that birds returned in the spring to locations very near their original home range—often within one kilometre of where they were captured and tagged the previous year.

Grindal was part of the field crew that initially caught and equipped nighthawks with the state-of-the-art transmitters. He recalls how almost 30 years ago some of his first field work was with nighthawks in southern B.C., capturing them in netting strung across a river by Okanagan Falls.

Part of the big picture

Grindal is proud of his work and the support he receives from his employer.

“At ConocoPhillips, we are demonstrating that we are doing so much more than just getting hydrocarbons out of the ground,” says Grindal. “We understand the environmental values of our stakeholders and we’re doing something about it.”

Grindal cites the MCP as a great example of what his work at ConocoPhillips is all about—engaging with industry colleagues and other stakeholders to put forward science that leads to positive environmental change.

Grindal looks forward to continued work on the project; he notes that most of the projects funded by ConocoPhillips are multi-year projects, designed to yield long-term results and benefits. He also enjoys the opportunity to connect his work to his personal and family values. Grindal and his partner Carol, who is also a wildlife biologist, have a nine-year-old daughter Chloe, who is “perhaps a wildlife biologist-to-be.” Together, the family enjoys camping trips, wildlife adventures and the synchronicity of nature.

Says Grindal, “I Iook at how all of these things in nature interact. For me, it’s not just about that bird flying away. I understand better now the complexity and effort behind that flight. A tiny songbird that weighs a few grams and takes a 20,000 kilometre journey on an annual basis is amazing to me. More and more, I appreciate how incredibly interconnected these things are.”

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Scott Grindal