From nest to the skies

Wildlife Ecologist Susan Ellis-Felege presents her research at latest Faculty Lecture—showing science at its most active

Debbie Storrs, Susan Ellis-Felege and Mark Kennedy

UND Wildlife Ecologist Susan Ellis-Felege (middle) receives a special certificate for her part as a presenter in the 2017-18 University Faculty Lecture Series. She is joined in the photo by College of Arts & Sciences’ Dean Debbie Storrs and UND President Mark Kennedy. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Her refusal to stay put at the podium spoke to her character as a researcher and educator — active.

“My father worked part time as a conservation officer… a job he ended up doing for about 45 years,” said Susan Ellis-Felege, a faculty member in the UND Biology Department and the latest scholar to present as part of the prestigious University Faculty Lecture Series. “My mom: a teacher. If you look at me, you might argue this apple did not fall far from the tree.”

At 13, Ellis-Felege knew she wanted to be a waterfowl ecologist, specifically. She’s currently an associate professor of wildlife ecology and management. Her passion for waterfowl remains.

About 70 people filled the North Dakota Museum of Art on Wednesday to hear her lecture, the second of the 2017-18 season. In it, Ellis-Felege focused on using camera technology to advance wildlife ecology and to mentor the next generation.

Susan Ellis-Felege

As the latest presenter for the University Faculty Lecture Series, Ellis-Felege offered a glimpse into her waterfowl research. Her focus: avian nesting behaviors, predation and human impacts on both, all observed through varying imaging technologies. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

The right tools

The presentation offered a glimpse into the world of waterfowl research, specifically avian nesting behaviors, predation and human impacts on both — all observed through varying imaging technologies.

Her work has taken her and her students from western North Dakota to the Arctic regions of northern Manitoba, using everything from slightly modified security cameras to drone-mounted image sensors.

While the amount of available technologies are ever-increasing, Ellis-Felege stresses, good science starts with good questions. She likened researchers rushing to buy cheap drones and cameras to running around with a hammer, looking for a nail.

“What I really encourage folks to stop and think about is, ‘Is this actually a tool for you? What are you trying to accomplish?'” She added, “If you want to accomplish something, you can do almost anything you want with [drones], but you have to think about what sensor and what platform you actually need.”

Drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), are a tool, she said, and like all tools, they have their appropriate applications.

Her effectiveness with these tools can lead to success in the field, results that can improve management of the region’s wildlife resources, including threatened and endangered species.

Susan Ellis-Felege

While the amount of available technologies are ever-increasing, Ellis-Felege stresses good science starts with good questions. UND archival image.

Outreach and partnerships

In an effort to get younger leaders in action involved in a competitive field, Ellis-Felege has worked with Ducks Unlimited and the UND College of Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Creativity Fund to create a new project known as “Real Duck Tails,” where students earn valuable field experience conducting scientific research on ducks.

The program has received widespread media attention, won many awards and gets thousands of hits on YouTube.

It’s also spawned cooperation between colleges and departments on the UND campus. Ellis-Felege, with the aid of Assistant Professor of Communication Sarah Cavanah, recruits undergraduates from the UND Communication Department, part of the College of Arts & Sciences, to help tell the story. These students blog, post on social media and film events.

“It’s not only teaching wildlife ecology; it’s not only that I have this awesome opportunity to work with students; I also get to do outreach,” Ellis-Felege said. “My students get to do outreach.”

Ellis-Felege also has struck up a partnership with UND Associate Professor Travis Desell, in the Department of Computer Science, now part of the College of Engineering & Mines, to help process thousands of hours of footage her wildlife research generates. This collaboration, with support from the National Science Foundation, is helping transform raw data into observable, annotated video.

“We’ve come a long way in this journey; there’s a long way to go,” she said.

Words of praise

UND College of Arts and Sciences Dean Debbie Storrs, before the lecture, praised Ellis-Felege for her work branching between colleges, disciplines and non-profits in providing opportunities for students. Pulling from emails and texts between them, Storrs also expressed Ellis-Felege’s “unwavering support of students, her love for search and discovery, her engagement with the community and her support of others.”

Following the lecture, Ellis-Felege received a special certificate for her contribution to the Faculty Lecture Series and some words of praise from UND President Mark Kennedy.

“What a wonderful example of what the university is built on,” Kennedy said. “It’s built on professors who have a passion for their students that are doing research, and that are involving students in their research at the undergraduate and graduate level.”