Hello, anybody home?

If you know anything about me, you know that I love long term environmental data sets. They are necessary to track patterns and changes in these patterns over time. This is especially important in terms of conservation for monitoring population numbers. It is so exciting to contribute to the “history” of studies.

Part of the deal of going to do field work in Haida Gwaii with a seabird researcher who had spent many field seasons in the area (I would have found 0 Cassin’s auklets without him), was to help him with his long term seabird occupancy surveys. Of course I said yes, I was looking for any excuse to stay there longer!

After spending time on the east coast of the Haida Gwaii archipelago to find Cassin’s auklets for my project, we set sail (on a real sail boat) for the west coast. After roughing it in tents, it was a treat to be able to stay on the boat and have the waves rock us to sleep! (Also a bonus to have someone else cook for us). Besides going around the archipelago in the north or the south, the quickest route to the other side is through the Burnaby Narrows, a 50m wide waterway separating the two big islands of the archipelago. We had to time our departure perfectly, in order for the boat to make it through the Narrows before the tide was too low. The intertidal zones were full of life, including kelp dancing with the waves and sea stars covering the rocks. Luckily we beat the tide and arrived in Englefield Bay, where we spent the next week conducting seabird occupancy surveys on the small islands in the area.

Travelling by boat through the shallow Burnaby Narrows

Travelling with the tide through the shallow Burnaby Narrows.

Our living quarters aboard the Anvil Cove sail boat in Englefield Bay

Our living quarters aboard the Anvil Cove sail boat in Englefield Bay.

The occupancy surveys were conducted across transects that had been used three times since 1986 for the same surveys. Conducting surveys along the same transects in multiple years allows for comparison between years to track any changes that occur. The surveys started with me sitting at the very edge of the cliff (don’t tell Health and Safety) as the researcher climbed up with the yellow measuring tape trailing behind him to the other side of a plot. Although the plots were only 5m by 5m, due to the dense vegetation and fallen logs, he would disappear up the rugged and slippery terrain with the measuring tape as my only life line.

Setting up the occupancy plots by rolling the yellow measuring tape.

Can you see him?? Hint: he is wearing yellow rain pants!

Once the perimeter of the plot was set up, we would check for signs of burrow occupancy by seabirds within the plot. This included sticking my hand in holes in the ground to check if chicks or eggs were inside (luckily there was never anything unexpected in them -as much as I like snakes, I think I would be very startled if I touched a snake in the hole!). We also used our sense of smell to detect the not so nice smell of the seabird “latrine” that many species leave at the entrance to their burrows. We would then repeat this survey for plots every 30m along the transect to the other side of the island. The first occupied burrow I found contained a fork-tailed storm-petrel. This was super exciting for me as I did my fourth year Honours project on this species but had never seen one in the wild (my field work for that project consisted of traveling to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto -still exciting but less outdoors!).

Fork-tailed storm-petrel in a burrow in the dirt

Peekabo with a fork-tailed storm-petrel.

In addition to burrow occupancy, we noted any feathers or pieces of egg shell that would indicate a bird had been there at some point. Many times we would find raccoon scat near a pile of feathers or cracked egg shell. Predation by raccoons has been very detrimental to the seabird populations in this area. Repeating surveys along the same transects can give us an idea of occupancy over time. Based on the 4 repeated surveys, there appears to have been a decrease of over 50% in the number of occupied burrows since 1986.

Although the addition of this season’s data with not many seabirds “home” in their burrows does not paint a pretty picture, it was a great experience to be part of a long term survey that can influence real conservation decisions.

Early morning  fog over islands in Englefield Bay.

Early morning in Englefield Bay.

Dispatch from the jungle

This week, Dispatches from the field welcomes guest poster Dr. Alice Boyle, who tells us about some of her adventures doing fieldwork for her dissertation in Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, see her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month during that year I worked for a week at each of three different sites spanning an elevational gradient from lowland to premontane forest. Only at the low elevation site did I have email and phone access. I was assisted by 1 to 4 volunteers, and we would work very hard for 23 days straight, after which they had a week off. While my assistants were visiting beaches and volcanos, I enjoyed some downtime and prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family; my father has always maintained that I ought to publish those letters. Here I offer some excerpts from the early April letter.

The view up, La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

The view up, La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

“Dear family. Greetings from the jungle! Once again I have a few days to catch up on what, for normal people, would be every-day tasks. The biggest news this month is that the kind people of the USA will fund my research for the rest of the year![1] I can hardly tell you have what a relief it is. A few days before leaving La Selva last month, a friend heard that his proposal had been funded. Because I hadn’t heard anything, I feared the worst. The dread of receiving bad news weighed upon me for two weeks. But March 31 was a happy day. Not only did I receive the good funding news, but when we arrived in San José later that afternoon, Jenny[2] was reunited with her boyfriend Mark after 3 months apart. The four of us went out for a celebratory fancy dinner, well lubricated with wine. The following morning Kyle headed off to Nicaragua for a few days and Jenny and Mark went to climb Chirripó. I spent 2 days in San José taking care of such exciting tasks as picking up 180 infertile canary eggs, replacing my rubber boots (after 4 years of hard use), and trying to figure out how to tell all the species of Melastomataceae apart at my study sites at the INBio herbarium.

I always enjoy these days at La Selva by myself. Inevitably, I work. But I get things organized which makes me feel more in control the rest of the month. I also get to do things at precisely the pace I choose, which is usually fairly leisurely. Today after lunch, the natural history guides told me that there was an Agami heron less than 1/2 a km from the station. I strolled down the trail and found this spectacular bird beside a small footbridge. The Agami heron is among the more secretive of the Central American herons, stalking around forested sloughs and backwaters. Its steely blue-and-maroon feathers are set off by a handsome silvery-blue filigree on its crown and neck. This individual was sublimely uninterested in my presence, focusing entirely on spearing hapless invertebrates with its needle-like bill.

Rara Avis waterfall in flood

Rara Avis waterfall in flood

This month had some ups and downs. We were fairly lucky with the weather, at least. What is “iffy” weather in the lowlands can be truly nasty up at Rara Avis. As an indication of what NASTY means, let me tell you that in an average March, Rara Avis receives ~ 400 mm of rain—one of the drier months at that site. By March 17th this year, >600 mm (more than half a meter) of rain had fallen! But we soon after we got up there, the rain tapered off. Among the ‘downs’, José (my Costa Rican assistant) killed a harmless snake. He mistook a non-venomous snake for a Fer-de-lance, and believing himself to be in serious danger, he broke the snake’s neck with a stick. Coming as it did, midway through the third week of working long and hard every day, everyone was shaken by the incident.

You may be wondering why I need 180 infertile canary eggs. I actually need 400 canary eggs! During May I have an artificial nest predation experiment planned. In addition to doing all our other sampling, we will spend the first week of May placing 50 artificial bird nests at each of 8 different sites at different elevations spanning the entire elevational gradient of Braulio Carrillo park and surrounding private reserves. Then, while one team continues the monitoring of bird, fruit and arthropod abundances at each of our regular sites, another team will re-visit the nest sites every week to monitor “predation” rates on the eggs. The idea is to establish if elevational gradients in predation risk could explain why birds migrate altitudinally[3].

This nest predation study is a planning nightmare. The fact that I was only picking up 180 canary eggs this week is one of my ongoing concerns. I was assured by a remarkable canary breeder in the Central Valley that obtaining 500 would be no problem. However, I think he got tired of setting eggs aside for me. Now that I’ve cleared his fridge of the first 180 and reinforced the idea that I REALLY DO need a lot more, I’m hoping he’ll be more consistent in saving the infertile eggs from his 600 females during the next month. My most recent challenge was to find a vehicle to rent for a month at a reasonable price. The hire companies gave me outrageous quotes. As with everything in Costa Rica, the solution to this problem came through personal contacts. When visiting INBio I asked around for a 4×4 to rent. Sure enough, someone has an old gas-guzzler he’s trying to sell and is willing to rent me for a fraction of the price the hire companies quoted. I’m just hoping I can pull all the other threads together as smoothly![4]

[1] I was very fortunate to be awarded an NSF-DDIG. Good thing too, because I embarked on a 12 mo field season with funds for only 4 mo!

[2] Names changed

[3] The nest predation study was eventually published in Oecologia. It and my other papers are available on my website.

[4] Spoiler alert… some of the other threads came spectacularly unwoven before it was all over! If I am invited for a second blog post here, I will continue the story.

Alice in action, banding birds in Costa Rica

Alice in action, banding birds in Costa Rica

Alice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past 2 years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.

First star to the right and straight on past morning

The early morning sun is just beginning to appear as a hazy disk through the blanket of fog as we make our way along the beach.  To our right, visible only in eerie glimpses through the tendrils of mist, marches an endless line of dunes.  To our left, the ocean murmurs against the sand of the beach.  Today, for once, the wind is calm and the ocean is lazy – as is everything else on the beach.  No cries come from the terns and gulls I know are somewhere above, circling in the fog.  Even the occasional clumps of seals are silent and still; only a few lift their heads sleepily as we pass.

Life as a field biologist often means redefining common experiences.  For two amazing summers, my morning commute involved motoring along the beaches of Sable Island at 24 km/h, smelling the salt of the ocean and hearing only the cries of nesting gulls and terns.  The only other commuters to worry about were the seals (which are admittedly quite bad-tempered in the morning…and at most other times) and the occasional curious wild horse.

Before moving from Ontario to Nova Scotia to pursue a graduate degree at Dalhousie University, I had never heard of Sable Island.  In fact, when I started at Dal, my intention was to study a box nesting population of Tree Swallows in a nearby rural community.  But shortly after arriving in Halifax, I began to hear stories about a remote and mysterious island of sand, almost impossible to get to but well worth the effort – iconic Sable Island, a source of fascination for many Nova Scotians.

An Ipswich Sparrow surveys his territory.

An Ipswich Sparrow surveys his territory.

So I did the only logical thing: I changed my project (much to my supervisor’s dismay).  I decided that I wanted to study Ipswich Sparrows, a subspecies of the widespread Savannah Sparrow that nests only on the dunes of Sable Island. Luckily for me, their narrow breeding distribution and wide wintering  distribution make Ipswich Sparrows  a perfect species with which to study the connections between migration distance and reproductive success – which gave me an amazing opportunity to get to know a part of Canada that few ever get to experience.  From the moment I set foot on Sable’s isolated beaches, I was enchanted.

Sable is an island of improbabilities.  A thin crescent of sand only 1.5 km wide at its widest point, it is nothing more than a pile of glacial till lying in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, poised at the edge of the continental shelf.  The island is defined by a curving backbone of vegetated dunes, approximately 45 km long, bordered to the north and south by low-lying beaches.

Sable Island from the air.

Sable Island from the air.

Getting there proved extremely difficult – both summers I worked there, we had to wait almost two weeks after our intended departure date for the weather to cooperate.  Each year, when we finally stood on the beach with our gear, watching the departing plane, it was only too easy to remember that we were 200 km from any other land, perched precariously on a sliver of sand clinging to the edge of the continental shelf.  The layer of fog that frequently shrouds the island (one year, Sable was fogged in for 61 days straight, from the beginning of June to the end of July) only emphasized our disconnect with the rest of the world.

This somewhat eerie atmosphere is enhanced by Sable’s reputation as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.  Over the past 500 years, more than 350 ships, both large and small, have run afoul of the island’s hidden dangers.  Several factors make Sable one of the most perilous places in the Atlantic. Like an iceberg, the majority of the island lies hidden under water, where shallow sandbars stretch for miles.  Even those parts that lie above the water’s surface are difficult to see – the tallest dune rises only 25 m above sea level.  And just to add to the problem, Sable refuses to stay in one place: as ocean currents sweep sand from the west end and add it to the east end, the whole island is actually migrating eastward.

In fact, shipwrecks are often credited for the arrival of the island’s most famous inhabitants: the wild horses.  They roam the island’s dunes, organized into herds of about 50, each under the control of a dominant stallion.  Romantic legend has it that they are descended from the equine survivors of a shipwreck, although the more accepted (and more prosaic) story is that they were intentionally released on the island during the 1700s.  Regardless of their origin, there is undoubtedly something magical about watching them wandering through the dunes and cantering along the edges of the freshwater ponds.  And while it is forbidden for visitors to approach the horses, we quickly found out that they follow no such rules: despite our best efforts, they often approached us!

Sable's famous horses staking out their territory

Sable’s famous horses staking out their territory

"What do those things do?" Sable Island horse checking out my binoculars.

“What do those things do?” This guy was very interested in my binoculars.

As one might expect from a moving island, weird events abound on Sable.  During the long, quiet evenings, lucky (and persistent) visitors may persuade the island’s (few) longtime inhabitants to tell some of their stories.  One particularly lucky evening, I convinced Gerry Forbes, who ran the Environment Canada weather station on the island for many years, to tell me the story of Doris.  Doris was the island’s CPR dummy, a life-sized female mannequin dressed (typically) in a neon-orange survival suit.  The inhabitants of the island, to amuse themselves, got into the habit of setting Doris up in unexpected and startling places for their cohabitants to find.  However, during one fierce storm, Doris went missing.  No one could find her…until the pilots of a Coast Guard plane, flying over the island, radioed Forbes in considerable panic.  From the air, they had spotted a body, dressed in a neon survival suit, lying face down in the gentle swell of waves at the edge of the beach.  The horrified pilots had immediately called Forbes for help – and were slightly taken aback when he responded nonchalantly, “Oh, so that’s where Doris is.”  In response to the horror-stricken silence that greeted his words, Forbes elaborated: “No, it’s okay, don’t worry.  She’s a dummy.”

A yellow-rumped warbler forages over a low-lying bush.

A Myrtle Warbler forages over a low-lying bush.

In fact, all kinds of interesting things wash up on Sable’s beaches – from messages in bottles to hapless migratory birds blown off course by storms.  These disoriented migrants are quite naturally confused to find themselves in a place with no trees, and will often perch on any available substrate.  One afternoon in the field, I was astounded when a Myrtle Warbler, which had been foraging over a nearby bush, decided he needed a rest – and landed on the toe of my boot to take it.

I was lucky enough to spend two field seasons on Sable Island – just enough time to get to know it, but more than enough time to come to love it.  Leaving at the end of my second season was incredibly difficult, particularly because the island’s inaccessibility will makes returning unlikely.  In the years since I worked there, I’ve realized that Sable is the kind of place that sticks with you – both physically (more than a year after leaving the island, I was still finding grains of sand in my hiking boots) and mentally.  Sable Island is a persistent improbability, a geological oddity…and most of all, a place where it is easy to believe in magic.

An enchanted island.

An enchanted island.

To learn more about Sable Island, check out The Sable Island Green Horse Society website.

Life as a bat biologist can be scary – but not for the reasons you may think…

Happy Halloween everyone! In this special Halloween-themed post we welcome Dr. Krista Patriquin to the blog to tell us all about bats and dispel some common bat myths!

I have been part of a love/hate relationship with bats for more than 15 years.  These much maligned creatures are incredibly fascinating and we still have so much to learn about them (that’s the love part), owing primarily to the fact that they are incredibly difficult to study (and that’s the hate part). I wasn’t always fascinated by bats; in fact, I knew very little of them aside from the traditional lore that surrounded them.  So, let’s dispel some of the more common myths right off the (ahem) bat:

Bats are NOT blind. Members of one group of bats, the flying foxes, actually rely exclusively on sight and can even see in colour like you and I. Members of the other major group, the so called “microbats”, have perfectly good sight; it just so happens sight isn’t all that useful while flying around in the dark, so instead they rely extensively on echolocation (sonar).

Bats do NOT get caught in your hair. Trust me, if they did, I would have the biggest hair possible – they are insanely difficult to catch. Unfortunately, thanks to their sonar, they can detect something as fine as a human hair!

Bats are NOT mice with wings, despite what their common name in other languages might imply (e.g. chauve-souris – bald mouse; fledermaus – flying mouse). In fact, mounting evidence shows they are more closely related to you and me than they are to mice!

I’ve never been afraid of bats, and I could go on, and on, and on, about how amazing bats truly are, but this recent article does a great job of that: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2014/10/28/ten-reasons-why-bats-are-a-lot-cooler-than-you-think.

Instead, given it is Hallowe’en, I will share

When I first started working with bats, I had very little experience being in the woods, never mind working outdoors at night, often alone. With the sense of sight rendered ineffectual, your sense of hearing becomes heightened. This, coupled with an overactive imagination, has led to more than one night of terror. One night I was convinced a monster of gigantic proportions was coming to get me. I was shocked to learn that my monster was in fact a nighthawk performing its territorial display. For those of you who have never heard this display, listen to some of the “peents & boom sounds” at this link http://birds.audubon.org/birds/common-nighthawk. Now imagine hearing that for the first time while standing all alone at night in the middle of the woods and tell me you wouldn’t be scared!

There was also the night I had myself literally scared stiff. YES – LITERALLY – I froze in my spot for several seconds – admittedly not the best response to a potential threat. On this particular night I heard something that sounded rather large rustling in the woods a mere 20 metres or so from me.  I was convinced it was one of the many black bears that had been sighted in my study area.  When I called out to my assistant, much to my surprise, his voice came from the very spot where I’d heard the rustling! Turns out he was attempting to climb a tree to find a better way to put up a mist-net – a net used to catch bats based on the ridiculous premise that they cannot detect the fine mesh with their sonar.

Then there are all the questionable encounters with people in the middle of the night. There was the time I was working in the back of a small coulee (effectively an old river valley in the badlands; https://www.flickr.com/photos/canadagood/5594454763/ ), with only one access point, when two local men saw my headlamp on their drive “sobering up” (in their words!). I hate to admit it, but I was incredibly grateful my assistant at that time was also a rather large male. Then there was the time two fellows out cruising on their ATVs discovered my camp site and decided to pay my assistant and myself a visit. We were in the middle of doing dishes, so my assistant made it very clear she had a rather large knife in her possession as she dried it. As they finally left, they indicated they were going to tell their friends about the “bat girls in the woods”. Needless to say, we packed up and moved camp immediately! While I’m sure in both cases these guys were harmless, these encounters certainly invoke a level of fear, along with a sense of vulnerability, as well as frustration at being fearful because I am a woman.

The SCARIEST thing about working with bats, though, is we are at serious risk of losing them. Wind turbines, on top of habitat loss, for instance, pose a serious threat to bat populations. Thankfully considerable effort is being made to minimize the losses and to understand why bats are dying at turbines. However, the most alarming threat to bats in North America is White Nose Syndrome. By now you have no doubt heard about the invasion of epic proportions resulting in the rapid, and massive, loss of hibernating bats across North America. A fungus, thought to have originated in Europe, has invaded the caves of North America, where it attacks the wings and noses of hibernating bats. Sadly, most bats infected with this fungus die.  We are still learning the precise cause of death, and so how to prevent it.

Equally alarming is how quickly this fungus spreads. Since it was first discovered in 2006 in a cave near Albany, NY, it has wiped out an estimated 5.6 MILLION bats in North America, and spread across eastern US and Canada, making its way south and west.

map

The good news, though, is there is a huge effort to figure out how to stop the spread, with some promise coming to light at the recent North American Symposium on Bat Research (that’s right, an entire conference dedicated to bat research – with 400 people attending!).

Don’t fear bats – help them! If you would like to know more about bats, and how you can help, please visit http://batcon.org/

Ascension Island, a great place to sea-birds!

We’re very happy to welcome Becky Taylor back to the blog this week. Becky is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University and today she tells us more about her fieldwork experiences on Ascension Island. You can also check out her last post here.

Ascension Island is truly a weird and wonderful place to visit! If you are wondering where on earth this place is, see my previous blog for a brief history and overview of this unique, remote island. As an Important Bird Area for its incredible seabird diversity (according to Birdlife International), I thought it would be great to dedicate a whole blog to talk about the seabirds of Ascension Island.

But why was I actually there? I am studying the band-rumped storm-petrel (Oceanodroma castro) for my PhD, a seabird found on Ascension and St Helena, for which I needed samples. Ascension Island is an incredible place to see seabirds. However, they are largely restricted to breeding on Boatswain Bird Island just off the coast of Ascension due to the introduction of rats and then cats after human colonisation. This decimated the seabirds breeding on the mainland, including the endemic Ascension Frigatebird which became completely restricted to Boatswain Bird.

Boatswain Bird Island

Boatswain Bird Island

While I was on Ascension I was lucky enough to tag along with the Ascension Island Government Conservation team to help out with their monitoring of some of the species of seabird, as well as the storm-petrels (or ‘stormies’ as they are known). One charismatic species we would visit is the masked booby. This is one of the seabirds that is still breeding on the mainland, and so we would venture to their nests and try and find out what they were sitting on. This basically involved poking at them with a giant stick to see what they had underneath and to make them call (to find out if it was a male or female). This may sound rather mean, but they plonked themselves straight back on their nests when we were done!

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A masked booby chick and an adult on its nest with a hatched chick and un-hatched egg

A masked booby chick and an adult on its nest with a hatched chick and un-hatched egg

Similarly we would go and do the same to the brown booby nests on another part of the island, poking them to see what they had on the nest. Both booby species lay two eggs, though only one will survive to adulthood. The first hatched will expel their younger sibling from the nest to ensure their survival!

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Brown booby chick and an adult on its nest

Brown booby chick and an adult on its nest

But one of the most incredible seabird species found on Ascension Island is the endemic Ascension frigatebird. 6

The Ascension frigatebird male with red gular sac visible, and female in flight, showing the sexual dimorphism in this species

The Ascension frigatebird male with red gular sac visible, and female in flight, showing the sexual dimorphism in this species

Listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, this species is undergoing a conservation success story! The decision was made to eradicate the cats which had expelled this charismatic seabird from breeding on the mainland. In 2006 this was achieved, and in the last few years they have finally started breeding on Ascension itself once again. I was lucky enough to see the fledglings from this year’s mainland nests, 5 in total.

Two Ascension frigatebird fledglings on their neighbouring nests

Two Ascension frigatebird fledglings on their neighbouring nests

 

Amongst the other seabird species on the island, two of my favourites were the fairy tern and the yellow-billed tropicbird. The fairy terns are gorgeous white and seem to dance around in the wind above your head as you walk. Apart from when I would try and get a nice close up picture, then sure enough they would disappear! The yellow-billed tropicbirds also seem to have an elegant quality about them. We went around checking their nests too, though you definitely don’t poke these birds with a giant stick, as they are much more likely to abandon their nests. We would just stand back and admire these long-tailed seabirds from a respectable distance.

Fairy tern in flight

Fairy tern in flight

 

Yellow-billed tropicbird on its nest

Yellow-billed tropicbird on its nest

 

But, of course, my favourite seabird species (and by no coincidence the one I was there to study) was the band-rumped storm-petrel. We would catch these small birds using a mist net in a place known on the island as ‘Storm Gully’.

Boatswain Bird Island as seen from ‘Storm Gully’, our mist netting site

Boatswain Bird Island as seen from ‘Storm Gully’, our mist netting site

 

These birds are nocturnal, and so we would set up the nets and wait in the dark. Unfortunately if the moon was too bright they would see the net and swoop out of the way, but most of the time we caught a steady stream of birds. Once caught, morphometric measurements and blood samples were taken (for my DNA analysis), before being set free to fly across back to their nests on Boatswain Bird Island. And, aside from having a giant rat run across my chest while trying to get some rest one night, the wait was always worth it to see these amazing seabirds!

 

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The small band-rumped storm-petrel having morphometric measurements taken.

The small band-rumped storm-petrel having morphometric measurements taken.

 

Becky completed her BSc in Biology at the University of Bristol, UK in 2010, and then worked for the conservation charity Wildscreen on their ARKive website for two years before deciding to undertake her MSc at the University of Exeter, UK. She started her PhD at Queen’s University in September 2013. She is currently researching the genomics of the evolution of seasonal populations of the band-rumped storm-petrel (Oceanodroma castro), and aims to create a comprehensive phylogeny of this cryptic species complex.

Becky faces off with a black capped chickadee.

Becky faces off with a black capped chickadee.

 

Bad days made great in the field

We are pleased to welcome Travis Gallo to the blog this week. Travis (@mellamorooster) is a PhD student at Colorado State University in Liba Pejchar’s lab (@thelibalab). Travis blogs about his exciting and  extensive fieldwork in the Piceance Basin of northwest Colorado. 

When people ask why I like fieldwork, I usually give a generic answer about how I enjoy my office being outdoors or how I have trouble being stuck in front of a computer all year – only because it is hard for me to fully explain how you can be having the worst day ever and then something extraordinary can happen in the field and all of a sudden your day has gone from the worst to the best day ever – and how this can happen day after day.

Snowy landscape

Photo credit: LTS

Before I get all sappy, let me give a little bit of background about my research. My fieldwork is in the northwest corner of Colorado, USA in an area known as the Piceance (Pee-aunce) Basin. The Piceance Basin is home to one of the largest migratory mule deer populations in the U.S. and also happens to be one of the largest natural gas fields in the U.S. Due to concerns that oil and gas development will negatively impact mule deer, our state wildlife agency has been tasked with creating habitat “improvements” for mule deer.  These “improvements” come in the form of removing forest cover to promote early successional plant species that the deer prefer. The thought is that if you increase the quantity and quality of forage for mule deer they will stick around and be less affected by energy development.

 Typical views of pinyon pine and Utah juniper along the hillsides and sagebrush valleys

Typical views of pinyon pine and Utah juniper along the hillsides and sagebrush valleys

 

An old Utah juniper growing out of a box canyon wall

An old Utah juniper growing out of a box canyon wall

My research specifically focuses on how these habitat manipulations impact non-target species – songbirds and non-target mammals. Further, several wildfires occurred in the area at the same time as the mechanical forest removal treatments (don’t worry, fire is a very natural part of the system) – allowing me the opportunity to compare the impacts of mechanical disturbance and natural disturbances on the bird and mammal communities. So, there is my research in a nutshell.

 A sow and her cub captured on one of our cameras

A sow and her cub captured on one of our cameras

 

Our intern Molly conducting a point count and enjoying the view

Our intern Molly conducting a point count and enjoying the view

 

A young mountain lion captured by one of our research cameras.

A young mountain lion captured by one of our research cameras.

I am a true believer that fieldwork allows one to learn a place intimately and appreciate the landscape much more than someone who just passes through. I think this becomes even more special when someone is working in an underappreciated area like the Piceance Basin. So let me walk you through an ordinary day in the field and paint a picture of the Piceance.

A Brewers sparrow nest found by one of our point count stations

A Brewers sparrow nest found by one of our point count stations

 

Sometimes you have to create your own entertainment when bird banding is slow.

Sometimes you have to create your own entertainment when bird banding is slow.

Our days typically start out leaving our mobile home (field housing) around 4:30am to drive to our field sites. The small town of Meeker only has 4 radio stations – a country music station, a Christian music stations, a crappy pop station and a classic rock station – there is nothing wrong with classic rock except this station plays the same songs over and over and over… you get the point.  So the 30-45 minute drive to and from our field sites usually consist of me listening to – and laughing at – my younger technician and intern singing along to all of today’s great [sarcasm] pop hits. As someone that doesn’t generally listen to current pop music it has been a tough transition now knowing a whole lot of Rihanna, Ke$ha and Taylor Swift songs – but I digress.

Sometimes you have to create your own entertainment when bird banding is slow.

We then arrive at our field sites. All of our sites are in an ecosystem commonly known as pinyon-juniper or PJ. Pinyon-juniper forests consist of mostly pinyon pine and juniper trees. Occasionally you may find Gamble’s oak or Douglas fir at higher elevations, but pinyon and juniper are the dominant tree species. The understory is fairly open and consists of serviceberry, antelope bitterbrush, rabbit bush, mountain mahogany and big sagebrush. The forests are interspersed with beautiful sage meadows dominated by big sagebrush. During the summer monsoons after a night of good rain and when the sun heats things up early in the morning, the sagebrush will begin to steam, making for a beautiful morning hike through these meadows. Average rainfall is 28-64 cm so it’s a fairly arid environment. Canyons with steep walls cut through the mountains, and perennially wet pour-offs cut through the canyon walls. Exploring around these more moist pour offs, one will often find stands of chokecherry, columbine, wax currant and desert fern species.

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)

 

Mountain ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)

Mountain ball cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)

We usually conduct point count surveys until mid morning and then spend the rest of the afternoon doing vegetation surveys or checking our remotely triggered cameras. Checking wildlife cameras is like opening birthday presents every day – you never know what you will get. Mountain lions, bears, bobcats and American badgers are common species that we capture on our cameras – cameras that are located a maximum distance of 100 meters from our point count stations, I might add. A few of the common birds in our area are mountain chickadees, black-throated grey warblers, white-breasted nuthatches, pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, Plumbeous vireos and juniper titmice. I would argue that starting my workday to the dawn chorus of these western U.S. birds makes my job the best job ever.

Our field technician, Aaron, loading up cameras to schlep out to their sites

Our field technician, Aaron, loading up cameras to schlep out to their sites

 

All field biologists have great stories and great memories from each season in the field. At the end of each field season I go through my field notebook and write down my best memories from that season. This last summer was the last field season for my Ph.D. research so it was extra nostalgic to go through my notebook this year.  This year’s memories included running into bears, hiking through freak snowstorms, mud fights after a summer monsoon, picking wild mushrooms, creating choreographed dances in the work truck, dodging rattlesnakes, saving a deer mouse after a late snowstorm, and many evenings sitting around on our porch sharing stories of that day with the entire field crew. But my favorite memory has to be watching my intern get bitten by a gopher snake during her first attempt at holding a snake – mostly my fault. She took it like a champ and had no fear trying to catch the next one she saw. I felt like a proud dad watching my young undergraduate intern learn the ways of the field.

Molly being bitten by a gopher snake and me trying to keep her calm until it let go

Molly being bitten by a gopher snake and me trying to keep her calm until it let go.     Photo credit: LTS

 

One day we hand caught a deer mouse that was cold and disoriented after a late season snowstorm and warm it up in our gloves.

One day we hand caught a deer mouse that was cold and disoriented after a late season snowstorm, and warmed it up in our gloves.            Photo Credit: LTS 

 

I would be willing to guess that every amazing memory we have from the field has some connection with nature. I chose this field of work so that I could feel that I was contributing to the protection of nature for future generations to enjoy. Sometimes we get down in the weeds with analysis or bogged down with readings and other micro-tasks that come with office work, but fieldwork and the memories we make always remind us why we do what we do. And those really bad days, made great by some interaction with nature, remind us that it’s all worth it.

 

Black-throated grey warbler

Black-throated grey warbler

Travis Gallo is a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University. His current research focuses on the effects habitat manipulation for game species has on non-target species. You can follow Travis’ research (@mellamorooster) and his lab mates (@thelibalab) on Twitter.

The “white house” – from damp and dark to warm and light

Some of the best experiences during a field season don’t have anything to do with your study species, your field site, or your research project. Given the nature of fieldwork, you tend to stumble across things that – although they aren’t what you’re looking for – are still super cool.

Let me set the scene for you.

It’s a cool, wet morning in early May. Dew droplets cover the grass like a green sky filled with twinkling stars. The old field van slides across the lawn, little leopard frogs jumping every which way to escape the wrath of its wheels and the blue jays fly above, the early morning rays accentuating their blue, blue wings. We pull up to the “white house” – an unfinished two story (white) home used for storage of field equipment – which glistens in the morning sun. I unlock the door and wave my hand all around the frame (checking for spiders, of course) before I step up and onto the concrete floor. I make a quick right turn and head past the exposed beams and piles of old torn up insulation and into the garage to start the ATV. John stays in the doorway, and I assume this is to admire the eeriness of this particular place. It really is like nothing else.

“Amanda…come look at this” John says. I walk back out and John points under the stairs.

There are a couple of holes in the foundation under the front door and the morning sun illuminates something I was not expecting. Under the stairs is the biggest black rat snake I have ever seen. Scratch that – the biggest snake I have ever seen in the wild, period. She stares at us from beneath the stairs. She is probably about the same girth as a small peanut butter jar and we can only see the first foot of her, as she is hidden by the piles of scrap wood and metal that are stored under the stairs.

snake

Peaking out from under the stairs when we first spotted her

I’ve always known that snakes lived in this house, or at least visited this house. There are always holes in the insulation where they bury themselves to keep warm, and you can often see skins in various corners of the empty rooms. There are also many points of entry in little broken corners in the walls or garage door.

Our quiet admiration doesn’t seem like a nuisance to this snake at all. She has somewhere she needs to be and we are not going to get in her way. She slithers out slowly from her hiding place, the first three feet of her wrap around the first step of the stairs, and up she goes, slowly but surely. Her skin sounds like sand paper rubbing against the grainy wooden steps. Her body fits like a glove against each step as she goes up all 12, covering sometimes up to 6 steps at a time. She never looks back at us, almost as if she’s seen us there many times before and knows we won’t interrupt her.

John and I stand in the dimly lit house, dead silent, until the last bit of her almost 6.5 foot long body climbs the final stair and disappears upstairs.

snake 4

Making her way up the stairs

It’s not long before we hear something else. Three more black rat snakes emerge from the corner of the far left room, and begin making their way towards the stairs. None are as magnificent as she is in size, but all just as beautiful. They congregate under the stairs – but these guys aren’t as bold. We figure we’ll give them their space and with a lot of hesitation, decide to get the day’s work underway.

snake 1

More rat snakes we ran into that day

snake 2
We return from setting up my experiment and need to put our supplies back into the house, but we can’t stop thinking about them. What are they doing upstairs? We’ve never even looked upstairs before (because it’s seriously creepy in there) but we can’t resist. As we get high enough, we start to see the piles of insulation, and there she is, just standing guard at the top of the stairs, staring at us with her dark, but bright and mysterious eyes.

We decide (maybe a little bit out of fear, but I’d like to think more out of respect) to let the snakes be. We just have to accept that we’re sharing our field house with some unexpected but magnificent visitors.

Since then, we’ve seen them occasionally, more so now that autumn is upon us. Every time we see them, we quietly admire each other and head off on our own ways. There’s almost something peaceful about knowing that they’re there. This old abandoned field house, which for a long time could be described as a cold, damp, dark place, is suddenly filled with life, warmth, and more eyes looking out for us than we can count.

snake 5

One of the big skins we found in the house.