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.


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.


From Tall Grass to Tall Mountains: The Real Lessons I Learned in My First Field Season

Dispatches is pleased to welcome Jordan Constant to the blog today. Jordan is a BScH candidate in the Grogan lab at Queen’s University. Jordan just finished up his first field season and fills us in on all the lessons he learned while identifying and sorting old-field species and also the highlights of a memorable field course in Colorado.  

jordans field site


This summer, I was lucky enough to experience my very first season of field work. At the beginning of May I was an undergrad transitioning from my 3rd to my 4th year and in the process of developing my honours thesis. I have always been interested in ecology, and after many discussions with my advisor, I settled on a project involving grassland ecosystems. And so began a summer of new experiences, life lessons, and of course some great stories that I would love to share with you.

The aim of my project involves identifying and sorting the plants in my field site at the species level. I was certainly no expert in the field of plant identification when I began – in fact I probably couldn’t have told you the difference between an Aster and a Lily – but how hard could it be, right? There couldn’t be that much to it, could there? To be safe, I sent an email out to the resident wildflower expert in the area for some pointers. She graciously offered to take me out to the field and teach me a thing or two, and I began to see what I was up against.

We arrived at the site and she handed me a field guide, as well as a list of some species she expected to see. I took a glance at the list, and where I naively expected to see around 10 species, I saw around 40. “And here is a list of some grasses to know as well,” as she handed me a second piece of paper with even more names to know. I began to see what I had signed up for but I was there to learn, so I gulped, took a deep breath, and tried as hard as I could to get some of that stuff down.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that day was extremely important to me. Sure, by the end of it I had a decent grasp on plant identification, but it was what came with it that mattered. First of all, I was reminded how valuable my peers were to me. I don’t know if I would have ever been able to do my project without the aid of that kind soul. In every facet of life, it is the love, support and guidance of those around us that keep us going, and I’m glad I was reminded of that at the beginning of the season. It is easy to forget that you are not alone when taking your first steps towards “real science” but in the end, they are the ones who helped me move forward.

I also learned on that day how to look with care. To most of us, grass looks like grass. It’s green, and it grows on our lawns right? It wasn’t until I learned to look closer that I was able to tell them apart. I didn’t even know the structures we use to tell grasses apart existed when I first began, but with careful examination, I began to see how different they really can be. Paying close attention is such a critical skill in life. Each and every person has some small things about them that make them truly unique, and it takes a careful look to really appreciate what makes us special. Just as I have to bend back the leaf of a graminoid species to truly understand what I need to know about it, I look to peel back some of the layers of individual personalities to truly understand people.

As the summer wore on and I started to get into the swing of my experiment, I couldn’t help but share a few laughs with my team along the way. One of my favourite parts of the experiment was the difference between the methods discussed in the office, and the methods as explained in the field. In the office, the methods were briefly described as, “all individual plant species will be collected from a sample quadrat, and sorted at the species level.” In the field this translated to, ” We are each going to take a pair of scissors, and cut every piece of grass and flower in this square one by one and put them in paper bags.” Sure, science isn’t always as glamorous as it seems, but every experiment has its quirks and now I like to ask every scientist I meet, “What is the weirdest thing you have to do to collect your data?” I always seem to get a great answer.

Of course, I wouldn’t be doing you any justice if I didn’t tell you how weather affects field work. When working on a schedule, you don’t have time to take days off because of some silly old rain, so a few times in the summer I had to find a way to work around the rain. I remember one day in particular, I was out working with some heavy clouds in the sky. I brought two umbrellas to keep me dry. Unfortunately, the rain was starting to take its toll on my paper bags. In the name of science, I decided to use my umbrella to cover my samples. As the day wore on I probably came in contact with 10L of water, in what was an absolute downpour. Meanwhile my samples were enjoying the luxury of a roof over their heads. I couldn’t help but laugh at how priorities had shifted.

Every once in a while, one of my sample plots would have a milkweed plant on its boundaries. Milkweed is a very large plant and sometimes seemed like a tree compared to the other species. We made it a rule that we would always collect the milkweed last. On average we would spend about 4.5 hours collecting from a plot, so when we finally got to the milkweed, the satisfaction we got from taking it down was off the charts. Milkweed became a symbol of reward. Every time fieldwork got tough, I would look around for a milkweed to remind myself that  all of the hard work spent in the field was going to feel so good once it was all over. There is always something to look forward to, and when times are tough it is important to remind ourselves that the effort we put in today is going to make tomorrow that much sweeter.

At the end of my field season, once the sample collection had been completed in my grassland, I was lucky enough to take a course in field biology in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. The course gave me the opportunity to try a variety of techniques and get a sense of all the different kinds of research that occur at a field station. So naturally, in the spirit of new experiences, I decided to work on flowers again.


My time in the mountains led to some great learning about science, research and fieldwork, but once again the lessons I learned outside of the science world were the ones that truly stuck with me. Perhaps my favourite part about the course was the opportunity to experience a scientific community. I was surrounded by researchers doing projects on everything from mosses to marmots, and every day we would all meet back at the dining hall and learn about each other’s work. I liked being able to talk about what happened in my day and immediately have people respond with their thoughts and opinions. I liked settling down at the end of a field day to watch a movie with the others at the station. I liked playing cricket on Wednesdays just because it was what we did every week. And most of all, I liked waking up in the morning and seeing friendly faces and bright smiles before I started my day.  As I mentioned earlier, science can make you feel like you are all on your own at times, and having peers and colleagues around you can make a world of difference.

I think the highlight of my trip came when climbing to the peak of Mt. Gothic. The elevation change hit me hard. Sometimes it felt like there was no oxygen left when I tried to breathe in. My lack of acclimation made it pretty difficult to make it up a hill, never mind a mountain. Despite my troubles, I found myself trying to keep up with those who had been climbing mountains all summer. To keep myself pushing, I put one of my earphones in and hit the shuffle button, hoping my music would take my mind off of my heavy breathing. At one point, about halfway up the mountain, the song “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis came on. I paused to catch my breath and lifted my head from my feet for the first time in a few minutes. I was greeted by the most breathtaking view I had come across so far. I started to slow down, as Alfie Boe serenaded me through my earbuds. I was overtaken by the sights and sounds I was experiencing and kind of got lost in it for a moment. As the song ended and I began to refocus on the path, I had fallen behind a little, but I was no longer breathing as heavily and I felt a lot lighter. I started to go at a pace that was more comfortable to me and enjoyed as much of the scene as I could. I learned that regardless of what pace everyone else was going, it was more important that I did it in a way that I was comfortable. I learned not to take the beauty around me for granted. I almost completely missed that moment in an attempt to get from the bottom of the mountain to the top. A lot of the time, it’s the events that occur on the way that make the journey worthwhile.

And so, as the summer has come to a close and the leaves have begun to change, I look back on all the things I gained from my first field season. While my data on alpine flowers was insignificant and my grassland ecosystem data is still in the process of being analyzed, I took much more out of my summer than two experiments. Biology is the science and the study of life, and in the process of completing my first field season, I certainly learned a lot about life.

Trading in the pristine for the polluted site

I’m sad to say that the summer has ended (although this fall is quite beautiful so far). However, summer ending means many biologists are coming home from field work (if you are nodding yes then you should write a guest post on our blog!). Not being in grad school any more, I have to find other ways to get outside. Luckily for me for my current contract, I was fortunate to do two whole days of field work (for a lab tech this is a pretty big deal)!

As you probably know from my previous posts, I was fortunate to do my master’s field work in the most pristine of places -Haida Gwaii. Massive sitka spruce tower over you as you sit on moss covered logs listening to the waves crashing against the cliffs. You can hear whales off the coast and birds singing overhead. My study species, Cassin’s auklet, nest in burrows along the cliffs of remote islands on the eastern and western side of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The adults look like flying tennis balls as they return to their nest because they are chubby and have fairly short wings. When in hand, the chicks are cute little fluff balls that just sit there. My kind of paradise!

The luscious forests of islands in Haida Gwaii.

The luscious forests of islands in Haida Gwaii.

A fluffy Cassin's auklet chick

A fluffy Cassin’s auklet chick sits patiently for a photo.

My fieldwork this year was a bit different to say the least. I did study seabirds and I did venture to islands. However, I traded in the “pristine” site for the “polluted” site you may say. We have had a few posts lately (both by our regular bloggers and by guest bloggers) about doing fieldwork in a city. Now I can join in this discussion! I did fieldwork in Hamilton Harbour, at the western end of Lake Ontario, where steel plants exist and receives wastewater treatment plant discharge from surrounding cities. Some islands in the harbour are natural and some are man-made, but these islands were a lot less remote than the ones I was on in Haida Gwaii! From the islands we were on, you could see and hear the four lane highway. Nothing like trading in the sounds of ocean waves crashing against the cliffs for the constant hum of traffic. Additionally, the water was not very inviting for a swim to cool off even though we were in the intense heat for 14 hours straight.

Cormorant island in Hamilton Harbour

An island in Hamilton Harbour where double-crested cormorants nest.

In addition to the environment being different, the species I was studying has a very different life history strategy than Cassin’s auklets. We were studying how contaminants have affected the double-crested cormorants in the harbour. Cormorants are colony nesters which nest in big groups out in the open, often defoliating all the trees on the islands because of their guano. Despite the heightened noise from the bigger (mostly hairless) chicks and intense smells of rotting fish from regurgitates (how the parents feed their young), a bonus to studying colony nesters is it is never hard to find an individual! These islands were also occupied by gull and tern species that would circle us overhead. Not only did we have to be wary of being pooped on, I was told to wear a feather in my hat to avoid being pelted in the head by a swooping angry gull (luckily I was not the tallest in the group so I was not the easiest target!).

Double-crested cormorants waiting on nests.

Double-crested cormorants waiting on nests.

In the end, being spoiled with graduate fieldwork in a place that many people do not get a chance to visit, I think it was a good experience for me to do fieldwork in a more urban setting. Although maybe less “pristine”, it is interesting how these prehistoric looking species are able to live and thrive in this “new” environment we have created.


There’s no place like your field site home…

This week we are excited to have Zarah Pattison from the University of Stirling, Scotland, tell us about her field work on invasive alien plant species along rivers in Scotland for her PhD work. To learn more about Zarah, check out her bio at the end of this post.

Supervisor: “So you need about twenty rivers for your project”

Me: “Right, OK…” I stand, staring at him blankly.

Supervisor: “Go buy some maps of Scotland, 6 to 10 will do, lay them out and find rivers.”

Me: “Right, OK…” I stand, staring at him blankly, and then scurry off to the nearest shops.

Maps of Scotland

Maps of central Scotland stuck together to find rivers for field sites.

I had always thought of myself as a resourceful person. Give me a problem, I’ll ‘make a plan’ (a very South African turn of phrase). However, having just passed my driving test and moved to Scotland, and having no experience of working along rivers, or knowledge of what I was looking for, I just panicked. Now, I did have two crucial criteria to aim for: Make sure I can walk at least 500 metres along the river, which must be invaded by the invasive plant Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). This plant is tall, with bright pink pungent flowers, and I soon became a dab hand at spotting it whilst driving anywhere near a river and, on parking the car, smelling it. After a month of google maps, google earth, broken GPSs and sat navs, I finally found the 20 rivers with 20 suitable survey sights. All the sites were predominantly urban or alongside farm land, which came with its own suite of problems.

In Scotland you have ‘the right to roam’, so when gaining permission to work along my chosen river sites, people were generally helpful and interested in the project. Sometimes we were even brought tea and cake by some of the landowners, who thought us standing in the rain for 10 hours was horrific (I loved it). The vegetation could reach up to 4 metres high, with stinging nettles up to 3 metres. We got used to the constant burning on our skin and kept ourselves sane by shaking the Himalayan balsam plants to see which of us would get an exploding seed pod in the eye.

tea and cake

Tea and cake provided by kind cottage Lady on the River Tweed.

When crossing the Annick Water to access a survey site, David, my field assistant, was using a 1 metre solid wood wading pole to bash back the nettles so we could climb up the bank. He stood still for a moment.

Me: “David, what’s the problem? Time is precious!”

Then he started shouting, trying to cross back to the other side of the river whilst we were both repeatedly stung by the angry wasps whose nest he had disturbed. I wanted to dive in the water, but all I could think of was my phone in my pocket, with all the fieldwork pictures on it, , and all the unsightly floating objects in the river. We finally clambered up the other river bank, running back and forth until the wasps gave up.

Me: “David, where is the equipment bag?”

We looked at each other and then over to the other side of the river where the bag sat, covered in wasps. After an hour, we suited up with every bit of clothing and plastic in our possession, as well as some burning reeds, and finally retrieved the field bag. Many beers were drunk that night.

Angry wasp nest

Geared up and ready to retrieve our field work equipment bag from under the angry wasps nest.

I had to revisit these sites 3 times over the next year and got to know them pretty well. In early spring I had to collect the 360 30 x 30cm green AstroTurf mats which had been placed at each site the year before. After winter floods, my red spray painted wooden stakes had mostly vanished and most of the mats were covered in mounds of sediment deposition. I had tried to use a visual marker, like a telephone pole, for each transect that had mats on, measuring the distance between each mat. Sally, my field assistant, and I had a ‘mat dance’: every time we found a mat we proceeded to wave our hands in air and gyrate to the ‘Venga boys are coming’ tune…much to the dismay of many dog walkers.

Finding the astro turf mats

Finding the AstroTurf mats, covered by mounds of sediment deposition, on the Dean Water.

Have you ever seen a mole swim? On the River Almond we had to access the survey site by going down one path on a steep embankment. The river was flowing fast, but I was confident that if we worked quickly we could get the work done. We were about 300 metres from the path, measuring the distance to each mat. I asked Sally to head back to get some more bags for the soil cores and as she turned around, she let out her high pitched alarm call (scream). The river had engulfed the bank. The bagged soil cores were starting to float down the river, along with the rucksack, which had our car keys in it. I managed to wade out (stupidly) and get the soil core bags and the rucksack (I was not losing any samples!), and we got up the bank safely. Sad to say we lost those mats, but we successfully retrieved 278 across all sites. And the mole? The mole was on the remaining bit of unsubmerged bank, and Sally was ready to dive in and save it. I literally held her back, but it turns out moles are great swimmers! Super mole, as she now calls it.

climbing through trees

Trying to climb through trees and 4 metre high Himalayan balsam on the River Endrick, whilst David fights through brambles and Rose Bay Willow herb on the Black Cart Water.

Attacked by wasps, intimidated by aggressive dogs on sites located in run down areas, accused of bombing the river as a poacher, constantly being mistaken for fishermen, stung by stinging nettles, even offered to a farmer’s 21 year old son as a birthday present… I wouldn’t change a thing. Most of the time you are alone, it is peaceful and beautiful, and you get used to the sickly sweet smell of Himalayan balsam. The bad experiences make the best stories. And there is nothing quite like being in the field.


wading in river

Wading through the River Gryfe with a Himalayan balsam plant in tow.

zarah's profile          Zarah Pattison completed her BSc in Ecology and the Environment in 2011 and an MSc in scientific research in 2012 at Royal Holloway University of London. Her undergraduate and master’s degree focused on invasive alien plant species (IAPs) and their impact on below- and above-ground microbial communities, particularly mycorrhizal fungi and foliar endophytes. Zarah is currently doing a PhD at the University of Stirling, Scotland, researching the ecology and impacts of riparian IAPs, particularly Impatiens glandulifera, Fallopia japonica, Heracleum mantegazzianum and Mimulus guttatus, and how their impact varies under climate related changes to river flow regime.

Electric shocks or time alone? Most choose shocks.

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska, who tells us a bit about her experiences working alone in the field during her PhD.  For more about Maggie and her research, check out her bio the end of this post.

I recently read that most people would prefer electric shocks to spending time alone with their thoughts. This of course made me think back to the first summer I spent in the field during my PhD. I worked along the shoreline of Lake Travers in Algonquin Park studying the very charismatic flowering beauty Lobelia cardinalis. Although most people do not venture into fieldwork on their own, most have spent some time alone in the field. Alone is how I spent most of that field season.

Pollination - wait, no, thievery by hummingbird  at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

Pollination – wait, no, thievery by hummingbird at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

When people hear that I spent time alone in the backwoods of Algonquin they either start playing air-banjo and humming that well-known tune from the movie “Deliverance” (this was my advisor’s reaction) or they ask if I was afraid of the wildlife. I was raised by people who’d never gone camping, and thus I had never gone “real” camping (sorry folks, car camping doesn’t count). My point in telling you this is that I had no idea what doing fieldwork alone would be like. I had spent time as an undergrad at QUBS, but fieldwork in the backcountry of Algonquin while living in a tent is an entirely different experience – although working at QUBS did help me establish some basic codes of conduct for my assistants and myself (i.e., no alcohol and 9 p.m. bedtime). At the time of developing my project, all I was concerned with was getting data for my PhD; my data or bust attitude is a story for another time.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Most of my solo sojourns into the field lasted a day or two, but in 2009 (the first year of field work) I’d often camp Monday to Friday on my own. Surprisingly, I found those lonely days to not be so lonely—I found talking to my plants helped. During the day my work kept me focused. But, when the work of the day was finished, fatigue set in and I was left alone with my thoughts—there was no option of electric shock. After running through thoughts of what I’d done and what I had left to accomplish that week, I’d daydream about finding ways to let me do this forever.

Truthfully, there were times I was terrified and a bit nuts. I once jumped right out of my skin when I caught sight of my shadow moving. At the time, I was just under 5’3 and somewhere around 120lbs. I assume this is the perfect shape and size for a quick little appetizer for a bear or pack of wolves (both of which were present in the area).  I also once lost my self-composure and started killing every slug I saw (that year most of my plants were eaten by slugs). As a warning to other slugs I mounted a smooshed slug body on a stake (i.e., small twig).

As my first season progressed, I became more competent with data collection and backcountry camping. I became an expert in setting up and breaking down a campsite solo in under 40 min, and became a backcountry gourmand (dried garlic and parsley are invaluable). More importantly, I picked up several handy tips from people I met in the field (mostly from Chris, who helped out at the Algonquin Radio Observatory and Jeremy, a park ranger).  These are my camping “must-haves” in order of decreasing importance.

  1. SPOT. This device should be required for everyone doing fieldwork. This device connects to satellites and allows you to send email messages to a set contact list (I used this to check in with my partner every night). It also can send two types of emergency signals. You can select the option that is sent only to your contact list and provides the GPS coordinates of your location (I programmed a message that read, “I’m alive but need you. Come find me”. The other option lets you send an emergency message to the nearest search and emergency system in your area (police and EMTs). I had no cellphone reception in the field, so this device was crucial for safety. I’d also recommend it for folks who are within cellphone range. You can always use a backup system to call for help.
  2. Headlamps, backup flashlights and spare batteries.
  3. Pocket flare/bear banger combo available at MEC is also a good idea. Even when you think you are alone in the woods you probably aren’t too far away from other people. I worked near the access point at Lake Travers. People starting their camping trips would often comment about how remote and isolated the area felt. On a busy week in August I would have this chat several times a day. A flare is likely to be seen by people nearby and if you’re lucky they’ll investigate.
  4. Always make sure you have enough water on hand and either rehydration crystals and/or powdered Gatorade. I used a hand pump system with a ceramic cartridge to filter lake water. I carried this everywhere.
  5. This is connected to the last point. Be very mindful of early signs of heatstroke. Different individuals have different tolerances. I once had an assistant suffer from mild heatstroke on our first day out. I was perfectly fine, but she wasn’t. Water and salts were sufficient to get her back on her feet, but I learned to become more mindful of how my assistants were feeling during the day.
  6. Always carry a small firstaid kit. Mine had tweezers, safety pins, bandaids, gauze, an aluminum emergency blanket, rehydration crystals, a whistle, duct tape and clothes pins.
  7. If you are responsible for packing food for a camping trip, always pack extra dry pasta, dry garlic, and other dried herbs. I once had to carefully consider whether starving my field assistant and finishing my work for the week was ok.
  8. For those of you driving older model field vehicles, don’t leave a cellphone charger connected to your car’s cigarette lighter. This will drain your car battery.
  9. Figure out who else is in your work area. I was near the Algonquin Park Radio Observatory and knew I could reach them if I needed help (like needing to make arrangements to send a field assistant home because they were not feeling well). Cottagers and other campers are often interested in the work we nutty biologists do and are often keen to help you out.

Although camping alone seems sketchy to most people, it’s really not that uncommon. Spending a day alone in the field is extremely common. Be safe and prepare for the unexpected. Carry emergency supplies, and a way to contact help.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.


Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska is currently a postdoc at the University of Toronto studying population genomics of the world’s most charismatic group of small-flowered plant (duckweed). She did her PhD at Dalhousie University under the mentorship of Dr. M. Johnston. Her work has largely focused on plant-pollinator interactions and other ecological factors shaping the evolution of plant traits.

Welcome to the (urban) jungle

“What the hell are you doing?”

Upon consideration, I realized I probably did look a bit odd: standing on a beach in my rubber boots on a cold winter day, holding a pop bottle (with the top cut off) and pouring its murky contents into a smaller bottle.  No wonder the guy walking his dog was staring at me strangely.

“Um, I’m collecting rainwater for analysis, as part of my PhD thesis project.”

The beach was public land, belonging to the city of Penticton, but I was pretty sure what I was doing wouldn’t bother anyone.  To my relief, the dog-walking stranger didn’t seem to mind my presence.  He did, however, appear to be laughing at me.

“Oh yeah?  How often are you planning to do that?” he asked.

“Once a month until the end of August,” I replied.

Now there was no mistaking it.  He was very definitely laughing at me.  “Interesting location you picked,” he commented nonchalantly.

“Um…” I looked around the deserted beach.  “What do you mean?”

“I just mean that, come July, collecting rainwater is going to involve a very different view.”

“Well, yeah – I assume this beach gets pretty busy during the summer.  But I won’t get in anybody’s way.”

“It does get busy,” he agreed.  “In fact, it’s one of the busiest beaches in Penticton.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Well,” he replied with a wicked grin, “There are lots of choices for ordinary beaches in the area – but this is the only nude beach in the south Okanagan.”

Three Mile Beach: serene and deserted in February, Penticton's only nude beach in July.

Three Mile Beach: serene and deserted in February, Penticton’s only nude beach in July.

Amanda’s recent post about her experiences doing fieldwork at the Royal Botanical Gardens (Fieldwork in unexpected places) got me thinking about the various field sites where I’ve worked over the past decade.  It’s easy to get captivated by the wild and remote locations that field biologists often get to visit.  But as Amanda pointed out, fieldwork in more populated places can be an equally rewarding experience.  My PhD fieldwork took place in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia – one of the most beautiful places in BC, but definitely not one of the wildest.  Home to several cities, many orchards, and a thriving wine industry, the Okanagan Valley is anything but remote.

Grapevines as far as the eye can see... Wineries dominate much of the south Okanagan.

Grapevines as far as the eye can see: wineries dominate much of the south Okanagan.

Obviously, doing fieldwork in places like the Okanagan makes some things much easier.  For example, you don’t have to think as carefully about what to bring with you – if you forget something, it’s easy to run to the nearest Canadian Tire and grab a replacement.  And instead of spending months pining for fresh fruit and vegetables (and flirting with scurvy), you can grab local produce from any one of the numerous roadside fruit stands.

But fieldwork in populated areas also comes with its own set of challenges – from collecting data on clothing-optional beaches to hanging out in winery parking lots in full field gear, training binoculars on bluebird nesting boxes while trying to ignore the stares of well-heeled winery patrons.  And of course, working in residential and agricultural areas poses one major problem for women: finding a place to pee.

My male field assistant had little sympathy for me when it came to this particular problem.  But while being a man may have provided an advantage in that department, it also put him at a disadvantage one February afternoon.  We had been looking for bluebirds along a popular hiking trail which ran behind several backyards in the suburbs of Penticton.  When we finally spotted our quarry, we rushed to set up our net – at which point, predictably, the bluebirds vanished.

Having put all that effort into setting up, we decided to see if they would come back.  We split up to keep an eye out for them and flopped down on the snow to wait.  I was peering around through my binoculars when suddenly a pair of boots appeared in my field of view.  I looked up and realized my field assistant was looming over me, looking frustrated.  “I have to switch places with you,” he said.

I was confused.  “Why?”  I asked.  “I know this is tedious, but it’s not like there are any bluebirds over here either.”

“It’s not that,” he responded.

“So what’s the problem?” I asked him.

“See that backyard there, right near where I was sitting?”


“A woman just came out of that house in her bikini and got into her hot tub.”

“Okay…” I still couldn’t see the problem.

He glared at me.  “She’s in the hot tub in her bikini.  And I’m sitting directly across from her backyard, hiding in the bushes with binoculars.”

I burst out laughing as he continued, “Either you switch places with me or you bail me out when I get arrested.”

I switched places with him.


Traveling in style: checking nest boxes with a golf cart.

Traveling in style: our transportation while checking nest boxes at the Oliver golf course.

I did three field seasons in the Okanagan Valley, and each presented me with its own challenges.  However, there were also some incredible benefits to working in cities and on vineyards – such as using golf carts to check bird boxes at the local golf course, or a receiving a free glass of wine while watching birds in front of a winery on a hot afternoon.  (I’m pleased to report that a lawn chair and a cold glass of Pinot Gris really improve the fieldwork experience.)

Perhaps best of all, doing fieldwork in populated areas offers unique opportunities for outreach.  We encountered people all the time – around wineries, along hiking trails, and in public parks – giving us the chance to talk a bit about what we were doing and why we were doing it.  And the importance of that contact can’t be overstated.  Even though science in Canada is largely publicly funded, there’s often a huge gap between scientists and the public.  Conducting fieldwork in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Okanagan Valley gave us a chance to bridge that gap.

A room with a view: bluebird box along a trail overlooking downtown Penticton and the Penticton Yacht Club.

A room with a view: bluebird box along a trail overlooking downtown Penticton and the Penticton Yacht Club.