Red in tooth and claw

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario....

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario….

One crisp, clear March day a couple of years ago, I found myself driving out to the Queen’s University Biological Station with a friend.  She was going out to do fieldwork, and I was going out to help her (in an effort to pretend that I still did fieldwork).  It was a typical Ontario pre-spring day: the snowbanks along the roadside were almost as tall as the car, and the sun glinted off the drifts of snow in the fields.  However, there was also a faint warmth in the air, and the ice on many of the lakes and ponds was covered with a thin film of water and a fine webbing of cracks.

Just before we turned down the road leading to the field station, we passed a group of three deer standing somewhat forlornly in the snow along the edge of a large pond.  Anyone who has ever driven along a country road is well aware that deer tend to be flighty creatures, and these three were no exception.  As we passed them, they all jumped into action, taking the easiest route of escape – straight out onto the pond.

My friend brought the car to an abrupt halt, and we sat there, horrified, watching as their headlong flight was quickly reduced to a slipping, sliding walk.  Even in the car, we could hear the ominous creaks and cracks coming from the ice.  It was the same feeling you get driving past a car accident: we didn’t want to watch, but it was hard to look away.  We were sure it was only a matter of time until one of the deer fell through the ice and was unable to get back out – and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.


This is one of the paradoxes of fieldwork: while the job naturally attracts people who want nothing more than to spend their days hugging trees and cuddling bunnies, doing the work often means standing aside and watching while a fox or a hawk rips the bunny apart.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I opened a nest box door to check on the family of five tree swallow nestlings inside – only to find a huge, satisfied-looking black rat snake curled up in the nest instead.  As I looked at him, I could see five bumps in his body, one for each nestling, and I had an (admittedly irrational) urge to grab him by the tail and shake him hard, until they all came flying out of his mouth.

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box...

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box…

Even worse was the first time I opened a box to reveal a nest full of dead nestlings.  This happens surprisingly often, when cold snaps in the early spring make food hard to come by, particularly for aerial insectivores like tree swallows.  In these stressful circumstances, parents may attempt to keep feeding the nestlings for a while, but at some point, most adults prioritize their own survival (or rather, future reproductive potential) and abandon the nest.  This also means that sometimes, you come across nests full of heartbreakingly cold, hungry, weak nestlings.  It’s hard to close the box and walk away, knowing that the next time you open it, they will all likely be dead.

Abandonment, predation, and death are not easy things to witness, and it can be tough to stand back and get out of nature’s way – especially if, like most field biologists, you’ve developed a certain amount of fondness for your study organism.  Sometimes, it’s tempting to do crazy things to try and fix the situation.  I’ve certainly screamed at more than my fair share of snakes, although it’s never bothered them much.  And the first time I came across a nest of dying birds, I begged my boss to let me adopt them.  (Which, incidentally, is not just against the law, but also virtually impossible to do, as simply keeping them adequately fed would be a full time job.)  Years later, when running my own field season in the Okanagan, it was my turn to explain to my field assistants why they couldn’t adopt the abandoned baby bluebirds.

Unfortunately, standing back and watching nature take its course is a necessary part of the job.  It’s often hard to resist the temptation to intervene – but if we do, we mess with the very thing we’re all out there to study: natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The parents of those abandoned baby birds will build another nest and give it another try when the weather turns warm again.  And, as much as the birder in me objects, the snake needs to eat too.  My job, when I’m out there, is only to observe – not interfere.


As for the deer we saw on the treacherous ice that day?  We sat watching them, on the edge of our seats, for at least two full minutes – afraid to keep driving in case we caused the sudden movement that made them fall through the ice.  (Full disclosure: not only was I worried about the deer, I was also very concerned that, if they did fall through the ice, my friend and I were going to have to jump in to the freezing water to try and help them – see previous point about doing crazy things.)

But in the end, the ice held and they made it safely to the opposite shore.  As they scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the forest, we couldn’t help but cheer for them.  As hard as it is sometimes to witness the cruel side of nature, that cruelty makes the small victories all the sweeter.

The Fire and Ice Tour Part 2

#TeamFire is now over with (see last week’s post), and onto the second half of the adventures from Dr. Jeff Havig:

#TeamIce (Glacial systems on Pacific Northwest stratovolcanoes)

  • Dr. Jeff Havig (Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati)
  • Professor Trinity Hamilton (Department of Biological Sciences, UC)
  • Jordyn Miller (Graduate Student, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University)
  • Helen Rogers (lab worker, Department of Biological Sciences, UC)

#TeamIce was now assembled in White Salmon, WA, in the home of Bob and Sally Havig (my parents). Our goal was to hike into multiple glaciers and camp overnight, allowing us to collect samples and conduct carbon uptake incubation experiments to characterize primary productivity and nutrient cycling in these systems. Our targets were: Gotchen Glacier on the southwest flank of Mt. Adams, WA (north of White Salmon), Eliot Glacier on the northeast flank of Mt. Hood, OR (south of White Salmon), Diller Glacier on the east flank of Middle Sister, OR, and Collier Glacier on the west flank of North Sister, OR. For the glaciers on the sisters, we would move our forward base of operations to the Bend/Sisters area. Our meals would primarily consist of sandwiches we made supplemented with trail snacks, plus oatmeal and coffee in the morning.

Professor Trinity Hamilton looking over the climb

Professor Trinity Hamilton resting after climbing several thousand feet in a couple miles as we made our way to Gotchen Glacier on Mt. Adams, WA, looking towards the southwest.

Gotchen Glacier, Mt. Adams, WA. A fortuitous stop at the National Forest Ranger Station in Trout Lake, WA provided us with valuable intelligence:

processing water samples on the edge

Gotchen Glacier was kind enough to provide me this little table for processing water samples. Fortunately, the crampons, helmet, and ice ax were not needed here. Note the most excellent 140 mL syringe and caulking gun setup for filtering samples, and the little foam cutout I made for holding sample bottles while distributing filtered water.

there had been a fire the year before in the area we had planned to approach Gotchen from (giving us a relatively easy ~1.5 mile (~2.4 km) hike), and it had been closed. We had to amend our trajectory, now having a ~2.5 mile (~4 km) hike to tackle. The hike was through an area that had burned a few years previous, and was thus devoid of any shade, making the hike much hotter and dustier. Nevertheless, we persevered and made it to Gotchen Glacier.

Red snow

Red snow (center) and orange snow (center top) on Gotchen Glacier, Mt. Adams, WA. This was our target for sampling and carbon uptake incubations.

Finding no place on the moraine to camp, we elected to set up on the snow near the lake at the base of the glacier, making for a chilly night’s sleep. We found plenty of snow algae to sample, and the water in the lake was some of the best tasting water I have ever had! We packed up in the morning and made our way back to the car and on to White Salmon.

Eliot Glacier, Mt. Hood, OR. We wound our way south through the apple and pear orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopped at the NFS Ranger Station, and then headed to the Cloud Cap Inn (not functioning…don’t bother to try to make a reservation) where our trailhead awaited us. We loaded up and made our way up through an ancient grove of Mountain Hemlocks (many trees over 500 years old, some far older) and on up to the windswept moraines of Eliot Glacier. We were rewarded for our efforts with an amazing view north of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier (all in WA).

Eliot Glacier

Panoramic image of the summit of Mt. Hood, OR, Eliot Glacier, and Eliot’s moraines. Note the pink, yellow, and grey rocks in the moraine, sourced from different lava flows. To the upper right we could see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Rainier on the horizon. We camped and sampled on the part of the glacier just below the dark grey rock outcrop in the center of Eliot Glacier.

Jeff with the massive water syringe.

I snapped this selfie while the crew was busily working on a sample we had collected in the morning on Eliot Glacier (note all of the layers and the lack of sunshine). Pictured are (left to right) myself, Helen Rogers (UC Biology lab worker), Jordyn Miller (Purdue University graduate student), and Professor Trinity Hamilton. Finding enough level, non-rocky space to pitch tents on was no small feat, but we were lucky enough to find space to do so. The suspended solids in the water (see the syringe) are typical of water with a large subglacial melt component, but the large diameter filter made life a LOT easier in dealing with that.

We were able to find two spots of loose sediment large enough to pitch our tents, and proceeded with sampling. Above us loomed a plug of andesite that had resisted the glacier, leaving a cliff over which a large waterfall of glacial meltwater poured. We headed out with our collection of incubations and snow, glacial ice, supraglacial and subglacial water, rocks, sediments, and algae samples. The next day we packed everything into the minivan and took the scenic drive along highways 35 and 26 to Bend, OR.


The view that greeted us as we made it up the moraine at the base of Diller Glacier on Middle Sister, OR. We were excited to see the lake at the base of the glacier, and even more excited to not have any moraine rocks tumbling down on us.

The view that greeted us as we made it up the moraine at the base of Diller Glacier on Middle Sister, OR. We were excited to see the lake at the base of the glacier, and even more excited to not have any moraine rocks tumbling down on us.

Diller Glacier, Middle Sister, OR. This was to be a scouting missing to assess its utility as a field site for future expeditions, since we had never been to Diller before. As such, we decided to hike up and back in one day, alleviating the need for extra food and all of our camping paraphernalia. (This would also buy us an extra day to recuperate before our full pack ~5 mile (~8 km) trek into Collier.)

Purple penstemons and reddish-orange paintbrush

The wildflowers on the trip were amazing. Here there were purple penstemons and reddish-orange paintbrush on an end moraine below Diller Glacier on Middle Sister. Always a surprise to get buzzed by hummingbirds at 8000+ ft.

While the climb was rather gradual, it was also ~5.5 miles (~8.9 km) one way. We pushed through to Camp Lake to replenish our drinking water reserves and eat lunch, and then made our way to Diller. After the prerequisite scrambling up and over sketchy glacial moraines, we reached the base of Diller, where we were greeted by another beautiful glacial lake. We collected samples (no time for C-uptake experiments), and then hiked back down to our awaiting transport. We were able to make it down before it was pitch black, but there was minimal light for pitching our tents off the road in the National Forest land.

Jeff's massive bag overflowing with equipment.

A picture of my nemesis. I was carrying my sleeping bag, geochemical sampling equipment, food for three days, a stove, crampons, ice ax, helmet, 3 L of water, drinking water filtration kit, first aid kit, several layers of clothes, and let’s not forget the cooler with 20 lbs of dry ice for flash freezing DNA samples and carbon uptake experiments. And yes, that’s a full day pack strapped to the outside of my pack. My pack topped off around 55 to 60 lbs. Needless to say, I was moving pretty slow on the steep climbs, and we were all very excited to take our packs off upon arrival at the site!

Our crew at the trailhead about to head to Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR, including (left to right) myself, Professor Hamilton, Helen Rogers, and Jordyn Miller. Don’t let the smiling faces fool you…we were loaded with determination as well as heavy packs as we set off on the 5 mile trek with a ½ mile elevation gain. As they say, that which does not kill you leaves deep and permanent scarring…

Our crew at the trailhead about to head to Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR, including (left to right) myself, Professor Hamilton, Helen Rogers, and Jordyn Miller. Don’t let the smiling faces fool you…we were loaded with determination as well as heavy packs as we set off on the 5 mile trek with a ½ mile elevation gain. As they say, that which does not kill you leaves deep and permanent scarring…

Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR. After two days to refit and recuperate from the ‘Diller Death March’, we found ourselves at the trailhead that would take us to Collier Glacier. This hike was through the Obsidian Limited Access Area (requires a special access permit) on a trail that goes up and over the 400 year old Jerry Lava Flow (in which we found some small mantle xenoliths) and terminates at the Pacific Crest Trail. We followed the PCT for a short period before we had to break off to traverse Little Brother, climb ~1000 ft (~300 m) in elevation over about half a mile (~ 0.8 km), and then cross Collier Glacier with crampons and ice axes. We were rewarded for our long day with an amazing sunset and a view looking north up the line of stratovolcanoes.

red and orange sunset over Collier Glacier

Our reward after making it onto Collier Glacier, setting up camp, and having dinner. An amazing view looking north up the Cascade Range of (from left to right) Mt. Washington, Three-fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and the very tip top of Mt. Adams. In the Foreground is Collier Glacier, to the right is the peak of North Sister, to the left is Little Brother, and in the center is a lake at the base of a small cinder cone (Collier Cone), which erupted a mere 400 years ago.

Dinner was a New York City Sub Shop sub (the Bronx is my favorite, check them out if you are in Bend or Hood River). The next day we sampled up and down Collier Glacier, from our camp on the upper portion of the glacier on down to the glacial meltwater fed lake below, collecting water, snow, ice, and sediments and setting up multiple incubation experiments. A Purdue University group (led by Dr. Briony Horgan and Dr. Allie Rutledge) had been planning to meet us on our second day, to overlap sampling and exchange data/information, but all day we did not see them. Late into the evening we had nearly given up hope (assuming they had a late start and wouldn’t make it in until the next day), when off in the distance near the lake we saw the glow of two lights appear. I immediately attempted to signal with my headlamp to disclose our camp position (as it was now dark), and thought I saw a return signal. Professor Hamilton and I stayed up to continue signaling, and two weary travelers arrived: Dr. Rutledge and a Purdue graduate student (Marie). They hurriedly pitched their tent and settled in for the night, exhausted from their long 6+ mile (~10 km) trek with 50+ pound (23+ kg) backpacks.

sampling in the early morning

I paused from filtering a water sample to snap this picture of the crew hard at work for an early morning sampling on Collier Glacier (the day star wouldn’t grace us with it’s warm embrace for several hours). Believe it or not, the tent behind Professor Hamilton is actually on a patch of soft sediments that I was able to clear of (many!) large rocks.

The morning was great, collecting a last water sample and sharing information with Allie and Marie.


The rest of the Purdue group came in and set up camp down by the lake as we packed up and left to make our way back down to camp.

UC written in stones

We were at Collier Glacier in advance of a Purdue University team that would overlap with us for our last day. I decided to leave them this little reminder of our presence… (Go Bearcats!)


I yodeled my goodbye to our friends and colleagues as we crested the saddle next to Little Brother before dropping down the other side.

Posing with the advanced party from the Purdue expedition as we were about to head out from Collier Glacier. From left to right: myself, Dr. Allie Rutledge (Purdue University Postdoc), Professor Hamilton, Marie (Purdue University graduate student), Jordyn, and Helen.

Posing with the advanced party from the Purdue expedition as we were about to head out from Collier Glacier. From left to right: myself, Dr. Allie Rutledge (Purdue University Postdoc), Professor Hamilton, Marie (Purdue University graduate student), Jordyn, and Helen.

A rainbow beside a geyser.

A parting shot of Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

The Fire and Ice Tour – Part 1

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes back Dr. Jeff Havig from the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati to share his adventures in an “(un)official” report about what he did this summer. As you can imagine, a lot happens during fieldwork so we are reporting it in two parts. Here is Part 1:

The Fire and Ice Tour

July 21 through August 8, 2016

(Jeff Havig reporting)

#TeamFire (Hot springs at Yellowstone National Park)                                                                     Dr. Jeff Havig (Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati)                              Professor Trinity Hamilton (Department of Biological Sciences, UC)                      Professor Andy Czaja (Department of Geology, UC)                                                              Andrew Gangadine (Graduate Student, Department of Geology, UC)                             Annie Gangadine (Volunteer Scientist)

I am excited to file this report upon the end of our successful expedition to sample hot springs in Yellowstone National Park and then glacial systems on Pacific Northwest stratovolcanoes – or as I have dubbed it, our Fire and Ice Tour. Many thanks to Dispatches from the Field for being interested in hearing about our adventures. This was an ambitious trip for Professor Hamilton (my life collaborator) and me, which turned out to be a tremendous success, thanks in large part to the help of the other scientists on our teams. And please note, in order to sample in Yellowstone National Park, as well as in the National Forest Wilderness Areas, we had to undergo a rigorous permitting process.

#TeamFire assembled at Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park the afternoon of July 21st, setting up our base of operations. From there we would drive to the trailheads that would take us off the beaten path to sample hot springs in the back country of Yellowstone. Having learned from my experience as a graduate student in GEOPIG at Arizona State University, we brought a large tent that would house all of the science gear and equipment (the science tent). Being deep into Grizzly country, we of course kept all food items and toiletry kits in the cars.

The mission of #TeamFire was to collect water, molecular, biofilm, and siliceous sinter samples from select hot springs, and to conduct carbon fixation experiments as parts of ongoing research being conducted by myself, Professor Hamilton, Professor Czaja, and Andrew. A sampling day consisted of waking up, getting water boiling for the crucial initial caffeination, eating breakfast, making lunch for the field, getting all of the needed science gear together, packing our packs with everything, loading the packs into the transport (aka minivan), and heading out. If all went well, we would be on our way by 9 am at the latest. We would then park at the trailhead, load our packs onto our backs, clip the bear spray to our belts, and head off to explore and sample hot springs that the general public never sees.


Sentinel Meadows in the Lower Geyser Basin, setting up to sample the spring in the foreground (Rosette Geyser) on our first day in the field. One of my very favorite places in Yellowstone. In the background (from left to right) are the steaming sources of Flat Cone, Mound Spring, and Steep Cone.

Field day one was spent in the Sentinel Meadows area of the Lower Geyser Basin. This is an area characterized by boiling hot springs (93°C at 8000 ft or 2500 m) with outflow channels that transition from chemotrophic to phototrophic. Almost all of the hot springs within Yellowstone are saturated with silica (from dissolution of the volcanic rocks by the deeply-circulating hydrothermal fluids), resulting in precipitation of siliceous sinter when the water cools. All was well until I came to the realization, as I unpacked my pack after our ~2 mile (~3.2 km) hike, that I had, in fact, left the pH meter and probe back at camp (there’s always something on the first day). After I had a very heated, albeit one-sided, exchange with my pack, Professor Czaja volunteered to hike back to the car and drive back to camp to retrieve the precious meter and probe, and rejoin us. As this is a fairly non-Grizzly-ish area (wide open prairie and long fields of vision), we decided this would be fine/safe, and Professor Czaja saved the day. Dinner: Burritos with refried black beans, three cheese blend, fresh salsa, and avocado.

Part of the fire team

Part of the Yellowstone crew standing on Steep Cone in Sentinel Meadows, Lower Geyser Basin. From left to right: Andrew Gangadine (UC Geology graduate student), Annie Gangadine (Volunteer), and Professor Andy Czaja (UC Geology).

Field day two was into the Obsidian Pool area of the Mud Volcano Area, necessitating a longer drive along the northern portion of the grand loop road. After waiting for a lone male Bison to leave the trail (while foolish tourists attempted to one-up each other in stupidity, approaching WELL within the 25 yard (23 m) perimeter advised by the park staff to photograph the Bison…but then, what do the park staff know about Bison? It’s not like they work and live with Bison year round…), we headed off for what would be a fine day of collecting samples. The Obsidian Pool area exhibits subsurface boiling, leading to the separation of the liquid phase from the vapor phase, which concentrates volatiles such as H2S in the steam that condenses from the vapor phase. When the H2S interacts with oxygenated water, the H2S is oxidized to H2SO4 (sulfuric acid), driving lower pH values in hot springs that are fed by condensed vapor phase fluids. Dinner: Grilled bratwurst with potatoes, sauerkraut and applesauce.

Panorama of the Obsidian pool area

Panorama of the Obsidian Pool Area, where we sampled on our second day in the field. Obsidian Pool (the non-descript pool in the middle of the image) is where the third domain of life (Archaea) was first characterized/discovered. Many interesting microbial community morphologies can be found in the various pools in the area.

Field day three took us into the Norris Geyser Basin, in an area called ‘The Gap’. The Norris Geyser Basin is one of the most dynamic hydrothermal areas in the park, where the intersection of large regional faults brings heat very close to the surface, driving intense subsurface boiling to generate very acidic conditions in places.

Hot water flows into a cool stream fed by acidic hot springs.

Many interesting physical and geochemical gradients can be found in the mixing zones of hydrothermal systems. Here hot water from ‘The Gap’ (upper left) flows into a cool stream fed by acidic hot springs.

Here our targets included an acidic spring we had sampled last year and had dubbed ‘Bun Warmer’ due to the very hot ground around it, and an extinct hot spring that had old layers of silica sinter exposed which we had dubbed ‘Has Been Hot Spring’. (Giving sites unofficial names assists in helping to remember and differentiate them, we have found. What’s easier to remember: ‘Bun Warmer’ vs. ‘Mellow Yellow’, or NGBHS007 vs NGBHS008?). Dinner: Chicken alfredo with bacon.

Field day four was spent sampling at the Sylvan Springs Area, west of the Gibbon River in the Gibbon Meadow. Our approach was a 1 ½ mile (2.4 km) hike that started with a ford across the Gibbon River. Dipping our toes into that cool water was not an easy sell with temperatures close to 40°F (4.4°C), but man did it feel exquisite on the way out! Everyone stood in the water and let the river gravel act as a foot massage before hunger drove us the rest of the way to our transport.

Sulfur crystals

Sulfur crystals forming in a fumarole in the Sylvan Springs Area. Note the dark green microbial community growing just above the sulfur crystals. Not surprisingly, sitting down in areas with lots of sulfur/acidic water can be detrimental to the integrity of the seat of your pants.

The Sylvan Springs Area is another place where subsurface boiling allows vapor phase to dominate, with many fumaroles actively precipitating elemental sulfur. Sitting on the ground in areas like this is ill advised, as it often leads to a condition called ‘acid pants’: the sulfuric acid in the ground and water acts in a startlingly rapid manner to dissolve clothing, leading to individuals needing duct tape to patch the seats of their pants. Dinner: Pulled pork sandwiches with BBQ sauce and coleslaw.

The Fire Team crosses a river.

Sometimes sampling requires fording a river. Here the crew (left to right: Andrew Gangadine, Professor Trinity Hamilton (UC Biology), Annie Gangadine, and Professor Andy Czaja) follow me across the Gibbon River on our way to the Sylvan Springs Area. It was chilly in the morning, but man did that water feel good when we crossed in the evening. In the distance is (upper left) is steam from a thermal feature in the Geyser Creek Area.

Field day five was only a half day, as we had to pack up camp. After packing everything and seeing Professor Czaja off (he was flying out that day from Bozeman, MT), we set off for the Rabbit Creek Area. Our approach took us through a large patch of extremely dense Lodgepole Pines that had seeded following the 1988 fires that had swept through the area.

Lodgepole Pine

Following the 1988 fires that swept through large portions of Yellowstone National Park, Lodgepole Pine have reseeded and formed dense clumps that can be nearly impenetrable. Here the team pushes through a patch of what has been called the ‘green blizzard’. In some places it is so thick that you literally have to pull yourself through it. The crew maintained good morale through the worst of it, in spite of my leading them on a bit of a misdirect.

Passing through these dense patches of often 20+ ft high (6+ m) Lodgepole Pine is an experience that we colloquially refer to as ‘the green blizzard’ – pulling yourself through the trees while being slapped in the face with branches of green needles, unable to see someone that is only feet away from you. The path I had selected was off the mark, requiring the crew to endure far more green blizzard than they should have, but they met it with good humor, for which I was extremely grateful. We finally made it to the Tomato Soup area, where multiple hot springs have a striking red hue (not due to iron, according to a colleague…so it remains a bit of a mystery…) Here we sampled from another extinct hot spring (‘Anatomy Lab’), as well as two active pools, before making our way back to our transport, and then off to Bozeman for a night in a hotel with a real bed and more importantly, a shower!

The next day we dropped Andrew and Annie off at Bozeman International (with all of its six gates), and then stepped up to our next challenge: to make all of our camping gear and research equipment, which had filled most of a Toyota Sienna minivan, fit into a Nissan Versa Note subcompact car. Our reasoning was that we would save a lot of money renting a small car to drive from Bozeman, MT to Portland, OR (where we would then return the small car and pick up another minivan). Drawing on my only superhuman talent (packing), I was able to make it all fit while my life collaborator watched with a look of disbelief. This chapter closes, then, with us making our long drive to White Salmon, WA and then on the next day into Portland to pick up Jordyn Miller (graduate student at Purdue) and Helen Rogers (recently graduated B.S. from UC Biology working in Professor Hamilton’s lab) to start the Ice phase of the Fire and Ice Tour.

Stay tuned for Part 2 with #TeamIce next week!

I am slowly going crazy… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… switch

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

For the past 30 days I’ve been finishing the data collection for a major experiment that spanned three field seasons. I’ve spent the vast majority of the month sitting next to experimental plant communities that contain anywhere from 8-40 species. I counted each individual of each species, pulled them all out of the ground, and then sorted them into paper bags by species, and by whether or not the plant is reproductive. Each community took up to one hour to completely harvest and with 200 communities in total… well…yep…it’s been a long summer.

As much fun as data collection can be, it’s also a tedious, sometimes painful task – especially when you need very detailed data to answer a given question. This got me thinking about all the ways I have tried to not lose my mind doing tedious field tasks over the years.


Singing is an excellent way to pass the time, and it’s easy to sing and still concentrate on the task at hand. Over the years, campfire type songs have always been a favourite, or other songs from childhood. The whole field crew will likely know the song, they’re catchy, and they’re fun. One thing I’ll warn you about though…don’t sing songs like “99 bottles of beer on the wall” or other tunes that count you down. By the time you get to 4 bottles of beer on the wall and realize you still have 194 plots left it could have the wrong effect on your motivation.

Learn a new language

I took French growing up and loved it. I lost touch with it as I entered post-secondary and really regret that. In my early years in the field, I would try to speak French, which we lovingly called “field French” because it was mostly just English words spoken in a French Canadian accent. Years later I would look up new French words each night, and then try to use them in the field the next day. And a couple years ago, I was lucky to have a field assistant who was fluent in French, and she would quiz me with various French translations. It’s a great way to pass the time and it’s a useful skill to have!

The “favourites” game

One of my favourite things to do with my field assistants is play the “favourite game” (no pun intended). We each take turns asking one another about our favourite hobbies, foods, colours…anything really. It’s entertaining and it really helps with team bonding.

Reward system

New to this field season, I started a fieldwork rewards program: one mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup for every plot we successfully count and harvest. It might encourage poor eating habits, and it might rot our teeth, but let me tell you, it is surely the most motivating way to make it through the day.

I best be off to bed now, as another long field day awaits me.

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Summers in the redwood forest

We are excited to welcome Matthew Brousil to the blog today. Matthew is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University and to find out more about him, check out his bio at the end of the post. 

When I meet someone new, they usually ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I study redwood disturbance ecology. Their eyes will then open up wide and they will tell me either how they’ve always wanted to see the redwoods, or that when they did visit the redwoods, they couldn’t believe how huge they were. At this point I shift around uncomfortably and admit that while yes I do work in the redwoods, it isn’t in quite the same place as the massive old-growth stands of northern California that they might be imagining. Instead, I have been lucky in a different way. For the last two summers I have worked in the coastal redwood forests of Big Sur, California doing research for my master’s degree program. The redwoods are a bit smaller there, but the location is still incredible.

If the majority of graduate students in the natural sciences are anything like me, then the opportunity to do field or lab work with a unique species or in an interesting location was a big part of their decision to go to grad school. When I saw advertisements for a graduate research position studying the effects of fire disturbances on redwood forests, I jumped at the opportunity and put together my application pretty much overnight. Three years later, I spend most of my summer weekdays hiking from early morning until evening in the redwood forests of Big Sur to measure trees, collect soil samples, or take pictures of the redwood canopy to determine how much light reaches the forest floor where seedlings grow. Big Sur is a huge travel destination for tourists from around the world and my work lets me see many of the same trails and parks that tourists often visit, but in locations that are more ecologically sensitive and so not available for general public access.


Me at one of Highway 1’s famous pullouts in the Big Sur area.



Kara, a technician, and Devon, a volunteer, collecting soil samples from one of our research areas at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

A hemispherical understory photo used to determine the amount of light reaching the forest floor.

A hemispherical understory photo used to determine the amount of light reaching the forest floor.                    Photo credit: Matt Terzes



One of the fantastic benefits of seeing Big Sur from *slightly* off the beaten path is that I have come to appreciate how dynamic and changing the forests and other ecosystems are along the coast. Having been a tourist in Big Sur myself, I know that the majestic redwood forests and picturesque scenery like McWay Falls inspire feelings of intense reverence and impermanence among such towering and grand sights.  And so they should.

Looking out over Highway 1 from a research area in Big Sur.

Looking out over Highway 1 from a research area in Big Sur.

Coast redwood trees in an area burned in 1985 and 1999.

Coast redwood trees in an area burned in 1985 and 1999.

Spending time off-trail for a couple of years in Big Sur, however, I now appreciate how often things really do change in the redwood forest. As locals are familiar with (and as news reports have reminded the rest of us this year), fire in the Santa Lucia mountain range is a common occurrence. Some of the sites where I do my research have experienced multiple fires in the past 30 years and the fire history for the coast redwood range shows similar patterns over longer periods of time (Lorimer et al. 2009). Large redwood trees often survive fires because of their thick bark and elevated branches, but smaller individuals are killed by tall flames yet remain standing for years afterward. Two years after a fire noticeable changes abound: thousands of sprouts and seedlings litter the forest floor around damaged trees, charred deer skeletons remain, slopes and trails become unstable terrain, and even the soil in some parts of the forest is stained an orange-brown color as a result of the fire. In areas where multiple fires occurred recently, some less fire-adapted tree species might be less common and smaller understory plants are absent from the forest floor.

Bottlebrush sprouting on redwood trees – the result of flames reaching the canopy of these trees.

Bottlebrush sprouting on redwood trees – the result of flames reaching the canopy of these trees.





Prolific sprouting at the base of redwood trees where fire has come through.

Prolific sprouting at the base of redwood trees where fire has come through.


Since the Big Sur area has been fire-prone for thousands of years, the response to these fires is  cyclical, reminding us that change is a very natural part of healthy ecosystems. Winter rains lead plants in Big Sur to put on growth that becomes fuel later in the year, and many shrubs in the area are fire adapted. In some areas, lush plant growth even covers up the visual reminders of fire within a year or so. However, an increase in fire frequency due to climate change is expected in redwood and other temperate forests in the future. The goal of my research is to describe what could happen to redwood forests when fires overlap more frequently in time and space.

Doing fieldwork is one of the biggest draws for graduate students in ecology, and the chance to see behind the scenes of the coastal redwood forests in Big Sur is an opportunity that few students in my position would pass up. These experiences allow researchers like me to observe our ecosystems of study and to collect important data with which to test hypotheses. However, I think students also gain a lot in seeing how ecosystems like the redwood forest change over the course of the time it takes to complete our degrees!

But one thing that hasn’t changed in two years’ time is the uplifting feeling of a warm breeze carrying the smells of redwood needles and blackberries through the forest as I hike. With that kind of inspiration you can do just about anything – even write your thesis.


Matthew Brousil is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University where he is working on his MSc studying coast redwood responses to fire disturbance. His first trip out to the field was in Patagonian Chile as an undergraduate, which sparked his current interests in coast redwood forest ecology. You can follow his work on Twitter through @mrbrousil.




How field biologists are like Olympians

Like a lot of people I am sure, I become very patriotic during the Olympics. I am even watching sports I never thought I would like but I find myself getting lost in the hype. Watching the Olympics while working on the blog has me comparing how field biologists are (maybe only slightly) similar to Olympians.

You may be thinking: “what could they possibly have in common?!” or “that is not a fair comparison!”, but hear me out. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the superhuman aspect of Olympic athletes; but if you think about it, there are some similarities.

You get to travel all over the world

Dispatches from around the worldAmong World Championships, PanAm games, Olympics, and other competitions in between, athletes are busy travelling around the world chasing the competitions. As you can see from our Dispatches from around the world map, field biologists are also fairly cosmopolitan.

Lots of preparation for a little time to perform

Olympians often train for years for their Olympic debut. Field biologists also have a lot of preparation to do before they set out for fieldwork. You have to chose your study

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

Knock knock

location, apply for permits, apply for funding, purchase (or find in the overflowing storage closet) equipment, practice your field techniques, and make sure you have a good idea of what type of data you want to collect. All this preparation is necessary for even a short field season such as a breeding season. If you are not prepared, you might not find the nesting sites or the birds may have already left!



Sometimes you have to perform in unpleasant conditions

Standing under the massive roots of a fallen tree

Can you ever be prepared enough for a ride on a tiny zodiac in the ocean?

Olympians in Rio this year have had to deal with many different conditions including an algae infested pool, sewage littered in the open water, and torrential downpour on the track. As a field biologist, it is no surprise that you will encounter some interesting weather, and likely conditions you were not prepared for. When I was going out to British Columbia for fieldwork, I expected it to be all wet and rainy. It turned out to be very warm and sunny, leaving me with only 2 t-shirts to cycle through (but lots of unused rain gear).


You are the best of the best; and yet still an amateur

The Olympic games are for non-professional athletes to compete. Similarly, students are the ones who are doing fieldwork to fulfil their degree so that they can become a “professional”. The expectation to do your best is evident during fieldwork as well – if you do not collect the right data you will not end up with the right results. This expectation leaves only dedicated and determined individuals to get the job done.

It looks deceivingly easy

I recently heard someone mention that a “normal” person should be included in Olympic events to remind the public that these athletes are in fact “superhuman”. The same could be said for field biologists. How hard could it be to sit in the sun on the beach all day to watch birds? If you take into account how many hours you spend sitting still in the sweltering heat, holding up your binoculars, with sand getting everywhere, it isn’t as easy as you may think.

There are also some similar events during the Olympics and fieldwork:

A tired selfie in the woods.

A field biologist’s hurdles.

-hurdles = climbing over fallen trees

-marathon running = marathon writing (workout for your brain when you return to the office)

-tennis = Cassin’s auklet, the seabird I studied for my Master’s degree, was known as a “tennis ball with wings”. Except this time you want them to get caught in the net!

What happens in the field stays in the field

As I have heard in interviews with Olympic athletes it sounds like this is true. They put everything they have into their events and leave it all out in the field. It is also a common saying among field biologists which is why we have it as our tagline for Dispatches from the Field. However, we have added “until now” as we would like this blog to be a place where field biologists can share all their stories that don’t make it into scientific papers.

Do you have what it takes?

It might be hot, but things are about to get even hotter

I love field work. It’s made my decade of post-secondary education so worth it. And just this last week, I started sampling my PhD field experiment for the last time. I’ve sampled this project in the month of August for 3 straight years now and this year it’s tougher than ever. I think there are at least a couple of reasons for the struggle this year. It’s my last field season and I don’t really know where I’m headed after this. I’ve been comfortable here for years, hanging out in my plots and counting my plants. Beyond the fear of the unknown and the comfort of the familiar, it’s also just stinking HOT. Our readers from Southern Ontario will know well that it’s been a brutal summer here with temperatures averaging the mid to high 30’s with the humidity for well over a month now. That, combined with the lack of rain (wait…what’s rain? It still rains nowadays???), has made sitting in these old abandoned fields slightly less enjoyable, by no means miserable, but certainly not wonderful.

Even though the struggle is real, I’ve persisted. Yesterday the sun was beating down so intensely on the back of my neck that I could have melted. On top of that, the humidity is so high that every piece of clothing no matter how loose clings to your body and of course there’s the deer flies. I sat there, on a bright orange milk crate, in the middle of an old farmer’s field and I thought to myself – why am I still here? I could have given up long ago. How am I persisting?

There’s a few reasons. First, I want to know the answers. I know I can’t answer my questions until I sit my butt down, and count my plants. And I do really, really want to know the answer, so I keep going. Second, I remind myself that it isn’t always like this. I’m not always going to be melting and drenched in sweat. There are lots of ups and downs in fieldwork and although, the heat might be a big downer, there’s still lots of neat things to see and experience that desk life just simply doesn’t permit. Finally, I love sharing the fieldwork experience with others. I love blogging about my experiences and I love giving our readers a true picture of what fieldwork is like. This is part of the experience, an experience most people do not get but would love to have. As field biologists we truly are the lucky ones.

Here at the blog we are even luckier because we get to share our stories with all of you, and because sharing those stories has resulted in so many new and interesting opportunities, collaborations and outreach experiences. Despite the heat Dispatches from the field has been keeping very busy this summer and have been sharing our fieldwork experiences with all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Back in May we went out to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre and did a presentation for Youth. We told some fieldwork stories while also incorporating information about what field biology actually is and the various career opportunities that involve field research.

In June, Sarah took our display up to the QUBS Open House and promoted our blog to those in attendance. This is always such a fun opportunity to showcase the neat research and other endeavors associated with the station and also marked our 2 year anniversary!

In July we gave a talk at the QUBS weekly seminar series that was in collaboration with the Kingston Frontenac Public Library called “The Truth About Stories” where we told the many tales, trials and tribulations of fieldwork in an intimate cottage-esque environment at QUBS.

This week we just completed an interview with GradChat, a weekly radio show with CFRC about our blog. It was a great opportunity to showcase our own research and the blog! We will post a link to that when it’s available next week.

In the fall we are giving the inaugural Kingston Field Naturalists talk for the 2016-17 season and also will be involved with some events with Science Literacy Week so stay tuned and check back for more details about that!

As always thanks for reading and if you’re out in this heat doing fieldwork, stay cool and send us your stories!