The right question?

The most important lesson I learned during my MSc came from a seminar given by one of the professors in my department.  “Science,” he said – pausing to emphasize the gravity of the wisdom he was about to impart, “Science…is all about asking the right question.”

Ah!  I thought, feeling a lightbulb go on in my head.  That made so much sense!  But…how would I know what the right question was?  Fortunately, he must have believed in teaching by example, because he went on to tell us the question that had inspired his years of work on marine mammal behaviour. “My question,” he said, “was quite simple: how can I spend as much time as possible sailing in the tropics?”

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

I took his advice to heart, and immediately developed a question of my own: “Where’s the most amazing place I can do fieldwork, and how do I get myself there?”

This question at least partly guided my MSc research, leading to a project involving fieldwork on Nova Scotia’s iconic Sable Island.  In fact, by the time I finished my MSc, I’d been lucky enough to do fieldwork in some pretty fantastic places, from Sable to Alaska.

However, as I prepared to begin my PhD, I noticed a major gap in my experience: I’d never done tropical fieldwork.  And from everything I’d heard, that was an experience well worth having.  Anyone who’s ever taken a biology class has probably heard the term “biodiversity hotspots” used to describe latitudes around the equator.  Well, after spending a few summers freezing in the fog of Sable Island, I was ready to try something different, and a hotspot of any kind sounded pretty good to me.

Thus, when I started my PhD at Queen’s, I knew where I wanted to go, if not what I wanted to study: I was determined to develop a project that would allow me to do fieldwork somewhere tropical.  However, I’d learned more than one lesson during my MSc degree – and so I was also determined not to repeat some of the more egregious mistakes I’d made.  Unfortunately, it turned out that these two goals were somewhat incompatible.

The second most important lesson I had learned during my MSc is that you can make your life a lot easier by working on a ‘lab’ study system – that is, one that has had the kinks worked out of it by earlier generations of grad students.  Using a lab study system gives you access to well established methods and sites, other people who know and understand your system, and, often, years worth of previously collected data.

However, despite the availability of two amazing study systems in the lab I joined at Queen’s, I was less than a week into my PhD when I decided that I wasn’t interested in either of those systems: instead, I was going to strike out on my own.  How quickly we forget.

In fact, for my PhD study system, I decided to go a step farther: instead of just picking a system that no one in my lab studied, I decided to go for broke and choose a study system that pretty much no one in the world studied.

I knew from the outset that I wanted to study partial migration – that is, the odd (although not uncommon) situation where some birds in a population migrate, while others do not.  I set about finding a study system that would allow me to pursue the questions I wanted to answer…but also finally do some tropical fieldwork.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Black-whiskered vireos seemed to fit the bill perfectly: distributed mainly throughout the Caribbean into South America, they display variable migratory behaviour throughout their range.  I started digging through the literature, trying to find out what we already knew about the species and who had figured it out.  It turned out that what we knew was slightly more than nothing – and those few facts had been figured out by a Canadian researcher affiliated with an institution not too far from mine.  Excited, I immediately sat down to send him an e-mail.  I received a response the next day – telling me that the researcher I was trying to get in touch with had passed away the day before I sent my e-mail.

It was hard not to feel that that might be a bad omen.  However, I remained determined.  I knew what I wanted to study – now I just had to figure out where to go.  Through an amazing stroke of luck, I connected with Kate Wallace, who runs an ecotourism company (Tody Tours) in the Dominican Republic.  Kate had a small camp deep in the Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range in the far southwestern end of the country – and she was eager to host scientists wanting to learn more about the Dominican’s chronically understudied avian species.

Now I had one study site – but I also wanted to be able to compare the Dominican partially migratory vireos with fully migratory vireos, so I had to look elsewhere for another.  After some searching, I found a migratory population in the Florida Keys – and thus, unwittingly, set up a Byzantine labyrinth of permitting requirements for myself.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning feather and claw samples in the field.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning samples in the field.

Multiple government agencies in three different countries, using two different languages: all the necessary ingredients for a Kafkaesque disaster.  I spent hours on the phone, mostly on hold but occasionally insisting through clenched teeth that yes, I really did need someone to explain why, despite the fact that I held a U.S. master bird banding permit, I also needed to obtain a Canadian master banding permit to band birds in the Dominican Republic.  Or trying not to yell while explaining for the fifth time that using chloroform to clean feather and claw samples while staying at a remote field camp with no lab facilities would be…challenging, to say the least.

Finally, less than a day before I was scheduled to board a plane, all the permit issues were sorted, all the necessary equipment and various backups had arrived, and I was ready to go.  But, as often happens (to me, at least), once I knew I was going to be able to go, I was suddenly no longer sure I wanted to.  I was on edge for the entire journey, from the first flight (Toronto to Miami), through the second flight (Miami to Santo Domingo), to the long drive from Santo Domingo to the field site.  I had wanted to try something different for my PhD fieldwork, but I was feeling seriously out of my element.  The drive itself only added to my worries: the farther we travelled from the city, the more our surroundings (notably, the road itself) seemed to have fallen into disrepair.

Uh...detour, anyone?

Uh…detour, anyone?

However, when the truck finally slowed to a halt outside the gates of Rabo de Gato, I knew it had been worth the battle to get there.  As we stepped out into the warm, humid air, all I could see was vivid colour, and all I could hear was the calls of unseen birds seemingly everywhere.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

The next two months were a blur of new experiences.  The scenery was awe-inspiring, the weather was great (except for the regular afternoon thunderstorm – but at least that was predictable), and the fantastically colourful birds were everything a bird nerd could wish for.  (I quickly acquired a new favourite: the broad billed tody.  These flying neon green and pink pompoms live in tiny ‘tody holes’, little caves that they excavate in clay banks.)

Perhaps the best part of the entire experience was the people I met.  Despite the fact that my abysmal Spanish skills meant we could barely communicate, they nonetheless went out of their way to help me.  For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced at Rabo de Gato was the constantly fluctuating electricity.  Sometimes we had power, sometimes not – and there didn’t seem to be any pattern to it.  Unfortunately, virtually every piece of equipment I’d brought with me, from our digital sound recorder to our emergency cell phone, needed to be charged regularly.  But with no way to predict when the electricity would come on, there was a good chance we’d be out in the field when it did, and miss the rare chance to plug in our myriad electronic devices.  The camp caretaker took it upon himself to solve this problem for us.  No matter where we were, if the electricity came on, he would come chasing after us, panting and calling out, “Luz! Tenemos luz!” – giving us the chance to rush back to camp and plug in everything we owned.

At last...luz!

At last…luz!

At the end of my field season, I found it hard to leave the colour and light of Rabo de Gato – but I told myself that I’d be back.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that, while the tropic were everything I’d hoped, the science hadn’t worked out the way I’d imagined.  The birds had proved challenging to work with in a number of ways, but the biggest problem was my inability to tell migrants and residents apart.  And so ultimately, my first field season in the tropics also ended up being my last.

Does this mean I asked the wrong question?  I’ve wondered that a lot over the last few years – but I still don’t think so, and not just because I got the opportunity to explore an amazing new ecosystem.  I also learned one of the hardest lessons of my PhD.  I took a risk on a study system that no one knew much about – and in my case, it didn’t pan out.  But I think that it was worth trying, because taking risks is so often how science advances.  Since so much science is done by students, if we don’t take risks, who will?

Worth the risk...

A day in the life of a butterfly ecologist

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Jenna Siu to share with you her experiences running through the fields trying to catch butterflies! Check out her bio and website at the end of the post.

When I tell people I did my Master’s working with butterflies I get a lot of different reactions. Among fellow biologists or naturalists there is a certain appreciation for a study species even if it may not be their species of choice. However, among the general public it is a different story. Butterflies, are they even animals?

Butterflies are indeed animals and there are a ton of reasons why butterflies make great study organisms. They are relatively easy to catch, handle, and mostly easy to observe. Plus, butterflies are relatively short lived, which makes it easy to study them over many generations. Because of this, a number of butterfly populations around the world have been monitored for decades, resulting in work that has made major contributions to our understanding of population dynamics and conservation.

Part of my project was to assess the Eastern Tiger and the Spicebush Swallowtails’ movement relative to forest edges in the fragmented landscape of southern Ontario. Did they move towards the forest edge, avoid it, or a bit of both? To learn about this we caught butterflies and released them at different distances from the edge and followed them using a GPS unit to record their movement.

Spicebush swallowtail andEastern Tiger Swallowtail

Spicebush swallowtail and Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Working on butterflies had a few benefits. They come out when it’s sunny and are active during the day. Swallowtails are some of the largest butterflies in Ontario, so they take longer to warm up. I didn’t expect to see many out before 10 am or after 5 pm. On a typical day, I rolled out of bed around 8:30 am, ate breakfast, and prepared my lunch. Eventually my field assistant would follow, we would pack the car and be on the road at 9:30 am. The main things to pack were butterfly nets, a cooler with ice packs and a towel, many glassine envelopes, a permanent marker, GPS unit, field guides, lots of sunscreen and water.

After arriving at a site, we would walk around with a net, sometimes up and down a road, through fields or along the forest edge looking for swallowtails. People often say to me, ‘I picture you frolicking in the fields catching butterflies’. Clearly, they have never gone butterfly catching before.

catching butterflies in nets in the field

Sarah, my field assistant, and I pretending to frolic in the fields catching butterflies.

Catching butterflies is anything but graceful. In fact, some advice I was given before heading to the field was, ‘if you don’t look silly doing it, you’re not doing it right’. Truer words have never been spoken. Swallowtails are very strong fliers; they can fly high and fast. I couldn’t count the number of times a swallowtail has outflown me or made me run in circles. I have chased after falling leaves, fallen on my face, gotten scrapes and bruises, gone through poison ivy, and swarms of deer flies and mosquitos all to get one more sample.

Through many failed attempts, I quickly learned the tricks of the trade. It is much easier to sneak up on swallowtails while they are on a flower feeding on nectar. However if you miss, there is about a 30 second window for you to redeem yourself; otherwise it will likely outfly you. You can also catch them mid-flight or chase after them, but trust me, it is much harder. By mid-field season, my field assistant and I were pro butterfly catchers; sometimes we caught two butterflies in one go and caught well over 600 throughout the season!

Catching butterflies in nets

Each of us (Sarah and I) with some of our proudest catches – catching two butterflies at once!

Once a butterfly was caught, we would carefully take it out of the net, put it in a glassine envelope and in the cooler. Because butterflies are ectothermic, putting them in a cooler does minimal harm – as long as it’s not too cold!

Butterflies tucked away in glassine envelopes being placed in the cooler.

Butterflies tucked away in glassine envelopes being placed in the cooler.


holding a butterfly

Butterflies are stronger than you might think.

There are a lot of myths about touching a butterfly’s wings and people always ask how safe it is for the insect. Their wings are covered in a powder-like substance that is actually tiny scales, which gives them their bright colours and patterns. Lepidoptera means ‘scaly wings’. As butterflies age, they lose their scales naturally. Although you don’t want to handle them too much and make them lose their scales faster, holding them by pinching the wings together just behind the head – the strongest part of their wing – is very safe for them.

After a few butterflies were caught, we would bring them to the release site. For each butterfly release, we would take a butterfly from the cooler, sex it, and give it a unique ID in case we caught it again.

The most reliable way to sex a butterfly is like any other animal: look at their sex organs. It can be difficult at times, but lucky for me, swallowtails are large enough that it makes it easy to tell. Females have an ovipositor at the end of their abdomen that they use to lay eggs and they tend to be thicker bodied. Males have claspers at the end of their abdomen that they use to hold on to the female and they tend to be more slender. Claspers make the abdomen pointed and if you prod at them they will open and close

Female Spicebush.

Female Eastern Tiger.

Male Spicebush.

Male Spicebush.

To mark butterflies we simply used a permanent marker to write on their wings. For Eastern Tigers, which are mainly yellow, it was easy to write a number on their underwing. But Spicebush butterflies are mainly black, meaning that any number we wrote would not show up against their wings. However, they have six orange spots on their underwings that we marked in unique patterns.

Marking the butterfly to ID

Some of our butterflies marked with marker. For the Spicebush, we made dots within their spots to make a unique ID.

After recording this information, we would put the butterfly on the ground, wait for it to take off, and follow it using flags and a GPS unit, doing our best not to influence its flight. We did this repeatedly throughout the day. When 5pm rolled around and few butterflies were to be found, we headed back to the field station to make dinner, ending the day with a few beers around the campfire.

I have now completed my Master’s and as it turns out, forest edges are an important landscape feature for these swallowtails. It can be stressful to manage your own research project, but when it’s all said and done, I only have fond memories of spend the hot summer days catching butterflies.

jennaJenna did her bachelors in biology and environmental studies at Queen’s University and successfully completed her master’s at the University of Western Ontario. Since graduating she has been traveling and is now working in the conservation field trying to get outside whenever she can. She has been fortunate enough to work with many different species such as plants, badgers and reptiles, but butterflies remain one of her favourite animals to work with. Check out her website:

The wonderful & disastrous world of seed collection

A lot of my fieldwork relies on locating populations of local wildflower species that meet a certain set of criteria. Those criteria can include life history, population size, disturbance regime, crowdedness, etc. Whenever we locate a beautiful population, everyone gets excited. The kicker is that we don’t need anything to do with the flowers…we need their seeds so that we can sow them into various experiments. Seed collection from wild plants, however, is not an easy thing. Locating the populations can be challenging in itself, but collecting the seeds, and dealing with them is even harder…and these are my stories.

Plant populations are never really safe

One of the battles we are constantly fighting is the battle with the city/township we are sampling in. We always find beautiful populations of species that fit all of the necessary criteria, we monitor them all summer, and when the seed is ready to collect, boom, they are gone. Cut down… no more… gone. One time, I was monitoring a fairly rare species population for months, and I checked the seeds to make sure they were fully mature. After I looked at them, I decided to wait another couple of days just to be sure. A few days later we were driving down windy old Opinicon Rd and we were just rounding a curve where the population was. There it was, right around the bend, the flashing yield light on the back… the county tractor mowing the roadsides. We pulled the field van over, staring at the remnants of the once perfectly mature seeds now mixed in with gravel and dirt along the side of the road. I’ll be the first to admit that roadside sampling isn’t the best idea, but sometimes you’re limited to that. It’s always a dangerous choice, but when it does work out it is so, so, so worth it.

seed collection

Kim collecting some seed from a population that was lucky enough to survive

Collecting seeds is easier said than done

In the summer of 2013, we were collecting the seeds of houndstongue, a fairly uncommon local species. There was one big population with hundreds of individuals right by the water in the west end of Kingston. We knew they didn’t mow this area, and as such, the safety of these populations was not an issue…phew. However, houndstongue have a thick, burr-like outer coating with little barbs that often stick to, well, anything it comes in contact with. I was walking through the population and didn’t notice that when I walked out, my black pants were covered in seeds. Good thing I had field assistants. After all that is what they are perfect for, helping with things like picking seeds off of your pants. I’ll have to start including that in future job descriptions.


The field help hard at work collecting seeds…off of my pants

We have also collected a lot of seed from species that have a papus on their seed, which is useful in wind dispersal. The problem with wind-dispersed seeds like this is that the second they are ready, they are gone. Too many times we have visited populations that were ready for seed collection and a sudden gust of wind sent all the seeds trickling down the road in the wind. It’s a hard life as a seed collector, I tell you.

Seed processing can be soul-crushing

For various experiments over the years, seeds had to be processed. Processing a seed can mean different things for different species. For example, some seeds require very little processing, like common mullein. You just walk up to the plant, shake it into a bag, and hundreds of thousands of seeds fall nicely into the bag. Other species are more difficult – like cow vetch, which grows in a bean-like pod and requires you to sit at a table for endless hours, popping open the seed pods. The seeds often project outwards, bumping along the table and crashing to the floor. I’m sure we have an entire seed bank under the cupboards in the lab. Another problem when processing seeds is that often material from the seed pods gets stuck in the processed seeds. This can affect the seeds when weighing them and thus this debris has to be removed. I had a particularly annoying species for this: motherwort. I tried using sieves of all different grades to remove the debris, but I just couldn’t make it work. So in a moment of desperation I turned my desk fan towards the sieve filled with seeds and debris and just turned it on. Just like magic, the seeds stayed in place and the debris blew away. Albeit, that could have ended very poorly and of course  there was a lot of clean up after that but it was well worth it.


Desperately trying to make seed processing easier

Every now and then I’m sure you walk past a dandelion here and there and pull its seeds off, rolling them between your fingers and maybe even sending them floating away into the sky. Sometimes seed collection can be just that easy but more often than not you’re met with one or many challenges along the way!

The Mighty Elf Owl

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Alicia Arcidiacono to share her stories of searching for owls including many beautiful pictures. Check out the end of her post for her bio! For more of her photography and stories visit her websites and

After many years working along the lower Colorado River studying breeding birds beneath the scorching sun, the dark side of nocturnal life called to me. It was the mighty elf owl: a dainty little ice-cream cone sized owl that calls louder than a Stellar’s jay on cocaine. It is the world’s smallest owl and the focus of my studies. In the spring, I search every nook and cranny of Arizona’s vast riparian system. The work requires a sense of humor: encounters with scorpions in your pants, cougars stalking you, rattlesnakes awaiting, and a nightly meal of peanut-butter and jelly become normal.

clearing bushes

Cato demonstrates safe trail clearing techniques.

As always, the beginning of our season starts with a rigorous boot camp, known to other field biologists as “trail clearing”. A successful day includes throwing down the axe in rage, swearing in languages unknown to any human, and charging at the vegetation with a full body dance that resembles an intoxicated rhinoceros. It ends with a few hundred meters of trail cleared and at least three open wounds.

Eventually, boot camp ends and the fun part begins; we become master bird spies.  Armed with a GPS, binoculars, and knowledge of what kinky owl behavior looks and sounds like, we decipher the owls’ deepest secrets and record them. At least, that’s what I tell people I do.

kayaking in the Bill Williams wildlife refuge.

The beautiful Bill Williams wildlife refuge, home to many survey sites.

A “typical” day & night studying the elf owl:


Saguaros are often homes to the mighty elf owl.

I chuckle at the desert scene unfolding in front of me. A donkey skull covered in donkey scat adorns the base of a creosote bush. I descend into a dense tangle of invasive salt cedar, the arch-nemesis of all living bodies along the Colorado River. I meander into the murky depths of a beaver dam and shudder when the water reaches my waist. Every 150 meters, I pause to record the survey point and an overall vegetation estimate while actively avoiding points in ponds or on cliffs as these points are revisited at night. After thirteen points, the sun has drawn its shades and part one of an elf owl survey is complete.

I meet my field partner, Keith, and we perch next to the marsh and wait for the darkness. We eat our nightly in-field dinner of PB&Js as the Virginia Rail and wild asses serenade us. Romantic, eh? When the final rusty dusk lights disappear over the earth’s edge, the official survey begins. Blasting the playback on the ginormous FoxPro unit, the maniacal laugher of the elf owl haunts my brain. Oh wait, there’s an actual owl responding! The excitement dwindles as we realize he’s at every survey point following what he perceives to be a suitable mate. Sigh. We trudge back through the moonlit desert listening to the sad song of the lone elf owl. As we cross the beaver dam, the resident beaver angrily slaps his tail. We swim-walk quickly to the safety of dry land and then limp to the Ford F150, our home for the next three months. Wet boots are ripped off, a tent grumpily set up, and a second dinner of stale Triscuits consumed. I listen to the hysterical sounds of donkeys until sleep takes me away.

tent beside the Verde bridge

Riverfront camping along the Verde River and Sheep Bridge.

Great-horned owl looks for prey

Not a mighty elf owl, but this great-horned owl would love to eat one.

Barn owl sits with its hidden nestlings

A barn owl mother sitting with her hidden nestlings.

Pickup truck with field work supplies

Fancy living out of a pickup truck.

The Mojave Desert.

The Mojave Desert.

Sitting having peanut butter and jelly before the survey begins

It’s peanut butter jelly time before the survey begins.

AliciaAfter growing up in Delaware, Alicia Arcidiacono fledged and migrated westward. For ten years, Alicia has followed the zugunruhe ways of her feathered friends. She has released endangered Aplomado Falcons in west Texas, conducted point counts in the Sierra Nevada, nest searched for woodpeckers in post-fire habitats, mapped breeding birds on the Colorado River, conducted surveys for the endangered Willow Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, taught environmental sciences as a teacher naturalist in the redwoods of California, conducted bat monitoring in southern California, researched sea turtles in Costa Rica, and studied Yellow-rumped Caciques in Peru.

Her true calling has been the Lower Colorado River, where she’s spent considerable time melting beneath the desert sun while keeping tabs on the local birds she calls family. This spring, she will be back among the mighty Elf Owls and armed with plenty of PB&Js.

Check out her photography at:

Check out her latest adventures at:



New year, new beginnings – even if it’s not in an ideal spot

Often when a biologist is going out to the field for their first time, they are super excited and usually think they have it all under control. Thoughts such as “Oh I can carry all of those heavy totes myself” or “I will map out the exact route we will take and we will not need to deviate from the plans” will run through their heads. However, as many of us learn, you can never do it all by yourself. You quickly learn that sometimes you just need that little extra support.

It was early spring when I was in Haida Gwaii to conduct my fieldwork for my project studying the seabird Cassin’s auklet. It was a still a bit chilly as Haida Gwaii is quite a bit north up the coast of British Columbia. One of the first days I was there, the others in the field crew and myself were walking from our field vehicle to the water where our boat was tied up. Keep in mind, we are dressed in about 5 layers each as it was extremely cold and very wet when we travelled in a hurricane boat out on the ocean inlets to find the isolated seabird colonies. As we were trekking it to the boat with all of our layers on and carrying all of our gear, we heard some shrieking coming from the middle of the parking lot.

I was confused at first to who could be making that high pitched sound as I couldn’t see anything. However, when I listened carefully I could hear the words “kill-deeeer” in the shrieks. When I looked closely, I could see a little bird frantically running around with it’s skinny long legs. I recognized this species before as I had seen it around my house before – a shorebird called a killdeer!

kill deer in the parking lot

Can you spot the killdeer?

Killdeer do like to nest in gravel and in grass, so you have likely seen them along side roads or on golf courses. However, this particular individual thought it would be a good idea to make a nest right in the middle of a parking lot!

Luckily, as a result of the cooler weather still, not many tourists were around. The field crew and I began to grab large sticks and branches from nearby trees to put around the nest as barricades. The killdeer continued to squawk it’s name “kill-deer” as it ran around it’s nest almost as if saying “No I do not need your help!”. Little did it realize, the stick barricades would hopefully signal to people coming by in the future to watch out for something important!

Field crew puts big branches around the kill deer nest in the middle of the parking lot

Building a barricade of (not so small) branches.

Even though we didn’t find the species we were looking for that day, we were still able to help another species protect their nest. We can all use that extra support sometimes!

Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go

2015 has come and gone, and here at Dispatches from the field we are celebrating! Celebrating our first full year in operation. Celebrating more than 10,000 views since we started including 7000+ visitors, and attention from well over 125 countries. But most of all we want to celebrate fieldwork and the plethora of posts that we have had this year, each one telling a unique story about a place, a creature or an adventure of some kind. So in the spirit of the many places 2016 is bound to take us, we wanted to thank YOU, our readers, and highlight some of the stories from this past year.

2015 was an exciting year. It all started when we planted gardens in New Zealand, wondered about whales in New Brunswick, had to do an invertebrate operation, visited Grasslands National Park, played with cane toads in Australia and this was all before the spring wildflowers even came to life!

Once spring had officially sprung we took trips to the St. Lawrence river, chased after some Whip-poor-wills, got attacked by a mouse (and a spider), caught up with the California Condor Search and Rescue squad and even helped elephants cross the road.

In the heat of the summer we went to the spider forest, listened to a chorus of frogs , made an incredible journey, experienced a show in a lake-like stadium and we turned one year old!

And as the heat began to fade away, we played with polar bears, hit up Haida Gwaii,  got into some mischief in sparrow-land, reminisced about some #fieldworkfails, and even ran into a few rattlesnakes…and yes, in Ontario.

Where will 2016 take us? You’ll just have to wait and see! Catch you every Friday for the next 52 weeks!


Amanda, Catherine and Sarah

“Lake” sampling

This week we are very excited to welcome our good friend Alex Ross to the blog. Alex just completed his MSc in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University and today he tells us all about his adventures sampling lakes in the Muskoka region. For more about Alex see the end of this blog. 

To me, taking a job that would keep me outside and, better yet, in a canoe, sounded like a dream. Growing up I spent many summer days fishing from an old beat up cedar strip canoe at a family cottage. Subsequently I spent the better part of 5 summers during my teen years and early twenties guiding canoe trips for summer camps all over Ontario and Quebec. I knew that eventually I would need a “real” job, but when I heard of an opportunity to be part of a team surveying 135 lakes in the Muskoka region I thought, great! A real job can wait a year. Little did I know that not only was this a very “real” job, but also a gateway to a career that could keep me outdoors for good.

The project itself aimed to document new establishments of an invasive aquatic invertebrate, Bythotrephes longimanis, or as it’s more well known, the spiny water flea. Coming to the Great Lakes via ballast water from ocean-going ships, these tiny invaders have since spread to hundreds of inland lakes in Canada and the United States. Largely a result from transfer by recreational boaters, secondary invasions of the spiny water flea to inland lakes have unfortunately left a trail of ecological impacts in their wake. A primary goal of our work during the summer of 2010 was to establish a model that could be used for predicting where new invasions were likely to occur. As such, our survey took us to some very remote lakes with a low likelihood of invasion, as well as some very developed lakes with a high likelihood of invasion.


The spiny water flea: the subject of our search

After getting our feet wet and confidence up by sampling lakes with relatively easy access, my field partner, Julie, and I decided to pick a lake off the beaten path, so much so that it didn’t have a name. We pulled up satellite images and old topographical maps of our lake’s location, determined where the closest road to it was and formed our plan of attack for access.

The maps showed a meandering stream that led to a forested area where we could make a short portage to hop into the lake – no problem! Well, when we arrived at the stream what we found was much more “bog”, than stream. Undeterred, we set out but eventually discovered that our stream had all but dried up and that we were woefully unequipped to make it any farther. Looping back, we hopped in our vehicle and started down an unmaintained ATV trail in hopes of getting close enough to hike in the rest of the way. Next obstacle – stuck in the mud! After a good hour spent freeing our vehicle, and with the day getting late we turned around and decided that getting to this lake might have to wait for another day.

Julie and Alex 027

What we thought was our access point to the lake

Fast-forward a month or so, and with a new plan in mind, Julie and I set out to conquer this lake, once and for all!

Julie and Alex 023

Perhaps a little too excited for what the day had in store

With hip waders in tow we set back out and launched our canoe into the stream. Similar to our first attempt, it wasn’t long after putting it in that we came to a point where the water was all but absorbed by wetland sedges, flowers, and muck.

Julie and Alex 046

Quickly running out of water to paddle through

Now, let me walk you through what the rest of the journey looked like…

Once the stream became un-navigable it was time to get creative. Waist-high mud made us perform a rather uncoordinated combination of poling ourselves ahead with our paddles, and hopping out of the canoe to pull, and push it forward in increments of what seemed like an inch at a time. Unfortunately, there are no photos of this process but if you can imagine two people in the middle of nowhere, literally stuck in mud – that was us. Along with that, place a chorus of delirious laughter and excessive swearing that only the smaller creatures in our midst were privy to – I’m sure that many reading this have found themselves in identical situations.

Once the ground firmed up, slightly, we continued pulling our canoe through thick brush and shrubs, receiving the odd scrape to the arm or poke in the eye by an errant branch.

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Not an environment fit for a canoe…

Finally on solid ground and with our lake at the top of a ridge we carried our canoe and all of our sampling gear up a steep slope to finally get a glimpse at the lake that had eluded us for so long.

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Nearly there!

The lake itself was essentially a beaver pond, shallow and no larger than a few swimming pools in size. Although many would consider this no more than a puddle, I cannot think of a more triumphant and accomplished feeling that entire summer than finally launching our canoe into this unnamed lake.

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Our final destination

As Julie and I found out, “lake” sampling often involved much more than calm sunny days on the water. However, we are happy to report that, at least on this day – the spiny water flea had not invaded our stubborn, secluded lake.


Alex Ross is currently working as a research technician at McGill University in an aquatic ecology lab, working on a fish conservation project with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Alex’s research interests lie in understanding how aquatic communities and ecosystems respond to environmental change. His Masters project looked at understanding  biological recovery of acidified lakes facing emerging stressors.