Helping the elephant cross the road: restoring lost elephant corridors in the Western Ghats

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Aditya Gangadharan, who continues our exploration of fieldwork in remote places with some stories from his PhD work in India’s Shencottah Gap.  As part of our ongoing collaboration with Wild Lens, Aditya also shared his experiences with Matthew Podolsky in an Eyes on Conservation podcast.  

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

You might wonder what is so remote about a region where more than 300 people live per square kilometre on average. I mean, that’s more than twice the population density of a city like Edmonton, where I currently live. But such profound thoughts are far from your mind when you are trying to sneak down from your camp to the nearby stream for a bath after a hard day of fieldwork in the rainforest (also known to insiders as ‘death by a million leech bites’).

The reason you are sneaking is that there are lots of elephants around. They like to bathe in the stream too, and don’t like to be interrupted by pesky humans…

Elephant 1

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

… and if (correction: when) they charge at you in the dark, the 200m to your camp may as well be 200km for all the help you will get!

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

Such is fieldwork in the Western Ghats of India – one of the richest and most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world. My PhD research was in the 400 sq. km Shencottah Gap, an economically-productive region that separates two reserves – and my goal was to identify corridors that could be restored, so that elephants and tigers could move between these reserves once again.

Rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

The Shencottah Gap: rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

A typical campsite - no fuss, nothing fancy required!

A typical campsite – no fuss, nothing fancy required!

Many of those remnant corridors are in the more rugged areas, because people tend to be concentrated into towns, villages and farmland in the flat, fertile valleys – and so, we follow the wildlife upwards! Of course that is easier said than done – there are few roads, so you have to walk to most places. You often have to camp out to reach those places, which in our case simply involves putting one tarpaulin sheet on the ground, another on top, and keeping a fire going.

But how do you find the animals? The vegetation is thick, so you rarely have any direct sightings – instead, you have to look for animal signs (like tracks and dung), or set up camera traps that automatically take a picture when an animal passes by. Normal people do this fieldwork only during the 6-9 months of the year when it is not raining. Less normal people such as myself are often in the field during the entire year, including the monsoon!

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.


Setting up a camera trap.

Setting up a camera trap.

Now, in the photo above, you probably noticed that the camera is encased in a very solid metal case, and secured by a heavy chain (no wonder my back hurts!). You might also be wondering: why is there elephant dung on top of the camera?

Well, elephants like to destroy cameras. And it is not fun to toil up a rugged mountain, place a camera there, go back after 3 weeks, and see that your camera was smashed on the same day you deployed it. So I had this brilliant and cunning idea that if I smeared the camera cases with dung, elephants might treat them with more kindness. The results I got were spectacularly useless: elephants are intelligent animals, and they are not going to be fooled by such a simple plan. The only tangible result of my experiment was my backpack smelling of dung for many weeks.

But I didn’t even mind them smashing the cameras…as long as they didn’t damage the SD cards!  Due to the kindness shown by some elephants in sparing our SD cards, we were able to document, for the first time in 30 years, elephants attempting to cross the Shencottah Gap. Specifically, we got them at the exact place that they had to turn around, because they were blocked from crossing by the steep descent down to the highway and the heavy traffic at this narrow pass:

Definitely a challenge for elephants to negotiate...

Turn back here: this steep descent and busy highway were impossible for elephants to cross.

And so, that’s where we are at today: it is demonstrably possible to restore these corridors in the Shencottah Gap. But actually implementing this restoration is a huge task – one that will likely take many years, and has to be led by the government. Luckily, there are positive signs from the government so far. One day, I hope this little guy will be able to migrate across the Shencottah Gap as his ancestors once did.

Elephants 3

AdityaAditya Gangadharan works on conserving biodiversity in fragmented landscapes that are subject to multiple uses by humans. He focuses on converting technical research into actionable policy recommendations, and communicating these to managers and the general public. He blogs about elephants, tigers and frogmouths at

Lost in Patagonia

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we continue to explore the theme of remote and isolated fieldwork with a guest post by Carmen Lishman, who contributes a somewhat chilling tale of her adventures in the wilderness of Patagonia.  To learn more about Carmen, make sure to read her bio at the end of the post.

I could not stop shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was the mounting fear or the relentless icy blast of the Patagonian wind that tumbled off the Andes far to the west of me and never stopped.  It roared in my ears, burned my face, and tore at my every step. I was lost, utterly lost; the sun was gone and with it had gone the meager warmth of the Austral spring as the plunging temperature froze me to the core.  I was lost with no camping gear, no water, no food.

It wasn’t the first time in recent memory I had been vibrating with fear. Two days previously, I was sitting in the living room of my tiny apartment in the small Argentinean city of Rio Gallegos. It was not cold, dark, or windy but I could hardly hold the phone as I worked up the courage to call the owner of the ranch where I was now so utterly lost. I was calling to ask him if I could search for Chorlitos on the lakes on his ‘estancia’, or ranch. Chorlito is Spanish for ‘plover,’ a shorebird that nests on the shores of inland lakes of southern Patagonia, in Argentina & Chile. I was shaking because I had never before requested landowner permission in Spanish over the phone and I was anxious about not understanding his response, or not being able to answer his questions in my new language.

The phone was ringing in my ear, and I heard him answer as I held my breath. Here it goes, I thought: “Hola, soy Carmen. Soy Bióloga Canadiense y estoy en Santa Cruz estudiando una ave que se llama Chorlito Ceniciento”. Translation: I’m Carmen, a Canadian biologist who is in this province studying a bird called the Magellanic Plover. He responded that he was willing to have me study his lakes, but didn’t feel comfortable giving me a key to the gates. He wanted to take me himself. I didn’t know what to say. I had not expected this conditional response. I normally would park on the side of the road, hop a fence and walk to the lakes. I tried to explain this to him, but he told me it was much too far. I had to be able to drive in, and he would take me. Ummm… OK. I couldn’t formulate a response, another idea or an alternative plan right there on the spot, so I agreed. “Great!” he said, “I’ll pick you up at 5:30 am on Tuesday.”

Thousands of scenarios raced through my mind.  What if he was a bad guy?! What if he had plans to take me to his farm and chop me up and feed me to the Pumas?! But I re-grouped, and looked again at the satellite images of the area. The lakes were very far from the road, he was right about that. I had also been told by all my connections in the area that this Estancionero, or ranch-owner, was a very nice man. I told myself he was just genuinely interested in helping me get to those lakes as safely as possible. So I prepared for my 5:30 am pick-up on Tuesday and pushed the doubts from my mind.

Tuesday arrived.  I got in his truck and thanked him for coming out of his way to get me. As we departed Rio Gallegos along the lonely highway that follows the river, I explained a bit about my project. “The Magellanic Plover is a rare bird endemic to the southernmost areas of Patagonia. Nobody knows much about the birds, especially about their breeding biology. I am doing a basic natural history study: finding nests, observing birds’ habits, taking measures of their habitat, following their reproductive season and documenting as much as I can.”

We entered the gate from the highway and approached the top of a hill looking down on the 3 beautiful lakes. He turned to me and said, “Here’s the plan: I’ll drop you off here. At 4:30 pm I am going to be driving on a road over there” – he signaled broadly with his hands towards the west. “When you are finished at the lakes,” he continued, “just walk west until you find the road. Make sure you’re there at 4:30.”

“Okay, sounds good” I said. In retrospect, it’s possible that a thought or two popped into my head about the feasibility of this plan – but I was so excited to get into the field and start my day, I didn’t really think it through.

My normal routine for searching new lakes was to use coordinates from satellite images. I would drive as close as I could on the highway, park, hop a fence to walk towards the lake using the GPS. I would always, always, take a waypoint where I had parked my car so I could find my way back to the car at the end of the day. That’s why this plan was different. I would not be returning to the same spot. However, I figured that if I walked in one direction for long enough, I’d bound to hit a linear feature like a road.

I headed down to the lakes and had a wonderful field day. Within a couple hour I had found six breeding pairs of plovers. A goldmine, really, as this species usually nests in such low densities.

I hunkered down at mid-day to observe a pair of birds. Getting comfortable between some rocks, I dozed off, then woke suddenly.  Before I could realize where I was, I felt a pebble hit my head. I woke up and spun around to see a Gaucho (cowboy) mounted on his horse, staring at me in disbelief. I don’t know who was more surprised. I doubt he finds foreign white girls taking a nap on the gravel of his ranch very often. I quickly introduced myself and explained what I was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I found a nest this morning, from an ostrich.” I raised my eyebrows as he presented me with a very large egg, which he insisted on me keeping as a gift.

He asked how I was planning to get back. “I’m going to meet el señor on the road over there at 4:30,” I responded.

His jaw dropped. “Really?! It’s very far! Can I take you on my horse?”

When a gaucho says its far, youd better believe him!

When a gaucho says it’s far, you’d better believe him!

I politely declined and explained that I have no problem walking long distances, that I would get there ok and that I had more work to do before I started in that direction, since it was only 1:30 pm. He encouraged me to start walking soon. (Sidenote: If a seasoned gaucho of the Patagonian Steppe ever tells you that something is far away, take it as gospel. They know what distance means, living in a giant ocean of grassland.) He was right. It was far. I later looked on Google Maps and, to my horror, the drop-off point and the closest point on the road were 22 km apart as the crow flies. Add my traipsing around the lakes, and the expectation was for me to walk over 35 km that day.

I finally finished up my field work at 3:30 and began walking west, as I had been instructed. I walked for a long time.  I came across a number of little roads: some small two-tracks, and then a couple of dirt roads. I started to doubt myself. What size of road did he mean? Had I passed the road already? Or was it farther ahead? I tried to use my binoculars to see ahead. It was no use. I kept walking, but then I started to think…this is way too far… I must have passed the road. I back-tracked to a fair-sized road. Then I walked west again. I just kept walking.

4:30 went by, then 5, then 6, then 7pm. There was darkness on all fronts and I began to shiver. I climbed to the top of the highest point and used my spotting scope to try and find the rancher’s headlights. Nothing – nothing but utter lonely darkness.  How stupidly unprepared I was. I had no water left, no food, and my clothing was way too light. I will definitely freeze out here overnight. My only plan- I would have to find a sheep and hug it all night. In the morning I would walk directly south until I got to the highway and hitchhike back into town.  Okay…find a sheep, find a sheep. I took one more look in my spotting scope…and saw a speck of light on the horizon! I ran towards it with every bit of energy I had.

When I caught up to the truck, I was crying. But as it turned out, so was the estancionero! He snapped “WHERE WERE YOU?!” and then his face softened, as he said, “I was so scared I’d lost you!” I got in the truck and we both just vibrated in silence as we bumped our way back into the city.

Carmen LishmanCarmen Lishman (B.Sc., M.Sc. (Biology), M.Sc. (SLP-C)) is a Conservation Biologist, Speech-Language Pathologist and engaged global citizen. Raised in rural Ontario, Carmen studied biology at Dalhousie University, where her research interests in shorebirds blossomed and led to a Master’s thesis on a rare and enigmatic bird in Patagonia, Argentina. In 2008, Carmen became involved in efforts to protect sea turtles and scarlet macaws from illegal harvesting in Nicaragua. A deeper look at the socio-economic struggles facing the poachers forced her to shift the focus of her efforts to include wildlife and people. She co-founded Purple Hill Humanitarians, a grass roots group that seeks to improve conditions for rural families in Nicaragua. Carmen now divides her time between working as a Speech Therapist, working as an associate with the International Conservation Fund of Canada, and volunteering in the planning and implementation of projects related to conservation, education and health care in Nicaragua.

A day in the life of a field biologist

This week, we continue our theme of remote fieldwork with a post from Mikaela Howie about her experiences studying seabirds in the isolated eastern Aleutian Islands of Alaska.  To hear more about her experience and research, make sure to check out her short film and podcast, produced by Wild Lens!

What does it mean to be a field biologist, really?

It means spending much of your life out of touch with family and friends, having dirt under your fingernails more often than not, and calling multiple states, or countries, home in a given year.  You want to sign up, don’t you?

Ok, ok, so that is some of the nittty gritty of being a field biologist.  But of course, as with any venture, there are positives just as there are negatives.  And for some of us, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Meet the neighbours: Stellar sea lions lounging at Pleasure Cove

Meet the neighbours: Stellar sea lions lounging at Pleasure Cove

Freshly hatched black oystercatcher chick

Freshly hatched black oystercatcher chick

So, what are the positives?  Well, if you have an adventurous spirit, the plain and simple adventure of being in the field should be incentive enough.  But, what about getting to live on an island and calling endangered Steller sea lions your neighbors and watching whales pass by as an evening pastime?  How about witnessing the hatching of a black oystercatcher chick or thinking the spinning vortex of hundreds (thousands?) of tufted puffins flying just outside your cabin is a normal everyday occurrence?  These are only some of the experiences I added to my repertoire during my summer field job on Aiktak island, chronicled in a short film produced by Wild Lens.

Aiktak is a small island of 155 hectares out in the middle of the eastern Aleutians that myself and one other crew member called home for 3.5 months, along with the many field biologists that came before us and those that have followed.  The island itself is home to more than 100,000 tufted puffins, ancient murrelets, leach’s and fork-tailed storm petrels, horned puffins, cormorants, black oystercatchers and glaucous-winged gulls – not to mention the other avian visitors and marine mammals – during the summer months.

A typical day on the island is waking to, not the sound of an alarm, but the ever-present chatter of the gulls and, likely, the pitter-patter of rain or the whiteness of the Aleutian fog.  One key advantage to working with seabirds is there is no need to get up at the crack of dawn like songbird work demands.  Yes, you might get to sleep in but you are probably still a bit groggy from having spent the wee hours of the night mist netting storm petrels for diet samples or capturing  fledging ancient murrelets on film.  But you pull it together with a large breakfast of an omelet, compliments of dehydrated egg powder, a bagel with homemade blueberry jam, and a large homemade latte…again, compliments of dehydrated dairy products.

After suiting up with gauntlets, Helly Hansen’s, and Xtratuf boots, you head out to the first of 20 storm petrel plots where your task is to “grub” in each burrow and use your fingers to determine the status of each nest – egg, chick, or possibly rather upset incubating adult.  You trudge along from plot to plot, making note that the bald eagles are still sitting on eggs, the sea lions are lounging at Pleasure Cove and there is a playful sea otter off the coast of Petrel Valley Cove.

Suited up and ready for grubbing!

Suited up and ready for grubbing!

After a long afternoon of hiking the island, checking up on the storm petrel burrows and trying to locate some more tufted and horned puffin nests, you make your way back to the Puffin Palace, the only accommodation on Aiktak, and settle in to making a good meal and data work.

Home sweet home: Puffin Palace

Home sweet home: Puffin Palace

Many people think that you all you have to eat in the field is pork & beans and canned spinach, and yes, sometimes we do eat these things.  But, one of the beauties of field work in wonderfully remote places like the Aleutian islands is that there are plenty of edible plants to supplement your diet, as well as fishing, of course.  You do need to do your research and bring along a good, dependable field guide to help you sort out the edibles from the hurt-your-stomach berries, leaves, and flowers.  But after doing my homework, one of the greatest joys I have had as a field biologist is seeking out edible plants, and collecting, drying and preparing them to use in our meals.  On Aiktak, we were surrounded by an ever-changing landscape as the season progressed from brown to green to colourful wildflowers everywhere!  Some of our edible favourites were spring beauties (leaves and flowers) and wild rhubarb leaves for salads, fried daffodil buds for an appetizer, and dried seaweed and kelp for pizzas and lasagna.  Yup, we made lasagna while on the island!

Some of the spectacular wildflowers of Aiktak.

Some of the spectacular wildflowers of Aiktak.

...and some of the even more spectacular cooking.  A rock kelp greenling (caught by yours truly), and an edible plant salad of spring beauty, rhubarb, and daffodil leaves with monkey flower blossoms on top!

…and some of the even more spectacular cooking. A rock kelp greenling (caught by yours truly), and an edible plant salad of spring beauty, rhubarb, and daffodil leaves with monkey flower blossoms on top!

Feeling full in your belly and having done the dishes and entered the day’s data, it’s time to do a little self-maintenance down at the creek where the local Aleutian green-winged teals are enjoying the quiet and uncommonly calm evening.  The cold water stings a bit but, using the bathe bucket, you grit your teeth and pour it over you anyway, knowing that the feeling of clean hair and skin will be well worth it as you sip hot tea in your bunk that night.  Some people would not dare to take these cold baths, but it is no secret that I cherish these times.  Yes, a hot shower is a welcome commodity at the end of the field season, but how many people get to say they bathed in the Bering Sea?  I would gamble that any who answer yes refer to themselves as humble field biologists.

A calm moment catching the sunset from Old Camp Beach, Aiktak

A calm moment catching the sunset from Old Camp Beach, Aiktak

Mikaela in action, monitoring murres on Aiktak.

Mikaela in action, monitoring murres on Aiktak.

Mikaela Gioia Howie hails from a European family and has spent the last 10+ years working as a wildlife researcher and obtaining a MS in Biology from the College of William & Mary.  Having lived and worked in many different places, including Alaska, Maine, Ohio and Spain, she currently resides in Bozeman, MT where skiing and fishing are her favourite pastimes.  She is entertaining the idea of returning to school to pursue a PhD in wildlife biology, but who knows what new adventure will entice her back out into the field!  To find out more about Mikaela’s experiences on Aiktak, make sure to watch her film, listen to her podcast, and visit the blog she maintained while on the island. 

The California condor Search and Rescue squad

Here in eastern Ontario, it seems that spring has finally sprung!  We at Dispatches from the Field couldn’t be happier: from the first appearance of spring flowers to the arrival of migratory birds and the sudden bursts of frog song, we love this time of year.  Spring is a time of new beginnings – and in honour of that, we’re trying something new for the month of May.

In several previous posts, we’ve talked about the fact that fieldwork often happens in the most unexpected places – from botanical gardens to urban beaches and polluted city harbours.  But just as often, fieldwork can take biologists to the ‘ends of the earth’, and fieldwork in remote and isolated places is a completely unique experience.

During the month of May, Dispatches from the Field will be collaborating with our good friends, the wildlife filmmakers at Wild Lens, to share that unique experience in multiple ways.  Dispatches will feature a great lineup of guest posts from people who have worked in the most amazing and untouched places, from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to remote stretches of Patagonia, while Wild Lens will be releasing a short film about studying seabirds in the Aleutian Islands, and several podcasts focusing on the experience of remote fieldwork.  So stay tuned for an exciting month, and make sure to check out the Wild Lens blog to learn more about some of the stories we’ll share over the next few weeks.

This week’s post is written by Wild Lens co-founder Matthew Podolsky, who tells us about one of his experiences working with condors in the remote regions of the Grand Canyon.  For more about Matthew and Wild Lens, see his bio at the end of the post.

Mist over the Grand Canyon

Mist over the Grand Canyon

In the Grand Canyon of Arizona, California condor biologists have been aiding park service law enforcement by tracking the movements of condors in areas where people have gone missing. There have been a handful of documented instances of condors feeding on human carcasses in the Grand Canyon, and the folks from the park service recognize the utility of using the condor’s ability to find carcasses in this vast desert canyon system. I am one of several condor biologists to have aided the park service in the recovery of a human body from the Grand Canyon.

In addition to my own account, I was able to share the stories of several fellow condor biologists in my documentary film, Scavenger Hunt.  (Check out the trailer for this film below!)

One of the benefits of working as a field biologist is having the occasional opportunity to live and work in extremely remote locations. The Northern Arizona desert is as close as I’ve gotten to living in isolation – we had a field crew of 10 people and maybe 60 or so folks living in the little highway community of Vermilion Cliffs while I was there. But although very few people live out there in the desert, a whole lot of people come to visit the area.

Vermillion Cliffs, the condor release site

Vermilion Cliffs

The Grand Canyon is close to the Vermilion Cliffs and the condor release site – especially if you’re flying. The best nesting habitat for these birds is found in the Grand Canyon. There are caves found in a particular sandstone layer of the canyon that the birds seem to be attracted to. But how much food could a condor really find down in the canyon? There just aren’t too many large animals down there: in fact the most abundant large animal to be found in many areas of the canyon is the species we belong to – humans!

A radio transmitter attached to a condor feather

A radio transmitter attached to a condor feather

I was working along the South Rim of the canyon, keeping track of a group of birds with binoculars and radio telemetry. (Each and every condor is outfitted with a radio transmitter, and this is what allows biologists to track the birds’ movements.) I got a call from our field manager, who told me that there was a missing person in the canyon and that I should expect a phone call from park service law enforcement.

Sure enough, a few minutes later the call came in. The ranger gave me the location where this man had last been seen, and I told him that I would let him know if I had any condor activity that might indicate that they had found something. This would of course be an indication that their missing person was probably dead, since condors are most interested in dead animals (being strictly scavengers, they feed exclusively on dead animals).

The next day while out on the rim doing telemetry surveys for the condors – which means I was swinging a good size radio antenna around – I was approached by an unusual group of people. They asked me if I was one of the condor biologists; I said yes, and before I could start with my spiel about condor natural history they introduced themselves as the family of someone who was missing down in the canyon.

They had been told by the park ranger that through my work tracking the condors, I was helping them find their loved one. After getting over the shock that a park ranger would have shared this type of information, I got into a long and interesting conversation with the family. They were fascinated by the work I was doing and by the ability of our crew to track the movements of each individual bird.

The situation became tricky, however, when I did start to notice some activity right in the area described to me by the park ranger. Three birds were circling down in the canyon and acting like they had found a carcass. It could have been a bighorn sheep or a burro, but I decided to call up the ranger and let him know what I was seeing – from inside my truck, after parting ways with the family of the missing man.

The next morning I was hiking down into the canyon with the ranger and two other park service employees in search of this missing person, who we were assuming at this point was likely dead. It took several hours to hike down to the area, but once we were down there the condors quickly led us to the body of an older man. The birds had just started to pick at the body – it was gruesome, but I was happy that the condors hadn’t yet started to really dig in.

We took a few steps back from the body to assess the situation, and the park ranger noticed the son of the missing man hiking down a switchback on the trail above us. He took off up the trail to divert him. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to break this news to a family member after just discovering this man’s body.

Airlifting the missing person's remains out of the canyon

Airlifting the missing person’s remains out of the canyon

I was told that I was absolutely not obligated to help with the removal of the body, but I could see that they were going to need an extra hand. We had to roll the body to get it into the body bag and we were situated on a precariously steep talus slope. We were able to get it all wrapped up however (with only a few close calls), and the ranger called in the helicopter to airlift the body.

The next day I was invited to participate in a park service incident assessment meeting – everyone who had been involved in the recovery of the missing man shared what they thought had gone well, and where they thought there could be improvement. I don’t remember what I said – probably something about collaboration between the condor crew and the park service – but all I could think about while listening to everyone’s assessment was how silly it all seemed. Here was an entire room of people talking about what that did right and what they did wrong in the recovery of this missing person – but it was the condors that had found that body!

Later on in the meeting someone actually brought this up in our discussion – how could they justify spending all this money and risking additional lives when they could just rely on the condors to find the people who go missing in the canyon? Of course the condors only develop an interest in missing persons after they have expired, so if your goal is to find someone while they are still living this would pose a bit of a problem. I guess that’s why they haven’t adopted this type of policy as of yet.

Beautiful, huge, and wild: it's not easy finding anything in the Grand Canyon

Beautiful, huge, and wild: it’s not easy finding anything in the Grand Canyon

Months later I received an extraordinarily thoughtful and unexpected thank you card from the family of the man whose body I had helped recover from the canyon. It doesn’t seem strange to me anymore that these people connected with me at that difficult and grief-filled moment. The condors allowed them to take a step back and look at their situation from a broader perspective. Maybe even from the condor’s perspective – an intelligent animal that shows what could be interpreted as respect for its own dead, but sees the body of a human as just another carcass.


Matt Podolsky handles a California condor

Matt Podolsky handles a California condor

Matthew Podolsky helped found Wild Lens in 2011 with the goal of bringing biologists and filmmakers together to produce films that would have an impact on critically important wildlife conservation issues.  Immediately after the inception of Wild Lens, he began full-scale production on his first feature length film, Scavenger Hunt.  Matthew also served as producer and co-director of Bluebird Man; he is a producer on the Eyes on Conservation documentary series and serves as the host of the Eyes on Conservation podcast.  Prior to his work with Wild Lens, Matthew spent four years working as a biologist with the endangered California condor, spending time with the wild population of condors in Arizona and Utah, as well as with the captive breeding program in Boise, Idaho.  Matthew received both a BA in Cinema/Photography and a BS in Environmental Science from Ithaca College.

My newfound love: the St. Lawrence River

We are very happy to welcome Colleen Burliuk to the blog today. Colleen is busy collecting data on the the American eel for her Master’s degree. While collecting this data, she tells us about how she fell in love with the St. Lawrence river.

Love at first sight is a beautiful electric thing, and that’s how I feel about the St. Lawrence River since I started doing fieldwork there a year ago. I was introduced to it in Mallorytown by setting crayfish traps for a lab mate’s feeding experiment in the mouth of Jones Creek. I was immediately struck by the river’s beauty and the diversity of life in and around its waters.  Since last April I have learned so much about many river species from crew members and my supervisor, and that has only deepened my affection for the water body.

Summer 2014 in Thompson’s Bay, one of our study areas on the St. Lawrence River.

Summer 2014 in Thompson’s Bay, one of our study areas on the St. Lawrence River.

I have had the opportunity to participate in studies on lake sturgeon and American eel on the St. Lawrence River. These studies required large amounts of time on the water but I’m not complaining! We have been locating acoustically tagged lake sturgeon that were caught by gillnets, conducting electrofishing surveys, and most recently we are locating radio tagged eels. These two species could not be more different but they each have characteristics that allow them to live in their specific niche. Sturgeon are cartilaginous and have large fins that allow them to glide along the bottom of the river. Eels have an elongate form which enables them to fit in amazingly tight spaces. These projects have provided valuable insight into the habitat requirements of both species and have given opportunities to observe other species as well.

Two of my favourite fish, a Lake sturgeon (left) and an American eel (right).

Two of my favourite fish, a Lake sturgeon (left) and an American eel (right).

It can be difficult to observe fish that aren’t implanted with transmitters but  I was able to see a variety of species through electrofishing surveys. I was a member of an electrofishing crew last June that was indexing eels and I was completely amazed to see all of the different size and colour fish swimming to the surface. These include but are not limited to sparkly minnows, gianormous carp, bright yellow perch, whiskered bullheads and catfish, colourful pumpkinseed and of course anglers’ favourite, large and small-mouth bass. In an undergraduate class I had learned that Ontario has the highest freshwater fish diversity in Canada, with a total of 128 species, which I could appreciate after a night of electrofishing!

The benefit of working in the field is that you can see all sorts of wildlife other than your study species. I love watching minks scamper on the beach or hearing goldeneye whistling overhead as they migrate south for the winter. This winter we were lucky enough to even see two enormous bald eagles on the ice. The wingspan on those things! But the most magical moment I’ve had on the river, apart from actually locating our radio tagged eels, was motoring beside a pair of low-flying trumpeter swans not 8 feet from our boat.

Spring field season has started and while I’ll be spending the majority of the summer locating eels, I’ll also be keeping an eye on all of my other river friends and hoping to meet new ones!

Back on the open river locating radio implanted eels!

Back on the open river locating radio implanted eels!

Colleen Burliuk (pictured above) is a Queen’s University graduate who is conducting research on the Upper St. Lawrence River with Dr.John Casselman. She is collecting data on the wintering habitat of the American eel for her Master’s degree.

Where there’s a Whip-poor-will, there’s a way

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are very excited to welcome guest blogger and good friend Liz Purves, an MSc student at Queen’s University, to tell us about her field work with Whip-poor-wills. Check it out below!

Despite their unmistakable and relentless song, Whip-poor-wills, in my opinion, are one of the hardest woodland birds to find. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was fortunate enough to assist Philina English (PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University) during her pilot field season investigating Whip-poor-will habitat use, reproductive biology, and feeding ecology at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). This research was exciting because it was some of the first to investigate the basic biology of this poorly understood but fascinating species at risk – and it was happening right in QUBS’ backyard.

Can you spot the Whip-poor-will? Photo credit: Philina English

Can you spot the Whip-poor-will? Photo credit: Philina English

Whip-poor-wills are superbly adapted to being difficult to find, which sort of explains why we know so little about them. For one thing, these birds are the definition of cryptic; camouflaged and motionless, Whip-poor-wills spend the day unnoticed by most as they sit on the leaf litter or a low lying branch in open woodlands. During this field season, I imagined Whip-poor-wills as elusive, feathery jewels of the forest. Needless to say, it was nearly impossible for us to find Whip-poor-wills in the daytime without radio telemetry or blind luck – and by blind luck, I mean almost stepping on one and having a heart attack as it flushes out from below you in a whirl of brown and grey.


Female Whip-poor-wills always lay two eggs directly on the leaf litter. Photo credit: Philina English

These eggs hatch into adorable chicks. Photo credit: Philina English

These eggs hatch into adorable chicks. Photo credit: Philina English

Consequently, finding Whip-poor-wills required some unorthodox work hours. These birds come to life at dusk, dawn, and on moonlit nights because they rely on low light conditions to catch flying insects and carry out other activities after the sun goes down. So, it was during these odd hours that we heard males singing their hearts out around their breeding territories and saw individuals funnelling flying insects into their cavernous mouths alongside gravel roads. It was also during these dark hours when we would go looking for the notorious “whip-poor-will nests”.

The Cataraqui Trail near QUBS provides ideal foraging habitat for Whip-poor-wills. Photo credit: Philina English

The Cataraqui Trail near QUBS provides ideal foraging habitat for Whip-poor-wills. Photo credit: Philina English

We spent a lot of time searching for Whip-poor-will nests. Normally, nest searching can be a very difficult task, but Whip-poor-will nest searching may be on a whole different level. First of all, these birds lead a simple life and nest directly on the leaf litter; you will never be led to a nesting site by a Whip-poor-will carrying nesting material because no nest is built. Second of all, as previously mentioned, Whip-poor-wills are basically ninja masters of disguise during the daytime. So, the most practical way to find a Whip-poor-will nest is to stumble around in the woods at night and shine your headlamp in every direction, hoping to catch a glimpse of a nesting Whip-poor-will’s eye shine – the orangey-red pupil glow that results from having a tapetum lucidum for improved night vision – and not some other beast of the night. This method proved fairly effective; however, despite countless hours of walking through the forest at night, my personal nest finding score was still pitifully low (sorry, Philina!).

Whip-poor-will eye shine. Photo credit: Philina English

Whip-poor-will eye shine. Photo credit: Philina English

Not surprisingly, this field season was the most challenging, but worthwhile field experience I’ve had. Not only was most of the work conducted at dusk, dawn, and during the hours in between on moonlit nights, but it involved setting up mist nets in the dark, fairly difficult hiking over beautiful rock barren landscapes, and regularly deliberating between eating lunch and sleeping through it. And I’ll admit it, scrambling up craggy, poison ivy-covered slopes, the mysterious lip swelling from an unknown insect sting, and getting hopelessly disoriented in the dark were less than ideal. But despite these challenges, this field season had some serious perks, like getting to know Whip-poor-wills up close and personal (they are surprisingly soft and gentle), experiencing the entirely different “night world” at QUBS (sleeping Blue jays look hilarious), and being able to sleep in almost every day, which is unheard of during typical bird research. But, in the end, the thing that made all the struggles worth it was the feeling of triumph after spotting the warm orange glow of Whip-poor-will eye shine reflected in the light of your headlamp.

Love at first sight. Photo credit: Philina English

Love at first sight. Photo credit: Philina English

Liz Purves head shot

Liz Purves is an MSc student in Dr. Paul Martin’s lab at Queen’s University. Inspired by her field experience studying Whip-poor-wills, she decided to investigate the role of breeding habitat loss in Whip-poor-will declines in Canada for her current MSc project. In the future, Liz would like to continue contributing to projects related to species at risk research and conservation.

Close encounters of the uncaffeinated kind

I am not a morning person.  I’ve always wanted to be, and sporadically tried to be – but quite frankly, I am just not at my best before 8 am.  Which makes my decision to study birds – a career choice that often requires getting up long before the sun – perhaps not one of my smartest life choices.  Although I love most things about fieldwork, I can’t deny that there are parts I’m less fond of: the dreaded sound of my alarm going off in the dark, the wrenching realization that I actually have to get out of bed even though most of the world is still asleep, and the difficulty of finding my clothes and getting dressed with my eyes still mostly shut.

Once I’m up, though, I usually find myself enjoying the quiet, pre-dawn world – as long as I get my coffee and some uneventful peace and quiet in which to sip it.  Despite how that sounds, I’m not a coffee fanatic.  In fact, I didn’t even like the stuff until I started doing fieldwork and getting up regularly at 4:30 a.m..  Even now, I’ll usually only have one cup, first thing in the morning – but God help everyone around me if I don’t get that cup.

For me, coffee is an essential part of field life. And in the rare case where a field station doesn't come equipped with a coffee maker, improvising may be necessary...

For me, coffee is an essential part of field life. And in the rare case where a field station doesn’t come equipped with a coffee maker, improvising may be necessary…

Early one California morning, I stumbled into the kitchen of our field accommodation on the hunt for my morning coffee.  Navigating almost more by smell than sight (always a dangerous proposition in a house inhabited by six twenty-something field assistants), I bypassed the large stack of dishes in the sink and went straight to the stove to grab the French press and kettle.

As I leaned against the counter with my eyes closed, waiting for the water to boil and trying not to fall back asleep, I heard footsteps coming my way.  Within a few seconds, my friend Andrea entered the kitchen, carrying a small metal box: the Sherman trap we’d set out the night before in hopes of catching at least one of the mice making themselves at home in our living room.  (Yes, I realize that doing the dishes would have been a good move to make if we wanted to get rid of the mice.  But…like I said:  one house, six twenty-something field assistants.)

A Sherman trap - useful for live trapping small mammals in the field (and sometimes in your house).

A Sherman trap – useful for live trapping small mammals in the field (and sometimes in your house).

I’m never particularly surprised to come across mice in my field accommodations – in most places, they come with the territory.  But surprised or not, I am about as fond of them as I am of the sound of my alarm at 4:30 am..  Sure, mice can be cute.  In fact I do find them cute – outside.  But the second they start running across my bare feet while I’m eating dinner, all bets are off.

Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever had to deal with mice knows, they are extremely hard to get rid of – especially if you aren’t willing to kill them.  Live trapping mice, as it turns out, is singularly ineffective.  They are remarkably good at finding their way home, and will unerringly make their way back into your house unless you pick up the trap, get in your car, and drive for at least a mile before releasing them.  If you drive less than a mile, there’s a good chance the mouse will be back in your house before you are.

However, field biologists, as a rule, tend to be animal-loving types, and so we were waging our ‘war’ on our furry housemates using Sherman traps.  At first, we had some success.  But over the summer, the traps were becoming less and less effective – most likely because we weren’t all that careful about releasing the mice more than a mile away, so most of them had probably already experienced the trap and knew to steer well clear of it.

That morning, though, Andrea was clearly excited by our unusual victory, holding the metal box vertically and pushing open the small trap door at the top to peer inside.

“We got one!” she said in triumph.  “Hey – it’s actually pretty cute!  Come and have a look at it.”

Since I still hadn’t had my coffee, I was less than enthused about that.  But I took the trap from her anyway, and pushed down the trap door to gaze at the deer mouse huddled at the bottom.

At least, I assume it was huddled at the bottom of the trap.  I never actually saw it huddled anywhere.  As I depressed the trap door, a blur of greyish-brown fur came flying out of it – and landed in the middle of my chest, clinging to my sweatshirt and staring up at me with beady eyes.

I’m not going to lie: I may have screamed.  In my defense, while I dislike mice in my kitchen, I am not normally scared of them.  But mice on the floor are one thing; mice clinging to my clothing are an entirely different thing.  And – not to belabour the point – this was before 5 a.m..  More importantly, it was before my coffee.

I stared at the mouse.  It stared at me.  I’d be hard pressed to say which one of us looked more horrified.  We were at an impasse: it was clear that neither of us had the slightest idea what to do to extricate ourselves from this situation.

Luckily, the mouse was much more decisive than me.  A split second later, it released its death grip on my sweatshirt, ran down my jeans, and scampered next door into the living room – where it no doubt went right back to making itself at home.

I stood stock still, staring after it.  Beside me, Andrea started to giggle.  By the time the kettle on the stove began whistling, she was almost bent double with laughter.  “Oh my God – your face!” she said.  And still laughing, she headed out the door.

I, on the other hand, decided to skip the coffee and just go back to bed.

Deer mice are adorable...unless they're clinging to your sweatshirt at 5 a.m.

Deer mice are adorable…unless they’re clinging to your sweatshirt at 5 a.m.