Land of living skies

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Krista Cairns, to tell us about some of her adventures as a resource management officer in the Canadian prairies.

Grasslands National Park

Welcome to Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan, the northern edge of the mixed- grass prairie ecoregion!  This is where I work as a resource management officer for Parks Canada.  I am a part of a team that works to protect, preserve, and present this special ecoregion to Canadians, and my job is focused on monitoring, maintaining and recovering prairie ecosystem function. The mixed-grass prairie ecoregion is named after the short- and mid-height grasses that grow in mixed stands here, most notably in our region blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), wheatgrasses (Agropyron spp.) and spear grasses (Stipa spp.) This beautiful broad plain, interrupted by deep valleys and hilly uplands, stretches all the way from the Canadian prairies to the Gulf of Mexico.  Grasslands National Park is Canada’s only park representing mixed-grass prairie, and efforts to preserve this landscape were launched 50 years ago by conservationists and local land owners.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park

Canadian prairie – mixed-grass or otherwise – has largely been converted into agricultural or developed land. In Saskatchewan, mixed-grass prairie makes up about 13% of the province, and about half of that has been cultivated (Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, 1998).  I feel extremely fortunate to work in such a rare and beautiful landscape along with other people who share my passion for the prairies.

During the spring and summer field season, I am posted in the East Block of the park, a particularly remote and sparsely populated area of Saskatchewan. The horizon is wide and largely uninterrupted; however, severe weather systems still manage to sneak up on me in an instant.

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

There is spectacular storm viewing in East Block; however, that is not the only upside to storms – the thunderstorm activity at the end of April and beginning of June in our last field season in East Block brought up plains spadefoot toads.

Plains spadefoot toad

Plains spadefoot toad

Spadefoot toads aren’t actually toads or frogs – in fact, they’re in their own suborder. Check out the hind foot (pictured above): see the black protrusion? That is the spade!  These toads are excellent diggers, and spend most of their life underground. This means they are not dependent on permanent waterbodies: in fact, they are dry-land specialists. Spadefoots are particularly tied to thunderstorms, emerging only after those really big storms to breed, possibly drawn out by the rumble of the thunder. In dry years, they may not emerge at all! We feel pretty lucky to have seen and heard these spadefoots breeding. We would wait up until after dark to hear them calling, and would wade out into the ankle-deep pools to find them.

Catching spadefoot toads

Catching spadefoot toads

During our last field season, it continued to be rainy well into June, and we were able to observe the tadpoles’ progress in nearby ditches, ponds and other shallow, water-filled depressions.  Come August, as the landscape was drying up, the last clutches that had not yet metamorphosed were surviving in puddles of moisture collecting in cow hoof prints (neat, eh?). Spadefoots are one of the fastest metamorphosing “frogs” out there! In good conditions, they take only two weeks to go from egg to adult form, which is important considering they use such ephemeral, shallow pools. If the water starts drying up early, the algae-eating tadpoles turn cannibalistic, thereby achieving both more elbow space in the disappearing puddle as well as additional protein (which presumably helps them metamorphose faster). Sure enough, in the most crowded puddles you could differentiate vegetarians from carnivores by both jaw structure and size – both were a lot beefier on the cannibals!

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Lekking grouse are another fun springtime sighting. The park is home to both the endangered sage grouse, and the sharp-tailed grouse. Sharp-tailed grouse are a lot easier to find, as they occur across their range in greater numbers. Their name comes from their tail shape, which tapers to a sharp point thanks to elongated central tail feathers. Like many grouse, male sharp-tailed grouse gather in groups on specially selected dancing grounds called leks. On the leks, the males puff up special air sacs, flair up colourful combs above their eyes and do a noisy and extremely entertaining dance. Females watch from the sidelines and select only the most deserving male specimen (usually only a couple get any of the action from what I’ve been able to observe). Every year, I get to watch these very interesting birds at several dancing grounds throughout the park. They dance the hardest in the wee hours of the morning, but will sometimes perform an encore in the evenings near sundown.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

When I get called over to the West Block of the park, the black-tailed prairie dog is a dependable wildlife sighting. These critters live in small clusters of family groups within a larger colony, which can be quite extensive. They create habitat and foraging areas for many other species, as well as form a reliable source of food for many predators.

Rattlesnake

Home sweet home: a prairie rattlesnake takes advantage of a prairie dog burrow

Burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, prairie rattlesnakes, black widows and tiger salamanders are examples of some of the very interesting fauna you can find taking shelter in a prairie dog burrow. Bison and other grazers are often found near or on prairie dog colonies, whether attracted there by the new green shoots of a lawn kept well-grazed by prairie dogs, or by the dependable alarm system that results from having so many sets of eyes peeled for predators.

Coyote

A coyote prowls near a prairie dog colony

If I sit hidden among the hills surrounding any one of our colonies for any length of time, I often see owls, hawks, golden eagles, foxes and coyotes swooping over the colony or skulking by, looking to catch a prairie dog off guard. Sometimes I am lucky enough to see a badger, which is always interesting because of their amazing digging skills – they will excavate a prairie dog if need be; you can see the evidence of their diggings if you walk around a colony.

Better yet are the things that happen when no one is watching. We set up remote cameras on prairie dog colonies which monitor several handy things, for example presence/absence of burrowing owls and ferrets and emergence of prairie dogs and the associated temperature and date. However, we capture many additional images, such as predation events, interesting intra- and interspecies interactions, and animals looking into the camera!

Saskatchewan: land of the living skies

Not another soul in sight

But when working on a monitoring project in the more remote areas of the park, the rarest sighting can be other people. When I prepare for fieldwork, I have to plan, plan, plan because it’s an open landscape, devoid of people and services, exposed to the elements – and it is a loooong way back home. Packing involves collecting back-ups of all equipment, plenty of food and water, first aid supplies, navigation and communication tools, clothing for all weather, and emergency shelter, and then filing a detailed plan of where I’m going and when I’ll be back with several people. It’s also essential to have a plan (and back-up plan) for which route I am going to use for access and how – it’s usually not a matter of driving to the field site; most field sites are remote. If a site is accessible by vehicle, there are river crossings, washouts and rough terrain to navigate. Above all, I have to watch the weather: checking weather before leaving is key, but even more important is watching the weather while I’m in the field. It’s easy to forget to look up when you are doing vegetation surveys or looking for small animals in the grass, which can lead to being stuck in the field.

Working in the park is both a pleasure and a challenge, providing plenty of opportunity for fieldwork as well as a lot of deskwork. I love this beautiful place, and encourage everyone to come explore.

Krista

Krista has worked for Grasslands National Park in various capacities since 2008, contributing to a variety of projects, including species at risk monitoring, wildlife management, prairie restoration and invasive species control. Occasionally, she also has the pleasure of working with the public, through volunteer programs, guided tours or educational programs.

Reference:

Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, D.F. Acton, G.A. Padbury, C.T. Stushnoff. 1998. The Ecoregions of Saskatchewan. Canadian Plains Research Center. University of Regina

 

Fieldwork: an emotional roller coaster

Disclaimer: I am going to apologize in advance for what might seem like a rather over-dramatized account of this fieldwork experience. As I read this over, I realize how theatric this might sound to someone other than myself – but I think every field biologist has had an experiment that takes you on an emotional ride like the one I’ll tell you about today!

When I last wrote to you all, I left you chilled with my winter (fall) fieldwork trials and tribulations. The emotions I covered setting up this experiment included, if you recall : exhaustion, anger, frustration, worry, etc.  I spent the next few months contemplating my experiment, everything that could go wrong and whether or not my plants would grow.

Spring arrived quickly. My field went from a soft blanket of white, to a cold puddle of slush with my plots peeking out here and there, to entirely free of snow cover in a matter of about 36 hours. And just as quickly as spring arrived, a whole new set of emotions arrived too.

The day the snow melted I headed out and nothing was happening. The ground was still thawing, so that wasn’t too surprising. And for the first ten days or so… nothing. After a couple of weeks grass was starting to come up outside and around my plots, but not a single seed had germinated in those cylinders. Tension. That is certainly what I felt. My field assistant and I would check the plots daily and I know we were both wondering when something would germinate. But neither of us was going to say it. Breaking that silence would mean failure was a real possibility. By the end of April I was sure failure was going to be the outcome. The grass around my plots was getting to be a couple of inches tall, the spring wildflowers were alive and well. Trout lilies lined the edges of my field site. The odd tree was starting to leaf out. And about as quickly as everything came to life, that tension turned into distress. I warned you this might sound dramatic, but that is very honestly the feeling I had. And for many reasons. Thinking about the waste of time, money, resources. Heck, was this going to jeopardize my progress, my completion time, my doctoral degree?

May slowly rolled around, and the rollercoaster ride was at the point where you’re going down a steep slope and then realize that you’re OK. You’re still alive. The day I saw my first seedling, you would have thought I won the lottery, and to be honest, it kind of was like winning the lottery. And thinking back on it, that was 1 seedling out of 1.8 million seeds I sowed. I wasn’t even sure what it was. It could have been a seed of a resident plant for all I knew but there was green! If that had been the only plant that grew, the enthusiasm certainly would have died off fast, but it gave me hope. Hope that maybe others would soon follow suit. And did they ever.

My first few seedlings

                    My first few seedlings

The week I found that first tiny seedling, the bare brown plots started to sparkle with bits of green here and there. The barren ground I had lost all hope in was littered with bits of life. Relief.

Every day the plots got greener, as more little plants came to life. They got bigger, and many even flowered. By July, I was overwhelmed. I had anywhere from 1 to 25 species in every plot with sometimes more than 1000 individuals in a given plot. And I needed to count all of those. What had I gotten myself into?

photo of a plot filled with hundreds of seedlings

The plots quickly went from barren to little jungles in the matter of a month

Eventually we got into a routine and with the help of three trusty field assistants, we did it.

One of my field assistants, Erika, working hard at counting seedlings

One of my field assistants, Erika, working hard at counting seedlings

Me counting seedlings

                   Welcome to the jungle!

When we counted that final plot I was happy, I was satisfied, and I was pretty darn proud of that achievement. Nearly a year of hard work all culminated in a great success. I feel like every field biologist has a story like this. Fieldwork is often left in the hands of Mother Nature and she always promises joys and challenges. The emotional roller coaster ride it takes you on is one of the really awesome parts about doing field work. The highs and lows all make the experience worthwhile and of course, it makes for a great story!

Invertebrate operation

This week’s guest blogger is Dr. Ann McKellar, whose post details one of her more…interesting… experiences while doing fieldwork at the Queen’s University Biological Station.  For more about Ann, see her bio at the end of the post.

This is the story of how I almost lost my mind after getting an insect stuck in my ear during field work at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). It was one of those life events that was horrible at the time, but makes a decent enough story that maybe it was worth it in the end. Although I might think differently if it hadn’t been for a particularly dexterous field assistant who saved the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is how it all started…

For three summers during my PhD I did field work at QUBS, which I’m sure you are quite familiar with if you read this blog. So I won’t bore you with the details, just mention that it’s a reasonably civilized (some might say “cushy”) field station, certainly not some kind of hardcore, sleeping-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-no-running-water type of place. At QUBS I studied a breeding population of a small songbird, the American redstart.

Face off: staring down an American redstart in the field

Face off: staring down an American redstart in the field

Each year I had a team of undergraduates working with me, and we would spend our days hiking through the woods, trapping birds in mist nets, tracking colour-banded birds, and searching for their nests. Except when trapping, we typically worked alone but within two-way radio contact of each other, at least on our main study plot where most areas had good reception. On this particular day, I had dropped off two field assistants on the main plot and driven to a somewhat further patch of forest (out of radio contact) where I was searching for the nest of a pair of birds that had been part of an experiment.

So there I was, minding my own (and I guess the birds’) business – when out of nowhere, something flew straight into my right ear. Of course I didn’t see it coming, but I have an image of some kind of extra-large nasty insect making a beeline (no pun intended) for the side of my head and ramming itself straight into my ear. In reality, I suppose it might have been crawling on the side of my head and slowly scuttled its way into my ear canal – but that’s certainly not how it felt. In any case, it was definitely a flying insect because as soon as it was in there, I could feel/hear its fluttering wings as it moved about, presumably realising that my ear was not a place it wanted to be and trying to get out.

Now, if any of you have experienced something unfamiliar and mobile inside your ear, you’ll know that this is not a pleasant feeling at all.  It’s a weird combination of pain caused by the loud noise and extreme discomfort caused by having something so large bouncing around in such a sensitive area. I’m normally a very calm and reserved person, but in this case I remember dropping to my knees and having a bit of a panic attack as I shook my head and screamed at it to get out.

(When I told this story to some colleagues a few days later, someone countered with a story they had heard about a man getting an insect stuck in his ear while traveling alone in the desert.  After a few weeks it drove him so mad that he shot himself. After my own experience, I must admit this does not seem like an unreasonable course of action.)

Luckily for me, my insect encounter did not take place in the middle of the desert – at QUBS I was at least reasonably close to civilization and other people who could help preserve my sanity. So after a few minutes of panic, I realized I was getting nowhere: the insect either had no intention of leaving my ear, or was incapable of doing so of its own accord. I decided it was time for action. Unfortunately since I was out of radio range from the others, I needed to drive back to the drop-off location in order to contact my field assistants. I took a few deep breaths and tried to maintain my calm and focus on the road as I headed for help.

Upon arrival, the person I chose to call was my lead field assistant Jess*, because I knew I could trust her to stay calm during a crisis and come up with a sensible plan. Jess is very level-headed, which was exactly what I needed. So I called her over the radio (using my best impression of a calm voice, “I-need-you-to-come-to-the-parking-lot-right-now-please”) and within a few minutes she was there to assess the situation. She got out her headlamp (we started work early enough in the morning that for the first hour or so it was dark out, but by this time it was light) and used it to examine the inside of my ear. Eventually, she came to a conclusion: “Yep, something’s flying around in there all right.”

At this point we had two options. We could either drive the 10 or so minutes back to QUBS and seek help, or we could drive 45 min back to the hospital in Kingston. The thought of anything longer than 2 minutes with this foreign object rattling around in my head was unbearable, and I probably would have opted to jump out of the speeding car on the way to Kingston just to numb the pain (much like our poor friend in the desert). So we decided QUBS was probably the better option. By this time, my other field assistant Sara had also arrived at the scene, having heard the barely-concealed panic in my radio request to Jess. Together we drove back to QUBS, Jess taking the wheel and Sara offering soothing words.

Upon arrival, we found the place virtually empty, it being mid-morning during peak field season. The station’s dinky first-aid kit was also no help, offering no miracle insect-in-the-ear extraction instruments. But it didn’t matter, because Jess had already formulated a plan for the next logical course of action. She would remove the insect herself, she decided, with the help of a pair of tiny forceps we kept in the lab for the purpose of dissecting specimens. (Thinking back on it, I can only hope that she disinfected the forceps thoroughly before performing the procedure, because at the time I was in no state to notice or care either way – I just wanted that thing out of there!)

Operation: invertebrate

Operation: invertebrate

So there I was, sitting at a picnic table with the left side of my head flat against the table, Sara holding my head down and shining a headlamp in my right ear, and Jess poised with her forceps, ready to get started. As she lowered the forceps into my ear canal I had a sudden image of the board game “Operation”, where any contact between the instrument and the patient triggers a harsh buzzer and a flashing red light – presumably indicating extreme pain being felt by the patient.

 

But to her credit, Jess managed to get the forceps in and the intruder out without any direct contact with my sensitive ear-parts. “Wow. WOW!” Sara said, “I thought it would be like a mosquito or something, but this thing’s BIG!” It had long wings and even longer antennae, and our resident naturalist later identified it as a caddisfly.

Caddisfly

Looks are deceiving: an innocent-looking caddisfly minds its own business…

In the end I recovered reasonably well from the trauma, and I think we even went back out to work that afternoon. I must admit I was tempted to wear earplugs for a few days – at least until I regained confidence that the caddisflies of eastern Ontario weren’t out to take over my head. But unfortunately when working with birds that are mostly detected by song, I wouldn’t have been very effective at my job with reduced hearing. I also found out later from a nurse that the recommended method for removing foreign objects from one’s ear is to flush with water using a syringe. So next time I’m planning to camp alone in the desert, I will definitely be packing a syringe!

 

* Field assistant names have been changed – although maybe unnecessarily because I only say good things!

Ann's Bio picAnn completed her PhD at Queen’s University in 2012, and has since studied woodpeckers in the southeastern US and shorebirds in Canada’s subarctic. She is currently a wildlife biologist with Environment Canada, and lives in Saskatoon with her partner Fallon and their two cats and dog. She loves taking her dog Sparky for long walks in Saskatoon’s many off-leash nature areas.  Sometimes she even brings her binoculars to catch glimpses of birds…until Sparky chases them away.

The wonder of whales

The sense of wonder that nature gives you is the best feeling in the world. There is nothing better than a landscape that takes your breath away or seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. This is especially true when it’s a species you don’t get the chance to see very often. For example, I know we all know whales are massive. Some of us have seen a skeleton of a whale. But I don’t think you really get the sense of how magnificent a creature a whale is until you see it in the wild.

I was fortunate enough to take a field course during my undergraduate degree called Marine Mammals and Seabirds that was based out of the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. I was excited but nervous to go because besides a few classes that took us to nearby conservation areas or ones that took us up to the great Queen’s University Biological Station, I had never had experience in the field. But to no surprise, this was the course that made me realize that studying biology in the wild was far more fascinating than studying it inside a classroom. Being a typical undergraduate student, I signed up for this course because of the “marine mammals” part of it. Sure if we saw birds on the way that would be cool, but I was really there to see the beasts of the sea.

Field boots left on the sand on the Bay of Fundy.

Field boots left on the sand on the Bay of Fundy.

Looking out into the glistening blue water. Is that a fin or a wave!?

Looking out into the glistening blue water. Is that a fin or a wave!?

Every other day we would go out a small fishing boat called the Fundy Spray into Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet in the Bay of Fundy. Our first trip out was filled with a lot of staring out into the blue water, squinting in the sun, trying to make out if that glimpse of something was actually a living thing or if it was just a wave. The first couple of days we saw a lot of harbor seals hauled out on the rocks and a few harbor porpoises dancing in the waves. During a sea kayak paddle, we came up close and personal with some of these mammals. This was a whole different type of experience because instead of the loud noises of the boat (and besides the occasional swish of your paddle), you can really hear all that is around you. One exception was that we did not hear the gray seals that popped their heads up only about 3m away from our kayak curious about what we were doing in their waters!

One day when we were out off the coast of Grand Manan, we were scribbling down bird species that we saw and counting the seals on the rocks. Business was as usual until one of the guides noticed massive black things in the water. We stopped moving and just stared with our mouths wide open.

A group of fin whales come to the surface before their second dive.

A group of fin whales come to the surface before their second dive.

Six fin whales surfaced close to the boat and then they were gone again. After about five minutes, when we thought to start counting the seabirds again, the fin whales resurfaced again. This time, six whales surfaced on one side of the boat and five on the other. These are massive whales – they are the second largest animal (second to the blue whale) and can dive to depths up to 470m. It is very hard to describe the sense of wonder when you see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

 

A fin whale surfaces next to the boat.

A fin whale surfaces next to the boat.

But let’s not forget about the “seabirds” half of the course. After all, this was the course that got me interested to study seabirds for my graduate work! It was amazing to see the many species fly in and around the boat attracted to the lights in the fog. The best part was when we found a “big buffet” of herring. Porpoises gathered underneath the water pushing the school of herring up to the surface as seabirds dove from different heights to catch the herring. Herring gulls and black backed gulls populated the area, with terns swooping around and shearwaters skimming across the surface.

Birds gather in a group during a feeding frenzy.

Come one, come all – it’s a feeding frenzy!

Shearwaters skim the surface in search of food.

Shearwaters skim the surface in search of food.

 

This field course was a truly amazing experience, one that led me to fall in love with the field. Just being on the water is a wondrous feeling, one which now I don’t think I can live without!

More adults should go on field trips

We are very excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2015, Jennifer MacMillan. Jennifer is working on an Undergraduate Honours thesis at Queen’s University, and just got back from exchange in New Zealand. Today she fills us in on her time in New Zealand.

I flew away to New Zealand nearly a year ago, yet I continue to talk about my experiences as if they just unfolded yesterday. From February to July 2014, I lived in Wellington, New Zealand on an Academic Exchange to Victoria University. I am studying Environmental Biology at my home university in Canada and therefore was beyond excited to enrol in classes and meet professors that provided novel perspectives on ecology, evolution, conservation, and all of the topics that motivate me as a young scientist. Within the first weeks of school, my expectations had already been exceeded. At this university, the instructors and professors have less of an administrative role and split the teaching requirements with more colleagues so they can spend more time on their own research. This resulted in their passions resonating clearly in every single lecture. Furthermore, guest lecturers play a large part in the curriculum and are often a source of intrigue and inspiration. There was one guest lecturer in particular, a Project Manager with the Wellington City Council, whose discussion stimulated my interest in a topic to which I had never been exposed:  Restoration Ecology. And thus, my future in education and eventually a career in Biology began to take shape.

Restoration Ecology is an emerging field which focuses on renewing and restoring ecosystems and environments that have been damaged or completely destroyed by either natural or human interactions. There are many of these projects currently in place around the world, often aimed at re-establishing the natural structure and function of lakes and streams, or removing unwanted pests while re-introducing threatened species to increase biodiversity on islands. After being introduced to this area of science, I began volunteering with the Wellington City Council at the Botanic Gardens. BEST DECISION EVER. Three mornings a week before class I spent two or three hours with my hands covered in soil. I still believe that there is no better way to start the day. Alongside full time curators and horticulturalists, I helped maintain paths and flower beds, kept records of stored seeds, and managed seedlings in the nursery. One week we planted over three thousand tulips! Every morning I would come back from work with twigs in my hair or leaves stuck to my clothes while I ate breakfast with my housemate or Skyped my mom. I was the happiest kid in the world and was loving every minute of it. Then it got better….

Tulip Planting at the Wellington Botanic Gardens

Tulip Planting at the Wellington Botanic Gardens

Every month, City Council Project Managers (like the lady who receives my most inspiring guest lecture of all time award) hire volunteers to assist in restoration projects around the city of Wellington. In May, the project at hand was restoring a forest corridor between a park and a golf course where a massive wind storm had taken down almost all of the trees the previous year. A team of people had already cleared most of the trunks and debris from the site so when our group from the Gardens rolled up at 8 am we had a relatively clean canvas to begin our planting. The goal: plant three thousand native New Zealand trees and shrubs by dinner time. I had personally never planted anything larger than a tulip bulb but I expected tree planting to be fairly straightforward. When the crew leader started leading everyone in warm up and stretching exercises, I realized I was not entirely prepared for what I signed up for. The next four hours were the most physically demanding hours of my life. The plants we were putting into the ground are called PB3s and require a hole about a foot and a half deep. At first, I was digging with the speed and zeal of a groundhog making its den….and then the blisters formed and the soreness set in and I felt like a sloth with a shovel.

This image is from Mauways Nursery & Gardens  in Hunterville, New Zealand.  PB stands for pint size, so a PB3 bag holds 3 pints (or1.5L) of soil.

This image is from Mauways Nursery & Gardens in Hunterville, New Zealand.
PB stands for pint size, so a PB3 bag
holds 3 pints (or1.5L) of soil.

Halfway through the day I was getting the hang of it; nonetheless, lunch time was welcomed with aching arms and we all sat together eating our packed lunches. I wish I had made ten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that day for two reasons: 1) Because I was starving, and  2) Because some of the Kiwis (people from New Zealand) I was with had never experienced the taste of a PB&J. Just as we were putting away our bags, two cars filled with more volunteers arrived. Ten business men and women from the corporate HP office climbed out of their vehicles with matching t-shirts, clean pants and plastic shovels.  My initial reaction was to shake my head and call them amateurs, but then I realized I had been in their shoes only four hours prior. Regardless of our backgrounds or the roughness of our hands, we were all there for the same reasons: to express our profound love and appreciation for nature while simultaneously making this planet a cleaner and greener place, one tree at a time. So, we paired up with the new volunteers and took turns digging and planting the remaining trees. At the end of the day, when the last hole was filled, we all went our separate ways – bonded over the satisfaction that one day those trees will grow into a beautiful forest and provide habitat for birds, insects and other wonderful creatures unique to New Zealand.

The connections people share with each other and with the environment is one of the main reasons I am so passionate about Biology and especially field work. I have been on many other field trips over the years and have also worked as a Field Assistant for my current Honours Thesis Supervisor. However, I have never had such an enlightening and heart warming experience as that first field day in New Zealand. People are amazing creatures and regardless of their line of work, genuinely love to be a part of and protect the natural world. For this reason, I think more adults should go on field trips. The resulting public support for science benefits everyone and every environment. Now get off the internet and go outside and enjoy it!

Sunrise view from the Wellington Botanic Gardens

Sunrise view from the Wellington Botanic Gardens

Jennifer is an outdoor enthusiast who loves meeting people and exchanging stories wherever she goes. She is about to graduate from Queen’s University and hopes to move to the Rockies to pursue more education and eventually a career in Restoration Ecology. Biking and hiking are two of her greatest passions, matched only by her love for family, friends, and this little thing called life.Jennifer

The rarest, quietest lessons

Arriving at a new field station is always a bit overwhelming.  As I unpacked my suitcase in my newest field home, disoriented and jet lagged, I decided that taking a nap would be the best possible use of my time.   I threw my sleeping bag on top of the nearest bunk, and climbed into it to hide for a few hours.  I was almost asleep when my attention was caught by the strangest noise: a sort of rolling honk.  Still in the sleeping bag, I sat up to stare blearily out the window – and realized that the sounds were coming from a pair of large birds just across the river. “Oh, emus – how cool,” I thought to myself happily – and promptly closed my eyes again.

I woke up hours later, still disoriented (and probably drooling).  As I looked around the rough wooden walls, it took me a moment to remember where I was.  A glance out the window revealed a vista of white:  flat, empty, snow covered land stretching to the horizon.  Right, I remembered: Alaska – specifically, a tiny field station in the western part of the state, between the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

But then…how to explain the emus?

 

When I finished undergrad, I decided to take at least a year off from school (and real life), and spend it getting as many field jobs as I could in the coolest places I could find.  Alaska was at the top of my wish list of destinations.  I had several highly romantic (and highly unrealistic) notions about Alaska.  I pictured tall, rugged, untamed mountain ranges standing blue against the horizon, rivers crashing down waterfalls into secluded lakes, and – of course – glaciers gleaming under the never-setting sun.  I was determined to do fieldwork in this iconic wilderness.

So when I was offered a job as field assistant to a PhD student studying shorebirds in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, I jumped at the chance.  I immediately headed out to buy the Lonely Planet guide to Alaska, and eagerly leafed through looking for information about my destination.  If I was surprised (and a bit alarmed) to find that Bethel – the town closest to the field station – wasn’t even in the guide, I was even more perturbed by the general information about the YK Delta region: you won’t get there, and there’s no reason to, so don’t worry about it.

Perhaps that should have tipped me off that the situation might not be exactly what I was expecting.  But my arrival at Kanaryarmiut Field Station (pronounced Kanaugiak, for those who are curious) still came as a shock.  As the helicopter descended towards the station on a cold winter day, I stared in consternation at the flat plain below me.  If I squinted at the horizon, I could just make out the silhouette of a far off mountain range – otherwise, it was just a flat sheet of snow as far as the eye could see.

Kanaryarmiut Field Station in early spring

Kanaryarmiut Field Station in early spring

I was bitterly disappointed.  Admittedly, I had been told that the land around Kanaryarmiut was a combination of tundra and lowland meadow – but that information had somehow failed to penetrate my excited daze.    Of course, it didn’t help that I’d come there directly from a field job in Hawaii – o r that when I arrived, the field station was buried under a layer of snow neck deep.

Better people than me would recognize the beauty of the tundra instantly.  But I was cold, cranky, disoriented, and very, very let down.  I wanted mountains, I wanted lakes – I wanted dramatic, iconic Alaskan scenery, not this dull and dreary landscape.  And so appreciating the quiet splendour of my new flat home took me awhile.

Where's Waldo: can you spot the biologist?

Where’s Waldo: can you spot the biologist?

Working on the tundra also posed a number of unique challenges.  For one thing, it made catching birds very difficult.  Trapping the shorebirds involved placing an open net around their nests, and waiting nearby, hidden under camouflage netting.  Once the birds had settled down to incubate, we’d pull the string that would release the net, allowing it to close over the nest.  Unfortunately, birds are not stupid, and even camouflage netting doesn’t do much to disguise the only bump on the tundra for miles – so we often had a pretty long wait.

Then, of course, there were the sloughs to contend with.  These were dotted about the landscape: patches of wet grass that looked like nothing more than puddles – until you stepped into them, and realized the hard way that they were several feet deep.  For some reason, fieldwork is not as much fun when you’re soaking wet.

But slowly and steadily, the tundra won me over.  It took awhile, but eventually I realized that the combination of dry tundra and wet meadow was anything but monochromatic.   I started to notice the all-encompassing sky – which made the sunsets among the most dramatic I’d ever seen.

So much more colourful than I originally thought!

So much more colourful than I originally thought!

Sunset over the tundra

Sunset over the tundra

An American mink checks out our study site.

An American mink checks out our study site.

It also dawned on me that the treeless, open landscape allowed for incredible encounters with wild animals.  From being dived-bombed by long-tailed jaegers, to being rushed by a hissing mink protecting its booty (a headless Canada goose corpse), there was no shortage of wildlife drama.  At one of our sites, an American golden plover pair nested right by the entrance – every time we passed them, they would try to lead us away from the nest with their convincing broken wing displays.  And dotted about the tundra like landmines were willow ptarmigan nests.  These birds blend in so well with the landscape that it was almost impossible to see them until you were about to step on them – at which point, they would explode upwards with a squawk, often releasing a riot of fluffy chicks to run in all directions.

A long-tailed jaeger surveys its surroundings.

A long-tailed jaeger surveys its surroundings.

American golden plover performs its broken wing display

American golden plover performs its broken wing display

The real Waldo: a female willow ptarmigan broods her nestlings.

The real Waldo: a female willow ptarmigan broods her nestlings.

 

But you’re probably still wondering about those emus.

At dinner the night after my sighting, I casually mentioned seeing a noisy group of very large birds.  (Obviously I wasn’t going to tell my coworkers that I thought I’d seen emus in Alaska – there are some things that a fledgling ornithologist should never admit.)  The response was instant: I had undoubtedly seen a group of sandhill cranes.

At first, I was unimpressed.  Unlike their relatives, whooping cranes, sandhill cranes are quite common birds.  But later that evening, as I watched the pair across from my window scoop up mud and preen it into their feathers (to generate their rust-coloured breeding plumage) , I changed my mind.  It’s hard to watch cranes for any length of time without being struck by their elegance – not to mention their unique calls.

And in the end, my experience in Alaska was a bit like those sandhill cranes.  I thought I was going to see something exotic and showy.  Instead what I got was a common bird (dipped in dirt, no less) – that turned out to be so much more amazing than I had thought.  Over the course of those few months, Alaska certainly taught me a lesson.  The flat plain of the YK Delta lacks the obvious drama of those iconic Alaskan mountains.  But if you look closely, there are subtle dramas everywhere.

Giving thanks and gearing up

Almost seven months ago to this day, we launched Dispatches from the field. We were quite nervous when we launched this blog – we certainly thought our work was intriguing but would other people really want to hear about it? On the Internet today it is too easy for content to simply get swept under the rug and lost. To our surprise, we were met with more success than we had ever expected. We wanted to take some time this week to give thanks to those who have helped us along the way thus far, and let you know that we are gearing up for 2015, which promises to be a great year filled with fieldwork stories.

We launched the blog at the Queen’s University Biological Station Open House where academics, peers and members of the community were all very supportive and excited about our initiative. We began posting weekly and developed a small, but steady following. Catherine Dale’s post “Of hiking boots and floppy hats” was printed in the Gazette, a small campus newspaper at Queen’s University, and her post “(Mountain) lions, tigers, and bears – oh my!” was featured by Freshly Pressed. Later in 2014 we were approached by Science Borealis, a network of bloggers offering a Canadian perspective, about adding our blog to their feed. We happily agreed to do this, and the opportunity certainly increased the reach of our blog. We were also very excited and humbled to be chosen by Science Borealis as the Editor’s Choice for best “Communication, Education and Outreach” blog of 2014.

Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster board

Promoting our blog at the QUBS Open House 2014 (from left to right: Catherine Dale, Sarah Wallace & Amanda Tracey)

We’d also like to thank Malcolm Campbell for featuring us on a couple of occasions in his blog posts, and Chris Buddle for his constant support in sharing our blog posts on Twitter. And of course, a huge thanks to all of you who read our posts, subscribe to our blog, and send us your comments. There is nothing more exciting than seeing other people enjoying what we offer each week. We are very excited to continue posting weekly dispatches throughout 2015, and to see what new opportunities might come our way this year.

Dispatches from the Field is a place where we, and other field scientists, share those experiences that don’t make it into scientific papers. In 2015, we want Dispatches from the Field to continue to serve as an outlet for those stories, allowing us and others to share the rare, quiet lessons we’ve learned from the many landscapes we’ve been privileged to get to know.