The first fall to the water

Some species seem smart – like how some caterpillars can camouflage to look like their predators. Whereas with others, sometimes you may ask yourself “Why on earth would they do that?” but somehow the behaviour is inherited through generations (e.g. the Eastern hog-nosed snake playing dead to avoid predators in Amanda’s post).

When I first got to Haida Gwaii to start collecting samples for my field work, we had a couple of days to get settled before our boat left to take  us and our supplies to the remote Reef Island. We first visited the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society (LBCS)’s camp on East Limestone Island. LBCS monitors many species of birds, plants, mammals and marine mammals, including some that are endemic or only found in Haida Gwaii. Since we were staying a couple of nights there, I tried to help out with as many activities as I could, which in some cases involved staying up all night. If any of you know me, I am not much of a night owl but I was excited to help out the team and tried to keep my eyes open. (Side note: the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society is great for getting volunteers out to the island to help with the surveys).

One species in particular that has been studied intensively in Haida Gwaii is the ancient murrelet. About 50% of the world’s population of ancient murrelets breeds in Haida Gwaii and research has been conducted on these populations since 1990 (Laskeek Bay Conservation Society – check out their site for very cute pictures!!). One of the largest colonies in Haida Gwaii is on East Limestone Island.

To explain why I started this post talking about smart and maybe not so smart behaviour, I will need to tell you about  ancient murrelets’  ridiculous (if I do say so myself) strategy for fledging young. When the young are ready to fledge and leave the nest that is high up on cliffs or trees, they basically fall out of their nest and stumble towards the water, guided by light and sound to the ocean where they call for their parents. Their parents meet them at the water’s edge and they go out to sea together. I think it is ridiculous because this makes them very vulnerable to predators on their first journey to the sea (sort of like the sea turtles in Becky’s post).

The beach where we would let the chicks free.

A popular beach for ancient murrelet chicks to call to their parents.

LBCS monitors chicks that have fledged by setting up plastic funnels or “runways” on the forest floor. The staff and volunteers then have to monitor the funnels every 20 minutes to check for the presence of chicks. So here I was, fresh eyes for field work, and excited to be able to help with the rotations. To be honest, when I went out by myself in the complete darkness (thank goodness for my headlamp!), I was a bit scared. What if I ran into a bear? No, it wasn’t a very big island and they would know if there was a bear. What if I twisted my ankle on exposed roots? No, I had my trusty hiking boots on. What if I actually found chicks in the funnels? Now this was a legitimate thing to worry about as I had never held a chick before. But this was still early in the year for chicks to be fledging so the team trusted my abilities to monitor the funnels. I made it around the funnels with no problems and no chicks were found.

At 2 a.m., on my second trip around the funnels by myself, I was brushing past the funnels as usual when I gasped because I saw two round things bouncing around. I had found the first two chicks of the season! I was so excited to run back to tell the others about the chicks that I almost forgot to take them with me! Due to the chicks bouncing around in the plastic funnels scrambling to try to get to the water, it was difficult to put them in separate cloth bags to take back to the lodge. We took several measurements including their body weight and wing length to add to the long term dataset of ancient murrelets on this island. Once we took all the measurements, we carried the chicks down near to the water’s edge where we let them free. We stood back as we watched them waddle towards the glistening water under the moonlight and call to their parents to join them.

Although this strategy for fledging young doesn’t seem so smart, ancient murrelet chicks still continue, year after year, to fall out of their nest by themselves and waddle towards the unknown ocean – and it works!

Lessons learned through environmental outreach

We are very excited to welcome Carolyn Bonta to the blog this week. Carolyn is the manager of the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC) and finishes off our outreach themed month with some lessons learned through environmental outreach. For more about Carolyn and the ELEEC check out the end of this post.

The outdoors has always been my playground; living components of the natural word, my teachers.  Thus, it was no surprise that I pursued studies in field ecology through university and subsequent contract jobs.

It’s been a long time since I did fieldwork full-time to scrape out a meager living, but while the past decade directed my career along other paths, I continued to return to my passion of field biology in various volunteer roles as a naturalist, educator and outdoor trip leader.  Pointing out interesting species, interactions and behaviours that one might overlook, sharing cool facts about animal and plant life, and helping to foster an appreciation of our environment came naturally to me.

Two years ago, I was hired to manage the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC), the new public outreach arm of the Queen’s University Biological Station.  Being the only dedicated staff for this facility, my duties include everything from financials to maintenance to marketing and – of course – designing and delivering the ELEEC’s public and high school outreach programs.  My audiences range from skilled naturalists to casual observers of nature to indifferent teenagers.  In this role, I’ve learned a few things from watching others teach, absorbing the excitement of those partaking in a new discovery, and seeing the response of others to my teaching.  Here are the top five lessons learned:

Lesson #1:  There is value in shock, surprise and the unexpected.  Make your teaching style stand out.

Immediately prior to my first day of work, I was invited to ELEEC to watch QUBS staff deliver outreach programming to a small class of Grade 12 students from the Environmental Leadership Focus Program at Bayridge High School.  What a great program!  The students set up a birding mist net and captured a hormonally territorial Eastern Towhee using playback calls, seined the waterfront for fish, and explored other means of sampling biodiversity.  Upon cleanup, we enlisted the students’ assistance.  As chest waders were loaded in the back of the truck, shrieks rang out when a dead groundhog was discovered in the box.  My co-worker, Mark, picked it up and began to point out the various physical adaptations that groundhogs have for digging burrows, regulating body temperature, and feeding.  “What do groundhogs eat?” one student asked.  Pulling a knife from his pocket, Mark began to slice open the rodent’s belly in front of a horrified crowd.  “They eat grass” he explained, the slightest hint of exasperation in his voice as he held out the stomach contents: “It’s just digested salad.”  I’m pretty sure those students won’t soon forget what groundhogs eat.

Lesson #2: Everything in nature is worth a closer look, even if you’ve seen it a hundred times.

Many of us take our natural surroundings for granted, not always pausing to take a second glance at the life around us.  I was reminded of this one summer, after having tasked an ELEEC Intern to capture some butterflies.  We were heading off to a community festival and thought it would be nice to have live animals to accompany our displays of pinned specimens.  So, Intern disappeared with an insect net, proudly returning to announce that she had caught a butterfly!  But, peering closely at her catch, “it’s kind of strange-looking”, she added, flipping through Butterflies of the Kingston Area in an effort to identify the species.   “Uhhhhh… use the Bugs of Ontario field guide instead,” I suggested.  Fooled by its resemblance to a Mourning Cloak butterfly, Intern had captured a Road Duster… grasshopper.  Needless to say, we brought the Road Duster, also called Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina), to the festival to teach others about this common – yet often overlooked – butterfly mimic.

photo of a carolina locust, looks like a butterfly

Photo: Barbara Taylor, Muskoka Field Naturalists

Lesson #3:  Nature isn’t always nice.  Get used to it.

The ELEEC offers a Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems program that puts visiting high school students in chest waders and sends them into Elbow Lake to seine for fish and macroinvertebrates.   One group was pleased to have caught a diversity of fish, as well as several species of invertebrate.  Upon dropping a particularly large beetle into the aquarium of specimens, students were horrified as the beetle immediately targeted a small perch, injected its proboscis and sent the fish belly-up.  Oh wonderful teachable moment!!  The Giant Water Bug (family Belistomatidae) preys on small fish, amphibians and crustaceans, injecting its catch with digestive enzymes that liquefy the animal’s insides; the Giant Water Bug then re-inserts its proboscis and enjoys a healthy protein shake.  Yum!

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Lesson #4:  Seek new knowledge from people of all ages.

While leading a late fall hike for a local outdoors club, we paused to observe a fairly large spider with a brilliant orange abdomen.  Nobody in the group was able to identify this beautiful arachnid, and one member photographed it, asking me to find out what it was.  Well, I knew just the person to ask:  My co-worker’s 8-year-old son, Jesse – entomologist extraordinaire!

Armed with a photo of the mystery spider, Todd went home to his son.  The next day, I inquired “Did you ask Jesse about the spider?”

“Yup”, said Todd, rolling his eyes and mimicking Jesse’s voice, “it’s an orb weaver, dad.  Duh.

I threw my hands up in exasperation.  “Of course!   How did I not know that?”  Certainly this will be the last time that I didn’t recognize a Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneous marmoreus.

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie,

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie,

Lesson #5:  Nature affects everyone, no matter how diverse their background.

A specimen in the hand adds so much value to learning.  At a recent awards ceremony to accept outreach funding, grant recipients were invited to do a 10-second “Shout Out” to seek non-monetary support from other attendees.  What could ELEEC possibly ask for from a diverse group that included primarily artists, gardeners, and social service organizations?  Since QUBS is always looking to expand our teaching collection, and I figured everyone in the group has encountered at least one of the billions of birds killed annually in North America by road or window collisions, my Shout Out asked for just that: “Bring us dead birds!” I cried, holding up a freeze-dried American Robin to a mixed response of stunned silence, startled gasps and bursts of laughter.  Not only did the surprise factor catch the audience’s attention, but we have already received some specimens, including a juvenile Yellow Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Sometimes all it takes to notice nature is a reminder.

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Carolyn Bonta completed an M.Sc. in Zoology and spent seven glorious years as an independent biological consultant in the Kingston area, followed by nine years of protected areas planning with Ontario Parks behind a desk.  Sanity, natural history knowledge and field skills were maintained during this time through involvement in numerous volunteer projects, most notably at Frontenac Provincial Park.  She now shares her knowledge of local biodiversity through outreach programming at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre,

Thinking outside the lab

Shortly after starting my PhD, I was assigned to TA a class called “Diversity of Plants”.  As an ornithologist, I did not feel entirely confident teaching undergraduates about plants.  But what worried me most was the first lab, which focused on how to use a microscope properly.  “This is going to be a disaster,” I lamented to a friend over the phone.  “How am *I* qualified to teach people to use a microscope?”

“Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “I would think you’re actually extremely qualified.  Don’t you use microscopes all the time?”

I stared at the phone in consternation.  “Um…I study bird behaviour, so…not so much, no.”

There was a long silence, and then my friend said uncertainly, “But you’re a scientist!  All scientists use microscopes…don’t they?”


My friend is not alone in her misconception.  For most people, the word ‘scientist’ conjures images of serious people wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, ensconced in pristine labs full of Erlenmeyer flasks and microscopes.  Few people immediately picture dirty, windswept individuals wearing an excess of plaid, large floppy hats, and socks with sandals.  Fieldwork isn’t usually the first thing the general public associates with the word ‘science’.

And this misconception often extends to science students as well.  As an undergraduate in Biology, I spent a lot of time gathered around lab benches counting fruit flies or looking at slides – but I didn’t really understand that science doesn’t always take place in a laboratory until I was in third year.  That year, my ecology course went on a mandatory weekend field trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  This trip was a long-standing tradition in the course; its purpose was essentially to introduce us to some of the questions, methods, and experiences of field biology.

Years later, that trip is one of the few things that stands out vividly in my memories of undergrad.  I remember dragging myself out of bed obscenely early to catch the bus to QUBS (and getting carsick on the twists and turns of the gravel road).  I remember stepping out of the bus into quiet air that smelled faintly of pine and rain.  I remember tromping through a field wet with dew to check live traps for small mammals, and I definitely remember the large and extremely angry weasel that the lab coordinator very carefully released from one of the traps.  I remember discovering that chickadees, although small, pack a surprisingly powerful bite, and the moment I realized that the chest waders I was wearing to seine for sunfish had a rather large leak.  Most of all, I remember being completely entranced by the whole experience.  That field trip was my first real exposure to the world of field biology – and clearly it made a lasting impression.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.


Fast forward a few (okay, many) years, and suddenly I found myself TAing that ecology course.  I was really excited to help organize and teach those field weekends – not least because it would be my first chance as a PhD student to teach something I felt passionate about.   But I was also a bit apprehensive about it.  The field weekend had been one of the most important parts of my undergraduate experience, but this group of students didn’t seem particularly excited about it.  I was frustrated because I wanted them to love it as much as I had.

Throughout the early weeks of September, I spent several long days at QUBS with the lab coordinator, preparing all the weekend activities – from digging holes for pitfall traps to carefully laying out and flagging grids of small mammal traps.  In doing so, I got a firsthand look at just how much work was involved in pulling off the trip each year.  Planning a field weekend for 160 young adults is no small task.  The lab coordinator, who had been organizing these weekends for many years, was a bit like a general in charge of a very intricate military campaign.

On the last Friday of September, she and I headed up to the field station late on Friday evening.  I was driving the (very sketchy) departmental van, which made for a somewhat nerve-wracking drive.  The brakes creaked ominously, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to turn on the high beams.  On top of that, the road was inexplicably covered in frogs – so the drive was a bit like an obstacle course, as I swerved first one way and then the other in an attempt to minimize the carnage.

However, I made it unscathed (although sadly the same could not be said for all the frogs) – and upon arriving, was immediately put to work.  It was late and dark, but there was so much to be done before we got to sleep.  Cabins needed to be assigned, lists and maps needed to be printed and posted, and supplies needed to be distributed to the appropriate places around the station property.

Finally, before falling into bed, we headed out to bait the 40 small mammal traps we’d laid out with seed.  When we put the traps out earlier in the month, we’d flagged them with glow-in-the-dark flagging tape to make them easier to find.  However, I learned a few valuable lessons that night.  First, glow-in-the-dark flagging tape doesn’t really glow in the dark.  Second, forests are tricky places at night, even with a headlamp.  And third, spider eyes glow when light hits them.  The last lesson led to another discovery: there are many, many, many more spiders in the forest than one might think.

With the traps baited, everything was ready for the arrival of the students the next morning and I finally got to crawl into my sleeping bag – for a short time, anyway.  Very early the next morning, we climbed back into the departmental van and headed out to meet the students.

The bus had been scheduled to leave Kingston at 6 a.m., so it was no surprise that the students staggering through the doors into the cool fall morning were sleepy and cranky.  Despite having been told multiple times about appropriate footwear, at least five or six of them were wearing flip flops.  Several others were still in pyjama pants.  They stood shivering in the field beside our grid of mammal traps, leaning against each other, yawning, and complaining about the hour and the cold.

Naturally, the order to split up into pairs and go retrieve the traps was met with some muted resistance.  But eventually, they all grudgingly trooped off into the woods, and then ambled slowly back carrying the metal Sherman traps.  At first it seemed like all the traps were empty…until one last pair of students came running out of the forest, clutching their trap and shouting, “I think there’s something in here!”

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

I watched as the coordinator carefully emptied the contents of the trap into a plastic bag.  A surprised deer mouse slid out, which she then held up for everyone to see…and a collective “Ooooohhhhhh” rose from the students around me.  All of a sudden, no one was yawning.  Everyone’s eyes were on the deer mouse, and everyone looked awake and interested.  Suddenly, I was less worried about the weekend.


I ended up TAing that course for four years, and helping to run the field trip is still the most fulfilling teaching experience I’ve ever had.  Every year I watched tired, cold, and disinterested students straggle off the bus on Saturday morning – and energized, excited students climb back onto the bus on Sunday afternoon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I know that the skills and techniques learned in labs are an essential part of a scientific education.  But I think it’s also important that we give students a chance to explore the other side of science.  For most people, the experience may change the way they think of the discipline.  For some people – like me – the experience may change the course of their lives.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Making with the ha-ha

We are excited to welcome the super-talented Liv Monck-Whipp to the blog today. Liv is the creator of Tails From the Field and write for us about how she uses humour to share her fieldwork stories. Make sure you check out her site – it’s hilarious!

It was shortly after getting attacked by a Ruffed Grouse in Algonquin Park that I decided to start making comics about fieldwork. I had been making my way out of the woods after monitoring some thrush and warbler nests, and I accidentally strayed into a mamma grouse’s domain. She did not take kindly to this (I am a big scary predator lookin’ thing, or at least so I like to tell myself), and while her brood flew hither and thither, she flew straight at my eyes. Luckily I was able to brush her off before she did any serious damage, and she set about buzzing by my head, perching on my shoulder to flap into my face. She continued her assault until she decided a broken wing display was more effective, and I thankfully escaped with my life. True story.

Photo of a toad that says toad-a-lly awesome

And my friends thought my dramatic re-enactment of this story was pretty hilarious. Much in the way so many of us gathered to guffaw around #fieldworkfail, stories of minor mishaps and equipment failing*, or weird study subject behaviour, if told with a dollop of humour, can be used to grab the attention and interest of non-fieldworkers and fieldworkers alike. And it’s not just the fails that amuse us. I know that you know that your field biology and/or naturalist friends have some of the cheesiest nature puns and jokes out there (and please send them all to me!). These are the product of true geekery – being so into your subject that you can’t help but inject it into everything with a grin.

That harrowing grouse encounter was pretty early into my field days. My second season out there, and I was starting to appreciate how hilarious field work could be. From the surrealness of explaining to my relatives that I couldn’t visit unless it was raining, to waking up covered in slugs, there were a lot of funny-weird, and funny-ha-ha things. And I loved it. And I wanted to communicate about how awesome it was.

I’m a web comic addict (often catching up on them once the field season is over!). So when I wanted to tell stories and in-jokes, I thought in comic-terms. Comics, if you think about it, are a really elegant way of delivering a story or idea in a short amount of time. They allow for the nuances of facial expressions, and the hyperbole of exaggerated figures to come through without using up text. The messages are usually quick, and humorous.


For my first few field seasons I was an assistant for graduate students working on bird and turtle studies out of Algonquin Park. Then I decided I wanted to do my own graduate work, and began studying bats in farmland. Somewhere in there, I worked for a large land trust doing conservation work, and I also got to radio track snakes and turtles for another study. This actually left me with a lot of “thinky” time in the field: hiking or canoeing long distances, or quietly getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while waiting for a bird to return to its nest. In this time I started to come up with comics and jot them down in my notebook**. Positive feedback from friends and co-workers convinced me that there would be a niche (geddit, geddit?!) for field work and ecology themed comics.

Laughter is a universal language. While I wanted to amuse others involved in field biology, I firmly believe that jokes and funny stories are some of the best ways to engage people about subjects you love, no matter their background. Humour can help to reduce the “stuffy scientist” image a bit, or lighten up an academic lecture. By sharing our sillier sides with each other and with the public we can gleefully spread our enthusiasm, and demonstrate just why fieldwork is so dang interesting.

So crack jokes in your talks, do that wacky impression of your study species’s mating call, and by all means, include that anecdote about “this one time we were out in the field and…”



**Always have a notebook. Always.


Liv just finished her MSc at Carleton on the influence of crop arrangement and composition on bats. She did her BSc in Zoology at the University of Guelph, and then took off into the woods for awhile to assist in studies investigating nest protection for turtles, road mitigation for reptiles, and the effects of logging techniques on birds and vegetation communities. She also enjoys contributing to citizen science projects and is the creator of Tails From the Field, a web comic about field biology and nature.

On mentoring & fieldwork

As field biologists we know we are extremely privileged to do what we do. We get to explore some of the most remote places in the world, study some of the most exciting flora and fauna, and experience some of the most exciting, hilarious and terrifying things you could ever imagine. But we don’t want to keep these experiences to ourselves. That’s exactly why we started this blog, to share our stories and other’s stories with everyone. It’s a simple form of outreach, call it a media-based outreach if you will, which we hope has given some readers a little glimpse into fieldwork.

But Dispatches from the field is certainly not the only medium out there for getting people excited about fieldwork. Over the next few weeks on Dispatches we are going to highlight stories where field biologists have made an effort to get people excited about fieldwork, whether that is the general public, children, or even undergraduate students. We’ll be featuring some more media-based stories, some stories about local groups/clubs and even some course-based stories. Whatever the context, the broad theme over the next several weeks is fieldwork outreach and I’m very excited to start things off this week by talking a bit about my experiences as a mentor in the field.

I’ve been working in the field since 2009 and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of field assistants over that time. Lackeys, minions, call them what you want, but they’re certainly more than just hired help. For most of my field assistants, fieldwork in our lab was a first for them, and I wanted to make that the best possible experience for them.

Thinking back to my first field season in summer 2009, I was terrified. I was always an outdoorsy person but was still pretty intimidated. The field technician that year, my now good friend Sarah, played a huge role in getting me excited about fieldwork. Her enthusiasm for the natural world was exceptional. I remember meandering through some of the paths surrounding the Queen’s University Biological Station and looking at spring ephemerals. Every time we came across a species she didn’t know she helped us key it out, and it was super exciting to turn the pages and eventually a matching image would jump right off the page. Sarah was a pretty special mentor to me, and that field season literally changed my whole career path and a lot of my life.

Having Sarah as a guide in my first field season really set the pace for my future field seasons as a graduate student. As I grew into my role as a field biologist, I realized my role as a mentor, and fast. Suddenly, I had my own students to help with my own projects. I had to give advice and help set up their honours thesis projects. I had to show them how to identify local flora and familiarize them with our sampling techniques and most importantly, I had to get them excited about doing it. I had to get them to appreciate the natural world and give them their first taste of fieldwork.

sarah and i

Sarah and I are my field site in 2009 Photo credit: S.Baxter

For me, it was really exciting to see who was going to end up loving fieldwork and who would stay indoors for the rest of their lives. Over the years I would certainly say I’ve seen a handful of the latter, but for the most part fieldwork was a positive experience for most of the students I have worked with. For example, I had two field assistants last summer both who had a great time doing fieldwork.

Jen, who did an Honours thesis project on masting in sugar maples, is now doing fieldwork in Alaska (you can expect to hear a story from her soon…). Jen, a self-described tree-hugger, was meant to do fieldwork. She had spent some time doing fieldwork in New Zealand (anyone remember that story?) and was just an outdoorsy person in general. I remember working in the field with her one day and talking about how much we loved to work in the field. “It makes you feel alive” Jen commented. She is certainly right about that!

My other field assistant John follows a similar story line. John was an outdoorsy guy with experience working for a conservation authority. He came into our lab, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and excited (SO EXCITED) to do fieldwork. I remember interviewing him and thinking there was no way he could still be that enthusiastic by the end of the summer. But John proved me wrong! In fact, he’s starting his Master’s this semester in our lab and doing a totally fieldwork-based thesis!

Like I said before, fieldwork isn’t meant for everyone, but you don’t know if you enjoy something until you try it. Mentoring students and getting them excited about fieldwork stands as one of my favourite parts, if not my absolute favourite part of being a field biologist.

A night at the symphony

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Amanda Cicchino, who shares some of her adventures wading through the marshes of QUBS in the dark to record frog songs.  For more about Amanda, check out her bio at the end of this post.

I like to compare the frog chorus to a symphony. The orchestra in this case is composed of many different species, each with the same end goal. The timing and frequencies of the noises they make have been molded over time to allow them to be heard simultaneously, yet they still compete with one another. Over the course of the night, the entire chorus comes together and tells a story.

My last field season was done at QUBS (Queen’s University Biological Station) and focused on frog acoustics. As I learned from presenting a poster at the annual Open House, not many people are aware of the different sounds frogs and toads can make. Though some species sound quite pleasant, others present you with ear-splitting, gurgling screams that result in a pounding headache1. Most frogs and toads call during the breeding season as a way to attract mates. Most calling and breeding is done at night in marshes or swamps. My original aim for that season was to record the mating calls of Spring Peepers to supplement a dataset, but I developed a “small” side-project with a lab-mate that would require recordings from each species found at QUBS2. What a shame.

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.

Single, lonely spring peeper seeks soulmate…

A typical night of sampling involves organization and proper preparation. Prior to leaving for the site, a few cups of coffee must be ingested, with at least one travel mug packed. The field pack must include digital calipers (to measure the frogs), plastic calipers (in case it rains and the digital ones can’t be used), multiple flashlights and headlamps, a heat gun, my notebook and pencil, recording equipment, back-up batteries (in case the ones in the devices die during the night), and emergency back-up batteries (in case the back-ups die or spontaneously combust3). Everything digital is kept in Ziploc bags in case it rains through the car or through the rain-cover on the pack.

Wearing the right attire is also a necessity for a smooth sampling night2. Fashion has always been a priority in my life, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to maintain that passion while sampling. Since the first frogs (typically Wood Frogs) begin calling when there is still ice floating on the marsh, the temperatures I sample in can be quite low.  I won’t bore you with specifics of how I dress, but I do want to give you an image of how I feel I look.  (But also stuffed into brown neoprene chest-waders). Of course, dressing with that many layers might impede my speed and agility in the marsh, so I tend to invest in good thermal clothes.

Once the sun sets, a few individuals will start to call until the peak is hit and the chorus is in full swing. My sampling begins at the peak and ends either when I have transected the whole marsh, reached my sample size limit for the site, or the chorus goes silent (usually the last one). I record every individual I come across for at least 20 consecutive calls using a Marantz PMD660 recorder and Sennheiser microphone. This can look quite humourous as the microphone is at least 30cm long and some frogs are approximately 2cm in length. I then catch the individuals and take morphometric measurements before releasing them. This can be a slow process as some individuals are “mic shy”. When they stop calling once the microphone is put near them, my general tactic is to turn off all my lights, splash a bit, and wait. Usually after a minute, they start calling again and I can feel good about myself for out-smarting a 2cm long frog. This tactic does not have to be employed too often, as I find that frogs can be quite bold. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a frog making mating calls when the lower half of its body was inside a snake’s mouth. Once I have finished my sampling, exhausted and exhilarated, I look forward to reliving the night when I analyze the call recordings the next day.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

Perhaps comparing a frog chorus to a symphony seems a bit quixotic, but they do have some similarities. They both require a specific dress code, they both overlay impressive sounds and rhythms, and they both tell an extravagant story. Of course, the frog chorus’s story is one of acoustic niche and evolution, but that is one of the most interesting stories I can think of! This kind of field work isn’t for everyone, but I truly love it. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a marsh during peak breeding season, with a full chorus of hundreds of frogs desperately calling to attract a mate. The frog chorus is quite literally music to my ears.

  1. Google ‘Bird Voiced Tree Frog call” and “American Toad call” for this comparison. You may want to make sure your speakers are turned a bit low for the latter.
  2. Please beware of extreme sarcasm used ahead.
  3. A pessimistic mindset leads to the best preparation.

AmandaAmanda recently completed her BScH at Queen’s University, researching acoustic divergence in the Spring Peeper for her Honour’s thesis. She is starting her MSc at Queen’s this fall, and will continue to study the role of mating systems on speciation.

The incredible journey

Even though it’s still August, and the air is hot and humid, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and some of the leaves have a distinct reddish tinge to them.  We may prefer to pretend it’s not happening, but we all know it: fall is on the way.  For millions of birds across North America, it’s time to start thinking about packing their bags and turning their sights to the south.  As summer draws to a close and our forests and fields begin to empty out, I’d like to share a post about migration that I originally wrote for Land Lines, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s blog, back in the spring – when all the birds were just returning.

“We’ve got rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and…rocks and  trees, and trees and rocks, and water…in Canada.”

-Arrogant Worms, “Rocks and Trees”

Canada: land of rocks, tress, water...and endless highways.

Canada: land of rocks, trees, water…and endless highways.

Ever since getting my driver’s licence, I’d dreamed of driving across Canada.  As a concept, it seemed romantic and adventurous – the perfect way to really get to know my own country.  But the reality, it turned out, was a bit different.  As I set off from Sudbury on my second day of cross-country driving, I wanted to be excited.  The first day had been easy: only six hours in the car, and a friend waiting for me at the other end.  But today was the real start of the adventure.  Today, I’d be leaving the relative safety of roads I knew well and passing into territory that was unknown, at least to me.

As I pointed my car west and hit the gas, I was more terrified than excited. Six thousand kilometers is a lot of road – especially when you’re driving alone.  In an effort to kickstart my enthusiasm, I reached over to slide the “Canadiana” mix CD a friend had made for me into the car’s CD player.  As the first strains of the Arrogant Worms’ “Rocks and Trees” came over the speakers, I glanced out the window and couldn’t help but laugh.  A vast, lonely landscape met my gaze, composed of…well, rocks, trees, and water.  Somehow, the song wasn’t actually making me feel any better.

The purpose of this epic journey was to get myself out to BC, and begin my PhD research on the population of western bluebirds that breeds in BC’s Okanagan Valley.  Although there are bluebirds (of one species or another) across the country, I was particularly interested in this population because of their migratory behaviour: the western bluebirds in the Okanagan are partial migrants.  This means that while some birds migrate south in the fall, others hang around the Okanagan, gather into flocks, and brave the snow and cold of a Canadian winter.

Western bluebird flock (and one lone goldfinch) check out a heated bird bath on a cold winter day. Photo credit: Eva Durance.

Western bluebirds (and one lone goldfinch) check out a heated bird bath on a cold winter day. Photo credit: Eva Durance.

I’ve been fascinated by avian migration ever since taking my first Animal Behaviour course as an undergraduate.  This fascination has shaped the last eight years of my life, informing my research interests as a graduate student.  Migration is a common phenomenon:  every year, billions of individuals from more than 350 bird species across North America embark on migratory journeys.  Migration is ubiquitous, and each spring and fall, as I hear the honks of Canada geese passing overhead, I’m tempted to call it ordinary.  But this common phenomenon is composed of extraordinary feats.  As summer winds down in the northern hemisphere, birds like the 25g northern wheatear set off into the unknown, often travelling thousands of kilometers south to spend the winter in more hospitable climates.  In the case of the wheatear, individuals breeding in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska brave the perils of crossing the Atlantic, ultimately covering 14,000 km to reach their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.  Then, come spring, they do it all over again in reverse.

Migration captures the imagination of scientists and the public alike.  But what is it about these journeys that inspires and enchants us?  That’s a question I’d never been able to answer satisfactorily, but as I faced the vast, lonely distances of my own incredible journey, the answer became clearer: migration may be common, but it is also an extraordinary story of adventure and challenge.

It's just possible that I should have left earlier...

It’s just possible that I should have left earlier…

To begin with, you must decide when to leave.  For birds, timing of migration is affected by many things – from predator abundance to food availability and individual condition – but it’s crucial that they get it right.  This is especially true in the spring, when arriving too late on the breeding grounds can undermine the success of an individual’s breeding season.  However, timing is also important in the fall, when staying too late can mean encounters with the kind of weather you’d rather avoid – as I found out the hard way.

Of course, once you’ve decided to leave, it’s also very important to know where you’re going.  Unfortunately for me, I’m one of the most directionally challenged people imaginable.  (Despite the fact that driving from Ontario to BC essentially involves following the Trans-Canada highway west, a number of people were actually placing bets on whether I’d end up in BC or Nova Scotia.)  Luckily, I had help: before I embarked on my journey, my mother dragged me to the CAA to purchase a staggering number of maps.  I ended up with a separate map for every Canadian province west of Quebec, a very long set of driving directions, and a North American road atlas for good measure.  Despite this plethora of directional aids, I can’t deny making the occasional U-turn on quiet parts of the Trans-Canada.

Just in case you’ve misplaced your country: thank goodness for maps, directions, and road signs.

Just in case you’ve misplaced your country: thank goodness for maps, directions, and road signs.

Birds, of course, have to manage without the help of the CAA.  Instead, they get their directional cues from a variety of sources: the sun, the stars, and the Earth’s magnetic field.  Recent research also suggests that scent cues may play a role in guiding migrants to their destination.  In fact, despite decades of study, we’re still learning new things about how birds manage to navigate the vast distances involved in migration.

You can meet almost any need along the way, as long as you pick your stopping places carefully. If you find yourself suddenly in need of custom embroidery halfway across the continent, the World’s Largest Truckstop in Iowa is the place for you.

You can meet almost any need along the way, as long as you pick your stopping places carefully. If you find yourself suddenly in need of custom embroidery halfway across the country, consider taking a detour to the south: the World’s Largest Truckstop in Iowa is the place for you.

Now on your way, you face another problem: finding places to stop.  As I made my way across the country, I realized that Canada’s seemingly endless rocks, trees, and water didn’t make that challenge easy to overcome.  I quickly learned to appreciate the value of a good refueling point, preferably one with gas, clean washrooms, good coffee, and food packaged within the last decade.  As every migrant knows, finding ideal stops as you navigate an unfamiliar world is not easy.  You need to be able to quickly size up potential sites for their value.  If you decide to stop, you need to quickly figure out what to eat and how to avoid being eaten yourself.  For me, the most important part of finding stops was learning to compromise.  Under less than ideal circumstances, I decided, fresh food was optional.  Even clean washrooms could be optional – after all, all those trees have to be good for something.  Gas and good coffee, however, were non-negotiable.

Even when you finally reach your general destination, the challenges aren’t over.  It’s important to know exactly where and when to stop.  When I crossed the border from Alberta into BC, I cheered, pulled over, and took a victory photo.  Little did I know that finding my new home in the Okanagan would involve more U turns than the rest of my trip put together.  My directions said, “Follow the highway around a curve and the driveway will be on your left”.  Unfortunately, the highway in the Okanagan is nothing but curves.  I drove past my new accommodations three times before finally focusing on the right curve, noticing the driveway, and making the turn.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to stop driving in my life.

During the course of my PhD, I made the drive to the Okanagan and back three times.  Each time, I took a different route, and each journey brought its own adventures, trials, and excitement.  Of course, I had it easy during my ‘migrations’: unlike me, birds travel under their own power, at the mercy of the unpredictable (and often nasty) elements.  But I still feel that my cross country travels gave me a unique opportunity to gain a more personal understanding of the ordinary, extraordinary phenomenon of migration.

Well worth the trip: the Okanagan Valley from above.

Well worth the trip: the Okanagan Valley from above.