Clash of the cattle

In my tenure as a field biologist, I’ve experienced and had to deal with many problems…unfortunate events…hideous disasters…whatever you want to call them. Catherine’s blog about the revenge of the ruminants from earlier this month got me thinking about an encounter that I had with these beefy creatures way back at the start of my time doing fieldwork.

Back in my first field season in the summer of 2009, our lab was setting up a long term experiment (about 10 years) to assess the effects of climate change on temperate grassland communities. The first step after getting the overall design and relevant details in order was to find an appropriate field site. We trekked around all over QUBS’ properties, and eventually found a good-sized piece of land on the Bracken tract. It met all of the criteria including having a high species richness, easily accessible by foot and was relatively flat. There had been some cattle grazing allowed on the property but the farmer assured us that they were now back on his property, and for good.

This particular study had 240 replicate 1 x 1 m plots. Treatments included plots with excess water added each week, control plots, and those with rainout shelters to minimize the access of water. There were also nutrient addition plots, and those with herbivore exclosures. Needless to say, it was a huge experiment. We spent a solid week mapping and measuring out the field. We set up the 240 plots and then used 6 different colours of flags to mark them all with their respective treatments. By the end of the week, we had made serious progress. We even left early that Friday just because we had worked so hard.

bracken shelters fence shot

An example of what the rainout shelters look like. 

We came back Monday ready to start putting up some of the shelters and fences together for the treatments. But the field wasn’t exactly as we had left it. In fact, it wasn’t even close to the condition we left it in. This would have been early June, so the grass was well over a foot tall and there were buttercups ad hawkweeds blooming galore. At least, there were when we had left the field on Friday.

Now the grass was barely an inch tall. The flags were no longer upright. Some were crushed. Some were torn to shreds. Some were just completely gone. And the source of this damage didn’t cover it up well. They certainly left their mark. There were cow patties all over the field site.

This led to a very awkward and upsetting call to our Supervisor about the state of the field, and the wasted hours of work put into setting it up. The next week a bunch of guys came down from Queen’s and installed a barbed wire fence around the site to prevent this from happening again. Luckily, the story has a happy ending because this ended up being an isolated incident and the cows have never broken into the field site after the fence was installed, and the experiment is now going into it’s 6th year.

The cows make an appearance now and then, and in large numbers, often around 70 at a time. As free-ranging beef cattle they aren’t exactly friendly or unfriendly. If you look them in the eyes, they run the other way. But 5 minutes later you’ll see their heads poking out of the bush wanting another look at what you’re doing. Occasionally one gets stuck in the barbed wire trying to get a taste of the grass in our site. They have at least a hundred acres to roam free on, but of course, the grass is always greener on the other side…or so they say.

An ode to the boreal forest

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Julia Shonfield, who shares some of her stories about working in Alberta’s beautiful boreal forest.

Helicopter flight in

Sitting up front with the pilot; can’t complain about our mode of travel from site to site!

I could hardly contain my excitement as I started to feel the ground pull away as we lifted up into the air. I’ll never forget that feeling as we zoomed over the tops of the trees. It was my first time in a helicopter, and I was being flown out to a remote field site somewhere north of Fort Chipewyan in northeastern Alberta. Our map had some small white patches, which it turned out were large patches of white lichen on the ground. The area was rocky with jack pine trees scattered across the landscape. This area is part of the Canadian Shield, which stretches across much of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but only reaches a small corner of Alberta. The pilot brought the helicopter down, and I awkwardly climbed out and felt the dry lichen crunch under my feet. I felt ridiculous wearing a pair of chest waders, but I had been warned that most of the natural open areas where the helicopter could land would be wet.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

That was the summer I did field work by helicopter for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) in northeastern Alberta. I got flown in to each site with my field partner and we’d set up our tents in the middle of nowhere, wake up early the next morning and survey birds, plants, and trees, and take soil samples. The next couple sites after that first one had wetter landing areas, but the water was still not very deep. I decided to take a risk and wear my rubber boots instead of my chest waders in the helicopter. The first few days of any field work project can be tricky and stressful as you try to figure out what clothing and equipment works and what doesn’t. A few days in, I thought I had figured it out – and then we landed at one particular site and I watched my field partner, Bryce, get out of the helicopter and sink up to his mid thighs in water. He was at least a foot taller than me, and I groaned as I stepped out of the helicopter, flooded my rubber boots and continued to sink nearly up to my waist. But that’s the thing about doing field work in the boreal forest: you never really know what to expect and what you’ll encounter out there. The boreal forest is incredibly varied and probably a lot more so than many Canadians realize.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

This was not my first time doing field work in the boreal forest. I had previously worked on a forestry project in northern Ontario doing small mammal live-trapping for a couple summers. I also spent a few seasons working on the Kluane Red Squirrel project in the Yukon for my Master’s work on territorial behaviour of red squirrels. But it wasn’t until I worked for ABMI that I fully realized just how varied and truly spectacularly the boreal forest is. That’s not to say that the boreal forest in Ontario and the Yukon is all the same, but those projects specifically targeted certain habitats: in Ontario the project was on the impact of forestry practices on mixedwood forests, and the project in the Yukon targeted preferred red squirrel habitat (white spruce forests). The variation of the boreal forest was likely less apparent to me when I worked in Ontario and the Yukon because there wasn’t the same range of variation across the study sites within each project. The study sites for ABMI were randomly selected, and no two sites that summer were exactly the same.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire and water play huge roles in shaping the landscape of the boreal forest, and those forces were evident almost everywhere I looked. The sites I surveyed that summer ranged from very dry jack pine forest to wet bogs and very wet fens, and from very recently burned forests with lots of standing dead trees to older burned forests where almost all the trees had fallen down.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Some sites were so beautiful I just couldn’t believe they were random dots on a map. My favourite was a sandy site with an open canopy of mature jack pine trees that sloped gently down to a small lake with sandy banks and clear blue water. Others were downright awful; my least favourites tended to be very wet with dense shrubs and patches of burned trees that inevitably would leave me covered in black ash as I tried to navigate around them.

My favourite site, the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

My favourite site: the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta and I’m still just as excited about working in the boreal forest as I was when I started. My project looks at the impacts of industrial noise on several species of owls in northeastern Alberta. The field work involves travelling by snowmobile/ATV and on foot to set up recording units to survey for owls calling over a large area. I continue to be amazed when I get to an area that looks different than any other place I’ve been before. The boreal forest is not that rich in species diversity, but a surprising number of different combinations and configurations can be formed from a limited number of tree and shrub species. The boreal forest is an incredibly fascinating, enjoyable, but tough place to work. It’s not just an endless carpet of coniferous trees, which is often what’s depicted in nature documentaries. Few people dream about working in Canada’s boreal forest and it doesn’t have quite the same allure as exotic and tropical locations, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences in the boreal for anything!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

Shonfield_Profile PicJulia Shonfield is currently a PhD candidate in Erin Bayne’s lab in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her PhD project is on the effects of industrial noise on owls in northeastern Alberta. Follow her on twitter @JuliaShonfield for updates on field work, owls and bioacoustics. The Bayne lab also has a lab blog ( and a twitter account (@Wild49Eco).

The unpredictability of working with wild animals

Even though I am mostly in the lab these days, somehow I am still subject to the unpredictability of working with wild animals. The research project I am currently working on uses yellow perch eggs collected within under 24 hours after fertilization. I was lucky to find a fish farm in central Ontario that had “wild” yellow perch. I say “wild” because although they live on this fish farm, they still live in a fairly natural habitat. Achieving the right timing of egg development was the tricky part. I had to wait until I heard that the adult yellow perch were spawning and drive up there to collect the eggs within a day. Essentially I was like a doctor on call waiting for a delivery (of yellow perch eggs).

ponds at the fish farm

Natural ponds at the fish farm are a great habitat for yellow perch.

I originally spoke with the owner at the end of February and he said he would give us some perch eggs. However, he was reluctant to give up much detail about the fish. When I asked when they usually spawn, he replied, “I can’t tell you when those little buggers are going to spawn; I’m not God”. Yellow perch in this area typically do not spawn until mid April so I was not surprised, given the cold February we had, that they would not be near ready.

At the end of March, I received a phone call from the owner who explained that he had caught two females that were “as big as footballs” and that they could spawn any day now. (Side note – I think it is very interesting how people describe their study species. For example, the seabirds I was studying for my master’s thesis were often described as “flying tennis balls with wings”.) I was not ready for the fish to be ready; I thought I had two more weeks to prepare for the experiment! I scrambled to get all of the equipment together so that at any point I was ready to go collect the eggs.

Big tanks in front of the ponds.

From eggs to fry: the yellow perch are collected and kept in big tanks until they are old enough to be put back into the ponds.

And then I waited. The owner told me not to call him for updates as it would take a lot of his time. But no sign of eggs. So I waited longer. Still no eggs. At this point, it was now the end of April and I started to get worried. Did the owner forget to call me? Did he lose my number? Would the perch ever lay their eggs? Was the project ruined!? (Questions in field biologists’ heads often escalate quickly).

The owner finally called me last week and told me that the yellow perch had spawned and there were a few strands of eggs that I could collect.

Using a net to scoop the strands of Yellow perch eggs out of the pond.

Scooping eggs out of the pond. Don’t fall in!

The next day I drove a total of 6 hours to retrieve the eggs and bring them back to our lab (Believe it or not, 6 hours driving for 1 hour of fieldwork does sound appealing when you sit behind a lab bench most of your time!). However, even though I had over a month to prepare, I still forgot my rain boots and ended up with a wet foot. The owner kept saying “This is a fish farm you know. You’re going to get wet.” and “Don’t you go falling in there, I don’t want to have to come in after you!”.

strands of yellow perch eggs in baskets.

Yellow perch eggs come out in long gooey strands.

Although it seemed that I was an inconvenience to the owner most of the time, when I arrived at the fish farm, he was surprisingly very interested in the research that we do and said “I just want to know that you are learning something”.  In addition to learning more about yellow perch, it turns out that interactions with people in the field can also surprise you!

A different kind of field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is very excited to welcome Stephanie Kim to the blog.  Steph is a graduate student at Queen’s University, and in her post she shares some her experiences from a very unusual field season.

When you hear the words “field season”, you probably think of forests or swamps or lakes or just the great outdoors. When I hear the words, I think of dark, lonely basements and skeletons…but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Last summer, I went on a whirlwind museum tour/data collection extravaganza across North America to collect data for my MSc project. I spent the summer perusing some of the best museum collections in North America and taking pictures of bird skulls and legs, all while getting to visit some places I probably would never have seen otherwise! I went on three amazing trips and, while it was lonely at times, I wouldn’t trade my basement skeletons for anything else in the world.

Instead of wild adventures and close encounters with amazing (live) animals, I’ll give you a few highlights from one of the coolest summers I’ve ever had:

TRIP 1: Museum of Comparative Zoology (Boston) – American Museum of Natural History (New York) – Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) – Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh) – Field Museum (Chicago) – Michigan University (Ann Arbor)

TRIP 2: Kansa University Museum (Lawrence) – Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge) – Museum of Southwestern Biology (Albuquerque) – University of Colorado (Boulder)

TRIP 3: Yale University (New Haven) – University of California, at LA (Los Angeles) – LA County Museum of Natural History (Los Angeles) – Moore Lab of Zoology (Los Angeles) – Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (San Francisco) – California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco)

The oh-so-fashionable 'airport bag lady' look.

The oh-so-fashionable ‘airport bag lady’ look.

First off, imagine me running through airports, trying to catch my next flight with only 30 minutes of layover time and no idea where I’m going…looking like this. It wasn’t my best look. I was carrying a tripod, a camera, my laptop, a full desktop scanner, and 3-4 weeks worth of clothes. My backpack hardly made it back in one piece and my shoulders have never been so sore.

My first experience during this trip was: a) something I’ll never forget; b) an embarrassing fan-girl situation; and c) not at all science related. I met Viggo Mortensen…aka Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. And because I was so nervous I was going to miss my flight, I was at the airport 4 hours early. So I have a lot of pictures of the back of his head…like this one.

Even from the back...the most exciting part of the trip!

Even from the back…the most exciting part of the trip!

So let’s marry these two pieces of information: the first (and probably only) time I  met a famous person… I looked like an airport bag lady.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

After leaving Aragorn behind, I started my actual museum tour. The MCZ at Harvard University in Boston was my first stop. It was a gorgeous little museum right in the middle of  campus. The company was scarce, but I did have a lovely stuffed dodo bird to keep me company. To be honest, this was the beginning of my extreme summer of nerding out and instagramming everything with the hashtag “Darwinning”.

Museums are such an amazing source of information and research! There were huge libraries in almost every collection I visited and the staff were founts of knowledge. As part of my data collecting, I was taking images of the three leg bones in birds (femur, tibiotarsus, and tarsometatarsus). Before leaving, I had done lots of research into correctly ID-ing the leg bones, but when I opened my first specimen box, it was just a slurry of bones. Some were broken, while some were still attached together… I had no idea where to start. Thankfully, one of the staff members helped me out and pushed me in the right direction. Needless to say, if you ever need to ID the left leg bones of a bird, I’m now your girl. Seeing the work being done in these collections and the army of people behind the scenes at museums was something I will never forget…and something that has made me admire and appreciate museums even more!

The Darwin bird! The top two tags are even in his handwriting... #darwinning

The Darwin bird!

Working in these museums also meant that on my breaks, I got to walk around and see all the exhibits. Sometimes, I would even get a cool badge that made me look super official. The American Museum of Natural History (in New York) had some of my favourite exhibits, but the coolest thing I saw on my journey was behind lock and key at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: a Hudsonian Godwit that was collected by Charles Darwin himself!! It was collected on the HMS Beagle’s second voyage to the Falkland Islands – the top two tags are the original ones that Darwin wrote when he collected this bird! Pretty cool. …#darwinning.

Happy the Penguin

Happy the Penguin

Other adventures include going to a National Aviary in Pittsburgh, where I met a 6-month old penguin named Happy, spending Canada Day at the Bean in Chicago after a day at the Field Museum, walking through Kansas University campus where I saw real-life Greek row, filled with giant fraternity/sorority houses, visiting the giant collection at LSU, and finishing some amazing hikes in Albuquerque (Sandia Peaks) and Boulder (Iron flats).

It’s worth mentioning that I was given a to-do list for my time in Baton Rouge: eat a shrimp po’boy and see the Mississippi river. Unfortunately, everything is fried in peanut oil in Louisiana…and I happen to be allergic to peanuts.  Instead, I was offered a very sad, blanched, shrimp sandwich… that wasn’t great. As for the Mississippi river, I walked 40 minutes to get a glimpse, but the only place I could get to was guarded by security and I wasn’t allowed to approach the actual shoreline, BUT if you look realllllyy closely at the picture… you can see a tiny sliver of the river (behind the swampy waters). Check.

The Mississippi river. No,'s actually there if you look closely!

The Mississippi river. No, really…it’s actually there if you look closely!

My last trip started in New Haven, on Yale’s beautiful campus. (Shout out to any Gilmore Girl fans – I went to all the libraries to channel my inner Rory!) Yale has some of the most stunning libraries I’ve ever seen, gorgeous art museums, and the headquarters of a secret society called “Skull and Bones”, which was formed in 1832! There’s some pretty cool history on that campus.

After New Haven, I headed to the beautiful state of California. While in LA, I stayed at a youth hostel right on Hollywood Blvd. where I quickly became the odd one out. Everyone kept asking me to play beer pong or go bar hopping, but I was constantly in a corner, with bird skeletons plastered on my computer screen After day 3, they stopped asking. On the night of the “biggest club crawl in LA”, I opted out to go see Diana Krall perform at the Hollywood Bowl, which turned out to bean insanely cool concert venue.


The Hollywood Bowl: coolest concert venue ever!

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

After visiting three great museum collections in LA, I went on to the last stop of my summer museum tour: San Francisco. The Berkeley campus was gorgeous, but the award for my favourite location of all three trips goes to the California Academy of Sciences. It was basically a science lover’s dream come true. There was an albino alligator, huge aquariums, a four storey rainforest with butterflies and birds flying all around, a museum with amazing displays and exhibits, a planetarium…and everything else sciency and cool you can think of. I only photographed a few specimens in their collection, but I ended up staying two days so I could see everything inside – if you’re ever in San Fran, I would highly recommend this incredible place!

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

All in all, while I love the great outdoors and traipsing around in swamps, my museum tour field season was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It brought me to incredible museums and collections, and gave me the chance to be independent and explore some awesome cities, meet some cool people (including all the incredible staff at the museums). Most importantly, it brought me to Aragorn.

P.S. As an aside to any arachnologists out there, I came across this beautiful spider in the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge and have no idea what kind it is! I also have a slight fear of spiders so it took a lot of courage to snap this pic…

Mystery spider - any ideas, anyone?

Mystery spider – any ideas, anyone?


Bio picSteph Kim is a MSc candidate in the Biology department at Queen’s University. She completed her BScH in Biology in 2013 and her B.Ed in 2014, both at Queen’s, and is finally gearing up to leave this great school and city. Her MSc project is focused on comparing trait morphologies between closely related species of birds to answer the question: can species interactions influence the evolution of bill morphologies in birds, worldwide? Outside of school, she enjoys music, hiking, playing around with her camera, and being around her awesome friends and family!

Revenge of the ruminants

When I first started doing fieldwork, I must admit that I spent a lot of time worrying about large mammals.  Even when I worked up at QUBS, in the relatively safety of eastern Ontario, I fretted about bears.  When I went to California, I obsessed about mountain lions.  And after working in Hawaii, I added feral pigs to my list of formidable and frightening creatures.

But until I began my PhD fieldwork in the Okanagan Valley, it would never have occurred to me to worry about cows.

I know what you’re thinking: how can cows be in the same league as bears or mountain lions?  After all, they’re vegetarians!  There is no chance that you’re ever going to be eaten by a hungry cow.  They just stare at you with their huge brown eyes and chew their cud meditatively.


As it turns out, you really don’t run into bears or mountain lions that often in the field.  (Not that I’m complaining.)  But what you do see – especially doing fieldwork in an agricultural area like the Okanagan Valley – is cows.  They’re everywhere.

This is especially true if your study species is partial to the type of habitat that often holds grazing cows.  When I was setting up my PhD field sites, I wanted to make sure to cover as many types of bluebird habitat as possible.  So while much of my research took place in vineyards or along walking trails, I also had two sites that were open rangeland.

The wide open spaces of one of my two rangeland sites.

The open spaces and sage brush of one of my two rangeland sites.

When I first set up nest boxes at these sites, I fell in love with the wide, empty spaces and the scent of sagebrush.  My rangeland sites instantly became my favourite.  But on my second visit to one of these sites, I got an inkling that they might be more problematic than I’d thought.  As the car rounded the last corner on the way to the site, I had to hit the brakes hard.  My field of vision was suddenly filled with milling brown and black bodies.  Cows, cows, and more cows…as far as the eye could see.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my phone to call the landowner.  He’d mentioned to me that they’d be bringing the cows in, but I had to assume they weren’t supposed to be blocking traffic.  “There must be a break in the fence,” I told him.  “The cows have gotten out and are all over the road.”

“Oh, that’s normal,” he replied.  “I’m sure the fence is fine.”

“But…” I started at the solid wall of bodies on the road in consternation. “…how did they get out, then?”

“Well, fences are more like…suggestions…to cows,” he responded.  “They usually ignore them.  But I’m sure if you honk at them enough, they’ll get out of your way.”

More trouble than they look...

More trouble than they look…   (Photo credit: Manisha Bhardwaj.)

From then on, the two rangeland sites were the bane of my existence.  No matter what was on my agenda when I arrived, the cows always seemed to be between me and where I needed to go.  It was like they had a copy of my schedule.  And it was never just one or two cows – wherever one went, the other 30 animals in the herd joined it, forming a dense, noisy, smelly barrier between me and my destination.

Also, as it turns out, cows and bird boxes are not a good combination.  The cows decided that the boxes were perfect scratching posts, and were irresistibly attracted to them.  Almost every time I arrived at the sites, one or more of the boxes would be hanging at a precarious angle – often with a perplexed bluebird sitting beside it.

And then, of course, there were the cow patties everywhere.

After a month or so, though, the cows and I had settled into an uneasy détente.  I was starting to think the situation was relatively under control – and that’s when the bulls showed up.

The first time I realized the cows had been joined by their male friends, I had just dropped my field assistant off at a site.  I happened to glance in the rearview mirror as I pulled away, only to see my assistant standing completely still about 100m away.  Straight across the field from her, staring her down, was a very large cow.  As it lowered its head and began pawing at the ground, it slowly dawned on me that it was really too big…and muscular…and horned…to be a cow.  As my field assistant ran for the car, I realized we had a problem.  From then on, we spent considerably less time at that site.

My other ranch site, on the other hand, remained blissfully free of bulls for most of the summer.  So while the cows and I continued to wage a cold war, I usually felt pretty safe.  By the time August rolled around, the fieldwork was slowing down and I had pretty much relaxed.

Then one day, I was out in the field with my assistant, banding a nest full of bluebird nestlings.  I had just taken two out of the box and was settling onto the ground with one in each hand, when I felt a malevolent gaze on the back of my neck.

I looked around in surprise…only to find myself making eye contact with a bull.  He was about 50m away, and though he appeared relatively unconcerned, there was no doubt that he was sizing me up.

I scrambled to my feet and started backing away, urging my field assistant to do the same.  We struggled cautiously up the small hill behind the box, turning frequently to watch the bull as he meandered closer to the box we’d abandoned. Every time we stopped moving, he would start towards us again – so we kept climbing.

As we reached the top of the hill, I realized two things simultaneously. One – we were out of hill to climb; if he kept coming, we were going to have to make a run for the car.  And two – I still had the nestlings I’d been intending to band clutched in my hand, peeping faintly.

Luckily, after 20 very tense minutes, the bull lost interest and headed on his way, allowing us to creep back down to the box and finish banding.  It took a little longer than that for my heart rate to come back to normal.

So, after more than a decade of fieldwork, here’s what I’ve learned: if you must worry, focus less on bears and the mountain lions, and more on the things you’re likely to actually run into.  And don’t let those big brown eyes fool you – cows are usually up to no good.


The Bear Spray Escapade

This week we welcome Jeff Havig, a geochemist currently at the University of Cincinnati to share a story about misused bear spray. For Jeff’s and his colleague Allie’s biography, check out the end of the post.

The experience in question for me happened when I was part of a larger group collecting geochemical samples of water at springs and outflow channels. A colleague (Allie) and I had broken off from the main group to sample some springs and pools (filter water, collect sediment samples, etc.).

We were in Grizzly country, so we had a can of bear spray with us. While we were sampling, I needed to use the little geochemists room (aka find a tree to pee behind), so I was going to leave the spray with Allie. The can was a few years old, and she was pondering/questioning its efficacy, so I stepped back, checked the wind direction, chose a target, and discharged a short burst at a nearby tree stump (the spray worked fine).

Jeff trying out the bear spray

The picture of the spray that would be Allie’s undoing.

Allie said that it had looked really cool, and so she wanted me to repeat the exercise so that she could get a picture of it. So I rechecked the wind (still light and at my back), took aim at the same tree stump, and discharged a short burst, which Allie did indeed get a picture of.

However, the wind then abruptly shifted, and to my utter surprise and absolute horror, the spray literally took a 90 degree turn mid-flight, and instead of hitting the hapless target stump it proceeded to travel straight at Allie, making full and complete contact with her face.

Following the initial shock, we then proceeded to apply all of our drinking water to her face to try to alleviate the intense burning. She remembers “finding the whole situation hilarious enough to giggle madly”, which made me a little worried that she was getting hysterical. To her credit, she was able to hold rational conversations about what I was doing to help alleviate her suffering as every mucous membrane in her face exploded. After we were nearly out of water, we decided to try using the local silica-rich clay soil/mud to make a slurry for her to rub on her face, which seemed to help.

"Getting sprayed in the face with bear spray had me like..."

“Getting sprayed in the face with bear spray had me like…”

Allie in her pretend trumpet pose

Ricola – a pretend victory trumpet pose after surviving the whole event.

After about an hour, her misery was down to a dull roar, and we packed up to rejoin the main group. Naturally, I felt like a complete and total goon for having shot (albeit indirectly and unintentionally) my colleague (and very good friend) in the face with bear spray! After time this has become a great story to tell, and to her credit, Allie not only still talks to me, but we are still quite good friends and collaborators…a testament to her fortitude and great sense of humor about the whole matter.


Jeff Havig is a geochemist currently at the University of Cincinnati in the Department of Geology. He studies the interaction between water, rock, and microbial communities at a wide range of sites including hot springs, redox-stratified meromictic lakes, supraglacial and subglacial environments, and acid mine drainage. He earned his B.Sc. in Environmental Chemistry and M.Sc. in Geology at Washington State University and his Ph.D. in Geochemistry at Arizona State University. He splits his time between filtering water and collecting biofilms in the field, processing samples in the lab, converting gobs of data into manuscripts with his life-collaborator Dr. Trinity Hamilton, and digging around in his garden.

Allie Rutledge is a geologist at Purdue University who is currently working remotely from Clermont-Ferrand, France. She studies glacial weathering using a combination of techniques including remote sensing, spectroscopy, and geochemistry. She is particularly interested in terrestrial analogues to Mars, such as glaciated basalt flows. Allie earned her B.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University and her Ph.D. in Geosciences at Arizona State University. When she isn’t pouring over spectra from Earth and Mars, she can be found hiking the local hills, spending time with her favorite volcanologist (and husband) Jean-François Smekens, and plotting Jeff’s demise for the next time they are in the field together.

Why I fell in love with #fieldwork?

In my third year of Undergrad I took a population ecology course that involved a weekend long trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station. We were doing a study about patterns in size and abundance with one of my favourite plants, milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca). We had worked in a disturbance or no disturbance component to the study and as such needed to choose the proper habitats. We hiked out down the road leading to QUBS to the edge of the main road and set up some plots along a mowed fence line. We stood there discussing methodology and sampling methods for the first several minutes. From the east corner of the field three beautiful horses started trotting towards us. Of course, the data collection was derailed at that point so everyone could get a chance to pet the horses. While this took time away from our data collection, everyone was enjoying themselves so the TA just rolled with it.


Milkweed – A. syriaca

When we got back to work, we needed to set up a random plot and measure the height of each milkweed that was in our plot and record the abundance. I measured the plants and my partner recorded the measurements and counts. I knelt down on the damp September grass and placed the metre stick at the base of the plant. As my eyes followed the numbers up the stick, it went dark…almost as if a giant black cloud rolled over the sky.  My eyes quickly glanced up and there was the head of one of those giant horses staring right down at me.

qubs horse 3

The culprit

Our eyes met and before I realized the horse’s intentions, it was gone. The milkweed was uprooted from the ground and hanging from the horse’s mouth. I stood up and stared amusingly into the horses eyes. She just stared back at me with the milkweed hanging out of her mouth. And then just as quick as she tore it up she bit it in two and then spit it at my feet.

I patted her head and mentioned to the horse that I didn’t think horses liked milkweed and that was a lesson learned. I crouched back down, picked up and measured the two slobbery pieces of the milkweed and moved on to the next tallest milkweed, and before I could even place the ruler at the base of the plant *snap*. This time it wasn’t uprooted but just snapped in half.

She stood there for a split second with that milkweed in her mouth and then “pfft, spat!” spitting it out this time, on her side of the fence.

I stood up and looked her in the eyes with a “so this is how it’s gonna be, eh?” glare. She stared back. Tail swaying in the wind swatting deer flies left and right.

I knelt down by the next plant. And just like the rest…gone. Eventually, we just had to retreat. This horse wanted nothing, and yet absolutely everything to do with our data collection. We moved our experiment to the other side of the road, where it was still a disturbed fence line, but there were no horses to munch on our data.

Of course this experience was frustrating, but it was equally entertaining and was my first fieldwork experience. It remains one of those capstone experiences that likely played a huge role in shaping my interests in ecology and fieldwork today.

I have visited these same horses every year since 2008.