My newfound love: the St. Lawrence River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back on the open river locating radio implanted eels!

Back on the open river locating radio implanted eels!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love at first sight. Photo credit: Philina English

Love at first sight. Photo credit: Philina English

Liz Purves head shot

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

Close encounters of the uncaffeinated kind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning over the keys – when it becomes YOUR field work

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Auriel Fournier, a PhD candidate at the University of Arkansas, to tell us what happens when you get handed the reins to a fieldwork project. Check out Auriel’s bio at the end of the post!

I worked as a field assistant for close to a dozen different projects before I started my PhD. I got to see the highs (and lows) of projects, bosses, equipment, and weather. I loved fieldwork: I loved the challenge, I loved being outside, I loved getting paid to spend time doing what I loved. I loved the people I worked with (most of the time) and who I worked for (most of the time). It introduced me to new places and ideas, and took me to amazing places.

During undergrad one winter I was talking to Amber, the PhD student I worked for and she offered me a job for the following summer (sweet!) but there was a catch: I had to run the project.

I FREAKED OUT (she may not know this). How on earth was I supposed to run a project? I was still a silly little undergrad, a baby scientist. But Amber, in her infinite wisdom, gave me the reins, a small pot of money, a goal, and some phone numbers, and five months later I was loading equipment into a minivan with my two technicians and heading out to catch Golden-winged Warblers.

Amber helped me a lot through this process and I soaked it all up. I learned how much work it takes to just make a schedule, and how much work it takes to keep a schedule together. Schedules are hilarious things on field projects, since field work never goes as planned, but land managers still need to know when you are going to be around, so you send out revisions, and more revisions, and make more phone calls, and the waterproofing on your tent gives way and you have no idea if you have any dry clothes and the birds aren’t responding, and your techs look at YOU for guidance. It’s insanity! But I loved it; I loved every moment of it (even the ones my now husband will tell you I hated). I learned how to balance what needed to be done with what I and my crew could do. Some days were rough, so we didn’t push too hard. Other days we worked 16 hours and smiled the entire time. I learned how to respect my technicians and to work with them. I was younger than both of them, which created an interesting power dynamic, but they were great about it, and that entire summer shaped how I am as a boss.

Walking through a wooded area, amber, wearing plaid, followed by Auriel

Amber (plaid shirt) put insane faith in me and I learned SO much.

A few years after this project I started graduate school and was put in charge of an even larger project, and wasn’t given much guidance (sink or swim I guess). Once again I hired some technicians, loaded up some gear and headed out. Once again my techs were all older than me, and my project was insane and never went according to schedule. I hired my technicians because they had skill sets I lacked, experience I needed. So instead of being a dictator, or a weak-naggy-leader (two boss-styles I had experienced and disliked) we worked together. When the ATVs broke (and oh did they break), I learned from one tech. When the spotlights broke (and oh did they break), I learned from another. When plant ID made my head spin, my third tech jumped into action and taught me.

My project was fraught with problems, which often frustrated us all, and I tried to bring them into the decision making. We decided when to push and when to wait. They were all aiming at being grad students someday (and all are now – and I am so proud of them) so I wanted them to learn how this works: how do you schedule a project, how do you change things up? How do you decide which site to cut when half the ATVs are in the shop? I’ve had a lot of bosses, and while I’m still way too young to have opinions, I’m of the mind that this kind of collaborative supervision is one of the best ways to lead a field crew, and with that in mind I’ve got a few thoughts for all my fellow field folk.

Auriel et al sitting in front of a swan lake national wildlife refuge sign

Me, Leslie, Justin and Matt. These three saved me – I should be dead in a wetland somewhere.

To the current field techs out there, if there is ever a moment where you don’t understand why your boss is having you do X instead of Y, or if you have an idea to improve process Z, share it with them. They might have a great reason for why they do things the way they do, but a good boss will welcome your input, even if they aren’t able to incorporate it.

To the current field bosses and supervisors, your technicians are your greatest asset: they are your eyes and ears, they notice things you might miss. Their heads aren’t swimming with schedules and permits and worry, so they see the behaviors and patterns we might miss, and they have ideas from other projects that might be just the fix you need. Listen to them, discuss your decisions with them, and help them learn. Technicians are scientists, just like you. Treat them with respect and realize that part of your job is helping them grow and learn, not just using them to collect data.

Fieldwork is the best thing ever, except when it’s not. How you act as a boss and deal with subpar things has major implications for yourself and your technicians and your science. Embrace the challenge, drink in every moment of fieldy goodness and do awesome science while also helping to build up the next generation of scientists.

headshotAuriel is a PhD Candidate in the Arkansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Arkansas. She has a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology and Management from Michigan Technological University and has worked with birds in 10 states over the past decade on various projects. Her current work focuses on rail migration and wetland management and how we can manage inland wetlands for the widest diversity of species. She is an avid birder, environmental educator, R user and outdoor enthusiast. She is passionate about getting people excited about their natural resources and increasing the diversity of people who are in science, and who enjoy the outdoors.

website –

twitter – @RallidaeRule

Spring wildflowers make my heart beat a little harder

Spring is my favourite season to do fieldwork. It’s a combination of the smell of the earth thawing, the canopy slowly closing in above you as trees begin to leaf out, April showers igniting plants and animals alike, and vibrant colours and new sounds awaking all of your senses. Of course, spring fieldwork has its drawbacks. As the natural world slowly wakes up, mosquitoes and black flies wake up, often too fast and much too enthusiastically, and while I do enjoy the rain, it’s still pretty cold, and this can make for some chilly, damp days in the field. My biggest complaint however, is that this season – especially for spring wildflowers – is painfully short. The bare forest grounds explode with life and colour, but blink one too many times and it’s gone.

Wild ginger - one of the most beautiful spring wildflowers out there!

Wild ginger – one of the most beautiful spring wildflowers out there!

The start of the season is marked by tiny yellow flowers cluttering roadsides and wet ditches. Most people mistake them for dandelions, but they’re actually a really neat spring wildflower called coltsfoot. Coltsfoot often reaches reproductive maturity before most species even begin to grow for the season, and often when there is still snow on the ground- pretty smart strategy in my opinon. It is also referred to as the “son-before-father” because it also often flowers before it even produces leaves. So naturally, we jumped on the chance to collect coltsfoot for a project I was working on about body size and reproduction in plants. It was literally the only thing there was to collect at the time.

Coltsfoot blooming (note that the leaves are just starting to grow!) Photo credit: Wikipedia

Quickly after we see coltsfoot, more species spring to life as the ground thaws, and the days get warmer and sunnier. Spring beauties cover the rich, soft woodland ground. It breaks my heart to crush them beneath my feet as I walk through the woods, but they are everywhere. They might be one of the most beautiful little spring wildflowers, with stripes of vibrant pink lacing their pale pink petals. And the sheer number of them makes for some spectacular woodland walks.

Spring beauties

          Spring beauties

And of course, there are the iconic trilliums. At one of my field sites, white trillium populations can be found all throughout the surrounding woodland areas. But on one rocky cliff edge, there is a giant population of red trilliums. Red trilliums aren’t that rare a sight while doing fieldwork – you often see them interspersed with white trilliums here and there. But what made this particular spot special is that it was covered with red trilliums and red trilliums only. That was a rare and beautiful site.

White trillium

White trillium

Red trillium

Red trillium

I learned lots of new species doing spring fieldwork, and discovered some absolutely stunning plants. Take a look at the photo below, the ever brilliant early meadowrue. I had never seen it in flower until my first spring doing fieldwork. The first time I saw this species, it really did make my heart beat a little harder. I don’t think there is a more beautiful wildflower out there. It is so delicate – I couldn’t bring myself to cut it down for my project.  Looking back at that photo, and remembering that moment in the field, I’m glad I left it where it was.

Early meadowrue

Early meadowrue

There’s something special about spring fieldwork and for me, the wildflowers are a large part of that something special. They’re different from other wildflowers: short-lived, of course, but what they lack in life span they make up for in beauty. They’re one of the first signs of life in the spring and for many field biologists, a sign that our favourite season, fieldwork season, is finally here.

A Canuck in the Outback – Cane toad research in north tropical Australia

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Cameron Hudson, a PhD candidate in Western Australia, to fill us in on what it is like to work at a remote field station. Check out his bio and a link to his own entertaining blog at the the end of the post!

Sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam conservation area. Despite the stillness in the photo, we’re minutes away from a frenzy of activity. Snakes, insects, crocodiles and cane toads (my study species) all spring into action, going about their nightly activities. I spend many of my evenings here, chasing toads around and swatting at mosquitoes. Located in the wetlands region of the Northern Territory, roughly a 45 minute drive south-east of Darwin, sits the research station that we lovingly call Middle Point. It has been a long standing study site for researchers from the University of Sydney, where I moved roughly a year and a half ago to start my PhD research on the cane toad (Rhinella marina) invasion of Australia.

A bright yellow male cane toad

A bright yellow male cane toad (Rhinella marina)

I first learned about the cane toad introduction when I was in high school – my grade 10 science teacher Ms. Holterman showed us a documentary from the ‘80s titled: “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.” It’s worth a watch as they outline the history and spread of a devastating invasive species while managing to interview some quirky individuals. Little did I know that ten years later I would become one of those quirky individuals, moving across the world to study the evolution of the world’s most successful amphibian invasive species. A quick summary – cane toads were introduced to many countries around the globe in order to control sugarcane pests. They arrived in Australia back in 1935, and in the eighty years following, have spread over millions of square kilometers of the Australian landscape. Since they are highly toxic, and Australia has no native toads, many of the native predators have been devastated as the toads move through new areas. Animals that try to eat the toads don’t realize that they are toxic until it is too late (particularly a problem for snakes since they swallow their prey whole). This biodiversity crisis has fostered a lot of hatred towards the toads, and produced a good deal of research funding for studying their impact, and developing control methods. It has also given us a unique opportunity to study the evolution of an invasive species as it invades an entire continent.

Cam with kangaroos.

Obligatory kangaroo photos.

That’s where I come in! I met Professor Rick Shine, my PhD supervisor, when he was visiting QUBS after I had just completed my MSc. We discussed his extensive research program, dedicated to various areas of the toad invasion, and I was hooked. The project we decided on would examine phenotypic changes in cane toads across Australian populations, focusing on adaptations that promote dispersal. As the toads move across the landscape, they are doing so at a rapidly accelerating pace. Previous work on the toads had already shown differences in morphology, behaviour and physiology between toads at the invasion front and toads at the range core, so I was excited to examine these findings further. It also meant that I would get to go wherever the cane toads are, and for a Canadian who had always wanted to travel around Australia I felt pretty lucky.

Purnululu National Park

The real outback – Purnululu National Park, Western Australia

As much as I love the field, life is not always easy in the top end. The field station is pretty remote, the weather is intense and the health hazards are real. From a lifestyle perspective, cell phone coverage is spotty, internet connectivity is low, and we’re surrounded by buffalo farms. Having a social life can be difficult; it’s easy to get wrapped up in my research, and it means that my relationships with friends, family, and my partner require a lot of work (and patience, from people having to put up with my dropped calls). I suppose being a Canadian in Australia means you’re in a long distance relationship with most of the people you know, so it can get a bit lonely.

Buffalo as friends

Luckily we have buffalo friends out here!

From the safety side of things, my work involves a lot of long hours driving (often at night), there are venomous snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne diseases to watch out for. In the wet season we’re met with cyclones and flooding, in the dry season it’s droughts and wildfires. Needless to say, you have to be careful.

Northern death adder

A northern death adder (Acanthopis praelongus) about 2 minutes away from my front door

With all of these factors considered, I still love my job. Living in the field means I’m surrounded by wildlife, free from the clamour and noise of the city. You never know what you’ll run into. Long road trips alone, or with good friends, have given me such an appreciation for the geography and biodiversity of this country. In the short time that I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve seen so much, and yet there is still an endless number of places to explore. As damaging as the toads are, I guess I have them to thank for this experience. Not to mention helping me on my way to getting a PhD, and becoming one of those quirky individuals that I learned about in school.

Cam measuring toads.

Measuring toads – Cam’s favourite activity.

Cam Hudson is a PhD student at the University of Sydney, studying evolutionary biology under Prof. Rick Shine and Dr. Greg Brown. He is a Queen’s University (BScH) and University of Gulelph (MSc) alumnus. His previous research has examined male mating strategies and hybridization in spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) with Prof. Stephen Lougheed, and sexual size dimorphism, multiple paternity and combat in the Emei moustache toad (Leptobrachium boringii) with Prof. Jinzhong Fu. He spent his childhood catching frogs and salamanders in Ontario, and hopes to continue chasing amphibians into adulthood as an evolutionary biologist. If you want to read more about his life and research in the Northern Territory, check out his blog:


Sweet dreams in the field

Most of you who have been camping before would understand and agree with me when I say that when you are living out in nature, every little task suddenly seems like a lot more work. This includes, but is by no means limited to, getting dressed, making meals, cleaning up after meals, showering, and even having to use the “facilities” (which by the way consisted of a large boulder, a fallen tree trunk and the ocean). In addition to these regular activities, add running along slippery rocks, hiking up and down hills, climbing over and under fallen tree trunks and sticking your hand into cold holes in the ground where you may or may not find your burrowing study species. However, even on the unsuccessful days, one thing I could always count on was the best feeling of crawling into my bed at night.

a view of the facilities, consisting of rocks, a log and the ocean.

The “facilities”.

I was overly excited for my first night on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii, BC. How many people get the chance to camp on a remote island? As you can imagine, after a long first day of travelling to and exploring the island, I was grateful when it was finally time to crawl into my bed. I set up my one man tent and rolled out my thermarest.

One man yellow tent

My one man tent on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii.

Humpback whales off the coast of the island.

Humpback whales gather along the reefs just off the coast of the island.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. But when I couldn’t fall asleep immediately I was shocked. As is usual in the early spring in northern BC, it was fairly cold, so I put on all of my layers to go to sleep – which meant I did not have much room to move around. I could feel all the roots under my thermarest, but convinced myself it was just like having a constant massage. Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a group of humpback whales blow just off the coast, not even 300 m away from my little tent. At around 11:30pm the seabirds started to return to their burrows after spending a day at sea. Like myself, they must have been excited to return home, as they were very noisy projecting their call to find their mate and nest. The seabirds calls continued into the dark night with lots of “chaaar chaaar chaaar”’s. I must have fallen asleep around 3 am because the next thing I remember is the dawn chorus of the songbirds on the island as the sun rose.

A tired selfie in the woods.

A tired selfie in the woods.


I woke up still tired but it was new day and I was determined to make the most out of my experience. Although it was very tiring and stressful at times depending on how successful we were at finding occupied burrows, we couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather to be traversing remote islands. At the end of the day, knowing I could count on my bed was actually very comforting, with the company of the wildlife chorus and all.