The nightmare before fieldwork

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the days are lasting longer, the temperature is rising higher, and the snow is melting faster. It’s only a matter of time before we can see grass growing, smell flowers blooming, and hear birds chirping. For many people, this is their favourite time year; a time described as a new beginning. But for me, it is a beginning of the busiest time of year!

When field biologists work with wild animals, they usually have a specific block of time to collect the data they’re interested in, based on the species’ annual cycle. Sure, they can always try again next year, but a PhD student’s work for the rest of the year is largely based on whatever data they do manage to collect. In other words, successful field season = happy grad student! In terms of my project, the ground starting to thaw means that birds will begin preparing to breed. Since I am interested in the biology of eggs and their incubation, I need to be present for the beginning of the birds’ reproductive session.

desk with papers everywhere

This is how organized my desk (and brain) is these days!

But before I can even get out to the field, there are a million and one things to prepare ahead of time. So here I am in the heat of planning my field season: making lists of lists to try to keep myself organized. I have written five different permit applications and two protocols in two different languages. I’ve discussed plans with park directors, wildlife managers in the provincial government, and biologists in the federal government. I’ve had to make many decisions about where to go, what techniques to use, and how many specimens to collect. So far, it seems that all is on track (or maybe that is just the picture I paint for my supervisors). However, the fact is that when I am making so many choices (or procrastinating making those choices by adding them to my list instead), I start to question what I’ve actually done…and what I’ve only dreamt I did.

These fieldwork dreams (one might call them nightmares) keep occurring. They are not always about the same thing, but they have the same underlying message. It always comes down to the “what if”s. What if I show up to my field site and there are no birds nesting? What if I arrive too late and all the eggs have hatched already? What if the Ontario government approves the proposed cormorant hunt? Despite some of these “what if”s being under my control and others not, I have to try to plan for everything because you just never know what might happen. These all add to my worry about the field season. One night in my sleep I said (rather strictly), “You’re not doing it right!” Startled awake by my statement, my husband asked, “Doing what right?” I responded with, “The frogs! You’re not doing it right. Ugh fine, just give it to me. I’ll do it. I don’t have time for you to mess it up.” Luckily for me, he is a supportive PhD husband and understands my current state of mind is only temporary!

I realize I’m probably the only person in the northern hemisphere wishing for a prolonged winter this year…so I guess I just have to accept the inevitable: spring is coming, my sanity is leaving, and I am stuck sorting through my lists of lists. At least it pays off in the end when I get to go to cool places and study cool things. Wish me luck!

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Happy damselfly catching in Sweden

We are excited to welcome Hanna Bensch, a PhD candidate at Linnaeus University Kalmar, Sweden, to the blog today. For more about Hanna, see the end of this post.

The summer of 2012 was the first of six summers I spent with a butterfly net and boots, catching damselflies. I had just finished my first year of bachelor studies in biology and had limited experience with field work. To be honest, I think the main reason I got the job was that I had a driver’s license: when I spoke to professor Erik Svensson about whether he needed field assistants for the summer, his first and only question for me was about the license.

The field work involved studying a species of damselfly common in Europe, Ischnura elegans. One of the interesting things about it is that females exhibit three color morphs, and Erik is conducting a long-term population study on phenotypic polymorphism and evolution in this species. The field sites I visited were located around Lund, in southern Sweden, and my work involved population sampling, running mesocosm experiments in large outdoor cages, conducting behavioral observations, and spending hours in the lab sorting the collected animals and entering their information into a huge database. (To give you an idea of its size: last year individual number 50 000 was entered in this database!)

Some of the sites I went to during this field work were not exactly what one pictures when thinking about good damselfly habitats. For example, we caught damselflies in a small dirty pond squeezed between an IKEA and a major road, which for some reason had surprisingly large numbers of some of the rarer color morphs. It definitely must have looked weird when we parked next to all the IKEA shoppers’ cars and, instead of grabbing our wallets and taking the elevator up to the store, started putting on boots and preparing nets and cages. The best thing about this site was the 5 krona coffee and cinnamon bun from IKEA’s bistro after a successful catching session. I highly recommend anyone doing field work in Sweden (close to an IKEA) not miss this iconic experience.

Ready for a fika at IKEA after a catching session. Fika, for those that aren’t familiar, is the first word you learn when visiting Sweden.  It means having a coffee and maybe something sweet.

People who study damselflies often comment that one of the biggest advantages is that going out before 9 AM is not worth the trouble, because the insects are hiding deep down in the grass at that hour. Because I am a morning person, I never felt that was a big advantage of the job. But I have heard a lot of, “Lucky you! I have to get up at 3 AM for my field work!” from friends working with birds. On top of that, damselfly field work usually occurs in perfect weather conditions: lots of sun, little wind, and no rain. Working with damselflies is a great way to enjoy the very best of Scandinavian summers, and it’s hard to find a field biologist who doesn’t enjoy spending a sunny day outside at a small stream, flowering meadow or pond, with a butterfly net in hand.

Katie catching at “Vomb”, one of the higher Ischcnura-dense field sites.

Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve learned from field work is that the sun does not shine when you want it to. In the summer of 2014, I was in the field with Beatriz Willink and Katie Duryea to catch damselflies for experiments.  However, that summer was exceptionally cold and wet: not ideal for catching flying insects. At the beginning of the season, we decided not to go out when it was below 16 degrees or raining. As our frustration increased, we pushed it and decided that 15 degrees and cloudy was probably okay. Then as the days dragged on and the sun never came, we said 13 degrees and slight rain was okay. Finally, we created a scale from 1 to 5 to rate how good the weather was for catching. Below 3 meant it wasn’t worth leaving the car. When we looked back on it, we realized our initial scale (set at the beginning of the season) went from 1 to 10. But even our best day that summer never made it past a 5. It was a miserable summer (at least, in terms of weather), and in the end we resorted to going out in heavy rain dressed in hats and long johns to pick the wet damselflies from the grass with our hands. However, thanks to lots of jokes and friendship, we kept our good moods intact and the field season was not a failure.

2016 was a good year: we caught more than damselflies …

My last year working for the project, 2017, I helped to start the field season. I introduced new assistants to the work and taught them all my tips and tricks. Now, even though I have moved to other projects, I am still updated on how things go each season. I am so happy that I stumbled on the opportunity to join the work with the damselflies. It certainly got me hooked on field work and was a fantastic start to my academic career. I learned early on that when looking for field work, it never hurts to ask researchers if they need help with their field season. Most of them do, but are probably too busy to advertise and will be happy that you are showing interest in their work!

Hanna worked as a research assistant for six seasons while completing her undergraduate degree in Biology at Lund University in Sweden.  Over that time, she helped carry out fieldwork for a number of different damselfly projects. As of January 2019, Hanna is a PhD candidate at Linnaeus University Kalmar, Sweden, where her work will be on African mole-rats. Follow her on Twitter (@HannaBensch) or check out her webpage for more info: www.bensch.se

Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

Mother Nature, what did you do?

We are excited to welcome back Tara Harvey to the blog today. Tara is a Hydrogeologist with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. Previously she told us all about why she was always standing in fields. For more about Tara, see the end of this post.

Field work is fantastic! It’s a great opportunity to get out of the office, stretch your legs, and collect some data. And even when you are doing the same type of field work over and over and over again, Mother Nature can make things interesting when you least expect it.

As a hydrogeologist (someone who studies geology and groundwater), the field work I tend to participate in is rather repetitive and might not be considered super exciting. I don’t get to go searching for animals in the wild, I don’t get to use fancy equipment, and I don’t typically get to travel to far off lands. What I do get to do is go out to construction sites, or other places where we are interested in monitoring groundwater quality or quantity, and either take a small sample or use a measuring tape to determine the water depth. Very exciting, right? Regardless, I do really love field work and have some pretty interesting stories, most of which are all thanks to good old Mother Nature.

In the summer of 2017, I was up in Northern Ontario to do some groundwater sampling. Now, you can collect groundwater samples for many reasons, but the general goal is always to see what chemicals or contaminants are in the water. This time around we were interested in monitoring the movement of chemicals from an active industrial site to make sure there was no negative impact to the natural environment. But what should have been a very easy, mundane, and predictable field excursion turned out to be anything but.

 

Of course, Mother Nature isn’t the only unknown force that can upset a tightly designed field schedule. Nope, you also have to account for the unpredictable behaviour of both the Canadian postal system and your teammates’ memories. Unfortunately for us, on this particular field adventure all three things went a little awry. Firstly, one of our team members forgot to ship some of the equipment we needed for the field work to the site.  The delay could have been a problem – but ended up not mattering, since even the equipment that was shipped on time showed up several days late courtesy of Canada post.

But the most interesting surprise was this….

In case you can’t tell from the photo, that is a completely burned forest! Yes, just the day before we arrived to get our groundwater samples, a forest fire burned through the area, destroying all the vegetation in its path.

The fire had happened so recently that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry were still conducting their investigation to determine whether it had been caused by natural or human forces. Either way, the fire was actually very confined and caused minimal damage beyond a very small section of burned forest. Even the trees weren’t badly affected, and should continue to grow in the future.

Regardless of the limited damage, it was definitely an unexpected sight that we walked into on that first day. Immediately, we wondered what the fire meant for our groundwater wells, which are 2-inch plastic tubes that stick out of the ground and might have melted. Did they survive? Would we even be able to do any of our field work at all? Luckily, we soon found out that although the fire burned everything that was alive, all of the wells on site were perfectly fine since they had protective metal casings over top of them! Thankfully. If the plastic wells themselves had been exposed, this might have been a different story.

Although the forest fire destruction was a surprise, it actually made our work easier in the end, since we didn’t have to fight against the vegetation to go find our wells in the ‘jungle’. And it definitely made for some interesting, if not beautiful, photos.

The lesson I took away from this field excursion, and the lesson I always take away from field work, is to be prepared! You never know what is going to go wrong or what is going to surprise you, especially Mother Nature.

Tara Harvey works as a Hydrogeologist with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority and has previous experience in research and consulting with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research and Cole Engineering. Tara specializes in Quaternary geology, aka glacial geology, but now spends much of her time working on Source Water Protection in Ontario to make sure our drinking water sources (lakes, rivers, and groundwater) stay protected. 

 

Weird Field Finds: Part 3

We are excited to offer the third edition of the weirdest things our followers have found in the field. And we swear, every edition we write, it gets weirder and weirder.

Jason found this rather…unique…version of a ‘ship in a bottle’…

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Poor, poor squirrel.

We’re not sure if we should be scared or intrigued by Christie’s field find below….

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We think we can settle on a little scared and a little intrigued.

In he spirit of dolls, let’s continue with Thomas’ weird field find…

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Ok… we’re putting our foot down. NO MORE DOLLS #soooocreepy

Clayton’s field find below traumatized a field tech…

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And now it traumatized all of us too. Thanks, Clayton.

And finally, Arielle found something unexpected in the middle of a trapping grid…

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We suppose trekkies can do fieldwork too, right?

Have a weird field find to share? Shoot us an e-mail or tweet!

Fun in fens

One of my recent stories was about some unintentional “swamp-wading” I did when I was taking the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System course in North Bay, Ontario. If you recall, we were venturing out to a fen, but first we had to cross the swamp that surrounded it. Neck-deep in muck, soaked from head to toe, we made it…just barely.

A couple of days later, we ventured out to another fen, this one called Frair Lake. This fen was a little different though. As was becoming routine, all of the course participants piled onto a big, yellow school bus. The bus chugged along for a good half hour along winding country roads and finally turned onto a dirt road that led to a quarry. We all filed off the bus and then headed down the road, passing the quarry entrance and leaving it behind to the left. We hiked down a wooded path off the dirt road, passed through some dense forest and then there it was – the stunning, dark blue water of Frair Lake. It was 30 degrees C that day and the sparkling ripples of Frair Lake called our names, trying to lure us in for a refreshing splash…but we had to resist. We had lots of important field work to do and only about 7 hours to do it!

Working in groups of 4, our task was to conduct a field visit of the wetlands surrounding Frair Lake, and prepare our own wetland evaluation for the site. I won’t get into all the details of what a wetland evaluation involves, but it broadly covers characteristics of the wetland including size and condition, the types of wetlands present (i.e. bogs, fens, swamps or marshes), hydrological components (i.e. flood attenuation, water quality, etc.), biological components (i.e. wetland productivity, soil type, etc.), social components (i.e. presence of wild rice, furbearers, etc.) and various special feature components (i.e. presence of species-at-risk, winter cover for wildlife, etc.).

Eager to get the day started, we set off on our journey around the lake. At first there was some swampy habitat with lots of towering black spruce trees, but because of the high temperatures and lack of rain, the ground was relatively dry, so this was an easy hike around. We quickly collected data on the vegetation forms and communities present, took some soil core samples to determine the different soil types and continued on with our day. “This is sooooo much easier than navigating that swamp,” I thought quietly to myself.

But then we reached a transition point in the wetland, where the tree cover disappeared and we were left with what appeared to be very mossy and low vegetation. As we stepped onto this we noticed that the ground was certainly not stable. We had just arrived at what are lovingly referred to as the Frair Lake floating mats. These floating mats were actually considered fens, another type of wetland. True fens are not really common in southern Ontario, and I had never experienced fens until this course. Fens are peatlands, which simply means they are peat-covered lands. They have little tree cover, are dominated by mosses and sedges and have a higher pH than bogs. In fens, floating mats of Sphagnum moss often extend out into the water, with poorly decomposed peat at the top, and more well-decomposed peat towards the bottom, giving them a squishy and sinking feeling under your feet.

Stepping out onto the fen, I took a few small and nervous steps. Despite being soft under my feet, it was actually quite easy to navigate and kind of felt like walking on a cloud. But we quickly learned though that the stability of this floating mat was not consistent throughout. We first noticed this when a member of another group was walking towards us and, well, the next second he wasn’t. One of his legs had pushed through the floating mat and into the water of Frair Lake below. We helped pull him out and he was just fine, despite a very wet leg. I had a few close calls throughout the morning myself, losing my footing or almost sinking deep enough to break through the peat. We continued around the lake on the floating mats, identifying lots of unique fen species, searching for species at risk and admiring the beauty of this spot.

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A photo of Frair Lake taken while standing on a floating mat

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Another photo of Frair Lake – You can see my group member Bill standing on the floating mat.

As the day came to a close, we finished the loop around the lake with wet feet, covered in sweat and a good number of deer fly bites, carrying notebooks filled with data and having acquired a very deep appreciation for the beautiful wetlands of northern Ontario. I have spent a lot of my time in the wetlands of southern and eastern Ontario, but there is something so different about the wetlands of the north. It might just be the fact that they are much bigger and much more pristine than their southern counterparts, or that many of the wetland types in the north are different from those in the south. It all felt so new and exciting to me. Whatever it was, it has me longing to go back and experience even more.

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One of many gigantic pitcher plants growing on the floating mats

Wow, time flies!

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that we started Dispatches from the Field four and a half years ago, back in June 2014.  Where has the time gone?!?

2018 marked a busy year for all of us. Catherine and Amanda both received their Ph.D. and started new jobs, while Sarah started a Ph.D. That didn’t stop any of us from getting out into the field though! Some of our notable blog posts from this past year include Catherine learning to love mornings, Amanda falling into a swamp, and a fox getting the better of the nests at Sarah’s study site.

We’re excited to have welcomed guest bloggers who added new markers to our map, including Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Israel’s Red Sea. We also learned what a real field work resume might look like, the (maybe not so) best way to make a first impression, and how to fall in love with fieldwork.

We shared some sentiments familiar to anyone who does fieldwork (for example,  You’ve got to be kidding me!) and learned some new sayings appropriate to situations such as having all of your gear washed out to sea (Morabeza!). And a number of our posts raised important issues, such as what it’s like being a parent in the field, the importance of citizen science (first, second), and how fieldwork is more than just data.

I guess time flies when you’re having fun! Stay tuned for more of the good, bad, and ugly of fieldwork on Dispatches in 2019. We will be posting every other week to give everyone more time to enjoy each story! If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please email or tweet us!

at the convocation ceremony

Catherine (left) and Amanda (right) receive their official Ph.D. documents! Finishing the degree was worth it to wear the red robes & funny hats (and to collect lots of funny field stories!).