We’re back!

After taking a much needed break over the summer, we at Dispatches from the Field are back in action and ready to bring you more stories of fieldwork adventure from researchers all over the world!

Here in Canada, Sept. 21-27 is Science Literacy Week, and this year’s theme is “B is for Biodiversity”. One of the main goals of our blog is to bridge the gap between the elusive scientist and the public. Sharing our experiences and adventures as field biologists is a great way to communicate why we love what we do!

So in honour of Science Literacy Week, we wanted to highlight some field research stories on Dispatches that showcase the magnificent biodiversity we have here in Canada:

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

Alex Sutton narrates his adventures of chasing Canada Jays in Algonquin Park. Photo credit: Alex Sutton.

Help us celebrate biodiversity by checking out these archived posts, and stay tuned – we’re excited to bring you new stories about field research in Canada and around the world starting in October!

What do you miss most about fieldwork?

As time slips by during the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, my plans for fieldwork keep changing. Even in a normal year, fieldwork can be unpredictable. However, when social distancing rules are in effect and uncertainty about how long this could last keeps growing, fieldwork plans may not even have a chance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the small window of time I had during the cormorant breeding season to conduct my field study still seemed far away. But as cities stayed closed and travel remained risky, that small window approached. If I walk through my neighbourhood down to the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I can see an island where cormorants nest. Through binoculars, I’ve watched the cormorants arrive on the island and build their nests. Although the island is too far away to see any details, as the parents sit on their nests more consistently, I can only assume they are incubating eggs. I’m happy for the birds, but I am also watching the opportune window of time for my fieldwork plans slip away.

However, while I am frustrated, researchers are used to coming up with plan B (and C, D, etc.)! For now, I am fortunate to be able to use the time to work on results from my last field season.

But as I look back through my data, I keep thinking about everything I miss about fieldwork – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone. So we asked field biologists on Twitter what they missed most about fieldwork. You can check out the full conversation here, but here’s a summary of what we’ve been hearing:

  • Surprisingly, the things that bug you the most when you’re in the thick of it (such as early mornings and the sights and smells of a seabird colony) turn out to be the things you miss the most.

 

  • Your field crew really does become your field family, through all of your experiences together  (including getting a positive response from saying “poop!” and competitions running through sagebrush).

 

 

 

 

 

  • The idea of being unplugged and outside – and everyone else you know understanding why.

 

 

 

  • Enjoying the little things after a hard day’s work (like being covered in dirt and the best tasting ice cream).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The cool questions we get to ask and try to answer in limited amounts of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading all the responses we got really solidified the reasons why we love fieldwork. In these times of uncertainty, what we all keep hearing is true – we really are all in this together! So feel free to keep sharing what you miss most about fieldwork and let us know if you want to share a fieldwork story on the blog. We are always looking for guest posts!

How do you solve a problem like migration?

This post was initially published on the Science Borealis blog on April 27th, 2020. Check out their blog for more great science stories, published every Monday!

An ornithological pedicure: taking a claw clipping from a western bluebird for stable isotope analysis. Photo credit: Catherine Dale.

I can feel the rapid thrumming of the bluebird’s heart against my palm as I carefully manoeuvre its foot into position over a tiny Ziploc bag. I pick up my nail scissors and take a deep breath to steady my hand. I will only get one chance to make sure the miniscule claw clipping lands in the bag. If it doesn’t, I will have no chance of finding it…and no way to discover where this bird spent the winter.

Field biology often requires unusual skills. I have spent the last decade becoming an experienced bird pedicurist, because analyzing the chemical composition of tissues like claws and feathers is one method scientists use to determine the movements of migratory animals.

Unfortunately, this method suffers from the same drawback as many others: a lack of precision. As a result, many aspects of bird migration remain a mystery. But this spring, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany are entering the final testing phase of a new space-based tracking system, which they hope will revolutionize our understanding of animal movement.

The puzzle of migration

For Canadians across the country, the return of our migratory birds marks the beginning of spring. Each year, 2.6 billion birds cross the Canada-U.S. border, heading north to their breeding grounds.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle believed the spring reappearance of barn swallows meant they were emerging from their winter hibernation at the bottom of ponds. Although we now understand more about animal migration, many questions remain – largely because it’s very difficult to track individual animals as they travel vast distances around the globe.

For many years, the only approach was to mark animals with bands or tags in the hopes of re-sighting them somewhere else. But the sheer number of animals that migrate makes seeing a marked individual again extremely unlikely.

A flock of shorebirds takes to the air at Oak/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a migration stopover site in Manitoba. The mixed-species flock includes Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, stilt sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

Putting the pieces together

In the 1990s, migration research took a leap forward when scientists realized the chemical composition of animal tissue reflected the place where it was grown. By analyzing the ratio of various isotopes in tissue (termed stable isotope analysis), researchers can roughly reconstruct an animal’s geographic history…which is why I found myself giving bluebird pedicures.

Scientists can also now track moving animals directly by fitting them with tags that record location. These tags can be divided into two broad categories. Archival tags, such as geolocators, record and store movement information. In order to find out where a tagged animal has been, researchers must recapture it and retrieve the tag.

Recapturing migratory animals often proves difficult, especially as many fail to return from migration. So when possible, researchers prefer to use tags that remotely transmit data to a receiver, eliminating the need to recover them.

But transmitting tags face a fundamental constraint: transmitting takes power, and the more power a tag requires, the larger it needs to be. Tags must weigh less than 5% of an animal’s body weight to avoid affecting its behaviour or survival. Considering that many migratory birds weigh less than 10 grams, making tags small enough for them to carry is a huge challenge.

A sanderling carrying a Motus nanotag. The tag’s long antenna is easily visible. Photo credit: Jessica Howell.

The amount of power required to transmit data depends largely on where the receivers are. Tags for ground-based tracking systems – with receivers located on the Earth’s surface – can be very small. For example, the nanotags used by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System range from 0.2 to 2.6 grams, and can even be carried by some large insects. However, the range over which ground-based systems can track individuals is limited. Animals carrying Motus tags can only be detected within approximately 15 km of a receiver.

In contrast, satellite tags send data to receivers on orbiting satellites. They can track movement at a much larger scale than ground-based systems, and have been used for years on big animals, such as seabirds and caribou. But most satellite tags are too heavy for small migratory birds.

The Icarus Initiative

In 2007, Martin Wikelski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, proposed a novel space-based system for tracking animals across the globe.

It took more than 10 years, and the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), for the system to become a reality. In March 2020, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) entered its final testing phase. The first Icarus tags are waiting to be shipped to researchers, and the system will be available to the scientific community this fall.

“We wanted to build [a tracking system] specifically for wildlife,” Wikelski says of Icarus. “It’s built by the community, for the community.”

The International Space Station, pictured here in 2009 after a visit by the space shuttle Discovery to add additional solar panels. Photo credit: STS-119 Shuttle Crew and NASA.

Icarus tackles the trade-off between tag size and transmission distance in part by the simple expedient of moving the receiver closer. Conventional satellite tags transmit their data to Argos satellites, which orbit the poles at an altitude of 850 km. Icarus tags will transmit their data to a receiver on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting at an average altitude of 400 km.

Data collected by Icarus will be stored in Movebank, a free online database accessible by the public.  The system will also incorporate a citizen science initiative: Animal Tracker. While Icarus tags tell scientists where an animal is, citizen scientists can provide information about what it’s doing there. Using the Animal Tracker app, people can follow tagged animals online, and anyone who spots those animals in the wild can submit their observations to the database.

Of course, like any tracking system, Icarus will have some limitations, at least initially. The first tags will weigh five grams, which – while smaller than many satellite tags – is still too heavy for most migratory birds. However, the design of a new generation of tags weighing only one gram is already underway.

Satellite coverage will also be an issue. The receiver on the ISS will be able to pick up signals from most of the Earth’s surface; however, high latitude regions in the north and south will not be covered. Eventually, Wikelski’s goal is to deploy dedicated Icarus satellites strategically to cover the entire globe.

But even with these limitations, scientists are eager to begin harnessing the power of Icarus to tackle some of the unsolved mysteries of migration. Dr. Kevin Fraser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is keenly awaiting his first shipment of tags. He and his graduate students plan to put them on saw-whet owls – and they are most interested in the birds that don’t come back in the spring.

Banding a saw-whet owl. Kevin Fraser’s lab hopes to use Icarus tags to track these small owls during migration. Photo credit: Kevin Fraser.

Fraser’s previous research has largely depended on archival tags, meaning tagged birds must be recaptured to determine where they went. Individuals that don’t return to the study sites to breed – those that die along the way, or the young birds that disperse to breed elsewhere – are lost data.

“Most of what we know about migration, we know from birds that have successfully migrated,” Fraser says. “We know much less about where survival might be limited, or what the juveniles are doing. But [with Icarus], for the first time, we will be able to track 100 gram birds (the smallest yet) in near real-time, without the bias of only focusing on survivors and adults.”

Solving the puzzle

With the sliver of claw safely stowed in a bag for later analysis, I’m ready to liberate my captive bluebird. I position its feet over my empty hand and release my hold. For a moment, it perches on my palm, apparently unaware of its freedom…then, in a flutter of wings, it’s gone.

Of the 450 bird species found in Canada, 78% spend at least part of the year outside our borders. This fall, four billion birds will cross our southern border to spend the winter in warmer climes. More than a billion of them will not return, succumbing to the dangers of the journey or the hazards of their wintering grounds.

Icarus offers us a unique window into the world of migratory birds, and a chance to improve their odds. If we know where they go and how they get there, we can begin to understand the perils they face – and perhaps develop solutions.

Of catbirds, chats, and challenges

We are excited to welcome Kristen Mancuso to the blog today! Kristen is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. For more about Kristen, see the end of this post. 

As I wrap up my PhD at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, I think back fondly on 4 summers of field work across North America. In collaboration with other organizations, I did fieldwork in northern California, western Montana, and Mexico…but most of my time was spent in the south Okanagan Valley.

One of my study sites in the South Okanagan Wildlife Management Area. The wild rose sure smells nice but walking through it is very scratchy.

The Okanagan Valley is a hot tourist destination in the summers, known for its lakes, beaches, wineries, and fruit. For biologists, it’s also known for its unique biodiversity – the semi-arid desert habitat is home to species occurring nowhere else in Canada.

My PhD research aims to learn more about the full annual cycle of 2 species of songbird: the yellow-breasted chat and the gray catbird. The population of yellow-breasted chats in the south Okanagan Valley is listed as Endangered federally, with only a few hundred breeding pairs in the province. In contrast, the gray catbird is abundant and not of conservation concern. Studying the two species together allows for a comparison between a common and an at-risk riparian songbird species. Environment and Climate Change Canada has been monitoring both species in the region for many years, and this PhD project piggybacks on their efforts.

Both yellow-breasted chats and gray catbirds are migratory, spending most of the year south of the Canadian border. In North America, most research on migratory songbirds occurs on the breeding grounds, but a better understanding of their migration and overwintering life stages is crucial to identify and address potential threats. This is especially important for endangered species, such as the yellow-breasted chat, to aid recovery efforts.

However, it wasn’t until very recently that tracking technology became small enough to use on songbirds. Now, we have lightweight GPS tracking devices, weighing only 1 gram, that birds can carry with them on migration. This is the technology I used to track chats and catbirds across their full annual cycle. But in order to follow the path of a migrating bird, we needed to capture birds and attach the GPS tags, then recapture them a year later to remove the tags and download the data. Therefore, most of my time in the field was spent capturing, resighting, and recapturing birds.

Bird capture

To capture birds, we used mist-nets. Mist nets are a common tool to capture songbirds and are made of a very fine, soft mesh that is nearly impossible to see. The net is stretched between two poles and contains multiple pockets. When a bird flies into the net, it falls into a pocket and gets tangled but is not harmed. We gave each bird we caught a combination of 3 unique colour bands and a standard numbered band.  The colour bands allowed us to identify the individual from afar. A subset of birds were also given a harness with a GPS tag attached, which they carried like a backpack.

Chats are territorial and will respond to playback of other chats’ songs, so we targeted specific territorial males with strategically placed nets, using a stuffed dead chat as a decoy. Catbirds don’t appear to be as aggressively territorial as chats and unfortunately, don’t consistently respond to playback, so our best bet was to passively capture them first thing in the morning. This meant getting up at ungodly hours. I had my schedule down to the minute: wake up at 2:30 AM, leave by 3:00 AM, arrive at site by 3:20 AM, and then set up ~ 8 mist-nets by headlamp as fast as possible so they were ready to catch birds before first light, around 4 AM.

My field technicians carrying banding gear from a chat territory.  The white styrofoam box contains the decoy.

My main catbird site along a trail. A mist net is barely visible on the left.

A catbird given some fresh colour bands. Two black bands on its left leg, plus a green and standard band on its right leg.

GPS tags attached to the back of yellow-breasted chat.

GPS tags attached to the back of colour-banded gray catbird.

Resighting colour banded birds

The purpose of resighting colour-banded birds was to identify individuals that needed to be recaptured to remove GPS tags and also to monitor the return rates and survival of birds. Survival estimates are valuable for conservation and monitoring efforts to better understand if birds are making it through the winter and migration and returning to breed.

To resight birds, we used binoculars and high-zoom cameras, which sounds easier than it is. Yellow-breasted chats and catbirds live in places no sane person would normally venture into: dense bushes of wild roses and thickets of poison ivy. In order to protect ourselves, we wore thick rain gear. Did I mention that the south Okanagan is also known for its intense sun and heat? Temperatures in excess of 30°C are not uncommon, and the rain gear quickly turned into a sweat trap. To add to the challenge, the clouds of mosquitoes (and to a lesser extent, ticks) meant we also often wore bug nets to cover our faces.

Both chats and catbirds are relatively sneaky and hard to see, but males periodically pop up out of the dense vegetation to sing and defend their territory. This often meant a long, hot wait for the bird to appear – and when it finally did, we typically only had a few seconds to get a photo. All too often, our attempts ended in failure. Sometimes we heard the bird but couldn’t see it; other times, we saw the bird with our eyes but couldn’t find it with the camera. Often we were too slow, and the bird went back into thicket before we could snap the picture. And in the most frustrating cases, we got the photo – only to find that it wasn’t usable for identification purposes for a multitude of reasons: the camera focused something other than the bird, the photo was over- or underexposed, the bird’s legs (and therefore colour bands) were hidden…

The chat is front and centre and yet my camera focuses on the tree in the background.

Catbird silhouette. Not helpful for ID.

Nice shots of chat but can’t see legs.

Nice shots of catbird but can’t see legs.

Even when we did get a clear photo, interpreting the colour of the bands wasn’t always easy. Standard aluminum bands can appear white or light blue. Red bands can fade and look like orange.

But the challenge was in part what made it so appealing! When we finally nailed a bird’s colour band combination, there was a definite sense of accomplishment. Looking up who the bird was, when and where it was banded, and whether it was seen the previous year – in short, its whole history – was exciting. The oldest catbird in our study was at least 6 years old, and the oldest chat at least 11!

Despite the sleep deprivation, poison ivy rashes, and rose scratches, spending the summers studying these birds was something I looked forward to every year. Being outside watching the birds at dawn in their natural habitats, foraging, singing, and building nests, was beautiful and peaceful. Using new technology to learn more about their migration was fascinating. Having great field technicians was an added bonus, and being able to go swimming or go for ice cream after a long day in the field made the summers unforgettable.

Kristen Mancuso is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. Her PhD project is in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada. She has a love for fieldwork and exploring the great outdoors. After her PhD, Kristen hopes to continue her career in wildlife conservation. This fall she will be working as a bird bander for Mackenzie Nature Observatory. Follow her research on Instagram @yellowbreastedchatresearch

Good things in the world and on the horizon

I am a planner. I find comfort in knowing exactly when everything is happening. I plan out every month of the year, every week and every day. While I have become more flexible over the years, I still struggle when one of those things changes, especially at the last minute.

With a global pandemic being announced as a result of the coronavirus, I knew things would change in my schedule. Between Friday March 13th and Monday March 16th my schedule went from full, colour-coded, organized chaos to empty. All appointments, meetings, events, etc. cancelled or postponed. Watching the news was overwhelming: more cases of COVID-19 worldwide, more deaths, the first local cases. This of course causes us all to worry. My brother works at an airport – what does this mean for him? How will my Grandma weather this – will she have what she needs? So many questions, so many worries, so much change.

Since I am now working from home in the short term, I had to run into my office the other day to grab a few supplies and on the way home I stopped by one of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s field sites. I parked by the roadside and walked up to the gate and just stared. Keep in mind, this is an alvar and it is March, so there it doesn’t look particularly exciting at first glance. But in the end, there was a lot to see, I just had to be patient.

I could see a small Prairie Smoke plant just beside the gate that survived the winter. It was covered in ice crystals. If you stared long enough, you could see the ice crystals begin to change shape and disappear as the bright morning sun melted them away into nothing. A bit of rustling caught my eye to the right where a large stand of Eastern Red-cedar trees stood tall and a Red Squirrel poked its head out and scanned the open area. A large Hawthorn in the distance had two birds perched in its leafless branches. I grabbed my binoculars from the car to take a closer look. Two American Robins sat still in the tree. Their beautiful red breasts were lit up like fire, catching the morning light in just the right places. A large crow flew overhead letting out a couple of loud “caws” from above. This spooked the robins and off they went into the tree line to the south.

I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. For a moment I escaped the present. And I thought of the things to come. Soon, the alvar will be alive. Pink and yellow blooms will line the ground. Meadowlarks will return and sing their sweet songs from the tops of trees. The butterflies will flutter around like delicate paper caught in the wind.

For a solid ten minutes, I didn’t think about my schedule changing. I didn’t worry about my family. I didn’t even think about coronavirus. These moments reminded me that there is hope and there are good things on the horizon. The world is still filled with beauty, despite what we feel and what we see on the news. Nature can be refreshing and may give us the energy we need to weather this storm.

Wishing the best to all our readers in this uncertain time. You are all in our thoughts.

I’m late for a very important date!

I don’t like to be late. I am the kind of person who arrives extra early to the airport just in case I can’t find the gate or I get stuck in security. If I am late for whatever reason, I feel incredibly anxious. So when my time at a field site is limited by the arrival and departure of a pre-scheduled boat, this is all amplified.

When we arrived at Bonaventure Island with our research permit, the staff members reminded us of our agreement: “You can join us on the employee boat. It is the first boat to depart for the island in the morning and the last boat to depart for home in the evening.” Great! We wanted to spend as much time as possible on the island, collecting data on the northern gannet colony there.

Sarah carrying equipmentIt is easy to lose track of time when I am sampling during fieldwork. I get really focused on the task at hand, on how many birds I have sampled already and how many I still have to do. The time ends up passing at a very variable rate; sometimes really fast, and sometimes really slow. One day we were so focused on sampling that we did lose track of time – a big problem when you’re on an island and the only mode of transportation to your cabin is a boat about to depart.

Sometime after lunch, absorbed in our work, we heard someone shouting and rustling through the bushes. We looked up to see a colleague running over to us, saying “It’s time to go! We are late!”. We finished processing the bird in hand and started to pack up as fast as possible. But it still took a good 5 minutes to get all our equipment and samples ready to go. Within that time, a park staff member came barreling down the narrow path on a four-wheeler to meet us. “Come and hop on, the boat is going to leave!”. I looked at this four-wheeler with two seats in the front and a small flatbed in the back and wondered how 6 adults were going to fit on it.

the treachorous pathSomehow, we all made it into the vehicle (or in my case, half in; the other half was hanging through the door frame) and started the trek towards the boat. In a previous blog, I talked about the difficult, steep hike up to the colony. Now, we were 6 people crammed into a four-wheeler, flying back down this same path. Our route was mined with potholes the size of large buckets and tree roots lying in crisscross patterns across the path. This did not make for a smooth ride! I clutched the handle with all my strength as we tipped from side to side without slowing down, really pushing the four-wheeler to its limit.

boat at the dockLuckily, we did make it to the boat in one piece prior to its departure, and except for a few hungry staff members, no harm was done. But I didn’t want to make any more staff members angry with us, so I vowed that we would keep better track of time the next day. The only problem was that I was wearing a really old watch, (because no one with any sense wears anything nice to a seabird colony) and I didn’t trust the time on it.

Sometime after lunch, I checked the time. My watch said 3:30 pm. Just to double check, I looked at my phone. It said 4:30 pm. I panicked: “Oh no, my watch must have frozen, we have to go!”.

a no walking sign in front of the colonyAt top speed, we packed all of our gear up and headed towards the main lodge…only to find everyone still working. Unbeknownst to me, my phone had switched to the Atlantic time zone of 1 hour ahead! My unreliable watch was right: it was actually only 3:30 pm, meaning we still had lots of time to sample. Of course, now we were all packed up and ready to go. But luckily for us, there were a few birds nesting near the main lodge that we could process to pass the time. And we were not late for the boat!

The Kalahari Queen

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are happy to welcome Zach Mills, a graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa! To learn more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the blog.

Field work in Africa never behaves itself. It consists of perpetual improvisation because things never go to plan. It demands adaptability, a bit of nerve and resilience. The truth is that fieldwork is what happens when everything functions smoothly; the rest of the time you’re trying to make fieldwork happen. Fieldwork is a lesson in patience and mental fortitude, and this is precisely why we field people love it.

I study thermoregulation in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta); specifically, I study the influence of metabolic heat production on hunting in endurance hunters. That’s right – endurance hunter; hyenas are effective cursorial hunters that capture prey by running it to exhaustion.

In May 2019, I arrived at my field site in northeastern Namibia with eight days to re-capture eight spotted hyenas in order to remove GPS collars I had deployed a year prior. My plan was simple and effective: use a carcass to bait the clan into a suitable area and blast a series of prey vocalizations followed by a series of hyena vocalizations to get the clan’s attention. Wait and thou shall be rewarded with scores of hyenas. It usually takes a day or two to congregate the clan, but it has historically been foolproof. While spotted hyenas are competent hunters, I’ve never known them to turn down a putrid carcass per gratis.

Zach takes a minute to pose with a lion carcass in Khaudum National Park, Namibia (Photo credit: Hans Rack)

Two things work in my favor when it comes to hyena aggregation at a bait site. First, spotted hyenas have amazing noses, far better than a bloodhound. With a favorable breeze they regularly beeline 10 km directly to a bait site. Second, they regularly patrol their home ranges in small coalitions. In a clan of 40 individuals, the chances of a patrolling group intercepting the scent of the bait and alerting the clan to the complimentary bounty is extremely high.

However, one thing generally works against me: hyena astuteness. When I started studying hyenas, I considered myself to be the more intelligent species and therefore assumed the odds of successful capture were in my favor. I have since reconsidered this.

Last May, I had returned to the field to retrieve the devices at the precise moment the hyenas were all where they were supposed to be – their natal home range.

However, the first night I put the bait out, nothing. Second night, again nothing. On the morning of the third day, I called the collar manufacturer to get recent locations for the study animals. Seven of the eight were 15 km to the north; the eighth (a male) was moving east towards Botswana. I disregard a recommendation from the collar manufacturer to use a helicopter to capture that male and persisted with baiting and calling. Third night, nothing. I called the collar company back and was informed that the rogue male was well into Botswana moving toward the Okavango Delta. The misfortune continued the fourth and fifth nights. At this point, I had only 72 hours to capture 8 hyenas.

Zach performs a physical examination on a sedated spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Lucky for me, a helicopter pilot in camp for other projects took pity on me and offered me an hour of fly time at sunrise and another hour at dusk to locate the wily hyenas using their radio collar frequencies and capture them. This was far more effective than my ‘foolproof’ strategy; the first hyena was tranquilized by a dart administered sedative shortly after sunrise. We captured a second individual that morning and a third in the evening. I was hit with a wave of optimism.

Zach attempts to locate a study animal in Khaudum National Park, Namibia.

The next morning, horizontal rays of the early Kalahari sun cut through the bush as the helicopter rotors began to roar. The shadows cast by the acacia trees are deceptively long in the early morning hours, making it feel like you’re flying over an endless game of jackstraws.

Looking like a vagrant who had escaped from an international detention center, with collar frequencies scribed on my arms, holes in my down jacket, and a face weathered by endless desert sand, I was after one particular adult female that morning: #2746. Last year, #2746 was 210 pounds of impossible to chemically immobilize bad attitude. She was the boss of the bush, the matriarch of the motherland, the Queen of the Kalahari.

I hate to anthropomorphize, but #2746 is an animal of note. I had spent the past year psychologically preparing for our next encounter. True to her mysterious ways, it was a telemetry exercise from hell locating her that morning. Ultimately, I understood why: she’d peek her head out of a shallow den just long enough to send a few radio signals my way before vanishing underground.

But eventually, we caught her off guard, and a well-placed dart found her rump. A chase ensued, and she led us directly to a second den site. We gained altitude to let her fall asleep before she descended deeper into the den.

Zach recovering #2746 from a den (Photo Credit: Markus Hofmeyr)

After ten minutes, we landed, and I peered into the den. #2746 seemed comfortably asleep a meter from the surface. I descended into the den in with a rope in my teeth to recover the half-asleep hyena. I planned to loop the rope around her shoulder, shimmy my way out, and drag her out with the help of two people.

As I looped the rope around her shoulder, she blinked. And then she lifted her head. And then she growled.

Our faces were 10 centimeters apart and I could tell from her breath that she had no reason to visit my bait because she had been enjoying something equally putrid all night long. She lifted her front leg, and the rope slipped from her shoulder. She then advanced in my direction and as the rope slipped to her wrist, I elected to evacuate the den.

Equally startled, we exited the den simultaneously. Now #2746 was tethered to the other end of the rope wrapped around my arm. I tried to act casual while walking behind her, imagining myself out for a morning walk with Canis familiaris. However, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the feeling of impending doom one experiences while walking an irritated hyena through the bush. Keep it together Zach, she smells the fear!

I was able to keep #2746 on the rope long enough to administer a second sedative dose. She finally fell asleep peacefully and we fitted her with a new GPS collar, and sent her on her way. I’m actively preparing myself for our next encounter.

Zach is a self-proclaimed field junkie; he views his body as an all-terrain vehicle specialized in getting him far from the beaten path.  He explores the world through his passion for wildlife research, conservation and sustainable resource management. His research focuses on the physiology of large carnivores but he enjoys storytelling and sharing his adventures from the field with public audiences. He prefers his meals cooked on an open fire, his clothes ripped and his beard untamed. He’s a field biologist.

Battle scars

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the academic world that academics don’t always agree. In fact, they often engage in fierce and lengthy disagreements about topics that never cross the minds of 99% of the world’s population.

These disagreements are the foundation of good science. Good science happens when smart people with different ideas engage with each other and find ways to test those ideas. However, if you’re a field assistant for one of those smart people, those disagreements can also be a pain in the ass.

An argument between two scientists is exactly how I ended up crouching in the middle of a patch of poison oak in the California hills, my fingers stuffed in my ears, tensed in anticipation of a shotgun blast. (But it’s not quite as bad as it sounds – I promise no scientists were harmed in the making of this blog post!)

At the time, I was working in California for a professor who had been studying acorn woodpeckers for many years. Acorn woodpeckers, as their name suggests, depend heavily on acorns. In fact, groups of these birds create ‘granaries’ by drilling holes in trees (or anything else, including people’s houses) and stuffing those holes full of acorns for later consumption.

Given the tight ties between the woodpeckers and their food source, it made sense that the professor I worked for was interested not just in the birds, but also in the oak trees they relied on – in figuring out the details of how and when they produced their acorns. And this was the source of the argument I found myself in the middle of.

My boss had gotten into a disagreement with another scientist about how far oak pollen could travel. The question was whether oak trees could be pollinated only by other oaks within a relatively small radius (roughly a kilometre), or whether the pollen could travel much longer distances. The funny thing is, I honestly can’t remember which side of the disagreement my boss was on; all I know is that he had decided he was going to settle the question once and for all. How, you might ask? Well, that’s where the shotgun came in.

The logical thing to do, he had decided, was pick a focal oak tree and take a leaf sample from every other oak within a 1 km radius. Then he could sample the focal tree’s acorns and try to match them to DNA from the leaves of the putative fathers – a plant paternity test.  If he found that at least some of the acorns did not belong to any of the trees he had sampled, he would have evidence that pollen could travel farther than a kilometre.

However, this plan turned out to be anything but simple in its execution. First of all, the field station was surrounded by oak savannah.  By definition, there were a *lot* of oak trees around. Sampling every oak within a kilometre of the chosen focal tree was not a trivial task.

The landscape around the field station: rolling hills covered with – you guessed it – oaks.

Second, many of those oaks were located in…inconvenient…places, such as at the top of steep hills, the bottom of ravines, and often, the middle of large patches of poison oak. Closely related to poison ivy, poison oak is – as its name suggests – a plant better avoided. Its leaves are covered in urushiol, an oil which causes an allergic reaction in the majority of people who come into contact with it. My boss informed me that he was in the lucky minority that did not react to it. Never having encountered poison oak before this field job, I didn’t know which camp I fell into, but I wasn’t really interested in finding out the hard way.

Third, most of the oaks we wanted to sample were beautiful, stately, tall old trees. Their height was obviously an advantage when it came to spreading pollen – but a substantial disadvantage when it came to getting a DNA sample.  Plucking a leaf from a 25 m tall tree is easier said than done…which brings us back to the shotgun.

If we were unable to reach a tree’s leaves, my boss’ plan was simply to shoot a twig off. Then the twig and its attached leaves would float down to the ground, allowing us to waltz over and pick up the sample with minimal effort.

Presumably several potential flaws in this plan are obvious to many of you.  But for me, the main problem wasn’t my boss’ aim (as you might think) – but rather the noise associated with shooting our samples down. As someone with a phobia of sudden loud noises (it’s a thing, really!), I can’t even be in the same room as a balloon…so shotgun blasts are well outside of my comfort level.

Eventually, my boss and I worked out a routine. After hiking, scrambling, or clawing our way up (or down) to the tree we were trying to sample, we would circle it (often wading through swaths of poison oak) to look for any leaves within reach. If we didn’t find any, he would get out the shotgun and start sizing up targets, while I would retreat, crouch on the ground, stuff my fingers as far as possible into my ears, and wait for the bang.

By the time we wrapped up at the end of the day, my ears were ringing and my fingers hurt from spending a substantial portion of the day crammed into my ears. Shortly after getting home, I discovered that yes, indeed, I did react to poison oak.

And to this day, I still don’t know how far oak pollen can travel.

One of the oak trees that gave us so much trouble...

One of our oak ‘victims’

Whiskers, photos and polar bears, oh my!

We are excited to welcome our first guest blogger of the new decade, Paige Bissonnette, a master’s student from University of Manitoba. Today Paige tells us all about her fascinating work with polar bears! For more about Paige, see the end of this post. 

As our tundra vehicle rolled into the docking station, an armed bear guard escorted us to our bus to be shuttled back to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. I had just spent the day observing polar bears and being called a researcher by 30 tourists. Just like the guests on the tundra vehicle, I too was grinning from ear to ear, brimming with excitement.

My excitement had been building, slowly, ever since 4th grade, when a researcher came to my class and taught us about climate change and species-at-risk. The poster child for the talk was, you guessed it, the polar bear. After the talk, I was so excited about polar bears that I spent all my time in the library trying to learn more about them and threats to their habitat – even going so far as to cite my sources in my notes.

Fourteen years later, I had become the expert answering eager questions from groups of enthusiastic tourists. When I was given the assignment to co-lead learning vacations in Churchill, I was one part excited and 99 parts nervous. How did I get this job? Was I qualified to answer questions? Imposter syndrome was running rampant, as I’m sure it does for most graduate students at the beginning of their careers. I could easily relate to the tourists’ excitement: my dream was to see a polar bear in the wild, and here I was snapping photos through a tundra vehicle window.

But the goal of my trip was greater than capturing an Instagram-worthy photo. While I was primarily here to collect data for my master’s research on polar bear behaviour, my job also included using my knowledge, passion, and curiosity to encourage visitors to become citizen scientists, and contribute data to an ongoing long-term research project.

As the ice on Hudson Bay breaks up each spring, polar bears are forced onto the shore, away from their primary prey of ringed seals. While on land, they enter a fasting period, relying on a thick layer of blubber to support the energetic demands of maintaining their body temperature in the harsh Arctic environment. Pregnant females head upland, away from the shore, to build dens to birth their young. Non-pregnant females and males will spend time on land, resting and waiting for the ice to form in the fall. This is the most opportune time to see polar bears in the wild, and tourists and wildlife photographers flock to Churchill, Manitoba, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World”, to view the bears in their natural environment.

Thousands of photos are taken each year on these trips, and scientists realized there might be a way to use these photos to learn more about polar bear populations. In 1994, researchers developed a method to non-invasively identify individual polar bears through their whisker spot pattern. Each bear has a unique pattern of hair follicles, a whiskerprint (similar to a human fingerprint), that can be deciphered by a computer program. This discovery was the start of a long-term research project on the Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears. Photos taken by tourists, aka citizen scientists, are now fed into the whiskerprint program and used to estimate the size of the polar bear population in the area east of Churchill, and determine which bears are coming back year after year.

A curious polar bear checking out a tundra vehicle window.

In 2017 and 2018, as a graduate student at University of Manitoba, I went up to Churchill to collect data for my thesis, continue the citizen science project, and communicate findings from this project to the tourists who came to see the bears. Each day, we headed out into the field on a tundra vehicle which seated around thirty people. The journey into the middle of the tundra was roughly an hour of travel across uneven terrain and over frozen streams, as anticipation built among the tourists. Finally, someone would yell out, “I see one!”, and guests would rush to their window, binoculars in hand, to gaze out the window at a polar bear kilometers away. The tundra vehicle would screech to a halt and we would sit and wait to see if the bear was interested enough to come closer to us. Often, after a patient and silent wait, it would amble in our direction. Amid gasps of excitement and shuffling to the window with the best view, we would try to ensure we got photos of each side of its face. Guests often brought me their cameras, enthusiastically asking, “Is this one good? How did I do?” They began to gain a sense of purpose – gathering not just their own collection of cute photos, but data for wildlife research as well.

While in the field we took opportunities to gather as much observational data as possible, not only for our research, but to also to show the guests how much information can be collected non-invasively. Guests often shouted out, “the neck is larger than the head; the guard hairs are long – it must be a male”; repeating little bits of information we had discussed earlier. We also discussed how a changing climate has resulted in a decline in body condition for most bears. To measure body condition non-invasively, we took full body photos of the bear. I explained that we would measure the number of pixels from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the foot, and the top of the back to the bottom of the belly to create a ratio of body proportion, similar to the measure of body mass index that uses weight and height. The guests were eager to help me take body condition shots, and aid in data collection.

I had a personal stake in the photos, as I am studying whether body condition influences social interactions between polar bears, specifically play behaviour. Adult mammals rarely play; they allocate most of their energy and time budgets to competition, feeding and mating. When social play does occur, it’s usually during periods of plentiful resources, when animals have extra time and energy to spend on seemingly purposeless activities such as play. However, in the western Hudson Bay region, adult male polar bears have been spotted engaging in social play. Polar bear social play consists of wrestling or sparring; males will rear up on their hind legs and wrestle, using moves similar to those used when competing for mates or resources.

We can’t ask the bears why they are playing during a resource limited time when they should be conserving energy, but we can determine what affects the duration and occurrence of social play. The body condition photos taken by guests on the learning vacation to determine if bears in better body condition play for longer or tend to initiate play.

Male polar bears sparring 100m away from our tundra vehicle

Each day, after collecting data out on the tundra, we returned to the research station, organized hundreds of photos, and began to analyze them. I walked the guests through the whiskerprint program, showing them how we extract a print and compare it against photos in our dataset to determine the bear’s identity. I could feel that the guests had a new-found sense of belonging to the scientific community. They were contributing to a long-term data set and coming to the realization that science is for everyone – not just graduate students and professors. Working with the guests on this project also brought me a sense of joy – as I felt I had come full circle. When I set out on this adventure, I had no idea what science communication meant, or the impact it could have. Now here I was, sparking curiosity in members of the public, just like the speaker in my 4th grade class.

I also felt proud that in addition to answering questions about polar bears, my research was helping teach people about the scientific method, making them into citizen scientists. Citizen science is a powerful tool that has helped catalyze innovative research techniques and allowed for the collection of much more data than individual scientists working alone would be able to assemble. Including the public in the data collection and analysis process improves scientific literacy and makes people feel included in the scientific community. Tapping into the public’s natural curiosity about the world allows scientists to answer questions that would have been impossible to answer alone, and more importantly, helps create a sense of care about the issues wildlife and the environment face.

A mom and two cubs keeping warm in a polar bear pile up.

Paige Bissonnette is a master’s student at University of Manitoba studying polar bear social behaviour. She focuses on using non-invasive techniques and novel technological approaches to assess the factors that influence polar bear social play. She is passionate about sharing her love of polar bears and the Arctic through science communication initiatives.

Perfectly perfect perfection…not!

Imagine the perfect day in the field. A day where the sky is clear and blue. The sun is warm, but not too warm. A cool breeze wisps across your face, leaving you feeling refreshed and comfortable. The birds are singing, and the butterflies are fluttering. You sit down on an appropriately placed boulder under the perfect shade tree to eat your favourite field lunch. After lunch you take a quick break to watch the clouds pass by above you. You see a dog, then a dragon, and then a snake. Ahhh, perfectly perfect perfection.

While the above scenario certainly does happen for field biologists, it is a rarity. Many field days are not as described above. In fact, most field days are not as described above.

Let’s take a project I worked on this past summer as an example. I was trying to restore an agricultural field into native grassland. This project involved having the farmer plant soybeans in the field in June, which keep the weeds down and deposit nitrogen into the soil. The farmer then harvested the soybeans in November, which meant we were ready to seed the area with native grassland plant species.

I could not have been more excited about a nice chilly autumn day in the field, with the sun warming my nose and the cool breeze keeping me comfortably content in a sweater. I imagined myself frolicking around the field spreading seeds of native plants species, while late migratory ducks flew overhead, and squirrels and voles scurried about trying to pick up the remnants of the soybean plants– a dream, really! And a dream really is what it was.

After some issues with the seed mix and volatile weather, by the end of November we were finally ready to go. Bags of seeds in tow, we were starting to walk out to the field when I heard a curious sound. Imagine for a second making enough banana bread batter to fill a small kids’ swimming pool. Then imagine putting on rubber boots and walking through that. “Slurrrrp…Slurrrp…Slurrrp”. Yes, that was the sound. The sound of our boots sinking into the deep rich soil of the field (which was really just muck at this point) . I had just been out there 2 days earlier… but since then we had gotten a lot of rain, which took the frost out of the ground and created muck. The best part – the ground was still frozen in some places, so sinking past your rain boots into the muck was a frequent but totally unpredictable occurrence. And let me tell you – it is NOT easy to get yourself out of that muck!

Seeding the field in one of the few not so “slurpy” spots

As we started to toss the seeds about, slurping as we went, the rain began. Not a crazy downpour, but a light rain that was *just* heavy enough to get us sufficiently wet for the seeds to start sticking to our hands. To make it possible to spread the seed, we had to walk hunched over, blocking our hands from the rain. So, there we were: hunched over, wet, shivering, boots slurping away in the muck. A very different scenario than the magical day I had envisioned.

In the end it took about 3 hours to seed 1 ha of land. When we were done, we quickly retreated to our vehicle. We stopped to get some warm tea on the way home and we didn’t talk once about how crappy the weather was or how our backs hurt from hunching over or how dirty our rain boots got our rental car. (OK – we did talk a bit about that last one!). But mostly we were focused on the project, forecasting what that field might look like in the spring… or two years from now…or ten years from now. How many grassland birds would soon call this habitat home? What new species would move into this community on their own?

Some days in the field are perfect, and we all cherish those days when they happen. Other days are not-so-perfect and that is just fine. But we cherish those not-so-perfect days too. Those are the days that prompt us to remember our reason for doing the work, forecasting the bigger picture and recalling our love for our jobs.