Possible impossibilities

Over the last year, I’ve come to realize that one of the major downsides to writing up your thesis is sitting behind a desk for 16 hours a day – especially when you’re used to spending lots of your time outside.  So to remedy the situation, I’ve started taking every possible opportunity to sneak in a little fieldwork.  Early last spring, I decided to get my field fix by heading up to QUBS with a friend who needed to catch a few black-capped chickadees for her own thesis work.

It was a beautiful early March day – frigid, but bright and blustery.  Mounds of snow glittered in the dazzling sunlight, and the lake was still covered in ice.  We arrived at my friend’s study site, and set up the Potter trap (essentially a cage with trap doors over a feeding platform; when birds go for the food they trigger the doors and trap themselves), and backed off to await our first hapless victim.

Then we waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

The woods, usually alive with movement and calls, had never seemed so silent. Even though I knew better, it seemed to me that there were no chickadees within 5 miles of our trap.  Sitting and waiting for something that seems increasingly unlikely to ever happen tends to cause your mind to wander.  As I sat there that day (getting progressively colder), I found myself thinking about all the time I’ve spent trying to catch birds over the years.

Ornithologists – indeed, all field biologists – frequently have to catch wild animals for research purposes.  However, although this is often the key step on which all subsequent steps depend, it is usually only briefly mentioned in the Methods section of scientific papers, glossing over all the effort, patience, and utter frustration involved in the process.  In reality, catching birds is a study in contradictions: simultaneously extremely stressful and extremely tedious.  This became particularly apparent to me during my first PhD field season in British Columbia.

I arrived in BC in early February, fired up with enthusiasm and determination.  My first goal was to find and catch as many wintering western bluebirds as possible.  On our first morning in the field, I dragged my field assistant out into the cold and snow, and headed for a place where (according to our sources) we’d be sure to see bluebirds.

Sure enough, we had only been walking along the trail for a few minutes when a small flock of the little thrushes appeared and settled into a nearby tree.  I threw down my bag and tugged out our net and poles, flinging supplies every which way in a frenzy to get set up and catch my first bird.

It seemed to take forever to get the net up.  We had to use a rubber mallet to pound the aluminum poles into the frozen ground.  Then we began to string the net between them.  But mist nets are delicate things, made of fine mesh to make them more difficult for birds to see.  They tangle easily and are quite difficult to handle with gloves; the more I hurried, the more complicated the tangles seemed to be.  So off came my gloves, thrown unceremoniously on the ground with the other discarded equipment, and I started untangling the net with my numb fingers.

Finally everything was in place, ready to go…at which point the little flock of bluebirds took off over the hill, leaving us sitting there in silence.

Having spent the effort getting the net up, I thought we might as well stay and see if the birds came back.  So we plopped down into the snow, staring at the empty net, blowing in the fierce wind.  The 6 by 4 foot stretch of mesh looked impossibly small in the big, wide world.  It seemed ludicrous to imagine that a bluebird would ever occupy that particular space – why would it, when there were so many other places it could be?

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan - and one lonely little mist net.

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan – and one lonely little mist net.

I was starting to get quite discouraged when suddenly soft chattering and whistles heralded the return of the bluebird flock.  I held my breath as they approached the general area of the net – and then let it out as they sailed straight over it to perch in a nearby tree.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

The next thirty minutes felt a bit like being on a rollercoaster.  My hopes would go up, up, up as the flock fluttered their way towards the net…and then drop like a stone as they bypassed it.  (Or, in several extremely irritating cases, actually perched on the net itself.)

But then…it finally happened!  One of the males in the flock misjudged his trajectory, hit the mesh, and got tangled in its strands.  Despite my frozen and creaky muscles, I leapt to my feet, running full out towards the net.  But just as I stretched out my hand to grab him, he managed to free himself and took off into the nearby trees – quite literally slipping through my fingers.  (This happens more often than you might think.  In fact, just a few weeks later, a camera crew from a local station, filming us for a news story, witnessed a similar mishap.  They also recorded my frustrated response, which – if I’m going to be honest – involved a fair amount of profanity.  Luckily they edited the footage before it hit the news!)

We never did catch a bluebird that day…or the next…or the next.  In fact, although we put in roughly ten hours of effort a day, every day, for the next six weeks, we only managed to catch seven bluebirds in total. That works out to approximately 0.017 bluebirds per hour effort – a pretty high ratio of time spent sitting around to time actually spent handling a bird.  There were days when, as I stared at our little net blowing in the breeze, the idea of capturing a bird seemed absurd: a complete impossibility.

But then, every once in awhile, there would be a bird hanging in our net and the impossible would suddenly become possible.  And every time that happened, the feeling of triumph would make all the days of frustration worthwhile.  It’s amazing how good outsmarting a bird can make you feel!

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

Mischief in Sparrow-land

This week, we at Dispatches from the Field are very excited to welcome guest blogger Amy Strauss, a fantastic field biologist and a former field assistant for resident Dispatches blogger Catherine Dale.  Amy, who is now pursuing her own graduate work, shares stories of deception and duplicity from her fieldwork studying song sparrows in Massachusetts.

Fieldwork is about beautiful landscapes, vibrant sunrises, and becoming one with the great outdoors. It’s about pursuing scientific exploration in a natural setting, free from the limitations of a superficial laboratory environment.

My fieldwork is also about trickery.

A thick morning fog begins to burn off just as the sun rises over Wentworth Farms Conservation Area in Amherst, MA.

A thick morning fog begins to burn off just as the sun rises over Wentworth Farms Conservation Area in Amherst, MA.

I am a behavioral ecologist, driven by an intense curiosity about what evolutionary and ecological factors have shaped the behaviors exhibited by animals today.  Why do some species hibernate and others don’t? Why do we see such elaborate courtship displays exhibited by some animals and not others? Why is it adaptive for some lizards to squirt blood from their eyes when threatened, and for some female spiders to eat their mates after sex? This is the sphere of biology where my intellectual curiosity peaks.

One way to try to understand the biological function of a particular behavior is to manipulate something in an animal’s environment and see how the animal behaves in response. I study singing in birds, a communication behavior used in social interactions, so I get to manipulate birds’ social environments to figure out how song functions. And that’s where the trickery comes in.

Envision a team of field biologists – clad in full nerd attire, binoculars dangling around their necks, and each toting multiple large bags of equipment. This brigade of researchers woke up at 3:30am, bathed themselves head to toe in DEET, and are all geared up for a day in the field. Their goal? To fool unsuspecting little song sparrows into perceiving the presence of birds that aren’t really there.

Let me explain.

Song sparrows are territorial during the breeding season, which means that in areas of adequate habitat, individual males claim space and resources and then fiercely defend them. Those males then work to attract a female to their territory – and fiercely defend her as well. Land gets divided up amongst song sparrows in more or less the same way we humans divide up land amongst ourselves: ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours’. Neighbors are just fine as long as they don’t cross over the designated property line – or in the case of birds, the designated territory boundary. And just like in humans, anyone who crosses into another’s territory is considered an intruder and an aggressor.

Song sparrows use song in this context to negotiate territory boundaries in the springtime, and to maintain those borders throughout the breeding season. Have you ever taken a stroll through the woods or through a meadow in the spring and summer months? If so, you’ve probably heard the perpetual, beautiful singing of many songbird species. What they’re saying, essentially, is: “This is mine! I’m here! Stay away! Back off!”…a loud chorus of self-promoting, resource-hungry birds all broadcasting their positions outward to a network of listening competitors.

I, a human researcher interested in some of the finer points of birdsong biology, can take advantage of this vocal communication system by posing as a song sparrow and attempting to infiltrate established song sparrow neighborhoods. And this is my mission each day in the field: to manipulate the social environment of these birds by masquerading as a rival male song sparrow and observing the birds’ responses.

How do I pull of such a disguise? Good question. No, I don’t try to pass for a song sparrow by gluing feathers onto my head or taping wings onto my back or rigging up some fancy flying machine, although that sounds like fun. I do it entirely through sound. It’s convenient for me that birds rely so heavily on acoustic communication, though it’s not a coincidence at all; their reliance on song is precisely what got me interested in singing behavior in the first place. So my disguise in the field consists of song sparrow song recordings played through a camouflaged speaker connected to – you guessed it – my iPhone.

Amy and her field assistants raise a net and plot their strategy for capturing their next song sparrow.

Amy and her field assistants raise a net and plot their strategy for capturing their next song sparrow. Can you spot the net?

Using this simple system, there is a whole lot I can do with a population of song sparrows, and a lot of fascinating biological hypotheses that I can test. A favorite trick of field ornithologists everywhere is to catch birds from the air, using song to lure birds into their nets. Remember: a bird that crosses into the territory of a conspecific, when detected, will be challenged by the territory-holder. And an audio speaker playing conspecific song from inside the boundaries of a song sparrow territory, when detected, will be challenged by the territory-holder. And so the poor suckers fly right into our nets! [Side note for the wary: birds are not injured during this process.]

A banded male song sparrow, fashionably clad in hot pink bands!

A banded male song sparrow, fashionably clad in hot pink bands!

Once the bird is in hand, there are many things that researchers can do – take morphological measurements, gather DNA/blood/tissue samples, or attach GPS trackers to the birds. As a behaviorist, what I do next is place small bands around the bird’s legs that will stay on over time so I can identify that individual in the future. One band has a unique identification number on it, and the other bands are a combination of bright colors that allow me, even from afar, to determine the identity of the bird. Once they are banded and released, I can track individual birds as they fly around their territories, allowing me to create very precise maps of territory boundaries and to learn “who’s who” in the song sparrow neighborhood. I’m now further equipped to meddle in the social lives of these song sparrows.

A portable speaker broadcasts recorded song sparrow vocalizations, fooling the (real) sparrows of the neighborhood.

A portable speaker broadcasts recorded song sparrow vocalizations, fooling the (real) sparrows of the neighborhood.

The real meat of my work comes next – when I throw on my audio-disguise again, this time not to catch birds, but to investigate the function and relevance of variations in song sparrow singing behavior. My field assistants and I, in the form of a portable audio speaker, work together to simulate a trespassing song sparrow intruding on another’s territory. From this speaker, we can present a range of vocal recordings and closely monitor how a bird responds to each. Because we can identify individuals by the colored ID bands affixed to their legs, we are able to perform repeated experiments on the same individual song sparrows to compare responses over time or across treatments.  We can vary the song stimuli presented, we can vary the location of the speaker, and we can vary the time of presentation – to see what effect these changes have on the unknowing, outwitted song sparrow. Across these and many more axes of variation, big questions can be asked about the factors that affect avian vocal behavior, territoriality, and aggression. All with just a speaker posing as a song sparrow and some super stealthy field assistants.

Fieldwork is just trickery…in the name of SCIENCE.

Amy&MistNetAmy Strauss is currently working on her PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) in the Podos Lab at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  Prior to joining the OEB community, Amy worked as a Scientic Assistant in Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, where she did things like inventory elephant skulls and read through curator field notes from the 1920’s.  Amy was inspired to work on birdsong after assisting on a few song-related field projects during and after college — including a summer job in the Dominican Republic working for Dispatches co-creator Catherine Dale!

#Fieldwork Fail

Every field biologist knows that there are days when things just don’t go according to plan – and while it’s sometimes difficult to laugh at the time, in hindsight those days often make for the best stories.  So we here at Dispatches from the Field thought Friday the 13th – a day associated throughout the Western world with bad luck and uncanny happenings – was the perfect day to share some of our own bad luck stories from the field!


Picture this. It’s a blustery mid-November day. The ground is just frozen enough to keep the dusting of bright, white powder from the night before still glistening through the noon hour. The wind burns the tip of your nose and stings the back of your throat. It seems like there can just never be enough layers. Ever. My field crew and I are working at my field site getting plots ready to seed for the winter. A few hours of hard work go by, and it’s time for lunch! We waste no time— all huddle up in the ATV and head back to the van for lunch. There are three of us today, so two of us sit in the seats and the other in the bed of the ATV. It’s only about a kilometre back to the road so we don’t have far to go. The wind whistles in our ears as we sail through the dead and now snowy brush. About halfway there I notice something. I stop the ATV.

“Do you smell that?” I ask out loud.

“The burning smell?” Erika questions.

“Yes… that burning smell,” I nervously respond.

Joe chimes in from the back “It’s probably just a wood stove nearby”.

I can be paranoid, I’ll admit and so I turn the ATV back on and keep going. I park the ATV right beside our field van and we all hop in. The cold interior of the vehicle feels like a sunny day on a beach compared to the bleak winter outside. As the cold wears off, hunger takes over and we happily start eating our lunches.

Then Joe proclaims (rather calmly, I might add), “Ok, the ATV is actually on fire”.

In a flurry of panic, I throw my sandwich onto the dashboard of the van and leap out of the driver’s door, tearing around the van to the other side where the ATV is parked. Smoke fills the area under the ATV. There’s a house down the road and I send Erika running in that direction for help. My heart races. I’ve never dealt with a fire before.

In my haste, I realize that the fire isn’t actually that bad. The smoke is making it look a lot worse than it really is. I grab the one bottle of water from the van that hadn’t frozen the night before and splash it over the flames. They immediately extinguish and fizzle out. After some inspection, it turns out that the fire started on a guard plate, which has 5+ years of debris accumulating on it and with the heat of the engine, it caught fire. The pile of dead grass, sticks and even mouse fur that we pull out from under there looks like a small mountain range.

From that day on we cleaned that plate out daily and installed a fire extinguisher on the ATV. Even now, if I ever smell burning – or anything remotely unfamiliar – I immediately jump out of the ATV to inspect it, and thankfully since then it has never been fire-related. Recently, we drove through a big puddle and when the cold water splashed the hot engine it created a huge cloud of steam. Needless to say, in under 3 seconds I had the ATV off, was out of the vehicle and ready with the fire extinguisher in hand. Ok, maybe I’m still a little paranoid.


For a first time field biologist, I would say I was prepared. British Columbia is known to be wet so I had a rain jacket, rain pants, rain boots (even though they took up a lot of room in my pack), and even a field notebook with rain proof pages. I was studying birds, so I had my binoculars, birds of North America ID book, and the sampling equipment that I needed. It was early May, but we were going to be on offshore islands so I made sure to bring all the sweaters I could fit in my pack. We were going to be doing a lot of hiking so I wore a good pair of hiking shoes and brought a very large water bottle. I had been told that you should carry at least 1L of water at all times when in the field, and I made sure to follow this rule to avoid dehydration.

We had beautiful weather the first few days. The sun was shining and I had not seen a drop of rain. This made for a good workout carrying around all my warm (but heavy) clothing as we climbed up and down hilly islands. Even though this was the first time I was doing fieldwork that wasn’t associated with a class, it seemed as if luck was on my side.

I’ve said this in many of my blog posts and I am not kidding: it can be exhausting climbing up and down hills multiple times per day to look for seabird burrows.

Looking down after walking up a typical steep hill.

My perspective looking down after walking up a typical steep hill.

We would leave camp in the morning (after our coffee of course) and hike all day searching for nests. Although the 1L of water was an extra weight in my bag, I was happy to have it with me to refresh throughout the day. However, on the third day, after a long hike up a mountain, I went to reach for my water bottle and it wasn’t there! I frantically searched my entire bag, throwing my unused warm clothes everywhere on the forest floor. I even retraced my steps multiple times but unfortunately, my bright blue water bottle was nowhere to be found.

Trees and ferns along the steep hill.

Can you spot it? I still can’t see it but the bright blue water bottle must be in the forest somewhere.

I was embarrassed to tell the leader of the field team that I had lost my water bottle: I didn’t want to seem like I wasn’t prepared. So when we got back to camp, I took an empty mayonnaise jar, rinsed it out, and filled it with fresh water. But WARNING – you can never rinse a mayo jar enough! I drank mayo flavoured water for the rest of the week. Not a pleasant taste if you can imagine!

Looking back on my field work, I was very lucky for a first timer. I had beautiful weather, we collected lots of samples, and I got to see amazing sights that many people will not get the chance to see. But from now on, I will always carry multiple water bottles, whether it means extra weight or not!


One of the most intimidating things about starting a new field job is meeting the other people you’re going to be working with.  I suppose that’s true of every job, but when you’re doing fieldwork, you’re often living with the people you’re working with – so making a good impression is particularly important.

When I got off the plane in Hilo, Hawaii, I knew I would be spending the next few months living with a handful of other people at a remote field station on Mauna Kea, the Big Island’s tallest mountain.  What I didn’t know was that all of the other field assistants working there when I arrived would be men.

I have to confess to being somewhat taken aback when I walked out of the airport and was greeted by four tall, sturdy guys.  While many people think of science as male-dominated, biology – and field biology in particular – had always seemed to me to be an exception to that rule.  As we all crammed into the battered field truck to head up the mountain, I told myself that I would have to be very sure to pull my weight in the field.  If I was going to be the only girl, I had to represent!

Working hard...or hardly working?

Working hard…or hardly working?  One of my colleagues taking a break in the field….with a friend.  Naps were certainly an equal opportunity field experience!

As I got settled into the field station and the work, though, I realized that it really wasn’t an issue.  Our job was to catch, band, and take blood samples from Hawaiian forest birds, in an effort to track population sizes and monitor malaria infection rates in high elevation forests.  This involved spending each day at one of several established sites, where we would monitor nets that had been strung up high in the forest canopy to catch birds.  We all took turns opening nets, checking them, and extracting and banding birds.  I saw no signs of anyone treating me differently because I was a girl.

However, one day we found ourselves working at a site we didn’t usually visit – and one of the nets set up there turned out to be quite difficult to access.  Checking the net (which we had to do every 20 minutes, so that birds were never left in there for an extended period of time) involved, among other things, jumping a barbed wire fence.

“Oh, Catherine, you don’t have to check that one; it’s really hard to get to,” one of my male colleagues said, watching me eye the fence dubiously.  Looking back now, I realize that he was probably just thinking about the fact that I was an established klutz.  But at the time, I thought he was going easy on me because I was a girl – and so, of course, I immediately got my back up.

“I’m definitely coming!” I insisted, following him down towards the fence.  In fact, I was so determined to show him that I could do anything that he could do (and just as well or better), that I pushed him aside and launched myself over the fence first.

But unfortunately, I am indeed an established klutz.  If there’s a log to trip over anywhere along a path, you can be sure I’ll trip over it.  So perhaps launching myself forcefully over a barbed wire fence wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done.  Naturally I caught the leg of my pants on the barbed wire, which tore an impressive gash in the fabric – and, more importantly, threw me completely off balance.  I landed heavily and awkwardly on my right leg, and felt an almighty wrench in my calf as I fell to the muddy ground with a splash.

I limped for three weeks after making that particular stand for equality.  I may possibly have failed to make my point.

The Hawaiian forest may look innocent...but hides dangers for the unwitting klutz.

The Hawaiian forest may look innocent…but hides dangers for the unwitting klutz.

Not so down time

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Dr. Kathryn Hargan, who fills us in on what field biologists do when they can’t do field biology!  For more about Dr. Hargan, see her bio at the end of this post.

For those of you not acquainted with northern field work, weather will dictate your field season, no matter your discipline. If there is too much fog, there is a real danger of walking straight into a polar bear due to the low visibility. Trying to catch cliff-dwelling seabirds in the wind and fog is similarly treacherous. Wind is terrible for limnologists, yielding white caps on lakes and placing tension on the sampling rope. Often we sample in children’s inflatable boats (they’re light and portable!) and these can take on water fast. Surprisingly, paleolimnologists, like me, can work fairly well in rain. However, most ornithologists, with whom I collaborate, cannot: when the mother birds flees, the eggs get too cold too quickly in the rain. Cumulatively over my last two Arctic field seasons, I have spent more time not in the field than out collecting samples. So, I feel it only appropriate to touch on some of the non-field activities that have been so important in maintaining the sanity of our research teams as we see our full research potential and dollars dwindle day by day. What do you do if you have days, or in the cases of my field seasons, weeks, of bad weather? Here are a few insights and suggestions from my experience:

  1. Hone your photography skills and creative abilities.

How often are you placed in a beautiful setting with infinite time (i.e. days to weeks) to explore? Once you have taken the classic landscape shots, it’s time to take it to the next step. I highly recommend picking a theme for your non-field work photos, for example, rocks, ice, houses, community dogs, etc. In 2014, my field colleague, John, decided it was going to be skulls. Good thing John had a strong knowledge of this macabre subject, because at first my anatomy knowledge failed me – who knew seals and dogs can be confused? But generally speaking, in the Arctic you see lots of different sets of bones that are decaying but not necessary fully rotting, from a whole variety of charismatic animals – caribou, belugas, bowhead whales, seals, and lemmings, to name just a few. If you’re not into slightly weird pictures, you know those iconic jumping and yoga photos that everyone has? This is the time to take ‘em! The field crew jumping on a cliff, or perhaps a 6 ft man in intense hiking shoes and a rain jacket preforming some yoga on the sea ice? And then finally take lots of photos of the culprit that is preventing your field work – weather, fog, or blasted ice pack! If you return to the same field location year-after-year than you can start to line up the photos by date and see how drastically different one year can be from the next. I really find that looking back at all these photos provides me with a lot of entertainment and makes me forget the stress of missing valuable field work opportunities.

Left: photographing skulls in the Arctic. Right: ice yoga.

Fieldwork on pause?  Try taking up a hobby…like skull photography (left) or ice yoga (right).

  1. Learn something new from someone else.

I have been very fortunate to be “stuck” in the north with botanists. Just about anywhere you go, there are plants, and so really, no field season is a complete disappointment to them. When all else fails – ID plants! Can’t find your study animal – ID plants! Can’t get to that lake – ID plants! Though, I apologize if you do winter field work – ID…those clouds?!  My favourite plant from 2015 is the Hairy lousewort (Pedicularis hirsute) and actually may have become my photo theme – it’s not common and quite rewarding when found.  I recently learnt that there is a Woolly lousewort in the western Arctic, and as the name suggests it has more hair than the Hairy lousewort! One day, I will devise a plan to sample lakes in the NWT.  But seriously, if there are not botanists around, most scientists tend to harbor a pool of information on something outside of their field that should be gleaned.

Hairy Lousewort

A close-up of the aptly name hairy lousewort (right), and most rewarding lousewort patch I found in the summer of 2015 (right).

  1. Cook and bake.

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations...

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations…

While maintaining a positive outlook that you will eventually start field work, it is only logical that you gain some extra ‘energy’ stores. Of course, these stores will be burned off later when you are putting in long hours and making up for lost time. Also, when we are cold, we eat. Typically, there is no shortage of flour, sugar and butter in northern communities (ketchup is another story!), and so time can be passed whipping up biscuits, croissants, shortcake, brownies and themed cakes. If you don’t have a stove or microwave, even experimenting with new combinations of food (e.g., nutella and peanut butter pair well with many things!) is an amusing option.

  1. Enjoy the community.

I have to say that although I really enjoy the remoteness of northern field work, we don’t often get to be fully immersed in a community. This changed in 2015 when our team was in Cape Dorset for over two weeks. We got to participate in Nunavut Day –a festive town parade and games for ALL ages – including toddler races – so cute! Daily trips to the grocery stores and evening strolls around town meant that we got to know many members of the community. We made friends with a group of children that would always know where we were and even call the house to ask if we could “play out.” Our extended stay in the community also meant that we could organize an information session on our research, and demonstrate how to use our equipment – believe it or not, the sediment corer caught the eye of some.

Community information session.

Community information session.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

So, those are my main points, but of course I have left out some of the obvious. We do watch TV and bad movies when we can’t work – 2015 is the first year I ever watched Shark Week and I probably saw every show twice. We also unknowingly used up the last of our internet watching origami instructional videos. And yes, we do spend a lot of time talking about the weather and brainstorming wild ways to make it improve. Hopefully you never have to employ any of the above, but if you do, maybe now you will have some new inspirational ideas.

Me, with a rally cap – our field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kat, sporting a rally cap and the belief that field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kathryn Hargan is currently a W. Garfield Weston postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. She finished her PhD in 2014 in PEARL at Queen’s University looking at environmental changes in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Since then she has shifted her research focus to the eastern Hudson Bay and understanding the importance of seabirds as biovectors in the Arctic.


A fern isn’t just a fern???

This year I am working as a TA for a diversity of life course, which introduces second year Undergraduate students to the diversity plants. The course has a lecture component which covers life cycles and related information about the diversity of everything from bacteria to algae to higher plants. The course also has a lab component where students investigate the diversity of those same organisms in more detail, doing things like collecting algae samples from different lakes and comparing them, creating mushroom spore prints, and learning to ID common deciduous trees. However, a newer component in the course, which is offered on a first come first serve basis, is a field trip up to the Queen’s University Biological Station where students get to explore some of those organisms from lab in their natural environment – and, importantly, they get their first taste of fieldwork.

After a short tour of the station, we hiked across a rather precarious boardwalk and the 30 students that attended were split into smaller groups. The groups were provided with a list of either tree, shrub, fern, or herbaceous plant species. Using keys and guidebooks, they searched Cow Island for these species. Once the students had correctly identified the species, they collected a sample of each species and pressed it, so that a proper herbarium mount could be made.

When the students first set off with their lists, you could tell they were a bit intimidated. The students in the fern group pointed out that they didn’t even realize there were different fern species; they thought a fern was just a fern. I was a little worried at first but in no time, the students were on the move and really getting into the task at hand.

The students were allowed to roam freely around the island as their own working group of scientists. They spent the better part of 3 hours in search of all of the plants on their lists – there is something about checklists that is always engaging, no matter what the age you are working with. Towards the end of the afternoon, the fern group was determined to find the final fern on their list: “marsh fern”. They set out onto the boardwalk to look along the marsh edge and about 20 mins later came back with a sample in hand. They approached the resident plant expert Dale and asked “Marsh fern???” “Yes!” Dale responded enthusiastically. They all cheered.

Now some of you might be reading that and thinking, ok, a bunch of young adults got excited to find a fern. That’s pretty lame. But is it? I kind of think that’s pretty awesome actually! The goal of this course is to showcase the diversity of life for students and this field trip was a great way to do that. The complexity and intricacy of the local flora was certainly helpful to these students and brought meaning to the course. Students arrived there thinking a fern was just a fern, and left being able to identify 7 different fern species, among many other skills they developed that day. Two of the students on that trip enjoyed it so much that they actually asked me about more opportunities to volunteer doing fieldwork, and they’ve since been out helping me wrap up my experiments (more stories to come).

As I have said before, teaching experiences in the field can be the best experiences in the field, and this one ranks really high in my books.

Don’t just take our word for it – A short teaser for Unspotted

Because we wrote a book review last week, we thought we would give you a little teaser into the book itself, especially since he touches on so many stories that we can relate to on this blog. Don’t just take our word for it, read this short excerpt from “Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard” by Justin Fox to see for yourself. Like what you’ve read so far? Read until the end of the post to find out how you could win a free copy of the book!

“We walked a little way up the slope following the spoor. Quinton pointed at the ground again. It was animal droppings, known as ‘scat’. It’s difficult for lay people to fathom the excitement scat induces in zoologists. Quinton fell to his knees like a worshipper and studied the specimen closely. He explained that usually only half the scat is taken for analysis, as it serves as a territory marker for leopards. Samples are soaked in formalin, washed, and the hair separated from other remains before the sample is oven dried at 140°F.

Then the analysis can begin. To identify prey, the hair length and color is noted, as well as cuticular hair-scale patterns. The presence of bone fragments and hooves also aids identification. Small rodents are more difficult to identify, although teeth found in the scat can help. Quinton explained that through scat research he’d recorded 23 species in the diet of these opportunistic feeders, including everything from lizard to cow. I thought of the many hours he had spent soaking scat in formalin and baking it and then the days spent examining it. This kind of dedication needs to be fed by a particular brand of obsession.

We pressed on up the pass, switchbacking on increasingly precipitous bends, creeping along the mountain face on a hairline track that led us into a world of jumbled sandstone and bright green fynbos. Clouds cast giant dapples across the valley. All the while the bleating transmission from Max’s collar grew more intense. At the top of the pass we got out and Quinton aimed his VHF telemetry at a nearby koppie. The signal was strong. He switched to a UHF aerial and got a GPS fix from the collar. Max was roughly 900 yards to the west, just this side of a tall ridge. The four of us spent a few minutes scanning the area with binoculars, but saw nothing. Every bush and boulder looked vaguely feline. Every feature in the landscape seemed ideal camouflage for a leopard.

“Okay, we’re going to have to hike in after him,” said Quinton. “It could be a bit rough.”

The two retirees opted out, saying they’d rather sit and look at the view. Out came folding chairs and a flask of coffee. Knowing a wild goose chase when I saw one, I half wanted to join them. But I’d come to the berg to bag a leopard and this was as good a shot as any. Hats, water bottles, telemetry, binoculars—we were good to go.”

Like what you’ve read so far? Want to know how it finishes? You can purchase the book here, or retweet us @fieldworkblog on Twitter and we will randomly select someone to give a free copy to! 


“On the borders of mythology”: a review of Justin Fox’s Unspotted

About a month ago, the resident bloggers here at Dispatches from the field (Catherine, Amanda, and Sarah) were asked to review a recently published book about fieldwork: Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard, by Justin Fox. Naturally, being both field scientists and bloggers, we were all excited to see a copy of Unspotted arrive in the Dispatches inbox, and we thought we would share our thoughts on Fox’s book in this week’s blog post.

Unspotted tells the story of Quinton Martins, a scientist whose doctoral thesis focused on the “near mythical” Cape Mountain Leopard. While most field biologists catch, tag, or collect so many of their target species that they begin seeing them in their sleep, Martins spent the majority of his research time tramping around the Cederberg mountains of South Africa, simply trying to lay eyes on his elusive study subject. When he ran out of funding, he poured his personal funds into his quest – even selling his car and resorting to hitchhiking as his mode of field transportation. As Fox aptly puts it: “Quinton Martins is mad. Not in some superficial, mildly nutty way, but rather with a deep and abiding insanity.” Nor did his obsession end with his doctoral thesis: Martins is currently the project manager of the Cape Leopard Trust, an organization he founded with the goal of understanding and preserving the entire Cape Mountain ecosystem.

From the beginning, Fox effectively and realistically conveys the ups and downs of fieldwork. The story is told in first person; the reader accompanies Fox on his trip to the Cederberg to “meet Quinton…and, hopefully, one of this spotted friends”. By telling the story through his eyes – the eyes of a neophyte, learning about the challenges and triumphs of working with these large cats for the first time – Fox makes the story accessible to all readers, regardless of their own field experience.

Unsurprisingly, seeing things from Fox’s point of view also led to a number of the funnier moments in the book. Anyone who has ever turned up dressed inappropriately for the field will sympathize with his failure to bring a sweater on his first foray into the mountains, and his quiet desperation as he waits in the cold spring evening for Martins to finish setting a trap – eventually bursting out, “Um, I think I m-m-might need to head back to the ve-ve-vehicle before hypothermia sets in.”, only to be completely ignored by the fixated (and more appropriately dressed) Martins.

But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Fox’s extensive descriptions, which illuminate the pages of the book. He eloquently and vividly describes the landscape, the fieldwork, and the people he meets. He effectively uses figurative language to paint pictures in the reader’s mind, describing a local fish as “a cross between a leopard and a daisy”, and repeatedly comparing Martins himself to the leopards he tracks with such dedication. Fox’s use of metaphors and similes bring his experiences in the field to life: you feel your teeth rattling right along with his as he rides up a dirt track in a truck that “bounce[s] over boulders like an inebriated frog”. And he does a great job of describing some of the unique and somewhat eccentric characters he meets in the field in a way that allows the reader to connect to them.

If we have one criticism of Fox’s book, it would be that it left us wanting more. Offering a bit more background information – about the natural history of the leopards, the goals and results of Martins’ research, and the larger implications of his work – would provide a context that is somewhat lacking.

Overall, Unspotted is a quick and engaging read, and we would recommend it for both field biologists – who will see many of their own stories reflected in its pages – and for the general public, who may gain some insight into the unique “madness” that drives field biologists to do what they do.

You can find Justin Fox’s book Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard on Amazon.ca.