Fears of fieldwork

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

In reading responses to the recently popular hashtag #fieldworkscares, I realized that luckily I haven’t had to deal with any major scares in the field (knock on wood!). But nonetheless, to a first time field biologist, some minor things can feel pretty scary! So I am going to share some of my #fieldworkfears as well and how I overcame them. One of the best feelings is being able to recognize that fear and conquer it.

– Travelling on my own for the first time to meet the field team leader whom of which I had no idea about what he looked like. It was a good thing that the plane could only sit 10 people (a turbulence-filled flight where you feel every movement)! Based on attire alone, it is no surprise that I was able to pick out the field biologist pretty easily.

Sarah holding a large snake

That smile is saying “I can’t believe I am doing this”.

– Holding a snake for the first time. I know this is an embarrassing fear to mention as a field biologist, but, like a lot of people, I was not a fan of the way snakes were able to move without limbs. However on a field course in Mexico, I couldn’t be the only one not to hold the massive snake (can anyone say FOMO (fear of missing out)!?). It turns out that snakes are not slimy at all and are really neat creatures that don’t want to bother you as long as you don’t bother them.

Nest box for ancient murrelets.

Nest box for ancient murrelets.


– Arriving to your study location and your study species are no where to be found. The winter before I arrived in Haida Gwaii, there was a massive storm that destroyed the whole south side of the island – exactly where a long term study was being conducted on ancient murrelets. Unfortunately, this meant that any nest boxes that were still intact were mostly empty (save for a few strong survivors) and any data loggers that were deployed on chicks last year were likely not to be returned. Luckily birds were still nesting in natural burrows on the north side of the island and we could collect some data.

view of the side of the mountain

View of the side of the mountain I had to traverse.

– When your team lead suddenly slides down on bushes over the side of the mountain, disappears, and yells up to you “don’t worry I’ll catch you!”. In case you are worried if I crushed him – I did successfully make it down with only a few minor scrapes from the twigs poking at me on the way down.

– Having to jump from a tiny zodiac that is riding the waves onto the wet, slippery, and sharp rocky shore carrying all of your equipment.  On one attempt, a colleague did slip and fall but was able to hold on strongly enough so only her feet entered the cold, icy water. On the plus side, she got to take the morning off to warm her feet by the heater! After making your first jump successfully, the daily activity becomes more of a challenge.Zodiac to the island

What I have learned throughout my fieldwork experiences is that you will always have fears (some rational; some not so much) and it seems like it always comes down to the fear of the unknown. In any case, it seems the best way to get over them is to just jump right in (while being safe of course)!

The Secret Life of Team Honey Bee

With 7 species of bees being listed as endangered species this week, it is good timing to welcome a guest post by Rachael E. Bonoan, a  Ph. D. candidate from Tufts University about her research with honey bees. 

“Anyone have to pee?” I ask loudly so that Joanna, one of my interns, will wake up. It has been a long week of long drives, made longer by the fact that the air conditioning in my 1996 Honda Accord is broken. We have finally reached the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine (Tufts Vet) in Grafton, MA for the third and final time this week, and the campus center is our last chance to use the bathroom before going out to the field.

Joanna stirs enough to mutter “No.” James, another one of my interns, and I head into the air-conditioned campus center for a moment of relief. Minutes later, we take Wildlife Drive, turn right onto Cornfield Lane, and then left onto Discovery Drive. Further ahead, Discovery Drive turns into a dirt road which leads us to our field site. (I like to think that the fact that our field site is off Discovery Drive is good karma.)

My Honda rocks up and down as we take the dirt road. In no time, we are at the edge of a sprawling field. Our field. I pull my Honda up to the edge of the grass and put it in park. Earlier in the week, I learned that driving across the field of tall grass is not the best idea if I want my car’s low suspension to last the summer.

We step out of the car, stretch, and take in the sights and smells of Tufts Vet. Yes, smells. Our field is near one of Tufts Vet’s swine barns; we are sometimes welcomed by the smell of pigsty. It’s not a pleasant smell but it always brings me back to my childhood, when my grandparents lived near a pig farm. More pleasant though, is the smell of the dewy grass that has made early morning fieldwork worth the drive from the city.

I look out into the field as we unload my car. The six beehives we have already set up are neatly tucked away along a row of trees. From the dirt road, you would never know they were there. Scattered throughout the green field are large rolls of grass ready to be fed to the cows under the blue, cloud-speckled sky.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

James, Joanna, and I carry our supplies to the appropriate spot among the trees and begin setting up our final three hives, making a total of nine hives ready to be filled with bees. Our week’s work complete, we return to the car for our drive back to the city. Although our hives are ready for bees, our bees will not be ready for pick up until next week.

3 bee hives

Three of our nine hives at the shady edge of the field with James and Joanna comparing notes (and my car) in the background.

When the day to pick up the bees finally arrives, we excitedly return to Tufts Vet with nine small boxes of bees strategically packed into my Honda. These small boxes of bees are called nucleus colonies, or nucs. A nuc is a small colony of bees that is then installed into a larger hive. On this happy day, we traipse through the now-taller grass and place one nuc outside each hive. We let the nucs rest after the stressful drive while we head to the campus center to relieve our bladders and refuel before our work begins.

Refreshed, we begin the installation. As we install the bees into their new homes, we examine each nuc to make sure there is a queen and that the colony is healthy. After each frame of bees is carefully inspected, we move it from the red nuc into our freshly painted yellow hive. This is James and Joanna’s first real beekeeping experience, and my first experience installing bees. We are all excited.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

With the bees installed, we are ready to begin our experiment. For this summer’s study, we are measuring foraging effort of our hives. To do this, we sit outside each hive and count the number of bees leaving the hive in 10-minute intervals. To aid with the counting, we enlist a couple more helping hands. Adam, a beekeeper, budding biologist, and high school student from Lexington, MA joins us, as does Luke, a Tufts undergraduate who has been working with Team Honey Bee for over a year. I appreciate the extra help but I especially enjoy giving more young scientists a chance to experience fieldwork firsthand.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

As a kid, I loved catching and observing insects. It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year of college that I realized I could catch and observe insects as my job. That summer, I worked with butterflies and fell in love with fieldwork. For my study, I caught butterflies in the field and raised their caterpillars in the lab.

Working with the butterflies, I learned how to tell the difference between a male and female simply based on how the butterfly was flying. I learned how to gently handle the insects in order to stress them out as little as possible. I learned that fieldwork takes a tremendous amount of creativity and troubleshooting, and a lot of trips to the hardware store. But in the end, I learned that it’s all worth it.

Watching my bees, I again feel this intimate connection with my study system. I can hear (and even smell!) when my bees are angry; I can identify how honey bees fly compared to other bees; I can point out which bees in the hive are the youngest just by looking at them.

Although it sounds (and sometimes is) tedious, I feel true joy in our fieldwork while sitting quietly and counting bees. After all the driving and preparation, we are finally collecting data! And outside in a beautiful place no less! Sitting there in our field, watching our bees, I hear only their collective buzz and chirping birds. No cars, no sirens, no indications of the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Tufts Vet is truly a rural oasis for both humans and bees, and sitting there in the open field always manages to put me at peace.

VIDEO: https://vimeo.com/178503484

CAPTION: Foraging honey bees, slowed down to ¼ speed. For the play-by-play of this video, check out my blog post, Organized Chaos, at http://www.rachaelebonoan.com/blog.

Twitter: @RachaelEBee

The many joys of tropical fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Zachary Kahn, who tells us about some of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of his fieldwork in Costa Rica.  For more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the post.

I was surprised the first time it happened, although I really shouldn’t have been. I had been warned many times. I had been told to wear bug spray and bring tape, but that it was inevitable. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little shocked to see hundreds of tiny poppy seed-like critters crawling all over my body. Indeed, I had been “tick-balled”, a term referring to having an army of tiny ticks latch onto your clothing and spread across your body like a group of crazed protesters. The trick was to make a ring of duct tape, with the sticky surface facing outwards, and peel them off. Sadly, I didn’t have any tape that day. This was the first of many times I would be tick-balled, and my first introduction to one of the many joys of doing tropical fieldwork in Costa Rica.

I am currently a Masters student at the University of Windsor, and my research is focussed on the behavioural ecology of tropical songbirds. Why study birds in the tropics, you ask? Well, unlike in the temperate zone where it is primarily males that sing, often both males and females sing in the tropics, and sometimes combine their songs into cool vocal displays called duets by overlapping or alternating their songs. I became interested in studying the reasons birds in the tropics sing duets, and I have tried to do this this by studying a population of Rufous-and-white Wrens in Santa Rosa National Park, in northwestern Costa Rica. I have spent the past two field seasons in the tropical dry forests of Santa Rosa romping around and chasing birds like a crazy person, all the while getting tick-balled and falling down more times than I’d like to admit.

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My day in the field is pretty similar to any other field ornithologist. I get up super early to record birds while they are singing, set up mist nets to catch and band birds for identification, and closely monitor their behaviour. I also need to check inside their nests in order to assess what breeding stage (i.e. eggs or nestlings, and how many) each pair is at throughout the field season. For many species, this is fairly straightforward. You find the nest, make a note of its location, look inside, and you’re done! Finding the nest is usually the most difficult part since many species have mastered the art of nest concealment and camouflage.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

Luckily for me, I don’t have this problem. Rufous-and-white Wrens nest in Bulhorn Acacia trees over 80% of the time at my study site. Their nests are bulky conspicuous globs, and there are very few acacia trees in the forest, making it relatively easy for me to find their nests. Simple, right? Wrong. The funny thing about acacia trees is that ants like them too. In fact, many species of ants have a symbiosis with the trees: the tree provides the ants with food and shelter in return for defense from predators, other plants, and stupid field biologists. To get inside the wren nests, I have to use a ladder, open a hole in the back of the nest (they are enclosed domed structures instead of open cups), feel inside, then sew the nest back up, all while being bitten by a swarm of angry acacia ants and nearly falling off the ladder. My hands swell up like balloons every time I have to do this, giving me yet another visual reminder of the joys of tropical field work.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

I don’t mean to imply that all of my experiences in the tropics have been bad because overall it really has been amazing. I have been fortunate enough to see an incredible assortment of bird species, such as the Elegant Trogan, Blue-crowned Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, and Long-tailed Manakin. And it’s not just birds. There are monkeys too. Yes, they throw sticks at you and sometimes try to pee on you (one missed me by about a foot last summer), but getting to watch them move through the trees each morning is more than worth it. It’s also really cool seeing different species of snakes (including some that are extremely venomous), frogs, lizards, and mammals like Tamanduas, Coatis, and Agoutis. We even saw a Tapir this summer! Having the opportunity to see so many cool animals on a daily basis is really awesome, and by far my favourite part of doing fieldwork in the tropics.

Perhaps the most incredible thing I have experienced during my time in Costa Rica is what my lab refers to as “Toad Day”. Once a year, for only 1-2 days after the first large rainfall of the year in May, huge numbers of frogs and toads congregate at previously dried-out ponds and rivers in the park as they begin to fill up with water. Hundreds of them come to the water and begin to chorus together in order to attract females to come and breed. Many species do this, including Cane Toads, Mexican Burrowing Toads, and several species of tree frogs, but the most interesting of them all is the Yellow Toad. For most of the year, males and females of this species look like your typical run-of-the mill toads, mostly brown in colour with the occasional splotch of grey or rufous. However, as soon as it starts to rain in early to mid-May, the males turn a spectacular lemon-yellow as they congregate at the breeding pools. This transformation corresponds with intense competition for females, and aggressive fights between 2,3,4 or more toads for a single female are common to see. This sight – hundreds of bright yellow toads and other species chorusing together all in one place – is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and is something I look forward to every time I go back to the field.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

Anyone who has done field work knows  it can be a rollercoaster of highs and lows, an endless series of amazing experiences and unique challenges. This is especially true in the tropics. On one hand, there are tick balls, venomous snakes, valleys of slippery boulders, and hordes of biting ants to deal with. On the other, there are amazing animals to see, scenic beaches to swim at, and daily exposure to unique tropical ecology. I have had a blast over the past two field seasons in Costa Rica, and I would highly recommend that others  go down and do fieldwork in the tropics if they get the chance!

headshotZach Kahn is a 2nd year Masters student in Dan Mennill’s bioacoustics lab at the University of Windsor, studying the behavioural ecology of tropical wrens in Costa Rica. He completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Queens University, where he studied interspecific competition in closely-related songbirds for his Honours thesis project under Paul Martin. He is passionate about wildlife ecology, natural history, and conservation, as well as being outdoors and playing softball and football.


What’s for lunch? #fieldeats

During our recent outreach events with the Kingston Field Naturalists and the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, we noticed that people were really interested in our eating habits. The what’s, where’s, and how’s of eating during fieldwork were questions that kept coming up. If your fieldwork entails living in isolation from the public for many weeks, how do you get the food there and store it properly? If you have no access to refrigeration, what do you eat? These are all valid questions for such a necessity in life that you don’t really take into consideration until you are removed from the luxury of everyday life. I’m sure anyone who has been camping is nodding in agreement.

Jeff's massive bag overflowing with equipment.

Normally, since field biologists are already carrying a lot of equipment, food in the field tends to be pretty basic. However, believe it or not, food can change your mood. What you eat that day could determine how that whole day turns out. In the past two guest posts, Jeff Havig told us about the exciting daily meals that he shared with his #teamfire and #teamice. Meals included burritos, sausages, and even chicken alfredo (cue drool). The ingredients for these meals had to fit in the packs that they carried with them (among other items that you can read about here).


Camp at Reef Island

Luxury 5 star accommodation on Reef Island

Sarah, one of our resident bloggers, and her field team had to carry a month’s worth of food in large plastic totes across slippery rocks and  over fallen logs to make it to the “camp” – consisting of a large tarp over a picnic table. Despite the rugged conditions of the “camp” it was equipped with an oven where she was able to bake a cake!



Instead of limiting the answers to just our experiences in the field, we also opened up the question to our followers and fellow field biologists on twitter with the hashtags #fieldeats and #fieldworklunch:

Some field biologists like to stay healthy:


Or keep it simple (as long as you beat the wildlife to it!):


A popular choice of lunch for field work seems to be including one magic ingredient:



(Which we have heard was as a result of miscommunication with her field assistant to get “bread”)

Or mixing it up a bit:


(I don’t know if I have the guts to try this!)

When you think about it, Peanut Butter Jelly time does make sense in the field:


Red in tooth and claw

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario....

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario….

One crisp, clear March day a couple of years ago, I found myself driving out to the Queen’s University Biological Station with a friend.  She was going out to do fieldwork, and I was going out to help her (in an effort to pretend that I still did fieldwork).  It was a typical Ontario pre-spring day: the snowbanks along the roadside were almost as tall as the car, and the sun glinted off the drifts of snow in the fields.  However, there was also a faint warmth in the air, and the ice on many of the lakes and ponds was covered with a thin film of water and a fine webbing of cracks.

Just before we turned down the road leading to the field station, we passed a group of three deer standing somewhat forlornly in the snow along the edge of a large pond.  Anyone who has ever driven along a country road is well aware that deer tend to be flighty creatures, and these three were no exception.  As we passed them, they all jumped into action, taking the easiest route of escape – straight out onto the pond.

My friend brought the car to an abrupt halt, and we sat there, horrified, watching as their headlong flight was quickly reduced to a slipping, sliding walk.  Even in the car, we could hear the ominous creaks and cracks coming from the ice.  It was the same feeling you get driving past a car accident: we didn’t want to watch, but it was hard to look away.  We were sure it was only a matter of time until one of the deer fell through the ice and was unable to get back out – and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.


This is one of the paradoxes of fieldwork: while the job naturally attracts people who want nothing more than to spend their days hugging trees and cuddling bunnies, doing the work often means standing aside and watching while a fox or a hawk rips the bunny apart.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I opened a nest box door to check on the family of five tree swallow nestlings inside – only to find a huge, satisfied-looking black rat snake curled up in the nest instead.  As I looked at him, I could see five bumps in his body, one for each nestling, and I had an (admittedly irrational) urge to grab him by the tail and shake him hard, until they all came flying out of his mouth.

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box...

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box…

Even worse was the first time I opened a box to reveal a nest full of dead nestlings.  This happens surprisingly often, when cold snaps in the early spring make food hard to come by, particularly for aerial insectivores like tree swallows.  In these stressful circumstances, parents may attempt to keep feeding the nestlings for a while, but at some point, most adults prioritize their own survival (or rather, future reproductive potential) and abandon the nest.  This also means that sometimes, you come across nests full of heartbreakingly cold, hungry, weak nestlings.  It’s hard to close the box and walk away, knowing that the next time you open it, they will all likely be dead.

Abandonment, predation, and death are not easy things to witness, and it can be tough to stand back and get out of nature’s way – especially if, like most field biologists, you’ve developed a certain amount of fondness for your study organism.  Sometimes, it’s tempting to do crazy things to try and fix the situation.  I’ve certainly screamed at more than my fair share of snakes, although it’s never bothered them much.  And the first time I came across a nest of dying birds, I begged my boss to let me adopt them.  (Which, incidentally, is not just against the law, but also virtually impossible to do, as simply keeping them adequately fed would be a full time job.)  Years later, when running my own field season in the Okanagan, it was my turn to explain to my field assistants why they couldn’t adopt the abandoned baby bluebirds.

Unfortunately, standing back and watching nature take its course is a necessary part of the job.  It’s often hard to resist the temptation to intervene – but if we do, we mess with the very thing we’re all out there to study: natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The parents of those abandoned baby birds will build another nest and give it another try when the weather turns warm again.  And, as much as the birder in me objects, the snake needs to eat too.  My job, when I’m out there, is only to observe – not interfere.


As for the deer we saw on the treacherous ice that day?  We sat watching them, on the edge of our seats, for at least two full minutes – afraid to keep driving in case we caused the sudden movement that made them fall through the ice.  (Full disclosure: not only was I worried about the deer, I was also very concerned that, if they did fall through the ice, my friend and I were going to have to jump in to the freezing water to try and help them – see previous point about doing crazy things.)

But in the end, the ice held and they made it safely to the opposite shore.  As they scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the forest, we couldn’t help but cheer for them.  As hard as it is sometimes to witness the cruel side of nature, that cruelty makes the small victories all the sweeter.

The Fire and Ice Tour Part 2

#TeamFire is now over with (see last week’s post), and onto the second half of the adventures from Dr. Jeff Havig:

#TeamIce (Glacial systems on Pacific Northwest stratovolcanoes)

  • Dr. Jeff Havig (Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati)
  • Professor Trinity Hamilton (Department of Biological Sciences, UC)
  • Jordyn Miller (Graduate Student, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University)
  • Helen Rogers (lab worker, Department of Biological Sciences, UC)

#TeamIce was now assembled in White Salmon, WA, in the home of Bob and Sally Havig (my parents). Our goal was to hike into multiple glaciers and camp overnight, allowing us to collect samples and conduct carbon uptake incubation experiments to characterize primary productivity and nutrient cycling in these systems. Our targets were: Gotchen Glacier on the southwest flank of Mt. Adams, WA (north of White Salmon), Eliot Glacier on the northeast flank of Mt. Hood, OR (south of White Salmon), Diller Glacier on the east flank of Middle Sister, OR, and Collier Glacier on the west flank of North Sister, OR. For the glaciers on the sisters, we would move our forward base of operations to the Bend/Sisters area. Our meals would primarily consist of sandwiches we made supplemented with trail snacks, plus oatmeal and coffee in the morning.

Professor Trinity Hamilton looking over the climb

Professor Trinity Hamilton resting after climbing several thousand feet in a couple miles as we made our way to Gotchen Glacier on Mt. Adams, WA, looking towards the southwest.

Gotchen Glacier, Mt. Adams, WA. A fortuitous stop at the National Forest Ranger Station in Trout Lake, WA provided us with valuable intelligence:

processing water samples on the edge

Gotchen Glacier was kind enough to provide me this little table for processing water samples. Fortunately, the crampons, helmet, and ice ax were not needed here. Note the most excellent 140 mL syringe and caulking gun setup for filtering samples, and the little foam cutout I made for holding sample bottles while distributing filtered water.

there had been a fire the year before in the area we had planned to approach Gotchen from (giving us a relatively easy ~1.5 mile (~2.4 km) hike), and it had been closed. We had to amend our trajectory, now having a ~2.5 mile (~4 km) hike to tackle. The hike was through an area that had burned a few years previous, and was thus devoid of any shade, making the hike much hotter and dustier. Nevertheless, we persevered and made it to Gotchen Glacier.

Red snow

Red snow (center) and orange snow (center top) on Gotchen Glacier, Mt. Adams, WA. This was our target for sampling and carbon uptake incubations.

Finding no place on the moraine to camp, we elected to set up on the snow near the lake at the base of the glacier, making for a chilly night’s sleep. We found plenty of snow algae to sample, and the water in the lake was some of the best tasting water I have ever had! We packed up in the morning and made our way back to the car and on to White Salmon.

Eliot Glacier, Mt. Hood, OR. We wound our way south through the apple and pear orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopped at the NFS Ranger Station, and then headed to the Cloud Cap Inn (not functioning…don’t bother to try to make a reservation) where our trailhead awaited us. We loaded up and made our way up through an ancient grove of Mountain Hemlocks (many trees over 500 years old, some far older) and on up to the windswept moraines of Eliot Glacier. We were rewarded for our efforts with an amazing view north of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier (all in WA).

Eliot Glacier

Panoramic image of the summit of Mt. Hood, OR, Eliot Glacier, and Eliot’s moraines. Note the pink, yellow, and grey rocks in the moraine, sourced from different lava flows. To the upper right we could see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Rainier on the horizon. We camped and sampled on the part of the glacier just below the dark grey rock outcrop in the center of Eliot Glacier.

Jeff with the massive water syringe.

I snapped this selfie while the crew was busily working on a sample we had collected in the morning on Eliot Glacier (note all of the layers and the lack of sunshine). Pictured are (left to right) myself, Helen Rogers (UC Biology lab worker), Jordyn Miller (Purdue University graduate student), and Professor Trinity Hamilton. Finding enough level, non-rocky space to pitch tents on was no small feat, but we were lucky enough to find space to do so. The suspended solids in the water (see the syringe) are typical of water with a large subglacial melt component, but the large diameter filter made life a LOT easier in dealing with that.

We were able to find two spots of loose sediment large enough to pitch our tents, and proceeded with sampling. Above us loomed a plug of andesite that had resisted the glacier, leaving a cliff over which a large waterfall of glacial meltwater poured. We headed out with our collection of incubations and snow, glacial ice, supraglacial and subglacial water, rocks, sediments, and algae samples. The next day we packed everything into the minivan and took the scenic drive along highways 35 and 26 to Bend, OR.


The view that greeted us as we made it up the moraine at the base of Diller Glacier on Middle Sister, OR. We were excited to see the lake at the base of the glacier, and even more excited to not have any moraine rocks tumbling down on us.

The view that greeted us as we made it up the moraine at the base of Diller Glacier on Middle Sister, OR. We were excited to see the lake at the base of the glacier, and even more excited to not have any moraine rocks tumbling down on us.

Diller Glacier, Middle Sister, OR. This was to be a scouting missing to assess its utility as a field site for future expeditions, since we had never been to Diller before. As such, we decided to hike up and back in one day, alleviating the need for extra food and all of our camping paraphernalia. (This would also buy us an extra day to recuperate before our full pack ~5 mile (~8 km) trek into Collier.)

Purple penstemons and reddish-orange paintbrush

The wildflowers on the trip were amazing. Here there were purple penstemons and reddish-orange paintbrush on an end moraine below Diller Glacier on Middle Sister. Always a surprise to get buzzed by hummingbirds at 8000+ ft.

While the climb was rather gradual, it was also ~5.5 miles (~8.9 km) one way. We pushed through to Camp Lake to replenish our drinking water reserves and eat lunch, and then made our way to Diller. After the prerequisite scrambling up and over sketchy glacial moraines, we reached the base of Diller, where we were greeted by another beautiful glacial lake. We collected samples (no time for C-uptake experiments), and then hiked back down to our awaiting transport. We were able to make it down before it was pitch black, but there was minimal light for pitching our tents off the road in the National Forest land.

Jeff's massive bag overflowing with equipment.

A picture of my nemesis. I was carrying my sleeping bag, geochemical sampling equipment, food for three days, a stove, crampons, ice ax, helmet, 3 L of water, drinking water filtration kit, first aid kit, several layers of clothes, and let’s not forget the cooler with 20 lbs of dry ice for flash freezing DNA samples and carbon uptake experiments. And yes, that’s a full day pack strapped to the outside of my pack. My pack topped off around 55 to 60 lbs. Needless to say, I was moving pretty slow on the steep climbs, and we were all very excited to take our packs off upon arrival at the site!

Our crew at the trailhead about to head to Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR, including (left to right) myself, Professor Hamilton, Helen Rogers, and Jordyn Miller. Don’t let the smiling faces fool you…we were loaded with determination as well as heavy packs as we set off on the 5 mile trek with a ½ mile elevation gain. As they say, that which does not kill you leaves deep and permanent scarring…

Our crew at the trailhead about to head to Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR, including (left to right) myself, Professor Hamilton, Helen Rogers, and Jordyn Miller. Don’t let the smiling faces fool you…we were loaded with determination as well as heavy packs as we set off on the 5 mile trek with a ½ mile elevation gain. As they say, that which does not kill you leaves deep and permanent scarring…

Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR. After two days to refit and recuperate from the ‘Diller Death March’, we found ourselves at the trailhead that would take us to Collier Glacier. This hike was through the Obsidian Limited Access Area (requires a special access permit) on a trail that goes up and over the 400 year old Jerry Lava Flow (in which we found some small mantle xenoliths) and terminates at the Pacific Crest Trail. We followed the PCT for a short period before we had to break off to traverse Little Brother, climb ~1000 ft (~300 m) in elevation over about half a mile (~ 0.8 km), and then cross Collier Glacier with crampons and ice axes. We were rewarded for our long day with an amazing sunset and a view looking north up the line of stratovolcanoes.

red and orange sunset over Collier Glacier

Our reward after making it onto Collier Glacier, setting up camp, and having dinner. An amazing view looking north up the Cascade Range of (from left to right) Mt. Washington, Three-fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and the very tip top of Mt. Adams. In the Foreground is Collier Glacier, to the right is the peak of North Sister, to the left is Little Brother, and in the center is a lake at the base of a small cinder cone (Collier Cone), which erupted a mere 400 years ago.

Dinner was a New York City Sub Shop sub (the Bronx is my favorite, check them out if you are in Bend or Hood River). The next day we sampled up and down Collier Glacier, from our camp on the upper portion of the glacier on down to the glacial meltwater fed lake below, collecting water, snow, ice, and sediments and setting up multiple incubation experiments. A Purdue University group (led by Dr. Briony Horgan and Dr. Allie Rutledge) had been planning to meet us on our second day, to overlap sampling and exchange data/information, but all day we did not see them. Late into the evening we had nearly given up hope (assuming they had a late start and wouldn’t make it in until the next day), when off in the distance near the lake we saw the glow of two lights appear. I immediately attempted to signal with my headlamp to disclose our camp position (as it was now dark), and thought I saw a return signal. Professor Hamilton and I stayed up to continue signaling, and two weary travelers arrived: Dr. Rutledge and a Purdue graduate student (Marie). They hurriedly pitched their tent and settled in for the night, exhausted from their long 6+ mile (~10 km) trek with 50+ pound (23+ kg) backpacks.

sampling in the early morning

I paused from filtering a water sample to snap this picture of the crew hard at work for an early morning sampling on Collier Glacier (the day star wouldn’t grace us with it’s warm embrace for several hours). Believe it or not, the tent behind Professor Hamilton is actually on a patch of soft sediments that I was able to clear of (many!) large rocks.

The morning was great, collecting a last water sample and sharing information with Allie and Marie.


The rest of the Purdue group came in and set up camp down by the lake as we packed up and left to make our way back down to camp.

UC written in stones

We were at Collier Glacier in advance of a Purdue University team that would overlap with us for our last day. I decided to leave them this little reminder of our presence… (Go Bearcats!)


I yodeled my goodbye to our friends and colleagues as we crested the saddle next to Little Brother before dropping down the other side.

Posing with the advanced party from the Purdue expedition as we were about to head out from Collier Glacier. From left to right: myself, Dr. Allie Rutledge (Purdue University Postdoc), Professor Hamilton, Marie (Purdue University graduate student), Jordyn, and Helen.

Posing with the advanced party from the Purdue expedition as we were about to head out from Collier Glacier. From left to right: myself, Dr. Allie Rutledge (Purdue University Postdoc), Professor Hamilton, Marie (Purdue University graduate student), Jordyn, and Helen.

A rainbow beside a geyser.

A parting shot of Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

The Fire and Ice Tour – Part 1

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes back Dr. Jeff Havig from the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati to share his adventures in an “(un)official” report about what he did this summer. As you can imagine, a lot happens during fieldwork so we are reporting it in two parts. Here is Part 1:

The Fire and Ice Tour

July 21 through August 8, 2016

(Jeff Havig reporting)

#TeamFire (Hot springs at Yellowstone National Park)                                                                     Dr. Jeff Havig (Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati)                              Professor Trinity Hamilton (Department of Biological Sciences, UC)                      Professor Andy Czaja (Department of Geology, UC)                                                              Andrew Gangadine (Graduate Student, Department of Geology, UC)                             Annie Gangadine (Volunteer Scientist)

I am excited to file this report upon the end of our successful expedition to sample hot springs in Yellowstone National Park and then glacial systems on Pacific Northwest stratovolcanoes – or as I have dubbed it, our Fire and Ice Tour. Many thanks to Dispatches from the Field for being interested in hearing about our adventures. This was an ambitious trip for Professor Hamilton (my life collaborator) and me, which turned out to be a tremendous success, thanks in large part to the help of the other scientists on our teams. And please note, in order to sample in Yellowstone National Park, as well as in the National Forest Wilderness Areas, we had to undergo a rigorous permitting process.

#TeamFire assembled at Madison Campground in Yellowstone National Park the afternoon of July 21st, setting up our base of operations. From there we would drive to the trailheads that would take us off the beaten path to sample hot springs in the back country of Yellowstone. Having learned from my experience as a graduate student in GEOPIG at Arizona State University, we brought a large tent that would house all of the science gear and equipment (the science tent). Being deep into Grizzly country, we of course kept all food items and toiletry kits in the cars.

The mission of #TeamFire was to collect water, molecular, biofilm, and siliceous sinter samples from select hot springs, and to conduct carbon fixation experiments as parts of ongoing research being conducted by myself, Professor Hamilton, Professor Czaja, and Andrew. A sampling day consisted of waking up, getting water boiling for the crucial initial caffeination, eating breakfast, making lunch for the field, getting all of the needed science gear together, packing our packs with everything, loading the packs into the transport (aka minivan), and heading out. If all went well, we would be on our way by 9 am at the latest. We would then park at the trailhead, load our packs onto our backs, clip the bear spray to our belts, and head off to explore and sample hot springs that the general public never sees.


Sentinel Meadows in the Lower Geyser Basin, setting up to sample the spring in the foreground (Rosette Geyser) on our first day in the field. One of my very favorite places in Yellowstone. In the background (from left to right) are the steaming sources of Flat Cone, Mound Spring, and Steep Cone.

Field day one was spent in the Sentinel Meadows area of the Lower Geyser Basin. This is an area characterized by boiling hot springs (93°C at 8000 ft or 2500 m) with outflow channels that transition from chemotrophic to phototrophic. Almost all of the hot springs within Yellowstone are saturated with silica (from dissolution of the volcanic rocks by the deeply-circulating hydrothermal fluids), resulting in precipitation of siliceous sinter when the water cools. All was well until I came to the realization, as I unpacked my pack after our ~2 mile (~3.2 km) hike, that I had, in fact, left the pH meter and probe back at camp (there’s always something on the first day). After I had a very heated, albeit one-sided, exchange with my pack, Professor Czaja volunteered to hike back to the car and drive back to camp to retrieve the precious meter and probe, and rejoin us. As this is a fairly non-Grizzly-ish area (wide open prairie and long fields of vision), we decided this would be fine/safe, and Professor Czaja saved the day. Dinner: Burritos with refried black beans, three cheese blend, fresh salsa, and avocado.

Part of the fire team

Part of the Yellowstone crew standing on Steep Cone in Sentinel Meadows, Lower Geyser Basin. From left to right: Andrew Gangadine (UC Geology graduate student), Annie Gangadine (Volunteer), and Professor Andy Czaja (UC Geology).

Field day two was into the Obsidian Pool area of the Mud Volcano Area, necessitating a longer drive along the northern portion of the grand loop road. After waiting for a lone male Bison to leave the trail (while foolish tourists attempted to one-up each other in stupidity, approaching WELL within the 25 yard (23 m) perimeter advised by the park staff to photograph the Bison…but then, what do the park staff know about Bison? It’s not like they work and live with Bison year round…), we headed off for what would be a fine day of collecting samples. The Obsidian Pool area exhibits subsurface boiling, leading to the separation of the liquid phase from the vapor phase, which concentrates volatiles such as H2S in the steam that condenses from the vapor phase. When the H2S interacts with oxygenated water, the H2S is oxidized to H2SO4 (sulfuric acid), driving lower pH values in hot springs that are fed by condensed vapor phase fluids. Dinner: Grilled bratwurst with potatoes, sauerkraut and applesauce.

Panorama of the Obsidian pool area

Panorama of the Obsidian Pool Area, where we sampled on our second day in the field. Obsidian Pool (the non-descript pool in the middle of the image) is where the third domain of life (Archaea) was first characterized/discovered. Many interesting microbial community morphologies can be found in the various pools in the area.

Field day three took us into the Norris Geyser Basin, in an area called ‘The Gap’. The Norris Geyser Basin is one of the most dynamic hydrothermal areas in the park, where the intersection of large regional faults brings heat very close to the surface, driving intense subsurface boiling to generate very acidic conditions in places.

Hot water flows into a cool stream fed by acidic hot springs.

Many interesting physical and geochemical gradients can be found in the mixing zones of hydrothermal systems. Here hot water from ‘The Gap’ (upper left) flows into a cool stream fed by acidic hot springs.

Here our targets included an acidic spring we had sampled last year and had dubbed ‘Bun Warmer’ due to the very hot ground around it, and an extinct hot spring that had old layers of silica sinter exposed which we had dubbed ‘Has Been Hot Spring’. (Giving sites unofficial names assists in helping to remember and differentiate them, we have found. What’s easier to remember: ‘Bun Warmer’ vs. ‘Mellow Yellow’, or NGBHS007 vs NGBHS008?). Dinner: Chicken alfredo with bacon.

Field day four was spent sampling at the Sylvan Springs Area, west of the Gibbon River in the Gibbon Meadow. Our approach was a 1 ½ mile (2.4 km) hike that started with a ford across the Gibbon River. Dipping our toes into that cool water was not an easy sell with temperatures close to 40°F (4.4°C), but man did it feel exquisite on the way out! Everyone stood in the water and let the river gravel act as a foot massage before hunger drove us the rest of the way to our transport.

Sulfur crystals

Sulfur crystals forming in a fumarole in the Sylvan Springs Area. Note the dark green microbial community growing just above the sulfur crystals. Not surprisingly, sitting down in areas with lots of sulfur/acidic water can be detrimental to the integrity of the seat of your pants.

The Sylvan Springs Area is another place where subsurface boiling allows vapor phase to dominate, with many fumaroles actively precipitating elemental sulfur. Sitting on the ground in areas like this is ill advised, as it often leads to a condition called ‘acid pants’: the sulfuric acid in the ground and water acts in a startlingly rapid manner to dissolve clothing, leading to individuals needing duct tape to patch the seats of their pants. Dinner: Pulled pork sandwiches with BBQ sauce and coleslaw.

The Fire Team crosses a river.

Sometimes sampling requires fording a river. Here the crew (left to right: Andrew Gangadine, Professor Trinity Hamilton (UC Biology), Annie Gangadine, and Professor Andy Czaja) follow me across the Gibbon River on our way to the Sylvan Springs Area. It was chilly in the morning, but man did that water feel good when we crossed in the evening. In the distance is (upper left) is steam from a thermal feature in the Geyser Creek Area.

Field day five was only a half day, as we had to pack up camp. After packing everything and seeing Professor Czaja off (he was flying out that day from Bozeman, MT), we set off for the Rabbit Creek Area. Our approach took us through a large patch of extremely dense Lodgepole Pines that had seeded following the 1988 fires that had swept through the area.

Lodgepole Pine

Following the 1988 fires that swept through large portions of Yellowstone National Park, Lodgepole Pine have reseeded and formed dense clumps that can be nearly impenetrable. Here the team pushes through a patch of what has been called the ‘green blizzard’. In some places it is so thick that you literally have to pull yourself through it. The crew maintained good morale through the worst of it, in spite of my leading them on a bit of a misdirect.

Passing through these dense patches of often 20+ ft high (6+ m) Lodgepole Pine is an experience that we colloquially refer to as ‘the green blizzard’ – pulling yourself through the trees while being slapped in the face with branches of green needles, unable to see someone that is only feet away from you. The path I had selected was off the mark, requiring the crew to endure far more green blizzard than they should have, but they met it with good humor, for which I was extremely grateful. We finally made it to the Tomato Soup area, where multiple hot springs have a striking red hue (not due to iron, according to a colleague…so it remains a bit of a mystery…) Here we sampled from another extinct hot spring (‘Anatomy Lab’), as well as two active pools, before making our way back to our transport, and then off to Bozeman for a night in a hotel with a real bed and more importantly, a shower!

The next day we dropped Andrew and Annie off at Bozeman International (with all of its six gates), and then stepped up to our next challenge: to make all of our camping gear and research equipment, which had filled most of a Toyota Sienna minivan, fit into a Nissan Versa Note subcompact car. Our reasoning was that we would save a lot of money renting a small car to drive from Bozeman, MT to Portland, OR (where we would then return the small car and pick up another minivan). Drawing on my only superhuman talent (packing), I was able to make it all fit while my life collaborator watched with a look of disbelief. This chapter closes, then, with us making our long drive to White Salmon, WA and then on the next day into Portland to pick up Jordyn Miller (graduate student at Purdue) and Helen Rogers (recently graduated B.S. from UC Biology working in Professor Hamilton’s lab) to start the Ice phase of the Fire and Ice Tour.

Stay tuned for Part 2 with #TeamIce next week!