Wires, funnels, and seedlings: studying plant establishment in California

They did not cover this in graduate school: “Now, what do you need these funnels for?” Me, deadpan, “Have you heard of climate change?” Thus began an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful conversation with a big box store clerk.

Another thing I did not learn in graduate school: I am reaching for the top of a t-post, balancing next to a gopher hole on a steep grassy slope, squinting into the sunlight, and figuring out what my hands are telling me about the state of the sensor wires above my head. They disappear into a solar shield and I know there is a problem with the wire somewhere. Meanwhile, the searing heat of the ground on my boots, so early in the spring, is telling me something about the slope I’m standing on, and why I have found no live seedlings here.

A common garden exclosure with a weather station. Tejon Ranch foothills, California.

A common garden exclosure with a weather station. Tejon Ranch foothills, California.

I am studying microclimate and plant establishment in the foothills and montane areas of the Sierra Nevada and Tehachapi Mountains in California. What I do on a daily basis draws from both my hands-on fieldwork experience and my ability to notice and describe important factors as a biologist. The project I work on also relies on the knowledge and hard work of hydrologists, biogeographers and others to fully understand the patterns of establishment of our plant study species. But the data for the whole team begins where our boots hit the ground. And I love it.

On a recent excursion our first challenge is the forecast: on the eve of the trip, I learned that the atmospheric low that had promised to come in later in the week is going to come in smack-dab when I’ll be driving roads that get “sketchy” when they are wet. I’m working on Tejon Ranch land, together with Jason, a local biologist. We have 32 field hours to download 270 sensors, 12 weather stations, and census up to 500 seedlings (if we can), and I know I’m going to lose a day to the weather.

Since we have a day or so before the weather comes in, we cruise straight out in my boss’s Nissan 4×4. Our goal for the day is to download all of the microclimate sensors at several of the foothill “common garden” plots. We’ve planted 5 foothill and montane tree species into exclosures at 12 different locations at this site. We’re learning that the south-facing gardens are a tough place for seedlings (even hardy drought-tolerant species), especially during a drought.


Temperature data loggers with funnels shielding the thermocouples at 5cm above the ground.

Temperature data loggers with funnels shielding the thermocouples at 5cm above the ground.

“Now, what do you need these funnels for?” UV radiation is also a harsh deal for plastic in the foothills, and particularly so on an exposed slope. One of the first things we notice is that our radiation-blocking solar shields are smashed at our south-facing garden. Nearly all of them. Jason quips, “last fall, I said I ‘pity the fool’ who has to come out and deal with these sensors in the spring!” We laugh, since we are the unfortunate fools. Replacing these shields involves undoing the stabilizing steel wires, prying the stopper out of the plastic, getting the wires back into a new funnel, and reassembling it. All this has to happen while practically laying on the ground, in sharp Bromus (grass) seed, reaching under a wire cage. Most sensors themselves are still working fine, so we’re relieved that we don’t have to fully disassemble the structures. We get to work.

Tejon Ranch is a neat place to work; a unique biodiverse area that encompasses several vegetation types and spans from the Mojave Desert on the Antelope Valley side, up over 6800’ then down to foothill oak woodland in the Central Valley to the north. Here, more than any other field site, we need to take special care to clean up all of the small plastic pieces, or microtrash, that we find around our sensors. The California condor, an iconic and endangered species, occurs here (in fact, on the last day of this excursion, I will sit and watch a condor cruise over my head). Microtrash creates a hazard for these birds, as, given the opportunity, they will bring pieces back to their nestlings, where it clogs the GI tract of the young birds. Condor biologists sometimes must empty the gullets of these nestlings so they can survive.

Truck parked on the rolling hills.

View from a south-facing common garden at a montane site on Tejon Ranch.

Over the next two days, we manage to replace funnel after funnel. It’s time they were replaced anyway. Although the data for those sensors cannot be used because of the damage, thankfully we’re catching these now, before the summer season, when we really want to measure ground-level temperature. However, we run out of funnels, and leading to the eventual, slightly absurd conversation with a store clerk, in an attempt to describe how this household item is used in scientific research.

As expected, Friday’s weather is poor and we need to wait for extra funnels to arrive. Fortunately, it’s a day we get to meet up with a new member of the collaborative team and we can show him around the field site on a few of the sturdier roads. He is a fire ecologist, working to predict wildfire, and ultimately gap occurrence on the landscape. Gaps are opportunities for our sun-loving study species to establish. He’s collecting fuel moisture samples to help parameterize their models.

Driving on the more sturdy roads


Showing him around, we drive up and over the top of the ranch, getting a great look at the landscape, for which we hope to ultimately inform management. Due to the requirements of temperature and moisture for seedling establishment in conjunction with future conditions, these foothill woodland landscapes may not look the same in the future. If the foothill landscapes become drier, seedlings may begin to establish in areas that are further and further upward in elevation. However, there are existing species at these elevations that may not give up space. As we drive I imagine the shuffling and shifting that will occur with an upward trudge of species.

That’s why we’re hoping that the fire and disturbance modeling team can determine how gaps and opportunities for seedlings may occur in these landscapes.


View from the truck - rolling hills and few trees.

In the end, I do need my extra day. I’m on my own, so GPS, SPOT unit, bear spray, orange vest and cell phone in tow, I trudge all over the field site, downloading and servicing our “landscape array” of sensors. With each wire I need to reshape, PVC capsule I need to deconstruct or sensor cage I need to repair, I know that I’m contributing to our knowledge of how microclimate influences the establishment of plants in heterogeneous environments, now and into the future. I hear the project principal investigator’s voice in my mind telling me, to “count each download as a success!” I know that the modeling team is already hard at work, and they’ll be happy that I’ve returned, a little exhausted, data in hand.


Lynn Sweet bio picture

Lynn Sweet is an ecologist, working to understand establishment of plants in complex landscapes. She is from Maine and studied biology at Dickinson College, and plant biology at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). She credits her research career to her diverse field experiences before graduate school, from working in a forest insect lab to monitoring southwestern willow flycatcher nest sites. Since receiving her PhD at UCR, she has worked for the University of California, Santa Barbara on an interdisciplinary team on the field project described here, with the goal of better predicting future plant distribution. She is now a researcher with the Center for Conservation Biology at UCR studying ecosystems in the Colorado and Mojave Desert of California.



To sink or swim – wet waders and heavy rocks

During the Fall of 2013 I was in between contracts for work and was really itching to get outside into the field. I decided I would reach out to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) to see if they needed any volunteers. Luckily, fall can be a busy time for them. The water keeps flowing and there are projects in the field that still need to be done but their summer students have left for school.

I was super excited to have the chance to be in the field again. Also, I would be in the field as a volunteer, meaning the whole project wasn’t resting on my shoulders and my decisions. This was going to be easy right??

One project I helped out with was monitoring benthic invertebrates (or “bugs”) that inhabit streams. We put on our waders and used a net to “sweep” the bottom to catch whatever bugs were living in the stream. The composition of species found in the streams can help determine the health status of a stream. We sampled in streams that were in a natural state and ones that were impacted by residential areas (guess which type was my favourite to sample!). A lot of the natural streams were fast flowing which made it hard to stand upright at times. However, I didn’t mind tipping over when the water was clear – it was only in the human impacted streams where I hoped that I did not take a wrong step.

On the boat with buckets of gravel.

Ready to lift heavy rocks – still smiling!

There was one artificial stream where the water level didn’t look too high. So as the eager volunteer, I said I would bring the measuring tape to the other side. I took a few steps and my boots started to stick a bit to the bottom. I didn’t think too much about it, as I didn’t want to be that volunteer who couldn’t make it across this small stream. As I got closer to the middle of the stream, the bottom dropped off quicker and I was sinking more into the clay bottom. At the deepest point, the water level was almost at the top edge of my waders. It was a good thing that I could not move very fast, otherwise the waves might have gone over the top (not the type of water you want to be soaked with)! Unfortunately, even though I was very careful about the top of my waders, somehow they ripped at the knee and I ended up with boots full of water anyway. In the end, wet socks were worth it to be able to say I helped sample “bugs”!

Another very cool project I helped RVCA with was The Otty Lake Fish Habitat Enhancement Project. They were improving habitat by putting gravel in small piles in the lake and fixing old branches and trees in cement to sink into the lake. This created gravel piles that fish species such as bass could use as nesting sites, while the cemented branches and trees provided shelter from predators. Needless to say, my arms were very sore after filling and carrying buckets of gravel all day! There were many times throughout the day that I thought I should quit – I was just a volunteer anyway. But there was a moment in the afternoon where a couple of the cottagers were questioning what we were doing to their lake. I do not blame them, as it must have looked very odd to see a team of about 15 people dumping buckets of something into the lake. However, once we explained to them what we were doing, they were very pleased about the efforts RVCA was taking to protect their lake and told us many stories of the fish they had seen swimming around. Being involved in these conservation efforts first hand reminded me how even the smallest thing can make a big difference in the greater story.

Two volunteers dump buckets of gravel over the side of the boat.

Dumping the big buckets of rocks in a pile in the water to create nesting sites for fish species such as bass.


Souls of the Vermilion Sea – a blog post

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sean Bogle, a videographer and Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. Check out his bio at the end of the post and a link to the documentary he talks about in this post!

When I was younger I wanted to be a cowboy, being from Texas. The thought of trotting across vast landscapes alone, surrounded by nature, with streaks of yellow and orange in the sky struck me as “the good life”.   However, this dream became no more than a dried up hoof print when I learned that the life of a cowboy involves shoveling horse manure.

Being a child, I quickly moved on to another dream. I gravitated towards the birth of video technology when my father purchased an early edition two part video system – one part being the video camera, and the other part being a condensed VCR with a strap. This interest was considerably less filthy than being a cowboy and I could be as creative as I wanted.

Time went on, life went on, and now the two dreams have collided: I am now a wildlife researcher and filmmaker. I suppose my early goals were actually foreshadowing for my chosen career. Now I am lucky enough to be able to conduct wildlife conservation research while also documenting my efforts and the efforts of other conservation enthusiasts to share with the rest of the world. These are rare circumstances, but I have only focused on enjoying this combination.

Even more rare than the opportunity to combine conservation and filmmaking is the subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. With less than 100 individuals remaining, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. After having worked on many marine mammal research projects for the past 5 years (specifically pinnipeds, such as Steller sea lions, Northern elephant seals, Hawaiian monk seals, Northern fur seals), I had a personal interest in this issue, and I wanted to address it. I thought that since I have a talent for filmmaking, an interest in wildlife research and conservation, and the passion to make a difference, I had to make a film that would not only spread awareness of the vaquita’s plight, but would also document the dedication of those on the front lines of the fight to save this species.

the vaquita porpoise

The subject of my current project: the vaquita porpoise. Photo credit: Tom Jefferson.

Female Steller sea lion with pup.

Female Steller sea lion with pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14326.

Since the middle of 2014, I have been investigating the issues facing the vaquita. I have learned what the major threats to the vaquita are, who is on the front lines of this issue, and what needs to be done to prevent the extinction of this unique species. The most direct threat contributing to the decline of the vaquita is the use of gillnets. Gillnets are commonly used to harvest an array of fish species from the Upper Gulf of California. Vaquita get entangled in these nets, which prevents them from surfacing for air and ultimately results in death by suffocation. The use of gillnets for fishing is driven partly by the demand in the US for blue shrimp, which is considered a delicacy, and the demand in China for the swim bladders of the endangered totoaba, which is thought have medicinal qualities and is a symbol of wealth.

After about a year’s worth of developing relationships and making plans, it is now time to jump in and start helping: recently, we began filming for Souls of the Vermilion Sea, a Wild Lens documentary about the vaquita. Ideally, for a project of this magnitude, funding would be secured before moving forward, but in this case, waiting is not an option – the vaquita has very limited time. Current predictions suggest that this unique mammal will be extinct by the year 2018. Time is of the essence, and I believe we need to unify our efforts so we have the greatest impact in saving these creatures.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

Filming Souls of the Vermilion Sea in the Sea of Cortez.

It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing getting to where I am now. To make a good film, I had to build strong relationships with those on the front lines of this story – and trust takes time to establish. However, working at these relationships paid off – these experts have been so generous with their knowledge and hospitality. I would have not made the progress that I have without their help, and I owe them all a great deal of gratitude. I also have depended greatly on the supporters of Wild Lens, this vaquita film project, and the protection for the vaquita. This support is crucial in creating change. It is refreshing to know that there are people out there that are dedicated to preserving the planet’s integrity by protecting its biodiversity.


Filming in the field is in many ways very similar to working on a research project. Communication with others is important, so that efficiency can be maintained and protocols can be followed. Weather can be an unpredictable factor that influences productivity, so you need to adapt and be flexible and know how to use the time you do have. This particular issue has already arisen several times as I have been filming down in San Felipe, Mexico, where the vaquita story is unfolding. We recently had the remnants of a tropical storm brush the coast, which did not make for good filming weather! But in the end, the storm provided an opportunity to catch up on organizing gear and the footage that I have captured over the last 3 weeks. These are moments that are well embraced.

Northern fur sea l pup.

Northern fur seal pup. Images were collected pursuant to NMFS Permit #14327.

And of course, there is never enough time to do everything you want to. As I move forward with this film project, I am also mentally preparing for my next field season on the Pribilof Islands, where I am a long term assistant on a Northern fur seal project. In less than 3 weeks I will have to switch from flip flops, t-shirt and shorts, to Xtra-tuffs, thermals, and rain gear – which may be a tough shift! I sometimes have a panic moment, wondering whether I will be able to make the transition from filmmaker to scientist. But then I remember that these roles are not so different after all, and how lucky I am to have a chance to combine them!

Sean Bogle has been a part of Wild Lens since 2011, when he first became involved as a videographer documenting the conservation efforts of the Maasai giraffe in Tanzania. Following this contribution, he became the Project Director of the documentary series Eyes on Conservation. He works closely with biologists in every stage of production to tell their story. Prior to his involvement with Wild Lens, he worked on the front lines of conservation conducting research studies on a spectrum of species from fish and small mammals to charismatic megafauna like pinnipeds. He is currently creating a documentary film, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, telling the story of the struggle to save the most endangered marine mammal on the planet. Check it out at http://wildlensinc.org/eoc-single/souls-of-the-vermilion-sea/ and visit their kickstarter page if you want to contribute!

Outhouses in the field? I’ll take my chances with the birders in the bush.

One of the things you get used to as a field biologist is the lack of proper bathrooms available to you at any given time. When I started doing fieldwork, this was a really hard thing for me to get used to. Going to the washroom in the woods was just not something I was really comfortable doing. But I had to get used to that quickly, and I did.

And just as soon as I did, a permanent outhouse was installed at one of our field sites. I was thrilled! How luxurious! Especially since this property was heavily used by researchers so you never knew who you would run into in the bush. And those birders can be sneaky and quiet, so the outhouse was a nice addition. While the outhouse was a bathroom for the majority of us, it was also a new home for a whole slew of critters. And it was a favourite home to the one creature I simply couldn’t handle…very large spiders.

I quickly developed a routine for this outhouse. I would take two deep breaths, swung the door open as fast as I could and check all corners for spiders…while holding a duster (weird, I know, but it was the ultimate spider web remover).

One day, a bunch of us were out in the field, a crew of 10+ people and to boot there were birders all over the property, lurking in the bushes. I had to use the outhouse; I didn’t want to risk getting caught in the bushes. I took two deep breaths, swung the door open and entered with my duster. And there she was, a giant and I mean, size of your palm GIANT spider in the top corner. I tried to poke her with the duster and even with a stick and she didn’t do anything. “Just watch her while you’re in there” one of my colleagues said, “she moves, and you bolt”.

I’m sure some of you can guess how this went down.

*I can do this. I really can. It’s just a spider…*

I closed the door behind me, and stared at her; she stared back at me. I’d love to know what she was thinking as she carefully studied me.

As much as I would like to tell you the details of my encounter with this spider, the rest of the story is just a blur. At some point over the next 2.5 seconds, she jumped. And by jump, I don’t mean she gently hopped off the wall and onto the ground… she LUNGED and right at my face.

At some point while this was happening, I spun around and then burst through the door of the outhouse. The next thing I remember is standing outside of the outhouse screaming “get it off of me” over and over again. My field assistant at the time, Emily, ran over and after colorfully confirming the presence of the spider on my back, she brushed it off my back and into the grass.

And that all happened 4 years ago. I have never, ever, ever returned to that outhouse. I’m perfectly happy to take my chances with the birders in the bushes.

The beast herself

The beast herself                 Photo credit: S. Baxter

The birds of Nevada’s Sagebrush Sea

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome back Matthew Podolsky, biologist and co-founder of Wild Lens, to wrap up our month-long series about fieldwork in remote and isolated places.  Matt shares his recent experience conducting bird surveys in the wilderness of Nevada.  For more about Matt and Wild Lens, check out his bio at the end of the post.

Although I now consider myself to be more of a filmmaker than a biologist, I struggle with losing my field biology roots.  In all the stories I tell in the films that I produce for Wild Lens (the non-profit video production company I co-founded), I strive to find the unique perspective of those on the front lines of an issue – the field biologists. Since this is the style of storytelling that I connect with, I value opportunities to play this role myself.

So when the opportunity to spend five days in the remote sagebrush steppe of central Nevada doing songbird point counts presented itself, I did not hesitate to accept. I left all my filmmaking equipment in the closet and headed off to play the role of field technician for the first time in two years.

Sunrise on the Diamond Mountain Range, Nevada.

Sunrise on the Diamond Mountain Range, Nevada.

I’m always a little bit nervous when starting a new field job, and my two-year break from fieldwork definitely increased this anxious feeling. On the long drive down to our first study site I poured over recordings of the songs of all the most common birds in this remote area. I would be doing these songbird surveys with my good friend Lindsay Alsup, and she was actually in a similar position to myself. Having taken an extended break from this type of fieldwork to get her master’s degree in landscape architecture, she was also returning to fieldwork for the first time in several years. We quizzed each other over and over again with songbird recordings as we made our way south through the sagebrush sea.

Central Nevada is an outpost of wildness that is often overlooked by adventure-seekers. Numerous mountain chains stretch North to South across this desert landscape, many of them with jagged peaks reaching well over 10,000 ft., and in the wide, open valleys between these mountain chains – the sagebrush sea. Nowhere else have I seen such vast expanses of pristine sagebrush habitat. As you start to climb up towards the foothills of the mountain ranges, you experience the slow transition into pinyon-juniper forest. This transition zone was our destination.

Lots of people are concerned about the loss of sagebrush habitat, especially as it relates to declines in populations of the Greater Sage-grouse. For field biologists working in the Great Basin region, this issue is all pervasive. The issue of sagebrush habitat restoration is extremely complex, but one specific component that has been getting a lot of attention is the concept of juniper encroachment. Since the mid-1800s pinyon-juniper forests have been slowly expanding into the sagebrush habitat, taking over areas that had long been strongholds for many sagebrush obligate species such as the Greater Sage-grouse.

The sage thrasher, a denizen of the Sagebrush Sea.

The sage thrasher, a common denizen of the Sagebrush Sea. Photo credit: Neil Paprocki.

So when searching for a way to slow down this loss of sagebrush habitat, the removal of these encroaching pinyon-juniper forests has been identified as one potential strategy to achieve this larger goal. But how would one go about removing these now well-established pinyon-juniper forests? And will the birds that thrive in these sagebrush ecosystems actually return if the pinyon pines and juniper trees are removed? These are the questions that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) is working to answer.

A treatment site at which prescribed fire was used to remove trees in the foothills of the Southern Ruby Mountains.

A treatment site at which prescribed fire was used to remove trees in the foothills of the Southern Ruby Mountains.

Back in 2008, sections of the pinyon-juniper forest at our study site were treated using either prescribed fire or mechanical removal (cutting down the trees). USGS has continued to monitor these treatments sites since that time, in an effort to determine whether or not the wildlife that thrives in sagebrush habitats will return. Lindsay and I were now a part of that effort, returning to these treatment sites to collect data on the songbird populations that have taken up residence.

Which brings us back to that car trip listening to recordings of bird songs – the ability to identify bird species based solely on their vocalizations would be the single most important skill for this stint in the field. Over the next five days we would be spending each morning walking to pre-determined points and identifying all the birds species that we could detect by either sight or sound within a ten-minute period. We were participating in a long-term study that is trying to answer some pretty important questions about habitat restoration and management.

I was beginning to feel the weight of the importance of this data that I would be collecting. Although I was playing just a very small part in a much larger research project, that familiar drive to achieve scientific accuracy for the greater good had returned to me full-force. As I walked out to my first point on that first morning in the field with the sun just starting to illuminate the valley below, I was surrounded by bird song. It took me a few moments to fumble around with my equipment and familiarize myself with the data collection protocol as I began my first point count, but I quickly calmed down and entered an almost meditative state of bird identification.

Juniper titmouse surveys his neighbourhood.

Juniper titmouse surveys his neighbourhood. Photo credit: Neil Paprocki.

This meditation lasted the entire morning, and stretched out over the course of the next five days. I walked through the remote Nevada foothills with my ears and eyes on high alert, and I experienced the familiar contented feeling that comes with getting to know and understand an ecosystem. The dry, buzzy song of the ever-present Black-throated Gray Warbler, the simple two note phrase of the Gray Flycatcher, the endlessly complex and exhilarating song of the Brewer’s Sparrow, along with so many others – Mountain Chickadee, Sage Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse, Cassin’s Finch, Pinyon Jay, Mountain Bluebird – this landscape belonged to them, and I felt waves of appreciation to be a visitor in this beautiful and remote ecosystem.

A storm rolls through the valley.

A beautiful and remote ecosystem: storm rolls over the sagebrush steppe.

Of course the ultimate question remains: can we restore sagebrush habitat by removing pinyon pine and juniper trees? As an observer playing a very small role in this long-term research, I am certainly not qualified to answer this question. Lots of experts in this field hold strong opinions about this issue (you can hear one opinion strongly in favor of this approach from episode 11 of the Eyes on Conservation podcast which I produce and host!). But let’s take a look at the research that has been published so far by USGS as a part of this study. There’s a lot of complex statistics in there that I couldn’t even begin to decipher, but in the end it boils down to this statement in the discussion of the paper: “The effectiveness of these management actions in establishing sagebrush-dominated communities that support dependent wildlife, such as sage-grouse, remains unsupported by a critical evaluation and is thus unknown.” (Knick et al. 2014)

Of course this doesn’t mean that these types of treatments can’t be effective in restoring sagebrush habitat – just that we don’t currently have the evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness. As is the case with much scientific research, the ultimate conclusion is that we need more research to answer the bigger question. I can only hope that my very small contribution to this long-term study will aid in this process. Ultimately, some very difficult decisions will have to be made, as habitat management strategies are developed to have the greatest benefit to both sagebrush and pinyon-juniper ecosystems.

In the meantime, this research has provided me with a much-needed break from my daily routine, and has re-invigorated my desire to tell stories from the perspective of biologists and researchers working in spectacularly remote landscapes.

Scenic shot of wildflowers in Nevada mountains


Steven T. Knick, Steven E. Hanser, M. Leu. 2014. Ecological Scale of Bird Community Response to Pinon-Juniper Removal. Rangeland Ecol Manage 67:553-562.

Matt hard at work conducting songbird surveys.

Matt hard at work conducting songbird surveys.

Matthew Podolsky helped found Wild Lens in 2011 with the goal of bringing biologists and filmmakers together to produce films that would have an impact on critically important wildlife conservation issues.  Immediately after the inception of Wild Lens, he began full-scale production on his first feature length film, Scavenger Hunt.  Matthew also served as producer and co-director of Bluebird Man; he is a producer on the Eyes on Conservation documentary series and serves as the host of the Eyes on Conservation podcast.  Prior to his work with Wild Lens, Matthew spent four years working as a biologist with the endangered California condor, spending time with the wild population of condors in Arizona and Utah, as well as with the captive breeding program in Boise, Idaho.  Matthew received both a BA in Cinema/Photography and a BS in Environmental Science from Ithaca College.


Helping the elephant cross the road: restoring lost elephant corridors in the Western Ghats

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Aditya Gangadharan, who continues our exploration of fieldwork in remote places with some stories from his PhD work in India’s Shencottah Gap.  As part of our ongoing collaboration with Wild Lens, Aditya also shared his experiences with Matthew Podolsky in an Eyes on Conservation podcast.  

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

You might wonder what is so remote about a region where more than 300 people live per square kilometre on average. I mean, that’s more than twice the population density of a city like Edmonton, where I currently live. But such profound thoughts are far from your mind when you are trying to sneak down from your camp to the nearby stream for a bath after a hard day of fieldwork in the rainforest (also known to insiders as ‘death by a million leech bites’).

The reason you are sneaking is that there are lots of elephants around. They like to bathe in the stream too, and don’t like to be interrupted by pesky humans…

Elephant 1

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

… and if (correction: when) they charge at you in the dark, the 200m to your camp may as well be 200km for all the help you will get!

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

Such is fieldwork in the Western Ghats of India – one of the richest and most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world. My PhD research was in the 400 sq. km Shencottah Gap, an economically-productive region that separates two reserves – and my goal was to identify corridors that could be restored, so that elephants and tigers could move between these reserves once again.

Rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

The Shencottah Gap: rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

A typical campsite - no fuss, nothing fancy required!

A typical campsite – no fuss, nothing fancy required!

Many of those remnant corridors are in the more rugged areas, because people tend to be concentrated into towns, villages and farmland in the flat, fertile valleys – and so, we follow the wildlife upwards! Of course that is easier said than done – there are few roads, so you have to walk to most places. You often have to camp out to reach those places, which in our case simply involves putting one tarpaulin sheet on the ground, another on top, and keeping a fire going.

But how do you find the animals? The vegetation is thick, so you rarely have any direct sightings – instead, you have to look for animal signs (like tracks and dung), or set up camera traps that automatically take a picture when an animal passes by. Normal people do this fieldwork only during the 6-9 months of the year when it is not raining. Less normal people such as myself are often in the field during the entire year, including the monsoon!

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.


Setting up a camera trap.

Setting up a camera trap.

Now, in the photo above, you probably noticed that the camera is encased in a very solid metal case, and secured by a heavy chain (no wonder my back hurts!). You might also be wondering: why is there elephant dung on top of the camera?

Well, elephants like to destroy cameras. And it is not fun to toil up a rugged mountain, place a camera there, go back after 3 weeks, and see that your camera was smashed on the same day you deployed it. So I had this brilliant and cunning idea that if I smeared the camera cases with dung, elephants might treat them with more kindness. The results I got were spectacularly useless: elephants are intelligent animals, and they are not going to be fooled by such a simple plan. The only tangible result of my experiment was my backpack smelling of dung for many weeks.

But I didn’t even mind them smashing the cameras…as long as they didn’t damage the SD cards!  Due to the kindness shown by some elephants in sparing our SD cards, we were able to document, for the first time in 30 years, elephants attempting to cross the Shencottah Gap. Specifically, we got them at the exact place that they had to turn around, because they were blocked from crossing by the steep descent down to the highway and the heavy traffic at this narrow pass:

Definitely a challenge for elephants to negotiate...

Turn back here: this steep descent and busy highway were impossible for elephants to cross.

And so, that’s where we are at today: it is demonstrably possible to restore these corridors in the Shencottah Gap. But actually implementing this restoration is a huge task – one that will likely take many years, and has to be led by the government. Luckily, there are positive signs from the government so far. One day, I hope this little guy will be able to migrate across the Shencottah Gap as his ancestors once did.

Elephants 3

AdityaAditya Gangadharan works on conserving biodiversity in fragmented landscapes that are subject to multiple uses by humans. He focuses on converting technical research into actionable policy recommendations, and communicating these to managers and the general public. He blogs about elephants, tigers and frogmouths at http://adityagangadharan.com.

Lost in Patagonia

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we continue to explore the theme of remote and isolated fieldwork with a guest post by Carmen Lishman, who contributes a somewhat chilling tale of her adventures in the wilderness of Patagonia.  To learn more about Carmen, make sure to read her bio at the end of the post.

I could not stop shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was the mounting fear or the relentless icy blast of the Patagonian wind that tumbled off the Andes far to the west of me and never stopped.  It roared in my ears, burned my face, and tore at my every step. I was lost, utterly lost; the sun was gone and with it had gone the meager warmth of the Austral spring as the plunging temperature froze me to the core.  I was lost with no camping gear, no water, no food.

It wasn’t the first time in recent memory I had been vibrating with fear. Two days previously, I was sitting in the living room of my tiny apartment in the small Argentinean city of Rio Gallegos. It was not cold, dark, or windy but I could hardly hold the phone as I worked up the courage to call the owner of the ranch where I was now so utterly lost. I was calling to ask him if I could search for Chorlitos on the lakes on his ‘estancia’, or ranch. Chorlito is Spanish for ‘plover,’ a shorebird that nests on the shores of inland lakes of southern Patagonia, in Argentina & Chile. I was shaking because I had never before requested landowner permission in Spanish over the phone and I was anxious about not understanding his response, or not being able to answer his questions in my new language.

The phone was ringing in my ear, and I heard him answer as I held my breath. Here it goes, I thought: “Hola, soy Carmen. Soy Bióloga Canadiense y estoy en Santa Cruz estudiando una ave que se llama Chorlito Ceniciento”. Translation: I’m Carmen, a Canadian biologist who is in this province studying a bird called the Magellanic Plover. He responded that he was willing to have me study his lakes, but didn’t feel comfortable giving me a key to the gates. He wanted to take me himself. I didn’t know what to say. I had not expected this conditional response. I normally would park on the side of the road, hop a fence and walk to the lakes. I tried to explain this to him, but he told me it was much too far. I had to be able to drive in, and he would take me. Ummm… OK. I couldn’t formulate a response, another idea or an alternative plan right there on the spot, so I agreed. “Great!” he said, “I’ll pick you up at 5:30 am on Tuesday.”

Thousands of scenarios raced through my mind.  What if he was a bad guy?! What if he had plans to take me to his farm and chop me up and feed me to the Pumas?! But I re-grouped, and looked again at the satellite images of the area. The lakes were very far from the road, he was right about that. I had also been told by all my connections in the area that this Estancionero, or ranch-owner, was a very nice man. I told myself he was just genuinely interested in helping me get to those lakes as safely as possible. So I prepared for my 5:30 am pick-up on Tuesday and pushed the doubts from my mind.

Tuesday arrived.  I got in his truck and thanked him for coming out of his way to get me. As we departed Rio Gallegos along the lonely highway that follows the river, I explained a bit about my project. “The Magellanic Plover is a rare bird endemic to the southernmost areas of Patagonia. Nobody knows much about the birds, especially about their breeding biology. I am doing a basic natural history study: finding nests, observing birds’ habits, taking measures of their habitat, following their reproductive season and documenting as much as I can.”

We entered the gate from the highway and approached the top of a hill looking down on the 3 beautiful lakes. He turned to me and said, “Here’s the plan: I’ll drop you off here. At 4:30 pm I am going to be driving on a road over there” – he signaled broadly with his hands towards the west. “When you are finished at the lakes,” he continued, “just walk west until you find the road. Make sure you’re there at 4:30.”

“Okay, sounds good” I said. In retrospect, it’s possible that a thought or two popped into my head about the feasibility of this plan – but I was so excited to get into the field and start my day, I didn’t really think it through.

My normal routine for searching new lakes was to use coordinates from satellite images. I would drive as close as I could on the highway, park, hop a fence to walk towards the lake using the GPS. I would always, always, take a waypoint where I had parked my car so I could find my way back to the car at the end of the day. That’s why this plan was different. I would not be returning to the same spot. However, I figured that if I walked in one direction for long enough, I’d bound to hit a linear feature like a road.

I headed down to the lakes and had a wonderful field day. Within a couple hour I had found six breeding pairs of plovers. A goldmine, really, as this species usually nests in such low densities.

I hunkered down at mid-day to observe a pair of birds. Getting comfortable between some rocks, I dozed off, then woke suddenly.  Before I could realize where I was, I felt a pebble hit my head. I woke up and spun around to see a Gaucho (cowboy) mounted on his horse, staring at me in disbelief. I don’t know who was more surprised. I doubt he finds foreign white girls taking a nap on the gravel of his ranch very often. I quickly introduced myself and explained what I was doing. “Oh,” he said, “I found a nest this morning, from an ostrich.” I raised my eyebrows as he presented me with a very large egg, which he insisted on me keeping as a gift.

He asked how I was planning to get back. “I’m going to meet el señor on the road over there at 4:30,” I responded.

His jaw dropped. “Really?! It’s very far! Can I take you on my horse?”

When a gaucho says its far, youd better believe him!

When a gaucho says it’s far, you’d better believe him!

I politely declined and explained that I have no problem walking long distances, that I would get there ok and that I had more work to do before I started in that direction, since it was only 1:30 pm. He encouraged me to start walking soon. (Sidenote: If a seasoned gaucho of the Patagonian Steppe ever tells you that something is far away, take it as gospel. They know what distance means, living in a giant ocean of grassland.) He was right. It was far. I later looked on Google Maps and, to my horror, the drop-off point and the closest point on the road were 22 km apart as the crow flies. Add my traipsing around the lakes, and the expectation was for me to walk over 35 km that day.

I finally finished up my field work at 3:30 and began walking west, as I had been instructed. I walked for a long time.  I came across a number of little roads: some small two-tracks, and then a couple of dirt roads. I started to doubt myself. What size of road did he mean? Had I passed the road already? Or was it farther ahead? I tried to use my binoculars to see ahead. It was no use. I kept walking, but then I started to think…this is way too far… I must have passed the road. I back-tracked to a fair-sized road. Then I walked west again. I just kept walking.

4:30 went by, then 5, then 6, then 7pm. There was darkness on all fronts and I began to shiver. I climbed to the top of the highest point and used my spotting scope to try and find the rancher’s headlights. Nothing – nothing but utter lonely darkness.  How stupidly unprepared I was. I had no water left, no food, and my clothing was way too light. I will definitely freeze out here overnight. My only plan- I would have to find a sheep and hug it all night. In the morning I would walk directly south until I got to the highway and hitchhike back into town.  Okay…find a sheep, find a sheep. I took one more look in my spotting scope…and saw a speck of light on the horizon! I ran towards it with every bit of energy I had.

When I caught up to the truck, I was crying. But as it turned out, so was the estancionero! He snapped “WHERE WERE YOU?!” and then his face softened, as he said, “I was so scared I’d lost you!” I got in the truck and we both just vibrated in silence as we bumped our way back into the city.

Carmen LishmanCarmen Lishman (B.Sc., M.Sc. (Biology), M.Sc. (SLP-C)) is a Conservation Biologist, Speech-Language Pathologist and engaged global citizen. Raised in rural Ontario, Carmen studied biology at Dalhousie University, where her research interests in shorebirds blossomed and led to a Master’s thesis on a rare and enigmatic bird in Patagonia, Argentina. In 2008, Carmen became involved in efforts to protect sea turtles and scarlet macaws from illegal harvesting in Nicaragua. A deeper look at the socio-economic struggles facing the poachers forced her to shift the focus of her efforts to include wildlife and people. She co-founded Purple Hill Humanitarians, a grass roots group that seeks to improve conditions for rural families in Nicaragua. Carmen now divides her time between working as a Speech Therapist, working as an associate with the International Conservation Fund of Canada, and volunteering in the planning and implementation of projects related to conservation, education and health care in Nicaragua.