There must be something in the water

Please join us in welcoming Cheryl Reyes to the blog this week! Cheryl, a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo, is currently working as a Conservation Technician with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. For more about Cheryl, see the end of this post.

Although I have been working at a land conservancy monitoring alvar and tallgrass prairie ecosystems, and managing invasive plant species for the last few months, one thing remains the same: when I stumble upon a river, wetland or small creek I always wonder, “what kind of benthic invertebrates are living there”.

This recurring thought stems from my first true interest in the field of ecology: water and benthic macro-invertebrate sampling.

Sampling benthics often means going to very beautiful places sometimes in the middle of nowhere.

Benthic macro-invertebrates are aquatic insects that live at the bottom of water bodies, such as aquatic worms, leeches, beetles and flies. They do not have a backbone and are large enough to see with the naked eye, but when you put them under a microscope for further analysis they look much more impressive! These little creatures can reveal a lot about the health of a freshwater system because they are an important part of the aquatic food chain and respond quickly to stressors such as pollution. For this reason, they are referred to as “indicator species”.

One of my favourite photos of a mayfly larva, from the Ephemeridae family. You can distinguish mayfly larvae by their side gills and three (sometimes two) tails. This one has tusks on its head!

I was first got introduced to benthics during a field ecology course at the University of Waterloo. Since then I have collected and identified benthic invertebrates for many organizations, most recently during my role as a Monitoring Technician at the Crowe Valley Conservation Authority. Crowe Valley runs a benthic monitoring program within their watershed to monitor water quality. Sampling sites are located throughout the watershed and benthics sampling follows the Ontario Stream Assessment Protocol (OSAP) and the Ontario Benthos Biomonitoring Network (OBBN).

Sampling for benthics is fun and easy to do. Dressed in waders, with a net in hand, two people get into a stream and move between the banks while kicking up the substrate on the bottom. The net is swept back and forth through the water to collect benthics. The continuous sweeping motion is important to prevent any benthics collected from swimming out of the net. After three minutes of kicking and sweeping, the contents of the net are emptied into a bucket and hauled back to the lab/office for identification.

Me sampling for benthics. This was a great day because it was the only day of the entire field season I didn’t have to cover my face to protect myself from the bugs.

However, as is the case with most field work, sampling for benthics is not always the most glamorous job. Sometimes you get so into the Footloose-esque substrate kicking that you forget to watch your footing and trip over some large rocks, a log, or if you’re lucky (or unlucky) a large snapping turtle. Other times you wish the three minutes of kicking would be over because you can feel the sweat pooling in your waders. Much of the time you can’t see a darn thing because you have your bug jacket on to prevent all the mosquitos, black flies and deer flies from devouring your flesh. And when you look at the contents of your net, it’s hard not to wonder, “Are there actually any bugs in this giant pile of mud, rocks and leaf litter??”. But the most draining thing is hauling your large buckets and equipment to the site, then hiking the full buckets out from isolated locations after a long day’s work…then enduring the frequently lengthy drive back to home base.

My work station for 8 months at the Crowe Valley office. During my undergraduate, I was used to identifying bugs in a laboratory setting. But while working at Crowe Valley, I had to use ingenuity to set up a functional work station!

Studying benthics is definitely its own realm of ecology, with its own fieldwork quirks, and I love it. Why? The reward is always great. When you find benthics in your bucket and put them under a microscope, you get a sense of how complex aquatic ecosystems really are. I could spent hours looking at all the different taxa and the features that make them truly unique specimens. And because they tell you about water quality, studying them allows you to begin to appreciate how important water is in our everyday lives, and why it’s essential that our ever-developing society conserves and protects freshwater ecosystems.

So next time you see a body of water, remember that there is a little universe lurking in the depths of the substrate. All you need to discover it is some waterproof footwear, a container and a net.

Caddisfly larva from the Hydropsychidae family in the palm of my hand. This taxa, as a member of the Hydropsychidae family, spins nets that help it catch food such as algae, leaf litter and smaller benthic invertebrates.

 

Cheryl Reyes is a graduate of the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Her undergraduate research focused on assessing the benthic invertebrate communities of restored streams in urban areas. She is currently working as a Conservation Technician for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

 

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Putting the citizen back in science

I love citizen science. It gets people out in nature, learning new skills, and contributes to important goals for science and conservation. Although my current work is focused on conservation , I still contribute to science, as a citizen, in any way that I can. One of my favourite ways is using Ontario Nature’s Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.

Reptiles and amphibians are experiencing declines globally as a result of habitat loss/fragmentation, climate change and predation among many other reasons. In fact, as of April 2018, all of Ontario’s 8 species of turtles are now considered species at risk (SAR) and are at risk of disappearing from the province. Turtles in particular are sensitive to the challenges of living in a human’s world. In general, turtles take a long time to mature, and when even a couple of turtles from a population die, it can have a cascading effect. Turtle eggs are also frequently predated by various other species (i.e. raccoons, foxes, etc.) and many turtles lay eggs in sandy areas next to roads, which puts the turtle and their eggs at serious risk.

What can we do to protect turtles, and the rest of Ontario’s reptiles and amphibians?

Use the Atlas! The Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas is a tool that helps track reptiles and amphibians across Ontario over time.

How does it work?

If you see an amphibian or reptile, report it! You can report it using the app, via -email, using an online form, or snail mail the sighting in. Fill in as many details you can and include a photo if you have one.

You can also use the Atlas to identify amphibians and reptiles using the online field guide and range maps, or find tips for finding a reptile or amphibian near you.

Just the other day, while heading to a site visit, our technician and I spotted a Blandings turtle (threatened in Ontario) in the middle of the road. After being sure the road was clear, we quickly picked up and moved the turtle across the road. The turtle wasn’t thrilled about being moved but it happily waddled away into the marsh along the side of the road when we put it back down. After getting back into the car, we entered the data including location, and this photo into the Atlas. Doing this created a permanent record of our sighting and contributed to our understanding of the distribution of Blandings turtles in Ontario.

The beautiful and shy blandings turtle we rescued from the road

Getting out in the field and contributing to science doesn’t have to be fancy, elaborate and expensive. It can be as easy as spotting an animal and entering the data into an app on your phone! We are all scientists and we can all make a difference!

Leaving the Comfort of Southern Ontario Behind

Fieldwork has always been comfortable for me. And by comfortable, I don’t mean physically comfortable. I can’t say the days I spent hunched over in the 40 degree sun with deer flies nipping at my elbows were by any means  “comfortable”. By comfortable, I mean mentally comfortable, or familiar. I’ve spent most of my time in old fields and meadows and these habitats quickly became very familiar to me. They were filled with familiar sights, sounds and surroundings. I dabbled into shrublands, forests and even some riparian areas but the majority of my time was spent in one general habitat type. I knew when I started working as a Conservation Biologist though, that I would have to move out of my comfort zone. I would be managing properties with massive forest and wetland complexes, alvar grasslands, woodlands and even some beautiful Lake Ontario shoreline. I was going to have species at risk (that weren’t plants…Imagine that!!!) to consider, and multi-species recovery strategies were going to become my new bed time reading material.

One of the things I wanted to do to prepare for this was to brush up on some wetland ecology, biology, physiography, etc. So, I decided to take some time off work and take the Ontario Wetland Evaluation Course. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it was described as an “intensive” course with significant course and field components…how intense could it be?

I arrived in North Bay on the Sunday evening and by Monday at lunch we were out in the field, at the beautiful Cache Bay Wetland, doing things like delineating wetland boundaries, examining soil cores and tallying wetland plant and bird species.  It was an exhausting day, but I learned so much and was really excited for the all-day field trip the next day. The following morning, we packed up in preparation for Highview Fen. I was really excited because southern Ontario doesn’t have that many true fens, at least compared to northern Ontario. As we packed up, one of the instructors warned us that this was by far the most intensive field day we would have. Rainboots would be useless, you’ll either lose them or get stuck. Wear shoes you really don’t care about and be prepared to get “very wet”. It was that comment that tweaked my anxiety level a little bit.

We arrived at the site, which was…a golf course?? The bus drove away and we hiked along the edges of the course, checking out the irrigation ponds and standing lifeless every time someone putted. Why was this so bad? Then we started into the swamps. At the beginning, it wasn’t that challenging…you sank down to your calves into mud and water, but it wasn’t that physically demanding. After taking a break and sitting on some peat hummocks to eat lunch, we had to cross a “moat”. I was picturing a castle, with blue flowing water surrounding it, and as you can imagine, that wasn’t the case. It was a swamp where the water and mud went up, past your elbows in some places. I remember taking the first step into it, where the ground quickly dropped off into the water. My hands grasped the trees around me as I tried to stay as high up as I could. I remember pausing for a moment and then announcing “This is SO OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE”. And I wasn’t the only one. I was met with a “ME TOO!!!” from the guy behind me.

After fighting through the deep swamp for 10 minutes, we pulled ourselves out of the moat and into the fen. It was totally worth it. Species like cotton grass, sundews, and pitcher plants littered the ground. I had never seen anything like it. So beautiful and untouched. I knew we were running short on time and had to cross the other side of the moat to get out, but I didn’t care. I took a moment to enjoy this incredible place and think about just how lucky I was to be there.

Pitcher plant

Cotton grass

Tiny little sundews

 

This course made me realize that if I stayed where I felt comfortable and I spent the rest of my life in old fields, I would never have gotten to see this incredible place. Keep in mind this was only the second day of the course, and for the next 3 days I continued to push the boundaries of familiarity and experienced some of the most amazing things. To be continued….

My post swamp dirtiness doesn’t do it justice! If only a camera captured wetness.

A quick brown fox jumps over the cormorant nests

One week before I officially started a Ph.D., I was already preparing to go into the field. Since I had done fieldwork in a bird colony before, I knew what to expect. I wasn’t fazed when my supervisor warned, “Make sure to bring clothes that you’re willing to get poop on, a wide brimmed hat so you don’t get poop on your face, and ear plugs.” Despite the common theme in his warnings, I was still overly stoked to be going back out to the field. I think one of the biggest perks of going into the field as a biologist is the chance to get your hands dirty.

I was feeling confident about the fieldwork this time around. I had my bags packed – sunscreen (check!), snacks (check!), extra socks (check!), and binoculars (check!). I was prepared and feeling good. The field team took the boat out for the first test ride of the season and everything went smoothly. All was fine. What possibly could go wrong?

items in my field bag

All the essential items for fieldwork. Especially the snacks – can never have enough!

As you read this, you are probably shaking your head and thinking, “Shouldn’t have said that…”

It was a beautiful day in late April. The wind was a little chilly, but nothing a few clothing layers couldn’t solve. The sun was shining, making the lake sparkle with an invitation to jump in. The colony we were headed towards was only just outside the harbour, which made for a very short boat ride to enjoy the weather but a long enough ride to bring my excitement to a peak. This colony was known to have one of the highest densities of nesting cormorants in Lake Erie, so there were bound to be enough nests with eggs for my project.

Almost right after leaving the dock we could see there were adult cormorants gathered in the centre of the island, which was a good sign. We drove the boat up closer to the island, as close as we could get without grounding ourselves on large rocks and piercing a hole in the bottom, then dropped anchor and climbed ashore. (This all sounds very streamlined, but in fact it took about 30 minutes to unload all of our gear while wading in knee deep water wearing oversized survival suits. Not the easiest of tasks.)

Cormorants gather in the middle of the island.

Finally, we grabbed the pelican cases that we would use to carry the eggs we collected and headed over the edge of the rock pile towards the centre of the island. As we approached the colony, the adults flew off their nests into the nearby water as they usually do. Only this time, when we looked at the nests they had just left, there were no eggs!

Baffled, we spent several minutes observing the empty nests. There weren’t even any signs of broken egg shells, a normal result of predation. But then as we stood there, a small fox scurried right past our feet and through the cormorant nests to the other side of the island.

“Well…that can’t be a good sign,” my supervisor said. With the empty egg cases in hand, we walked back to the water and started the process of reloading the boat.

It is still a mystery what happened on that island. Was the fox able to steal and cache every egg that the cormorants laid? Or did the presence of the fox on the island scare the cormorants enough that they did not reproduce in the first place?

All I know is the next time I need to go collect eggs, I should hire a fox as an assistant.

Close encounters of the bird kind

This week, Dispatches from the Field is thrilled to welcome Dr.  Bob Montgomerie as our guest blogger.  Dr. Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University, and his fieldwork has taken him on adventures all over the world.  Below, he shares one of those adventures with us.

I go into the field to do research for three different reasons. The first is, understandably, to collect data to test hypotheses that interest me. The second is to help graduate students and colleagues with their research, to widen my experience and help me better understand their findings. The third is just to get close to species that I have read about and to see them in action, in part so I can write with more authority about the published literature. This is a story about a close encounter of the third kind.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored in red.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored (red).

I went to Ecuador in February to lecture to some Queen’s alumni on a Galápagos cruise. En route I went to the Andes for a few days before the cruise to work with a colleague, and to see some iconic Andean birds with unusual morphologies: Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, and Club-winged Manakins.

My old friend Dave McDonald (Univ Wyoming) was in Ecuador on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, and he generously offered to show us around. Dave is Dr Manakin, having done his PhD at the University of Arizona on Long-tailed Manakins and continued to study that group for his entire career. We began our trip with the (almost unbelievable) Sword-billed Hummingbird early the first morning at the Yanacocha Natural Reserve (altitude 3500 m) near Quito.  On Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 Feb), we settled into the eponymous Mirador Río Blanco lodge, overlooking the valley of the Río Blanco below. From there, we would have easy access to both the hummingbird and the umbrellabird in the next couple of days.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

The next morning, we went to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1100 m) for the manakin. Dave and his students have been studying manakins here for years but it is also a great place to watch hummingbirds, which we did for most of the morning. Just as we finished lunch, Dave got a call from a friend to say that he was needed in Nanegalito, so he left for a few hours to deal with that, leaving us to find the manakins on our own. “It’s easy,” he said, “just go about 30 minutes down the trail and take the first side trail to the left, then down to the bottom of the hill and the birds will be somewhere near the first sharp corner.”  Even if we failed he’d be back in time to show us the birds. And how could we possibly fail? My friend Tim and I had been studying birds in the field for more than a century in total.

Our trek down the trail was magical with birds and anticipation. Just as we arrived at the spot that Dave had described, we heard the tell-tale tuk-tuk-zzzzing of the male’s display. This was the courtship display so beautifully described just a few years ago by Kim Boswick. Using high speed video she discovered that the males the zzzzing sound by rubbing their wing feathers together at more than 100 times a second. It is also the species that apparently revealed the secrets of sexual selection to Rick Prum (2017. The Evolution of Beauty. Yale Univ Press).

At last we could witness this display first-hand…but where was the bird? Even though he tuk-tuk-zzzzinged every 30 seconds or so, and seemed to be less than 3 m away, we simply could not find him. Was the bird ventriloqual? Was he hiding in the dense foliage? And then, after 10 tantalizing minutes, he stopped.

We had the same experience further down the trail, with probably another male. Frustrated by this little bird, and by Dave for not giving us better instruction, we decided to head back to the trail head to wait for Dr Manakin’s return.

As we passed that first spot, we again heard a tuk-tuk-zzzzing  on the other side of the trail and higher up—but the bird was still invisible. By triangulating we eventually found him high on a bare branch amidst the dense foliage about 10 metres away. He called a few more times then disappeared, only to return again every few minutes to resume his displays. Such fidelity to display sites is typical of lekking male birds.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

After taking a few photos, I went back to where we had first heard a male tuk-tuk-zzzzinging. As soon as I stepped off the trail into the dense underbrush, a female landed right in front of me, less than 2 metres away. Almost immediately she was joined by two males who both tuk-tuk-zzzzinged before they saw me and spooked, disappearing into the forest.

tuk-tuk-zzzing

“tuk-tuk-zzzing”

When we returned to the trailhead, Dave was there, smiling when we told him our story. I think he knew that finding elusive species on your own is way more exciting than being shown by experts. Long before daybreak on the last day a local guide showed us the umbrellabird near a town called ’23 de Junio’ (about 1000 m), halfway down the western slope of the Andes. The males of this species also lek, but they were relatively inactive that morning and visible only through a telescope in the dense early morning fog. We had achieved all of our goals, but the manakin was the most memorable, in part because it was the hardest work.

Adventures of a Red Sea diver

This week on Dispatches, we are excited to welcome Alysse Mathalon, who adds a point to a brand new area of our map as she tells us about her adventures doing fieldwork in Israel’s Red Sea!

When I first accepted my Master of Science research project, I had no idea what I would be diving into – literally. I knew that there would be diving involved, that my dive site would be accessible by boat, and that I would be doing a lot of fieldwork. This combined with the location of the project, in Eilat, Israel, on the Red Sea, was enough for me to accept the opportunity and not look back. I got myself to Eilat four days after officially accepting the position.

A view of the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. A strong wind event resuspended shallow sediments, making the water murky. Mountains in the frame are in Aqaba, Jordan.

Eilat is a spectacular place. Situated at the southern point of Israel’s Negev Desert, it is surrounded by mountains as old as 500 million years. From its short coastline there are 3 countries in view; bordering from the north is Jordan, from the south, Egypt, and just across the narrow sea is Saudi Arabia. To make it even more extraordinary, beneath the sea surface are some of the most northern coral reef ecosystems in the world.

Eilat is located in a desert climate, where the weather is hot and sunny the majority of the time. However, rains can shower unpredictably and cause flashfloods in the otherwise silent and still desert. Dry river beds transform into rushing rivers, flowing seaward. My supervisors were fascinated by this unique phenomenon, which can bring tens of thousands of tonnes of sediment into the Red Sea in hours. Little is known about the frequency and magnitudes of flashfloods in this region, as such events have only been documented in the past 24 years. Flashfloods are important because they supply large amounts of sediment from land directly to the sea. The presence of flood sediments within the seafloor can therefore help paint a picture of past climatic events.

Flashflood flowing into the Red Sea in October 2016.

For our research project, we looked to the sediment layers below the seafloor to tell us stories of flashflood history. We asked whether it was possible to find flashflood deposits in the seabed from the previous 2000 years. First, we had to try and determine if flashflood deposits were actually getting preserved within the seafloor. This is where I came in. I set out to discover what happened to flood sediments after they settled on the shallow seafloor. Were they being removed by water currents, or being redistributed by fish? Were animals in the sediment mixing them up, destroying their pristine layering and making them unrecognizable?

To answer these questions, we conducted underwater experiments at a research station 13 metres below the sea surface, just offshore of the main location where flashfloods entered the sea. Here, instead of the vibrant coral reefs in the shallow waters by the marine institute, the waters were murky and the seafloor was packed with sediment.

On a field dive after a year and a half of experience. Neutral buoyancy? Check!

Upon arriving in Eilat, I immediately got my dive certification, as I had to jump right in and start the experiments. My supervisors now admit that they were slightly concerned about my diving skills; I was not the most graceful. A big part of being a good diver is being able to achieve neutral buoyancy. This means choosing the perfect balance of weight versus air in your diving vest, so you are hovering in the water. Each time I failed to be neutrally buoyant I would crash down onto the seafloor, and plumes of sediment would rise up, driving the visibility to zero. Diving in this challenging environment so frequently pushed me to become a much better diver, quickly.

The PhD Candidate and I about to jump into the water for a dive! We are pretty happy about it .

Throughout the project I brought many fellow researchers and friends along to help out with the experiments. We usually had to carry armloads of supplies on our dives to collect our samples. We became expert silent communicators, and we were highly determined to achieve our dive goals each time.

However, despite our determination, some frightening things happened down there that put me in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once, we became so disoriented by the murky water that we didn’t know which way was up. We lost countless lab supplies, and had to avoid poisonous animals such as huge lion fish and potentially deathly scorpion fish. We spent hours upon hours under water at that station, and surfacing from those dives was always a glorious feeling. If we were extra lucky, on our way back to the marine institute we would stop by the Dolphin Reef to say hello to the dolphins, who live in a partially enclosed area of the sea.

Poisonous scorpion fish making himself at home in our equipment.

I am so grateful for my exciting fieldwork experiences, and for all of the outstanding people and friends I got to share those adventures with. If you have an opportunity to do fieldwork, even if you aren’t necessarily passionate about the purpose of the fieldwork, I would still recommend doing it. Communicating in a field setting is an incredible way to get to know people. Team work is ample, and being out in the natural world feels so messy, and challenges you to adapt. I learned a lot, and grew through those experiences. I wish you all the best in your field adventures. Happy fieldwork!

Alysse grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and got her first taste of the Atlantic Ocean while visiting her grandparents in Florida throughout her childhood. She decided to study marine biology during her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, and once she started, she never looked back. She is fascinated by ocean life, and has developed a passion for promoting ocean sustainability. During her undergraduate degree she published a scientific study quantifying microplastic pollution in sediments and mussels in Nova Scotia. This summer, Alysse is working for the Ontario Government as a Stewardship Youth Ranger Team Leader. She will guide high school students in carrying out environmental projects in the field. When it comes to the water, Alysse enjoys surfing, swimming, snorkeling, and going for fun dives!

 

Morning has broken (me)

When the repetitive beeping of my alarm rouses me, it seems like the punchline of an exceptionally cruel joke.  The room is pitch black; the glowing red numbers on the clock read 3:00 am.  I know I need to get out of bed if I’m going to make it to the field site for sunrise… but the sheets feel like they’re made of Velcro, pulling me back down every time I make a move to get up.

When I finally do manage to put my feet on the floor and stand upright, I’m as uncoordinated as drunk toddler.  I stumble around my room with my eyes half closed.  Despite the fact that I always lay my clothes out neatly the night before, getting dressed seems to take twice as long as it should.  I drop items of clothing, tie my hiking boot laces wrong, and even occasionally try to put both my feet into the same pant leg.

It doesn’t get any easier when I finally get myself out the door.  The world is eerily quiet and still at 3 am.  The occasional person I do encounter looks startled to see me, and often avoids my eyes.  It’s very clear that anyone with any sense is sleeping, and it’s hard not to let my thoughts drift back to the warmth and comfort of my covers.  I aim myself directly towards the nearest source of caffeine – but as I move farther away from my bed, I can feel myself getting crankier.

 

People who know me often ask why I choose to work with birds.  After all, I’m the first to admit that I am the opposite of a morning person.  So what on earth possessed me to study animals that start their day long before the sun has properly risen – and even have the gall to greet the dawn with a song?

It’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer.  And it’s been on my mind a lot this summer, because I’m back in the field for the first time in several years.  Each day, as I drag myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, every cell in my body resisting, I find myself seriously questioning my life choices.  (In my defence, I’m not sure being a morning person would make a difference, because frankly 3 am can’t be considered ‘morning’.)

But over the past few weeks, I’ve realized something.  I can’t deny that I really hate getting out of bed before the sun.  But I also can’t deny that once I’m up, I’m glad to be awake.

The day has a very different feel first thing in the morning.  The world is new and fresh, and there’s a sense of infinite possibility.  The entire day stretches ahead like a blank canvas, as yet unmarred by the small disappointments and frustrations that inevitably pile up over the hours.  As I drink my coffee and watch the sun peek over the horizon, I feel like I can do almost anything.  It’s exhilarating…and perhaps even worth the struggle it takes to get myself there each day.

Nevertheless: on my days off, I’m more than happy to let the sun win the race!