Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

Clam Gardens Revisited

**This blog was originally posted on Sci/Why —  a blog where Canadian children’s writers discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why? Check it out here: http://sci-why.blogspot.ca

We are happy to welcome Paula Johanson to the blog today. Paula tells us about helping intertidal biologists studying traditional First Nations clam gardens on the west coast. You can follow Paula on Twitter @PaulaJohanson and you can read more about her at the end of this post. All photos are credited to Amy Groesbeck, intertidal biologist

 

Ever dig clams on a beach? If you had to race razor clams as they ducked away in sand, it’s easy to think “There HAS to be a better way!” But if you scraped for butter clams only a few inches down in the stony muck of a clam garden, you’d know that clam gardens ARE a better way.

clam1

Clam gardens are beaches modified by First Nations people on shorelines along the West Coast, to increase and improve the habitat for clams that are particularly tasty and easy to gather. Back in 2011, I was lucky to be a volunteer helping biologist Amy Grosbeck in her study of clam gardens, and wrote for Sci/Why about the experience. Click here to read that post and see some excellent photos by that scientist. Amy Grosbeck and her colleagues went on to write a journal article about their study (and it’s really interesting to read).

clam2

Amy called me up this summer to offer another chance to volunteer to help her with another study. Hurray! My spouse Bernie and I were glad to join her on Quadra Island, to take some samples and tidy the clam gardens she was studying this summer. We stayed a few nights in a bunkhouse maintained by the Tula Foundation for the Hakai Institute, which supports intertidal biology research by Amy and many of her colleagues.

clam3

At 4am, you better have a headlamp!

Studying intertidal biology means getting up before dawn, and getting to our launch point at Granite Bay before low tide.We left the bunkhouse at four o’clock in the morning, after a quick breakfast. Amy and Bernie paddled a canoe loaded with pails of scientific gear, while I paddled alongside in my inflatable kayak (The Lagoon is a very practical boat, sent to me by Advanced Elements, and a big improvement on the already excellent version I paddled on my 2011 trip with Amy.)

clam4.jpg

When the sun came up, we could see clouds, fog, and rain all around Kanish Bay.

Paddling in a light drizzle of rain at 4:30am was made more interesting by the swirls of phosphorescence in the water. Every time our boats moved, the water would sparkle with tiny specks of light made by plankton. If there had been a moon or lots of electric lights, the dim sparkles wouldn’t show. On that dark early morning, the swirls of light were amazing. Each stroke of a canoe paddle left big swooshes of light, and my kayak was skimming on waves of sparkles. Then we paddled over a bed of kelp, which lit up with the movements of fish and shrimp. Too bad the sparkles are too dim to photograph well with ordinary cameras. The light show made getting up so early seem worthwhile.

clam5

It seemed even more worthwhile when we got to the clam garden and learned how much work Amy had been doing there. Quickly she showed Bernie how to take samples of the beach material — stony sand mixed with broken clam shells and muck — while she and I gathered up sample bags she had fastened to metal rods driven into the beach at intervals.

clam6

Somehow we got all the samples taken, all the bags gathered, and all the rods retrieved before the rising tide covered her sample sites. The beach was tidied up at the end of Amy’s study season, and our work was done.

clam7

And then we did it all again the next day on new beaches. Science! Paddling at 4:30 am in the rain for science! Soaked to the skin all day for science! It was worth it, and I’ll go again when Amy calls me to come do for a few days what she does over and over many times a year.. To be an intertidal ecologist for a few days, gathering data for scientific studies, is a wonderful opportunity.

clam8

 

Paula Johanson writes nonfiction books on science, health, and literature for educational publishers. She’s an avid kayaker who enjoys paddling, biking, and hiking with friends. Check out her novel Tower in the Crooked Wood from Five Rivers Publishing at http://fiveriverspublishing.com/?page_id=356 Many of her books are profiled at http://paulajohanson.blogspot.ca

We need YOU!

With the beginning of our fourth year of Dispatches from the Field, one of our goals for the year is to increase the number of guest posts we have on the blog. We like to keep the story topics diverse ranging from studying birds in the Arctic, to mammals in the tropics, and all the way to the plants in your backyard. We also like to add more location markers on our map to indicate where the stories originate. By sharing the reasons we run this blog, we hope it might spark an idea in you for a post!

  1. Writing a blog post for Dispatches from the Field allows you to share with the public the very things that make you love what you do. It may be a story about a funny event that happened, or about that one thing you never thought would happen but guess what, it did!

 

  1. It allows you to write down the stories before you forget them. With all that time spent in the field, the data itself gets to be presented in a scientific paper but the stories tend to get lost. What was that little town we visited? Did we do a,b,c or c,b,a? Writing a blog post allows you to re-live the stories and share that experience with others.

Sarah and Catherine present the Dispatches poster

  1. It allows you to describe an almost magical place that not many people get the opportunity to visit. As field biologists, we are fortunate to be able to visit areas that are restricted to regular foot traffic. If we can share with the public why these areas might need to remain that way due to environmental sensitivity for example, it will increase the public’s understanding more than reading a sign that says do not enter.

 

  1. It allows you to contribute to conservation efforts. If you can teach and show someone about why they should care about a place or a species then they are more likely to!

 

If you’re interested in sharing your fieldwork story, email us at fieldworkblog@gmail.com!

Haaaaapppppy Birthday to you!

canada-159585_1280Today marks the 150th anniversary of confederation in Canada, so happy birthday Canada! Today also marks the third anniversary of our blog and, we kid you not, the 150th blog post on Dispatches from the field! Today I was at a bookstore and I saw a children’s book about Canada and why we love it. It was perfect because it was, for the most part, all nature-related content. It made think about how lucky I am to be a field biologist in Canada. Canadian fieldwork certainly features the most beautiful places, the neatest flora and fauna, the sharpest researchers and an engaged and thoughtful community.

Those of us working here are privileged to have so many different land types – each one beautiful in its own way. Our country stretches from one ocean to the next. Some of us are sticking our hands into the sea bird nests of Haida Gwaii nestled in the Pacific, or frolicking with wild horses on Sable Island in the Atlantic. Others might be roaming the vast open grasslands of the Prairies, looking on into the distance forever, or scampering through lush, enchanting woodlands and forests in awe. And a few lucky ones are able to enjoy the journey across the country in its entirety.

Incredible places are a big reason why Canadian fieldwork is so awesome, but amazing creatures is another one. Just last week, we had a field biologist talk about her incredible work with the Gray Jay: Canada’s national bird, whose distribution spans from coast to coast. And until recently, who knew we had such an incredible diversity of bats! And of course, the icon of the Canadian north, the polar bear, which one of our bloggers had the neat experience of tracking in the Arctic.

And then of course there are the people and the researchers themselves. We have some amazing Canadian scientists doing fieldwork. In fact, our most viewed post of this past year was all about being female in the field. So to all of the wonderful women who have posted their stories over the past 3 years – thank you! I also wanted to take a minute to thank two very special women – my two incredible fellow female Canadian co-founders of Dispatches from the field. For those of you who don’t know, this blog was created over (one too many) drinks at the local campus pub, and here we are with 150 posts and 3 years under our belt. I have loved every minute of working with Sarah and Catherine and couldn’t think of stronger, more inspirational women in science. And of course, I need to send my love to all the other amazing scientists out there, Canadian or not, and let you know just how much we have appreciated you supporting us through this journey, contributing your stories, and reading the blogs we put up each week.

Finally, the community network I’ve noticed doing my fieldwork is something to be jealous of. Just last week Sarah, Catherine and I attended the Queen’s University Biological Station Open House where we chatted with members of the public about our blog, the success we have had and where we see it going in the future. We were met with genuine interest and support from all who spoke with us and were given many well wishes going forward. I can’t tell you how much that means to us. Three years down, and many more to come. From coast to coast, we are wishing everyone a relaxing long weekend and of course a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Canada and Dispatches from the Field! Cheers to 150 more years and 150 more posts!

The Crossing

With Canada’s 150th birthday around the corner, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Emily Williams to talk about her adventures in Alaska searching for Canada’s national bird, the Gray Jay. For more on why the Gray Jay was chosen for Canada’s bird, check out the Canadian Geographic article. For more about Emily, see her bio at the end of this post!

The last time I had to do a river crossing to access a nest, in 2011, I got the s*%! scared out of me. I managed to make it to the other side only with the help of the hand that grabbed my arm at lightning speed after it was apparent I had lost my footing and was starting to get swept away by the current.

About a month ago, I had to face the fear I’d been harboring since that experience. Compounding this fear was the knowledge that I was residing in a place well known for its fast-flowing, muddied, arctic-temperature waters, where everyone has a story of someone they know that wasn’t so lucky during a seemingly harmless packrafting or fishing trip. If there’s one thing I learned when I was last in Alaska nearly ten years ago that hasn’t changed, it’s this: respect this land, be prepared, and have the humility to know that you are a small, fragile human in a large, harsh, and unforgiving landscape.

Banding a chick

Placing unique combinations of color bands on the legs of Gray Jay nestlings allows us to identify each individual from each nest. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

In the middle of May this year, I was wrapping up my first Gray Jay field season and monitoring the last remaining nests that still had nestlings. There was just one nest left to band nestlings at, but it had been eluding me for days. While we generally try to check nests every few days, 10 days had passed since this nest had last been checked. I had the gut feeling that the nestlings hadn’t fallen prey to a predator, because I kept seeing the parents nearby, acting suspicious. But the problem was, when we found the nest back in late March, we had easily accessed it by crossing a frozen creek. Now it was mid-May, and the nest was still across a creek – a creek that was raging at high levels due to the runoff from all the snow we received this winter.

Gray Jay chick in hand

This little guy will be known as WW-OS. WW stands for “white-white” on the right leg, and OS stands for “orange-silver” on the left leg. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

I had hiked down to the creek a couple of times already, hoping the water levels had gone down, but to no avail. The next option was to try to access the nest from the other side of the creek. This involved a long six miles of bushwhacking through thick willow and alder, culminating in the realization that that route led us to a place where the creek forked, which took us further away from our goal. The final option was to try to cross the creek.

With three intrepid Gray Jay thrill seekers and two ladders

Measuring length of leg with caliper

In addition to color banding, we conduct standard morphometric measurements of the nestlings to compare growth rates across nests. NPS Photo/Devdharm Khalsa

– one to try to cross the creek with, the other to climb up to the nest – in tow, I set out to face this obstacle head on. A few attempts at extending the ladder across the creek and onto the other side ended without coming any closer to achieving a viable crossing – the 25-ft extension ladder just wasn’t long enough.

 

We then scoured up and down the creek sides, looking for a better passage that didn’t seem so swift or deep. After several minutes, we found the spot: the eddies didn’t look nearly as fast or scary, and there was a tree hanging over the width of the creek, offering a steady hand rail for our passage.

large ladder leaning against the tree

Not only did we have to cross the creek, but we also had to lug this big ladder with us. We have to use extension ladders to access the nests, which are often over 20 feet high. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

Doing all the things they teach you about swiftwater crossings – wearing life jackets, attaching ourselves to a rope that another held onto from solid ground, using trekking poles to stabilize us, and crossing together, two sets of feet moving in tandem – we waded into the current, one step at a time. Several nervous, adrenaline-pumping minutes later, we made it to the other side.

All social niceties thrown aside, I let out a huge “Whoop!” of relief, allowing all that adrenaline coursing through my veins to slowly seep out into a feeling of triumphant euphoria, knowing I had conquered my long-held fears. It’s amazing how a few nerve-wracking moments can end in such an enormous natural high.

holding 4 nestlings in hand

These nestlings may have been the hardest to get to, but seeing all four little fluff balls sitting there in the nest begging for food made it all worth the effort. NPS Photo/Julien Appignani

After crossing, we gathered our equipment and proceeded towards the nest. And what do you know? We found that nest full of expectant, 13-day old nestlings, throwing their mouths open with reckless abandon in the hopes of being fed a tasty morsel.

This nest, pardon my French, was a b%#*! to get to. But seeing all four of those fluff balls sitting there, as if they were waiting on us this whole time, (“it took you long enough!”) made it all worthwhile.

 

 

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

A quiet night

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away

“Nightswimming”, R.E.M.

Full confession: I am not a particularly audacious person.  I invariably choose Truth over Dare, and I’m probably one of the few people over the age of 18 who can play Never Have I Ever and be virtually sober at the end.

However, on those rare occasions when I play Never Have I Ever, I usually get to have at least one drink – because there’s one question that almost always comes up: “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping”.

In one of my first posts on Dispatches, I mentioned that my first summer in the field was also the first time I ever went skinny dipping.  In fact, that is one of my favourite memories of that summer.  Skinny dipping is something of a tradition at the Queen’s Biology Station, where evening parties more often than not end with the last few party-goers relaxing on the lake shore.  Inevitably, someone will suggest that the next logical step is for everyone to strip and jump off the diving board.

The first time I went skinny-dipping was just such an evening.  I vividly remember the giggles, sidelong glances, and excitement as we all shed our clothes, and the rush to get into the water as fast as possible.  It was a perfect summer evening: the night air was soft and scented, rife with anticipation and sexual tension.  I remember lazily treading water in a circle with half a dozen others, feeling exposed but also sheltered by the dark water.

There have been many, many skinny dipping experiences since that first time, in lakes, rivers, and even in oceans.  For me, skinny dipping is now inextricably linked with fieldwork.  But over time, my feelings about the experience have evolved.

After leaving QUBS, I worked at a number of smaller field stations, some in very remote and isolated areas.  In most of these places, skinny dipping was much less of a tradition – in fact, in a couple of them, it was actively discouraged.  That didn’t mean that no one did it, of course, but it certainly changed the nature of the activity.  The excitement became more about transgression than sexual tension: the thrill of doing something you were not supposed to.  For me, a consummate ‘good girl’, that thrill was very appealing.

Of course, it turns out that some of those places discourage skinny dipping because they are just not ideal for the activity – which has led, on occasion, to a couple of rather epic skinny dipping fails.  One summer night just after the end of my first field season, I found myself on a Lake Erie beach with a couple of friends.  Emboldened by my field experience – and the fact that the beach was deserted at midnight – I managed to talk both of them into trying skinny dipping (which was definitely not permitted in this park).

The decision made, we glanced cautiously around before stripping off our shorts, tops, bras, and underwear, then tore towards the lake as fast as we could.  We flung ourselves in, feeling the bite of the cold water against our calves.  We ran farther…and still the water lapped against our calves.  We ran farther still…and now the water felt almost warm, and yet still came up no farther than our calves.  We began to glance rather desperately at one another.

In my newborn enthusiasm for skinny dipping, I had forgotten the reason that so many parents liked to bring their children to this particular beach: the extremely shallow plateau that extended for several hundred yards away from the shore.  Now, several hundred yards might not feel like a long distance when you’re wearing a bathing suit under the afternoon sun; however, it feels a good deal longer when you’re running stark naked in the dead of night.

I think about that experience every few months, when another story surfaces about tourists getting arrested for shedding their clothing in various notable, scenic, and even spiritually important places, such as Machu Picchu and Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu.  These hapless tourists are inevitably accused of being disrespectful – and I always wonder whether you could say the same thing about my nude foray into Lake Erie.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of it is disrespect: flouting the rules and defying authority.  Certainly, I’ve already admitted that there’s considerable appeal in the transgressive thrill of skinny dipping.  But over the last few years, that thrill has become less and less important to me.

The thing is, skinny dipping is at its best when it’s not rushed or panicked or fraught with sexual tension.  On those occasions when you can calmly slip naked into a quiet lake in the dark, and relax in water that is almost as warm as the air…on those occasions, skinny dipping is an almost spiritual experience.  It becomes about freedom and connection with the world around you, and more than anything, it becomes about being comfortable with your body, who you are, and where you are.

Now when I think of skinny dipping, I don’t picture giggling friends and stolen glances, or a headlong rush to make it to the water before being caught.  Now, I imagine a calm, dark Canadian Shield lake, the warm water lapping softly against the rocks, the stars stretching endlessly above.  Now, all these years after my first skinny dipping experience, I understand that nightswimming does deserve a quiet night.

Sneak Preview of “Bats of Ontario”

This week Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Toby J. Thorne, who wants to share with you a sneak peak into the “Bats of Ontario” field guide he wrote. Check out the end of the post for where to purchase it!

Most field biologists will consult a field guide at some point in their careers. Whatever critters you’re studying, it helps to know what they look like, along with basic characteristics or measurements! Certainly I have accumulated my own small collection of field guides over the years. Field guides are exciting: filled with aspiration, and the promise of new adventures and discoveries. They are also working books. A true field guide is intended to be well thumbed, stuffed into packs, and referenced in all weathers.

But despite my love of field guides, I never gave much thought to where they come from. At least, not until someone suggested I write one.

For the past few years I have volunteered with the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. Founded by Phill and Sue Holder, the fund is in memory of their son Matt, a keen naturalist who died unexpectedly young. The fund’s goal is to provide opportunities for young people to get involved in nature, and Phill hopes to support the fund through the sale of field guides. To this end, he produces a range of well put-together guides. To date these include books on birds and moths in Southern Ontario, along with several checklists for Thickson’s Woods in Whitby, where the fund’s activities are centered. When he suggested I should write one for bats in Ontario I couldn’t say no!

A good guidebook is important when working with bats. In the tropics there can be hundreds of species, many of them understudied. In more temperate regions such as Canada, there are fewer species – for example, Ontario is home to just eight. Yet while there are not many species to learn for Ontario, figuring out how to tell them apart can be quite tricky. To add further confusion, there are two distinct identification methods for bats.

One way is to catch them and have a close up look. This works most of the time (if you have the appropriate skills and permits to do so), but sometimes it’s easier said than done. I have previously caught two species of European bats whose key differences are a tiny tooth cusp and penis shape. The second of those is only useful about half the time!

hoary bat in flight

A hoary bat, Ontario’s largest species, in flight. Although the bat’s open mouth and bared teeth may appear aggressive, this is actually just the bat echolocating to ‘see’ its way. Photo by Brock Fenton.

The second way to identify bats is to monitor them acoustically. Due to the difficulty and invasiveness of catching them, this is often the preferred method. Acoustic monitoring involves listening to the echolocation calls bats make during flight. The calls allow us to determine where bats are, and get a relative measure of bat activity. We can also try to differentiate between species of bat by their differing calls.

In practice, using calls to identify species is not simple. Bat echolocation calls depend on an individual’s environment and what it is doing. This means that different species of bats that are doing similar things can sound similar.  Also, to make it more confusing, the same bat can sound quite different depending on what it is doing!

These difficulties keep life interesting when you’re trying to ID bats, and made assembling a field guide seem like an attractive challenge. When I started, there was an excellent earlier guide still available, but at ten years old it is a little out of date on a few things, so producing my own guide was also an excellent opportunity to share some more up-to- date information.

An initial problem (and the one that worried me the most), was assembling suitable illustrations. Most of my own photo collection is of UK species, as that was where I first learned about bats before moving to Canada for my MSc. Since arriving in Canada I’ve managed to photograph some species, but not them all.

Luckily, Phill came up trumps on this front. He was able to negotiate the use of artwork by Fiona Reid, an incredible wildlife artist, for the guide. Fiona is the author and illustrator of the Peterson Guide to Mammals of North America. Phill has set the layout of the book around life size reproductions of Fiona’s illustration of each species, and the use of her artwork has elevated the book to something much better than I could have hoped.

Once Fiona had agreed to contribute her illustrations, I really started to feel the pressure to match her efforts with equal effort of my own! Over the past few years, living in Ontario and working with bats, I have become familiar with the local bat species. However, writing the species descriptions for the guide called for some research. It was necessary to fill in a few gaps and check for knowledge I’d not come across. Also, this was an opportunity to check the things I already ‘knew’. It’s always good to question ourselves!

little brown myotis bat in flight

A little brown myotis bat in flight. Previously widespread, many populations of this species have declined massively in Ontario and eastern North America in recent years. Photo by Brock Fenton.

While species accounts are the key parts of a guide, I found that I also enjoyed writing the introductory sections, which included background information about bats. There are also several sections aimed at beginners interested in learning how to watch bats.

Overall, producing the book has been a great experience, and I learned a lot in the process. It is great to have the chance to share that knowledge and hopefully encourage more interest in these amazing animals! Currently, bats are facing several worrying conservation threats (particularly in North America), and they need all the friends they can get!

Bats of Ontario is available online here:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/shop/

All proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. If you want to learn more about the fund, attend events or get involved, check out:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/

Toby caught his first bat at the age of eleven, and has been chasing them every since. After spending his teenage years catching and learning about bats in the UK and completed an undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Oxford. He moved to Canada in 2013 to undertake a researcher masters supervised by renowned bat researcher Dr. Brock Fenton. Since graduating he has continued to work on bat projects, and currently divides his time between the Ontario Land Trust Alliance and the Toronto Zoo, where he is spearheading the Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program.