A night at the symphony

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Amanda Cicchino, who shares some of her adventures wading through the marshes of QUBS in the dark to record frog songs.  For more about Amanda, check out her bio at the end of this post.

I like to compare the frog chorus to a symphony. The orchestra in this case is composed of many different species, each with the same end goal. The timing and frequencies of the noises they make have been molded over time to allow them to be heard simultaneously, yet they still compete with one another. Over the course of the night, the entire chorus comes together and tells a story.

My last field season was done at QUBS (Queen’s University Biological Station) and focused on frog acoustics. As I learned from presenting a poster at the annual Open House, not many people are aware of the different sounds frogs and toads can make. Though some species sound quite pleasant, others present you with ear-splitting, gurgling screams that result in a pounding headache1. Most frogs and toads call during the breeding season as a way to attract mates. Most calling and breeding is done at night in marshes or swamps. My original aim for that season was to record the mating calls of Spring Peepers to supplement a dataset, but I developed a “small” side-project with a lab-mate that would require recordings from each species found at QUBS2. What a shame.

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.

Single, lonely spring peeper seeks soulmate…

A typical night of sampling involves organization and proper preparation. Prior to leaving for the site, a few cups of coffee must be ingested, with at least one travel mug packed. The field pack must include digital calipers (to measure the frogs), plastic calipers (in case it rains and the digital ones can’t be used), multiple flashlights and headlamps, a heat gun, my notebook and pencil, recording equipment, back-up batteries (in case the ones in the devices die during the night), and emergency back-up batteries (in case the back-ups die or spontaneously combust3). Everything digital is kept in Ziploc bags in case it rains through the car or through the rain-cover on the pack.

Wearing the right attire is also a necessity for a smooth sampling night2. Fashion has always been a priority in my life, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to maintain that passion while sampling. Since the first frogs (typically Wood Frogs) begin calling when there is still ice floating on the marsh, the temperatures I sample in can be quite low.  I won’t bore you with specifics of how I dress, but I do want to give you an image of how I feel I look.  (But also stuffed into brown neoprene chest-waders). Of course, dressing with that many layers might impede my speed and agility in the marsh, so I tend to invest in good thermal clothes.

Once the sun sets, a few individuals will start to call until the peak is hit and the chorus is in full swing. My sampling begins at the peak and ends either when I have transected the whole marsh, reached my sample size limit for the site, or the chorus goes silent (usually the last one). I record every individual I come across for at least 20 consecutive calls using a Marantz PMD660 recorder and Sennheiser microphone. This can look quite humourous as the microphone is at least 30cm long and some frogs are approximately 2cm in length. I then catch the individuals and take morphometric measurements before releasing them. This can be a slow process as some individuals are “mic shy”. When they stop calling once the microphone is put near them, my general tactic is to turn off all my lights, splash a bit, and wait. Usually after a minute, they start calling again and I can feel good about myself for out-smarting a 2cm long frog. This tactic does not have to be employed too often, as I find that frogs can be quite bold. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a frog making mating calls when the lower half of its body was inside a snake’s mouth. Once I have finished my sampling, exhausted and exhilarated, I look forward to reliving the night when I analyze the call recordings the next day.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

Perhaps comparing a frog chorus to a symphony seems a bit quixotic, but they do have some similarities. They both require a specific dress code, they both overlay impressive sounds and rhythms, and they both tell an extravagant story. Of course, the frog chorus’s story is one of acoustic niche and evolution, but that is one of the most interesting stories I can think of! This kind of field work isn’t for everyone, but I truly love it. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a marsh during peak breeding season, with a full chorus of hundreds of frogs desperately calling to attract a mate. The frog chorus is quite literally music to my ears.

  1. Google ‘Bird Voiced Tree Frog call” and “American Toad call” for this comparison. You may want to make sure your speakers are turned a bit low for the latter.
  2. Please beware of extreme sarcasm used ahead.
  3. A pessimistic mindset leads to the best preparation.

AmandaAmanda recently completed her BScH at Queen’s University, researching acoustic divergence in the Spring Peeper for her Honour’s thesis. She is starting her MSc at Queen’s this fall, and will continue to study the role of mating systems on speciation.

The incredible journey

Even though it’s still August, and the air is hot and humid, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and some of the leaves have a distinct reddish tinge to them.  We may prefer to pretend it’s not happening, but we all know it: fall is on the way.  For millions of birds across North America, it’s time to start thinking about packing their bags and turning their sights to the south.  As summer draws to a close and our forests and fields begin to empty out, I’d like to share a post about migration that I originally wrote for Land Lines, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s blog, back in the spring – when all the birds were just returning.

“We’ve got rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and…rocks and  trees, and trees and rocks, and water…in Canada.”

-Arrogant Worms, “Rocks and Trees”

Canada: land of rocks, tress, water...and endless highways.

Canada: land of rocks, trees, water…and endless highways.

Ever since getting my driver’s licence, I’d dreamed of driving across Canada.  As a concept, it seemed romantic and adventurous – the perfect way to really get to know my own country.  But the reality, it turned out, was a bit different.  As I set off from Sudbury on my second day of cross-country driving, I wanted to be excited.  The first day had been easy: only six hours in the car, and a friend waiting for me at the other end.  But today was the real start of the adventure.  Today, I’d be leaving the relative safety of roads I knew well and passing into territory that was unknown, at least to me.

As I pointed my car west and hit the gas, I was more terrified than excited. Six thousand kilometers is a lot of road – especially when you’re driving alone.  In an effort to kickstart my enthusiasm, I reached over to slide the “Canadiana” mix CD a friend had made for me into the car’s CD player.  As the first strains of the Arrogant Worms’ “Rocks and Trees” came over the speakers, I glanced out the window and couldn’t help but laugh.  A vast, lonely landscape met my gaze, composed of…well, rocks, trees, and water.  Somehow, the song wasn’t actually making me feel any better.

The purpose of this epic journey was to get myself out to BC, and begin my PhD research on the population of western bluebirds that breeds in BC’s Okanagan Valley.  Although there are bluebirds (of one species or another) across the country, I was particularly interested in this population because of their migratory behaviour: the western bluebirds in the Okanagan are partial migrants.  This means that while some birds migrate south in the fall, others hang around the Okanagan, gather into flocks, and brave the snow and cold of a Canadian winter.

Western bluebird flock (and one lone goldfinch) check out a heated bird bath on a cold winter day. Photo credit: Eva Durance.

Western bluebirds (and one lone goldfinch) check out a heated bird bath on a cold winter day. Photo credit: Eva Durance.

I’ve been fascinated by avian migration ever since taking my first Animal Behaviour course as an undergraduate.  This fascination has shaped the last eight years of my life, informing my research interests as a graduate student.  Migration is a common phenomenon:  every year, billions of individuals from more than 350 bird species across North America embark on migratory journeys.  Migration is ubiquitous, and each spring and fall, as I hear the honks of Canada geese passing overhead, I’m tempted to call it ordinary.  But this common phenomenon is composed of extraordinary feats.  As summer winds down in the northern hemisphere, birds like the 25g northern wheatear set off into the unknown, often travelling thousands of kilometers south to spend the winter in more hospitable climates.  In the case of the wheatear, individuals breeding in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska brave the perils of crossing the Atlantic, ultimately covering 14,000 km to reach their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.  Then, come spring, they do it all over again in reverse.

Migration captures the imagination of scientists and the public alike.  But what is it about these journeys that inspires and enchants us?  That’s a question I’d never been able to answer satisfactorily, but as I faced the vast, lonely distances of my own incredible journey, the answer became clearer: migration may be common, but it is also an extraordinary story of adventure and challenge.

It's just possible that I should have left earlier...

It’s just possible that I should have left earlier…

To begin with, you must decide when to leave.  For birds, timing of migration is affected by many things – from predator abundance to food availability and individual condition – but it’s crucial that they get it right.  This is especially true in the spring, when arriving too late on the breeding grounds can undermine the success of an individual’s breeding season.  However, timing is also important in the fall, when staying too late can mean encounters with the kind of weather you’d rather avoid – as I found out the hard way.

Of course, once you’ve decided to leave, it’s also very important to know where you’re going.  Unfortunately for me, I’m one of the most directionally challenged people imaginable.  (Despite the fact that driving from Ontario to BC essentially involves following the Trans-Canada highway west, a number of people were actually placing bets on whether I’d end up in BC or Nova Scotia.)  Luckily, I had help: before I embarked on my journey, my mother dragged me to the CAA to purchase a staggering number of maps.  I ended up with a separate map for every Canadian province west of Quebec, a very long set of driving directions, and a North American road atlas for good measure.  Despite this plethora of directional aids, I can’t deny making the occasional U-turn on quiet parts of the Trans-Canada.

Just in case you’ve misplaced your country: thank goodness for maps, directions, and road signs.

Just in case you’ve misplaced your country: thank goodness for maps, directions, and road signs.

Birds, of course, have to manage without the help of the CAA.  Instead, they get their directional cues from a variety of sources: the sun, the stars, and the Earth’s magnetic field.  Recent research also suggests that scent cues may play a role in guiding migrants to their destination.  In fact, despite decades of study, we’re still learning new things about how birds manage to navigate the vast distances involved in migration.

You can meet almost any need along the way, as long as you pick your stopping places carefully. If you find yourself suddenly in need of custom embroidery halfway across the continent, the World’s Largest Truckstop in Iowa is the place for you.

You can meet almost any need along the way, as long as you pick your stopping places carefully. If you find yourself suddenly in need of custom embroidery halfway across the country, consider taking a detour to the south: the World’s Largest Truckstop in Iowa is the place for you.

Now on your way, you face another problem: finding places to stop.  As I made my way across the country, I realized that Canada’s seemingly endless rocks, trees, and water didn’t make that challenge easy to overcome.  I quickly learned to appreciate the value of a good refueling point, preferably one with gas, clean washrooms, good coffee, and food packaged within the last decade.  As every migrant knows, finding ideal stops as you navigate an unfamiliar world is not easy.  You need to be able to quickly size up potential sites for their value.  If you decide to stop, you need to quickly figure out what to eat and how to avoid being eaten yourself.  For me, the most important part of finding stops was learning to compromise.  Under less than ideal circumstances, I decided, fresh food was optional.  Even clean washrooms could be optional – after all, all those trees have to be good for something.  Gas and good coffee, however, were non-negotiable.

Even when you finally reach your general destination, the challenges aren’t over.  It’s important to know exactly where and when to stop.  When I crossed the border from Alberta into BC, I cheered, pulled over, and took a victory photo.  Little did I know that finding my new home in the Okanagan would involve more U turns than the rest of my trip put together.  My directions said, “Follow the highway around a curve and the driveway will be on your left”.  Unfortunately, the highway in the Okanagan is nothing but curves.  I drove past my new accommodations three times before finally focusing on the right curve, noticing the driveway, and making the turn.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to stop driving in my life.

During the course of my PhD, I made the drive to the Okanagan and back three times.  Each time, I took a different route, and each journey brought its own adventures, trials, and excitement.  Of course, I had it easy during my ‘migrations’: unlike me, birds travel under their own power, at the mercy of the unpredictable (and often nasty) elements.  But I still feel that my cross country travels gave me a unique opportunity to gain a more personal understanding of the ordinary, extraordinary phenomenon of migration.

Well worth the trip: the Okanagan Valley from above.

Well worth the trip: the Okanagan Valley from above.

The great stadium

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are excited to welcome back guest blogger Adam Meyer, who is completing his MSc in Biology at Queen’s and who tells us about some of his experiences observing and being observed by nature.

As an aspiring scientist I often fancy myself to be some great observer of nature, and I do this in what I consider to be grand fashion (sometimes with robots!). In the pursuit of knowledge I will rudely send some clunky collection device crashing through the water and haul zooplankton out of their world and into mine. I do this so I can observe them closely for their size, reproduction and, over time, their behaviour. But when you’re so dead-set on observing and understanding nature, picking it apart for its precious details, you can sometimes forget that for all the time you spend in the field, nature also observes you. This isn’t a zoo, after all. There’s no one-way mirror for us to hide behind safely as we observe the outdoors. When you’re in the field, you observe and are observed. I don’t know if the fuzzy and feathery members of the Frontenac community actually “study” us per se, but they certainly observe and they almost certainly form opinions.

I came to feel this way over the course of my field season at QUBS last summer. I had many interactions with this community that made me feel utterly observed. For instance, one bright July day my field assistant Marcus and I were walking back from Round Lake (where I did the majority of my observing) and we happened to see a beautiful Barred Owl fly right across the path before losing it in the trees. We were of course compelled to try to find it again and so began “stealthily” stalking through the woods, our eyes toward the canopy, scanning the branches for the grey-brown lump of the owl. We actually managed to find it again! There it was, perched on a high branch, starring plainly back at us. I was almost embarrassed. I immediately felt silly for “stalking” around as it was obvious the bird had been keenly watching us the whole time, and probably long before it allowed us to catch a glimpse of it.

An interaction like this with an owl was a treat for me last summer, but I also had daily interactions with other busybodies of the animal community. The loons on Round Lake are a good example. Spending the majority of my time on the lake allowed me to observe the loons behaving in all sorts of interesting ways. I looked forward to witnessing their eccentric calling and dancing across the lake, and even their early morning flight from Round Lake to somewhere else (it takes a loon a full aerial lap around Round Lake to get high enough to clear the tree line (cool!) and they did this every morning I was there). Unfortunately, my fondness for the loons was not reciprocated. This was made abundantly clear when they would passive-aggressively relieve themselves 10-15 feet away from the floating dock where we worked. This happened several times a day, every day, and was the only time they would ever come so close. Nice.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

But for all of these lovely and personal interactions, I have never felt more observed by nature than during my 12 hour nightly sampling sessions on Round Lake. That’s because on a clear July night, Round Lake becomes a stadium and you’re standing in the centre. The flat lake is like the stadium floor, and the dock is like a stage. The stars in the sky, brightest at the top and fainter near the horizon, form a great dome all around you. Eventually the moon comes out and blasts the stadium with light, casting midnight shadows over the water. On the shore you can see a great blurring of shapes and dark colours that make up the audience with the whooing and hahhing of wind through the trees as their voice. The hundreds of blasts of firefly luminescence on the shore are like the flashes of cameras as the first pitch is thrown at the World Series or the Olympic torch is trotted out in Vancouver. Sometimes we even had hecklers, as the yips and cackles of coyotes echoed across the lake. I spent several long nights working at the centre of the stadium, on the stage, hauling water and sampling zooplankton, fighting with robots and munching on peanut butter sandwiches. Everybody watching. Observing.

The audience, watching from the cliffs.

The audience, watching from the cliffs.

My very first night in the stadium was undoubtedly the hardest. After what was otherwise a gorgeous July day, the clouds rolled in as the sun was setting, creating what must have been one of the darkest nights of the year. Even on cloudy nights it is usually possible to somewhat see what you’re doing, but that night was so dark that I could only see what was directly under the dim red light of my headlamp. I would look over at Marcus from time to time and see only his red light moving about in the dark.

We began the night in fine spirits but I quickly developed a nagging anxiety about a thunderstorm that was brewing on the horizon. If we were forced off of the lake for an extended period this would ruin the time resolution of the 24 hour sample. We would have to start all over another day.

After a few hours of sampling, I moved into a good rhythm with my Schindler trap hauls and my mind began to drift. Somewhere in between worrying about the storm, worrying about the project and daydreaming about breakfast I forgot the importance of stable footing when pulling heavy things out of the water. I proceeded to to slip on the wet edge of the dock and topple head over heels into the water, gracefully hitting the dock on the way down. My first thought was something close to “this is how it ends” but I quickly emerged from the cold darkness into a warmer one I could breathe in. By now, Marcus had rushed over to help and soon I was standing on the dock, peeling off my sopping wet clothes and mourning my now very dead ipod. It was at that moment that the sky opened up (of course), and the downpour began. I threw on my rain gear but there was almost no point. I was already soaked to the bone and would stay that way as it rained steadily for the next ten hours. Yep. Ten hours. We were wet, we were cold, and we were all too aware that an imminent thunderstorm or our soaked and rapidly disintegrating field notes could make all our efforts useless. We managed to keep our spirits high by laughing at just how hard it was still raining, and thankfully the thunder passed us by around 3:30 a.m.

That night was completely exhausting and we never had a night quite like that again. In fact, I almost exclusively had clear nights throughout the rest of the summer. The stadium had approved. When the sun came up at 5 a.m. that morning it was as if we’d been given Caesar’s symbolic thumbs up. I was allowed to continue observing, and so would they.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

After a long, hard night…approval from the stadium!

I will admit to having a wild imagination that can get the best of me from time to time. But after returning to the lab after my field season I’ve kept that sense of being observed. If you’re walking through the woods and you feel like you’re being watched, you are. By nature’s busybodies. Maybe keeping that in mind can help us remember to be better neighbours.

20150603_141040Adam will soon be finishing his MSc at Queen’s University studying aquatic ecology and maintenance of behavioural diversity in zooplankton.  Originally from Keswick, Ontario, Adam completed his BSc at McGill University in Montreal. There he worked on a variety of systems in the museum, in the lab and in the field, including evolutionary rescue in microbial communities, hadrosaurus fossil preparation and plant-insect interactions. He spends most of his conscious hours pondering biological diversity, frowning at R scripts, playing music, and daydreaming.

Stuck in the mangroves

I always get super excited (likely as most biologists do) when plants or animals have crazy adaptations to deal with different environmental conditions. During a field course in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, we witnessed lots of different adaptations. However, I was most excited about the mangrove forests.

Mangroves are salt tolerant trees that are adapted to the intertidal zone – essentially they are very salty swamps. Due to the high tides, roots often protrude out of the water to escape the low oxygen, water-logged mud. It gives a look of chaos with the roots all tangled among each other. However, despite the seemingly chaotic characteristic of the root system, the mangrove forests that we explored were very tranquil places. Many different species of birds carried on with their song overhead as crocodiles (yes we saw some and yes I was scared to go for a swim) and other aquatic species took refuge within the cavities that the roots formed.

Roots of mangroves protrude out of the water

The chaos of mangrove roots

salt on leaves

Salty leaves

Not only are mangrove forests exposed to salt water during high tide, but as low tide occurs, the salinity increases even more. A lot of plant species cannot survive under these conditions. However, mangrove species have adapted to actually expel excess salt through their leaves. (I found this particularly cool as I studied tube-nosed seabirds that can expel salt through glands in their nose!).

During low tide, some areas can get very dry. One day, my group was exploring the mangroves looking for “edge habitat” (what our project was on). It was during low tide (perhaps had even been dry for weeks), so we were able to walk among the root system. The ground was all cracked from being dry for so long, reminding me of the type of “ground” you would see in Jurassic Park. As we were walking along, suddenly one of the girls in my group yelled “ah, help!”. We immediately rushed over thinking she had been bitten by something. Instead, we found her in the mud to her shins! It was like quicksand – the top was hard and crusty but underneath was waterlogged mud ready to engulf her legs. We didn’t want to get too close to her, afraid that we would also get stuck. Luckily, another group member was interested in catching snakes that day and was carrying along “snake tongs” that he was able to pull her out with.

She gets stuck in the mud and needs help to be pulled out.

Exploring the mangrove forests was a really neat experience. It was a good reminder that although everything seems chaotic around you and you might get stuck, you will always be able to get out of it!

NB: I apologize if I used anyone’s photos in this post. We all shared photos at the end of the field course but I did not take note of whose photo was whose. If they are yours, please let me know and I will give you credit!

 

The spider forest

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome guest blogger Scott Lillie, the author of the book “Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist“. Check out his bio at the end of the post!

One summer I found myself doing nesting bird surveys for the federally threatened south western willow flycatcher. While most of June I spent bushwhacking through thick forests of tamarisk in extreme temperatures one day I got a different opportunity, kayak surveys. There were some parts of the lake that still flowed well into the forested areas, and while the tamarisk could not survive being inundated with water, the native willows and cottonwoods could. The idea of gently floating on the lake listening for birds calls sounded amazing, but there turned out to be a catch.

My expectations did not match the reality. My site was filled with dead trees half underwater. Everywhere I looked the dead trees expanded for what seemed like miles. Paddling was no longer an option, and so I simply pulled my kayak along using the dead trees.

After paddling a few feet into the dead forest I felt something hit my face: sticky threads of a spider web. I turned the kayak slightly to get a view looking into the sunrise, and my stomach dropped. When the first rays of the sun hit the dead trees, thousands of large spider webs began to shine in the sun. Every tree was connected by them. It reminded me of something out of a horror movie. There was no going around them. I knew I could not call off my surveys because of spiders. If I did, I might as well just pack up my tent, go home, and throw away my diploma because my career as a biologist would be over. Time to grow up. I swallowed my fear and started in.

At first, I was using my paddle to cut through the webs, but after almost tipping over twice I just started using my hands—no need to endanger the $1000 pair of binoculars they gave me to avoid spider webs. After making pretty good progress in the forest I felt something crawling on my head. I lost it. I flailed madly. I made contact with one of my frantic blows. It was a spider, a large brown spider. It hit the water of the lake and—to my horror—the spider stayed afloat. It could run on the water due to the surface tension, and came right back to my kayak. At this point, I stopped looking for birds and looked at my kayak. This was another bad choice. I saw three more large spiders on the front of my kayak, then another climbing on the side. I feel like I handled myself heroically until I felt the ones on my legs. I immediately leaned over to reach into the kayak and hit the spider on my leg. The shift in weight made my kayak lurch sharply to the right, and just like in training, I over corrected, and into the water I went.

Now I was floating in water holding my $1000 pair of binoculars over my head in one hand and holding onto the kayak with the other. I looked around. No shore in site. I knew the closest shore was through the spider forest. I knew it, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.

It was almost a quarter of a mile to shore. A quarter mile of swimming in hiking boots and dragging a kayak! After finally making it to shore I emptied the water out of the kayak and laid some of my wet clothes to dry on top of my kayak to dry. I decided to take a break and sit in the shade for a minute.

I ended up nodding off to sleep. It was just a brief nap. Upon walking back to the kayak to retrieve my clothes, I was surprised to find one of the largest western diamondback rattlesnakes I have ever seen stretched out next to my kayak. Most days, I would have loved to see it, but since I had surveys to do and it was essentially guarding my clothes, it was rather inconvenient.

An encounter with a snake in the field

 

I decided to stomp my feet and try to scare it away. If you ever want to feel ridiculous, try yelling and stomping your feet at a five-foot-long rattlesnake while wearing nothing but your boxers. Needless to say, it did not go away. Instead, it retreated to safety underneath my kayak, which I had flipped upside down to dry out. After a minute, I flipped the kayak and the snake immediately started rattling and backing up to the kayak again.

I was able to retrieve my boots, which had been placed at the base of the kayak. I found a stick to move the snake. Having never even moved a rattlesnake by myself before, moving it with just a tree branch proved difficult. Unlike in the movies, the snake did not chase me. In fact, it proved to be rather stubborn about moving at all. After accidently poking at it multiple times I eventually got the branch under the snake, lifted, and before I moved more than a foot the snake flopped off the branch. It immediately put its back to the kayak again. I tried again, got the branch under the snake, and lifted, this time moving the snake two feet before it fell off. I wasted no time and put the branch down in front of it again. After a very tense five minutes, I got the snake away from the kayak.

Eventually, I did end up completing my surveys and even found a nest. Looking back I always appreciate that day. Even a bad day in the field beats the best day in the office.

Scott LillieScott Lillie has nearly ten years of wildlife experience in the south west United States, Missouri,       and Georgia. He is also the author of Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist     (https://www.createspace.com/5246146 ). He currently works as an environmental consultant in southern California.

 

Oh Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please don’t kill me

As most of you know, I work in abandoned agricultural fields. If you compare old fields to some of the other remote, dangerous areas we’ve featured stories from, this is a relatively safe area to work. The fields I work in are not remote, I usually have cell service, and there are no dangerous predators roaming around. Fieldwork in these old fields can be quite dangerous however.

The sun is my absolute worst enemy. Again, as I have probably mentioned, I am mainly interested in relationships between abundance and body size in plants. This involves a lot, and I mean a lot, of counting. Counting plants isn’t all that bad if it’s early on in the season (before July), but generally when I do abundance counts, I am interested in reproductive abundance, therefore, the plants I count must reproduce (or have been given a chance to) which means I can’t count them until at least part way through July. Conveniently, this overlaps nicely with the time it starts to get really hot and humid in southern Ontario.

Imagine this. You’re in the middle of an old field. You arrive at your field site, where the grass is taller than you are, and the landscape is decorated with little shots of yellow and pink as the wildflowers thrive in the warm summer weather. It’s hot and sticky as you approach your first plot to count abundance in. The sun heats the back of your neck, deer flies buzz around your head and thistles scrape the legs of your pants. You get down on your hands and knees and start carefully sorting through the vegetation below, making note of what you find.

Now, this might not seem all that bad. In fact, to some it might even sound pretty enjoyable. But let’s fast forward1.5 hours (about how long it takes to get through one plot). You count your final few ramets, and feeling accomplished, you lift your neck up, take your hands off the ground and push yourself up off your knees and onto your feet. That feeling of accomplishment quickly turns to confusion.

After staring at the ground for so long, when you lift your head up the bright rays of the sun are so intense you can barely open your eyes. As you squint, your head starts to spin and you actively try to keep your balance. Your stomach feels all kinds of unpleasant things. Your heart beats a little faster and each breath you take is a little closer to the last one as your brain tries to comprehend what is happening to your body. You have two options: collapse back onto your knees or compose yourself enough to get out of the sun and recover.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at choosing the latter and retreating to the shade with water. But early on in my time as a field biologist, I would ignore the signs and end up sick, sometimes for days. I’ve (mostly) learned my lesson since then and in fact, this year we even invested in a sun shelter to use while we sample. It might be a pain in the ass to haul around to each plot but boy does it make a difference.

The sun is a real danger for work like this and for many field biologists. It’s so important to take all of the steps necessary to stay safe in the sun, and most importantly, listen to your body’s warning signs because it knows best.

Standing by one of the plots I will count abundance in this summer

Standing by one of the plots I will count abundance in this summer

The things they don’t tell you…

This week, Dispatches from the field welcomes guest writer Kathryn Stewart to share some of the things she has learned through doing different types of fieldwork but that you are not usually prepared for!

Look, we’re friends right?! And as friends I feel we can have uncomfortable conversations. So let’s get this out in the open for good.

There are two types of scientists in this world:

Hard-core field scientists and those left with a kernel of self-respect / dignity.

What do I mean by that? Well, when you have food poisoning while traveling through different countries…do you keep your dignity trapped in your chest waders? Do you try to waddle to a proper bathroom, or better yet try to convince a trusted assistant to drive you to one? OR do you run for the nearest bush and let nature take its course, all-the-while thinking about the potential data you’re missing out on?

…see where I’m going with this?

Listen, I’m going to make this post a little easier on you and ease your trepidation in scrolling down this page. THIS POST WILL NOT CONTAIN PHOTOS! But what it will contain is a glimpse into a mind-set that is admittedly all-together unhealthy but not uncommon among your field comrades.

I, myself, have relinquished all types of bodily fluids into the depths of the great-outdoors and I have NEVER regretted it. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way, shape or form, a boasting platform. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of what I’ve done. But I also would never waste precious time on dignified moments of peace when I might possibly be within the grasp of getting the perfect data-set. Or at the very least, not going home (tent/cabin/car) after a long day and crying alone about the follies of my research design…out of ear-shot from my field assistants of course.

These tid-bits are something that people rarely talk about. Sure, people will sometimes ask if you are ok to pee in the woods but when you drive out at 5am to watch birds with a group of 5 people for 8 hours and not one person admits to having to defecate….well, it’s not that they have perfectly trained their bodies to the exact minute they return to a walled-abode (of some type) over the course of months. They simply do it in the forest and move on with their lives.

When you expect yourself (and everyone around you) to work 7 days a week for 4 months straight with little to no interaction with people and then one glorious morning you awake to find out temperatures have dropped 20 degrees, tornadoes are on the horizon, and hail is falling like Cadillac’s from the sky – perhaps you reward yourself with one too many beers. You wake up hungover like a 16 year old and stagger into the field only to run to a bush, vomit, and continue on as if nothing happened. THIS IS FIELD WORK. It’s not your most pleasant moment, but if an impending brown-streak in your pants won’t get you to stop your data collection, a little vomit isn’t going to get you down either.

I’ve personally crab-walked away from supervisors about to approach during awkward moments, and I’ve been on the receiving end of glimpsing things I shouldn’t have. I’ve drank too much without missing a second of work, I’ve eaten questionable tacos, and sat on fire-ants with my pants around my ankles. We shake these images out of our heads because like all obsessive-compulsive data-collecting robots, we love science, and science is often gross…but the rewards are always worth it.

So if you’re an aspiring undergrad about to embark on your first field collections, by all means don’t feel OBLIGATED to vacate your body of all its toxins. No one will force you, but also keep your wits about you…you never know what kind of carnage you might stumble upon. If you’re a well-seasoned grad student, you know all too well what I preach here. Know that you are not alone – also, I saw what you did and my lips are sealed. Promise.