Lost lake entrances and the drunken bathtub

This week we welcome Cassandra Cummings to share her adventures in New York State in the gorgeous Adirondacks.

Some of the best hiking on the Canadian Shield can be found in the Adirondacks, NY, and I was lucky enough to do 3 summers of field work there.  The Adirondacks are an old mountain range that makes up 20% of New York state, and contains more than 3,000 freshwater lakes.  They were hit hard in the 80’s and 90’s by acid rain, and have remained an interesting study site ever since.

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Examining a sediment core

Taking a sediment core

Since the Adirondacks are somewhat isolated, there is an absence of long-term monitoring data.  This is where my field of study, paleolimnology, comes in handy.  Paleolimnology uses the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics in lake sediment cores to infer their environmental histories.  For my fieldwork, I collected sediment cores from 30 lakes throughout the Adirondacks.  Collecting a sediment core is similar to putting a straw in a cup of water and putting your thumb on the top; when you pull it out, you take the water with you.

In my cores, I examined microscopic algal remains called diatoms.  These algal remains are abundant and can survive in the sediments for millennia.  They are also incredibly specious and can survive in a wide range of conditions.  Their diversity is part of what makes them such a useful indicator species: by determining which species used to exist in a lake, you can infer what the conditions of the lake were like.

Diatoms

We may not have been after forest creatures, but they did manage to keep things interesting!  We got to see loons attempting to fly (it takes an entire lake’s distance just for them to make it out of the water!), a snake catch a frog, and a just-out-of-sight bear.  Twice, our hiking paths were flooded by beavers.  The first time, we were hiking and came across a surprise pond.  At first we thought it was our study site, but it was way too shallow.  Then we assumed we lost the path and spent half an hour looking for it, before we saw the next marker across the pond.  In the dingyWe tried to go around it, but decided the easiest way would be to cross it.  We blew up our inflatable dingy, and two of us crossed the pond with half our stuff.  We thought we were well on our way to defeating those rascally beavers, until I was dropped across the pond with the packs and my field mate turned back to pick up our third hiker.  Turns out it’s hard to cross a pond with one person using one oar in an inflatable dinghy.  It moves less in a straight line, and rotates more side to side.  She eventually made it back, but it moved like a drunken bathtub in the meantime!

In the canoe

Fortunately, the second time beavers flooded the path we were warned in advance.  We brought a canoe, and could all make it in one go!

 

 

putting the canoe in the truck

The canoe almost fit in the truck.

 

swollen right handInjuries on our field trips were kept to a minimum.  But when we did have one, it was almost always mine!  Our first day out the second summer, on a wide, flat path, I managed to twist my ankle and end up out of commission for a week.  I also found out the hard way that I’m allergic to deer fly bites.  Good thing I’m right handed…

When field work ended, we got back to the lab to begin the long, tedious process of diatom identification.  After enumerating the diatoms at the top and bottom of the core, we were able to infer how some aspects of the lakes had changed from the 1850’s to present. Lakes are warming up faster than they used to each year, leading to changes in the way a lake stratifies (a warmer, less dense layer on top of a colder, denser layer below).  Ice is melting earlier in the spring, and forming later in autumn.  These changes caused corresponding changes in which diatom species were most successful in a lake, with diatoms that sink slowly becoming more abundant.

My project gave insight into the extent of ecological change in algal communities  that could be attributed to a ‘climate’ effect.  By understanding how climate change affects lakes, we can begin to understand and interpret changes from lakes that are recovering from multiple stressors.

lake view

 

Cassandra Cummings is a 2nd year masters student at UBC, doing a masters in Environmental Planning.  In 2014, she completed her masters in biology at Queen’s University.  She has hiked in the Muskokas, Rocky Mountains, and Central America, but the Adirondacks are still some of her favourite!  She is passionate about the environment, enjoys being outdoors and loves to dance.

Dirt

I just returned to Kingston, Ontario from a whirlwind three weeks of travelling. I spent awhile in Colorado, mostly Colorado Springs and Denver, and then went on to present my research at the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution’s annual conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was a mix of scorching heat and nipping cold, desert-like brush and lush green rolling hills, Rocky Mountains and coastal cliffs. It was amazing.

It wasn’t all just fun and games though. At the conference in St. John’s I presented one of the projects that I’ve been collecting data for 2 years for. I was interested in the role that body size played in predicting the abundance of seeds in the seed bank.  So to answer this question, I went out and collected soil cores, which is a fancy way of saying I collected dirt.

I hadn’t put much thought into dirt before. I played with it as a kid, my brother used to eat it, it is brown, and plants grow in it. Even as a plant biologist I really hadn’t thought too much about it. After I started this experiment, I quickly realized that dirt was more than ‘just dirt’.

Early in April 2014 I collected my first set of soil cores. It was surprisingly laborious work with lots of bending and pulling to get 4 samples from each of 200 plots. Keep in mind that it was still teetering around 0 degrees C and doing things like opening Ziploc bags with mittens on is next to impossible. Timing here was critical because as soon as the first seeds germinated in that field, we would be too late. At each plot, 4 samples were taken and placed in the same plastic bag. They were then stored temporarily in a fridge at 4 degrees C until they could be processed.

cllecting soil core

Collecting soil cores

Processing these soil cores was such a neat experience and it made me realize just how neat (and also cute and sometimes terrifying) dirt really is. The cores were all so different. Some had soft, loamy soil that fell apart and crumbled in between your fingers. Others were like taking a piece of freshly made fudge and squeezing it between your fingers. We would sort through the dirt and pull out rhizomes and pieces of roots, gently brush the dirt off and throw them away. We pulled out hundreds if not thousands of worms from the cores, as well as larva, dead insects and even sometimes bones of what appeared to be voles or other small mammals. On more than one occasion, the bag housed an army of ants, which then proceeded to attack everyone and everything at the table. Those bags were the ones I let the minions take care of…*gross*.

soil core

Soil core – Note: the worm trying to escape

bagging cores

Bagging more soil cores

My favourite discovery was a small grey tree frog. I opened a Ziploc bag, took out a core, and as the dirt fell out onto the tray, a small tree frog hopped onto the table. As it came to it was just as confused as I was and attempted to hop away and right off the table (of course we released him somewhere a bit more suitable than the halls of the Biology building).

frog

Our new friend who lived to tell a pretty cool story

After the cores were all sorted we emptied each bag into a small plastic tray, and put it up in the Phytotron at Queen’s. We watered them and monitored them regularly, and what happened was pretty cool. Seeds from close to 60 species germinated and grew into tiny seedlings in those trays. Sometimes you would even see hundreds of individuals of different species coming up in one 4 x 6 inch tray.

phytotron plants

All the seedlings that grew in the Phytotron from seeds in the seed bank

This project, fieldwork, greenhouse work, and all, has remained one of my favourites I’ve done to date. Not for its simplicity, or low maintenance nature, but because it made me think about dirt, and dirt deserves a lot more credit than it gets because damn, it’s pretty neat.

Studying guppies in Trinidad

For National Fishing Week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Tim Hain, a biologist at the University of Western Ontario to tell us about his fieldwork studying the not-so-fancy-looking (but very cool for evolutionary studies) guppies in Trinidad. To find out more about Tim and his fieldwork stores, check out the end of this blog for a link to a book he recently published!

Many North Americans have heard of guppies – perhaps because they or a friend had guppies as pets, perhaps because they have watched Bubble Guppies on television. Aquarium hobbyists have an enthusiasm for guppies because these fish have natural variation in colouration and fin size or shape that breeders have exploited to develop many different beautiful strains with descriptive names like tuxedo, sunrise, mosaic, snakeskin, or swordtail. Although “guppies” have name recognition with the public, many people do not realize that these little fish are a favourite among researchers in evolutionary ecology. In fact, guppies are one of the best vertebrate species for studying evolution in the wild, particularly on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. Because guppies have short generation times and waterfall barriers that restrict migration, there is variation in behaviour, life history, physiology, and appearance among populations that can often be attributed to variation in the local predator community.

Image 1

Image 2The classic story is that guppies below waterfalls are subjected to predation by large vision-oriented predators, so male guppies in these populations tend to be cryptic in colour to avoid being eaten.Image 3

 

 

 

 

Above waterfalls, the predators are either smaller and cannot eat adult guppies Image 4or eat using tactile or chemical signals,Image 5

so male guppies from these populations are free to evolve conspicuous bright colours to attract females.Image 6Many evolution students will have heard all about this. But “science-world famous” is very different from “world famous.”

 

 

In fact, most people do not know how important these insignificant-looking fish are. When I first went to Trinidad in 2006 as a Ph.D. student, I had been studying guppies for three years. At its most fanciful, my imagination pictured monuments to guppies at important sites around the country.

Of course, I did not truly expect to find statues of guppies, but I was amazed by how common guppies were in the country. My first ‘wild’ guppy sighting was in a sewer along the major east-west road, and this was not unusual.Image 7 In fact, they are so common that many locals were surprised that someone would travel from Canada to study them. In some locations where I collected guppies, I would attract a small crowd. Because I neither looked or sounded like I was from around there, local people would ask me what I was doing. One middle-aged Trinidadian that I spoke to was confused when I mentioned guppies, but when I described them, he said “Oh, you mean canalfish.” In Trinidad, guppies have this common name because they are frequently found in sewers and ditches alongside roads. Several times I used this name with Trinidadians to refer to guppies, and they knew what I meant.

Because female guppies give birth to live young, a single pregnant female can establish a population. This makes guppies master colonizers, and I saw them in a huge range of environments. Image 8The best-studied guppies are native to the Northern Range of forested mountains, where waterfalls break up narrow streams, but they are also founder in wider, dirtier rivers and some unique geographical features, like Pitch Lake in the southern part of the country.

Image 9a

My mother and a guide.

Pitch Lake was formed when pitch – a resin once used for waterproofing ships – bubbled out of the ground and now covers 40 hectares of area . It resembles a naturally-formed parking lot, but without lines and full of fissures that give the tarmac area structure. Rain filled these fissures, and guppies have found their way to the lake and become established. The unusual water chemistry of Pitch Lake and the black substrate (leading to high water temperatures) means that it is very difficult to rear these guppies in the lab.

One environment where I did not find guppies was in the brackish estuaries along the northern coast. Guppies can tolerate light saline environments, but in one tea-coloured estuary that I visited, I instead found the congenic Poecilia picta fish. Image 10The low visibility in the water of that river might explain two unusual observations I made: low colouration of P. picta males, and transparent bodies of their predator, a prawn.
Image 11

 

Transparent bodies are also found in deep-sea fish, which live in low-light (or no-light) environments: an interesting example of convergent evolution.

Perhaps the reason why guppies are such an appealing textbook example of evolution is in how intuitive and simple the explanation is: the same geographical barriers that restrict predator presence also restrict gene flow, and predation as a selection pressure drives trait differentiation. Guppy researchers know that the story is a little more complex than that, but these wrinkles in the story seldom make it into textbooks. So, I was left to independently discover these things for myself.

One variation on the story is that waterfalls are not the only feature that restrict large predators. For example, I found one ‘low predation’ environment located between two ‘high predation’ environments because the water in one stretch of the river was too shallow for the larger predators to enter. Male guppies in this stretch were more colourful than males I found upstream.Image 13Image 12

A second under-discussed variation on the story is the presence of avian predators. I often saw striated herons or little egrets walking alongside narrow streams, looking for guppies to eat. I also saw or heard kingfishers around my collection sites. Image 14These birds were skittish and difficult to photograph in the act of feeding, but their intention was clear. What is less clear is if they exert a selection pressures on guppies to be more cryptic in colour, or if their feeding habits are random with respect to colour. I do think that avian predators are important to guppy evolution – I suspect that guppies colonize new environments by escaping these flying predators after being given a short trip.

My fieldwork in Trinidad taught me many things about guppy evolution that I could not have learned from a textbook. Who knew that such small and common fish could be so interesting?!

Tim Hain is a biologist at the University of Western Ontario in London. He completed his PhD on kin recognition and multiple mating in guppies and bluegill sunfish, and he did his fieldwork in Trinidad and at the Queen’s University Biological Station. His first trip to Trinidad was for eight months, and he recently published his memoirs (Fieldwork: Stories from Trinidad) of his time living in the country on Amazon. Tim currently teaches at UWO. You can follow him on Twitter (@tjahain).

This land is our land

In honour of Canada Day, we wanted to highlighted some of the cool, interesting, funny, or neat stories about fieldwork in Canada that we have shared on Dispatches from the Field over the years. Our blog tells stories from fieldwork happening all across the country, and also across many different species. We do truly live in a great country – check out these blogs for yourself!

Beginning in the west, Catherine D. shares why bluebird at a nest boxeveryone loves bluebirds in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia,

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset.

Julia S. shows us the varied habitats of Alberta’s boreal forest,

Feeling smalland Krista C. shares her adventures in the Land of Living Skies in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

 

From the great white North, Michelle V. explains how she prepared for polar bear fieldwork.

Sampling polar bear poop.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.Julia C. and Rachael H. share their hilarious (sorry Julia) beaver story from the Muskoka region of Ontario where they almost flip the canoe, while Melanie S. explains how help is always where you least expect it.

 

 

 

Southern Ontario is quite busy with field biologists, with Jenna S. running around in fields chasing butterflies, Toby T. listening for what the bat said, and Amanda X. searching for snakes on a [fragmented] plain.

catching butterflies in nets in the field

A big brown bat

Adorable baby eastern foxsnakes emerge from their eggs only to be fondled by eager researchers

 

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.Fieldwork is very popular at the Queen’s University Biology Station in southeastern Ontario.  Amanda C. spends her nights at the symphony listening to the frog chorus,

Me counting seedlings

 

 

 

Amanda T. collects beautiful wildflower seeds (being both wonderful and disastrous at the same time),

 

Liz P. plays hide and go seek with whip-poor-wills,  and Adam M. creates robots for sampling daphnia.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

 

 

 

 

 

As we head to the east coast, Michelle L. shares what it is like to collect salmon eggs in New Brunswick…in the winter.

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We will leave you with a short variation on a great song:

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From Bonavista, to Vancouver Island (or studying seabirds off the coast of Labrador with Anna T. to Haida Gwaii with Sarah W.)

From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters, (or what to do with your not so “down time” in Nunavut with Kathryn H. to getting stuck in beaver pond sampling aquatic invertebrates in Muskoka with Alex R.)

This land was made for you and me.

Sunset on the tundra

The tide is high, but I’m holding on

Being by the water is one of my “happy” places and an ocean coast is one of my favourite places to be (a good reason to study seabirds!). The sound of the water splashing against the rocks, the smell of salt in the air, and the  sight of the horizon as far as the eye can see, all add to the experience. However, each coast is slightly different in topography, geography, and biology.

One thing that is consistent among ocean coasts is the tides. Tides are the rise and fall of the water level as a result of the gravitational pull from the moon and the sun in addition to the rotation of the earth. Tides are a very neat phenomenon and on the coast they are often quite dramatic. However, if your field work requires you to be on a boat in the water, you are stuck having to schedule your days around them. I’ve encountered these intense tides during some of my field work experiences on two of Canada’s coastlines.

Fun(dy) tides on the east coast

I took a field course titled “Marine Mammals and Seabirds”, based out of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. The field station we were staying at was in a cove just off of the Bay of Fundy, which is known for having the greatest tides in the world. Tides there can range over 14 m! If the title of the course gives anything away, it is that we needed to be out on the water to have a good view of our study species. Due to the great tides, our boat would move up and down substantially when tied to the dock. In order to get into the boat safely when the water level was not too low, we either had to leave very early (before the sunrise) or we would have to wait until closer to lunch time. You can probably imagine how hard it would be to get 20 undergraduate students up before the sun every day, but somehow we managed to do it (even if we had to climb down a little farther to our boat)! On days when the tide was too low, at least we got to explore the intertidal zone that is normally underwater (but that warrants a whole new post, or check out last week’s guest post The Sea).

low tide at the dock

Low tide at the docks in St. Andrews, New Brunswick

Rocky west coast

One day when I was doing seabird fieldwork on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, we had to travel from the east coast of the south island to the west coast of the north island. We had two choices: we could either sail around the northern or southern tips of the archipelago (would take days to arrive) or we could travel between the two islands through a channel called the “East Narrows”. As you can guess by the name, it was very narrow, with towering cliffs and trees on either side of the channel. The tides were very evident in this channel, ranging from 0.1 m to 4 m over the course of a day. Therefore, we had to plan our voyage perfectly so that we would have enough time to make it to the other side of the archipelago before the water level got too low. If the water got low enough, there was a chance we would hit the bottom of the channel and we would be stranded in the middle of the two islands, possibly damaging our boat. Luckily, we had experienced sailors with us who had timed and completed the trip successfully many times!

Intertidal zone, water, mountains in the background

Intertidal zone on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

When we arrived at the northern island, we anchored the sail boat and the captain brought us in a small dingy to the different islands we were surveying that day. One morning, it was low tide and the wind had picked up. As a result, the waves were larger than usual. We headed out to the island and one by one we had to jump out of the dingy onto the rocks.

Low tide exposing the slippery rocks.

Slippery rocks to jump on at low tide.

The rocks on the edge were very slippery as the low tide left the algae covered rocks exposed. One member of our field crew went to jump off, slipped on the rocks, and fell into the cool water! Luckily she was able to climb out, dry off, and warm up before continuing with the day.

 

In the end, the tide may be low, but I will still be holding on!

 

The Sea

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome a guest post from Rebekah Butler, an M.Sc. student in Conservation and Biodiversity at University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation. 

“The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Jacques Cousteau

I have always felt drawn to the ocean and have fond memories of stomping through rock pools come rain or shine (mostly rain) on family holidays as a child growing up in North Wales. As I grew, I became more and more fascinated with the natural world and scrambling along the shoreline just wasn’t enough for me anymore: I had to get in. The solution was to become a mermaid (or as close to one as possible). It quickly transpired that a life within the marine realm was not a totally realistic plan for my future and so I set out to complete my SCUBA diving qualification, enjoying many bewitching dives throughout South East Asia after completing my undergraduate biology degree.
Although every second beneath the waves filled me with wonderment and I was finally able to experience becoming one with the world that had intrigued me for so long, it was rare to experience a dive free from signs of human impact on the marine realm and this distressed me deeply. This experience only confirmed my aspirations to work in marine conservation and so, after completing a research internship with Marine Conservation Cambodia (another story for another day), I embarked on the Conservation and Biodiversity Master of Science (MSc) degree programme at the University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation in Cornwall, UK.

diving in the Perhentia Islands

One of my favourite dives in the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia.

Studying in Cornwall is amazing! Besides the endless pasties, pints and cream teas, the sea is deeply rooted in Cornish culture and it is not surprising why; the coast is only a short journey away wherever you are and the weather changes with the sea from Cornish ‘mizzle’ (a sort of sea mist/fine rain that doesn’t feel wet but gets your clothes soaked through within seconds) to bright and breezy sunshine within a matter of minutes.

As part of the MSc I am currently carrying out an independent research project investigating the impact of artificial structures on local marine biological diversity. What does this actually mean, though? Basically it means that I am looking at the difference in the number of species found on natural rocky shore areas and non-natural coastal defence structures like the seawalls and harbour walls around the Cornish coast. These structures are now dominant features of our coastlines worldwide and as the seas become stormier and sea levels are predicted to rise with climate change, the construction of sea defences is increasing at a phenomenal rate (some estimates report an increase of 400% in the last 30 years!). The construction of these structures drastically changes natural rocky shore areas that are known to support an incredible diversity of species and it is important to investigate whether artificial structures can support the same species as natural areas.

surveying a seawall at St. Ives

Kristy beautifully demonstrating surveying a seawall at St. Ives

On the ground this means a hell of a lot of fun for me – armed with my quadrat, wellingtons and joined by my awesome project partner Kristy, I’ve visited many locations around Cornwall surveying the species richness of rocky shores and coastal structures. A few teething issues are always to be expected when beginning fieldwork and on our first day, I remember waking up early to prepare our materials and my backpack, excitedly making my way to meet Kristy at the train station while soaking in the Cornish sun…only to realise that I had forgotten our quadrat – DOH! Not to worry, I thought, and ran down to collect it, determined to have a successful day in the field. On arrival we chose our survey location, stunned at the beauty of Falmouth, the town we currently call home. Placing our first quadrat down, we were astounded by the variation in life present before us and aspired to record all species present. Although we had some knowledge of rocky shore plants and animals, it was completely overwhelming! On that first day we managed to record only three quadrats out of the ten that we had planned before the tide moved us on.

surveying a grid on the rock beds

Myself surveying Castle Beach, Falmouth… note the seawall behind and what a wonderful day it is!

However, practice does make perfect and before long we were flying through our surveys. Our increased efficiency definitely helped in the first month, when the weather was still cold and drizzly and hats, gloves, waterproofs and a flask of coffee were a necessity…

Views from sampling at Gyllyngvase beach, Falmouth

Views from sampling at Gyllyngvase beach, Falmouth

OK so the flask of coffee is still essential but we have now swapped the extra layers for lashings of sunscreen and sunglasses instead.

Seawalls, harbour walls and natural rocky shore in the morning sun at St. Ives

Seawalls, harbour walls and natural rocky shore in the morning sun at St. Ives

 

 

 

Now I know that Cornwall isn’t Bali or the Bahamas but sometimes you’d find it difficult to assume otherwise; just check out these pics!

 

 

 

6Not only have we gotten to experience such beautiful conditions, but we have also experienced nature at its finest: witnessing elegant gannets diving metres away from us, kestrels flying overhead, fish hiding from the piercing sun within the nooks and crannies of seawalls, as well as many amazing rock pool finds. Two of my favourite finds throughout our fieldwork are pictured here. The first was a miniature rock pool, no bigger than a bottle cap, providing a refuge for two tiny beadlet anemones, and the second was a small space within a rock face where we saw seven species.

Pictured: this tiny refuge of water provides a home for two beadlet anemones

Pictured: this tiny refuge of water provides a home for two beadlet anemones

This picture shows the great diversity of the rocky shore as common limpets, a common periwinkle, dog whelk, toothed topshell, a beadlet anemone and dog whelk eggs can be seen on a rock face encrusted by pink coralline algae and orange breadcrumb sponge!)

This picture shows the great diversity of the rocky shore as common limpets, a common periwinkle, dog whelk, toothed topshell, a beadlet anemone and dog whelk eggs can be seen on a rock face encrusted by pink coralline algae and orange breadcrumb sponge!)

These finds really drove home the diversity of life that rocky shores support! If this project has taught me anything, it’s to take time to look at the smaller things. Although at first glance a rocky shore may just look like stone covered in seaweed, if you get a bit closer and get down on your hands and knees, it truly comes alive. So what are you waiting for? Get your wellies on and get stuck in!

Rebekah Butler is currently studying for an MSc in Conservation and Biodiversity at University of Exeter’s Centre for Ecology and Conservation. The project is ongoing and if people are interested in seeing how it develops/more findings/general marine conservation news and information you can follow her on twitter at @rebekahbutler. Rebekah is ecstatic to announce that in October she will begin a PhD in mangrove ecology at the University of Hong Kong’s Swire Institute of Marine Science.

Unweaving the rainbow

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wing

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

Unweave a rainbow

(John Keats, “Lamia”)

When I first came across the Keats poem “Lamia”, I was a defiant science student sitting in a third year English class, fighting to prove to myself and to my somewhat sceptical professor that there was no reason a Biology major shouldn’t also do a minor in English Literature.

The poem immediately got my back up.  In it, Keats laments the rise of science, which he claims has robbed the world of its mysteries and made it predictable and boring.  Science will, he says, “unweave [the] rainbow” in a quest to understand it – and in doing so, destroy its magic.  No leprechauns and pots of gold for scientists; they’re all about wavelengths, prisms, and refraction.

Of course, when I read the poem as an undergraduate, I was full of enthusiasm for my chosen field and leapt to its defence.  It’s true that scientists conquer mysteries (if they’re lucky), I found myself arguing in class, but that doesn’t mean they take the joy out of the world.  Why should knowing how things work make them less interesting?

A bad day for Webster: Western bluebird male attacks Webster, my bluebird decoy.

“This is my box!”: bluebird attacking my decoy.

In fact, I thought – and still think today – that understanding the world, knowing what things are and how they work, makes life more interesting, not less.  For example, over the last decade or so, I’ve spent countless hours trying to catch birds, using a decoy and recorded birdsong to make individuals think their territory is being invaded.  And despite having done this hundreds of times, I still get a thrill when the territory owner reacts as science says he should, and comes in to defend his turf – every single time.

But I have a shameful admission to make: as I’ve continued in science, I’ve occasionally had the guilty thought that maybe Keats had a point.  The thing is, science can sometimes be really, really boring.  You can spend whole days weighing the smallest things (beans, bugs, fragments of bird claw) with a mind-numbing degree of precision.  You can spend so long staring up at the trees, looking for birds – or staring down at the ground, counting plants – that you develop a permanent crick in your neck.  You can enter data until your vision blurs, pipette until your wrist begs for mercy, and label samples until your fingers cramp.  It’s easy, while you’re wrapped up in the small, tedious, and sometimes mindless details, to miss the big picture.

And when you’re out in the field, the single-minded focus necessary to collect your data sometimes feels a bit like having blinkers on.  There may be beauty all around you – the view from your ‘office’ may be the most spectacular one imaginable – but there’s so much that has to get done, and so little time to do it.  Who has time to waste on stopping to smell the roses when it feels like your whole PhD depends on catching this bird or collecting that sample?

For example, people often assume that, because I work with birds, I must be an expert on them – the person to go to if you’re not sure what kind of bird you saw at your feeder last week.  These people are almost always disappointed.  In fact, I probably know less about birds than your average outdoor enthusiast, because when I’m out in the field collecting data, I divide them into only two categories: bluebirds (interesting; keep watching to gather data) and not-bluebirds (not interesting; forget about them or risk being distracted).  While this is kind of a sad way to look at the world, it’s also understandable. When you’re panicking about collecting every scrap of data you can in the little time available to you, it’s all too easy to forget to appreciate the mysteries, the haunted air, and the rainbow.

All this has been on my mind recently because I’m currently in the midst of completing perhaps the most joyless task a scientist can undertake: writing the Methods section of my PhD thesis.  Normally, I love to write – but every time I open this particular document, my heart sinks.  If there’s a way to make the meticulous detail of a scientific Methods section interesting, I haven’t found it yet.  Intellectually, I know that these details are important, because science is all about repeatability – but I can’t help but feel that focusing on them is sucking the magic out of what we do.  As I labour through lists of dates and times, equipment manufacturers and specifications, sample sizes and standard errors, I feel slightly sick that all my blood, sweat, and tears have been reduced to numbers on a page.

But when I sat down to write my blog post this week, I realized that that’s where stories come in.  To me, telling stories – like we do here at Dispatches from the Field – is a way of finding my way back to the magic that sometimes gets lost in the everyday routine of science.  The stories we tell here exist at the intersection of art and science: they provide context, let us focus on the big picture rather than individual elements, and allow us to capture parts of our experience that could never be conveyed in the minute detail of a Methods section.  Writing and sharing stories reminds me of the mystery and wonder in the work we all do.

I still think it’s incredibly satisfying to understand how the rainbow works – but I also see value and joy in using stories to weave it back together again once in a while.

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