Spring wildflowers make my heart beat a little harder

Spring is my favourite season to do fieldwork. It’s a combination of the smell of the earth thawing, the canopy slowly closing in above you as trees begin to leaf out, April showers igniting plants and animals alike, and vibrant colours and new sounds awaking all of your senses. Of course, spring fieldwork has its drawbacks. As the natural world slowly wakes up, mosquitoes and black flies wake up, often too fast and much too enthusiastically, and while I do enjoy the rain, it’s still pretty cold, and this can make for some chilly, damp days in the field. My biggest complaint however, is that this season – especially for spring wildflowers – is painfully short. The bare forest grounds explode with life and colour, but blink one too many times and it’s gone.

Wild ginger - one of the most beautiful spring wildflowers out there!

Wild ginger – one of the most beautiful spring wildflowers out there!

The start of the season is marked by tiny yellow flowers cluttering roadsides and wet ditches. Most people mistake them for dandelions, but they’re actually a really neat spring wildflower called coltsfoot. Coltsfoot often reaches reproductive maturity before most species even begin to grow for the season, and often when there is still snow on the ground- pretty smart strategy in my opinon. It is also referred to as the “son-before-father” because it also often flowers before it even produces leaves. So naturally, we jumped on the chance to collect coltsfoot for a project I was working on about body size and reproduction in plants. It was literally the only thing there was to collect at the time.

Coltsfoot blooming (note that the leaves are just starting to grow!) Photo credit: Wikipedia

Quickly after we see coltsfoot, more species spring to life as the ground thaws, and the days get warmer and sunnier. Spring beauties cover the rich, soft woodland ground. It breaks my heart to crush them beneath my feet as I walk through the woods, but they are everywhere. They might be one of the most beautiful little spring wildflowers, with stripes of vibrant pink lacing their pale pink petals. And the sheer number of them makes for some spectacular woodland walks.

Spring beauties

          Spring beauties

And of course, there are the iconic trilliums. At one of my field sites, white trillium populations can be found all throughout the surrounding woodland areas. But on one rocky cliff edge, there is a giant population of red trilliums. Red trilliums aren’t that rare a sight while doing fieldwork – you often see them interspersed with white trilliums here and there. But what made this particular spot special is that it was covered with red trilliums and red trilliums only. That was a rare and beautiful site.

White trillium

White trillium

Red trillium

Red trillium

I learned lots of new species doing spring fieldwork, and discovered some absolutely stunning plants. Take a look at the photo below, the ever brilliant early meadowrue. I had never seen it in flower until my first spring doing fieldwork. The first time I saw this species, it really did make my heart beat a little harder. I don’t think there is a more beautiful wildflower out there. It is so delicate – I couldn’t bring myself to cut it down for my project.  Looking back at that photo, and remembering that moment in the field, I’m glad I left it where it was.

Early meadowrue

Early meadowrue

There’s something special about spring fieldwork and for me, the wildflowers are a large part of that something special. They’re different from other wildflowers: short-lived, of course, but what they lack in life span they make up for in beauty. They’re one of the first signs of life in the spring and for many field biologists, a sign that our favourite season, fieldwork season, is finally here.

A Canuck in the Outback – Cane toad research in north tropical Australia

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Cameron Hudson, a PhD candidate in Western Australia, to fill us in on what it is like to work at a remote field station. Check out his bio and a link to his own entertaining blog at the the end of the post!

Sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam conservation area. Despite the stillness in the photo, we’re minutes away from a frenzy of activity. Snakes, insects, crocodiles and cane toads (my study species) all spring into action, going about their nightly activities. I spend many of my evenings here, chasing toads around and swatting at mosquitoes. Located in the wetlands region of the Northern Territory, roughly a 45 minute drive south-east of Darwin, sits the research station that we lovingly call Middle Point. It has been a long standing study site for researchers from the University of Sydney, where I moved roughly a year and a half ago to start my PhD research on the cane toad (Rhinella marina) invasion of Australia.

A bright yellow male cane toad

A bright yellow male cane toad (Rhinella marina)

I first learned about the cane toad introduction when I was in high school – my grade 10 science teacher Ms. Holterman showed us a documentary from the ‘80s titled: “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.” It’s worth a watch as they outline the history and spread of a devastating invasive species while managing to interview some quirky individuals. Little did I know that ten years later I would become one of those quirky individuals, moving across the world to study the evolution of the world’s most successful amphibian invasive species. A quick summary – cane toads were introduced to many countries around the globe in order to control sugarcane pests. They arrived in Australia back in 1935, and in the eighty years following, have spread over millions of square kilometers of the Australian landscape. Since they are highly toxic, and Australia has no native toads, many of the native predators have been devastated as the toads move through new areas. Animals that try to eat the toads don’t realize that they are toxic until it is too late (particularly a problem for snakes since they swallow their prey whole). This biodiversity crisis has fostered a lot of hatred towards the toads, and produced a good deal of research funding for studying their impact, and developing control methods. It has also given us a unique opportunity to study the evolution of an invasive species as it invades an entire continent.

Cam with kangaroos.

Obligatory kangaroo photos.

That’s where I come in! I met Professor Rick Shine, my PhD supervisor, when he was visiting QUBS after I had just completed my MSc. We discussed his extensive research program, dedicated to various areas of the toad invasion, and I was hooked. The project we decided on would examine phenotypic changes in cane toads across Australian populations, focusing on adaptations that promote dispersal. As the toads move across the landscape, they are doing so at a rapidly accelerating pace. Previous work on the toads had already shown differences in morphology, behaviour and physiology between toads at the invasion front and toads at the range core, so I was excited to examine these findings further. It also meant that I would get to go wherever the cane toads are, and for a Canadian who had always wanted to travel around Australia I felt pretty lucky.

Purnululu National Park

The real outback – Purnululu National Park, Western Australia

As much as I love the field, life is not always easy in the top end. The field station is pretty remote, the weather is intense and the health hazards are real. From a lifestyle perspective, cell phone coverage is spotty, internet connectivity is low, and we’re surrounded by buffalo farms. Having a social life can be difficult; it’s easy to get wrapped up in my research, and it means that my relationships with friends, family, and my partner require a lot of work (and patience, from people having to put up with my dropped calls). I suppose being a Canadian in Australia means you’re in a long distance relationship with most of the people you know, so it can get a bit lonely.

Buffalo as friends

Luckily we have buffalo friends out here!

From the safety side of things, my work involves a lot of long hours driving (often at night), there are venomous snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne diseases to watch out for. In the wet season we’re met with cyclones and flooding, in the dry season it’s droughts and wildfires. Needless to say, you have to be careful.

Northern death adder

A northern death adder (Acanthopis praelongus) about 2 minutes away from my front door

With all of these factors considered, I still love my job. Living in the field means I’m surrounded by wildlife, free from the clamour and noise of the city. You never know what you’ll run into. Long road trips alone, or with good friends, have given me such an appreciation for the geography and biodiversity of this country. In the short time that I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve seen so much, and yet there is still an endless number of places to explore. As damaging as the toads are, I guess I have them to thank for this experience. Not to mention helping me on my way to getting a PhD, and becoming one of those quirky individuals that I learned about in school.

Cam measuring toads.

Measuring toads – Cam’s favourite activity.

Cam Hudson is a PhD student at the University of Sydney, studying evolutionary biology under Prof. Rick Shine and Dr. Greg Brown. He is a Queen’s University (BScH) and University of Gulelph (MSc) alumnus. His previous research has examined male mating strategies and hybridization in spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) with Prof. Stephen Lougheed, and sexual size dimorphism, multiple paternity and combat in the Emei moustache toad (Leptobrachium boringii) with Prof. Jinzhong Fu. He spent his childhood catching frogs and salamanders in Ontario, and hopes to continue chasing amphibians into adulthood as an evolutionary biologist. If you want to read more about his life and research in the Northern Territory, check out his blog: darwinstoad.tumblr.com

 

Sweet dreams in the field

Most of you who have been camping before would understand and agree with me when I say that when you are living out in nature, every little task suddenly seems like a lot more work. This includes, but is by no means limited to, getting dressed, making meals, cleaning up after meals, showering, and even having to use the “facilities” (which by the way consisted of a large boulder, a fallen tree trunk and the ocean). In addition to these regular activities, add running along slippery rocks, hiking up and down hills, climbing over and under fallen tree trunks and sticking your hand into cold holes in the ground where you may or may not find your burrowing study species. However, even on the unsuccessful days, one thing I could always count on was the best feeling of crawling into my bed at night.

a view of the facilities, consisting of rocks, a log and the ocean.

The “facilities”.

I was overly excited for my first night on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii, BC. How many people get the chance to camp on a remote island? As you can imagine, after a long first day of travelling to and exploring the island, I was grateful when it was finally time to crawl into my bed. I set up my one man tent and rolled out my thermarest.

One man yellow tent

My one man tent on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii.

Humpback whales off the coast of the island.

Humpback whales gather along the reefs just off the coast of the island.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. But when I couldn’t fall asleep immediately I was shocked. As is usual in the early spring in northern BC, it was fairly cold, so I put on all of my layers to go to sleep – which meant I did not have much room to move around. I could feel all the roots under my thermarest, but convinced myself it was just like having a constant massage. Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a group of humpback whales blow just off the coast, not even 300 m away from my little tent. At around 11:30pm the seabirds started to return to their burrows after spending a day at sea. Like myself, they must have been excited to return home, as they were very noisy projecting their call to find their mate and nest. The seabirds calls continued into the dark night with lots of “chaaar chaaar chaaar”’s. I must have fallen asleep around 3 am because the next thing I remember is the dawn chorus of the songbirds on the island as the sun rose.

A tired selfie in the woods.

A tired selfie in the woods.

 

I woke up still tired but it was new day and I was determined to make the most out of my experience. Although it was very tiring and stressful at times depending on how successful we were at finding occupied burrows, we couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather to be traversing remote islands. At the end of the day, knowing I could count on my bed was actually very comforting, with the company of the wildlife chorus and all.

Lessons learned in the field

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Kim Stephens, an Undergraduate student from Queen’s University. Kim was a field assistant in 2013 to one of our resident bloggers, Amanda and today she tells us about some of the lessons she learned during her first summer in the field. 

During the summer of 2013 I worked as a field technician for the Aarssen Lab at Queen’s University – meaning I got to spend my summer working outside almost every day. I was incredibly excited to not be stuck in an office or store, gazing longingly at the sunshine outside. My 4 months were spent digging in the dirt, watering plants, and picking flowers – a dream job! We worked on 4 different projects throughout the summer, which were at varying degrees of completion. That summer, I was continually learning, and by the end I could identify a multitude of flowers and grasses, and knew my way around areas surrounding Kingston. I also learned quite a few lessons about field work… many of them the hard way. Here are some of them!

Science happens, despite the weather. One of the projects that I was helping with involved differing water levels on the study sites (decreased, control, and enriched) which meant that once per week, we pulled the Rhino out of the white house, and watered study plots for an entire day. This made complete sense to me on a scientific basis, but when I was standing out in the rain watering, it didn’t make quite so much sense anymore. That being said, watering in the rain was sometimes a nice break from the +30oC, when you wished you could turn the spray nozzle around, and get cooled off by the pond water.

watering study plots

Adam Sprott watering study plots at Bracken Field.

The Rhino.

The Rhino.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protect yourself from the elements. Sunscreen is your best friend! I was used to my typical days out in the sun – sitting in the shade, hanging out at the beach – being able to enjoy the weather without being in the direct sun. This was completely different! Bracken field, where we watered, was exactly that – an open field. We had very little reprieve from the high UV, except while filling up the water tank, and after a couple of encounters with lobster-coloured skin, I started applying sunscreen more frequently. On the opposite end of the spectrum – invest in a good rain suit… especially if you’re working in and around Kingston. Field work continues in the rain, so not having to sit in wet clothes all day, or change multiple times, makes the work day much more pleasant.

Plant ecology can be dangerous – watch where you’re walking. Late in the summer, during seed collection for Amanda’s project, I discovered that I was thankfully not allergic to wasps. We were in an area which had very little, if any, cell service and virtually no houses nearby. I was walking along the side of the road, and found some plants that looked like they might have seeds that we needed. The ground camouflaged the wasps’ nest, and unfortunately I stepped right on it. They didn’t take too kindly to my intrusion, and stung me 12 times.

Double check that you’ve packed everything. Early in the field season, just after we started digging trenches around study plots, Amanda and I were taking a break for lunch, when she discovered that she hadn’t packed a fork for her salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one either, and since we were so far from a town, we had to make do with what we had, which ended up being a garden trowel that we had been using to dig. After rinsing, sanitizing, and rinsing again, it was designated ‘safe’, and she created a new meaning to ‘shoveling food in your mouth’. We didn’t forget cutlery very often after that.

Trenches dug.

Trenches dug.

eating with a garden trowel.

Amanda making do with a garden trowel as a fork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Offence is the best defense. Poison Ivy, a tricky little plant which causes rashes and other irritation, quite enjoys hiding in the most unsuspecting places. A good portion of the summer was spent collecting samples which were conveniently located in patches of poison ivy. My solution – full yellow PVC-coated rain suit (read: homemade biohazard suit) complete with rain boots and gloves. Armed with this protective layer, I ventured into the area which held the Dame’s Rocket flowers I wanted to collect for my project.

 

 

 

Back up your pictures. You will see many amazing things while working in the field and take pictures of as many as you can– I took over 2000 during my time in the field. Weather happens, equipment breaks, and phones reach the end of their lifespan. While I was putting together this blog post I had a perfect picture in mind of one of the other field technicians watering plots in the rain. I discovered far too late that it had been taken on my cell phone – which gave up a few weeks ago…. before being properly backed up. 

Stop and smell the roses. Fieldwork has its ups and downs, but while you’re out in the field, take the time to appreciate the beautiful nature around you. I took an office job the summer of 2014, and spent most of it inside, appreciating how amazing the previous summer had been.

View of Upper Rock Lake

Rideau Trail overlooking Upper Rock Lake

Butterflies smell the flowers

Ele campane and Swallowtail butterfly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kim StephensKim did her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Biology and studied the relationships between metrics of plant body size for her undergraduate thesis. She returned to Queen’s for the 2014-15 school year to finish off her degree in German and is headed to Germany this year to work and attend graduate school.

There’s no place like home

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” – Henry David Thoreau

Western bluebird nestling peers out of nestbox.

Who’s there? Western bluebird nestling peers out of nest box.

It seems to be an immutable law of nature photography (at least in my experience) that anything mobile will move the second you’ve gotten your camera ready, leaving you standing forlornly with your lens pointed at empty space.

But on this particular summer morning, I seemed to be witnessing an exception to this law.  As two hikers scrabbled through their backpacks for cameras, a male western bluebird sat calmly on top of the nearby nest box, singing his heart out – completely unperturbed by his audience.

From my perch beside the hiking trail, I watched the hikers rifling through their bags somewhat frantically.  Although I’m very familiar with ‘perfect shot’ panic, in this case I was pretty sure the would-be photographers would have no trouble snapping their photo – since the bluebird in question was in fact my wooden decoy bird, Webster.  I had set him up on the box about 20 minutes earlier, hoping to lure in the bluebird that actually owned it.  Apparently neither hiker had noticed the clip attaching Webster to the box – or the speaker below, broadcasting bluebird song.

As the hikers finally pulled out their cameras, I thought about explaining the situation – but somehow it just seemed mean to spoil their excitement.  A few minutes later, as they continued on their way, their conversation floated back to me: “That was amazing!  I can’t believe he sat so still.  I love bluebirds; they’re so beautiful.  That just made my day!”

Webster, my decoy Western Bluebird, perches on the edge of a nest box.

Webster, my decoy Western Bluebird, perches on the edge of a nest box.

 

Everybody loves bluebirds.

One of the first things you learn as a science student is to be wary of making absolute statements.  When you say something is ‘always’ true, or the ‘the cause’ of something, you had better be able to back it up.

And yet, even though I am not willing to go out and interview the 7.2 billion people in the world to determine their opinion on bluebirds, I’m still comfortable making this statement: everybody loves bluebirds.  They are, in fact, inherently lovable – charismatic, highly visible little birds with beautifully vivid plumage, associated with happiness, spring, and the land somewhere over the rainbow.

All three bluebird species (eastern bluebird, left; mountain bluebird, centre; western bluebird, right) have beautifully vivid blue plumage.

All three bluebird species (eastern bluebird, left; mountain bluebird, centre; western bluebird, right) have vivid blue plumage.

I have to admit, when I decided to focus my PhD research on bluebirds, I didn’t realize just how much people love them.  I quickly discovered that there are both upsides and downsides to working with a group of birds so universally beloved.  To be honest, sometimes it made things considerably more complicated.  For one thing, it meant that people tended to be very interested in what I was doing.  While this is mostly a good thing, it can be difficult to focus on answering questions and doing fieldwork simultaneously.  For another, people were often very protective of ‘their’ birds, and reluctant to allow me to capture and band them – a totally understandable attitude, but one that sometimes made my work a bit harder.  All ornithologists are aware that banding is a stressful experience for a bird.  Although we try to mitigate that stress as much as possible, being ensnared by a net, grabbed by a giant hand, and then handled, poked, and measured…well, it just can’t be that much fun.  Ornithologists do what we do because being able to identify individual birds gives us important insights into behaviour and ecology that would otherwise be impossible.  Ultimately, banding birds may provide us with information that benefits the species (for example, by informing management plans) – but we are all very aware that no individual bird ever benefits from being banded.

But while public interest in bluebirds occasionally made my life a bit more difficult, there were also many upsides to working with such an iconic group of birds: chief among them, having a species to study at all.

Perhaps one of the main reasons that people love bluebirds is that they are, relatively speaking, easy to see.  They are dwellers of disturbed areas.  They love the long forest edges and wide open fields created by agriculture; unlike many other bird species, human-wrought habitat changes were largely beneficial for them.  However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, naturalists began to notice a troubling trend: a persistent decline in bluebird populations.

Although bluebirds forage mainly in open areas, they build their nests within cavities in trees.  All three species of bluebird are secondary cavity nesters – meaning that, while they need cavities for nesting, they do not create those cavities themselves.   Instead, they depend on finding holes created and abandoned by other species of cavity nesters, such as woodpeckers.

So when bluebird numbers began to decline, people wondered if maybe there simply weren’t enough cavities for them to nest in anymore.  But if that was the problem, what had caused the decrease in available nesting cavities?  The answer was simple: while the actual number of cavities available was staying the same, the competition to use them was likely getting increasingly fierce – thanks mainly to the introduction of a number of invasive cavity nesting species, such as the European starling and the house sparrow, to North America.

Concerned citizens were determined to tackle the problem.  Getting rid of the advancing hordes of invasive cavity nesters was virtually impossible – so they approached the problem from the other direction, by building and installing artificial nest boxes.  These boxes were designed to exclude some of the larger competing species (such as starlings), and were carefully positioned away from sources of food for house sparrows, to decrease their interest in the boxes.

Putting up bluebird nest boxes in the southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia

Putting up bluebird nest boxes in the southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia

As public interest in the plight of the bluebirds grew, enthusiastic citizen scientists began to establish nest box trails across the continent – and populations of all three bluebird species began to rebound.  In 1978, scientist Lawrence Zeleny enlisted the help of the Audubon Society to found the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) – an organization which continues to actively promote the conservation of bluebirds and other cavity nesters today.

Currently, many populations of all three bluebird species are stable or increasing – thanks in large part to NABS and its network of citizen scientists.  Every spring, these citizen scientists maintain and monitor thousands of bluebird nest boxes across North America.  Volunteers like 91 year old Al Larsen (the subject of Bluebird Man, a recent documentary by wildlife filmmakers Wild Lens) spend many hours each year gathering detailed information on box usage and nesting success of bluebirds and the many other species of cavity nesters that use the boxes – ultimately producing huge amounts of data on a much larger scale than any single researcher ever could.

The bluebird recovery story is an inspiring tale of grassroots conservation success – a win for the birds, but also a win for the people who continue to put so much effort into protecting them.  Although I encountered a few challenges working with this ‘poster species’, I don’t regret for a second choosing to study bluebirds for my PhD.  Getting to know the bluebirder community gave me the opportunity to work with some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met – people who went out of their way to help and support me.  Without them, my project would not have been a success.  But more than that, I found that I loved watching the bluebirds too. Even on the most frustrating field days, they made me smile – partly because of their charisma, but also because they are living proof that sometimes, we can make a difference.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home

 

Land of living skies

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Krista Cairns, to tell us about some of her adventures as a resource management officer in the Canadian prairies.

Grasslands National Park

Welcome to Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan, the northern edge of the mixed- grass prairie ecoregion!  This is where I work as a resource management officer for Parks Canada.  I am a part of a team that works to protect, preserve, and present this special ecoregion to Canadians, and my job is focused on monitoring, maintaining and recovering prairie ecosystem function. The mixed-grass prairie ecoregion is named after the short- and mid-height grasses that grow in mixed stands here, most notably in our region blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), wheatgrasses (Agropyron spp.) and spear grasses (Stipa spp.) This beautiful broad plain, interrupted by deep valleys and hilly uplands, stretches all the way from the Canadian prairies to the Gulf of Mexico.  Grasslands National Park is Canada’s only park representing mixed-grass prairie, and efforts to preserve this landscape were launched 50 years ago by conservationists and local land owners.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park

Canadian prairie – mixed-grass or otherwise – has largely been converted into agricultural or developed land. In Saskatchewan, mixed-grass prairie makes up about 13% of the province, and about half of that has been cultivated (Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, 1998).  I feel extremely fortunate to work in such a rare and beautiful landscape along with other people who share my passion for the prairies.

During the spring and summer field season, I am posted in the East Block of the park, a particularly remote and sparsely populated area of Saskatchewan. The horizon is wide and largely uninterrupted; however, severe weather systems still manage to sneak up on me in an instant.

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

There is spectacular storm viewing in East Block; however, that is not the only upside to storms – the thunderstorm activity at the end of April and beginning of June in our last field season in East Block brought up plains spadefoot toads.

Plains spadefoot toad

Plains spadefoot toad

Spadefoot toads aren’t actually toads or frogs – in fact, they’re in their own suborder. Check out the hind foot (pictured above): see the black protrusion? That is the spade!  These toads are excellent diggers, and spend most of their life underground. This means they are not dependent on permanent waterbodies: in fact, they are dry-land specialists. Spadefoots are particularly tied to thunderstorms, emerging only after those really big storms to breed, possibly drawn out by the rumble of the thunder. In dry years, they may not emerge at all! We feel pretty lucky to have seen and heard these spadefoots breeding. We would wait up until after dark to hear them calling, and would wade out into the ankle-deep pools to find them.

Catching spadefoot toads

Catching spadefoot toads

During our last field season, it continued to be rainy well into June, and we were able to observe the tadpoles’ progress in nearby ditches, ponds and other shallow, water-filled depressions.  Come August, as the landscape was drying up, the last clutches that had not yet metamorphosed were surviving in puddles of moisture collecting in cow hoof prints (neat, eh?). Spadefoots are one of the fastest metamorphosing “frogs” out there! In good conditions, they take only two weeks to go from egg to adult form, which is important considering they use such ephemeral, shallow pools. If the water starts drying up early, the algae-eating tadpoles turn cannibalistic, thereby achieving both more elbow space in the disappearing puddle as well as additional protein (which presumably helps them metamorphose faster). Sure enough, in the most crowded puddles you could differentiate vegetarians from carnivores by both jaw structure and size – both were a lot beefier on the cannibals!

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Lekking grouse are another fun springtime sighting. The park is home to both the endangered sage grouse, and the sharp-tailed grouse. Sharp-tailed grouse are a lot easier to find, as they occur across their range in greater numbers. Their name comes from their tail shape, which tapers to a sharp point thanks to elongated central tail feathers. Like many grouse, male sharp-tailed grouse gather in groups on specially selected dancing grounds called leks. On the leks, the males puff up special air sacs, flair up colourful combs above their eyes and do a noisy and extremely entertaining dance. Females watch from the sidelines and select only the most deserving male specimen (usually only a couple get any of the action from what I’ve been able to observe). Every year, I get to watch these very interesting birds at several dancing grounds throughout the park. They dance the hardest in the wee hours of the morning, but will sometimes perform an encore in the evenings near sundown.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

When I get called over to the West Block of the park, the black-tailed prairie dog is a dependable wildlife sighting. These critters live in small clusters of family groups within a larger colony, which can be quite extensive. They create habitat and foraging areas for many other species, as well as form a reliable source of food for many predators.

Rattlesnake

Home sweet home: a prairie rattlesnake takes advantage of a prairie dog burrow

Burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, prairie rattlesnakes, black widows and tiger salamanders are examples of some of the very interesting fauna you can find taking shelter in a prairie dog burrow. Bison and other grazers are often found near or on prairie dog colonies, whether attracted there by the new green shoots of a lawn kept well-grazed by prairie dogs, or by the dependable alarm system that results from having so many sets of eyes peeled for predators.

Coyote

A coyote prowls near a prairie dog colony

If I sit hidden among the hills surrounding any one of our colonies for any length of time, I often see owls, hawks, golden eagles, foxes and coyotes swooping over the colony or skulking by, looking to catch a prairie dog off guard. Sometimes I am lucky enough to see a badger, which is always interesting because of their amazing digging skills – they will excavate a prairie dog if need be; you can see the evidence of their diggings if you walk around a colony.

Better yet are the things that happen when no one is watching. We set up remote cameras on prairie dog colonies which monitor several handy things, for example presence/absence of burrowing owls and ferrets and emergence of prairie dogs and the associated temperature and date. However, we capture many additional images, such as predation events, interesting intra- and interspecies interactions, and animals looking into the camera!

Saskatchewan: land of the living skies

Not another soul in sight

But when working on a monitoring project in the more remote areas of the park, the rarest sighting can be other people. When I prepare for fieldwork, I have to plan, plan, plan because it’s an open landscape, devoid of people and services, exposed to the elements – and it is a loooong way back home. Packing involves collecting back-ups of all equipment, plenty of food and water, first aid supplies, navigation and communication tools, clothing for all weather, and emergency shelter, and then filing a detailed plan of where I’m going and when I’ll be back with several people. It’s also essential to have a plan (and back-up plan) for which route I am going to use for access and how – it’s usually not a matter of driving to the field site; most field sites are remote. If a site is accessible by vehicle, there are river crossings, washouts and rough terrain to navigate. Above all, I have to watch the weather: checking weather before leaving is key, but even more important is watching the weather while I’m in the field. It’s easy to forget to look up when you are doing vegetation surveys or looking for small animals in the grass, which can lead to being stuck in the field.

Working in the park is both a pleasure and a challenge, providing plenty of opportunity for fieldwork as well as a lot of deskwork. I love this beautiful place, and encourage everyone to come explore.

Krista

Krista has worked for Grasslands National Park in various capacities since 2008, contributing to a variety of projects, including species at risk monitoring, wildlife management, prairie restoration and invasive species control. Occasionally, she also has the pleasure of working with the public, through volunteer programs, guided tours or educational programs.

Reference:

Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, D.F. Acton, G.A. Padbury, C.T. Stushnoff. 1998. The Ecoregions of Saskatchewan. Canadian Plains Research Center. University of Regina

 

Fieldwork: an emotional roller coaster

Disclaimer: I am going to apologize in advance for what might seem like a rather over-dramatized account of this fieldwork experience. As I read this over, I realize how theatric this might sound to someone other than myself – but I think every field biologist has had an experiment that takes you on an emotional ride like the one I’ll tell you about today!

When I last wrote to you all, I left you chilled with my winter (fall) fieldwork trials and tribulations. The emotions I covered setting up this experiment included, if you recall : exhaustion, anger, frustration, worry, etc.  I spent the next few months contemplating my experiment, everything that could go wrong and whether or not my plants would grow.

Spring arrived quickly. My field went from a soft blanket of white, to a cold puddle of slush with my plots peeking out here and there, to entirely free of snow cover in a matter of about 36 hours. And just as quickly as spring arrived, a whole new set of emotions arrived too.

The day the snow melted I headed out and nothing was happening. The ground was still thawing, so that wasn’t too surprising. And for the first ten days or so… nothing. After a couple of weeks grass was starting to come up outside and around my plots, but not a single seed had germinated in those cylinders. Tension. That is certainly what I felt. My field assistant and I would check the plots daily and I know we were both wondering when something would germinate. But neither of us was going to say it. Breaking that silence would mean failure was a real possibility. By the end of April I was sure failure was going to be the outcome. The grass around my plots was getting to be a couple of inches tall, the spring wildflowers were alive and well. Trout lilies lined the edges of my field site. The odd tree was starting to leaf out. And about as quickly as everything came to life, that tension turned into distress. I warned you this might sound dramatic, but that is very honestly the feeling I had. And for many reasons. Thinking about the waste of time, money, resources. Heck, was this going to jeopardize my progress, my completion time, my doctoral degree?

May slowly rolled around, and the rollercoaster ride was at the point where you’re going down a steep slope and then realize that you’re OK. You’re still alive. The day I saw my first seedling, you would have thought I won the lottery, and to be honest, it kind of was like winning the lottery. And thinking back on it, that was 1 seedling out of 1.8 million seeds I sowed. I wasn’t even sure what it was. It could have been a seed of a resident plant for all I knew but there was green! If that had been the only plant that grew, the enthusiasm certainly would have died off fast, but it gave me hope. Hope that maybe others would soon follow suit. And did they ever.

My first few seedlings

                    My first few seedlings

The week I found that first tiny seedling, the bare brown plots started to sparkle with bits of green here and there. The barren ground I had lost all hope in was littered with bits of life. Relief.

Every day the plots got greener, as more little plants came to life. They got bigger, and many even flowered. By July, I was overwhelmed. I had anywhere from 1 to 25 species in every plot with sometimes more than 1000 individuals in a given plot. And I needed to count all of those. What had I gotten myself into?

photo of a plot filled with hundreds of seedlings

The plots quickly went from barren to little jungles in the matter of a month

Eventually we got into a routine and with the help of three trusty field assistants, we did it.

One of my field assistants, Erika, working hard at counting seedlings

One of my field assistants, Erika, working hard at counting seedlings

Me counting seedlings

                   Welcome to the jungle!

When we counted that final plot I was happy, I was satisfied, and I was pretty darn proud of that achievement. Nearly a year of hard work all culminated in a great success. I feel like every field biologist has a story like this. Fieldwork is often left in the hands of Mother Nature and she always promises joys and challenges. The emotional roller coaster ride it takes you on is one of the really awesome parts about doing field work. The highs and lows all make the experience worthwhile and of course, it makes for a great story!