“What the hell are you doing?”
Upon consideration, I realized I probably did look a bit odd: standing on a beach in my rubber boots on a cold winter day, holding a pop bottle (with the top cut off) and pouring its murky contents into a smaller bottle. No wonder the guy walking his dog was staring at me strangely.
“Um, I’m collecting rainwater for analysis, as part of my PhD thesis project.”
The beach was public land, belonging to the city of Penticton, but I was pretty sure what I was doing wouldn’t bother anyone. To my relief, the dog-walking stranger didn’t seem to mind my presence. He did, however, appear to be laughing at me.
“Oh yeah? How often are you planning to do that?” he asked.
“Once a month until the end of August,” I replied.
Now there was no mistaking it. He was very definitely laughing at me. “Interesting location you picked,” he commented nonchalantly.
“Um…” I looked around the deserted beach. “What do you mean?”
“I just mean that, come July, collecting rainwater is going to involve a very different view.”
“Well, yeah – I assume this beach gets pretty busy during the summer. But I won’t get in anybody’s way.”
“It does get busy,” he agreed. “In fact, it’s one of the busiest beaches in Penticton.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Well,” he replied with a wicked grin, “There are lots of choices for ordinary beaches in the area – but this is the only nude beach in the south Okanagan.”
Amanda’s recent post about her experiences doing fieldwork at the Royal Botanical Gardens (Fieldwork in unexpected places) got me thinking about the various field sites where I’ve worked over the past decade. It’s easy to get captivated by the wild and remote locations that field biologists often get to visit. But as Amanda pointed out, fieldwork in more populated places can be an equally rewarding experience. My PhD fieldwork took place in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia – one of the most beautiful places in BC, but definitely not one of the wildest. Home to several cities, many orchards, and a thriving wine industry, the Okanagan Valley is anything but remote.
Obviously, doing fieldwork in places like the Okanagan makes some things much easier. For example, you don’t have to think as carefully about what to bring with you – if you forget something, it’s easy to run to the nearest Canadian Tire and grab a replacement. And instead of spending months pining for fresh fruit and vegetables (and flirting with scurvy), you can grab local produce from any one of the numerous roadside fruit stands.
But fieldwork in populated areas also comes with its own set of challenges – from collecting data on clothing-optional beaches to hanging out in winery parking lots in full field gear, training binoculars on bluebird nesting boxes while trying to ignore the stares of well-heeled winery patrons. And of course, working in residential and agricultural areas poses one major problem for women: finding a place to pee.
My male field assistant had little sympathy for me when it came to this particular problem. But while being a man may have provided an advantage in that department, it also put him at a disadvantage one February afternoon. We had been looking for bluebirds along a popular hiking trail which ran behind several backyards in the suburbs of Penticton. When we finally spotted our quarry, we rushed to set up our net – at which point, predictably, the bluebirds vanished.
Having put all that effort into setting up, we decided to see if they would come back. We split up to keep an eye out for them and flopped down on the snow to wait. I was peering around through my binoculars when suddenly a pair of boots appeared in my field of view. I looked up and realized my field assistant was looming over me, looking frustrated. “I have to switch places with you,” he said.
I was confused. “Why?” I asked. “I know this is tedious, but it’s not like there are any bluebirds over here either.”
“It’s not that,” he responded.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked him.
“See that backyard there, right near where I was sitting?”
“A woman just came out of that house in her bikini and got into her hot tub.”
“Okay…” I still couldn’t see the problem.
He glared at me. “She’s in the hot tub in her bikini. And I’m sitting directly across from her backyard, hiding in the bushes with binoculars.”
I burst out laughing as he continued, “Either you switch places with me or you bail me out when I get arrested.”
I switched places with him.
I did three field seasons in the Okanagan Valley, and each presented me with its own challenges. However, there were also some incredible benefits to working in cities and on vineyards – such as using golf carts to check bird boxes at the local golf course, or a receiving a free glass of wine while watching birds in front of a winery on a hot afternoon. (I’m pleased to report that a lawn chair and a cold glass of Pinot Gris really improve the fieldwork experience.)
Perhaps best of all, doing fieldwork in populated areas offers unique opportunities for outreach. We encountered people all the time – around wineries, along hiking trails, and in public parks – giving us the chance to talk a bit about what we were doing and why we were doing it. And the importance of that contact can’t be overstated. Even though science in Canada is largely publicly funded, there’s often a huge gap between scientists and the public. Conducting fieldwork in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Okanagan Valley gave us a chance to bridge that gap.