Trading in the pristine for the polluted site

I’m sad to say that the summer has ended (although this fall is quite beautiful so far). However, summer ending means many biologists are coming home from field work (if you are nodding yes then you should write a guest post on our blog!). Not being in grad school any more, I have to find other ways to get outside. Luckily for me for my current contract, I was fortunate to do two whole days of field work (for a lab tech this is a pretty big deal)!

As you probably know from my previous posts, I was fortunate to do my master’s field work in the most pristine of places -Haida Gwaii. Massive sitka spruce tower over you as you sit on moss covered logs listening to the waves crashing against the cliffs. You can hear whales off the coast and birds singing overhead. My study species, Cassin’s auklet, nest in burrows along the cliffs of remote islands on the eastern and western side of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The adults look like flying tennis balls as they return to their nest because they are chubby and have fairly short wings. When in hand, the chicks are cute little fluff balls that just sit there. My kind of paradise!

The luscious forests of islands in Haida Gwaii.

The luscious forests of islands in Haida Gwaii.

A fluffy Cassin's auklet chick

A fluffy Cassin’s auklet chick sits patiently for a photo.

My fieldwork this year was a bit different to say the least. I did study seabirds and I did venture to islands. However, I traded in the “pristine” site for the “polluted” site you may say. We have had a few posts lately (both by our regular bloggers and by guest bloggers) about doing fieldwork in a city. Now I can join in this discussion! I did fieldwork in Hamilton Harbour, at the western end of Lake Ontario, where steel plants exist and receives wastewater treatment plant discharge from surrounding cities. Some islands in the harbour are natural and some are man-made, but these islands were a lot less remote than the ones I was on in Haida Gwaii! From the islands we were on, you could see and hear the four lane highway. Nothing like trading in the sounds of ocean waves crashing against the cliffs for the constant hum of traffic. Additionally, the water was not very inviting for a swim to cool off even though we were in the intense heat for 14 hours straight.

Cormorant island in Hamilton Harbour

An island in Hamilton Harbour where double-crested cormorants nest.

In addition to the environment being different, the species I was studying has a very different life history strategy than Cassin’s auklets. We were studying how contaminants have affected the double-crested cormorants in the harbour. Cormorants are colony nesters which nest in big groups out in the open, often defoliating all the trees on the islands because of their guano. Despite the heightened noise from the bigger (mostly hairless) chicks and intense smells of rotting fish from regurgitates (how the parents feed their young), a bonus to studying colony nesters is it is never hard to find an individual! These islands were also occupied by gull and tern species that would circle us overhead. Not only did we have to be wary of being pooped on, I was told to wear a feather in my hat to avoid being pelted in the head by a swooping angry gull (luckily I was not the tallest in the group so I was not the easiest target!).

Double-crested cormorants waiting on nests.

Double-crested cormorants waiting on nests.

In the end, being spoiled with graduate fieldwork in a place that many people do not get a chance to visit, I think it was a good experience for me to do fieldwork in a more urban setting. Although maybe less “pristine”, it is interesting how these prehistoric looking species are able to live and thrive in this “new” environment we have created.

 

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5 thoughts on “Trading in the pristine for the polluted site

  1. enjoyed doing my field work in Fisheries (Salmon Creel and Redd Surveys in Oregon Coast), but I really didn’t like moving every 3 months…. and who wanted a desk job to just study population dynamics numbers. You guys are a great bunch of people, and the work is indescribably enjoyable and tough, no? keep on bloggin, as I love to explore along side…. (did the feather in the hat work?)

    • Thank you for your comment! I think the “nomad” like life of fieldwork is what draws some people in 🙂 . As you said, some people are not made to sit in one place at a desk all the time. And yes the feather did work, but could also be that the chicks were a bit bigger so the gulls were not as angry that we were there!

    • I hadn’t seen that article, thank you for bringing it to my attention! The kingfishers are beautiful birds and that is an interesting way to view conservation. Maybe we should be focusing on how species are adapting to these “new” environments instead of solely trying to rehabilitate ecosystems which may be more difficult to do (but still very important is possible!).

  2. Pingback: The California condor Search and Rescue squad | Dispatches from the Field

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