A day in the life of a field biologist

This week, we continue our theme of remote fieldwork with a post from Mikaela Howie about her experiences studying seabirds in the isolated eastern Aleutian Islands of Alaska.  To hear more about her experience and research, make sure to check out her short film and podcast, produced by Wild Lens!

What does it mean to be a field biologist, really?

It means spending much of your life out of touch with family and friends, having dirt under your fingernails more often than not, and calling multiple states, or countries, home in a given year.  You want to sign up, don’t you?

Ok, ok, so that is some of the nittty gritty of being a field biologist.  But of course, as with any venture, there are positives just as there are negatives.  And for some of us, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Meet the neighbours: Stellar sea lions lounging at Pleasure Cove

Meet the neighbours: Stellar sea lions lounging at Pleasure Cove

Freshly hatched black oystercatcher chick

Freshly hatched black oystercatcher chick

So, what are the positives?  Well, if you have an adventurous spirit, the plain and simple adventure of being in the field should be incentive enough.  But, what about getting to live on an island and calling endangered Steller sea lions your neighbors and watching whales pass by as an evening pastime?  How about witnessing the hatching of a black oystercatcher chick or thinking the spinning vortex of hundreds (thousands?) of tufted puffins flying just outside your cabin is a normal everyday occurrence?  These are only some of the experiences I added to my repertoire during my summer field job on Aiktak island, chronicled in a short film produced by Wild Lens.

Aiktak is a small island of 155 hectares out in the middle of the eastern Aleutians that myself and one other crew member called home for 3.5 months, along with the many field biologists that came before us and those that have followed.  The island itself is home to more than 100,000 tufted puffins, ancient murrelets, leach’s and fork-tailed storm petrels, horned puffins, cormorants, black oystercatchers and glaucous-winged gulls – not to mention the other avian visitors and marine mammals – during the summer months.

A typical day on the island is waking to, not the sound of an alarm, but the ever-present chatter of the gulls and, likely, the pitter-patter of rain or the whiteness of the Aleutian fog.  One key advantage to working with seabirds is there is no need to get up at the crack of dawn like songbird work demands.  Yes, you might get to sleep in but you are probably still a bit groggy from having spent the wee hours of the night mist netting storm petrels for diet samples or capturing  fledging ancient murrelets on film.  But you pull it together with a large breakfast of an omelet, compliments of dehydrated egg powder, a bagel with homemade blueberry jam, and a large homemade latte…again, compliments of dehydrated dairy products.

After suiting up with gauntlets, Helly Hansen’s, and Xtratuf boots, you head out to the first of 20 storm petrel plots where your task is to “grub” in each burrow and use your fingers to determine the status of each nest – egg, chick, or possibly rather upset incubating adult.  You trudge along from plot to plot, making note that the bald eagles are still sitting on eggs, the sea lions are lounging at Pleasure Cove and there is a playful sea otter off the coast of Petrel Valley Cove.

Suited up and ready for grubbing!

Suited up and ready for grubbing!

After a long afternoon of hiking the island, checking up on the storm petrel burrows and trying to locate some more tufted and horned puffin nests, you make your way back to the Puffin Palace, the only accommodation on Aiktak, and settle in to making a good meal and data work.

Home sweet home: Puffin Palace

Home sweet home: Puffin Palace

Many people think that you all you have to eat in the field is pork & beans and canned spinach, and yes, sometimes we do eat these things.  But, one of the beauties of field work in wonderfully remote places like the Aleutian islands is that there are plenty of edible plants to supplement your diet, as well as fishing, of course.  You do need to do your research and bring along a good, dependable field guide to help you sort out the edibles from the hurt-your-stomach berries, leaves, and flowers.  But after doing my homework, one of the greatest joys I have had as a field biologist is seeking out edible plants, and collecting, drying and preparing them to use in our meals.  On Aiktak, we were surrounded by an ever-changing landscape as the season progressed from brown to green to colourful wildflowers everywhere!  Some of our edible favourites were spring beauties (leaves and flowers) and wild rhubarb leaves for salads, fried daffodil buds for an appetizer, and dried seaweed and kelp for pizzas and lasagna.  Yup, we made lasagna while on the island!

Some of the spectacular wildflowers of Aiktak.

Some of the spectacular wildflowers of Aiktak.

...and some of the even more spectacular cooking.  A rock kelp greenling (caught by yours truly), and an edible plant salad of spring beauty, rhubarb, and daffodil leaves with monkey flower blossoms on top!

…and some of the even more spectacular cooking. A rock kelp greenling (caught by yours truly), and an edible plant salad of spring beauty, rhubarb, and daffodil leaves with monkey flower blossoms on top!

Feeling full in your belly and having done the dishes and entered the day’s data, it’s time to do a little self-maintenance down at the creek where the local Aleutian green-winged teals are enjoying the quiet and uncommonly calm evening.  The cold water stings a bit but, using the bathe bucket, you grit your teeth and pour it over you anyway, knowing that the feeling of clean hair and skin will be well worth it as you sip hot tea in your bunk that night.  Some people would not dare to take these cold baths, but it is no secret that I cherish these times.  Yes, a hot shower is a welcome commodity at the end of the field season, but how many people get to say they bathed in the Bering Sea?  I would gamble that any who answer yes refer to themselves as humble field biologists.

A calm moment catching the sunset from Old Camp Beach, Aiktak

A calm moment catching the sunset from Old Camp Beach, Aiktak

Mikaela in action, monitoring murres on Aiktak.

Mikaela in action, monitoring murres on Aiktak.

Mikaela Gioia Howie hails from a European family and has spent the last 10+ years working as a wildlife researcher and obtaining a MS in Biology from the College of William & Mary.  Having lived and worked in many different places, including Alaska, Maine, Ohio and Spain, she currently resides in Bozeman, MT where skiing and fishing are her favourite pastimes.  She is entertaining the idea of returning to school to pursue a PhD in wildlife biology, but who knows what new adventure will entice her back out into the field!  To find out more about Mikaela’s experiences on Aiktak, make sure to watch her film, listen to her podcast, and visit the blog she maintained while on the island. 

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2 thoughts on “A day in the life of a field biologist

  1. Amazing! I am a graduate student at UAF, and was searching through blog posts randomly. Remarkably, I worked with Mikaela for a few years in Maine. It’s amazing to “catch up” with someone after not seeing them for awhile. Hey Mikaela, keep it up!

  2. Pingback: Playing for the other team | Dispatches from the Field

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