A few weeks before I started my first field assistant job, my friends all contributed to buy me a full set of rain gear for my birthday. The rubbery, canary yellow jacket and pants were definitely not a fashion statement (at least, not one I wanted to be making), but I was extremely grateful nonetheless. I assumed that being a field biologist would mean working in all sorts of unpleasant weather conditions, and I wanted to be prepared.
But shortly after arriving at QUBS, I found out that ornithologists have a reputation for being wimps when it comes to bad weather. In fact, there’s a longstanding tradition that birders don’t work at all when it’s raining, because birds don’t do anything in the rain. (How we know this without going out in the rain to check is something that we don’t talk about.)
I was – not surprisingly – very pleased to hear this. I like the outdoors as much as the next person (actually, at that point, that wasn’t true, but it was growing on me), but I’m not a fan of wandering around in soggy clothes – and it soon became clear that, while my shiny new rain gear did indeed keep out the rain, it also made me sweat so much that I got soaked from the inside out anyway. I folded the rain suit back into my suitcase with a relieved sigh.
However, less than a week later, I found myself pulling it back out. What I quickly came to realize is that there’s a giant loophole in the ‘no working in the rain’ rule. While it is true that ornithologists don’t usually catch and band birds in the rain, there are plenty of other field duties that can easily be performed even if everyone else is contemplating building an ark. If you happen to study a cavity nesting bird, like the tree swallow, then you can certainly monitor nests in the rain. And if you’re looking to re-sight colour banded birds, then the rain can actually make your job easier because the birds tend to move less..
The upshot is that I have spent many hours on many different field jobs staring through rain-streaked binocular lenses, trying to see colour bands on soggy birds and ignore the rain dripping down the back of my collar. And from this experience, I have determined that there’s a strong correlation between the number of clothing layers the rain has soaked through and the frequency and intensity of thoughts of mutiny.
I always thought that when I was in charge, things would be different. With a whole breeding season to collect data, I reasoned, who cares if you lose a few days to inclement weather conditions? I swore up and down that no field assistant of mine would ever find themselves courting trench foot as they squelched home at the end of a long, wet, miserable day.
Little did I know.
The first year I ran my own field season was an eye opening experience. Before that, I’d only given fleeting thought to what kind of boss I’d be (except for the no-working-in-the-rain thing; I’d thought about that a lot). If you’d asked me, I would have probably said I’d be easy to work for – after all, I’m pretty approachable and relaxed, and I hate working in soggy clothes. I might even have guessed that I’d really enjoy the chance to mentor students just starting out in field biology.
The reality turned out to be totally different. What I hadn’t considered was the toll that collecting data for my own project would take – not to mention the strain of projecting an air of confidence and authority when I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing. That first year, I spent most of the field season stressed, frustrated, and running on 4 hours of a sleep a night. It’s hard to be a mentor to anyone under those conditions.
Being in charge was a totally new experience for me: I’d never been anyone’s boss before, and I had no idea how to go about doing any of the things I needed to do – starting with interviewing prospective candidates.
Even under the best of circumstances, I think interviews are a pretty awkward experience. But in the case of field assistant jobs, they tend to be even worse, perhaps because what you’re really evaluating is whether the candidate’s personality is compatible with yours. Because of this, I discovered, it is very easy to forget to ask vital questions – meaning that you can later find yourself stuck on an island, trying to re-sight colour banded birds with a field assistant who is colour blind.
I also didn’t know anything about recognizing someone’s breaking point. When it’s your own data you’re collecting, your tolerance level increases dramatically – at least, mine did. It’s easy, when you’re in the thick of fieldwork, to forget that these people who soldier alongside you do not have the same stake in the data as you. Walking home late one evening with my first field assistant, I realized rather abruptly that there are points beyond which you really should not push people. As we trudged along the Sable Island beach, an angry gull swooped towards us, buzzed our heads, and then crapped all over my assistant’s hat. He stopped in his tracks, stood stock still for a second…and then took off after the gull, screaming profanities and hurling our mist net poles in its general direction. I decided on the spot that he was taking the next day off.
Being in charge, I realized quickly is that the boss-employee relationship becomes a bit blurry when it comes to fieldwork. When you’re working, eating, and living with someone, you get to know them pretty quickly – and while that makes it easy for friendships to develop, it also makes it inevitable that you’re going to get frustrated sometimes. And that goes both ways. I’m sure my disorganization sometimes drove my field assistants up the wall – they learned fast to never, ever ask, “What are we doing tomorrow?”
And that boss-employee relationship can become significantly more complicated depending on who your employee is. For example, it can be quite awkward giving orders to your PhD advisor’s daughter. Or to your parents: I was lucky enough to have my Dad volunteer to help me during all three of my PhD field seasons – and while it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with him, the role reversal involved in me telling him what to do was a bit disconcerting.
After running six of my own field seasons, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a bit better at being the boss – but mostly I think the credit for these successfully completed field seasons goes to the incredible group of field assistants I’ve been lucky enough to work with. They’ve rescued me in so many ways over the years – acting as my personal translator when my grasp of Spanish proved inadequate for the Dominican Republic, spending hours staking out a mist net to catch the one bird I really needed, refusing to let me drive when I was really, really sleep deprived, and making me laugh when I most needed it. Though I’m sure that I’ve given each and every one of them cause to contemplate mutiny, I’ve appreciated their patience, enthusiasm, and sense of humour more than I can say.
But I still make them work in the rain.