Planning a field season? The short answers, and the long ones too.

It’s that time of year again. While, it is still -20C here in Kingston, ON… believe it or not spring is on the way! Labs here at Queen’s are busily interviewing for summer field assistants, rummaging through closets in search of missing equipment and planning out the work for the summer months. This is the first time in a long, long time I do not have a full field season in my near future, but nevertheless the little fieldwork I do have to do will require some serious planning. And that really got me thinking how one goes through the motions of getting ready to head out for fieldwork. So today I’ll highlight some of the questions to ask yourself as you are preparing for a field season.


Question: Do you have a plan?

Short answer: Yes, but plans mean nothing in the field.

Long answer: Ok, they don’t mean nothing per say.  Yes, every field season I plan out all of my work to the tee. I consider what projects need to be implemented, and what the timing for set up, monitoring and data collection is. I also consider existing projects and what they might need in terms of maintenance and harvesting. And of course, you have to slot in things like travel time, some wiggle room for bad weather (or hideous disasters), time for data entry, time for yourself to ensure you don’t go crazy, etc. And so each year I tediously plan out each minute detail of my upcoming field season in hopes that everything goes smoothly.

The reality is that things in the field are completely unpredictable. Now and then by chance something will go exactly as planned, but for the most part, something big or small will go wrong. That always makes me question the merits of actually making lists, but then I think to myself… Can you imagine if I didn’t make a list at all? Those tiny hiccups would probably have escalated to hideous disasters and any hideous disasters could have escalated to… well, you get the point!

So planning is critical. But plan on a broader scale, and leave lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of time for troubleshooting.


Question: Do you have everything you need?

Short answer: You never have everything you need. And you never will.

Long answer: Lists are essential in the field, especially when it comes to what physical items you need to bring with you. However, a lot of times, you are limited by what you can carry, your geographic location, your poor memory and unforeseen roadblocks.

I can recall one specific time in the field when I was cutting up hardware cloth (fencing) to make vole exclosures. In the past we had made deer exclosures using similar materials and used rabbit cage clips and a special tool for those clips to keep the fencing together. We got a tonne of rabbit clips and 2 extra pairs of the specialised hand tools, and as arrived at our site we quickly realized that each clip is about ¼ inch in length. Now that was not a problem when we were making deer cages out of 1 inch hardware cloth. But for vole cages out of ¼ inch hardware cloth, that was going to be a problem. They just wouldn’t fit. And now there we were in the middle of nowhere, with a whole day of cage-making ahead and yet, no way of making cages. Luckily, we realized that when we unrolled the hardware cloth there was a bunch of pliable wire holding the rolls together, and with a bit of creativity, we had a make shift twist tie that actually worked to hold our cages together! While that was certainly a story of fieldwork success, it was something that was well-planned for, on a list, and still managed to present a challenge!


Question: Do you have everyone you need?

Short answer: Let’s hope. We did forget Jen in the parking lot that one time…

Long answer: I have learned over the years that who I take in the field with me can make or break a field season. I have always taken a lot of care in the interviewing process to find people that are not only suitable candidates on paper, but also have a personality, and attitude about fieldwork that fits nicely with the rest of the field crew. And importantly, I need someone that can handle me.

I took a road trip with my brother and sister a couple of years ago, and I can’t even count the number of times my brother said “Why are you such a spaz?” to me during the trip. At the time I had no idea what he was talking about. But looking back on it, he is totally right. I wouldn’t say I overreact (about everything) but I have been known to freak out, about big things, about little things… it’s just part of who I am I guess. My best field assistants, were able to not only deal with that (good for them), but were constructive and actively involved in troubleshooting any problems we encountered, they were positive and enthusiastic, and are all still great friends of mine.

And in the end, that’s what it’s all about. I have had excellent luck with field assistants over my many years in the field. I bring people in the field with me that look solid on paper, but importantly, people I can envision forming a friendship with. Once you’ve made the friend connection with your field crew, the teamwork, the collaboration, the enthusiasm, the good science and the fun all just comes naturally.

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