An ode to the boreal forest

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Julia Shonfield, who shares some of her stories about working in Alberta’s beautiful boreal forest.

Helicopter flight in

Sitting up front with the pilot; can’t complain about our mode of travel from site to site!

I could hardly contain my excitement as I started to feel the ground pull away as we lifted up into the air. I’ll never forget that feeling as we zoomed over the tops of the trees. It was my first time in a helicopter, and I was being flown out to a remote field site somewhere north of Fort Chipewyan in northeastern Alberta. Our map had some small white patches, which it turned out were large patches of white lichen on the ground. The area was rocky with jack pine trees scattered across the landscape. This area is part of the Canadian Shield, which stretches across much of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but only reaches a small corner of Alberta. The pilot brought the helicopter down, and I awkwardly climbed out and felt the dry lichen crunch under my feet. I felt ridiculous wearing a pair of chest waders, but I had been warned that most of the natural open areas where the helicopter could land would be wet.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

That was the summer I did field work by helicopter for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) in northeastern Alberta. I got flown in to each site with my field partner and we’d set up our tents in the middle of nowhere, wake up early the next morning and survey birds, plants, and trees, and take soil samples. The next couple sites after that first one had wetter landing areas, but the water was still not very deep. I decided to take a risk and wear my rubber boots instead of my chest waders in the helicopter. The first few days of any field work project can be tricky and stressful as you try to figure out what clothing and equipment works and what doesn’t. A few days in, I thought I had figured it out – and then we landed at one particular site and I watched my field partner, Bryce, get out of the helicopter and sink up to his mid thighs in water. He was at least a foot taller than me, and I groaned as I stepped out of the helicopter, flooded my rubber boots and continued to sink nearly up to my waist. But that’s the thing about doing field work in the boreal forest: you never really know what to expect and what you’ll encounter out there. The boreal forest is incredibly varied and probably a lot more so than many Canadians realize.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

This was not my first time doing field work in the boreal forest. I had previously worked on a forestry project in northern Ontario doing small mammal live-trapping for a couple summers. I also spent a few seasons working on the Kluane Red Squirrel project in the Yukon for my Master’s work on territorial behaviour of red squirrels. But it wasn’t until I worked for ABMI that I fully realized just how varied and truly spectacularly the boreal forest is. That’s not to say that the boreal forest in Ontario and the Yukon is all the same, but those projects specifically targeted certain habitats: in Ontario the project was on the impact of forestry practices on mixedwood forests, and the project in the Yukon targeted preferred red squirrel habitat (white spruce forests). The variation of the boreal forest was likely less apparent to me when I worked in Ontario and the Yukon because there wasn’t the same range of variation across the study sites within each project. The study sites for ABMI were randomly selected, and no two sites that summer were exactly the same.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire and water play huge roles in shaping the landscape of the boreal forest, and those forces were evident almost everywhere I looked. The sites I surveyed that summer ranged from very dry jack pine forest to wet bogs and very wet fens, and from very recently burned forests with lots of standing dead trees to older burned forests where almost all the trees had fallen down.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Some sites were so beautiful I just couldn’t believe they were random dots on a map. My favourite was a sandy site with an open canopy of mature jack pine trees that sloped gently down to a small lake with sandy banks and clear blue water. Others were downright awful; my least favourites tended to be very wet with dense shrubs and patches of burned trees that inevitably would leave me covered in black ash as I tried to navigate around them.

My favourite site, the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

My favourite site: the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta and I’m still just as excited about working in the boreal forest as I was when I started. My project looks at the impacts of industrial noise on several species of owls in northeastern Alberta. The field work involves travelling by snowmobile/ATV and on foot to set up recording units to survey for owls calling over a large area. I continue to be amazed when I get to an area that looks different than any other place I’ve been before. The boreal forest is not that rich in species diversity, but a surprising number of different combinations and configurations can be formed from a limited number of tree and shrub species. The boreal forest is an incredibly fascinating, enjoyable, but tough place to work. It’s not just an endless carpet of coniferous trees, which is often what’s depicted in nature documentaries. Few people dream about working in Canada’s boreal forest and it doesn’t have quite the same allure as exotic and tropical locations, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences in the boreal for anything!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

Shonfield_Profile PicJulia Shonfield is currently a PhD candidate in Erin Bayne’s lab in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her PhD project is on the effects of industrial noise on owls in northeastern Alberta. Follow her on twitter @JuliaShonfield for updates on field work, owls and bioacoustics. The Bayne lab also has a lab blog (http://wild49.biology.ualberta.ca/) and a twitter account (@Wild49Eco).

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One thought on “An ode to the boreal forest

  1. Pingback: This land is our land | Dispatches from the Field

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