Falling in love with fieldwork

We are excited to welcome our good friend Bronwyn Harkness to the blog today! Bronwyn recently completed a Masters of Science in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University where she studied seabirds. She did some pretty amazing fieldwork on the eastern Canadian coast and she tells us all about that today. For more about Bronwyn, see the end of this post. 

I recently found the journal I kept during my first ever field season as I was doing a bit of spring-cleaning.  I thought it might be fun to look back and reflect on some of my first fieldwork experiences! I remember being excited but nervous about going into the field for the first time. After waving goodbye to my parents at the airport I thought ‘What have I gotten myself into!?’ Thankfully it was a wonderful experience and quite the adventure!

I studied seabirds during my Master’s and was fortunate enough to spend time in Newfoundland working with Environment and Climate Change Canada on remote seabird colonies. Fieldwork wasn’t a necessary part of my Master’s project (although I did do some of my own sample collection later on), and so I was mostly there to get experience and help out with a variety of Environment and Climate Change Canada projects. I spent my first few weeks on Gull Island, which is a small island in Witless Bay, about half an hour south of St. John’s. The island is protected and only those with permits (typically researchers) are allowed on the island, however the bay is a popular place for whale watching tours. Gull Island is an active field station, with lots of coming and going, and I met so many wonderful people while I was there (it’s true was they say about Newfoundlanders – they really are the friendliest people you will ever meet). I am grateful to all of the people I worked with for their patience and kindness while I got the hang of seabird fieldwork!

Here are snippets from some of my journal entries during those first few days on Gull Island, NL:

June 20/2016 

Island day! I got picked up at 8:00 am this morning and went to the Environment Canada office to do some paperwork and meet the rest of the team 🙂 We packed up all of our supplies (including food and equipment) and went to the warehouse where I got kitted up with a pair of rubber boots, some dry bags, and a survival suit. It took us about 45 minutes to get from St. John’s to Witless Bay, where we unloaded the gear and launched the boat.  Half the group went to the island on the first trip and the other half went to the grocery store, while I guarded the gear. Eventually our driver came back with the boat and we piled in with the rest of the gear. When we got to shore we hopped onto the rocks and unloaded everything. It was pretty amazing to see the island for the first time. There were birds everywhere! We had to carry all the gear up a steep hill, which was covered in puffin burrows. It was tough going but luckily there was a group of us working together.  Had a beer once we were done lugging gear – beer has never tasted better. I helped make pasta for dinner and I was so hungry and tired that it tasted so good! [I have since learned that everything always tastes better in the field.] I am excited to see what tomorrow brings.

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There are birds everywhere! (These are Common Murres!)

 

June 21/2016

Slept decently well last night although I did have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  There were Leach’s storm petrels everywhere and they were so loud! I could see their silhouettes but couldn’t get one in the light so I’m looking forward to seeing them up close today.

Last night I asked when everyone usually gets up and everybody sort of shrugged and said there wasn’t a specific time, so I foolishly set my alarm for 8:30 a.m.  Ha. I got out of bed at 6:40 a.m. (a.k.a. 5:10 a.m. in Ottawa), and I was the last one up. But I woke up to freshly brewed coffee and french toast so I have no complaints.

Later that day

What a cool day! Grubbed my first petrel! Then grubbed a lot more haha. To ‘grub a petrel’ you find a burrow and stick your arm in slowly, feeling around for the egg and / or bird. The egg is small, white, and paper thin, so you have to be very careful with it.  The birds are very sweet, although they do nibble at your fingers when you get close. Petrels also have a very peculiar smell, like musty laundry. Grubbing attire includes long sleeves and fingerless rubber gloves duct-taped to your sleeves.

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Leach’s Storm Petrel that I grubbed from a burrow

June 22/2016

Saw three whales today – I love whales! In the morning we attached GPS geolocators to five petrels and in the afternoon we worked at the PIT tag plots. [The GPS geolocators are used to track where the petrels go on their foraging trips while the PIT tags are used to monitor each time a petrel returns to its burrow.  Leach’s storm-petrel populations have been declining and researchers are not entirely sure what is causing this.  By tracking petrels during foraging trips and monitoring their survival throughout the breeding season we can hopefully get a better idea of when mortality might be occurring.]   I got to band, bleed, and do all of the measurements for one of the petrels! Hopefully I’ll get to do this with some of the larger birds too!

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Recording data at PIT tag plots

June 25/2016

After lunch we did some murre stuff! There were three of us, so one person used the noose pole to catch the birds, while the other two recorded data and took blood samples. [If you’ve never seen someone use a noose pole to catch murres then I will do my best to explain this somewhat comical procedure. Murres live in large colonies on cliff edges and will sometimes flush off the cliff quite easily if there is a sudden movement or loud disturbance. This means you have to crawl on your stomach to the edge of the cliff, then extend the pole out and try to slip the loop over a murres’ head. A noose pole (also known as a catch pole) is a long extending pole with a large plastic loop on the end that is placed over the bird’s head and then tightens slightly to allow you to retrieve the bird.  Once you’ve got the loop over the bird’s head, you need to guide the pole with the bird up over the cliff edge and get the bird into a bag to calm it down. It’s a bit like fishing for birds! To release the murre when you’re done, you have to launch them up high and over the edge of the cliff because they are such terrible fliers that they will just plummet straight down otherwise. Rest assured murres are quite sturdy and are not at all hurt by this process.]

Also, murre eggs are gorgeous. They vary in colour but some are bright blue and they all have these black markings that look as though someone has dipped their fingers in black paint and dribbled it over the eggs. Beautiful!

Also also, I got seriously pooped on by a murre today. Thank god for MEC pants!


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Common Murres

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Common Murre eggs (These were far from the breeding site and were likely predated by gulls)

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Trying to catch Murres with a noose pole – not as easy as it looks! (Photo taken by Brody Crosby)

June 26/2016

Today we went out to the other side of the island to do some puffin work. We were measuring 50 eggs (they looked like chicken eggs) and catching a few adults to weigh, band, and take blood samples from. They are super cute but man are they angry! They have such a nasty bite and one actually managed to take a chunk out of my hand even though I was wearing gardening gloves!  [To be fair, if someone appeared uninvited in my home (and grabbed me!), I would also be quite upset!]

 

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Atlantic Puffins (and a Herring Gull) congregating outside their burrows

July 4/2016

As I was brushing my teeth this morning beside the cabin I heard the pitter-patter of footsteps on the roof. I looked up and one-by-one a group of puffins poked their heads over the edge of the roof until there were five of them watching me. I love it here!

July 6/2016

Last day on the island! Sad to be saying goodbye but excited to have a shower (day 17 of not showering!).  Arrived at my new accommodations in St. John’s. I think the guy at the front desk thought I was a little odd because I looked like dirt and was overly excited about the soap that they were selling at the front desk and the opportunity to buy a laundry card. Little does he know what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks…

And so ended my first experience in the field! Since then, I have spent lots of time out at different seabird colonies on the east coast of Canada, but I always love going back to Gull Island. Thank you to the lovely folks at Environment and Climate Change Canada for introducing me to the wonderful world of fieldwork and allowing me to join their team each summer. I will always cherish my time in Newfoundland!

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Bronwyn Harkness is a research assistant in Dr. Vicki Friesen’s lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.  Bronwyn completed both her Bachelor of Science Honours and Master’s degrees at Queen’s, studying seabird population genetics with Dr. Friesen.  Bronwyn is broadly interested in avian research and conservation and will be joining Bird Studies Canada this summer to study and monitor Aerial Insectivores. You can find Bronwyn on Twitter at @BronwynHarkness.

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