Full mind, huge heart, tired eyes

I had a wonderful summer of fieldwork…my mind is full, my heart is huge and my eyes are tired. I think that’s what all field biologists strive for at the end of a summer field season. I still have a significant amount of fall fieldwork to do, but I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my summer in the field.

My mind is full

I learned SO much this summer… SO SO SO much! I learned new plant species I had never seen or heard of before. I started noticing more of nature including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  I noticed the arrangement of holes and cavities in trees. I noticed the behaviours of birds during mating season and the incredible defense of nests during nesting season. I started learning spider species (surprising given this), recording calls of birds to look them up later and taking photos of tracks in the mud. My mind is still overloaded from everything, I noticed and learned this summer, and I hope every field season from here on out is the same.

Grass of parnassus – new species for me!

My heart is huge

I love field work. I love being outside. I love nature and everything about it. My heart was in the Frontenac Arch for most of the past decade, and now my heart is stretched across so many new places I have grown to love: the scrubby wonders of the Napanee Plain, the always adventurous Prince Edward County, the quiet beauty of the Kawarthas, the wavy coast of eastern Lake Ontario and the rolling hills of Northhumberland County. Next summer will come quickly, and it will bring many more new places to fall in love with, I’m sure.

My eyes are tired

Fieldwork can be tough. Most of your time is spent hiking to specific points, carrying lots of equipment, and in weather or conditions that aren’t ideal. For instance, this summer, I did a lot of “bushwhacking” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. My definition is a little different. My definition of bushwhacking is “to get from point A to point B through thick vegetation, which often has thorns, prickles, and other irritants present, while trying to disturb the natural environment as little as possible and leave some sort of remnant path to find your way back”. A little wordier perhaps, but all very true and relevant to my summer in the field. Thick red cedar on alvars, cattails twice as tall as me, and prickly ash pricklier than ten prickly things were common settings to be “bushwhacking” through. But the reward is always worth the hardship in the end. Check out a couple of the epic places we found as a result of some serious bushwhacking.

Open alvar pavement (a globally rare habitat)

The most picturesque stream I have ever seen

So as I wrap up the summer field season, and start the cooler, wetter, wilder fall field season, I sit here smiling with my full mind, huge heart and tired eyes and I think about all the possibilities the next summer field season will bring.

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Butterflies here, Butterflies there, Butterflies everywhere

My last post was about how my time slugging through swamps and meandering through marshes to learn to evaluate Ontario’s wetlands pushed me pretty far outside of my comfort zone. And since then, I can’t say things have slowed down at all! My new role as a Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has kept me all kinds of busy this summer. I have loads of stories to tell about new species, new habitats, new adventures and new experiences from this summer’s field work (which is still in full swing for another 6-8 weeks!) and it is so hard to choose where to begin. As I left the house this morning, a beautiful monarch butterfly was resting on the hood of my car, basking in the sun. And then it hit me (the idea…not the monarch)…. butterflies! That’s where I’ll start.

As all of our readers know by now, I am a plant person. Plants are just so wonderfully easy. They sit still. They don’t move or fly or bite you (well, usually not). If you can’t figure out what it is (which is still often the case for me), you have time to sit and stare and think and take a million photos. If it hasn’t flowered, you can return, and pending any unfortunate events, it will still be there! I knew though, starting this new role, I needed to branch out. Plants were my comfort zone, and I needed to start paying attention to things that moved. I started birding more and brushed up on herps (the nickname for herpitles; amphibians and reptiles), but what I really started to appreciate were butterflies.

I have spent the better part of the last decade staring at the ground and counting plants. All of that work resulted in some cool research findings and papers, some serious neck pain and farmer’s tans but it also resulted in me missing a lot of what was going on around me.  As I started to think about more than just plants, I started to see habitats, communities, and relationships more clearly. I walked into an alvar site in the Napanee, Ontario area at the start of June and could not believe the diversity of butterflies flying around. I thought to myself “why weren’t my grasslands filled with butterflies?” And then I quickly realized, these grasslands I used to work in were prime butterfly habitat and they were most definitely there, I just never noticed them.

There is an annual Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative Butterfly Count that happens each year, and NCC has a big role in organizing this event. I knew this was something I wanted to see happen in my area, so I helped out with the count to see what it was all about. We divided into small groups and conquered several properties over the course of a long, hot day. We recorded each species and how many we saw and then met back up at the end of the day to tally the results. We found an incredible 58 species and counted 1847 individual butterflies.

If you would have asked me a year ago to name as many butterflies as I could, my list would have likely started and ended with monarch. Now, my list is couple dozen species in length and seems to grow almost daily. This experience is a perfect example of how “naturalists notice nature” and how fulfilling and rewarding it can be to challenge yourself to learn something new.

Black swallowtail

Coral hairstreak

Silvery blues

White admiral

 

 

 

Leaving the Comfort of Southern Ontario Behind

Fieldwork has always been comfortable for me. And by comfortable, I don’t mean physically comfortable. I can’t say the days I spent hunched over in the 40 degree sun with deer flies nipping at my elbows were by any means  “comfortable”. By comfortable, I mean mentally comfortable, or familiar. I’ve spent most of my time in old fields and meadows and these habitats quickly became very familiar to me. They were filled with familiar sights, sounds and surroundings. I dabbled into shrublands, forests and even some riparian areas but the majority of my time was spent in one general habitat type. I knew when I started working as a Conservation Biologist though, that I would have to move out of my comfort zone. I would be managing properties with massive forest and wetland complexes, alvar grasslands, woodlands and even some beautiful Lake Ontario shoreline. I was going to have species at risk (that weren’t plants…Imagine that!!!) to consider, and multi-species recovery strategies were going to become my new bed time reading material.

One of the things I wanted to do to prepare for this was to brush up on some wetland ecology, biology, physiography, etc. So, I decided to take some time off work and take the Ontario Wetland Evaluation Course. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it was described as an “intensive” course with significant course and field components…how intense could it be?

I arrived in North Bay on the Sunday evening and by Monday at lunch we were out in the field, at the beautiful Cache Bay Wetland, doing things like delineating wetland boundaries, examining soil cores and tallying wetland plant and bird species.  It was an exhausting day, but I learned so much and was really excited for the all-day field trip the next day. The following morning, we packed up in preparation for Highview Fen. I was really excited because southern Ontario doesn’t have that many true fens, at least compared to northern Ontario. As we packed up, one of the instructors warned us that this was by far the most intensive field day we would have. Rainboots would be useless, you’ll either lose them or get stuck. Wear shoes you really don’t care about and be prepared to get “very wet”. It was that comment that tweaked my anxiety level a little bit.

We arrived at the site, which was…a golf course?? The bus drove away and we hiked along the edges of the course, checking out the irrigation ponds and standing lifeless every time someone putted. Why was this so bad? Then we started into the swamps. At the beginning, it wasn’t that challenging…you sank down to your calves into mud and water, but it wasn’t that physically demanding. After taking a break and sitting on some peat hummocks to eat lunch, we had to cross a “moat”. I was picturing a castle, with blue flowing water surrounding it, and as you can imagine, that wasn’t the case. It was a swamp where the water and mud went up, past your elbows in some places. I remember taking the first step into it, where the ground quickly dropped off into the water. My hands grasped the trees around me as I tried to stay as high up as I could. I remember pausing for a moment and then announcing “This is SO OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE”. And I wasn’t the only one. I was met with a “ME TOO!!!” from the guy behind me.

After fighting through the deep swamp for 10 minutes, we pulled ourselves out of the moat and into the fen. It was totally worth it. Species like cotton grass, sundews, and pitcher plants littered the ground. I had never seen anything like it. So beautiful and untouched. I knew we were running short on time and had to cross the other side of the moat to get out, but I didn’t care. I took a moment to enjoy this incredible place and think about just how lucky I was to be there.

Pitcher plant

Cotton grass

Tiny little sundews

 

This course made me realize that if I stayed where I felt comfortable and I spent the rest of my life in old fields, I would never have gotten to see this incredible place. Keep in mind this was only the second day of the course, and for the next 3 days I continued to push the boundaries of familiarity and experienced some of the most amazing things. To be continued….

My post swamp dirtiness doesn’t do it justice! If only a camera captured wetness.

First days in the field

I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was my first day in the field (ever) and I wanted so badly to not screw up. I wasn’t an outdoorsy person, I wasn’t good at working with my hands, I really wasn’t meant for fieldwork. Our first task was to install wooden posts at the corners of an abandoned farm field to mark the boundaries of field plots. Being totally unprepared and unexperienced, I picked up a mallet and a stake and started hammering. The ground was soft and the stake was easing into the ground like a knife through soft butter. “Well, this is easy”, I thought to myself, “not nearly as hard as it looked”. It was so easy, that as I confidently swung the hammer one final time with my right hand, my left hand that was gripping the stake slid down the jagged edge of the wooden stake.

Immediately, I felt it. I dropped the hammer onto the soft, green grass and my eyes moved to the palm of my hand. It stung and it throbbed, but there was no blood. After I was able to focus my eyes, I saw it. The biggest sliver I have ever seen stuck out of my palm. The beast measured almost 7 cm long (we really did measure it after using a metre stick). After nearly fainting, and sitting down to take a rest, the rest of the crew helped me remove it from my hand. Clearly, I made quite the impression on my first day on the job! Luckily, that was the worst injury I acquired for the entire field season. It did leave a pretty neat scar though!

Since finishing at Queen’s in the fall, I have started a new adventure as a Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. I remember the day like it was yesterday… Ok…this time it almost was yesterday! It was my first day in the field in my new role and I wanted so badly to not screw up. I was a super outdoorsy person, I was pretty good with working with my hands, and I was certainly meant for fieldwork.

My first task was simply to tour and visit sites and get used to the properties I was going to manage. We reached some thick brush in a red pine forest that was completely overrun with prickly ash. I was following a little too closely when wham, a branch of prickly ash swept into my face, lagged for a second as it tore through the skin of my nose and then it settled along my right side. Interestingly enough, I didn’t feel a thing. My nose didn’t throb or hurt at all. But then I felt it…a slight dripping feeling. Drip, drip, drip. I put my hand to my nose, and indeed, it was bleeding. And pretty steadily. It took a few minutes for it to subside, but alas, I survived. However, I had absolutely NO mark to prove it. You would never even know it happened. It’s funny how things come full circle. Let’s hope that this was the most significant injury of my new adventure. One can only hope!

Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere

Setting up experiments in the field is some of the most challenging, but also fun and rewarding work. Cleaning up experiments in the field is… well…just as challenging but a lot less fun! As I wrapped up my Ph.D. in the fall, I had to start to clean up the mess that I had made over the years. In this old field site, I was trying to understand what predicted abundance of introduced plant species and thus, I installed 10 inch deep aluminum cylinders (100 of them!) to create micro-communities, introduced some species, then installed cages (made of hardware cloth) to keep deer and voles away. It took several months to set up and it was a beautiful sight! But after many years of sampling and a few years of negligence, the beauty quickly turned to chaos. And then, it was time to clean it up. This clean up included three main tasks, all of which seemed fairly easy at the time.

field.jpg

The field site in it’s peak summer bloom

Task #1: Mark 50 cylinders for future re-location

We chose to start with this task because we thought it would be the easiest. All we had to do was randomly select 50 of the 100 cylinders to mark with a wooden stake. Once the plots were selected, we drove a wooden stake on the north corner of the plot. The first plot, in the low-lying corner of the field where the soil is very loamy, was very easy to drive the stake into. And from there, things went downhill very quickly. I remembered 5 years earlier, when I had installed those aluminum cylinders, that the field was quite rocky and difficult to dig in. And that certainly had not changed! 8 hours later, after many cursed rocks, splinters in my fingers and hot, stinging biceps, it was done. The next day we would tackle my next task, which had to be easier than this one.

 

Task #2: Remove the other 50 cylinders

Installing these cylinders in 2013 SUCKED. It was a back-breaking, miserable task. They were installed for almost 5 years and until I finished using them, we never considered what it would take to remove them. It was late fall and the ground was very wet, so we figured this would be the prime time to move them. We figured they would just slide right on out…like a knife in soft butter! But once again, what you think, is not always realistic. Those cylinders would not budge. I had a field assistant with me, and we had a pair of pliers in each hand. We grasped the cylinder with both hands and heaved upwards…and nothing. Not even a slight movement. Even worse, the cylinders were made of aluminum flashing and if you pulled too hard, or on an angle, you would tear a piece of it off, your arms would fling up in the air and you would quickly lose your footing and land smack right on your bum! Eventually, after bruised tailbones and callused hands, we developed a system of careful jiggling, wiggling and coordinated heaving that removed those 50 cylinders. But I will admit, I cried several times that day! That day was terrible…at least the final task of the clean up would be easy!

 

Task #3: Tidy up fences

Like I said before, we used hardware cloth fencing throughout the project to keep herbivores and granivores out of the cylinder plots. However, as the experiment ended and the final sampling occurred, some cages did not end up back on the plots, and in the subsequent years, many blew off and were now littered all over the field site. But all we had to do was pick them up and store them in the field house. Simple, right? Well, it wasn’t so simple. The difficult part was that, like I said, they had been like that for a few years. Thick tufts of grass were growing up and intertwined between the quarter inch holes in the hardware cloth. If you pulled on the cage to pick it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was even worse than the cylinders. It took us over 30 minutes to coax one of them out from the jungle of grass, and it was at that point, we accepted that this was a task that would be easier in the spring, once the vegetation had died back a bit more. I am not totally convinced that this is true, but it does leave me with an excuse to do more field work in one of the best field work seasons!

Love birds: the day I broke a turkey’s heart

One of my favourite field work stories comes from my very first field season. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea what I was doing back then. I couldn’t identify most plants, was slightly scared (ok, terrified) of dragonflies and went to the field wearing outfits I would wear to work at my part-time retail job later in the day…what was I thinking???

Anyways, I remember it being a brisk morning in May. We were looking for target plants of about 30 species in an old-field at the Queen’s University Biological Station to monitor flowering time and plant size. We had no idea what species we were targeting as plants were too small that early in the season. Instead we were simply looking for morphological differences and naming them something we would remember. For example, Danthonia spicata, or poverty oat grass, is a low-growing grass with soft and fuzzy leaves. Grasses are difficult to identify without flowers so in the earliest parts of the season we referred to poverty oat grass as “fuzzy grass”.

That morning I was working in a low-lying area of the field right next to some bushes at the tree line. I was uncomfortably crouching down wearing dark jeans that had little movement in them and my dressy brown blouse was catching in the wind and blowing up to meet my brown baseball cap. I had my back to the bushes and was busily searching the ground looking for “looks like marijuana plant” aka Potentilla Recta. I heard a rustle behind me, and before I could even turn around, I glanced up at another field crew member who was standing about 20 feet in front of me. “Oh my God, turn around,” she exclaimed. I briskly turned my head and just a few feet behind me was a huge Tom (an adult male wild turkey). He had emerged from the bushes and was fanning his beautiful and bright tail feathers and dragging his strong wings along the ground beside him.

I was frozen and had no idea what to do. I had seen plenty of wild turkeys in my life but generally they had avoided me, like they do most humans. What on earth was this turkey doing? Why was he …. *holy *&#%*… it came to me. He thought I was a TURKEY TOO. My wavy brown blouse, brown hat and crouched down position probably made the poor guy think “WOW, now that is a BIG turkey…and she WILL be mine”. So out he came with his best face on and tried to impress me.

Suddenly, in a panic, I stood up. The turkey paused for a moment, let out a weird yelp and then a cluck. He jumped two feet in the air, spun around and crashed back into the bushes. I’m sure he was just as shocked about the whole situation as I was. The love of his life, the most beautiful hen he had ever set eyes on, was not actually a hen, but an awkward field biologist lurking in the grass. After that incident, I started wearing bright colours in the field, and now I never stay in the same spot for too long. I wouldn’t want to break another turkey’s heart.

How I faced my fears and made a new friend (or a thousand new friends) in the field

I know I have said this before, but I’ve never been fond of spiders. As a Biologist, I can appreciate the way they move, the piercing colours and patterns of their delicate little bodies and their interesting behaviours. These wonderful characteristics are all beautiful and incredibly fascinating, until they’re getting close to me and suddenly that beauty is out the window…literally. Some of you may recall a close encounter I had with a rather large and aggressive spider in an outhouse. Before being viciously attacked (that’s only slightly dramatic) by this potty-dwelling beast, I was indifferent to spiders. They didn’t bother me, but I didn’t love them either. After that, they bothered me, and I disliked them very much.

I live in an approximately 100-year-old house with a totally unfinished stone basement and I’m fairly confident that there’s a spider convention down in the basement every fall. I see them all the time. Most encounters I have with spiders now involve me running in the other direction and someone safely removing the threat from my vicinity. And usually they don’t take me by surprise inside. Spotting these creatures in the house is easy with the white tiled floors or light-coloured walls. However, while doing fieldwork, they are not quite as easy to spot and have startled me on multiple occasions.

In the summer of 2014, I was in the peak of my field season, and engaged in doing what I do best…counting plants. Our regular readers will know that counting wildflowers and grasses has consumed my summers for many years. When I count plants, I get in “the zone”. I usually count individuals of one species at a time, so I have a search image in my head, and I see nothing but that search image. I was trying to count wood sorrel, which is a low-growing, creeping species that is very tiny in comparison to most other old-field species. So often when counting wood sorrel, I would lie on my stomach, on a long foam mat, to get an even better image of the plot.

As I counted aloud and my field assistant recorded, I glanced for a second and at the corner of my mat, about 6 inches from my face, was an extremely large, beast-like spider. I quickly pushed my body back and up onto my knees in a quick attempt to avoid an attack like that in the outhouse. Expecting the spider to lunge at me, and tear off my face, I started to stand but quickly realized, that when I jumped back onto my knees, the spider also jumped backwards, and now seemed panicked about being surrounded by big, scary humans. I bent down gently to get a closer look, and realized that she wasn’t even a big spider at all, her entire body was actually covered in baby spiders!!

For a split second, I became more scared by this realization… a spider…covered in…BABY SPIDERS!!!!! The crazy, irrational size of my brain was chanting FLIGHT, FLIGHT, FLIGHT, leave situation now. But then the curious field biologist side of my brain chimed in and I just sat there and admired how beautiful she was. I watched how the hundreds of babies wiggled around and tried to hold on to her little body. They all managed to stay fastened to her and seemed to be enjoying the ride. I got out of her way and watched as she crossed the mat and then began weaving through the long grass towards the tall oak trees on the field edge.

I wouldn’t go as far to say this experience made me “like” spiders, but I certainly appreciate them a lot more now. The parental care and investment from the mother, and her fearlessness when approaching me, a roadblock in her path, helped me to better understand and appreciate the challenges non-sessile organisms face. I am always complaining about my plants being eaten or stepped on or blown over…but these little spiders, and other mobile organisms have a whole set of other challenges plants don’t necessarily face in the same way including feeding young, transporting young, running from predators, among others. I’ve worked in the field for several years and seen many, many cool things, and this one will always remain right near the top of my list!

spider babies

Here she is! Slightly blurred as this was taken with a very old cell phone!