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!

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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.

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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!

How many words is a fieldwork picture worth?

One of the current hot topics regarding human social trends is the use of social media platforms to document our lives, especially in terms of photos. Why not just live in the moment? You can take experiences with you, but you can’t take photos! These are just a couple of the common mindsets out there. I’m not particularly sure where I fall on this spectrum. I love taking photos, and I do upload quite a few to social media. For me, it is a way to keep in touch with my family and friends and let them know what I am up to, and occasionally, it’s to brag about the 10 pounds of tomatoes I just picked from my garden. Either way, it is certainly a highly-debated topic.

I’ve been doing fieldwork for almost 10 years now, and I quickly learned after my first field season that having a camera, or at least your smartphone with you at all times is a must, and for many reasons. Of course, taking photos, specifically selfies in the field is key. Sarah told us this not so long ago, and about her many regrets regarding her lack of fieldwork photos, especially those with her in them! I, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. I have SO many fieldwork photos, I don’t even know what to do with them. But, even though there may be 10,000 photos, all of my photos have a purpose.

First of all, I take fieldwork photos so I can use them to explain what I actually did in the field. Photos are excellent tools for Powerpoint presentations, or to use in the methods sections of manuscripts. My Supervisor has always told me, “there is no better explanation than a photo” and he always encourages all new students to document their entire fieldwork experience with photos. Photos have helped me explain many things over the years. For example, I designed “micro-germination chambers for the field” and explained in nearly 1000 words of text just how these chambers were built, stored and used. But it was always met with confusion. In a recent talk, I simply showed a photo, and provided a very brief synopsis of that same device’s uses and it was much clearer.

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“Micro-germination chambers for the field”

Second, you get to document some of the interesting things that happen in the field. One of the best parts of doing fieldwork, is the other stuff that happens while you’re doing it. And often, that stuff is not related at all to your work. You might remember me talking about that in one of my favourite posts to date “The White house: from damp and dark to cold and warm” where I was be-friended by an exceptional group of gray rat snakes inhabiting our field storage building. Or the time the biggest, most beautiful praying mantis decided that my forearm was the ideal place to hang out for the afternoon. Or the time we found a random group of white turkey-like birds and a black duck wandering the roadsides…the list goes on.

Finally, and probably, most importantly, fieldwork photos are useful as an outreach tool. One of our goals at Dispatches from the field is to tell fieldwork stories that aren’t captured in manuscripts and to showcase the work we do, and why we do that work. The best way to tell our stories has been through photos. Our blog is littered with beautiful photos from posters all around the world and while our stories are certainly amazing, photos have been a big draw for new readers and followers. At outreach events we have posters and slideshows that are almost exclusively photos, and we have always been met with wonderful feedback. It helps me answer the common questions I get asked like: what is an old-field anyways? Or, when you say you measured maximum potential body size, just how big are we talking??

Our experiences, and the stories that have culminated in Dispatches from the field highlight the places, the species, and the problems that we as field scientists, care so deeply about. Showing pictures to accompany those stories, we hope at least, has helped others realize why they should care about them too.

Creating artificial natural communities

I have always been interested in understanding how plant communities are structured and assembled. That’s why I’ve spent the last half decade tromping around in old-fields, shrublands and woodlands, collecting, counting and measuring plants. While most of my research has involved surveys of different types of natural plant communities, in 2013 I was trying to understand the structure of communities when all plants were the same age. This meant that the established habitats I was used to studying were no longer suitable. I had to start my own communities from scratch.

One of my beautiful old-field sites.

The easy option would have been to collect seeds from an already existing herbaceous plant community and create a new community in a controlled greenhouse setting. But I didn’t want to do that. When you start moving experiments to a “controlled” greenhouse setting, things can often end up more complicated than you ever imagined. Greenhouse disasters I have witnessed in my time in graduate school include aphid/spider/mite outbreaks, extended water outages/contamination, issues with heat/lighting control, sabotage by angry colleagues and even, I kid you not, the panes of glass on the roof smashing. (Incidentally, those panes of glass are 1.5 inches thick…and the offending object was never found… can anyone say UFO???) In addition to having little control in these supposed controlled experiments, when you use a greenhouse setting, you are also introducing other sources of variation that you wouldn’t see naturally. For example, the water/ fertilizer you apply is different from a plant’s natural environment, as is access to sunlight, and often plants end up root-bound and limited by their pot size.

So, for me, the obvious solution was to take the hard route, and attempt to set up my own communities in the field.  To create these communities, I installed aluminum cylinders into the ground (about 9 inches deep) to ensure neighbouring roots couldn’t access them. I then applied a herbicide to the resident plants in those plots, and after they died, I cleared the dead vegetation out. At one site I installed 100 cylinders and just left them as they were after clearing the dead vegetation. This allowed seeds from the natural seed bank to germinate and grow and eventually reproduce. The issue with this site though, was that I had no idea how many seeds of each species were present in each plot. So for the second site, I spent the entire summer of 2013 collecting seeds. I chose species that didn’t overlap with those already at the field site, but had been found growing in similar habitats and had a wide range in body size, flowering time and life history strategy (annual, biennial, perennial). I ended up collecting seeds of 46 species, and putting 200 seeds of each of the 46 species into each of the 100 plots. I followed these communities over the next three growing seasons, and the results were amazing.

Early growing season plot (early May) versus mid-June

In the site without introduced species (just from the seedbank), the first year plots were filled with species I didn’t recognize. This site is normally dominated by perennial wildflower and grass species, but suddenly all sorts of annuals were popping up again. In the site with introduced species, I saw tonnes of beautiful annuals flowering in year one. In year two, the plots were exploding with biennials and in year 3 finally a perennial dominance was seen. The interesting part is that now this experiment is in year 4, and although we aren’t monitoring or collecting any data, we see the resident species starting to slowly make their way back into these plots. So even though we planted tens of thousands of seeds from introduced species at the site, the resident species seeds from the seed bank and plants surrounding the plots are slowly starting to take over again. This is the perfect example of how plant community dynamics are always changing.

So taking the hard route really did pay off in the end. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t a whole slew of hideous disasters that could have affected my natural plant communities. But I could definitely sleep better at night knowing that these experimental plant communities were experiencing as close to natural conditions as possible!

On Murphy’s Law and quick fixes in the field

Over the past 8-10 years, I have done a lot of fieldwork. This means that I have designed a lot of field experiments, and as such I have also dealt with a lot of planning, anticipating and building/purchasing of fieldwork-related equipment. This also means I have done a lot of tweaking, troubleshooting and repairing in the field. I am a firm believer that fieldwork operates under Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Murphy’s Law, of course, just doesn’t apply to fieldwork, I am most certain it applies to all work, or perhaps even life in general, but for many reasons fieldwork is more sensitive to things going wrong, and for a couple of key reasons.

1) Most fieldwork is done far enough away from civilization that running to the hardware store just simply is not an option. This means that creativity and resourcefulness are two of the top qualities needed in field biologists.

I remember when the latch on the driver’s door of the field van just mysteriously stopped working. The door would simply not stay closed. We still had over an hour to drive home, and we were not letting this silly door stop us. One of the girls working in the field, Sarah, took her belt right off her pants, and looped it around the handle on the inside of the door. I sat behind her and held on for dear life as we flew down the windy country roads hoping that the belt would not slip and cause the door to fly off… or Sarah to fly out… or any other hideous disasters. We survived and made it back in one piece. It ended up being that the lock was just jammed and it was an easy fix…oh, life’s lessons!

 

 

Another time, I was building cages out of fencing for a herbivory treatment and had arrived very prepared with rabbit clips, and the special pliers to clamp them on. Quickly, I realized that this plan was not going to work. The pliers were too big to fit through the holes in the fencing. Luckily, between tape from the First Aid kit, Zip ties from the floor of the van, and a package of twist ties, we made it work! FIVE years later, those cages are still holding strong! Originality in the field is key!

2) Most fieldwork experiments are put in place with very little control over what happens. You can plan and anticipate until you are blue in the face, but there is always something you miss, and for years after you might think, “what if I had just…”

During my Master’s I was working on an experiment where I isolated target plants to obtain their maximum potential body size, in the absence of competition. We carefully chose plants, tagged them, cleared all the neighbouring plants, placed straw on the ground as mulch, and caged them with cages 1 metre in height to prevent deer grazing. We had thought of it all! Nothing could go wrong…WRONG! Not only did the entire field flood (that’s for another story) but we realized that it’s harder than we thought to outsmart a deer. While we had caged only 5 buttercups in an entire field filled with hundreds of thousands of buttercups, the deer wanted the ones in the cage. And they did anything they could to get the ones in the cage. They would pull cages up using…I don’t quite know, maybe their faces, or their front limbs…there was lots of hair stuck to the fencing to suggest they used some body part to lift them up. They also tried lying down on the cages or pushing them over just enough so that they could grab hold of and tug my precious sample right out of the ground. As frustrating as this experience was, I can only look back on it and laugh at the persistence of those pesky deer.

A “deer proof cage”

These are only a couple of examples of how Murphy’s Law is very applicable to fieldwork and field biology. If you have some stories about Murphy’s Law and your fieldwork, shoot us an email at fieldworkblog@gmail.com!