The bear necessities

Anyone who has been following my posts has probably figured out by now that I am essentially a scaredy-Cat.  I love being in the field, but when I’m there, I worry about anything and everything – from mountain lions all the way down to cows.  Unsurprisingly, bears have always featured pretty high on my list of worries.  Huge, powerful bodies, sharp teeth, and a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised…what’s not to love?

My initial bear encounter took place during my very first field season, up the Queen’s University Biological Station – and, in fact, wasn’t an actual encounter at all.  I was working at the station as a field assistant, and my duties included daily inspections of approximately 200 tree swallow nest boxes.  One day, as I made my way through a grid of boxes, I suddenly realized that one was missing.  At first, I wondered if I was losing it: how could a nest box just vanish?  However, closer inspection revealed that the box was actually still there…in pieces on the ground.  The nest was torn apart, the nestlings were gone, and a pile of bear scat sat on the ground close to the wreckage.

Until that point, I had thought of QUBS as an entirely safe place to do fieldwork.  Finding the ruins of that box was a rude awakening.  I froze in place and stared frantically around the field, looking for other indications that a bear had been there – or, more problematically, was still there.

In the end, of course, I found nothing; the bear that had destroyed the box was long gone.  In fact, over the course of my two summers at QUBS, I never actually saw a bear, just heard occasional second- or third-hand stories of sightings.  I eventually accepted that I was highly unlikely to actually meet a bear at QUBS, and I relaxed.

All that changed when I started my PhD.  I was thrilled to be doing my fieldwork in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia…but at the same time, my mind heard the word “mountains” and interpreted it as “bear country”.  And while no one would claim the Okanagan is overrun by bears, my research informed me that black bears are reasonably common there, and even grizzlies aren’t unheard of.  Too make matters worse, a lot of my work took place in vineyards, where bears can be a big problem in late summer, when they come down out of the hills to gorge themselves on the grapes.

In preparation for this ‘highly dangerous’ fieldwork, I purchased a plethora of bear bells (to warn bears people were coming) and a few cans of bear spray (to deal with bears that didn’t heed the warning).  Armed with these tools (and accompanied by a ceaseless jingling), I felt pretty secure wandering around my field sites.  That is, until one day, when a local asked me, “How do you tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?”

“I don’t know,” I said innocently.  “How do you tell the difference?”

“Well, black bear scat is full of berries.  And grizzly bear scat…well, it smells like pepper spray and jingles a bit when you kick it.”

With a wicked smile, he went on his way.  I stared foolishly after him, clutching my pepper spray while my backpack jingled faintly.

This conversation somewhat eroded my faith in my bear spray and bells.  On top of that, it turns out that ceaseless jingling is phenomenally annoying after a few days.  Add to that the fact that I kept accidentally leaving my bear spray behind in various locations (forcing me to spend additional time wandering around in bear country attempting to retrieve it) and it’s not hard to understand why I decided to abandon that approach.

But I was still not enthusiastic about encountering a surprised, irritable bear.  So I devised a new strategy: I would just talk to myself as I wandered the hills, providing fair warning to any bear in earshot.

However, I quickly found out that it’s hard to talk constantly when you don’t have anything in particular to say.  In desperation, I found myself thinking back to high school, trying to recall any lines of the poetry or prose we’d recited in English class.  As it turns out, the only thing I remembered was the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.  So day after day, I would stumble around the Okanagan back country, repeating “Two households both alike in dignity / In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” as loudly as possible.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t encounter too many people on my wanderings.  At least the bears of the Okanagan are now well educated.

I guess the star crossed lovers did the trick, because I didn’t actually see any bears for most of my first field season.  But one day in early August, as I was making my way back to the car in one of my most isolated field sites, I rounded a corner and found myself about a hundred feet from a black bear.

Given that I’d worried about this exact scenario all summer, I was surprisingly taken aback. I turned on my heel and started walking away briskly, trying not to look back over my shoulder.  Finally, though, I just had to know.  I whipped around to survey where the bear had been…only to realize it had vanished.  Now I had a new problem: there was definitely a bear in my immediate vicinity, but I no longer had any idea where it was, and it was a very long walk back to the car.

Isolated ranch field site in the Okanagan

Can you spot the bear in this picture?… Nope, I can’t either.

Clearly the thing to do was keep talking to avoid surprising it; unfortunately, though, Romeo and Juliet deserted me in my panic.  So I decided that the logical thing to do was call home and talk to my parents.

When I dialed my home number, my sister picked up.  I told her about the bear and explained that I just needed to stay on the phone to keep talking.  “That’s too bad,” she said impatiently.  “But I need to call my friend now.  Call Mum on her cell instead.”

Right.

I hung up with her, and did as she suggested, still striding in the direction of the car while swiveling my head vigilantly in all directions. This time, I managed to get a hold of my mum…and that’s when I learned that you never, ever, ever call your mother and tell her that you’re in the middle of nowhere, with an unseen but very real bear lurking around.  She was quite willing to stay on the phone with me, but had no problem letting me know that she was not thrilled with the situation overall.

Much to our mutual relief, I made it to the car with no problems, and I didn’t see another bear for the rest of the field season.  In fact, it was over a year before my next bear encounter.  This second run-in happened at a less isolated site, but played out in much the same way as the first.  I froze briefly, then did an about face and walked away.  And once again, after a few seconds, I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder.  This time, the bear was still visible.  In fact, it looked an awful lot like he had also done an about face and was hurrying in the opposite direction as fast as his furry paws could take him.

Apparently some bears are aware that humans also have a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised.

Cold comfort

Light raindrops pattered against the tarp stretched above my head.  Deep inside my tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, I shivered.  The damp cold of the day had made its way insidiously through my layers of clothing, freezing me from the inside out – and we had only been sitting here for two hours, meaning we had at least six more to go.  I sighed, resigning myself to a(nother) cold, clammy, uncomfortable day.

Most field biologists have spent at least a few days freezing their butts off in the field.  Unfortunately for me, however, being cold is not something I’m particularly tolerant of.  And in this case, the deep chill seeping into my bones was somewhat unexpected – because most people don’t go to Hawaii to be cold.

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, field biologists often get a unique perspective of the places where they work.  So while bikini-clad tourists lay tanning on the beach less than 50 km away, I spent most of my time in Hawaii clad in at least three layers of clothing, huddled on the northeastern slopes of the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea.

As it happens, Mauna Kea is not just the tallest mountain in Hawaii – it is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how you look at it).  From its base on the sea floor, it rises over 33,000 feet – almost 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.  Of course, only 13,802 of those feet actually rise above the surface of the ocean – but it’s still a lot colder at thirteen thousand feet in the air than it is at sea level.  The top of Mauna Kea is frequently snow-covered in winter, and spending a rainy day hanging out on its slopes can be a chilly experience.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

No one mentioned this aspect of Mauna Kea to me before I took the job – or, indeed, filled me in on the fact that our field accommodations were luxurious in every way except one: they had no heat.  And so I spent a great deal of my time in Hawaii shivering.  (In fact, I was once so cold that I tried warming my hands over the open flame of our gas stove.  This backfired when the sleeve of my sweatshirt caught fire – but for just an instant, before I extinguished the flames in the sink, all I could think was, “Wow! My hands are finally warm!”)

However, while the damp, misty chill of the Hawaiian forest was perhaps not ideal for field biologists (at least, not for me), it turns out that it’s pretty important for the organisms we were there to study: the birds.

I went to Hakalau to work as a field assistant on a long-term study examining population trends of Hawaiian forest birds.  Although just about anyone would be excited to be spending the winter months in Hawaii, I was excited for an entirely different reason than most people: Hawaiian honeycreepers are one of the poster children of adaptive radiation.

An 'akiapola'au shows off his amazing multi-tool bill.

An ‘akiapola’au shows off his amazing, multi-purpose bill.

Arising from a single, unspecialized ancestor species, Hawaiian honeycreeper species have exploded to fill multiple ecological niches on the islands.  There are finch-like honeycreepers and parrot-like honeycreepers and warbler-like honeycreepers.  And then there’s my particular favourite: the ‘akiapola’au – which we nicknamed the ‘Swiss Army knife bird’.  ‘Akis fill the woodpecker niche in the Hawaiian forest.  They use their straight, strong lower bills to drill holes in tree bark, and their long, curved upper bills to probe those holes for insect larvae.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, i'iwis are hard to miss.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, ‘i’iwis are hard to miss.

It’s one thing to learn about adaptive radiation in a lecture hall…but quite another to see its results, firsthand, in the field.  Honeycreepers may not be the quintessential example of adaptive radiation – that honour being reserved for Darwin’s Galapagos finches – but they are (with all due respect to Darwin) definitely one of the most dazzling.  My first day at Hakalau, I was constantly distracted by flashes of colour, as the deep scarlet of an ‘i‘iwi or the bright orange of an ‘akepa flitted through the nearby ‘ohi‘a trees.  Seeing their endless, beautiful forms brought evolution to life for me in a way that four years of undergraduate biology textbooks never had.

Unfortunately, however, Hawaiian birds are not just the poster child for adaptive radiation.  They could also be featured on posters for another buzzword concept in biology: multiple stressors.  Hawaiian birds are currently under attack from every side…and, more often than not, they’re losing the fight.

The plight of Hawaii’s forest birds started – as these stories so often do – when humans showed up, changing habitats and trailing with us the usual host of desired and not-so-desired biological companions.  From rats and house cats to feral pigs, non-native bird species, and mosquitoes, humans unleashed (sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally) a tidal wave of invasive species that swamped the delicate balance of life on the remote Hawaiian islands.

While each of these invasive species individually has a negative effect on Hawaii’s native birds, it’s in concert with each other that they become especially dangerous.  Some of the introduced bird species on the island arrived there carrying avian malaria, a blood parasite that is relatively common in most places, but foreign to Hawaii.  The introduced mosquitoes acted as vectors to transfer that parasite to the native birds – which had never been exposed to it, and hence were completely lacking any defences.  Even the feral pigs got in on the act, digging up roots in the forest and inadvertently creating hollows which filled with water, providing ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.  It’s a multi-pronged attack, and one that has resulted in the decimation of many of Hawaii’s native bird species.

But these native birds do have one thing going for them – the cold.  Mosquitoes are largely restricted to low elevation areas of the islands (~5000 feet), as their larvae don’t develop properly at the lower temperatures found further up the slopes.  So high elevation forests, like those found at Hakalau, have for decades acted as refuges for Hawaiian honeycreepers.

And therein lies yet another problem: we all know, as the climate warms, that cold places will not necessarily stay cold.  In Hawaii, climate change is yet another stressor for the birds.  Increasing temperatures will likely mean the end of these high altitude refuges, and even more dramatic declines in honeycreeper populations, as has been documented in recent studies on the island of Kaua’i.  Slowing the rate of climate change may be the only hope for some of these already beleaguered species.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not very good at being cold – in fact, it makes me decidedly grumpy.  But while I was in Hawaii, watching an ‘i‘iwi feed on the bright pink flowers of an ‘ohi‘a or an ‘akiapola’au hammering holes in the bark of a koa tree more than made up for the damp chill.  Without the cold, I might never have had the chance to see these spectacular and declining species.  That realization alone was enough to make me almost appreciate the shivering…except perhaps for the day I caught my sleeve on fire.

An endangered Hawaii 'akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

An endangered Hawaii ‘akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

Red in tooth and claw

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario....

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario….

One crisp, clear March day a couple of years ago, I found myself driving out to the Queen’s University Biological Station with a friend.  She was going out to do fieldwork, and I was going out to help her (in an effort to pretend that I still did fieldwork).  It was a typical Ontario pre-spring day: the snowbanks along the roadside were almost as tall as the car, and the sun glinted off the drifts of snow in the fields.  However, there was also a faint warmth in the air, and the ice on many of the lakes and ponds was covered with a thin film of water and a fine webbing of cracks.

Just before we turned down the road leading to the field station, we passed a group of three deer standing somewhat forlornly in the snow along the edge of a large pond.  Anyone who has ever driven along a country road is well aware that deer tend to be flighty creatures, and these three were no exception.  As we passed them, they all jumped into action, taking the easiest route of escape – straight out onto the pond.

My friend brought the car to an abrupt halt, and we sat there, horrified, watching as their headlong flight was quickly reduced to a slipping, sliding walk.  Even in the car, we could hear the ominous creaks and cracks coming from the ice.  It was the same feeling you get driving past a car accident: we didn’t want to watch, but it was hard to look away.  We were sure it was only a matter of time until one of the deer fell through the ice and was unable to get back out – and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.

 

This is one of the paradoxes of fieldwork: while the job naturally attracts people who want nothing more than to spend their days hugging trees and cuddling bunnies, doing the work often means standing aside and watching while a fox or a hawk rips the bunny apart.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I opened a nest box door to check on the family of five tree swallow nestlings inside – only to find a huge, satisfied-looking black rat snake curled up in the nest instead.  As I looked at him, I could see five bumps in his body, one for each nestling, and I had an (admittedly irrational) urge to grab him by the tail and shake him hard, until they all came flying out of his mouth.

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box...

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box…

Even worse was the first time I opened a box to reveal a nest full of dead nestlings.  This happens surprisingly often, when cold snaps in the early spring make food hard to come by, particularly for aerial insectivores like tree swallows.  In these stressful circumstances, parents may attempt to keep feeding the nestlings for a while, but at some point, most adults prioritize their own survival (or rather, future reproductive potential) and abandon the nest.  This also means that sometimes, you come across nests full of heartbreakingly cold, hungry, weak nestlings.  It’s hard to close the box and walk away, knowing that the next time you open it, they will all likely be dead.

Abandonment, predation, and death are not easy things to witness, and it can be tough to stand back and get out of nature’s way – especially if, like most field biologists, you’ve developed a certain amount of fondness for your study organism.  Sometimes, it’s tempting to do crazy things to try and fix the situation.  I’ve certainly screamed at more than my fair share of snakes, although it’s never bothered them much.  And the first time I came across a nest of dying birds, I begged my boss to let me adopt them.  (Which, incidentally, is not just against the law, but also virtually impossible to do, as simply keeping them adequately fed would be a full time job.)  Years later, when running my own field season in the Okanagan, it was my turn to explain to my field assistants why they couldn’t adopt the abandoned baby bluebirds.

Unfortunately, standing back and watching nature take its course is a necessary part of the job.  It’s often hard to resist the temptation to intervene – but if we do, we mess with the very thing we’re all out there to study: natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The parents of those abandoned baby birds will build another nest and give it another try when the weather turns warm again.  And, as much as the birder in me objects, the snake needs to eat too.  My job, when I’m out there, is only to observe – not interfere.

 

As for the deer we saw on the treacherous ice that day?  We sat watching them, on the edge of our seats, for at least two full minutes – afraid to keep driving in case we caused the sudden movement that made them fall through the ice.  (Full disclosure: not only was I worried about the deer, I was also very concerned that, if they did fall through the ice, my friend and I were going to have to jump in to the freezing water to try and help them – see previous point about doing crazy things.)

But in the end, the ice held and they made it safely to the opposite shore.  As they scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the forest, we couldn’t help but cheer for them.  As hard as it is sometimes to witness the cruel side of nature, that cruelty makes the small victories all the sweeter.

Oh the places you can swim

One of my favourite things about fieldwork has nothing to do with the work itself.  For me, one of the best parts of being in the field is the chance to swim in natural water.

I’ve always loved the water, and taken every possible opportunity to swim in every available body of water, from pools to lakes to the ocean.  No matter where I’m swimming, the feeling of moving through water is wonderful; for a klutz like me, feeling graceful and fluid is a welcome change.  But as much as I love pools, they just don’t compare to swimming outside in natural water, surrounded by the green of trees, the pink and grey of rocks, and the blue of the sky.

I’m at my happiest when I’m floating on my back in a lake on a hot summer day, staring up at a blue sky scattered with clouds, and letting the water bob me up and down.  And there’s no better way to end a day in the field than by submerging yourself in water and feeling the stress, frustration, and sweat of a hard day’s work wash away.

Swimming is such an integral part of fieldwork for me that I’ve gone to some rather extreme lengths to get in my field swim.  For example, during some recent fieldwork in Manitoba, I decided that my field experience would not be complete without a swim in Lake Winnipeg.  Never mind that the weather was unseasonably cool, or that we never got back from the field before dinnertime…the lake was there, which meant that I had to swim in it.

I quickly discovered several…interesting…aspects of Lake Winnipeg that make swimming an adventure.  For one thing, the water is an opaque muddy brown, so dark that you can’t see your own feet when submerged.  It’s a bizarre feeling, jumping into water with absolutely no idea what else might be in there, right below your feet.

But for me, the real problem was the horse flies, which turned swimming in the lake into an extreme sport.  Each time I went swimming, no sooner had I ducked my head under, than one of these huge biting flies would come buzzing out of nowhere.  Usually she would bring at least one friend, and the two of them would circle my head in an ecstasy of excitement about having found a warm-blooded creature in the midst of all that water.

Swimming then became a race between me and the demon flies, as they tried their best to get their pound of flesh and I tried my best to thwart them.  As they circled closer to my head, honing in on me, I would duck under the water and swim for as long as I could hold my breath, then pop up and enjoy the blissful silence – which would inevitably be broken within milliseconds by a frantic buzz as the flies noticed me again.  When I got out of breath, I’d flip onto my back, leaving just my face showing above the water.  The flies would counter by landing on my forehead and nose, forcing me to swat wildly at them.  In the end, I managed to avoid getting bitten, but every swim was frantic and punctuated with episodes of ungainly flailing.  I’m sure I gave people on the shore a good laugh – but the swim was still worth it.

The inviting (?) waters of Lake Winnipeg

The inviting (?) waters of Lake Winnipeg

While swimming in Lake Winnipeg was definitely an adventure, the lake itself didn’t feel all that different from the Canadian Shield lakes I’m used to.  But sometimes, in the course of fieldwork, I’ve resorted to swimming in some pretty odd places.  Take, for example, my field season in the Dominican Republic.  You would think the swimming opportunities would be boundless on an island renowned for its beach resorts.  However, when you’re up in the mountains, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest beach, you have to make do with what you have.  In our case, that was the little canal that ran past our camp and down into the nearby village.

Canal or lap pool? Beggers can't be choosers!

Canal or lap pool? Beggers can’t be choosers!

While doing ‘laundry’ (i.e. making a valiant attempt to rinse at least the top layer of dirt out of my field clothes) in this canal one day, I realized that it could, in theory, be used as a lap pool.  The current was strong, the water was cool and clear, and the canal was just wide enough for a comfortable breast stroke.  So as soon as we’d hung the laundry up to dry, I decided to try it.

At first, I thought I’d found the perfect solution to satisfy my swim cravings: the canal was refreshing in the tropical heat, and while the current was challenging (I certainly couldn’t float on my back for any length of time without being pushed downhill towards the village), it was great exercise and lots of fun.

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The after-effects of canal swimming…

It wasn’t until I got out of the water that I noticed my arm was just a bit itchy.  The itch built over the next few hours…until the back of my arm was swollen and covered in welts.  When I mentioned the problem to the family that lived at the camp, they managed to convey to me, using a mixture of Spanish and English, that the canal was a favourite spot for many things – including a very tiny, but very effective, biting bug.

So my first canal swim was also my last canal swim, and I resigned myself to a swim-free field season.  However, the dry days were more than made up for when we took a brief trip to the closest beach (an ~8 hour drive away), and I got my first chance to swim in the Caribbean sea.

Now *that's* more like it... the Caribbean sea near Oviedo.

Now *that’s* more like it… the Caribbean sea near Oviedo.

But no matter how many fantastic (and…er…interesting) places I’ve gone swimming in the field, none of them can top swimming at the very first place I did fieldwork, the Queen’s University Biological Station.  Down a path worn by generations of feet, out of sight from the main station road, is a slightly ramshackle metal diving board hanging over a quiet stretch of Opinicon Lake.  During the day, the water is warm and clear, making it easy to see the group of sunfish that hang out under the diving board, and the shore is bordered by thick trees and the occasional glimpse of grey rock.  At night, you can float on your back, stare up at the stars and count the passing fireflies.  It’s a site of laughter, conversation, and splashes, but also a site for quiet contemplation.  Most of all, it’s a place where you can relax and let the lake water do its quiet work to wash your worries away.IMG_2370

Unweaving the rainbow

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wing

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

Unweave a rainbow

(John Keats, “Lamia”)

When I first came across the Keats poem “Lamia”, I was a defiant science student sitting in a third year English class, fighting to prove to myself and to my somewhat sceptical professor that there was no reason a Biology major shouldn’t also do a minor in English Literature.

The poem immediately got my back up.  In it, Keats laments the rise of science, which he claims has robbed the world of its mysteries and made it predictable and boring.  Science will, he says, “unweave [the] rainbow” in a quest to understand it – and in doing so, destroy its magic.  No leprechauns and pots of gold for scientists; they’re all about wavelengths, prisms, and refraction.

Of course, when I read the poem as an undergraduate, I was full of enthusiasm for my chosen field and leapt to its defence.  It’s true that scientists conquer mysteries (if they’re lucky), I found myself arguing in class, but that doesn’t mean they take the joy out of the world.  Why should knowing how things work make them less interesting?

A bad day for Webster: Western bluebird male attacks Webster, my bluebird decoy.

“This is my box!”: bluebird attacking my decoy.

In fact, I thought – and still think today – that understanding the world, knowing what things are and how they work, makes life more interesting, not less.  For example, over the last decade or so, I’ve spent countless hours trying to catch birds, using a decoy and recorded birdsong to make individuals think their territory is being invaded.  And despite having done this hundreds of times, I still get a thrill when the territory owner reacts as science says he should, and comes in to defend his turf – every single time.

But I have a shameful admission to make: as I’ve continued in science, I’ve occasionally had the guilty thought that maybe Keats had a point.  The thing is, science can sometimes be really, really boring.  You can spend whole days weighing the smallest things (beans, bugs, fragments of bird claw) with a mind-numbing degree of precision.  You can spend so long staring up at the trees, looking for birds – or staring down at the ground, counting plants – that you develop a permanent crick in your neck.  You can enter data until your vision blurs, pipette until your wrist begs for mercy, and label samples until your fingers cramp.  It’s easy, while you’re wrapped up in the small, tedious, and sometimes mindless details, to miss the big picture.

And when you’re out in the field, the single-minded focus necessary to collect your data sometimes feels a bit like having blinkers on.  There may be beauty all around you – the view from your ‘office’ may be the most spectacular one imaginable – but there’s so much that has to get done, and so little time to do it.  Who has time to waste on stopping to smell the roses when it feels like your whole PhD depends on catching this bird or collecting that sample?

For example, people often assume that, because I work with birds, I must be an expert on them – the person to go to if you’re not sure what kind of bird you saw at your feeder last week.  These people are almost always disappointed.  In fact, I probably know less about birds than your average outdoor enthusiast, because when I’m out in the field collecting data, I divide them into only two categories: bluebirds (interesting; keep watching to gather data) and not-bluebirds (not interesting; forget about them or risk being distracted).  While this is kind of a sad way to look at the world, it’s also understandable. When you’re panicking about collecting every scrap of data you can in the little time available to you, it’s all too easy to forget to appreciate the mysteries, the haunted air, and the rainbow.

All this has been on my mind recently because I’m currently in the midst of completing perhaps the most joyless task a scientist can undertake: writing the Methods section of my PhD thesis.  Normally, I love to write – but every time I open this particular document, my heart sinks.  If there’s a way to make the meticulous detail of a scientific Methods section interesting, I haven’t found it yet.  Intellectually, I know that these details are important, because science is all about repeatability – but I can’t help but feel that focusing on them is sucking the magic out of what we do.  As I labour through lists of dates and times, equipment manufacturers and specifications, sample sizes and standard errors, I feel slightly sick that all my blood, sweat, and tears have been reduced to numbers on a page.

But when I sat down to write my blog post this week, I realized that that’s where stories come in.  To me, telling stories – like we do here at Dispatches from the Field – is a way of finding my way back to the magic that sometimes gets lost in the everyday routine of science.  The stories we tell here exist at the intersection of art and science: they provide context, let us focus on the big picture rather than individual elements, and allow us to capture parts of our experience that could never be conveyed in the minute detail of a Methods section.  Writing and sharing stories reminds me of the mystery and wonder in the work we all do.

I still think it’s incredibly satisfying to understand how the rainbow works – but I also see value and joy in using stories to weave it back together again once in a while.

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Revenge of the ruminants

When I first started doing fieldwork, I must admit that I spent a lot of time worrying about large mammals.  Even when I worked up at QUBS, in the relatively safety of eastern Ontario, I fretted about bears.  When I went to California, I obsessed about mountain lions.  And after working in Hawaii, I added feral pigs to my list of formidable and frightening creatures.

But until I began my PhD fieldwork in the Okanagan Valley, it would never have occurred to me to worry about cows.

I know what you’re thinking: how can cows be in the same league as bears or mountain lions?  After all, they’re vegetarians!  There is no chance that you’re ever going to be eaten by a hungry cow.  They just stare at you with their huge brown eyes and chew their cud meditatively.

Right.

As it turns out, you really don’t run into bears or mountain lions that often in the field.  (Not that I’m complaining.)  But what you do see – especially doing fieldwork in an agricultural area like the Okanagan Valley – is cows.  They’re everywhere.

This is especially true if your study species is partial to the type of habitat that often holds grazing cows.  When I was setting up my PhD field sites, I wanted to make sure to cover as many types of bluebird habitat as possible.  So while much of my research took place in vineyards or along walking trails, I also had two sites that were open rangeland.

The wide open spaces of one of my two rangeland sites.

The open spaces and sage brush of one of my two rangeland sites.

When I first set up nest boxes at these sites, I fell in love with the wide, empty spaces and the scent of sagebrush.  My rangeland sites instantly became my favourite.  But on my second visit to one of these sites, I got an inkling that they might be more problematic than I’d thought.  As the car rounded the last corner on the way to the site, I had to hit the brakes hard.  My field of vision was suddenly filled with milling brown and black bodies.  Cows, cows, and more cows…as far as the eye could see.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my phone to call the landowner.  He’d mentioned to me that they’d be bringing the cows in, but I had to assume they weren’t supposed to be blocking traffic.  “There must be a break in the fence,” I told him.  “The cows have gotten out and are all over the road.”

“Oh, that’s normal,” he replied.  “I’m sure the fence is fine.”

“But…” I started at the solid wall of bodies on the road in consternation. “…how did they get out, then?”

“Well, fences are more like…suggestions…to cows,” he responded.  “They usually ignore them.  But I’m sure if you honk at them enough, they’ll get out of your way.”

More trouble than they look...

More trouble than they look…   (Photo credit: Manisha Bhardwaj.)

From then on, the two rangeland sites were the bane of my existence.  No matter what was on my agenda when I arrived, the cows always seemed to be between me and where I needed to go.  It was like they had a copy of my schedule.  And it was never just one or two cows – wherever one went, the other 30 animals in the herd joined it, forming a dense, noisy, smelly barrier between me and my destination.

Also, as it turns out, cows and bird boxes are not a good combination.  The cows decided that the boxes were perfect scratching posts, and were irresistibly attracted to them.  Almost every time I arrived at the sites, one or more of the boxes would be hanging at a precarious angle – often with a perplexed bluebird sitting beside it.

And then, of course, there were the cow patties everywhere.

After a month or so, though, the cows and I had settled into an uneasy détente.  I was starting to think the situation was relatively under control – and that’s when the bulls showed up.

The first time I realized the cows had been joined by their male friends, I had just dropped my field assistant off at a site.  I happened to glance in the rearview mirror as I pulled away, only to see my assistant standing completely still about 100m away.  Straight across the field from her, staring her down, was a very large cow.  As it lowered its head and began pawing at the ground, it slowly dawned on me that it was really too big…and muscular…and horned…to be a cow.  As my field assistant ran for the car, I realized we had a problem.  From then on, we spent considerably less time at that site.

My other ranch site, on the other hand, remained blissfully free of bulls for most of the summer.  So while the cows and I continued to wage a cold war, I usually felt pretty safe.  By the time August rolled around, the fieldwork was slowing down and I had pretty much relaxed.

Then one day, I was out in the field with my assistant, banding a nest full of bluebird nestlings.  I had just taken two out of the box and was settling onto the ground with one in each hand, when I felt a malevolent gaze on the back of my neck.

I looked around in surprise…only to find myself making eye contact with a bull.  He was about 50m away, and though he appeared relatively unconcerned, there was no doubt that he was sizing me up.

I scrambled to my feet and started backing away, urging my field assistant to do the same.  We struggled cautiously up the small hill behind the box, turning frequently to watch the bull as he meandered closer to the box we’d abandoned. Every time we stopped moving, he would start towards us again – so we kept climbing.

As we reached the top of the hill, I realized two things simultaneously. One – we were out of hill to climb; if he kept coming, we were going to have to make a run for the car.  And two – I still had the nestlings I’d been intending to band clutched in my hand, peeping faintly.

Luckily, after 20 very tense minutes, the bull lost interest and headed on his way, allowing us to creep back down to the box and finish banding.  It took a little longer than that for my heart rate to come back to normal.

So, after more than a decade of fieldwork, here’s what I’ve learned: if you must worry, focus less on bears and the mountain lions, and more on the things you’re likely to actually run into.  And don’t let those big brown eyes fool you – cows are usually up to no good.

117

Playing for the other team

Among field biologists, like in any other group of people, there are divisions that may not be apparent from the outside.  There are the animal people and the plant people.  The bird people, the frog people, the snake people, the fish people.  No matter how far down you get, there always seems to be another division: groups within groups within groups, like a stack of Russian nesting dolls.

Ever since my first job, I’ve been a bird person – more specifically, I’ve been a songbird person.  With the exception of one summer spent chasing shorebirds in Alaska, all my work has focused on these small, colourful, perching birds.  And I’ve been quite satisfied with this – I saw no reason to go explore the world of, say, waterfowl, or birds of prey.

But I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by seabirds, mostly because seabird people often do field work in the most remote, beautiful, and dramatic places imaginable – from the steep cliffs of Ascension Island to the isolated beaches of the Aleutian Islands.  However, despite a certain jealousy about seabird field sites, I’ve never been that interested in the birds themselves, for one simple reason: the majority of seabirds nest in huge colonies.  These loud, smelly groups of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of birds have never really appealed to me.

One of the things I like best about songbird research is that it usually involves marking birds to allow for individual identification.  As the field season progresses, you get to know the birds within your study population pretty well.  For example, when you check nests, you know ahead of time which birds will launch themselves at your head in a kamikaze attempt at defence, and which birds will only sit and watch, chirping mournfully.  Part of the joy of research, for me, is being able to distinguish those characteristics that make one bird distinct from another.  And I’ve always assumed that this would be much harder, if not impossible, to do in the middle of a chaotic mass of thousands of birds.

But last summer, I got an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.  As I was trudging through long days of data analysis in the office, a former labmate offered me the chance to help her out in the field for a few weeks.  We would be catching and banding Common Terns in a large colony on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.  Colony-nesters or not, there was no way I was turning down an opportunity to get back into the field – so I accepted the job.

From the moment we scrambled out of the boat onto the beach of the island colony, I realized I was in a whole new world.  The first thing I saw was three tern eggs, snuggled into a twig-lined depression in the sand.

My first tern nest!

My first tern nest!

“Ooh!  Nest!  I found a nest!” I cried in excitement.

To put my excitement in context, finding songbird nests usually involves hours or even days of careful detective work.  It requires a lot of patience – a lot of watching, waiting, and hoping for the bird’s behaviour to reveal the slightest clue about the nest’s location.  There are also usually a fair number of wild goose chases, and endless amounts of frustration.  Managing to successfully track a songbird to its nest is always cause for a happy dance.

So after years of working with songbirds, I’m pretty conditioned to be excited when I see a nest.  But no sooner had I gleefully announced my first tern nest sighting when my gaze shifted a few metres up the beach…and there was another one.  And another…and another…and another…

All of a sudden, I started to see the appeal of working with colony-nesting birds.

My second...and third...and fourth...tern nests.

My second…and third…and fourth…and fifth…and sixth…tern nests.

As we picked our way carefully up the beach into the main part of the colony, masses of hysterical terns rose into the air, their grating two-note screams (which, oddly, sounded a lot like the introductory notes of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) making my ears ring.  The smell of the colony – a mix of fish and decaying organic matter – matched the musical theme.  So far, I decided, being in a seabird colony was pretty much what I’d expected: overwhelmingly loud and smelly.

However, once we’d set up our blind and hidden ourselves from sight, things calmed down a bit.  A few minutes after we disappeared from view, the circling crowd of terns above us began to descend, and the cacophony began to quiet.  I watched as nearby birds returned to their nests, dropping out of the air with their feet stretched towards the ground, then wiggling themselves into position over the eggs.  They all finished with their wings crossed and tails pointing out at a 45 degree angle – fitting onto the nest like the lid on a jar of cookies.

Time to sit on those eggs again...

Time to come on down…

...and wiggle into the right position.

…and sit on those eggs again.

As more and more terns returned to their nests, quiet descended over the colony. I could hear the waves out on the lake and the wind rustling the island’s sparse vegetation.  I was just starting to relax…when suddenly, the colony rose into the air again, hundreds of birds moving as one.  To me, sitting in the blind, the sudden rush of wings felt a bit like being inside a snow globe, or maybe an Escher painting: terns rising up all around me, the sound of endless beating wings almost like the sail of a boat flapping in the wind.

A blizzard of terns.

A blizzard of terns.

For the next two weeks, we spent a lot of time watching the colony, and every day, the pattern was the same: short periods of calm, punctuated with frequent episodes of mass panic.  And the longer I watched, the more I realized that the individual quirks I love so much in songbirds were also evident in the terns.  For example, each time the colony flushed, there would be one or two individuals reluctant to follow the trend.  They’d stay sitting on their nests until long after everyone else was up in the air.  And it always seemed to be the same birds that stuck around while everyone else circled above.  I started to wonder: were those birds braver than the others?  Smarter?  Or maybe just lazier?  I came to the conclusion that, while the sheer number of birds in a colony may make it difficult to observe behaviour on an individual level, it is possible – and those distinctive personality traits are certainly there if you look for them.

I’m not saying I’m giving up on the songbirds: I doubt that will ever happen.  But my brief sojourn in the world of seabirds convinced me that it’s a place I’d like to visit more often.

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