Femininity and Fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Jodie Wiggins, a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, who discusses some of the unique challenges that female field ecologists face.  For more about Jodie, read her bio at the end of the post or check out her website.

A field biologist from the start…

I started my career as an ecologist crawling through muddy drainage ditches hunting frogs, investigating rabbit warrens dug open by a plow, and studying “lighting bugs” through the glass of a mason jar. I was 5, and 6, and 10… held captive by the magic of nature. I was a really fortunate kid. I ran wild, and that is probably why I still love the wilds today.

Now, thanks to an invitation from Dispatches from the Field, I have to opportunity to consider the challenges I’ve faced as a woman navigating a culture (ecology and fieldwork, specifically) shaped by men.

 

You just drive along, find a roadside park. Set your line of traps and get up in the morning and check ‘em.”

These were the instructions from a veteran field mammologist to the first field biology course I ever took. I looked around at the other members of the class. No one seemed to think these instructions were out of the ordinary. I, however, was gripped by terror. This man wanted me to drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone.

No doubt a lot of women have done this, successfully. No doubt countless women camp and hunt and sleep in their cars alone. A lot of women are also attacked, every single minute of every single day.

That was not something that crossed this man’s mind and I felt weak because it crossed mine. I felt like I should suck it up and just do the work. But it wasn’t about the work. It was about a risk that a woman takes anytime she is alone that a man does not, a risk that she should not be shamed for refusing to take.

…and sticking with it, despite the challenges.

This was the first time in my academic career that I felt other. I felt ignored. I felt invisible. Because I am a woman. I began to realize that the scaffolding constructed over hundreds of years, meant to guide and hold emerging scientists as they ascend, simply was not constructed to lift, hold, or guide women. The fact that it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced this otherness reflects the privilege I experienced growing up as a middle class white child. Many people, women of color particularly, experience this otherness so much earlier than I did. They experience it as girls, and it devastates their desire to pursue their dreams.

 

But where do I pee?”

Not all of the issues we face as women field biologists are quite as dire as staying safe while sleeping in a car alone, but that is not to say that they are not equally urgent. It’s been a decade since I stood in a hallway with a group of newbie grad students and realized that being a female field biologist would be a battle. For a very long time I was cowed by this realization, feeling demeaned and less worthy than my male counterparts. But, as it should, my journey through my PhD has taught me a great deal more than just evolutionary ecology.

Studying lizards…and learning life lessons.

My need for a team of field assistants every year for the past three years has required me to learn to step up and be a supervisor. Undoubtedly, I struggled in the beginning, but now, I do a couple of things as unapologetically as I can muster in an attempt to “be the person you needed when you were younger”:

  1. I say “pee.” As in, this is where you can go pee. What on earth is wrong with us that young women don’t feel comfortable saying “Hey, where do I go pee?” This is necessary because my field site is a little like Area 51, lit up and barren with a camera pointed at it all of the time. My study species likes it open and hot, so for a mile stretch of rock dam, there is no place to hide, anywhere.
  2. I keep tampons with the group field supplies (gasp! Did she say tampons?!). Yeah, I did and if you work for me you might just pull one out with your data sheet or your lizard noosing pole and you might have to deal with it because OH MY GODS ALREADY! The need to have these supplies for the women on my team simply outweighs worrying about whether someone will feel grossed out by the possibility of touching an unused tampon.
  3. I say “Do not do xyz if you are not comfortable with doing xyz” and I mean XYX is usually something like coming out to the field site alone or riding with another member of the field team alone. Seriously, if it doesn’t feel right and makes you feel unsafe, don’t do it, period. We’ve all got to remember that our people are more important than our project.

It’s the people that matter: my field team from 2016.

Fortunately for me, my future husband was in that field mammalogy class with me all those years ago. He accompanied me on countless nights sleeping in a ridiculously uncomfortable truck bed waiting for the blessed dawn when we could check our traps. Most of the other women in that class paired up with someone as well, but some didn’t and I don’t know if they felt safe going out alone or if they felt like they needed to prove they could. Either way, the person in a position of power in this situation left half that class without an advocate.

The balance between being a leader and a learner can sometimes be precarious but what I’ve learned over the last decade in the field is this: I need to use my voice, my position, and my strengths to make sure no one on my team ever feels invisible and to encourage others to do the same. The female ecologists in my life who repeatedly tell me that I matter, that I am strong, and that my voice should be heard bolster me to do this for others.  Together, we are making each other visible.

Jodie is a fourth year (sort of; it’s complicated) PhD candidate studying the evolutionary ecology of color in collared lizards. She hails from New Mexico and Texas, but now lives in Oklahoma with her husband (also a PhD candidate, who studies spider behavior), their 11 and 3 year old sons, and a crazy dog named Fortinbras.

Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I worked for several years in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, working sometimes on United States Bureau of Land Management land, but mostly in the vast emptiness of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.  This active military bombing and live munitions training ground is one of the biggest chunks of “untouched” Sonoran Desert.  Containing desert mountains, sand dunes, and many of the most interesting desert habitats in between, this parcel of land stretches for over 1.5 million acres.  It may be a toss-up, but that is about the size of the state of Delaware.  Having such a large undeveloped area means that it is home to lots of different species of wildlife, and is one of the last refuges of the endangered Sonoran Desert Pronghorn.

Surveying the site from the air to see which water sites needed to be visited on foot.

It was a surprise to me to learn that military lands often have some of the best habitat available for plant and wildlife management.  When I stopped to think about it though, it made sense.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has over 400 installations in the US with about 25 million acres.  Many, if not most, of these acres are undeveloped.  That means that apart from military operations, these areas go mainly untouched, and because of the country’s resource protection laws (which the military abides by), are fairly well managed.  Security and safety reasons mean that these large swaths of land have not felt the pressure of habitat-loss; some 300 U.S. endangered or threatened species make DoD lands their home, and the military helps take care of them.

Back to the story:  I was looking at a small marker bomb sitting in the road way, a new bit of UXO (unexploded ordinance).  It was only a small bomb, used in training runs to show how well the pilot hit his mark, but since the sighting towers had to be able to see where it hit, there was still enough explosive to tear the front end of the truck apart and send the diesel engine block into my chest cavity.  That may sounds like an exaggeration, but that is how the managers on the range described it to me and I didn’t want to find out if they were right.

You see all kinds of life at desert watering holes…

We had been granted access to this live-fire part of the range, a rare treat for our research team.  We were trying to reach some of the most remote desert water sites to study their water quality and biodiversity – with the ultimate goal of creating better man-made water sites for desert wildlife. We were studying the differences in construction and ecology at natural and man-made “guzzlers” to better serve not only large game species, such as bighorn sheep, but also small creatures like Sonoran Desert Toads and dragonflies.

Like I said, we wanted to get there and we only had a small window to get through this section of the desert before the range opened back up for live fire exercises.  To go off road in this section was strictly forbidden; even if it weren’t, it would be extremely dangerous. The small bomb before us had many siblings in the sand and brush around us.  Many of these siblings were much larger than the one we could see.  And just like with people, age and exposure to the elements makes bombs much more persnickety.  We had about 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the truck and the item.   A decision had to be made: either turn around and race for the last staging area, which we could get to just within our time window, or drive over the thing to get to the end of the road and hope for the best.

Upon reflection, I made the wrong decision that day: I crept the truck along until we silently (as silent as the idle speed of a diesel can be) glided over the top of the marker bomb.  I don’t think I breathed during the entire time it took to painstakingly thread our 4WD differentials, which hung low on the less-than-even road, around the obstacle.  Finally I was able to breathe as my research partner Jordan waved an all clear from a safe distance down the road.  I got GPS coordinates so the military could remove the bomb and we were on our way!

We were eventually able to collect some great data at those water sites, but it could have gone poorly.  Fieldwork on the Air Force Range was often a trade-off between safety and results. Our supervisor probably would have had an aneurism if she had known about many of our choices, and rightfully so.  At times the temperatures were above 120 °F with 70% humidity, making it literally dangerous just to walk for longer than a mile.  Spiny plants and toothy reptiles abounded and rugged terrain was always trying to destroy our ankles.  We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area.

We weren’t the only ones facing the problem of spiny plants…

Despite all of it, though, the desert became my adopted home: I really love the place. I care deeply about the people, plants, and animals. I could tell many more stories and hopefully I will down the road, but right now I have to get back to chasing some wildlife.

Chasing some desert dragonflies…

Joe Drake is a recovering field biologist. A member of several professional  scientific societies, he is interested in spatial ecology, desert  ecology, wildlife conservation, and science outreach/communication.  When he isn’t studying or working, you can find him in the woods, on  the river, or in his workshop; he loves home brewing, backpacking,  fishing, writing, and photography. Before he returned to school, Joe worked for various federal agencies and universities across the Western U.S. (living out of the back of his beat-up Ford Ranger) and  internationally in the “bio-tech circuit” for 4 years.  The West’s wilderness stole his heart before he returned to school to get his  M.S. at Texas Tech University, and he has continued on to the University of Massachusetts where he is working towards his Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Chris Sutherland.  He is just about to embark on a new field project in the Scottish Highlands, and will be blogging and tweeting about the experience as he goes.  Keep  up to date with his work or get in touch at  https://secretlifeofafieldbiologist.wordpress.com/.

Standing in fields

We are very excited to welcome Tara Harvey to the blog today. Tara is a researcher with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research. For more about Tara see the end of this post.

You might be wondering why I tend to stand in fields a lot. Am I studying agriculture? No. Am I interested in the biodiversity in a field? No. Do I study soil? No. So, what am I doing? Well, to the casual observer, not much at all, but if you knew there was a very deep hole at my feet, 2 to 6 inches in diameter and upwards of 100s of feet deep, then you might start to guess what I research. I study groundwater.

Standing in fields, and sometimes swamps, to study groundwater. Since groundwater is everywhere you could literally be in any landscape or any season and still be studying it.

Groundwater is the water that moves within the spaces and fractures of the sediment and rock under our feet. A common misconception is that groundwater flows in large underground rivers, but this is not a typical occurrence. Instead groundwater can be found in any sediment or rock within the small spaces between the grains or crystals.

However, since groundwater is hidden beneath our feet, I never physically get to see what I am studying. To study groundwater we have to get creative in order to answer the question: “how do you study something that you can’t see or touch”? In the rest of this post I’ll take you through a quick look at all the different field work steps that need to happen to 1) give us access to the groundwater and 2) allow us to actually measure and monitor it.

Drilling holes in fields

Obviously there is a lot of behind the scenes work that has to be done before any fieldwork can happen:  developing a plan of what we want to do, determining the best location to study the groundwater, gathering all the required equipment, hiring and booking the drilling company and consultants, obtaining permits to approve the work, etc.. But once all that is in place, we can start digging our holes to access the groundwater.

The only way we can access groundwater is to drill really deep holes into the earth. When we are drilling these holes we aren’t looking directly at the groundwater yet. Instead, we are gathering very important information about the geology of the location to help us understand how the groundwater might be moving through the sediment or rock. In addition, depending on the site, we might also be collecting samples of the sediment/rock for later analyses.  These analyses could include sampling to determine the moisture content or grain size of the rock, but could also include sampling to see if there are any contaminants in the sediment porewater (groundwater left within the rock pores).

Drill rig (triple tube wire line) with diamond drill bit to go through rock. Rock core is extracted in the inner tube and brought to the surface 5 ft at a time. Once at the surface, a geologist logs the core to obtain important details about the rock to guide our understanding of how groundwater moves through it.

Sediment recovered from rotosonic drill rig. Sediments need to be scraped to reveal the sedimentary structures and important geologic details beneath the disturbed outer sediment.

Installing wells in fields

 Once a hole the desired depth and width (typically 4-8 inches diameter) is drilled we can do several things with it. But first things first: if we are concerned with contamination we must seal the hole.  This is very important because if you leave a drilled hole open then contamination at one depth can migrate into the open hole and move anywhere it wants. This means that previously uncontaminated and possibly protected groundwater may now be contaminated because of us!  This is called cross-contamination and we want to make sure this never happens.  Therefore, immediately after removing the drilling rods (which were sealing the hole), we can install either a temporary liner or a permanent monitoring well.

Typically we do both.  We will install a temporary liner while we design the permanent well with the geologic details we collected during drilling. As we design the well we can also use down-hole geophysical tools to give us more information about the groundwater and geology.  Once we have our design we get to work building and installing our well.

Pieces of a groundwater monitoring well about to be installed into a hole.

Sampling groundwater in fields

Now we finally have access to the groundwater directly to take in situ measurements of its properties.  With these groundwater monitoring wells we can do 2 main things.

First, we can take what are called hydraulic head measurements.  Hydraulic head is very important as it can help us understand what direction the groundwater is moving and if it is moving up or down (yes groundwater can move upwards towards the surface).  Although hydraulic head may be difficult to understand initially, it is actually very easy to measure in the field as all we have to do is measure the distance from the ground surface to the water. We do this by putting a waterlevel tape down the hole until it beeps, indicating that it is now touching water.

Second, we can collect physical groundwater samples by pumping the water out of the well.  This water can then be tested for different parameters and contaminants to give us an understanding of what is in the groundwater and where contamination might be.

Measuring water levels (depth to the water surface) in a groundwater monitoring well to gather information about the hydraulic head.

Monitoring groundwater in fields

As many of you know, in Canada we have seasonal weather changes that affect the amount of precipitation we receive. Similarly, there are seasonal changes in the groundwater and therefore it is important to do regular monitoring throughout the year.  I spend at least 1 week, 4 times a year at just one of our research sites measuring groundwater and hydraulic head in about 40 wells.  And although my monitoring fieldwork may only take 1 week each time, there is a lot of work done after I’m out of the field to make sure the data I collected is good and to interpret the results.

Dropping things down holes in fields

Although groundwater monitoring fieldwork may not seem that thrilling, it can actually get very exciting and chaotic, especially if you accidentally drop a piece of field equipment down the hole that you weren’t supposed to.  This is obviously never a good idea because now you’ve lost something you probably didn’t want to lose.  On top of that, there is the possibility it is now jamming up your well, making it unusable.  But getting it back out gives you a chance to put your problem solving skills to the test – and  maybe even enjoy one of your hobbies, if that hobby happens to be fishing. Luckily, last year when we dropped something down a hole we were able to get it back using a small fishing hook and line a couple days later.

Tara Harvey now works as a hydrogeology researcher with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research after completing her Masters in Hydrogeology at the University of Guelph in 2016. Tara specializes in Quaternary geology, aka glacial geology, and spent most of her Masters studying the glacial landscape of Wisconsin and how the glacial deposits affect groundwater and contaminant movement.

 

Prairies provide cryptic, undervalued, and threatened biodiversity

We are excited to welcome Lysandra Pyle to the blog today. Lysandra is an Ecologist from the University of Alberta and today she tells us about her fieldwork in the prairies. For more about Lysandra, see the end of this post!

My first memories of prairies are engrained in the experiences of my childhood growing up in south eastern Saskatchewan. Checking for ticks (Dermacentor variabilis), picking sharp seeds (Hesperostipa spp.) or spines (Opuntia spp.) out of skin, and waiting for my mom to forage every last Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) or choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) from a bush along a grid road were common summer activities. I remember sitting by a pond, home to painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), on a farm in the bald prairie south of Radville, SK and feeling the barometric pressure drop, warning of significant thunderstorm which rolled powerfully over the hills.

Saskatoons on the left and choke cherries on the right! Provides forage for coyotes, birds, and graduate students.

However the first time I was truly awakened to the wonder of this environment was during my first fieldwork experience. Thanks to the serendipitous luck of my university’s match-making internship program and the first choice candidate not having a driver’s licence, I moved to south western Saskatchewan for a summer term, working in a small rangeland plant ecology program. There I was bitten by the botany bug, as I gained hands-on experience working with native prairie plants and exposure to species at risk. That summer I purchased numerous field guides, started teaching myself plant identification, and enriched my native prairie immersion by frequently visiting Grasslands National Park and Saskatchewan Landing. Shadowing my supervisors as they effortlessly identified all of the plants in a quadrat and pulled back grass leaves to reveal unique ligules and collars had me hooked. Perhaps I was impressionable, but learning grasslands were so diverse changed me, provided me with a profound appreciation for where I am from, and gave me purpose.

This is the ecosystem I love and study. You can easily identify needle and threadgrass with curly awns (Hesperostipa comata) which is common in Mixedgrass Prairie. Its fruit has evolved to burrow into fur and skin!

Native prairie provides invaluable ecological services and irreplaceable habitat for wildlife. For my M.Sc. research I was transplanted into north central Alberta’s Aspen Parkland in January.  I spent that winter and spring anxiously waiting to explore northern fescue prairie. That summer I was tasked with driving around the peri-urban area of Edmonton, AB to interview landowners about their pasture management, score the health of their pasture, survey their plant communities, and sample the seed bank. Imposing my experience from SW SK, I planned to run a survey transect that was just over 1 km long. What I found was a landscape heavily modified by cultivation and fire suppression which caused woody encroachment (invasion by a clonal trees like aspen (Populus tremuloides)); the land was also subdivided into many smaller mixed farms which called for the reduction of the transect length (to 265 m) and a lowering of my expectations regarding the discovery of intact native pastures.  Historically, grasslands in the Parkland were dominated by plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii); currently, ecologists struggle to restore this grass, and these ecosystems are in my opinion endangered. Luckily I found an ecosite with relatively saline soil (which deterred cultivation) dominated by fescue.  This patch less than 260 ha was bustling with the biodiversity I commonly associated with southern grasslands. Less than 50 km from Edmonton, I heard the ‘UFO’ call of a Sprague’s pipit (Anthus spragueii, listed as threatened) and the Spring-of-the-gurgling associated with the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  This tiny patch of prairie was an oasis in a sea of wheat and canola. This illustrates the importance of preserving intact, native grasslands for obligate wildlife, and demonstrates that grassland is not simple, leafy, indistinguishable phytomass but has irreplaceable structure and heterogeneity which provides habitat.

Plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii) flowers irregularly; this was impressive for mid-May!

While surveying plant communities in vast open grasslands, I frequently pause for about 10 to 15 minutes to record plant community characteristics from my quadrat. In these moments, you can see over great distances – which is ideal for observing prairie wildlife. However, sometimes when you are too focused, animals surprise you!  There have been numerous occasions when I have been nose-deep in grass and startled by the huff of a deer standing behind me, or surprised by a flush of birds that settled nearby while I was absorbed by scrutinizing glumes and counting florets.  One of my more interesting encounters occurred when I sat up quickly after observing plant cover and came face-to-face with a male ruby throated humming bird (Archilochus colubris). Hummingbirds are capable of hovering in flight, and that sustained moment of mutual alarm and intrigue filled me with awe: moments like these are why I love field work. It is the unexpected encounters, rare findings, and spontaneous invitations to explore nature or observe the interactions of organisms that make long days outside in variable weather worth it.

This is a quadrat (50 cm x 50 cm frame). Here we measure the relative cover of species.

 

I don’t have any pictures of birds but here are some other surprises. A baby pronghorn, and North American long-tailed weasel–observing the researchers from a distance of course.

Naturalism and botany, which often provide a foundation in taxonomy, can be a gateway into many other disciplines, and once you master one taxa the mind can wander onto new research questions and other organisms. If you look down and look beyond the grass while in the prairie, you will discover an intriguing community layer of cryptogamic organisms like lichen, mosses, and spike-mosses called a biological soil crust. Soil crusts can cover up to 90% of the soil surface, contribute cryptic biodiversity to the ecosystem, prevent soil erosion, and fix atmospheric nitrogen and carbon! For my Ph.D. research, I have incorporated this community into my understanding of seed bank composition in Dry Mixedgrass Prairie disturbed by oil and gas pipelines. Organisms like lichen, which can have delicate branches, cups, and leaf-like bodies, are sensitive to disturbance and recover extremely slowly. Although they are an intrinsic attribute of grasslands, many botanists, like me, are unaware of them and policies regarding the reclamation and revegetation of industrially disturbed areas in prairies ignore these organisms.

These are some lichens you can find in prairie soil crusts. The white crusty species on the left side (Diploschistes muscorum) is called cow-pie lichen in common vernacular.

Working in the field, I value the independence and the time allowed for self-reflectance while wandering a tortuous path to a survey location. The ritual of parking, packing, swinging a quadrat over my shoulder and scouring my path for any unique organisms or movement in the grass is an experience I look forward to every field season. However, grasslands are sensitive, fragmented ecosystems.  Although they are often described as ‘marginal’ or ‘waste’ lands, grasslands are in fact the most threatened and least protected ecosystem in Canada, as is easily demonstrated by driving across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba on the Trans-Canada Highway observing a patchy mosaic of cultivated fields with small margins of native grass and trees remaining along hillsides, coulees, and wetlands.  As a young ecologist, I want to communicate the irreplaceable and invaluable ecosystem services (carbon storage, biodiversity, water purification, etc.) prairies provide as they benefit society and host understudied taxa and ecosystem processes.

Surveying pipeline disturbance. Those cute calves chewed holes in that measuring tape after this photo was taken.

 

Lysandra studies rangeland ecology and management at the University of Alberta. Her Ph.D. research addresses grassland disturbances and land use history on soil seed banks, plant communities, and soil. You can find her on Twitter at @GrasslandNerd 

Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign

Tales of Turtles In New York City

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Rebecca Czaja, a recent graduate, to share her fieldwork story from her Masters project studying turtles in New York City (yes you heard her!). Check out the end of the post for more about Rebecca!

Turtles in New York City? That’s the reaction I usually get when I explain my Masters research project. I worked with the Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project, which has been studying diamondback terrapins at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) for almost 20 years. JBWR, which sits on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is not only the nesting site for hundreds of terrapins but also an important habitat for migratory and resident birds, insects, and other reptiles.

As part of a long term monitoring and conservation project, I was responsible for finding nesting terrapins, which are then collected to gather data such as weight and shell length. In addition, a protective cage is placed over the nests to prevent predation. Finding a nesting terrapin without scaring her off the nest requires a little bit of skill, good eyes (or binoculars), and a lot of luck. While a few terrapins are bold enough to nest right at your feet, most will abandon their attempt to nest if they see you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself tiptoeing through thorny rose bushes or carefully kneeling in a field of poison ivy just to hide from a terrapin. The key is to stay out of sight until she’s laid her eggs, at which point she’ll finish burying the eggs even if you get too close for comfort. How do you know she’s done laying her eggs? She does a little dance. As she pushes dirt into the hole and pats it down, she appears to be doing a jig.

diamondback terrapin

A female diamondback terrapin collected after nesting.

For my project, I focused on studying how precipitation impacts whether terrapin nests get eaten by raccoons. In addition to monitoring unprotected, natural nests for signs of predation, I also built and monitored over 200 artificial nests.

There are a bunch of possible ways to build artificial nests. I picked the simplest method: dig a small hole and fill it back up. Even without any eggs or terrapin scent, raccoons were attracted to these nests. I also tried filling nests with terrapin-scented sand, which was made by putting a terrapin in a box full of sand for at least 20 minutes. Unfortunately, getting the sand to smell just enough like a natural nest is an imprecise science. The terrapin-scented artificial nests ended up smelling so strongly that raccoons tried to predate every single nest, rain or shine. But the beauty of science is you live and you learn. So I stuck with artificial nests filled with plain old sand.

plastic bottle used for a rain gauge

Ecology is the art of doing meaningful science with the simplest materials. My rain gauges were made from plastic bottles washed up onshore, duct tape, and sticks.

Doing research that depends on it raining at just the right time is nerve-wracking, to say the least. The month of June was unusually dry this summer, which left me constantly worried that I’d never get enough rain to finish the project. Especially because I not only needed it to rain, but to rain on a day when I had found a nesting terrapin. The first time it rained on a day when I had natural nests, I was ecstatic. The rain was unexpected, so I only had about an hour’s warning to hurry almost 1.5 miles across the park to place rain gauges at my nests. Fueled by my excitement, I got the rain gauges installed just in time. Of course, on the walk back I got soaked by the downpour and was chased by a Canada goose, but nothing was going to spoil my day!

 

Terrapin nesting season lasts about two months at JBWR, and then come the hatchlings. Yes, they’re as cute as you’re imagining. Just like adult females, hatchlings are measured and weighed. I then cut out a small piece from the edge of their shell in a specific location so that if they’re recaptured as adults, we’ll know what year they hatched. The piece of shell will also be used for DNA analysis. Hatchlings are then released near their nest, where they either run for cover in some vegetation or make a break for the water. All we can do from that point on is hope we see them again when the females are old enough to nest!

diamondback terrapin hatchlings

Diamondback terrapin hatchlings after being released at JBWR

It’s amazing to think that less than a year ago I didn’t even know there were turtles in New York City. My Masters project taught me a lot: beach trash has endless uses, rain is unpredictable, and terrapins are much faster on land than you expect. But most importantly it reminded me each and every day of nature’s resilience. Watching a new cohort of terrapins hatch and make their way into Jamaica Bay’s marshes, despite pollution and habitat destruction, makes me optimistic that there’s still time to protect mother nature’s invaluable resources and beauty.

Rebecca CzajaRebecca Czaja recently completed her Masters in Marine Biology at Northeastern University. She conducted her Masters research project in Dr. Russell Burke’s lab at Hofstra University. She is also an alum of Tufts University, where she studied Biology and Environmental Studies.

Twitter: @becca_sea

Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.

garter-snake-1

A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.

map

The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.