These boots are made for walking

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Sian Green, who shares some stories about her ‘fieldwork style’.  For more about Sian, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For my 21st birthday I wanted what all girls want…a new pair of shoes! I got my wish and, although they were somewhat lacking in heels and glitter, since then they have taken me all over the world and been an essential part of my fieldwork outfit for nearly 5 years now. When you’re on your feet and walking long distances day after day, a good, comfortable pair of boots can make a big difference!

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My boots have travelled with me to Costa Rica, Tanzania and Kenya; however, sadly, during my last expedition to Romania, while trekking the Carpathian foothills in search of large mammals, they walked their last mile. Having been soaked in the dewy grass every morning then baked by the fierce Transylvanian summer sun every afternoon, they finally fell apart.

In memory of my favourite pair of shoes, I thought I would share some of the most memorable moments I had whilst wearing them out in the field.

Scariest moment: After graduating from my BSc in Zoology, I wanted to get some more field experience. I decided to volunteer on a project in Costa Rica, working in a remote camp in the jungle, right next to a turtle nesting beach. At night we would go out along the beach to monitor the turtles, recording condition and taking shell measurements, as well as marking locations of new nests. On one night we saw a turtle about to start digging her nest. Not wanting to disturb her at this crucial point, we walked on and spotted another turtle about 25 meters up the beach. She had finished laying her eggs, so we set to work measuring her shell. I should mention at this point that it is important to use minimal light, and only red light on torches, so as not to disturb the turtles, meaning visibility was limited. Anyway, having finished measuring our turtle, we turned back to see if the first turtle had finished her nest…only to find her carcass lying on the beach surrounded by large jaguar tracks! This silent hunter had made a kill a few metres away from us in the dark and was surely now watching us from the forest edge…possibly annoyed by having been disturbed from its dinner. Needless to say, we moved on quickly and kept in a tight group at a healthy distance from the forest edge after that!

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

Proudest moment: I am very proud of all the fieldwork I have done, in particular my work in Kenya I undertook as part of my own independent research project for my Masters thesis. Of course, I am proud of my thesis, but sometimes it’s the little things that really stick in your memory. To study the elephants using the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor, I set up a grid of camera traps. I would regularly trek through the corridor to check the cameras, aided and guided by rangers from the Mount Kenya Trust. I am tremendously grateful to these extremely helpful rangers… but they were sometimes almost too helpful, insisting on doing all the climbing and retrieving of awkwardly-placed cameras. After a couple of expeditions, my confidence grew and I started to feel I needed to prove a point – that I could climb trees just as well as they could! At one point this did result in me being up a tree covered in biting ants while playing it cool and pretending I was totally fine – but mentally questioning whether it was worth it to prove my point! But one very satisfying moment came when a ranger was unable to unlock one of the padlocks attaching our camera to a tree. I asked if he wanted me to try but he said no and called over one of the other rangers, who also failed to get the key to budge. Ignoring me, they called over a third (male) ranger. While they were discussing the problem, I went over, gave the key a jiggle and the lock popped straight open! They were all very impressed and claimed that I must be very strong. I think it was more about technique than strength, but I wasn’t about to correct them!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Most rewarding moments: All surveys are important, even when you don’t find what you are looking for. In fact, the latter type of survey can sometimes be the most important, as if you don’t find what you are expecting it may indicate a decline in population, or lack of accurate understanding of a species’ biology. This is what I would explain to all the volunteers I led on large mammal surveys when working in Transylvania. However, there is no denying that it is hugely rewarding when your hours of trekking up steep slopes result in finding a beautiful trail of perfect brown bear prints, or when that early start results in getting to see your (normally elusive) study species. Working in Transylvania was incredible, as we found signs and got camera trap footage of many elusive mammals, including martens, badgers, foxes, wild boar, wildcat and brown bear – and I even got to see a brown bear!

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

This fieldwork was also particularly rewarding because I got to share my knowledge and experience with the volunteers that came out. Teaching camera trapping skills and seeing how excited everyone got when we checked the memory cards was a great feeling. Hopefully some of these volunteers will go on to use the knowledge further on their own fieldwork adventures – and hopefully they will remember to pack a good pair of shoes!

Sian completed her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Reading and her Master’s by Research with the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife studying elephants in a wildlife corridor in Kenya. She loves to travel and explore new places – and if she gets to put up a few camera traps all the better! Her fieldwork has taken her to Costa Rica, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Romania; however, she is now back in Devon, UK looking to move on to a PhD and camera trapping any innocent animals that pass by! She can be found on Twitter at @SianGreen92.

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What would a real field work resume look like?

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome back Emily Williams, who polled some of her friends and colleagues on what their real fieldwork resume would say. Read more about Emily at the end of her post!

While every career on the planet probably has its own idiosyncrasies and oddities, some careers have more than most. I’d wager that many people in the science field could easily give Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs a run for his money. From negotiating with a monkey over jungle space to place invertebrate light traps, to diving several meters through a slurry of whale poop, the pursuit of scientific knowledge doesn’t always occur in a shiny and bright ivory tower.

Many of the routine tasks we do and techniques we employ as field biologists would give pause to and cause discomfort for many. A majority of those same tasks and techniques, because of their nature, are not included in the carefully crafted methods sections of manuscripts, or the protocols of field manuals. Moreover, they are also usually not fit to appear on professional resumes or be discussed in detail during an interview.

I’ve often wondered what a field work resume would really look like, if we were to be completely honest about the skills we’ve gained from the myriad experiences we’ve had as field biologists. Most of us are well versed in eloquently stating our know-how working in “adverse conditions” such as extreme heat or cold, along with biting or stinging insects, alone and in remote conditions. Most of us, however, are not as versed in honestly detailing the unique skillsets we learn on the job.

In a scientifically inquisitive spirit, I posed this question to many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances:  if you were to write your resume without having to be professional and could be completely honest about the tasks you did and conditions you lived in, what would you say?

I have compiled their answers here, written in traditional resume fashion.

THE REAL FIELD WORK RESUME

  • Excels at three-dimensional tetris, most notably in small vehicles
  • Demonstrated ability to use bandannas in a multitude of ways and for various purposes
  • Ability to control levels of teeth chattering when sitting for hours in blinds at -30°C
  • Ability to live in harmony with various groups of black flies and mosquitoes constantly in face and near body

    full body bug suit

    Wrench in one hand, bucket in the other, topped off with a head-to-toe bug suit and muck boots. Just another day in detritus–filled, smelly, muddy paradise.

  • Ability to play beer hockey using water instead of beer
  • Ability to build drones out of foam, hot glue, bamboo skewers, and paint sticks, then proceed to fly them at large flocks of blackbirds on crop fields
  • Adaptable to fluctuating levels and availability of caffeine
  • Fondness for early mornings, late evenings, working at all hours of the day, and overtime
  • Skilled at pooping outdoors (you wouldn’t believe how many times this was listed!)
  • Skilled at peeing off of wooden platforms/boats/planes
  • Adept at constructing mist-net poles out of bamboo and liana vines

Our kitchen and food supply for 5 months. Getting crafty with potatoes, beans, and rice is a necessary on-the-job skill.

  • Inventive when coming up with >10 ways to eat lentils and beans
  • Demonstrated ability using gorilla tape to keep capuchins from accessing food stores
  • Demonstrated ability problem solving with ridding housing of resident bats without causing harm to anyone involved
  • Skilled at intuitively cutting onions to crew’s preferences
  • Fluent in sweet-talking foxes who have taken up residence on archaeological sites
  • Have perfected excavation of the 30 cm diameter multi-utility hole
  • Well versed in the art of extracting ticks from myself and others

    Home for 5 months. No running water, no electricity, no soft, comfy bed.

  • Competent at estimating the size of mouse population adjacent to field cot using 5-gallon peanut butter traps. Reduction in population estimates were used to determine the likelihood of contracting Hanta Virus or risk of rattlesnake bites
  • Adept at turning PB & J into three months of delicious cuisine
  • Knows exactly what sending electricity through water feels like going through the human body (e.g., too many falls in streams when electrofishing)
  • Skilled at identifying animals on dark forested roads using eye shine (i.e., whip-poor-will lifeguard certification)
  • Amateur tight-rope (downed slash pine) walker
  • Skilled at handling animals under various amounts of fecal matter
  • Skilled at rolling up broken tape measures
  • Adept at maintaining top hiking pace while removing and stowing jacket with backpack still attached
  • Used to being damp 24/7

    The nature of field work is that often, things do not go as planned. In this case, not only did the main field site burn down (not on purpose), but the second main field site then did, and then the ALTERNATE field site (third time’s a charm, right?!) also went ablaze. Bye bye, data! How does this translate to a transferable skill? –Skilled at having no expectations and being adaptable to anything goes.

  • Adept at sharing living quarters with rodents, both living and deceased
  • Adept at dealing with exposure to permanent fish smell
  • Possesses indestructible gut biota due to frequent consumption of unrefrigerated leftovers
  • Development of diverse and unique personal hygiene techniques
  • Demonstrated ability to work under pressure while being excreted upon and repeatedly smacked in the head by thousands of screaming birds
  • Demonstrated ability to extract a variety of broken down or barely-running trucks from remote locations, in all weather conditions
  • Adept at splinting the legs of songbirds injured in mist-nets
  • Adept at getting chainsaw stuck, then guarding stuck chainsaw through the night, while waiting for back up
  • Skilled at getting stuck chainsaws unstuck
  • Skilled at coordinated movement through tall, stabby marsh vegetation, as well as extrication from potholes in said marsh
  • Skilled at running towards mist-nets in tall vegetation while waving long sticks
  • Proficient at hurling profanities at butterflies and their predators
  • Experienced at doing public outreach activities in youth hostels while feeding butterflies in the common areas
  • Skilled at shaving fox necks (may be transferable to human haircuts)
  • Adept at advanced choreography in tussock habitat
  • Proficient at scaring eagles from landfills
  • Well versed in identifying birds at 40 mph
  • Proficient at endurance swabbing of goose throats and cloacas
  • Skilled at chasing cattle from camp and study sites

    Devising a plan to avert an imminent cow invasion of unsuspecting and innocent grassland bird nests .

  • Adept at persuading police officers to not perform arrest while searching for injured birds
  • Well versed at rendering human fat tissue for stable isotope analysis
  • Experienced at playing cat and mouse around a tree with a pissed off moose that wants nothing more than to squash you into humanoid jelly
  • Skilled at running from one end of boat to the other to remove stuck boat from underwater stump
  • Adept at removing rotting fish from net and eating lunch immediately thereafter
  • Proficient of walking 10+ miles on the beach trying to outrun a thunderstorm (while noting as many birds as possible)
  • Skilled at writing legible numbers on mammals with a small paint brush and black hair dye
  • Inventive in turning found trash into boat identification symbols
  • Experience accidentally tasting what digested fish Long Island Sound had to offer Common Terns at least once for four summers
  • Well versed in using ice cream to prevent field crew mutinies
  • Experienced at at politely nodding while listening to wide-ranging, uncomfortably long diatribes about “the government” from every hiker/commercial fisherman/rancher you meet
  • Proficient at staying zen through thousands of insect bites

    Ah, the joys of field work: insect bites on every part of your body.

  • Skilled at spotting road-killed hummingbirds at ~65 mph
  • Highly adept at avoiding trampling by large bovines
  • Skilled at tracking down falcon pellets from ~20 m away
  • Skilled at wrestling and wrangling 30 lb condors in pitch black, cramped enclosures with minimal personal bloodshed
  • Effective at removal of multiple rigs stuck in sand pits, snow banks, and mud hollows, both independently and with a partner
  • Adept at securing >50 lb carcasses to the ground in under 2 min per body, under cover of night in all weather conditions
  • Experienced at piercing wings and attaching “wing-bling” ID tags to patagials of >300 vultures with a flinch reaction of <5%

I give huge thanks to all of the people who contributed to the above list, which is not exhaustive. These bullet points do not even scratch the surface of the unique and varied skillsets field biologists acquire over their careers.

Job recruiting websites always stress how resumes must showcase maximum wow factor. If any of the above were included on a resume, they would do more than drop a few jaws.

If you were to be completely honest, what would your resume look like?

Emily Williams works as an Avian Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s Emily Williamsresearch focuses on the behavior, migration, and ecology of birds. While she now works among the boreal forests of Alaska chasing Gray Jays, she has been lucky to work with many taxa among different ecosystems worldwide.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

Website: emilyjwilliams.weebly.com

contact: ffyngau@gmail.com

 

A beginner’s guide to making a unique first impression

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Jenna Finley, an undergraduate student from Queen’s University studying plant ecology, to tell us about her first time in the field with her supervisor. Check out the end of the post to learn more about Jenna!

My very first field season has now come to an end. I managed to learn a lot and pick up a few good stories at the same time. The earliest, and as it turns out the most important, lesson I learned came courtesy of my supervisor: things go wrong sometimes and there’s nothing you can do about it. Although he didn’t phrase it quite like that!

The day I learned this lesson, I had only been in the lab for about a week.  I had been in the field twice since my arrival, but for the first time, I was going out with my supervisor. The plan for the day was simple – he was going to show me around a few sites that he thought would be good for the experiment I was going to run. Most of the day would be spent in the lab van, probably in silence, as I tried really hard not to give a bad first impression of what it’s like to work with me.

It was a gorgeous June morning: the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and I was full of hope. I ended up driving, even though every fibre of my being told me this was a terrible idea. But despite my initial misgivings, I actually ended up feeling a lot better as the morning wore on and the situation turned out to be less awkward than I’d feared.

Just before lunch, we stopped at one final site. The field was across from a cemetery, filled with bird boxes, and only accessible by driving down a gravel incline. Getting in was no problem. We looked around for a bit and my supervisor told me a little about the history of the field before we decided to move on.

Now, getting in may have been a cinch, but getting out…

I tried to reverse back up the incline, but the van slid back down, presumably due to the loose gravel under the wheels. I turned to my supervisor, hoping he had a plan, only to see him getting out of the van. He told me that he was going up onto the road to make sure no other cars were coming, and when he gave me the all-clear, I was going to floor it.

This wasn’t the type of plan I had been hoping for, but I had no other ideas.  A hundred worst case scenarios flashed through my mind, but I just nodded, praying that I didn’t overdo it and end up stuck in the cemetery across the road.

As soon as I got the thumbs up, I stomped on the gas and immediately started moving… for about two seconds. Instead of backing straight up, the van slid sharply to the and very quickly jerked to an abrupt halt – even though I had yet to release the gas pedal.

The mystery was solved when I got out and looked underneath the van.  It turns out that when I slid off the incline, I landed on top of a short fence post… effectively impaling the vehicle.

van impalled by the fence

The poor lab van

Luckily we had cell service and were able to call the nearby field station for help. As I felt horror and total mortification flood my body, my supervisor chuckled. When I looked at him, he said ‘s*** happens,’ and started snapping pictures he thought would be great to showcase during my seminar in a few months. He seemed totally unconcerned with the situation we now found ourselves in – in fact, he ended up presenting it as a plus, telling me people would find it hilarious.

The more he spoke, the more I began to see the bright side in the situation myself, and finally managed to have a pretty good laugh… even when we found out that it would be a few days before our van could be recovered. And the day was not lost! We were dropped off at another vehicle to continue where we’d left off.

So while I was still pretty embarrassed, everything turned out a lot better than I imagined it would in the moment. And I’d picked up a valuable lesson that served me well for the rest of the season: ‘s*** happens’.

Not to mention, it was pretty nice not driving for the rest of the day.

Jenns with a tall plantJenna Finley is an undergraduate thesis student at Queen’s University focusing on plant ecology. Since joining Dr. Lonnie Aarssen’s Lab, she has been looking at plant adaptive strategies involving meristem allocation and the affects of factors like body size, leafing intensity, and apical dominance on those strategies. She also works part-time in the Queen’s University Phytotron, trying to always stay connected in some way with her plant brethren. She can also be found on Twitter: @Jennafinley.

Cheers to a new year!

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

-T.S. Eliot

Wow 2017 was a busy year! Here at Dispatches from the Field, one of us successfully defended her PhD, one submitted hers, and one decided to start a PhD. However, we still managed to publish 43 posts that received almost 14000 views!

The start of a new year is always fun to reflect on the past trip around the sun. This year marked Canada’s 150th birthday in July, which we kid you not, we published our 150th blog post on that day! This year we were nominated by Science Borealis for their People’s Choice Award: Canada’s Favourite Science Online, on Science Literacy Day and we made it on the short list of top 12 blogs in Canada. Thanks for voting!

Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”

Not only did we have lots of posts from across North America, we also had guest posts about fieldwork in Europe and western Mongolia. We learned about all sizes of mammals from identifying bats in Ontario, to listening to the chatter at Squirrel Camp, to sorting through wolf scat.

We added our thoughts on current issues such as highlighting what dressing like a woman means for fieldwork, followed by an important guest post about Feminity and Fieldwork. We also had guests talk about how they use outreach tools to teach the community  (not alternative) facts about a seemingly “terrifying” snake that is actually harmless!

New Year Resolutions

dispatches from around the worldWe are excited to have another year of fieldwork posts ahead of us! We would like to fill up our map with more stories from across the world.

We also have some ideas in the works on how to improve our blog…so stay tuned!

We are always looking for guest posts and blogs to highlight on Dispatches from the Field. So if you have been reading this post and thinking “Oh ya this one time in the field…” then we want to hear about it! Email us and we will schedule you in – Looking forward to it!

Bringing the Field Back to the Community

We are very excited to welcome a fellow #scicomm fanatic to the blog today! Tianna Burke tells us all about bringing fieldwork back to the community. For more about Tianna, see the end of this post.

This year I have been lucky enough to put two of my favourite things together in my current position with the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) – field work and outreach education.

As a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, one of our missions at GBBR is to support the conservation of biodiversity through education and public outreach to foster a sense of shared responsibility to protect this special place.  In 2017, GBBR has helped support conservation efforts through the work we have done thanks to funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Canadian Wildlife Service grant programs. Part of this effort was the monitoring of massasauga rattlesnake gestation sites and foxsnake hibernation sites.

This field work made me feel so lucky to live here! It allowed me to see amazing tracts of forest, fantastic rock outcrops, and some of the incredible islands out on Georgian Bay.  The geology around here is something else!

Geology Example

When you are in the field so often, you are also more likely to see species other people rarely get to see.  On one of our site visits we spotted this amazing Eastern hog-nosed snake, which put on quite the dramatic performance. This species is known for the dramatic hissing and cobra-like displays it employs before resorting to its plan B – playing dead. It looks terrifying, but is actually harmless!

So, why is it important for us to monitor gestation and hibernation sites?  Well, because these areas are essential to the life cycle of these two species at risk. During July and August, we surveyed a variety of rock outcrops for gestating massasauga rattlesnakes. Massasaugas gestate alone, however they can be within proximity to other snakes.  Shorter summers in Parry Sound mean that most of our massasaugas give birth every 2-3 years, whereas in more southern areas they are known to have yearly litters.  A litter can consist anywhere from 5-20 neonates (baby rattlesnakes)! Since it’s important to monitor these areas regularly to ensure habitat availability and quality, we were able to partner with other organizations and individuals for future monitoring.

Massasauga Photo

A beautiful massasauga rattlesnake

Foxsnake hibernation site surveys were conducted on properties that had been monitored back in 2004, as part of a University of Guelph master’s thesis. Most of these snakes were known to hibernate on islands and lay their eggs inland. Unlike the massasauga, foxsnakes do not give live birth. We wanted to see if they were still available and active 13 years later (hint: excitingly, they were!!).

Me and Foxsnake

Holding a beautiful foxsnake

Since we are working in an area with venomous snakes there are safety protocols that we obviously need to follow.  These include wearing high-ankle hiking boots, long pants, and carrying, snake hooks. If we got lucky and found a snake, we would capture and process it, which included taking photos and checking for pit-tags. Pit tags are tiny microchip, similar to what a pet dog or cat would get, that are implanted just under the skin.  Although we don’t tag snakes ourselves, many of them may be pit-tagged thanks to a history of snake research in the Parry Sound area, especially at Killbear Provincial Park.

One might assume that the most difficult part of this job was working with a venomous and potentially dangerous snake. However, that wasn’t the case! In fact, the most difficult part is challenging the misconceptions that surround snakes.

Outreach.jpg

Doing some snake outreach in the community

The massasauga rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake, and the eastern foxsnake mimics the massasauga by rattling its tail when threatened.  Due to habitat loss and persecution by humans, they have both been listed as species at risk. There are so many misconceptions about snakes by people who live in and visit the Georgian Bay area, but social media has been a fun way to bust some of these myths.

Social media platforms allow us to reach more people than conventional methods of outreach such as booths and presentations.  I’m sure many people reading this blog have heard of Scicomm, or science communication, and this is pretty much what we are aiming to do – bring the field to everyone’s computer.

But how do you grab people’s interest?  By coming up with engaging and unique posts!  One of my personal favourite ways of doing this is using the #TriviaTuesday or #WildlifeWednesday hashtags!  These have made our posts fun and informative and have resulted in higher engagement levels. People love a good game, but they also learn from our trivia, as it revolves around the species biology, identification, or safety.  Here are just a few of the examples!

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One of our biggest hits on Facebook was a post I wrote about rattlesnake neonates. I was a little worried that there would be some negative feedback about “breeding rattlesnakes”; however, it was quite the opposite.  We wanted this post to share the excitement of a successful breeding attempt by a species at risk, so we chose to take the same approach as we would for humans: we made it a birth announcement!  It was positively received by most people on our page and also by the local radio station.

Baby Rattlesnake Announcement

The birth announcement

Georgian Bay is an amazing place because of the beautiful scenery and amazing creatures that live here.  Many times the public only sees the scenery and rarely the species within it.  Even when we, as biologists, go out into the field looking for certain species, we often have to do more than one survey because they are so cryptic and hard to find.

Much of what is known about some species, especially snakes, is what has been portrayed by folklore, popular media, or family/friends, often leading people to be afraid of or dislike these important creatures.  By running trivia games and writing unique social media posts, I hope that we are able to not only change people’s negative opinions of these species but also educate them on how to live alongside wildlife by understanding how animals and plants live, how to ID them, and why they are important. At GBBR, we are slowly but surely seeing a change in public perception, a shift in behaviour, and increasing respect for the natural world…I love it!

Tianna is a conservation biologist currently working for the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve. She obtained her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in environmental studies and completed her M.Sc. at Trent University studying Bank Swallow habitat. Working with so many passionate people is what fueled her love for the environmental field, especially her love of birds. She can be found on twitter @Tingo_89, where she co-manages the #BioLitClub and shares her passion for birds, cats, and her strange hobby of taxidermy.

Confessions of a lab biologist

We are excited to welcome Leslie Holmes to the blog today. Leslie is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, and while she may only be a novice field biologist…she “gets it”. For more about Leslie, see the end of this post. 

While I’m no field biologist, I have had short expeditions in field biology. As a novice ‘field biologist’ I can honestly say “I get it”, that is, I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be outside all day? Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your body is flooded with sun induced happy hormones and your mood instantly peaks. But it’s days like this, that it’s just as difficult to get your work done outside as it is inside sitting at a microscope, lab bench, or computer; my usual forte. Because, while inside there are birds constantly flying by your window casting animated shadows across your computer screen or field of view, and the idea of being outside trying out your lab’s recent purchase of a slip and slide is far more appealing than lab work, the work to be done outside is just as daunting. Inside, you’re (hopefully) cool and comfortable, struggling only with your mental capacity of getting your work done, while outside, in addition to mental anguish, you’re often overheating, sweating, and physically drained, and while you know these insects won’t collect themselves, all you want to do is lay down in the shade and read a book or go for a swim.

ss

Trying out the slip and slide

But I think every field biologist out there would agree, not every day is like this. In the spring and summer, you might have rainy days, where it’s coming down so hard you feel like a tin can and a sponge at the same time, rain drops hitting you like golf balls, not to mention the added 20 lbs of water weight you must now carry with you. As temperatures rise, you literally become a buffet for every biting insect in a 1-kilometer radius. Then there are days you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can take a single step more, even if it’s the first step back to the biology station where a nice meal awaits you. However, this utter exhaustion will almost certainly guarantee you a solid night’s sleep, an anomaly for most of us lab biologists.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought back to my very first field biology experience and the absolute wonder it brought to my life. It was July 10th 2009 in the McFadden National Wildlife Refuge of Sabine Pass, Texas, and our lab was trying to verify the range expansion of an invasive blowfly species Chrysomya megacephala. The landscape chosen to put some carrion out was less than 500 m from the coastal beach and was still recovering from the destruction of hurricane Ike that had passed through in 2008. In addition, the landscape had fallen victim to a large-scale lightning induced fire less than a week prior to our arrival. It was incredible, the flooding from the previous year’s hurricane, left little in the way of plant and wildlife, and what little that was there, had burned from the fire the week before, but to our amazement, the blowflies arrived within minutes of setting out the carrion. Minutes! It was here that I realized just how little we know about ecology and how it appears that the simplest organisms seem to have it all figured out.

I’ve also done some field work in the winter, and I have to say, if you’re a field biologist and you’re about to embark on a day, you know in advance is not going to be good, take someone like me with you! That is, take a novice, someone who is eager and happy to help and get experience, but has never seen a truly bad day in the field! Trust me, they will make light of what you most certainly believe will be an awful situation. The day was December 23rd, 2013, I was working in the lab over the holidays on my own experiments, so when my friend Amanda needed help in the field so that she could go home for Christmas, I didn’t even hesitate to offer my services, as limited and inexperienced as they may have been. Side bar: December of 2013 in Kingston, Ontario has come to be known as the year we got more snow than we’d seen in 5 years, and ice storm, after snow storm, after ice storm, etc.  Over the course of a week, Kingston, Ontario was blanketed with 30-100 cm of snow (depending on presence or absence of snow drifts), and 20-30mm of freezing rain. Specifically, there were layers of snow and ice throughout the landscape, and on December 23rd, the day after a second ice storm, we were headed to Amanda’s field study site. As we were driving to the Opinicon region, it occurred to us that the ATV typically used to haul us and our equipment to the field site might not be a viable option due to the deep drifts of ice and snow. But given the trek into the field site from the road was long and winding, we gave it the good ol’ college try, getting the ATV stuck in the snow/ice the instant we drove it out of the garage. So with 100+ lbs of equipment, Amanda and I started trudging through the deep snow/ice/snow/ice layers in an open field. And while Amanda would probably tell you, this day is probably one her top 5 worst days in the field, I would tell you, I laughed so much that day, that it was a good thing it was a mild -2˚C day, or my tears of laugher would have frozen to my cheeks!

snow

Amanda crawling across the snow to place boxes containing seeds for overwintering. Distributing our weight across the snowy, icy surface was an effective strategy but drastically delayed our time to completion.

Being a novice field biologist however, is not always ideal. It was late fall (my first time out in the field in any other season but summer), and the lab was bringing the dock in from Round Lake at the Queen’s University Biology Station. I was told that it was going to be a half day job and we were leaving first thing in the morning, so I had my usual late fall hearty breakfast of stone rolled oats and was ready to go, dressed in warm layers with a new waterproof jacket, pants and winter boots. Let’s just say, just like in the lab, things always take longer than your supervisor thinks it will and here we were, 8 hours later, heading back to Kingston after a long, but successful task of taking the dock out of Round Lake. Ignorant to the whole field biology experience, I had not prepared for this task to take longer than half a day, and thus I had not packed a lunch. So, when everyone paused in their tasks for a lunch break, my lack of preparedness was evident for all to see. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I told everyone that I didn’t usually eat lunch, silently willing my many layers of clothing to mask my thunderous hunger rumbles. By the end of the day I was starving, cold, wet and very hangry! Picking up some pizza and a large hot chocolate on my way home, I could not wait to peel my cold wet clothes off and have a scalding hot bath, only to discover my housemate had just used the last drop of hot water!

I’ve learned a lot from my limited experience in field biology, and while I often get envious of all my field biologists friends and the exciting places they get to discover, I certainly don’t regret moving to the dark side and doing most of my research in a lab setting. I think I’ll always gravitate towards laboratory research, where I like to think I’m in control of everything (although my entire PhD thus far would suggest otherwise). However, I do hope to continue to collaborate on field biology research and probably most ideally, pair laboratory studies with field studies.

2016-12-08 11.19.38A bit more about Leslie: “I received my bachelor of forensic science degree from the University of Windsor in 2008. Early in my undergraduate degree, I branched into the field of biology by working in a forensic entomology lab as a work study student. Helping graduate students at the time with their theses, I was engulfed into the world of forensic entomology. From there I was offered a Master’s position in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in Windsor to complete a development study on the black soldier fly for the purposes of maintaining a waste management facility year round in southern Ontario. I enrolled in my Master’s degree in the fall of 2008. Prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in the summer of 2008 on a ‘side’ project. As a result of this project, I travelled with my lab to the North American Forensic Entomology Association conference in Atlantic City to present our findings. It was at this conference that I met Dr. Tomberlin from Texas A&M University, the leading expert on the black soldier fly and landed a visiting research scholar position in his laboratory at Texas A&M. As a result, I spent the last year of my master’s in Dr. Tomberlin’s lab, where I completed 3 out of the 4 experiments of my master’s. An electronic copy of my thesis titled “Role of Abiotic Factors on the Development and LIfe History of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens (L.) (Diptera: Stratiomyidae)” can be download here.

I completed my master’s degree in October of 2010 and was able to land a part-time faculty position at Trent University in January 2011. I was employed in their Forensic Science Department and taught their first year introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation courses. I also developed a new online course in forensic entomology and taught it in the summer of 2012 online. While teaching online at Trent University in 2012, I also worked as an entomological researcher, raising beneficial insects for the purposes of integrated pest management. It was in September 2012, that I decided to return to school to embark on my PhD at Queen’s University.”

Not a Foreign Field

This week we are thrilled to welcome Pratik Gupte to the blog. Pratik is a research assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. For more about Pratik, see the end of this post. 

Last autumn, I was on the River Ijssel in the Netherlands looking for something – or someone – pretty specific. White-fronted goose No. 34 was somewhere close by and I was in the process of tracking her down. She didn’t look very pleased when I found her, but I dare you to try travelling a couple thousand kilometres from Russia on your own power while wearing a GPS transmitter and look happy at the end of it.

Though it could have been, this isn’t a story full of exotic locations, harsh conditions, and action-packed days, telling the tale of how this bird got her tag (mostly because National Geographic, which funded the expedition, owns the rights to this Russian part of the story). Instead, the point I want to get across is that the process of collecting data that helps answer important and/or interesting questions doesn’t have to conform to the general public or even other biologists’ idea of fieldwork1.

For my master’s thesis, I joined Andrea Kölzsch at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany and Kees Koffijberg of the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, to study the winter distribution of migratory geese in western Europe. Most of my data were from flock censuses done by citizen scientist volunteers, so I set off for Holland and the Rhinelands of Germany to take a look at how these censuses were done. The idea was to identify issues in sampling that could affect analysis, and to log a few flocks myself. This is one of the major ways in which data scientists get to go outdoors (and a popular one).

I was prepared for conditions like I’d encountered in Russia that summer: open tundra and skittish geese – hard to spot, let alone count. But western Europe is human dominated, and geese are accustomed to people. Most of our observations were literally in farmers’ fields. Often, geese were just a few hundred metres from wind turbines or power plants.

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All the dull colours in the world won’t help you hide if your field car is this yellow. Luckily, it
doesn’t always matter.

Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on the origin of the idea of fieldwork and how local sites are great.

One of our three datasets included many thousands of records of goose flocks and individually marked birds. But when broken down over 17 winters, the average volunteer (75 were listed in the data) would need to find only a couple of flocks each winter. Most of the volunteers were a bit older, armed with a love for birds, some spare time, and a telescope and notebook. Some, like Kees (who’s also the census coordinator), roll around the countryside on their bicycles.

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A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser) rests as a farmer works in the Netherlands. Field sites don’t have to be exotic, good data can come from anywhere.

Field data collection stories are often biased towards the exciting, the novel, and the harsh. But this represents only one aspect of the assignments biologists undertake outside the office or lab. A lot of fieldwork happens in everyday settings, with average equipment and transport. It happens in full view of locals. It could easily involve your neighbour, who does it as a hobby, or as a way to contribute to our understanding of the world. For example, it was the collective effort of dedicated citizen scientists like Thijs de Boer and Jan Kramer (who showed me around Friesland) chipping in over many years that provided most of my data.

So if you’re a student considering whether the ‘field’ is for you, or a member of the public wondering how you can contribute, remember: field biologists don’t always drop from helicopters, catch animals, or trudge through the desert (though I’ll admit to having done all three). Instead, we often work pretty close to home, and we need people like you to help out. There’s always a way to get involved, and often more than one way to get data. If you see a team doing something interesting, stop and ask: more likely than not, they’ll be happy to share what they’re doing with you.

 

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Pratik Gupte is a research assistant in Maria Thaker’s Macrophysiology Lab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Pratik studies the movement and physiology of elephants in response to water sources in South Africa. This follows his master’s thesis work at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, on spatial patterns and movements of migratory geese in western Europe. Pratik can be found on Twitter at @pratikr16.