Be a lady (in field biology) they said

In honour of the 6th International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11th, 2021), we wanted to take the opportunity to explore what it means to be a woman in field biology.

While many aspects of fieldwork don’t discriminate by sex or gender (for example, getting bitten by insects, getting dirty, losing your phone/your field notes/your mind), fieldwork can present some unique trials for women – especially when it involves long days, weeks, or even months. Below, we’ve listed some of our favourite posts reflecting on the challenges and rewards of being a woman in the field.  

In 2017, in response to claims that then-President Donald Trump liked female to staffers to “dress like women”, women all over the world came together to describe exactly what it means to #DressLikeaWoman. As editors of Dispatches from the Field, we shared our own experiences from the cutting edge of women’s (field) fashion. Spoiler alert – don’t become a field biologist unless you’re willing to pair cut-off jean shorts with rubber boots or hats with…more hats. We’re still waiting on our job offers from the White House.

The challenges facing women in the field can range from meeting basic needs, such as figuring out where to pee and what to do when you have your period, to more serious issues like feeling isolated and unsafe. Dr. Jodie Wiggins (who has completed her PhD since writing this post for us in 2017; congrats Dr. Wiggins!) shared some of her hard-earned wisdom and tips for women in the field, including the importance of stocking tampons in the field supplies.

Fieldwork takes a toll on everyone, but it may be particularly difficult if you’re trying to be a parent at the same time. Dr. Tara Imlay shared her experiences juggling the competing demands of fieldwork and parenting, from timing her pregnancy to minimize conflicts with the field season, to dealing with tiredness, nausea, and the need to delegate tasks.

And like the video Be A Lady They Said, us woman can be a lady in field biology! Over the past six years, we’ve published posts from fierce, funny, and fantastic women field biologists around the world. These are the women who will shape the future of science – and it’s been our privilege to share some of their stories with you.

Cows, Creosotes, and Checkerboards

This week we welcome Dr. Kaiya Provost to the blog. Kaiya is a Postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. For more about Kaiya, see the end of this post or find her on Twitter @KaiyaProvost.

Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2016, is where my hatred of cows began. That summer, one charged me when I rounded a corner and got too close. I thought for sure I was going to get gored or trampled, but I didn’t. For some reason, I decided to continue being an ornithologist who works on southwestern ranch land. What can I say? Ranch land birds are great. 

Ranchers’ cows, which are common to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and are the nemeses of the author. Credit to B.T. Smith

By 2018, I was in the Big Hatchet Mountains, New Mexico. Hard to get to. Extremely dry. You can see creosote bushes for miles, dry canyons that capture what little rainwater there is, and no people.

My advisor, Brian, and I were out in the field before heading to a conference in Tucson. I’d spent my morning looking for Canyon Towhees. I’d been trying to lure them in with a recording of their song, holding a handheld bluetooth speaker over my head. I’d seen zero. 

It was a 3 km hike uphill to get into that particular canyon, and I could make out our truck only as a black pinprick among creosotes. Lunch was in that truck, and breakfast had been only half of a Clif bar. 

As both humans and birds agree that midday in the desert is unpleasant, I started hiking back to the truck. Brian was around somewhere. In the canyons I didn’t have cell service, so I couldn’t text him until I got up on a hill. 

A typical field work lunch or dinner for the author. Tortillas with canned refried beans and pickled jalapenos. Not pictured: diluted Gatorade and apples. Credit to B.T. Smith

As I rounded a corner, I froze. 10 feet in front of me was something big. Much bigger than me. It was a cow, I realized. And it stared at me with big black eyes. 

I bolted through the mesquite, thorns everywhere; I scrambled down that hill, my hands grabbing at creosote bushes to keep me from slipping. I slipped anyway, landing on my hands, shredding my palms. I heard my bluetooth speaker chime off and power down, but dismissed it, running as fast as I could until I realized the cow had not charged me. No, as I turned around, the cow was placidly munching on a bush.

Heart pounding, I glared at the cow and its dopey black eyes, hoping that it could sense my anger and not my panic. For ten minutes I cussed out the cow, field work, Canyon Towhees, and Clif bars. After that I ran out of steam and limped to the truck in the desert heat.

After another half hour, I reached for my phone to text Brian. Shoot. Where was it? I must have misplaced it.

There was a mesh pocket on the side of my bag, one I’d been keeping my phone in. The problem? The bottom of the pocket was gone and the mesh was full of mesquite thorns.

Icy dread clogged my throat. I dumped my bag on the passenger seat. Half a Clif bar. Water bottle. Pencil. Paper. Field notebook. Bluetooth speaker. Another pencil. No phone. Which meant no directions, no playback, no field work. I went through the pile again. I turned the bag inside out. 

Brian came back as I went through the pile again

“What’s up?” he asked. 

I looked under the seat. I went through the pile a fourth time. “I lost my phone,” I said.

“Yikes,” he said. 

I stared up at that hillside, at the mountain. It loomed over me, like it spanned forever. I wondered, I was out for six hours. Where could my phone have fallen? I could see it in my mind’s eye, the blue case knocked off, battery slowly discharging.

I thought I was a failed scientist. 

As I started putting my bag together, I saw the bluetooth speaker. Oddly, it was still on. Hadn’t I heard it turn off before, while I was scrambling through that mesquite bush?

Wait. It was a bluetooth speaker. Connected to my phone, with a range of 30 feet. And it chimed anytime it lost or gained the connection. I could use the speaker to find my phone! Like a metal detector, with a 30 foot sensor on the end! 

Determined, hopeful, I walked back up into the Big Hatchet Mountains. Uphill. At high noon.

The hike felt like it took hours. To add insult to injury, I could see the offending cow as a speck in the distance. There were more mesquites than I remembered up there. They all looked the same. Was that the one I fell through? I can’t give up, I told myself. I’m gonna find that phone or pass out from dehydration. 

I picked a bush, took out the speaker, and started moving in circles. One loop around. Two loops. Three. I’m never going to find it, I thought. I’m a bad scientist, I couldn’t even find a Towhee, this was a mistake —

The speaker chimed. 

I could have cried from sheer relief. Somewhere close to me was my phone. I wasn’t a failure. 

Of course, as I moved forward, the speaker disconnected. Turns out, a 30 foot radius is a lot of ground to cover when looking for something that small, even if it’s in a bright blue case. I walked one way, the speaker turned on. Another, it turned off. I made a checkerboard across the hillside, the day well past noon and the sun relentless, but not as relentless as me. 

Forever later, finally, I saw it under a mesquite. A rectangle with a bright blue case on it and a bird sticker on the back. My cell phone, which could have been a bar of solid gold at that moment. 

I grabbed it and dropped to the ground. The screen was newly cracked, but I could still see everything and swipe through. I even had service! A text from Brian popped up, asking if I was still alive. 

I did it! 

As I went back down the hill, that cow still stared at me. When I made it to the truck, my lunch was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Diluted Gatorade and cold refried beans; a victory feast. 

I didn’t tell Brian about the cow until after we got to Tucson. 

A view from the base of the Big Hatchet Mountains. Credit to the author
Kaiya Provost is an ornithologist, evolutionary biologist, and self-declared cow nemesis. She is a postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. She got her PhD with Brian Tilston Smith at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School working on desert bird genomics and demographics. 

Getting caught with your pants down at 4500m

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are happy to welcome Alex Denton, a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, studying at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU), Suzhou to explain the story behind this intriguing title! For more abut Alex, check out his bio at the end of the post.

Fieldwork comes with a plethora of challenges: some which can be foreseen and planned for, some which one learns about from experience, and others… others which one never imagines encountering. This is a story about the latter. 

Let me set the scene. 

It was the summer of 2019, and I had just started the first year of my PhD program. I arrived at my campus in Suzhou, unpacked my belongings, completed orientation, and one month later was heading off to do fieldwork in one of the most awe-inspiring locations on Earth: the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (QTP). Sitting at an average elevation of 4500m above sea level, and covering an area of 2.5 million km2, the region is truly deserving of its moniker: “the roof of the world”. Within the alpine grasslands of the southeastern plateau, my research focuses on herbivore community ecology: how various species interact with one another and their unique environment. With grazers such as pika, zokor, marmots, yak, invertebrates, and more present, I am an ecologist truly spoilt for choice! 

Endless trail – view from our drive up onto the plateau.

I was the first student in my supervisor’s lab to undertake work in this area, so we were both unsure what to expect regarding living arrangements for me and the handful of MSc students also carrying out research on the QTP. Not that that bothered me! I was looking forward to a proper rustic experience, wrapping up in fleece and blankets as the cold nights drew in, and perhaps relying on some whiskey for additional warmth.

Our accommodation – my shack is to the right behind the car.

The on-site accommodation turned out to be a rather basic farmhouse and adjoining shack. I took the shack myself so as to give the MSc students their own space. I quickly made it homey, setting up a bed – complete with an electric blanket – and work area. We collected fresh well water every day for washing and cooking, and the nearest town was an hour or so away, should we need supplies or transportation down from the plateau’s heady heights.

Room with a view – daily yak herd passing by my window.

The first morning in the field comprised beautiful sunshine, some of the biggest skies I had ever seen, and a rumbling stomach… it was time for breakfast. Following this, and without wishing to get too graphic, I needed to pop to the bathroom. I had assumed it would be a case of finding a spot and digging a hole. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this – it would only add to the rustic experience I was geared up for! 

What hadn’t been made clear to me, however, was exactly where to find such a “spot”. I couldn’t ask the MSc students: I had only just met them, and what kind of first impression would that be?! I decided to locate a bathroom myself, observing the commonsense rule of keeping a reasonable distance from the accommodation and the place where we were setting up our field experiments. 

So off I went, kitted out in pajamas and slippers, and after a little trekking found a seemingly suitable spot with some tall vegetation. “Brilliant!” I thought. “Here I’ve got privacy, and a 360° field of view.” 

But no sooner had I started than I noticed a rather loud whiny buzzing. It was the height of summer, in a place with a monsoonal climate, where rain had recently fallen… the perfect breeding grounds for BUGS!

I was insect repellent-less, so I began frantically swatting what I can only imagine must have been China’s entire population of mosquitoes and biting flies away from my bare legs. Eventually I admitted defeat, hastily pulled up my trousers and ran off, losing a slipper along the way, just as the MSc students emerged from the farmhouse to start the day. And I was worried about creating a bad first impression?!

Subsequent “morning activities”, were much less problematic, as my morning ritual developed to include liberally dousing myself with insect repellent following breakfast. I spent the next month getting familiar with the spectacular area where I would spend the following 2 summers. 

A plateau frog – did not expect to find amphibians up here!
Watch your step! An absence of trees in this region means ground-nesting birds.

Covid-19 has sadly put a halt to my field work for now, and whilst this means a much less “rustic” summer spent in the UK, I am very much looking forward to (hopefully) returning to the QTP in 2021. When I do, I will be making use of ALL I have learnt to become a more proficient (and prepared) field scientist.  

Alex Denton is a British PhD candidate studying in Suzhou, China. His research is conducted through a partnership between Xi’an Jiaotong University and the University of Liverpool and seeks to provide a comprehensive picture of the interactions between the herbivores of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Ultimately, he hopes to inform conservation policy on issues such as grazing management, pest control, and traditional Chinese medicine practices. Check out his Twitter @alexmdenton

Praia, Paradise, & Petrel Poop

We are excited to welcome Alyssa J. Sargent to the blog today. Alyssa is a PhD student at the University of Washington studying tropical hummingbird ecology. For more about Alyssa, see the end of this post.

When seabirds colonize a tiny island, they truly reign. Humans no longer have the last word on dominance—at best, we are tolerated from a safe distance; at worst, we are considered threats most sensibly handled by mobbing.

As tiny islands go, Praia Islet fits the bill: a mere 0.039 square miles, it is a snippet of the Azores, a Portuguese island chain in the middle of the Atlantic. What’s more, it is a hub of ornithological research, positively inundated by birds.

Praia Islet! Teeny-tiny.

During the day, the common tern is king. When I worked on Praia, there were certain sections of the island that our field crew dared not disturb, for fear of either reprisal or treading on a nest. If we waded through the waist-high grasses close to the tern colony, the birds rose into the air in a great white wave, circling overhead; their shrill, burry calls rang and rattled in our ears, and every few seconds a particularly brave or irritable tern would dive toward us, swooping inches from our heads. Their nests, which resembled flattened divots in the golden-green stems, were tightly-spaced—a crammed neighborhood for new families, with no vacancies. If we were lucky, we could catch a glimpse of a fluffy nestling or two, miniscule punks with spiky feathered heads. If we were unlucky, we got parting gifts—delivered directly onto our heads. And after speedily escorting us off the premises, several terns would trail us for a time, like a multi-bodied kite suspicious of our intentions.

From a respectful distance, we could observe the terns wheeling over the sapphire Atlantic, plunging into the water. They often emerged victorious, beak clamped down on a silvery fish; equally often, a rival would attempt to snatch the victor’s hard-earned spoils in midair. We would see these fish strewn across the well-worn trail, vestiges of past battles and unsuccessful thieveries.

When the sun began to drop, drenching the ocean creases in pink and lilac, a changing of the guard soon followed. The terns settled quietly into the grasses for the night, and a steady stream of newcomers arrived: burly shearwaters—Cory’s and little—and their much daintier relatives, Monteiro’s storm-petrels. Fresh from foraging expeditions, these birds trumpeted their arrival, until the darkening sky was awash with darting shadows and a cacophony of calls.

A little shearwater nestling! Pure fluff.
Sunset in the Azores.

Any one of these small storm-petrels could have traveled over 300 miles in one foraging trip. You’d expect them to collapse in exhaustion, but these birds meant business. They returned to land for all things breeding: to find a mate, choose a nest burrow, incubate their eggs, or feed their nestlings. Deep into the night, while the Milky Way glittered overhead and the moon bathed the island and surrounding waters in silver, their silhouettes darted erratically through the air like bats. Above the distant sound of the waves, we could hear them squeakily calling to one another.

The Monteiro’s storm-petrel is endemic to the Azores. This fact, combined with their mostly-uncharted foraging patterns, nocturnal habits, and affinity for nesting in burrows, makes them a tricky study subject. But what’s science without a challenge?

It was with the goal of cracking such mysteries that I joined a research team studying these petrels—which we affectionately dubbed “stormies”—in the Azores. We camped out on Praia, a scrap of land off the shore of Graciosa, one of the smaller islands in the chain. We were the sole inhabitants; the islet had a single, cramped building with no electricity or running water—and quite a few cracks in the roof, which the rain was fond of worrying its way through. Our bunkmates were omnipresent Madeiran wall lizards, which dispersed in a scrabbling frenzy when we passed them, and flies that hung sleepily in the air with no apparent destination. Occasionally a bemused shearwater would wander its way inside. Once a pair of enterprising terns, in the market for real estate, snuggled their nest among the shingles of our battered roof.

Pure fluff, miniaturized: a Monteiro’s storm-petrel nestling.

It was, as we put it, “rustic”. But this suited our purposes well. We had the run of the islet—that is, the sections not ruled by terns—and there were plenty of opportunities to study the stormies. Monteiro’s are handsome little seabirds, the dark gray of thunderclouds and smelling strangely of wax. In order to disentangle their enigmas, we used many instruments familiar to field ornithologists: mist nets to catch birds on the wing, bands to individuate each bird, camera traps nestled into burrows to see the petrels’ hidden activity, GPS tags to track their odysseys out to sea, and other tools like acoustic playback and diet analysis.

Measuring a little shearwater nestling to gauge how much it’s grown!

Of course, diet analysis is a euphemism for what, in the field, amounts to collecting bird poop. And oh, was there bird poop. That might not be the first thing that comes to mind when imagining these fluffy little birds, but it’s no small detail—it stippled the rocks in a layered mosaic and graffitied our clothes. Every time we handled a bird, we—and our trousers—were at risk.

Things weren’t glamorous, but Praia was its own sort of paradise. Yes, we were crammed into a building with three times as many people as rooms. Yes, we got mobbed by terns, and yes, we got pooped on. Habitually. As is always the case in the field, we hit snags. But there was unmistakable beauty in the windswept grasses tangled with wildflowers and the iridescent, crumpled ocean surface; there was the thrill of witnessing a mother and father stormy reunite at their burrow through the feed of a miniscule camera, and of cupping one of these small birds between our fingers—his powerful wings folded crisply against skin, his tiny heart playing a tangible staccato, and his dark eyes shining with intelligence. Finding magic in these moments is at the heart of fieldwork. That, and being okay with a little bird poop.

I’m a field ornithologist by trade. During my PhD, I intend to study tropical hummingbird ecology, and leverage advanced technology to answer previously inaccessible questions about these tiny gems. With this information, I hope to contribute to conservation efforts by increasing knowledge and fostering local engagement. I believe that sharing science with others is incredibly important, and that writing is a particularly effective medium to do so!  

Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.

We’re back!

After taking a much needed break over the summer, we at Dispatches from the Field are back in action and ready to bring you more stories of fieldwork adventure from researchers all over the world!

Here in Canada, Sept. 21-27 is Science Literacy Week, and this year’s theme is “B is for Biodiversity”. One of the main goals of our blog is to bridge the gap between the elusive scientist and the public. Sharing our experiences and adventures as field biologists is a great way to communicate why we love what we do!

So in honour of Science Literacy Week, we wanted to highlight some field research stories on Dispatches that showcase the magnificent biodiversity we have here in Canada:

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

Alex Sutton narrates his adventures of chasing Canada Jays in Algonquin Park. Photo credit: Alex Sutton.

Help us celebrate biodiversity by checking out these archived posts, and stay tuned – we’re excited to bring you new stories about field research in Canada and around the world starting in October!

Of catbirds, chats, and challenges

We are excited to welcome Kristen Mancuso to the blog today! Kristen is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. For more about Kristen, see the end of this post. 

As I wrap up my PhD at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, I think back fondly on 4 summers of field work across North America. In collaboration with other organizations, I did fieldwork in northern California, western Montana, and Mexico…but most of my time was spent in the south Okanagan Valley.

One of my study sites in the South Okanagan Wildlife Management Area. The wild rose sure smells nice but walking through it is very scratchy.

The Okanagan Valley is a hot tourist destination in the summers, known for its lakes, beaches, wineries, and fruit. For biologists, it’s also known for its unique biodiversity – the semi-arid desert habitat is home to species occurring nowhere else in Canada.

My PhD research aims to learn more about the full annual cycle of 2 species of songbird: the yellow-breasted chat and the gray catbird. The population of yellow-breasted chats in the south Okanagan Valley is listed as Endangered federally, with only a few hundred breeding pairs in the province. In contrast, the gray catbird is abundant and not of conservation concern. Studying the two species together allows for a comparison between a common and an at-risk riparian songbird species. Environment and Climate Change Canada has been monitoring both species in the region for many years, and this PhD project piggybacks on their efforts.

Both yellow-breasted chats and gray catbirds are migratory, spending most of the year south of the Canadian border. In North America, most research on migratory songbirds occurs on the breeding grounds, but a better understanding of their migration and overwintering life stages is crucial to identify and address potential threats. This is especially important for endangered species, such as the yellow-breasted chat, to aid recovery efforts.

However, it wasn’t until very recently that tracking technology became small enough to use on songbirds. Now, we have lightweight GPS tracking devices, weighing only 1 gram, that birds can carry with them on migration. This is the technology I used to track chats and catbirds across their full annual cycle. But in order to follow the path of a migrating bird, we needed to capture birds and attach the GPS tags, then recapture them a year later to remove the tags and download the data. Therefore, most of my time in the field was spent capturing, resighting, and recapturing birds.

Bird capture

To capture birds, we used mist-nets. Mist nets are a common tool to capture songbirds and are made of a very fine, soft mesh that is nearly impossible to see. The net is stretched between two poles and contains multiple pockets. When a bird flies into the net, it falls into a pocket and gets tangled but is not harmed. We gave each bird we caught a combination of 3 unique colour bands and a standard numbered band.  The colour bands allowed us to identify the individual from afar. A subset of birds were also given a harness with a GPS tag attached, which they carried like a backpack.

Chats are territorial and will respond to playback of other chats’ songs, so we targeted specific territorial males with strategically placed nets, using a stuffed dead chat as a decoy. Catbirds don’t appear to be as aggressively territorial as chats and unfortunately, don’t consistently respond to playback, so our best bet was to passively capture them first thing in the morning. This meant getting up at ungodly hours. I had my schedule down to the minute: wake up at 2:30 AM, leave by 3:00 AM, arrive at site by 3:20 AM, and then set up ~ 8 mist-nets by headlamp as fast as possible so they were ready to catch birds before first light, around 4 AM.

My field technicians carrying banding gear from a chat territory.  The white styrofoam box contains the decoy.

My main catbird site along a trail. A mist net is barely visible on the left.

A catbird given some fresh colour bands. Two black bands on its left leg, plus a green and standard band on its right leg.

GPS tags attached to the back of yellow-breasted chat.

GPS tags attached to the back of colour-banded gray catbird.

Resighting colour banded birds

The purpose of resighting colour-banded birds was to identify individuals that needed to be recaptured to remove GPS tags and also to monitor the return rates and survival of birds. Survival estimates are valuable for conservation and monitoring efforts to better understand if birds are making it through the winter and migration and returning to breed.

To resight birds, we used binoculars and high-zoom cameras, which sounds easier than it is. Yellow-breasted chats and catbirds live in places no sane person would normally venture into: dense bushes of wild roses and thickets of poison ivy. In order to protect ourselves, we wore thick rain gear. Did I mention that the south Okanagan is also known for its intense sun and heat? Temperatures in excess of 30°C are not uncommon, and the rain gear quickly turned into a sweat trap. To add to the challenge, the clouds of mosquitoes (and to a lesser extent, ticks) meant we also often wore bug nets to cover our faces.

Both chats and catbirds are relatively sneaky and hard to see, but males periodically pop up out of the dense vegetation to sing and defend their territory. This often meant a long, hot wait for the bird to appear – and when it finally did, we typically only had a few seconds to get a photo. All too often, our attempts ended in failure. Sometimes we heard the bird but couldn’t see it; other times, we saw the bird with our eyes but couldn’t find it with the camera. Often we were too slow, and the bird went back into thicket before we could snap the picture. And in the most frustrating cases, we got the photo – only to find that it wasn’t usable for identification purposes for a multitude of reasons: the camera focused something other than the bird, the photo was over- or underexposed, the bird’s legs (and therefore colour bands) were hidden…

The chat is front and centre and yet my camera focuses on the tree in the background.

Catbird silhouette. Not helpful for ID.

Nice shots of chat but can’t see legs.

Nice shots of catbird but can’t see legs.

Even when we did get a clear photo, interpreting the colour of the bands wasn’t always easy. Standard aluminum bands can appear white or light blue. Red bands can fade and look like orange.

But the challenge was in part what made it so appealing! When we finally nailed a bird’s colour band combination, there was a definite sense of accomplishment. Looking up who the bird was, when and where it was banded, and whether it was seen the previous year – in short, its whole history – was exciting. The oldest catbird in our study was at least 6 years old, and the oldest chat at least 11!

Despite the sleep deprivation, poison ivy rashes, and rose scratches, spending the summers studying these birds was something I looked forward to every year. Being outside watching the birds at dawn in their natural habitats, foraging, singing, and building nests, was beautiful and peaceful. Using new technology to learn more about their migration was fascinating. Having great field technicians was an added bonus, and being able to go swimming or go for ice cream after a long day in the field made the summers unforgettable.

Kristen Mancuso is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. Her PhD project is in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada. She has a love for fieldwork and exploring the great outdoors. After her PhD, Kristen hopes to continue her career in wildlife conservation. This fall she will be working as a bird bander for Mackenzie Nature Observatory. Follow her research on Instagram @yellowbreastedchatresearch

The Kalahari Queen

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are happy to welcome Zach Mills, a graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa! To learn more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the blog.

Field work in Africa never behaves itself. It consists of perpetual improvisation because things never go to plan. It demands adaptability, a bit of nerve and resilience. The truth is that fieldwork is what happens when everything functions smoothly; the rest of the time you’re trying to make fieldwork happen. Fieldwork is a lesson in patience and mental fortitude, and this is precisely why we field people love it.

I study thermoregulation in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta); specifically, I study the influence of metabolic heat production on hunting in endurance hunters. That’s right – endurance hunter; hyenas are effective cursorial hunters that capture prey by running it to exhaustion.

In May 2019, I arrived at my field site in northeastern Namibia with eight days to re-capture eight spotted hyenas in order to remove GPS collars I had deployed a year prior. My plan was simple and effective: use a carcass to bait the clan into a suitable area and blast a series of prey vocalizations followed by a series of hyena vocalizations to get the clan’s attention. Wait and thou shall be rewarded with scores of hyenas. It usually takes a day or two to congregate the clan, but it has historically been foolproof. While spotted hyenas are competent hunters, I’ve never known them to turn down a putrid carcass per gratis.

Zach takes a minute to pose with a lion carcass in Khaudum National Park, Namibia (Photo credit: Hans Rack)

Two things work in my favor when it comes to hyena aggregation at a bait site. First, spotted hyenas have amazing noses, far better than a bloodhound. With a favorable breeze they regularly beeline 10 km directly to a bait site. Second, they regularly patrol their home ranges in small coalitions. In a clan of 40 individuals, the chances of a patrolling group intercepting the scent of the bait and alerting the clan to the complimentary bounty is extremely high.

However, one thing generally works against me: hyena astuteness. When I started studying hyenas, I considered myself to be the more intelligent species and therefore assumed the odds of successful capture were in my favor. I have since reconsidered this.

Last May, I had returned to the field to retrieve the devices at the precise moment the hyenas were all where they were supposed to be – their natal home range.

However, the first night I put the bait out, nothing. Second night, again nothing. On the morning of the third day, I called the collar manufacturer to get recent locations for the study animals. Seven of the eight were 15 km to the north; the eighth (a male) was moving east towards Botswana. I disregard a recommendation from the collar manufacturer to use a helicopter to capture that male and persisted with baiting and calling. Third night, nothing. I called the collar company back and was informed that the rogue male was well into Botswana moving toward the Okavango Delta. The misfortune continued the fourth and fifth nights. At this point, I had only 72 hours to capture 8 hyenas.

Zach performs a physical examination on a sedated spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Lucky for me, a helicopter pilot in camp for other projects took pity on me and offered me an hour of fly time at sunrise and another hour at dusk to locate the wily hyenas using their radio collar frequencies and capture them. This was far more effective than my ‘foolproof’ strategy; the first hyena was tranquilized by a dart administered sedative shortly after sunrise. We captured a second individual that morning and a third in the evening. I was hit with a wave of optimism.

Zach attempts to locate a study animal in Khaudum National Park, Namibia.

The next morning, horizontal rays of the early Kalahari sun cut through the bush as the helicopter rotors began to roar. The shadows cast by the acacia trees are deceptively long in the early morning hours, making it feel like you’re flying over an endless game of jackstraws.

Looking like a vagrant who had escaped from an international detention center, with collar frequencies scribed on my arms, holes in my down jacket, and a face weathered by endless desert sand, I was after one particular adult female that morning: #2746. Last year, #2746 was 210 pounds of impossible to chemically immobilize bad attitude. She was the boss of the bush, the matriarch of the motherland, the Queen of the Kalahari.

I hate to anthropomorphize, but #2746 is an animal of note. I had spent the past year psychologically preparing for our next encounter. True to her mysterious ways, it was a telemetry exercise from hell locating her that morning. Ultimately, I understood why: she’d peek her head out of a shallow den just long enough to send a few radio signals my way before vanishing underground.

But eventually, we caught her off guard, and a well-placed dart found her rump. A chase ensued, and she led us directly to a second den site. We gained altitude to let her fall asleep before she descended deeper into the den.

Zach recovering #2746 from a den (Photo Credit: Markus Hofmeyr)

After ten minutes, we landed, and I peered into the den. #2746 seemed comfortably asleep a meter from the surface. I descended into the den in with a rope in my teeth to recover the half-asleep hyena. I planned to loop the rope around her shoulder, shimmy my way out, and drag her out with the help of two people.

As I looped the rope around her shoulder, she blinked. And then she lifted her head. And then she growled.

Our faces were 10 centimeters apart and I could tell from her breath that she had no reason to visit my bait because she had been enjoying something equally putrid all night long. She lifted her front leg, and the rope slipped from her shoulder. She then advanced in my direction and as the rope slipped to her wrist, I elected to evacuate the den.

Equally startled, we exited the den simultaneously. Now #2746 was tethered to the other end of the rope wrapped around my arm. I tried to act casual while walking behind her, imagining myself out for a morning walk with Canis familiaris. However, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the feeling of impending doom one experiences while walking an irritated hyena through the bush. Keep it together Zach, she smells the fear!

I was able to keep #2746 on the rope long enough to administer a second sedative dose. She finally fell asleep peacefully and we fitted her with a new GPS collar, and sent her on her way. I’m actively preparing myself for our next encounter.

Zach is a self-proclaimed field junkie; he views his body as an all-terrain vehicle specialized in getting him far from the beaten path.  He explores the world through his passion for wildlife research, conservation and sustainable resource management. His research focuses on the physiology of large carnivores but he enjoys storytelling and sharing his adventures from the field with public audiences. He prefers his meals cooked on an open fire, his clothes ripped and his beard untamed. He’s a field biologist.

Whiskers, photos and polar bears, oh my!

We are excited to welcome our first guest blogger of the new decade, Paige Bissonnette, a master’s student from University of Manitoba. Today Paige tells us all about her fascinating work with polar bears! For more about Paige, see the end of this post. 

As our tundra vehicle rolled into the docking station, an armed bear guard escorted us to our bus to be shuttled back to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. I had just spent the day observing polar bears and being called a researcher by 30 tourists. Just like the guests on the tundra vehicle, I too was grinning from ear to ear, brimming with excitement.

My excitement had been building, slowly, ever since 4th grade, when a researcher came to my class and taught us about climate change and species-at-risk. The poster child for the talk was, you guessed it, the polar bear. After the talk, I was so excited about polar bears that I spent all my time in the library trying to learn more about them and threats to their habitat – even going so far as to cite my sources in my notes.

Fourteen years later, I had become the expert answering eager questions from groups of enthusiastic tourists. When I was given the assignment to co-lead learning vacations in Churchill, I was one part excited and 99 parts nervous. How did I get this job? Was I qualified to answer questions? Imposter syndrome was running rampant, as I’m sure it does for most graduate students at the beginning of their careers. I could easily relate to the tourists’ excitement: my dream was to see a polar bear in the wild, and here I was snapping photos through a tundra vehicle window.

But the goal of my trip was greater than capturing an Instagram-worthy photo. While I was primarily here to collect data for my master’s research on polar bear behaviour, my job also included using my knowledge, passion, and curiosity to encourage visitors to become citizen scientists, and contribute data to an ongoing long-term research project.

As the ice on Hudson Bay breaks up each spring, polar bears are forced onto the shore, away from their primary prey of ringed seals. While on land, they enter a fasting period, relying on a thick layer of blubber to support the energetic demands of maintaining their body temperature in the harsh Arctic environment. Pregnant females head upland, away from the shore, to build dens to birth their young. Non-pregnant females and males will spend time on land, resting and waiting for the ice to form in the fall. This is the most opportune time to see polar bears in the wild, and tourists and wildlife photographers flock to Churchill, Manitoba, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World”, to view the bears in their natural environment.

Thousands of photos are taken each year on these trips, and scientists realized there might be a way to use these photos to learn more about polar bear populations. In 1994, researchers developed a method to non-invasively identify individual polar bears through their whisker spot pattern. Each bear has a unique pattern of hair follicles, a whiskerprint (similar to a human fingerprint), that can be deciphered by a computer program. This discovery was the start of a long-term research project on the Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears. Photos taken by tourists, aka citizen scientists, are now fed into the whiskerprint program and used to estimate the size of the polar bear population in the area east of Churchill, and determine which bears are coming back year after year.

A curious polar bear checking out a tundra vehicle window.

In 2017 and 2018, as a graduate student at University of Manitoba, I went up to Churchill to collect data for my thesis, continue the citizen science project, and communicate findings from this project to the tourists who came to see the bears. Each day, we headed out into the field on a tundra vehicle which seated around thirty people. The journey into the middle of the tundra was roughly an hour of travel across uneven terrain and over frozen streams, as anticipation built among the tourists. Finally, someone would yell out, “I see one!”, and guests would rush to their window, binoculars in hand, to gaze out the window at a polar bear kilometers away. The tundra vehicle would screech to a halt and we would sit and wait to see if the bear was interested enough to come closer to us. Often, after a patient and silent wait, it would amble in our direction. Amid gasps of excitement and shuffling to the window with the best view, we would try to ensure we got photos of each side of its face. Guests often brought me their cameras, enthusiastically asking, “Is this one good? How did I do?” They began to gain a sense of purpose – gathering not just their own collection of cute photos, but data for wildlife research as well.

While in the field we took opportunities to gather as much observational data as possible, not only for our research, but to also to show the guests how much information can be collected non-invasively. Guests often shouted out, “the neck is larger than the head; the guard hairs are long – it must be a male”; repeating little bits of information we had discussed earlier. We also discussed how a changing climate has resulted in a decline in body condition for most bears. To measure body condition non-invasively, we took full body photos of the bear. I explained that we would measure the number of pixels from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the foot, and the top of the back to the bottom of the belly to create a ratio of body proportion, similar to the measure of body mass index that uses weight and height. The guests were eager to help me take body condition shots, and aid in data collection.

I had a personal stake in the photos, as I am studying whether body condition influences social interactions between polar bears, specifically play behaviour. Adult mammals rarely play; they allocate most of their energy and time budgets to competition, feeding and mating. When social play does occur, it’s usually during periods of plentiful resources, when animals have extra time and energy to spend on seemingly purposeless activities such as play. However, in the western Hudson Bay region, adult male polar bears have been spotted engaging in social play. Polar bear social play consists of wrestling or sparring; males will rear up on their hind legs and wrestle, using moves similar to those used when competing for mates or resources.

We can’t ask the bears why they are playing during a resource limited time when they should be conserving energy, but we can determine what affects the duration and occurrence of social play. The body condition photos taken by guests on the learning vacation to determine if bears in better body condition play for longer or tend to initiate play.

Male polar bears sparring 100m away from our tundra vehicle

Each day, after collecting data out on the tundra, we returned to the research station, organized hundreds of photos, and began to analyze them. I walked the guests through the whiskerprint program, showing them how we extract a print and compare it against photos in our dataset to determine the bear’s identity. I could feel that the guests had a new-found sense of belonging to the scientific community. They were contributing to a long-term data set and coming to the realization that science is for everyone – not just graduate students and professors. Working with the guests on this project also brought me a sense of joy – as I felt I had come full circle. When I set out on this adventure, I had no idea what science communication meant, or the impact it could have. Now here I was, sparking curiosity in members of the public, just like the speaker in my 4th grade class.

I also felt proud that in addition to answering questions about polar bears, my research was helping teach people about the scientific method, making them into citizen scientists. Citizen science is a powerful tool that has helped catalyze innovative research techniques and allowed for the collection of much more data than individual scientists working alone would be able to assemble. Including the public in the data collection and analysis process improves scientific literacy and makes people feel included in the scientific community. Tapping into the public’s natural curiosity about the world allows scientists to answer questions that would have been impossible to answer alone, and more importantly, helps create a sense of care about the issues wildlife and the environment face.

A mom and two cubs keeping warm in a polar bear pile up.

Paige Bissonnette is a master’s student at University of Manitoba studying polar bear social behaviour. She focuses on using non-invasive techniques and novel technological approaches to assess the factors that influence polar bear social play. She is passionate about sharing her love of polar bears and the Arctic through science communication initiatives.

Thank 10 women and keep it going!

This week on Dispatches on the Field, to keep up with the Twitter trends, we thought it would be fun to highlight just a few of the awesome blogs written by women in the past 2 years sharing their fieldwork experiences. Check out their posts and follow them on Twitter!

@HannaBensch

Happy damselfly catching in Sweden

 

 

@TaraImlay

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

 

 

@MVKingsbury

It’s not just a ditch

 

 

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.@RachaelEBee

Livin’ on a Prairie

 

 

 

@debbiemleigh

Look – a Chamois!

 

 

@BronwynHarkness

Falling in love with fieldwork

 

 

@BeckySTaylor

Morabeza!

 

 

@phrelanzer

Fieldwork: more than data

 

 

@SianGreen92

These boots are made for walking

 

 

@kastep15

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

 

 

Emily Williams@wayfaringwilly

What would a real field work resume look like?

 

 

Jenns with a tall plant@Jennafinley

A beginner’s guide to making a unique first impression

 

 

Ok we realize there are 12 listed here… but there are just too many awesome women field biologists to recognize (and these are just the women we have active Twitter encounters with)!  Now let’s see your list of 10 awesome women to recognize!