Adventures of a Red Sea diver

This week on Dispatches, we are excited to welcome Alysse Mathalon, who adds a point to a brand new area of our map as she tells us about her adventures doing fieldwork in Israel’s Red Sea!

When I first accepted my Master of Science research project, I had no idea what I would be diving into – literally. I knew that there would be diving involved, that my dive site would be accessible by boat, and that I would be doing a lot of fieldwork. This combined with the location of the project, in Eilat, Israel, on the Red Sea, was enough for me to accept the opportunity and not look back. I got myself to Eilat four days after officially accepting the position.

A view of the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. A strong wind event resuspended shallow sediments, making the water murky. Mountains in the frame are in Aqaba, Jordan.

Eilat is a spectacular place. Situated at the southern point of Israel’s Negev Desert, it is surrounded by mountains as old as 500 million years. From its short coastline there are 3 countries in view; bordering from the north is Jordan, from the south, Egypt, and just across the narrow sea is Saudi Arabia. To make it even more extraordinary, beneath the sea surface are some of the most northern coral reef ecosystems in the world.

Eilat is located in a desert climate, where the weather is hot and sunny the majority of the time. However, rains can shower unpredictably and cause flashfloods in the otherwise silent and still desert. Dry river beds transform into rushing rivers, flowing seaward. My supervisors were fascinated by this unique phenomenon, which can bring tens of thousands of tonnes of sediment into the Red Sea in hours. Little is known about the frequency and magnitudes of flashfloods in this region, as such events have only been documented in the past 24 years. Flashfloods are important because they supply large amounts of sediment from land directly to the sea. The presence of flood sediments within the seafloor can therefore help paint a picture of past climatic events.

Flashflood flowing into the Red Sea in October 2016.

For our research project, we looked to the sediment layers below the seafloor to tell us stories of flashflood history. We asked whether it was possible to find flashflood deposits in the seabed from the previous 2000 years. First, we had to try and determine if flashflood deposits were actually getting preserved within the seafloor. This is where I came in. I set out to discover what happened to flood sediments after they settled on the shallow seafloor. Were they being removed by water currents, or being redistributed by fish? Were animals in the sediment mixing them up, destroying their pristine layering and making them unrecognizable?

To answer these questions, we conducted underwater experiments at a research station 13 metres below the sea surface, just offshore of the main location where flashfloods entered the sea. Here, instead of the vibrant coral reefs in the shallow waters by the marine institute, the waters were murky and the seafloor was packed with sediment.

On a field dive after a year and a half of experience. Neutral buoyancy? Check!

Upon arriving in Eilat, I immediately got my dive certification, as I had to jump right in and start the experiments. My supervisors now admit that they were slightly concerned about my diving skills; I was not the most graceful. A big part of being a good diver is being able to achieve neutral buoyancy. This means choosing the perfect balance of weight versus air in your diving vest, so you are hovering in the water. Each time I failed to be neutrally buoyant I would crash down onto the seafloor, and plumes of sediment would rise up, driving the visibility to zero. Diving in this challenging environment so frequently pushed me to become a much better diver, quickly.

The PhD Candidate and I about to jump into the water for a dive! We are pretty happy about it .

Throughout the project I brought many fellow researchers and friends along to help out with the experiments. We usually had to carry armloads of supplies on our dives to collect our samples. We became expert silent communicators, and we were highly determined to achieve our dive goals each time.

However, despite our determination, some frightening things happened down there that put me in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once, we became so disoriented by the murky water that we didn’t know which way was up. We lost countless lab supplies, and had to avoid poisonous animals such as huge lion fish and potentially deathly scorpion fish. We spent hours upon hours under water at that station, and surfacing from those dives was always a glorious feeling. If we were extra lucky, on our way back to the marine institute we would stop by the Dolphin Reef to say hello to the dolphins, who live in a partially enclosed area of the sea.

Poisonous scorpion fish making himself at home in our equipment.

I am so grateful for my exciting fieldwork experiences, and for all of the outstanding people and friends I got to share those adventures with. If you have an opportunity to do fieldwork, even if you aren’t necessarily passionate about the purpose of the fieldwork, I would still recommend doing it. Communicating in a field setting is an incredible way to get to know people. Team work is ample, and being out in the natural world feels so messy, and challenges you to adapt. I learned a lot, and grew through those experiences. I wish you all the best in your field adventures. Happy fieldwork!

Alysse grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and got her first taste of the Atlantic Ocean while visiting her grandparents in Florida throughout her childhood. She decided to study marine biology during her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, and once she started, she never looked back. She is fascinated by ocean life, and has developed a passion for promoting ocean sustainability. During her undergraduate degree she published a scientific study quantifying microplastic pollution in sediments and mussels in Nova Scotia. This summer, Alysse is working for the Ontario Government as a Stewardship Youth Ranger Team Leader. She will guide high school students in carrying out environmental projects in the field. When it comes to the water, Alysse enjoys surfing, swimming, snorkeling, and going for fun dives!

 

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We are still here!

This past month has been pretty busy for us here at Dispatches from the Field! Two of us (Amanda and Catherine) received our Ph.D. diplomas and started new jobs while the other (Sarah) started a Ph.D.

at the convocation ceremony

Catherine (left) and Amanda (right) receive their official Ph.D. documents! Finishing the degree was worth it to wear the red robes & funny hats (and to collect lots of funny field stories!).

We promise to be back at it in June with weekly posts about fieldwork stories from around the world. We are always looking for new guest posts so send us an email (fieldworkblog at gmail.com) or Tweet us (@fieldworkblog) – we would love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading and sharing your fieldwork stories!

-Amanda, Catherine, and Sarah, Dispatches from the Field

The chickadees nested where?!

This week, Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome Chloé Montreuil-Spencer to share how “you’ve got to be kidding me” became the slogan of the summer! For more about Chloé, check out the end of the post.

When you tell people that you’re doing biological fieldwork, the first reaction you often get is: “Spending all that time outdoors – you’re so lucky!”. Indeed, we are very fortunate. But while your friends imagine you as a David Attenborough-in-training, you might be stuck in a downpour somewhere in a forest, desperate to find that nest you’ve been searching endlessly for, or picking up a video camera stand that toppled over in the heavy winds and recorded 3 hours of grass instead of your experiment. You want to experience nature in the raw? Don’t worry, that’s exactly what you’ll get: in all of its beauty AND temper tantrums. My MSc fieldwork provided more memorable moments than I could have ever imagined.

“YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME,” should have been our slogan for the 2016 chickadee summer field season. Matt, Anthony, Kelsey and I formed the core chickadee research crew at the Queen’s University Biological Station from 2015 to 2017. Our projects involved capturing, banding and taking blood samples from chickadees in the winter 2016 to evaluate energetic physiology, and assessing reproductive investment and parental care in the following breeding season. Therefore, when flocks started to break up into pairs in March, we had to relocate the chickadees we had colour-banded the previous winter. Using binoculars and finely-tuned ears, we listened for chickadees, looked for colour bands, and followed breeding pairs for days, and sometimes weeks, to find their elusive nesting spots.

Chickadees expend a lot of energy excavating and cleaning out nesting holes in rotten or broken trees and stumps, and they excavate multiple sites simultaneously before deciding on the best summer home! Interesting strategy… but as a result, us researchers also expend a lot of energy figuring out which cavity they are actually using.

Kelsey searching for nests in one of the many swamps visited by our banded chickadees.

For some pairs of chickadees, we got lucky and found the nests quickly. This was the case for the pair we called the “swamp-chickadees”. They had constructed a very comfortable nest in a tree stump located in a shallow swamp. It was beautifully excavated and lined with a mixture of fluffy moss and hair. Matt and I were very pleased with our finding, but on our next visit, when we peered inside the very dark cavity, two little beady eyes looked right back at us. Matt and I quietly looked at each other… We instantly knew this wasn’t a chickadee. As we leaned closer, a furry creature jumped out of the nest: a field mouse had hijacked the swamp-chickadees’ nest! Insulted, the birds had packed their bags and left the area. We never saw them again.

In other cases, finding the nest was straightforward, but accessing it was more challenging than anticipated. One day, after following a banded pair of chickadees up a very steep hill, we found them working on the tree that eventually became their nest. Yes! Finally found it! Exhausted, we congratulated one another on our success but then paused, looking at the cavity that was well out of our reach. No one wanted to say it, but everyone knew that to reach this nest, we’d have to lug a heavy ladder up the steep and slippery hill. We tried not to think about that (not so minor) detail until later in the week, when the deed had to be done. In the end, we all gained a little arm muscle.

Another day, standing at the edge of yet another swamp with our binoculars, we spotted bird activity at one of the many dead trees poking out of the murky water. We knew what that meant: Let’s get our waders! The next day, we suited up, used whatever we could find as support to avoid toppling over in the sinking swamp, and we slowly made our way towards the potential nest site. When we finally arrived at the nest, it was already active… but once again, it was too high to reach! “Really? We need to drag a ladder into this swamp?” The next time we visited this nest, we brought a 3-step ladder. We positioned it near the base of the tree, and Kelsey carefully stood up on the first step. It sunk a few centimeters. She took her second step. It sunk again. She took her last step, and reached the nest successfully, but we knew we had to work quickly! Over the course of the summer, that swamp had gobbled up a few pens, a screw driver, and one i-Button that the incubating female chickadee managed to pick out of her nest and chuck into the swamp herself!

This chickadee pair decided to nest in a broken and very delicate branch hovering above a large pond. The only way to access it: balancing on an inflatable raft.

And then there were the nests that were much harder to find. For example, in early May, we tracked a banded pair of chickadees that had been active around a pond for quite some time. But despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t figure out where that darn nest was located! Eventually, Anthony had had enough; in frustration he sat down near the pond, eyes fixed on the landscape in front of him – only to jump up again. “FOUND IT!” he exclaimed. “But you won’t like it.” He pointed to a dead branch extending several feet over the pond. “Get the inflatable raft! We’re going boating!”

On yet another occasion, we tracked a banded chickadee pair carrying nesting material through the forest and to the edge of a cliff. We assumed they wouldn’t leave the mainland. Chickadees on an island? Nah… Oh…Mouths gaping, we stood there watching as our chickadees flitted their way across the open water. Since carrying a large boat through a dense forest is… well, near impossible, we found an alternative solution. We came back the very next day with an inflatable donut pool float, determined to find their nest. Laughing, Kelsey and I sat back-to-back in the donut float, and slowly paddled our way over to the island using oars made for a much larger water craft. I’m fairly certain we made an absolutely ridiculous and hilarious sight. Unfortunately, we never found the island nest.

On top of the challenges inherent in searching for nests, we also faced many unexpected bumps in the road so common to field work. The most unexpected encounters were horses. Although friendly, these big bodied animals followed us to our nest sites, stomped around the research area, and played with our equipment. Throughout the season, we often had to come up with innovative and creative solutions to get the job done. Then, after all our efforts in finding the nests, snakes and mammals ate over 50% of them! It was a real-life game of snakes and ladders, and we were often brought back to square one.

While field biologists ARE very fortunate to be spending their time working outdoors, there’s no denying that fieldwork can be strenuous, frustrating, exciting and rewarding all at the same time. Managing all those emotions can be exhausting. Because we are under time and weather constraints, we often forget to put aside a little time to “take a step back and remember the day-by-day accomplishments” – a very important lesson I learned from my MSc advisor. As field biologists, this is a lesson we should all put into practice to avoid becoming overwhelmed during physically and emotionally demanding fieldwork and to remember that we’re all here because we really do love what we do, in all of nature’s beauty AND temper tantrums.

So cheers to all the researchers doing fieldwork this summer. Have fun, don’t give up when it gets challenging, and do some great science – but most of all, remember to celebrate the little victories!

ChloeChloé Montreuil-Spencer graduated from Queen’s University in 2017 with an MSc in Biology after working in Dr. Fran Bonier’s lab to evaluate the links between winter energetic physiology and subsequent reproductive investment in wild black-capped chickadees at QUBS. She previously obtained her BSc in Biology at the University of Ottawa, where she completed an honour’s thesis in Dr. Julie Morand-Ferron’s lab studying personality in wild groups of chickadees in Gatineau Park. After her Master’s, she was hired as a field technician at CNRS in the Pyrenees Mountains (France) to continue bird work!

The Rana Scare (and everything that happened before)

This week we are happy to welcome Lucy Chen who shares her story of getting to know fieldwork and her lab mates! For more about Lucy, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It was early spring, and the trees around us were budding fresh green leaves.

“So…. What do you do for fun up there?”

Lucy holding a Wood Frog found in the wild on a hiking trip, not long after arriving at QUBS. Little did she know what would happen in the next two months.

That was my umpteenth attempt to engage Tash, the lab technician, in conversation. We were driving along the sinuous road leading to the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), which boasts some 3400 hectares of land within the Frontenac Axis in Ontario. I had won a scholarship to do a summer research project on the effects of oil-sands contaminants on wood frogs, and it was going to be my first time running an exposure experiment in the field. The main experiment has already started; since I had been thrown right into the middle of it all, I wanted desperately to catch up.

Tash’s aura of effortless badassery impressed me, but unfortunately my admiration for her seemed one-sided, as she was rather taciturn that morning. She answered all my questions nicely and matter-of-factedly, but then I’d run out of things to ask her, and silence would ensue. I felt we were both exhausted by my interrogation technique, which I learned from a workshop on how to bond with strangers. You gotta peel the onion, the spunky presenter had said, ask follow-up questions! The trouble was, no one told me what to do when the other person didn’t reciprocate with an equally enthusiastic volley of ­onion-peeling.

As I mulled over my social ineptitude, we turned onto a little country path off the road, flanked by a field on one side and a forest on the other. Toward the end of the path was “The Lodge”—the visitor centre and cafeteria of QUBS, an elegant, spacious building that looked like an oversized cabin. Our experimental site was a small clearing in the woods with a shed and eight large cattle tanks, each containing hundreds of tadpoles housed in stainless-steel bowls. Tash took me to our cabin by Opinicon Lake, just steps away from the tadpoles. I dropped off my things, took a deep breath—thus began my first day at QUBS.

Lake Opinicon in the summer.

My question about “fun” was soon answered. The Lodge was the social hub of QUBS, being the one of the only buildings with precious access to the internet. The dozen-or-so young researchers in residence would drive to a town six kilometers away to stock up on beverages and then frequently spend their evenings playing drinking games—one of the great highlights of the QUBS experience, to my horror. As I lacked anything to drink that first evening, I puritanically took a cup of water to the table. “Act normal,” I told myself, casually sipping away at my colourless liquid like I was really having fun. I spent a lot of the evening scanning the room to assess the social hierarchy: the alphas (life of the party), the butt of the jokes (chill dudes), the provocateurs, and the harmony-loving followers. Exhausted from the hard work of keeping up with the banter, I fell into a dreamless slumber that night. I had always thought of field work as solitary work involving only a few lab mates, so that first night at QUBS caught me completely unprepared.

I would have felt totally out of place if not for Sam, an incoming grad student and my other colleague at QUBS. Together, we would run two parallel experiments on the tadpoles over the summer. Sam was very tall with a childlike, carefree demeanor, perpetually cheerful and often singled out by cafeteria ladies to help with chores. Fueled by copious amounts of coffee and Youtube videos every morning, he could instantly recall any piece of information and animate any dull conversation. Most importantly, he could make Tash tell funny stories. In short, to me, Sam was a rainbow-pooping unicorn.

Despite my initial misgivings, curiosity quickly got the better of me. Never had I been in a place with so many knowledgeable people and so many strange gadgets. There were the bird people, who got up at ungodly hours; the mice people, who trekked around the woods all day setting rodent traps filled with peanut butter and apple chunks; and the fish people, who plunged into freezing lake water and came back with fingers bleeding from fish spines. Apart from the researchers, there were the wonderful cafeteria ladies Laura, Veronica and Crystal, who fed us very nice food, which also helped put me out of my antisocial mood. The second day, I devised a plan. I made it a point to talk to everyone about their work to become more comfortable around people at future social events. I also asked Veronica for her baked fries recipe, which turned out chewy, subtly garlicky spuds (For the rest of the summer, she and Laura would sneak leftover food for me to snack on after dinner so that I wouldn’t go “starving”).

Although my social life at QUBS was looking up, as the new comer, I still struggled to understand the daily logistical concerns of my lab mates. How should we schedule sampling days? How many cryovials do we need for tissue samples? Would certain sampling tools arrive too late, and if so, what should we do? I had no idea how to contribute to these conversations, which bothered me.

Collecting pond water with Aaron, the summer field technician (left), Tash (centre), and Sam (right).

My feeling of uselessness was not helped by my physical frailty. The water we used to raise our tadpoles came from a shallow vernal pond nearby every two weeks, we needed to put on chest-waders to collect dozens of buckets of it. I quickly learned that I could barely keep my head above water; my skinny arms could barely sustain the weight of one bucket. To cheer myself up, I took it upon myself to document the entire experiment with my camera. Looking back, I don’t think Sam and Tash minded me not knowing anything about purchasing equipment or not carrying the water, but it certainly made me question whether fieldwork was really my thing.

Fortunately, as summer drew near, lush green ferns started unfurling their fronds all around the lakes. I diverted myself by going around the property collecting pressed fern samples. (Sam took an interest in my Victorian hobby and helped me find the best spots.) The good weather also led to campfire nights, where I discovered Tash’s penchant for sassy, off-colour jokes. I began to appreciate these social events, which made working in the field a great deal more tolerable. Moreover, once my tadpoles were old enough for me to perform behaviour tests on them, I threw myself into the work and felt a lot better. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Me (left), Lauren (centre) and Tash (right) at our field site, taken with Lauren’s phone with a fish-eye lense she borrowed from Sam.

Gradually, we all settled into a routine, checking in on the tadpoles in the morning and prepping for sampling days in the afternoon. As the tadpoles approached metamorphosis, popping out little arms and taking on the droll appearance of strange four-legged fish, we found out that a volunteer student, Lauren, was coming up to help us. When Lauren first saw our tadpoles, she squealed with excitement. Lauren had a great sense of fun, and her amazement at everything made her a refreshing addition to our team. Lauren’s time with us was really the highlight of the summer, packed with star-gazing trips and canoe outings on the lake.

Riding on the waves of everyone’s high spirits, I went home for a break. Little did I know that, while I was away, half of our tadpoles would die from a Ranavirus outbreak. When I came back, I met a crestfallen Lauren by the lake and ran to the Lodge to find Sam with bloodshot eyes—there went his thesis experiment! My stomach churned. I felt worse for Sam than for myself. Sam had been researching Ranavirus for two days ever since he stumbled upon the tadpoles dying en masse. He told me that this specific genus of virus was a significant contributing factor for the global decline of amphibians. The virus most likely had lain dormant in the pond from which we collected water and became active with the warm weather. The virus quickly spread as the tadpoles started cannibalizing the infected cadavers.

I’m pretty sure some expletives were used as we sat together trying to come to terms with this terrible surprise. They were so close to becoming frogs, we said in disbelief, how could Mother Nature do this to us? I remembered something one of the fish people told me: “Anything that can go wrong in the field will go wrong.” It’s amazing how much truth is contained in this smug little aphorism. We took out the pale, lifeless little bodies out of their buckets and watched them pile up. We all felt personally responsible for their deaths. Fortunately, our supervisor drove up to comfort us as soon as she could. She reassured us again and again that it wasn’t our fault, and that we still had enough data to make it all worthwhile.

Ultimately, I truly believe our shared misery brought us closer than ever. We cut the experiments short, sampled the surviving tadpoles, and packed our things into the lab van. As Sam, Tash and I drove away from QUBS down a road now bordered with lushly verdant trees, we talked and laughed and joked about abandoning our careers in academia. Was it wrong to leave the field with such a feeling of relief? One thing was certain: I never thought that my first experience in the field would be so fraught with emotions.

Lucy X. Chen spent one year studying wood frogs at the QE3 lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, headed by Dr. Diane Orihel. Lucy graduated from Queen’s with a BSc in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and will start an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at Oxford University starting October 2018. Her further adventures and musings will be chronicled at lucyxchen.wordpress.com.

Look – a Chamois! 

We are excited to welcome Dr. Deborah Leigh to the blog today. Deborah is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Although Deborah is a seasoned Field Biologist, today she writes about her first adventure in the field doing her own work! For more about Deborah, see the end of this post. 

Fieldwork for me has taken many forms. It has ranged from a few exhausting hours scrambling around the Alps to get Ibex tissue samples, to months at remote field stations, living and breathing for each data point or blood sample. But whatever the length, location or purpose, fieldwork has always been inspiring. Sure you have the moments where you are wet, grumpy, tired, and probably shouldn’t have just said what you did to your equally soggy companion, but being in the field and seeing your study organism is blissful to me. (I write this of course, from the warm and dry of my office. So the field’s gifts of blisters, bruises from falls (every time I go into a forest!), and damp socks, have been erased by nostalgia.)

Though I was lucky enough to do fieldwork from early on in my Bachelor’s degree, the first time I went into the field for myself was during my PhD. (Sadly, I never saw the elusive Corncrake from my Master’s in the wild.) So it was with impish glee that I stumbled upon my first Alpine Ibex at the top of Pilatus in the first month of my PhD. There she was, hiding in amongst the rocks, basking in the sun.

The first Ibex I saw

For those of you who have been to Pilatus, you will know that this is not a difficult site to reach. There is a funicular train that takes you up to the top of the two thousand meter peak, and you will probably see Ibex from the train if you are lucky. Due to the accessibility of the site, I shared my profound moment of scientific development with two tourists who insisted that my Ibex was, in fact, a Chamois. (Dude, no – just no).

For me, however, the journey to this Ibex was so much more arduous then the planes, trains and automobiles the tourists had used to arrive on the peak.  I had moved to Switzerland only weeks before, starting my PhD immediately after finishing my MSc and spending a field season in New Zealand. Needless to say, I was exhausted and felt completely out of my depth. My lab mates all seemed very tall, very wise, and painfully smart.  No one understood my British sarcasm; in fact, they initially thought I was horribly rude because of it. And I certainly did not understand Swiss German.

However that moment of seeing an Ibex amongst the rocks made me glow with happiness. The angst and exhaustion melted away and I knew I was working on something I found amazing and I would make the most of this – if not for me then for the Ibex. In amongst the tourists’ Chamois proclamations, I snapped a picture that still fills me with the joy and peace of that moment.

I guess my point is that though fieldwork physically serves a purpose in many graduate student projects, it should also form a part of those for which it isn’t ‘essential’. Without those amazing moments, you might never have a fire for your project, and you really need that fire in your gut to drag yourself through a PhD.

Fieldwork doesn’t have to be an epic saga where you sit in a tent for 6 months and grow increasingly mouldy; it can be a few hours or days of just observing. I think that’s important to say, because many field biologists look down on fieldwork that isn’t all encompassing. But there’s no reason they should: the point of fieldwork can be scientific exploration, collection, or inspiration, and it can be a sprint or a marathon. Whatever lights that fire and keeps you going through the dark tunnel of the thesis write-up work for me.

So go get your boots muddy.

 

Deborah is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, Canada. She currently works in the Friesen lab, using genomic tools to understand local adaptation in Seabird populations. Her career has taken her from Edinburgh University (BSc), to Imperial College London (MRes), to the University of Zurich (PhD). She dabbled in behavioural ecology before moving to genetics and then genomics. Deborah has done field work in the Cairngorms (Hoverflies), St Kilda (Soay Sheep), New Zealand (Hihi project), Switzlerand and Italy (Ibex). You can read more at https://deborahmleigh.weebly.com/ 

Falling in love with fieldwork

We are excited to welcome our good friend Bronwyn Harkness to the blog today! Bronwyn recently completed a Masters of Science in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University where she studied seabirds. She did some pretty amazing fieldwork on the eastern Canadian coast and she tells us all about that today. For more about Bronwyn, see the end of this post. 

I recently found the journal I kept during my first ever field season as I was doing a bit of spring-cleaning.  I thought it might be fun to look back and reflect on some of my first fieldwork experiences! I remember being excited but nervous about going into the field for the first time. After waving goodbye to my parents at the airport I thought ‘What have I gotten myself into!?’ Thankfully it was a wonderful experience and quite the adventure!

I studied seabirds during my Master’s and was fortunate enough to spend time in Newfoundland working with Environment and Climate Change Canada on remote seabird colonies. Fieldwork wasn’t a necessary part of my Master’s project (although I did do some of my own sample collection later on), and so I was mostly there to get experience and help out with a variety of Environment and Climate Change Canada projects. I spent my first few weeks on Gull Island, which is a small island in Witless Bay, about half an hour south of St. John’s. The island is protected and only those with permits (typically researchers) are allowed on the island, however the bay is a popular place for whale watching tours. Gull Island is an active field station, with lots of coming and going, and I met so many wonderful people while I was there (it’s true was they say about Newfoundlanders – they really are the friendliest people you will ever meet). I am grateful to all of the people I worked with for their patience and kindness while I got the hang of seabird fieldwork!

Here are snippets from some of my journal entries during those first few days on Gull Island, NL:

June 20/2016 

Island day! I got picked up at 8:00 am this morning and went to the Environment Canada office to do some paperwork and meet the rest of the team 🙂 We packed up all of our supplies (including food and equipment) and went to the warehouse where I got kitted up with a pair of rubber boots, some dry bags, and a survival suit. It took us about 45 minutes to get from St. John’s to Witless Bay, where we unloaded the gear and launched the boat.  Half the group went to the island on the first trip and the other half went to the grocery store, while I guarded the gear. Eventually our driver came back with the boat and we piled in with the rest of the gear. When we got to shore we hopped onto the rocks and unloaded everything. It was pretty amazing to see the island for the first time. There were birds everywhere! We had to carry all the gear up a steep hill, which was covered in puffin burrows. It was tough going but luckily there was a group of us working together.  Had a beer once we were done lugging gear – beer has never tasted better. I helped make pasta for dinner and I was so hungry and tired that it tasted so good! [I have since learned that everything always tastes better in the field.] I am excited to see what tomorrow brings.

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There are birds everywhere! (These are Common Murres!)

 

June 21/2016

Slept decently well last night although I did have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  There were Leach’s storm petrels everywhere and they were so loud! I could see their silhouettes but couldn’t get one in the light so I’m looking forward to seeing them up close today.

Last night I asked when everyone usually gets up and everybody sort of shrugged and said there wasn’t a specific time, so I foolishly set my alarm for 8:30 a.m.  Ha. I got out of bed at 6:40 a.m. (a.k.a. 5:10 a.m. in Ottawa), and I was the last one up. But I woke up to freshly brewed coffee and french toast so I have no complaints.

Later that day

What a cool day! Grubbed my first petrel! Then grubbed a lot more haha. To ‘grub a petrel’ you find a burrow and stick your arm in slowly, feeling around for the egg and / or bird. The egg is small, white, and paper thin, so you have to be very careful with it.  The birds are very sweet, although they do nibble at your fingers when you get close. Petrels also have a very peculiar smell, like musty laundry. Grubbing attire includes long sleeves and fingerless rubber gloves duct-taped to your sleeves.

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Leach’s Storm Petrel that I grubbed from a burrow

June 22/2016

Saw three whales today – I love whales! In the morning we attached GPS geolocators to five petrels and in the afternoon we worked at the PIT tag plots. [The GPS geolocators are used to track where the petrels go on their foraging trips while the PIT tags are used to monitor each time a petrel returns to its burrow.  Leach’s storm-petrel populations have been declining and researchers are not entirely sure what is causing this.  By tracking petrels during foraging trips and monitoring their survival throughout the breeding season we can hopefully get a better idea of when mortality might be occurring.]   I got to band, bleed, and do all of the measurements for one of the petrels! Hopefully I’ll get to do this with some of the larger birds too!

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Recording data at PIT tag plots

June 25/2016

After lunch we did some murre stuff! There were three of us, so one person used the noose pole to catch the birds, while the other two recorded data and took blood samples. [If you’ve never seen someone use a noose pole to catch murres then I will do my best to explain this somewhat comical procedure. Murres live in large colonies on cliff edges and will sometimes flush off the cliff quite easily if there is a sudden movement or loud disturbance. This means you have to crawl on your stomach to the edge of the cliff, then extend the pole out and try to slip the loop over a murres’ head. A noose pole (also known as a catch pole) is a long extending pole with a large plastic loop on the end that is placed over the bird’s head and then tightens slightly to allow you to retrieve the bird.  Once you’ve got the loop over the bird’s head, you need to guide the pole with the bird up over the cliff edge and get the bird into a bag to calm it down. It’s a bit like fishing for birds! To release the murre when you’re done, you have to launch them up high and over the edge of the cliff because they are such terrible fliers that they will just plummet straight down otherwise. Rest assured murres are quite sturdy and are not at all hurt by this process.]

Also, murre eggs are gorgeous. They vary in colour but some are bright blue and they all have these black markings that look as though someone has dipped their fingers in black paint and dribbled it over the eggs. Beautiful!

Also also, I got seriously pooped on by a murre today. Thank god for MEC pants!


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Common Murres

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Common Murre eggs (These were far from the breeding site and were likely predated by gulls)

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Trying to catch Murres with a noose pole – not as easy as it looks! (Photo taken by Brody Crosby)

June 26/2016

Today we went out to the other side of the island to do some puffin work. We were measuring 50 eggs (they looked like chicken eggs) and catching a few adults to weigh, band, and take blood samples from. They are super cute but man are they angry! They have such a nasty bite and one actually managed to take a chunk out of my hand even though I was wearing gardening gloves!  [To be fair, if someone appeared uninvited in my home (and grabbed me!), I would also be quite upset!]

 

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Atlantic Puffins (and a Herring Gull) congregating outside their burrows

July 4/2016

As I was brushing my teeth this morning beside the cabin I heard the pitter-patter of footsteps on the roof. I looked up and one-by-one a group of puffins poked their heads over the edge of the roof until there were five of them watching me. I love it here!

July 6/2016

Last day on the island! Sad to be saying goodbye but excited to have a shower (day 17 of not showering!).  Arrived at my new accommodations in St. John’s. I think the guy at the front desk thought I was a little odd because I looked like dirt and was overly excited about the soap that they were selling at the front desk and the opportunity to buy a laundry card. Little does he know what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks…

And so ended my first experience in the field! Since then, I have spent lots of time out at different seabird colonies on the east coast of Canada, but I always love going back to Gull Island. Thank you to the lovely folks at Environment and Climate Change Canada for introducing me to the wonderful world of fieldwork and allowing me to join their team each summer. I will always cherish my time in Newfoundland!

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Bronwyn Harkness is a research assistant in Dr. Vicki Friesen’s lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.  Bronwyn completed both her Bachelor of Science Honours and Master’s degrees at Queen’s, studying seabird population genetics with Dr. Friesen.  Bronwyn is broadly interested in avian research and conservation and will be joining Bird Studies Canada this summer to study and monitor Aerial Insectivores. You can find Bronwyn on Twitter at @BronwynHarkness.

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back another familiar guest blogger: Kim Stephens, a graduate of Queen’s University who now works for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust.  Kim shares with us the importance of citizen science and some of the many opportunities for citizen scientists to get out in the field!

I’m flipping the blog this week: instead of bringing the field experiences to the community, I’m aiming to bring the community to the field! Since finishing my undergrad, I’ve moved into the environmental not-for-profit world, working at the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust as a ‘BioBlitz Coordinator’.  My job involves planning events which teach the public about species found in their area, while giving them an opportunity to interact with local flora and fauna in the field.

The aptly-named violet coral fungus.

I love BioBlitzes! They’re a great way to get outdoors, explore nature, and learn about the species found in different habitats. Here’s what happens: over a 24 hour period, taxonomic experts and volunteers work in small groups to complete a full biological inventory of a property, identifying all the birds, trees, insects… you get the drift. BioBlitzes have taken Ontario and Canada by storm, with dozens of them taking place across the country last year for Canada’s 150th.  The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust hosted three BioBlitzes last year, and identified over 700 species in total! It’s a great way for volunteers to contribute to the knowledge that organizations need to direct management activities – and it’s also extremely fun! From exploring the leaf litter to find a violet coral fungus, to trying to spot an Eastern Wood-pewee calling in the forest, or sneaking up on a butterfly or dragonfly to catch and identify it, there’s something for everyone. With an estimated 140,000 species in Canada, only half of which have been identified, there are always new species to learn about and discover. Which will you find at a BioBlitz?

Although BioBlitzes are relatively new, having started in the late 1990s in the United States, ‘citizen science’ initiatives have been around for over 100 years. Simply put, they are ways for the general population to contribute data to scientific projects, and often require little more than a smartphone by way of equipment. There are many initiatives available for you to get involved in, whether you want to attend an event locally, or contribute data to provincial, national, or global projects.

Below are just some of the many other ways to get involved in citizen science.

Join me in the field:

Christmas Bird Count

A male and female downy woodpecker spending a cold winter morning together.

Last December, I participated in my first (and second) CBC. This annual bird census is administered by the National Audubon Society and has been around for over 100 years. For several chilly hours we hiked through conservation areas and drove through the countryside, counting every single bird we saw or heard in a pre-set 24km diameter circle. I was paired with birders who were far more experienced in identification than me. They took me under their wing and taught me tricks for remembering ID features. Once I was more confident in my skills, they encouraged me to try them out, confirming the correct IDs. It’s amazing to think that the species I saw on one winter day – as well as the species I should have seen but didn’t – could contribute to peer-reviewed scientific articles. I can’t wait to participate again next season.

Continue the research at home:

iNaturalist

I love getting out into the field and learning about what’s out there. During my undergraduate research project, in addition to measuring plants, I met a grey rat snake, lots of snapping and painted turtles, spiders, birds, and more. That summer, I snapped endless pictures of critters I either found fascinating or hadn’t encountered before. I was taking pictures because I loved doing it. But now, with smartphone apps like iNaturalist, anyone can take pictures and contribute directly to research, right from their phone! The primary goal of this app is to connect people to nature, and I find it great for those moments when you think: “Look at the cool thing I found… what is it?”. Users can post pictures of the species they see, and other users will add their identification to the picture. So there’s no need to worry: you don’t need to know what you’re taking a photo of. I sure didn’t know what mating adult caddisflies looked like until last summer!

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

Northern map turtles basking in the summer sunshine.

Turtles, frogs, snakes, salamanders and a skink: we have several species of reptiles and amphibians in Ontario, and many are at risk. But the full distribution of some species is unknown. This is not because their habitat doesn’t exist, or there aren’t individuals present, but simply because no one has reported seeing that species in that location. To address this issues, Ontario Nature developed a very useful app – the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (ORAA)– that allows you to report sightings of these species across the province. If you find individuals, reporting them to the ORAA can provide crucial information to help scientists accurately map the distribution of species.

eBird

I’ve picked up a new hobby since participating in the CBC: birding. As of last summer, I could identify about 20 different birds. Over the winter I became confident about a few dozen more. By the end of the year, I’m hoping that number breaks 3 digits. I’ve recently started logging my sightings into eBird, which allows you to submit ‘checklists’ of birds you’ve identified. Whether you went out birding for 4 hours, or watched your feeder for a few minutes, you can report species that you saw on eBird, adding to population and distribution records.  You can even submit reports from a ‘wild goose chase’ – that is, trying to spot a rare bird that is only around by accident, such as a Barnacle Goose.  Although the species is native to Greenland and Europe, I saw the directionally confused individual in the photo below an hour north of Toronto in Schomberg. If you want, you can even make it competitive, by adding to your personal life list. It’s like real-life Pokemon – gotta find them all!

A single Barnacle Goose among hundreds of Canada Geese in Schomberg, ON

I really hope you can join me this summer at a BioBlitz, on a wild goose chase, or digitally on iNaturalist, ORAA, or eBird!

Kim Stephens is a graduate of Fleming College, and Queen’s University, where she researched the relationship between the different metrics of plant body size. She is now working for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, getting people outside to explore and learn about nature. When not in the office or at a BioBlitz, she enjoys directing Quidditch tournaments and trying to photograph every species of butterfly she can find.  Follow her on Twitter at  @kastep15.