Behind the scenes of “Be Prepared”

Springtime is supposed to signify new beginnings and a fresh start, with the attitude of “out with the old and in with the new”. However, for many field biologists, spring is a fairly stressful time. While you are still writing up the results from the previous field season, you are also supposed to be planning for the next. A lot of “behind the scenes” work occurs in the planning process – all of which ends up being represented by one sentence in your thesis: “Samples were collected in ….”.

Sure, we all love being in the field; this is why we do what we do! But the getting there is often the hardest part (sounds a lot like my reasoning when going to the gym!). Here are some of the questions that fill a field biologist’s head when they are trying to plan a field season:

Who? Well, you, obviously…but this also includes finding the right field assistant(s). You want someone who is (almost) as excited as you are about your project, someone who is willing to work long days (or nights), and someone who doesn’t mind using the woods for a washroom break.

a view of the facilities, consisting of rocks, a log and the ocean.

The “washroom facilities” on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii.

 

 

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

What? This is often easy to answer – at first. You have this super cool idea in mind and you know what type of data you need to answer this question. However, is it feasible? Are you actually going to be able to catch 30 seabirds per site? It could be that there was a storm that winter which destroyed all the nest boxes you were hoping would make it easy to find birds!

 

 

Maps of Scotland

Maps of central Scotland stuck together to find rivers for field sites.

Where?  Sometimes it is hard to plan where to go when you don’t really know exactly where your study species lives. Most of the time you have a general idea, but when it comes to which patch of grass to search, it can be difficult to pinpoint (as Megan observed about Butler’s gartersnakes). Or maybe you do know where you need to go, but this includes marking your route on multiple maps (as Zarah shared about studying invasive plants along rivers in Scotland).

 

ponds at the fish farm

With the weather changing from cold to warm and back to cold, it is hard to judge when ponds will be ice free.

When? If you work with wild animals, the timing is the hardest part to nail down. These animals do not wait for the biologist to be ready. Their habits are follow the weather and season; however, if you live in southern Ontario, Canada, you know that the weather can change hourly (especially this spring!). This unpredictability makes it difficult to know when lakes will be completely ice free and fish will begin to spawn…which can make planning when to go to the field very difficult.

 

Why? This may be the easiest one to answer – because we love what we do! In the end, despite all the things that could go wrong when preparing for field work, it all comes together. There’s nothing better than waking up to the early morning choral ensemble of birds, playing in nature’s wonderland all day, and falling asleep under the stars.

forest with the light shining through

Nature’s wonderland in Haida Gwaii.

Protecting the Canadian Galapagos

“Our culture is born of respect, and intimacy with the land and sea and the air around us. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. The living generation accepts the responsibility to ensure that our heritage is passed on to following generations.”                                       -Council of the Haida Nation

One common theme in posts on this blog is you really get to know a place intimately. This is certainly true – but if you’re lucky, not only do you get to fully explore the outdoor habitats where the fieldwork is taking place, you also get a chance to immerse yourself in a different culture.

When I first started my master’s, I gave a talk about my research titled “Why a pipeline should not be built to the west coast”. I had just come back from my fieldwork in Haida Gwaii and I couldn’t believe that there was a proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat, BC. This would inevitably bring oil tankers into the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. I’ve been there. I’ve walked among the enormous sitka spruce and towering red cedar. I’ve heard the dawn chorus of the songbirds and noted the already declining occupancy of seabird nests. I’ve felt the spray from a humpback whale’s blowhole. I’ve been there and I have felt the magic of Haida Gwaii. I couldn’t believe that if this project was approved, it could lead to devastation of the precious habitats. Luckily, we heard this week that the Canadian government has rejected the Northern Gateway project (you can read more about the approval in this CBC article). A big player influencing the rejection of this project was the Haida Nation themselves. This I can believe. During my time on Haida Gwaii, I also learned a great deal about the Haida culture and their views on conservation.

bc-field-work-035

The Haida Nation live on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia. As is evident from the Haida Proclamation (above), the Haida Nation are intimately linked with their surrounding natural environment and work hard to conserve it.

bc-field-work-254In fact, the Proclamation sounds as if it could have come from a field biologist! Much of their efforts towards preservation of the natural world has been documented through storytelling in art form. For example, the Haida people carve different animals and items into wood totem poles to tell stories and teach lessons. These teachings are passed on from generation to generation – and some even turn into places for new generations to start (check out one of my previous posts about nurse logs). Even today, poles are carved with stories by community members and carried by many hands to the designated spot.

Haida peoples carrying a totem pole

Haida people carrying the 42ft Legacy Pole – unfortunately I couldn’t go to the ceremony as my flight was leaving that afternoon but I did manage to sneak this picture.

Not only do the Haida people share traditional knowledge from past generations, they also care about protecting the environment for future generations. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve protects the southern half of the archipelago, which is home to 39 distinct subspecies (7 mammals, 3 birds, and 15 stickleback fish species) endemic to Haida Gwaii. You cannot find these variants anywhere else! It is because of these endemic species that Haida Gwaii is often referred to as the Canadian Galapagos.

If I haven’t managed to convince you that Haida Gwaii is a beautiful place teeming with interesting wildlife and vegetation, I hope that this at least makes you think twice about the consequences of potential habitat destruction. Today I am happy to say that Haida Gwaii itself and the Haida Nation that has fought for its preservation will be thankful for the rejection of the Northern Gateway project. However, with other pipeline proposals being approved, I can only hope that there are stewards of the land willing to stand up for the natural and cultural world.

Fears of fieldwork

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

In reading responses to the recently popular hashtag #fieldworkscares, I realized that luckily I haven’t had to deal with any major scares in the field (knock on wood!). But nonetheless, to a first time field biologist, some minor things can feel pretty scary! So I am going to share some of my #fieldworkfears as well and how I overcame them. One of the best feelings is being able to recognize that fear and conquer it.

– Travelling on my own for the first time to meet the field team leader whom of which I had no idea about what he looked like. It was a good thing that the plane could only sit 10 people (a turbulence-filled flight where you feel every movement)! Based on attire alone, it is no surprise that I was able to pick out the field biologist pretty easily.

Sarah holding a large snake

That smile is saying “I can’t believe I am doing this”.

– Holding a snake for the first time. I know this is an embarrassing fear to mention as a field biologist, but, like a lot of people, I was not a fan of the way snakes were able to move without limbs. However on a field course in Mexico, I couldn’t be the only one not to hold the massive snake (can anyone say FOMO (fear of missing out)!?). It turns out that snakes are not slimy at all and are really neat creatures that don’t want to bother you as long as you don’t bother them.

Nest box for ancient murrelets.

Nest box for ancient murrelets.

 

– Arriving to your study location and your study species are no where to be found. The winter before I arrived in Haida Gwaii, there was a massive storm that destroyed the whole south side of the island – exactly where a long term study was being conducted on ancient murrelets. Unfortunately, this meant that any nest boxes that were still intact were mostly empty (save for a few strong survivors) and any data loggers that were deployed on chicks last year were likely not to be returned. Luckily birds were still nesting in natural burrows on the north side of the island and we could collect some data.

view of the side of the mountain

View of the side of the mountain I had to traverse.

– When your team lead suddenly slides down on bushes over the side of the mountain, disappears, and yells up to you “don’t worry I’ll catch you!”. In case you are worried if I crushed him – I did successfully make it down with only a few minor scrapes from the twigs poking at me on the way down.

– Having to jump from a tiny zodiac that is riding the waves onto the wet, slippery, and sharp rocky shore carrying all of your equipment.  On one attempt, a colleague did slip and fall but was able to hold on strongly enough so only her feet entered the cold, icy water. On the plus side, she got to take the morning off to warm her feet by the heater! After making your first jump successfully, the daily activity becomes more of a challenge.Zodiac to the island

What I have learned throughout my fieldwork experiences is that you will always have fears (some rational; some not so much) and it seems like it always comes down to the fear of the unknown. In any case, it seems the best way to get over them is to just jump right in (while being safe of course)!

How field biologists are like Olympians

Like a lot of people I am sure, I become very patriotic during the Olympics. I am even watching sports I never thought I would like but I find myself getting lost in the hype. Watching the Olympics while working on the blog has me comparing how field biologists are (maybe only slightly) similar to Olympians.

You may be thinking: “what could they possibly have in common?!” or “that is not a fair comparison!”, but hear me out. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the superhuman aspect of Olympic athletes; but if you think about it, there are some similarities.

You get to travel all over the world

Dispatches from around the worldAmong World Championships, PanAm games, Olympics, and other competitions in between, athletes are busy travelling around the world chasing the competitions. As you can see from our Dispatches from around the world map, field biologists are also fairly cosmopolitan.

Lots of preparation for a little time to perform

Olympians often train for years for their Olympic debut. Field biologists also have a lot of preparation to do before they set out for fieldwork. You have to chose your study

Fork-tailed storm-petrel in a burrow in the dirt

Knock knock

location, apply for permits, apply for funding, purchase (or find in the overflowing storage closet) equipment, practice your field techniques, and make sure you have a good idea of what type of data you want to collect. All this preparation is necessary for even a short field season such as a breeding season. If you are not prepared, you might not find the nesting sites or the birds may have already left!

 

 

Sometimes you have to perform in unpleasant conditions

Standing under the massive roots of a fallen tree

Can you ever be prepared enough for a ride on a tiny zodiac in the ocean?

Olympians in Rio this year have had to deal with many different conditions including an algae infested pool, sewage littered in the open water, and torrential downpour on the track. As a field biologist, it is no surprise that you will encounter some interesting weather, and likely conditions you were not prepared for. When I was going out to British Columbia for fieldwork, I expected it to be all wet and rainy. It turned out to be very warm and sunny, leaving me with only 2 t-shirts to cycle through (but lots of unused rain gear).

 

You are the best of the best; and yet still an amateur

The Olympic games are for non-professional athletes to compete. Similarly, students are the ones who are doing fieldwork to fulfil their degree so that they can become a “professional”. The expectation to do your best is evident during fieldwork as well – if you do not collect the right data you will not end up with the right results. This expectation leaves only dedicated and determined individuals to get the job done.

It looks deceivingly easy

I recently heard someone mention that a “normal” person should be included in Olympic events to remind the public that these athletes are in fact “superhuman”. The same could be said for field biologists. How hard could it be to sit in the sun on the beach all day to watch birds? If you take into account how many hours you spend sitting still in the sweltering heat, holding up your binoculars, with sand getting everywhere, it isn’t as easy as you may think.

There are also some similar events during the Olympics and fieldwork:

A tired selfie in the woods.

A field biologist’s hurdles.

-hurdles = climbing over fallen trees

-marathon running = marathon writing (workout for your brain when you return to the office)

-tennis = Cassin’s auklet, the seabird I studied for my Master’s degree, was known as a “tennis ball with wings”. Except this time you want them to get caught in the net!

What happens in the field stays in the field

As I have heard in interviews with Olympic athletes it sounds like this is true. They put everything they have into their events and leave it all out in the field. It is also a common saying among field biologists which is why we have it as our tagline for Dispatches from the Field. However, we have added “until now” as we would like this blog to be a place where field biologists can share all their stories that don’t make it into scientific papers.

Do you have what it takes?

The tide is high, but I’m holding on

Being by the water is one of my “happy” places and an ocean coast is one of my favourite places to be (a good reason to study seabirds!). The sound of the water splashing against the rocks, the smell of salt in the air, and the  sight of the horizon as far as the eye can see, all add to the experience. However, each coast is slightly different in topography, geography, and biology.

One thing that is consistent among ocean coasts is the tides. Tides are the rise and fall of the water level as a result of the gravitational pull from the moon and the sun in addition to the rotation of the earth. Tides are a very neat phenomenon and on the coast they are often quite dramatic. However, if your field work requires you to be on a boat in the water, you are stuck having to schedule your days around them. I’ve encountered these intense tides during some of my field work experiences on two of Canada’s coastlines.

Fun(dy) tides on the east coast

I took a field course titled “Marine Mammals and Seabirds”, based out of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. The field station we were staying at was in a cove just off of the Bay of Fundy, which is known for having the greatest tides in the world. Tides there can range over 14 m! If the title of the course gives anything away, it is that we needed to be out on the water to have a good view of our study species. Due to the great tides, our boat would move up and down substantially when tied to the dock. In order to get into the boat safely when the water level was not too low, we either had to leave very early (before the sunrise) or we would have to wait until closer to lunch time. You can probably imagine how hard it would be to get 20 undergraduate students up before the sun every day, but somehow we managed to do it (even if we had to climb down a little farther to our boat)! On days when the tide was too low, at least we got to explore the intertidal zone that is normally underwater (but that warrants a whole new post, or check out last week’s guest post The Sea).

low tide at the dock

Low tide at the docks in St. Andrews, New Brunswick

Rocky west coast

One day when I was doing seabird fieldwork on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, we had to travel from the east coast of the south island to the west coast of the north island. We had two choices: we could either sail around the northern or southern tips of the archipelago (would take days to arrive) or we could travel between the two islands through a channel called the “East Narrows”. As you can guess by the name, it was very narrow, with towering cliffs and trees on either side of the channel. The tides were very evident in this channel, ranging from 0.1 m to 4 m over the course of a day. Therefore, we had to plan our voyage perfectly so that we would have enough time to make it to the other side of the archipelago before the water level got too low. If the water got low enough, there was a chance we would hit the bottom of the channel and we would be stranded in the middle of the two islands, possibly damaging our boat. Luckily, we had experienced sailors with us who had timed and completed the trip successfully many times!

Intertidal zone, water, mountains in the background

Intertidal zone on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

When we arrived at the northern island, we anchored the sail boat and the captain brought us in a small dingy to the different islands we were surveying that day. One morning, it was low tide and the wind had picked up. As a result, the waves were larger than usual. We headed out to the island and one by one we had to jump out of the dingy onto the rocks.

Low tide exposing the slippery rocks.

Slippery rocks to jump on at low tide.

The rocks on the edge were very slippery as the low tide left the algae covered rocks exposed. One member of our field crew went to jump off, slipped on the rocks, and fell into the cool water! Luckily she was able to climb out, dry off, and warm up before continuing with the day.

 

In the end, the tide may be low, but I will still be holding on!

 

The unpredictability of working with wild animals

Even though I am mostly in the lab these days, somehow I am still subject to the unpredictability of working with wild animals. The research project I am currently working on uses yellow perch eggs collected within under 24 hours after fertilization. I was lucky to find a fish farm in central Ontario that had “wild” yellow perch. I say “wild” because although they live on this fish farm, they still live in a fairly natural habitat. Achieving the right timing of egg development was the tricky part. I had to wait until I heard that the adult yellow perch were spawning and drive up there to collect the eggs within a day. Essentially I was like a doctor on call waiting for a delivery (of yellow perch eggs).

ponds at the fish farm

Natural ponds at the fish farm are a great habitat for yellow perch.

I originally spoke with the owner at the end of February and he said he would give us some perch eggs. However, he was reluctant to give up much detail about the fish. When I asked when they usually spawn, he replied, “I can’t tell you when those little buggers are going to spawn; I’m not God”. Yellow perch in this area typically do not spawn until mid April so I was not surprised, given the cold February we had, that they would not be near ready.

At the end of March, I received a phone call from the owner who explained that he had caught two females that were “as big as footballs” and that they could spawn any day now. (Side note – I think it is very interesting how people describe their study species. For example, the seabirds I was studying for my master’s thesis were often described as “flying tennis balls with wings”.) I was not ready for the fish to be ready; I thought I had two more weeks to prepare for the experiment! I scrambled to get all of the equipment together so that at any point I was ready to go collect the eggs.

Big tanks in front of the ponds.

From eggs to fry: the yellow perch are collected and kept in big tanks until they are old enough to be put back into the ponds.

And then I waited. The owner told me not to call him for updates as it would take a lot of his time. But no sign of eggs. So I waited longer. Still no eggs. At this point, it was now the end of April and I started to get worried. Did the owner forget to call me? Did he lose my number? Would the perch ever lay their eggs? Was the project ruined!? (Questions in field biologists’ heads often escalate quickly).

The owner finally called me last week and told me that the yellow perch had spawned and there were a few strands of eggs that I could collect.

Using a net to scoop the strands of Yellow perch eggs out of the pond.

Scooping eggs out of the pond. Don’t fall in!

The next day I drove a total of 6 hours to retrieve the eggs and bring them back to our lab (Believe it or not, 6 hours driving for 1 hour of fieldwork does sound appealing when you sit behind a lab bench most of your time!). However, even though I had over a month to prepare, I still forgot my rain boots and ended up with a wet foot. The owner kept saying “This is a fish farm you know. You’re going to get wet.” and “Don’t you go falling in there, I don’t want to have to come in after you!”.

strands of yellow perch eggs in baskets.

Yellow perch eggs come out in long gooey strands.

Although it seemed that I was an inconvenience to the owner most of the time, when I arrived at the fish farm, he was surprisingly very interested in the research that we do and said “I just want to know that you are learning something”.  In addition to learning more about yellow perch, it turns out that interactions with people in the field can also surprise you!

My first “field” work

What is the meaning of “field” work? Does it have to be outside? Do you have to be running around chasing after your study species? Does it have to include getting wet or dirty or sun burnt? According to Wikipedia, fieldwork is the “collection of information outside a laboratory, library or workplace setting”. Maybe the “field” part is a lot more versatile than what you (or I) originally thought.

My first “field” work experience was collecting samples for my undergraduate thesis project. In such a short time frame to complete a research project, I was excited to actually be collecting my own samples! However, collecting samples for my project didn’t end up meaning what I thought it meant when I read the project description. We did not have to snoop around in the mud looking for seabird burrows. Instead, we were snooping around behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum looking for seabird specimens. It may not be the tropical island that many seabird biologists get to visit to collect samples, but I was still excited to get out of the lab for a day.

The behind-the-scenes archives in museums are quite astonishing. In the bird archives of the ROM, there were rows upon rows of shelves stacked up to the ceiling with drawers full of bird specimens.

hallway of drawers filled with bird specimens

The extensive drawers on drawers of bird specimens at the behind-the-scenes at the ROM.

Besides being awestruck by the number of bird specimens squeezed into these drawers, I was interested in finding specimens from the tube-nosed seabird subfamily Hydrobatinae, the northern hemisphere storm-petrels.

In my biology classes, professors always stressed that museum specimens are very valuable. I never truly understood just how valuable until I used them in my own project. For one, museum specimens offer a glimpse into a timeline where you can see changes in traits over time. These traits can also be compared among species very easily when they are laid out side by side. You may recognize differences that you otherwise would not have noticed if you were catching species in the wild at different times. In addition, museum specimens also offer an opportunity to see species that you might otherwise not be able to see in the wild (i.e. if they are hard to catch). This was the important point for my project!

Sarah poses with the drawers of hydrobatin storm-petrels

Excitement from being so close to my study species!

There are 14 species in the Hydrobatinae subfamily.  They are distributed across the globe, making it difficult to collect samples from every species. Therefore, we relied on a lot of museum samples for our study. In addition, besides some minor plumage differences, they look very similar (as you can see above). Because of this, I used genetics as a conservation tool to investigate how the different species arose.  I was able to collect a toepad (carefully of course so that we did not damage the specimen) to extract DNA from once I was back in the lab.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel. Check out the characteristic tube-nose!

Not only do museums allow you to study birds that may be hard to catch in the wild, they also let you study species that you can no longer catch in the wild. The ROM had specimens of extinct birds, including a passenger pigeon, a labrador duck, and a great auk. I also got to collect a toepad from Oceanodroma macrodactyla, an extinct storm-petrel species from Guadalupe Island. I felt like I was on CSI extracting DNA from a species that longer exists in the wild!

Next time you are at a museum, remember to think about all of the value you can get out of observing these specimens and thank a museum curator!