What do you miss most about fieldwork?

As time slips by during the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, my plans for fieldwork keep changing. Even in a normal year, fieldwork can be unpredictable. However, when social distancing rules are in effect and uncertainty about how long this could last keeps growing, fieldwork plans may not even have a chance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the small window of time I had during the cormorant breeding season to conduct my field study still seemed far away. But as cities stayed closed and travel remained risky, that small window approached. If I walk through my neighbourhood down to the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I can see an island where cormorants nest. Through binoculars, I’ve watched the cormorants arrive on the island and build their nests. Although the island is too far away to see any details, as the parents sit on their nests more consistently, I can only assume they are incubating eggs. I’m happy for the birds, but I am also watching the opportune window of time for my fieldwork plans slip away.

However, while I am frustrated, researchers are used to coming up with plan B (and C, D, etc.)! For now, I am fortunate to be able to use the time to work on results from my last field season.

But as I look back through my data, I keep thinking about everything I miss about fieldwork – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone. So we asked field biologists on Twitter what they missed most about fieldwork. You can check out the full conversation here, but here’s a summary of what we’ve been hearing:

  • Surprisingly, the things that bug you the most when you’re in the thick of it (such as early mornings and the sights and smells of a seabird colony) turn out to be the things you miss the most.

 

  • Your field crew really does become your field family, through all of your experiences together  (including getting a positive response from saying “poop!” and competitions running through sagebrush).

 

 

 

 

 

  • The idea of being unplugged and outside – and everyone else you know understanding why.

 

 

 

  • Enjoying the little things after a hard day’s work (like being covered in dirt and the best tasting ice cream).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The cool questions we get to ask and try to answer in limited amounts of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading all the responses we got really solidified the reasons why we love fieldwork. In these times of uncertainty, what we all keep hearing is true – we really are all in this together! So feel free to keep sharing what you miss most about fieldwork and let us know if you want to share a fieldwork story on the blog. We are always looking for guest posts!

I’m late for a very important date!

I don’t like to be late. I am the kind of person who arrives extra early to the airport just in case I can’t find the gate or I get stuck in security. If I am late for whatever reason, I feel incredibly anxious. So when my time at a field site is limited by the arrival and departure of a pre-scheduled boat, this is all amplified.

When we arrived at Bonaventure Island with our research permit, the staff members reminded us of our agreement: “You can join us on the employee boat. It is the first boat to depart for the island in the morning and the last boat to depart for home in the evening.” Great! We wanted to spend as much time as possible on the island, collecting data on the northern gannet colony there.

Sarah carrying equipmentIt is easy to lose track of time when I am sampling during fieldwork. I get really focused on the task at hand, on how many birds I have sampled already and how many I still have to do. The time ends up passing at a very variable rate; sometimes really fast, and sometimes really slow. One day we were so focused on sampling that we did lose track of time – a big problem when you’re on an island and the only mode of transportation to your cabin is a boat about to depart.

Sometime after lunch, absorbed in our work, we heard someone shouting and rustling through the bushes. We looked up to see a colleague running over to us, saying “It’s time to go! We are late!”. We finished processing the bird in hand and started to pack up as fast as possible. But it still took a good 5 minutes to get all our equipment and samples ready to go. Within that time, a park staff member came barreling down the narrow path on a four-wheeler to meet us. “Come and hop on, the boat is going to leave!”. I looked at this four-wheeler with two seats in the front and a small flatbed in the back and wondered how 6 adults were going to fit on it.

the treachorous pathSomehow, we all made it into the vehicle (or in my case, half in; the other half was hanging through the door frame) and started the trek towards the boat. In a previous blog, I talked about the difficult, steep hike up to the colony. Now, we were 6 people crammed into a four-wheeler, flying back down this same path. Our route was mined with potholes the size of large buckets and tree roots lying in crisscross patterns across the path. This did not make for a smooth ride! I clutched the handle with all my strength as we tipped from side to side without slowing down, really pushing the four-wheeler to its limit.

boat at the dockLuckily, we did make it to the boat in one piece prior to its departure, and except for a few hungry staff members, no harm was done. But I didn’t want to make any more staff members angry with us, so I vowed that we would keep better track of time the next day. The only problem was that I was wearing a really old watch, (because no one with any sense wears anything nice to a seabird colony) and I didn’t trust the time on it.

Sometime after lunch, I checked the time. My watch said 3:30 pm. Just to double check, I looked at my phone. It said 4:30 pm. I panicked: “Oh no, my watch must have frozen, we have to go!”.

a no walking sign in front of the colonyAt top speed, we packed all of our gear up and headed towards the main lodge…only to find everyone still working. Unbeknownst to me, my phone had switched to the Atlantic time zone of 1 hour ahead! My unreliable watch was right: it was actually only 3:30 pm, meaning we still had lots of time to sample. Of course, now we were all packed up and ready to go. But luckily for us, there were a few birds nesting near the main lodge that we could process to pass the time. And we were not late for the boat!

Angry birds but a happy field assistant

One of the most important rules for fieldwork is to never enter the field alone. This is partly for safety reasons, but also for your sanity. When you conduct fieldwork in remote places, as I do, it is essential to have a buddy. But when your interview process involves explaining to potential applicants that they have a high likelihood of winding up covered in bird poop most days, it can be a challenge to find a willing person whose company you can handle being in 24/7. Part of being a field assistant is taking on the less-desirable tasks, some of which my field assistant this summer was quick to learn!

Getting to know my field assistant this summer was a bit tricky at first, given that she was from France, and I am an anglophone from Ontario. Out in the field, I would ask for help in English (incorporating some broken French), and she would respond in French (incorporating some broken English). Sometimes I wondered how we made it to the same conclusion – especially against a background of fieldwork stress!

My field assistant carrying the heavy coolers.

When we first arrived at the field site, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of travel time to the colony. I thought I was a fairly fit person until I had to climb up endless stairs and tramp uphill through the forest for 30 minutes, carrying all of our gear. When my field assistant offered to carry the heavy coolers, I couldn’t resist. Honestly, I couldn’t get enough air to refuse…but I also figured that this was why I brought extra arms with me!

At last we reached the top, turned a corner, and suddenly heard it: the unmistakable squawks and chips of a seabird colony. Then the wave of smells hit us, making it clear that we were getting close. Finally the colony came into view. At first, all we could see was a few nests clustered near the field station. But as we looked first left, then right, like a Magic Eye puzzle, more and more nests popped into view.  There were northern gannets as far as we could see.

cliff speckled with gannets on their nests

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Selfie time!

After we retrieved our jaws off the ground, we took a few selfies and then got to work. Catching an adult gannet is not an easy task – and it definitely requires strong partnership skills. We first identified a nest with two birds guarding it.  This was important because it allowed us to be sure that when we (briefly) removed one of the parents for sampling, the other parent could protect the egg. Then one of us dangled a string or wire above the target bird’s head, which was meant to distract it from the other one of us creeping up behind it.

When the second person got close enough to catch the bird in their hands, they brought them over to our sampling area. However, as you might imagine, gannets aren’t thrilled about being taken off their nest.  Their responses include (but are not limited to) flailing their wings and squawking loudly. The easiest way to gain control was to allow the bird to bite us (with gloves on)! This may seem counter-intuitive (most people prefer to avoid biting animals!), but by letting them bite us, we knew exactly where their sharp beak was. Guess who got to do that job!? My field assistant!

My field assistant working hard in our limited “lab”.

After a long day of baking in the hot sun, we brought the samples back to our “lab” for processing. Our “lab” was the top floor of the cottage where we were staying with very little amount of equipment. We took a few minutes to stuff our faces with chips, as we hoped to tide over our hunger, and processed that day’s samples for a couple of hours. By the time we finished, we didn’t have a whole lot of time left for other activities –  like cooking an actual dinner – given that we had to get some sleep before the following morning, when we had to get up early to do it all again.

At this point, you are probably thinking I was a terribly mean mentor making her do the less desirable tasks. However, throughout all the hiking, sampling, and processing we did this summer, my field assistant kept smiling, making up dance moves, and maintaining a good spirit – basically, having fun and keeping me sane!

gannet startled

The expression on my field assistant’s face when I asked her to let the bird bite her. “Wait, what!?”

 

Tourists for a day

We often say the best part about fieldwork is getting to go to places that most other people don’t get to see. But sometimes we conduct fieldwork in locations that the public is able to visit too.

The welcome sign to the park.

I was very busy this past year with starting my doctorate degree. This included learning French, taking classes (in French), reading and writing literature reviews, and planning experiments. So I was super excited when the time for my field season arrived. This spring, I conducted my field research on Bonaventure Island, off of the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé region in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Bonaventure Island has one of the largest colonies of Northern gannet, a large seabird. In any direction you look, there are thousands of gannets sitting on nests as far as the eye can see. I have been on a lot of bird colonies, but I have never seen so many birds clustered in one area.

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Gannets nesting beside viewing platform

Gannets nesting beside and on one of the viewing platforms.

Despite the island’s status as a bird sanctuary, the cool thing about it that the public can visit too! It offers a rare chance for visitors to get pretty much as close to the nesting colony as us researchers. In fact, we even used the tourist viewing stations to conduct our research on gannet nesting success. And given that some of the gannets choose to nest beside and even under these stations, they don’t seem bothered by human presence. Rather, they seem to show off, allowing visitors to watch their behaviour for hours (and yes, this includes us researchers!).

Field team making use of the viewing platform.

Bonaventure Island is off the coast of Percé, a very small town with quaint restaurants and small tourist shops where you can buy a homemade gannet ornament. However, a small tourist town isn’t the most useful when you need something specific for research. One morning I realized that our dry ice, which I use to keep my samples frozen, was evaporating too quickly, meaning that the samples were in danger of thawing.

It was one of those times where you need to draw a decision tree with pros and cons. Should we keep sampling in the colony to make sure we get all the data points we need, but risk losing earlier samples? Or should we take time off to find dry ice and save the samples already collected?

In a panic, my assistant and I started to call around to try to find a place to purchase more. After a few frustrating answers like, “the closest distributer is 4 hours away”, and, “It will take 4 days to deliver it”, we finally received a positive response. The medical lab of a hospital about 45 minutes away said they could give us enough to last the rest of the week! We decided to skip the morning of sampling on the island to pick up the dry ice to save the already-collected samples, which represented hours and hours of work. Crisis averted!

I thanked the hospital technician for saving my PhD and we headed back to the dock to catch a boat. On previous mornings, we had taken the employee boat over, which goes straight from the mainland to the island. But lucky for us, by the time we got to the dock that day, the tourist boat was the only option to get to the island. So instead of putting our heads down and going straight to work, we got to enjoy the scenery and a tour around the whole island. It was interesting to hear what the tourist guide said about the island, especially when we could say “We’re contributing to that research!”. And despite the delayed morning start as “tourists”, we still made to the colony it in time to finish all of our sampling!

I’m on a boat! (as a tourist)

The tourist boat.

The nightmare before fieldwork

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the days are lasting longer, the temperature is rising higher, and the snow is melting faster. It’s only a matter of time before we can see grass growing, smell flowers blooming, and hear birds chirping. For many people, this is their favourite time year; a time described as a new beginning. But for me, it is a beginning of the busiest time of year!

When field biologists work with wild animals, they usually have a specific block of time to collect the data they’re interested in, based on the species’ annual cycle. Sure, they can always try again next year, but a PhD student’s work for the rest of the year is largely based on whatever data they do manage to collect. In other words, successful field season = happy grad student! In terms of my project, the ground starting to thaw means that birds will begin preparing to breed. Since I am interested in the biology of eggs and their incubation, I need to be present for the beginning of the birds’ reproductive session.

desk with papers everywhere

This is how organized my desk (and brain) is these days!

But before I can even get out to the field, there are a million and one things to prepare ahead of time. So here I am in the heat of planning my field season: making lists of lists to try to keep myself organized. I have written five different permit applications and two protocols in two different languages. I’ve discussed plans with park directors, wildlife managers in the provincial government, and biologists in the federal government. I’ve had to make many decisions about where to go, what techniques to use, and how many specimens to collect. So far, it seems that all is on track (or maybe that is just the picture I paint for my supervisors). However, the fact is that when I am making so many choices (or procrastinating making those choices by adding them to my list instead), I start to question what I’ve actually done…and what I’ve only dreamt I did.

These fieldwork dreams (one might call them nightmares) keep occurring. They are not always about the same thing, but they have the same underlying message. It always comes down to the “what if”s. What if I show up to my field site and there are no birds nesting? What if I arrive too late and all the eggs have hatched already? What if the Ontario government approves the proposed cormorant hunt? Despite some of these “what if”s being under my control and others not, I have to try to plan for everything because you just never know what might happen. These all add to my worry about the field season. One night in my sleep I said (rather strictly), “You’re not doing it right!” Startled awake by my statement, my husband asked, “Doing what right?” I responded with, “The frogs! You’re not doing it right. Ugh fine, just give it to me. I’ll do it. I don’t have time for you to mess it up.” Luckily for me, he is a supportive PhD husband and understands my current state of mind is only temporary!

I realize I’m probably the only person in the northern hemisphere wishing for a prolonged winter this year…so I guess I just have to accept the inevitable: spring is coming, my sanity is leaving, and I am stuck sorting through my lists of lists. At least it pays off in the end when I get to go to cool places and study cool things. Wish me luck!

Check it out: Faces of Fieldwork

This week on Dispatches from the field, we wanted to highlight a really cool site called Faces of Fieldwork (http://facesoffieldwork.com/). With a tagline of “Scientists are people too. We show the personal side of scientific fieldwork” how could we resist? Using pictures, they highlight what it is really like to do fieldwork from different fields all over the world. You’ll find pictures that make you say “aww”, “ouch”, “what?”, “cool”, and “no way!”. Check out their site to submit your own photo and follow them on twitter: @facesfieldwork!

Here are just a few examples of Faces of Fieldwork. Make sure you go to the site to read about them!

Here at Dispatches from the field, we also believe that sharing a more personal touch on what we do is the key to having others understand why we love to do it! So here is the post that I originally shared on Faces of Fieldwork:

Sarah bundled up in a lot of layers

Sarah – (Too) warm and dry on the coast

For my first time on the west coast of Canada for fieldwork I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the dreary, cold, and wet type of weather I was likely to encounter…but some might say I was overprepared. This is a picture of me on my first day: I was wearing two pairs of socks, rain boots, two pairs of pants, rain pants, 3 shirts, a rain coat, a thicker rain over jacket (of heavy plastic), a toque, mitts, and a lifejacket (safety first!). The layers weren’t very useful for traversing remote islands looking for seabirds so inevitably they had to come off! Read more about my fieldwork on my blog!

It’s the journey that counts

This time I was prepared for things to go wrong. We waited a few days after our last trip to the island, so that cormorants would have time to lay another egg before we arrived. However, there was still no sure way to tell if there would be enough eggs to collect until we actually arrived on the island. The next morning we decided to test our luck. It was a good day; the sun was shining, the wind was calm, and we could actually see the shoreline. I kept thinking to myself, “This has got to be too good to be true!”. So to prepare myself,on the way out to the island, I kept thinking of ways to change my project if things didn’t go as planned again. Maybe I could make it into a smaller project. Or maybe I could change species. Or maybe I could skip this year and start over again next year. Although it may sound extreme, these are often thoughts field biologists have on a regular basis. When you work with wild animals, you never know for sure if you will be there at the right place at the right time. So instead, you need to plan A – D, possibly plan all the way to F, when you are close to marking it as a fail and move on.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go all the way to plan F (we try everything possible not to get there). When we arrived on the island there were a lot of fresh eggs in nests! I could have jumped for joy! Instead, we got right down to business. When you head towards cormorant nests, the adults get scared and fly off to nearby water leaving their nests exposed to potential predators. This meant two of the team members were in charge of keeping guard. This may sound like a boring job at first; until you hear that it involves using water guns to keep the gulls away from the exposed nests!

Sarah dressed in a toque and sweater with eggs in boxes in the car.

Me keeping warm while I keep the eggs cool!

The rest of us collected all of the eggs we needed. But that ended up being the easy part. Now I had to figure out how to get transport them 9 hours to our lab for artificial incubation. I knew it was important to do everything in my power to get them to the lab safely. Otherwise, all the effort to collect them would not have been worth it! So there I was, on a summer day, not only driving a car full of eggs, but doing it dressed in a double layer of sweaters and a toque because I had to keep the car at a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. I was wondering how I would explain my situation if I got pulled over on the side of the highway!

Surprisingly, despite all of the potholes, traffic, and temperature fluctuations from the sun’s rays, the eggs survived the trip and I was able to continue with my project. I’ll let you know when I have published the results of this study in a scientific journal. Despite the manuscript only reading “Eggs were collected in Lake Erie and incubated in Quebec”, you will know and appreciate the sweat (and tears) that went on behind the scenes!

Back to the drawing board

To summarize my last post, plan A didn’t work out. I bet that most field biologists would nod their head in understanding of that statement as rarely does plan A go as successfully as one would hope. So it was back to the drawing board (we actually did draw out the location of cormorant colonies on the white board in my supervisor’s office!).

What were we going to do next? We decided that with time restraints, we better play it safe and stick with something we knew. We chose a colony that my supervisor had visited year after year and it had never failed him. We also had some insider information from another field biologist who had recently visited the colony that said the birds were being productive in creating nests and laying eggs. So this time it was all going to go as exactly as planned!

The truck loaded up with all of our gear hauling the boat behind.

We checked the weather in the morning as is common practice when you are leaving the shore in a boat. The forecast was not ideal weather for fieldwork but the wind speed was under the threshold for safe boating. We packed up the truck and drove 1.5 hours to the boat launch. As we arrived, a fairly thick fog was rolling in and it was drizzling slightly. The field team agreed that it was still safe to go, so we unloaded all of our gear from the truck into the boat and set sail.

The line is zig zag from the port to the island.

**An artist’s rendition** on the drawing board of the route to the island in the fog.

It was a little surreal being out on the open water without being able to see maybe 20 ft in front of you, let alone the lack of visibility of the shoreline to follow. Luckily we had all the fancy GPS and radar equipment to help position and orient ourselves. However, if you’ve ever tried to rely solely on technology, you’ll notice there is a slight lag time. This means that instead of a straight line to the colony, the route we were taking looked more like a roller coaster – if we were going too far towards the left we would turn right but then would be too far right so we would turn left. This lead to a zig zag pattern towards the island. I wish I could have taken a picture of our route, but unfortunately I was being splashed in the face with cold water while holding onto the boat tightly (perks to being the new member on board!) and did not want to risk falling into the lake.

The extra mileage (and therefore time) that it took us to get to the colony left a lot of time for my supervisor to quiz me with questions about statistics. So fun (said no one ever)! Once we finally made it to the island, I was so happy to be standing on solid ground again, even though I still couldn’t see very far in front of me to know what was ahead.

The island in the fog.

As we walked towards the cormorant colony, we did see birds, nests, and even eggs – what a relief from last time! Unfortunately there still was not enough eggs for my project which meant for another boat ride in the fog to get back to the drawing board.

A quick brown fox jumps over the cormorant nests

One week before I officially started a Ph.D., I was already preparing to go into the field. Since I had done fieldwork in a bird colony before, I knew what to expect. I wasn’t fazed when my supervisor warned, “Make sure to bring clothes that you’re willing to get poop on, a wide brimmed hat so you don’t get poop on your face, and ear plugs.” Despite the common theme in his warnings, I was still overly stoked to be going back out to the field. I think one of the biggest perks of going into the field as a biologist is the chance to get your hands dirty.

I was feeling confident about the fieldwork this time around. I had my bags packed – sunscreen (check!), snacks (check!), extra socks (check!), and binoculars (check!). I was prepared and feeling good. The field team took the boat out for the first test ride of the season and everything went smoothly. All was fine. What possibly could go wrong?

items in my field bag

All the essential items for fieldwork. Especially the snacks – can never have enough!

As you read this, you are probably shaking your head and thinking, “Shouldn’t have said that…”

It was a beautiful day in late April. The wind was a little chilly, but nothing a few clothing layers couldn’t solve. The sun was shining, making the lake sparkle with an invitation to jump in. The colony we were headed towards was only just outside the harbour, which made for a very short boat ride to enjoy the weather but a long enough ride to bring my excitement to a peak. This colony was known to have one of the highest densities of nesting cormorants in Lake Erie, so there were bound to be enough nests with eggs for my project.

Almost right after leaving the dock we could see there were adult cormorants gathered in the centre of the island, which was a good sign. We drove the boat up closer to the island, as close as we could get without grounding ourselves on large rocks and piercing a hole in the bottom, then dropped anchor and climbed ashore. (This all sounds very streamlined, but in fact it took about 30 minutes to unload all of our gear while wading in knee deep water wearing oversized survival suits. Not the easiest of tasks.)

Cormorants gather in the middle of the island.

Finally, we grabbed the pelican cases that we would use to carry the eggs we collected and headed over the edge of the rock pile towards the centre of the island. As we approached the colony, the adults flew off their nests into the nearby water as they usually do. Only this time, when we looked at the nests they had just left, there were no eggs!

Baffled, we spent several minutes observing the empty nests. There weren’t even any signs of broken egg shells, a normal result of predation. But then as we stood there, a small fox scurried right past our feet and through the cormorant nests to the other side of the island.

“Well…that can’t be a good sign,” my supervisor said. With the empty egg cases in hand, we walked back to the water and started the process of reloading the boat.

It is still a mystery what happened on that island. Was the fox able to steal and cache every egg that the cormorants laid? Or did the presence of the fox on the island scare the cormorants enough that they did not reproduce in the first place?

All I know is the next time I need to go collect eggs, I should hire a fox as an assistant.

A philopatric field biologist

I’m currently planning for the first field season of my Ph. D. It should be an easy task considering I’ve done fieldwork before, right? However, this time it is oh so different.

In my last post describing ways in which you can prepare for a field season, I was thinking about going back out to Haida Gwaii, a rugged, remote location. But this summer I am doing quite the opposite: I am visiting cormorant colonies in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. If you live around these Great Lakes, or have visited them before, you will understand when I say they are definitely not remote! There are large cities scattered all around the shorelines, and major highways connecting them all.

Cormorant colony in Lake Ontario with Burlington in the background.

The neat thing about doing fieldwork in these lakes is this is where I grew up! Therefore, I am describing myself as a “philopatric field biologist” since philopatry describes an organism that stays in, or continually returns to the same spot. I decided to revisit my previous tips for preparing for a field season to see which of them still apply…and which are totally different this time around!

  • Choose the right field assistant. This year, I will be visiting the colonies with my co-supervisor. I think it’s safe to say he is excited about the work as well (and hopefully I am a good field assistant to him!).
  • Expect to use a designated bush as a “washroom”. This year, I am going to have to figure out how to do this more secretively, considering the colonies are not too far from shore and boat traffic frequently passes by. To make it even harder, cormorant guano is so acidic that there might not even be any bushes to pee behind in the colonies!
  • Be prepared to fall asleep in a tent freezing under the stars. This year, I will prepare to fall asleep in a warm bed in a house with car lights whizzing past.
  • Fieldwork is sometimes (usually?) unpredictable. This year, I am prepared for this, with plans A, B, and C. Nonetheless, I realize I may have to create plan D on the fly. (Get it? Because birds fly!)
  • Bring enough delicious snacks. This year, I am able to refill my snack packs every night if I want! Oh the options…
  • Make sure you have a good pair of hiking shoes. This year, these are not as

    I might ditch the heavy shoes…

    necessary as I will be spending most of my time on a boat. Although I will occasionally jump off the boat onto an island, I’ll be trying to maneuver around nests on the ground while wearing an oversized survival suit. Sturdy (and therefore heavy) boots are not at the top of my list of concerns.

Since only some of the items on my list seem to apply this time around, I thought I’d better get some advice from my friends on Twitter. Some items they mentioned deemed essential:

Sunscreen will be necessary especially after a long winter of not much sunshine! And who knew baby wipes had so many versatile uses!?

I lost my water bottle in Haida Gwaii and had to replace it with a used mayo jar. And no, it turns out that the mayo taste never goes away. Maybe this year I should pack two?

This sounds like a great addition, although I would be afraid to take my cap off at the end of the day to see what I had caught!

So this year, I won’t get to spend my field season listening to whales breaching only a few hundred meters away…but there will definitely be benefits. This year, it will feel like home.