But first, let me (remember to) take a selfie

When exploring the recent trends of #ScientistsWhoSelfie and #ScientistInHabitat in the science communication Twitterverse, I realize I might belong to the #ScientistsWhoDontSelfie group.  In fact, maybe even the #ScientistsWhoDon’tTakePicturesAtAll group.

As a biologist who gets to go to some really cool places, I always love to share how beautiful those places really are. There’s only one slight problem: I have trouble remembering to take pictures. You can describe a place using words but when a picture is worth a thousand words, there’s no contest which one makes a more lasting impression.

holding on a turtle shell to guide to other side

Helping a turtle cross the road in my handy hiking shoes

I remember asking a former grad student, a seasoned field biologist, what advice she had for me, a new field biologist. She said, “Wear good shoes, bring lots of clothing layers, and remember to take pictures because you always wish you had more”. I had good hiking shoes that survived many steps. I wore every piece of clothing I brought – sometimes all at the same time. But did I take pictures? Not enough!

The thing is, it’s often difficult to take pictures in the field. For one, there were times I was holding a bird in one hand, scrambling through my bag for my measuring device with my other hand, and holding tweezers (clean, of course – at least I hope) in my mouth. Not surprisingly, grabbing my camera was not my top priority. Also, when I finally found a nest after searching all day in the hot sun, I was so tired that all I wanted to do was process the bird and not waste extra time taking a picture.  And it didn’t help that on the first day, the field team leader was frustrated that the team was taking too long with their cameras. Perhaps it was easy for him to say forget about the photos, as he had been coming to that site for years, but for everyone else, it was the first time!

Sarah sitting in the forest

My (third?) attempt at a selfie. It may be dark but at least you can see my whole face!

But despite my completely logical reasons for minimal camera use, when I prepare research seminars or share stories with friends, I am constantly kicking myself that I did not take more pictures.  And the one thing I never seem to have is pictures with me in them!  I have tried to take selfies but that seems to be a skill that I just don’t have. Sometimes you’ll be able to just see the top of my head, while other times you are able to see five of my chins. Luckily for me, the birds don’t seem to mind being models when the camera is pointed towards them.

 

Sarah holding a bird in hand

“Make sure you get my good side”. – warbler

My saving grace, though, is friends who like to take pictures. One of my friends mentioned once that she likes taking pictures when we are out in the field together as I am constantly standing on a rock somewhere or checking something out in the grass. I guess you could say that is my ideal habitat!

Catherine and Sarah kneeling to investigate

Checking out the cool alvar habitat.

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Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

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

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

Don’t worry, be happy

Being in the field can bring up many emotions. Sure, there are the times when you are elated by a breathtaking view on a remote island that very few people get to visit. However, there are also lonely, boring, and frustrating aspects of fieldwork. If you think about it, you are away from home, usually out of your comfort zone, and more often than not doing very repetitive things.So sometimes, when you’re in the field, you need to look for ways to keep smiling!

When I shared this post with my fellow co-bloggers, Amanda pointed out she wrote a similar post about how to stay sane when you think you are going crazy. It just goes to show how important it is to stay positive when you’re out there doing all types of fieldwork.

Here are my top 10 tricks for staying positive during fieldwork:

1. Sing – Nothing like belting your heart out alongside the dawn chorus as you peer over a cliff (which actually helps the acoustics a lot!). Let’s not forget the famous field vehicles that have their share of karaoke stars.

2. Dance – Whether you’re practicing your signature move or making up a new sequence, it’s always beneficial to shake off those frustrations.

volleyball on the beach during the sunset

A little beach volleyball to pass the time.

3. Do something active – Although you are probably exhausted from climbing over and squeezing under fallen trees all day, sometimes it is good to do something different. If you’re looking to stretch and relax, yoga can be a good way to boost your mood. Check out the new hashtag #ScientistsWhoYoga on Twitter for some pretty amazing shots.

4. Make up stories for organisms, sites, and/or co-workers (nice things only of course) – Creating your own narrative for your surroundings can make the time tick by a little bit faster by introducing suspense and excitement.

5. Make it a competition – Similar to how people often keep kids busy, you can ask “Who can find the most bird nests this morning?”. In my opinion, the best approach to win at this competition is to divide and conquer the area and to pick the expert as your teammate. This is especially true when you are following transects as part of a long-term study and the expert knows all the “hot spots” for nests!

sunset on the ocean

My happy place by the water.

6. Think about your happy place – Although you may be on a beautiful beach looking for glimpses of marine mammals, sometimes it helps to think of something more familiar.

7. Take a shower – Yes, even this simple task can make you feel refreshed and ready to take on the next day!

8. Eat well – Ingesting the right nutrients can give you energy and instantly lift your spirits. The sheer absurdity of baking a cake on a small remote island is also bound to cheer you up. Alternatively, it can help to fantasize what you would make for dinner if you could have anything you wanted. (Warning: this will likely make you extremely hungry so make sure to have some snacks on hand.)

9. Chocolate – Need I say more?

holding up a team member

My supportive field team

10. Have a supportive field team – When you’re feeling under the weather, there is nothing worse than being away from home. Being surrounded by people who have your back in any situation will always go a long way.

Even when the effort  of fieldwork seems to outweigh the reward by several orders of magnitude (for example, imagine walking around for countless hours searching for signs of your study organism only to find out they don’t nest where you’ve been looking at all), remember that is worth it! Don’t worry because being a field biologist may just be the coolest job out there and there are lots of reasons to be happy!

How do you stay positive in the field?

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?