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!

New year, new beginnings – even if it’s not in an ideal spot

Often when a biologist is going out to the field for their first time, they are super excited and usually think they have it all under control. Thoughts such as “Oh I can carry all of those heavy totes myself” or “I will map out the exact route we will take and we will not need to deviate from the plans” will run through their heads. However, as many of us learn, you can never do it all by yourself. You quickly learn that sometimes you just need that little extra support.

It was early spring when I was in Haida Gwaii to conduct my fieldwork for my project studying the seabird Cassin’s auklet. It was a still a bit chilly as Haida Gwaii is quite a bit north up the coast of British Columbia. One of the first days I was there, the others in the field crew and myself were walking from our field vehicle to the water where our boat was tied up. Keep in mind, we are dressed in about 5 layers each as it was extremely cold and very wet when we travelled in a hurricane boat out on the ocean inlets to find the isolated seabird colonies. As we were trekking it to the boat with all of our layers on and carrying all of our gear, we heard some shrieking coming from the middle of the parking lot.

I was confused at first to who could be making that high pitched sound as I couldn’t see anything. However, when I listened carefully I could hear the words “kill-deeeer” in the shrieks. When I looked closely, I could see a little bird frantically running around with it’s skinny long legs. I recognized this species before as I had seen it around my house before – a shorebird called a killdeer!

kill deer in the parking lot

Can you spot the killdeer?

Killdeer do like to nest in gravel and in grass, so you have likely seen them along side roads or on golf courses. However, this particular individual thought it would be a good idea to make a nest right in the middle of a parking lot!

Luckily, as a result of the cooler weather still, not many tourists were around. The field crew and I began to grab large sticks and branches from nearby trees to put around the nest as barricades. The killdeer continued to squawk it’s name “kill-deer” as it ran around it’s nest almost as if saying “No I do not need your help!”. Little did it realize, the stick barricades would hopefully signal to people coming by in the future to watch out for something important!

Field crew puts big branches around the kill deer nest in the middle of the parking lot

Building a barricade of (not so small) branches.

Even though we didn’t find the species we were looking for that day, we were still able to help another species protect their nest. We can all use that extra support sometimes!

The first fall to the water

Some species seem smart – like how some caterpillars can camouflage to look like their predators. Whereas with others, sometimes you may ask yourself “Why on earth would they do that?” but somehow the behaviour is inherited through generations (e.g. the Eastern hog-nosed snake playing dead to avoid predators in Amanda’s post).

When I first got to Haida Gwaii to start collecting samples for my field work, we had a couple of days to get settled before our boat left to take  us and our supplies to the remote Reef Island. We first visited the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society (LBCS)’s camp on East Limestone Island. LBCS monitors many species of birds, plants, mammals and marine mammals, including some that are endemic or only found in Haida Gwaii. Since we were staying a couple of nights there, I tried to help out with as many activities as I could, which in some cases involved staying up all night. If any of you know me, I am not much of a night owl but I was excited to help out the team and tried to keep my eyes open. (Side note: the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society is great for getting volunteers out to the island to help with the surveys).

One species in particular that has been studied intensively in Haida Gwaii is the ancient murrelet. About 50% of the world’s population of ancient murrelets breeds in Haida Gwaii and research has been conducted on these populations since 1990 (Laskeek Bay Conservation Society – check out their site for very cute pictures!!). One of the largest colonies in Haida Gwaii is on East Limestone Island.

To explain why I started this post talking about smart and maybe not so smart behaviour, I will need to tell you about  ancient murrelets’  ridiculous (if I do say so myself) strategy for fledging young. When the young are ready to fledge and leave the nest that is high up on cliffs or trees, they basically fall out of their nest and stumble towards the water, guided by light and sound to the ocean where they call for their parents. Their parents meet them at the water’s edge and they go out to sea together. I think it is ridiculous because this makes them very vulnerable to predators on their first journey to the sea (sort of like the sea turtles in Becky’s post).

The beach where we would let the chicks free.

A popular beach for ancient murrelet chicks to call to their parents.

LBCS monitors chicks that have fledged by setting up plastic funnels or “runways” on the forest floor. The staff and volunteers then have to monitor the funnels every 20 minutes to check for the presence of chicks. So here I was, fresh eyes for field work, and excited to be able to help with the rotations. To be honest, when I went out by myself in the complete darkness (thank goodness for my headlamp!), I was a bit scared. What if I ran into a bear? No, it wasn’t a very big island and they would know if there was a bear. What if I twisted my ankle on exposed roots? No, I had my trusty hiking boots on. What if I actually found chicks in the funnels? Now this was a legitimate thing to worry about as I had never held a chick before. But this was still early in the year for chicks to be fledging so the team trusted my abilities to monitor the funnels. I made it around the funnels with no problems and no chicks were found.

At 2 a.m., on my second trip around the funnels by myself, I was brushing past the funnels as usual when I gasped because I saw two round things bouncing around. I had found the first two chicks of the season! I was so excited to run back to tell the others about the chicks that I almost forgot to take them with me! Due to the chicks bouncing around in the plastic funnels scrambling to try to get to the water, it was difficult to put them in separate cloth bags to take back to the lodge. We took several measurements including their body weight and wing length to add to the long term dataset of ancient murrelets on this island. Once we took all the measurements, we carried the chicks down near to the water’s edge where we let them free. We stood back as we watched them waddle towards the glistening water under the moonlight and call to their parents to join them.

Although this strategy for fledging young doesn’t seem so smart, ancient murrelet chicks still continue, year after year, to fall out of their nest by themselves and waddle towards the unknown ocean – and it works!

Stuck in the mangroves

I always get super excited (likely as most biologists do) when plants or animals have crazy adaptations to deal with different environmental conditions. During a field course in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, we witnessed lots of different adaptations. However, I was most excited about the mangrove forests.

Mangroves are salt tolerant trees that are adapted to the intertidal zone – essentially they are very salty swamps. Due to the high tides, roots often protrude out of the water to escape the low oxygen, water-logged mud. It gives a look of chaos with the roots all tangled among each other. However, despite the seemingly chaotic characteristic of the root system, the mangrove forests that we explored were very tranquil places. Many different species of birds carried on with their song overhead as crocodiles (yes we saw some and yes I was scared to go for a swim) and other aquatic species took refuge within the cavities that the roots formed.

Roots of mangroves protrude out of the water

The chaos of mangrove roots

salt on leaves

Salty leaves

Not only are mangrove forests exposed to salt water during high tide, but as low tide occurs, the salinity increases even more. A lot of plant species cannot survive under these conditions. However, mangrove species have adapted to actually expel excess salt through their leaves. (I found this particularly cool as I studied tube-nosed seabirds that can expel salt through glands in their nose!).

During low tide, some areas can get very dry. One day, my group was exploring the mangroves looking for “edge habitat” (what our project was on). It was during low tide (perhaps had even been dry for weeks), so we were able to walk among the root system. The ground was all cracked from being dry for so long, reminding me of the type of “ground” you would see in Jurassic Park. As we were walking along, suddenly one of the girls in my group yelled “ah, help!”. We immediately rushed over thinking she had been bitten by something. Instead, we found her in the mud to her shins! It was like quicksand – the top was hard and crusty but underneath was waterlogged mud ready to engulf her legs. We didn’t want to get too close to her, afraid that we would also get stuck. Luckily, another group member was interested in catching snakes that day and was carrying along “snake tongs” that he was able to pull her out with.

She gets stuck in the mud and needs help to be pulled out.

Exploring the mangrove forests was a really neat experience. It was a good reminder that although everything seems chaotic around you and you might get stuck, you will always be able to get out of it!

NB: I apologize if I used anyone’s photos in this post. We all shared photos at the end of the field course but I did not take note of whose photo was whose. If they are yours, please let me know and I will give you credit!

 

To sink or swim – wet waders and heavy rocks

During the Fall of 2013 I was in between contracts for work and was really itching to get outside into the field. I decided I would reach out to the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) to see if they needed any volunteers. Luckily, fall can be a busy time for them. The water keeps flowing and there are projects in the field that still need to be done but their summer students have left for school.

I was super excited to have the chance to be in the field again. Also, I would be in the field as a volunteer, meaning the whole project wasn’t resting on my shoulders and my decisions. This was going to be easy right??

One project I helped out with was monitoring benthic invertebrates (or “bugs”) that inhabit streams. We put on our waders and used a net to “sweep” the bottom to catch whatever bugs were living in the stream. The composition of species found in the streams can help determine the health status of a stream. We sampled in streams that were in a natural state and ones that were impacted by residential areas (guess which type was my favourite to sample!). A lot of the natural streams were fast flowing which made it hard to stand upright at times. However, I didn’t mind tipping over when the water was clear – it was only in the human impacted streams where I hoped that I did not take a wrong step.

On the boat with buckets of gravel.

Ready to lift heavy rocks – still smiling!

There was one artificial stream where the water level didn’t look too high. So as the eager volunteer, I said I would bring the measuring tape to the other side. I took a few steps and my boots started to stick a bit to the bottom. I didn’t think too much about it, as I didn’t want to be that volunteer who couldn’t make it across this small stream. As I got closer to the middle of the stream, the bottom dropped off quicker and I was sinking more into the clay bottom. At the deepest point, the water level was almost at the top edge of my waders. It was a good thing that I could not move very fast, otherwise the waves might have gone over the top (not the type of water you want to be soaked with)! Unfortunately, even though I was very careful about the top of my waders, somehow they ripped at the knee and I ended up with boots full of water anyway. In the end, wet socks were worth it to be able to say I helped sample “bugs”!

Another very cool project I helped RVCA with was The Otty Lake Fish Habitat Enhancement Project. They were improving habitat by putting gravel in small piles in the lake and fixing old branches and trees in cement to sink into the lake. This created gravel piles that fish species such as bass could use as nesting sites, while the cemented branches and trees provided shelter from predators. Needless to say, my arms were very sore after filling and carrying buckets of gravel all day! There were many times throughout the day that I thought I should quit – I was just a volunteer anyway. But there was a moment in the afternoon where a couple of the cottagers were questioning what we were doing to their lake. I do not blame them, as it must have looked very odd to see a team of about 15 people dumping buckets of something into the lake. However, once we explained to them what we were doing, they were very pleased about the efforts RVCA was taking to protect their lake and told us many stories of the fish they had seen swimming around. Being involved in these conservation efforts first hand reminded me how even the smallest thing can make a big difference in the greater story.

Two volunteers dump buckets of gravel over the side of the boat.

Dumping the big buckets of rocks in a pile in the water to create nesting sites for fish species such as bass.

 

Sweet dreams in the field

Most of you who have been camping before would understand and agree with me when I say that when you are living out in nature, every little task suddenly seems like a lot more work. This includes, but is by no means limited to, getting dressed, making meals, cleaning up after meals, showering, and even having to use the “facilities” (which by the way consisted of a large boulder, a fallen tree trunk and the ocean). In addition to these regular activities, add running along slippery rocks, hiking up and down hills, climbing over and under fallen tree trunks and sticking your hand into cold holes in the ground where you may or may not find your burrowing study species. However, even on the unsuccessful days, one thing I could always count on was the best feeling of crawling into my bed at night.

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

The “facilities”.

I was overly excited for my first night on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii, BC. How many people get the chance to camp on a remote island? As you can imagine, after a long first day of travelling to and exploring the island, I was grateful when it was finally time to crawl into my bed. I set up my one man tent and rolled out my thermarest.

One man yellow tent

My one man tent on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii.

Humpback whales off the coast of the island.

Humpback whales gather along the reefs just off the coast of the island.

Maybe I should have seen it coming. But when I couldn’t fall asleep immediately I was shocked. As is usual in the early spring in northern BC, it was fairly cold, so I put on all of my layers to go to sleep – which meant I did not have much room to move around. I could feel all the roots under my thermarest, but convinced myself it was just like having a constant massage. Just as I was falling asleep, I heard a group of humpback whales blow just off the coast, not even 300 m away from my little tent. At around 11:30pm the seabirds started to return to their burrows after spending a day at sea. Like myself, they must have been excited to return home, as they were very noisy projecting their call to find their mate and nest. The seabirds calls continued into the dark night with lots of “chaaar chaaar chaaar”’s. I must have fallen asleep around 3 am because the next thing I remember is the dawn chorus of the songbirds on the island as the sun rose.

A tired selfie in the woods.

A tired selfie in the woods.

 

I woke up still tired but it was new day and I was determined to make the most out of my experience. Although it was very tiring and stressful at times depending on how successful we were at finding occupied burrows, we couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather to be traversing remote islands. At the end of the day, knowing I could count on my bed was actually very comforting, with the company of the wildlife chorus and all.

The wonder of whales

The sense of wonder that nature gives you is the best feeling in the world. There is nothing better than a landscape that takes your breath away or seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. This is especially true when it’s a species you don’t get the chance to see very often. For example, I know we all know whales are massive. Some of us have seen a skeleton of a whale. But I don’t think you really get the sense of how magnificent a creature a whale is until you see it in the wild.

I was fortunate enough to take a field course during my undergraduate degree called Marine Mammals and Seabirds that was based out of the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. I was excited but nervous to go because besides a few classes that took us to nearby conservation areas or ones that took us up to the great Queen’s University Biological Station, I had never had experience in the field. But to no surprise, this was the course that made me realize that studying biology in the wild was far more fascinating than studying it inside a classroom. Being a typical undergraduate student, I signed up for this course because of the “marine mammals” part of it. Sure if we saw birds on the way that would be cool, but I was really there to see the beasts of the sea.

Field boots left on the sand on the Bay of Fundy.

Field boots left on the sand on the Bay of Fundy.

Looking out into the glistening blue water. Is that a fin or a wave!?

Looking out into the glistening blue water. Is that a fin or a wave!?

Every other day we would go out a small fishing boat called the Fundy Spray into Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet in the Bay of Fundy. Our first trip out was filled with a lot of staring out into the blue water, squinting in the sun, trying to make out if that glimpse of something was actually a living thing or if it was just a wave. The first couple of days we saw a lot of harbor seals hauled out on the rocks and a few harbor porpoises dancing in the waves. During a sea kayak paddle, we came up close and personal with some of these mammals. This was a whole different type of experience because instead of the loud noises of the boat (and besides the occasional swish of your paddle), you can really hear all that is around you. One exception was that we did not hear the gray seals that popped their heads up only about 3m away from our kayak curious about what we were doing in their waters!

One day when we were out off the coast of Grand Manan, we were scribbling down bird species that we saw and counting the seals on the rocks. Business was as usual until one of the guides noticed massive black things in the water. We stopped moving and just stared with our mouths wide open.

A group of fin whales come to the surface before their second dive.

A group of fin whales come to the surface before their second dive.

Six fin whales surfaced close to the boat and then they were gone again. After about five minutes, when we thought to start counting the seabirds again, the fin whales resurfaced again. This time, six whales surfaced on one side of the boat and five on the other. These are massive whales – they are the second largest animal (second to the blue whale) and can dive to depths up to 470m. It is very hard to describe the sense of wonder when you see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.

 

A fin whale surfaces next to the boat.

A fin whale surfaces next to the boat.

But let’s not forget about the “seabirds” half of the course. After all, this was the course that got me interested to study seabirds for my graduate work! It was amazing to see the many species fly in and around the boat attracted to the lights in the fog. The best part was when we found a “big buffet” of herring. Porpoises gathered underneath the water pushing the school of herring up to the surface as seabirds dove from different heights to catch the herring. Herring gulls and black backed gulls populated the area, with terns swooping around and shearwaters skimming across the surface.

Birds gather in a group during a feeding frenzy.

Come one, come all – it’s a feeding frenzy!

Shearwaters skim the surface in search of food.

Shearwaters skim the surface in search of food.

 

This field course was a truly amazing experience, one that led me to fall in love with the field. Just being on the water is a wondrous feeling, one which now I don’t think I can live without!

Hello, anybody home?

If you know anything about me, you know that I love long term environmental data sets. They are necessary to track patterns and changes in these patterns over time. This is especially important in terms of conservation for monitoring population numbers. It is so exciting to contribute to the “history” of studies.

Part of the deal of going to do field work in Haida Gwaii with a seabird researcher who had spent many field seasons in the area (I would have found 0 Cassin’s auklets without him), was to help him with his long term seabird occupancy surveys. Of course I said yes, I was looking for any excuse to stay there longer!

After spending time on the east coast of the Haida Gwaii archipelago to find Cassin’s auklets for my project, we set sail (on a real sail boat) for the west coast. After roughing it in tents, it was a treat to be able to stay on the boat and have the waves rock us to sleep! (Also a bonus to have someone else cook for us). Besides going around the archipelago in the north or the south, the quickest route to the other side is through the Burnaby Narrows, a 50m wide waterway separating the two big islands of the archipelago. We had to time our departure perfectly, in order for the boat to make it through the Narrows before the tide was too low. The intertidal zones were full of life, including kelp dancing with the waves and sea stars covering the rocks. Luckily we beat the tide and arrived in Englefield Bay, where we spent the next week conducting seabird occupancy surveys on the small islands in the area.

Travelling by boat through the shallow Burnaby Narrows

Travelling with the tide through the shallow Burnaby Narrows.

Our living quarters aboard the Anvil Cove sail boat in Englefield Bay

Our living quarters aboard the Anvil Cove sail boat in Englefield Bay.

The occupancy surveys were conducted across transects that had been used three times since 1986 for the same surveys. Conducting surveys along the same transects in multiple years allows for comparison between years to track any changes that occur. The surveys started with me sitting at the very edge of the cliff (don’t tell Health and Safety) as the researcher climbed up with the yellow measuring tape trailing behind him to the other side of a plot. Although the plots were only 5m by 5m, due to the dense vegetation and fallen logs, he would disappear up the rugged and slippery terrain with the measuring tape as my only life line.

Setting up the occupancy plots by rolling the yellow measuring tape.

Can you see him?? Hint: he is wearing yellow rain pants!

Once the perimeter of the plot was set up, we would check for signs of burrow occupancy by seabirds within the plot. This included sticking my hand in holes in the ground to check if chicks or eggs were inside (luckily there was never anything unexpected in them -as much as I like snakes, I think I would be very startled if I touched a snake in the hole!). We also used our sense of smell to detect the not so nice smell of the seabird “latrine” that many species leave at the entrance to their burrows. We would then repeat this survey for plots every 30m along the transect to the other side of the island. The first occupied burrow I found contained a fork-tailed storm-petrel. This was super exciting for me as I did my fourth year Honours project on this species but had never seen one in the wild (my field work for that project consisted of traveling to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto -still exciting but less outdoors!).

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

Peekabo with a fork-tailed storm-petrel.

In addition to burrow occupancy, we noted any feathers or pieces of egg shell that would indicate a bird had been there at some point. Many times we would find raccoon scat near a pile of feathers or cracked egg shell. Predation by raccoons has been very detrimental to the seabird populations in this area. Repeating surveys along the same transects can give us an idea of occupancy over time. Based on the 4 repeated surveys, there appears to have been a decrease of over 50% in the number of occupied burrows since 1986.

Although the addition of this season’s data with not many seabirds “home” in their burrows does not paint a pretty picture, it was a great experience to be part of a long term survey that can influence real conservation decisions.

Early morning  fog over islands in Englefield Bay.

Early morning in Englefield Bay.