Trading in the pristine for the polluted site

I’m sad to say that the summer has ended (although this fall is quite beautiful so far). However, summer ending means many biologists are coming home from field work (if you are nodding yes then you should write a guest post on our blog!). Not being in grad school any more, I have to find other ways to get outside. Luckily for me for my current contract, I was fortunate to do two whole days of field work (for a lab tech this is a pretty big deal)!

As you probably know from my previous posts, I was fortunate to do my master’s field work in the most pristine of places -Haida Gwaii. Massive sitka spruce tower over you as you sit on moss covered logs listening to the waves crashing against the cliffs. You can hear whales off the coast and birds singing overhead. My study species, Cassin’s auklet, nest in burrows along the cliffs of remote islands on the eastern and western side of the Haida Gwaii archipelago. The adults look like flying tennis balls as they return to their nest because they are chubby and have fairly short wings. When in hand, the chicks are cute little fluff balls that just sit there. My kind of paradise!

The luscious forests of islands in Haida Gwaii.

The luscious forests of islands in Haida Gwaii.

A fluffy Cassin's auklet chick

A fluffy Cassin’s auklet chick sits patiently for a photo.

My fieldwork this year was a bit different to say the least. I did study seabirds and I did venture to islands. However, I traded in the “pristine” site for the “polluted” site you may say. We have had a few posts lately (both by our regular bloggers and by guest bloggers) about doing fieldwork in a city. Now I can join in this discussion! I did fieldwork in Hamilton Harbour, at the western end of Lake Ontario, where steel plants exist and receives wastewater treatment plant discharge from surrounding cities. Some islands in the harbour are natural and some are man-made, but these islands were a lot less remote than the ones I was on in Haida Gwaii! From the islands we were on, you could see and hear the four lane highway. Nothing like trading in the sounds of ocean waves crashing against the cliffs for the constant hum of traffic. Additionally, the water was not very inviting for a swim to cool off even though we were in the intense heat for 14 hours straight.

Cormorant island in Hamilton Harbour

An island in Hamilton Harbour where double-crested cormorants nest.

In addition to the environment being different, the species I was studying has a very different life history strategy than Cassin’s auklets. We were studying how contaminants have affected the double-crested cormorants in the harbour. Cormorants are colony nesters which nest in big groups out in the open, often defoliating all the trees on the islands because of their guano. Despite the heightened noise from the bigger (mostly hairless) chicks and intense smells of rotting fish from regurgitates (how the parents feed their young), a bonus to studying colony nesters is it is never hard to find an individual! These islands were also occupied by gull and tern species that would circle us overhead. Not only did we have to be wary of being pooped on, I was told to wear a feather in my hat to avoid being pelted in the head by a swooping angry gull (luckily I was not the tallest in the group so I was not the easiest target!).

Double-crested cormorants waiting on nests.

Double-crested cormorants waiting on nests.

In the end, being spoiled with graduate fieldwork in a place that many people do not get a chance to visit, I think it was a good experience for me to do fieldwork in a more urban setting. Although maybe less “pristine”, it is interesting how these prehistoric looking species are able to live and thrive in this “new” environment we have created.


Something old, something new

For my field work for my master’s, I was in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. I talked a bit about it in my previous post (Home Sweet (mobile) Home) but this place is so amazing I will be writing quite a few posts about it to try to convince you how this place receives names such as “Islands of Beauty” or “Place of Wonder”.

The winter before I went to Haida Gwaii was full of major storms that caused a lot of damage to the islands. Reef Island, where we spent most of our time, got hit very hard by storms, where massive Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red and yellow cedar trees were knocked down including trees that were completely uprooted. Here is a picture of me standing under one of the roots for size comparison (and yes I understand I look a bit too prepared –rain boots, rain pants and jacket, extra rain coat that was way too big for me, PFD, binoculars –but when you are in the ocean on a tiny zodiac this is the only way to stay dry (mostly)).

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?

These fallen trees made it for a fun obstacle course to find all of the nest boxes of seabirds we were looking for. The other researcher I was with is quite a bit older and I thought I would be fit enough to keep up with him. But even with the climbing over and under trees and running beside the edges of the cliffs, he would disappear up the mountain and I would be stumbling behind trying to figure out which way he went!

Unfortunately, the cabin that was on Reef Island was destroyed by the storms and thus we were stuck really “roughing it”. Our 5 star accommodation included tents and a big tarp for our kitchen (based on the views alone I am not joking about the 5 stars). Although we were limited in some luxury items (for instance, I lost my water bottle and was left with a mayonnaise jar filled with water which surprisingly is very hard to get the taste out of) we did have an oven in which we baked a cake. The most simple pleasures always seem so much better when you are out in the field!

Camp at Reef Island

Luxury 5 star accommodation on Reef Island

While I was stumbling after the other researcher, I became fascinated with how the fallen logs provided habitat for new growth. Commonly known as “nurse logs”, the fallen and dying trees provided perfect habitat for new saplings. The coolest nurse logs are the ones that used to be totem poles or structures in the old villages we visited. The purpose of totem poles is to document stories and to represent the family’s status. Although these stories had fallen to the ground, they provided new habitat for other species to begin to grow. I think this is a neat way to look at conservation.

The Haida could not have said it better themselves:

We do not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

-Haida saying, anonymous  

Sapling growing on a fallen log

Sapling growing on a fallen log

plants growing out of totem pole

New plants growing out of an old totem pole

Tree growing on old carving

Can you see what it used to look like?


Home sweet (mobile) home

Despite being pooped on constantly, being a seabird biologist does have its benefits. A big plus is that fieldwork usually occurs on beautiful remote islands that the average person doesn’t get the chance to visit.  Lucky for me, for my master’s project on Cassin’s auklet, I was missing samples from colonies in Haida Gwaii, an island archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia.

The Haida name for the southern group of islands “Gwaii Haanas” means “islands of beauty” or “place of wonder”. This describes Haida Gwaii perfectly. The islands are covered in temperate old growth rainforest and are home to many endemic species. Massive Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red and yellow cedars tower over you as you walk through the luscious understory of mosses and ferns. Not only is it interesting from a biological perspective but the rich culture of the Haida people is fascinating. Old villages with remnants of long houses and totem poles can be seen on many of the islands, where nature has taken over with it’s luscious carpet of moss and plants growing out of the old poles (stay tuned for more posts on this amazing place!).

As we were living on small islands for 3 weeks where permanent human settlements do not exist, we had to travel by boat to the sites and carry all of our goods and belongings. In doing so, I learned quickly how to run across slippery sharp rocks, something that black oystercatchers are experts at! Cassin’s auklets are burrow-nesting seabirds, thus in order to catch them we needed to “grub burrows” which entails sticking your hand (and sometimes entire arm) into holes in the ground or hillside in hopes to find a bird at the end. At first, I was worried about what else could be in those burrows but I got over that fear, once I had the experience of holding a cute fluffy auklet chick in my hand (also a plus to working with seabirds!).

Cassin's auklet chick

Cassin’s auklet chick

One day when I was waiting for the BC ferry, I spotted a pair of pigeon guillemots sitting at the edge of the dock. I took some pictures of the pair, as I hadn’t seen this species that close before. When the ferry arrived, I picked up my bags and looked back to see if the ferry had scared off the pair. I saw them fly into what seemed like a hole at the front of the boat  A local told me that this pair of pigeon guillemots have been seen nesting in the ferry before! Unlike myself, waiting for transportation to get to my home for the next week, they opted for a “mobile home” and were waiting on the ferry dock for their nest to come to them! Talk about laziness! (Or maybe it’s smart??).

A pair of pigeon guillemots anxiously wait the arrival of their mobile nest.

A pair of pigeon guillemots anxiously wait the arrival of their mobile nest.

We are excited to share our stories and anecdotes about the field with you and to give you an idea of why we fell in love with these places!