The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Dr. Tara Imlay, a recent PhD graduate, swallow conservation expert, and parent. In her post, Tara shares some of the challenges of this kind of multi-tasking – as well as some of its rewards. For more about Tara, see her bio at the end of the post.

Just call me Dr. Mama… after all, my precocious nearly three-year-old does.

Field work was one of my primary considerations when I chose to have a baby during my doctoral degree.  Specifically, I wanted to avoid being in the third trimester during my second field season, and I wanted the baby to be at least six months old during my third field season.  As you can imagine, that left a very small window in which to get pregnant.

Luckily, for me, that wasn’t a big challenge.

Instead, the challenges during my second field season came in the form of prolonged morning sickness, food aversions, exhaustion, and changes to my centre of gravity.  The latter landed me in the hospital after I fell over a bank one morning while mist-netting Bank Swallows.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured – and one of my field assistants now has an amazing response to any interview questions about dealing with unexpected problems in the field!  After that experience, though, I began delegating a lot more field work to my assistants, especially anything involving heights.

Danny demonstrating the safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

Danny demonstrating safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

The challenges in my third field season came in the form of exhaustion from lack of sleep.  At that time, Robin* was still waking up routinely through the night for feedings.  On numerous nights, she was up at 11, again at 2, and my alarm would go off at 3.  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that field season, but somehow we managed to get everything done.

But despite the challenges, there were a lot of amazing moments during those field seasons and the field seasons since.

Moments like sitting in the field banding birds, with a very chubby baby propped up beside me.  Or watching how excited she got over seeing all the birds, cows, sheep, dogs, and anything else that moved at my field sites.

This past year, she’s taken on a more helpful bent in the field: carrying equipment, checking swallow nests, and, her favourite task of all… getting to let birds go after they’ve been captured and banded.

The field team, including its smallest member, busy tagging captured Bank Swallows.

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to manage her short attention spans, and I can’t always bring her with me when I’m in the field.  Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several great people who don’t mind helping out with an inquisitive child, when needed.

But despite the challenges, having a baby during my PhD didn’t affect my ability to finish my degree, and hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other opportunities, both in and out of the field.  Becoming a parent with a busy field schedule isn’t a common occurrence, but if it’s something you want, then you just have to go for it, deal with the challenges as they come, and enjoy the special moments along the way.

*Her middle name, for anonymity when she’s older.

Tara Imlay is a recent PhD graduate from Dalhousie University.  Her PhD and postdoctoral work focuses on the ecology and conservation of four species of swallows throughout their annual cycle.  Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked on various conservation programs for birds and reptiles in Canada, the USA and Mauritius.

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The birds and the bees

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Alannah Gallo. Alannah got her start in environmental consulting over the summer, and shares some of her adventures surveying both avifauna and pollinators in western Canada.

As I write this, I am about to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for my last round of pollinator surveys of the year…and I’m so relieved I’ve made it through the field season.

These past few months have been my first exposure to field work. I was fortunate to have two employers willing to share me as I worked on bird surveys for one company, and pollinator surveys for the other. Working two very different jobs at the same time and the huge learning curve that came with both was a lot to take on, but I’m so happy I did. In my bird survey position, I was fortunate to have an amazing and supportive set of coworkers to help me become a better birder. The pollination surveys, though, were a bit more challenging, as I was completely on my own for all the travelling, planning, and surveying I had to do from June to September.

A pollinator visits one of the flowers grown from our seed mixes.

The objective of Operation Pollinator was to measure the effect of pollinator seed mixes on pollinator diversity. Seed mixes were sent to landowners in Northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan who would plant them in sites they had set aside for the project. The idea is that I would have an initial meeting with the landowners, who would show me where they had planted the seed mixes, and then I would visit these sites, along with a control site (i.e., an area where no seed mix was planted), once a month from June to September to survey for pollinator diversity and abundance. There were five pollinator sites and one control in each province, for a total of 18 sites…so it was a lot to handle.

The process of surveying for pollinators is fairly straight forward. I placed pan traps, which are plastic yellow or white bowls filled with water and soap, along transects and waited for insects to fly in. (This works because pollinators are attracted to the colours yellow, and white). I also conducted net sweeps, using a bug net to sweep through the vegetation at each site. Finally, I did visual surveys – in other words, I watched what species visited the flowers from the seed mixes.

A common alpine butterfly captured during a net sweep.

When I got the job, it sounded totally manageable. I was eager to prove myself and set out to do what I could to prepare myself for the field work. I first studied pollinators during my undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, where I took courses on invertebrates and entomology. Then I volunteered with John Swann, the curator of the Entomology Museum at the University of Calgary , who trained me to process and identify specimens. (One of the best things I learned from this training was how to fluff bumblebees – probably one of my favourite things to do!) Once I got the pollinator survey job, I refreshed my knowledge by reading up on the most common species of pollinator in western Canada and creating flashcards for the flowers I was told to focus on when at each of my field sites. I thought I was decently prepared, and ready to tackle this project.

I was so, so, wrong.

Identifying insects in the field was so much more difficult than I had anticipated. Insects at the museum were pinned and sat still, allowing me to focus, use my reference texts, and take my time. Insects in the field…not so much. I had to adapt quickly. Each month also came with a new set of organisms to ID, as both the flowers and the pollinators changed with the season. On top of that, although there was overlap, the biomes of the sites varied significantly across the provinces. In the end, I basically had to re-learn and memorize everything there was to know about pollinators…over, and over, and over again. During each day of surveying I would take photos or sketch doodles of the species I didn’t know and figure out what they were at night in my hotel. Then the next day, I would have to wake up and continue to my next sites. It was exhausting, but so rewarding.

One of my favourite memories of this summer took place at one particularly beautiful (and terribly tick infested) forested site near Erickson, Manitoba in June. I had laid out my pan traps and was waiting for whatever was in the area to land in them while I conducted my visual survey. After a few minutes, I checked on my traps and was surprised to see that a beautiful Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) had been attracted by the colour of the pan trap and fallen inside. I quickly reached in to pull it out, but saw that my trap had soaked and damaged its wings. It needed a safe place to rest while it dried out…so I placed the butterfly on my arm, and it sat there while I continued my work for the next 20 or so minutes. Slowly, its wings dried, and eventually I placed it in some nearby clover. At that point, it was able to fly short distances, so I hope it was okay in the end.

The rescued tiger swallowtail who kept me company for half an hour of fieldwork.

I’ve come so far in four months, and I now have a much better feel for wildflowers and insects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Considering how much I had to deal with, between managing life and working two consulting positions, I’m immensely proud of myself for handling it so well. I want to continue to pursue work in the consulting field, and so I need to become proficient at identifying birds, bees and plants. It’s an exciting journey, and I can’t wait to tackle more work next season and continue to push myself to learn and become an excellent naturalist.

Alannah Gallo is a biologist who works in environmental consulting in Calgary, Alberta. She has just started her Master of Science in Environment Management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia.

 

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!

Seeing the forest AND the trees

Within half an hour of starting my new job, I knew I was in trouble.

I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck driven by my new boss, travelling down an Alberta highway at 110 kilometers per hour.  Every few minutes, without taking his eyes off the road, he would randomly (at least, so it appeared to me) toss out the name of another bird species.

“Hooded merganser.”

“Blue-winged teal.”

“Black tern.”

Most of these species were only names to me.  Given a good bird book, a pair of binoculars, and at least a full minute with a clear view of the bird, I would probably be able to ID them.  But IDing them based on a silhouette glimpsed for a second out the window of a moving truck…it didn’t take me long to conclude that my boss had to be superhuman.  And also that my tenure at this job might be a great deal shorter than I had originally hoped.

 

Having (finally) finished my PhD this past winter, I’m now in the painful stage of figuring out what exactly I want to do with it.  So when I was offered a job as a field tech for a wildlife consulting company in Calgary, I jumped at the chance.  I figured that a decade of doing fieldwork for various degrees would equip me well for the job.  Shows how much I know….

As a grad student, I spent all my time in the field completely focused on my study species (whatever that happened to be at the time).  I’ve put in endless hours catching and banding individual birds, recording their behaviour, and monitoring their reproductive success.  For me, fieldwork has always been narrow in scope, focused on learning every single detail about one very small part of the ecosystem.

Working as a consultant is pretty much the exact opposite: the focus is broad.  No one is interested in the details of each individual bird; what clients want is the big picture.  So instead of spending all my time identifying colour banded individuals, instead I’ve been frantically trying to learn to identify dozens of species by both sight and sound.  (Given that more than 750 bird species breed in North America, you can imagine that the learning curve is pretty steep.)

And the broad focus of consulting extends beyond simply identifying species.  In fact, perhaps the best example of the differences between grad school and consulting is an activity common to both: nest searching.

Grad students studying birds frequently have to find nests in order to measure individuals’ reproductive success.  They need to know who an individual mates with, how many eggs it has, when those eggs hatch, how often (and what) the parents feed the nestlings, and how many of the babies survive and make it out of the nest.

Nest searching is also a common activity for consultants, but with an entirely different focus.  Under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, companies undertaking construction activities during the breeding season are required by law to take steps to avoid disturbing bird nests.  To do so, they hire consultants to map out the location of those nests, so they can be avoided during construction.

But finding a nest – particularly a grassland bird nest – can often take hours and hours of careful observation, lying in the grass and waiting for the birds to get so accustomed to your presence that they’ll bring food to the nestlings even though you’re close enough to see where they land.  Often you’ll be sure that you have the nest pinpointed – but when you leap to your feet and peer into the suspect patch of grass, you’ll find nothing, and have to start from the beginning again.  It can be an incredibly frustrating process, but it’s accepted as par for the course when you’re a grad student.  And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally part the grasses and see the gaping mouths of baby birds begging for food makes it all worth it.

The problem is, in the real world, it’s usually not possible to spend a whole day finding one nest.  As a consultant, you have a given area to search, and a hard deadline: at some point, construction will start, and you need to know where the nests are before then.  So instead of pinpointing nest locations, you’re on the lookout for any sign of breeding in the birds you see – then you watch them for just as long as it takes to approximate the general location of the nest.

When I first started doing nest sweeps as a consultant, I found this incredibly frustrating.  After many years of grad school, I’m used to taking my time, and discovering as much as possible about the birds (and nests) I encounter.  Having to approximate nest location (not to mention the stage of the nest) and then move on immediately to the next one drove me nuts.

But the more I do this job, the more I realize that it’s a trade-off.  I may not know every single detail about the birds I observe, but I’m also learning to recognize many species that I’ve never paid much attention to before.  I can’t tell you exactly where each nest is or how many eggs it has, but I can make an educated guess about how many species are nesting in a given area.  In fact, the more time I spend as a consultant, the more I like it.  The work is challenging, but it’s making me a better birder and a better naturalist.

I can’t deny that I do still miss the detail-oriented focus of graduate fieldwork.  But every once in a while, when it becomes necessary to know exactly where a nest is, I get to use those skills.  And when I do, the moment of discovery is just as satisfying as ever.

Aha! Baby savannah sparrows peering up from their hidden nest.

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.

Close encounters of the bird kind

This week, Dispatches from the Field is thrilled to welcome Dr.  Bob Montgomerie as our guest blogger.  Dr. Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University, and his fieldwork has taken him on adventures all over the world.  Below, he shares one of those adventures with us.

I go into the field to do research for three different reasons. The first is, understandably, to collect data to test hypotheses that interest me. The second is to help graduate students and colleagues with their research, to widen my experience and help me better understand their findings. The third is just to get close to species that I have read about and to see them in action, in part so I can write with more authority about the published literature. This is a story about a close encounter of the third kind.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored in red.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored (red).

I went to Ecuador in February to lecture to some Queen’s alumni on a Galápagos cruise. En route I went to the Andes for a few days before the cruise to work with a colleague, and to see some iconic Andean birds with unusual morphologies: Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, and Club-winged Manakins.

My old friend Dave McDonald (Univ Wyoming) was in Ecuador on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, and he generously offered to show us around. Dave is Dr Manakin, having done his PhD at the University of Arizona on Long-tailed Manakins and continued to study that group for his entire career. We began our trip with the (almost unbelievable) Sword-billed Hummingbird early the first morning at the Yanacocha Natural Reserve (altitude 3500 m) near Quito.  On Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 Feb), we settled into the eponymous Mirador Río Blanco lodge, overlooking the valley of the Río Blanco below. From there, we would have easy access to both the hummingbird and the umbrellabird in the next couple of days.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

The next morning, we went to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1100 m) for the manakin. Dave and his students have been studying manakins here for years but it is also a great place to watch hummingbirds, which we did for most of the morning. Just as we finished lunch, Dave got a call from a friend to say that he was needed in Nanegalito, so he left for a few hours to deal with that, leaving us to find the manakins on our own. “It’s easy,” he said, “just go about 30 minutes down the trail and take the first side trail to the left, then down to the bottom of the hill and the birds will be somewhere near the first sharp corner.”  Even if we failed he’d be back in time to show us the birds. And how could we possibly fail? My friend Tim and I had been studying birds in the field for more than a century in total.

Our trek down the trail was magical with birds and anticipation. Just as we arrived at the spot that Dave had described, we heard the tell-tale tuk-tuk-zzzzing of the male’s display. This was the courtship display so beautifully described just a few years ago by Kim Boswick. Using high speed video she discovered that the males the zzzzing sound by rubbing their wing feathers together at more than 100 times a second. It is also the species that apparently revealed the secrets of sexual selection to Rick Prum (2017. The Evolution of Beauty. Yale Univ Press).

At last we could witness this display first-hand…but where was the bird? Even though he tuk-tuk-zzzzinged every 30 seconds or so, and seemed to be less than 3 m away, we simply could not find him. Was the bird ventriloqual? Was he hiding in the dense foliage? And then, after 10 tantalizing minutes, he stopped.

We had the same experience further down the trail, with probably another male. Frustrated by this little bird, and by Dave for not giving us better instruction, we decided to head back to the trail head to wait for Dr Manakin’s return.

As we passed that first spot, we again heard a tuk-tuk-zzzzing  on the other side of the trail and higher up—but the bird was still invisible. By triangulating we eventually found him high on a bare branch amidst the dense foliage about 10 metres away. He called a few more times then disappeared, only to return again every few minutes to resume his displays. Such fidelity to display sites is typical of lekking male birds.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

After taking a few photos, I went back to where we had first heard a male tuk-tuk-zzzzinging. As soon as I stepped off the trail into the dense underbrush, a female landed right in front of me, less than 2 metres away. Almost immediately she was joined by two males who both tuk-tuk-zzzzinged before they saw me and spooked, disappearing into the forest.

tuk-tuk-zzzing

“tuk-tuk-zzzing”

When we returned to the trailhead, Dave was there, smiling when we told him our story. I think he knew that finding elusive species on your own is way more exciting than being shown by experts. Long before daybreak on the last day a local guide showed us the umbrellabird near a town called ’23 de Junio’ (about 1000 m), halfway down the western slope of the Andes. The males of this species also lek, but they were relatively inactive that morning and visible only through a telescope in the dense early morning fog. We had achieved all of our goals, but the manakin was the most memorable, in part because it was the hardest work.