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

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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.

The Crossing

With Canada’s 150th birthday around the corner, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Emily Williams to talk about her adventures in Alaska searching for Canada’s national bird, the Gray Jay. For more on why the Gray Jay was chosen for Canada’s bird, check out the Canadian Geographic article. For more about Emily, see her bio at the end of this post!

The last time I had to do a river crossing to access a nest, in 2011, I got the s*%! scared out of me. I managed to make it to the other side only with the help of the hand that grabbed my arm at lightning speed after it was apparent I had lost my footing and was starting to get swept away by the current.

About a month ago, I had to face the fear I’d been harboring since that experience. Compounding this fear was the knowledge that I was residing in a place well known for its fast-flowing, muddied, arctic-temperature waters, where everyone has a story of someone they know that wasn’t so lucky during a seemingly harmless packrafting or fishing trip. If there’s one thing I learned when I was last in Alaska nearly ten years ago that hasn’t changed, it’s this: respect this land, be prepared, and have the humility to know that you are a small, fragile human in a large, harsh, and unforgiving landscape.

Banding a chick

Placing unique combinations of color bands on the legs of Gray Jay nestlings allows us to identify each individual from each nest. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

In the middle of May this year, I was wrapping up my first Gray Jay field season and monitoring the last remaining nests that still had nestlings. There was just one nest left to band nestlings at, but it had been eluding me for days. While we generally try to check nests every few days, 10 days had passed since this nest had last been checked. I had the gut feeling that the nestlings hadn’t fallen prey to a predator, because I kept seeing the parents nearby, acting suspicious. But the problem was, when we found the nest back in late March, we had easily accessed it by crossing a frozen creek. Now it was mid-May, and the nest was still across a creek – a creek that was raging at high levels due to the runoff from all the snow we received this winter.

Gray Jay chick in hand

This little guy will be known as WW-OS. WW stands for “white-white” on the right leg, and OS stands for “orange-silver” on the left leg. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

I had hiked down to the creek a couple of times already, hoping the water levels had gone down, but to no avail. The next option was to try to access the nest from the other side of the creek. This involved a long six miles of bushwhacking through thick willow and alder, culminating in the realization that that route led us to a place where the creek forked, which took us further away from our goal. The final option was to try to cross the creek.

With three intrepid Gray Jay thrill seekers and two ladders

Measuring length of leg with caliper

In addition to color banding, we conduct standard morphometric measurements of the nestlings to compare growth rates across nests. NPS Photo/Devdharm Khalsa

– one to try to cross the creek with, the other to climb up to the nest – in tow, I set out to face this obstacle head on. A few attempts at extending the ladder across the creek and onto the other side ended without coming any closer to achieving a viable crossing – the 25-ft extension ladder just wasn’t long enough.

 

We then scoured up and down the creek sides, looking for a better passage that didn’t seem so swift or deep. After several minutes, we found the spot: the eddies didn’t look nearly as fast or scary, and there was a tree hanging over the width of the creek, offering a steady hand rail for our passage.

large ladder leaning against the tree

Not only did we have to cross the creek, but we also had to lug this big ladder with us. We have to use extension ladders to access the nests, which are often over 20 feet high. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

Doing all the things they teach you about swiftwater crossings – wearing life jackets, attaching ourselves to a rope that another held onto from solid ground, using trekking poles to stabilize us, and crossing together, two sets of feet moving in tandem – we waded into the current, one step at a time. Several nervous, adrenaline-pumping minutes later, we made it to the other side.

All social niceties thrown aside, I let out a huge “Whoop!” of relief, allowing all that adrenaline coursing through my veins to slowly seep out into a feeling of triumphant euphoria, knowing I had conquered my long-held fears. It’s amazing how a few nerve-wracking moments can end in such an enormous natural high.

holding 4 nestlings in hand

These nestlings may have been the hardest to get to, but seeing all four little fluff balls sitting there in the nest begging for food made it all worth the effort. NPS Photo/Julien Appignani

After crossing, we gathered our equipment and proceeded towards the nest. And what do you know? We found that nest full of expectant, 13-day old nestlings, throwing their mouths open with reckless abandon in the hopes of being fed a tasty morsel.

This nest, pardon my French, was a b%#*! to get to. But seeing all four of those fluff balls sitting there, as if they were waiting on us this whole time, (“it took you long enough!”) made it all worthwhile.

 

 

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

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?

Let’s talk field biology again

When Amanda, Sarah, and I started Dispatches from the Field almost three years ago, we wanted to inspire people to notice and love the nature around them.  Because doing field biology allows you to get to know a place intimately, we thought the best way to achieve our goal was by giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fieldwork: the triumphs and the frustrations of working in nature, and the incredible places and breathtaking sights that field biologists get to experience.

Over the past three years, we’ve posted more than 150 stories about fieldwork in locations as diverse as the Canadian arctic, the wilds of Patagonia, and a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic.  Our posts have drawn both on our own experiences and on those of our many guest posters, and they’ve been read and shared by thousands of people all around the world.  I think we’ve made great strides towards achieving our goal.

But sometimes, just writing about something isn’t enough, and there’s no better way to share the highs and lows of fieldwork than to give people the opportunity to experience the field for themselves!

A few weeks ago, Amanda wrote a post about an upcoming event that she and I were hosting as coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s University: the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House.  When she wrote that post, we were in the final, frantic stages of planning the event.  We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive: it can be difficult to get people to drive half an hour outside the city to attend an event, even if it is free.

When I woke up the morning of April 22nd, the grey skies and cold wind did not inspire my confidence.  But when I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, I saw I a text from Amanda: “Happy event day!!”

That set the tone for the day.  The weather wasn’t ideal, we had no idea whether or not people would come, but we were going ahead anyway!  We packed our cars with piles of field gear and food, gathered our many volunteers, and headed up to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre.

It took a couple of hours of frenzied preparation to set up for the many activities we had planned, including grad-student led modules on trapping birds, identifying plants, recording frog calls, and studying lake sediments.  We also filled the Elbow Lake Pavilion with a host of activities, ranging from making a smartphone microscope to painting with maggots (yes, you can do that!).

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Learning to record frog calls

But finally, we were ready to go.  And just as we put the finishing touches on our activities, the Pavilion door opened: our first visitors had arrived!

Over the course of the day, the clouds blew away, the sun came out to warm us, and we ended up welcoming almost 100 visitors.  Some stayed for only an hour, and some stayed for the entire day.  We showed people how to catch birds using a mist net, how to record frogs using a directional microphone and hip waders, and how to learn about past climates using sediment cores from the bottom of a lake.  Visitors learned to age trees by counting rings (the science of dendrochronology), built their own popsicle stick birdfeeders, and used maggots as paintbrushes to create explosions of colour on paper.

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Maggot art created by a group of Beavers & Scouts that visited the open house

As dusk fell, we gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about some of our favourite funny, scary, or inspiring fieldwork experiences.  And we finished the evening standing quietly on a bridge in the dark, listening to a cacophonous duet between two barred owls.

It was a magical day: despite our anxiety beforehand, it couldn’t have unfolded better.  We hope we’re not mistaken in believing that all the visitors who attended had a great time; however, we certainly know that the almost 20 volunteers who helped us plan and execute the event enjoyed it!

“It was a really neat experience to not only tell our stories out loud but to share them around the campfire. I think it is one thing to read about a story, but to actually hear it first-hand from the one who went through it – now that is putting a face to fieldwork!” – Sarah Wallace, field biologist and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

My favourite experience of the Open House was when we went in search of owls at dusk. The moment where the pure silence and peacefulness of that night was broken by an eruption of hoots and screeches is an unforgettable memory.” – John Serafini, field biologist and volunteer

“Having some children (and adults) really learn something new was inspiring to see. Watching people have that ‘aha’ moment while listening to our talks or going through the workshops really inspired me.” – Alastair Kierulf, Let’s Talk Science Volunteer

“I especially enjoyed both telling and listening to other people tell stories about the other amazing things that happen in the field, that might not necessarily be related to the focus of their research.  It really honed in on the unique experiences that make fieldwork what it is.  It didn’t matter if the stories were funny or frightening…people in attendance were all so interested in what we had to say, and for me that was a special moment!” – Amanda Tracey, Let’s Talk Science Coordinator and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

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Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”

 

By the time we stumbled out into the empty, dark parking lot at the end of the day, we were exhausted in the way that only fresh air and hard work can cause – but also tiredly thrilled to know that we had been able to share the enchantment of fieldwork with so many people, both adults and children.

Maybe some of those children will go on to be field biologists.  (In fact, at least one of our visitors said that was her career plan!)  But we think the experience was important for everyone.  It’s easy for us, as field biologists, to care about the amazing diversity of flora and fauna we get to see up close and personal.  But how can you expect people to care about what they never experience?

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A keen high school student holding a bird for the first time…future field biologist? I think so!

Conservation efforts won’t work if only a few have access to what we’re trying to conserve.  If we want people to care about, respect, and preserve the natural world, they need to feel it belongs to them too.  And that, ultimately, was our goal for Let’s Talk Field Biology.  We hope we succeeded.

 

If you came out to the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House, we’d love to hear from you!  Send us an e-mail or comment on our blog to let us know what your favourite part of the day was!

 

 

It’s the journey that matters

It’s that time of year again.  Buds decorate the trees, shoots are pushing their way up through the soil, and birds are sounding the first tentative notes of spring.  And at universities all across North America, field biologists are rushing around like headless chickens getting ready for the field season.

Each year, the advent of spring makes me think about the beginning of my first field season – specifically, my first journey out to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  I was driving my supervisor’s pride and joy: an ancient and enormous blue van, inexplicably named Pooh, which retained many aspects of its previous life as a travelling library, including solid wood bookshelves in the back.  The heat didn’t work, the radio produced only static, and the brakes were less than trustworthy.  I had never driven a vehicle that big before, and as I navigated the twists and turns of the extremely curvy road to the field station, I was both terrified and more than a little nauseous.  (Opinicon Road was, in fact, the first road to teach me that it is possible to get carsick even when you’re the one driving.)

Travelling in style: me and the very trustworthy Pooh.

Luckily, I made it safely to the station with both my breakfast and my supervisor’s precious field vehicle intact.  (Although, to be accurate, the vehicle wasn’t exactly intact, it just wasn’t any less intact than it had been at the start of the journey.)  And by the end of that summer, I had become extremely comfortable with both the road and the vehicle. In fact, perhaps too comfortable: one of the cottagers on Opinicon Road actually called QUBS to complain about the maniac driving the huge blue van.

Since that trip, I’ve done fieldwork at sites across the continent, and along the way, I’ve come to an important realization: in many cases, just getting out to a field site is more than half the battle.

Coming in for a landing on the Sable Island Beach

I’ve donned a bright orange survival suit to helicopter in to a remote tundra field station, covered my eyes in a small plane headed for a landing on an empty stretch of Sable Island beach, and convulsively gripped the passenger door on a high speed night drive along Carmel Valley Road in California – well known for its blind curves – trying not to worry about the fact that my boss did not seem terribly concerned about driving on any particular side of the road.

But if I were awarding prizes for most arduous journey to a field site, first place would go to an unexpected place: a small island in the middle of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

When I agreed to work as a field assistant for my friend, helping her to catch some of the terns nesting in the large colony on Egg Island, I didn’t think much about the journey.  After all, Manitoba was certainly not the farthest I’ve travelled for fieldwork.  I figured one short flight and I’d be ready to go.

My journey from Kingston to Egg Island started at 5:00 a.m. one hot June morning, when I boarded a tiny prop plane at the equally tiny Kingston airport.  In Toronto, I changed to a bigger plane for the flight to Winnipeg.  After arriving in Winnipeg, I jumped into my friend’s field truck, and – once we’d purchased enough groceries for a month and survived a couple of false starts (a result of my abysmal navigation skills) – we drove the 3 hours out to a ferry dock on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.

When we arrived at the deserted dock, it seemed almost inconceivable that a ferry would ever actually show up.  Apart from a couple of apparently abandoned vehicles, the gravel lot was empty; the only sign of human presence was a trailer that had seen better days and a single man standing outside it smoking.  He seemed bemused by our presence, and gleefully informed us that, contrary to what we’d been told by our contacts, the ferry wouldn’t be coming back for at least another day.

How better to spend your time on the long ferry ride than grilling some steaks?

After a panicked conference, we decided to trust our instructions, and wait it out.  And after a mere 2 hours, a dot appeared on the lake: our ride was on its way.

There wasn’t really anywhere for passengers to stand on the tiny ferry, so we spent the hour-long ride in the car, watching curiously as one of the ferry crew lit a barbecue on deck and applied himself to cooking some steaks.

The ferry dropped us off in Princess Harbour, a tiny community of approximately 6 souls.  We parked the truck beside our cabin, tossed the groceries into the fridge, grabbed our field gear…and then climbed into yet another (smaller) boat to head out to the island itself.

The trip from Princess Harbour to Egg Island took almost another hour, but finally, after the majority of the day in transit, we approached our goal, a tiny splash of sand in the middle of the lake.

As we approached the island, the raucous screams of terns floated across the water, indicating that we were in the right place.  However, as we got closer to the island’s only safe access point, we realized there was a slight wrinkle in our plans: part of the island had flooded, leaving the small beach where the boat could land cut off from the main body of the island.

After unsuccessfully circling the island to look for other access points, we landed on the beach and clambered out to inspect the flooded area.  It turned out that the water was shallow – relatively speaking.  Before my friend even opened her mouth, I could guess what was coming.  She pulled on her waders and strode cheerfully into the lake, quickly becoming submerged to the knees.

My very determined friend dons her waders and heads straight for the tern colony.

Unfortunately, as a terrestrial bird biologist, waders are one of the few items of field clothing that I do not own.  I stared blankly after her for a few seconds, before realizing there was nothing else for it: I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and followed her cautiously into the water.

It was mid-June, and the lake was still quite cold.  I couldn’t see the bottom through the murky water, and the sand shifted under my feet with each step, making the journey quite perilous – especially considering that none of the expensive equipment in my backpack was waterproofed.

Halfway across, I slipped and nearly fell face-first into the water.  Although I managed to regain my footing just in time, my pants began to unroll themselves.  Since both my hands were occupied with field gear, there was nothing I could do about it as the cuffs unrolled towards the water.  As they hit the surface, they began absorbing water, which wicked rapidly up my pants, ensuring that by the time I reached the main part of the island, I was soaked through to my underwear.  I’ve never been so happy to step onto a beach – even if it was covered in bird guano and ringing with the screams of terns.

For the next three weeks, every day began the same way: a bumpy, windy boat ride to the island, followed by a nerve-wracking wade over to the colony.  Despite my best efforts, my pants always unrolled themselves halfway across, and every day I sloshed up onto the beach soaked and swearing.

But every day, the sunshine and light breeze dried me off quickly, and by lunchtime, I would be warm and content on the beach, munching my sandwich and relishing in the fact that we had the entire island to ourselves.  And I think that’s the real lesson here.  Field scientists get to experience places that many other people don’t, and that often involves a long, arduous, and frustrating journey.  But once you’re out there, there’s no doubt that the journey was worth it.

Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign

The bear necessities

Anyone who has been following my posts has probably figured out by now that I am essentially a scaredy-Cat.  I love being in the field, but when I’m there, I worry about anything and everything – from mountain lions all the way down to cows.  Unsurprisingly, bears have always featured pretty high on my list of worries.  Huge, powerful bodies, sharp teeth, and a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised…what’s not to love?

My initial bear encounter took place during my very first field season, up the Queen’s University Biological Station – and, in fact, wasn’t an actual encounter at all.  I was working at the station as a field assistant, and my duties included daily inspections of approximately 200 tree swallow nest boxes.  One day, as I made my way through a grid of boxes, I suddenly realized that one was missing.  At first, I wondered if I was losing it: how could a nest box just vanish?  However, closer inspection revealed that the box was actually still there…in pieces on the ground.  The nest was torn apart, the nestlings were gone, and a pile of bear scat sat on the ground close to the wreckage.

Until that point, I had thought of QUBS as an entirely safe place to do fieldwork.  Finding the ruins of that box was a rude awakening.  I froze in place and stared frantically around the field, looking for other indications that a bear had been there – or, more problematically, was still there.

In the end, of course, I found nothing; the bear that had destroyed the box was long gone.  In fact, over the course of my two summers at QUBS, I never actually saw a bear, just heard occasional second- or third-hand stories of sightings.  I eventually accepted that I was highly unlikely to actually meet a bear at QUBS, and I relaxed.

All that changed when I started my PhD.  I was thrilled to be doing my fieldwork in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia…but at the same time, my mind heard the word “mountains” and interpreted it as “bear country”.  And while no one would claim the Okanagan is overrun by bears, my research informed me that black bears are reasonably common there, and even grizzlies aren’t unheard of.  Too make matters worse, a lot of my work took place in vineyards, where bears can be a big problem in late summer, when they come down out of the hills to gorge themselves on the grapes.

In preparation for this ‘highly dangerous’ fieldwork, I purchased a plethora of bear bells (to warn bears people were coming) and a few cans of bear spray (to deal with bears that didn’t heed the warning).  Armed with these tools (and accompanied by a ceaseless jingling), I felt pretty secure wandering around my field sites.  That is, until one day, when a local asked me, “How do you tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?”

“I don’t know,” I said innocently.  “How do you tell the difference?”

“Well, black bear scat is full of berries.  And grizzly bear scat…well, it smells like pepper spray and jingles a bit when you kick it.”

With a wicked smile, he went on his way.  I stared foolishly after him, clutching my pepper spray while my backpack jingled faintly.

This conversation somewhat eroded my faith in my bear spray and bells.  On top of that, it turns out that ceaseless jingling is phenomenally annoying after a few days.  Add to that the fact that I kept accidentally leaving my bear spray behind in various locations (forcing me to spend additional time wandering around in bear country attempting to retrieve it) and it’s not hard to understand why I decided to abandon that approach.

But I was still not enthusiastic about encountering a surprised, irritable bear.  So I devised a new strategy: I would just talk to myself as I wandered the hills, providing fair warning to any bear in earshot.

However, I quickly found out that it’s hard to talk constantly when you don’t have anything in particular to say.  In desperation, I found myself thinking back to high school, trying to recall any lines of the poetry or prose we’d recited in English class.  As it turns out, the only thing I remembered was the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.  So day after day, I would stumble around the Okanagan back country, repeating “Two households both alike in dignity / In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” as loudly as possible.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t encounter too many people on my wanderings.  At least the bears of the Okanagan are now well educated.

I guess the star crossed lovers did the trick, because I didn’t actually see any bears for most of my first field season.  But one day in early August, as I was making my way back to the car in one of my most isolated field sites, I rounded a corner and found myself about a hundred feet from a black bear.

Given that I’d worried about this exact scenario all summer, I was surprisingly taken aback. I turned on my heel and started walking away briskly, trying not to look back over my shoulder.  Finally, though, I just had to know.  I whipped around to survey where the bear had been…only to realize it had vanished.  Now I had a new problem: there was definitely a bear in my immediate vicinity, but I no longer had any idea where it was, and it was a very long walk back to the car.

Isolated ranch field site in the Okanagan

Can you spot the bear in this picture?… Nope, I can’t either.

Clearly the thing to do was keep talking to avoid surprising it; unfortunately, though, Romeo and Juliet deserted me in my panic.  So I decided that the logical thing to do was call home and talk to my parents.

When I dialed my home number, my sister picked up.  I told her about the bear and explained that I just needed to stay on the phone to keep talking.  “That’s too bad,” she said impatiently.  “But I need to call my friend now.  Call Mum on her cell instead.”

Right.

I hung up with her, and did as she suggested, still striding in the direction of the car while swiveling my head vigilantly in all directions. This time, I managed to get a hold of my mum…and that’s when I learned that you never, ever, ever call your mother and tell her that you’re in the middle of nowhere, with an unseen but very real bear lurking around.  She was quite willing to stay on the phone with me, but had no problem letting me know that she was not thrilled with the situation overall.

Much to our mutual relief, I made it to the car with no problems, and I didn’t see another bear for the rest of the field season.  In fact, it was over a year before my next bear encounter.  This second run-in happened at a less isolated site, but played out in much the same way as the first.  I froze briefly, then did an about face and walked away.  And once again, after a few seconds, I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder.  This time, the bear was still visible.  In fact, it looked an awful lot like he had also done an about face and was hurrying in the opposite direction as fast as his furry paws could take him.

Apparently some bears are aware that humans also have a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised.