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.

Cold comfort

Light raindrops pattered against the tarp stretched above my head.  Deep inside my tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, I shivered.  The damp cold of the day had made its way insidiously through my layers of clothing, freezing me from the inside out – and we had only been sitting here for two hours, meaning we had at least six more to go.  I sighed, resigning myself to a(nother) cold, clammy, uncomfortable day.

Most field biologists have spent at least a few days freezing their butts off in the field.  Unfortunately for me, however, being cold is not something I’m particularly tolerant of.  And in this case, the deep chill seeping into my bones was somewhat unexpected – because most people don’t go to Hawaii to be cold.

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, field biologists often get a unique perspective of the places where they work.  So while bikini-clad tourists lay tanning on the beach less than 50 km away, I spent most of my time in Hawaii clad in at least three layers of clothing, huddled on the northeastern slopes of the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea.

As it happens, Mauna Kea is not just the tallest mountain in Hawaii – it is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how you look at it).  From its base on the sea floor, it rises over 33,000 feet – almost 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.  Of course, only 13,802 of those feet actually rise above the surface of the ocean – but it’s still a lot colder at thirteen thousand feet in the air than it is at sea level.  The top of Mauna Kea is frequently snow-covered in winter, and spending a rainy day hanging out on its slopes can be a chilly experience.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

No one mentioned this aspect of Mauna Kea to me before I took the job – or, indeed, filled me in on the fact that our field accommodations were luxurious in every way except one: they had no heat.  And so I spent a great deal of my time in Hawaii shivering.  (In fact, I was once so cold that I tried warming my hands over the open flame of our gas stove.  This backfired when the sleeve of my sweatshirt caught fire – but for just an instant, before I extinguished the flames in the sink, all I could think was, “Wow! My hands are finally warm!”)

However, while the damp, misty chill of the Hawaiian forest was perhaps not ideal for field biologists (at least, not for me), it turns out that it’s pretty important for the organisms we were there to study: the birds.

I went to Hakalau to work as a field assistant on a long-term study examining population trends of Hawaiian forest birds.  Although just about anyone would be excited to be spending the winter months in Hawaii, I was excited for an entirely different reason than most people: Hawaiian honeycreepers are one of the poster children of adaptive radiation.

An 'akiapola'au shows off his amazing multi-tool bill.

An ‘akiapola’au shows off his amazing, multi-purpose bill.

Arising from a single, unspecialized ancestor species, Hawaiian honeycreeper species have exploded to fill multiple ecological niches on the islands.  There are finch-like honeycreepers and parrot-like honeycreepers and warbler-like honeycreepers.  And then there’s my particular favourite: the ‘akiapola’au – which we nicknamed the ‘Swiss Army knife bird’.  ‘Akis fill the woodpecker niche in the Hawaiian forest.  They use their straight, strong lower bills to drill holes in tree bark, and their long, curved upper bills to probe those holes for insect larvae.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, i'iwis are hard to miss.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, ‘i’iwis are hard to miss.

It’s one thing to learn about adaptive radiation in a lecture hall…but quite another to see its results, firsthand, in the field.  Honeycreepers may not be the quintessential example of adaptive radiation – that honour being reserved for Darwin’s Galapagos finches – but they are (with all due respect to Darwin) definitely one of the most dazzling.  My first day at Hakalau, I was constantly distracted by flashes of colour, as the deep scarlet of an ‘i‘iwi or the bright orange of an ‘akepa flitted through the nearby ‘ohi‘a trees.  Seeing their endless, beautiful forms brought evolution to life for me in a way that four years of undergraduate biology textbooks never had.

Unfortunately, however, Hawaiian birds are not just the poster child for adaptive radiation.  They could also be featured on posters for another buzzword concept in biology: multiple stressors.  Hawaiian birds are currently under attack from every side…and, more often than not, they’re losing the fight.

The plight of Hawaii’s forest birds started – as these stories so often do – when humans showed up, changing habitats and trailing with us the usual host of desired and not-so-desired biological companions.  From rats and house cats to feral pigs, non-native bird species, and mosquitoes, humans unleashed (sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally) a tidal wave of invasive species that swamped the delicate balance of life on the remote Hawaiian islands.

While each of these invasive species individually has a negative effect on Hawaii’s native birds, it’s in concert with each other that they become especially dangerous.  Some of the introduced bird species on the island arrived there carrying avian malaria, a blood parasite that is relatively common in most places, but foreign to Hawaii.  The introduced mosquitoes acted as vectors to transfer that parasite to the native birds – which had never been exposed to it, and hence were completely lacking any defences.  Even the feral pigs got in on the act, digging up roots in the forest and inadvertently creating hollows which filled with water, providing ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.  It’s a multi-pronged attack, and one that has resulted in the decimation of many of Hawaii’s native bird species.

But these native birds do have one thing going for them – the cold.  Mosquitoes are largely restricted to low elevation areas of the islands (~5000 feet), as their larvae don’t develop properly at the lower temperatures found further up the slopes.  So high elevation forests, like those found at Hakalau, have for decades acted as refuges for Hawaiian honeycreepers.

And therein lies yet another problem: we all know, as the climate warms, that cold places will not necessarily stay cold.  In Hawaii, climate change is yet another stressor for the birds.  Increasing temperatures will likely mean the end of these high altitude refuges, and even more dramatic declines in honeycreeper populations, as has been documented in recent studies on the island of Kaua’i.  Slowing the rate of climate change may be the only hope for some of these already beleaguered species.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not very good at being cold – in fact, it makes me decidedly grumpy.  But while I was in Hawaii, watching an ‘i‘iwi feed on the bright pink flowers of an ‘ohi‘a or an ‘akiapola’au hammering holes in the bark of a koa tree more than made up for the damp chill.  Without the cold, I might never have had the chance to see these spectacular and declining species.  That realization alone was enough to make me almost appreciate the shivering…except perhaps for the day I caught my sleeve on fire.

An endangered Hawaii 'akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

An endangered Hawaii ‘akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

Dispatch from the jungle

We are very excited to welcome Dr. Alice Boyle back as a guest poster today. In her previous post, Alice shared some of her adventures from her doctoral fieldwork in Central American, and this week she takes us back to the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, check out her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month we would work very hard for 23 days, and then my assistants visited beaches and volcanos, while I prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family during those breaks, and my father urged me to publish them. A while back, I posted excerpts from the April letter. Here, I continue that story with an account of the crazy first week of May as we initiated a nest predation experiment across at 3000 m elevational gradient.

When I last wrote I was just getting ready for the big “nest predation experiment” month. All was going smoothly until the very last minute. Three days before starting to place nests, I went to San Jose to pick up the car*, the last batch of canary eggs, 400 wicker nests, bags of moss, and other weird miscellaneous supplies (for example, tiny decorative ice-cube trays for transport of jelly-bean sized fragile canary eggs). My last stop was to get the baskets that would become “nests”, made to order by a Guatemalan artisan. When I arrived, the store owner started bringing out bundles of NOT the 8-cms diameter cup-shaped baskets I had ordered, but huge pigeon-nest-sized baskets! AGH! Four hundred useless wicker baskets… crisis! The poor owner of the basket store was almost as dismayed as I was.

We tried modifying the baskets, savaging one with an exacto knife. It disintigrated into a sharp mess, and poor Emilia (the store owner… we were on a first-name basis by this point) got badly cut. Eventually, I realized there were three alternatives: 1) somehow find 400 smaller baskets elsewhere, 2) use some other cup-shaped product (…like a cup?), and get really creative with paint and glued-on moss as to make them look as nest-like as possible, or 3) give up. Option 3 wasn’t really an option. I had way too much invested. Aside from hoarding canary eggs for over a month**, I’d found a cheap vehicle to rent, gotten extra permits, and had a friend flying in to fill in a 2-week personnel gap. Option 1 really seemed pretty unlikely too. It had taken 2.5 months to get these baskets, and I had only 3 days left to find replacements. After deciding I had little option but to look for some other cup-shaped object, Emilia appeared with a hopeful look, holding a different style of small basket. Not quite so perfectly nest-shaped as the ones I’d ordered, but small and definitely better than a plastic cup! She only had 149, but the maker lived in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica. He had a phone and answered her call. I only heard one side of the conversation: “you know those little baskets you make me? how many can you make by Monday? ………. and how many more by Thursday? ……….. well, how soon could make an extra 250 for me? ……… look, we have an EMERGENCY here! Can’t you HIRE someone to help you!?……” And so we resolved the problem. They cost twice as much and I had to make 2 extra trips to San Jose to pick them up by installments, but it worked. This little glitch meant that our grueling itinerary now included late-night nest preparation before they could placed out in the forest… at 8 sites over a 3000 m elevational gradient. Unfortunately, the nest glitch wasn’t the only set-back.

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

Three days later we started wiring fake nests into trees in the forest, each containing a real canary egg and matching plasticine egg***. As we left the La Selva lab the first morning, it started raining hard, and it didn’t stop for the next 8 days. During that week, so much rain fell that a car was swept off the road and landslides closed the highway between San Jose and the Atlantic lowlands. All rivers were transformed into roiling muddy torrents and there was massive flooding. At La Selva, dorms were evacuated, access to the station was by boat, and the river reached its highest level since 1970. Meanwhile all the rain was falling on us

 

After the two lowland sites, we headed up to Rara Avis**** for the 650 m and 800 m sites, but our reservations at the station had been forgotten and the tractor (only transport option) wasn’t going to leave until late. That meant we got a day behind schedule, and I was starting to panic, until we took on ‘Crazy Mike’ as the 5th member of our team. Mike was a volunteer guide but didn’t get along with his new boss. When he heard about our nest, weather, and tractor-delay woes, he simply quit his guiding gig and came along for the adventure. Mike was a godsend! He rarely stopped joking and never let the rain get him down. True, he did also drink an incredible amount. But he was tireless in machete-ing his way along a compass bearings through treefalls and vine tangles. So we caught up, doing 2 sites in one brutal 13 hour field day.

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Next day we were back down on the tractor, and around to a different side of the park, back up the mountain to higher elevations. We got behind again because the nests weren’t ready, and now were working in cloud forest where the rain was distinctly chilly. Luckily we were able to spend a night in San Jose where we all got hot showers, ate pizza, and drank copious amounts of beer! Had we not had to prepare more nests after dinner it would have been a fun party. But the schedule was relentless. The next day we went to the highest site—2800 m near the peak of Volcan Barva. The drive was awful. With every bump in the road I thought we were going to destroy the suspension. With five of us, nests, spray paint, wet rain gear, half eaten food containers, muddy rubber boots, gross packs, and canary eggs, the Bronco was the definition of sordid. But we made it up, and comforted ourselves with strong liquor purchased in San José.

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

The next morning there was a slight rain respite. Everyone got to see quetzals and I was feeling optimistic… the end was in sight. Only our last day and our last site remained. Getting there involved looping around Barva volcano on country roads, ending on a red dirt road leading to a little-used park access point. The drive was long, rainy, and very uncomfortable. We were exhausted. The little farmhouses seemed unoccupied near the end of the driveable road, so I continued farther than I should in hopes of finding a safe place to leave the full car.

And then, I drove into a ditch. Yup, right into a deep ditch. The whole right side of the Bronco was SERIOUSLY stuck. I have been stuck enough times to know when it is serious. We had no shovel nor anything other than sticks and rocks to help us. After probably 1.5 hours, many failed strategies, and admirable teamwork, we got the Bronco out! But we had lost a lot of time, and when I made it clear we were still going to try to get into the site and get the last batch of nests placed, there was near mutiny. Obviously, no one wanted to do anything other than shower, do laundry, and collapse into a clean bed. It was now early afternoon and we had to walk over an hour to the forest. Eventually I decided to leave Mike with the car and get as many nests placed at this site as possible. Even if we didn’t get all 50, we wouldn’t lose a whole site. So we did it, and as we hiked out with the last light, the clouds finally parted and rain finally stopped. We had panoramic views of Poas volcano and the whole drenched Atlantic lowlands almost as far as the coast. NOW our woes were over, surely!

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

The Bronco had one last devilish trick in store, however: loss of power brakes and a mysterious stalling problem. Somehow the strain of getting out of the ditch had caused new problems. Whenever I braked or changed gear, we stalled. For two dark, foggy hours on winding mountain roads, I was constantly stalling and roll starting, terrified of losing brakes entirely and peeling off the cliff into the abyss. The headlights pointed unhelpfully into space instead of illuminating the road. And as a last straw, the driver-side windshield wiper stopped working. We limped into Puerto Viejo, completely drained from stress and exhaustion. Fortunately, the pizza joint was open and had an ample supply of cold beer, despite the floods that cut off both water and sewage service. It wasn’t til 9:30 that we finally found our beds at La Selva.

That week was, without doubt, the most stressful and dangerous week of field work in my life. It was crazy and hectic the whole rest of the month, as part of the crew rechecked all the nests in sequence repeatedly over subsequent weeks, while others continued our monthly bird and plant sampling. But thankfully, fieldwork has never been quite that crazy since. It is good to know what you can tolerate. And it is good to remember the hardship, when, during long days in front of my computer, fieldwork seems to become a romantic memory. Yes, being in the field work is amazingly fun and rewarding, but it also stretches you to the max, testing your ingenuity, tolerance for discomfort, ability to remain cheerful, and to make really hard decisions that often seem to pit personal safety against scientific discovery.

* I had an incredibly tight budget! My entire PhD was completed on funding from small grants, so there was no way to get a commercial car rental. Fortunately, I found an old 4×4 Bronco to rent for cheap from a friend who was thinking of getting rid of it.

** Several months before, I had cultivated a relationship with a canary breeder who set aside all the infertile eggs in the refrigerator for me

*** We used plasticine (modeling clay) eggs to determine the types of predators attacking nests

**** Rara Avis was the mid-elevation field site where I did a lot of my PhD research.

aliceAlice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past few years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.

“We’ll be singing…”

This week’s Dispatch comes from guest blogger Haley Kenyon, who offers a valuable bit of insight gained during her field season studying warblers in British Columbia.  For more about Haley, see her bio at the end of the post.

Today I’m going to tell you about something that is very important. It may even be the key to a successful field season, but no one seems to talk about it. Yes, to have a successful field season you need to be organized, you need to be prepared to test your mental and physical strength, you need to be ready to embrace challenges, you need to have contingency plans, you need to be able to “go with the flow,” and you need to be ready to accept that some things you try just will not work, etc. A lot of time and effort (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) go into all of this preparation, but I would argue that not enough consideration goes into one very important piece of field season prep: how carefully do you think about your choice of field season theme song?

While it may seem trivial at first, who’s to say that your field season theme song choice can’t be your key to success?

During the field season for my master’s degree, I worked in northeastern British Columbia recording and catching birds in a warbler hybrid zone. After my generous lab mates came up and showed us the ropes, my awesome field assistant and I were on our own catching birds and recording them. To be honest, it was a little overwhelming. We had some really awesome days (we developed a scoring system by which we could describe how well our day went: one bird = not the best day, two birds = fine day, three birds = OK day, four birds = good day, five birds = very good day, six birds = great day!). We also had some not-so-great days during which we drove for hours and found no birds, got stranded at our campsites and drenched in heavy rain, or had to give up on birds that we were working on because of friendly grizzly bears nearby (notice that we deliberately left no room for bad days on our scale).

We were lucky enough to have a huge assortment of music available to us, from which we ended up choosing our theme song for the season: Tubthumping by Chumbawumba. It may seem like an unconventional choice, but driving out of our various campsites every morning listening to the lyrics, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down,” was a pretty great way to start off the day in good spirits – even if we were getting out of bed at 3 a.m..

Bedtime!: Other parts of the song weren’t so true-to-life for us - going to sleep early enough to get up at 3 a.m. didn’t leave much time for the excessive drinking that the song references…

Bedtime!: other parts of the song weren’t so true-to-life for us – going to sleep early enough to get up at 3 a.m. didn’t leave much time for the excessive drinking that the song references…

When anything bad happened during the day, we played our song again and it gave us enough silly energy to carry on. One day we drove 300 km in an afternoon, intending to record a specific population of birds the next day…and found none. You’d better believe that we listened to Tubthumping several times as a result, mentally preparing ourselves to have a super successful morning the next day to make up for it.

A washed out bridge that we had planned to cross – definitely a reason to give Tubthumping another play.

A washed out bridge that we had planned to cross – definitely a reason to give Tubthumping another play.

But we also played our song to celebrate when good things happened (“We’ll be singing… when we’re winning…”).  One day when working in the centre of the hybrid zone, we made high-quality recordings of nine birds and caught them all (off-the-charts!).  We listened to Tubthumping as we searched for a new place to camp that night – what a way to celebrate!

So as you’re getting ready for your next field season, don’t forget to put a bit of time into choosing an awesome song to get you through. Who knows? It might just be the key to success! (But maybe also put a lot of time into preparing other things, too…)

haley-kenyonHaley Kenyon completed her MSc degree at the University of British Columbia (and made sure to thank Chumbawumba in the Acknowledgements section of her thesis).  She is currently a PhD candidate in the Biology Department at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on the role that signal divergence plays in speciation in birds.

 

The many joys of tropical fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Zachary Kahn, who tells us about some of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of his fieldwork in Costa Rica.  For more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the post.

I was surprised the first time it happened, although I really shouldn’t have been. I had been warned many times. I had been told to wear bug spray and bring tape, but that it was inevitable. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little shocked to see hundreds of tiny poppy seed-like critters crawling all over my body. Indeed, I had been “tick-balled”, a term referring to having an army of tiny ticks latch onto your clothing and spread across your body like a group of crazed protesters. The trick was to make a ring of duct tape, with the sticky surface facing outwards, and peel them off. Sadly, I didn’t have any tape that day. This was the first of many times I would be tick-balled, and my first introduction to one of the many joys of doing tropical fieldwork in Costa Rica.

I am currently a Masters student at the University of Windsor, and my research is focussed on the behavioural ecology of tropical songbirds. Why study birds in the tropics, you ask? Well, unlike in the temperate zone where it is primarily males that sing, often both males and females sing in the tropics, and sometimes combine their songs into cool vocal displays called duets by overlapping or alternating their songs. I became interested in studying the reasons birds in the tropics sing duets, and I have tried to do this this by studying a population of Rufous-and-white Wrens in Santa Rosa National Park, in northwestern Costa Rica. I have spent the past two field seasons in the tropical dry forests of Santa Rosa romping around and chasing birds like a crazy person, all the while getting tick-balled and falling down more times than I’d like to admit.

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My day in the field is pretty similar to any other field ornithologist. I get up super early to record birds while they are singing, set up mist nets to catch and band birds for identification, and closely monitor their behaviour. I also need to check inside their nests in order to assess what breeding stage (i.e. eggs or nestlings, and how many) each pair is at throughout the field season. For many species, this is fairly straightforward. You find the nest, make a note of its location, look inside, and you’re done! Finding the nest is usually the most difficult part since many species have mastered the art of nest concealment and camouflage.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

Luckily for me, I don’t have this problem. Rufous-and-white Wrens nest in Bulhorn Acacia trees over 80% of the time at my study site. Their nests are bulky conspicuous globs, and there are very few acacia trees in the forest, making it relatively easy for me to find their nests. Simple, right? Wrong. The funny thing about acacia trees is that ants like them too. In fact, many species of ants have a symbiosis with the trees: the tree provides the ants with food and shelter in return for defense from predators, other plants, and stupid field biologists. To get inside the wren nests, I have to use a ladder, open a hole in the back of the nest (they are enclosed domed structures instead of open cups), feel inside, then sew the nest back up, all while being bitten by a swarm of angry acacia ants and nearly falling off the ladder. My hands swell up like balloons every time I have to do this, giving me yet another visual reminder of the joys of tropical field work.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

I don’t mean to imply that all of my experiences in the tropics have been bad because overall it really has been amazing. I have been fortunate enough to see an incredible assortment of bird species, such as the Elegant Trogan, Blue-crowned Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, and Long-tailed Manakin. And it’s not just birds. There are monkeys too. Yes, they throw sticks at you and sometimes try to pee on you (one missed me by about a foot last summer), but getting to watch them move through the trees each morning is more than worth it. It’s also really cool seeing different species of snakes (including some that are extremely venomous), frogs, lizards, and mammals like Tamanduas, Coatis, and Agoutis. We even saw a Tapir this summer! Having the opportunity to see so many cool animals on a daily basis is really awesome, and by far my favourite part of doing fieldwork in the tropics.

Perhaps the most incredible thing I have experienced during my time in Costa Rica is what my lab refers to as “Toad Day”. Once a year, for only 1-2 days after the first large rainfall of the year in May, huge numbers of frogs and toads congregate at previously dried-out ponds and rivers in the park as they begin to fill up with water. Hundreds of them come to the water and begin to chorus together in order to attract females to come and breed. Many species do this, including Cane Toads, Mexican Burrowing Toads, and several species of tree frogs, but the most interesting of them all is the Yellow Toad. For most of the year, males and females of this species look like your typical run-of-the mill toads, mostly brown in colour with the occasional splotch of grey or rufous. However, as soon as it starts to rain in early to mid-May, the males turn a spectacular lemon-yellow as they congregate at the breeding pools. This transformation corresponds with intense competition for females, and aggressive fights between 2,3,4 or more toads for a single female are common to see. This sight – hundreds of bright yellow toads and other species chorusing together all in one place – is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and is something I look forward to every time I go back to the field.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

Anyone who has done field work knows  it can be a rollercoaster of highs and lows, an endless series of amazing experiences and unique challenges. This is especially true in the tropics. On one hand, there are tick balls, venomous snakes, valleys of slippery boulders, and hordes of biting ants to deal with. On the other, there are amazing animals to see, scenic beaches to swim at, and daily exposure to unique tropical ecology. I have had a blast over the past two field seasons in Costa Rica, and I would highly recommend that others  go down and do fieldwork in the tropics if they get the chance!

headshotZach Kahn is a 2nd year Masters student in Dan Mennill’s bioacoustics lab at the University of Windsor, studying the behavioural ecology of tropical wrens in Costa Rica. He completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Queens University, where he studied interspecific competition in closely-related songbirds for his Honours thesis project under Paul Martin. He is passionate about wildlife ecology, natural history, and conservation, as well as being outdoors and playing softball and football.

 

Red in tooth and claw

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario....

Hints of spring in eastern Ontario….

One crisp, clear March day a couple of years ago, I found myself driving out to the Queen’s University Biological Station with a friend.  She was going out to do fieldwork, and I was going out to help her (in an effort to pretend that I still did fieldwork).  It was a typical Ontario pre-spring day: the snowbanks along the roadside were almost as tall as the car, and the sun glinted off the drifts of snow in the fields.  However, there was also a faint warmth in the air, and the ice on many of the lakes and ponds was covered with a thin film of water and a fine webbing of cracks.

Just before we turned down the road leading to the field station, we passed a group of three deer standing somewhat forlornly in the snow along the edge of a large pond.  Anyone who has ever driven along a country road is well aware that deer tend to be flighty creatures, and these three were no exception.  As we passed them, they all jumped into action, taking the easiest route of escape – straight out onto the pond.

My friend brought the car to an abrupt halt, and we sat there, horrified, watching as their headlong flight was quickly reduced to a slipping, sliding walk.  Even in the car, we could hear the ominous creaks and cracks coming from the ice.  It was the same feeling you get driving past a car accident: we didn’t want to watch, but it was hard to look away.  We were sure it was only a matter of time until one of the deer fell through the ice and was unable to get back out – and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it.

 

This is one of the paradoxes of fieldwork: while the job naturally attracts people who want nothing more than to spend their days hugging trees and cuddling bunnies, doing the work often means standing aside and watching while a fox or a hawk rips the bunny apart.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I opened a nest box door to check on the family of five tree swallow nestlings inside – only to find a huge, satisfied-looking black rat snake curled up in the nest instead.  As I looked at him, I could see five bumps in his body, one for each nestling, and I had an (admittedly irrational) urge to grab him by the tail and shake him hard, until they all came flying out of his mouth.

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box...

Surprise! Not quite who I was expecting to find in this box…

Even worse was the first time I opened a box to reveal a nest full of dead nestlings.  This happens surprisingly often, when cold snaps in the early spring make food hard to come by, particularly for aerial insectivores like tree swallows.  In these stressful circumstances, parents may attempt to keep feeding the nestlings for a while, but at some point, most adults prioritize their own survival (or rather, future reproductive potential) and abandon the nest.  This also means that sometimes, you come across nests full of heartbreakingly cold, hungry, weak nestlings.  It’s hard to close the box and walk away, knowing that the next time you open it, they will all likely be dead.

Abandonment, predation, and death are not easy things to witness, and it can be tough to stand back and get out of nature’s way – especially if, like most field biologists, you’ve developed a certain amount of fondness for your study organism.  Sometimes, it’s tempting to do crazy things to try and fix the situation.  I’ve certainly screamed at more than my fair share of snakes, although it’s never bothered them much.  And the first time I came across a nest of dying birds, I begged my boss to let me adopt them.  (Which, incidentally, is not just against the law, but also virtually impossible to do, as simply keeping them adequately fed would be a full time job.)  Years later, when running my own field season in the Okanagan, it was my turn to explain to my field assistants why they couldn’t adopt the abandoned baby bluebirds.

Unfortunately, standing back and watching nature take its course is a necessary part of the job.  It’s often hard to resist the temptation to intervene – but if we do, we mess with the very thing we’re all out there to study: natural selection and survival of the fittest.  The parents of those abandoned baby birds will build another nest and give it another try when the weather turns warm again.  And, as much as the birder in me objects, the snake needs to eat too.  My job, when I’m out there, is only to observe – not interfere.

 

As for the deer we saw on the treacherous ice that day?  We sat watching them, on the edge of our seats, for at least two full minutes – afraid to keep driving in case we caused the sudden movement that made them fall through the ice.  (Full disclosure: not only was I worried about the deer, I was also very concerned that, if they did fall through the ice, my friend and I were going to have to jump in to the freezing water to try and help them – see previous point about doing crazy things.)

But in the end, the ice held and they made it safely to the opposite shore.  As they scrambled up the bank and disappeared into the forest, we couldn’t help but cheer for them.  As hard as it is sometimes to witness the cruel side of nature, that cruelty makes the small victories all the sweeter.