Cows, Creosotes, and Checkerboards

This week we welcome Dr. Kaiya Provost to the blog. Kaiya is a Postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. For more about Kaiya, see the end of this post or find her on Twitter @KaiyaProvost.

Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2016, is where my hatred of cows began. That summer, one charged me when I rounded a corner and got too close. I thought for sure I was going to get gored or trampled, but I didn’t. For some reason, I decided to continue being an ornithologist who works on southwestern ranch land. What can I say? Ranch land birds are great. 

Ranchers’ cows, which are common to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and are the nemeses of the author. Credit to B.T. Smith

By 2018, I was in the Big Hatchet Mountains, New Mexico. Hard to get to. Extremely dry. You can see creosote bushes for miles, dry canyons that capture what little rainwater there is, and no people.

My advisor, Brian, and I were out in the field before heading to a conference in Tucson. I’d spent my morning looking for Canyon Towhees. I’d been trying to lure them in with a recording of their song, holding a handheld bluetooth speaker over my head. I’d seen zero. 

It was a 3 km hike uphill to get into that particular canyon, and I could make out our truck only as a black pinprick among creosotes. Lunch was in that truck, and breakfast had been only half of a Clif bar. 

As both humans and birds agree that midday in the desert is unpleasant, I started hiking back to the truck. Brian was around somewhere. In the canyons I didn’t have cell service, so I couldn’t text him until I got up on a hill. 

A typical field work lunch or dinner for the author. Tortillas with canned refried beans and pickled jalapenos. Not pictured: diluted Gatorade and apples. Credit to B.T. Smith

As I rounded a corner, I froze. 10 feet in front of me was something big. Much bigger than me. It was a cow, I realized. And it stared at me with big black eyes. 

I bolted through the mesquite, thorns everywhere; I scrambled down that hill, my hands grabbing at creosote bushes to keep me from slipping. I slipped anyway, landing on my hands, shredding my palms. I heard my bluetooth speaker chime off and power down, but dismissed it, running as fast as I could until I realized the cow had not charged me. No, as I turned around, the cow was placidly munching on a bush.

Heart pounding, I glared at the cow and its dopey black eyes, hoping that it could sense my anger and not my panic. For ten minutes I cussed out the cow, field work, Canyon Towhees, and Clif bars. After that I ran out of steam and limped to the truck in the desert heat.

After another half hour, I reached for my phone to text Brian. Shoot. Where was it? I must have misplaced it.

There was a mesh pocket on the side of my bag, one I’d been keeping my phone in. The problem? The bottom of the pocket was gone and the mesh was full of mesquite thorns.

Icy dread clogged my throat. I dumped my bag on the passenger seat. Half a Clif bar. Water bottle. Pencil. Paper. Field notebook. Bluetooth speaker. Another pencil. No phone. Which meant no directions, no playback, no field work. I went through the pile again. I turned the bag inside out. 

Brian came back as I went through the pile again

“What’s up?” he asked. 

I looked under the seat. I went through the pile a fourth time. “I lost my phone,” I said.

“Yikes,” he said. 

I stared up at that hillside, at the mountain. It loomed over me, like it spanned forever. I wondered, I was out for six hours. Where could my phone have fallen? I could see it in my mind’s eye, the blue case knocked off, battery slowly discharging.

I thought I was a failed scientist. 

As I started putting my bag together, I saw the bluetooth speaker. Oddly, it was still on. Hadn’t I heard it turn off before, while I was scrambling through that mesquite bush?

Wait. It was a bluetooth speaker. Connected to my phone, with a range of 30 feet. And it chimed anytime it lost or gained the connection. I could use the speaker to find my phone! Like a metal detector, with a 30 foot sensor on the end! 

Determined, hopeful, I walked back up into the Big Hatchet Mountains. Uphill. At high noon.

The hike felt like it took hours. To add insult to injury, I could see the offending cow as a speck in the distance. There were more mesquites than I remembered up there. They all looked the same. Was that the one I fell through? I can’t give up, I told myself. I’m gonna find that phone or pass out from dehydration. 

I picked a bush, took out the speaker, and started moving in circles. One loop around. Two loops. Three. I’m never going to find it, I thought. I’m a bad scientist, I couldn’t even find a Towhee, this was a mistake —

The speaker chimed. 

I could have cried from sheer relief. Somewhere close to me was my phone. I wasn’t a failure. 

Of course, as I moved forward, the speaker disconnected. Turns out, a 30 foot radius is a lot of ground to cover when looking for something that small, even if it’s in a bright blue case. I walked one way, the speaker turned on. Another, it turned off. I made a checkerboard across the hillside, the day well past noon and the sun relentless, but not as relentless as me. 

Forever later, finally, I saw it under a mesquite. A rectangle with a bright blue case on it and a bird sticker on the back. My cell phone, which could have been a bar of solid gold at that moment. 

I grabbed it and dropped to the ground. The screen was newly cracked, but I could still see everything and swipe through. I even had service! A text from Brian popped up, asking if I was still alive. 

I did it! 

As I went back down the hill, that cow still stared at me. When I made it to the truck, my lunch was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Diluted Gatorade and cold refried beans; a victory feast. 

I didn’t tell Brian about the cow until after we got to Tucson. 

A view from the base of the Big Hatchet Mountains. Credit to the author
Kaiya Provost is an ornithologist, evolutionary biologist, and self-declared cow nemesis. She is a postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. She got her PhD with Brian Tilston Smith at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School working on desert bird genomics and demographics. 

Eliminating the uncertainty of “fieldwork” in 2020

With 2020 coming to an end, it’s time to reflect on all of the uncertainty that came with this year. Normally, I use my agenda every day, planning out my daily, weekly, and monthly activities. So the idea of the “unknown” is what has stressed me out the most this year. Not knowing when we will be able to work in the lab, when I can travel to see my family, or when I might be comfortable eating out at a restaurant again makes it difficult to plan ahead.

But this sense of uncertainty is not unknown to field biologists. When working with wild animals, it is often a gamble whether you’ll be able to enough of them catch them at the right time in the right place. Sure, for many species, we have a lot of data about where they can be found, for how long, and at what time of year. But if you’re trying to plan your fieldwork to coincide with a specific period in a species’ annual cycle which may only last a few weeks or even days, it can be stressful to try to guess the right time.

adult cormorant

Since I started the third year of my PhD this past spring, I planned to have a big last field season to collect lots of wild bird eggs for many lab experiments. My plan was to collect freshly laid eggs from different seabird colonies throughout the Great Lakes region. The key word in that sentence is freshly laid eggs – in other words, I needed to collect eggs within a day or two of laying so I could artificially incubate them and monitor embryo growth from the beginning.

Normally, we pinpoint egg laying by checking eBird for reports of breeding from birders, or by calling birders in the area for their observations. However, even when we make use of the detailed knowledge of local birders, we still can’t be 100% sure what we’re going to find when we show up at the colony. It’s always a guessing game trying to figure out when the breeding pairs of birds will lay their first egg.

But just like most other field biologists, COVID interrupted my ambitious fieldwork plans for this year. Due to restrictions, I was not able to collect wild cormorant eggs during the birds’ short breeding season at the beginning of May. I was pretty discouraged when I realized I’d be missing out on a whole year of experiments. But after a discussion with my supervisors, I decided to compensate by adding a model lab species into my research and avoid delaying my PhD.

The domestic chicken is a model bird species – in other words, they have been used in many studies and there’s lots of data available on them. Turns out that chickens are actually a great species to study during a pandemic, because they breed throughout the year and hatcheries are considered an essential business (since the chickens are being raised for eggs or meat).

Working with chickens was a big change from previous years of playing the waiting and guessing game with wild bird fieldwork. My “fieldwork” this year consisted of calling a local hatchery a week before I planned to run an experiment and driving an hour to pick up as many fertilized eggs as I needed. While I still treated the eggs with care, putting them in a cushioned egg box and monitoring the ambient temperature, the challenges were very different this time around. Normally I collect wild eggs in the spring, when it’s warm outside, and I have to blast the air conditioning during transport to keep them cool. This time, I collected domestic eggs in the winter, so it was more of a challenge to keep the ambient temperature warm enough!

waiting at the hatchery

Waiting only 15 minutes at the hatchery to collect the chicken eggs and transport them to the lab.

egg carrying case in the car

While studying chickens wasn’t my first choice – and the ‘fieldwork’ wasn’t as much fun – my chicken experiments will help me to compare my results with those of previous studies and integrate my wild bird results into a broader context. So while 2020 was full of uncertainty and frustration, the resilience and persistence we all needed to make it through the year can sometimes produce unexpected benefits. I am learning quickly that these two traits are useful for succeeding in grad school – particularly during a pandemic!

Nest building

Early one May morning in 2019, I disembarked from the ferry in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, bewildered and discombobulated from too many days of long-distance driving and too little sleep. The previous evening, I had left continental North America behind; however, I still had a long way to go before reaching my new home in St. John’s.

The route from Port aux Basques to St. John’s.

Back when I started planning my inter-provincial move, it seemed an entirely reasonable proposition make the 900 km drive from one end of Newfoundland to the other in a day. Blinking in the cold, salty ocean air that morning, I wasn’t quite as sure. But turning around wasn’t an option, so I filled my travel mug with coffee and climbed back into my car.

However, as the day wore on, it became clear to me that I had severely underestimated the size of my new home. By early afternoon, I was barely at Grand Falls-Windsor (town motto: “Perfectly Centered”). Many hours later, I crossed onto the Avalon Peninsula – only to find an impenetrable fog blanketing the highway. I gripped the wheel a bit tighter as my mind filled with images of moose lunging suddenly into the path of my car.

The sun had long since set by the time I drove into St. John’s. All day, as my tires ate up the miles, my panic had also been ratcheting up. I had moved to Newfoundland to coordinate a breeding bird atlas – a massive citizen science initiative to inventory all the bird species breeding on the island. But as I drove…and drove…and drove…I couldn’t help but think, “We have to atlas all this?”

A very different view.

And my panic went deeper than that. The scraggly fir and spruce trees and quiet waterways scrolling uninterrupted past my window were very different to the deciduous trees, crop fields, and suburbs of southeastern Ontario. The landscape felt very alien, and I felt very out of my depth. It seemed impossible that this place would ever be home.

***

If left to my own devices, I might never have left my apartment. But I had moved to Newfoundland to do a job, and part of that job involved learning what fieldwork in Newfoundland was like. If we were going to ask citizen scientists to brave the island’s bogs, forests, and windswept cliffs, it seemed only fair to understand what we were asking of them.

Where’s Waldo?

And so, less than a month after arriving, I found myself setting up camp on a small island off the north coast, spending my days plunging my arm into underground burrows, groping blindly for Leach’s storm petrels, and my nights untangling them from mist nets by the dozens. A few weeks after that, I perched on the edge of a precipice at Cape St. Mary’s, staring at northern gannet nests until my eyes crossed and my vision blurred. (Magic eye pictures are nothing compared to trying to find a particular nest among hundreds packed onto a rock ledge.) And shortly after that, I was in a helicopter, heading out to the rugged backcountry of Gros Morne National Park.

***

Yup.

And suddenly a year had passed, and I found myself right back where I started. After a long day on the road, my car was suddenly encased in fog. Between the dark and the dense air, it was impossible to see more than a few meters ahead; I crept along at a snail’s pace just in case a moose suddenly got the urge to cross the road. Our headlights lit up two words painted onto a rock by the side of the road: “Fog off”. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The parallels were striking. But over the year, many things had changed

“You know, it’s a mistake to think of Newfoundland as a terrestrial place,” said my friend from the passenger seat. “It’s half marine, at least at times like now. That fog? That’s the ocean paying us a visit.” I couldn’t decide whether that made the fog more benign or less.

My friend and I were on the first leg of an epic journey to survey for birds in some of the farthest flung places on the island. In planning for the trip, we decided to target locations citizen scientists would be unlikely to get to. In other words, we picked a few peninsulas and followed them right to the end.

A perfect day for a dip in the ocean.

And so my second summer in Newfoundland consisted of exploring some of the small towns, dirt roads, and hidden gems of the island’s interior, serenaded by the omnipresent “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” of white-throated sparrows. From an ocean dip in St. Alban’s, to the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted in Grand Falls-Windsor (they should put that in their town motto!), to exploring an enchanted little park in Summerford, it was the kind of trip that can make you fall in love with a place.

I’ve often said that fieldwork offers a unique opportunity to get to know a landscape. But I don’t think I realized just how true that is until I moved here. Over the last year and a half, fieldwork has given me the means and opportunity to get out and explore this windy, foggy, magical island. Newfoundland still isn’t home to me, but it no longer feels impossible that one day it might be. And in the meantime, I can’t wait to get back out there next summer and explore some more.

How do you solve a problem like migration?

This post was initially published on the Science Borealis blog on April 27th, 2020. Check out their blog for more great science stories, published every Monday!

An ornithological pedicure: taking a claw clipping from a western bluebird for stable isotope analysis. Photo credit: Catherine Dale.

I can feel the rapid thrumming of the bluebird’s heart against my palm as I carefully manoeuvre its foot into position over a tiny Ziploc bag. I pick up my nail scissors and take a deep breath to steady my hand. I will only get one chance to make sure the miniscule claw clipping lands in the bag. If it doesn’t, I will have no chance of finding it…and no way to discover where this bird spent the winter.

Field biology often requires unusual skills. I have spent the last decade becoming an experienced bird pedicurist, because analyzing the chemical composition of tissues like claws and feathers is one method scientists use to determine the movements of migratory animals.

Unfortunately, this method suffers from the same drawback as many others: a lack of precision. As a result, many aspects of bird migration remain a mystery. But this spring, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany are entering the final testing phase of a new space-based tracking system, which they hope will revolutionize our understanding of animal movement.

The puzzle of migration

For Canadians across the country, the return of our migratory birds marks the beginning of spring. Each year, 2.6 billion birds cross the Canada-U.S. border, heading north to their breeding grounds.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle believed the spring reappearance of barn swallows meant they were emerging from their winter hibernation at the bottom of ponds. Although we now understand more about animal migration, many questions remain – largely because it’s very difficult to track individual animals as they travel vast distances around the globe.

For many years, the only approach was to mark animals with bands or tags in the hopes of re-sighting them somewhere else. But the sheer number of animals that migrate makes seeing a marked individual again extremely unlikely.

A flock of shorebirds takes to the air at Oak/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a migration stopover site in Manitoba. The mixed-species flock includes Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, stilt sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

Putting the pieces together

In the 1990s, migration research took a leap forward when scientists realized the chemical composition of animal tissue reflected the place where it was grown. By analyzing the ratio of various isotopes in tissue (termed stable isotope analysis), researchers can roughly reconstruct an animal’s geographic history…which is why I found myself giving bluebird pedicures.

Scientists can also now track moving animals directly by fitting them with tags that record location. These tags can be divided into two broad categories. Archival tags, such as geolocators, record and store movement information. In order to find out where a tagged animal has been, researchers must recapture it and retrieve the tag.

Recapturing migratory animals often proves difficult, especially as many fail to return from migration. So when possible, researchers prefer to use tags that remotely transmit data to a receiver, eliminating the need to recover them.

But transmitting tags face a fundamental constraint: transmitting takes power, and the more power a tag requires, the larger it needs to be. Tags must weigh less than 5% of an animal’s body weight to avoid affecting its behaviour or survival. Considering that many migratory birds weigh less than 10 grams, making tags small enough for them to carry is a huge challenge.

A sanderling carrying a Motus nanotag. The tag’s long antenna is easily visible. Photo credit: Jessica Howell.

The amount of power required to transmit data depends largely on where the receivers are. Tags for ground-based tracking systems – with receivers located on the Earth’s surface – can be very small. For example, the nanotags used by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System range from 0.2 to 2.6 grams, and can even be carried by some large insects. However, the range over which ground-based systems can track individuals is limited. Animals carrying Motus tags can only be detected within approximately 15 km of a receiver.

In contrast, satellite tags send data to receivers on orbiting satellites. They can track movement at a much larger scale than ground-based systems, and have been used for years on big animals, such as seabirds and caribou. But most satellite tags are too heavy for small migratory birds.

The Icarus Initiative

In 2007, Martin Wikelski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, proposed a novel space-based system for tracking animals across the globe.

It took more than 10 years, and the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), for the system to become a reality. In March 2020, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) entered its final testing phase. The first Icarus tags are waiting to be shipped to researchers, and the system will be available to the scientific community this fall.

“We wanted to build [a tracking system] specifically for wildlife,” Wikelski says of Icarus. “It’s built by the community, for the community.”

The International Space Station, pictured here in 2009 after a visit by the space shuttle Discovery to add additional solar panels. Photo credit: STS-119 Shuttle Crew and NASA.

Icarus tackles the trade-off between tag size and transmission distance in part by the simple expedient of moving the receiver closer. Conventional satellite tags transmit their data to Argos satellites, which orbit the poles at an altitude of 850 km. Icarus tags will transmit their data to a receiver on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting at an average altitude of 400 km.

Data collected by Icarus will be stored in Movebank, a free online database accessible by the public.  The system will also incorporate a citizen science initiative: Animal Tracker. While Icarus tags tell scientists where an animal is, citizen scientists can provide information about what it’s doing there. Using the Animal Tracker app, people can follow tagged animals online, and anyone who spots those animals in the wild can submit their observations to the database.

Of course, like any tracking system, Icarus will have some limitations, at least initially. The first tags will weigh five grams, which – while smaller than many satellite tags – is still too heavy for most migratory birds. However, the design of a new generation of tags weighing only one gram is already underway.

Satellite coverage will also be an issue. The receiver on the ISS will be able to pick up signals from most of the Earth’s surface; however, high latitude regions in the north and south will not be covered. Eventually, Wikelski’s goal is to deploy dedicated Icarus satellites strategically to cover the entire globe.

But even with these limitations, scientists are eager to begin harnessing the power of Icarus to tackle some of the unsolved mysteries of migration. Dr. Kevin Fraser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is keenly awaiting his first shipment of tags. He and his graduate students plan to put them on saw-whet owls – and they are most interested in the birds that don’t come back in the spring.

Banding a saw-whet owl. Kevin Fraser’s lab hopes to use Icarus tags to track these small owls during migration. Photo credit: Kevin Fraser.

Fraser’s previous research has largely depended on archival tags, meaning tagged birds must be recaptured to determine where they went. Individuals that don’t return to the study sites to breed – those that die along the way, or the young birds that disperse to breed elsewhere – are lost data.

“Most of what we know about migration, we know from birds that have successfully migrated,” Fraser says. “We know much less about where survival might be limited, or what the juveniles are doing. But [with Icarus], for the first time, we will be able to track 100 gram birds (the smallest yet) in near real-time, without the bias of only focusing on survivors and adults.”

Solving the puzzle

With the sliver of claw safely stowed in a bag for later analysis, I’m ready to liberate my captive bluebird. I position its feet over my empty hand and release my hold. For a moment, it perches on my palm, apparently unaware of its freedom…then, in a flutter of wings, it’s gone.

Of the 450 bird species found in Canada, 78% spend at least part of the year outside our borders. This fall, four billion birds will cross our southern border to spend the winter in warmer climes. More than a billion of them will not return, succumbing to the dangers of the journey or the hazards of their wintering grounds.

Icarus offers us a unique window into the world of migratory birds, and a chance to improve their odds. If we know where they go and how they get there, we can begin to understand the perils they face – and perhaps develop solutions.

I’m late for a very important date!

I don’t like to be late. I am the kind of person who arrives extra early to the airport just in case I can’t find the gate or I get stuck in security. If I am late for whatever reason, I feel incredibly anxious. So when my time at a field site is limited by the arrival and departure of a pre-scheduled boat, this is all amplified.

When we arrived at Bonaventure Island with our research permit, the staff members reminded us of our agreement: “You can join us on the employee boat. It is the first boat to depart for the island in the morning and the last boat to depart for home in the evening.” Great! We wanted to spend as much time as possible on the island, collecting data on the northern gannet colony there.

Sarah carrying equipmentIt is easy to lose track of time when I am sampling during fieldwork. I get really focused on the task at hand, on how many birds I have sampled already and how many I still have to do. The time ends up passing at a very variable rate; sometimes really fast, and sometimes really slow. One day we were so focused on sampling that we did lose track of time – a big problem when you’re on an island and the only mode of transportation to your cabin is a boat about to depart.

Sometime after lunch, absorbed in our work, we heard someone shouting and rustling through the bushes. We looked up to see a colleague running over to us, saying “It’s time to go! We are late!”. We finished processing the bird in hand and started to pack up as fast as possible. But it still took a good 5 minutes to get all our equipment and samples ready to go. Within that time, a park staff member came barreling down the narrow path on a four-wheeler to meet us. “Come and hop on, the boat is going to leave!”. I looked at this four-wheeler with two seats in the front and a small flatbed in the back and wondered how 6 adults were going to fit on it.

the treachorous pathSomehow, we all made it into the vehicle (or in my case, half in; the other half was hanging through the door frame) and started the trek towards the boat. In a previous blog, I talked about the difficult, steep hike up to the colony. Now, we were 6 people crammed into a four-wheeler, flying back down this same path. Our route was mined with potholes the size of large buckets and tree roots lying in crisscross patterns across the path. This did not make for a smooth ride! I clutched the handle with all my strength as we tipped from side to side without slowing down, really pushing the four-wheeler to its limit.

boat at the dockLuckily, we did make it to the boat in one piece prior to its departure, and except for a few hungry staff members, no harm was done. But I didn’t want to make any more staff members angry with us, so I vowed that we would keep better track of time the next day. The only problem was that I was wearing a really old watch, (because no one with any sense wears anything nice to a seabird colony) and I didn’t trust the time on it.

Sometime after lunch, I checked the time. My watch said 3:30 pm. Just to double check, I looked at my phone. It said 4:30 pm. I panicked: “Oh no, my watch must have frozen, we have to go!”.

a no walking sign in front of the colonyAt top speed, we packed all of our gear up and headed towards the main lodge…only to find everyone still working. Unbeknownst to me, my phone had switched to the Atlantic time zone of 1 hour ahead! My unreliable watch was right: it was actually only 3:30 pm, meaning we still had lots of time to sample. Of course, now we were all packed up and ready to go. But luckily for us, there were a few birds nesting near the main lodge that we could process to pass the time. And we were not late for the boat!

Battle scars

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the academic world that academics don’t always agree. In fact, they often engage in fierce and lengthy disagreements about topics that never cross the minds of 99% of the world’s population.

These disagreements are the foundation of good science. Good science happens when smart people with different ideas engage with each other and find ways to test those ideas. However, if you’re a field assistant for one of those smart people, those disagreements can also be a pain in the ass.

An argument between two scientists is exactly how I ended up crouching in the middle of a patch of poison oak in the California hills, my fingers stuffed in my ears, tensed in anticipation of a shotgun blast. (But it’s not quite as bad as it sounds – I promise no scientists were harmed in the making of this blog post!)

At the time, I was working in California for a professor who had been studying acorn woodpeckers for many years. Acorn woodpeckers, as their name suggests, depend heavily on acorns. In fact, groups of these birds create ‘granaries’ by drilling holes in trees (or anything else, including people’s houses) and stuffing those holes full of acorns for later consumption.

Given the tight ties between the woodpeckers and their food source, it made sense that the professor I worked for was interested not just in the birds, but also in the oak trees they relied on – in figuring out the details of how and when they produced their acorns. And this was the source of the argument I found myself in the middle of.

My boss had gotten into a disagreement with another scientist about how far oak pollen could travel. The question was whether oak trees could be pollinated only by other oaks within a relatively small radius (roughly a kilometre), or whether the pollen could travel much longer distances. The funny thing is, I honestly can’t remember which side of the disagreement my boss was on; all I know is that he had decided he was going to settle the question once and for all. How, you might ask? Well, that’s where the shotgun came in.

The logical thing to do, he had decided, was pick a focal oak tree and take a leaf sample from every other oak within a 1 km radius. Then he could sample the focal tree’s acorns and try to match them to DNA from the leaves of the putative fathers – a plant paternity test.  If he found that at least some of the acorns did not belong to any of the trees he had sampled, he would have evidence that pollen could travel farther than a kilometre.

However, this plan turned out to be anything but simple in its execution. First of all, the field station was surrounded by oak savannah.  By definition, there were a *lot* of oak trees around. Sampling every oak within a kilometre of the chosen focal tree was not a trivial task.

The landscape around the field station: rolling hills covered with – you guessed it – oaks.

Second, many of those oaks were located in…inconvenient…places, such as at the top of steep hills, the bottom of ravines, and often, the middle of large patches of poison oak. Closely related to poison ivy, poison oak is – as its name suggests – a plant better avoided. Its leaves are covered in urushiol, an oil which causes an allergic reaction in the majority of people who come into contact with it. My boss informed me that he was in the lucky minority that did not react to it. Never having encountered poison oak before this field job, I didn’t know which camp I fell into, but I wasn’t really interested in finding out the hard way.

Third, most of the oaks we wanted to sample were beautiful, stately, tall old trees. Their height was obviously an advantage when it came to spreading pollen – but a substantial disadvantage when it came to getting a DNA sample.  Plucking a leaf from a 25 m tall tree is easier said than done…which brings us back to the shotgun.

If we were unable to reach a tree’s leaves, my boss’ plan was simply to shoot a twig off. Then the twig and its attached leaves would float down to the ground, allowing us to waltz over and pick up the sample with minimal effort.

Presumably several potential flaws in this plan are obvious to many of you.  But for me, the main problem wasn’t my boss’ aim (as you might think) – but rather the noise associated with shooting our samples down. As someone with a phobia of sudden loud noises (it’s a thing, really!), I can’t even be in the same room as a balloon…so shotgun blasts are well outside of my comfort level.

Eventually, my boss and I worked out a routine. After hiking, scrambling, or clawing our way up (or down) to the tree we were trying to sample, we would circle it (often wading through swaths of poison oak) to look for any leaves within reach. If we didn’t find any, he would get out the shotgun and start sizing up targets, while I would retreat, crouch on the ground, stuff my fingers as far as possible into my ears, and wait for the bang.

By the time we wrapped up at the end of the day, my ears were ringing and my fingers hurt from spending a substantial portion of the day crammed into my ears. Shortly after getting home, I discovered that yes, indeed, I did react to poison oak.

And to this day, I still don’t know how far oak pollen can travel.

One of the oak trees that gave us so much trouble...

One of our oak ‘victims’

Perfectly perfect perfection…not!

Imagine the perfect day in the field. A day where the sky is clear and blue. The sun is warm, but not too warm. A cool breeze wisps across your face, leaving you feeling refreshed and comfortable. The birds are singing, and the butterflies are fluttering. You sit down on an appropriately placed boulder under the perfect shade tree to eat your favourite field lunch. After lunch you take a quick break to watch the clouds pass by above you. You see a dog, then a dragon, and then a snake. Ahhh, perfectly perfect perfection.

While the above scenario certainly does happen for field biologists, it is a rarity. Many field days are not as described above. In fact, most field days are not as described above.

Let’s take a project I worked on this past summer as an example. I was trying to restore an agricultural field into native grassland. This project involved having the farmer plant soybeans in the field in June, which keep the weeds down and deposit nitrogen into the soil. The farmer then harvested the soybeans in November, which meant we were ready to seed the area with native grassland plant species.

I could not have been more excited about a nice chilly autumn day in the field, with the sun warming my nose and the cool breeze keeping me comfortably content in a sweater. I imagined myself frolicking around the field spreading seeds of native plants species, while late migratory ducks flew overhead, and squirrels and voles scurried about trying to pick up the remnants of the soybean plants– a dream, really! And a dream really is what it was.

After some issues with the seed mix and volatile weather, by the end of November we were finally ready to go. Bags of seeds in tow, we were starting to walk out to the field when I heard a curious sound. Imagine for a second making enough banana bread batter to fill a small kids’ swimming pool. Then imagine putting on rubber boots and walking through that. “Slurrrrp…Slurrrp…Slurrrp”. Yes, that was the sound. The sound of our boots sinking into the deep rich soil of the field (which was really just muck at this point) . I had just been out there 2 days earlier… but since then we had gotten a lot of rain, which took the frost out of the ground and created muck. The best part – the ground was still frozen in some places, so sinking past your rain boots into the muck was a frequent but totally unpredictable occurrence. And let me tell you – it is NOT easy to get yourself out of that muck!

Seeding the field in one of the few not so “slurpy” spots

As we started to toss the seeds about, slurping as we went, the rain began. Not a crazy downpour, but a light rain that was *just* heavy enough to get us sufficiently wet for the seeds to start sticking to our hands. To make it possible to spread the seed, we had to walk hunched over, blocking our hands from the rain. So, there we were: hunched over, wet, shivering, boots slurping away in the muck. A very different scenario than the magical day I had envisioned.

In the end it took about 3 hours to seed 1 ha of land. When we were done, we quickly retreated to our vehicle. We stopped to get some warm tea on the way home and we didn’t talk once about how crappy the weather was or how our backs hurt from hunching over or how dirty our rain boots got our rental car. (OK – we did talk a bit about that last one!). But mostly we were focused on the project, forecasting what that field might look like in the spring… or two years from now…or ten years from now. How many grassland birds would soon call this habitat home? What new species would move into this community on their own?

Some days in the field are perfect, and we all cherish those days when they happen. Other days are not-so-perfect and that is just fine. But we cherish those not-so-perfect days too. Those are the days that prompt us to remember our reason for doing the work, forecasting the bigger picture and recalling our love for our jobs.

Angry birds but a happy field assistant

One of the most important rules for fieldwork is to never enter the field alone. This is partly for safety reasons, but also for your sanity. When you conduct fieldwork in remote places, as I do, it is essential to have a buddy. But when your interview process involves explaining to potential applicants that they have a high likelihood of winding up covered in bird poop most days, it can be a challenge to find a willing person whose company you can handle being in 24/7. Part of being a field assistant is taking on the less-desirable tasks, some of which my field assistant this summer was quick to learn!

Getting to know my field assistant this summer was a bit tricky at first, given that she was from France, and I am an anglophone from Ontario. Out in the field, I would ask for help in English (incorporating some broken French), and she would respond in French (incorporating some broken English). Sometimes I wondered how we made it to the same conclusion – especially against a background of fieldwork stress!

My field assistant carrying the heavy coolers.

When we first arrived at the field site, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of travel time to the colony. I thought I was a fairly fit person until I had to climb up endless stairs and tramp uphill through the forest for 30 minutes, carrying all of our gear. When my field assistant offered to carry the heavy coolers, I couldn’t resist. Honestly, I couldn’t get enough air to refuse…but I also figured that this was why I brought extra arms with me!

At last we reached the top, turned a corner, and suddenly heard it: the unmistakable squawks and chips of a seabird colony. Then the wave of smells hit us, making it clear that we were getting close. Finally the colony came into view. At first, all we could see was a few nests clustered near the field station. But as we looked first left, then right, like a Magic Eye puzzle, more and more nests popped into view.  There were northern gannets as far as we could see.

cliff speckled with gannets on their nests

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Selfie time!

After we retrieved our jaws off the ground, we took a few selfies and then got to work. Catching an adult gannet is not an easy task – and it definitely requires strong partnership skills. We first identified a nest with two birds guarding it.  This was important because it allowed us to be sure that when we (briefly) removed one of the parents for sampling, the other parent could protect the egg. Then one of us dangled a string or wire above the target bird’s head, which was meant to distract it from the other one of us creeping up behind it.

When the second person got close enough to catch the bird in their hands, they brought them over to our sampling area. However, as you might imagine, gannets aren’t thrilled about being taken off their nest.  Their responses include (but are not limited to) flailing their wings and squawking loudly. The easiest way to gain control was to allow the bird to bite us (with gloves on)! This may seem counter-intuitive (most people prefer to avoid biting animals!), but by letting them bite us, we knew exactly where their sharp beak was. Guess who got to do that job!? My field assistant!

My field assistant working hard in our limited “lab”.

After a long day of baking in the hot sun, we brought the samples back to our “lab” for processing. Our “lab” was the top floor of the cottage where we were staying with very little amount of equipment. We took a few minutes to stuff our faces with chips, as we hoped to tide over our hunger, and processed that day’s samples for a couple of hours. By the time we finished, we didn’t have a whole lot of time left for other activities –  like cooking an actual dinner – given that we had to get some sleep before the following morning, when we had to get up early to do it all again.

At this point, you are probably thinking I was a terribly mean mentor making her do the less desirable tasks. However, throughout all the hiking, sampling, and processing we did this summer, my field assistant kept smiling, making up dance moves, and maintaining a good spirit – basically, having fun and keeping me sane!

gannet startled

The expression on my field assistant’s face when I asked her to let the bird bite her. “Wait, what!?”

 

Patrolling for pufflings

The prisoner looks up at us from his metal enclosure.  Huddled in a corner, he freezes against the wall, hoping we haven’t seen him.  But as the beam of our flashlight comes to rest on him, he’s gone.  With a flip of his wings, he dives beneath the surface of the shallow pool, disappearing into the shadows of the enclosure.

“Well, crap,” says one of my companions.  “He’s not going to be easy to rescue.”

***

When my friend asked me if I wanted to join her doing Puffin Patrol, it sounded almost too fantastic to be real.  But it is: run by the Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Puffin and Petrel Patrol is a program that provides an extra helping hand to newly fledged seabirds which have lost their way.

The program takes place in the communities surrounding the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.  The reserve is home to the largest breeding colony of Atlantic puffins in North America, and the second-largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels in the world.

This is what the word ‘puffling’ conjures for me…

The puffins (and petrels) nest in burrows on islands close to shore.  They lay only one egg, and after it hatches, the puffling remains in the burrow for 6-7 weeks.  (Can we just pause here to enjoy the fact that baby puffins are called pufflings?  Whenever I hear that word, I immediately picture the tribbles from Star Trek…)

The trouble starts when it’s time for the pufflings to leave the burrow.  They fledge at night, giving them protection from predators as they first venture into the outside world.  For centuries, pufflings have emerged from their burrows in the dark and followed the light of the moon and stars out to sea.

But growing development along the coast poses a problem for the fledglings.  An increase in the number of houses and businesses also means an increase in artificial light.  More and more, pufflings are being drawn towards the streetlights, headlights, and house lights that illuminate the shoreline.  Many of these confused travellers land on dark streets, and fall victim to traffic mishaps.  Even those that avoid this fate are unlikely to make it back to sea without help.

This is where the Puffin Patrol comes in.  Every night during the fledging season (mid-August to early September), volunteers armed with butterfly nets patrol the streets of the coastal towns near the ecological reserve.  When they find a stranded puffling, it is scooped up in a net and placed into a plastic bin to await release the next morning.

Releases are sometimes done from a boat, but also frequently occur on the beach – and they gather quite a crowd.  While biologists weigh and measure the birds, and fit them with a band to allow for identification if they’re ever recaptured, CPAWS takes the opportunity to tell the watching group a bit about puffins.

Watching  a freshly released puffling make his way out to sea.

So not only does the Puffin and Petrel Patrol help two species of birds, both designated as vulnerable by the IUCN, it’s also a great outreach tool.  In addition to the public releases, locals and visitors alike can volunteer to be patrollers, providing they sign up in advance.  Since its inception in 2004, the program has attracted hundreds of volunteers, and has captured the imagination of Canadians across the country: to date, it’s been the subject of a picture book and the focus of an episode of The Nature of Things.

***

It’s a foggy, cool night in mid-August, and my first time out on patrol.  As I don a fluorescent safety vest and arm band reading “Puffin Patrol”, it feels a bit surreal that we’re going to spend the next few hours wandering around in the dark looking for stranded pufflings.  Only in Newfoundland.

At first it’s a fairly quiet night, with only a few teams reporting puffling encounters, and I start to think that maybe our services aren’t needed.  But as we make the rounds of a local fish plant, my friend shines her flashlight into the flat-bottomed barge used to take waste offshore for disposal.  There’s a shallow pool of water at the bottom – and there, pressed into a corner, is my first puffling.

As soon as the light hits him, he dives under the surface, eventually reappearing on the far side of the enclosure.  The barge is several feet below us as we stand on the dock, and we realize quickly that to get him out of his prison, we’re going to need a longer net.

As we turn to leave, we come face to face with another puffling, only a few feet away, looking for all the world like he wants to know what we’re up to.  As we stare at him, he begins sidling towards the edge of the dock and the barge – until my friend makes a sudden, heroic lunge with the net.  One puffling trapped on the barge is more than enough to deal with.

Up close and personal: a puffling being banded prior to release.

We stow our captive safely in a plastic bin and take him to Puffin Patrol headquarters, then return to the first puffling to see what we can do.  But even with a longer net, as soon as we come anywhere close, he disappears under the water and pops up at the other end of the barge.  We can only access the end closest to us, so we are forced to wait for him to come back within reach.  At one point, we actually do get him in the net – but as we lift it towards the dock, he jumps right back out.

It’s getting late and we’re all tired and frustrated…but we persevere.  We’re not leaving the puffling to die if we can help it.  It’s well after 1 a.m. when we get him in the net again.  This time we take no chances, holding the open end carefully against the side of the barge as we lift the net, giving the puffling no chance to escape.

And then he’s in our (gloved) hands, looking none too pleased with us as we place him into his plastic bin.  But that’s okay.  We’re pretty pleased with ourselves, because we know that tomorrow morning he’ll be going in the right direction, headed back out to sea.

Tourists for a day

We often say the best part about fieldwork is getting to go to places that most other people don’t get to see. But sometimes we conduct fieldwork in locations that the public is able to visit too.

The welcome sign to the park.

I was very busy this past year with starting my doctorate degree. This included learning French, taking classes (in French), reading and writing literature reviews, and planning experiments. So I was super excited when the time for my field season arrived. This spring, I conducted my field research on Bonaventure Island, off of the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé region in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Bonaventure Island has one of the largest colonies of Northern gannet, a large seabird. In any direction you look, there are thousands of gannets sitting on nests as far as the eye can see. I have been on a lot of bird colonies, but I have never seen so many birds clustered in one area.

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Gannets nesting beside viewing platform

Gannets nesting beside and on one of the viewing platforms.

Despite the island’s status as a bird sanctuary, the cool thing about it that the public can visit too! It offers a rare chance for visitors to get pretty much as close to the nesting colony as us researchers. In fact, we even used the tourist viewing stations to conduct our research on gannet nesting success. And given that some of the gannets choose to nest beside and even under these stations, they don’t seem bothered by human presence. Rather, they seem to show off, allowing visitors to watch their behaviour for hours (and yes, this includes us researchers!).

Field team making use of the viewing platform.

Bonaventure Island is off the coast of Percé, a very small town with quaint restaurants and small tourist shops where you can buy a homemade gannet ornament. However, a small tourist town isn’t the most useful when you need something specific for research. One morning I realized that our dry ice, which I use to keep my samples frozen, was evaporating too quickly, meaning that the samples were in danger of thawing.

It was one of those times where you need to draw a decision tree with pros and cons. Should we keep sampling in the colony to make sure we get all the data points we need, but risk losing earlier samples? Or should we take time off to find dry ice and save the samples already collected?

In a panic, my assistant and I started to call around to try to find a place to purchase more. After a few frustrating answers like, “the closest distributer is 4 hours away”, and, “It will take 4 days to deliver it”, we finally received a positive response. The medical lab of a hospital about 45 minutes away said they could give us enough to last the rest of the week! We decided to skip the morning of sampling on the island to pick up the dry ice to save the already-collected samples, which represented hours and hours of work. Crisis averted!

I thanked the hospital technician for saving my PhD and we headed back to the dock to catch a boat. On previous mornings, we had taken the employee boat over, which goes straight from the mainland to the island. But lucky for us, by the time we got to the dock that day, the tourist boat was the only option to get to the island. So instead of putting our heads down and going straight to work, we got to enjoy the scenery and a tour around the whole island. It was interesting to hear what the tourist guide said about the island, especially when we could say “We’re contributing to that research!”. And despite the delayed morning start as “tourists”, we still made to the colony it in time to finish all of our sampling!

I’m on a boat! (as a tourist)

The tourist boat.