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.

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4 reasons I shouldn’t be a field biologist

My lungs are bursting as I stumble to a halt, slipping on melting snow crystals.  Squinting against the glare, I lift my head – and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Behind me, a vertigo-inducing slope of snow drops away.  In front of me, the sight is even worse: the slope continues up…up…up.  At the top, four figures stand waiting impatiently.  It’s clear that I’m hopelessly outclassed. As I force myself to start climbing again, I can’t help but wonder: is it too late for a career change?

***

I guess I should back up and explain how I got myself into this situation.  When I finished my PhD, I had a singular goal: I wanted to continue doing fieldwork and research.  So when Bird Studies Canada offered me a job coordinating Newfoundland’s first Breeding Bird Atlas, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Breeding Bird Atlases (BBAs) are ambitious projects that aim to map the distribution and abundance of all birds breeding in a province or state over a 5-year period.  Every Canadian province except Newfoundland has (or is in the midst of producing) at least one BBA.  The end product allows us to better understand the health and distribution of bird populations and can be used as a tool for conservation planning.

Most atlas data is collected by volunteer citizen scientists, making atlases a great forum for community engagement.  But once in a while, the coordinator is lucky enough to get out into the field too.  And when the opportunity presented itself to do some pilot surveys in the remote regions of Gros Morne National Park…how could I say no?

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

I drove into Gros Morne under a spectacular rainbow, arcing across hills and lakes of the park.  It seemed like a good omen.  And although a few days of weather delays frayed our patience a bit, finally the skies cleared and we climbed into a helicopter for our flight to the top of Big Level, one of the highest points in the park.  As we swooped over Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne’s famous freshwater fjord, I couldn’t wait to get started.

We descended into an alien landscape: the arctic-alpine habitat found in only few places in Newfoundland.  For a few hours, we wandered under the widest blue sky imaginable, exclaiming when we crossed paths with an enormous arctic hare and enjoying the silvery sound of horned lark song.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

But then we started our hike towards the cabin where we’d be staying the next few nights.  And once we were on the move, the evidence that I was way out of my depth accumulated rapidly.

Pausing to take a picture is a great excuse to catch your breath an on strenuous hike…

I’m a fairly active person, and I thought I was in reasonable shape…until I spent a day trailing four people (all with a distinct resemblance to gazelles) across tundra, snow, and bogs.  As the warthog among gazelles, I was also the most likely to plunge without warning through the crust of snow we were walking on, landing with a thump in whatever was below.  With each minute, I lagged farther and farther behind.

My problems were compounded by my short legs and terrible balance, which resulted in me frequently tripping over rocks, trees, and my own feet – not to mention being unable to cross many of the streams my gazelle companions leapt over easily.

Reasons #1 and 2: Warthogs aren’t made for long-distance hikes involving lots of climbs.  Short legs and poor balance don’t help either.

By the time we made it to the cabin – after a solid eight hours of hiking – I was beyond done.  I collapsed on the cabin deck, and I might still be there, if some kind soul hadn’t provided incentive to get up in the form of a cold beer.

I told myself the next morning would be a fresh start.  But when the alarm sounded at 4:30 and I rolled my aching body out of bed, I realized I had overlooked another reason I’m not cut out to be field biologist – or at least an ornithologist.

Reason #3: As documented in previous posts, I’m very much not a morning person.

But birds start the day early, so we had to as well.  Our plan was to conduct 8 to 10 point counts each morning.  A point count involves standing in one place for a set amount of time (in this case, 5 minutes), and documenting every bird seen or heard.  Sounds straightforward, right?  But because birds are more often heard than seen, point counts require sharp ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of bird song.

As we climbed a steep hill to our first point, all I could hear was my own panting.  I managed to catch my breath when we stopped to conduct the count…only to become aware of yet another problem.

Reason #4: I don’t know enough bird songs.

I could recognize some of what we heard, but definitely not all of it.  I especially struggled with the partial songs and quiet ‘chip’ notes that were often all we heard.  Luckily I was with several spectacularly talented birders, who were more than capable of conducting the counts.  But after a few days in the field, I was feeling pretty discouraged.

And then on our last day, we came across a(nother) sound I hadn’t heard before: a single repetitive note, like the alarm on a tiny car.  We tracked the sound to a nearby conifer.  Perched at the very top, staggering as the tree swayed, was a greater yellowlegs.

Shorebird in trees look undeniably ridiculous.  Gawky and awkward, the yellowlegs scrabbled constantly for balance as it fought to stay on its perch.  It was impossible to watch without laughing…and I began to feel better.

A greater yellowlegs perches at the very top of a conifer.

Some birds just aren’t meant to perch in trees. But this greater yellowlegs isn’t letting that bother him.

Shorebirds aren’t built to perch at the top of trees, but the yellowlegs was there anyway.  And now that my first atlassing excursion is over, I’ve reached a conclusion.  Maybe I’m not naturally suited to this job.  It certainly doesn’t always come easily to me.  But the things I don’t know, I can learn; the things I struggle with, I’ll improve at with practice.  What matters is to be out there trying.

It’s true there are many reasons I’m not cut out to be a field biologist…but there’s one reason I am: doing this job makes me feel alive.  And for me, that cancels out everything else.

Tagging along on the Great Trail

One of the reasons Amanda, Sarah, and I started this blog five years ago (!) is because we wanted to use stories to share some of the amazing places field biologists get to work – places that often aren’t accessible to everyone.  And over the years, we’ve highlighted a lot of stories from these places, from Sable Island to Line P in the Pacific Ocean to an uninhabited islet in Cape Verde.

But you don’t necessarily have to be doing field biology to access amazing places.  In many cases, all you need is enthusiasm and possibly a healthy dose of determination.

This spring, hikers Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton sold their house in Simcoe and the majority of their possessions, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.  Over the next three years, Sonya and Sean plan to hike across Canada from coast to coast to coast, along the 24,000 km Great Trail.  Obviously, this will be no small feat – in fact, as Sonya has pointed out, fewer people have finished this trail than have gone to the moon.

So why do it? Sonya and Sean are undertaking this epic journey with one major goal: to inspire people to connect to the natural world.  In collaboration with Bird Studies Canada, they hope to encourage this connection with nature through birding, and will be sharing information about ways to help birds, bird citizen science projects, and Important Bird Areas across Canada with the people they meet on their journey.

On the morning of June 1st, Sonya and Sean set off from Cape Spear – the most easterly point in North America.  To start them on their way, Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (a local naturalist group) had organized a group hike to keep them company for the first few kilometers, and I was lucky enough to tag along on this hike.

It was a cool, overcast morning (as far as I can tell, Newfoundland is several weeks behind the rest of Canada when it comes to spring), but the crisp air turned out to be perfect for cooling down after long scrambles up rocky slopes.  The air was quiet and calm, unusual for these normally windswept coastal barrens, where the trees are bent from bracing against the wind, and the grey-blue water turned the most amazing shade of turquoise where the waves met the rocky coast.  Of course, the highlights for me – as a newcomer to Newfoundland – were the two icebergs we came face to face with along the trail.

I also learned something important about hiking in Newfoundland.  What counts as an ‘easy’ trail here is not the same as an easy trail in Ontario.  When I set out that morning, I couldn’t find my hiking boots or clothes in my pile of suitcases – but I figured it was an easy trail, so I threw on a pair of jeans and some sneakers and assumed that would be good enough.  I quickly came to regret that decision, as I slipped and slid my way up and down the steep ascents and precarious descents.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the end of that first trail segment (only about 3.5 km away from where we’d started – but those 3.5 km involved an awful lot of ups and downs!).  It’s embarrassing to admit just how happy I was to stop and take a break – particularly since I had made the walk completely unencumbered, while Sonya and Sean were loaded down with their huge packs.  It was impossible not to be impressed by their determination and energy as we waved goodbye to them, and they continued on their way to St. John’s, their destination for the day.

As they make their way across the country, Sonya and Sean will be blogging about the places they see and the people they meet, and we will be reposting some of those blogs on Dispatches from the Field.  But to keep up to date with them, learn more about their travels, or find out how you can help, check out their website.

Safe travels and good luck, Sonya and Sean!

 

The nightmare before fieldwork

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the days are lasting longer, the temperature is rising higher, and the snow is melting faster. It’s only a matter of time before we can see grass growing, smell flowers blooming, and hear birds chirping. For many people, this is their favourite time year; a time described as a new beginning. But for me, it is a beginning of the busiest time of year!

When field biologists work with wild animals, they usually have a specific block of time to collect the data they’re interested in, based on the species’ annual cycle. Sure, they can always try again next year, but a PhD student’s work for the rest of the year is largely based on whatever data they do manage to collect. In other words, successful field season = happy grad student! In terms of my project, the ground starting to thaw means that birds will begin preparing to breed. Since I am interested in the biology of eggs and their incubation, I need to be present for the beginning of the birds’ reproductive session.

desk with papers everywhere

This is how organized my desk (and brain) is these days!

But before I can even get out to the field, there are a million and one things to prepare ahead of time. So here I am in the heat of planning my field season: making lists of lists to try to keep myself organized. I have written five different permit applications and two protocols in two different languages. I’ve discussed plans with park directors, wildlife managers in the provincial government, and biologists in the federal government. I’ve had to make many decisions about where to go, what techniques to use, and how many specimens to collect. So far, it seems that all is on track (or maybe that is just the picture I paint for my supervisors). However, the fact is that when I am making so many choices (or procrastinating making those choices by adding them to my list instead), I start to question what I’ve actually done…and what I’ve only dreamt I did.

These fieldwork dreams (one might call them nightmares) keep occurring. They are not always about the same thing, but they have the same underlying message. It always comes down to the “what if”s. What if I show up to my field site and there are no birds nesting? What if I arrive too late and all the eggs have hatched already? What if the Ontario government approves the proposed cormorant hunt? Despite some of these “what if”s being under my control and others not, I have to try to plan for everything because you just never know what might happen. These all add to my worry about the field season. One night in my sleep I said (rather strictly), “You’re not doing it right!” Startled awake by my statement, my husband asked, “Doing what right?” I responded with, “The frogs! You’re not doing it right. Ugh fine, just give it to me. I’ll do it. I don’t have time for you to mess it up.” Luckily for me, he is a supportive PhD husband and understands my current state of mind is only temporary!

I realize I’m probably the only person in the northern hemisphere wishing for a prolonged winter this year…so I guess I just have to accept the inevitable: spring is coming, my sanity is leaving, and I am stuck sorting through my lists of lists. At least it pays off in the end when I get to go to cool places and study cool things. Wish me luck!

Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

Algonquin Adventures

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Alex Sutton, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada to share his adventures chasing Canada Jays in the beautiful Algonquin Park. For more about Alex, check out his bio at the end of this post!

One of the things I enjoy most about field work is being immersed in an environment every day, and, as a result, having the opportunity to see things that many others do not get to experience. Over the past four years I have been lucky enough to spend countless months following Canada jays (formerly known as gray jays) throughout Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario.

Russ Rutter, a former chief park naturalist, first started studying Canada jays in Algonquin in 1964. He was interested in understanding the natural history of this fascinating bird and was one of the first people to use colour-bands as a way to follow individuals throughout their lifetime. After he retired from the park, Dan Strickland, another former chief park naturalist, continued studying the jays, following them throughout the year and collecting information about their nesting behaviour for over 40 years!

This long-term dataset has allowed us to track how the population of Canada jays in Algonquin Park has changed over the last 54 years. Unfortunately, since the 1980’s we have observed a decline of over 50%. The Algonquin population appears to be experiencing more severe declines than other Canada jay populations, which may be because Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of the Canada jay’s range in Ontario. Understanding the drivers of this population decline, the main focus of my PhD research, will hopefully allow us to predict how other populations may respond to climate change.

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

These nestlings are all 14 days old and ready to receive colour bands. Photo credit Alex Sutton

To figure out what factors are causing the Algonquin population to decline, we need to follow Canada jays throughout the entire year. In autumn, while enjoying the beautiful fall colours of maples and tamaracks, we determine which territories are occupied and which individuals are present on a given territory. The autumn is an important time of year for a Canada jay because during this time they begin caching food that they will rely on throughout the winter for survival and reproduction. Amazingly, one Canada jay can make thousands of food caches in a day and return to these caches months later! Throughout the autumn, jays will actively seek out humans because they see humans as a good source of food, making it one of the best times to see them (and their colour bands!).

After determining which territories are occupied, we return in the winter to begin monitoring each pair throughout the breeding season. Unlike most other Canadian songbirds, Canada jays begin building nets in late February. This means that for most of the breeding season I travel through the landscape on snowshoes and have to bundle up to brave temperatures as low as -30°C! But despite the cold, there are few things as rewarding as finding jay nests. Sometimes it can take weeks to find a single nest, and it often requires some imaginative use of natural features like beaver dams to avoid getting soakers (when your boots fill with water) in the sub-zero temperatures.

Alex carrying a ladder to a nest. Photo credit Koley Freeman

As winter slowly becomes spring, eggs that have been incubated through freezing temperatures and snowstorms begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, we monitor each nest for about two weeks before we return one last time to band the nestlings. We typically carry ladders through the forest and sometimes across frozen rivers to each nest tree. Once the ladder is in place, we carefully scamper up the rungs to collect the nestlings for banding. This is one of the most rewarding parts of the field season, because all the hard work we have put into finding and monitoring each nest has finally paid off with the sight of several fluffy Canada jay nestlings trying their best to emulate Einstein’s signature hair-do.

One of my fondest memories of my time in Algonquin is of banding a nest last spring. The adults were circling around us while we banded their young and the male had a full mouth of food he was bringing back for the nestlings. As he got closer, my colleague held up the nestling being banded. Remarkably, he landed on my colleague’s hand and fed the nestling right then and there! This was the first time I had ever seen something like this and I will remember that moment forever! (Video of this encounter here).

Canada Jay in hand

This young Canada jay has been outfitted with a radio tag. Photo credit Dan Strickland

As spring turns into summer, the young Canada jays begin to fledge from their nests – and my fieldwork continues, as we follow the dispersing fledglings. Beginning in May, I and another PhD student, Koley Freeman, track radio-tagged juveniles while they move around their natal territories. Each radio tag ‘backpack’ emits a unique frequency and allows us to track down birds, even when we cannot see or hear them. After about six weeks, these juveniles start to leave their parent’s territories and disperse across the vast Algonquin landscape. These young birds can travel over 15 km, so to follow them, we need to track them from the air! Being in a plane flying over my study area provides a great perspective of the vastness of the landscape and gives me a new appreciation of how diverse Algonquin is.

Each year in Algonquin has been an exciting experience that has taught me something new. With each passing field season, I learn more about the jays and how they cope with the ever-changing environment. Canada jays are resilient enough to survive harsh boreal winters throughout North America, but climate change is wreaking havoc on their breeding success. Changing fall conditions negatively influence their cached food, contributing to the record low number of nestlings produced that I have observed over the course of the last three field seasons.

The view of a Canada jay territory from the air. Photo credit Alex Sutton

I am lucky to have called Algonquin a home away from home for the past four years, and had so many great experiences in the park. I would like to thank Dan Strickland, all the staff of Algonquin Provincial Park, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, and my partner in crime Koley Freeman for helping with field work and making every day in the field more exciting than the last.

For me, the joy of fieldwork comes not only from pushing yourself to learn from and about your study species, but also learning to appreciate the beautiful places that this work can take you. I will always remember the sights and sounds of Algonquin, the Canada jays, and the unexpected experiences I have had over the course of the last four years of fieldwork.

 

Me with the Canada jay – Photo credit Koley Freeman

Alex Sutton is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. During his undergraduate degree, he worked throughout North and Central America studying the population ecology and habitat use of migratory songbirds. If you would like to keep up with his ongoing research follow him on Twitter @Alexsutto.

A Scottish experience

This week on Dispatches of the Field, we welcome Larissa Simulik to share her story of conducting bird surveys in Scotland – sheep and all! For more about Larissa check out her bio at the end of the post.

The beauty of field work is getting to travel and work/live in some of the most unique places in the world. An example of this was the time I spent working as a seasonal assistant warden at the North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory.

North Ronaldsay is the northernmost island in the Orkney archipelago, off the northern tip of Scotland. It is a small island (roughly 4.5 km in length), with a population of ca. 45 people and almost no trees. This was a bit of a shock for me, having previously lived in Nova Scotia with its beautiful forests! Conducting bird surveys in North Ronaldsay proved to be very different from what I was used to.

rainow over the field

Nice part about being on an island is seeing the incoming rain.

For starters, I was (and still am) a decent birder when it comes to North American birds: I can identify about 80% of the birds I come across in Canada. But identifying European birds was a completely new story. Warblers in Europe are not bright and colourful, like their North American counterparts. Instead, they are simply different shades of brown (eg. the Acrocephalus genus). And the warblers were not the only family that posed an identification challenge when I started at North Ronaldsay, as the island hosts many bird groups ranging from waterfowl to seabirds. Prior to my stay I had little practice identifying shorebirds, but as I needed to count flocks containing hundreds of birds of different species, I had to learn how to tell the difference between a dunlin and purple sandpiper quite quickly.

warbler in hand

Great example of a European brown warbler – a marsh warbler!

Since my part of my job entailed conducting regular censuses of the birds on the island, persistence and patience were key to my success. I never left the observatory without “The complete guide to the birds of Europe” in my backpack. I used the guide so much that by the end of the season it was pretty much destroyed. (Granted, though, this was at least partly due to the amount of water damage it received when I got caught in the frequent rainstorms!) I was also fortunate to have some visiting birders come out on census with me, to provide help with my bird identification. A big shout out here to Ade Cooper and Gary Prescott (current world record holder for greatest number of birds seen by bike in a single year) for heading out with me and giving me tips on how to identify tricky species.

North Ronaldsay itself was very different from the forests of Ontario or Nova Scotia. The landscape was filled with rocky shorelines, grassy fields, and coastal heathland. Unlike Canada, forest breeding birds on their northward spring migration to Scandinavia could be found along stonewalls and in grassy fields. This made finding birds difficult: I had to walk along almost every stonewall and through each field to see if any birds were hiding in the long grass, iris beds or weedy crop.

North Ronaldsay is known for its feral sheep, which live on the shoreline and eat seaweed. It was a weird experience to be counting shorebirds along a rocky coast with common and grey seals sunbathing on one side and sheep eating seaweed on the other side. The sheep could also be a bit of a nuisance, as they would sometimes run right past me and scare off all the birds I was counting. I distinctly remember the time I sat down on a rock to count some long-tailed ducks just offshore – and suddenly a curious sheep stuck its face in front of my binoculars!

An adult and juvenile sheep

The famous seaweed eating sheep.

As a seasonal assistant warden, I had the opportunity to conduct some independent breeding surveys. My first survey, and the one that was closest to my heart, focused on the productivity and habitat preference of northern fulmars on the island. I surveyed the entire island on my own, using a GPS to mark the location of each nest…all 630 of them! It was an exhausting few days. On top of that, working with the fulmar chicks was a bit of a challenge, as their defense mechanism is to projectile vomit on any intruders. I learned the hard way not to point them into the wind when handling them!

My second survey focused on the productivity of the arctic terns. Originally, I intended to ask whether colony density was related to productivity. However, due to some nasty weather at the end of June, the majority of colonies failed. As a result, I changed my plan, focusing instead on measuring productivity across each colony and creating a baseline survey technique for use in future years.

a nest right beside a stone wall

Fulmars are normally cliff breeders – I don’t understand the logic behind this nest.

Undertaking these breeding surveys taught me about the struggles of conducting research on my own with limited resources. Furthermore, during the write-up process, I realized how hard it is to access research papers or journals for anyone who isn’t affiliated with a university or organization.

But overall, working at North Ronaldsay Bird Observatory was a great experience! I have so many more experiences I could write about…but if I did, this post would go on for far too long. I will say that if you ever have the chance to do field work in another country, I would highly recommend it. I doubt I will ever get to work in a place as unique as North Ronaldsay again…but on the bright side, at least I won’t have to worry about beach-dwelling sheep interrupting when I’m counting birds!

Larissa with an owlLarissa received her Bachelor of Science in biology from Dalhousie University in 2016. Her undergraduate honours thesis focused on begging call structure and stress levels in tree swallow nestlings. She has worked on projects ranging from forest birds at risk conservation to wildlife disease surveillance. Next year she will be heading to Sweden to work as a field technician at Ottenby Bird Observatory.