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.

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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.

Life with owls

This week, Dispatches is excited to welcome a good friend of ours, Lauren Meads.  Lauren is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC – and is in the enviable position of working with some of the most charismatic (micro)fauna around.  For more about Lauren and the BOCSBC, check out the bio at the end of the post.

As the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia, I’m often asked how I wound up working in this field. I don’t have a simple answer. My path to this career — which I love — has been somewhat meandering. And honestly… birds?! I never thought in a million years that my passion for birds, specifically owls, would be such an important part of my life.

I’ve always loved animals and growing up had dreams of being a zookeeper. This led me to an undergraduate degree in Biology and then an internship working with exotic cats in the US. To further my career, I went back to school for my master’s degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh. My first job after finishing that program was at a zoo that focused on conservation, which drew me into the world of breeding animals for the purpose of reintroduction into the wild. My expertise in working with mammalian carnivores led me to working with raptors. And from there, I found myself working on the beginnings of the Northern Spotted Owl breeding program in BC.

Remember how I said the route was meandering? Well, after two years working with spotted owls, I decided it was time to move on to another job. During a co-op placement in my undergraduate degree, I had dabbled a bit in lab animal work and I decided to give that a try again. This was a short-lived decision, as I quickly realized that world was not for me. I longed to get back into conservation and working in the wild. Luckily, I had kept in contact with my colleagues from the Northern Spotted Owl project. When I reached out to them, they alerted me to an opportunity to work in the field with burrowing owls. That was ten years ago, in 2008. And ever since then, I have been deeply involved with burrowing owls. First volunteering, and then working in the field monitoring releases, and now overseeing the breeding and reintroduction of a native grassland species throughout British Columbia. As you can tell by the length of time I’ve been working at this job, I finally found my calling working with the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea).

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

I fell in love with burrowing owls as soon as I started working with them. I love how unusual they are among owls. While they do fly, like all owls, they also spend a lot of time on the ground hunting and roosting. They nest underground and are active during both day and night.

Unfortunately, burrowing owls are also currently threatened across North America, and endangered in Canada. Populations in Manitoba have been extirpated, while in Alberta and Saskatchewan they continue to decline.  And where I work, in British Columbia, burrowing owls have been extirpated since the 1980s. While the causes of these dramatic population declines are complex, we do know that losses of burrowing mammals, such as badgers, have played a major role in the owls’ decline.  Despite their name, burrowing owls don’t excavate their own burrows, but instead use those abandoned by other animals – so without animals like badgers, they have nowhere to nest.  Other issues facing the owls include pesticides, increases in populations of aerial predators such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, road construction, and climate change.  Conservation efforts are underway in all four Canadian provinces, as well as several places in the States.

In 1990, volunteers in British Columbia initiated a comprehensive re-introduction program, including three captive breeding facilities, artificial burrow networks and field monitoring research. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (formed in 2000) produces over 100 owls each year to release in the Thompson-Nicola and South Okanagan grasslands of BC. In recent years, improved release techniques have resulted in higher adult survival and greater numbers of wild-hatched offspring with the potential to return in following years.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release. (Photo credit: Mike Mackintosh.)

What my work looks like varies greatly depending on the season. Right now, in winter, I’m busy with the joys of writing reports and grant applications, as well as fixing the breeding facilities, installing artificial burrows in the field, and providing outreach to the public. Come spring, I and a field assistant (more than one, if funding is good!), plus some dedicated volunteers, will check each of the ~600 active burrows across our field sites. Our task is to check each one for owls returning from migration, and to ensure the burrow is in good working condition. In April, we will take the 100 owls bred in our facilities and release them into our artificial burrows. We have placed these burrows on private ranches, land owned by NGOs, Indigenous band lands, and provincial parks. This work requires a LOT of driving — sometimes up to 3-5 hours per day as we go from site to site.

After the release, we continually monitor the nesting attempts of the released owls, as well as those returning from migration, and provide supplemental food to help them raise their chicks. Along the way, we band the young born in the field. We monitor them until they all leave in September and October to head south.

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Where exactly the owls go during the winter is still something of a mystery. We sometimes get reports of sightings of our banded owls, and we also get data from groups in the US and elsewhere in Canada that have deployed satellite tags.  (We’d love to use satellite tracking tags ourselves, but they are expensive, and our organization runs on limited funds!) Based on the information we’ve received, we know that BC owls have been seen throughout the western United States, and most likely spend the winter in Mexico.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of owls that return to BC in the spring; however, currently we still don’t have a self sustaining population.  Our next step is to work on understanding the owls’ migration movements, and determine ways  to increase survivability.  This will involve working across Canada and internationally.

Something else I’m often asked is what the next steps are for burrowing owl conservation. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question either. While there are many organizations dedicated to conserving these unique owls, they all run on limited funds and resources. BOCSBC uses almost all of its funding breeding and releasing owls, as well as creating and maintaining the artificial burrows they use.  Certainly, this is essential for the species’ recovery, but we also need to tackle the many unanswered questions about the causes of their decline before we can hope to reverse it.  At the moment, there’s still so much information we’re lacking, including where the birds’ winter, issues of migratory connectivity, changes in prey availability and shifts in climate across their range.

The path that brought me to working in burrowing owl conservation was unconventional. But ten years into this career, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be!

Photo credit: Lia McKinnon.

Lauren Meads is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC.  She has worked with owls for over 10 years, although she still has a passion cats both big and small.  She lives in the South Okanagan Valley in BC with her husband Tim and their three (small) cats.  To learn more about the ongoing effort to reintroduce burrowing owls in BC, check out this video from Wild Lens.  If you are interested in helping out with this project, you can contact the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC at bocsbc@gmail.com or donate via Canada Helps.

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The birds and the bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

A common alpine butterfly captured during a net sweep.

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

I was so, so, wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s the journey that counts

This time I was prepared for things to go wrong. We waited a few days after our last trip to the island, so that cormorants would have time to lay another egg before we arrived. However, there was still no sure way to tell if there would be enough eggs to collect until we actually arrived on the island. The next morning we decided to test our luck. It was a good day; the sun was shining, the wind was calm, and we could actually see the shoreline. I kept thinking to myself, “This has got to be too good to be true!”. So to prepare myself,on the way out to the island, I kept thinking of ways to change my project if things didn’t go as planned again. Maybe I could make it into a smaller project. Or maybe I could change species. Or maybe I could skip this year and start over again next year. Although it may sound extreme, these are often thoughts field biologists have on a regular basis. When you work with wild animals, you never know for sure if you will be there at the right place at the right time. So instead, you need to plan A – D, possibly plan all the way to F, when you are close to marking it as a fail and move on.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go all the way to plan F (we try everything possible not to get there). When we arrived on the island there were a lot of fresh eggs in nests! I could have jumped for joy! Instead, we got right down to business. When you head towards cormorant nests, the adults get scared and fly off to nearby water leaving their nests exposed to potential predators. This meant two of the team members were in charge of keeping guard. This may sound like a boring job at first; until you hear that it involves using water guns to keep the gulls away from the exposed nests!

Sarah dressed in a toque and sweater with eggs in boxes in the car.

Me keeping warm while I keep the eggs cool!

The rest of us collected all of the eggs we needed. But that ended up being the easy part. Now I had to figure out how to get transport them 9 hours to our lab for artificial incubation. I knew it was important to do everything in my power to get them to the lab safely. Otherwise, all the effort to collect them would not have been worth it! So there I was, on a summer day, not only driving a car full of eggs, but doing it dressed in a double layer of sweaters and a toque because I had to keep the car at a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. I was wondering how I would explain my situation if I got pulled over on the side of the highway!

Surprisingly, despite all of the potholes, traffic, and temperature fluctuations from the sun’s rays, the eggs survived the trip and I was able to continue with my project. I’ll let you know when I have published the results of this study in a scientific journal. Despite the manuscript only reading “Eggs were collected in Lake Erie and incubated in Quebec”, you will know and appreciate the sweat (and tears) that went on behind the scenes!

Seeing the forest AND the trees

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

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

“Hooded merganser.”

“Blue-winged teal.”

“Black tern.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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