Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.

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.

Whiskers, photos and polar bears, oh my!

We are excited to welcome our first guest blogger of the new decade, Paige Bissonnette, a master’s student from University of Manitoba. Today Paige tells us all about her fascinating work with polar bears! For more about Paige, see the end of this post. 

As our tundra vehicle rolled into the docking station, an armed bear guard escorted us to our bus to be shuttled back to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. I had just spent the day observing polar bears and being called a researcher by 30 tourists. Just like the guests on the tundra vehicle, I too was grinning from ear to ear, brimming with excitement.

My excitement had been building, slowly, ever since 4th grade, when a researcher came to my class and taught us about climate change and species-at-risk. The poster child for the talk was, you guessed it, the polar bear. After the talk, I was so excited about polar bears that I spent all my time in the library trying to learn more about them and threats to their habitat – even going so far as to cite my sources in my notes.

Fourteen years later, I had become the expert answering eager questions from groups of enthusiastic tourists. When I was given the assignment to co-lead learning vacations in Churchill, I was one part excited and 99 parts nervous. How did I get this job? Was I qualified to answer questions? Imposter syndrome was running rampant, as I’m sure it does for most graduate students at the beginning of their careers. I could easily relate to the tourists’ excitement: my dream was to see a polar bear in the wild, and here I was snapping photos through a tundra vehicle window.

But the goal of my trip was greater than capturing an Instagram-worthy photo. While I was primarily here to collect data for my master’s research on polar bear behaviour, my job also included using my knowledge, passion, and curiosity to encourage visitors to become citizen scientists, and contribute data to an ongoing long-term research project.

As the ice on Hudson Bay breaks up each spring, polar bears are forced onto the shore, away from their primary prey of ringed seals. While on land, they enter a fasting period, relying on a thick layer of blubber to support the energetic demands of maintaining their body temperature in the harsh Arctic environment. Pregnant females head upland, away from the shore, to build dens to birth their young. Non-pregnant females and males will spend time on land, resting and waiting for the ice to form in the fall. This is the most opportune time to see polar bears in the wild, and tourists and wildlife photographers flock to Churchill, Manitoba, “The Polar Bear Capital of the World”, to view the bears in their natural environment.

Thousands of photos are taken each year on these trips, and scientists realized there might be a way to use these photos to learn more about polar bear populations. In 1994, researchers developed a method to non-invasively identify individual polar bears through their whisker spot pattern. Each bear has a unique pattern of hair follicles, a whiskerprint (similar to a human fingerprint), that can be deciphered by a computer program. This discovery was the start of a long-term research project on the Western Hudson Bay population of polar bears. Photos taken by tourists, aka citizen scientists, are now fed into the whiskerprint program and used to estimate the size of the polar bear population in the area east of Churchill, and determine which bears are coming back year after year.

A curious polar bear checking out a tundra vehicle window.

In 2017 and 2018, as a graduate student at University of Manitoba, I went up to Churchill to collect data for my thesis, continue the citizen science project, and communicate findings from this project to the tourists who came to see the bears. Each day, we headed out into the field on a tundra vehicle which seated around thirty people. The journey into the middle of the tundra was roughly an hour of travel across uneven terrain and over frozen streams, as anticipation built among the tourists. Finally, someone would yell out, “I see one!”, and guests would rush to their window, binoculars in hand, to gaze out the window at a polar bear kilometers away. The tundra vehicle would screech to a halt and we would sit and wait to see if the bear was interested enough to come closer to us. Often, after a patient and silent wait, it would amble in our direction. Amid gasps of excitement and shuffling to the window with the best view, we would try to ensure we got photos of each side of its face. Guests often brought me their cameras, enthusiastically asking, “Is this one good? How did I do?” They began to gain a sense of purpose – gathering not just their own collection of cute photos, but data for wildlife research as well.

While in the field we took opportunities to gather as much observational data as possible, not only for our research, but to also to show the guests how much information can be collected non-invasively. Guests often shouted out, “the neck is larger than the head; the guard hairs are long – it must be a male”; repeating little bits of information we had discussed earlier. We also discussed how a changing climate has resulted in a decline in body condition for most bears. To measure body condition non-invasively, we took full body photos of the bear. I explained that we would measure the number of pixels from the top of the shoulder to the bottom of the foot, and the top of the back to the bottom of the belly to create a ratio of body proportion, similar to the measure of body mass index that uses weight and height. The guests were eager to help me take body condition shots, and aid in data collection.

I had a personal stake in the photos, as I am studying whether body condition influences social interactions between polar bears, specifically play behaviour. Adult mammals rarely play; they allocate most of their energy and time budgets to competition, feeding and mating. When social play does occur, it’s usually during periods of plentiful resources, when animals have extra time and energy to spend on seemingly purposeless activities such as play. However, in the western Hudson Bay region, adult male polar bears have been spotted engaging in social play. Polar bear social play consists of wrestling or sparring; males will rear up on their hind legs and wrestle, using moves similar to those used when competing for mates or resources.

We can’t ask the bears why they are playing during a resource limited time when they should be conserving energy, but we can determine what affects the duration and occurrence of social play. The body condition photos taken by guests on the learning vacation to determine if bears in better body condition play for longer or tend to initiate play.

Male polar bears sparring 100m away from our tundra vehicle

Each day, after collecting data out on the tundra, we returned to the research station, organized hundreds of photos, and began to analyze them. I walked the guests through the whiskerprint program, showing them how we extract a print and compare it against photos in our dataset to determine the bear’s identity. I could feel that the guests had a new-found sense of belonging to the scientific community. They were contributing to a long-term data set and coming to the realization that science is for everyone – not just graduate students and professors. Working with the guests on this project also brought me a sense of joy – as I felt I had come full circle. When I set out on this adventure, I had no idea what science communication meant, or the impact it could have. Now here I was, sparking curiosity in members of the public, just like the speaker in my 4th grade class.

I also felt proud that in addition to answering questions about polar bears, my research was helping teach people about the scientific method, making them into citizen scientists. Citizen science is a powerful tool that has helped catalyze innovative research techniques and allowed for the collection of much more data than individual scientists working alone would be able to assemble. Including the public in the data collection and analysis process improves scientific literacy and makes people feel included in the scientific community. Tapping into the public’s natural curiosity about the world allows scientists to answer questions that would have been impossible to answer alone, and more importantly, helps create a sense of care about the issues wildlife and the environment face.

A mom and two cubs keeping warm in a polar bear pile up.

Paige Bissonnette is a master’s student at University of Manitoba studying polar bear social behaviour. She focuses on using non-invasive techniques and novel technological approaches to assess the factors that influence polar bear social play. She is passionate about sharing her love of polar bears and the Arctic through science communication initiatives.

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.

The power to teach and the right to learn

Last summer, something unbelievable happened to me. While attending the final banquet of an ornithology conference, I won the raffle prize. Now, if you’re like me, winning anything is already a pretty amazing stroke of luck. But this wasn’t just any raffle prize: I won a 3-week cruise to Antarctica. Honestly, it felt like my life’s entire allotment of luck, all in one fell swoop.

It was so phenomenally fortunate, in fact, that I told myself not to believe it was going to happen until I actually set foot on the ship. But when the RCGS Resolute pulled away from dock in Buenos Aires October 2019, I officially gave myself permission to get excited.

Boarding the Resolute by the light of a Buenos Aires sunset.

However, during the first two days on board, I felt faintly perturbed by something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t until I went to an on-board seminar, where one of the staff members told us about her role in a massive conservation initiative to eliminate rats from South Georgia Island, that I realized what was bothering me. It felt very strange to be just another audience member at a wildlife seminar…travelling to a remote, inaccessible place as a tourist, rather than a field biologist.

Of course, as it turned out, I wasn’t going to Antarctica in either capacity. Our cruise made headlines when it was cancelled only a few days into the trip, stranding all 140 of us passengers in Argentina.

I’m not going to lie; it was pretty devastating. Not just the stress and expense of changing travel plans, but also letting go of all that excitement I’d just given myself permission to feel…not to mention the dream of going to Antarctica. I can’t claim that seeing Antarctica had been a long-term goal of mine: in fact, if I hadn’t won the prize, it would never have entered my head, for the simple reason that the trip was far, far beyond my means. But now that it had been dangled in front of me and then snatched away, I wanted desperately to go.

The one faint hope was the replacement cruise the company offered as compensation for our disastrous trip. But given that the cancellation of our voyage was a result of the company’s financial troubles, the chances that this second cruise would ever materialize were…slim at best.

After we returned to Canada, all communication from the company stopped. My e-mails went unreturned; no one picked up the phone at the office. Left completely in the dark, I couldn’t stop myself from obsessively searching the news for stories about the situation. It was like probing a sore tooth with your tongue – painful but strangely addictive. And there were plenty of stories to feed the addiction.

But then I made the mistake of scrolling past the end of a story, all the way down to the infamous ‘Comments’ section of the CBC website. (If you’re not familiar with CBC news stories, my advice is to avoid the comments entirely…unless you feel the need to work up a good rage.) And I came across this comment: “Cancelling the trip works better for the penguins and the environment.”

My first response, I have to admit, was visceral fury at the commenter’s cavalier disregard of what had been a painful experience for everyone onboard the Resolute. But I couldn’t deny that she had a point. Cruises are not particularly environmentally friendly. Antarctic cruises, in fact, are often extremely environmentally unfriendly. They produce high greenhouse gas emissions, may lead to pollution and waste on land and in the water, and bring human disturbance to some of the last remaining undisturbed places on Earth.

To be fair, some cruise operators take steps to minimize their impact on the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Many of them are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, an organization which promotes environmentally responsible travel among its members.  Cruise operators also often try to offset the negative effects of Antarctic travel by claiming that tourists will go on to be “ambassadors” and conservation champions for the places they’ve had the privilege to see. However, evidence doesn’t necessarily support that claim.

So on the face of it, the answer seems simple – maybe no one should be going on cruises to the Antarctic, or other remote, vulnerable places. But that raises an important question: who does get to see these places?

The Dispatches website features a quote from David Quammen: “Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully. And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.” One of the reasons we started this blog is to share the lessons we’ve learned travelling to these remote landscapes.

But the truth is, nothing can beat a personal experience.  And when it comes to conservation, it’s hard to ask people to care about things they haven’t seen or experienced themselves. No matter how good March of the Penguins is, it can’t compare to seeing emperor penguins in the flesh.  And once you’ve seen one, I have to believe that what happens to the species becomes more important to you.

The Resolute heads for home, trailed by shearwaters and petrels.

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.

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!

 

Origins of a Naturalist

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome Megan Quinn, the Coordinator of Conservation Biology for Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to share how she ended up working for the environment. For more about Megan, see the end of this post. 

Most people working in conservation have a story about how they got into the field. In my case, environmental work wasn’t my first, second, or even fifth career choice, but it did turn out to be my favourite. Although it took some time for my dream career to go from veterinarian, to actress, to radio DJ, to journalist, to author, and eventually to naturalist, in hindsight there were some clues in my childhood that might have gotten me there a lot quicker.

My family tells the story of taking four-year-old Megan to the park, where I just lagged further and further behind. They couldn’t figure out what I was doing, until my coat had grown two sizes from stuffing my pockets with rocks, twigs, and pine cones. Turns out that 20 years later, I’m still doing the exact same thing. I am now the Coordinator of Conservation Biology for Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which means I manage over 28,000 acres of land, and spend my day identifying the plants, animals, and natural features that live there.

Megan checking out the grass

Here’s two recent pictures of me on holiday in England and the Netherlands. Although this time I left the nature in its place.

Growing up, the place where I did the most exploring was my Grandma’s garden. Her garden was unlike anywhere else I knew: a maze of stone paths with brilliant insects to discover, delicious raspberries to eat, and a new world to explore. The Troddy Nature Book – Things to Collect in a Bag came into my life just as I was starting to explore the world around me. Like a lot of things at Grandma’s house, nobody is entirely sure where the book came from, but it was an instant family favourite.

“Things to Collect in a Bag” is one of four books in a series written by Stuart Cowly, and published by Brian Trodd Publishing House Limited. There is also “Things to Collect in a Bucket”, “Things to Collect in a box”, and “Things to Collect in a Jar.” Together, they are the Troddy Nature Books.

The book guides children through nature projects they can “collect in a bag”. It offers activities such as making a herb pot, learning about fossils, and drawing a wildlife map. At the back of the book, there is “Troddy’s County Code”, a set of rules for young environmentalists to follow. Looking through them, I realised that I’m still following the code today.

T – Take home all litter

When I’m out in the field, my team and I always spend time collecting rubbish that has been left in, or blown into, the area. By getting into the habit of carrying a garbage bag and a pair of gloves, you can make a big impact in your neighbourhood. Spring is a great time to get outside, and clean up any litter left behind by the melting snow.

R – Recycle whenever possible

It’s inevitable that we’re going to use resources. As conservationists, we try our best to reduce our impact by recycling materials. Doing simple things like using printed pages for scrap paper and re-using signs, and materials, saves money (thus ensuring more money goes towards conservation), and reduces our footprint. Over the past few years I’ve been paying more attention to my own consumption habits. Small changes like forgoing plastic bags, and bringing reusable containers while shopping are things that everyone can integrate into their lives.

O – Observe, but never interfere with nature

Unnecessarily interfering with nature can negatively impact organisms and the ecosystems they inhabit. Like with all rules, there are exceptions, but it’s important to consider what you are doing. If you are picking up a turtle to help it safely cross the road, then you’re performing a positive act, but if you are just picking up a turtle so you can take a cool selfie with it, then you’re likely causing more harm than good. The energy animals have to put into getting away, or the stress caused by unnecessary handling, could impact their survival. I think even the most seasoned conservationists are guilty of this sometimes, but it’s important to take a step back, and evaluate what we’re doing.

D – Don’t ride when you can walk

I do a lot of walking as a conservation biologist. Some field days I get over 40,000 steps. I find that taking the time to walk in nature slows down my mind, and helps me to appreciate the world around me. It can be as simple as a walk in the park, or around your garden, or even sitting by a window to watch the environment outside. We are lucky to have so much accessible nature in Canada, and this point reminds me to appreciate it.

D – Do join a wildlife or nature club

Getting involved with the work that organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada are doing across the country is a great way to contribute to the environment. There are many ways you can do this: getting out and exploring a local natural area, such as NCC’s Nature Destination Properties, donating to a cause, or volunteering at conservation events. Every little bit helps, and you may find yourself picking up a new favourite hobby or past-time.

Y – YOU ARE THE FUTURE

This doesn’t just mean youth! Although it’s the young people that will inherit the earth, the actions that all of us take today will impact the future. We can choose to make that a positive impact by engaging with nature in a sustainable way.

This book has followed me throughout my environmental career, and even though it’s almost 30 years old, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today. When my grandma passed, the Troddy Nature Book made its way across the ocean to Canada, where I still have it today. It may seem a bit silly to base my conservation values on a 30-year-old book, but looking back, the lessons it teaches are valuable. The Troddy Nature Book will always have a place on my bookshelf, and one of these days, I may actually complete all of the activities in it!

Megan is the current Coordinator of Conservation Biology, Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. She was inspired to pursue a career in the environmental field after moving to Canada in 2004, and studying Ecosystem Management at Sir Sandford Fleming College. In her spare time, Megan is a an avid horse rider, competing in eventing horse trials with her horse, King.