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.

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Full mind, huge heart, tired eyes

I had a wonderful summer of fieldwork…my mind is full, my heart is huge and my eyes are tired. I think that’s what all field biologists strive for at the end of a summer field season. I still have a significant amount of fall fieldwork to do, but I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my summer in the field.

My mind is full

I learned SO much this summer… SO SO SO much! I learned new plant species I had never seen or heard of before. I started noticing more of nature including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  I noticed the arrangement of holes and cavities in trees. I noticed the behaviours of birds during mating season and the incredible defense of nests during nesting season. I started learning spider species (surprising given this), recording calls of birds to look them up later and taking photos of tracks in the mud. My mind is still overloaded from everything, I noticed and learned this summer, and I hope every field season from here on out is the same.

Grass of parnassus – new species for me!

My heart is huge

I love field work. I love being outside. I love nature and everything about it. My heart was in the Frontenac Arch for most of the past decade, and now my heart is stretched across so many new places I have grown to love: the scrubby wonders of the Napanee Plain, the always adventurous Prince Edward County, the quiet beauty of the Kawarthas, the wavy coast of eastern Lake Ontario and the rolling hills of Northhumberland County. Next summer will come quickly, and it will bring many more new places to fall in love with, I’m sure.

My eyes are tired

Fieldwork can be tough. Most of your time is spent hiking to specific points, carrying lots of equipment, and in weather or conditions that aren’t ideal. For instance, this summer, I did a lot of “bushwhacking” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. My definition is a little different. My definition of bushwhacking is “to get from point A to point B through thick vegetation, which often has thorns, prickles, and other irritants present, while trying to disturb the natural environment as little as possible and leave some sort of remnant path to find your way back”. A little wordier perhaps, but all very true and relevant to my summer in the field. Thick red cedar on alvars, cattails twice as tall as me, and prickly ash pricklier than ten prickly things were common settings to be “bushwhacking” through. But the reward is always worth the hardship in the end. Check out a couple of the epic places we found as a result of some serious bushwhacking.

Open alvar pavement (a globally rare habitat)

The most picturesque stream I have ever seen

So as I wrap up the summer field season, and start the cooler, wetter, wilder fall field season, I sit here smiling with my full mind, huge heart and tired eyes and I think about all the possibilities the next summer field season will bring.

Butterflies here, Butterflies there, Butterflies everywhere

My last post was about how my time slugging through swamps and meandering through marshes to learn to evaluate Ontario’s wetlands pushed me pretty far outside of my comfort zone. And since then, I can’t say things have slowed down at all! My new role as a Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has kept me all kinds of busy this summer. I have loads of stories to tell about new species, new habitats, new adventures and new experiences from this summer’s field work (which is still in full swing for another 6-8 weeks!) and it is so hard to choose where to begin. As I left the house this morning, a beautiful monarch butterfly was resting on the hood of my car, basking in the sun. And then it hit me (the idea…not the monarch)…. butterflies! That’s where I’ll start.

As all of our readers know by now, I am a plant person. Plants are just so wonderfully easy. They sit still. They don’t move or fly or bite you (well, usually not). If you can’t figure out what it is (which is still often the case for me), you have time to sit and stare and think and take a million photos. If it hasn’t flowered, you can return, and pending any unfortunate events, it will still be there! I knew though, starting this new role, I needed to branch out. Plants were my comfort zone, and I needed to start paying attention to things that moved. I started birding more and brushed up on herps (the nickname for herpitles; amphibians and reptiles), but what I really started to appreciate were butterflies.

I have spent the better part of the last decade staring at the ground and counting plants. All of that work resulted in some cool research findings and papers, some serious neck pain and farmer’s tans but it also resulted in me missing a lot of what was going on around me.  As I started to think about more than just plants, I started to see habitats, communities, and relationships more clearly. I walked into an alvar site in the Napanee, Ontario area at the start of June and could not believe the diversity of butterflies flying around. I thought to myself “why weren’t my grasslands filled with butterflies?” And then I quickly realized, these grasslands I used to work in were prime butterfly habitat and they were most definitely there, I just never noticed them.

There is an annual Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative Butterfly Count that happens each year, and NCC has a big role in organizing this event. I knew this was something I wanted to see happen in my area, so I helped out with the count to see what it was all about. We divided into small groups and conquered several properties over the course of a long, hot day. We recorded each species and how many we saw and then met back up at the end of the day to tally the results. We found an incredible 58 species and counted 1847 individual butterflies.

If you would have asked me a year ago to name as many butterflies as I could, my list would have likely started and ended with monarch. Now, my list is couple dozen species in length and seems to grow almost daily. This experience is a perfect example of how “naturalists notice nature” and how fulfilling and rewarding it can be to challenge yourself to learn something new.

Black swallowtail

Coral hairstreak

Silvery blues

White admiral

 

 

 

There must be something in the water

Please join us in welcoming Cheryl Reyes to the blog this week! Cheryl, a recent graduate from the University of Waterloo, is currently working as a Conservation Technician with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. For more about Cheryl, see the end of this post.

Although I have been working at a land conservancy monitoring alvar and tallgrass prairie ecosystems, and managing invasive plant species for the last few months, one thing remains the same: when I stumble upon a river, wetland or small creek I always wonder, “what kind of benthic invertebrates are living there”.

This recurring thought stems from my first true interest in the field of ecology: water and benthic macro-invertebrate sampling.

Sampling benthics often means going to very beautiful places sometimes in the middle of nowhere.

Benthic macro-invertebrates are aquatic insects that live at the bottom of water bodies, such as aquatic worms, leeches, beetles and flies. They do not have a backbone and are large enough to see with the naked eye, but when you put them under a microscope for further analysis they look much more impressive! These little creatures can reveal a lot about the health of a freshwater system because they are an important part of the aquatic food chain and respond quickly to stressors such as pollution. For this reason, they are referred to as “indicator species”.

One of my favourite photos of a mayfly larva, from the Ephemeridae family. You can distinguish mayfly larvae by their side gills and three (sometimes two) tails. This one has tusks on its head!

I was first got introduced to benthics during a field ecology course at the University of Waterloo. Since then I have collected and identified benthic invertebrates for many organizations, most recently during my role as a Monitoring Technician at the Crowe Valley Conservation Authority. Crowe Valley runs a benthic monitoring program within their watershed to monitor water quality. Sampling sites are located throughout the watershed and benthics sampling follows the Ontario Stream Assessment Protocol (OSAP) and the Ontario Benthos Biomonitoring Network (OBBN).

Sampling for benthics is fun and easy to do. Dressed in waders, with a net in hand, two people get into a stream and move between the banks while kicking up the substrate on the bottom. The net is swept back and forth through the water to collect benthics. The continuous sweeping motion is important to prevent any benthics collected from swimming out of the net. After three minutes of kicking and sweeping, the contents of the net are emptied into a bucket and hauled back to the lab/office for identification.

Me sampling for benthics. This was a great day because it was the only day of the entire field season I didn’t have to cover my face to protect myself from the bugs.

However, as is the case with most field work, sampling for benthics is not always the most glamorous job. Sometimes you get so into the Footloose-esque substrate kicking that you forget to watch your footing and trip over some large rocks, a log, or if you’re lucky (or unlucky) a large snapping turtle. Other times you wish the three minutes of kicking would be over because you can feel the sweat pooling in your waders. Much of the time you can’t see a darn thing because you have your bug jacket on to prevent all the mosquitos, black flies and deer flies from devouring your flesh. And when you look at the contents of your net, it’s hard not to wonder, “Are there actually any bugs in this giant pile of mud, rocks and leaf litter??”. But the most draining thing is hauling your large buckets and equipment to the site, then hiking the full buckets out from isolated locations after a long day’s work…then enduring the frequently lengthy drive back to home base.

My work station for 8 months at the Crowe Valley office. During my undergraduate, I was used to identifying bugs in a laboratory setting. But while working at Crowe Valley, I had to use ingenuity to set up a functional work station!

Studying benthics is definitely its own realm of ecology, with its own fieldwork quirks, and I love it. Why? The reward is always great. When you find benthics in your bucket and put them under a microscope, you get a sense of how complex aquatic ecosystems really are. I could spent hours looking at all the different taxa and the features that make them truly unique specimens. And because they tell you about water quality, studying them allows you to begin to appreciate how important water is in our everyday lives, and why it’s essential that our ever-developing society conserves and protects freshwater ecosystems.

So next time you see a body of water, remember that there is a little universe lurking in the depths of the substrate. All you need to discover it is some waterproof footwear, a container and a net.

Caddisfly larva from the Hydropsychidae family in the palm of my hand. This taxa, as a member of the Hydropsychidae family, spins nets that help it catch food such as algae, leaf litter and smaller benthic invertebrates.

 

Cheryl Reyes is a graduate of the School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Her undergraduate research focused on assessing the benthic invertebrate communities of restored streams in urban areas. She is currently working as a Conservation Technician for the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

 

The chickadees nested where?!

This week, Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome Chloé Montreuil-Spencer to share how “you’ve got to be kidding me” became the slogan of the summer! For more about Chloé, check out the end of the post.

When you tell people that you’re doing biological fieldwork, the first reaction you often get is: “Spending all that time outdoors – you’re so lucky!”. Indeed, we are very fortunate. But while your friends imagine you as a David Attenborough-in-training, you might be stuck in a downpour somewhere in a forest, desperate to find that nest you’ve been searching endlessly for, or picking up a video camera stand that toppled over in the heavy winds and recorded 3 hours of grass instead of your experiment. You want to experience nature in the raw? Don’t worry, that’s exactly what you’ll get: in all of its beauty AND temper tantrums. My MSc fieldwork provided more memorable moments than I could have ever imagined.

“YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME,” should have been our slogan for the 2016 chickadee summer field season. Matt, Anthony, Kelsey and I formed the core chickadee research crew at the Queen’s University Biological Station from 2015 to 2017. Our projects involved capturing, banding and taking blood samples from chickadees in the winter 2016 to evaluate energetic physiology, and assessing reproductive investment and parental care in the following breeding season. Therefore, when flocks started to break up into pairs in March, we had to relocate the chickadees we had colour-banded the previous winter. Using binoculars and finely-tuned ears, we listened for chickadees, looked for colour bands, and followed breeding pairs for days, and sometimes weeks, to find their elusive nesting spots.

Chickadees expend a lot of energy excavating and cleaning out nesting holes in rotten or broken trees and stumps, and they excavate multiple sites simultaneously before deciding on the best summer home! Interesting strategy… but as a result, us researchers also expend a lot of energy figuring out which cavity they are actually using.

Kelsey searching for nests in one of the many swamps visited by our banded chickadees.

For some pairs of chickadees, we got lucky and found the nests quickly. This was the case for the pair we called the “swamp-chickadees”. They had constructed a very comfortable nest in a tree stump located in a shallow swamp. It was beautifully excavated and lined with a mixture of fluffy moss and hair. Matt and I were very pleased with our finding, but on our next visit, when we peered inside the very dark cavity, two little beady eyes looked right back at us. Matt and I quietly looked at each other… We instantly knew this wasn’t a chickadee. As we leaned closer, a furry creature jumped out of the nest: a field mouse had hijacked the swamp-chickadees’ nest! Insulted, the birds had packed their bags and left the area. We never saw them again.

In other cases, finding the nest was straightforward, but accessing it was more challenging than anticipated. One day, after following a banded pair of chickadees up a very steep hill, we found them working on the tree that eventually became their nest. Yes! Finally found it! Exhausted, we congratulated one another on our success but then paused, looking at the cavity that was well out of our reach. No one wanted to say it, but everyone knew that to reach this nest, we’d have to lug a heavy ladder up the steep and slippery hill. We tried not to think about that (not so minor) detail until later in the week, when the deed had to be done. In the end, we all gained a little arm muscle.

Another day, standing at the edge of yet another swamp with our binoculars, we spotted bird activity at one of the many dead trees poking out of the murky water. We knew what that meant: Let’s get our waders! The next day, we suited up, used whatever we could find as support to avoid toppling over in the sinking swamp, and we slowly made our way towards the potential nest site. When we finally arrived at the nest, it was already active… but once again, it was too high to reach! “Really? We need to drag a ladder into this swamp?” The next time we visited this nest, we brought a 3-step ladder. We positioned it near the base of the tree, and Kelsey carefully stood up on the first step. It sunk a few centimeters. She took her second step. It sunk again. She took her last step, and reached the nest successfully, but we knew we had to work quickly! Over the course of the summer, that swamp had gobbled up a few pens, a screw driver, and one i-Button that the incubating female chickadee managed to pick out of her nest and chuck into the swamp herself!

This chickadee pair decided to nest in a broken and very delicate branch hovering above a large pond. The only way to access it: balancing on an inflatable raft.

And then there were the nests that were much harder to find. For example, in early May, we tracked a banded pair of chickadees that had been active around a pond for quite some time. But despite our best efforts, we just couldn’t figure out where that darn nest was located! Eventually, Anthony had had enough; in frustration he sat down near the pond, eyes fixed on the landscape in front of him – only to jump up again. “FOUND IT!” he exclaimed. “But you won’t like it.” He pointed to a dead branch extending several feet over the pond. “Get the inflatable raft! We’re going boating!”

On yet another occasion, we tracked a banded chickadee pair carrying nesting material through the forest and to the edge of a cliff. We assumed they wouldn’t leave the mainland. Chickadees on an island? Nah… Oh…Mouths gaping, we stood there watching as our chickadees flitted their way across the open water. Since carrying a large boat through a dense forest is… well, near impossible, we found an alternative solution. We came back the very next day with an inflatable donut pool float, determined to find their nest. Laughing, Kelsey and I sat back-to-back in the donut float, and slowly paddled our way over to the island using oars made for a much larger water craft. I’m fairly certain we made an absolutely ridiculous and hilarious sight. Unfortunately, we never found the island nest.

On top of the challenges inherent in searching for nests, we also faced many unexpected bumps in the road so common to field work. The most unexpected encounters were horses. Although friendly, these big bodied animals followed us to our nest sites, stomped around the research area, and played with our equipment. Throughout the season, we often had to come up with innovative and creative solutions to get the job done. Then, after all our efforts in finding the nests, snakes and mammals ate over 50% of them! It was a real-life game of snakes and ladders, and we were often brought back to square one.

While field biologists ARE very fortunate to be spending their time working outdoors, there’s no denying that fieldwork can be strenuous, frustrating, exciting and rewarding all at the same time. Managing all those emotions can be exhausting. Because we are under time and weather constraints, we often forget to put aside a little time to “take a step back and remember the day-by-day accomplishments” – a very important lesson I learned from my MSc advisor. As field biologists, this is a lesson we should all put into practice to avoid becoming overwhelmed during physically and emotionally demanding fieldwork and to remember that we’re all here because we really do love what we do, in all of nature’s beauty AND temper tantrums.

So cheers to all the researchers doing fieldwork this summer. Have fun, don’t give up when it gets challenging, and do some great science – but most of all, remember to celebrate the little victories!

ChloeChloé Montreuil-Spencer graduated from Queen’s University in 2017 with an MSc in Biology after working in Dr. Fran Bonier’s lab to evaluate the links between winter energetic physiology and subsequent reproductive investment in wild black-capped chickadees at QUBS. She previously obtained her BSc in Biology at the University of Ottawa, where she completed an honour’s thesis in Dr. Julie Morand-Ferron’s lab studying personality in wild groups of chickadees in Gatineau Park. After her Master’s, she was hired as a field technician at CNRS in the Pyrenees Mountains (France) to continue bird work!

First days in the field

I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was my first day in the field (ever) and I wanted so badly to not screw up. I wasn’t an outdoorsy person, I wasn’t good at working with my hands, I really wasn’t meant for fieldwork. Our first task was to install wooden posts at the corners of an abandoned farm field to mark the boundaries of field plots. Being totally unprepared and unexperienced, I picked up a mallet and a stake and started hammering. The ground was soft and the stake was easing into the ground like a knife through soft butter. “Well, this is easy”, I thought to myself, “not nearly as hard as it looked”. It was so easy, that as I confidently swung the hammer one final time with my right hand, my left hand that was gripping the stake slid down the jagged edge of the wooden stake.

Immediately, I felt it. I dropped the hammer onto the soft, green grass and my eyes moved to the palm of my hand. It stung and it throbbed, but there was no blood. After I was able to focus my eyes, I saw it. The biggest sliver I have ever seen stuck out of my palm. The beast measured almost 7 cm long (we really did measure it after using a metre stick). After nearly fainting, and sitting down to take a rest, the rest of the crew helped me remove it from my hand. Clearly, I made quite the impression on my first day on the job! Luckily, that was the worst injury I acquired for the entire field season. It did leave a pretty neat scar though!

Since finishing at Queen’s in the fall, I have started a new adventure as a Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. I remember the day like it was yesterday… Ok…this time it almost was yesterday! It was my first day in the field in my new role and I wanted so badly to not screw up. I was a super outdoorsy person, I was pretty good with working with my hands, and I was certainly meant for fieldwork.

My first task was simply to tour and visit sites and get used to the properties I was going to manage. We reached some thick brush in a red pine forest that was completely overrun with prickly ash. I was following a little too closely when wham, a branch of prickly ash swept into my face, lagged for a second as it tore through the skin of my nose and then it settled along my right side. Interestingly enough, I didn’t feel a thing. My nose didn’t throb or hurt at all. But then I felt it…a slight dripping feeling. Drip, drip, drip. I put my hand to my nose, and indeed, it was bleeding. And pretty steadily. It took a few minutes for it to subside, but alas, I survived. However, I had absolutely NO mark to prove it. You would never even know it happened. It’s funny how things come full circle. Let’s hope that this was the most significant injury of my new adventure. One can only hope!

A philopatric field biologist

I’m currently planning for the first field season of my Ph. D. It should be an easy task considering I’ve done fieldwork before, right? However, this time it is oh so different.

In my last post describing ways in which you can prepare for a field season, I was thinking about going back out to Haida Gwaii, a rugged, remote location. But this summer I am doing quite the opposite: I am visiting cormorant colonies in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. If you live around these Great Lakes, or have visited them before, you will understand when I say they are definitely not remote! There are large cities scattered all around the shorelines, and major highways connecting them all.

Cormorant colony in Lake Ontario with Burlington in the background.

The neat thing about doing fieldwork in these lakes is this is where I grew up! Therefore, I am describing myself as a “philopatric field biologist” since philopatry describes an organism that stays in, or continually returns to the same spot. I decided to revisit my previous tips for preparing for a field season to see which of them still apply…and which are totally different this time around!

  • Choose the right field assistant. This year, I will be visiting the colonies with my co-supervisor. I think it’s safe to say he is excited about the work as well (and hopefully I am a good field assistant to him!).
  • Expect to use a designated bush as a “washroom”. This year, I am going to have to figure out how to do this more secretively, considering the colonies are not too far from shore and boat traffic frequently passes by. To make it even harder, cormorant guano is so acidic that there might not even be any bushes to pee behind in the colonies!
  • Be prepared to fall asleep in a tent freezing under the stars. This year, I will prepare to fall asleep in a warm bed in a house with car lights whizzing past.
  • Fieldwork is sometimes (usually?) unpredictable. This year, I am prepared for this, with plans A, B, and C. Nonetheless, I realize I may have to create plan D on the fly. (Get it? Because birds fly!)
  • Bring enough delicious snacks. This year, I am able to refill my snack packs every night if I want! Oh the options…
  • Make sure you have a good pair of hiking shoes. This year, these are not as

    I might ditch the heavy shoes…

    necessary as I will be spending most of my time on a boat. Although I will occasionally jump off the boat onto an island, I’ll be trying to maneuver around nests on the ground while wearing an oversized survival suit. Sturdy (and therefore heavy) boots are not at the top of my list of concerns.

Since only some of the items on my list seem to apply this time around, I thought I’d better get some advice from my friends on Twitter. Some items they mentioned deemed essential:

Sunscreen will be necessary especially after a long winter of not much sunshine! And who knew baby wipes had so many versatile uses!?

I lost my water bottle in Haida Gwaii and had to replace it with a used mayo jar. And no, it turns out that the mayo taste never goes away. Maybe this year I should pack two?

This sounds like a great addition, although I would be afraid to take my cap off at the end of the day to see what I had caught!

So this year, I won’t get to spend my field season listening to whales breaching only a few hundred meters away…but there will definitely be benefits. This year, it will feel like home.