We are still here!

This past month has been pretty busy for us here at Dispatches from the Field! Two of us (Amanda and Catherine) received our Ph.D. diplomas and started new jobs while the other (Sarah) started a Ph.D.

at the convocation ceremony

Catherine (left) and Amanda (right) receive their official Ph.D. documents! Finishing the degree was worth it to wear the red robes & funny hats (and to collect lots of funny field stories!).

We promise to be back at it in June with weekly posts about fieldwork stories from around the world. We are always looking for new guest posts so send us an email (fieldworkblog at gmail.com) or Tweet us (@fieldworkblog) – we would love to hear from you!

Thanks for reading and sharing your fieldwork stories!

-Amanda, Catherine, and Sarah, Dispatches from the Field

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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!

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.

Seeing the land in a different way

This week, we have a change of pace on Dispatches from the Field!  We are very excited to welcome archaeologist Marianna Cervantes, who tells us a bit about her experience doing archaeological field work in British Columbia.  For more about Marianna, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For many, the field of archaeology is tied to the image of Indiana Jones defeating Nazis with whip in hand. Others associate archaeology with trowels, brushes, and meticulous desert excavations done by guys in pith helmets. Cultural Resource Management archaeology, or CRM, is neither…but maybe a bit of both. (No dinosaurs, though!) Dubbed “hit and run” archaeology by one of my undergrad profs, it is rapid assessment and testing of sites ahead of development to ensure nothing of archaeological importance is disturbed or destroyed.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Where I worked, in northeastern British Columbia, we would dig year-round, even in the winter (using pick-axes and cement saws). Areas to be assessed are accessed by any means necessary, be it on foot, by ATV, by snowmobile, or by helicopter. I will never say that my time in the field was not an adventure. I have so many stories, but for now I’m going to stick with my very first day working in the field…

In spring 2006, I went out in the field in the wilderness of northeastern British Columbia with an experienced archaeologist. As we drove down the dirt oilfield road, she called our position on the radio for other road users, a common practice on logging and oilfield roads, while I tried to figure out the maps in the passenger seat. In the back, and in the two trucks following us, were First Nations participants. We asked First Nations bands whose traditional lands we were assessing to send members with us, to provide input, represent their bands, and help us find areas that should be reported as important. That day, because of the geographic location we were assessing, there were representatives from eight bands – considerably more than usual. Indigenous representation and investment in the land is something important to consider for anyone working in nature.

We started down the final road to the site and found gigantic dump trucks, in the midst of building a wellsite, at the end. The dirt road had become mud, covered with ruts easily a foot deep caused by all of the traffic to the active construction site. To get down the road, our trucks had to be expertly balanced on the higher areas. When we made it to the end, we parked our trucks in a convenient spot, and struck off into the woods to have a look at the land. We had a large area to cover, with several kilometres to walk, and a lot of gear to carry. I was pretty overwhelmed by the logistics so far, and my boots weren’t even broken in yet. This was neither classroom nor field school, where I had learned about slow, controlled excavations rather than fast and decisive tests of areas that have archaeological potential, or simply ‘potential’.

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

While some scientists look at habitats, vegetation, water, or wildlife, the archaeologist looks at both nature and the land, trying to determine how it was used in the past and digging where there may be evidence of that. Those areas are areas of ‘potential’.  In the context of northeastern BC, we were looking for artifacts left by the past inhabitants, ancestors of some of the participants who accompanied us. Identifying potential is complicated though, because the use of land in the past is often different than what we would expect, given its present-day form. A dip in the landscape may be all that remains of an old oxbow lake, where someone may have camped because of access to water and fishing, whereas a south facing barren rise may have been a treed elevation over swampy ground, catching sunshine on short winter days.

After some interpretation, as well as input from the participants (if they are present), dig locations are decided upon. That first day, I recall digging tests. Tests are about 30x30cm, reaching down to glacial soils, and are dug on areas of potential.  They act as a representative sample of the topographic feature and hopefully show whether there are artifacts present. Artifacts indicate previous habitation or use, which can require a change in the client’s development plans. (For example, on that first day, we were scoping out a location where an oil and gas company were planning to build a wellsite).

A projectile point found in a test.

A projectile point found in a test.

Artifacts are sometimes obvious, like ‘arrowheads’, scrapers, and other tools; at other times, they can be less obvious. For example, stone tools are shaped using other stones, and their construction may leave behind identifiable (and important) flakes. Sometimes the source of the stones used for tools can even be traced. In the environment we were working in, organic artifacts don’t tend to be preserved well due to soil conditions, so stone flakes and tools are often all that remain. Disappointingly, despite doing several tests on potential areas, we did not find anything that first day in the field… which is often the case when doing archaeological assessments.

We ate our lunch sitting on the ground under the trees, a lunch environment I would eventually take for granted. I remember one of the First Nations Participants chatted cheerfully with me, knowing I was new. He explained to me how to tell the direction from the sun (a skill I used often during the rest of my time in the field), and told me that the direction of the shadow can help you tell time. Then he leaned in, and with the serious air of someone imparting deep, secret knowledge, told me that at night time I could use a flashlight.  I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. We ended up having a good laugh at my bafflement while walking back to the truck.

While we were packing our gear back into the trucks, a big pickup with gigantic tires roared onto site. A man jumped down from the cab and came over.

“What are you guys planning to do?” he asked.

My co-worker replied, “We’re just on our way out; we did the archaeological assessment on the new site.”

“Well dear,” he replied somewhat condescendingly, “I’m thinking you’re not going to make it down that road there; the dump trucks have chewed it up pretty good the past few days”

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

My co-worker just raised an eyebrow.  One of the First Nations men came over and stated the obvious: “She got us down the road fine this morning. ”

“Oh….huh.” At a loss for words, the guy walked away muttering. My co worker drove again, leading back out with the same easy skill she exhibited on the way in.

That first day showed me that if this was just the start, I was going to like this much more than the waitressing I’d done to supplement my university loans.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

That was one day, and one assessment. Over the next few years, I became a field director and a permit holder, and I was involved in hundreds of site assessments, working in the field almost daily, driving many of the same roads I’d driven that first day. I identified many archaeological sites and had so many incredible moments. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave fieldwork,  but I sorely miss it…although it is nice to work indoors in the winter and have regular hours.  However, the lure of fieldwork will always be there. The way I see the environment and my world in general has been changed by the time I spent seeing the land and nature in a different way.

Marianna Cervantes started working in archaeology after completing a BA in Anthropology, and left archaeological fieldwork in 2010, to spend more time with family and have a chance to recuperate. She recently finished her dissertation in forensic anthropology as part of a part time MSc in Forensic Science, while also working full time assisting at autopsies. She is currently getting ready to start working on PhD applications and is looking forward to having some form of fieldwork in her future. She can be found on Twitter at @BoneArky.

 

These boots are made for walking

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Sian Green, who shares some stories about her ‘fieldwork style’.  For more about Sian, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For my 21st birthday I wanted what all girls want…a new pair of shoes! I got my wish and, although they were somewhat lacking in heels and glitter, since then they have taken me all over the world and been an essential part of my fieldwork outfit for nearly 5 years now. When you’re on your feet and walking long distances day after day, a good, comfortable pair of boots can make a big difference!

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My boots have travelled with me to Costa Rica, Tanzania and Kenya; however, sadly, during my last expedition to Romania, while trekking the Carpathian foothills in search of large mammals, they walked their last mile. Having been soaked in the dewy grass every morning then baked by the fierce Transylvanian summer sun every afternoon, they finally fell apart.

In memory of my favourite pair of shoes, I thought I would share some of the most memorable moments I had whilst wearing them out in the field.

Scariest moment: After graduating from my BSc in Zoology, I wanted to get some more field experience. I decided to volunteer on a project in Costa Rica, working in a remote camp in the jungle, right next to a turtle nesting beach. At night we would go out along the beach to monitor the turtles, recording condition and taking shell measurements, as well as marking locations of new nests. On one night we saw a turtle about to start digging her nest. Not wanting to disturb her at this crucial point, we walked on and spotted another turtle about 25 meters up the beach. She had finished laying her eggs, so we set to work measuring her shell. I should mention at this point that it is important to use minimal light, and only red light on torches, so as not to disturb the turtles, meaning visibility was limited. Anyway, having finished measuring our turtle, we turned back to see if the first turtle had finished her nest…only to find her carcass lying on the beach surrounded by large jaguar tracks! This silent hunter had made a kill a few metres away from us in the dark and was surely now watching us from the forest edge…possibly annoyed by having been disturbed from its dinner. Needless to say, we moved on quickly and kept in a tight group at a healthy distance from the forest edge after that!

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

Proudest moment: I am very proud of all the fieldwork I have done, in particular my work in Kenya I undertook as part of my own independent research project for my Masters thesis. Of course, I am proud of my thesis, but sometimes it’s the little things that really stick in your memory. To study the elephants using the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor, I set up a grid of camera traps. I would regularly trek through the corridor to check the cameras, aided and guided by rangers from the Mount Kenya Trust. I am tremendously grateful to these extremely helpful rangers… but they were sometimes almost too helpful, insisting on doing all the climbing and retrieving of awkwardly-placed cameras. After a couple of expeditions, my confidence grew and I started to feel I needed to prove a point – that I could climb trees just as well as they could! At one point this did result in me being up a tree covered in biting ants while playing it cool and pretending I was totally fine – but mentally questioning whether it was worth it to prove my point! But one very satisfying moment came when a ranger was unable to unlock one of the padlocks attaching our camera to a tree. I asked if he wanted me to try but he said no and called over one of the other rangers, who also failed to get the key to budge. Ignoring me, they called over a third (male) ranger. While they were discussing the problem, I went over, gave the key a jiggle and the lock popped straight open! They were all very impressed and claimed that I must be very strong. I think it was more about technique than strength, but I wasn’t about to correct them!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Most rewarding moments: All surveys are important, even when you don’t find what you are looking for. In fact, the latter type of survey can sometimes be the most important, as if you don’t find what you are expecting it may indicate a decline in population, or lack of accurate understanding of a species’ biology. This is what I would explain to all the volunteers I led on large mammal surveys when working in Transylvania. However, there is no denying that it is hugely rewarding when your hours of trekking up steep slopes result in finding a beautiful trail of perfect brown bear prints, or when that early start results in getting to see your (normally elusive) study species. Working in Transylvania was incredible, as we found signs and got camera trap footage of many elusive mammals, including martens, badgers, foxes, wild boar, wildcat and brown bear – and I even got to see a brown bear!

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

This fieldwork was also particularly rewarding because I got to share my knowledge and experience with the volunteers that came out. Teaching camera trapping skills and seeing how excited everyone got when we checked the memory cards was a great feeling. Hopefully some of these volunteers will go on to use the knowledge further on their own fieldwork adventures – and hopefully they will remember to pack a good pair of shoes!

Sian completed her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Reading and her Master’s by Research with the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife studying elephants in a wildlife corridor in Kenya. She loves to travel and explore new places – and if she gets to put up a few camera traps all the better! Her fieldwork has taken her to Costa Rica, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Romania; however, she is now back in Devon, UK looking to move on to a PhD and camera trapping any innocent animals that pass by! She can be found on Twitter at @SianGreen92.