Pulling a Jane Goodall

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Stacey Hollis.  A field biologist turned communicator, Stacey shares some details of her time in the field – and also what led to her decision to leave the field and pursue journalism.  For more about Stacey, check out her bio at the end of the post.

I like to say I “pulled a Jane Goodall”.

After more than five years of working in the field, studying all manner of bird species, I wanted out.

As much as I love working in nature, in even the most remote locales I was seeing first hand just how deeply humans are impacting this planet’s ecosystems. In fact, there is no better way to understand the effect humans have on the environment than by living in the middle of it – and that’s exactly what field biologists do.

I grew up reading Jane Goodall’s books about her work with chimpanzees and how she lived out in the rainforest alone in what seemed like a dream life. But she also saw the devastation that humans inflicted on that ecosystem. There’s no looking the other way when you’re trying to save a species that is suffering right in front of you. So Goodall came out of the field to bring the message of the chimpanzees to the public, to stop the destruction of the species by poaching and habitat loss.

Goodall didn’t want to leave the field, of course. I know she would have preferred to just stay in the forest with the chimps, just like I would have preferred to remain among the birds. But she realized that the only way to save the animals she loved was to spread the word to the masses. It was only through her tireless efforts in public speaking, advocating and raising awareness that she could hope to change the future for the chimps.

So out of the field I came, trying to emulate my hero and seeking ways to help the ecosystems and species that I so loved from afar. Since we spend so much time been on the front lines of conservation, field biologists need to share what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned with the public, for the love of nature and in order to conserve it.

A magnolia warbler in the hand.

Energetic and colourful: a magnolia warbler

Having spent practically the entirety of my childhood enamored with birds–I’ve been told my first word was “duck”–my intention has always been to dedicate my life to these feathered beings that have captured my attention since my eyes first met the sky. Wherever I was, walking down a forest or along a beach, even down a busy city sidewalk, they were ALWAYS there, decorating the world with their energetic, colourful lives.

When I was seven years old, my mother brought me on my first official birdwalk after convincing the hesitant leaders that a little girl would be overjoyed to walk at a snail’s pace for four hours, staring into the branches. I remember walking up to the group of binocular-adorned adults, clad in beige vests each sporting a plethora of pockets. They stood outside The Backyard Naturalist, the wild bird feed store and gift shop that organized these walks which ultimately helped steer the course of my life.

A birder from an early age…

Though approaching such a group of experts was intimidating for a little girl, it took me no time to warm up to these friendly, knowledgeable birders who, over time, became my teachers and who I still know and love to this day. After taking the entire morning to master the tiny binoculars they loaned me, determinedly attempting to train them on the frenzied flitting of spring warblers in the highest reaches of a huge old tree, I knew I was hooked.

But the greatest, most vivid memory was my first encounter with an American Kestrel. Our group was approaching Centennial Lake when someone said “kestrel” and suddenly tripods were propped into place and birding scopes were pointed at a tree at the edge of the lake down the hill from us. Being the youngest in the group, everyone very generously pushed me to the head of the line. I approached the scope and the powerful lens towered above me. From behind, I was held aloft to be able to train my eye to the viewfinder. Inside, I found what all the fuss was about: a tiny, brilliantly coloured falcon with a fierce stare belying its delicate appearance. I could hardly tear my eyes away; it was like I was looking through a portal to the future of what birds would forever mean to me.

A memorable sight: an American kestrel surveys his kingdom

This passion never faltered as I made my way through college, earning a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies, which gave me the opportunity to begin my first job in the field, working as an intern on islands off the coast of Maine with Audubon’s Project Puffin. Of my various field jobs – working in Canada with warblers, in Puerto Rico with Smooth-billed Anis, and out west with Burrowing Owls and woodpeckers – I’m not going to say Project Puffin was my favourite (because they all were), but this was the only field job I returned to twice more after the first go-round.

Fresh fish, anyone?  An Atlantic puffin with his catch

One of my most vivid memories from this job was also my very first:

Follow the leader: a female common eider leads her ducklings to water.

As a 19-year-old, shiny new field biologist (so designated by one Dr. Steve Kress), riding the swells of Maine’s Saco Bay to one of the Project Puffin-managed nesting colonies where I’d be spending my summer studying terns and puffins, a flurry of wings caught my attention from the beach of my soon-to-be island home. A momma Common Eider, a species of sea duck, was making her way up the beach followed by seven sooty, cottonball chicks. But those little vulnerable morsels out in the open were just too tempting for any nearby gull to pass up. Before my jaw could even drop in disbelief, every one of the chicks had already disappeared down the gullet of one of the gang of hungry gulls.

Fearless and opportunistic, a California gull scans the landscape for its next meal.

Gulls were a main contributor to tern and puffin mortality on the colonies and, were humans not stationed on these islands to help drive them away, they could easily and completely wipe out these sensitive seabird colonies. It’s because gulls do so prolifically well around human communities (thanks to their fearless and opportunistic nature and penchant for the occasional errant french fry), that they’ve become such a problem for these offshore-nesting birds which haven’t evolved adequate defences against them.

And these kinds of sights didn’t just stop at gulls, I found as I found myself witness to a broad and ever-widening range of human-related impacts on these avian ecosystems.  Raccoons and crows are an enormous problem for nesting shorebirds, as are the ever-strengthening storms that hit our coasts. Changing sea temperatures affect food supply of diving seabirds and we’ve seen it in the piles of warm water dwelling butterfish piled next to starving puffin chicks, whose mouths are unable to encompass the wide, silver-dollar-sized fish that their parents see as easy foraging. Habitat loss is also often an issue, as conversion of forests to logging lands leaves warblers returning from migration to a tragically devastated landscape where their nesting territory once was. Species are relegated to smaller and smaller patches of protected lands. And human influence is, of course, at the heart of all of these problems.

In 2011, I went for a Master’s degree in Journalism so I could learn to communicate my passions and frustrations in a way that could reach far and wide. If I can share my stories and the sights I’ve witnessed, maybe I can reach others in an attempt to help incite change for the better. As a field biologist turned environmental writer, I hope to convey information in a way that’s less dry and unappealing to the regular Joe than a scientific journal article tends to be. I’ve since written about my various travels working with a variety of birds, and I’ve found that, through photography and social media and a little humour, I can get the word out. It’s impossible to quantify whether my efforts have been a success and I feel like I’m still only just getting started, but if I can even just reach one person, perhaps a ripple effect will occur and future change might be achieved.

And if you ever find yourself in Olney, Maryland, be sure to ask Debi and Mike Klein, owners of Backyard Naturalist, for a look at the now-yellowed marker drawing of that American Kestrel still hanging in a corner of the store. Obviously, they got the message across.

Stacey has devoted her life to learning about and promoting awareness about birds and wildlife conservation. Graduating from Warren Wilson College with a BSc in Biology and Environmental Studies, she went on to work in avian field ecology and conservation research for five years. She’s worked on puffin nesting colonies off the coast of Maine, monitored and banded burrowing owls in the western United States, radio-tracked smooth billed anis in Puerto Rico and more. While her desire to stay in the field was strong, Stacey decided she needed to “pull a Jane Goodall” and leave the wild birds she loved in order to spread the message about the dire straits that they, and many other wildlife species, are in. Now with a MSc in Journalism from University of Oregon, she has gone on to write for Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and now manages and writes for Wild Lens, Inc.‘s Eyes on Conservation blog. Learn more about her at www.staceymhollis.com and @stacebird on Twitter.

Advertisements

It only took one run

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Scott Lynch, a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, to share how his love for field biology (with sharks!) started.

There are few experiences more unnerving than being told you have to run off a boat, up a ramp, and through a parking lot while carrying a 3-foot shark in your arms. I peered through the hot August Virginian sun, eyeing the obstacles along the boat, not quite believing that this was actually happening.

Just a few days beforehand I had been a newly hired undergraduate intern, working for a month optimizing my supervisor’s western blot protocol. Although I had said I wanted to work in the field when I was hired, I understood the importance of paying my dues. I worked hard at the tasks my supervisor gave me, until one day he asked to see me in his office. When I walked in he had one simple question for me: “How do you feel about Virginia?”

small town signWithin a few short days I was landing in Norfolk, Virginia, headed to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Eastern Shore Lab in Wachapreague. As a new undergraduate researcher I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a sleepy little town of 400 people, characterized by its charter fishing fleet, one large restaurant, and the research lab. As I approached the research lab I found it to be a small complex of buildings, including offices, staff housing, an under-construction dry lab, and a newly opened, state-of-the-art, wet lab. The newly opened building was a concrete hulk nestled on the edge of the salt marsh, the home of the animals studied there. It was accompanied by a set of docks and bobbing boats.

As I got out of the car I was immediately met by a rush of activity. A fresh set of oysters had been brought in for study. The boat was being unloaded and the huge clumps of mud containing oysters along with whatever else happened to get caught up in the shovel were being cleaned and separated. I immediately jumped in and learned just how frenzied and tiring life at a field station can be.

view of the salt marsh

The next morning I was up bright and early for my first encounter with sharks. The salt marsh around the lab is a common place to find juvenile sandbar sharks that time of year. I went out with the senior fish scientists at the lab and learned a great deal, very quickly about fishing and shark handling.

I also learned a great deal about the brutality of bugs on the Virginian Eastern Shore. They have these bugs that look like houseflies with green heads, earning them the creative nickname of “greenheads”. However, unlike houseflies, when they land on you, their bite draws blood – even straight through jeans sometimes. This leaves you with a hard choice: wear jeans, melt to death in the 100 degree (when you include the brutal humidity) weather, and still get bitten occasionally, or wear shorts, keep cooler, but get home with blood running down your legs?

Later that afternoon when we got back to the lab, it came time for that run with a shark in my arms to deposit it into the large outdoor holding tank. I have been asked time and again why we would transport the sharks in such a way and the simplest explanation is to minimize time in between breaths for the sharks. These animals are obligatory ram ventilators, meaning that they need to swim forward to be able to breath. In other words, they can breathe in the tank on the boat and in the holding tank, but still wouldn’t be able to breath in a tub small enough to also be able to carry or wheel around. Therefore, covering their eyes and gills with a wet cloth to protect them and simply running them between locations means that they have the smallest possible window between breaths.

I eyed the path I had to take to get off the boat: up the floating dock, around the corner, through the water tables (being careful not to trip on the pipes running along the ground), and up some stairs. Once at the top, I could carefully slide the shark into the water. Easy, right?

I wrapped the shark’s head in a soaked towel, held its jaw shut with my hands, and went for it. Now I’m a big guy (6’3”, around 300 lbs) so running is not my strong suit, but there is no motivator quite like having a shark in your arms and being responsible for its safety. Especially when a big part of that safety includes getting it back in the water as quickly as possible. I jumped off the boat, ran up the ramp, through the water tables, up the stairs, and with great relief deposited the shark into the water. As the shark slipped out of my hands and took off, I was immediately hooked.

taking some measurementsFrom that point on, working 17 hour days dealing with the heat, the bugs, and the danger of handling live sharks was nothing but exhilarating to me. I worked through meals, woke up in the middle of the night to check on my sharks, and was happy for every minute of the work. I had absolutely caught the shark bug, and the field work bug too.

From those summers working with juvenile sandbars in remote Virginia I have stories of near shark bites, drowning scares out on the mud flats, and so many stories of evil salt marsh bugs. While I love telling all of these stories, and gladly will if you give me a minute of your time, nothing since has ever affected me as much as that first day at the field station, and that first time running a shark.

 

Scott on a boatScott Lynch is a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he studies white shark movement and also works full time as the Technical Services Coordinator for Campus Services. He holds his BS in Marine Biology from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he conducted work on the effects of satellite telemetry tags on juvenile sandbar sharks. Twitter: @savindafishies

Sneak Preview of “Bats of Ontario”

This week Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Toby J. Thorne, who wants to share with you a sneak peak into the “Bats of Ontario” field guide he wrote. Check out the end of the post for where to purchase it!

Most field biologists will consult a field guide at some point in their careers. Whatever critters you’re studying, it helps to know what they look like, along with basic characteristics or measurements! Certainly I have accumulated my own small collection of field guides over the years. Field guides are exciting: filled with aspiration, and the promise of new adventures and discoveries. They are also working books. A true field guide is intended to be well thumbed, stuffed into packs, and referenced in all weathers.

But despite my love of field guides, I never gave much thought to where they come from. At least, not until someone suggested I write one.

For the past few years I have volunteered with the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. Founded by Phill and Sue Holder, the fund is in memory of their son Matt, a keen naturalist who died unexpectedly young. The fund’s goal is to provide opportunities for young people to get involved in nature, and Phill hopes to support the fund through the sale of field guides. To this end, he produces a range of well put-together guides. To date these include books on birds and moths in Southern Ontario, along with several checklists for Thickson’s Woods in Whitby, where the fund’s activities are centered. When he suggested I should write one for bats in Ontario I couldn’t say no!

A good guidebook is important when working with bats. In the tropics there can be hundreds of species, many of them understudied. In more temperate regions such as Canada, there are fewer species – for example, Ontario is home to just eight. Yet while there are not many species to learn for Ontario, figuring out how to tell them apart can be quite tricky. To add further confusion, there are two distinct identification methods for bats.

One way is to catch them and have a close up look. This works most of the time (if you have the appropriate skills and permits to do so), but sometimes it’s easier said than done. I have previously caught two species of European bats whose key differences are a tiny tooth cusp and penis shape. The second of those is only useful about half the time!

hoary bat in flight

A hoary bat, Ontario’s largest species, in flight. Although the bat’s open mouth and bared teeth may appear aggressive, this is actually just the bat echolocating to ‘see’ its way. Photo by Brock Fenton.

The second way to identify bats is to monitor them acoustically. Due to the difficulty and invasiveness of catching them, this is often the preferred method. Acoustic monitoring involves listening to the echolocation calls bats make during flight. The calls allow us to determine where bats are, and get a relative measure of bat activity. We can also try to differentiate between species of bat by their differing calls.

In practice, using calls to identify species is not simple. Bat echolocation calls depend on an individual’s environment and what it is doing. This means that different species of bats that are doing similar things can sound similar.  Also, to make it more confusing, the same bat can sound quite different depending on what it is doing!

These difficulties keep life interesting when you’re trying to ID bats, and made assembling a field guide seem like an attractive challenge. When I started, there was an excellent earlier guide still available, but at ten years old it is a little out of date on a few things, so producing my own guide was also an excellent opportunity to share some more up-to- date information.

An initial problem (and the one that worried me the most), was assembling suitable illustrations. Most of my own photo collection is of UK species, as that was where I first learned about bats before moving to Canada for my MSc. Since arriving in Canada I’ve managed to photograph some species, but not them all.

Luckily, Phill came up trumps on this front. He was able to negotiate the use of artwork by Fiona Reid, an incredible wildlife artist, for the guide. Fiona is the author and illustrator of the Peterson Guide to Mammals of North America. Phill has set the layout of the book around life size reproductions of Fiona’s illustration of each species, and the use of her artwork has elevated the book to something much better than I could have hoped.

Once Fiona had agreed to contribute her illustrations, I really started to feel the pressure to match her efforts with equal effort of my own! Over the past few years, living in Ontario and working with bats, I have become familiar with the local bat species. However, writing the species descriptions for the guide called for some research. It was necessary to fill in a few gaps and check for knowledge I’d not come across. Also, this was an opportunity to check the things I already ‘knew’. It’s always good to question ourselves!

little brown myotis bat in flight

A little brown myotis bat in flight. Previously widespread, many populations of this species have declined massively in Ontario and eastern North America in recent years. Photo by Brock Fenton.

While species accounts are the key parts of a guide, I found that I also enjoyed writing the introductory sections, which included background information about bats. There are also several sections aimed at beginners interested in learning how to watch bats.

Overall, producing the book has been a great experience, and I learned a lot in the process. It is great to have the chance to share that knowledge and hopefully encourage more interest in these amazing animals! Currently, bats are facing several worrying conservation threats (particularly in North America), and they need all the friends they can get!

Bats of Ontario is available online here:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/shop/

All proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. If you want to learn more about the fund, attend events or get involved, check out:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/

Toby caught his first bat at the age of eleven, and has been chasing them every since. After spending his teenage years catching and learning about bats in the UK and completed an undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Oxford. He moved to Canada in 2013 to undertake a researcher masters supervised by renowned bat researcher Dr. Brock Fenton. Since graduating he has continued to work on bat projects, and currently divides his time between the Ontario Land Trust Alliance and the Toronto Zoo, where he is spearheading the Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program.

Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I worked for several years in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, working sometimes on United States Bureau of Land Management land, but mostly in the vast emptiness of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.  This active military bombing and live munitions training ground is one of the biggest chunks of “untouched” Sonoran Desert.  Containing desert mountains, sand dunes, and many of the most interesting desert habitats in between, this parcel of land stretches for over 1.5 million acres.  It may be a toss-up, but that is about the size of the state of Delaware.  Having such a large undeveloped area means that it is home to lots of different species of wildlife, and is one of the last refuges of the endangered Sonoran Desert Pronghorn.

Surveying the site from the air to see which water sites needed to be visited on foot.

It was a surprise to me to learn that military lands often have some of the best habitat available for plant and wildlife management.  When I stopped to think about it though, it made sense.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has over 400 installations in the US with about 25 million acres.  Many, if not most, of these acres are undeveloped.  That means that apart from military operations, these areas go mainly untouched, and because of the country’s resource protection laws (which the military abides by), are fairly well managed.  Security and safety reasons mean that these large swaths of land have not felt the pressure of habitat-loss; some 300 U.S. endangered or threatened species make DoD lands their home, and the military helps take care of them.

Back to the story:  I was looking at a small marker bomb sitting in the road way, a new bit of UXO (unexploded ordinance).  It was only a small bomb, used in training runs to show how well the pilot hit his mark, but since the sighting towers had to be able to see where it hit, there was still enough explosive to tear the front end of the truck apart and send the diesel engine block into my chest cavity.  That may sounds like an exaggeration, but that is how the managers on the range described it to me and I didn’t want to find out if they were right.

You see all kinds of life at desert watering holes…

We had been granted access to this live-fire part of the range, a rare treat for our research team.  We were trying to reach some of the most remote desert water sites to study their water quality and biodiversity – with the ultimate goal of creating better man-made water sites for desert wildlife. We were studying the differences in construction and ecology at natural and man-made “guzzlers” to better serve not only large game species, such as bighorn sheep, but also small creatures like Sonoran Desert Toads and dragonflies.

Like I said, we wanted to get there and we only had a small window to get through this section of the desert before the range opened back up for live fire exercises.  To go off road in this section was strictly forbidden; even if it weren’t, it would be extremely dangerous. The small bomb before us had many siblings in the sand and brush around us.  Many of these siblings were much larger than the one we could see.  And just like with people, age and exposure to the elements makes bombs much more persnickety.  We had about 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the truck and the item.   A decision had to be made: either turn around and race for the last staging area, which we could get to just within our time window, or drive over the thing to get to the end of the road and hope for the best.

Upon reflection, I made the wrong decision that day: I crept the truck along until we silently (as silent as the idle speed of a diesel can be) glided over the top of the marker bomb.  I don’t think I breathed during the entire time it took to painstakingly thread our 4WD differentials, which hung low on the less-than-even road, around the obstacle.  Finally I was able to breathe as my research partner Jordan waved an all clear from a safe distance down the road.  I got GPS coordinates so the military could remove the bomb and we were on our way!

We were eventually able to collect some great data at those water sites, but it could have gone poorly.  Fieldwork on the Air Force Range was often a trade-off between safety and results. Our supervisor probably would have had an aneurism if she had known about many of our choices, and rightfully so.  At times the temperatures were above 120 °F with 70% humidity, making it literally dangerous just to walk for longer than a mile.  Spiny plants and toothy reptiles abounded and rugged terrain was always trying to destroy our ankles.  We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area.

We weren’t the only ones facing the problem of spiny plants…

Despite all of it, though, the desert became my adopted home: I really love the place. I care deeply about the people, plants, and animals. I could tell many more stories and hopefully I will down the road, but right now I have to get back to chasing some wildlife.

Chasing some desert dragonflies…

Joe Drake is a recovering field biologist. A member of several professional  scientific societies, he is interested in spatial ecology, desert  ecology, wildlife conservation, and science outreach/communication.  When he isn’t studying or working, you can find him in the woods, on  the river, or in his workshop; he loves home brewing, backpacking,  fishing, writing, and photography. Before he returned to school, Joe worked for various federal agencies and universities across the Western U.S. (living out of the back of his beat-up Ford Ranger) and  internationally in the “bio-tech circuit” for 4 years.  The West’s wilderness stole his heart before he returned to school to get his  M.S. at Texas Tech University, and he has continued on to the University of Massachusetts where he is working towards his Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Chris Sutherland.  He is just about to embark on a new field project in the Scottish Highlands, and will be blogging and tweeting about the experience as he goes.  Keep  up to date with his work or get in touch at  https://secretlifeofafieldbiologist.wordpress.com/.

Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.

garter-snake-1

A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.

map

The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.

Cold comfort

Light raindrops pattered against the tarp stretched above my head.  Deep inside my tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, I shivered.  The damp cold of the day had made its way insidiously through my layers of clothing, freezing me from the inside out – and we had only been sitting here for two hours, meaning we had at least six more to go.  I sighed, resigning myself to a(nother) cold, clammy, uncomfortable day.

Most field biologists have spent at least a few days freezing their butts off in the field.  Unfortunately for me, however, being cold is not something I’m particularly tolerant of.  And in this case, the deep chill seeping into my bones was somewhat unexpected – because most people don’t go to Hawaii to be cold.

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, field biologists often get a unique perspective of the places where they work.  So while bikini-clad tourists lay tanning on the beach less than 50 km away, I spent most of my time in Hawaii clad in at least three layers of clothing, huddled on the northeastern slopes of the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea.

As it happens, Mauna Kea is not just the tallest mountain in Hawaii – it is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how you look at it).  From its base on the sea floor, it rises over 33,000 feet – almost 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.  Of course, only 13,802 of those feet actually rise above the surface of the ocean – but it’s still a lot colder at thirteen thousand feet in the air than it is at sea level.  The top of Mauna Kea is frequently snow-covered in winter, and spending a rainy day hanging out on its slopes can be a chilly experience.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

No one mentioned this aspect of Mauna Kea to me before I took the job – or, indeed, filled me in on the fact that our field accommodations were luxurious in every way except one: they had no heat.  And so I spent a great deal of my time in Hawaii shivering.  (In fact, I was once so cold that I tried warming my hands over the open flame of our gas stove.  This backfired when the sleeve of my sweatshirt caught fire – but for just an instant, before I extinguished the flames in the sink, all I could think was, “Wow! My hands are finally warm!”)

However, while the damp, misty chill of the Hawaiian forest was perhaps not ideal for field biologists (at least, not for me), it turns out that it’s pretty important for the organisms we were there to study: the birds.

I went to Hakalau to work as a field assistant on a long-term study examining population trends of Hawaiian forest birds.  Although just about anyone would be excited to be spending the winter months in Hawaii, I was excited for an entirely different reason than most people: Hawaiian honeycreepers are one of the poster children of adaptive radiation.

An 'akiapola'au shows off his amazing multi-tool bill.

An ‘akiapola’au shows off his amazing, multi-purpose bill.

Arising from a single, unspecialized ancestor species, Hawaiian honeycreeper species have exploded to fill multiple ecological niches on the islands.  There are finch-like honeycreepers and parrot-like honeycreepers and warbler-like honeycreepers.  And then there’s my particular favourite: the ‘akiapola’au – which we nicknamed the ‘Swiss Army knife bird’.  ‘Akis fill the woodpecker niche in the Hawaiian forest.  They use their straight, strong lower bills to drill holes in tree bark, and their long, curved upper bills to probe those holes for insect larvae.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, i'iwis are hard to miss.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, ‘i’iwis are hard to miss.

It’s one thing to learn about adaptive radiation in a lecture hall…but quite another to see its results, firsthand, in the field.  Honeycreepers may not be the quintessential example of adaptive radiation – that honour being reserved for Darwin’s Galapagos finches – but they are (with all due respect to Darwin) definitely one of the most dazzling.  My first day at Hakalau, I was constantly distracted by flashes of colour, as the deep scarlet of an ‘i‘iwi or the bright orange of an ‘akepa flitted through the nearby ‘ohi‘a trees.  Seeing their endless, beautiful forms brought evolution to life for me in a way that four years of undergraduate biology textbooks never had.

Unfortunately, however, Hawaiian birds are not just the poster child for adaptive radiation.  They could also be featured on posters for another buzzword concept in biology: multiple stressors.  Hawaiian birds are currently under attack from every side…and, more often than not, they’re losing the fight.

The plight of Hawaii’s forest birds started – as these stories so often do – when humans showed up, changing habitats and trailing with us the usual host of desired and not-so-desired biological companions.  From rats and house cats to feral pigs, non-native bird species, and mosquitoes, humans unleashed (sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally) a tidal wave of invasive species that swamped the delicate balance of life on the remote Hawaiian islands.

While each of these invasive species individually has a negative effect on Hawaii’s native birds, it’s in concert with each other that they become especially dangerous.  Some of the introduced bird species on the island arrived there carrying avian malaria, a blood parasite that is relatively common in most places, but foreign to Hawaii.  The introduced mosquitoes acted as vectors to transfer that parasite to the native birds – which had never been exposed to it, and hence were completely lacking any defences.  Even the feral pigs got in on the act, digging up roots in the forest and inadvertently creating hollows which filled with water, providing ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.  It’s a multi-pronged attack, and one that has resulted in the decimation of many of Hawaii’s native bird species.

But these native birds do have one thing going for them – the cold.  Mosquitoes are largely restricted to low elevation areas of the islands (~5000 feet), as their larvae don’t develop properly at the lower temperatures found further up the slopes.  So high elevation forests, like those found at Hakalau, have for decades acted as refuges for Hawaiian honeycreepers.

And therein lies yet another problem: we all know, as the climate warms, that cold places will not necessarily stay cold.  In Hawaii, climate change is yet another stressor for the birds.  Increasing temperatures will likely mean the end of these high altitude refuges, and even more dramatic declines in honeycreeper populations, as has been documented in recent studies on the island of Kaua’i.  Slowing the rate of climate change may be the only hope for some of these already beleaguered species.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not very good at being cold – in fact, it makes me decidedly grumpy.  But while I was in Hawaii, watching an ‘i‘iwi feed on the bright pink flowers of an ‘ohi‘a or an ‘akiapola’au hammering holes in the bark of a koa tree more than made up for the damp chill.  Without the cold, I might never have had the chance to see these spectacular and declining species.  That realization alone was enough to make me almost appreciate the shivering…except perhaps for the day I caught my sleeve on fire.

An endangered Hawaii 'akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

An endangered Hawaii ‘akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

The Secret Life of Team Honey Bee

With 7 species of bees being listed as endangered species this week, it is good timing to welcome a guest post by Rachael E. Bonoan, a  Ph. D. candidate from Tufts University about her research with honey bees. 

“Anyone have to pee?” I ask loudly so that Joanna, one of my interns, will wake up. It has been a long week of long drives, made longer by the fact that the air conditioning in my 1996 Honda Accord is broken. We have finally reached the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine (Tufts Vet) in Grafton, MA for the third and final time this week, and the campus center is our last chance to use the bathroom before going out to the field.

Joanna stirs enough to mutter “No.” James, another one of my interns, and I head into the air-conditioned campus center for a moment of relief. Minutes later, we take Wildlife Drive, turn right onto Cornfield Lane, and then left onto Discovery Drive. Further ahead, Discovery Drive turns into a dirt road which leads us to our field site. (I like to think that the fact that our field site is off Discovery Drive is good karma.)

My Honda rocks up and down as we take the dirt road. In no time, we are at the edge of a sprawling field. Our field. I pull my Honda up to the edge of the grass and put it in park. Earlier in the week, I learned that driving across the field of tall grass is not the best idea if I want my car’s low suspension to last the summer.

We step out of the car, stretch, and take in the sights and smells of Tufts Vet. Yes, smells. Our field is near one of Tufts Vet’s swine barns; we are sometimes welcomed by the smell of pigsty. It’s not a pleasant smell but it always brings me back to my childhood, when my grandparents lived near a pig farm. More pleasant though, is the smell of the dewy grass that has made early morning fieldwork worth the drive from the city.

I look out into the field as we unload my car. The six beehives we have already set up are neatly tucked away along a row of trees. From the dirt road, you would never know they were there. Scattered throughout the green field are large rolls of grass ready to be fed to the cows under the blue, cloud-speckled sky.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

Our field site at Tufts Vet in Grafton, MA.

James, Joanna, and I carry our supplies to the appropriate spot among the trees and begin setting up our final three hives, making a total of nine hives ready to be filled with bees. Our week’s work complete, we return to the car for our drive back to the city. Although our hives are ready for bees, our bees will not be ready for pick up until next week.

3 bee hives

Three of our nine hives at the shady edge of the field with James and Joanna comparing notes (and my car) in the background.

When the day to pick up the bees finally arrives, we excitedly return to Tufts Vet with nine small boxes of bees strategically packed into my Honda. These small boxes of bees are called nucleus colonies, or nucs. A nuc is a small colony of bees that is then installed into a larger hive. On this happy day, we traipse through the now-taller grass and place one nuc outside each hive. We let the nucs rest after the stressful drive while we head to the campus center to relieve our bladders and refuel before our work begins.

Refreshed, we begin the installation. As we install the bees into their new homes, we examine each nuc to make sure there is a queen and that the colony is healthy. After each frame of bees is carefully inspected, we move it from the red nuc into our freshly painted yellow hive. This is James and Joanna’s first real beekeeping experience, and my first experience installing bees. We are all excited.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

James and Joanna inspecting a frame of bees as they install the bees into their new home.

With the bees installed, we are ready to begin our experiment. For this summer’s study, we are measuring foraging effort of our hives. To do this, we sit outside each hive and count the number of bees leaving the hive in 10-minute intervals. To aid with the counting, we enlist a couple more helping hands. Adam, a beekeeper, budding biologist, and high school student from Lexington, MA joins us, as does Luke, a Tufts undergraduate who has been working with Team Honey Bee for over a year. I appreciate the extra help but I especially enjoy giving more young scientists a chance to experience fieldwork firsthand.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

Adam counting bees leaving the hive.

As a kid, I loved catching and observing insects. It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year of college that I realized I could catch and observe insects as my job. That summer, I worked with butterflies and fell in love with fieldwork. For my study, I caught butterflies in the field and raised their caterpillars in the lab.

Working with the butterflies, I learned how to tell the difference between a male and female simply based on how the butterfly was flying. I learned how to gently handle the insects in order to stress them out as little as possible. I learned that fieldwork takes a tremendous amount of creativity and troubleshooting, and a lot of trips to the hardware store. But in the end, I learned that it’s all worth it.

Watching my bees, I again feel this intimate connection with my study system. I can hear (and even smell!) when my bees are angry; I can identify how honey bees fly compared to other bees; I can point out which bees in the hive are the youngest just by looking at them.

Although it sounds (and sometimes is) tedious, I feel true joy in our fieldwork while sitting quietly and counting bees. After all the driving and preparation, we are finally collecting data! And outside in a beautiful place no less! Sitting there in our field, watching our bees, I hear only their collective buzz and chirping birds. No cars, no sirens, no indications of the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. Tufts Vet is truly a rural oasis for both humans and bees, and sitting there in the open field always manages to put me at peace.

VIDEO: https://vimeo.com/178503484

CAPTION: Foraging honey bees, slowed down to ¼ speed. For the play-by-play of this video, check out my blog post, Organized Chaos, at http://www.rachaelebonoan.com/blog.

Twitter: @RachaelEBee