The Rana Scare (and everything that happened before)

This week we are happy to welcome Lucy Chen who shares her story of getting to know fieldwork and her lab mates! For more about Lucy, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It was early spring, and the trees around us were budding fresh green leaves.

“So…. What do you do for fun up there?”

Lucy holding a Wood Frog found in the wild on a hiking trip, not long after arriving at QUBS. Little did she know what would happen in the next two months.

That was my umpteenth attempt to engage Tash, the lab technician, in conversation. We were driving along the sinuous road leading to the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), which boasts some 3400 hectares of land within the Frontenac Axis in Ontario. I had won a scholarship to do a summer research project on the effects of oil-sands contaminants on wood frogs, and it was going to be my first time running an exposure experiment in the field. The main experiment has already started; since I had been thrown right into the middle of it all, I wanted desperately to catch up.

Tash’s aura of effortless badassery impressed me, but unfortunately my admiration for her seemed one-sided, as she was rather taciturn that morning. She answered all my questions nicely and matter-of-factedly, but then I’d run out of things to ask her, and silence would ensue. I felt we were both exhausted by my interrogation technique, which I learned from a workshop on how to bond with strangers. You gotta peel the onion, the spunky presenter had said, ask follow-up questions! The trouble was, no one told me what to do when the other person didn’t reciprocate with an equally enthusiastic volley of ­onion-peeling.

As I mulled over my social ineptitude, we turned onto a little country path off the road, flanked by a field on one side and a forest on the other. Toward the end of the path was “The Lodge”—the visitor centre and cafeteria of QUBS, an elegant, spacious building that looked like an oversized cabin. Our experimental site was a small clearing in the woods with a shed and eight large cattle tanks, each containing hundreds of tadpoles housed in stainless-steel bowls. Tash took me to our cabin by Opinicon Lake, just steps away from the tadpoles. I dropped off my things, took a deep breath—thus began my first day at QUBS.

Lake Opinicon in the summer.

My question about “fun” was soon answered. The Lodge was the social hub of QUBS, being the one of the only buildings with precious access to the internet. The dozen-or-so young researchers in residence would drive to a town six kilometers away to stock up on beverages and then frequently spend their evenings playing drinking games—one of the great highlights of the QUBS experience, to my horror. As I lacked anything to drink that first evening, I puritanically took a cup of water to the table. “Act normal,” I told myself, casually sipping away at my colourless liquid like I was really having fun. I spent a lot of the evening scanning the room to assess the social hierarchy: the alphas (life of the party), the butt of the jokes (chill dudes), the provocateurs, and the harmony-loving followers. Exhausted from the hard work of keeping up with the banter, I fell into a dreamless slumber that night. I had always thought of field work as solitary work involving only a few lab mates, so that first night at QUBS caught me completely unprepared.

I would have felt totally out of place if not for Sam, an incoming grad student and my other colleague at QUBS. Together, we would run two parallel experiments on the tadpoles over the summer. Sam was very tall with a childlike, carefree demeanor, perpetually cheerful and often singled out by cafeteria ladies to help with chores. Fueled by copious amounts of coffee and Youtube videos every morning, he could instantly recall any piece of information and animate any dull conversation. Most importantly, he could make Tash tell funny stories. In short, to me, Sam was a rainbow-pooping unicorn.

Despite my initial misgivings, curiosity quickly got the better of me. Never had I been in a place with so many knowledgeable people and so many strange gadgets. There were the bird people, who got up at ungodly hours; the mice people, who trekked around the woods all day setting rodent traps filled with peanut butter and apple chunks; and the fish people, who plunged into freezing lake water and came back with fingers bleeding from fish spines. Apart from the researchers, there were the wonderful cafeteria ladies Laura, Veronica and Crystal, who fed us very nice food, which also helped put me out of my antisocial mood. The second day, I devised a plan. I made it a point to talk to everyone about their work to become more comfortable around people at future social events. I also asked Veronica for her baked fries recipe, which turned out chewy, subtly garlicky spuds (For the rest of the summer, she and Laura would sneak leftover food for me to snack on after dinner so that I wouldn’t go “starving”).

Although my social life at QUBS was looking up, as the new comer, I still struggled to understand the daily logistical concerns of my lab mates. How should we schedule sampling days? How many cryovials do we need for tissue samples? Would certain sampling tools arrive too late, and if so, what should we do? I had no idea how to contribute to these conversations, which bothered me.

Collecting pond water with Aaron, the summer field technician (left), Tash (centre), and Sam (right).

My feeling of uselessness was not helped by my physical frailty. The water we used to raise our tadpoles came from a shallow vernal pond nearby every two weeks, we needed to put on chest-waders to collect dozens of buckets of it. I quickly learned that I could barely keep my head above water; my skinny arms could barely sustain the weight of one bucket. To cheer myself up, I took it upon myself to document the entire experiment with my camera. Looking back, I don’t think Sam and Tash minded me not knowing anything about purchasing equipment or not carrying the water, but it certainly made me question whether fieldwork was really my thing.

Fortunately, as summer drew near, lush green ferns started unfurling their fronds all around the lakes. I diverted myself by going around the property collecting pressed fern samples. (Sam took an interest in my Victorian hobby and helped me find the best spots.) The good weather also led to campfire nights, where I discovered Tash’s penchant for sassy, off-colour jokes. I began to appreciate these social events, which made working in the field a great deal more tolerable. Moreover, once my tadpoles were old enough for me to perform behaviour tests on them, I threw myself into the work and felt a lot better. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Me (left), Lauren (centre) and Tash (right) at our field site, taken with Lauren’s phone with a fish-eye lense she borrowed from Sam.

Gradually, we all settled into a routine, checking in on the tadpoles in the morning and prepping for sampling days in the afternoon. As the tadpoles approached metamorphosis, popping out little arms and taking on the droll appearance of strange four-legged fish, we found out that a volunteer student, Lauren, was coming up to help us. When Lauren first saw our tadpoles, she squealed with excitement. Lauren had a great sense of fun, and her amazement at everything made her a refreshing addition to our team. Lauren’s time with us was really the highlight of the summer, packed with star-gazing trips and canoe outings on the lake.

Riding on the waves of everyone’s high spirits, I went home for a break. Little did I know that, while I was away, half of our tadpoles would die from a Ranavirus outbreak. When I came back, I met a crestfallen Lauren by the lake and ran to the Lodge to find Sam with bloodshot eyes—there went his thesis experiment! My stomach churned. I felt worse for Sam than for myself. Sam had been researching Ranavirus for two days ever since he stumbled upon the tadpoles dying en masse. He told me that this specific genus of virus was a significant contributing factor for the global decline of amphibians. The virus most likely had lain dormant in the pond from which we collected water and became active with the warm weather. The virus quickly spread as the tadpoles started cannibalizing the infected cadavers.

I’m pretty sure some expletives were used as we sat together trying to come to terms with this terrible surprise. They were so close to becoming frogs, we said in disbelief, how could Mother Nature do this to us? I remembered something one of the fish people told me: “Anything that can go wrong in the field will go wrong.” It’s amazing how much truth is contained in this smug little aphorism. We took out the pale, lifeless little bodies out of their buckets and watched them pile up. We all felt personally responsible for their deaths. Fortunately, our supervisor drove up to comfort us as soon as she could. She reassured us again and again that it wasn’t our fault, and that we still had enough data to make it all worthwhile.

Ultimately, I truly believe our shared misery brought us closer than ever. We cut the experiments short, sampled the surviving tadpoles, and packed our things into the lab van. As Sam, Tash and I drove away from QUBS down a road now bordered with lushly verdant trees, we talked and laughed and joked about abandoning our careers in academia. Was it wrong to leave the field with such a feeling of relief? One thing was certain: I never thought that my first experience in the field would be so fraught with emotions.

Lucy X. Chen spent one year studying wood frogs at the QE3 lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, headed by Dr. Diane Orihel. Lucy graduated from Queen’s with a BSc in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and will start an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at Oxford University starting October 2018. Her further adventures and musings will be chronicled at lucyxchen.wordpress.com.

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Look – a Chamois! 

We are excited to welcome Dr. Deborah Leigh to the blog today. Deborah is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Although Deborah is a seasoned Field Biologist, today she writes about her first adventure in the field doing her own work! For more about Deborah, see the end of this post. 

Fieldwork for me has taken many forms. It has ranged from a few exhausting hours scrambling around the Alps to get Ibex tissue samples, to months at remote field stations, living and breathing for each data point or blood sample. But whatever the length, location or purpose, fieldwork has always been inspiring. Sure you have the moments where you are wet, grumpy, tired, and probably shouldn’t have just said what you did to your equally soggy companion, but being in the field and seeing your study organism is blissful to me. (I write this of course, from the warm and dry of my office. So the field’s gifts of blisters, bruises from falls (every time I go into a forest!), and damp socks, have been erased by nostalgia.)

Though I was lucky enough to do fieldwork from early on in my Bachelor’s degree, the first time I went into the field for myself was during my PhD. (Sadly, I never saw the elusive Corncrake from my Master’s in the wild.) So it was with impish glee that I stumbled upon my first Alpine Ibex at the top of Pilatus in the first month of my PhD. There she was, hiding in amongst the rocks, basking in the sun.

The first Ibex I saw

For those of you who have been to Pilatus, you will know that this is not a difficult site to reach. There is a funicular train that takes you up to the top of the two thousand meter peak, and you will probably see Ibex from the train if you are lucky. Due to the accessibility of the site, I shared my profound moment of scientific development with two tourists who insisted that my Ibex was, in fact, a Chamois. (Dude, no – just no).

For me, however, the journey to this Ibex was so much more arduous then the planes, trains and automobiles the tourists had used to arrive on the peak.  I had moved to Switzerland only weeks before, starting my PhD immediately after finishing my MSc and spending a field season in New Zealand. Needless to say, I was exhausted and felt completely out of my depth. My lab mates all seemed very tall, very wise, and painfully smart.  No one understood my British sarcasm; in fact, they initially thought I was horribly rude because of it. And I certainly did not understand Swiss German.

However that moment of seeing an Ibex amongst the rocks made me glow with happiness. The angst and exhaustion melted away and I knew I was working on something I found amazing and I would make the most of this – if not for me then for the Ibex. In amongst the tourists’ Chamois proclamations, I snapped a picture that still fills me with the joy and peace of that moment.

I guess my point is that though fieldwork physically serves a purpose in many graduate student projects, it should also form a part of those for which it isn’t ‘essential’. Without those amazing moments, you might never have a fire for your project, and you really need that fire in your gut to drag yourself through a PhD.

Fieldwork doesn’t have to be an epic saga where you sit in a tent for 6 months and grow increasingly mouldy; it can be a few hours or days of just observing. I think that’s important to say, because many field biologists look down on fieldwork that isn’t all encompassing. But there’s no reason they should: the point of fieldwork can be scientific exploration, collection, or inspiration, and it can be a sprint or a marathon. Whatever lights that fire and keeps you going through the dark tunnel of the thesis write-up work for me.

So go get your boots muddy.

 

Deborah is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, Canada. She currently works in the Friesen lab, using genomic tools to understand local adaptation in Seabird populations. Her career has taken her from Edinburgh University (BSc), to Imperial College London (MRes), to the University of Zurich (PhD). She dabbled in behavioural ecology before moving to genetics and then genomics. Deborah has done field work in the Cairngorms (Hoverflies), St Kilda (Soay Sheep), New Zealand (Hihi project), Switzlerand and Italy (Ibex). You can read more at https://deborahmleigh.weebly.com/ 

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.

Morabeza!

This week, Dispatches is very excited to welcome back guest poster Becky Taylor – who has become Dr. Taylor since we last heard from her.  Becky shares with us a true story of surviving a full-fledged fieldwork catastrophe with nothing more than determination and a lot of kindness from strangers.  For more about Becky, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It’s funny how some moments are forever fixed in your mind’s eye, like a snapshot that you can recall in absolute detail. I am standing on a beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, marooned on an uninhabited desert islet in Cape Verde (off the coast of western Africa), with two other people and no possessions but the clothes on our backs (and a bottle of Cape Verde wine), gazing at the carnage that was our campsite. How, you may ask, did I find myself in this situation?

The isolated beaches of Cape Verde are a beautiful place to work…and a frightening place to be marooned.

I don’t want this post to be in any way negative about Cape Verde itself. Quite the contrary. It is by far one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I have ever been to, and the sheer kindness of the people who live there was not only welcoming from the minute I arrived, but a life saver when things didn’t go to plan. They have a saying in Cape Verde: ‘Morabeza’! From what I understand, it translates as ‘treat guests exactly as family’…and that is exactly what they did.

I travelled to Cape Verde during my Ph.D., for which I was studying genomic variation in band-rumped storm-petrels. These are small, nocturnal seabirds that breed on remote islands, and a population of particular interest to me lives on some of the small islets in Cape Verde. I travelled first to Fogo Island, one of the bigger inhabited islands, to plan for field work and meet up with my wonderful field leader, Herculano, the manager of Parque Natural de Fogo.

Pico do Fogo

While we were planning our work, Herculano took me to Pico do Fogo, the active volcano that gives the island its name. It is an area of stunning beauty, and I had the opportunity to hike on the lava field and go caving through lava flow tunnels. While on Fogo, I also swam in a beautiful lagoon, enjoyed the soft black sand beaches, sampled wine in the local winery, and ate fried eel (which is actually very good)! There are few tourists who visit Fogo island, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets!!

Our campsite home on Ilheu de Cima.

After sightseeing and gathering supplies, it was time to start fieldwork! We needed to catch storm-petrels on a small islet called Ilheu de Cima. As Cima is nothing but rock and a string of beaches, we had to bring all of our supplies with us, including food and water. Herculano arranged for some local fisherman to drop the three of us (himself, my field assistant and childhood bestie Freyja, and me) off on Cima with our camping supplies. And for the first few days we enjoyed our own little island paradise.

By day we would explore the small islet, trying to find some shelter from the sun, although shade was very hard to come by. Luckily I like hot weather, so I was thoroughly enjoying the heat and our many private beaches.

All ready for action: Freyja and Herculano with our mist net.

As the storm-petrels are nocturnal, we would hike to the nesting colony before sunset, scramble down a rock face on the far side of the 1km islet, and set up our mist net to catch birds as they flew to and from their rock crevice nests. Usually we would catch birds until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before packing up and hiking back to camp. As it was September we were fortunate enough to be there during the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, and we (very quietly) would watch females lay their eggs as we wound down from our work!

It all sounds amazing, right? Too good to be true, I suppose. One night, after a really great night of sampling, we hiked back to camp to find….well…no camp.

All that remained of our campsite…

And that brings us to the point at which I started my story. We stood on the beach realizing that our entire camp was gone (aside from that one bottle of wine, which had somehow survived). We can’t be 100% sure what happened, but it looked like a big wave came in and washed everything out to sea. Bits of debris were scattered across the beach, and our tents (which we had anchored with boulders) were gone – along with everything that was inside. And obviously when you are camping on an uninhabited islet, there is no one to steal your possessions, and so you don’t mind leaving everything in your tent. For example, your passport, money, bank cards, and ID’s. Damn.

Can’t complain about the view…

So what do you do in that moment? Well, we sat on top of the islet, watched one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and swigged from the wine bottle, feeling defeated. Thankfully we had kept our phones on us and so could call for help.  Eventually, we managed to get hold of the fisherman, who rescued us that afternoon.

Back on Fogo, Freyja and I realised we were now in a foreign country with no way of accessing money or identifying ourselves. We relied on the kindness of Herculano, his family, and the other locals, to provide food and shelter (and some spare clothes). Without their help I don’t know what we would have done. It was a big learning experience for me, accepting so much from people I hardly knew. Morabeza indeed!

Freyja and I are both British citizens, but there is no British consulate in Cape Verde, so the British consulate communicated with the Portuguese consulate to provide us with temporary travel documents. Eventually, with the concerted efforts of a whole host of people, we managed to arrange our way back home. (It took a few days, though, by which point we were looking particularly haggard). At the time I was pretty traumatised, feeling like the whole experience had been a complete disaster. However, looking back I learnt a lot from it. Possessions can be replaced; the fact that we were safe was all that really mattered. And I will never be too proud to accept help when I need it.

I don’t regret my time on Cima: it was a unique experience and a wonderful place to have spent some time (not to mention a great story).

Plus, the samples we had collected that night were still in my bag, and thankfully provided enough material for me to sequence the storm-petrels’ DNA and finish my research project!

Cima has a unique combination of both black and white sand beaches. The wind mixes the two together in some places to create beautiful marbled beaches.

 

I would like to dedicate this story to Herculano, Emily, Bianca, and the rest of their family for their help and kindness, to Freyja for being a great person to go through a disaster with, and to everyone who was involved in helping to find us money and a way home.

Dr. Becky Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, after which she spent two years as a researcher for the conservation charity Wildscreen. She then completed her Master’s degree in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. During her M.Sc. she became passionate about wildlife genetics as a tool to study evolutionary questions but also for conservation purposes. This led her to undertake her Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Ontario, studying genomic variation in the Leach’s and band-rumped storm-petrel species complexes. She completed her Ph.D. in 2017 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, undertaking further work with the band-rumped storm-petrels and a few other wildlife genetics projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeckySTaylor.

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.

Naturalists Notice Nature – even in the winter!

For some, it is easy during these cold, snowy days to curl up with a cozy blanket, a good book, and a hot cup of tea. But where does the wildlife go? Sure, some animals migrate to where it is warmer (sounds like a good idea about now…), but others seem to do just fine despite their surroundings!

Winter in the forestWhen you look at this picture, what do you see? This is a typical question we ask the Kingston Junior Naturalists during our twice-monthly meetings. “Not much!” one kid yells. “Snow!” another one says (cheeky little kids). But if you look closer, there’s a lot more happening than you may first think. As leaders, we try to incorporate as many natural items as possible during our indoor evening meetings, but it is not the same for the kids as going outside to notice nature for themselves. So, once a month, a field trip is organized to various natural areas to get a taste of what the outdoors is really like. This month, I joined the Junior Naturalists on their field trip to The Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. At first, I wasn’t sure how we could keep busy for an afternoon in the cold and snow. And you can probably imagine when we arrived after the hour drive, the kids burst out of the cars and started sliding around on the icy paths, paying very little attention to us leaders.

kids checking out something on the forest floorBut it is amazing how quickly kids will focus when you can show them something in your hands. We acted like real field biologists and set up a sampling grid, which consisted of pylons at four corners of an area approximately the size of four classrooms. We asked the juniors to search for signs of wildlife within the designated area. When they found something, they put a stake beside it tied with brightly coloured flagging tape.

You can tell a lot about an animal by looking at what it has left behind. An easy sign to see, and one the kids were especially excited about pointing out (unsurprisingly), is a pile of (or single piece of) scat. From scat, you can tell what species was there and what it might have been eating. Similarly, footprints in the snow or tracks can identify the species, but can also help you decipher in which direction and how fast the individual was going based on the orientation and spacing of the track. Other signs of wildlife in the winter include holes in the snow where small mammals are likely building tunnels, and holes and scars in trees where insects are likely hiding.

When the time was up, we looked into the grid again and saw a sea of brightly coloured flagging tape…even though we didn’t actually have a single wildlife sighting. And really, this is how field biologists often spend their time! If you’re studying a cryptic species, you are usually just documenting signs of their presence and are lucky if you get to see them in the flesh.  In those cases, we get super excited to even find a feather. (There are ways to increase the chance of seeing your study species, such as covering your camera in a pile of dung, but we weren’t ready to let the kids in on that secret!).

In the end, although the kids did not remember why exactly they’d put up the flagging tape in roughly half of the flagged spots (admittedly this can happen with field biologists too…), they had fun being able to notice nature by themselves!notes from the juniors about saving the Earth

What would a real field work resume look like?

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome back Emily Williams, who polled some of her friends and colleagues on what their real fieldwork resume would say. Read more about Emily at the end of her post!

While every career on the planet probably has its own idiosyncrasies and oddities, some careers have more than most. I’d wager that many people in the science field could easily give Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs a run for his money. From negotiating with a monkey over jungle space to place invertebrate light traps, to diving several meters through a slurry of whale poop, the pursuit of scientific knowledge doesn’t always occur in a shiny and bright ivory tower.

Many of the routine tasks we do and techniques we employ as field biologists would give pause to and cause discomfort for many. A majority of those same tasks and techniques, because of their nature, are not included in the carefully crafted methods sections of manuscripts, or the protocols of field manuals. Moreover, they are also usually not fit to appear on professional resumes or be discussed in detail during an interview.

I’ve often wondered what a field work resume would really look like, if we were to be completely honest about the skills we’ve gained from the myriad experiences we’ve had as field biologists. Most of us are well versed in eloquently stating our know-how working in “adverse conditions” such as extreme heat or cold, along with biting or stinging insects, alone and in remote conditions. Most of us, however, are not as versed in honestly detailing the unique skillsets we learn on the job.

In a scientifically inquisitive spirit, I posed this question to many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances:  if you were to write your resume without having to be professional and could be completely honest about the tasks you did and conditions you lived in, what would you say?

I have compiled their answers here, written in traditional resume fashion.

THE REAL FIELD WORK RESUME

  • Excels at three-dimensional tetris, most notably in small vehicles
  • Demonstrated ability to use bandannas in a multitude of ways and for various purposes
  • Ability to control levels of teeth chattering when sitting for hours in blinds at -30°C
  • Ability to live in harmony with various groups of black flies and mosquitoes constantly in face and near body

    full body bug suit

    Wrench in one hand, bucket in the other, topped off with a head-to-toe bug suit and muck boots. Just another day in detritus–filled, smelly, muddy paradise.

  • Ability to play beer hockey using water instead of beer
  • Ability to build drones out of foam, hot glue, bamboo skewers, and paint sticks, then proceed to fly them at large flocks of blackbirds on crop fields
  • Adaptable to fluctuating levels and availability of caffeine
  • Fondness for early mornings, late evenings, working at all hours of the day, and overtime
  • Skilled at pooping outdoors (you wouldn’t believe how many times this was listed!)
  • Skilled at peeing off of wooden platforms/boats/planes
  • Adept at constructing mist-net poles out of bamboo and liana vines

Our kitchen and food supply for 5 months. Getting crafty with potatoes, beans, and rice is a necessary on-the-job skill.

  • Inventive when coming up with >10 ways to eat lentils and beans
  • Demonstrated ability using gorilla tape to keep capuchins from accessing food stores
  • Demonstrated ability problem solving with ridding housing of resident bats without causing harm to anyone involved
  • Skilled at intuitively cutting onions to crew’s preferences
  • Fluent in sweet-talking foxes who have taken up residence on archaeological sites
  • Have perfected excavation of the 30 cm diameter multi-utility hole
  • Well versed in the art of extracting ticks from myself and others

    Home for 5 months. No running water, no electricity, no soft, comfy bed.

  • Competent at estimating the size of mouse population adjacent to field cot using 5-gallon peanut butter traps. Reduction in population estimates were used to determine the likelihood of contracting Hanta Virus or risk of rattlesnake bites
  • Adept at turning PB & J into three months of delicious cuisine
  • Knows exactly what sending electricity through water feels like going through the human body (e.g., too many falls in streams when electrofishing)
  • Skilled at identifying animals on dark forested roads using eye shine (i.e., whip-poor-will lifeguard certification)
  • Amateur tight-rope (downed slash pine) walker
  • Skilled at handling animals under various amounts of fecal matter
  • Skilled at rolling up broken tape measures
  • Adept at maintaining top hiking pace while removing and stowing jacket with backpack still attached
  • Used to being damp 24/7

    The nature of field work is that often, things do not go as planned. In this case, not only did the main field site burn down (not on purpose), but the second main field site then did, and then the ALTERNATE field site (third time’s a charm, right?!) also went ablaze. Bye bye, data! How does this translate to a transferable skill? –Skilled at having no expectations and being adaptable to anything goes.

  • Adept at sharing living quarters with rodents, both living and deceased
  • Adept at dealing with exposure to permanent fish smell
  • Possesses indestructible gut biota due to frequent consumption of unrefrigerated leftovers
  • Development of diverse and unique personal hygiene techniques
  • Demonstrated ability to work under pressure while being excreted upon and repeatedly smacked in the head by thousands of screaming birds
  • Demonstrated ability to extract a variety of broken down or barely-running trucks from remote locations, in all weather conditions
  • Adept at splinting the legs of songbirds injured in mist-nets
  • Adept at getting chainsaw stuck, then guarding stuck chainsaw through the night, while waiting for back up
  • Skilled at getting stuck chainsaws unstuck
  • Skilled at coordinated movement through tall, stabby marsh vegetation, as well as extrication from potholes in said marsh
  • Skilled at running towards mist-nets in tall vegetation while waving long sticks
  • Proficient at hurling profanities at butterflies and their predators
  • Experienced at doing public outreach activities in youth hostels while feeding butterflies in the common areas
  • Skilled at shaving fox necks (may be transferable to human haircuts)
  • Adept at advanced choreography in tussock habitat
  • Proficient at scaring eagles from landfills
  • Well versed in identifying birds at 40 mph
  • Proficient at endurance swabbing of goose throats and cloacas
  • Skilled at chasing cattle from camp and study sites

    Devising a plan to avert an imminent cow invasion of unsuspecting and innocent grassland bird nests .

  • Adept at persuading police officers to not perform arrest while searching for injured birds
  • Well versed at rendering human fat tissue for stable isotope analysis
  • Experienced at playing cat and mouse around a tree with a pissed off moose that wants nothing more than to squash you into humanoid jelly
  • Skilled at running from one end of boat to the other to remove stuck boat from underwater stump
  • Adept at removing rotting fish from net and eating lunch immediately thereafter
  • Proficient of walking 10+ miles on the beach trying to outrun a thunderstorm (while noting as many birds as possible)
  • Skilled at writing legible numbers on mammals with a small paint brush and black hair dye
  • Inventive in turning found trash into boat identification symbols
  • Experience accidentally tasting what digested fish Long Island Sound had to offer Common Terns at least once for four summers
  • Well versed in using ice cream to prevent field crew mutinies
  • Experienced at at politely nodding while listening to wide-ranging, uncomfortably long diatribes about “the government” from every hiker/commercial fisherman/rancher you meet
  • Proficient at staying zen through thousands of insect bites

    Ah, the joys of field work: insect bites on every part of your body.

  • Skilled at spotting road-killed hummingbirds at ~65 mph
  • Highly adept at avoiding trampling by large bovines
  • Skilled at tracking down falcon pellets from ~20 m away
  • Skilled at wrestling and wrangling 30 lb condors in pitch black, cramped enclosures with minimal personal bloodshed
  • Effective at removal of multiple rigs stuck in sand pits, snow banks, and mud hollows, both independently and with a partner
  • Adept at securing >50 lb carcasses to the ground in under 2 min per body, under cover of night in all weather conditions
  • Experienced at piercing wings and attaching “wing-bling” ID tags to patagials of >300 vultures with a flinch reaction of <5%

I give huge thanks to all of the people who contributed to the above list, which is not exhaustive. These bullet points do not even scratch the surface of the unique and varied skillsets field biologists acquire over their careers.

Job recruiting websites always stress how resumes must showcase maximum wow factor. If any of the above were included on a resume, they would do more than drop a few jaws.

If you were to be completely honest, what would your resume look like?

Emily Williams works as an Avian Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s Emily Williamsresearch focuses on the behavior, migration, and ecology of birds. While she now works among the boreal forests of Alaska chasing Gray Jays, she has been lucky to work with many taxa among different ecosystems worldwide.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

Website: emilyjwilliams.weebly.com

contact: ffyngau@gmail.com