It’s the journey that counts

This time I was prepared for things to go wrong. We waited a few days after our last trip to the island, so that cormorants would have time to lay another egg before we arrived. However, there was still no sure way to tell if there would be enough eggs to collect until we actually arrived on the island. The next morning we decided to test our luck. It was a good day; the sun was shining, the wind was calm, and we could actually see the shoreline. I kept thinking to myself, “This has got to be too good to be true!”. So to prepare myself,on the way out to the island, I kept thinking of ways to change my project if things didn’t go as planned again. Maybe I could make it into a smaller project. Or maybe I could change species. Or maybe I could skip this year and start over again next year. Although it may sound extreme, these are often thoughts field biologists have on a regular basis. When you work with wild animals, you never know for sure if you will be there at the right place at the right time. So instead, you need to plan A – D, possibly plan all the way to F, when you are close to marking it as a fail and move on.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go all the way to plan F (we try everything possible not to get there). When we arrived on the island there were a lot of fresh eggs in nests! I could have jumped for joy! Instead, we got right down to business. When you head towards cormorant nests, the adults get scared and fly off to nearby water leaving their nests exposed to potential predators. This meant two of the team members were in charge of keeping guard. This may sound like a boring job at first; until you hear that it involves using water guns to keep the gulls away from the exposed nests!

Sarah dressed in a toque and sweater with eggs in boxes in the car.

Me keeping warm while I keep the eggs cool!

The rest of us collected all of the eggs we needed. But that ended up being the easy part. Now I had to figure out how to get transport them 9 hours to our lab for artificial incubation. I knew it was important to do everything in my power to get them to the lab safely. Otherwise, all the effort to collect them would not have been worth it! So there I was, on a summer day, not only driving a car full of eggs, but doing it dressed in a double layer of sweaters and a toque because I had to keep the car at a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. I was wondering how I would explain my situation if I got pulled over on the side of the highway!

Surprisingly, despite all of the potholes, traffic, and temperature fluctuations from the sun’s rays, the eggs survived the trip and I was able to continue with my project. I’ll let you know when I have published the results of this study in a scientific journal. Despite the manuscript only reading “Eggs were collected in Lake Erie and incubated in Quebec”, you will know and appreciate the sweat (and tears) that went on behind the scenes!

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It’s not just a ditch

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Dr. Melanie Kingsbury as a guest poster.  Melanie has done fieldwork on lakes in Canada and the UK…but today she tells us about her experience working in an urban development.  For more about Melanie, check out her bio at the end of this post.

Over the past 16 years I have had the opportunity to undertake field work in several interesting places. Some of them were local, such as Big Rideau Lake, and some of them were much harder to access – such as the boreal lakes of northwestern Ontario, where access involved driving down logging roads and hiking down trails with equipment. More recently, my research has taken me to lochs located on the archipelagos of Shetland and Orkney, which was an amazing experience. But the most unique experience I have had doing fieldwork was working in the ‘wilds’ of a large urban expansion project in the mid 2000s. We were tasked with monitoring the streams and urban ponds in the area being developed, which was originally farmland.

One of the streams we monitored, right beside houses under construction.

One of the streams we monitored, right beside houses under construction.

Some highlights of working in an urbanizing environment include:

* Walking around new, upscale neighbourhoods to gain access to the urban ponds and streams, looking sorely out of place in chest waders carrying various pieces of sampling gear. We got even stranger looks when our gear included carrying a canoe…or sitting in the middle of a pond in one (I am surprised that the police were never called with such suspicious behaviour);

* Waiting for dump trucks, heavy machinery and cars to go by so we could cross roads and active construction sites to get to sampling locations, all the while decked out in said gear;

* Discovering urban ponds full of goldfish or watching house painters rinsing paint brushes in them.  (When we spoke to the painters, they responded, “They are just storm water ponds,”…implying an extension of the street drainage;

Rain gauge on top of the municipal building

Rain gauge on top of the municipal building.

* Coming face to face with giant hogweed for the first time, scattered around a grove (they had not taken over yet) at one of our sampling sites. It looked like the setting for a twisted fairy tale with these 2 m high plants with large leaves towering over us;

*Walking through a municipal building in field clothes to get to the roof to download the rain gauge located there;

* Discovering one day that our stream site containing a data logger had been completely re-graded and the stream rerouted. By the time we found out, it was in the middle of summer and we were presented with a bare rolling landscape (no grass had been planted yet), with stakes to mark the new path of the stream. We never did recover the logger. My guess is that it is still recording (soil temperature at least) to this day, somewhere underneath the dog park that exists there now;

* Experiencing the luxury of driving a short distance to the nearest store or restaurant for lunch or a snack refill!

This urban field experience allowed me to experience firsthand how easily people can dismiss what is in their own back yards and surroundings.  But those places are filled with habitats supporting a diverse range of plants, birds and animals, if you just look.  And I don’t mean just in the wonderful designated park areas that are home to many species of urban wildlife; rather, I’m talking about the ditches and culverts along roadsides, and the shrubby areas at the edges of vacant lots. This fieldwork also revealed to me how the creatures living in these places are affected living side by side with humans. I saw how beneficial urban ponds were – how they collect run-off from roads and in turn become mini ecosystems that effectively lower bacteria n the water and water temperature, allowing the pond to become habitat for many species. I have also experienced how plants like cattails can remove contaminants from the water so that they are not released into the greater environment and witnessed the destruction that can occur if silt barriers are improperly installed around constructions sites.  These barriers limit the escape of dirt and silt; if they aren’t installed properly, it can result in water courses being choked out by the resulting silt.

It is easy to disregard or even be blind to places that could be wildlife habitat in an urban environment. What you might think is just a culvert could be a biodiverse diverted stream. By retaining water in the urban environment, this stream can aid in reducing the potential for flooding while forming a connection between habitats. Keeping these places intact and part of the urban landscape is essential for both the human and non-human residents of our cities.

One of the urban ponds on the edge of newly built houses

One of the urban ponds on the edge of newly built houses.

Melanie is a PhD graduate of the Department of Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Stirling (UK), where she researched the climatic and environmental changes occurring on the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney) from the end of the last glaciation through the early Holocene (16,000 – 3,000 years ago) using diatoms, pollen and geochemistry. Her MSc work explored the relationship between diatom species communities and water-depth gradients in lakes across northwestern Ontario. She has always had a love of water and is interested in limnology/aquatic ecology and paleolimnology and how they can be used together to answer questions at many spatial and temporal scales.

The Wildlife Confessional

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Matthew P. Bettelheim, an editor of the new book The Wildlife Confessional: An Anthology of Stories to share with us how he came up with the idea to put this together. It sounds like we fit right in! Check out the end of the post for ways to pre-order the book.

When the late biologist Dr. Charles Jonkel, co-founder of the Great Bear Foundation, was given the rare opportunity in 1966 to pioneer the first ever study of polar bears in the Arctic, little did he know that the years to follow would not only change how the world sees polar bears, but would also leave him looking back at those years to wonder how he even survived the experience:

“The night he scared himself, he sent his friend Henk Kiliaan home after all their remembering. It wasn’t hard to do – scaring himself – what with the whiteouts and the polar bears (always the polar bears), helicopters falling from the sky, and the vast whiteness of it all and everything in between. Lost in the high Arctic where he couldn’t have been more alone no matter the company he kept. He might have done stupid things in his youth. Hell, he had done stupid things in adulthood, too. But he had also lived a full life, all in the name of science, that truly began in the high Arctic when he set out to answer a simple question: How do you catch a polar bear?”

So begins “Kick it in the Ice Hole,” the adventures of a bear biologist that recounts how learning to catch a polar bear launched Jonkel’s storied career. This is just one of the tales that make up The Wildlife Society’s new anthology, The Wildlife Confessional, a collection of fifteen stories by thirteen biologists, including published authors Marcy Cottrell Houle (Wings for my FlightOne City’s WildernessThe Prairie Keepers) and J. Drew Lanham (The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. In short, it is a collection of biologists’ adventures, misadventures, revelations, reflections, mishaps, and pivotal experiences with wildlife.

The Wildlife Confessional was first conceived many moons ago, long before 2014 when I began exchanging emails with co-editor Thomas A. Roberts about an idea I had for an anthology. My first introduction to Tom was more than ten years earlier when my editor loaned me a copy of Tom’s very own anthology, Painting the Cows. At that time, I had just joined the ranks of an elite group of scientists known as “wildlife biologists” and was interning at Bay Nature magazine, so a collection of stories about wildlife biology seemed a natural fit. It was. In love instantly with Tom’s brand of self-effacing honesty and insight, I hungrily devoured Painting the Cows and its companion anthology, Adventures in Conservation, and then loaned my copies out to friends and colleagues until one day I realized my books hadn’t found their ways home.

In 2005 I lucked into Tom’s email address and reached out to him about meeting for drinks – hopeful I might be able to meet another local writer/wildlife biologist – but because it it too easy to get swept up in the current of everyday life, we never made it happen. And then, during a happy hour for our local San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of The Wildlife Society in the fall of 2007, I heard someone mention “Tom Roberts” and realized that Tom Roberts, the Tom Roberts, was sitting at the next table over. So I did what any normal person might do when faced with a “celebrity crush” and rushed over to introduce myself and heap praise on his work, coming across no doubt as a babbling fool in the process. By the time all the pieces began falling in place in 2014 to plant the seed for this anthology, Tom Roberts seemed the natural person to reach out to as a co-collaborator. And so The Wildlife Confessional was born. Together, we waded through more than 45 submissions to carefully curate The Wildlife Society’s first anthology, a true window into the wildlife profession.

This is a career peopled by wildlife biologists, game wardens, land managers, researchers, students, and the community of peers who have built their careers (and sometimes, their lives) around working with wildlife. Members of the biologist community may specialize in a certain group of wildlife – like entomologists (insects), ichthyologists (fish), ornithologists (birds), herpetologists (reptiles and amphibians), and mammalogists (mammals) – or practice their “–ology” on a larger scale – like law enforcement, policy, habitat restoration, resource management, research, outreach and education – but they share in common a passion for wildlife and the outdoors, and a learned (resigned?) resiliency to the pitfalls and mishaps inherent in a career that revolves around wildlife.

The authors whose stories we’ve collected represent men and women from all walks of wildlife biology – State and Federal biologists, consultants, students, professors, interns – and take place across North and Central America, from the Gulf of Alaska to San Ignacio, Belize, from the tropics of the Hawaiian Islands to the deserts of Arizona, and in the desert springs, coastal bluffs, national parks, stock ponds, pick-up trucks, traplines, doctor’s offices, roof tops, outhouses, and bombing ranges scattered everywhere in between.

To bring the stories behind The Wildlife Confessional to life, anthology contributor Ivan Parr (“A Terrible Bird is the Pelican”) – who is also gainfully employed as a wildlife biologist, botanist, and nature photographer – put pen to paper a second time. But this time around, Ivan set out to create the lighthearted illustrations that accompany each story. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Ivan’s art speaks volumes about the wildlife profession and the adventures wildlife biologists face every day.

In early January 2018, the print-side of the project launched through the crowd-source publisher Inkshares (https://www.inkshares.com/books/the-wildlife-confessional-an-anthology-of-stories) and was successfully funded at the end of February after pre-selling over 250 copies. Today, with over 300 copies sold, the book is still available for pre-order (eBook: $6.99 / Paperback: $14.99) as we navigate the final stages of layout, design, and publishing before the anthology goes to print.

 

 

 

Here’s a sneak preview of what you can expect in the forthcoming book:

  • In The Pirate Kit Fox, kit fox expert Brian Cypher recounts the one that got away – a kit fox so formidable and cantankerous, it nearly brought a grown man to tears.
  • On an island, no one can hear you scream; so we learn the hard way in The Long Drop, in which Eric Lund must get his hands dirty while stationed on Laysan Island after a gray-backed tern finds itself doing laps in the loo.
  • Islands can also be a place of reflection, as we experience through the eyes of Brianna Williams in The Tower Colony during her turn working with breeding seabirds in an abandoned Air Force station radar tower.
  • In Lost and Found, J. Drew Lanham looks back on the formative years that shaped his inevitable career as a birder, a path especially rocky for a young African American growing up in South Carolina in the 1970’s.
  • In The Big Horn Sheep De-Watering Device, veteran author and wildlife biologist Thomas A. Roberts makes a beginner’s mistake and pays for it when a four-and-a-half foot long pipe wrench becomes his cross to bear in a trek across the desert.

 

Livin’ on a Prairie

This week on Dispatches from the field, we are excited to welcome back Rachael Bonoan to tell another story of her fieldwork adventures! Except this time instead of working with honey bees, she’s searching for ants and caterpillars. Don’t miss out on the links to her own blog!

It’s 6:32 on Saturday morning. Half awake, I hear my phone buzz. Someone emailed me. Do I dare look? I kind of want to sleep in, but once I check that email, I’m awake…I decide to check it.

“Flight into WRONG city…” reads the subject line. The email is from my new boss regarding a flight I’m taking in two days.

Fresh off defending my PhD on honey bee ecology, I’m about to begin a new adventure doing fieldwork in the Pacific Northwest. My new field site is south of Seattle, WA so I’ve booked a flight from Boston to Seattle. Turns out my new boss, and the campus where I’m based, are actually nearer Portland, OR.

I immediately call Alaska Airlines. I can’t change my flight, but I can take a connecting flight from Seattle to Portland. I’m embarrassed by my oversight, but eager to get started on the new job.

After a slightly frantic day of packing on Sunday, my husband drops me off at Logan Airport with two bags and an appetite for adventure. The flight from Boston to Seattle is not pleasant: cramped, turbulent, and long.

But after a short layover later I’m back in the air. In my window seat I’m actually happy about the ticket mishap. From the small plane, I’m awed by the landscape below. Everything is so green! After a long winter in Boston, I am quickly falling in love with the Pacific Northwest.

Finally, I make it to Portland. My new boss drives me to Washington State University, Vancouver. Again, my eyes are glued to the green landscape. Everything is so alive! I cannot believe I get to spend the summer in this beautiful new place, studying butterflies and their relationship with…ants!

Ant getting a sugar-reward from a Puget blue caterpillar.

There’s a group of butterflies, called Lycaenids, that are protected by ants when they are caterpillars. When the caterpillars feel threatened, they call for help using sound, scent, or both. This signals for the nearby ants to come to the rescue. Once danger has passed, the caterpillar “thanks” its protector(s) by secreting a tiny sugar droplet from a specialized gland near its bottom. The ants lap up the sweet (and likely nutritious!) treat. Nature is incredible.

My new job is to study the natural history of this relationship in the at-risk Puget blue butterfly. The Puget blue butterfly is only found in the South Puget Sound, WA (hence the name) and British Columbia. I am so excited!

Puget blue butterfly getting a snack from oxeye daisy.

One of my favorite wildflowers on the prairie, shooting star.

After a couple weeks in Portland, I get out into the field in late April. Just south of Olympia, WA, my new field site is a lively 180-acre prairie. There are queen bumble bees searching for nests, barn swallows doing acrobatics, and some of the strangest flowers I have ever seen. I half expect the Alice-in-Wonderland-esque flowers to break into song.

With a deep breath of the fresh prairie air, I set my focus on my research. Although this is a new study system, I have read everything about ants and caterpillars I could get my hands on. I feel ready. Besides, I’m a behavioral ecologist. Whether it’s honey bee foraging or ants taking care of caterpillars, I study behavior. I’ve got this.

First step: find the caterpillars. On hands and knees, I start my search. The Puget blue butterfly only lays its eggs on one species of plant—sickle-keeled lupine—which somewhat narrows down my 180-acre hunt. Yet, after three days of combing through lupine, I have only found two caterpillars. Yikes.

At their largest, Puget blue caterpillars are only about 15 mm long. And they’re green—just like the plant they hang out on. Green, just like everything else in the Pacific Northwest. Suddenly, I’m not quite so enamored with the green landscape around me.

On the edge of panic, my thoughts begin to spiral: this is all my fault. I am a terrible scientist. I can’t even find my study system! But then I remind myself that it’s too soon to panic. Instead, I call for reinforcements: Cameron. Cameron did his master’s thesis in a similar system and is essentially a professional caterpillar finder. Together, Cameron and I continue combing the prairie for the elusive Puget blue caterpillars. After two more days, Cameron gives me the news. It’s not me, it’s the caterpillars.

Sigh of relief. Sort of.

Turns out, I’m not bad at finding caterpillars. My timing is just off. By the time I got out here, the caterpillars were underground in their chrysalises, becoming butterflies. Needless to say, I can’t study ant-caterpillar behavior this field season.

In this new landscape with my new study system, here is something unexpectedly familiar: going back to the drawing board. All that reading I had done about ants and caterpillars? Not too useful. Time to completely redesign my field season! But first, more reading. (And a milkshake.)

I’m disappointed that I can’t study behavior this field season, but thankfully, I have two more seasons ahead of me. After consulting the literature, and wandering around the prairie, I decide on a natural experiment.

About half of the field site was burned in an arson event last fall. Though unfortunate, it gives me the chance to study how burning, a typical management technique, affects lupine growth and the ant community on the prairie—both important aspects of my new study system! Field season salvaged.

My field site in spring, following a fall burn. The greener right side of the road was burned while the browner left side was not.

Hanna collecting data on lupine size. This species of lupine has purple cone-shaped flowering stalks.

Thankfully, my undergraduate intern, Hanna, arrives just in time to help with data collection! For the eight weeks that follow, Hanna and I wrangle lupine plants to track size and growth. We count the number of stems and the number of flowers on each plant. And we sneakily follow butterflies around the prairie to see which flowers they prefer to drink from.

We also put out pitfall traps (small tubes in holes in the ground) to collect ants. With 216 traps to put out and collect every other week, Hanna’s help is much appreciated! This coming fall, we will work to identify the ants to see if some may be affected by the burn more than others.

Though I’m just getting started, I’m excited to spend my next couple field seasons exploring how ants affect Puget blue caterpillar survival and thus, the population of this at-risk pollinator. With a couple more successful field seasons, we can help guide conservation efforts for this at-risk butterfly as well its endangered relative, the Fender’s blue butterfly. I love my job.

Rachael is a post-doctoral researcher in the Crone Lab (Tufts University) and the Schultz Lab (Washington State University, Vancouver) studying ant-caterpillar interactions in the South Puget Sound, WA. She recently defended her Ph.D. research on honey bee behavioral ecology, nutritional ecology, and ecological immunity in the Starks Lab (Tufts University). She is passionate about ecology, social insects, and insect pollinators!

@RachaelEBee

www.rachaelebonoan.com

Seeing the forest AND the trees

Within half an hour of starting my new job, I knew I was in trouble.

I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck driven by my new boss, travelling down an Alberta highway at 110 kilometers per hour.  Every few minutes, without taking his eyes off the road, he would randomly (at least, so it appeared to me) toss out the name of another bird species.

“Hooded merganser.”

“Blue-winged teal.”

“Black tern.”

Most of these species were only names to me.  Given a good bird book, a pair of binoculars, and at least a full minute with a clear view of the bird, I would probably be able to ID them.  But IDing them based on a silhouette glimpsed for a second out the window of a moving truck…it didn’t take me long to conclude that my boss had to be superhuman.  And also that my tenure at this job might be a great deal shorter than I had originally hoped.

 

Having (finally) finished my PhD this past winter, I’m now in the painful stage of figuring out what exactly I want to do with it.  So when I was offered a job as a field tech for a wildlife consulting company in Calgary, I jumped at the chance.  I figured that a decade of doing fieldwork for various degrees would equip me well for the job.  Shows how much I know….

As a grad student, I spent all my time in the field completely focused on my study species (whatever that happened to be at the time).  I’ve put in endless hours catching and banding individual birds, recording their behaviour, and monitoring their reproductive success.  For me, fieldwork has always been narrow in scope, focused on learning every single detail about one very small part of the ecosystem.

Working as a consultant is pretty much the exact opposite: the focus is broad.  No one is interested in the details of each individual bird; what clients want is the big picture.  So instead of spending all my time identifying colour banded individuals, instead I’ve been frantically trying to learn to identify dozens of species by both sight and sound.  (Given that more than 750 bird species breed in North America, you can imagine that the learning curve is pretty steep.)

And the broad focus of consulting extends beyond simply identifying species.  In fact, perhaps the best example of the differences between grad school and consulting is an activity common to both: nest searching.

Grad students studying birds frequently have to find nests in order to measure individuals’ reproductive success.  They need to know who an individual mates with, how many eggs it has, when those eggs hatch, how often (and what) the parents feed the nestlings, and how many of the babies survive and make it out of the nest.

Nest searching is also a common activity for consultants, but with an entirely different focus.  Under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, companies undertaking construction activities during the breeding season are required by law to take steps to avoid disturbing bird nests.  To do so, they hire consultants to map out the location of those nests, so they can be avoided during construction.

But finding a nest – particularly a grassland bird nest – can often take hours and hours of careful observation, lying in the grass and waiting for the birds to get so accustomed to your presence that they’ll bring food to the nestlings even though you’re close enough to see where they land.  Often you’ll be sure that you have the nest pinpointed – but when you leap to your feet and peer into the suspect patch of grass, you’ll find nothing, and have to start from the beginning again.  It can be an incredibly frustrating process, but it’s accepted as par for the course when you’re a grad student.  And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally part the grasses and see the gaping mouths of baby birds begging for food makes it all worth it.

The problem is, in the real world, it’s usually not possible to spend a whole day finding one nest.  As a consultant, you have a given area to search, and a hard deadline: at some point, construction will start, and you need to know where the nests are before then.  So instead of pinpointing nest locations, you’re on the lookout for any sign of breeding in the birds you see – then you watch them for just as long as it takes to approximate the general location of the nest.

When I first started doing nest sweeps as a consultant, I found this incredibly frustrating.  After many years of grad school, I’m used to taking my time, and discovering as much as possible about the birds (and nests) I encounter.  Having to approximate nest location (not to mention the stage of the nest) and then move on immediately to the next one drove me nuts.

But the more I do this job, the more I realize that it’s a trade-off.  I may not know every single detail about the birds I observe, but I’m also learning to recognize many species that I’ve never paid much attention to before.  I can’t tell you exactly where each nest is or how many eggs it has, but I can make an educated guess about how many species are nesting in a given area.  In fact, the more time I spend as a consultant, the more I like it.  The work is challenging, but it’s making me a better birder and a better naturalist.

I can’t deny that I do still miss the detail-oriented focus of graduate fieldwork.  But every once in a while, when it becomes necessary to know exactly where a nest is, I get to use those skills.  And when I do, the moment of discovery is just as satisfying as ever.

Aha! Baby savannah sparrows peering up from their hidden nest.

Back to the drawing board

To summarize my last post, plan A didn’t work out. I bet that most field biologists would nod their head in understanding of that statement as rarely does plan A go as successfully as one would hope. So it was back to the drawing board (we actually did draw out the location of cormorant colonies on the white board in my supervisor’s office!).

What were we going to do next? We decided that with time restraints, we better play it safe and stick with something we knew. We chose a colony that my supervisor had visited year after year and it had never failed him. We also had some insider information from another field biologist who had recently visited the colony that said the birds were being productive in creating nests and laying eggs. So this time it was all going to go as exactly as planned!

The truck loaded up with all of our gear hauling the boat behind.

We checked the weather in the morning as is common practice when you are leaving the shore in a boat. The forecast was not ideal weather for fieldwork but the wind speed was under the threshold for safe boating. We packed up the truck and drove 1.5 hours to the boat launch. As we arrived, a fairly thick fog was rolling in and it was drizzling slightly. The field team agreed that it was still safe to go, so we unloaded all of our gear from the truck into the boat and set sail.

The line is zig zag from the port to the island.

**An artist’s rendition** on the drawing board of the route to the island in the fog.

It was a little surreal being out on the open water without being able to see maybe 20 ft in front of you, let alone the lack of visibility of the shoreline to follow. Luckily we had all the fancy GPS and radar equipment to help position and orient ourselves. However, if you’ve ever tried to rely solely on technology, you’ll notice there is a slight lag time. This means that instead of a straight line to the colony, the route we were taking looked more like a roller coaster – if we were going too far towards the left we would turn right but then would be too far right so we would turn left. This lead to a zig zag pattern towards the island. I wish I could have taken a picture of our route, but unfortunately I was being splashed in the face with cold water while holding onto the boat tightly (perks to being the new member on board!) and did not want to risk falling into the lake.

The extra mileage (and therefore time) that it took us to get to the colony left a lot of time for my supervisor to quiz me with questions about statistics. So fun (said no one ever)! Once we finally made it to the island, I was so happy to be standing on solid ground again, even though I still couldn’t see very far in front of me to know what was ahead.

The island in the fog.

As we walked towards the cormorant colony, we did see birds, nests, and even eggs – what a relief from last time! Unfortunately there still was not enough eggs for my project which meant for another boat ride in the fog to get back to the drawing board.

There must be something in the water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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