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.

 

Advertisements

Leaving the Comfort of Southern Ontario Behind

Fieldwork has always been comfortable for me. And by comfortable, I don’t mean physically comfortable. I can’t say the days I spent hunched over in the 40 degree sun with deer flies nipping at my elbows were by any means  “comfortable”. By comfortable, I mean mentally comfortable, or familiar. I’ve spent most of my time in old fields and meadows and these habitats quickly became very familiar to me. They were filled with familiar sights, sounds and surroundings. I dabbled into shrublands, forests and even some riparian areas but the majority of my time was spent in one general habitat type. I knew when I started working as a Conservation Biologist though, that I would have to move out of my comfort zone. I would be managing properties with massive forest and wetland complexes, alvar grasslands, woodlands and even some beautiful Lake Ontario shoreline. I was going to have species at risk (that weren’t plants…Imagine that!!!) to consider, and multi-species recovery strategies were going to become my new bed time reading material.

One of the things I wanted to do to prepare for this was to brush up on some wetland ecology, biology, physiography, etc. So, I decided to take some time off work and take the Ontario Wetland Evaluation Course. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew it was described as an “intensive” course with significant course and field components…how intense could it be?

I arrived in North Bay on the Sunday evening and by Monday at lunch we were out in the field, at the beautiful Cache Bay Wetland, doing things like delineating wetland boundaries, examining soil cores and tallying wetland plant and bird species.  It was an exhausting day, but I learned so much and was really excited for the all-day field trip the next day. The following morning, we packed up in preparation for Highview Fen. I was really excited because southern Ontario doesn’t have that many true fens, at least compared to northern Ontario. As we packed up, one of the instructors warned us that this was by far the most intensive field day we would have. Rainboots would be useless, you’ll either lose them or get stuck. Wear shoes you really don’t care about and be prepared to get “very wet”. It was that comment that tweaked my anxiety level a little bit.

We arrived at the site, which was…a golf course?? The bus drove away and we hiked along the edges of the course, checking out the irrigation ponds and standing lifeless every time someone putted. Why was this so bad? Then we started into the swamps. At the beginning, it wasn’t that challenging…you sank down to your calves into mud and water, but it wasn’t that physically demanding. After taking a break and sitting on some peat hummocks to eat lunch, we had to cross a “moat”. I was picturing a castle, with blue flowing water surrounding it, and as you can imagine, that wasn’t the case. It was a swamp where the water and mud went up, past your elbows in some places. I remember taking the first step into it, where the ground quickly dropped off into the water. My hands grasped the trees around me as I tried to stay as high up as I could. I remember pausing for a moment and then announcing “This is SO OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE”. And I wasn’t the only one. I was met with a “ME TOO!!!” from the guy behind me.

After fighting through the deep swamp for 10 minutes, we pulled ourselves out of the moat and into the fen. It was totally worth it. Species like cotton grass, sundews, and pitcher plants littered the ground. I had never seen anything like it. So beautiful and untouched. I knew we were running short on time and had to cross the other side of the moat to get out, but I didn’t care. I took a moment to enjoy this incredible place and think about just how lucky I was to be there.

Pitcher plant

Cotton grass

Tiny little sundews

 

This course made me realize that if I stayed where I felt comfortable and I spent the rest of my life in old fields, I would never have gotten to see this incredible place. Keep in mind this was only the second day of the course, and for the next 3 days I continued to push the boundaries of familiarity and experienced some of the most amazing things. To be continued….

My post swamp dirtiness doesn’t do it justice! If only a camera captured wetness.

A quick brown fox jumps over the cormorant nests

One week before I officially started a Ph.D., I was already preparing to go into the field. Since I had done fieldwork in a bird colony before, I knew what to expect. I wasn’t fazed when my supervisor warned, “Make sure to bring clothes that you’re willing to get poop on, a wide brimmed hat so you don’t get poop on your face, and ear plugs.” Despite the common theme in his warnings, I was still overly stoked to be going back out to the field. I think one of the biggest perks of going into the field as a biologist is the chance to get your hands dirty.

I was feeling confident about the fieldwork this time around. I had my bags packed – sunscreen (check!), snacks (check!), extra socks (check!), and binoculars (check!). I was prepared and feeling good. The field team took the boat out for the first test ride of the season and everything went smoothly. All was fine. What possibly could go wrong?

items in my field bag

All the essential items for fieldwork. Especially the snacks – can never have enough!

As you read this, you are probably shaking your head and thinking, “Shouldn’t have said that…”

It was a beautiful day in late April. The wind was a little chilly, but nothing a few clothing layers couldn’t solve. The sun was shining, making the lake sparkle with an invitation to jump in. The colony we were headed towards was only just outside the harbour, which made for a very short boat ride to enjoy the weather but a long enough ride to bring my excitement to a peak. This colony was known to have one of the highest densities of nesting cormorants in Lake Erie, so there were bound to be enough nests with eggs for my project.

Almost right after leaving the dock we could see there were adult cormorants gathered in the centre of the island, which was a good sign. We drove the boat up closer to the island, as close as we could get without grounding ourselves on large rocks and piercing a hole in the bottom, then dropped anchor and climbed ashore. (This all sounds very streamlined, but in fact it took about 30 minutes to unload all of our gear while wading in knee deep water wearing oversized survival suits. Not the easiest of tasks.)

Cormorants gather in the middle of the island.

Finally, we grabbed the pelican cases that we would use to carry the eggs we collected and headed over the edge of the rock pile towards the centre of the island. As we approached the colony, the adults flew off their nests into the nearby water as they usually do. Only this time, when we looked at the nests they had just left, there were no eggs!

Baffled, we spent several minutes observing the empty nests. There weren’t even any signs of broken egg shells, a normal result of predation. But then as we stood there, a small fox scurried right past our feet and through the cormorant nests to the other side of the island.

“Well…that can’t be a good sign,” my supervisor said. With the empty egg cases in hand, we walked back to the water and started the process of reloading the boat.

It is still a mystery what happened on that island. Was the fox able to steal and cache every egg that the cormorants laid? Or did the presence of the fox on the island scare the cormorants enough that they did not reproduce in the first place?

All I know is the next time I need to go collect eggs, I should hire a fox as an assistant.

Close encounters of the bird kind

This week, Dispatches from the Field is thrilled to welcome Dr.  Bob Montgomerie as our guest blogger.  Dr. Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University, and his fieldwork has taken him on adventures all over the world.  Below, he shares one of those adventures with us.

I go into the field to do research for three different reasons. The first is, understandably, to collect data to test hypotheses that interest me. The second is to help graduate students and colleagues with their research, to widen my experience and help me better understand their findings. The third is just to get close to species that I have read about and to see them in action, in part so I can write with more authority about the published literature. This is a story about a close encounter of the third kind.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored in red.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored (red).

I went to Ecuador in February to lecture to some Queen’s alumni on a Galápagos cruise. En route I went to the Andes for a few days before the cruise to work with a colleague, and to see some iconic Andean birds with unusual morphologies: Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, and Club-winged Manakins.

My old friend Dave McDonald (Univ Wyoming) was in Ecuador on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, and he generously offered to show us around. Dave is Dr Manakin, having done his PhD at the University of Arizona on Long-tailed Manakins and continued to study that group for his entire career. We began our trip with the (almost unbelievable) Sword-billed Hummingbird early the first morning at the Yanacocha Natural Reserve (altitude 3500 m) near Quito.  On Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 Feb), we settled into the eponymous Mirador Río Blanco lodge, overlooking the valley of the Río Blanco below. From there, we would have easy access to both the hummingbird and the umbrellabird in the next couple of days.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

The next morning, we went to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1100 m) for the manakin. Dave and his students have been studying manakins here for years but it is also a great place to watch hummingbirds, which we did for most of the morning. Just as we finished lunch, Dave got a call from a friend to say that he was needed in Nanegalito, so he left for a few hours to deal with that, leaving us to find the manakins on our own. “It’s easy,” he said, “just go about 30 minutes down the trail and take the first side trail to the left, then down to the bottom of the hill and the birds will be somewhere near the first sharp corner.”  Even if we failed he’d be back in time to show us the birds. And how could we possibly fail? My friend Tim and I had been studying birds in the field for more than a century in total.

Our trek down the trail was magical with birds and anticipation. Just as we arrived at the spot that Dave had described, we heard the tell-tale tuk-tuk-zzzzing of the male’s display. This was the courtship display so beautifully described just a few years ago by Kim Boswick. Using high speed video she discovered that the males the zzzzing sound by rubbing their wing feathers together at more than 100 times a second. It is also the species that apparently revealed the secrets of sexual selection to Rick Prum (2017. The Evolution of Beauty. Yale Univ Press).

At last we could witness this display first-hand…but where was the bird? Even though he tuk-tuk-zzzzinged every 30 seconds or so, and seemed to be less than 3 m away, we simply could not find him. Was the bird ventriloqual? Was he hiding in the dense foliage? And then, after 10 tantalizing minutes, he stopped.

We had the same experience further down the trail, with probably another male. Frustrated by this little bird, and by Dave for not giving us better instruction, we decided to head back to the trail head to wait for Dr Manakin’s return.

As we passed that first spot, we again heard a tuk-tuk-zzzzing  on the other side of the trail and higher up—but the bird was still invisible. By triangulating we eventually found him high on a bare branch amidst the dense foliage about 10 metres away. He called a few more times then disappeared, only to return again every few minutes to resume his displays. Such fidelity to display sites is typical of lekking male birds.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

After taking a few photos, I went back to where we had first heard a male tuk-tuk-zzzzinging. As soon as I stepped off the trail into the dense underbrush, a female landed right in front of me, less than 2 metres away. Almost immediately she was joined by two males who both tuk-tuk-zzzzinged before they saw me and spooked, disappearing into the forest.

tuk-tuk-zzzing

“tuk-tuk-zzzing”

When we returned to the trailhead, Dave was there, smiling when we told him our story. I think he knew that finding elusive species on your own is way more exciting than being shown by experts. Long before daybreak on the last day a local guide showed us the umbrellabird near a town called ’23 de Junio’ (about 1000 m), halfway down the western slope of the Andes. The males of this species also lek, but they were relatively inactive that morning and visible only through a telescope in the dense early morning fog. We had achieved all of our goals, but the manakin was the most memorable, in part because it was the hardest work.

Morning has broken (me)

When the repetitive beeping of my alarm rouses me, it seems like the punchline of an exceptionally cruel joke.  The room is pitch black; the glowing red numbers on the clock read 3:00 am.  I know I need to get out of bed if I’m going to make it to the field site for sunrise… but the sheets feel like they’re made of Velcro, pulling me back down every time I make a move to get up.

When I finally do manage to put my feet on the floor and stand upright, I’m as uncoordinated as drunk toddler.  I stumble around my room with my eyes half closed.  Despite the fact that I always lay my clothes out neatly the night before, getting dressed seems to take twice as long as it should.  I drop items of clothing, tie my hiking boot laces wrong, and even occasionally try to put both my feet into the same pant leg.

It doesn’t get any easier when I finally get myself out the door.  The world is eerily quiet and still at 3 am.  The occasional person I do encounter looks startled to see me, and often avoids my eyes.  It’s very clear that anyone with any sense is sleeping, and it’s hard not to let my thoughts drift back to the warmth and comfort of my covers.  I aim myself directly towards the nearest source of caffeine – but as I move farther away from my bed, I can feel myself getting crankier.

 

People who know me often ask why I choose to work with birds.  After all, I’m the first to admit that I am the opposite of a morning person.  So what on earth possessed me to study animals that start their day long before the sun has properly risen – and even have the gall to greet the dawn with a song?

It’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer.  And it’s been on my mind a lot this summer, because I’m back in the field for the first time in several years.  Each day, as I drag myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, every cell in my body resisting, I find myself seriously questioning my life choices.  (In my defence, I’m not sure being a morning person would make a difference, because frankly 3 am can’t be considered ‘morning’.)

But over the past few weeks, I’ve realized something.  I can’t deny that I really hate getting out of bed before the sun.  But I also can’t deny that once I’m up, I’m glad to be awake.

The day has a very different feel first thing in the morning.  The world is new and fresh, and there’s a sense of infinite possibility.  The entire day stretches ahead like a blank canvas, as yet unmarred by the small disappointments and frustrations that inevitably pile up over the hours.  As I drink my coffee and watch the sun peek over the horizon, I feel like I can do almost anything.  It’s exhilarating…and perhaps even worth the struggle it takes to get myself there each day.

Nevertheless: on my days off, I’m more than happy to let the sun win the race!

We are still here!

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

at the convocation ceremony

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

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

Thanks for reading and sharing your fieldwork stories!

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

The chickadees nested where?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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