The Kalahari Queen

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are happy to welcome Zach Mills, a graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa! To learn more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the blog.

Field work in Africa never behaves itself. It consists of perpetual improvisation because things never go to plan. It demands adaptability, a bit of nerve and resilience. The truth is that fieldwork is what happens when everything functions smoothly; the rest of the time you’re trying to make fieldwork happen. Fieldwork is a lesson in patience and mental fortitude, and this is precisely why we field people love it.

I study thermoregulation in spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta); specifically, I study the influence of metabolic heat production on hunting in endurance hunters. That’s right – endurance hunter; hyenas are effective cursorial hunters that capture prey by running it to exhaustion.

In May 2019, I arrived at my field site in northeastern Namibia with eight days to re-capture eight spotted hyenas in order to remove GPS collars I had deployed a year prior. My plan was simple and effective: use a carcass to bait the clan into a suitable area and blast a series of prey vocalizations followed by a series of hyena vocalizations to get the clan’s attention. Wait and thou shall be rewarded with scores of hyenas. It usually takes a day or two to congregate the clan, but it has historically been foolproof. While spotted hyenas are competent hunters, I’ve never known them to turn down a putrid carcass per gratis.

Zach takes a minute to pose with a lion carcass in Khaudum National Park, Namibia (Photo credit: Hans Rack)

Two things work in my favor when it comes to hyena aggregation at a bait site. First, spotted hyenas have amazing noses, far better than a bloodhound. With a favorable breeze they regularly beeline 10 km directly to a bait site. Second, they regularly patrol their home ranges in small coalitions. In a clan of 40 individuals, the chances of a patrolling group intercepting the scent of the bait and alerting the clan to the complimentary bounty is extremely high.

However, one thing generally works against me: hyena astuteness. When I started studying hyenas, I considered myself to be the more intelligent species and therefore assumed the odds of successful capture were in my favor. I have since reconsidered this.

Last May, I had returned to the field to retrieve the devices at the precise moment the hyenas were all where they were supposed to be – their natal home range.

However, the first night I put the bait out, nothing. Second night, again nothing. On the morning of the third day, I called the collar manufacturer to get recent locations for the study animals. Seven of the eight were 15 km to the north; the eighth (a male) was moving east towards Botswana. I disregard a recommendation from the collar manufacturer to use a helicopter to capture that male and persisted with baiting and calling. Third night, nothing. I called the collar company back and was informed that the rogue male was well into Botswana moving toward the Okavango Delta. The misfortune continued the fourth and fifth nights. At this point, I had only 72 hours to capture 8 hyenas.

Zach performs a physical examination on a sedated spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Lucky for me, a helicopter pilot in camp for other projects took pity on me and offered me an hour of fly time at sunrise and another hour at dusk to locate the wily hyenas using their radio collar frequencies and capture them. This was far more effective than my ‘foolproof’ strategy; the first hyena was tranquilized by a dart administered sedative shortly after sunrise. We captured a second individual that morning and a third in the evening. I was hit with a wave of optimism.

Zach attempts to locate a study animal in Khaudum National Park, Namibia.

The next morning, horizontal rays of the early Kalahari sun cut through the bush as the helicopter rotors began to roar. The shadows cast by the acacia trees are deceptively long in the early morning hours, making it feel like you’re flying over an endless game of jackstraws.

Looking like a vagrant who had escaped from an international detention center, with collar frequencies scribed on my arms, holes in my down jacket, and a face weathered by endless desert sand, I was after one particular adult female that morning: #2746. Last year, #2746 was 210 pounds of impossible to chemically immobilize bad attitude. She was the boss of the bush, the matriarch of the motherland, the Queen of the Kalahari.

I hate to anthropomorphize, but #2746 is an animal of note. I had spent the past year psychologically preparing for our next encounter. True to her mysterious ways, it was a telemetry exercise from hell locating her that morning. Ultimately, I understood why: she’d peek her head out of a shallow den just long enough to send a few radio signals my way before vanishing underground.

But eventually, we caught her off guard, and a well-placed dart found her rump. A chase ensued, and she led us directly to a second den site. We gained altitude to let her fall asleep before she descended deeper into the den.

Zach recovering #2746 from a den (Photo Credit: Markus Hofmeyr)

After ten minutes, we landed, and I peered into the den. #2746 seemed comfortably asleep a meter from the surface. I descended into the den in with a rope in my teeth to recover the half-asleep hyena. I planned to loop the rope around her shoulder, shimmy my way out, and drag her out with the help of two people.

As I looped the rope around her shoulder, she blinked. And then she lifted her head. And then she growled.

Our faces were 10 centimeters apart and I could tell from her breath that she had no reason to visit my bait because she had been enjoying something equally putrid all night long. She lifted her front leg, and the rope slipped from her shoulder. She then advanced in my direction and as the rope slipped to her wrist, I elected to evacuate the den.

Equally startled, we exited the den simultaneously. Now #2746 was tethered to the other end of the rope wrapped around my arm. I tried to act casual while walking behind her, imagining myself out for a morning walk with Canis familiaris. However, I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the feeling of impending doom one experiences while walking an irritated hyena through the bush. Keep it together Zach, she smells the fear!

I was able to keep #2746 on the rope long enough to administer a second sedative dose. She finally fell asleep peacefully and we fitted her with a new GPS collar, and sent her on her way. I’m actively preparing myself for our next encounter.

Zach is a self-proclaimed field junkie; he views his body as an all-terrain vehicle specialized in getting him far from the beaten path.  He explores the world through his passion for wildlife research, conservation and sustainable resource management. His research focuses on the physiology of large carnivores but he enjoys storytelling and sharing his adventures from the field with public audiences. He prefers his meals cooked on an open fire, his clothes ripped and his beard untamed. He’s a field biologist.

Battle scars

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the academic world that academics don’t always agree. In fact, they often engage in fierce and lengthy disagreements about topics that never cross the minds of 99% of the world’s population.

These disagreements are the foundation of good science. Good science happens when smart people with different ideas engage with each other and find ways to test those ideas. However, if you’re a field assistant for one of those smart people, those disagreements can also be a pain in the ass.

An argument between two scientists is exactly how I ended up crouching in the middle of a patch of poison oak in the California hills, my fingers stuffed in my ears, tensed in anticipation of a shotgun blast. (But it’s not quite as bad as it sounds – I promise no scientists were harmed in the making of this blog post!)

At the time, I was working in California for a professor who had been studying acorn woodpeckers for many years. Acorn woodpeckers, as their name suggests, depend heavily on acorns. In fact, groups of these birds create ‘granaries’ by drilling holes in trees (or anything else, including people’s houses) and stuffing those holes full of acorns for later consumption.

Given the tight ties between the woodpeckers and their food source, it made sense that the professor I worked for was interested not just in the birds, but also in the oak trees they relied on – in figuring out the details of how and when they produced their acorns. And this was the source of the argument I found myself in the middle of.

My boss had gotten into a disagreement with another scientist about how far oak pollen could travel. The question was whether oak trees could be pollinated only by other oaks within a relatively small radius (roughly a kilometre), or whether the pollen could travel much longer distances. The funny thing is, I honestly can’t remember which side of the disagreement my boss was on; all I know is that he had decided he was going to settle the question once and for all. How, you might ask? Well, that’s where the shotgun came in.

The logical thing to do, he had decided, was pick a focal oak tree and take a leaf sample from every other oak within a 1 km radius. Then he could sample the focal tree’s acorns and try to match them to DNA from the leaves of the putative fathers – a plant paternity test.  If he found that at least some of the acorns did not belong to any of the trees he had sampled, he would have evidence that pollen could travel farther than a kilometre.

However, this plan turned out to be anything but simple in its execution. First of all, the field station was surrounded by oak savannah.  By definition, there were a *lot* of oak trees around. Sampling every oak within a kilometre of the chosen focal tree was not a trivial task.

The landscape around the field station: rolling hills covered with – you guessed it – oaks.

Second, many of those oaks were located in…inconvenient…places, such as at the top of steep hills, the bottom of ravines, and often, the middle of large patches of poison oak. Closely related to poison ivy, poison oak is – as its name suggests – a plant better avoided. Its leaves are covered in urushiol, an oil which causes an allergic reaction in the majority of people who come into contact with it. My boss informed me that he was in the lucky minority that did not react to it. Never having encountered poison oak before this field job, I didn’t know which camp I fell into, but I wasn’t really interested in finding out the hard way.

Third, most of the oaks we wanted to sample were beautiful, stately, tall old trees. Their height was obviously an advantage when it came to spreading pollen – but a substantial disadvantage when it came to getting a DNA sample.  Plucking a leaf from a 25 m tall tree is easier said than done…which brings us back to the shotgun.

If we were unable to reach a tree’s leaves, my boss’ plan was simply to shoot a twig off. Then the twig and its attached leaves would float down to the ground, allowing us to waltz over and pick up the sample with minimal effort.

Presumably several potential flaws in this plan are obvious to many of you.  But for me, the main problem wasn’t my boss’ aim (as you might think) – but rather the noise associated with shooting our samples down. As someone with a phobia of sudden loud noises (it’s a thing, really!), I can’t even be in the same room as a balloon…so shotgun blasts are well outside of my comfort level.

Eventually, my boss and I worked out a routine. After hiking, scrambling, or clawing our way up (or down) to the tree we were trying to sample, we would circle it (often wading through swaths of poison oak) to look for any leaves within reach. If we didn’t find any, he would get out the shotgun and start sizing up targets, while I would retreat, crouch on the ground, stuff my fingers as far as possible into my ears, and wait for the bang.

By the time we wrapped up at the end of the day, my ears were ringing and my fingers hurt from spending a substantial portion of the day crammed into my ears. Shortly after getting home, I discovered that yes, indeed, I did react to poison oak.

And to this day, I still don’t know how far oak pollen can travel.

One of the oak trees that gave us so much trouble...

One of our oak ‘victims’

Perfectly perfect perfection…not!

Imagine the perfect day in the field. A day where the sky is clear and blue. The sun is warm, but not too warm. A cool breeze wisps across your face, leaving you feeling refreshed and comfortable. The birds are singing, and the butterflies are fluttering. You sit down on an appropriately placed boulder under the perfect shade tree to eat your favourite field lunch. After lunch you take a quick break to watch the clouds pass by above you. You see a dog, then a dragon, and then a snake. Ahhh, perfectly perfect perfection.

While the above scenario certainly does happen for field biologists, it is a rarity. Many field days are not as described above. In fact, most field days are not as described above.

Let’s take a project I worked on this past summer as an example. I was trying to restore an agricultural field into native grassland. This project involved having the farmer plant soybeans in the field in June, which keep the weeds down and deposit nitrogen into the soil. The farmer then harvested the soybeans in November, which meant we were ready to seed the area with native grassland plant species.

I could not have been more excited about a nice chilly autumn day in the field, with the sun warming my nose and the cool breeze keeping me comfortably content in a sweater. I imagined myself frolicking around the field spreading seeds of native plants species, while late migratory ducks flew overhead, and squirrels and voles scurried about trying to pick up the remnants of the soybean plants– a dream, really! And a dream really is what it was.

After some issues with the seed mix and volatile weather, by the end of November we were finally ready to go. Bags of seeds in tow, we were starting to walk out to the field when I heard a curious sound. Imagine for a second making enough banana bread batter to fill a small kids’ swimming pool. Then imagine putting on rubber boots and walking through that. “Slurrrrp…Slurrrp…Slurrrp”. Yes, that was the sound. The sound of our boots sinking into the deep rich soil of the field (which was really just muck at this point) . I had just been out there 2 days earlier… but since then we had gotten a lot of rain, which took the frost out of the ground and created muck. The best part – the ground was still frozen in some places, so sinking past your rain boots into the muck was a frequent but totally unpredictable occurrence. And let me tell you – it is NOT easy to get yourself out of that muck!

Seeding the field in one of the few not so “slurpy” spots

As we started to toss the seeds about, slurping as we went, the rain began. Not a crazy downpour, but a light rain that was *just* heavy enough to get us sufficiently wet for the seeds to start sticking to our hands. To make it possible to spread the seed, we had to walk hunched over, blocking our hands from the rain. So, there we were: hunched over, wet, shivering, boots slurping away in the muck. A very different scenario than the magical day I had envisioned.

In the end it took about 3 hours to seed 1 ha of land. When we were done, we quickly retreated to our vehicle. We stopped to get some warm tea on the way home and we didn’t talk once about how crappy the weather was or how our backs hurt from hunching over or how dirty our rain boots got our rental car. (OK – we did talk a bit about that last one!). But mostly we were focused on the project, forecasting what that field might look like in the spring… or two years from now…or ten years from now. How many grassland birds would soon call this habitat home? What new species would move into this community on their own?

Some days in the field are perfect, and we all cherish those days when they happen. Other days are not-so-perfect and that is just fine. But we cherish those not-so-perfect days too. Those are the days that prompt us to remember our reason for doing the work, forecasting the bigger picture and recalling our love for our jobs.

Thank 10 women and keep it going!

This week on Dispatches on the Field, to keep up with the Twitter trends, we thought it would be fun to highlight just a few of the awesome blogs written by women in the past 2 years sharing their fieldwork experiences. Check out their posts and follow them on Twitter!

@HannaBensch

Happy damselfly catching in Sweden

 

 

@TaraImlay

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

 

 

@MVKingsbury

It’s not just a ditch

 

 

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

Livin’ on a Prairie

 

 

 

@debbiemleigh

Look – a Chamois!

 

 

@BronwynHarkness

Falling in love with fieldwork

 

 

@BeckySTaylor

Morabeza!

 

 

@phrelanzer

Fieldwork: more than data

 

 

@SianGreen92

These boots are made for walking

 

 

@kastep15

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

 

 

Emily Williams@wayfaringwilly

What would a real field work resume look like?

 

 

Jenns with a tall plant@Jennafinley

A beginner’s guide to making a unique first impression

 

 

Ok we realize there are 12 listed here… but there are just too many awesome women field biologists to recognize (and these are just the women we have active Twitter encounters with)!  Now let’s see your list of 10 awesome women to recognize!

Angry birds but a happy field assistant

One of the most important rules for fieldwork is to never enter the field alone. This is partly for safety reasons, but also for your sanity. When you conduct fieldwork in remote places, as I do, it is essential to have a buddy. But when your interview process involves explaining to potential applicants that they have a high likelihood of winding up covered in bird poop most days, it can be a challenge to find a willing person whose company you can handle being in 24/7. Part of being a field assistant is taking on the less-desirable tasks, some of which my field assistant this summer was quick to learn!

Getting to know my field assistant this summer was a bit tricky at first, given that she was from France, and I am an anglophone from Ontario. Out in the field, I would ask for help in English (incorporating some broken French), and she would respond in French (incorporating some broken English). Sometimes I wondered how we made it to the same conclusion – especially against a background of fieldwork stress!

My field assistant carrying the heavy coolers.

When we first arrived at the field site, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of travel time to the colony. I thought I was a fairly fit person until I had to climb up endless stairs and tramp uphill through the forest for 30 minutes, carrying all of our gear. When my field assistant offered to carry the heavy coolers, I couldn’t resist. Honestly, I couldn’t get enough air to refuse…but I also figured that this was why I brought extra arms with me!

At last we reached the top, turned a corner, and suddenly heard it: the unmistakable squawks and chips of a seabird colony. Then the wave of smells hit us, making it clear that we were getting close. Finally the colony came into view. At first, all we could see was a few nests clustered near the field station. But as we looked first left, then right, like a Magic Eye puzzle, more and more nests popped into view.  There were northern gannets as far as we could see.

cliff speckled with gannets on their nests

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Selfie time!

After we retrieved our jaws off the ground, we took a few selfies and then got to work. Catching an adult gannet is not an easy task – and it definitely requires strong partnership skills. We first identified a nest with two birds guarding it.  This was important because it allowed us to be sure that when we (briefly) removed one of the parents for sampling, the other parent could protect the egg. Then one of us dangled a string or wire above the target bird’s head, which was meant to distract it from the other one of us creeping up behind it.

When the second person got close enough to catch the bird in their hands, they brought them over to our sampling area. However, as you might imagine, gannets aren’t thrilled about being taken off their nest.  Their responses include (but are not limited to) flailing their wings and squawking loudly. The easiest way to gain control was to allow the bird to bite us (with gloves on)! This may seem counter-intuitive (most people prefer to avoid biting animals!), but by letting them bite us, we knew exactly where their sharp beak was. Guess who got to do that job!? My field assistant!

My field assistant working hard in our limited “lab”.

After a long day of baking in the hot sun, we brought the samples back to our “lab” for processing. Our “lab” was the top floor of the cottage where we were staying with very little amount of equipment. We took a few minutes to stuff our faces with chips, as we hoped to tide over our hunger, and processed that day’s samples for a couple of hours. By the time we finished, we didn’t have a whole lot of time left for other activities –  like cooking an actual dinner – given that we had to get some sleep before the following morning, when we had to get up early to do it all again.

At this point, you are probably thinking I was a terribly mean mentor making her do the less desirable tasks. However, throughout all the hiking, sampling, and processing we did this summer, my field assistant kept smiling, making up dance moves, and maintaining a good spirit – basically, having fun and keeping me sane!

gannet startled

The expression on my field assistant’s face when I asked her to let the bird bite her. “Wait, what!?”

 

Technology in Fieldwork: Friend or Foe?

When I started doing fieldwork about 12 years ago, I didn’t use technology in the field. In fact, the only technology I had access to was an old flip phone that took photos so blurry I could barely tell if they were of plants or animals when I got back to the lab. I didn’t even pre-print my Excel data sheets and fill them in as I collected data. I just drew freehand columns in a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and then spent hours afterwards trying to decipher my messy handwriting.

But over the last decade, technology has really boomed and it has changed the lives of field biologists everywhere. Take GPS, for instance. While hand-held GPS devices were certainly around 10 years ago, they tended to be clunky and slow, with limited functions – nowhere near as streamlined as current technology. In fact, they were often more trouble than they were worth. When I used to monitor roadside populations of wildflowers throughout the summer, I would simply remember where locations were based on landmarks, nearby street addresses, etc.

But now, I do my fieldwork using Collector, an mobile data collection app which allows me to take points instantly from my smartphone. If I were monitoring roadside wildflower populations now, I could just drop a point for a population, take a photo and attach it to the point and then navigate directly back to the point on follow up visits.
While GPS advances are very cool, the advent of iNaturalist is likely responsible for the greatest change to my life as a field biologist. According to their website, iNaturalist “is a lot of different things, but at its core, [it’s] an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature. It’s also a crowdsourced species identification system and an organism occurrence recording tool. You can use it to record your own observations, get help with identifications, collaborate with others to collect this kind of information for a common purpose, or access the observational data collected by iNaturalist users” iNaturalist.

That explanation is much more eloquent than my description of iNaturalist, which can be summed up as, “a crazy-cool identification app that must be magic!”
When I was learning how to identify plants during my Undergraduate degree, I didn’t have access to anything like iNaturalist. To figure out what something was, I would excitedly bust out my plant bible, Newcomb’s Guide to Wildflowers, and open the book to the first page. Then I would carefully examine the features of the plant I was trying to ID. I would check if the leaves were alternate or opposite, determine whether the leaf edges were serrated, and then classify the radial symmetry of the flower. This information would lead me to a page number; with great anticipation I would flip to that page and quickly scan the images and descriptions. Inevitably, one of two reactions would follow: heart-beating excitement when my eyes stopped at a sketch that looked just like the flower in front of me…or sheer disappointment when nothing matched. In the second case, the next step was to flip back to the first page and take another look at the plant in front of me to try to figure out where I went wrong. Perhaps I miscounted the petals, or maybe the leaves were whorled, rather than opposite? It sometimes took a whole lot of trial and error, but eventually I almost always arrived at the right answer. And it was those mistakes that really made me remember the identity of the plant long after.

It is with some hesitation that I admit this, but I mostly use iNaturalist to identify things now. I just snap a photo of something in nature – be it a plant, an animal or a fungus – and iNaturalist gives me its best guess at the identity. It only takes a couple of seconds and it’s incredibly accurate. (Hence, magic app!) iNaturalist is such an exciting concept. In fact, I recently was part of a class visit at a Nature Reserve which involved a scavenger hunt as part of the tour. One of the species the students needed to find was Sensitive Fern, but this species is only really found in one small area, so it was easily missed by the students. To help them out, I pulled out my phone. I pointed to a specimen on the ground beside me and took a photo. Below is what iNaturalist came up with:


We proceeded to try the app on about a dozen more species of plants (even just the bark of trees!) and it was bang on every time. The entire grade 7 class was hooked on the app after that.

I love iNaturalist and all that it stands for. It intrigues people, it helps them learn about nature, and it fosters a curiosity about the natural world around us. It even helps collect important data about rare species and Species-at-Risk that monitoring biologists may miss. However, even though iNaturalist is useful in so many ways, it left me feeling very conflicted.

I can’t deny that iNaturalist has also made me a less engaged (or maybe a lazier) field biologist. To be clear, I don’t mean I am worse at my job now, by any means. In fact, I am probably more efficient. That being said, I don’t notice the things I used to notice about plants. I snap a photo and the answer is right in front of my eyes. I don’t spend 5 minutes flipping through the pages of field guides attempting to identify an unknown specimen. Moreover, when I do use iNaturalist, I often quickly forget the identity of the species – because I haven’t spent those long minutes working for my answer.
So, as I wind down this field season and think forward, I vow to reach for the book and not the phone next spring when I spot a new species or can’t recall what something is.

That being said, I think there is certainly a place for both technology and more traditional approaches as well. For those getting started, or in time sensitive situations, perhaps iNaturalist is the way to go. But maybe for those looking to thoroughly and deeply understand nature, the old school approach may be more suitable. Either way, I will continue to promote iNaturalist like the “crazy-cool magical app” it is, in hopes that more folks learn about, and begin to care about the natural world around us.

Do you use technology to do your fieldwork? Has the role of technology changed over the past few years? I would love to hear about your experiences! Leave a comment below and tell me – is technology a friend or a foe in your fieldwork?

Fast Forward Five Years

Five years ago over beers at the Grad Club, the three of us decided to start a blog. The purpose of the blog was to share stories about fieldwork: why we love it, why we keep doing it, and why everyone should get the chance to experience it. At that point in time, two of us were knee deep (or maybe neck deep??) in PhD fieldwork and the third was managing a lab, which included lots of fieldwork as well.

Fast forward five years, and we are all still out in the field, where we love to be…but things have changed (more than a little). Catherine and Amanda both defended their PhDs and have since started working for Bird Studies Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, respectively. Sarah wrapped up her work as a lab manager and has since started a PhD in ecotoxicology at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (Université de Québec). But the adventures of new jobs, new studies, and re-locating, combined with busy field seasons and all the other quirks life brings, meant that we all ended up pushing the blog to the back burner.

However, as we started to wrap up the 2019 field season, we reflected on all the great things that have happened in the field this summer…and realized we wanted to share those stories (and more!) on Dispatches.  So with renewed excitement, we are happy to announce that we will be back to our bi-weekly posting schedule effective October 2019! You can also look forward to some updated features on the blog and even a new layout.

And if you can’t wait until October to get your fieldwork stories fix, check our Twitter feed, where we will be travelling back in time to feature some of our favourite posts from 2014, the year it all started.

We are all thrilled to be back and just itching to share the many adventures of our recent #fieldwork with you! And we’d love to hear about your adventures as well…so if you have a story you want to share, shoot us an e-mail!

Tourists for a day

We often say the best part about fieldwork is getting to go to places that most other people don’t get to see. But sometimes we conduct fieldwork in locations that the public is able to visit too.

The welcome sign to the park.

I was very busy this past year with starting my doctorate degree. This included learning French, taking classes (in French), reading and writing literature reviews, and planning experiments. So I was super excited when the time for my field season arrived. This spring, I conducted my field research on Bonaventure Island, off of the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé region in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Bonaventure Island has one of the largest colonies of Northern gannet, a large seabird. In any direction you look, there are thousands of gannets sitting on nests as far as the eye can see. I have been on a lot of bird colonies, but I have never seen so many birds clustered in one area.

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Gannets nesting beside viewing platform

Gannets nesting beside and on one of the viewing platforms.

Despite the island’s status as a bird sanctuary, the cool thing about it that the public can visit too! It offers a rare chance for visitors to get pretty much as close to the nesting colony as us researchers. In fact, we even used the tourist viewing stations to conduct our research on gannet nesting success. And given that some of the gannets choose to nest beside and even under these stations, they don’t seem bothered by human presence. Rather, they seem to show off, allowing visitors to watch their behaviour for hours (and yes, this includes us researchers!).

Field team making use of the viewing platform.

Bonaventure Island is off the coast of Percé, a very small town with quaint restaurants and small tourist shops where you can buy a homemade gannet ornament. However, a small tourist town isn’t the most useful when you need something specific for research. One morning I realized that our dry ice, which I use to keep my samples frozen, was evaporating too quickly, meaning that the samples were in danger of thawing.

It was one of those times where you need to draw a decision tree with pros and cons. Should we keep sampling in the colony to make sure we get all the data points we need, but risk losing earlier samples? Or should we take time off to find dry ice and save the samples already collected?

In a panic, my assistant and I started to call around to try to find a place to purchase more. After a few frustrating answers like, “the closest distributer is 4 hours away”, and, “It will take 4 days to deliver it”, we finally received a positive response. The medical lab of a hospital about 45 minutes away said they could give us enough to last the rest of the week! We decided to skip the morning of sampling on the island to pick up the dry ice to save the already-collected samples, which represented hours and hours of work. Crisis averted!

I thanked the hospital technician for saving my PhD and we headed back to the dock to catch a boat. On previous mornings, we had taken the employee boat over, which goes straight from the mainland to the island. But lucky for us, by the time we got to the dock that day, the tourist boat was the only option to get to the island. So instead of putting our heads down and going straight to work, we got to enjoy the scenery and a tour around the whole island. It was interesting to hear what the tourist guide said about the island, especially when we could say “We’re contributing to that research!”. And despite the delayed morning start as “tourists”, we still made to the colony it in time to finish all of our sampling!

I’m on a boat! (as a tourist)

The tourist boat.

4 reasons I shouldn’t be a field biologist

My lungs are bursting as I stumble to a halt, slipping on melting snow crystals.  Squinting against the glare, I lift my head – and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Behind me, a vertigo-inducing slope of snow drops away.  In front of me, the sight is even worse: the slope continues up…up…up.  At the top, four figures stand waiting impatiently.  It’s clear that I’m hopelessly outclassed. As I force myself to start climbing again, I can’t help but wonder: is it too late for a career change?

***

I guess I should back up and explain how I got myself into this situation.  When I finished my PhD, I had a singular goal: I wanted to continue doing fieldwork and research.  So when Bird Studies Canada offered me a job coordinating Newfoundland’s first Breeding Bird Atlas, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Breeding Bird Atlases (BBAs) are ambitious projects that aim to map the distribution and abundance of all birds breeding in a province or state over a 5-year period.  Every Canadian province except Newfoundland has (or is in the midst of producing) at least one BBA.  The end product allows us to better understand the health and distribution of bird populations and can be used as a tool for conservation planning.

Most atlas data is collected by volunteer citizen scientists, making atlases a great forum for community engagement.  But once in a while, the coordinator is lucky enough to get out into the field too.  And when the opportunity presented itself to do some pilot surveys in the remote regions of Gros Morne National Park…how could I say no?

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

I drove into Gros Morne under a spectacular rainbow, arcing across hills and lakes of the park.  It seemed like a good omen.  And although a few days of weather delays frayed our patience a bit, finally the skies cleared and we climbed into a helicopter for our flight to the top of Big Level, one of the highest points in the park.  As we swooped over Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne’s famous freshwater fjord, I couldn’t wait to get started.

We descended into an alien landscape: the arctic-alpine habitat found in only few places in Newfoundland.  For a few hours, we wandered under the widest blue sky imaginable, exclaiming when we crossed paths with an enormous arctic hare and enjoying the silvery sound of horned lark song.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

But then we started our hike towards the cabin where we’d be staying the next few nights.  And once we were on the move, the evidence that I was way out of my depth accumulated rapidly.

Pausing to take a picture is a great excuse to catch your breath an on strenuous hike…

I’m a fairly active person, and I thought I was in reasonable shape…until I spent a day trailing four people (all with a distinct resemblance to gazelles) across tundra, snow, and bogs.  As the warthog among gazelles, I was also the most likely to plunge without warning through the crust of snow we were walking on, landing with a thump in whatever was below.  With each minute, I lagged farther and farther behind.

My problems were compounded by my short legs and terrible balance, which resulted in me frequently tripping over rocks, trees, and my own feet – not to mention being unable to cross many of the streams my gazelle companions leapt over easily.

Reasons #1 and 2: Warthogs aren’t made for long-distance hikes involving lots of climbs.  Short legs and poor balance don’t help either.

By the time we made it to the cabin – after a solid eight hours of hiking – I was beyond done.  I collapsed on the cabin deck, and I might still be there, if some kind soul hadn’t provided incentive to get up in the form of a cold beer.

I told myself the next morning would be a fresh start.  But when the alarm sounded at 4:30 and I rolled my aching body out of bed, I realized I had overlooked another reason I’m not cut out to be field biologist – or at least an ornithologist.

Reason #3: As documented in previous posts, I’m very much not a morning person.

But birds start the day early, so we had to as well.  Our plan was to conduct 8 to 10 point counts each morning.  A point count involves standing in one place for a set amount of time (in this case, 5 minutes), and documenting every bird seen or heard.  Sounds straightforward, right?  But because birds are more often heard than seen, point counts require sharp ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of bird song.

As we climbed a steep hill to our first point, all I could hear was my own panting.  I managed to catch my breath when we stopped to conduct the count…only to become aware of yet another problem.

Reason #4: I don’t know enough bird songs.

I could recognize some of what we heard, but definitely not all of it.  I especially struggled with the partial songs and quiet ‘chip’ notes that were often all we heard.  Luckily I was with several spectacularly talented birders, who were more than capable of conducting the counts.  But after a few days in the field, I was feeling pretty discouraged.

And then on our last day, we came across a(nother) sound I hadn’t heard before: a single repetitive note, like the alarm on a tiny car.  We tracked the sound to a nearby conifer.  Perched at the very top, staggering as the tree swayed, was a greater yellowlegs.

Shorebird in trees look undeniably ridiculous.  Gawky and awkward, the yellowlegs scrabbled constantly for balance as it fought to stay on its perch.  It was impossible to watch without laughing…and I began to feel better.

A greater yellowlegs perches at the very top of a conifer.

Some birds just aren’t meant to perch in trees. But this greater yellowlegs isn’t letting that bother him.

Shorebirds aren’t built to perch at the top of trees, but the yellowlegs was there anyway.  And now that my first atlassing excursion is over, I’ve reached a conclusion.  Maybe I’m not naturally suited to this job.  It certainly doesn’t always come easily to me.  But the things I don’t know, I can learn; the things I struggle with, I’ll improve at with practice.  What matters is to be out there trying.

It’s true there are many reasons I’m not cut out to be a field biologist…but there’s one reason I am: doing this job makes me feel alive.  And for me, that cancels out everything else.

Origins of a Naturalist

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome Megan Quinn, the Coordinator of Conservation Biology for Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to share how she ended up working for the environment. For more about Megan, see the end of this post. 

Most people working in conservation have a story about how they got into the field. In my case, environmental work wasn’t my first, second, or even fifth career choice, but it did turn out to be my favourite. Although it took some time for my dream career to go from veterinarian, to actress, to radio DJ, to journalist, to author, and eventually to naturalist, in hindsight there were some clues in my childhood that might have gotten me there a lot quicker.

My family tells the story of taking four-year-old Megan to the park, where I just lagged further and further behind. They couldn’t figure out what I was doing, until my coat had grown two sizes from stuffing my pockets with rocks, twigs, and pine cones. Turns out that 20 years later, I’m still doing the exact same thing. I am now the Coordinator of Conservation Biology for Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which means I manage over 28,000 acres of land, and spend my day identifying the plants, animals, and natural features that live there.

Megan checking out the grass

Here’s two recent pictures of me on holiday in England and the Netherlands. Although this time I left the nature in its place.

Growing up, the place where I did the most exploring was my Grandma’s garden. Her garden was unlike anywhere else I knew: a maze of stone paths with brilliant insects to discover, delicious raspberries to eat, and a new world to explore. The Troddy Nature Book – Things to Collect in a Bag came into my life just as I was starting to explore the world around me. Like a lot of things at Grandma’s house, nobody is entirely sure where the book came from, but it was an instant family favourite.

“Things to Collect in a Bag” is one of four books in a series written by Stuart Cowly, and published by Brian Trodd Publishing House Limited. There is also “Things to Collect in a Bucket”, “Things to Collect in a box”, and “Things to Collect in a Jar.” Together, they are the Troddy Nature Books.

The book guides children through nature projects they can “collect in a bag”. It offers activities such as making a herb pot, learning about fossils, and drawing a wildlife map. At the back of the book, there is “Troddy’s County Code”, a set of rules for young environmentalists to follow. Looking through them, I realised that I’m still following the code today.

T – Take home all litter

When I’m out in the field, my team and I always spend time collecting rubbish that has been left in, or blown into, the area. By getting into the habit of carrying a garbage bag and a pair of gloves, you can make a big impact in your neighbourhood. Spring is a great time to get outside, and clean up any litter left behind by the melting snow.

R – Recycle whenever possible

It’s inevitable that we’re going to use resources. As conservationists, we try our best to reduce our impact by recycling materials. Doing simple things like using printed pages for scrap paper and re-using signs, and materials, saves money (thus ensuring more money goes towards conservation), and reduces our footprint. Over the past few years I’ve been paying more attention to my own consumption habits. Small changes like forgoing plastic bags, and bringing reusable containers while shopping are things that everyone can integrate into their lives.

O – Observe, but never interfere with nature

Unnecessarily interfering with nature can negatively impact organisms and the ecosystems they inhabit. Like with all rules, there are exceptions, but it’s important to consider what you are doing. If you are picking up a turtle to help it safely cross the road, then you’re performing a positive act, but if you are just picking up a turtle so you can take a cool selfie with it, then you’re likely causing more harm than good. The energy animals have to put into getting away, or the stress caused by unnecessary handling, could impact their survival. I think even the most seasoned conservationists are guilty of this sometimes, but it’s important to take a step back, and evaluate what we’re doing.

D – Don’t ride when you can walk

I do a lot of walking as a conservation biologist. Some field days I get over 40,000 steps. I find that taking the time to walk in nature slows down my mind, and helps me to appreciate the world around me. It can be as simple as a walk in the park, or around your garden, or even sitting by a window to watch the environment outside. We are lucky to have so much accessible nature in Canada, and this point reminds me to appreciate it.

D – Do join a wildlife or nature club

Getting involved with the work that organizations such as the Nature Conservancy of Canada are doing across the country is a great way to contribute to the environment. There are many ways you can do this: getting out and exploring a local natural area, such as NCC’s Nature Destination Properties, donating to a cause, or volunteering at conservation events. Every little bit helps, and you may find yourself picking up a new favourite hobby or past-time.

Y – YOU ARE THE FUTURE

This doesn’t just mean youth! Although it’s the young people that will inherit the earth, the actions that all of us take today will impact the future. We can choose to make that a positive impact by engaging with nature in a sustainable way.

This book has followed me throughout my environmental career, and even though it’s almost 30 years old, the lessons it teaches are still relevant today. When my grandma passed, the Troddy Nature Book made its way across the ocean to Canada, where I still have it today. It may seem a bit silly to base my conservation values on a 30-year-old book, but looking back, the lessons it teaches are valuable. The Troddy Nature Book will always have a place on my bookshelf, and one of these days, I may actually complete all of the activities in it!

Megan is the current Coordinator of Conservation Biology, Eastern Ontario with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. She was inspired to pursue a career in the environmental field after moving to Canada in 2004, and studying Ecosystem Management at Sir Sandford Fleming College. In her spare time, Megan is a an avid horse rider, competing in eventing horse trials with her horse, King.