Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

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Mother Nature, what did you do?

We are excited to welcome back Tara Harvey to the blog today. Tara is a Hydrogeologist with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority. Previously she told us all about why she was always standing in fields. For more about Tara, see the end of this post.

Field work is fantastic! It’s a great opportunity to get out of the office, stretch your legs, and collect some data. And even when you are doing the same type of field work over and over and over again, Mother Nature can make things interesting when you least expect it.

As a hydrogeologist (someone who studies geology and groundwater), the field work I tend to participate in is rather repetitive and might not be considered super exciting. I don’t get to go searching for animals in the wild, I don’t get to use fancy equipment, and I don’t typically get to travel to far off lands. What I do get to do is go out to construction sites, or other places where we are interested in monitoring groundwater quality or quantity, and either take a small sample or use a measuring tape to determine the water depth. Very exciting, right? Regardless, I do really love field work and have some pretty interesting stories, most of which are all thanks to good old Mother Nature.

In the summer of 2017, I was up in Northern Ontario to do some groundwater sampling. Now, you can collect groundwater samples for many reasons, but the general goal is always to see what chemicals or contaminants are in the water. This time around we were interested in monitoring the movement of chemicals from an active industrial site to make sure there was no negative impact to the natural environment. But what should have been a very easy, mundane, and predictable field excursion turned out to be anything but.

 

Of course, Mother Nature isn’t the only unknown force that can upset a tightly designed field schedule. Nope, you also have to account for the unpredictable behaviour of both the Canadian postal system and your teammates’ memories. Unfortunately for us, on this particular field adventure all three things went a little awry. Firstly, one of our team members forgot to ship some of the equipment we needed for the field work to the site.  The delay could have been a problem – but ended up not mattering, since even the equipment that was shipped on time showed up several days late courtesy of Canada post.

But the most interesting surprise was this….

In case you can’t tell from the photo, that is a completely burned forest! Yes, just the day before we arrived to get our groundwater samples, a forest fire burned through the area, destroying all the vegetation in its path.

The fire had happened so recently that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry were still conducting their investigation to determine whether it had been caused by natural or human forces. Either way, the fire was actually very confined and caused minimal damage beyond a very small section of burned forest. Even the trees weren’t badly affected, and should continue to grow in the future.

Regardless of the limited damage, it was definitely an unexpected sight that we walked into on that first day. Immediately, we wondered what the fire meant for our groundwater wells, which are 2-inch plastic tubes that stick out of the ground and might have melted. Did they survive? Would we even be able to do any of our field work at all? Luckily, we soon found out that although the fire burned everything that was alive, all of the wells on site were perfectly fine since they had protective metal casings over top of them! Thankfully. If the plastic wells themselves had been exposed, this might have been a different story.

Although the forest fire destruction was a surprise, it actually made our work easier in the end, since we didn’t have to fight against the vegetation to go find our wells in the ‘jungle’. And it definitely made for some interesting, if not beautiful, photos.

The lesson I took away from this field excursion, and the lesson I always take away from field work, is to be prepared! You never know what is going to go wrong or what is going to surprise you, especially Mother Nature.

Tara Harvey works as a Hydrogeologist with the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority and has previous experience in research and consulting with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research and Cole Engineering. Tara specializes in Quaternary geology, aka glacial geology, but now spends much of her time working on Source Water Protection in Ontario to make sure our drinking water sources (lakes, rivers, and groundwater) stay protected. 

 

Wow, time flies!

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that we started Dispatches from the Field four and a half years ago, back in June 2014.  Where has the time gone?!?

2018 marked a busy year for all of us. Catherine and Amanda both received their Ph.D. and started new jobs, while Sarah started a Ph.D. That didn’t stop any of us from getting out into the field though! Some of our notable blog posts from this past year include Catherine learning to love mornings, Amanda falling into a swamp, and a fox getting the better of the nests at Sarah’s study site.

We’re excited to have welcomed guest bloggers who added new markers to our map, including Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Israel’s Red Sea. We also learned what a real field work resume might look like, the (maybe not so) best way to make a first impression, and how to fall in love with fieldwork.

We shared some sentiments familiar to anyone who does fieldwork (for example,  You’ve got to be kidding me!) and learned some new sayings appropriate to situations such as having all of your gear washed out to sea (Morabeza!). And a number of our posts raised important issues, such as what it’s like being a parent in the field, the importance of citizen science (first, second), and how fieldwork is more than just data.

I guess time flies when you’re having fun! Stay tuned for more of the good, bad, and ugly of fieldwork on Dispatches in 2019. We will be posting every other week to give everyone more time to enjoy each story! If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please email or tweet us!

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!).

 

Freshwater Exploration: are Invasive Crayfish Predating Benthic Invertebrates

This week Dispatches from the field welcomes Arron Watson,  who conducted his masters by research in Entomology at the University of Reading. His summer project was to investigate how signal crayfish, an invasive species, has an impact on benthic invertebrate predation. He sampled 20 sites across the UK, 10 without signal crayfish, 10 with. He conducted this field work over a month in May and is telling us about his experiences here!

May 1st 2018: the first day of field work for my summer thesis, a key part of my MRes in entomology at the University of Reading. I had already spent roughly six months planning my field work, and decided that I wanted to start my freshwater exploration in Scotland. My supervisor from Buglife, Scotland is based in Stirling and he had offered to show me some advanced insect identification techniques. Next, I would drive over 1000 miles around the rest of the U.K. in my 1997 Nissan Micra (aka “the beast”), stopping over in a mix of locations including a hotel and the houses of friends I had met in my previous life as a back packer.

“The beast”

I left Reading at 6 am and headed north up the backbone of the country towards Scotland. I have lived in Reading for about 3 and half years now, so I have gotten used to the urban way of life. In Reading, I see buses much more often than I do trees or sheep. But driving along on a beautiful day with a wad of CDs was fantastic, and the closer I got to Scotland, the greener the landscape appeared and the more free I felt.

I met Craig (my supervisor) in Stirling. He suggested getting some rest after my 7 hour drive, then setting out first thing tomorrow for a set of four rivers to start my sampling. If you’ve never had the chance to “kick sample” before, it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of those things that takes you back to being younger: standing in the middle of a flowing river, dipping your net in, and waiting for living things to end up in there. When you remove the net from the river and you see lots of things wiggling about, you think, excellent!

After collecting the samples, the next step is to sort them. This is where the skill comes in: not only do you have to remove the things you don’t need (such as fish), you also need to identify things based on differences in morphology – without books, depending only on your memory. But Craig also told me just how many different stone flies and mayflies there are, and explained that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart just by eye, so I should be strict if I thought I collected everything.

Luckily for me, I already had experience identifying terrestrial invertebrates, which was a huge advantage, so after a day’s training, I was a professional picker. Now my task was to collect samples from the rest of my sites, spread across the UK. I would spend the next 3 weeks having limited contact with anyone other than my hosts at each accommodation.

Kick sampling methods used by the environment agency.

My next set of sites were on the Clyde river in Scotland. I was informed to take a letter with me to show any catchment officials or anglers I had permission to be there. I arrived at my first site and started to get a feel of what it was like to be in the middle (not literally) of Scotland. Water running fast, no one in sight, greenery everywhere: bliss! As I got to the edge of the riverbank to look at my first GPS location, I took a minute to stare at the flow of the river and thought, “Oh! Actually that looks like it’s flowing quite fast.” I looked around and realised I really was alone. This is where you start to build field work skills, I realized: no one to rely on, no one to ask, “do you think I will get swept down the stream?” – just your skills and intuition to rely on. After a moment of worry, I told myself, “OK, if I go down that river, I have my buoyancy aid and an inflatable bag which has my phone in it, so I suppose I would be noticed flying down the river like a game of ‘pooh sticks’” (look it up!). I used the pole of my kick sampling net (approximately 1m) to gauge the depth of the river, chose an area where the flow broke slightly, and stepped in. Within a short space of time I had picked my samples, and off I went to Edinburgh to see an old friend. We had a few beers and the following day I headed down to East Yorkshire.

“Alone!, bliss”

I started to feel like things were going really well. My samples were being kept cool in ethanol, the car was running well, and there were no issues so far. It wasn’t until I arrived in Norwich a week later that I would experience my first major problem – which really couldn’t have been controlled or pre-empted.

I had driven to Kings Lynn, heading for a river at the bottom of some farmer’s fields – which was nothing unusual. I found the location and got ready as usual: throwing my waders on, connecting the buoyancy aid connected to my belt, and grabbing my net. As I started to walk down the road, out of nowhere a farmer’s truck drove past me with a carriage of cows. It didn’t faze me at the time: I just headed down the side path, eventually reaching the field with the cows and calves. I walked up to the fence, intending to climb the gate and walk across the field…when all of a sudden, the cows started marching over to me. I had a strange feeling they weren’t there to welcome me.

By the time I got to the fence, a large gang of protective female cows were gazing at me. I tried to spook them, but they wouldn’t budge: they simply grunted at me, looking quite angry. I thought, “No chance am I getting trampled by cows during field work! I will just go around, because there’s another field next door.” I started to walk around to the side, watching the cows follow me out of the corner of my eye. I jumped the fence and started to make my way through some bushes (and brambles), regretting this choice but at the same time pretty sure it was better than cows trampling my head.

But suddenly…squelch! My height dropped by about 2 feet: I had sunk. It turned out that the way I wasn’t meant to go was some sort of swamp or bog…either way, I was stuck. This had happened to me once before, on Cleethorpes mudflats as a young lad. That time, I had gone out in brand new trainers my mum specifically asked me not to ruin. I looked at the cows and thought, “Ha! Cows 2- me 0.”

At this point getting out was my main focus. I knew that when in mud like this, you need to expand your surface area in order not to sink. Unfortunately for me, this meant laying on my front and crawling out. I moved across the marshy land like a seal that had lost its way, until I finally made it out. At times like this, you either have to cry or laugh. I chose to laugh…until I left and realized that the cows were waiting for me like a trained animal retrieving a stick!

“2-0 to the cows”

I will leave you with the image I saw at this point, and I’m sure you can guess what happened next…squelch!

Field work offers rewards and excitement no other work can sometimes……Let’s not forget the cows!

 

Arron is trained in field ecology, and has worked on a number of different research areas such as entomology, freshwater ecology, bat ecology, and the use of drones. He conducted an ecology and wildlife conservation degree at the University of Reading, went on to complete my masters by research in Entomology there also. He is currently working as a research assistant at the University of Reading and founder of a UAV consultancy called EcoDroneUK. 

Weird Field Finds: Part 2

Good day fieldwork blog followers! And of course, HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!!! In the spirit of this spooky season, we bring you Part 2 of our weird field finds series. Check out Part 1 here.

@SianGreen92 might recommend The Godfather as a great movie to watch on Hallowe’en… or NOT…check out here weird field find below:

sian

Ok, Sian. That’s pretty weird. Not gonna lie. 

On the other hand, Dr. Jenn Lavers found something less “spooky”, but ultimately incredibly “terrifying” in the field…

jenn 1

Run away, Jenn! RUN AWAY!!

And Jenn also found something a whole different kind of terrifying…

jenn2

No…seriously, Jenn…RUN AWAY!

Now, if you happen to lose your costume tonight, please don’t make us witness to what William Jones had to see…

will

And finally Lysandra Pyle found what might be one of the freakiest finds of them all….

lysandra

I don’t even want to know…same advice for you, Lysandra… RUN!

Once again, Happy Hallowe’en to all! This series will continue in the near future and if you want to share more weird field finds, find us on Twitter or shoot us an e-mail!

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