The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Dr. Tara Imlay, a recent PhD graduate, swallow conservation expert, and parent. In her post, Tara shares some of the challenges of this kind of multi-tasking – as well as some of its rewards. For more about Tara, see her bio at the end of the post.

Just call me Dr. Mama… after all, my precocious nearly three-year-old does.

Field work was one of my primary considerations when I chose to have a baby during my doctoral degree.  Specifically, I wanted to avoid being in the third trimester during my second field season, and I wanted the baby to be at least six months old during my third field season.  As you can imagine, that left a very small window in which to get pregnant.

Luckily, for me, that wasn’t a big challenge.

Instead, the challenges during my second field season came in the form of prolonged morning sickness, food aversions, exhaustion, and changes to my centre of gravity.  The latter landed me in the hospital after I fell over a bank one morning while mist-netting Bank Swallows.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured – and one of my field assistants now has an amazing response to any interview questions about dealing with unexpected problems in the field!  After that experience, though, I began delegating a lot more field work to my assistants, especially anything involving heights.

Danny demonstrating the safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

Danny demonstrating safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

The challenges in my third field season came in the form of exhaustion from lack of sleep.  At that time, Robin* was still waking up routinely through the night for feedings.  On numerous nights, she was up at 11, again at 2, and my alarm would go off at 3.  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that field season, but somehow we managed to get everything done.

But despite the challenges, there were a lot of amazing moments during those field seasons and the field seasons since.

Moments like sitting in the field banding birds, with a very chubby baby propped up beside me.  Or watching how excited she got over seeing all the birds, cows, sheep, dogs, and anything else that moved at my field sites.

This past year, she’s taken on a more helpful bent in the field: carrying equipment, checking swallow nests, and, her favourite task of all… getting to let birds go after they’ve been captured and banded.

The field team, including its smallest member, busy tagging captured Bank Swallows.

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to manage her short attention spans, and I can’t always bring her with me when I’m in the field.  Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several great people who don’t mind helping out with an inquisitive child, when needed.

But despite the challenges, having a baby during my PhD didn’t affect my ability to finish my degree, and hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other opportunities, both in and out of the field.  Becoming a parent with a busy field schedule isn’t a common occurrence, but if it’s something you want, then you just have to go for it, deal with the challenges as they come, and enjoy the special moments along the way.

*Her middle name, for anonymity when she’s older.

Tara Imlay is a recent PhD graduate from Dalhousie University.  Her PhD and postdoctoral work focuses on the ecology and conservation of four species of swallows throughout their annual cycle.  Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked on various conservation programs for birds and reptiles in Canada, the USA and Mauritius.

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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!

No Exit

“Hell is other people” – or so said French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  Sometimes I can’t help but think Sartre must have been working as a field biologist when he wrote that.

Sartre’s quote is frequently misinterpreted: he wasn’t saying that other people are terrible beings who should be avoided at all costs.  Rather (at least, as I understand it), he meant that hell is always being in the presence of other people – inescapably watched, and therefore inevitably judged, by those other people.

Most people who have worked at remote field sites would recognize that claustrophobic feeling, at least to some extent.  When you’re in the field, you put in 14 hour days with your co-workers – only to go home, have dinner with them, and then hang out together until it’s time for bed.  When you wake up in the morning, you do the whole thing over again.  There’s no escape: you work, live, and sleep with the same people.  No matter how fantastic those people are, it gets wearing.

And of course, when you are always with the same people, it is inevitable that some of their habits will rub you the wrong way.  At first, it might just be a minor annoyance – a bit like the slightly irritating tag in your jeans that you keep meaning to cut off.  But when you’re in the position of wearing those jeans all day, every day, for months on end, that slightly irritating tag eventually becomes almost intolerable.

After many field seasons at many different sites, I can definitely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of interpersonal drama.  For example, one of my field jobs involved working at an isolated field station, which I shared with only five other people.  A group of six people doesn’t provide all that many conversational options under the best of circumstances – but things get a whole lot more awkward when three of those people aren’t speaking to the other three.

You don’t really know someone until you’ve spent hours sitting in a 2 m-squared blind with them, waiting to catch trap-shy birds.

But despite the interpersonal drama that is almost always part and parcel of the experience, I maintain that other people are often the best part of field work.  I’ve heard it said that only your siblings can understand your family’s unique brand of craziness; in the same way, only people you make it through a field season with can really understand the insanity you both survived.  Adversity has a way of creating strong bonds, and most field seasons involve enough adversity to produce some pretty robust adhesive!   Your field colleagues are the ones who bang on your door at 4 am when your alarm doesn’t go off, and the people who share your bouts of hysterical laughter about something (or nothing) when too little sleep and too much stress take their toll.

Too many early mornings are more tolerable when you have someone to complain with!

But it’s more than that.  My blog posts for Dispatches frequently focus on the importance of place – but most of the time, it’s the people who make a place.  My memories of the amazing places I’ve worked are inextricably intertwined with the amazing people that I shared those places with.  And while I’d love the chance to go back to visit some of those field sites, I know they wouldn’t be the same.

Ultimately, the people you share a field season with are the ones who experience in all the frustrations and triumphs of that field season right along with you.  And as we all know, both frustration and triumph are so much better when shared.

And hey – if all else fails, your field colleagues at least provide a measure of protection against bears…as long as you can run faster than them.  🙂

A harrowing end to our fieldwork

With field seasons winding down and wrapping up, we are excited to post another story from Mark Scherz today. Mark originally posted this story on his own blog www.markscherz.com and with his permission we share it with you here today. For more about Mark, see his website

Left to right, top to bottom: Big John (Cook), Angeluc (Guide), Justin (Guide), Jary (Postgrad Student), Mark (yours truly), Ricky (Master’s student), Ella (PhD student, volunteering for the team), Andolalao (Postdoc), Safidy (PhD student), Onja (Master’s student).

After two months in the forest, fieldwork in Montagne d’Ambre has now drawn to a close. On the 6th of December, we exited the forest in some haste (for reasons that will become apparent below), and over the next few weeks we will be working on getting permits and transportation arranged to get back to Antananarivo, and thence bring part of the specimens and tissue samples back to Germany.

This small rosewood log was too heavy for one person to lift

Moving around the forest at 750 m

One of the largest rivers running off Montagne d’Ambre, tranquil before heavy rains

The last few weeks were the hardest of this fieldwork season, and possibly the hardest time I have ever had in the field. After Christmas, we moved down from the Gite site at 1050 m above sea level to an area of forest around 680 m asl, where we intended to continue to sample as we had until this point, moving horizontally across the altitudinal band, swabbing chameleons and collecting new specimens/records. Our move to this site was somewhat overshadowed by the threat of encounters with illegal rosewood loggers, whose activity and presence in the forest was evident. We employed a small team of men from the local village to help keep the team and camp secure while we worked in this area.

As it transpired, none of our focal species were present at this site, nor indeed for 200 m above it, except for the frogs, and so the chameleon plan dissolved. We therefore focussed on the biodiversity sampling with some success, adding a few species to our inventory, and increasing the distribution of others. Work on the frogs by Safidy continued unabated.

Then, after New Year’s, the weather changed for the worse as cyclone Ava gathered strength in the Indian Ocean. It finally made landfall on the fifth on the East Coast (fortunately not the north, where it was originally headed), tracked southwards, and exited into the ocean again on the seventh, dealing considerable damage as it went. Although we were around 300 km northwest of Tamatave, where the cyclone hit at its strongest, we felt its effects: high winds and extremely heavy rain flooded part of our camp, turned the rest into a network of streams, and raised the water level of the near-by river by almost a metre. Tents were flooded, hammocks soaked, and, worst of all, some of the rice got wet. Far more damaging however were the psychological effects, with most of the team, and especially myself, losing a great deal of sleep for fear of falling trees and/or branches in the bad weather.

Our slow river turned raging torrent

A selection of the rivers running through our camp. Photo by Ella Z. Lattenkamp

So on the fifth we arranged to be extracted the following day, and dutifully on the sixth a team of 23 porters showed up, and took our equipment with us out of the forest.

Our fieldwork on the whole went very well, and we are already in the early stages of planning the resulting publications. Since my update at Christmas we found over ten additional species, bringing us to over 90 species of reptiles and amphibians on the mountain, many of which are new to the park and several of which are probably new to science. Work on a paper describing the biological survey results from our fieldwork has already begun, so we may be able to publish some of our results already in 2018 (somewhat dependant on how quickly we can get the genetic side done). In any case, there will be an update here as soon as any results are published.

So from myself and the team, now safely out of the forest and trying to get back to Antananarivo in the face of many flooded roads and broken bridges, I wish you a happy new year, and look forward to sharing more of our results with you in the coming months.

Full mind, huge heart, tired eyes

I had a wonderful summer of fieldwork…my mind is full, my heart is huge and my eyes are tired. I think that’s what all field biologists strive for at the end of a summer field season. I still have a significant amount of fall fieldwork to do, but I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my summer in the field.

My mind is full

I learned SO much this summer… SO SO SO much! I learned new plant species I had never seen or heard of before. I started noticing more of nature including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  I noticed the arrangement of holes and cavities in trees. I noticed the behaviours of birds during mating season and the incredible defense of nests during nesting season. I started learning spider species (surprising given this), recording calls of birds to look them up later and taking photos of tracks in the mud. My mind is still overloaded from everything, I noticed and learned this summer, and I hope every field season from here on out is the same.

Grass of parnassus – new species for me!

My heart is huge

I love field work. I love being outside. I love nature and everything about it. My heart was in the Frontenac Arch for most of the past decade, and now my heart is stretched across so many new places I have grown to love: the scrubby wonders of the Napanee Plain, the always adventurous Prince Edward County, the quiet beauty of the Kawarthas, the wavy coast of eastern Lake Ontario and the rolling hills of Northhumberland County. Next summer will come quickly, and it will bring many more new places to fall in love with, I’m sure.

My eyes are tired

Fieldwork can be tough. Most of your time is spent hiking to specific points, carrying lots of equipment, and in weather or conditions that aren’t ideal. For instance, this summer, I did a lot of “bushwhacking” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. My definition is a little different. My definition of bushwhacking is “to get from point A to point B through thick vegetation, which often has thorns, prickles, and other irritants present, while trying to disturb the natural environment as little as possible and leave some sort of remnant path to find your way back”. A little wordier perhaps, but all very true and relevant to my summer in the field. Thick red cedar on alvars, cattails twice as tall as me, and prickly ash pricklier than ten prickly things were common settings to be “bushwhacking” through. But the reward is always worth the hardship in the end. Check out a couple of the epic places we found as a result of some serious bushwhacking.

Open alvar pavement (a globally rare habitat)

The most picturesque stream I have ever seen

So as I wrap up the summer field season, and start the cooler, wetter, wilder fall field season, I sit here smiling with my full mind, huge heart and tired eyes and I think about all the possibilities the next summer field season will bring.

It’s the journey that counts

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

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

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

Me keeping warm while I keep the eggs cool!

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

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

It’s not just a ditch

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

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

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

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

Some highlights of working in an urbanizing environment include:

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

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

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

Rain gauge on top of the municipal building

Rain gauge on top of the municipal building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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