Squirrel Chatter

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sarah Westrick, a Ph. D. student at University of Michigan who shares her experiences at Squirrel Camp! For more about Sarah, check out her bio at the end of the post. 

As a biologist, I’m enamored with nature. Learning more about the natural world around us is what drew me to the field, and biological fieldwork provides some amazing opportunities for me to connect with the natural world. I am lucky to be participating in an incredible long-term field biology program as a third-year PhD student in Dr. Ben Dantzer’s lab at the University of Michigan.

tree line with mountains in the background

The view of our study grid from the Alaska Highway, St. Elias Mountain Range in the background. The boreal forest in this area is predominated by white spruce. (photo by: Sarah Westrick)

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) is an active research program focused on understanding the ecology, evolution, behavior, and energetics of the North American red squirrel. Since 1987, when Dr. Stan Boutin at University of Alberta established the project, KRSP has grown into a large collaborative effort between the University of Alberta, McGill University, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Guelph, and the University of Michigan.

“Squirrel Camp” is our field research site, located in the boreal forest along the Alaska Highway in the Shakwak Trench near Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory, Canada. The boreal forest in this region has been studied since the 1970s by researchers on the Kluane Ecological Monitoring Project, including Dr. Boutin, and continues to be well studied by ecologists from all across Canada and the US.

Working at Squirrel Camp is an incredible experience for many different reasons. One of my favorite parts of doing fieldwork in this region is the chance to really get to know the land we live on and the ecosystem we work in. When you’re out in the forest every day, you learn about the plants and animals intimately. I believe one reason the boreal forest of the Yukon has been studied for so long is its ability to excite ecologists’ natural curiosity. Questions about the ecosystem can come quickly to an inquisitive mind wandering the area.

At Squirrel Camp, we have multiple active study grids in the forest. Each morning “squirrelers” head out to their respective grids to monitor the red squirrels living in that patch of forest. Although the grids become familiar old friends, each day when you go into the forest you never know exactly what you’re going to see. You may see arctic ground squirrels alarm calling, encounter goshawks hunting, or accidentally flush out a mother spruce grouse and her chicks.

An ear-tagged North American red squirrel rattling, a territorial vocalization. Both male and female red squirrels defend their cache of spruce cones by rattling. (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

This past summer was my third field season at Squirrel Camp. One day in July, I went out in the forest expecting to have an easy morning live-trapping my target squirrels. Each squirrel defends its own territory and can typically be trapped there, allowing us to monitor its reproductive status throughout the breeding season. Preoccupied by my thoughts, I moved between two of my trapping locations on autopilot, taking a trail well worn by many squirrelers past. As I neared my destination, I began to hear the familiar barking call of the red squirrel, a common sound in a forest with ~2 squirrels per ha.

lynx in a tree

Canadian lynx in a tree chasing a juvenile red squirrel. Lynx are very cryptic in the boreal forest and can be hard to spot – this lynx is midway up the tree under the witch’s broom. (Photo by: Sarah Westrick)

Not giving it much thought, I continued down the trail. The barks got louder and more frequent. Multiple squirrels joined in the chorus. At this point, I was curious to see who could be causing such a racket and if it meant there was a shift in the red squirrel social neighborhood. My eyes searched the trees for the telltale wiggling branch of a spruce tree or a small furry red tail darting between branches, but I couldn’t find that search image. Instead, I found a much larger furry form in a tree about 10 m away: the long legs, tufted ears, and bob tail of a Canadian lynx. I stopped dead in my tracks, staring, and the lynx looked back at me, panting. We took each other’s measure. After a few seconds, with me fumbling for my camera, the lynx decided to move on and jumped out of the tree, trotting into the forest.

While seeing lynx from a distance is not uncommon in our forest in the winter, we hardly ever get near this cryptic predator in the summer, as they move with stealth and blend into the trees before we can see them. But while the stealthy lynx is difficult for us to see amidst the leaves and spruce needles, to a squirrel it’s critical to spot a lynx before it ambushes them.

baby squirrel in hand with green ear tag

A 25 day old juvenile red squirrel with ear tags. Each squirrel in our study has two unique ear tags to identify individuals throughout their lifetime, as well as colors in each tag to identify individuals from a distance. Colored disks differentiate juveniles from adults. (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

After giving the lynx a few seconds to walk away, I approached the tree he was in and found one of our juvenile squirrels frozen atop a witch’s broom in the tree, having narrowly escaped becoming lunch for the lynx. In a nearby tree, his mom was responsible for part of the racket that had attracted my attention in the first place. She was still barking like mad and the neighbors were still in an uproar. It’s not often we squirrel researchers observe a predation event – or a near-miss – and I appreciated being privy to this part of the ecosystem that we rarely get to witness.

To top it off, this wasn’t just any random lynx in the boreal forest; this lynx had a blue tag in his right ear. A group of my colleagues at Squirrel Camp had trapped him the previous winter to tag and take a DNA sample. (Squirrel Camp is in fact a multi-purpose field camp: ss our “squirrel season” comes to a close each year in late fall, the Lynx Crew, as we affectionately refer to them – to differentiate them from the Hare Crew (studying snowshoe hares) – moves into camp to track the abundance and behavior of this elusive predator in the ecosystem.) This particular lynx had been followed through the winter farther west down the Alaska Highway, but had since made his way east to our squirrel study grid.

A vigilant red squirrel ready to run up the tree in case of danger (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

To me, this encounter was a reminder to savor the special moments in the forest while doing fieldwork. Even through the stressful, frustrating moments in the field, I can always find some part of the ecosystem to ground me. Not many people are fortunate enough to be in the forest often enough to develop such a connection to the land and the ecosystem. Now I walk the forest with open ears, listening closely to my squirrels, and open eyes, scanning the trees for surprises.

 

Sarah Westrick

Sarah Westrick is a PhD student at University of Michigan in the biopsychology program. Her research focuses on maternal behavior and physiology in red squirrels. She received a BS in Zoology and Biology from Colorado State University, where she worked on the behavior and neural mechanisms of Trinidadian guppies. You can learn more about her work at her website: sewestrick.strikingly.com or follow her on Twitter @sewestrick. If you’re interested in working with KRSP, the Dantzer Lab is currently seeking graduate students to start in Fall 2018 – check out Dr. Ben Dantzer on Twitter @ben_dantzer. For more information on the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, check out our website: redsquirrel.biology.ualberta.ca and on Twitter: @KluaneSquirrels

 

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Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

On Murphy’s Law and quick fixes in the field

Over the past 8-10 years, I have done a lot of fieldwork. This means that I have designed a lot of field experiments, and as such I have also dealt with a lot of planning, anticipating and building/purchasing of fieldwork-related equipment. This also means I have done a lot of tweaking, troubleshooting and repairing in the field. I am a firm believer that fieldwork operates under Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Murphy’s Law, of course, just doesn’t apply to fieldwork, I am most certain it applies to all work, or perhaps even life in general, but for many reasons fieldwork is more sensitive to things going wrong, and for a couple of key reasons.

1) Most fieldwork is done far enough away from civilization that running to the hardware store just simply is not an option. This means that creativity and resourcefulness are two of the top qualities needed in field biologists.

I remember when the latch on the driver’s door of the field van just mysteriously stopped working. The door would simply not stay closed. We still had over an hour to drive home, and we were not letting this silly door stop us. One of the girls working in the field, Sarah, took her belt right off her pants, and looped it around the handle on the inside of the door. I sat behind her and held on for dear life as we flew down the windy country roads hoping that the belt would not slip and cause the door to fly off… or Sarah to fly out… or any other hideous disasters. We survived and made it back in one piece. It ended up being that the lock was just jammed and it was an easy fix…oh, life’s lessons!

 

 

Another time, I was building cages out of fencing for a herbivory treatment and had arrived very prepared with rabbit clips, and the special pliers to clamp them on. Quickly, I realized that this plan was not going to work. The pliers were too big to fit through the holes in the fencing. Luckily, between tape from the First Aid kit, Zip ties from the floor of the van, and a package of twist ties, we made it work! FIVE years later, those cages are still holding strong! Originality in the field is key!

2) Most fieldwork experiments are put in place with very little control over what happens. You can plan and anticipate until you are blue in the face, but there is always something you miss, and for years after you might think, “what if I had just…”

During my Master’s I was working on an experiment where I isolated target plants to obtain their maximum potential body size, in the absence of competition. We carefully chose plants, tagged them, cleared all the neighbouring plants, placed straw on the ground as mulch, and caged them with cages 1 metre in height to prevent deer grazing. We had thought of it all! Nothing could go wrong…WRONG! Not only did the entire field flood (that’s for another story) but we realized that it’s harder than we thought to outsmart a deer. While we had caged only 5 buttercups in an entire field filled with hundreds of thousands of buttercups, the deer wanted the ones in the cage. And they did anything they could to get the ones in the cage. They would pull cages up using…I don’t quite know, maybe their faces, or their front limbs…there was lots of hair stuck to the fencing to suggest they used some body part to lift them up. They also tried lying down on the cages or pushing them over just enough so that they could grab hold of and tug my precious sample right out of the ground. As frustrating as this experience was, I can only look back on it and laugh at the persistence of those pesky deer.

A “deer proof cage”

These are only a couple of examples of how Murphy’s Law is very applicable to fieldwork and field biology. If you have some stories about Murphy’s Law and your fieldwork, shoot us an email at fieldworkblog@gmail.com!

Don’t worry, be happy

Being in the field can bring up many emotions. Sure, there are the times when you are elated by a breathtaking view on a remote island that very few people get to visit. However, there are also lonely, boring, and frustrating aspects of fieldwork. If you think about it, you are away from home, usually out of your comfort zone, and more often than not doing very repetitive things.So sometimes, when you’re in the field, you need to look for ways to keep smiling!

When I shared this post with my fellow co-bloggers, Amanda pointed out she wrote a similar post about how to stay sane when you think you are going crazy. It just goes to show how important it is to stay positive when you’re out there doing all types of fieldwork.

Here are my top 10 tricks for staying positive during fieldwork:

1. Sing – Nothing like belting your heart out alongside the dawn chorus as you peer over a cliff (which actually helps the acoustics a lot!). Let’s not forget the famous field vehicles that have their share of karaoke stars.

2. Dance – Whether you’re practicing your signature move or making up a new sequence, it’s always beneficial to shake off those frustrations.

volleyball on the beach during the sunset

A little beach volleyball to pass the time.

3. Do something active – Although you are probably exhausted from climbing over and squeezing under fallen trees all day, sometimes it is good to do something different. If you’re looking to stretch and relax, yoga can be a good way to boost your mood. Check out the new hashtag #ScientistsWhoYoga on Twitter for some pretty amazing shots.

4. Make up stories for organisms, sites, and/or co-workers (nice things only of course) – Creating your own narrative for your surroundings can make the time tick by a little bit faster by introducing suspense and excitement.

5. Make it a competition – Similar to how people often keep kids busy, you can ask “Who can find the most bird nests this morning?”. In my opinion, the best approach to win at this competition is to divide and conquer the area and to pick the expert as your teammate. This is especially true when you are following transects as part of a long-term study and the expert knows all the “hot spots” for nests!

sunset on the ocean

My happy place by the water.

6. Think about your happy place – Although you may be on a beautiful beach looking for glimpses of marine mammals, sometimes it helps to think of something more familiar.

7. Take a shower – Yes, even this simple task can make you feel refreshed and ready to take on the next day!

8. Eat well – Ingesting the right nutrients can give you energy and instantly lift your spirits. The sheer absurdity of baking a cake on a small remote island is also bound to cheer you up. Alternatively, it can help to fantasize what you would make for dinner if you could have anything you wanted. (Warning: this will likely make you extremely hungry so make sure to have some snacks on hand.)

9. Chocolate – Need I say more?

holding up a team member

My supportive field team

10. Have a supportive field team – When you’re feeling under the weather, there is nothing worse than being away from home. Being surrounded by people who have your back in any situation will always go a long way.

Even when the effort  of fieldwork seems to outweigh the reward by several orders of magnitude (for example, imagine walking around for countless hours searching for signs of your study organism only to find out they don’t nest where you’ve been looking at all), remember that is worth it! Don’t worry because being a field biologist may just be the coolest job out there and there are lots of reasons to be happy!

How do you stay positive in the field?

Femininity and Fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Jodie Wiggins, a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, who discusses some of the unique challenges that female field ecologists face.  For more about Jodie, read her bio at the end of the post or check out her website.

A field biologist from the start…

I started my career as an ecologist crawling through muddy drainage ditches hunting frogs, investigating rabbit warrens dug open by a plow, and studying “lighting bugs” through the glass of a mason jar. I was 5, and 6, and 10… held captive by the magic of nature. I was a really fortunate kid. I ran wild, and that is probably why I still love the wilds today.

Now, thanks to an invitation from Dispatches from the Field, I have to opportunity to consider the challenges I’ve faced as a woman navigating a culture (ecology and fieldwork, specifically) shaped by men.

 

You just drive along, find a roadside park. Set your line of traps and get up in the morning and check ‘em.”

These were the instructions from a veteran field mammologist to the first field biology course I ever took. I looked around at the other members of the class. No one seemed to think these instructions were out of the ordinary. I, however, was gripped by terror. This man wanted me to drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone.

No doubt a lot of women have done this, successfully. No doubt countless women camp and hunt and sleep in their cars alone. A lot of women are also attacked, every single minute of every single day.

That was not something that crossed this man’s mind and I felt weak because it crossed mine. I felt like I should suck it up and just do the work. But it wasn’t about the work. It was about a risk that a woman takes anytime she is alone that a man does not, a risk that she should not be shamed for refusing to take.

…and sticking with it, despite the challenges.

This was the first time in my academic career that I felt other. I felt ignored. I felt invisible. Because I am a woman. I began to realize that the scaffolding constructed over hundreds of years, meant to guide and hold emerging scientists as they ascend, simply was not constructed to lift, hold, or guide women. The fact that it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced this otherness reflects the privilege I experienced growing up as a middle class white child. Many people, women of color particularly, experience this otherness so much earlier than I did. They experience it as girls, and it devastates their desire to pursue their dreams.

 

But where do I pee?”

Not all of the issues we face as women field biologists are quite as dire as staying safe while sleeping in a car alone, but that is not to say that they are not equally urgent. It’s been a decade since I stood in a hallway with a group of newbie grad students and realized that being a female field biologist would be a battle. For a very long time I was cowed by this realization, feeling demeaned and less worthy than my male counterparts. But, as it should, my journey through my PhD has taught me a great deal more than just evolutionary ecology.

Studying lizards…and learning life lessons.

My need for a team of field assistants every year for the past three years has required me to learn to step up and be a supervisor. Undoubtedly, I struggled in the beginning, but now, I do a couple of things as unapologetically as I can muster in an attempt to “be the person you needed when you were younger”:

  1. I say “pee.” As in, this is where you can go pee. What on earth is wrong with us that young women don’t feel comfortable saying “Hey, where do I go pee?” This is necessary because my field site is a little like Area 51, lit up and barren with a camera pointed at it all of the time. My study species likes it open and hot, so for a mile stretch of rock dam, there is no place to hide, anywhere.
  2. I keep tampons with the group field supplies (gasp! Did she say tampons?!). Yeah, I did and if you work for me you might just pull one out with your data sheet or your lizard noosing pole and you might have to deal with it because OH MY GODS ALREADY! The need to have these supplies for the women on my team simply outweighs worrying about whether someone will feel grossed out by the possibility of touching an unused tampon.
  3. I say “Do not do xyz if you are not comfortable with doing xyz” and I mean XYX is usually something like coming out to the field site alone or riding with another member of the field team alone. Seriously, if it doesn’t feel right and makes you feel unsafe, don’t do it, period. We’ve all got to remember that our people are more important than our project.

It’s the people that matter: my field team from 2016.

Fortunately for me, my future husband was in that field mammalogy class with me all those years ago. He accompanied me on countless nights sleeping in a ridiculously uncomfortable truck bed waiting for the blessed dawn when we could check our traps. Most of the other women in that class paired up with someone as well, but some didn’t and I don’t know if they felt safe going out alone or if they felt like they needed to prove they could. Either way, the person in a position of power in this situation left half that class without an advocate.

The balance between being a leader and a learner can sometimes be precarious but what I’ve learned over the last decade in the field is this: I need to use my voice, my position, and my strengths to make sure no one on my team ever feels invisible and to encourage others to do the same. The female ecologists in my life who repeatedly tell me that I matter, that I am strong, and that my voice should be heard bolster me to do this for others.  Together, we are making each other visible.

Jodie is a fourth year (sort of; it’s complicated) PhD candidate studying the evolutionary ecology of color in collared lizards. She hails from New Mexico and Texas, but now lives in Oklahoma with her husband (also a PhD candidate, who studies spider behavior), their 11 and 3 year old sons, and a crazy dog named Fortinbras.

It’s the journey that matters

It’s that time of year again.  Buds decorate the trees, shoots are pushing their way up through the soil, and birds are sounding the first tentative notes of spring.  And at universities all across North America, field biologists are rushing around like headless chickens getting ready for the field season.

Each year, the advent of spring makes me think about the beginning of my first field season – specifically, my first journey out to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  I was driving my supervisor’s pride and joy: an ancient and enormous blue van, inexplicably named Pooh, which retained many aspects of its previous life as a travelling library, including solid wood bookshelves in the back.  The heat didn’t work, the radio produced only static, and the brakes were less than trustworthy.  I had never driven a vehicle that big before, and as I navigated the twists and turns of the extremely curvy road to the field station, I was both terrified and more than a little nauseous.  (Opinicon Road was, in fact, the first road to teach me that it is possible to get carsick even when you’re the one driving.)

Travelling in style: me and the very trustworthy Pooh.

Luckily, I made it safely to the station with both my breakfast and my supervisor’s precious field vehicle intact.  (Although, to be accurate, the vehicle wasn’t exactly intact, it just wasn’t any less intact than it had been at the start of the journey.)  And by the end of that summer, I had become extremely comfortable with both the road and the vehicle. In fact, perhaps too comfortable: one of the cottagers on Opinicon Road actually called QUBS to complain about the maniac driving the huge blue van.

Since that trip, I’ve done fieldwork at sites across the continent, and along the way, I’ve come to an important realization: in many cases, just getting out to a field site is more than half the battle.

Coming in for a landing on the Sable Island Beach

I’ve donned a bright orange survival suit to helicopter in to a remote tundra field station, covered my eyes in a small plane headed for a landing on an empty stretch of Sable Island beach, and convulsively gripped the passenger door on a high speed night drive along Carmel Valley Road in California – well known for its blind curves – trying not to worry about the fact that my boss did not seem terribly concerned about driving on any particular side of the road.

But if I were awarding prizes for most arduous journey to a field site, first place would go to an unexpected place: a small island in the middle of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

When I agreed to work as a field assistant for my friend, helping her to catch some of the terns nesting in the large colony on Egg Island, I didn’t think much about the journey.  After all, Manitoba was certainly not the farthest I’ve travelled for fieldwork.  I figured one short flight and I’d be ready to go.

My journey from Kingston to Egg Island started at 5:00 a.m. one hot June morning, when I boarded a tiny prop plane at the equally tiny Kingston airport.  In Toronto, I changed to a bigger plane for the flight to Winnipeg.  After arriving in Winnipeg, I jumped into my friend’s field truck, and – once we’d purchased enough groceries for a month and survived a couple of false starts (a result of my abysmal navigation skills) – we drove the 3 hours out to a ferry dock on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.

When we arrived at the deserted dock, it seemed almost inconceivable that a ferry would ever actually show up.  Apart from a couple of apparently abandoned vehicles, the gravel lot was empty; the only sign of human presence was a trailer that had seen better days and a single man standing outside it smoking.  He seemed bemused by our presence, and gleefully informed us that, contrary to what we’d been told by our contacts, the ferry wouldn’t be coming back for at least another day.

How better to spend your time on the long ferry ride than grilling some steaks?

After a panicked conference, we decided to trust our instructions, and wait it out.  And after a mere 2 hours, a dot appeared on the lake: our ride was on its way.

There wasn’t really anywhere for passengers to stand on the tiny ferry, so we spent the hour-long ride in the car, watching curiously as one of the ferry crew lit a barbecue on deck and applied himself to cooking some steaks.

The ferry dropped us off in Princess Harbour, a tiny community of approximately 6 souls.  We parked the truck beside our cabin, tossed the groceries into the fridge, grabbed our field gear…and then climbed into yet another (smaller) boat to head out to the island itself.

The trip from Princess Harbour to Egg Island took almost another hour, but finally, after the majority of the day in transit, we approached our goal, a tiny splash of sand in the middle of the lake.

As we approached the island, the raucous screams of terns floated across the water, indicating that we were in the right place.  However, as we got closer to the island’s only safe access point, we realized there was a slight wrinkle in our plans: part of the island had flooded, leaving the small beach where the boat could land cut off from the main body of the island.

After unsuccessfully circling the island to look for other access points, we landed on the beach and clambered out to inspect the flooded area.  It turned out that the water was shallow – relatively speaking.  Before my friend even opened her mouth, I could guess what was coming.  She pulled on her waders and strode cheerfully into the lake, quickly becoming submerged to the knees.

My very determined friend dons her waders and heads straight for the tern colony.

Unfortunately, as a terrestrial bird biologist, waders are one of the few items of field clothing that I do not own.  I stared blankly after her for a few seconds, before realizing there was nothing else for it: I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and followed her cautiously into the water.

It was mid-June, and the lake was still quite cold.  I couldn’t see the bottom through the murky water, and the sand shifted under my feet with each step, making the journey quite perilous – especially considering that none of the expensive equipment in my backpack was waterproofed.

Halfway across, I slipped and nearly fell face-first into the water.  Although I managed to regain my footing just in time, my pants began to unroll themselves.  Since both my hands were occupied with field gear, there was nothing I could do about it as the cuffs unrolled towards the water.  As they hit the surface, they began absorbing water, which wicked rapidly up my pants, ensuring that by the time I reached the main part of the island, I was soaked through to my underwear.  I’ve never been so happy to step onto a beach – even if it was covered in bird guano and ringing with the screams of terns.

For the next three weeks, every day began the same way: a bumpy, windy boat ride to the island, followed by a nerve-wracking wade over to the colony.  Despite my best efforts, my pants always unrolled themselves halfway across, and every day I sloshed up onto the beach soaked and swearing.

But every day, the sunshine and light breeze dried me off quickly, and by lunchtime, I would be warm and content on the beach, munching my sandwich and relishing in the fact that we had the entire island to ourselves.  And I think that’s the real lesson here.  Field scientists get to experience places that many other people don’t, and that often involves a long, arduous, and frustrating journey.  But once you’re out there, there’s no doubt that the journey was worth it.

Standing in fields

We are very excited to welcome Tara Harvey to the blog today. Tara is a researcher with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research. For more about Tara see the end of this post.

You might be wondering why I tend to stand in fields a lot. Am I studying agriculture? No. Am I interested in the biodiversity in a field? No. Do I study soil? No. So, what am I doing? Well, to the casual observer, not much at all, but if you knew there was a very deep hole at my feet, 2 to 6 inches in diameter and upwards of 100s of feet deep, then you might start to guess what I research. I study groundwater.

Standing in fields, and sometimes swamps, to study groundwater. Since groundwater is everywhere you could literally be in any landscape or any season and still be studying it.

Groundwater is the water that moves within the spaces and fractures of the sediment and rock under our feet. A common misconception is that groundwater flows in large underground rivers, but this is not a typical occurrence. Instead groundwater can be found in any sediment or rock within the small spaces between the grains or crystals.

However, since groundwater is hidden beneath our feet, I never physically get to see what I am studying. To study groundwater we have to get creative in order to answer the question: “how do you study something that you can’t see or touch”? In the rest of this post I’ll take you through a quick look at all the different field work steps that need to happen to 1) give us access to the groundwater and 2) allow us to actually measure and monitor it.

Drilling holes in fields

Obviously there is a lot of behind the scenes work that has to be done before any fieldwork can happen:  developing a plan of what we want to do, determining the best location to study the groundwater, gathering all the required equipment, hiring and booking the drilling company and consultants, obtaining permits to approve the work, etc.. But once all that is in place, we can start digging our holes to access the groundwater.

The only way we can access groundwater is to drill really deep holes into the earth. When we are drilling these holes we aren’t looking directly at the groundwater yet. Instead, we are gathering very important information about the geology of the location to help us understand how the groundwater might be moving through the sediment or rock. In addition, depending on the site, we might also be collecting samples of the sediment/rock for later analyses.  These analyses could include sampling to determine the moisture content or grain size of the rock, but could also include sampling to see if there are any contaminants in the sediment porewater (groundwater left within the rock pores).

Drill rig (triple tube wire line) with diamond drill bit to go through rock. Rock core is extracted in the inner tube and brought to the surface 5 ft at a time. Once at the surface, a geologist logs the core to obtain important details about the rock to guide our understanding of how groundwater moves through it.

Sediment recovered from rotosonic drill rig. Sediments need to be scraped to reveal the sedimentary structures and important geologic details beneath the disturbed outer sediment.

Installing wells in fields

 Once a hole the desired depth and width (typically 4-8 inches diameter) is drilled we can do several things with it. But first things first: if we are concerned with contamination we must seal the hole.  This is very important because if you leave a drilled hole open then contamination at one depth can migrate into the open hole and move anywhere it wants. This means that previously uncontaminated and possibly protected groundwater may now be contaminated because of us!  This is called cross-contamination and we want to make sure this never happens.  Therefore, immediately after removing the drilling rods (which were sealing the hole), we can install either a temporary liner or a permanent monitoring well.

Typically we do both.  We will install a temporary liner while we design the permanent well with the geologic details we collected during drilling. As we design the well we can also use down-hole geophysical tools to give us more information about the groundwater and geology.  Once we have our design we get to work building and installing our well.

Pieces of a groundwater monitoring well about to be installed into a hole.

Sampling groundwater in fields

Now we finally have access to the groundwater directly to take in situ measurements of its properties.  With these groundwater monitoring wells we can do 2 main things.

First, we can take what are called hydraulic head measurements.  Hydraulic head is very important as it can help us understand what direction the groundwater is moving and if it is moving up or down (yes groundwater can move upwards towards the surface).  Although hydraulic head may be difficult to understand initially, it is actually very easy to measure in the field as all we have to do is measure the distance from the ground surface to the water. We do this by putting a waterlevel tape down the hole until it beeps, indicating that it is now touching water.

Second, we can collect physical groundwater samples by pumping the water out of the well.  This water can then be tested for different parameters and contaminants to give us an understanding of what is in the groundwater and where contamination might be.

Measuring water levels (depth to the water surface) in a groundwater monitoring well to gather information about the hydraulic head.

Monitoring groundwater in fields

As many of you know, in Canada we have seasonal weather changes that affect the amount of precipitation we receive. Similarly, there are seasonal changes in the groundwater and therefore it is important to do regular monitoring throughout the year.  I spend at least 1 week, 4 times a year at just one of our research sites measuring groundwater and hydraulic head in about 40 wells.  And although my monitoring fieldwork may only take 1 week each time, there is a lot of work done after I’m out of the field to make sure the data I collected is good and to interpret the results.

Dropping things down holes in fields

Although groundwater monitoring fieldwork may not seem that thrilling, it can actually get very exciting and chaotic, especially if you accidentally drop a piece of field equipment down the hole that you weren’t supposed to.  This is obviously never a good idea because now you’ve lost something you probably didn’t want to lose.  On top of that, there is the possibility it is now jamming up your well, making it unusable.  But getting it back out gives you a chance to put your problem solving skills to the test – and  maybe even enjoy one of your hobbies, if that hobby happens to be fishing. Luckily, last year when we dropped something down a hole we were able to get it back using a small fishing hook and line a couple days later.

Tara Harvey now works as a hydrogeology researcher with the G360 Institute for Groundwater Research after completing her Masters in Hydrogeology at the University of Guelph in 2016. Tara specializes in Quaternary geology, aka glacial geology, and spent most of her Masters studying the glacial landscape of Wisconsin and how the glacial deposits affect groundwater and contaminant movement.