First days in the field

I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was my first day in the field (ever) and I wanted so badly to not screw up. I wasn’t an outdoorsy person, I wasn’t good at working with my hands, I really wasn’t meant for fieldwork. Our first task was to install wooden posts at the corners of an abandoned farm field to mark the boundaries of field plots. Being totally unprepared and unexperienced, I picked up a mallet and a stake and started hammering. The ground was soft and the stake was easing into the ground like a knife through soft butter. “Well, this is easy”, I thought to myself, “not nearly as hard as it looked”. It was so easy, that as I confidently swung the hammer one final time with my right hand, my left hand that was gripping the stake slid down the jagged edge of the wooden stake.

Immediately, I felt it. I dropped the hammer onto the soft, green grass and my eyes moved to the palm of my hand. It stung and it throbbed, but there was no blood. After I was able to focus my eyes, I saw it. The biggest sliver I have ever seen stuck out of my palm. The beast measured almost 7 cm long (we really did measure it after using a metre stick). After nearly fainting, and sitting down to take a rest, the rest of the crew helped me remove it from my hand. Clearly, I made quite the impression on my first day on the job! Luckily, that was the worst injury I acquired for the entire field season. It did leave a pretty neat scar though!

Since finishing at Queen’s in the fall, I have started a new adventure as a Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. I remember the day like it was yesterday… Ok…this time it almost was yesterday! It was my first day in the field in my new role and I wanted so badly to not screw up. I was a super outdoorsy person, I was pretty good with working with my hands, and I was certainly meant for fieldwork.

My first task was simply to tour and visit sites and get used to the properties I was going to manage. We reached some thick brush in a red pine forest that was completely overrun with prickly ash. I was following a little too closely when wham, a branch of prickly ash swept into my face, lagged for a second as it tore through the skin of my nose and then it settled along my right side. Interestingly enough, I didn’t feel a thing. My nose didn’t throb or hurt at all. But then I felt it…a slight dripping feeling. Drip, drip, drip. I put my hand to my nose, and indeed, it was bleeding. And pretty steadily. It took a few minutes for it to subside, but alas, I survived. However, I had absolutely NO mark to prove it. You would never even know it happened. It’s funny how things come full circle. Let’s hope that this was the most significant injury of my new adventure. One can only hope!

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A philopatric field biologist

I’m currently planning for the first field season of my Ph. D. It should be an easy task considering I’ve done fieldwork before, right? However, this time it is oh so different.

In my last post describing ways in which you can prepare for a field season, I was thinking about going back out to Haida Gwaii, a rugged, remote location. But this summer I am doing quite the opposite: I am visiting cormorant colonies in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. If you live around these Great Lakes, or have visited them before, you will understand when I say they are definitely not remote! There are large cities scattered all around the shorelines, and major highways connecting them all.

Cormorant colony in Lake Ontario with Burlington in the background.

The neat thing about doing fieldwork in these lakes is this is where I grew up! Therefore, I am describing myself as a “philopatric field biologist” since philopatry describes an organism that stays in, or continually returns to the same spot. I decided to revisit my previous tips for preparing for a field season to see which of them still apply…and which are totally different this time around!

  • Choose the right field assistant. This year, I will be visiting the colonies with my co-supervisor. I think it’s safe to say he is excited about the work as well (and hopefully I am a good field assistant to him!).
  • Expect to use a designated bush as a “washroom”. This year, I am going to have to figure out how to do this more secretively, considering the colonies are not too far from shore and boat traffic frequently passes by. To make it even harder, cormorant guano is so acidic that there might not even be any bushes to pee behind in the colonies!
  • Be prepared to fall asleep in a tent freezing under the stars. This year, I will prepare to fall asleep in a warm bed in a house with car lights whizzing past.
  • Fieldwork is sometimes (usually?) unpredictable. This year, I am prepared for this, with plans A, B, and C. Nonetheless, I realize I may have to create plan D on the fly. (Get it? Because birds fly!)
  • Bring enough delicious snacks. This year, I am able to refill my snack packs every night if I want! Oh the options…
  • Make sure you have a good pair of hiking shoes. This year, these are not as

    I might ditch the heavy shoes…

    necessary as I will be spending most of my time on a boat. Although I will occasionally jump off the boat onto an island, I’ll be trying to maneuver around nests on the ground while wearing an oversized survival suit. Sturdy (and therefore heavy) boots are not at the top of my list of concerns.

Since only some of the items on my list seem to apply this time around, I thought I’d better get some advice from my friends on Twitter. Some items they mentioned deemed essential:

Sunscreen will be necessary especially after a long winter of not much sunshine! And who knew baby wipes had so many versatile uses!?

I lost my water bottle in Haida Gwaii and had to replace it with a used mayo jar. And no, it turns out that the mayo taste never goes away. Maybe this year I should pack two?

This sounds like a great addition, although I would be afraid to take my cap off at the end of the day to see what I had caught!

So this year, I won’t get to spend my field season listening to whales breaching only a few hundred meters away…but there will definitely be benefits. This year, it will feel like home.

Morabeza!

This week, Dispatches is very excited to welcome back guest poster Becky Taylor – who has become Dr. Taylor since we last heard from her.  Becky shares with us a true story of surviving a full-fledged fieldwork catastrophe with nothing more than determination and a lot of kindness from strangers.  For more about Becky, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It’s funny how some moments are forever fixed in your mind’s eye, like a snapshot that you can recall in absolute detail. I am standing on a beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, marooned on an uninhabited desert islet in Cape Verde (off the coast of western Africa), with two other people and no possessions but the clothes on our backs (and a bottle of Cape Verde wine), gazing at the carnage that was our campsite. How, you may ask, did I find myself in this situation?

The isolated beaches of Cape Verde are a beautiful place to work…and a frightening place to be marooned.

I don’t want this post to be in any way negative about Cape Verde itself. Quite the contrary. It is by far one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I have ever been to, and the sheer kindness of the people who live there was not only welcoming from the minute I arrived, but a life saver when things didn’t go to plan. They have a saying in Cape Verde: ‘Morabeza’! From what I understand, it translates as ‘treat guests exactly as family’…and that is exactly what they did.

I travelled to Cape Verde during my Ph.D., for which I was studying genomic variation in band-rumped storm-petrels. These are small, nocturnal seabirds that breed on remote islands, and a population of particular interest to me lives on some of the small islets in Cape Verde. I travelled first to Fogo Island, one of the bigger inhabited islands, to plan for field work and meet up with my wonderful field leader, Herculano, the manager of Parque Natural de Fogo.

Pico do Fogo

While we were planning our work, Herculano took me to Pico do Fogo, the active volcano that gives the island its name. It is an area of stunning beauty, and I had the opportunity to hike on the lava field and go caving through lava flow tunnels. While on Fogo, I also swam in a beautiful lagoon, enjoyed the soft black sand beaches, sampled wine in the local winery, and ate fried eel (which is actually very good)! There are few tourists who visit Fogo island, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets!!

Our campsite home on Ilheu de Cima.

After sightseeing and gathering supplies, it was time to start fieldwork! We needed to catch storm-petrels on a small islet called Ilheu de Cima. As Cima is nothing but rock and a string of beaches, we had to bring all of our supplies with us, including food and water. Herculano arranged for some local fisherman to drop the three of us (himself, my field assistant and childhood bestie Freyja, and me) off on Cima with our camping supplies. And for the first few days we enjoyed our own little island paradise.

By day we would explore the small islet, trying to find some shelter from the sun, although shade was very hard to come by. Luckily I like hot weather, so I was thoroughly enjoying the heat and our many private beaches.

All ready for action: Freyja and Herculano with our mist net.

As the storm-petrels are nocturnal, we would hike to the nesting colony before sunset, scramble down a rock face on the far side of the 1km islet, and set up our mist net to catch birds as they flew to and from their rock crevice nests. Usually we would catch birds until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before packing up and hiking back to camp. As it was September we were fortunate enough to be there during the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, and we (very quietly) would watch females lay their eggs as we wound down from our work!

It all sounds amazing, right? Too good to be true, I suppose. One night, after a really great night of sampling, we hiked back to camp to find….well…no camp.

All that remained of our campsite…

And that brings us to the point at which I started my story. We stood on the beach realizing that our entire camp was gone (aside from that one bottle of wine, which had somehow survived). We can’t be 100% sure what happened, but it looked like a big wave came in and washed everything out to sea. Bits of debris were scattered across the beach, and our tents (which we had anchored with boulders) were gone – along with everything that was inside. And obviously when you are camping on an uninhabited islet, there is no one to steal your possessions, and so you don’t mind leaving everything in your tent. For example, your passport, money, bank cards, and ID’s. Damn.

Can’t complain about the view…

So what do you do in that moment? Well, we sat on top of the islet, watched one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and swigged from the wine bottle, feeling defeated. Thankfully we had kept our phones on us and so could call for help.  Eventually, we managed to get hold of the fisherman, who rescued us that afternoon.

Back on Fogo, Freyja and I realised we were now in a foreign country with no way of accessing money or identifying ourselves. We relied on the kindness of Herculano, his family, and the other locals, to provide food and shelter (and some spare clothes). Without their help I don’t know what we would have done. It was a big learning experience for me, accepting so much from people I hardly knew. Morabeza indeed!

Freyja and I are both British citizens, but there is no British consulate in Cape Verde, so the British consulate communicated with the Portuguese consulate to provide us with temporary travel documents. Eventually, with the concerted efforts of a whole host of people, we managed to arrange our way back home. (It took a few days, though, by which point we were looking particularly haggard). At the time I was pretty traumatised, feeling like the whole experience had been a complete disaster. However, looking back I learnt a lot from it. Possessions can be replaced; the fact that we were safe was all that really mattered. And I will never be too proud to accept help when I need it.

I don’t regret my time on Cima: it was a unique experience and a wonderful place to have spent some time (not to mention a great story).

Plus, the samples we had collected that night were still in my bag, and thankfully provided enough material for me to sequence the storm-petrels’ DNA and finish my research project!

Cima has a unique combination of both black and white sand beaches. The wind mixes the two together in some places to create beautiful marbled beaches.

 

I would like to dedicate this story to Herculano, Emily, Bianca, and the rest of their family for their help and kindness, to Freyja for being a great person to go through a disaster with, and to everyone who was involved in helping to find us money and a way home.

Dr. Becky Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, after which she spent two years as a researcher for the conservation charity Wildscreen. She then completed her Master’s degree in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. During her M.Sc. she became passionate about wildlife genetics as a tool to study evolutionary questions but also for conservation purposes. This led her to undertake her Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Ontario, studying genomic variation in the Leach’s and band-rumped storm-petrel species complexes. She completed her Ph.D. in 2017 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, undertaking further work with the band-rumped storm-petrels and a few other wildlife genetics projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeckySTaylor.

The things we do…

My advisor has always maintained that a field crew runs on its stomach.  In other words, well-fed field assistants are much happier and much more productive – not to mention much less likely to mutiny.

There is no doubt that this is true.  Trying to run a field crew without an adequate supply of coffee, chocolate, or wine is an enterprise doomed to failure.  But – at the risk of disagreeing with my advisor – I would argue that food alone is not enough.

Spending time in the field often leads to awe-inspiring experiences, like the moment when you come face to face with a lynx or watch a fierce lightning storm at sea from the safety of a remote island.  But in between those moments, if we’re being honest, field work can be pretty tedious.

And if it’s tedious as a graduate student – when your entire thesis depends on the data you collect – it’s a hundred times more tedious for your assistants.  Field assistants are expected to work long hours, rain or shine, for weeks on end without a break.  So as a boss, keeping morale up can be a huge challenge, and when you have a chance to provide some fun for your assistants, you really have to take it.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I ended up lugging a dead beaver up a mountain.

 

Let’s back up a step, so I can set the scene.  It was the first field season of my PhD, and my field assistant and I had spent half of January driving across a large chunk of the continent, ending up at an old, somewhat isolated house in the southern Okanagan Valley.  The house was large, drafty, and empty, and our days were spent trekking through the snow and waiting around in the cold in a (largely futile) attempt to catch bluebirds.  Every night, we came home, made dinner, and then went to sleep.  It was not the kind of field work you write home about.

Our cozy field home in the Okanagan.

But my field assistant – being a nature-loving type – was prepared to make his own fun.  He had brought with him a game camera, which he intended to mount on a tree to take automatic motion capture pictures of the local wildlife.  During our first week in BC, he trekked up the mountain behind our house and spent hours looking for the perfect spot to leave it – hoping to capture a black bear or maybe even an elusive mountain lion.

Unfortunately, when he went back a week later, the camera had not taken a single photo.  Undaunted, he decided that the logical course of action was to use bait.  At first, he contented himself with scraps from our kitchen, hiking up the mountain regularly to drop them in front of the camera.  And indeed, the camera did capture photos of the occasional crow or raven checking out his offerings.  But no bear or cougar appeared, much to his disappointment.  He started talking about finding something better to bait the camera with.

And then – lo and behold – as we returned home one grey winter afternoon, he spotted the ‘perfect’ bait.  A dead beaver lay at the side of the road right beside our driveway, the clear victim of a fast-moving vehicle.

My field assistant was completely ecstatic, but I wasn’t entirely convinced: I couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden appearance of a beaver halfway up a mountain, several kilometers away from any water, might be more puzzling than enticing for any lurking bears or cougars.

But then I thought about how limited opportunities for fun had been so far.  And I thought about how excited he was.  And – against my better judgement – I found myself offering to help him lug the beaver up to his camera.

The first step was to wrestle the body into a garbage bag, to facilitate transport.  But this was not a small beaver, and coaxing it into the bag was…challenging.  By the time all of its limbs had been stuffed inside, I was sweating – and starting to regret my offer.

Then we started up the hill, each grasping one end of the bag.  It rapidly became apparent that beavers are not particularly light animals.  We staggered along, panting, the thin plastic slipping out of our awkward grasp frequently.

We hadn’t made it more than a few hundred yards before we concluded that another approach was required.  We decided the best approach was to take turns dragging the beaver.  Of course, the side of a mountain isn’t known for smooth passage, and the garbage bag – never particularly sturdy – became progressively more torn and tattered as we struggled towards our destination.  A paw appeared out one corner; a glimpse of tail was visible through another rip.

In the end, our gruesome task took us almost two hours.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to drop something as I was to let go of that bag when we finally reached the camera.

And the result of all this work?  Well, as far as I can remember (although to be honest, I’ve tried pretty hard to block the memory out), the camera failed to capture a single animal coming to check out the beaver; indeed, when my assistant climbed the mountain a week later, the body was still completely undisturbed.

But hey.  At least I got to feel like a good boss.

Confessions of a lab biologist

We are excited to welcome Leslie Holmes to the blog today. Leslie is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, and while she may only be a novice field biologist…she “gets it”. For more about Leslie, see the end of this post. 

While I’m no field biologist, I have had short expeditions in field biology. As a novice ‘field biologist’ I can honestly say “I get it”, that is, I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be outside all day? Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your body is flooded with sun induced happy hormones and your mood instantly peaks. But it’s days like this, that it’s just as difficult to get your work done outside as it is inside sitting at a microscope, lab bench, or computer; my usual forte. Because, while inside there are birds constantly flying by your window casting animated shadows across your computer screen or field of view, and the idea of being outside trying out your lab’s recent purchase of a slip and slide is far more appealing than lab work, the work to be done outside is just as daunting. Inside, you’re (hopefully) cool and comfortable, struggling only with your mental capacity of getting your work done, while outside, in addition to mental anguish, you’re often overheating, sweating, and physically drained, and while you know these insects won’t collect themselves, all you want to do is lay down in the shade and read a book or go for a swim.

ss

Trying out the slip and slide

But I think every field biologist out there would agree, not every day is like this. In the spring and summer, you might have rainy days, where it’s coming down so hard you feel like a tin can and a sponge at the same time, rain drops hitting you like golf balls, not to mention the added 20 lbs of water weight you must now carry with you. As temperatures rise, you literally become a buffet for every biting insect in a 1-kilometer radius. Then there are days you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can take a single step more, even if it’s the first step back to the biology station where a nice meal awaits you. However, this utter exhaustion will almost certainly guarantee you a solid night’s sleep, an anomaly for most of us lab biologists.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought back to my very first field biology experience and the absolute wonder it brought to my life. It was July 10th 2009 in the McFadden National Wildlife Refuge of Sabine Pass, Texas, and our lab was trying to verify the range expansion of an invasive blowfly species Chrysomya megacephala. The landscape chosen to put some carrion out was less than 500 m from the coastal beach and was still recovering from the destruction of hurricane Ike that had passed through in 2008. In addition, the landscape had fallen victim to a large-scale lightning induced fire less than a week prior to our arrival. It was incredible, the flooding from the previous year’s hurricane, left little in the way of plant and wildlife, and what little that was there, had burned from the fire the week before, but to our amazement, the blowflies arrived within minutes of setting out the carrion. Minutes! It was here that I realized just how little we know about ecology and how it appears that the simplest organisms seem to have it all figured out.

I’ve also done some field work in the winter, and I have to say, if you’re a field biologist and you’re about to embark on a day, you know in advance is not going to be good, take someone like me with you! That is, take a novice, someone who is eager and happy to help and get experience, but has never seen a truly bad day in the field! Trust me, they will make light of what you most certainly believe will be an awful situation. The day was December 23rd, 2013, I was working in the lab over the holidays on my own experiments, so when my friend Amanda needed help in the field so that she could go home for Christmas, I didn’t even hesitate to offer my services, as limited and inexperienced as they may have been. Side bar: December of 2013 in Kingston, Ontario has come to be known as the year we got more snow than we’d seen in 5 years, and ice storm, after snow storm, after ice storm, etc.  Over the course of a week, Kingston, Ontario was blanketed with 30-100 cm of snow (depending on presence or absence of snow drifts), and 20-30mm of freezing rain. Specifically, there were layers of snow and ice throughout the landscape, and on December 23rd, the day after a second ice storm, we were headed to Amanda’s field study site. As we were driving to the Opinicon region, it occurred to us that the ATV typically used to haul us and our equipment to the field site might not be a viable option due to the deep drifts of ice and snow. But given the trek into the field site from the road was long and winding, we gave it the good ol’ college try, getting the ATV stuck in the snow/ice the instant we drove it out of the garage. So with 100+ lbs of equipment, Amanda and I started trudging through the deep snow/ice/snow/ice layers in an open field. And while Amanda would probably tell you, this day is probably one her top 5 worst days in the field, I would tell you, I laughed so much that day, that it was a good thing it was a mild -2˚C day, or my tears of laugher would have frozen to my cheeks!

snow

Amanda crawling across the snow to place boxes containing seeds for overwintering. Distributing our weight across the snowy, icy surface was an effective strategy but drastically delayed our time to completion.

Being a novice field biologist however, is not always ideal. It was late fall (my first time out in the field in any other season but summer), and the lab was bringing the dock in from Round Lake at the Queen’s University Biology Station. I was told that it was going to be a half day job and we were leaving first thing in the morning, so I had my usual late fall hearty breakfast of stone rolled oats and was ready to go, dressed in warm layers with a new waterproof jacket, pants and winter boots. Let’s just say, just like in the lab, things always take longer than your supervisor thinks it will and here we were, 8 hours later, heading back to Kingston after a long, but successful task of taking the dock out of Round Lake. Ignorant to the whole field biology experience, I had not prepared for this task to take longer than half a day, and thus I had not packed a lunch. So, when everyone paused in their tasks for a lunch break, my lack of preparedness was evident for all to see. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I told everyone that I didn’t usually eat lunch, silently willing my many layers of clothing to mask my thunderous hunger rumbles. By the end of the day I was starving, cold, wet and very hangry! Picking up some pizza and a large hot chocolate on my way home, I could not wait to peel my cold wet clothes off and have a scalding hot bath, only to discover my housemate had just used the last drop of hot water!

I’ve learned a lot from my limited experience in field biology, and while I often get envious of all my field biologists friends and the exciting places they get to discover, I certainly don’t regret moving to the dark side and doing most of my research in a lab setting. I think I’ll always gravitate towards laboratory research, where I like to think I’m in control of everything (although my entire PhD thus far would suggest otherwise). However, I do hope to continue to collaborate on field biology research and probably most ideally, pair laboratory studies with field studies.

2016-12-08 11.19.38A bit more about Leslie: “I received my bachelor of forensic science degree from the University of Windsor in 2008. Early in my undergraduate degree, I branched into the field of biology by working in a forensic entomology lab as a work study student. Helping graduate students at the time with their theses, I was engulfed into the world of forensic entomology. From there I was offered a Master’s position in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in Windsor to complete a development study on the black soldier fly for the purposes of maintaining a waste management facility year round in southern Ontario. I enrolled in my Master’s degree in the fall of 2008. Prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in the summer of 2008 on a ‘side’ project. As a result of this project, I travelled with my lab to the North American Forensic Entomology Association conference in Atlantic City to present our findings. It was at this conference that I met Dr. Tomberlin from Texas A&M University, the leading expert on the black soldier fly and landed a visiting research scholar position in his laboratory at Texas A&M. As a result, I spent the last year of my master’s in Dr. Tomberlin’s lab, where I completed 3 out of the 4 experiments of my master’s. An electronic copy of my thesis titled “Role of Abiotic Factors on the Development and LIfe History of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens (L.) (Diptera: Stratiomyidae)” can be download here.

I completed my master’s degree in October of 2010 and was able to land a part-time faculty position at Trent University in January 2011. I was employed in their Forensic Science Department and taught their first year introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation courses. I also developed a new online course in forensic entomology and taught it in the summer of 2012 online. While teaching online at Trent University in 2012, I also worked as an entomological researcher, raising beneficial insects for the purposes of integrated pest management. It was in September 2012, that I decided to return to school to embark on my PhD at Queen’s University.”

How many words is a fieldwork picture worth?

One of the current hot topics regarding human social trends is the use of social media platforms to document our lives, especially in terms of photos. Why not just live in the moment? You can take experiences with you, but you can’t take photos! These are just a couple of the common mindsets out there. I’m not particularly sure where I fall on this spectrum. I love taking photos, and I do upload quite a few to social media. For me, it is a way to keep in touch with my family and friends and let them know what I am up to, and occasionally, it’s to brag about the 10 pounds of tomatoes I just picked from my garden. Either way, it is certainly a highly-debated topic.

I’ve been doing fieldwork for almost 10 years now, and I quickly learned after my first field season that having a camera, or at least your smartphone with you at all times is a must, and for many reasons. Of course, taking photos, specifically selfies in the field is key. Sarah told us this not so long ago, and about her many regrets regarding her lack of fieldwork photos, especially those with her in them! I, on the other hand, have the opposite problem. I have SO many fieldwork photos, I don’t even know what to do with them. But, even though there may be 10,000 photos, all of my photos have a purpose.

First of all, I take fieldwork photos so I can use them to explain what I actually did in the field. Photos are excellent tools for Powerpoint presentations, or to use in the methods sections of manuscripts. My Supervisor has always told me, “there is no better explanation than a photo” and he always encourages all new students to document their entire fieldwork experience with photos. Photos have helped me explain many things over the years. For example, I designed “micro-germination chambers for the field” and explained in nearly 1000 words of text just how these chambers were built, stored and used. But it was always met with confusion. In a recent talk, I simply showed a photo, and provided a very brief synopsis of that same device’s uses and it was much clearer.

chambers

“Micro-germination chambers for the field”

Second, you get to document some of the interesting things that happen in the field. One of the best parts of doing fieldwork, is the other stuff that happens while you’re doing it. And often, that stuff is not related at all to your work. You might remember me talking about that in one of my favourite posts to date “The White house: from damp and dark to cold and warm” where I was be-friended by an exceptional group of gray rat snakes inhabiting our field storage building. Or the time the biggest, most beautiful praying mantis decided that my forearm was the ideal place to hang out for the afternoon. Or the time we found a random group of white turkey-like birds and a black duck wandering the roadsides…the list goes on.

Finally, and probably, most importantly, fieldwork photos are useful as an outreach tool. One of our goals at Dispatches from the field is to tell fieldwork stories that aren’t captured in manuscripts and to showcase the work we do, and why we do that work. The best way to tell our stories has been through photos. Our blog is littered with beautiful photos from posters all around the world and while our stories are certainly amazing, photos have been a big draw for new readers and followers. At outreach events we have posters and slideshows that are almost exclusively photos, and we have always been met with wonderful feedback. It helps me answer the common questions I get asked like: what is an old-field anyways? Or, when you say you measured maximum potential body size, just how big are we talking??

Our experiences, and the stories that have culminated in Dispatches from the field highlight the places, the species, and the problems that we as field scientists, care so deeply about. Showing pictures to accompany those stories, we hope at least, has helped others realize why they should care about them too.

Yes, those boring safety training sessions are important

Dispatches from the field is happy to welcome Katie Grogan, a postdoctoral fellow to share a post this week about a scary field safety lesson! Check out the end of the post for more about Katie.

The second scariest moment of field work I ever experienced happened basically on campus, exactly one mile from our lab and office.

Caught in the mist net. Photo by JRM.

Some people may argue that catching sparrows in downtown Atlanta in the morning, spending a few hours working in the lab in the afternoon, and sleeping in your own bed every night doesn’t qualify as “true” field work – no airplanes, hours in a truck, or having to sleep in tents. But I completely disagree. Any activity that forces you to get out of bed at 3 am in December, and sit staring at a mist-net in a cold field for at least 6 hours, freezing and exhausted, is absolutely field work*.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by JRM.

The reason for this field work is one of the major projects in my postdoctoral lab at Emory University, studying how genetic variation underlies variation in behaviors like aggression or parenting. To do this, we catch wild white-throated sparrows during their fall migration south and bring them into the lab for behavioral testing. The white-throated sparrow, common throughout North America, is an incredibly interesting bird (See this Nature News Feature!) and uniquely suited for this kind of study because of its two behavioral phenotypes: the more aggressive white morph and the less aggressive tan morph.

We catch the birds using mist-nets set up in a field near campus in November and December, an activity that seems fairly low risk apart from some occasional frostbite. However, in order to set up the mist-nets, ‘lanes’ must be cleared through the field so that tree branches and brush don’t snag the nets. We clear these lanes using a machete, and therein lies my story.

The field site.

There are typically no ‘rules’ for doing field work, except to collect your samples without doing anything too dangerous or illegal. But doing local field work a mile from our lab, rather than traveling to Costa Rica or Madagascar, obviously lulled me into complacency, because a safety briefing was the last thing on my mind that sunny afternoon in early November.

For starters, although I have accumulated months of field work in multiple countries, I was relatively new in the lab and I had never caught birds before. Marmots, howler monkeys, and lemurs, yes, but not birds. So who was I to speak up? Like in so many of my previous field experiences, I was the one in training, not the one training other people. Also, this was Atlanta! In the Rocky Mountains, we worried about bears and lightning strikes; in Costa Rica it was heat stroke (or having a monkey fall on you); and in Madagascar it was rocks in the food and stomach problems from ingesting any unfiltered water. But in Atlanta, what was there really to worry about? Basically, I was worried about bugs, twisting an ankle, and being hungry, but not about potential trips to the emergency room. Big mistake.

Grad student with a machete. Photo by KEG.

I realized the severity of this mistake when I looked up from moving freshly cut branches out of the lane to see our machete swinging with wild abandon less than a foot from the head and torso of our newest graduate student, whose back was turned.

I froze in horror, visions of dismemberment flashing before my eyes. Then I sprang into action. Yelling at the machete swinger, I leaped forward to pull the student away from their peril. No one was hurt, nothing happened…but the potential danger of that situation made my heart virtually stop in terror.

I made everyone drop what they were doing for a quick crash course in field safety and awareness. In this instance, the most important lesson was to always be aware of your surroundings, and know where your team members are located and what they are doing. This included keeping at least a 10 foot clearance around anyone doing anything dangerous such as swinging a machete or an ax. I also instituted a personal policy that dangerous tasks should be saved for the postdocs and older grad students – we try not to maim the undergrads or new grad students during their first field experience because it sets a bad precedent for recruiting more help the following year. (I’m absolutely kidding! We don’t maim anyone at all).

This incident was less than 30 seconds long, but was a defining moment in my realization that all field work, whether far away or on campus, should be accompanied by a thorough safety plan, and everyone should be briefed on this plan before work begins. (See here for a good example of how to do this!)

*Just to clarify: I never actually had to endure this hardship for this particular project. By the time I started in this lab, I was a postdoctoral fellow and had already paid my dues years earlier, following marmots in the Rocky Mountains. The graduate students needed the samples and so they got to suffer through this one!

Katie Grogan is interested in the intersection of genetic diversity, fitness, and environmental change, especially for endangered species. She is currently studying the epigenetics of growth and stature in human hunter-gatherers as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Prior to moving to State College, she worked on gene expression in white-throated sparrows as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow (a GREAT fellowship for postdocs also interested in teaching). She did her PhD at Duke University, studying the relationship between genetic diversity of the immune system and survival and reproduction in ring-tailed lemurs. When not in the lab or the field, she can be found playing with her dog and reading novels. Photos by KEG (Kathleen Grogan) and JRM (Jennifer R. Merritt, a graduate student in her former lab).