Tourists for a day

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

The welcome sign to the park.

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

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

Gannet nests as far as the eye can see.

Gannets nesting beside viewing platform

Gannets nesting beside and on one of the viewing platforms.

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

Field team making use of the viewing platform.

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

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

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

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

I’m on a boat! (as a tourist)

The tourist boat.

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The nightmare before fieldwork

At this time of year in the northern hemisphere, the days are lasting longer, the temperature is rising higher, and the snow is melting faster. It’s only a matter of time before we can see grass growing, smell flowers blooming, and hear birds chirping. For many people, this is their favourite time year; a time described as a new beginning. But for me, it is a beginning of the busiest time of year!

When field biologists work with wild animals, they usually have a specific block of time to collect the data they’re interested in, based on the species’ annual cycle. Sure, they can always try again next year, but a PhD student’s work for the rest of the year is largely based on whatever data they do manage to collect. In other words, successful field season = happy grad student! In terms of my project, the ground starting to thaw means that birds will begin preparing to breed. Since I am interested in the biology of eggs and their incubation, I need to be present for the beginning of the birds’ reproductive session.

desk with papers everywhere

This is how organized my desk (and brain) is these days!

But before I can even get out to the field, there are a million and one things to prepare ahead of time. So here I am in the heat of planning my field season: making lists of lists to try to keep myself organized. I have written five different permit applications and two protocols in two different languages. I’ve discussed plans with park directors, wildlife managers in the provincial government, and biologists in the federal government. I’ve had to make many decisions about where to go, what techniques to use, and how many specimens to collect. So far, it seems that all is on track (or maybe that is just the picture I paint for my supervisors). However, the fact is that when I am making so many choices (or procrastinating making those choices by adding them to my list instead), I start to question what I’ve actually done…and what I’ve only dreamt I did.

These fieldwork dreams (one might call them nightmares) keep occurring. They are not always about the same thing, but they have the same underlying message. It always comes down to the “what if”s. What if I show up to my field site and there are no birds nesting? What if I arrive too late and all the eggs have hatched already? What if the Ontario government approves the proposed cormorant hunt? Despite some of these “what if”s being under my control and others not, I have to try to plan for everything because you just never know what might happen. These all add to my worry about the field season. One night in my sleep I said (rather strictly), “You’re not doing it right!” Startled awake by my statement, my husband asked, “Doing what right?” I responded with, “The frogs! You’re not doing it right. Ugh fine, just give it to me. I’ll do it. I don’t have time for you to mess it up.” Luckily for me, he is a supportive PhD husband and understands my current state of mind is only temporary!

I realize I’m probably the only person in the northern hemisphere wishing for a prolonged winter this year…so I guess I just have to accept the inevitable: spring is coming, my sanity is leaving, and I am stuck sorting through my lists of lists. At least it pays off in the end when I get to go to cool places and study cool things. Wish me luck!

Wow, time flies!

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

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

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

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

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

at the convocation ceremony

Catherine (left) and Amanda (right) receive their official Ph.D. documents! Finishing the degree was worth it to wear the red robes & funny hats (and to collect lots of funny field stories!).

 

Algonquin Adventures

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Alex Sutton, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada to share his adventures chasing Canada Jays in the beautiful Algonquin Park. For more about Alex, check out his bio at the end of this post!

One of the things I enjoy most about field work is being immersed in an environment every day, and, as a result, having the opportunity to see things that many others do not get to experience. Over the past four years I have been lucky enough to spend countless months following Canada jays (formerly known as gray jays) throughout Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario.

Russ Rutter, a former chief park naturalist, first started studying Canada jays in Algonquin in 1964. He was interested in understanding the natural history of this fascinating bird and was one of the first people to use colour-bands as a way to follow individuals throughout their lifetime. After he retired from the park, Dan Strickland, another former chief park naturalist, continued studying the jays, following them throughout the year and collecting information about their nesting behaviour for over 40 years!

This long-term dataset has allowed us to track how the population of Canada jays in Algonquin Park has changed over the last 54 years. Unfortunately, since the 1980’s we have observed a decline of over 50%. The Algonquin population appears to be experiencing more severe declines than other Canada jay populations, which may be because Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of the Canada jay’s range in Ontario. Understanding the drivers of this population decline, the main focus of my PhD research, will hopefully allow us to predict how other populations may respond to climate change.

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

These nestlings are all 14 days old and ready to receive colour bands. Photo credit Alex Sutton

To figure out what factors are causing the Algonquin population to decline, we need to follow Canada jays throughout the entire year. In autumn, while enjoying the beautiful fall colours of maples and tamaracks, we determine which territories are occupied and which individuals are present on a given territory. The autumn is an important time of year for a Canada jay because during this time they begin caching food that they will rely on throughout the winter for survival and reproduction. Amazingly, one Canada jay can make thousands of food caches in a day and return to these caches months later! Throughout the autumn, jays will actively seek out humans because they see humans as a good source of food, making it one of the best times to see them (and their colour bands!).

After determining which territories are occupied, we return in the winter to begin monitoring each pair throughout the breeding season. Unlike most other Canadian songbirds, Canada jays begin building nets in late February. This means that for most of the breeding season I travel through the landscape on snowshoes and have to bundle up to brave temperatures as low as -30°C! But despite the cold, there are few things as rewarding as finding jay nests. Sometimes it can take weeks to find a single nest, and it often requires some imaginative use of natural features like beaver dams to avoid getting soakers (when your boots fill with water) in the sub-zero temperatures.

Alex carrying a ladder to a nest. Photo credit Koley Freeman

As winter slowly becomes spring, eggs that have been incubated through freezing temperatures and snowstorms begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, we monitor each nest for about two weeks before we return one last time to band the nestlings. We typically carry ladders through the forest and sometimes across frozen rivers to each nest tree. Once the ladder is in place, we carefully scamper up the rungs to collect the nestlings for banding. This is one of the most rewarding parts of the field season, because all the hard work we have put into finding and monitoring each nest has finally paid off with the sight of several fluffy Canada jay nestlings trying their best to emulate Einstein’s signature hair-do.

One of my fondest memories of my time in Algonquin is of banding a nest last spring. The adults were circling around us while we banded their young and the male had a full mouth of food he was bringing back for the nestlings. As he got closer, my colleague held up the nestling being banded. Remarkably, he landed on my colleague’s hand and fed the nestling right then and there! This was the first time I had ever seen something like this and I will remember that moment forever! (Video of this encounter here).

Canada Jay in hand

This young Canada jay has been outfitted with a radio tag. Photo credit Dan Strickland

As spring turns into summer, the young Canada jays begin to fledge from their nests – and my fieldwork continues, as we follow the dispersing fledglings. Beginning in May, I and another PhD student, Koley Freeman, track radio-tagged juveniles while they move around their natal territories. Each radio tag ‘backpack’ emits a unique frequency and allows us to track down birds, even when we cannot see or hear them. After about six weeks, these juveniles start to leave their parent’s territories and disperse across the vast Algonquin landscape. These young birds can travel over 15 km, so to follow them, we need to track them from the air! Being in a plane flying over my study area provides a great perspective of the vastness of the landscape and gives me a new appreciation of how diverse Algonquin is.

Each year in Algonquin has been an exciting experience that has taught me something new. With each passing field season, I learn more about the jays and how they cope with the ever-changing environment. Canada jays are resilient enough to survive harsh boreal winters throughout North America, but climate change is wreaking havoc on their breeding success. Changing fall conditions negatively influence their cached food, contributing to the record low number of nestlings produced that I have observed over the course of the last three field seasons.

The view of a Canada jay territory from the air. Photo credit Alex Sutton

I am lucky to have called Algonquin a home away from home for the past four years, and had so many great experiences in the park. I would like to thank Dan Strickland, all the staff of Algonquin Provincial Park, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, and my partner in crime Koley Freeman for helping with field work and making every day in the field more exciting than the last.

For me, the joy of fieldwork comes not only from pushing yourself to learn from and about your study species, but also learning to appreciate the beautiful places that this work can take you. I will always remember the sights and sounds of Algonquin, the Canada jays, and the unexpected experiences I have had over the course of the last four years of fieldwork.

 

Me with the Canada jay – Photo credit Koley Freeman

Alex Sutton is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. During his undergraduate degree, he worked throughout North and Central America studying the population ecology and habitat use of migratory songbirds. If you would like to keep up with his ongoing research follow him on Twitter @Alexsutto.

Freshwater Exploration: are Invasive Crayfish Predating Benthic Invertebrates

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

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

“The beast”

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

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

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

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

Kick sampling methods used by the environment agency.

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

“Alone!, bliss”

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

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

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

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

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

“2-0 to the cows”

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

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

 

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

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.

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!