Things that go Bump in the Field


I have spent a lot of time at a lot of different field sites over the years. I have spent days in the blistering sun, days in the frigid cold, and days in the pouring rain, but until this spring, I had never spent any time in the field after dark.

Every year, there is one field site with several kilometres of fencing that need monitoring to ensure the fence is in good working order. This work can take many more hours than we expect and is often completed in very early spring, so the days are still quite short.


This year, after a few days of repairing broken wires, straightening crooked poles and pulling tree branches out of the way, my field assistant and I were almost finished. It was nearing dusk and with a 1.5 km walk back to the road, we knew we had to leave shortly to make it out before dark. But we were so, so close to being done.


Let’s just go for it, we thought. We fixed the final panel of fencing and we started the trek back to the road where our vehicles were parked. But when I said it was “nearing dusk”, I really meant that it was already dusk, so by the time we were on our way out the sun had fully set and it was, well, total darkness. I have particularly bad night vision, so walking over ground was full of hummocks, rocks and small shrubs was particularly challenging for me. Given the terrain, a quick pace was far from possible, so I just trudged steadily along in the dark.


It was quiet. It was so very quiet. Since it was spring, birds were starting to migrate back to their Ontario breeding grounds, so the quiet skies were slowly beginning to come to life again during the day, but night was a different experience. There was only our heavy breaths and the slight rustle of leaves in the trees above to break the silence.

The only photo I got before the sun disappeared.


Suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by a very quick, almost vibration-like sound…and whatever made it was right behind us. Before we could even turn around, we heard a forceful “peeeent” from that same direction. My field assistant and I spun around, but halfway through our rotation, we heard the same vibrating sound again and it was gone.


We took a few more steps and then heard the same quick vibration sound followed by a loud “peeeent”. After this happened consistently for another 2 minutes, I knew I needed to figure out what was making this sound. The vibrating sound was definitely the wind rushing through feathers, so we knew it was a bird, but this was still very early in my birding career (I still knew almost nothing about birds), so that was about it. Something about the sound was oddly recognizable to me, but I just couldn’t place it. So, we walked slowly a few metres away and then turned around quietly and waited. As if perfectly on cue, the vibrating sound was back and as soon as it settled, I shone the light of my phone camera in front of us. And as soon as I caught sight of the bird, I knew exactly what it was, having watched this hilarious internet sensation many times. It was a woodcock!


As soon as I got a glimpse he was off again, and we continued to walk back to the road. The whole way back the woodcock followed us, “peent-ing” the entire time. Maybe we were bothering him and he was trying to get rid of us? Maybe he was protecting something? Or maybe he was just genuinely curious about what we were doing in his home territory so late in the day? Either way, when he escorted us to the car, it gave me a feeling of safety – like something was watching out for us in the darkness.


As we reached the vehicle and packed up our tools and equipment, I heard another nighttime sound, more immediately recognizable: the familiar call of the whip-poor-will was bouncing around in the distance. Having never spent any time in the field at night, that night was a very memorable experience for me. And it was certainly an excellent reminder that when you’re doing fieldwork or spending time in nature, no matter what time it is, you are never truly alone.

Perfectly perfect perfection…not!

Imagine the perfect day in the field. A day where the sky is clear and blue. The sun is warm, but not too warm. A cool breeze wisps across your face, leaving you feeling refreshed and comfortable. The birds are singing, and the butterflies are fluttering. You sit down on an appropriately placed boulder under the perfect shade tree to eat your favourite field lunch. After lunch you take a quick break to watch the clouds pass by above you. You see a dog, then a dragon, and then a snake. Ahhh, perfectly perfect perfection.

While the above scenario certainly does happen for field biologists, it is a rarity. Many field days are not as described above. In fact, most field days are not as described above.

Let’s take a project I worked on this past summer as an example. I was trying to restore an agricultural field into native grassland. This project involved having the farmer plant soybeans in the field in June, which keep the weeds down and deposit nitrogen into the soil. The farmer then harvested the soybeans in November, which meant we were ready to seed the area with native grassland plant species.

I could not have been more excited about a nice chilly autumn day in the field, with the sun warming my nose and the cool breeze keeping me comfortably content in a sweater. I imagined myself frolicking around the field spreading seeds of native plants species, while late migratory ducks flew overhead, and squirrels and voles scurried about trying to pick up the remnants of the soybean plants– a dream, really! And a dream really is what it was.

After some issues with the seed mix and volatile weather, by the end of November we were finally ready to go. Bags of seeds in tow, we were starting to walk out to the field when I heard a curious sound. Imagine for a second making enough banana bread batter to fill a small kids’ swimming pool. Then imagine putting on rubber boots and walking through that. “Slurrrrp…Slurrrp…Slurrrp”. Yes, that was the sound. The sound of our boots sinking into the deep rich soil of the field (which was really just muck at this point) . I had just been out there 2 days earlier… but since then we had gotten a lot of rain, which took the frost out of the ground and created muck. The best part – the ground was still frozen in some places, so sinking past your rain boots into the muck was a frequent but totally unpredictable occurrence. And let me tell you – it is NOT easy to get yourself out of that muck!

Seeding the field in one of the few not so “slurpy” spots

As we started to toss the seeds about, slurping as we went, the rain began. Not a crazy downpour, but a light rain that was *just* heavy enough to get us sufficiently wet for the seeds to start sticking to our hands. To make it possible to spread the seed, we had to walk hunched over, blocking our hands from the rain. So, there we were: hunched over, wet, shivering, boots slurping away in the muck. A very different scenario than the magical day I had envisioned.

In the end it took about 3 hours to seed 1 ha of land. When we were done, we quickly retreated to our vehicle. We stopped to get some warm tea on the way home and we didn’t talk once about how crappy the weather was or how our backs hurt from hunching over or how dirty our rain boots got our rental car. (OK – we did talk a bit about that last one!). But mostly we were focused on the project, forecasting what that field might look like in the spring… or two years from now…or ten years from now. How many grassland birds would soon call this habitat home? What new species would move into this community on their own?

Some days in the field are perfect, and we all cherish those days when they happen. Other days are not-so-perfect and that is just fine. But we cherish those not-so-perfect days too. Those are the days that prompt us to remember our reason for doing the work, forecasting the bigger picture and recalling our love for our jobs.