Tales of Turtles In New York City

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Rebecca Czaja, a recent graduate, to share her fieldwork story from her Masters project studying turtles in New York City (yes you heard her!). Check out the end of the post for more about Rebecca!

Turtles in New York City? That’s the reaction I usually get when I explain my Masters research project. I worked with the Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project, which has been studying diamondback terrapins at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) for almost 20 years. JBWR, which sits on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is not only the nesting site for hundreds of terrapins but also an important habitat for migratory and resident birds, insects, and other reptiles.

As part of a long term monitoring and conservation project, I was responsible for finding nesting terrapins, which are then collected to gather data such as weight and shell length. In addition, a protective cage is placed over the nests to prevent predation. Finding a nesting terrapin without scaring her off the nest requires a little bit of skill, good eyes (or binoculars), and a lot of luck. While a few terrapins are bold enough to nest right at your feet, most will abandon their attempt to nest if they see you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself tiptoeing through thorny rose bushes or carefully kneeling in a field of poison ivy just to hide from a terrapin. The key is to stay out of sight until she’s laid her eggs, at which point she’ll finish burying the eggs even if you get too close for comfort. How do you know she’s done laying her eggs? She does a little dance. As she pushes dirt into the hole and pats it down, she appears to be doing a jig.

diamondback terrapin

A female diamondback terrapin collected after nesting.

For my project, I focused on studying how precipitation impacts whether terrapin nests get eaten by raccoons. In addition to monitoring unprotected, natural nests for signs of predation, I also built and monitored over 200 artificial nests.

There are a bunch of possible ways to build artificial nests. I picked the simplest method: dig a small hole and fill it back up. Even without any eggs or terrapin scent, raccoons were attracted to these nests. I also tried filling nests with terrapin-scented sand, which was made by putting a terrapin in a box full of sand for at least 20 minutes. Unfortunately, getting the sand to smell just enough like a natural nest is an imprecise science. The terrapin-scented artificial nests ended up smelling so strongly that raccoons tried to predate every single nest, rain or shine. But the beauty of science is you live and you learn. So I stuck with artificial nests filled with plain old sand.

plastic bottle used for a rain gauge

Ecology is the art of doing meaningful science with the simplest materials. My rain gauges were made from plastic bottles washed up onshore, duct tape, and sticks.

Doing research that depends on it raining at just the right time is nerve-wracking, to say the least. The month of June was unusually dry this summer, which left me constantly worried that I’d never get enough rain to finish the project. Especially because I not only needed it to rain, but to rain on a day when I had found a nesting terrapin. The first time it rained on a day when I had natural nests, I was ecstatic. The rain was unexpected, so I only had about an hour’s warning to hurry almost 1.5 miles across the park to place rain gauges at my nests. Fueled by my excitement, I got the rain gauges installed just in time. Of course, on the walk back I got soaked by the downpour and was chased by a Canada goose, but nothing was going to spoil my day!

 

Terrapin nesting season lasts about two months at JBWR, and then come the hatchlings. Yes, they’re as cute as you’re imagining. Just like adult females, hatchlings are measured and weighed. I then cut out a small piece from the edge of their shell in a specific location so that if they’re recaptured as adults, we’ll know what year they hatched. The piece of shell will also be used for DNA analysis. Hatchlings are then released near their nest, where they either run for cover in some vegetation or make a break for the water. All we can do from that point on is hope we see them again when the females are old enough to nest!

diamondback terrapin hatchlings

Diamondback terrapin hatchlings after being released at JBWR

It’s amazing to think that less than a year ago I didn’t even know there were turtles in New York City. My Masters project taught me a lot: beach trash has endless uses, rain is unpredictable, and terrapins are much faster on land than you expect. But most importantly it reminded me each and every day of nature’s resilience. Watching a new cohort of terrapins hatch and make their way into Jamaica Bay’s marshes, despite pollution and habitat destruction, makes me optimistic that there’s still time to protect mother nature’s invaluable resources and beauty.

Rebecca CzajaRebecca Czaja recently completed her Masters in Marine Biology at Northeastern University. She conducted her Masters research project in Dr. Russell Burke’s lab at Hofstra University. She is also an alum of Tufts University, where she studied Biology and Environmental Studies.

Twitter: @becca_sea

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Cold comfort

Light raindrops pattered against the tarp stretched above my head.  Deep inside my tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, I shivered.  The damp cold of the day had made its way insidiously through my layers of clothing, freezing me from the inside out – and we had only been sitting here for two hours, meaning we had at least six more to go.  I sighed, resigning myself to a(nother) cold, clammy, uncomfortable day.

Most field biologists have spent at least a few days freezing their butts off in the field.  Unfortunately for me, however, being cold is not something I’m particularly tolerant of.  And in this case, the deep chill seeping into my bones was somewhat unexpected – because most people don’t go to Hawaii to be cold.

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, field biologists often get a unique perspective of the places where they work.  So while bikini-clad tourists lay tanning on the beach less than 50 km away, I spent most of my time in Hawaii clad in at least three layers of clothing, huddled on the northeastern slopes of the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea.

As it happens, Mauna Kea is not just the tallest mountain in Hawaii – it is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how you look at it).  From its base on the sea floor, it rises over 33,000 feet – almost 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.  Of course, only 13,802 of those feet actually rise above the surface of the ocean – but it’s still a lot colder at thirteen thousand feet in the air than it is at sea level.  The top of Mauna Kea is frequently snow-covered in winter, and spending a rainy day hanging out on its slopes can be a chilly experience.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

No one mentioned this aspect of Mauna Kea to me before I took the job – or, indeed, filled me in on the fact that our field accommodations were luxurious in every way except one: they had no heat.  And so I spent a great deal of my time in Hawaii shivering.  (In fact, I was once so cold that I tried warming my hands over the open flame of our gas stove.  This backfired when the sleeve of my sweatshirt caught fire – but for just an instant, before I extinguished the flames in the sink, all I could think was, “Wow! My hands are finally warm!”)

However, while the damp, misty chill of the Hawaiian forest was perhaps not ideal for field biologists (at least, not for me), it turns out that it’s pretty important for the organisms we were there to study: the birds.

I went to Hakalau to work as a field assistant on a long-term study examining population trends of Hawaiian forest birds.  Although just about anyone would be excited to be spending the winter months in Hawaii, I was excited for an entirely different reason than most people: Hawaiian honeycreepers are one of the poster children of adaptive radiation.

An 'akiapola'au shows off his amazing multi-tool bill.

An ‘akiapola’au shows off his amazing, multi-purpose bill.

Arising from a single, unspecialized ancestor species, Hawaiian honeycreeper species have exploded to fill multiple ecological niches on the islands.  There are finch-like honeycreepers and parrot-like honeycreepers and warbler-like honeycreepers.  And then there’s my particular favourite: the ‘akiapola’au – which we nicknamed the ‘Swiss Army knife bird’.  ‘Akis fill the woodpecker niche in the Hawaiian forest.  They use their straight, strong lower bills to drill holes in tree bark, and their long, curved upper bills to probe those holes for insect larvae.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, i'iwis are hard to miss.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, ‘i’iwis are hard to miss.

It’s one thing to learn about adaptive radiation in a lecture hall…but quite another to see its results, firsthand, in the field.  Honeycreepers may not be the quintessential example of adaptive radiation – that honour being reserved for Darwin’s Galapagos finches – but they are (with all due respect to Darwin) definitely one of the most dazzling.  My first day at Hakalau, I was constantly distracted by flashes of colour, as the deep scarlet of an ‘i‘iwi or the bright orange of an ‘akepa flitted through the nearby ‘ohi‘a trees.  Seeing their endless, beautiful forms brought evolution to life for me in a way that four years of undergraduate biology textbooks never had.

Unfortunately, however, Hawaiian birds are not just the poster child for adaptive radiation.  They could also be featured on posters for another buzzword concept in biology: multiple stressors.  Hawaiian birds are currently under attack from every side…and, more often than not, they’re losing the fight.

The plight of Hawaii’s forest birds started – as these stories so often do – when humans showed up, changing habitats and trailing with us the usual host of desired and not-so-desired biological companions.  From rats and house cats to feral pigs, non-native bird species, and mosquitoes, humans unleashed (sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally) a tidal wave of invasive species that swamped the delicate balance of life on the remote Hawaiian islands.

While each of these invasive species individually has a negative effect on Hawaii’s native birds, it’s in concert with each other that they become especially dangerous.  Some of the introduced bird species on the island arrived there carrying avian malaria, a blood parasite that is relatively common in most places, but foreign to Hawaii.  The introduced mosquitoes acted as vectors to transfer that parasite to the native birds – which had never been exposed to it, and hence were completely lacking any defences.  Even the feral pigs got in on the act, digging up roots in the forest and inadvertently creating hollows which filled with water, providing ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.  It’s a multi-pronged attack, and one that has resulted in the decimation of many of Hawaii’s native bird species.

But these native birds do have one thing going for them – the cold.  Mosquitoes are largely restricted to low elevation areas of the islands (~5000 feet), as their larvae don’t develop properly at the lower temperatures found further up the slopes.  So high elevation forests, like those found at Hakalau, have for decades acted as refuges for Hawaiian honeycreepers.

And therein lies yet another problem: we all know, as the climate warms, that cold places will not necessarily stay cold.  In Hawaii, climate change is yet another stressor for the birds.  Increasing temperatures will likely mean the end of these high altitude refuges, and even more dramatic declines in honeycreeper populations, as has been documented in recent studies on the island of Kaua’i.  Slowing the rate of climate change may be the only hope for some of these already beleaguered species.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not very good at being cold – in fact, it makes me decidedly grumpy.  But while I was in Hawaii, watching an ‘i‘iwi feed on the bright pink flowers of an ‘ohi‘a or an ‘akiapola’au hammering holes in the bark of a koa tree more than made up for the damp chill.  Without the cold, I might never have had the chance to see these spectacular and declining species.  That realization alone was enough to make me almost appreciate the shivering…except perhaps for the day I caught my sleeve on fire.

An endangered Hawaii 'akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

An endangered Hawaii ‘akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

This land is our land

In honour of Canada Day, we wanted to highlighted some of the cool, interesting, funny, or neat stories about fieldwork in Canada that we have shared on Dispatches from the Field over the years. Our blog tells stories from fieldwork happening all across the country, and also across many different species. We do truly live in a great country – check out these blogs for yourself!

Beginning in the west, Catherine D. shares why bluebird at a nest boxeveryone loves bluebirds in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia,

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset.

Julia S. shows us the varied habitats of Alberta’s boreal forest,

Feeling smalland Krista C. shares her adventures in the Land of Living Skies in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.

 

From the great white North, Michelle V. explains how she prepared for polar bear fieldwork.

Sampling polar bear poop.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.Julia C. and Rachael H. share their hilarious (sorry Julia) beaver story from the Muskoka region of Ontario where they almost flip the canoe, while Melanie S. explains how help is always where you least expect it.

 

 

 

Southern Ontario is quite busy with field biologists, with Jenna S. running around in fields chasing butterflies, Toby T. listening for what the bat said, and Amanda X. searching for snakes on a [fragmented] plain.

catching butterflies in nets in the field

A big brown bat

Adorable baby eastern foxsnakes emerge from their eggs only to be fondled by eager researchers

 

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.Fieldwork is very popular at the Queen’s University Biology Station in southeastern Ontario.  Amanda C. spends her nights at the symphony listening to the frog chorus,

Me counting seedlings

 

 

 

Amanda T. collects beautiful wildflower seeds (being both wonderful and disastrous at the same time),

 

Liz P. plays hide and go seek with whip-poor-wills,  and Adam M. creates robots for sampling daphnia.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

 

 

 

 

 

As we head to the east coast, Michelle L. shares what it is like to collect salmon eggs in New Brunswick…in the winter.

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We will leave you with a short variation on a great song:

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From Bonavista, to Vancouver Island (or studying seabirds off the coast of Labrador with Anna T. to Haida Gwaii with Sarah W.)

From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters, (or what to do with your not so “down time” in Nunavut with Kathryn H. to getting stuck in beaver pond sampling aquatic invertebrates in Muskoka with Alex R.)

This land was made for you and me.

Sunset on the tundra

“Lake” sampling

This week we are very excited to welcome our good friend Alex Ross to the blog. Alex just completed his MSc in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University and today he tells us all about his adventures sampling lakes in the Muskoka region. For more about Alex see the end of this blog. 

To me, taking a job that would keep me outside and, better yet, in a canoe, sounded like a dream. Growing up I spent many summer days fishing from an old beat up cedar strip canoe at a family cottage. Subsequently I spent the better part of 5 summers during my teen years and early twenties guiding canoe trips for summer camps all over Ontario and Quebec. I knew that eventually I would need a “real” job, but when I heard of an opportunity to be part of a team surveying 135 lakes in the Muskoka region I thought, great! A real job can wait a year. Little did I know that not only was this a very “real” job, but also a gateway to a career that could keep me outdoors for good.

The project itself aimed to document new establishments of an invasive aquatic invertebrate, Bythotrephes longimanis, or as it’s more well known, the spiny water flea. Coming to the Great Lakes via ballast water from ocean-going ships, these tiny invaders have since spread to hundreds of inland lakes in Canada and the United States. Largely a result from transfer by recreational boaters, secondary invasions of the spiny water flea to inland lakes have unfortunately left a trail of ecological impacts in their wake. A primary goal of our work during the summer of 2010 was to establish a model that could be used for predicting where new invasions were likely to occur. As such, our survey took us to some very remote lakes with a low likelihood of invasion, as well as some very developed lakes with a high likelihood of invasion.

DSC09676

The spiny water flea: the subject of our search

After getting our feet wet and confidence up by sampling lakes with relatively easy access, my field partner, Julie, and I decided to pick a lake off the beaten path, so much so that it didn’t have a name. We pulled up satellite images and old topographical maps of our lake’s location, determined where the closest road to it was and formed our plan of attack for access.

The maps showed a meandering stream that led to a forested area where we could make a short portage to hop into the lake – no problem! Well, when we arrived at the stream what we found was much more “bog”, than stream. Undeterred, we set out but eventually discovered that our stream had all but dried up and that we were woefully unequipped to make it any farther. Looping back, we hopped in our vehicle and started down an unmaintained ATV trail in hopes of getting close enough to hike in the rest of the way. Next obstacle – stuck in the mud! After a good hour spent freeing our vehicle, and with the day getting late we turned around and decided that getting to this lake might have to wait for another day.

Julie and Alex 027

What we thought was our access point to the lake

Fast-forward a month or so, and with a new plan in mind, Julie and I set out to conquer this lake, once and for all!

Julie and Alex 023

Perhaps a little too excited for what the day had in store

With hip waders in tow we set back out and launched our canoe into the stream. Similar to our first attempt, it wasn’t long after putting it in that we came to a point where the water was all but absorbed by wetland sedges, flowers, and muck.

Julie and Alex 046

Quickly running out of water to paddle through

Now, let me walk you through what the rest of the journey looked like…

Once the stream became un-navigable it was time to get creative. Waist-high mud made us perform a rather uncoordinated combination of poling ourselves ahead with our paddles, and hopping out of the canoe to pull, and push it forward in increments of what seemed like an inch at a time. Unfortunately, there are no photos of this process but if you can imagine two people in the middle of nowhere, literally stuck in mud – that was us. Along with that, place a chorus of delirious laughter and excessive swearing that only the smaller creatures in our midst were privy to – I’m sure that many reading this have found themselves in identical situations.

Once the ground firmed up, slightly, we continued pulling our canoe through thick brush and shrubs, receiving the odd scrape to the arm or poke in the eye by an errant branch.

Julie and Alex 031

Not an environment fit for a canoe…

Finally on solid ground and with our lake at the top of a ridge we carried our canoe and all of our sampling gear up a steep slope to finally get a glimpse at the lake that had eluded us for so long.

Julie and Alex 039

Nearly there!

The lake itself was essentially a beaver pond, shallow and no larger than a few swimming pools in size. Although many would consider this no more than a puddle, I cannot think of a more triumphant and accomplished feeling that entire summer than finally launching our canoe into this unnamed lake.

Julie and Alex 042

Our final destination

As Julie and I found out, “lake” sampling often involved much more than calm sunny days on the water. However, we are happy to report that, at least on this day – the spiny water flea had not invaded our stubborn, secluded lake.

 

Alex Ross is currently working as a research technician at McGill University in an aquatic ecology lab, working on a fish conservation project with the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Alex’s research interests lie in understanding how aquatic communities and ecosystems respond to environmental change. His Masters project looked at understanding  biological recovery of acidified lakes facing emerging stressors. 

 

A Canuck in the Outback – Cane toad research in north tropical Australia

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Cameron Hudson, a PhD candidate in Western Australia, to fill us in on what it is like to work at a remote field station. Check out his bio and a link to his own entertaining blog at the the end of the post!

Sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam.

The sun sets over Fogg Dam conservation area. Despite the stillness in the photo, we’re minutes away from a frenzy of activity. Snakes, insects, crocodiles and cane toads (my study species) all spring into action, going about their nightly activities. I spend many of my evenings here, chasing toads around and swatting at mosquitoes. Located in the wetlands region of the Northern Territory, roughly a 45 minute drive south-east of Darwin, sits the research station that we lovingly call Middle Point. It has been a long standing study site for researchers from the University of Sydney, where I moved roughly a year and a half ago to start my PhD research on the cane toad (Rhinella marina) invasion of Australia.

A bright yellow male cane toad

A bright yellow male cane toad (Rhinella marina)

I first learned about the cane toad introduction when I was in high school – my grade 10 science teacher Ms. Holterman showed us a documentary from the ‘80s titled: “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.” It’s worth a watch as they outline the history and spread of a devastating invasive species while managing to interview some quirky individuals. Little did I know that ten years later I would become one of those quirky individuals, moving across the world to study the evolution of the world’s most successful amphibian invasive species. A quick summary – cane toads were introduced to many countries around the globe in order to control sugarcane pests. They arrived in Australia back in 1935, and in the eighty years following, have spread over millions of square kilometers of the Australian landscape. Since they are highly toxic, and Australia has no native toads, many of the native predators have been devastated as the toads move through new areas. Animals that try to eat the toads don’t realize that they are toxic until it is too late (particularly a problem for snakes since they swallow their prey whole). This biodiversity crisis has fostered a lot of hatred towards the toads, and produced a good deal of research funding for studying their impact, and developing control methods. It has also given us a unique opportunity to study the evolution of an invasive species as it invades an entire continent.

Cam with kangaroos.

Obligatory kangaroo photos.

That’s where I come in! I met Professor Rick Shine, my PhD supervisor, when he was visiting QUBS after I had just completed my MSc. We discussed his extensive research program, dedicated to various areas of the toad invasion, and I was hooked. The project we decided on would examine phenotypic changes in cane toads across Australian populations, focusing on adaptations that promote dispersal. As the toads move across the landscape, they are doing so at a rapidly accelerating pace. Previous work on the toads had already shown differences in morphology, behaviour and physiology between toads at the invasion front and toads at the range core, so I was excited to examine these findings further. It also meant that I would get to go wherever the cane toads are, and for a Canadian who had always wanted to travel around Australia I felt pretty lucky.

Purnululu National Park

The real outback – Purnululu National Park, Western Australia

As much as I love the field, life is not always easy in the top end. The field station is pretty remote, the weather is intense and the health hazards are real. From a lifestyle perspective, cell phone coverage is spotty, internet connectivity is low, and we’re surrounded by buffalo farms. Having a social life can be difficult; it’s easy to get wrapped up in my research, and it means that my relationships with friends, family, and my partner require a lot of work (and patience, from people having to put up with my dropped calls). I suppose being a Canadian in Australia means you’re in a long distance relationship with most of the people you know, so it can get a bit lonely.

Buffalo as friends

Luckily we have buffalo friends out here!

From the safety side of things, my work involves a lot of long hours driving (often at night), there are venomous snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne diseases to watch out for. In the wet season we’re met with cyclones and flooding, in the dry season it’s droughts and wildfires. Needless to say, you have to be careful.

Northern death adder

A northern death adder (Acanthopis praelongus) about 2 minutes away from my front door

With all of these factors considered, I still love my job. Living in the field means I’m surrounded by wildlife, free from the clamour and noise of the city. You never know what you’ll run into. Long road trips alone, or with good friends, have given me such an appreciation for the geography and biodiversity of this country. In the short time that I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve seen so much, and yet there is still an endless number of places to explore. As damaging as the toads are, I guess I have them to thank for this experience. Not to mention helping me on my way to getting a PhD, and becoming one of those quirky individuals that I learned about in school.

Cam measuring toads.

Measuring toads – Cam’s favourite activity.

Cam Hudson is a PhD student at the University of Sydney, studying evolutionary biology under Prof. Rick Shine and Dr. Greg Brown. He is a Queen’s University (BScH) and University of Gulelph (MSc) alumnus. His previous research has examined male mating strategies and hybridization in spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) with Prof. Stephen Lougheed, and sexual size dimorphism, multiple paternity and combat in the Emei moustache toad (Leptobrachium boringii) with Prof. Jinzhong Fu. He spent his childhood catching frogs and salamanders in Ontario, and hopes to continue chasing amphibians into adulthood as an evolutionary biologist. If you want to read more about his life and research in the Northern Territory, check out his blog: darwinstoad.tumblr.com

 

Help where you least expect it

This week we welcome guest blogger Melanie Shapiera to write a dispatch about the wonderful people you meet and receive help from during field work. Check out her bio at the end of the post!

They say good help is hard to find. But I’d argue that good – even great – help can turn up when and where you least expect it. And that includes when you are in the field.

I could write a ton of blog posts about how field teams I’ve been involved with quickly become tightknit partners in crime with inside jokes and stories that are hilarious and surreal and sentimental and meaningful, if only to you and your teammates. But what is perhaps more surreal are those moments in the field when a Good Samaritan shows up at a time when you need them most and saves the day. Locals can provide awesome assistance and knowledge that can save field workers huge amounts of time. Probably the best example I have of this is the day I met Gerald.

Gerald and Melanie

The man, the legend – Gerald. And yes, I totally requested a photo after his help on a long field day!

Back in 2010, I spent my summer surveying Muskoka lakes to investigate the distribution and dispersal of the spiny water flea, an invasive species from the eastern hemisphere that was introduced accidently to the Great Lakes in the 1980s, and has been spreading to inland lakes ever since. These seemingly innocuous invertebrate predators have been shown to have drastic effects on freshwater zooplankton community structure, outcompeting native species for resources, and proliferating even under different stressors such as decreasing calcium concentrations and fish predation (from which they are protected by the barbs on their tails). Thus, my work as a field assistant for York University in conjunction with the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network was to document new establishments of the species and provide data to test predictive dispersal models that considered factors such as ease of access to a body of water.

Small bytho.

Itty Bitty Bytho.

Lakes ranged widely in accessibility, so one day my teammate and I would be able use a public boat launch, but the next day we’d be conducting semi-ridiculous portages through forests, across swamps, or even needing to camp a night, to get to very remote lakes.

One particular day, we had planned to access a smaller lake. Looking at topographic maps suggested it would require a kilometre or so of portaging. The maps indicated an ATV trail that looked like an excellent conduit for us to use.

But maps sometimes do not give a complete picture, which we found out when we arrived at the trail. The trail was gated, seemingly on newly acquired private property. Our Plans B and C involved at least triple the amount of portaging in some pretty hairy terrain. So we were parked at the gate entrance, resignedly making a game plan, when out of nowhere walked an elderly lady, who saw the canoe strapped to our vehicle and asked what we were doing. After explaining our quest, she said something along the lines of “Oh, well my husband and I take care of this property because the owner lives in Switzerland. I’ll get Gerald to open the gate for you to use the trail; I don’t think it’ll be a problem”.

Cue inward happy dance.

So we drove over to her place, where she went and found Gerald, the man of the hour. Now, Gerald was a man probably in his 70s, bespectacled, ball cap-clad, soft-spoken, and stoic. When we told him our portage plan, he said,

“Well, it’d be a lot faster if I took you in on my ATV.”

Even though an ATV ride with Gerald seemed like it’d be a blast, we explained that we had the canoe and various sampling gear that we had to carry in, and that we were used to portaging.

“Well, all I need to do is hook up my trailer – I’m sure we can figure it out.”

Flash forward 15 minutes, and Gerald had hooked up a trailer to his ATV, ratcheted our canoe on, and put all of our gear inside.

ATV pulling canoe

Our sweet ride.

But I’m not done yet. While cruising down the trail on the back of Gerald’s ATV, we came to a fallen tree that made the rest of the trail impassable. We were more than halfway, and more than willing to portage the rest. But Gerald was unstoppable, and I’ll never forget the next words that came out of his mouth:

“Well, I guess I’ll go get my chainsaw.”

Let me make this clear – Gerald drove back to his house, grabbed his chainsaw, chopped up the tree, moved it out of the path, and came back to the lake to pick us up a couple hours later after our sampling was finished.

Can you say above and beyond?!

Gerald made the day such a success, helping us access and sample the lake in a fraction of the time it would have taken without his help. He really was the biggest help, and he did it asking nothing in return, and maintaining his calm and quiet demeanor. We couldn’t say thank you enough.

View of the lake.

Access success – thanks to Gerald.

Melanie Shapiera completed her BScH in Biology at Queen’s University, and her MSc in Biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Following her MSc, she worked as a Fisheries Biologist on the GTA Subway expansion project, working to monitor and minimize development impacts on the surrounding riparian ecosystem. She now works as a Biologist Intern with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Bancroft, ON, focussing on Species at Risk, land use planning, and examining road impacts on wildlife.

 

There’s no place like your field site home…

This week we are excited to have Zarah Pattison from the University of Stirling, Scotland, tell us about her field work on invasive alien plant species along rivers in Scotland for her PhD work. To learn more about Zarah, check out her bio at the end of this post.

Supervisor: “So you need about twenty rivers for your project”

Me: “Right, OK…” I stand, staring at him blankly.

Supervisor: “Go buy some maps of Scotland, 6 to 10 will do, lay them out and find rivers.”

Me: “Right, OK…” I stand, staring at him blankly, and then scurry off to the nearest shops.

Maps of Scotland

Maps of central Scotland stuck together to find rivers for field sites.

I had always thought of myself as a resourceful person. Give me a problem, I’ll ‘make a plan’ (a very South African turn of phrase). However, having just passed my driving test and moved to Scotland, and having no experience of working along rivers, or knowledge of what I was looking for, I just panicked. Now, I did have two crucial criteria to aim for: Make sure I can walk at least 500 metres along the river, which must be invaded by the invasive plant Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera). This plant is tall, with bright pink pungent flowers, and I soon became a dab hand at spotting it whilst driving anywhere near a river and, on parking the car, smelling it. After a month of google maps, google earth, broken GPSs and sat navs, I finally found the 20 rivers with 20 suitable survey sights. All the sites were predominantly urban or alongside farm land, which came with its own suite of problems.

In Scotland you have ‘the right to roam’, so when gaining permission to work along my chosen river sites, people were generally helpful and interested in the project. Sometimes we were even brought tea and cake by some of the landowners, who thought us standing in the rain for 10 hours was horrific (I loved it). The vegetation could reach up to 4 metres high, with stinging nettles up to 3 metres. We got used to the constant burning on our skin and kept ourselves sane by shaking the Himalayan balsam plants to see which of us would get an exploding seed pod in the eye.

tea and cake

Tea and cake provided by kind cottage Lady on the River Tweed.

When crossing the Annick Water to access a survey site, David, my field assistant, was using a 1 metre solid wood wading pole to bash back the nettles so we could climb up the bank. He stood still for a moment.

Me: “David, what’s the problem? Time is precious!”

Then he started shouting, trying to cross back to the other side of the river whilst we were both repeatedly stung by the angry wasps whose nest he had disturbed. I wanted to dive in the water, but all I could think of was my phone in my pocket, with all the fieldwork pictures on it, , and all the unsightly floating objects in the river. We finally clambered up the other river bank, running back and forth until the wasps gave up.

Me: “David, where is the equipment bag?”

We looked at each other and then over to the other side of the river where the bag sat, covered in wasps. After an hour, we suited up with every bit of clothing and plastic in our possession, as well as some burning reeds, and finally retrieved the field bag. Many beers were drunk that night.

Angry wasp nest

Geared up and ready to retrieve our field work equipment bag from under the angry wasps nest.

I had to revisit these sites 3 times over the next year and got to know them pretty well. In early spring I had to collect the 360 30 x 30cm green AstroTurf mats which had been placed at each site the year before. After winter floods, my red spray painted wooden stakes had mostly vanished and most of the mats were covered in mounds of sediment deposition. I had tried to use a visual marker, like a telephone pole, for each transect that had mats on, measuring the distance between each mat. Sally, my field assistant, and I had a ‘mat dance’: every time we found a mat we proceeded to wave our hands in air and gyrate to the ‘Venga boys are coming’ tune…much to the dismay of many dog walkers.

Finding the astro turf mats

Finding the AstroTurf mats, covered by mounds of sediment deposition, on the Dean Water.

Have you ever seen a mole swim? On the River Almond we had to access the survey site by going down one path on a steep embankment. The river was flowing fast, but I was confident that if we worked quickly we could get the work done. We were about 300 metres from the path, measuring the distance to each mat. I asked Sally to head back to get some more bags for the soil cores and as she turned around, she let out her high pitched alarm call (scream). The river had engulfed the bank. The bagged soil cores were starting to float down the river, along with the rucksack, which had our car keys in it. I managed to wade out (stupidly) and get the soil core bags and the rucksack (I was not losing any samples!), and we got up the bank safely. Sad to say we lost those mats, but we successfully retrieved 278 across all sites. And the mole? The mole was on the remaining bit of unsubmerged bank, and Sally was ready to dive in and save it. I literally held her back, but it turns out moles are great swimmers! Super mole, as she now calls it.

climbing through trees

Trying to climb through trees and 4 metre high Himalayan balsam on the River Endrick, whilst David fights through brambles and Rose Bay Willow herb on the Black Cart Water.

Attacked by wasps, intimidated by aggressive dogs on sites located in run down areas, accused of bombing the river as a poacher, constantly being mistaken for fishermen, stung by stinging nettles, even offered to a farmer’s 21 year old son as a birthday present… I wouldn’t change a thing. Most of the time you are alone, it is peaceful and beautiful, and you get used to the sickly sweet smell of Himalayan balsam. The bad experiences make the best stories. And there is nothing quite like being in the field.

 

wading in river

Wading through the River Gryfe with a Himalayan balsam plant in tow.

zarah's profile          Zarah Pattison completed her BSc in Ecology and the Environment in 2011 and an MSc in scientific research in 2012 at Royal Holloway University of London. Her undergraduate and master’s degree focused on invasive alien plant species (IAPs) and their impact on below- and above-ground microbial communities, particularly mycorrhizal fungi and foliar endophytes. Zarah is currently doing a PhD at the University of Stirling, Scotland, researching the ecology and impacts of riparian IAPs, particularly Impatiens glandulifera, Fallopia japonica, Heracleum mantegazzianum and Mimulus guttatus, and how their impact varies under climate related changes to river flow regime.