Squirrel Chatter

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

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

tree line with mountains in the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lynx in a tree

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

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

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

baby squirrel in hand with green ear tag

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sarah Westrick

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

 

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Why we need more than science

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to feature a guest post from Dr. Laura Coristine.  In her post, Laura shares a bit about her early passion for working with one of the most charismatic megafauna out there: wolves.  To learn more about Laura, check out her bio at the end of the post.

My passion for science started with wolves. As an 11 year old I read every book on the topic that I could find. I hadn’t yet heard of journal articles; back then, finding my way to a university and wading through the stacks would have been a two-hour metro ride, and who knows what I would have found. Suffice it to say, the world was not connected. There was no information at anyone’s fingertips, unless they sought to become an expert.

Fast forward to university: by third year I was desperately contacting every researcher in North America who had ever studied wolves. I sent e-mails. I mailed letters. I made long distance phone calls. It was a full-time job, and finally, impressed by my determination, a researcher put me in touch with Canada’s foremost wolf expert. I was hired for the summer.

When I showed up for my first day, I was told I would be learning the secrets of what wolves eat. I was enchanted, for a very brief moment. And then came reality.  “Do you know,” I was asked, “that wolves eat vegetation and berries?”. Of course, I knew. I had first read that fact as a child. I have to confess though, that for someone reputedly intelligent enough for academia, I was remarkably slow to connect the dots. But finally it clicked: I had been hired to study wolf dung.

The job, in a nutshell, involved teasing apart differences between what different species of wolves ate through the seasons. I was rinsing and sterilizing wolf scat until the particulate matter had washed down the drain (the janitor was called almost daily to deal with the clogs in the sink). And at the end of this process, I was left with a tangle of hairs from the wolves’ prey – rabbit, beaver, and the occasional deer or moose and the even more occasional berry. Although I must say identification of hairs was fun, the process, in a nutshell, stank.

Then there was the process of assessing wolf skull morphology to assess hybridization and species composition of wolf packs. I thought this was a step up from the fecal analyses…but it turns out we were boiling wolf heads – road kill and hunting remnants – in a vat until the meat fell off. I became vegetarian after that task.

In the field and on the trail of wolves at last! Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

But finally, as a reward for my patience with unappealing lab tasks, I was let loose into the field to sample wolf vocalizations for my honours project, which aimed to replicate a study conducted 30 years earlier. My supervisor was convinced that with better methodology and better sound recording equipment, we might see new results.

Through each night of August, I chased wolf packs and coyote-wolf hybrids across the Madawaska Plains of Ontario.  After staking out known pack territories during the day, my field assistant and I followed a rigorous protocol of night-time howling and waiting for wolves to respond.  I learned the crack and waver of a wolf call, the higher pitch of a coyote, and the excited yips of the youngest wolves.

The crowning moment of my field season, though, was the evening a small farming community invited us to a corn roast before letting us roam through a farmer’s field to collect our audio recordings.

It was a quiet night; my call raised only a single howl, rapidly swallowed by the inky dark of a rural night sky.  We waited.  And waited.  Waiting was not part of the protocol – we were supposed to move on, but we had been told that this was the place to find our wolves.

And then I jumped.  There, off to the side, was a flash of eyes, and then another.  Not a sound. But as I turned slowly in a circle, I realized that we were surrounded on all sides.  Breath catching, we were held immobile by a circle of glowing wolf eyes.

There is a tension between human and nature – at least for a human who has not grown up completely inside of nature.  My mind turned to Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, to Russian folktales of wolves chasing man, human fear warring with the scientific fact that no healthy wild wolf in North America had ever killed a human.  And then I howled, and the wolves howled back: long, wavering calls that rose and broke in a symphony of nature, until slowly, gradually, the wolves quieted and watched us.  Long moments of looking at each other across the farmer’s field, silence stretching out to eternity before their eyes winked out and disappeared.

There is a tension between human and nature. Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

At the end of the summer, I was asked to return for a Master’s.  Despite the scat and the boiled skulls, the entire summer had been one of the most amazing educational experiences of my life. But I didn’t know how to break the news: science had already collected so much information on wolf ecology – what was left to discover? I couldn’t see myself returning for graduate studies to continue studying what we already knew.

Wolves, like many large mammals, are under threat from climate change, from habitat loss, and from human fear and persecution.  Wolf ecology, behavior, and diet are well known, well established.  When I was asked to return, I realized that sometimes it isn’t a matter of learning more about a species.  Instead, it is a matter of using the information we have to change policies and decisions about nature.

Dr. Laura Coristine is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her research focuses on ways to promote native species’ range movements in response to climate change. She is actively involved in efforts to inform Canada’s CBD2020 commitment to increase terrestrial and aquatic protected areas. Her research has been featured on Quirks and Quarks, and various other online, radio, and television media. ​On dark summer evenings, you can sometimes find her outside howling for wolves. To hear more about her adventures, follow her on Twitter: @LauraCoristine.

Sneak Preview of “Bats of Ontario”

This week Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Toby J. Thorne, who wants to share with you a sneak peak into the “Bats of Ontario” field guide he wrote. Check out the end of the post for where to purchase it!

Most field biologists will consult a field guide at some point in their careers. Whatever critters you’re studying, it helps to know what they look like, along with basic characteristics or measurements! Certainly I have accumulated my own small collection of field guides over the years. Field guides are exciting: filled with aspiration, and the promise of new adventures and discoveries. They are also working books. A true field guide is intended to be well thumbed, stuffed into packs, and referenced in all weathers.

But despite my love of field guides, I never gave much thought to where they come from. At least, not until someone suggested I write one.

For the past few years I have volunteered with the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. Founded by Phill and Sue Holder, the fund is in memory of their son Matt, a keen naturalist who died unexpectedly young. The fund’s goal is to provide opportunities for young people to get involved in nature, and Phill hopes to support the fund through the sale of field guides. To this end, he produces a range of well put-together guides. To date these include books on birds and moths in Southern Ontario, along with several checklists for Thickson’s Woods in Whitby, where the fund’s activities are centered. When he suggested I should write one for bats in Ontario I couldn’t say no!

A good guidebook is important when working with bats. In the tropics there can be hundreds of species, many of them understudied. In more temperate regions such as Canada, there are fewer species – for example, Ontario is home to just eight. Yet while there are not many species to learn for Ontario, figuring out how to tell them apart can be quite tricky. To add further confusion, there are two distinct identification methods for bats.

One way is to catch them and have a close up look. This works most of the time (if you have the appropriate skills and permits to do so), but sometimes it’s easier said than done. I have previously caught two species of European bats whose key differences are a tiny tooth cusp and penis shape. The second of those is only useful about half the time!

hoary bat in flight

A hoary bat, Ontario’s largest species, in flight. Although the bat’s open mouth and bared teeth may appear aggressive, this is actually just the bat echolocating to ‘see’ its way. Photo by Brock Fenton.

The second way to identify bats is to monitor them acoustically. Due to the difficulty and invasiveness of catching them, this is often the preferred method. Acoustic monitoring involves listening to the echolocation calls bats make during flight. The calls allow us to determine where bats are, and get a relative measure of bat activity. We can also try to differentiate between species of bat by their differing calls.

In practice, using calls to identify species is not simple. Bat echolocation calls depend on an individual’s environment and what it is doing. This means that different species of bats that are doing similar things can sound similar.  Also, to make it more confusing, the same bat can sound quite different depending on what it is doing!

These difficulties keep life interesting when you’re trying to ID bats, and made assembling a field guide seem like an attractive challenge. When I started, there was an excellent earlier guide still available, but at ten years old it is a little out of date on a few things, so producing my own guide was also an excellent opportunity to share some more up-to- date information.

An initial problem (and the one that worried me the most), was assembling suitable illustrations. Most of my own photo collection is of UK species, as that was where I first learned about bats before moving to Canada for my MSc. Since arriving in Canada I’ve managed to photograph some species, but not them all.

Luckily, Phill came up trumps on this front. He was able to negotiate the use of artwork by Fiona Reid, an incredible wildlife artist, for the guide. Fiona is the author and illustrator of the Peterson Guide to Mammals of North America. Phill has set the layout of the book around life size reproductions of Fiona’s illustration of each species, and the use of her artwork has elevated the book to something much better than I could have hoped.

Once Fiona had agreed to contribute her illustrations, I really started to feel the pressure to match her efforts with equal effort of my own! Over the past few years, living in Ontario and working with bats, I have become familiar with the local bat species. However, writing the species descriptions for the guide called for some research. It was necessary to fill in a few gaps and check for knowledge I’d not come across. Also, this was an opportunity to check the things I already ‘knew’. It’s always good to question ourselves!

little brown myotis bat in flight

A little brown myotis bat in flight. Previously widespread, many populations of this species have declined massively in Ontario and eastern North America in recent years. Photo by Brock Fenton.

While species accounts are the key parts of a guide, I found that I also enjoyed writing the introductory sections, which included background information about bats. There are also several sections aimed at beginners interested in learning how to watch bats.

Overall, producing the book has been a great experience, and I learned a lot in the process. It is great to have the chance to share that knowledge and hopefully encourage more interest in these amazing animals! Currently, bats are facing several worrying conservation threats (particularly in North America), and they need all the friends they can get!

Bats of Ontario is available online here:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/shop/

All proceeds from the sale of the book go toward the Matt Holder Environmental Education Fund. If you want to learn more about the fund, attend events or get involved, check out:

http://www.mattholderfund.com/

Toby caught his first bat at the age of eleven, and has been chasing them every since. After spending his teenage years catching and learning about bats in the UK and completed an undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Oxford. He moved to Canada in 2013 to undertake a researcher masters supervised by renowned bat researcher Dr. Brock Fenton. Since graduating he has continued to work on bat projects, and currently divides his time between the Ontario Land Trust Alliance and the Toronto Zoo, where he is spearheading the Zoo’s Native Bat Conservation Program.

The Challenges of Tracking a Ghost Cat

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Katey Duffey, a researcher who shares the hardships and rewards of searching for snow leopards. Check out her bio and website at the end of the post!

Sitting on a mountaintop, feeling the chilly crisp air, my senses absorb the environment that I think of as my second home. Yet it couldn’t be any more different from the flat, cornfield-covered state of Ohio where I grew up and currently live. The region is almost eerily quiet except for the occasional clucking of a chukar partridge echoing from somewhere nearby, and seems barren and devoid of life. The only movement is the gentle sway of a tuft of brown grass clinging to its existence on the shallow rocky substrate between boulders. A cloudless blue sky appears to reach down and embrace the endless horizon as the earth sparkles below. This is the very definition of remote wilderness: a place where the environment is as dangerous as it is beautiful. It’s an environment with many risks and many challenges. While other mountaineers explore the peaks of mountains for sport or a personal goal, I have a different purpose….to find snow leopards.

view of feet and mountains

Overlooking a transect.

The snow leopard is quite difficult to study. There is still so much unknown about them and I often hear people ask why that is the case when snow leopards are such a charismatic animal. They should have no problem acquiring scientific attention. But they are solitary and elusive within their huge home ranges: 220km for males and 130km for females. Those who study them rarely, if ever, even glimpse one outside of a camera trap image. However, it’s their habitat that really makes this endangered big cat a challenge to monitor.

Snow leopard

Snow leopards are found in the mountains of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 5,000m. Their range overlaps boundaries of 12 countries. The area is as remote as you can get for a field site and the rugged terrain makes possible survey areas inaccessible. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to my transects via a Russian Soviet era van, jeep or a motorbike. Some areas even require getting there by horse.

Katey in the snow picking up scat

Having fun collecting scat.

Once I’ve managed to access a site, I then begin to survey the area for signs of snow leopards: hiking, climbing, and wishing the golden eagles I see were large enough to ride, like the Great Eagles in Lord of the Rings. When I’m looking up the slope of a mountain to scout a route to survey for snow leopard signs, some terrain features stand out as the best potential places for tracks, scat, scrapes, and urine spray. These key features include rocky outcrops, cliffs, rock walls, steep slopes covered in thick scree (loose rocks), and narrow ledges. But the question that usually pops into my mind is: “Where is the most technical section that would be the biggest pain in the rear to get to?” Because that’s where I’m going to find snow leopard signs.

Valleys, draws, and saddles are other mountain features where signs can often be found, since snow leopards use those as a relatively easy path to patrol and leave their territorial marks. If I see a big, rocky outcrop on a super steep slope, I’ll use a nearby draw (a sloped indent in the mountain that travels from the base to the top) to hike up, and then cut across a less precarious way. Doing so saves energy, saves time, and more importantly is much safer than taking my chances with a rockslide or ice. If you get your leg caught by a falling boulder or get injured on ice, your field season is not going to end well.

Winter and early spring are the best seasons for tracking snow leopards. This is the time of year when the cats are more active as they mate and get ready to raise cubs. Snow helps to locate tracks and fresh scat, while frozen rivers become roads allowing deeper access into valleys.van stuck in the snow A bonus is that the snow makes hiking down slopes more fun, since you can carefully “ski” down and will also have a softer landing if you humiliate yourself with an ill-placed step. However, in places with deep snow that comes up past your knees or to your waist, you become envious of the tracks of a cat with snowshoe-like paws. Deep snow is a problem for field vehicles as well and often turns into a delay that cuts into precious, limited daylight hiking time.

While staying in snow leopard country during winter seasons, my team stays in either our own ger* or with host families. There is no plumbing, no electricity (except what we can get from a car battery), and no Wi-Fi. I’m usually with maybe one other person who speaks English. Add being immersed in a traditional culture completely different from that of most “westerners”, and the thought of doing this type of work seems almost alien. The job can be lonely, despite being around many locals during home visits. Living conditions include exposure to dirt from livestock, unpasteurized dairy and raw meat contaminating surfaces in homes. On top of that, the ventilation in homes is poor, so you’re constantly trying not to choke on smoke, while in close quarters with strangers who are often ill. In other words, your immune system gets a workout!

Another challenge of winter fieldwork in snow leopard country is the extreme cold. Average daytime temperatures range between -15˚ and -30˚ Celsius. While hiking transects, it is important to wear warm, breathable layers. The lowest temperature I experienced was a nighttime temperature of -50˚ Celsius (with added wind chill)! If you can’t fathom what that feels like, imagine an industrial freezer filled with dry ice.

Needless to say, toilet trips outside are avoided as much as possible (This is when being a woman is quite inconvenient.) The cold also makes camp life a bit more difficult. Everything is frozen, including the firewood and livestock dung. Your water comes from boiled snow or ice and food needs to be set near the stove to thaw. While waiting for that to happen, I usually spend some time doing some warm-up exercises to get the circulation going in my frozen digits.

human hand beside a snow leopard print

The climate and environment are treacherous, the landscape pretty much looks the same in all directions, wildlife is not often seen, and I frequently question if I even belong out there. However, it’s those challenges that drew me to this work, and they give me a sense of purpose. Rewards come in many different forms. On my last trip in March, a teammate and I were rewarded by a glimpse of a ghost cat leaping across boulders before disappearing. That sight in and of itself was more than enough reason to endure the hardships (or abuse) of this remote fieldwork.

KateyKatey is from Canton, Ohio and has a MA in Zoology from Miami University. She currently works as an independent researcher and collaborates with various partner organizations. Her research focuses on the effects of livestock depredation by snow leopards, and the potential for transmission of zoonoses from livestock to snow leopards. Although her work has been in western Mongolia, she is always looking for opportunities to expand her projects to other countries in the snow leopard range or work with other carnivores. You can follow her on Twitter at @UnciaKate, and learn more about her work from her blog https://kateyduffey.wordpress.com/ 

*A note from Dispatches: a ger is a dome- shaped traditional home of nomadic herders (also referred to as a yurt).

The bear necessities

Anyone who has been following my posts has probably figured out by now that I am essentially a scaredy-Cat.  I love being in the field, but when I’m there, I worry about anything and everything – from mountain lions all the way down to cows.  Unsurprisingly, bears have always featured pretty high on my list of worries.  Huge, powerful bodies, sharp teeth, and a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised…what’s not to love?

My initial bear encounter took place during my very first field season, up the Queen’s University Biological Station – and, in fact, wasn’t an actual encounter at all.  I was working at the station as a field assistant, and my duties included daily inspections of approximately 200 tree swallow nest boxes.  One day, as I made my way through a grid of boxes, I suddenly realized that one was missing.  At first, I wondered if I was losing it: how could a nest box just vanish?  However, closer inspection revealed that the box was actually still there…in pieces on the ground.  The nest was torn apart, the nestlings were gone, and a pile of bear scat sat on the ground close to the wreckage.

Until that point, I had thought of QUBS as an entirely safe place to do fieldwork.  Finding the ruins of that box was a rude awakening.  I froze in place and stared frantically around the field, looking for other indications that a bear had been there – or, more problematically, was still there.

In the end, of course, I found nothing; the bear that had destroyed the box was long gone.  In fact, over the course of my two summers at QUBS, I never actually saw a bear, just heard occasional second- or third-hand stories of sightings.  I eventually accepted that I was highly unlikely to actually meet a bear at QUBS, and I relaxed.

All that changed when I started my PhD.  I was thrilled to be doing my fieldwork in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia…but at the same time, my mind heard the word “mountains” and interpreted it as “bear country”.  And while no one would claim the Okanagan is overrun by bears, my research informed me that black bears are reasonably common there, and even grizzlies aren’t unheard of.  Too make matters worse, a lot of my work took place in vineyards, where bears can be a big problem in late summer, when they come down out of the hills to gorge themselves on the grapes.

In preparation for this ‘highly dangerous’ fieldwork, I purchased a plethora of bear bells (to warn bears people were coming) and a few cans of bear spray (to deal with bears that didn’t heed the warning).  Armed with these tools (and accompanied by a ceaseless jingling), I felt pretty secure wandering around my field sites.  That is, until one day, when a local asked me, “How do you tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?”

“I don’t know,” I said innocently.  “How do you tell the difference?”

“Well, black bear scat is full of berries.  And grizzly bear scat…well, it smells like pepper spray and jingles a bit when you kick it.”

With a wicked smile, he went on his way.  I stared foolishly after him, clutching my pepper spray while my backpack jingled faintly.

This conversation somewhat eroded my faith in my bear spray and bells.  On top of that, it turns out that ceaseless jingling is phenomenally annoying after a few days.  Add to that the fact that I kept accidentally leaving my bear spray behind in various locations (forcing me to spend additional time wandering around in bear country attempting to retrieve it) and it’s not hard to understand why I decided to abandon that approach.

But I was still not enthusiastic about encountering a surprised, irritable bear.  So I devised a new strategy: I would just talk to myself as I wandered the hills, providing fair warning to any bear in earshot.

However, I quickly found out that it’s hard to talk constantly when you don’t have anything in particular to say.  In desperation, I found myself thinking back to high school, trying to recall any lines of the poetry or prose we’d recited in English class.  As it turns out, the only thing I remembered was the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.  So day after day, I would stumble around the Okanagan back country, repeating “Two households both alike in dignity / In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” as loudly as possible.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t encounter too many people on my wanderings.  At least the bears of the Okanagan are now well educated.

I guess the star crossed lovers did the trick, because I didn’t actually see any bears for most of my first field season.  But one day in early August, as I was making my way back to the car in one of my most isolated field sites, I rounded a corner and found myself about a hundred feet from a black bear.

Given that I’d worried about this exact scenario all summer, I was surprisingly taken aback. I turned on my heel and started walking away briskly, trying not to look back over my shoulder.  Finally, though, I just had to know.  I whipped around to survey where the bear had been…only to realize it had vanished.  Now I had a new problem: there was definitely a bear in my immediate vicinity, but I no longer had any idea where it was, and it was a very long walk back to the car.

Isolated ranch field site in the Okanagan

Can you spot the bear in this picture?… Nope, I can’t either.

Clearly the thing to do was keep talking to avoid surprising it; unfortunately, though, Romeo and Juliet deserted me in my panic.  So I decided that the logical thing to do was call home and talk to my parents.

When I dialed my home number, my sister picked up.  I told her about the bear and explained that I just needed to stay on the phone to keep talking.  “That’s too bad,” she said impatiently.  “But I need to call my friend now.  Call Mum on her cell instead.”

Right.

I hung up with her, and did as she suggested, still striding in the direction of the car while swiveling my head vigilantly in all directions. This time, I managed to get a hold of my mum…and that’s when I learned that you never, ever, ever call your mother and tell her that you’re in the middle of nowhere, with an unseen but very real bear lurking around.  She was quite willing to stay on the phone with me, but had no problem letting me know that she was not thrilled with the situation overall.

Much to our mutual relief, I made it to the car with no problems, and I didn’t see another bear for the rest of the field season.  In fact, it was over a year before my next bear encounter.  This second run-in happened at a less isolated site, but played out in much the same way as the first.  I froze briefly, then did an about face and walked away.  And once again, after a few seconds, I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder.  This time, the bear was still visible.  In fact, it looked an awful lot like he had also done an about face and was hurrying in the opposite direction as fast as his furry paws could take him.

Apparently some bears are aware that humans also have a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised.

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

Revenge of the ruminants

When I first started doing fieldwork, I must admit that I spent a lot of time worrying about large mammals.  Even when I worked up at QUBS, in the relatively safety of eastern Ontario, I fretted about bears.  When I went to California, I obsessed about mountain lions.  And after working in Hawaii, I added feral pigs to my list of formidable and frightening creatures.

But until I began my PhD fieldwork in the Okanagan Valley, it would never have occurred to me to worry about cows.

I know what you’re thinking: how can cows be in the same league as bears or mountain lions?  After all, they’re vegetarians!  There is no chance that you’re ever going to be eaten by a hungry cow.  They just stare at you with their huge brown eyes and chew their cud meditatively.

Right.

As it turns out, you really don’t run into bears or mountain lions that often in the field.  (Not that I’m complaining.)  But what you do see – especially doing fieldwork in an agricultural area like the Okanagan Valley – is cows.  They’re everywhere.

This is especially true if your study species is partial to the type of habitat that often holds grazing cows.  When I was setting up my PhD field sites, I wanted to make sure to cover as many types of bluebird habitat as possible.  So while much of my research took place in vineyards or along walking trails, I also had two sites that were open rangeland.

The wide open spaces of one of my two rangeland sites.

The open spaces and sage brush of one of my two rangeland sites.

When I first set up nest boxes at these sites, I fell in love with the wide, empty spaces and the scent of sagebrush.  My rangeland sites instantly became my favourite.  But on my second visit to one of these sites, I got an inkling that they might be more problematic than I’d thought.  As the car rounded the last corner on the way to the site, I had to hit the brakes hard.  My field of vision was suddenly filled with milling brown and black bodies.  Cows, cows, and more cows…as far as the eye could see.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my phone to call the landowner.  He’d mentioned to me that they’d be bringing the cows in, but I had to assume they weren’t supposed to be blocking traffic.  “There must be a break in the fence,” I told him.  “The cows have gotten out and are all over the road.”

“Oh, that’s normal,” he replied.  “I’m sure the fence is fine.”

“But…” I started at the solid wall of bodies on the road in consternation. “…how did they get out, then?”

“Well, fences are more like…suggestions…to cows,” he responded.  “They usually ignore them.  But I’m sure if you honk at them enough, they’ll get out of your way.”

More trouble than they look...

More trouble than they look…   (Photo credit: Manisha Bhardwaj.)

From then on, the two rangeland sites were the bane of my existence.  No matter what was on my agenda when I arrived, the cows always seemed to be between me and where I needed to go.  It was like they had a copy of my schedule.  And it was never just one or two cows – wherever one went, the other 30 animals in the herd joined it, forming a dense, noisy, smelly barrier between me and my destination.

Also, as it turns out, cows and bird boxes are not a good combination.  The cows decided that the boxes were perfect scratching posts, and were irresistibly attracted to them.  Almost every time I arrived at the sites, one or more of the boxes would be hanging at a precarious angle – often with a perplexed bluebird sitting beside it.

And then, of course, there were the cow patties everywhere.

After a month or so, though, the cows and I had settled into an uneasy détente.  I was starting to think the situation was relatively under control – and that’s when the bulls showed up.

The first time I realized the cows had been joined by their male friends, I had just dropped my field assistant off at a site.  I happened to glance in the rearview mirror as I pulled away, only to see my assistant standing completely still about 100m away.  Straight across the field from her, staring her down, was a very large cow.  As it lowered its head and began pawing at the ground, it slowly dawned on me that it was really too big…and muscular…and horned…to be a cow.  As my field assistant ran for the car, I realized we had a problem.  From then on, we spent considerably less time at that site.

My other ranch site, on the other hand, remained blissfully free of bulls for most of the summer.  So while the cows and I continued to wage a cold war, I usually felt pretty safe.  By the time August rolled around, the fieldwork was slowing down and I had pretty much relaxed.

Then one day, I was out in the field with my assistant, banding a nest full of bluebird nestlings.  I had just taken two out of the box and was settling onto the ground with one in each hand, when I felt a malevolent gaze on the back of my neck.

I looked around in surprise…only to find myself making eye contact with a bull.  He was about 50m away, and though he appeared relatively unconcerned, there was no doubt that he was sizing me up.

I scrambled to my feet and started backing away, urging my field assistant to do the same.  We struggled cautiously up the small hill behind the box, turning frequently to watch the bull as he meandered closer to the box we’d abandoned. Every time we stopped moving, he would start towards us again – so we kept climbing.

As we reached the top of the hill, I realized two things simultaneously. One – we were out of hill to climb; if he kept coming, we were going to have to make a run for the car.  And two – I still had the nestlings I’d been intending to band clutched in my hand, peeping faintly.

Luckily, after 20 very tense minutes, the bull lost interest and headed on his way, allowing us to creep back down to the box and finish banding.  It took a little longer than that for my heart rate to come back to normal.

So, after more than a decade of fieldwork, here’s what I’ve learned: if you must worry, focus less on bears and the mountain lions, and more on the things you’re likely to actually run into.  And don’t let those big brown eyes fool you – cows are usually up to no good.

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