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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Pushing the limits

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest blogger Laura Hancock, a Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who tells us why she loves fieldwork.  For more about Laura, see her bio at the end of the post.

Field work can be great. Sometimes field work means being outside in the warm sun, or camping under the stars. I love field work. In fact, as a second year Master’s student, I feel like I’m not doing nearly enough field work. I don’t miss field work because I love being outside (which I do), but I miss pushing myself, discovering how much I can do, and what I’m made of. As cliché as this sounds, I felt like I discovered myself when I had my first field experience during my freshman year in college. A graduate TA of mine invited me out to help him and some other graduate students measuring tree growth in a created wetland. This was the opportunity I had wanted for a year and couldn’t wait to get out there! I even skipped studying for a quiz because I was so excited about the opportunity (as someone who at the time was a perfectionist and had a 4.0 GPA, this meant a lot). As soon as I was out in the field, knee deep in mud and dirt, I knew I was in the right place and had made the right choice of activities at the time and overall in my life. I loved the work, the fresh air, talking with people who loved ecology, and like me, loved being out there. But what I found was the most invigorating was how real and raw everything was. This might seem like a complete “duh” (you’re outside for gosh sakes, how much “realer” does it get than trees, dirt, sun, and bugs?), but everything just clicked for me. I was able to let go of being a perfectionist or thinking about getting everything done. I felt like what I was doing made a tangible difference to someone and the environment.

I continued to do various field work projects through my senior year in undergrad – and then I got the opportunity of a lifetime. One of my favourite professors works with bats (possibly the most interesting group of animals on the planet). He offered me a position after I graduated where I would help monitor and track an endangered species of bat out in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of course I said yes, and patiently waited until I could finally graduate, not because I hated school (which I don’t), but because I wanted to be outside in one of the coolest places on Earth – Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

In June of 2013, two graduate students, a Death Valley park ranger, and I were tasked with the job of going out to monitor a maternal roost site in an abandoned mine. (Bats really love roosting in abandoned mines, especially in areas where humans have destroyed natural caves.) The best part? The mine was a 7 mile hike each way, off any paths accessible to regular park goers. Even better? It was June IN DEATH VALLEY. Hellooo, heat stroke!

Right now some of you might be thinking I’m being sarcastic, I’m 100% serious. I was SO excited for this. I grew up as not the healthiest kid. I was constantly tired and got sick a lot, on top of other issues. However, as I got older most of that stuff went away. As that happened, I realized how important it was to me to have a healthy body. I liked pushing my limits and seeing what I was capable of; when you put yourself in extreme conditions you have to be hyper aware of you, your body, your surroundings, and how you’re feeling. It’s like yoga, but for thrill seekers.

Now back to Death Valley in June. I was really excited to push my limits and hike 14 miles in one of the hottest places on Earth, in the middle of the summer. Turns out there was a “cold wave” the week the crew and I were there, so it was only 112 °F . Just kidding! That’s still PRETTY hot! The crew and I made the trek to the mine early on in the day, hiked to another mine a mile away over sand dunes and headed back. By the time all the work was done, it had been 10 hours and over 16 miles of hiking. I was by far the happiest and most energetic person on the field crew that night. We just hiked 16 miles in 112 °F heat – what couldn’t we do!?

Now that I spend most of my day e-mailing and reading papers as a graduate student, I long for those days when I got to be out in the field. I love the feeling of accomplishment and mental growth, but air conditioning isn’t bad either.

Laura HancockLaura graduated from Christopher Newport University with a B.Sc. in Biology in 2013.  Now she is a second year Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researching metapopulation and source-sink dynamics of garlic mustard.  Her background is in plants and plant-insect ecology, but a few years ago, she took a nine month break from plant and insect work to study bats and has missed the work every day since!

 

“On the borders of mythology”: a review of Justin Fox’s Unspotted

About a month ago, the resident bloggers here at Dispatches from the field (Catherine, Amanda, and Sarah) were asked to review a recently published book about fieldwork: Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard, by Justin Fox. Naturally, being both field scientists and bloggers, we were all excited to see a copy of Unspotted arrive in the Dispatches inbox, and we thought we would share our thoughts on Fox’s book in this week’s blog post.

Unspotted tells the story of Quinton Martins, a scientist whose doctoral thesis focused on the “near mythical” Cape Mountain Leopard. While most field biologists catch, tag, or collect so many of their target species that they begin seeing them in their sleep, Martins spent the majority of his research time tramping around the Cederberg mountains of South Africa, simply trying to lay eyes on his elusive study subject. When he ran out of funding, he poured his personal funds into his quest – even selling his car and resorting to hitchhiking as his mode of field transportation. As Fox aptly puts it: “Quinton Martins is mad. Not in some superficial, mildly nutty way, but rather with a deep and abiding insanity.” Nor did his obsession end with his doctoral thesis: Martins is currently the project manager of the Cape Leopard Trust, an organization he founded with the goal of understanding and preserving the entire Cape Mountain ecosystem.

From the beginning, Fox effectively and realistically conveys the ups and downs of fieldwork. The story is told in first person; the reader accompanies Fox on his trip to the Cederberg to “meet Quinton…and, hopefully, one of this spotted friends”. By telling the story through his eyes – the eyes of a neophyte, learning about the challenges and triumphs of working with these large cats for the first time – Fox makes the story accessible to all readers, regardless of their own field experience.

Unsurprisingly, seeing things from Fox’s point of view also led to a number of the funnier moments in the book. Anyone who has ever turned up dressed inappropriately for the field will sympathize with his failure to bring a sweater on his first foray into the mountains, and his quiet desperation as he waits in the cold spring evening for Martins to finish setting a trap – eventually bursting out, “Um, I think I m-m-might need to head back to the ve-ve-vehicle before hypothermia sets in.”, only to be completely ignored by the fixated (and more appropriately dressed) Martins.

But perhaps the greatest strength of this book lies in Fox’s extensive descriptions, which illuminate the pages of the book. He eloquently and vividly describes the landscape, the fieldwork, and the people he meets. He effectively uses figurative language to paint pictures in the reader’s mind, describing a local fish as “a cross between a leopard and a daisy”, and repeatedly comparing Martins himself to the leopards he tracks with such dedication. Fox’s use of metaphors and similes bring his experiences in the field to life: you feel your teeth rattling right along with his as he rides up a dirt track in a truck that “bounce[s] over boulders like an inebriated frog”. And he does a great job of describing some of the unique and somewhat eccentric characters he meets in the field in a way that allows the reader to connect to them.

If we have one criticism of Fox’s book, it would be that it left us wanting more. Offering a bit more background information – about the natural history of the leopards, the goals and results of Martins’ research, and the larger implications of his work – would provide a context that is somewhat lacking.

Overall, Unspotted is a quick and engaging read, and we would recommend it for both field biologists – who will see many of their own stories reflected in its pages – and for the general public, who may gain some insight into the unique “madness” that drives field biologists to do what they do.

You can find Justin Fox’s book Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard on Amazon.ca.

Reflections from my first polar bear field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Michelle Viengkone, a former M.Sc. student (and one of Sarah’s field companions in Mexico), to tell us about her field season working with polar bears. Check out her biography at the end of the post!

When I took my first trip up north to Canada’s Arctic to participate in a non-invasive sample survey of polar bears, I was 21 years old. Fast-forward 5 years and it still gives me goose bumps thinking about the experience: from the people, to the sights, to the cold fresh air. It is a pleasure to be sharing this experience via Dispatches From The Field in a guest blog. I would also like to acknowledge that the learning moments that I describe here are a product of an opportunity made possible by De Groot/Boag lab, Queen’s University, and Northern Scientific Training Program.

Learning moment #1: Nothing prepares you for being in the Arctic

Of course I tried to prepare: I spoke to others who had done fieldwork in the Arctic and to those who lived there before. Their advice and stories were invaluable and added to my excitement to be in the serene beauty of the North and so close to a majestic predator. I wanted to make sure I would have everything I might need, so I went all out and bought all the gear I could think of! From winter boots, an $800 jacket, and base layer items to hunting knives, paracord, bear bangers and an assortment of hand/foot warmers: I had it all, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to Gjoa Haven and I was cold! Nothing prepares you for that chill. My new Sorel winter boots with 3 layers of socks underneath didn’t stand up to traveling by sled, which entailed sitting exposed to the elements on top of supplies and equipment and being pulled kilometer after kilometer by the snowmobile. By the time we arrived at the hut after our first day, I no longer felt my toes and the other members of the team had to help me to take off my boots. After hanging my felt liners and boots to dry, it took dry socks and bit of time to feel the sensation again in my toes. We figured that my boots were actually frozen solid at the toes from the moisture, so “Buh bye boots, hello extra Kamiiks (Inuit hide boots)!”

Warm feet make for a comfortable ride on the sled.

Warm feet make for a comfortable ride on the sled.

Learning moment #2: Feeling alone and being alone are two different things in the Arctic.

After a few delays, the majority of our field team including myself, the PhD candidate, two European researchers and two Inuit guides set out from Gjoa Haven to our field hut. It was glorious: I was bundled with ski goggles in place; mitten-covered hands grasping onto the ropes wrapped around our equipment and supplies of our sled. The scenery, the pull of the snowmobile ahead, and the stillness of the surroundings were all wonderful. The ability of the Inuit guides to navigate the landscape amazed me; however as the sun went down and we realized that we were not even halfway to the field hut, we realized we had to make camp. We made it to a small fishing cabin, and we dug our glorified wooden box out of the snow while the guides pitched a tent outside, got a stove going and were warming up. Once in the fishing hut, the four of us researchers laid in there like sardines, trying our best to keep the door closed from the wind and get some much-needed rest. I have to admit that first night was a bit scary: you hear everything from the howling wind to every little crunch in the snow. Eventually I fell asleep, wedged between two new companions. What felt like moments later, we woke to the sound of thumping -like full body contact on the side of the cabin. We figured it wasn’t a polar bear (it didn’t seem heavy enough) but thought it may be a wolf. Panicked and without weapon to drive the culprit away, we began to scream for the guides and bang pots and pans to scare “it” off. All four of us were barricading the door and listening between the thumps when we heard footsteps rounding the corner coming towards us, and then a knock. It was the guide! He had been thumping against the cabin walls trying to reach a rope draped on the roof! Our fears subsided and we began our day with an oatmeal breakfast. That relief was jarred by the reality of being in the wilderness as we spotted fresh wolf tracks, droppings, and urine markings around our site.

Looking for fresh tracks.

In order to set up traps, we wanted to make sure polar bears were using the area. Guides identified fresh tracks for potential hair traps.

Learning moment #3: Emotions can run hot and cold when in the field – even in the Arctic!

The field is a tricky working environment because you work and live together all day, every day. Back in the city, you can leave work behind and go home; in the Arctic, regrouping and having alone time are complicated by the remoteness, the undeveloped field stations, and the dangers of straying too far from camp. Everyone has a different way of finding that solitude in the midst of a research team: I found my refuge hanging onto the sled and letting the landscape wash over me on the long sled rides between field sites where we set up hair traps. The long days and hard work could take a lot out of everyone, and that combination of physical and mental exhaustion sometimes provided fertile ground for interpersonal conflict. I learned that when emotions run high in the field, being able to take a moment for yourself while also ensuring others know where you are is key to keeping yourself safe.

Learning moment #4: The Arctic saves the best for last

Our field days were filled by traveling in search of fresh polar bear tracks, setting up hair traps and returning to them in subsequent days to collect snagged hair samples. We also kept a look out for polar bear poo, and bagged that too! On our days out we didn’t see much in terms of wildlife, aside from a seal head popping up from a breathing hole in the distance and rock ptarmigan hopping about. I was relieved to not have encountered a polar bear – seeing tracks and chipping poop into a Ziploc was enough for me. This is mostly because human-bear interactions often result in injuries to human and polar bear alike, the polar bear being shot and/or the human becoming a snack.

A used hair trap and a hair snag.

Polar bears are naturally curious, let alone destructive. Here’s a used hair trap and the hair snag.

Sampling polar bear poop.

Opportunistic sampling of polar bear poop was a part of the project, we bagged and labeled sample with GPS coordinates.

For some, the expectation was to see the white bear, but it did not look promising as we woke to our last day before us. As with the days before, getting breakfast going was the priority – for oatmeal you need boiling water, so that’s where a pot full of snow comes in. The PhD student went to fetch the snow but upon opening the door to the cabin she was greeted by the stunned faces of Tundra wolves! She turned around and closed the door calmly, but when pressed about where the snow was she softly told us about her encounter. Later on, after giving the wolves time to move along, she retrieved the snow and got breakfast going. I got ready and waited my turn to use the latrine that morning, checking to see when it was my turn. On one of those checks I suddenly lost the urge to pee as one of the crewmembers spotted a teenage male polar bear just down the hill from us, a mere 200m away. The bear’s presence energized everyone. Soon enough the Inuit guides hopped on their snowmobiles and tried to drive the curious bear away. Once the bear was sufficiently tired, the chase was over and he went on his way disappearing into the whiteness. We decided to check out the area of the chase and we found flecks of blood in the tracks, likely from cracked footpads. We took a sample just in case!

It was quite the introduction to the Arctic and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of the research project. Our work would not have been possible without the support of the community. There’s no place quite like the Arctic, I hope we can strive to keep it that way.

Little rock ptarmigan near the field hut.

Little rock ptarmigan near the field hut.

Originally from Ontario, Michelle studied at Queen’s University for her Bachelor of Science during which she became involved in a non-invasive study of polar bears in the M’Clintock Michelle ViengkoneChannel and Gulf of Boothia. Having developed laboratory and field skills, she opted to take a gap year before pursuing graduate studies. Through marine mammal research internships, volunteering on research vessels and traveling to New Zealand, Edmonton was to be her home for 2-3 years in pursuit of  a Master’s degree. Continuing research on polar bears, she defended her thesis examining the population in Hudson Bay in the spring and currently is living in Calgary and gearing up for a season of guiding in Churchill. From Michelle: “I hope you enjoy this blog, thanks for checking it out here on Dispatches From The Field. Ciao, Michelle Viengkone”.

Thinking outside the lab

Shortly after starting my PhD, I was assigned to TA a class called “Diversity of Plants”.  As an ornithologist, I did not feel entirely confident teaching undergraduates about plants.  But what worried me most was the first lab, which focused on how to use a microscope properly.  “This is going to be a disaster,” I lamented to a friend over the phone.  “How am *I* qualified to teach people to use a microscope?”

“Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “I would think you’re actually extremely qualified.  Don’t you use microscopes all the time?”

I stared at the phone in consternation.  “Um…I study bird behaviour, so…not so much, no.”

There was a long silence, and then my friend said uncertainly, “But you’re a scientist!  All scientists use microscopes…don’t they?”

 

My friend is not alone in her misconception.  For most people, the word ‘scientist’ conjures images of serious people wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, ensconced in pristine labs full of Erlenmeyer flasks and microscopes.  Few people immediately picture dirty, windswept individuals wearing an excess of plaid, large floppy hats, and socks with sandals.  Fieldwork isn’t usually the first thing the general public associates with the word ‘science’.

And this misconception often extends to science students as well.  As an undergraduate in Biology, I spent a lot of time gathered around lab benches counting fruit flies or looking at slides – but I didn’t really understand that science doesn’t always take place in a laboratory until I was in third year.  That year, my ecology course went on a mandatory weekend field trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  This trip was a long-standing tradition in the course; its purpose was essentially to introduce us to some of the questions, methods, and experiences of field biology.

Years later, that trip is one of the few things that stands out vividly in my memories of undergrad.  I remember dragging myself out of bed obscenely early to catch the bus to QUBS (and getting carsick on the twists and turns of the gravel road).  I remember stepping out of the bus into quiet air that smelled faintly of pine and rain.  I remember tromping through a field wet with dew to check live traps for small mammals, and I definitely remember the large and extremely angry weasel that the lab coordinator very carefully released from one of the traps.  I remember discovering that chickadees, although small, pack a surprisingly powerful bite, and the moment I realized that the chest waders I was wearing to seine for sunfish had a rather large leak.  Most of all, I remember being completely entranced by the whole experience.  That field trip was my first real exposure to the world of field biology – and clearly it made a lasting impression.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

 

Fast forward a few (okay, many) years, and suddenly I found myself TAing that ecology course.  I was really excited to help organize and teach those field weekends – not least because it would be my first chance as a PhD student to teach something I felt passionate about.   But I was also a bit apprehensive about it.  The field weekend had been one of the most important parts of my undergraduate experience, but this group of students didn’t seem particularly excited about it.  I was frustrated because I wanted them to love it as much as I had.

Throughout the early weeks of September, I spent several long days at QUBS with the lab coordinator, preparing all the weekend activities – from digging holes for pitfall traps to carefully laying out and flagging grids of small mammal traps.  In doing so, I got a firsthand look at just how much work was involved in pulling off the trip each year.  Planning a field weekend for 160 young adults is no small task.  The lab coordinator, who had been organizing these weekends for many years, was a bit like a general in charge of a very intricate military campaign.

On the last Friday of September, she and I headed up to the field station late on Friday evening.  I was driving the (very sketchy) departmental van, which made for a somewhat nerve-wracking drive.  The brakes creaked ominously, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to turn on the high beams.  On top of that, the road was inexplicably covered in frogs – so the drive was a bit like an obstacle course, as I swerved first one way and then the other in an attempt to minimize the carnage.

However, I made it unscathed (although sadly the same could not be said for all the frogs) – and upon arriving, was immediately put to work.  It was late and dark, but there was so much to be done before we got to sleep.  Cabins needed to be assigned, lists and maps needed to be printed and posted, and supplies needed to be distributed to the appropriate places around the station property.

Finally, before falling into bed, we headed out to bait the 40 small mammal traps we’d laid out with seed.  When we put the traps out earlier in the month, we’d flagged them with glow-in-the-dark flagging tape to make them easier to find.  However, I learned a few valuable lessons that night.  First, glow-in-the-dark flagging tape doesn’t really glow in the dark.  Second, forests are tricky places at night, even with a headlamp.  And third, spider eyes glow when light hits them.  The last lesson led to another discovery: there are many, many, many more spiders in the forest than one might think.

With the traps baited, everything was ready for the arrival of the students the next morning and I finally got to crawl into my sleeping bag – for a short time, anyway.  Very early the next morning, we climbed back into the departmental van and headed out to meet the students.

The bus had been scheduled to leave Kingston at 6 a.m., so it was no surprise that the students staggering through the doors into the cool fall morning were sleepy and cranky.  Despite having been told multiple times about appropriate footwear, at least five or six of them were wearing flip flops.  Several others were still in pyjama pants.  They stood shivering in the field beside our grid of mammal traps, leaning against each other, yawning, and complaining about the hour and the cold.

Naturally, the order to split up into pairs and go retrieve the traps was met with some muted resistance.  But eventually, they all grudgingly trooped off into the woods, and then ambled slowly back carrying the metal Sherman traps.  At first it seemed like all the traps were empty…until one last pair of students came running out of the forest, clutching their trap and shouting, “I think there’s something in here!”

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

I watched as the coordinator carefully emptied the contents of the trap into a plastic bag.  A surprised deer mouse slid out, which she then held up for everyone to see…and a collective “Ooooohhhhhh” rose from the students around me.  All of a sudden, no one was yawning.  Everyone’s eyes were on the deer mouse, and everyone looked awake and interested.  Suddenly, I was less worried about the weekend.

 

I ended up TAing that course for four years, and helping to run the field trip is still the most fulfilling teaching experience I’ve ever had.  Every year I watched tired, cold, and disinterested students straggle off the bus on Saturday morning – and energized, excited students climb back onto the bus on Sunday afternoon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I know that the skills and techniques learned in labs are an essential part of a scientific education.  But I think it’s also important that we give students a chance to explore the other side of science.  For most people, the experience may change the way they think of the discipline.  For some people – like me – the experience may change the course of their lives.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.