Protecting the Canadian Galapagos

“Our culture is born of respect, and intimacy with the land and sea and the air around us. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. The living generation accepts the responsibility to ensure that our heritage is passed on to following generations.”                                       -Council of the Haida Nation

One common theme in posts on this blog is you really get to know a place intimately. This is certainly true – but if you’re lucky, not only do you get to fully explore the outdoor habitats where the fieldwork is taking place, you also get a chance to immerse yourself in a different culture.

When I first started my master’s, I gave a talk about my research titled “Why a pipeline should not be built to the west coast”. I had just come back from my fieldwork in Haida Gwaii and I couldn’t believe that there was a proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat, BC. This would inevitably bring oil tankers into the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. I’ve been there. I’ve walked among the enormous sitka spruce and towering red cedar. I’ve heard the dawn chorus of the songbirds and noted the already declining occupancy of seabird nests. I’ve felt the spray from a humpback whale’s blowhole. I’ve been there and I have felt the magic of Haida Gwaii. I couldn’t believe that if this project was approved, it could lead to devastation of the precious habitats. Luckily, we heard this week that the Canadian government has rejected the Northern Gateway project (you can read more about the approval in this CBC article). A big player influencing the rejection of this project was the Haida Nation themselves. This I can believe. During my time on Haida Gwaii, I also learned a great deal about the Haida culture and their views on conservation.

bc-field-work-035

The Haida Nation live on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia. As is evident from the Haida Proclamation (above), the Haida Nation are intimately linked with their surrounding natural environment and work hard to conserve it.

bc-field-work-254In fact, the Proclamation sounds as if it could have come from a field biologist! Much of their efforts towards preservation of the natural world has been documented through storytelling in art form. For example, the Haida people carve different animals and items into wood totem poles to tell stories and teach lessons. These teachings are passed on from generation to generation – and some even turn into places for new generations to start (check out one of my previous posts about nurse logs). Even today, poles are carved with stories by community members and carried by many hands to the designated spot.

Haida peoples carrying a totem pole

Haida people carrying the 42ft Legacy Pole – unfortunately I couldn’t go to the ceremony as my flight was leaving that afternoon but I did manage to sneak this picture.

Not only do the Haida people share traditional knowledge from past generations, they also care about protecting the environment for future generations. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve protects the southern half of the archipelago, which is home to 39 distinct subspecies (7 mammals, 3 birds, and 15 stickleback fish species) endemic to Haida Gwaii. You cannot find these variants anywhere else! It is because of these endemic species that Haida Gwaii is often referred to as the Canadian Galapagos.

If I haven’t managed to convince you that Haida Gwaii is a beautiful place teeming with interesting wildlife and vegetation, I hope that this at least makes you think twice about the consequences of potential habitat destruction. Today I am happy to say that Haida Gwaii itself and the Haida Nation that has fought for its preservation will be thankful for the rejection of the Northern Gateway project. However, with other pipeline proposals being approved, I can only hope that there are stewards of the land willing to stand up for the natural and cultural world.

#fieldwork – #itsallinthehashtags

We love our Twitter followers SO much. Thanks to everyone who follows us each week, retweets our posts and supports Dispatches from the Field. As we approach the 2 year anniversary of the blog we reached out to you, our Twitter followers and asked “If you could sum up your fieldwork experience in one hashtag, what would it be”? And you certainly answered.

We got lots of great tweets.

micetrigger

exhillaratinghotstickyandfullofwin

 

Of course we got several about the challenges of doing fieldwork.

tennisballswashedawaybreaks

And the sentimental ones we can all agree with (or maybe not!)

rightpeople

Some make no sense…but certainly sound freaking awesome!

wizardboats

And of course, some were just downright badass.

nesthunter

adam

Thanks for the love, all!

Why I fell in love with #fieldwork?

In my third year of Undergrad I took a population ecology course that involved a weekend long trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station. We were doing a study about patterns in size and abundance with one of my favourite plants, milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca). We had worked in a disturbance or no disturbance component to the study and as such needed to choose the proper habitats. We hiked out down the road leading to QUBS to the edge of the main road and set up some plots along a mowed fence line. We stood there discussing methodology and sampling methods for the first several minutes. From the east corner of the field three beautiful horses started trotting towards us. Of course, the data collection was derailed at that point so everyone could get a chance to pet the horses. While this took time away from our data collection, everyone was enjoying themselves so the TA just rolled with it.

milkweed

Milkweed – A. syriaca

When we got back to work, we needed to set up a random plot and measure the height of each milkweed that was in our plot and record the abundance. I measured the plants and my partner recorded the measurements and counts. I knelt down on the damp September grass and placed the metre stick at the base of the plant. As my eyes followed the numbers up the stick, it went dark…almost as if a giant black cloud rolled over the sky.  My eyes quickly glanced up and there was the head of one of those giant horses staring right down at me.

qubs horse 3

The culprit

Our eyes met and before I realized the horse’s intentions, it was gone. The milkweed was uprooted from the ground and hanging from the horse’s mouth. I stood up and stared amusingly into the horses eyes. She just stared back at me with the milkweed hanging out of her mouth. And then just as quick as she tore it up she bit it in two and then spit it at my feet.

I patted her head and mentioned to the horse that I didn’t think horses liked milkweed and that was a lesson learned. I crouched back down, picked up and measured the two slobbery pieces of the milkweed and moved on to the next tallest milkweed, and before I could even place the ruler at the base of the plant *snap*. This time it wasn’t uprooted but just snapped in half.

She stood there for a split second with that milkweed in her mouth and then “pfft, spat!” spitting it out this time, on her side of the fence.

I stood up and looked her in the eyes with a “so this is how it’s gonna be, eh?” glare. She stared back. Tail swaying in the wind swatting deer flies left and right.

I knelt down by the next plant. And just like the rest…gone. Eventually, we just had to retreat. This horse wanted nothing, and yet absolutely everything to do with our data collection. We moved our experiment to the other side of the road, where it was still a disturbed fence line, but there were no horses to munch on our data.

Of course this experience was frustrating, but it was equally entertaining and was my first fieldwork experience. It remains one of those capstone experiences that likely played a huge role in shaping my interests in ecology and fieldwork today.

I have visited these same horses every year since 2008.

A fern isn’t just a fern???

This year I am working as a TA for a diversity of life course, which introduces second year Undergraduate students to the diversity plants. The course has a lecture component which covers life cycles and related information about the diversity of everything from bacteria to algae to higher plants. The course also has a lab component where students investigate the diversity of those same organisms in more detail, doing things like collecting algae samples from different lakes and comparing them, creating mushroom spore prints, and learning to ID common deciduous trees. However, a newer component in the course, which is offered on a first come first serve basis, is a field trip up to the Queen’s University Biological Station where students get to explore some of those organisms from lab in their natural environment – and, importantly, they get their first taste of fieldwork.

After a short tour of the station, we hiked across a rather precarious boardwalk and the 30 students that attended were split into smaller groups. The groups were provided with a list of either tree, shrub, fern, or herbaceous plant species. Using keys and guidebooks, they searched Cow Island for these species. Once the students had correctly identified the species, they collected a sample of each species and pressed it, so that a proper herbarium mount could be made.

When the students first set off with their lists, you could tell they were a bit intimidated. The students in the fern group pointed out that they didn’t even realize there were different fern species; they thought a fern was just a fern. I was a little worried at first but in no time, the students were on the move and really getting into the task at hand.

The students were allowed to roam freely around the island as their own working group of scientists. They spent the better part of 3 hours in search of all of the plants on their lists – there is something about checklists that is always engaging, no matter what the age you are working with. Towards the end of the afternoon, the fern group was determined to find the final fern on their list: “marsh fern”. They set out onto the boardwalk to look along the marsh edge and about 20 mins later came back with a sample in hand. They approached the resident plant expert Dale and asked “Marsh fern???” “Yes!” Dale responded enthusiastically. They all cheered.

Now some of you might be reading that and thinking, ok, a bunch of young adults got excited to find a fern. That’s pretty lame. But is it? I kind of think that’s pretty awesome actually! The goal of this course is to showcase the diversity of life for students and this field trip was a great way to do that. The complexity and intricacy of the local flora was certainly helpful to these students and brought meaning to the course. Students arrived there thinking a fern was just a fern, and left being able to identify 7 different fern species, among many other skills they developed that day. Two of the students on that trip enjoyed it so much that they actually asked me about more opportunities to volunteer doing fieldwork, and they’ve since been out helping me wrap up my experiments (more stories to come).

As I have said before, teaching experiences in the field can be the best experiences in the field, and this one ranks really high in my books.

Don’t just take our word for it – A short teaser for Unspotted

Because we wrote a book review last week, we thought we would give you a little teaser into the book itself, especially since he touches on so many stories that we can relate to on this blog. Don’t just take our word for it, read this short excerpt from “Unspotted: One Man’s Obsessive Search for Africa’s Most Elusive Leopard” by Justin Fox to see for yourself. Like what you’ve read so far? Read until the end of the post to find out how you could win a free copy of the book!

“We walked a little way up the slope following the spoor. Quinton pointed at the ground again. It was animal droppings, known as ‘scat’. It’s difficult for lay people to fathom the excitement scat induces in zoologists. Quinton fell to his knees like a worshipper and studied the specimen closely. He explained that usually only half the scat is taken for analysis, as it serves as a territory marker for leopards. Samples are soaked in formalin, washed, and the hair separated from other remains before the sample is oven dried at 140°F.

Then the analysis can begin. To identify prey, the hair length and color is noted, as well as cuticular hair-scale patterns. The presence of bone fragments and hooves also aids identification. Small rodents are more difficult to identify, although teeth found in the scat can help. Quinton explained that through scat research he’d recorded 23 species in the diet of these opportunistic feeders, including everything from lizard to cow. I thought of the many hours he had spent soaking scat in formalin and baking it and then the days spent examining it. This kind of dedication needs to be fed by a particular brand of obsession.

We pressed on up the pass, switchbacking on increasingly precipitous bends, creeping along the mountain face on a hairline track that led us into a world of jumbled sandstone and bright green fynbos. Clouds cast giant dapples across the valley. All the while the bleating transmission from Max’s collar grew more intense. At the top of the pass we got out and Quinton aimed his VHF telemetry at a nearby koppie. The signal was strong. He switched to a UHF aerial and got a GPS fix from the collar. Max was roughly 900 yards to the west, just this side of a tall ridge. The four of us spent a few minutes scanning the area with binoculars, but saw nothing. Every bush and boulder looked vaguely feline. Every feature in the landscape seemed ideal camouflage for a leopard.

“Okay, we’re going to have to hike in after him,” said Quinton. “It could be a bit rough.”

The two retirees opted out, saying they’d rather sit and look at the view. Out came folding chairs and a flask of coffee. Knowing a wild goose chase when I saw one, I half wanted to join them. But I’d come to the berg to bag a leopard and this was as good a shot as any. Hats, water bottles, telemetry, binoculars—we were good to go.”

Like what you’ve read so far? Want to know how it finishes? You can purchase the book here, or retweet us @fieldworkblog on Twitter and we will randomly select someone to give a free copy to! 

 

Lessons learned through environmental outreach

We are very excited to welcome Carolyn Bonta to the blog this week. Carolyn is the manager of the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC) and finishes off our outreach themed month with some lessons learned through environmental outreach. For more about Carolyn and the ELEEC check out the end of this post.

The outdoors has always been my playground; living components of the natural word, my teachers.  Thus, it was no surprise that I pursued studies in field ecology through university and subsequent contract jobs.

It’s been a long time since I did fieldwork full-time to scrape out a meager living, but while the past decade directed my career along other paths, I continued to return to my passion of field biology in various volunteer roles as a naturalist, educator and outdoor trip leader.  Pointing out interesting species, interactions and behaviours that one might overlook, sharing cool facts about animal and plant life, and helping to foster an appreciation of our environment came naturally to me.

Two years ago, I was hired to manage the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC), the new public outreach arm of the Queen’s University Biological Station.  Being the only dedicated staff for this facility, my duties include everything from financials to maintenance to marketing and – of course – designing and delivering the ELEEC’s public and high school outreach programs.  My audiences range from skilled naturalists to casual observers of nature to indifferent teenagers.  In this role, I’ve learned a few things from watching others teach, absorbing the excitement of those partaking in a new discovery, and seeing the response of others to my teaching.  Here are the top five lessons learned:

Lesson #1:  There is value in shock, surprise and the unexpected.  Make your teaching style stand out.

Immediately prior to my first day of work, I was invited to ELEEC to watch QUBS staff deliver outreach programming to a small class of Grade 12 students from the Environmental Leadership Focus Program at Bayridge High School.  What a great program!  The students set up a birding mist net and captured a hormonally territorial Eastern Towhee using playback calls, seined the waterfront for fish, and explored other means of sampling biodiversity.  Upon cleanup, we enlisted the students’ assistance.  As chest waders were loaded in the back of the truck, shrieks rang out when a dead groundhog was discovered in the box.  My co-worker, Mark, picked it up and began to point out the various physical adaptations that groundhogs have for digging burrows, regulating body temperature, and feeding.  “What do groundhogs eat?” one student asked.  Pulling a knife from his pocket, Mark began to slice open the rodent’s belly in front of a horrified crowd.  “They eat grass” he explained, the slightest hint of exasperation in his voice as he held out the stomach contents: “It’s just digested salad.”  I’m pretty sure those students won’t soon forget what groundhogs eat.

Lesson #2: Everything in nature is worth a closer look, even if you’ve seen it a hundred times.

Many of us take our natural surroundings for granted, not always pausing to take a second glance at the life around us.  I was reminded of this one summer, after having tasked an ELEEC Intern to capture some butterflies.  We were heading off to a community festival and thought it would be nice to have live animals to accompany our displays of pinned specimens.  So, Intern disappeared with an insect net, proudly returning to announce that she had caught a butterfly!  But, peering closely at her catch, “it’s kind of strange-looking”, she added, flipping through Butterflies of the Kingston Area in an effort to identify the species.   “Uhhhhh… use the Bugs of Ontario field guide instead,” I suggested.  Fooled by its resemblance to a Mourning Cloak butterfly, Intern had captured a Road Duster… grasshopper.  Needless to say, we brought the Road Duster, also called Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina), to the festival to teach others about this common – yet often overlooked – butterfly mimic.

photo of a carolina locust, looks like a butterfly

Photo: Barbara Taylor, Muskoka Field Naturalists

Lesson #3:  Nature isn’t always nice.  Get used to it.

The ELEEC offers a Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems program that puts visiting high school students in chest waders and sends them into Elbow Lake to seine for fish and macroinvertebrates.   One group was pleased to have caught a diversity of fish, as well as several species of invertebrate.  Upon dropping a particularly large beetle into the aquarium of specimens, students were horrified as the beetle immediately targeted a small perch, injected its proboscis and sent the fish belly-up.  Oh wonderful teachable moment!!  The Giant Water Bug (family Belistomatidae) preys on small fish, amphibians and crustaceans, injecting its catch with digestive enzymes that liquefy the animal’s insides; the Giant Water Bug then re-inserts its proboscis and enjoys a healthy protein shake.  Yum!

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Lesson #4:  Seek new knowledge from people of all ages.

While leading a late fall hike for a local outdoors club, we paused to observe a fairly large spider with a brilliant orange abdomen.  Nobody in the group was able to identify this beautiful arachnid, and one member photographed it, asking me to find out what it was.  Well, I knew just the person to ask:  My co-worker’s 8-year-old son, Jesse – entomologist extraordinaire!

Armed with a photo of the mystery spider, Todd went home to his son.  The next day, I inquired “Did you ask Jesse about the spider?”

“Yup”, said Todd, rolling his eyes and mimicking Jesse’s voice, “it’s an orb weaver, dad.  Duh.

I threw my hands up in exasperation.  “Of course!   How did I not know that?”  Certainly this will be the last time that I didn’t recognize a Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneous marmoreus.

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, seabrookeleckie.com

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, seabrookeleckie.com

Lesson #5:  Nature affects everyone, no matter how diverse their background.

A specimen in the hand adds so much value to learning.  At a recent awards ceremony to accept outreach funding, grant recipients were invited to do a 10-second “Shout Out” to seek non-monetary support from other attendees.  What could ELEEC possibly ask for from a diverse group that included primarily artists, gardeners, and social service organizations?  Since QUBS is always looking to expand our teaching collection, and I figured everyone in the group has encountered at least one of the billions of birds killed annually in North America by road or window collisions, my Shout Out asked for just that: “Bring us dead birds!” I cried, holding up a freeze-dried American Robin to a mixed response of stunned silence, startled gasps and bursts of laughter.  Not only did the surprise factor catch the audience’s attention, but we have already received some specimens, including a juvenile Yellow Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Sometimes all it takes to notice nature is a reminder.

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Carolyn Bonta completed an M.Sc. in Zoology and spent seven glorious years as an independent biological consultant in the Kingston area, followed by nine years of protected areas planning with Ontario Parks behind a desk.  Sanity, natural history knowledge and field skills were maintained during this time through involvement in numerous volunteer projects, most notably at Frontenac Provincial Park.  She now shares her knowledge of local biodiversity through outreach programming at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, http://elbowlakecentre.ca.

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.