It’s not just a ditch

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Dr. Melanie Kingsbury as a guest poster.  Melanie has done fieldwork on lakes in Canada and the UK…but today she tells us about her experience working in an urban development.  For more about Melanie, check out her bio at the end of this post.

Over the past 16 years I have had the opportunity to undertake field work in several interesting places. Some of them were local, such as Big Rideau Lake, and some of them were much harder to access – such as the boreal lakes of northwestern Ontario, where access involved driving down logging roads and hiking down trails with equipment. More recently, my research has taken me to lochs located on the archipelagos of Shetland and Orkney, which was an amazing experience. But the most unique experience I have had doing fieldwork was working in the ‘wilds’ of a large urban expansion project in the mid 2000s. We were tasked with monitoring the streams and urban ponds in the area being developed, which was originally farmland.

One of the streams we monitored, right beside houses under construction.

One of the streams we monitored, right beside houses under construction.

Some highlights of working in an urbanizing environment include:

* Walking around new, upscale neighbourhoods to gain access to the urban ponds and streams, looking sorely out of place in chest waders carrying various pieces of sampling gear. We got even stranger looks when our gear included carrying a canoe…or sitting in the middle of a pond in one (I am surprised that the police were never called with such suspicious behaviour);

* Waiting for dump trucks, heavy machinery and cars to go by so we could cross roads and active construction sites to get to sampling locations, all the while decked out in said gear;

* Discovering urban ponds full of goldfish or watching house painters rinsing paint brushes in them.  (When we spoke to the painters, they responded, “They are just storm water ponds,”…implying an extension of the street drainage;

Rain gauge on top of the municipal building

Rain gauge on top of the municipal building.

* Coming face to face with giant hogweed for the first time, scattered around a grove (they had not taken over yet) at one of our sampling sites. It looked like the setting for a twisted fairy tale with these 2 m high plants with large leaves towering over us;

*Walking through a municipal building in field clothes to get to the roof to download the rain gauge located there;

* Discovering one day that our stream site containing a data logger had been completely re-graded and the stream rerouted. By the time we found out, it was in the middle of summer and we were presented with a bare rolling landscape (no grass had been planted yet), with stakes to mark the new path of the stream. We never did recover the logger. My guess is that it is still recording (soil temperature at least) to this day, somewhere underneath the dog park that exists there now;

* Experiencing the luxury of driving a short distance to the nearest store or restaurant for lunch or a snack refill!

This urban field experience allowed me to experience firsthand how easily people can dismiss what is in their own back yards and surroundings.  But those places are filled with habitats supporting a diverse range of plants, birds and animals, if you just look.  And I don’t mean just in the wonderful designated park areas that are home to many species of urban wildlife; rather, I’m talking about the ditches and culverts along roadsides, and the shrubby areas at the edges of vacant lots. This fieldwork also revealed to me how the creatures living in these places are affected living side by side with humans. I saw how beneficial urban ponds were – how they collect run-off from roads and in turn become mini ecosystems that effectively lower bacteria n the water and water temperature, allowing the pond to become habitat for many species. I have also experienced how plants like cattails can remove contaminants from the water so that they are not released into the greater environment and witnessed the destruction that can occur if silt barriers are improperly installed around constructions sites.  These barriers limit the escape of dirt and silt; if they aren’t installed properly, it can result in water courses being choked out by the resulting silt.

It is easy to disregard or even be blind to places that could be wildlife habitat in an urban environment. What you might think is just a culvert could be a biodiverse diverted stream. By retaining water in the urban environment, this stream can aid in reducing the potential for flooding while forming a connection between habitats. Keeping these places intact and part of the urban landscape is essential for both the human and non-human residents of our cities.

One of the urban ponds on the edge of newly built houses

One of the urban ponds on the edge of newly built houses.

Melanie is a PhD graduate of the Department of Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Stirling (UK), where she researched the climatic and environmental changes occurring on the Northern Isles (Shetland and Orkney) from the end of the last glaciation through the early Holocene (16,000 – 3,000 years ago) using diatoms, pollen and geochemistry. Her MSc work explored the relationship between diatom species communities and water-depth gradients in lakes across northwestern Ontario. She has always had a love of water and is interested in limnology/aquatic ecology and paleolimnology and how they can be used together to answer questions at many spatial and temporal scales.

Lost lake entrances and the drunken bathtub

This week we welcome Cassandra Cummings to share her adventures in New York State in the gorgeous Adirondacks.

Some of the best hiking on the Canadian Shield can be found in the Adirondacks, NY, and I was lucky enough to do 3 summers of field work there.  The Adirondacks are an old mountain range that makes up 20% of New York state, and contains more than 3,000 freshwater lakes.  They were hit hard in the 80’s and 90’s by acid rain, and have remained an interesting study site ever since.

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Examining a sediment core

Taking a sediment core

Since the Adirondacks are somewhat isolated, there is an absence of long-term monitoring data.  This is where my field of study, paleolimnology, comes in handy.  Paleolimnology uses the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics in lake sediment cores to infer their environmental histories.  For my fieldwork, I collected sediment cores from 30 lakes throughout the Adirondacks.  Collecting a sediment core is similar to putting a straw in a cup of water and putting your thumb on the top; when you pull it out, you take the water with you.

In my cores, I examined microscopic algal remains called diatoms.  These algal remains are abundant and can survive in the sediments for millennia.  They are also incredibly specious and can survive in a wide range of conditions.  Their diversity is part of what makes them such a useful indicator species: by determining which species used to exist in a lake, you can infer what the conditions of the lake were like.


We may not have been after forest creatures, but they did manage to keep things interesting!  We got to see loons attempting to fly (it takes an entire lake’s distance just for them to make it out of the water!), a snake catch a frog, and a just-out-of-sight bear.  Twice, our hiking paths were flooded by beavers.  The first time, we were hiking and came across a surprise pond.  At first we thought it was our study site, but it was way too shallow.  Then we assumed we lost the path and spent half an hour looking for it, before we saw the next marker across the pond.  In the dingyWe tried to go around it, but decided the easiest way would be to cross it.  We blew up our inflatable dingy, and two of us crossed the pond with half our stuff.  We thought we were well on our way to defeating those rascally beavers, until I was dropped across the pond with the packs and my field mate turned back to pick up our third hiker.  Turns out it’s hard to cross a pond with one person using one oar in an inflatable dinghy.  It moves less in a straight line, and rotates more side to side.  She eventually made it back, but it moved like a drunken bathtub in the meantime!

In the canoe

Fortunately, the second time beavers flooded the path we were warned in advance.  We brought a canoe, and could all make it in one go!



putting the canoe in the truck

The canoe almost fit in the truck.


swollen right handInjuries on our field trips were kept to a minimum.  But when we did have one, it was almost always mine!  Our first day out the second summer, on a wide, flat path, I managed to twist my ankle and end up out of commission for a week.  I also found out the hard way that I’m allergic to deer fly bites.  Good thing I’m right handed…

When field work ended, we got back to the lab to begin the long, tedious process of diatom identification.  After enumerating the diatoms at the top and bottom of the core, we were able to infer how some aspects of the lakes had changed from the 1850’s to present. Lakes are warming up faster than they used to each year, leading to changes in the way a lake stratifies (a warmer, less dense layer on top of a colder, denser layer below).  Ice is melting earlier in the spring, and forming later in autumn.  These changes caused corresponding changes in which diatom species were most successful in a lake, with diatoms that sink slowly becoming more abundant.

My project gave insight into the extent of ecological change in algal communities  that could be attributed to a ‘climate’ effect.  By understanding how climate change affects lakes, we can begin to understand and interpret changes from lakes that are recovering from multiple stressors.

lake view


Cassandra Cummings is a 2nd year masters student at UBC, doing a masters in Environmental Planning.  In 2014, she completed her masters in biology at Queen’s University.  She has hiked in the Muskokas, Rocky Mountains, and Central America, but the Adirondacks are still some of her favourite!  She is passionate about the environment, enjoys being outdoors and loves to dance.

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.


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

Fieldwork in Ecuador: Alpaca my bags

We are excited to welcome Andrew Labaj to the blog this week. Andrew is a PhD student in the PEARL lab here at Queen’s University and tells us all about his time doing fieldwork in Ecuador. For more about Andrew see the end of this post.

Field work is one of the most exciting aspects of graduate school for many of us in biology. In my field, the majority of time is spent in front of a microscope or computer screen, so the opportunity to get outside, get some fresh air, and actually visit the study sites is great! My field is paleolimnology, the study of lakes and how they (and the environments around them) change through time. Lakes record a massive amount of environmental information within their sediments, and this can be extracted and examined to reconstruct past environmental variables. Because the environmental monitoring record is frequently missing or severely lacking in detail (for example, monitoring of lake pH doesn’t extend before 1909 – the pH scale hadn’t even been invented then!), paleolimnological methods are often the only way to gain insight into how an environment has changed over long time scales. My PhD focuses on how climate change has impacted the high-elevation lakes of the Andes Mountains. Alpine regions are experiencing temperature increases at an elevated rate compared to the global average, making them important sentinels of climate change. We can use the lakes in this region to track the onset of climate change, and better understand how the environment has changed as a result of anthropogenic impacts to date. Furthermore, understanding the impacts of climate change on high-elevation water resources is critical, as many Andean societies depend on these systems for drinking water, agriculture, and hydroelectricity generation.

Anyway, with that background aside, let’s get into why you’re here…to hear about field work in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador! My first South American field season took place in early-August 2014, just after the civic holiday weekend. This was my first time going to a different continent, so I was understandably somewhat nervous about the whole thing. Luckily though, I was going with two very experienced colleagues (Neal Michelutti and Chris Grooms) who had both been to South America before, and could communicate in Spanish. On the advice of my lab mates, I bought myself a good rain jacket and rain pants, and found some of my winter clothing (that had long been packed away for the summer). I was constantly having to explain to people that, yes Ecuador is an equatorial country, but its high-mountain regions can be COLD!

We decided to bring all our equipment with us as luggage (rather than Fed-Ex it), which required careful packing, since a lot of it is bulky, and some of it is fragile. After a full day of travel, we landed in Quito. This is when we realized that none of our luggage (or equipment) made it there with us (though happy to say that we had better luck during our second field season, and everything made it through). There wasn’t much we could do at that point, so we filed a lost luggage report, stayed the night, and traveled on to Cuenca (the closest city to our field sites) the next morning.

We stayed in a hotel the first couple nights, as we couldn’t get any sampling done without equipment, and the clothing we had packed into our carry-on luggage wasn’t really sufficient for staying at the un-heated cabin at the field site. Although it was annoying, this did provide a great chance to explore Cuenca, check out the amazing historic buildings, and get a taste for the culture there. You have to always be aware of where you are walking; the sidewalks are narrow and often have holes and unexpected steps that can catch the uninitiated tourist off-guard!

Cuenca City Hall

Cuenca City Hall

Cathedral in Cuenca

Cathedral in Cuenca

After a day and a half, our luggage and equipment finally made it through, and we headed up to El Cajas National Park, our home for the next week. The park ranger station, where we were staying, is at an elevation of about 3,900 m above sea level. I’m certainly not in top shape, but it was a strange feeling getting winded walking uphill a few meters or going up a set of stairs. Although I got used to the elevation after a few days, there would still be times I got very light-headed. The weather at our field sites could best be described as ‘wet refrigerator’ – very humid, around 1-4 ºC, and rainy. We would see clouds blow up the hillside while we were coring lakes, and within a minute or two would be enveloped within the cloud, a very wet place indeed. Sometimes, the fog would get so thick, it was impossible to see more than a few meters in any direction – the rain jacket and pants were a good investment. At a few of the lakes, my hands became so cold that I wasn’t able to move them anymore. We brought waterproof gloves with us on our second field season that helped with this.

El Cajas landscape

El Cajas landscape

Cajas trail

El Cajas trail

The cabin at the ranger station (dubbed the “refugio”) had most of the comforts of home, and it was very convenient to have a dry (albeit still somewhat damp from all the humidity) place to sleep at night. The refugio wasn’t heated, but with good sleeping bags, it did the trick. There was a washroom and shower which was nice, though use of hot water was discouraged, as it used propane, so I became accustomed to cold showers (they build character anyway). Toilet paper was not to be taken for granted – on our second field season, we found that the TP had been replaced with a stack of old wildlife sighting sheets instead! This wasn’t a problem; we had brought our own anyway. The refugio was great because it was so close to the lakes we were sampling, though near the end of our second field season, the weather got so miserable that we finally decided to pack up and stay in a hotel in Cuenca where we could have a hot shower and dry out a bit more at the end of the day.

Refugio with our truck

The cabin at the ranger station (dubbed the “refugio”)

Ranger station and refugio from across Laguna Toreadora

“Refugio” from across Laguna Toreadora

The landscape around the park was beautiful and like nothing I have witnessed before. Most of our lakes involved at least some hike to reach, and this provided the chance to experience the scenery up close. You don’t realize how big some of the hills are until you have to scale them! We were lucky enough to secure a trail map of the park (surprisingly rare, we had to take good care of it), and this helped us find our lakes for the most part, though there were a few trails that differed substantially in real life from how they were marked on the map. Despite this, we were able to reach all the lakes that we intended to.

Laguna Toreadora

Laguna Toreadora

Llama at Toreadora

Llama at Laguna Toreadora

It is inevitable in a paleolimnology field season that one will spend a significant amount of time being both wet and muddy. The first year we visited, we brought two vinyl ‘recreation grade’ dinghies with us, one to use as a backup. These were small and light, and so worked well with our strategy of bringing the equipment as luggage. We realized within a couple days that this was going to be a challenge, as it became apparent that we were pushing them to their design limits (carrying two adults + sampling equipment). While we were coring Laguna Fondococha, the lake with the longest (several hour) hike in, our dinghy decided it had had enough, and began the process of deflating. While we were in it. In the middle of the (very) cold lake. We were able to quickly retrieve our sediment core and make it back to shore, where we temporarily patched the flaccid vessel with duct tape. This bought us enough time to deploy our temperature probes. We smartened up the next year and brought a Zodiac with us. Although it was heavier to carry to our sites, we didn’t have to worry about destroying it. Most of the lakes we worked on were a challenge to core, as the sediments at the surface were rather “soupy,” and the corer would sink too far in. Luckily, Neal is very adept at taking cores, and we eventually got what we needed from all the lakes.

Chris sectioning a sediment core at Llaviucu

Chris sectioning a sediment core

During our first field season, we deployed water temperature probes into 4 of the lakes, hoping to gain insight into the thermal stratification patterns of these tropical systems over the course of the year. We were fairly careful in planning how this was going to work: a large fishing float at the top, a sack of rocks as an anchor, with the probes spaced in between. Luckily, boating on the lakes is prohibited to the public (and there really wouldn’t be much point of boating on them anyway), so we figured they would be safe for the year. However, around May, we received an email from one of the park managers, informing us that the float had been found at the shore of one of the lakes. The strong winds on the lake must have dislodged it. NOT GOOD! We had taken the GPS location of the floats and probes the year prior, and by some miracle spotted the string and probes just under the water’s surface (while caught in super dense fog with zero visibility). After retrieving the data, we repaired the float and re-deployed the probes. The floats and probes from the other 3 lakes were fine. I can only hope that everything is in good shape for our next visit!

Detached temp probe float

Detached temperature probe float

At the completion of our first field season, we sent our water and sediment samples home via Fed-Ex, to make sure that they cleared customs and would make it back safely. This worked well, but was more expensive than I ever would have imagined. The next year, it was decided that I would take the samples back with me as luggage (Chris and Neal were going on to do further work in Peru that I was unable to attend). It was a bit nerve-wracking having to leave the cooler full of sediment sitting out on a cart at the airport in Guayaquil after I had checked in, but luckily, the samples made it back through the 3 flights to Kingston unscathed.

Before I finish, I’d like to take a minute to thank the staff of El Cajas National Park and ETAPA (the government agency that oversees the park) for their assistance in the field and with the project so far. Navigating the permitting process in foreign countries is not always straightforward, and their help with applying for permits and providing information about the park has been greatly appreciated! I am hoping to have a third field season in South America this coming summer, perhaps this time making it to Peru as well. It’s been an adventure so far and I am truly thankful that I have had the chance to see this amazing part of the world!


Andrew Labaj is a PhD candidate at the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) at Queen’s University. Andrew completed his BScH in Biology in 2012, and his MSc in 2014, both at Queen’s. He got his start in paleolimnology in the summer of his 3rd year, when he worked as a research assistant at PEARL. His MSc project focused on assessing biological recovery from acidification, and he has previously completed field work in Muskoka, Killarney, and Sudbury, Ontario. When he is not staring at their sediments down a microscope, Andrew enjoys swimming, boating, and spending as much time as possible around lakes.