A Thanksgiving meal, right out of the field

We are so excited to welcome Jennifer MacMillan back to the blog today. Earlier in 2015, Jennifer told us about her time spent on exchange in New Zealand. Now she is back, and this time tells us a rather appropriately-timed story about enjoying a Thanksgiving meal, right from the field. Happy Thanksgiving to Jennifer, and all of our American readers/posters! We are so thankful for all of you. For more about Jennifer, see the end of this post. 

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday. Everything about it is awesome: the food, the family, the fun times. But the main reason I love this day is because I get to celebrate it twice a year.

I have dual Canadian and United States citizenship. Along with other perks, this means I have the pleasure of over-eating on the second Monday in October and the fourth Thursday in November every year.

Since graduating from a Canadian university, I have been working in the States. I am currently in Alaska working for the Division of Agriculture as a Field Technician at the Plant Materials Center (PMC). The main focus of the PMC is the production of native plants and traditional crops. I spend my days on a 400 acre farm where I maintain greenhouses and fields while assisting with the Horticulture Program’s Observation Variety Trials. We evaluate cauliflower, broccoli, apples, asparagus, and potatoes to see how well they hold up in the Alaskan climate.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

Our Potato Greenhouse getting started.

 A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

A bucket of Romanesco that was measured for Broccoli Trials.

Conveniently, harvest came just in time for Canadian Thanksgiving. Lucky for me, I helped plant pretty much every side dish you can imagine and was definitely excited to collect my reward. Also, the PMC has a staff full of avid hunters so between moose, caribou, and sandhill cranes, there were more than enough meat options on the table. I even helped add fish to the menu!

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Regardless of where I am for the holidays, I am lucky that I always have a diverse group of interesting and entertaining people around to break bread with on Thanksgiving. No matter which month we celebrate.

Small Halibut are called “Chickens”, a perfect substitute for turkey.

Jennifer is currently working  for the Division of Agriculture as a Field Technician at the Plant Materials Center in Alaska. Jennifer completed her BScH at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, Canada, studying masting in sugar maple trees. She is an avid cyclist and nature-lover.

Stranger things have happened in Wire Fence field

Seven years. I have spent seven years doing fieldwork in Wire Fence field, and just last weekend, I collected my final data from that site. Next year the field is set to be bush-hogged and that will mark the end of my time at the site. I wanted to take a moment today to write a bit about the wonderfully beautiful and endlessly frustrating Wire Fence field.

Wire fence field is a beautiful field site, and over the seven years I have worked there, I have developed a very strong love-hate relationship with this place. Wire fence field is a small old-field that is entirely surrounded by closed canopy forest. It is located about 500 m off Opinicon Road on route to the Queen’s University Biological Station. To access it, there is a laneway through the forest. The laneway is accessible enough to travel by vehicle or it can be easily hiked in about five minutes. Friends and colleagues that know me well have certainly heard me complain about this field site. Statements like “I’d rather stare at a wall all day than ever have to spend another moment in that       field” or “This field is ruining my life” are not uncommon in the peak of a field season. It is a rewarding but challenging place to work for many reasons.

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Getting there – yes, a short five-minute walk doesn’t seem that bad. And it isn’t. Except in the summer months, when mosquitoes swarm like the monster from Stranger Things would if you cut off your finger. Then that five-minute walk quickly seems endless. The path to the field is well-maintained, generally flat and easy to walk or drive on. Except that it dips down into a very low-lying area right before you hit the field site. This summer wasn’t so bad because we were hit with a really bad drought but in previous field seasons this has made for many boots getting stuck in the muck, and well, with a 2 wheel, rear wheel drive Astro van- It wasn’t just boots getting stuck in there. Getting to Wire Fence field isn’t always easy.

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field (November 2015)

Surviving there – There is no cell phone service in this field, so if something bad happens, let’s hope it’s before dark and you’re well enough to walk out on your own. Evidence of black bears have been found at this site on more than one (hundred) occasions so being aware of that is important. The field has more and more thistles in it every year. Also, there is one spot where an old Wire Fence (coincidence??) has fallen over and grown into the ground, and in one spot it sticks up and I kid you not SOMEONE trips over that fence EVERY single time we work there. And it’s usually me, who has been to the field site probably over 500 times. I’ve also never seen deer flies like I have seen them at this site. In the peak of deer fly season, you have to be fully clothed from head to toe and with layers. At one point I was wearing gloves and still got more than 10 bites on my hands alone. Surviving in Wire Fence field is a challenge.

 

Staying there – Things disappear – it’s almost as if there is some ‘Upside down’ Wire Fence field somewhere and the monster comes to the field in the night, and steals stuff and takes it back to the Upside down. Stranger Things fans, you’ll know what I mean. Shovels, cages, individual tagged plants, you name it! If we have brought it there we have also lost it there. Of course, on the other side of the main road there is a camp ground and patrons often venture across the road for hikes, so it might not be too surprising that we have lost some items here and there. The more troubling part is that I have installed cylinders into the ground at this site (100 of them in fact). That are only about 1 inch above the ground and cannot be removed with ease. With grass that reaches well over one metre at its peak they definitely aren’t easy to spot. Even some of those have gone missing. Including plot 11 (Eleven)..I am not even kidding….OK perhaps it is time to call in Hopp, Mrs. Byers and the whole crew to investigate.

 

Even though getting there, surviving there and staying there all present their own set of unique challenges, I love the place. And I miss it already.

 

Wire fence field is surrounded by closed canopy forest with lots of very large oak, basswood, ironwood and blue beech trees towering over it. In the spring months, sides of the laneway and all of the ground surrounding the field edges is sprinkled with white and red trilliums, trout lilies and wild ginger. For about one week in early May, the entire laneway is covered in spring beauties. Tens of thousands of them peak out from the decaying autumn leaves and brighten up the forest. As the season progresses along buttercups burst open and give the field vibrant pops of yellow among the tall green grass. I haven’t seen buttercups in such numbers as I do at Wire Fence field. And then there are the deer. Deer love buttercups and thus, deer love Wire Fence field. Many mornings we would walk up to the field site and see anywhere from one to a dozen deer happily grazing on all of our experimental plots and lots of pressed down areas of grass each morning suggested that it was a common place for them to spend their nights. Sometimes we would stand there and just watch them for a few minutes, before they noticed us and re-located for the day.

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Even though working in Wire Fence field has many challenges, it was a beautiful, peaceful and quirky place to spend the last seven years.

I am slowly going crazy… 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… switch

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

For the past 30 days I’ve been finishing the data collection for a major experiment that spanned three field seasons. I’ve spent the vast majority of the month sitting next to experimental plant communities that contain anywhere from 8-40 species. I counted each individual of each species, pulled them all out of the ground, and then sorted them into paper bags by species, and by whether or not the plant is reproductive. Each community took up to one hour to completely harvest and with 200 communities in total… well…yep…it’s been a long summer.

As much fun as data collection can be, it’s also a tedious, sometimes painful task – especially when you need very detailed data to answer a given question. This got me thinking about all the ways I have tried to not lose my mind doing tedious field tasks over the years.

Sing

Singing is an excellent way to pass the time, and it’s easy to sing and still concentrate on the task at hand. Over the years, campfire type songs have always been a favourite, or other songs from childhood. The whole field crew will likely know the song, they’re catchy, and they’re fun. One thing I’ll warn you about though…don’t sing songs like “99 bottles of beer on the wall” or other tunes that count you down. By the time you get to 4 bottles of beer on the wall and realize you still have 194 plots left it could have the wrong effect on your motivation.

Learn a new language

I took French growing up and loved it. I lost touch with it as I entered post-secondary and really regret that. In my early years in the field, I would try to speak French, which we lovingly called “field French” because it was mostly just English words spoken in a French Canadian accent. Years later I would look up new French words each night, and then try to use them in the field the next day. And a couple years ago, I was lucky to have a field assistant who was fluent in French, and she would quiz me with various French translations. It’s a great way to pass the time and it’s a useful skill to have!

The “favourites” game

One of my favourite things to do with my field assistants is play the “favourite game” (no pun intended). We each take turns asking one another about our favourite hobbies, foods, colours…anything really. It’s entertaining and it really helps with team bonding.

Reward system

New to this field season, I started a fieldwork rewards program: one mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup for every plot we successfully count and harvest. It might encourage poor eating habits, and it might rot our teeth, but let me tell you, it is surely the most motivating way to make it through the day.

I best be off to bed now, as another long field day awaits me.

Crazy going slowly am I… 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Summers in the redwood forest

We are excited to welcome Matthew Brousil to the blog today. Matthew is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University and to find out more about him, check out his bio at the end of the post. 

When I meet someone new, they usually ask me what I do for a living and I tell them that I study redwood disturbance ecology. Their eyes will then open up wide and they will tell me either how they’ve always wanted to see the redwoods, or that when they did visit the redwoods, they couldn’t believe how huge they were. At this point I shift around uncomfortably and admit that while yes I do work in the redwoods, it isn’t in quite the same place as the massive old-growth stands of northern California that they might be imagining. Instead, I have been lucky in a different way. For the last two summers I have worked in the coastal redwood forests of Big Sur, California doing research for my master’s degree program. The redwoods are a bit smaller there, but the location is still incredible.

If the majority of graduate students in the natural sciences are anything like me, then the opportunity to do field or lab work with a unique species or in an interesting location was a big part of their decision to go to grad school. When I saw advertisements for a graduate research position studying the effects of fire disturbances on redwood forests, I jumped at the opportunity and put together my application pretty much overnight. Three years later, I spend most of my summer weekdays hiking from early morning until evening in the redwood forests of Big Sur to measure trees, collect soil samples, or take pictures of the redwood canopy to determine how much light reaches the forest floor where seedlings grow. Big Sur is a huge travel destination for tourists from around the world and my work lets me see many of the same trails and parks that tourists often visit, but in locations that are more ecologically sensitive and so not available for general public access.

1

Me at one of Highway 1’s famous pullouts in the Big Sur area.

 

2

Kara, a technician, and Devon, a volunteer, collecting soil samples from one of our research areas at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

A hemispherical understory photo used to determine the amount of light reaching the forest floor.

A hemispherical understory photo used to determine the amount of light reaching the forest floor.                    Photo credit: Matt Terzes

 

 

One of the fantastic benefits of seeing Big Sur from *slightly* off the beaten path is that I have come to appreciate how dynamic and changing the forests and other ecosystems are along the coast. Having been a tourist in Big Sur myself, I know that the majestic redwood forests and picturesque scenery like McWay Falls inspire feelings of intense reverence and impermanence among such towering and grand sights.  And so they should.

Looking out over Highway 1 from a research area in Big Sur.

Looking out over Highway 1 from a research area in Big Sur.

Coast redwood trees in an area burned in 1985 and 1999.

Coast redwood trees in an area burned in 1985 and 1999.

Spending time off-trail for a couple of years in Big Sur, however, I now appreciate how often things really do change in the redwood forest. As locals are familiar with (and as news reports have reminded the rest of us this year), fire in the Santa Lucia mountain range is a common occurrence. Some of the sites where I do my research have experienced multiple fires in the past 30 years and the fire history for the coast redwood range shows similar patterns over longer periods of time (Lorimer et al. 2009). Large redwood trees often survive fires because of their thick bark and elevated branches, but smaller individuals are killed by tall flames yet remain standing for years afterward. Two years after a fire noticeable changes abound: thousands of sprouts and seedlings litter the forest floor around damaged trees, charred deer skeletons remain, slopes and trails become unstable terrain, and even the soil in some parts of the forest is stained an orange-brown color as a result of the fire. In areas where multiple fires occurred recently, some less fire-adapted tree species might be less common and smaller understory plants are absent from the forest floor.

Bottlebrush sprouting on redwood trees – the result of flames reaching the canopy of these trees.

Bottlebrush sprouting on redwood trees – the result of flames reaching the canopy of these trees.

 

 

 

 

Prolific sprouting at the base of redwood trees where fire has come through.

Prolific sprouting at the base of redwood trees where fire has come through.

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Since the Big Sur area has been fire-prone for thousands of years, the response to these fires is  cyclical, reminding us that change is a very natural part of healthy ecosystems. Winter rains lead plants in Big Sur to put on growth that becomes fuel later in the year, and many shrubs in the area are fire adapted. In some areas, lush plant growth even covers up the visual reminders of fire within a year or so. However, an increase in fire frequency due to climate change is expected in redwood and other temperate forests in the future. The goal of my research is to describe what could happen to redwood forests when fires overlap more frequently in time and space.

Doing fieldwork is one of the biggest draws for graduate students in ecology, and the chance to see behind the scenes of the coastal redwood forests in Big Sur is an opportunity that few students in my position would pass up. These experiences allow researchers like me to observe our ecosystems of study and to collect important data with which to test hypotheses. However, I think students also gain a lot in seeing how ecosystems like the redwood forest change over the course of the time it takes to complete our degrees!

But one thing that hasn’t changed in two years’ time is the uplifting feeling of a warm breeze carrying the smells of redwood needles and blackberries through the forest as I hike. With that kind of inspiration you can do just about anything – even write your thesis.

 

Matthew Brousil is a graduate student at California Polytechnic State University where he is working on his MSc studying coast redwood responses to fire disturbance. His first trip out to the field was in Patagonian Chile as an undergraduate, which sparked his current interests in coast redwood forest ecology. You can follow his work on Twitter through @mrbrousil.

 

 

 

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.

IMG_4

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 – #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!

Clash of the cattle

In my tenure as a field biologist, I’ve experienced and had to deal with many problems…unfortunate events…hideous disasters…whatever you want to call them. Catherine’s blog about the revenge of the ruminants from earlier this month got me thinking about an encounter that I had with these beefy creatures way back at the start of my time doing fieldwork.

Back in my first field season in the summer of 2009, our lab was setting up a long term experiment (about 10 years) to assess the effects of climate change on temperate grassland communities. The first step after getting the overall design and relevant details in order was to find an appropriate field site. We trekked around all over QUBS’ properties, and eventually found a good-sized piece of land on the Bracken tract. It met all of the criteria including having a high species richness, easily accessible by foot and was relatively flat. There had been some cattle grazing allowed on the property but the farmer assured us that they were now back on his property, and for good.

This particular study had 240 replicate 1 x 1 m plots. Treatments included plots with excess water added each week, control plots, and those with rainout shelters to minimize the access of water. There were also nutrient addition plots, and those with herbivore exclosures. Needless to say, it was a huge experiment. We spent a solid week mapping and measuring out the field. We set up the 240 plots and then used 6 different colours of flags to mark them all with their respective treatments. By the end of the week, we had made serious progress. We even left early that Friday just because we had worked so hard.

bracken shelters fence shot

An example of what the rainout shelters look like. 

We came back Monday ready to start putting up some of the shelters and fences together for the treatments. But the field wasn’t exactly as we had left it. In fact, it wasn’t even close to the condition we left it in. This would have been early June, so the grass was well over a foot tall and there were buttercups ad hawkweeds blooming galore. At least, there were when we had left the field on Friday.

Now the grass was barely an inch tall. The flags were no longer upright. Some were crushed. Some were torn to shreds. Some were just completely gone. And the source of this damage didn’t cover it up well. They certainly left their mark. There were cow patties all over the field site.

This led to a very awkward and upsetting call to our Supervisor about the state of the field, and the wasted hours of work put into setting it up. The next week a bunch of guys came down from Queen’s and installed a barbed wire fence around the site to prevent this from happening again. Luckily, the story has a happy ending because this ended up being an isolated incident and the cows have never broken into the field site after the fence was installed, and the experiment is now going into it’s 6th year.

The cows make an appearance now and then, and in large numbers, often around 70 at a time. As free-ranging beef cattle they aren’t exactly friendly or unfriendly. If you look them in the eyes, they run the other way. But 5 minutes later you’ll see their heads poking out of the bush wanting another look at what you’re doing. Occasionally one gets stuck in the barbed wire trying to get a taste of the grass in our site. They have at least a hundred acres to roam free on, but of course, the grass is always greener on the other side…or so they say.

An ode to the boreal forest

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Julia Shonfield, who shares some of her stories about working in Alberta’s beautiful boreal forest.

Helicopter flight in

Sitting up front with the pilot; can’t complain about our mode of travel from site to site!

I could hardly contain my excitement as I started to feel the ground pull away as we lifted up into the air. I’ll never forget that feeling as we zoomed over the tops of the trees. It was my first time in a helicopter, and I was being flown out to a remote field site somewhere north of Fort Chipewyan in northeastern Alberta. Our map had some small white patches, which it turned out were large patches of white lichen on the ground. The area was rocky with jack pine trees scattered across the landscape. This area is part of the Canadian Shield, which stretches across much of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but only reaches a small corner of Alberta. The pilot brought the helicopter down, and I awkwardly climbed out and felt the dry lichen crunch under my feet. I felt ridiculous wearing a pair of chest waders, but I had been warned that most of the natural open areas where the helicopter could land would be wet.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

That was the summer I did field work by helicopter for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) in northeastern Alberta. I got flown in to each site with my field partner and we’d set up our tents in the middle of nowhere, wake up early the next morning and survey birds, plants, and trees, and take soil samples. The next couple sites after that first one had wetter landing areas, but the water was still not very deep. I decided to take a risk and wear my rubber boots instead of my chest waders in the helicopter. The first few days of any field work project can be tricky and stressful as you try to figure out what clothing and equipment works and what doesn’t. A few days in, I thought I had figured it out – and then we landed at one particular site and I watched my field partner, Bryce, get out of the helicopter and sink up to his mid thighs in water. He was at least a foot taller than me, and I groaned as I stepped out of the helicopter, flooded my rubber boots and continued to sink nearly up to my waist. But that’s the thing about doing field work in the boreal forest: you never really know what to expect and what you’ll encounter out there. The boreal forest is incredibly varied and probably a lot more so than many Canadians realize.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

This was not my first time doing field work in the boreal forest. I had previously worked on a forestry project in northern Ontario doing small mammal live-trapping for a couple summers. I also spent a few seasons working on the Kluane Red Squirrel project in the Yukon for my Master’s work on territorial behaviour of red squirrels. But it wasn’t until I worked for ABMI that I fully realized just how varied and truly spectacularly the boreal forest is. That’s not to say that the boreal forest in Ontario and the Yukon is all the same, but those projects specifically targeted certain habitats: in Ontario the project was on the impact of forestry practices on mixedwood forests, and the project in the Yukon targeted preferred red squirrel habitat (white spruce forests). The variation of the boreal forest was likely less apparent to me when I worked in Ontario and the Yukon because there wasn’t the same range of variation across the study sites within each project. The study sites for ABMI were randomly selected, and no two sites that summer were exactly the same.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire and water play huge roles in shaping the landscape of the boreal forest, and those forces were evident almost everywhere I looked. The sites I surveyed that summer ranged from very dry jack pine forest to wet bogs and very wet fens, and from very recently burned forests with lots of standing dead trees to older burned forests where almost all the trees had fallen down.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Some sites were so beautiful I just couldn’t believe they were random dots on a map. My favourite was a sandy site with an open canopy of mature jack pine trees that sloped gently down to a small lake with sandy banks and clear blue water. Others were downright awful; my least favourites tended to be very wet with dense shrubs and patches of burned trees that inevitably would leave me covered in black ash as I tried to navigate around them.

My favourite site, the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

My favourite site: the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta and I’m still just as excited about working in the boreal forest as I was when I started. My project looks at the impacts of industrial noise on several species of owls in northeastern Alberta. The field work involves travelling by snowmobile/ATV and on foot to set up recording units to survey for owls calling over a large area. I continue to be amazed when I get to an area that looks different than any other place I’ve been before. The boreal forest is not that rich in species diversity, but a surprising number of different combinations and configurations can be formed from a limited number of tree and shrub species. The boreal forest is an incredibly fascinating, enjoyable, but tough place to work. It’s not just an endless carpet of coniferous trees, which is often what’s depicted in nature documentaries. Few people dream about working in Canada’s boreal forest and it doesn’t have quite the same allure as exotic and tropical locations, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences in the boreal for anything!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

Shonfield_Profile PicJulia Shonfield is currently a PhD candidate in Erin Bayne’s lab in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her PhD project is on the effects of industrial noise on owls in northeastern Alberta. Follow her on twitter @JuliaShonfield for updates on field work, owls and bioacoustics. The Bayne lab also has a lab blog (http://wild49.biology.ualberta.ca/) and a twitter account (@Wild49Eco).

The wonderful & disastrous world of seed collection

A lot of my fieldwork relies on locating populations of local wildflower species that meet a certain set of criteria. Those criteria can include life history, population size, disturbance regime, crowdedness, etc. Whenever we locate a beautiful population, everyone gets excited. The kicker is that we don’t need anything to do with the flowers…we need their seeds so that we can sow them into various experiments. Seed collection from wild plants, however, is not an easy thing. Locating the populations can be challenging in itself, but collecting the seeds, and dealing with them is even harder…and these are my stories.

Plant populations are never really safe

One of the battles we are constantly fighting is the battle with the city/township we are sampling in. We always find beautiful populations of species that fit all of the necessary criteria, we monitor them all summer, and when the seed is ready to collect, boom, they are gone. Cut down… no more… gone. One time, I was monitoring a fairly rare species population for months, and I checked the seeds to make sure they were fully mature. After I looked at them, I decided to wait another couple of days just to be sure. A few days later we were driving down windy old Opinicon Rd and we were just rounding a curve where the population was. There it was, right around the bend, the flashing yield light on the back… the county tractor mowing the roadsides. We pulled the field van over, staring at the remnants of the once perfectly mature seeds now mixed in with gravel and dirt along the side of the road. I’ll be the first to admit that roadside sampling isn’t the best idea, but sometimes you’re limited to that. It’s always a dangerous choice, but when it does work out it is so, so, so worth it.

seed collection

Kim collecting some seed from a population that was lucky enough to survive

Collecting seeds is easier said than done

In the summer of 2013, we were collecting the seeds of houndstongue, a fairly uncommon local species. There was one big population with hundreds of individuals right by the water in the west end of Kingston. We knew they didn’t mow this area, and as such, the safety of these populations was not an issue…phew. However, houndstongue have a thick, burr-like outer coating with little barbs that often stick to, well, anything it comes in contact with. I was walking through the population and didn’t notice that when I walked out, my black pants were covered in seeds. Good thing I had field assistants. After all that is what they are perfect for, helping with things like picking seeds off of your pants. I’ll have to start including that in future job descriptions.

pants

The field help hard at work collecting seeds…off of my pants

We have also collected a lot of seed from species that have a papus on their seed, which is useful in wind dispersal. The problem with wind-dispersed seeds like this is that the second they are ready, they are gone. Too many times we have visited populations that were ready for seed collection and a sudden gust of wind sent all the seeds trickling down the road in the wind. It’s a hard life as a seed collector, I tell you.

Seed processing can be soul-crushing

For various experiments over the years, seeds had to be processed. Processing a seed can mean different things for different species. For example, some seeds require very little processing, like common mullein. You just walk up to the plant, shake it into a bag, and hundreds of thousands of seeds fall nicely into the bag. Other species are more difficult – like cow vetch, which grows in a bean-like pod and requires you to sit at a table for endless hours, popping open the seed pods. The seeds often project outwards, bumping along the table and crashing to the floor. I’m sure we have an entire seed bank under the cupboards in the lab. Another problem when processing seeds is that often material from the seed pods gets stuck in the processed seeds. This can affect the seeds when weighing them and thus this debris has to be removed. I had a particularly annoying species for this: motherwort. I tried using sieves of all different grades to remove the debris, but I just couldn’t make it work. So in a moment of desperation I turned my desk fan towards the sieve filled with seeds and debris and just turned it on. Just like magic, the seeds stayed in place and the debris blew away. Albeit, that could have ended very poorly and of course  there was a lot of clean up after that but it was well worth it.

fan.png

Desperately trying to make seed processing easier

Every now and then I’m sure you walk past a dandelion here and there and pull its seeds off, rolling them between your fingers and maybe even sending them floating away into the sky. Sometimes seed collection can be just that easy but more often than not you’re met with one or many challenges along the way!

Not so down time

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Dr. Kathryn Hargan, who fills us in on what field biologists do when they can’t do field biology!  For more about Dr. Hargan, see her bio at the end of this post.

For those of you not acquainted with northern field work, weather will dictate your field season, no matter your discipline. If there is too much fog, there is a real danger of walking straight into a polar bear due to the low visibility. Trying to catch cliff-dwelling seabirds in the wind and fog is similarly treacherous. Wind is terrible for limnologists, yielding white caps on lakes and placing tension on the sampling rope. Often we sample in children’s inflatable boats (they’re light and portable!) and these can take on water fast. Surprisingly, paleolimnologists, like me, can work fairly well in rain. However, most ornithologists, with whom I collaborate, cannot: when the mother birds flees, the eggs get too cold too quickly in the rain. Cumulatively over my last two Arctic field seasons, I have spent more time not in the field than out collecting samples. So, I feel it only appropriate to touch on some of the non-field activities that have been so important in maintaining the sanity of our research teams as we see our full research potential and dollars dwindle day by day. What do you do if you have days, or in the cases of my field seasons, weeks, of bad weather? Here are a few insights and suggestions from my experience:

  1. Hone your photography skills and creative abilities.

How often are you placed in a beautiful setting with infinite time (i.e. days to weeks) to explore? Once you have taken the classic landscape shots, it’s time to take it to the next step. I highly recommend picking a theme for your non-field work photos, for example, rocks, ice, houses, community dogs, etc. In 2014, my field colleague, John, decided it was going to be skulls. Good thing John had a strong knowledge of this macabre subject, because at first my anatomy knowledge failed me – who knew seals and dogs can be confused? But generally speaking, in the Arctic you see lots of different sets of bones that are decaying but not necessary fully rotting, from a whole variety of charismatic animals – caribou, belugas, bowhead whales, seals, and lemmings, to name just a few. If you’re not into slightly weird pictures, you know those iconic jumping and yoga photos that everyone has? This is the time to take ‘em! The field crew jumping on a cliff, or perhaps a 6 ft man in intense hiking shoes and a rain jacket preforming some yoga on the sea ice? And then finally take lots of photos of the culprit that is preventing your field work – weather, fog, or blasted ice pack! If you return to the same field location year-after-year than you can start to line up the photos by date and see how drastically different one year can be from the next. I really find that looking back at all these photos provides me with a lot of entertainment and makes me forget the stress of missing valuable field work opportunities.

Left: photographing skulls in the Arctic. Right: ice yoga.

Fieldwork on pause?  Try taking up a hobby…like skull photography (left) or ice yoga (right).

  1. Learn something new from someone else.

I have been very fortunate to be “stuck” in the north with botanists. Just about anywhere you go, there are plants, and so really, no field season is a complete disappointment to them. When all else fails – ID plants! Can’t find your study animal – ID plants! Can’t get to that lake – ID plants! Though, I apologize if you do winter field work – ID…those clouds?!  My favourite plant from 2015 is the Hairy lousewort (Pedicularis hirsute) and actually may have become my photo theme – it’s not common and quite rewarding when found.  I recently learnt that there is a Woolly lousewort in the western Arctic, and as the name suggests it has more hair than the Hairy lousewort! One day, I will devise a plan to sample lakes in the NWT.  But seriously, if there are not botanists around, most scientists tend to harbor a pool of information on something outside of their field that should be gleaned.

Hairy Lousewort

A close-up of the aptly name hairy lousewort (right), and most rewarding lousewort patch I found in the summer of 2015 (right).

  1. Cook and bake.

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations...

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations…

While maintaining a positive outlook that you will eventually start field work, it is only logical that you gain some extra ‘energy’ stores. Of course, these stores will be burned off later when you are putting in long hours and making up for lost time. Also, when we are cold, we eat. Typically, there is no shortage of flour, sugar and butter in northern communities (ketchup is another story!), and so time can be passed whipping up biscuits, croissants, shortcake, brownies and themed cakes. If you don’t have a stove or microwave, even experimenting with new combinations of food (e.g., nutella and peanut butter pair well with many things!) is an amusing option.

  1. Enjoy the community.

I have to say that although I really enjoy the remoteness of northern field work, we don’t often get to be fully immersed in a community. This changed in 2015 when our team was in Cape Dorset for over two weeks. We got to participate in Nunavut Day –a festive town parade and games for ALL ages – including toddler races – so cute! Daily trips to the grocery stores and evening strolls around town meant that we got to know many members of the community. We made friends with a group of children that would always know where we were and even call the house to ask if we could “play out.” Our extended stay in the community also meant that we could organize an information session on our research, and demonstrate how to use our equipment – believe it or not, the sediment corer caught the eye of some.

Community information session.

Community information session.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

So, those are my main points, but of course I have left out some of the obvious. We do watch TV and bad movies when we can’t work – 2015 is the first year I ever watched Shark Week and I probably saw every show twice. We also unknowingly used up the last of our internet watching origami instructional videos. And yes, we do spend a lot of time talking about the weather and brainstorming wild ways to make it improve. Hopefully you never have to employ any of the above, but if you do, maybe now you will have some new inspirational ideas.

Me, with a rally cap – our field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kat, sporting a rally cap and the belief that field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kathryn Hargan is currently a W. Garfield Weston postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. She finished her PhD in 2014 in PEARL at Queen’s University looking at environmental changes in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Since then she has shifted her research focus to the eastern Hudson Bay and understanding the importance of seabirds as biovectors in the Arctic.