Naturalists Notice Nature – even in the winter!

For some, it is easy during these cold, snowy days to curl up with a cozy blanket, a good book, and a hot cup of tea. But where does the wildlife go? Sure, some animals migrate to where it is warmer (sounds like a good idea about now…), but others seem to do just fine despite their surroundings!

Winter in the forestWhen you look at this picture, what do you see? This is a typical question we ask the Kingston Junior Naturalists during our twice-monthly meetings. “Not much!” one kid yells. “Snow!” another one says (cheeky little kids). But if you look closer, there’s a lot more happening than you may first think. As leaders, we try to incorporate as many natural items as possible during our indoor evening meetings, but it is not the same for the kids as going outside to notice nature for themselves. So, once a month, a field trip is organized to various natural areas to get a taste of what the outdoors is really like. This month, I joined the Junior Naturalists on their field trip to The Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. At first, I wasn’t sure how we could keep busy for an afternoon in the cold and snow. And you can probably imagine when we arrived after the hour drive, the kids burst out of the cars and started sliding around on the icy paths, paying very little attention to us leaders.

kids checking out something on the forest floorBut it is amazing how quickly kids will focus when you can show them something in your hands. We acted like real field biologists and set up a sampling grid, which consisted of pylons at four corners of an area approximately the size of four classrooms. We asked the juniors to search for signs of wildlife within the designated area. When they found something, they put a stake beside it tied with brightly coloured flagging tape.

You can tell a lot about an animal by looking at what it has left behind. An easy sign to see, and one the kids were especially excited about pointing out (unsurprisingly), is a pile of (or single piece of) scat. From scat, you can tell what species was there and what it might have been eating. Similarly, footprints in the snow or tracks can identify the species, but can also help you decipher in which direction and how fast the individual was going based on the orientation and spacing of the track. Other signs of wildlife in the winter include holes in the snow where small mammals are likely building tunnels, and holes and scars in trees where insects are likely hiding.

When the time was up, we looked into the grid again and saw a sea of brightly coloured flagging tape…even though we didn’t actually have a single wildlife sighting. And really, this is how field biologists often spend their time! If you’re studying a cryptic species, you are usually just documenting signs of their presence and are lucky if you get to see them in the flesh.  In those cases, we get super excited to even find a feather. (There are ways to increase the chance of seeing your study species, such as covering your camera in a pile of dung, but we weren’t ready to let the kids in on that secret!).

In the end, although the kids did not remember why exactly they’d put up the flagging tape in roughly half of the flagged spots (admittedly this can happen with field biologists too…), they had fun being able to notice nature by themselves!notes from the juniors about saving the Earth

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Love birds: the day I broke a turkey’s heart

One of my favourite field work stories comes from my very first field season. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea what I was doing back then. I couldn’t identify most plants, was slightly scared (ok, terrified) of dragonflies and went to the field wearing outfits I would wear to work at my part-time retail job later in the day…what was I thinking???

Anyways, I remember it being a brisk morning in May. We were looking for target plants of about 30 species in an old-field at the Queen’s University Biological Station to monitor flowering time and plant size. We had no idea what species we were targeting as plants were too small that early in the season. Instead we were simply looking for morphological differences and naming them something we would remember. For example, Danthonia spicata, or poverty oat grass, is a low-growing grass with soft and fuzzy leaves. Grasses are difficult to identify without flowers so in the earliest parts of the season we referred to poverty oat grass as “fuzzy grass”.

That morning I was working in a low-lying area of the field right next to some bushes at the tree line. I was uncomfortably crouching down wearing dark jeans that had little movement in them and my dressy brown blouse was catching in the wind and blowing up to meet my brown baseball cap. I had my back to the bushes and was busily searching the ground looking for “looks like marijuana plant” aka Potentilla Recta. I heard a rustle behind me, and before I could even turn around, I glanced up at another field crew member who was standing about 20 feet in front of me. “Oh my God, turn around,” she exclaimed. I briskly turned my head and just a few feet behind me was a huge Tom (an adult male wild turkey). He had emerged from the bushes and was fanning his beautiful and bright tail feathers and dragging his strong wings along the ground beside him.

I was frozen and had no idea what to do. I had seen plenty of wild turkeys in my life but generally they had avoided me, like they do most humans. What on earth was this turkey doing? Why was he …. *holy *&#%*… it came to me. He thought I was a TURKEY TOO. My wavy brown blouse, brown hat and crouched down position probably made the poor guy think “WOW, now that is a BIG turkey…and she WILL be mine”. So out he came with his best face on and tried to impress me.

Suddenly, in a panic, I stood up. The turkey paused for a moment, let out a weird yelp and then a cluck. He jumped two feet in the air, spun around and crashed back into the bushes. I’m sure he was just as shocked about the whole situation as I was. The love of his life, the most beautiful hen he had ever set eyes on, was not actually a hen, but an awkward field biologist lurking in the grass. After that incident, I started wearing bright colours in the field, and now I never stay in the same spot for too long. I wouldn’t want to break another turkey’s heart.

A quiet night

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away

“Nightswimming”, R.E.M.

Full confession: I am not a particularly audacious person.  I invariably choose Truth over Dare, and I’m probably one of the few people over the age of 18 who can play Never Have I Ever and be virtually sober at the end.

However, on those rare occasions when I play Never Have I Ever, I usually get to have at least one drink – because there’s one question that almost always comes up: “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping”.

In one of my first posts on Dispatches, I mentioned that my first summer in the field was also the first time I ever went skinny dipping.  In fact, that is one of my favourite memories of that summer.  Skinny dipping is something of a tradition at the Queen’s Biology Station, where evening parties more often than not end with the last few party-goers relaxing on the lake shore.  Inevitably, someone will suggest that the next logical step is for everyone to strip and jump off the diving board.

The first time I went skinny-dipping was just such an evening.  I vividly remember the giggles, sidelong glances, and excitement as we all shed our clothes, and the rush to get into the water as fast as possible.  It was a perfect summer evening: the night air was soft and scented, rife with anticipation and sexual tension.  I remember lazily treading water in a circle with half a dozen others, feeling exposed but also sheltered by the dark water.

There have been many, many skinny dipping experiences since that first time, in lakes, rivers, and even in oceans.  For me, skinny dipping is now inextricably linked with fieldwork.  But over time, my feelings about the experience have evolved.

After leaving QUBS, I worked at a number of smaller field stations, some in very remote and isolated areas.  In most of these places, skinny dipping was much less of a tradition – in fact, in a couple of them, it was actively discouraged.  That didn’t mean that no one did it, of course, but it certainly changed the nature of the activity.  The excitement became more about transgression than sexual tension: the thrill of doing something you were not supposed to.  For me, a consummate ‘good girl’, that thrill was very appealing.

Of course, it turns out that some of those places discourage skinny dipping because they are just not ideal for the activity – which has led, on occasion, to a couple of rather epic skinny dipping fails.  One summer night just after the end of my first field season, I found myself on a Lake Erie beach with a couple of friends.  Emboldened by my field experience – and the fact that the beach was deserted at midnight – I managed to talk both of them into trying skinny dipping (which was definitely not permitted in this park).

The decision made, we glanced cautiously around before stripping off our shorts, tops, bras, and underwear, then tore towards the lake as fast as we could.  We flung ourselves in, feeling the bite of the cold water against our calves.  We ran farther…and still the water lapped against our calves.  We ran farther still…and now the water felt almost warm, and yet still came up no farther than our calves.  We began to glance rather desperately at one another.

In my newborn enthusiasm for skinny dipping, I had forgotten the reason that so many parents liked to bring their children to this particular beach: the extremely shallow plateau that extended for several hundred yards away from the shore.  Now, several hundred yards might not feel like a long distance when you’re wearing a bathing suit under the afternoon sun; however, it feels a good deal longer when you’re running stark naked in the dead of night.

I think about that experience every few months, when another story surfaces about tourists getting arrested for shedding their clothing in various notable, scenic, and even spiritually important places, such as Machu Picchu and Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu.  These hapless tourists are inevitably accused of being disrespectful – and I always wonder whether you could say the same thing about my nude foray into Lake Erie.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of it is disrespect: flouting the rules and defying authority.  Certainly, I’ve already admitted that there’s considerable appeal in the transgressive thrill of skinny dipping.  But over the last few years, that thrill has become less and less important to me.

The thing is, skinny dipping is at its best when it’s not rushed or panicked or fraught with sexual tension.  On those occasions when you can calmly slip naked into a quiet lake in the dark, and relax in water that is almost as warm as the air…on those occasions, skinny dipping is an almost spiritual experience.  It becomes about freedom and connection with the world around you, and more than anything, it becomes about being comfortable with your body, who you are, and where you are.

Now when I think of skinny dipping, I don’t picture giggling friends and stolen glances, or a headlong rush to make it to the water before being caught.  Now, I imagine a calm, dark Canadian Shield lake, the warm water lapping softly against the rocks, the stars stretching endlessly above.  Now, all these years after my first skinny dipping experience, I understand that nightswimming does deserve a quiet night.

Let’s talk field biology again

When Amanda, Sarah, and I started Dispatches from the Field almost three years ago, we wanted to inspire people to notice and love the nature around them.  Because doing field biology allows you to get to know a place intimately, we thought the best way to achieve our goal was by giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fieldwork: the triumphs and the frustrations of working in nature, and the incredible places and breathtaking sights that field biologists get to experience.

Over the past three years, we’ve posted more than 150 stories about fieldwork in locations as diverse as the Canadian arctic, the wilds of Patagonia, and a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic.  Our posts have drawn both on our own experiences and on those of our many guest posters, and they’ve been read and shared by thousands of people all around the world.  I think we’ve made great strides towards achieving our goal.

But sometimes, just writing about something isn’t enough, and there’s no better way to share the highs and lows of fieldwork than to give people the opportunity to experience the field for themselves!

A few weeks ago, Amanda wrote a post about an upcoming event that she and I were hosting as coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s University: the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House.  When she wrote that post, we were in the final, frantic stages of planning the event.  We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive: it can be difficult to get people to drive half an hour outside the city to attend an event, even if it is free.

When I woke up the morning of April 22nd, the grey skies and cold wind did not inspire my confidence.  But when I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, I saw I a text from Amanda: “Happy event day!!”

That set the tone for the day.  The weather wasn’t ideal, we had no idea whether or not people would come, but we were going ahead anyway!  We packed our cars with piles of field gear and food, gathered our many volunteers, and headed up to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre.

It took a couple of hours of frenzied preparation to set up for the many activities we had planned, including grad-student led modules on trapping birds, identifying plants, recording frog calls, and studying lake sediments.  We also filled the Elbow Lake Pavilion with a host of activities, ranging from making a smartphone microscope to painting with maggots (yes, you can do that!).

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Learning to record frog calls

But finally, we were ready to go.  And just as we put the finishing touches on our activities, the Pavilion door opened: our first visitors had arrived!

Over the course of the day, the clouds blew away, the sun came out to warm us, and we ended up welcoming almost 100 visitors.  Some stayed for only an hour, and some stayed for the entire day.  We showed people how to catch birds using a mist net, how to record frogs using a directional microphone and hip waders, and how to learn about past climates using sediment cores from the bottom of a lake.  Visitors learned to age trees by counting rings (the science of dendrochronology), built their own popsicle stick birdfeeders, and used maggots as paintbrushes to create explosions of colour on paper.

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Maggot art created by a group of Beavers & Scouts that visited the open house

As dusk fell, we gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about some of our favourite funny, scary, or inspiring fieldwork experiences.  And we finished the evening standing quietly on a bridge in the dark, listening to a cacophonous duet between two barred owls.

It was a magical day: despite our anxiety beforehand, it couldn’t have unfolded better.  We hope we’re not mistaken in believing that all the visitors who attended had a great time; however, we certainly know that the almost 20 volunteers who helped us plan and execute the event enjoyed it!

“It was a really neat experience to not only tell our stories out loud but to share them around the campfire. I think it is one thing to read about a story, but to actually hear it first-hand from the one who went through it – now that is putting a face to fieldwork!” – Sarah Wallace, field biologist and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

My favourite experience of the Open House was when we went in search of owls at dusk. The moment where the pure silence and peacefulness of that night was broken by an eruption of hoots and screeches is an unforgettable memory.” – John Serafini, field biologist and volunteer

“Having some children (and adults) really learn something new was inspiring to see. Watching people have that ‘aha’ moment while listening to our talks or going through the workshops really inspired me.” – Alastair Kierulf, Let’s Talk Science Volunteer

“I especially enjoyed both telling and listening to other people tell stories about the other amazing things that happen in the field, that might not necessarily be related to the focus of their research.  It really honed in on the unique experiences that make fieldwork what it is.  It didn’t matter if the stories were funny or frightening…people in attendance were all so interested in what we had to say, and for me that was a special moment!” – Amanda Tracey, Let’s Talk Science Coordinator and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

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Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”

 

By the time we stumbled out into the empty, dark parking lot at the end of the day, we were exhausted in the way that only fresh air and hard work can cause – but also tiredly thrilled to know that we had been able to share the enchantment of fieldwork with so many people, both adults and children.

Maybe some of those children will go on to be field biologists.  (In fact, at least one of our visitors said that was her career plan!)  But we think the experience was important for everyone.  It’s easy for us, as field biologists, to care about the amazing diversity of flora and fauna we get to see up close and personal.  But how can you expect people to care about what they never experience?

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A keen high school student holding a bird for the first time…future field biologist? I think so!

Conservation efforts won’t work if only a few have access to what we’re trying to conserve.  If we want people to care about, respect, and preserve the natural world, they need to feel it belongs to them too.  And that, ultimately, was our goal for Let’s Talk Field Biology.  We hope we succeeded.

 

If you came out to the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House, we’d love to hear from you!  Send us an e-mail or comment on our blog to let us know what your favourite part of the day was!

 

 

It’s the journey that matters

It’s that time of year again.  Buds decorate the trees, shoots are pushing their way up through the soil, and birds are sounding the first tentative notes of spring.  And at universities all across North America, field biologists are rushing around like headless chickens getting ready for the field season.

Each year, the advent of spring makes me think about the beginning of my first field season – specifically, my first journey out to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  I was driving my supervisor’s pride and joy: an ancient and enormous blue van, inexplicably named Pooh, which retained many aspects of its previous life as a travelling library, including solid wood bookshelves in the back.  The heat didn’t work, the radio produced only static, and the brakes were less than trustworthy.  I had never driven a vehicle that big before, and as I navigated the twists and turns of the extremely curvy road to the field station, I was both terrified and more than a little nauseous.  (Opinicon Road was, in fact, the first road to teach me that it is possible to get carsick even when you’re the one driving.)

Travelling in style: me and the very trustworthy Pooh.

Luckily, I made it safely to the station with both my breakfast and my supervisor’s precious field vehicle intact.  (Although, to be accurate, the vehicle wasn’t exactly intact, it just wasn’t any less intact than it had been at the start of the journey.)  And by the end of that summer, I had become extremely comfortable with both the road and the vehicle. In fact, perhaps too comfortable: one of the cottagers on Opinicon Road actually called QUBS to complain about the maniac driving the huge blue van.

Since that trip, I’ve done fieldwork at sites across the continent, and along the way, I’ve come to an important realization: in many cases, just getting out to a field site is more than half the battle.

Coming in for a landing on the Sable Island Beach

I’ve donned a bright orange survival suit to helicopter in to a remote tundra field station, covered my eyes in a small plane headed for a landing on an empty stretch of Sable Island beach, and convulsively gripped the passenger door on a high speed night drive along Carmel Valley Road in California – well known for its blind curves – trying not to worry about the fact that my boss did not seem terribly concerned about driving on any particular side of the road.

But if I were awarding prizes for most arduous journey to a field site, first place would go to an unexpected place: a small island in the middle of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

When I agreed to work as a field assistant for my friend, helping her to catch some of the terns nesting in the large colony on Egg Island, I didn’t think much about the journey.  After all, Manitoba was certainly not the farthest I’ve travelled for fieldwork.  I figured one short flight and I’d be ready to go.

My journey from Kingston to Egg Island started at 5:00 a.m. one hot June morning, when I boarded a tiny prop plane at the equally tiny Kingston airport.  In Toronto, I changed to a bigger plane for the flight to Winnipeg.  After arriving in Winnipeg, I jumped into my friend’s field truck, and – once we’d purchased enough groceries for a month and survived a couple of false starts (a result of my abysmal navigation skills) – we drove the 3 hours out to a ferry dock on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.

When we arrived at the deserted dock, it seemed almost inconceivable that a ferry would ever actually show up.  Apart from a couple of apparently abandoned vehicles, the gravel lot was empty; the only sign of human presence was a trailer that had seen better days and a single man standing outside it smoking.  He seemed bemused by our presence, and gleefully informed us that, contrary to what we’d been told by our contacts, the ferry wouldn’t be coming back for at least another day.

How better to spend your time on the long ferry ride than grilling some steaks?

After a panicked conference, we decided to trust our instructions, and wait it out.  And after a mere 2 hours, a dot appeared on the lake: our ride was on its way.

There wasn’t really anywhere for passengers to stand on the tiny ferry, so we spent the hour-long ride in the car, watching curiously as one of the ferry crew lit a barbecue on deck and applied himself to cooking some steaks.

The ferry dropped us off in Princess Harbour, a tiny community of approximately 6 souls.  We parked the truck beside our cabin, tossed the groceries into the fridge, grabbed our field gear…and then climbed into yet another (smaller) boat to head out to the island itself.

The trip from Princess Harbour to Egg Island took almost another hour, but finally, after the majority of the day in transit, we approached our goal, a tiny splash of sand in the middle of the lake.

As we approached the island, the raucous screams of terns floated across the water, indicating that we were in the right place.  However, as we got closer to the island’s only safe access point, we realized there was a slight wrinkle in our plans: part of the island had flooded, leaving the small beach where the boat could land cut off from the main body of the island.

After unsuccessfully circling the island to look for other access points, we landed on the beach and clambered out to inspect the flooded area.  It turned out that the water was shallow – relatively speaking.  Before my friend even opened her mouth, I could guess what was coming.  She pulled on her waders and strode cheerfully into the lake, quickly becoming submerged to the knees.

My very determined friend dons her waders and heads straight for the tern colony.

Unfortunately, as a terrestrial bird biologist, waders are one of the few items of field clothing that I do not own.  I stared blankly after her for a few seconds, before realizing there was nothing else for it: I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and followed her cautiously into the water.

It was mid-June, and the lake was still quite cold.  I couldn’t see the bottom through the murky water, and the sand shifted under my feet with each step, making the journey quite perilous – especially considering that none of the expensive equipment in my backpack was waterproofed.

Halfway across, I slipped and nearly fell face-first into the water.  Although I managed to regain my footing just in time, my pants began to unroll themselves.  Since both my hands were occupied with field gear, there was nothing I could do about it as the cuffs unrolled towards the water.  As they hit the surface, they began absorbing water, which wicked rapidly up my pants, ensuring that by the time I reached the main part of the island, I was soaked through to my underwear.  I’ve never been so happy to step onto a beach – even if it was covered in bird guano and ringing with the screams of terns.

For the next three weeks, every day began the same way: a bumpy, windy boat ride to the island, followed by a nerve-wracking wade over to the colony.  Despite my best efforts, my pants always unrolled themselves halfway across, and every day I sloshed up onto the beach soaked and swearing.

But every day, the sunshine and light breeze dried me off quickly, and by lunchtime, I would be warm and content on the beach, munching my sandwich and relishing in the fact that we had the entire island to ourselves.  And I think that’s the real lesson here.  Field scientists get to experience places that many other people don’t, and that often involves a long, arduous, and frustrating journey.  But once you’re out there, there’s no doubt that the journey was worth it.

Let’s Talk Field Biology

The reason we write about our funny, challenging and triumphant fieldwork stories each week is because field biology is something only the luckiest of people get to experience. Most people probably don’t even realize what fieldwork is –  what questions are being asked and answered, the toll it can take on a person, both physically and emotionally, or the many interesting and unique places fieldwork can take you. In fact, I never knew any of these things, until I was hired as a field assistant in a plant ecology lab.

While our blog attracts mostly adult readers, children are often fascinated and excited by our stories. So, when Catherine and I (unbeknownst to each other) were both hired as Coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s, we were on the same page almost immediately. Let’s Talk Science is a national organization that plans and delivers science outreach activities to elementary and high school students. Catherine and I knew we had to host an event related to field biology, with a focus on children and families. We had originally chatted about this in April 2016, and now here we are in April 2017, just a mere two weeks away from the day of the event.

Let’s Talk Field Biology is a free event, spanning the afternoon and evening of Earth Day, April 22, 2017. The goal of this event is to highlight some of the important ecological, evolutionary and behavioural questions that field researchers ask, and the methods we use to answer them. To achieve this, we will offer a series of hands-on activities including plant, frog, bird and limnology modules, with expert data collection, species identification, and field sampling techniques. Additional programming will give people the opportunity to explore even more areas of science. For example, the opportunity to experience dendrology and practice aging some tree sections, or the opportunity to examine leaves under a microscope made from their very own smart phone!

As the evening sets in, the activities will continue with a “family fieldwork storytime” where Dispatches from the Field (Catherine, Sarah, and I) will tell of some hilarious, freaky, and awe-inspiring fieldwork stories around the campfire. The day will end with an exciting night hike around the property, with hopes of finding a few owls while we are at it. It promises to be a great time for everyone and if you’re reading this and close to Kingston, stop by and check it out! It is taking place at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, a campus of the Queen’s University Biological Station, from 2:00 PM to 8:30 PM on Saturday April 22, 2017!

A beautiful shot of Elbow Lake

Fieldwork is what made me fall in love with biology. It made me appreciate the natural world around me, has helped me develop critical thinking skills, has bolstered my creativity and above all else, has kept me sane over the course of my PhD. Organizing an event this size is no small feat and to make it possible we have needed to bring together a big team of people. What I loved about this collaborative nature was that we have people from all different backgrounds and experiences coming together to plan this event.

We wanted to give a shout out to one of the students who stepped up for us and has helped us every step of the way so far. Shannon Cotter joined the Let’s Talk Science Executive Team at Queen’s as the Let’s Talk Field Biology Liaison. Shannon is a 4th year student studying Biology. She took a mandatory third year Ecology course where she was first introduced to field biology and says that this has been extremely helpful in the planning of the event. She notes that, “This class [the Ecology one] required a day of field work at the Queen’s University Biological Station and involved bird, fish and insect modules, and we used this experience as a model for our event”. Having been so involved in the planning of the event, Shannon says she is looking forward to interacting with students from the Kingston community and sharing her experiences in field biology with them. She hopes that the experience will be “eye-opening” for young people in terms of promoting and developing an interest in STEM, but also showcasing the great work that field biologists do, and the many possible career paths that involve some sort of field work.

 

Shannon is originally from Mississauga, Ontario but has been living in Kingston attending Queen’s since 2013. Her major is Biology but she is also enrolled in the Certificate of Business and the International Studies Certificate. This is her first year volunteering with Let’s Talk Science and has thoroughly enjoyed the outreach visits and organizing Let’s Talk Field Biology.

The bear necessities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolated ranch field site in the Okanagan

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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