The Rana Scare (and everything that happened before)

This week we are happy to welcome Lucy Chen who shares her story of getting to know fieldwork and her lab mates! For more about Lucy, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It was early spring, and the trees around us were budding fresh green leaves.

“So…. What do you do for fun up there?”

Lucy holding a Wood Frog found in the wild on a hiking trip, not long after arriving at QUBS. Little did she know what would happen in the next two months.

That was my umpteenth attempt to engage Tash, the lab technician, in conversation. We were driving along the sinuous road leading to the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS), which boasts some 3400 hectares of land within the Frontenac Axis in Ontario. I had won a scholarship to do a summer research project on the effects of oil-sands contaminants on wood frogs, and it was going to be my first time running an exposure experiment in the field. The main experiment has already started; since I had been thrown right into the middle of it all, I wanted desperately to catch up.

Tash’s aura of effortless badassery impressed me, but unfortunately my admiration for her seemed one-sided, as she was rather taciturn that morning. She answered all my questions nicely and matter-of-factedly, but then I’d run out of things to ask her, and silence would ensue. I felt we were both exhausted by my interrogation technique, which I learned from a workshop on how to bond with strangers. You gotta peel the onion, the spunky presenter had said, ask follow-up questions! The trouble was, no one told me what to do when the other person didn’t reciprocate with an equally enthusiastic volley of ­onion-peeling.

As I mulled over my social ineptitude, we turned onto a little country path off the road, flanked by a field on one side and a forest on the other. Toward the end of the path was “The Lodge”—the visitor centre and cafeteria of QUBS, an elegant, spacious building that looked like an oversized cabin. Our experimental site was a small clearing in the woods with a shed and eight large cattle tanks, each containing hundreds of tadpoles housed in stainless-steel bowls. Tash took me to our cabin by Opinicon Lake, just steps away from the tadpoles. I dropped off my things, took a deep breath—thus began my first day at QUBS.

Lake Opinicon in the summer.

My question about “fun” was soon answered. The Lodge was the social hub of QUBS, being the one of the only buildings with precious access to the internet. The dozen-or-so young researchers in residence would drive to a town six kilometers away to stock up on beverages and then frequently spend their evenings playing drinking games—one of the great highlights of the QUBS experience, to my horror. As I lacked anything to drink that first evening, I puritanically took a cup of water to the table. “Act normal,” I told myself, casually sipping away at my colourless liquid like I was really having fun. I spent a lot of the evening scanning the room to assess the social hierarchy: the alphas (life of the party), the butt of the jokes (chill dudes), the provocateurs, and the harmony-loving followers. Exhausted from the hard work of keeping up with the banter, I fell into a dreamless slumber that night. I had always thought of field work as solitary work involving only a few lab mates, so that first night at QUBS caught me completely unprepared.

I would have felt totally out of place if not for Sam, an incoming grad student and my other colleague at QUBS. Together, we would run two parallel experiments on the tadpoles over the summer. Sam was very tall with a childlike, carefree demeanor, perpetually cheerful and often singled out by cafeteria ladies to help with chores. Fueled by copious amounts of coffee and Youtube videos every morning, he could instantly recall any piece of information and animate any dull conversation. Most importantly, he could make Tash tell funny stories. In short, to me, Sam was a rainbow-pooping unicorn.

Despite my initial misgivings, curiosity quickly got the better of me. Never had I been in a place with so many knowledgeable people and so many strange gadgets. There were the bird people, who got up at ungodly hours; the mice people, who trekked around the woods all day setting rodent traps filled with peanut butter and apple chunks; and the fish people, who plunged into freezing lake water and came back with fingers bleeding from fish spines. Apart from the researchers, there were the wonderful cafeteria ladies Laura, Veronica and Crystal, who fed us very nice food, which also helped put me out of my antisocial mood. The second day, I devised a plan. I made it a point to talk to everyone about their work to become more comfortable around people at future social events. I also asked Veronica for her baked fries recipe, which turned out chewy, subtly garlicky spuds (For the rest of the summer, she and Laura would sneak leftover food for me to snack on after dinner so that I wouldn’t go “starving”).

Although my social life at QUBS was looking up, as the new comer, I still struggled to understand the daily logistical concerns of my lab mates. How should we schedule sampling days? How many cryovials do we need for tissue samples? Would certain sampling tools arrive too late, and if so, what should we do? I had no idea how to contribute to these conversations, which bothered me.

Collecting pond water with Aaron, the summer field technician (left), Tash (centre), and Sam (right).

My feeling of uselessness was not helped by my physical frailty. The water we used to raise our tadpoles came from a shallow vernal pond nearby every two weeks, we needed to put on chest-waders to collect dozens of buckets of it. I quickly learned that I could barely keep my head above water; my skinny arms could barely sustain the weight of one bucket. To cheer myself up, I took it upon myself to document the entire experiment with my camera. Looking back, I don’t think Sam and Tash minded me not knowing anything about purchasing equipment or not carrying the water, but it certainly made me question whether fieldwork was really my thing.

Fortunately, as summer drew near, lush green ferns started unfurling their fronds all around the lakes. I diverted myself by going around the property collecting pressed fern samples. (Sam took an interest in my Victorian hobby and helped me find the best spots.) The good weather also led to campfire nights, where I discovered Tash’s penchant for sassy, off-colour jokes. I began to appreciate these social events, which made working in the field a great deal more tolerable. Moreover, once my tadpoles were old enough for me to perform behaviour tests on them, I threw myself into the work and felt a lot better. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Me (left), Lauren (centre) and Tash (right) at our field site, taken with Lauren’s phone with a fish-eye lense she borrowed from Sam.

Gradually, we all settled into a routine, checking in on the tadpoles in the morning and prepping for sampling days in the afternoon. As the tadpoles approached metamorphosis, popping out little arms and taking on the droll appearance of strange four-legged fish, we found out that a volunteer student, Lauren, was coming up to help us. When Lauren first saw our tadpoles, she squealed with excitement. Lauren had a great sense of fun, and her amazement at everything made her a refreshing addition to our team. Lauren’s time with us was really the highlight of the summer, packed with star-gazing trips and canoe outings on the lake.

Riding on the waves of everyone’s high spirits, I went home for a break. Little did I know that, while I was away, half of our tadpoles would die from a Ranavirus outbreak. When I came back, I met a crestfallen Lauren by the lake and ran to the Lodge to find Sam with bloodshot eyes—there went his thesis experiment! My stomach churned. I felt worse for Sam than for myself. Sam had been researching Ranavirus for two days ever since he stumbled upon the tadpoles dying en masse. He told me that this specific genus of virus was a significant contributing factor for the global decline of amphibians. The virus most likely had lain dormant in the pond from which we collected water and became active with the warm weather. The virus quickly spread as the tadpoles started cannibalizing the infected cadavers.

I’m pretty sure some expletives were used as we sat together trying to come to terms with this terrible surprise. They were so close to becoming frogs, we said in disbelief, how could Mother Nature do this to us? I remembered something one of the fish people told me: “Anything that can go wrong in the field will go wrong.” It’s amazing how much truth is contained in this smug little aphorism. We took out the pale, lifeless little bodies out of their buckets and watched them pile up. We all felt personally responsible for their deaths. Fortunately, our supervisor drove up to comfort us as soon as she could. She reassured us again and again that it wasn’t our fault, and that we still had enough data to make it all worthwhile.

Ultimately, I truly believe our shared misery brought us closer than ever. We cut the experiments short, sampled the surviving tadpoles, and packed our things into the lab van. As Sam, Tash and I drove away from QUBS down a road now bordered with lushly verdant trees, we talked and laughed and joked about abandoning our careers in academia. Was it wrong to leave the field with such a feeling of relief? One thing was certain: I never thought that my first experience in the field would be so fraught with emotions.

Lucy X. Chen spent one year studying wood frogs at the QE3 lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, headed by Dr. Diane Orihel. Lucy graduated from Queen’s with a BSc in Environmental Science and Philosophy, and will start an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management at Oxford University starting October 2018. Her further adventures and musings will be chronicled at lucyxchen.wordpress.com.

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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

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.