Tales of Turtles In New York City

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Rebecca Czaja, a recent graduate, to share her fieldwork story from her Masters project studying turtles in New York City (yes you heard her!). Check out the end of the post for more about Rebecca!

Turtles in New York City? That’s the reaction I usually get when I explain my Masters research project. I worked with the Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project, which has been studying diamondback terrapins at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) for almost 20 years. JBWR, which sits on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is not only the nesting site for hundreds of terrapins but also an important habitat for migratory and resident birds, insects, and other reptiles.

As part of a long term monitoring and conservation project, I was responsible for finding nesting terrapins, which are then collected to gather data such as weight and shell length. In addition, a protective cage is placed over the nests to prevent predation. Finding a nesting terrapin without scaring her off the nest requires a little bit of skill, good eyes (or binoculars), and a lot of luck. While a few terrapins are bold enough to nest right at your feet, most will abandon their attempt to nest if they see you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself tiptoeing through thorny rose bushes or carefully kneeling in a field of poison ivy just to hide from a terrapin. The key is to stay out of sight until she’s laid her eggs, at which point she’ll finish burying the eggs even if you get too close for comfort. How do you know she’s done laying her eggs? She does a little dance. As she pushes dirt into the hole and pats it down, she appears to be doing a jig.

diamondback terrapin

A female diamondback terrapin collected after nesting.

For my project, I focused on studying how precipitation impacts whether terrapin nests get eaten by raccoons. In addition to monitoring unprotected, natural nests for signs of predation, I also built and monitored over 200 artificial nests.

There are a bunch of possible ways to build artificial nests. I picked the simplest method: dig a small hole and fill it back up. Even without any eggs or terrapin scent, raccoons were attracted to these nests. I also tried filling nests with terrapin-scented sand, which was made by putting a terrapin in a box full of sand for at least 20 minutes. Unfortunately, getting the sand to smell just enough like a natural nest is an imprecise science. The terrapin-scented artificial nests ended up smelling so strongly that raccoons tried to predate every single nest, rain or shine. But the beauty of science is you live and you learn. So I stuck with artificial nests filled with plain old sand.

plastic bottle used for a rain gauge

Ecology is the art of doing meaningful science with the simplest materials. My rain gauges were made from plastic bottles washed up onshore, duct tape, and sticks.

Doing research that depends on it raining at just the right time is nerve-wracking, to say the least. The month of June was unusually dry this summer, which left me constantly worried that I’d never get enough rain to finish the project. Especially because I not only needed it to rain, but to rain on a day when I had found a nesting terrapin. The first time it rained on a day when I had natural nests, I was ecstatic. The rain was unexpected, so I only had about an hour’s warning to hurry almost 1.5 miles across the park to place rain gauges at my nests. Fueled by my excitement, I got the rain gauges installed just in time. Of course, on the walk back I got soaked by the downpour and was chased by a Canada goose, but nothing was going to spoil my day!


Terrapin nesting season lasts about two months at JBWR, and then come the hatchlings. Yes, they’re as cute as you’re imagining. Just like adult females, hatchlings are measured and weighed. I then cut out a small piece from the edge of their shell in a specific location so that if they’re recaptured as adults, we’ll know what year they hatched. The piece of shell will also be used for DNA analysis. Hatchlings are then released near their nest, where they either run for cover in some vegetation or make a break for the water. All we can do from that point on is hope we see them again when the females are old enough to nest!

diamondback terrapin hatchlings

Diamondback terrapin hatchlings after being released at JBWR

It’s amazing to think that less than a year ago I didn’t even know there were turtles in New York City. My Masters project taught me a lot: beach trash has endless uses, rain is unpredictable, and terrapins are much faster on land than you expect. But most importantly it reminded me each and every day of nature’s resilience. Watching a new cohort of terrapins hatch and make their way into Jamaica Bay’s marshes, despite pollution and habitat destruction, makes me optimistic that there’s still time to protect mother nature’s invaluable resources and beauty.

Rebecca CzajaRebecca Czaja recently completed her Masters in Marine Biology at Northeastern University. She conducted her Masters research project in Dr. Russell Burke’s lab at Hofstra University. She is also an alum of Tufts University, where she studied Biology and Environmental Studies.

Twitter: @becca_sea

Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.


A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.


The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.

This land is our land

In honour of Canada Day, we wanted to highlighted some of the cool, interesting, funny, or neat stories about fieldwork in Canada that we have shared on Dispatches from the Field over the years. Our blog tells stories from fieldwork happening all across the country, and also across many different species. We do truly live in a great country – check out these blogs for yourself!

Beginning in the west, Catherine D. shares why bluebird at a nest boxeveryone loves bluebirds in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia,

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset.

Julia S. shows us the varied habitats of Alberta’s boreal forest,

Feeling smalland Krista C. shares her adventures in the Land of Living Skies in Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan.


From the great white North, Michelle V. explains how she prepared for polar bear fieldwork.

Sampling polar bear poop.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.Julia C. and Rachael H. share their hilarious (sorry Julia) beaver story from the Muskoka region of Ontario where they almost flip the canoe, while Melanie S. explains how help is always where you least expect it.




Southern Ontario is quite busy with field biologists, with Jenna S. running around in fields chasing butterflies, Toby T. listening for what the bat said, and Amanda X. searching for snakes on a [fragmented] plain.

catching butterflies in nets in the field

A big brown bat

Adorable baby eastern foxsnakes emerge from their eggs only to be fondled by eager researchers


Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.Fieldwork is very popular at the Queen’s University Biology Station in southeastern Ontario.  Amanda C. spends her nights at the symphony listening to the frog chorus,

Me counting seedlings




Amanda T. collects beautiful wildflower seeds (being both wonderful and disastrous at the same time),


Liz P. plays hide and go seek with whip-poor-wills,  and Adam M. creates robots for sampling daphnia.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake






As we head to the east coast, Michelle L. shares what it is like to collect salmon eggs in New Brunswick…in the winter.


We will leave you with a short variation on a great song:

This land is your land, this land is my land,

From Bonavista, to Vancouver Island (or studying seabirds off the coast of Labrador with Anna T. to Haida Gwaii with Sarah W.)

From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters, (or what to do with your not so “down time” in Nunavut with Kathryn H. to getting stuck in beaver pond sampling aquatic invertebrates in Muskoka with Alex R.)

This land was made for you and me.

Sunset on the tundra

Did you say you work with rattlesnakes… In Ontario?

We are pleased to welcome Rachael Hornsby to the blog this week. Rachael is an MSc student at Queen’s University working in a freshwater fisheries conservation lab. For our avid readers, Rachael is the Rachael featured in the previous post Julia and Rachael’s excellent Muskoka adventure. For more about Rachael, see the end of her post.

It was the hottest day yet of the summer. No clouds, no wind, just 35°C plus 80% humidity and 100% bugs. ALL OF THE BUGS. It was my first time truly out in the field during my undergrad and we were looking for seven species of snakes found near Parry Sound, Ontario. I had neglected to tell the Master’s students I was volunteering with that I was afraid of snakes… you know, I figured if I didn’t tell anyone then I couldn’t be afraid and I would get over it. Much to my surprise, it worked! I held my very first snake that day, a cute (yes, snakes are cute) little Northern Ring-necked snake. Even though I woke up the next day with my face so covered in bug bites my mom thought I had the mumps, it was the start of a new beginning.

After my volunteering experience, I landed a job with Ontario Parks as a snake species at risk student researcher, specifically working with the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. I helped build snake fencing along park roads and hooked the fencing up to eco passages, responded to radio calls about the rattlesnakes that found their way onto campsites, conducted emergence and gestation surveys, and even pit tagged the rattlesnakes to keep track of the park population. I can tell you that there’s nothing like arriving to a campsite with a 40 year old man dancing on top of a picnic table, yelling “It’s under the Rubbermaid bin! It’s under the Rubbermaid bin!” while his wife laughs and comments that a 20-year-old girl is here to rescue him.

The park has a great set up, over 7 km of fencing lining roads and 4 eco passages equipped with pit tag readers and trail cams to see which snakes cross the road and when. One of my daily tasks was to walk the fences looking for damage and any rattlesnakes that found their way there. In a place where almost 6000 campers are camping at any given time, a girl walking with a hook and a pillowcase just inside the woods tends to attract quite a bit of attention. I met a lot of really interesting people, who had A LOT of questions, so I compiled some cool facts about the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake.

image 5

A female Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake displaying unique back patterns

Did you know?

  • They are Ontario’s only venomous species of snake (the Timber Rattlesnake is extirpated) and currently listed as ‘Threatened’ under the Ontario ESA and SARA
  • They give live birth to 11-15 young
  • 25% of the time an adult will give a ‘dry bite’ – a bite with no venom
  • Although venomous, only 2 people in Ontario’s recorded history have ever died from a bite and they never sought medical treatment (you should always go to the hospital if bitten!)
  • Like a fingerprint, each snake has a unique back pattern that can be used to identify it
  • They have limited ranges. Moving one further than 1 km from its capture site might kill it because they use the same general hibernation sites year after year. If they can’t find this hibernation site they might not survive the winter.

I also had the opportunity to work on a project looking at whether Massasaugas can be relocated to new hibernation sites, in order to reduce the impact of a 4 lane highway expansion. This was one of my favourite field jobs;10+ hour days hiking through the woods tracking adult rattlesnakes equipped with radio transmitters. Several times I had to enter a graminoid marsh, vegetation up to my hips, with dead veg underneath, just strong enough to support a rattlesnake at knee level instead of ankle level. Your mind starts to wonder: I’m tracking 3 snakes in here… so how many untagged ones are nearby?

image 1

My Dad helping to coax a young Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake into the tube before processing

image 2

Jen Mills holding the rattlesnake in the tube while I measure its tail to determine sex


image 3

Pit tagging the rattlesnake for future ID and detection through eco passages

The most surreal experience happened one day while I was sitting eating lunch on a rock outcrop. I noticed some flagging tape running north through the adjacent trees. It turns out that where I was sitting was the future home of the two northbound highway lanes. To this day nothing compares to the feeling of sitting quiet in an undisturbed forest, knowing in a couple years it will be forever altered but that I had a hand in making a difference to the snakes that call it home.

It’s funny how things change. I started out being afraid but now after completing several years of fieldwork with the Eastern Massasauga, I long for the days that I watched my step and listened intently for the rattling sound of my legless friends in the woods.

image 4

Rachael holding a Gray Ratsnake

Rachael completed her Bachelor of Science at Queen’s University during which she spent her summers working with rattlesnakes in the Georgian Bay area. After graduating she spent a year working with snakes and honing her radio telemetry skills before returning to school. She is currently a masters student in the Freshwater Fisheries Conservation Lab at Queen’s University, using acoustic telemetry to study how competitive fishing tournaments affect black bass movements in Eastern Lake Ontario.




Making with the ha-ha

We are excited to welcome the super-talented Liv Monck-Whipp to the blog today. Liv is the creator of Tails From the Field and write for us about how she uses humour to share her fieldwork stories. Make sure you check out her site – it’s hilarious!

It was shortly after getting attacked by a Ruffed Grouse in Algonquin Park that I decided to start making comics about fieldwork. I had been making my way out of the woods after monitoring some thrush and warbler nests, and I accidentally strayed into a mamma grouse’s domain. She did not take kindly to this (I am a big scary predator lookin’ thing, or at least so I like to tell myself), and while her brood flew hither and thither, she flew straight at my eyes. Luckily I was able to brush her off before she did any serious damage, and she set about buzzing by my head, perching on my shoulder to flap into my face. She continued her assault until she decided a broken wing display was more effective, and I thankfully escaped with my life. True story.

Photo of a toad that says toad-a-lly awesome

And my friends thought my dramatic re-enactment of this story was pretty hilarious. Much in the way so many of us gathered to guffaw around #fieldworkfail, stories of minor mishaps and equipment failing*, or weird study subject behaviour, if told with a dollop of humour, can be used to grab the attention and interest of non-fieldworkers and fieldworkers alike. And it’s not just the fails that amuse us. I know that you know that your field biology and/or naturalist friends have some of the cheesiest nature puns and jokes out there (and please send them all to me!). These are the product of true geekery – being so into your subject that you can’t help but inject it into everything with a grin.

That harrowing grouse encounter was pretty early into my field days. My second season out there, and I was starting to appreciate how hilarious field work could be. From the surrealness of explaining to my relatives that I couldn’t visit unless it was raining, to waking up covered in slugs, there were a lot of funny-weird, and funny-ha-ha things. And I loved it. And I wanted to communicate about how awesome it was.

I’m a web comic addict (often catching up on them once the field season is over!). So when I wanted to tell stories and in-jokes, I thought in comic-terms. Comics, if you think about it, are a really elegant way of delivering a story or idea in a short amount of time. They allow for the nuances of facial expressions, and the hyperbole of exaggerated figures to come through without using up text. The messages are usually quick, and humorous.


For my first few field seasons I was an assistant for graduate students working on bird and turtle studies out of Algonquin Park. Then I decided I wanted to do my own graduate work, and began studying bats in farmland. Somewhere in there, I worked for a large land trust doing conservation work, and I also got to radio track snakes and turtles for another study. This actually left me with a lot of “thinky” time in the field: hiking or canoeing long distances, or quietly getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while waiting for a bird to return to its nest. In this time I started to come up with comics and jot them down in my notebook**. Positive feedback from friends and co-workers convinced me that there would be a niche (geddit, geddit?!) for field work and ecology themed comics.

Laughter is a universal language. While I wanted to amuse others involved in field biology, I firmly believe that jokes and funny stories are some of the best ways to engage people about subjects you love, no matter their background. Humour can help to reduce the “stuffy scientist” image a bit, or lighten up an academic lecture. By sharing our sillier sides with each other and with the public we can gleefully spread our enthusiasm, and demonstrate just why fieldwork is so dang interesting.

So crack jokes in your talks, do that wacky impression of your study species’s mating call, and by all means, include that anecdote about “this one time we were out in the field and…”



**Always have a notebook. Always.


Liv just finished her MSc at Carleton on the influence of crop arrangement and composition on bats. She did her BSc in Zoology at the University of Guelph, and then took off into the woods for awhile to assist in studies investigating nest protection for turtles, road mitigation for reptiles, and the effects of logging techniques on birds and vegetation communities. She also enjoys contributing to citizen science projects and is the creator of Tails From the Field, a web comic about field biology and nature.

A night at the symphony

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Amanda Cicchino, who shares some of her adventures wading through the marshes of QUBS in the dark to record frog songs.  For more about Amanda, check out her bio at the end of this post.

I like to compare the frog chorus to a symphony. The orchestra in this case is composed of many different species, each with the same end goal. The timing and frequencies of the noises they make have been molded over time to allow them to be heard simultaneously, yet they still compete with one another. Over the course of the night, the entire chorus comes together and tells a story.

My last field season was done at QUBS (Queen’s University Biological Station) and focused on frog acoustics. As I learned from presenting a poster at the annual Open House, not many people are aware of the different sounds frogs and toads can make. Though some species sound quite pleasant, others present you with ear-splitting, gurgling screams that result in a pounding headache1. Most frogs and toads call during the breeding season as a way to attract mates. Most calling and breeding is done at night in marshes or swamps. My original aim for that season was to record the mating calls of Spring Peepers to supplement a dataset, but I developed a “small” side-project with a lab-mate that would require recordings from each species found at QUBS2. What a shame.

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.

Single, lonely spring peeper seeks soulmate…

A typical night of sampling involves organization and proper preparation. Prior to leaving for the site, a few cups of coffee must be ingested, with at least one travel mug packed. The field pack must include digital calipers (to measure the frogs), plastic calipers (in case it rains and the digital ones can’t be used), multiple flashlights and headlamps, a heat gun, my notebook and pencil, recording equipment, back-up batteries (in case the ones in the devices die during the night), and emergency back-up batteries (in case the back-ups die or spontaneously combust3). Everything digital is kept in Ziploc bags in case it rains through the car or through the rain-cover on the pack.

Wearing the right attire is also a necessity for a smooth sampling night2. Fashion has always been a priority in my life, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to maintain that passion while sampling. Since the first frogs (typically Wood Frogs) begin calling when there is still ice floating on the marsh, the temperatures I sample in can be quite low.  I won’t bore you with specifics of how I dress, but I do want to give you an image of how I feel I look.  (But also stuffed into brown neoprene chest-waders). Of course, dressing with that many layers might impede my speed and agility in the marsh, so I tend to invest in good thermal clothes.

Once the sun sets, a few individuals will start to call until the peak is hit and the chorus is in full swing. My sampling begins at the peak and ends either when I have transected the whole marsh, reached my sample size limit for the site, or the chorus goes silent (usually the last one). I record every individual I come across for at least 20 consecutive calls using a Marantz PMD660 recorder and Sennheiser microphone. This can look quite humourous as the microphone is at least 30cm long and some frogs are approximately 2cm in length. I then catch the individuals and take morphometric measurements before releasing them. This can be a slow process as some individuals are “mic shy”. When they stop calling once the microphone is put near them, my general tactic is to turn off all my lights, splash a bit, and wait. Usually after a minute, they start calling again and I can feel good about myself for out-smarting a 2cm long frog. This tactic does not have to be employed too often, as I find that frogs can be quite bold. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a frog making mating calls when the lower half of its body was inside a snake’s mouth. Once I have finished my sampling, exhausted and exhilarated, I look forward to reliving the night when I analyze the call recordings the next day.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

Perhaps comparing a frog chorus to a symphony seems a bit quixotic, but they do have some similarities. They both require a specific dress code, they both overlay impressive sounds and rhythms, and they both tell an extravagant story. Of course, the frog chorus’s story is one of acoustic niche and evolution, but that is one of the most interesting stories I can think of! This kind of field work isn’t for everyone, but I truly love it. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a marsh during peak breeding season, with a full chorus of hundreds of frogs desperately calling to attract a mate. The frog chorus is quite literally music to my ears.

  1. Google ‘Bird Voiced Tree Frog call” and “American Toad call” for this comparison. You may want to make sure your speakers are turned a bit low for the latter.
  2. Please beware of extreme sarcasm used ahead.
  3. A pessimistic mindset leads to the best preparation.

AmandaAmanda recently completed her BScH at Queen’s University, researching acoustic divergence in the Spring Peeper for her Honour’s thesis. She is starting her MSc at Queen’s this fall, and will continue to study the role of mating systems on speciation.

The spider forest

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome guest blogger Scott Lillie, the author of the book “Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist“. Check out his bio at the end of the post!

One summer I found myself doing nesting bird surveys for the federally threatened south western willow flycatcher. While most of June I spent bushwhacking through thick forests of tamarisk in extreme temperatures one day I got a different opportunity, kayak surveys. There were some parts of the lake that still flowed well into the forested areas, and while the tamarisk could not survive being inundated with water, the native willows and cottonwoods could. The idea of gently floating on the lake listening for birds calls sounded amazing, but there turned out to be a catch.

My expectations did not match the reality. My site was filled with dead trees half underwater. Everywhere I looked the dead trees expanded for what seemed like miles. Paddling was no longer an option, and so I simply pulled my kayak along using the dead trees.

After paddling a few feet into the dead forest I felt something hit my face: sticky threads of a spider web. I turned the kayak slightly to get a view looking into the sunrise, and my stomach dropped. When the first rays of the sun hit the dead trees, thousands of large spider webs began to shine in the sun. Every tree was connected by them. It reminded me of something out of a horror movie. There was no going around them. I knew I could not call off my surveys because of spiders. If I did, I might as well just pack up my tent, go home, and throw away my diploma because my career as a biologist would be over. Time to grow up. I swallowed my fear and started in.

At first, I was using my paddle to cut through the webs, but after almost tipping over twice I just started using my hands—no need to endanger the $1000 pair of binoculars they gave me to avoid spider webs. After making pretty good progress in the forest I felt something crawling on my head. I lost it. I flailed madly. I made contact with one of my frantic blows. It was a spider, a large brown spider. It hit the water of the lake and—to my horror—the spider stayed afloat. It could run on the water due to the surface tension, and came right back to my kayak. At this point, I stopped looking for birds and looked at my kayak. This was another bad choice. I saw three more large spiders on the front of my kayak, then another climbing on the side. I feel like I handled myself heroically until I felt the ones on my legs. I immediately leaned over to reach into the kayak and hit the spider on my leg. The shift in weight made my kayak lurch sharply to the right, and just like in training, I over corrected, and into the water I went.

Now I was floating in water holding my $1000 pair of binoculars over my head in one hand and holding onto the kayak with the other. I looked around. No shore in site. I knew the closest shore was through the spider forest. I knew it, but it didn’t mean I had to like it.

It was almost a quarter of a mile to shore. A quarter mile of swimming in hiking boots and dragging a kayak! After finally making it to shore I emptied the water out of the kayak and laid some of my wet clothes to dry on top of my kayak to dry. I decided to take a break and sit in the shade for a minute.

I ended up nodding off to sleep. It was just a brief nap. Upon walking back to the kayak to retrieve my clothes, I was surprised to find one of the largest western diamondback rattlesnakes I have ever seen stretched out next to my kayak. Most days, I would have loved to see it, but since I had surveys to do and it was essentially guarding my clothes, it was rather inconvenient.

An encounter with a snake in the field


I decided to stomp my feet and try to scare it away. If you ever want to feel ridiculous, try yelling and stomping your feet at a five-foot-long rattlesnake while wearing nothing but your boxers. Needless to say, it did not go away. Instead, it retreated to safety underneath my kayak, which I had flipped upside down to dry out. After a minute, I flipped the kayak and the snake immediately started rattling and backing up to the kayak again.

I was able to retrieve my boots, which had been placed at the base of the kayak. I found a stick to move the snake. Having never even moved a rattlesnake by myself before, moving it with just a tree branch proved difficult. Unlike in the movies, the snake did not chase me. In fact, it proved to be rather stubborn about moving at all. After accidently poking at it multiple times I eventually got the branch under the snake, lifted, and before I moved more than a foot the snake flopped off the branch. It immediately put its back to the kayak again. I tried again, got the branch under the snake, and lifted, this time moving the snake two feet before it fell off. I wasted no time and put the branch down in front of it again. After a very tense five minutes, I got the snake away from the kayak.

Eventually, I did end up completing my surveys and even found a nest. Looking back I always appreciate that day. Even a bad day in the field beats the best day in the office.

Scott LillieScott Lillie has nearly ten years of wildlife experience in the south west United States, Missouri,       and Georgia. He is also the author of Tents, Tortoises and Tailgates: My Life as a Wildlife Biologist     (https://www.createspace.com/5246146 ). He currently works as an environmental consultant in southern California.