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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Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back another familiar guest blogger: Kim Stephens, a graduate of Queen’s University who now works for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust.  Kim shares with us the importance of citizen science and some of the many opportunities for citizen scientists to get out in the field!

I’m flipping the blog this week: instead of bringing the field experiences to the community, I’m aiming to bring the community to the field! Since finishing my undergrad, I’ve moved into the environmental not-for-profit world, working at the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust as a ‘BioBlitz Coordinator’.  My job involves planning events which teach the public about species found in their area, while giving them an opportunity to interact with local flora and fauna in the field.

The aptly-named violet coral fungus.

I love BioBlitzes! They’re a great way to get outdoors, explore nature, and learn about the species found in different habitats. Here’s what happens: over a 24 hour period, taxonomic experts and volunteers work in small groups to complete a full biological inventory of a property, identifying all the birds, trees, insects… you get the drift. BioBlitzes have taken Ontario and Canada by storm, with dozens of them taking place across the country last year for Canada’s 150th.  The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust hosted three BioBlitzes last year, and identified over 700 species in total! It’s a great way for volunteers to contribute to the knowledge that organizations need to direct management activities – and it’s also extremely fun! From exploring the leaf litter to find a violet coral fungus, to trying to spot an Eastern Wood-pewee calling in the forest, or sneaking up on a butterfly or dragonfly to catch and identify it, there’s something for everyone. With an estimated 140,000 species in Canada, only half of which have been identified, there are always new species to learn about and discover. Which will you find at a BioBlitz?

Although BioBlitzes are relatively new, having started in the late 1990s in the United States, ‘citizen science’ initiatives have been around for over 100 years. Simply put, they are ways for the general population to contribute data to scientific projects, and often require little more than a smartphone by way of equipment. There are many initiatives available for you to get involved in, whether you want to attend an event locally, or contribute data to provincial, national, or global projects.

Below are just some of the many other ways to get involved in citizen science.

Join me in the field:

Christmas Bird Count

A male and female downy woodpecker spending a cold winter morning together.

Last December, I participated in my first (and second) CBC. This annual bird census is administered by the National Audubon Society and has been around for over 100 years. For several chilly hours we hiked through conservation areas and drove through the countryside, counting every single bird we saw or heard in a pre-set 24km diameter circle. I was paired with birders who were far more experienced in identification than me. They took me under their wing and taught me tricks for remembering ID features. Once I was more confident in my skills, they encouraged me to try them out, confirming the correct IDs. It’s amazing to think that the species I saw on one winter day – as well as the species I should have seen but didn’t – could contribute to peer-reviewed scientific articles. I can’t wait to participate again next season.

Continue the research at home:

iNaturalist

I love getting out into the field and learning about what’s out there. During my undergraduate research project, in addition to measuring plants, I met a grey rat snake, lots of snapping and painted turtles, spiders, birds, and more. That summer, I snapped endless pictures of critters I either found fascinating or hadn’t encountered before. I was taking pictures because I loved doing it. But now, with smartphone apps like iNaturalist, anyone can take pictures and contribute directly to research, right from their phone! The primary goal of this app is to connect people to nature, and I find it great for those moments when you think: “Look at the cool thing I found… what is it?”. Users can post pictures of the species they see, and other users will add their identification to the picture. So there’s no need to worry: you don’t need to know what you’re taking a photo of. I sure didn’t know what mating adult caddisflies looked like until last summer!

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

Northern map turtles basking in the summer sunshine.

Turtles, frogs, snakes, salamanders and a skink: we have several species of reptiles and amphibians in Ontario, and many are at risk. But the full distribution of some species is unknown. This is not because their habitat doesn’t exist, or there aren’t individuals present, but simply because no one has reported seeing that species in that location. To address this issues, Ontario Nature developed a very useful app – the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (ORAA)– that allows you to report sightings of these species across the province. If you find individuals, reporting them to the ORAA can provide crucial information to help scientists accurately map the distribution of species.

eBird

I’ve picked up a new hobby since participating in the CBC: birding. As of last summer, I could identify about 20 different birds. Over the winter I became confident about a few dozen more. By the end of the year, I’m hoping that number breaks 3 digits. I’ve recently started logging my sightings into eBird, which allows you to submit ‘checklists’ of birds you’ve identified. Whether you went out birding for 4 hours, or watched your feeder for a few minutes, you can report species that you saw on eBird, adding to population and distribution records.  You can even submit reports from a ‘wild goose chase’ – that is, trying to spot a rare bird that is only around by accident, such as a Barnacle Goose.  Although the species is native to Greenland and Europe, I saw the directionally confused individual in the photo below an hour north of Toronto in Schomberg. If you want, you can even make it competitive, by adding to your personal life list. It’s like real-life Pokemon – gotta find them all!

A single Barnacle Goose among hundreds of Canada Geese in Schomberg, ON

I really hope you can join me this summer at a BioBlitz, on a wild goose chase, or digitally on iNaturalist, ORAA, or eBird!

Kim Stephens is a graduate of Fleming College, and Queen’s University, where she researched the relationship between the different metrics of plant body size. She is now working for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, getting people outside to explore and learn about nature. When not in the office or at a BioBlitz, she enjoys directing Quidditch tournaments and trying to photograph every species of butterfly she can find.  Follow her on Twitter at  @kastep15.

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!).

IMG_0718

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!

 

 

Femininity and Fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Jodie Wiggins, a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, who discusses some of the unique challenges that female field ecologists face.  For more about Jodie, read her bio at the end of the post or check out her website.

A field biologist from the start…

I started my career as an ecologist crawling through muddy drainage ditches hunting frogs, investigating rabbit warrens dug open by a plow, and studying “lighting bugs” through the glass of a mason jar. I was 5, and 6, and 10… held captive by the magic of nature. I was a really fortunate kid. I ran wild, and that is probably why I still love the wilds today.

Now, thanks to an invitation from Dispatches from the Field, I have to opportunity to consider the challenges I’ve faced as a woman navigating a culture (ecology and fieldwork, specifically) shaped by men.

 

You just drive along, find a roadside park. Set your line of traps and get up in the morning and check ‘em.”

These were the instructions from a veteran field mammologist to the first field biology course I ever took. I looked around at the other members of the class. No one seemed to think these instructions were out of the ordinary. I, however, was gripped by terror. This man wanted me to drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone.

No doubt a lot of women have done this, successfully. No doubt countless women camp and hunt and sleep in their cars alone. A lot of women are also attacked, every single minute of every single day.

That was not something that crossed this man’s mind and I felt weak because it crossed mine. I felt like I should suck it up and just do the work. But it wasn’t about the work. It was about a risk that a woman takes anytime she is alone that a man does not, a risk that she should not be shamed for refusing to take.

…and sticking with it, despite the challenges.

This was the first time in my academic career that I felt other. I felt ignored. I felt invisible. Because I am a woman. I began to realize that the scaffolding constructed over hundreds of years, meant to guide and hold emerging scientists as they ascend, simply was not constructed to lift, hold, or guide women. The fact that it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced this otherness reflects the privilege I experienced growing up as a middle class white child. Many people, women of color particularly, experience this otherness so much earlier than I did. They experience it as girls, and it devastates their desire to pursue their dreams.

 

But where do I pee?”

Not all of the issues we face as women field biologists are quite as dire as staying safe while sleeping in a car alone, but that is not to say that they are not equally urgent. It’s been a decade since I stood in a hallway with a group of newbie grad students and realized that being a female field biologist would be a battle. For a very long time I was cowed by this realization, feeling demeaned and less worthy than my male counterparts. But, as it should, my journey through my PhD has taught me a great deal more than just evolutionary ecology.

Studying lizards…and learning life lessons.

My need for a team of field assistants every year for the past three years has required me to learn to step up and be a supervisor. Undoubtedly, I struggled in the beginning, but now, I do a couple of things as unapologetically as I can muster in an attempt to “be the person you needed when you were younger”:

  1. I say “pee.” As in, this is where you can go pee. What on earth is wrong with us that young women don’t feel comfortable saying “Hey, where do I go pee?” This is necessary because my field site is a little like Area 51, lit up and barren with a camera pointed at it all of the time. My study species likes it open and hot, so for a mile stretch of rock dam, there is no place to hide, anywhere.
  2. I keep tampons with the group field supplies (gasp! Did she say tampons?!). Yeah, I did and if you work for me you might just pull one out with your data sheet or your lizard noosing pole and you might have to deal with it because OH MY GODS ALREADY! The need to have these supplies for the women on my team simply outweighs worrying about whether someone will feel grossed out by the possibility of touching an unused tampon.
  3. I say “Do not do xyz if you are not comfortable with doing xyz” and I mean XYX is usually something like coming out to the field site alone or riding with another member of the field team alone. Seriously, if it doesn’t feel right and makes you feel unsafe, don’t do it, period. We’ve all got to remember that our people are more important than our project.

It’s the people that matter: my field team from 2016.

Fortunately for me, my future husband was in that field mammalogy class with me all those years ago. He accompanied me on countless nights sleeping in a ridiculously uncomfortable truck bed waiting for the blessed dawn when we could check our traps. Most of the other women in that class paired up with someone as well, but some didn’t and I don’t know if they felt safe going out alone or if they felt like they needed to prove they could. Either way, the person in a position of power in this situation left half that class without an advocate.

The balance between being a leader and a learner can sometimes be precarious but what I’ve learned over the last decade in the field is this: I need to use my voice, my position, and my strengths to make sure no one on my team ever feels invisible and to encourage others to do the same. The female ecologists in my life who repeatedly tell me that I matter, that I am strong, and that my voice should be heard bolster me to do this for others.  Together, we are making each other visible.

Jodie is a fourth year (sort of; it’s complicated) PhD candidate studying the evolutionary ecology of color in collared lizards. She hails from New Mexico and Texas, but now lives in Oklahoma with her husband (also a PhD candidate, who studies spider behavior), their 11 and 3 year old sons, and a crazy dog named Fortinbras.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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