Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

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Wow, time flies!

Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe that we started Dispatches from the Field four and a half years ago, back in June 2014.  Where has the time gone?!?

2018 marked a busy year for all of us. Catherine and Amanda both received their Ph.D. and started new jobs, while Sarah started a Ph.D. That didn’t stop any of us from getting out into the field though! Some of our notable blog posts from this past year include Catherine learning to love mornings, Amanda falling into a swamp, and a fox getting the better of the nests at Sarah’s study site.

We’re excited to have welcomed guest bloggers who added new markers to our map, including Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Israel’s Red Sea. We also learned what a real field work resume might look like, the (maybe not so) best way to make a first impression, and how to fall in love with fieldwork.

We shared some sentiments familiar to anyone who does fieldwork (for example,  You’ve got to be kidding me!) and learned some new sayings appropriate to situations such as having all of your gear washed out to sea (Morabeza!). And a number of our posts raised important issues, such as what it’s like being a parent in the field, the importance of citizen science (first, second), and how fieldwork is more than just data.

I guess time flies when you’re having fun! Stay tuned for more of the good, bad, and ugly of fieldwork on Dispatches in 2019. We will be posting every other week to give everyone more time to enjoy each story! If you’re interested in submitting a guest post, please email or tweet us!

at the convocation ceremony

Catherine (left) and Amanda (right) receive their official Ph.D. documents! Finishing the degree was worth it to wear the red robes & funny hats (and to collect lots of funny field stories!).

 

Algonquin Adventures

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Alex Sutton, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada to share his adventures chasing Canada Jays in the beautiful Algonquin Park. For more about Alex, check out his bio at the end of this post!

One of the things I enjoy most about field work is being immersed in an environment every day, and, as a result, having the opportunity to see things that many others do not get to experience. Over the past four years I have been lucky enough to spend countless months following Canada jays (formerly known as gray jays) throughout Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario.

Russ Rutter, a former chief park naturalist, first started studying Canada jays in Algonquin in 1964. He was interested in understanding the natural history of this fascinating bird and was one of the first people to use colour-bands as a way to follow individuals throughout their lifetime. After he retired from the park, Dan Strickland, another former chief park naturalist, continued studying the jays, following them throughout the year and collecting information about their nesting behaviour for over 40 years!

This long-term dataset has allowed us to track how the population of Canada jays in Algonquin Park has changed over the last 54 years. Unfortunately, since the 1980’s we have observed a decline of over 50%. The Algonquin population appears to be experiencing more severe declines than other Canada jay populations, which may be because Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of the Canada jay’s range in Ontario. Understanding the drivers of this population decline, the main focus of my PhD research, will hopefully allow us to predict how other populations may respond to climate change.

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

These nestlings are all 14 days old and ready to receive colour bands. Photo credit Alex Sutton

To figure out what factors are causing the Algonquin population to decline, we need to follow Canada jays throughout the entire year. In autumn, while enjoying the beautiful fall colours of maples and tamaracks, we determine which territories are occupied and which individuals are present on a given territory. The autumn is an important time of year for a Canada jay because during this time they begin caching food that they will rely on throughout the winter for survival and reproduction. Amazingly, one Canada jay can make thousands of food caches in a day and return to these caches months later! Throughout the autumn, jays will actively seek out humans because they see humans as a good source of food, making it one of the best times to see them (and their colour bands!).

After determining which territories are occupied, we return in the winter to begin monitoring each pair throughout the breeding season. Unlike most other Canadian songbirds, Canada jays begin building nets in late February. This means that for most of the breeding season I travel through the landscape on snowshoes and have to bundle up to brave temperatures as low as -30°C! But despite the cold, there are few things as rewarding as finding jay nests. Sometimes it can take weeks to find a single nest, and it often requires some imaginative use of natural features like beaver dams to avoid getting soakers (when your boots fill with water) in the sub-zero temperatures.

Alex carrying a ladder to a nest. Photo credit Koley Freeman

As winter slowly becomes spring, eggs that have been incubated through freezing temperatures and snowstorms begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, we monitor each nest for about two weeks before we return one last time to band the nestlings. We typically carry ladders through the forest and sometimes across frozen rivers to each nest tree. Once the ladder is in place, we carefully scamper up the rungs to collect the nestlings for banding. This is one of the most rewarding parts of the field season, because all the hard work we have put into finding and monitoring each nest has finally paid off with the sight of several fluffy Canada jay nestlings trying their best to emulate Einstein’s signature hair-do.

One of my fondest memories of my time in Algonquin is of banding a nest last spring. The adults were circling around us while we banded their young and the male had a full mouth of food he was bringing back for the nestlings. As he got closer, my colleague held up the nestling being banded. Remarkably, he landed on my colleague’s hand and fed the nestling right then and there! This was the first time I had ever seen something like this and I will remember that moment forever! (Video of this encounter here).

Canada Jay in hand

This young Canada jay has been outfitted with a radio tag. Photo credit Dan Strickland

As spring turns into summer, the young Canada jays begin to fledge from their nests – and my fieldwork continues, as we follow the dispersing fledglings. Beginning in May, I and another PhD student, Koley Freeman, track radio-tagged juveniles while they move around their natal territories. Each radio tag ‘backpack’ emits a unique frequency and allows us to track down birds, even when we cannot see or hear them. After about six weeks, these juveniles start to leave their parent’s territories and disperse across the vast Algonquin landscape. These young birds can travel over 15 km, so to follow them, we need to track them from the air! Being in a plane flying over my study area provides a great perspective of the vastness of the landscape and gives me a new appreciation of how diverse Algonquin is.

Each year in Algonquin has been an exciting experience that has taught me something new. With each passing field season, I learn more about the jays and how they cope with the ever-changing environment. Canada jays are resilient enough to survive harsh boreal winters throughout North America, but climate change is wreaking havoc on their breeding success. Changing fall conditions negatively influence their cached food, contributing to the record low number of nestlings produced that I have observed over the course of the last three field seasons.

The view of a Canada jay territory from the air. Photo credit Alex Sutton

I am lucky to have called Algonquin a home away from home for the past four years, and had so many great experiences in the park. I would like to thank Dan Strickland, all the staff of Algonquin Provincial Park, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, and my partner in crime Koley Freeman for helping with field work and making every day in the field more exciting than the last.

For me, the joy of fieldwork comes not only from pushing yourself to learn from and about your study species, but also learning to appreciate the beautiful places that this work can take you. I will always remember the sights and sounds of Algonquin, the Canada jays, and the unexpected experiences I have had over the course of the last four years of fieldwork.

 

Me with the Canada jay – Photo credit Koley Freeman

Alex Sutton is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. During his undergraduate degree, he worked throughout North and Central America studying the population ecology and habitat use of migratory songbirds. If you would like to keep up with his ongoing research follow him on Twitter @Alexsutto.

Check it out: Faces of Fieldwork

This week on Dispatches from the field, we wanted to highlight a really cool site called Faces of Fieldwork (http://facesoffieldwork.com/). With a tagline of “Scientists are people too. We show the personal side of scientific fieldwork” how could we resist? Using pictures, they highlight what it is really like to do fieldwork from different fields all over the world. You’ll find pictures that make you say “aww”, “ouch”, “what?”, “cool”, and “no way!”. Check out their site to submit your own photo and follow them on twitter: @facesfieldwork!

Here are just a few examples of Faces of Fieldwork. Make sure you go to the site to read about them!

Here at Dispatches from the field, we also believe that sharing a more personal touch on what we do is the key to having others understand why we love to do it! So here is the post that I originally shared on Faces of Fieldwork:

Sarah bundled up in a lot of layers

Sarah – (Too) warm and dry on the coast

For my first time on the west coast of Canada for fieldwork I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the dreary, cold, and wet type of weather I was likely to encounter…but some might say I was overprepared. This is a picture of me on my first day: I was wearing two pairs of socks, rain boots, two pairs of pants, rain pants, 3 shirts, a rain coat, a thicker rain over jacket (of heavy plastic), a toque, mitts, and a lifejacket (safety first!). The layers weren’t very useful for traversing remote islands looking for seabirds so inevitably they had to come off! Read more about my fieldwork on my blog!

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Dr. Tara Imlay, a recent PhD graduate, swallow conservation expert, and parent. In her post, Tara shares some of the challenges of this kind of multi-tasking – as well as some of its rewards. For more about Tara, see her bio at the end of the post.

Just call me Dr. Mama… after all, my precocious nearly three-year-old does.

Field work was one of my primary considerations when I chose to have a baby during my doctoral degree.  Specifically, I wanted to avoid being in the third trimester during my second field season, and I wanted the baby to be at least six months old during my third field season.  As you can imagine, that left a very small window in which to get pregnant.

Luckily, for me, that wasn’t a big challenge.

Instead, the challenges during my second field season came in the form of prolonged morning sickness, food aversions, exhaustion, and changes to my centre of gravity.  The latter landed me in the hospital after I fell over a bank one morning while mist-netting Bank Swallows.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured – and one of my field assistants now has an amazing response to any interview questions about dealing with unexpected problems in the field!  After that experience, though, I began delegating a lot more field work to my assistants, especially anything involving heights.

Danny demonstrating the safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

Danny demonstrating safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

The challenges in my third field season came in the form of exhaustion from lack of sleep.  At that time, Robin* was still waking up routinely through the night for feedings.  On numerous nights, she was up at 11, again at 2, and my alarm would go off at 3.  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that field season, but somehow we managed to get everything done.

But despite the challenges, there were a lot of amazing moments during those field seasons and the field seasons since.

Moments like sitting in the field banding birds, with a very chubby baby propped up beside me.  Or watching how excited she got over seeing all the birds, cows, sheep, dogs, and anything else that moved at my field sites.

This past year, she’s taken on a more helpful bent in the field: carrying equipment, checking swallow nests, and, her favourite task of all… getting to let birds go after they’ve been captured and banded.

The field team, including its smallest member, busy tagging captured Bank Swallows.

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to manage her short attention spans, and I can’t always bring her with me when I’m in the field.  Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several great people who don’t mind helping out with an inquisitive child, when needed.

But despite the challenges, having a baby during my PhD didn’t affect my ability to finish my degree, and hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other opportunities, both in and out of the field.  Becoming a parent with a busy field schedule isn’t a common occurrence, but if it’s something you want, then you just have to go for it, deal with the challenges as they come, and enjoy the special moments along the way.

*Her middle name, for anonymity when she’s older.

Tara Imlay is a recent PhD graduate from Dalhousie University.  Her PhD and postdoctoral work focuses on the ecology and conservation of four species of swallows throughout their annual cycle.  Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked on various conservation programs for birds and reptiles in Canada, the USA and Mauritius.

Weird Field Finds: Part 2

Good day fieldwork blog followers! And of course, HAPPY HALLOWE’EN!!! In the spirit of this spooky season, we bring you Part 2 of our weird field finds series. Check out Part 1 here.

@SianGreen92 might recommend The Godfather as a great movie to watch on Hallowe’en… or NOT…check out here weird field find below:

sian

Ok, Sian. That’s pretty weird. Not gonna lie. 

On the other hand, Dr. Jenn Lavers found something less “spooky”, but ultimately incredibly “terrifying” in the field…

jenn 1

Run away, Jenn! RUN AWAY!!

And Jenn also found something a whole different kind of terrifying…

jenn2

No…seriously, Jenn…RUN AWAY!

Now, if you happen to lose your costume tonight, please don’t make us witness to what William Jones had to see…

will

And finally Lysandra Pyle found what might be one of the freakiest finds of them all….

lysandra

I don’t even want to know…same advice for you, Lysandra… RUN!

Once again, Happy Hallowe’en to all! This series will continue in the near future and if you want to share more weird field finds, find us on Twitter or shoot us an e-mail!

Full mind, huge heart, tired eyes

I had a wonderful summer of fieldwork…my mind is full, my heart is huge and my eyes are tired. I think that’s what all field biologists strive for at the end of a summer field season. I still have a significant amount of fall fieldwork to do, but I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my summer in the field.

My mind is full

I learned SO much this summer… SO SO SO much! I learned new plant species I had never seen or heard of before. I started noticing more of nature including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  I noticed the arrangement of holes and cavities in trees. I noticed the behaviours of birds during mating season and the incredible defense of nests during nesting season. I started learning spider species (surprising given this), recording calls of birds to look them up later and taking photos of tracks in the mud. My mind is still overloaded from everything, I noticed and learned this summer, and I hope every field season from here on out is the same.

Grass of parnassus – new species for me!

My heart is huge

I love field work. I love being outside. I love nature and everything about it. My heart was in the Frontenac Arch for most of the past decade, and now my heart is stretched across so many new places I have grown to love: the scrubby wonders of the Napanee Plain, the always adventurous Prince Edward County, the quiet beauty of the Kawarthas, the wavy coast of eastern Lake Ontario and the rolling hills of Northhumberland County. Next summer will come quickly, and it will bring many more new places to fall in love with, I’m sure.

My eyes are tired

Fieldwork can be tough. Most of your time is spent hiking to specific points, carrying lots of equipment, and in weather or conditions that aren’t ideal. For instance, this summer, I did a lot of “bushwhacking” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. My definition is a little different. My definition of bushwhacking is “to get from point A to point B through thick vegetation, which often has thorns, prickles, and other irritants present, while trying to disturb the natural environment as little as possible and leave some sort of remnant path to find your way back”. A little wordier perhaps, but all very true and relevant to my summer in the field. Thick red cedar on alvars, cattails twice as tall as me, and prickly ash pricklier than ten prickly things were common settings to be “bushwhacking” through. But the reward is always worth the hardship in the end. Check out a couple of the epic places we found as a result of some serious bushwhacking.

Open alvar pavement (a globally rare habitat)

The most picturesque stream I have ever seen

So as I wrap up the summer field season, and start the cooler, wetter, wilder fall field season, I sit here smiling with my full mind, huge heart and tired eyes and I think about all the possibilities the next summer field season will bring.