Prairies provide cryptic, undervalued, and threatened biodiversity

We are excited to welcome Lysandra Pyle to the blog today. Lysandra is an Ecologist from the University of Alberta and today she tells us about her fieldwork in the prairies. For more about Lysandra, see the end of this post!

My first memories of prairies are engrained in the experiences of my childhood growing up in south eastern Saskatchewan. Checking for ticks (Dermacentor variabilis), picking sharp seeds (Hesperostipa spp.) or spines (Opuntia spp.) out of skin, and waiting for my mom to forage every last Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) or choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) from a bush along a grid road were common summer activities. I remember sitting by a pond, home to painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), on a farm in the bald prairie south of Radville, SK and feeling the barometric pressure drop, warning of significant thunderstorm which rolled powerfully over the hills.

Saskatoons on the left and choke cherries on the right! Provides forage for coyotes, birds, and graduate students.

However the first time I was truly awakened to the wonder of this environment was during my first fieldwork experience. Thanks to the serendipitous luck of my university’s match-making internship program and the first choice candidate not having a driver’s licence, I moved to south western Saskatchewan for a summer term, working in a small rangeland plant ecology program. There I was bitten by the botany bug, as I gained hands-on experience working with native prairie plants and exposure to species at risk. That summer I purchased numerous field guides, started teaching myself plant identification, and enriched my native prairie immersion by frequently visiting Grasslands National Park and Saskatchewan Landing. Shadowing my supervisors as they effortlessly identified all of the plants in a quadrat and pulled back grass leaves to reveal unique ligules and collars had me hooked. Perhaps I was impressionable, but learning grasslands were so diverse changed me, provided me with a profound appreciation for where I am from, and gave me purpose.

This is the ecosystem I love and study. You can easily identify needle and threadgrass with curly awns (Hesperostipa comata) which is common in Mixedgrass Prairie. Its fruit has evolved to burrow into fur and skin!

Native prairie provides invaluable ecological services and irreplaceable habitat for wildlife. For my M.Sc. research I was transplanted into north central Alberta’s Aspen Parkland in January.  I spent that winter and spring anxiously waiting to explore northern fescue prairie. That summer I was tasked with driving around the peri-urban area of Edmonton, AB to interview landowners about their pasture management, score the health of their pasture, survey their plant communities, and sample the seed bank. Imposing my experience from SW SK, I planned to run a survey transect that was just over 1 km long. What I found was a landscape heavily modified by cultivation and fire suppression which caused woody encroachment (invasion by a clonal trees like aspen (Populus tremuloides)); the land was also subdivided into many smaller mixed farms which called for the reduction of the transect length (to 265 m) and a lowering of my expectations regarding the discovery of intact native pastures.  Historically, grasslands in the Parkland were dominated by plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii); currently, ecologists struggle to restore this grass, and these ecosystems are in my opinion endangered. Luckily I found an ecosite with relatively saline soil (which deterred cultivation) dominated by fescue.  This patch less than 260 ha was bustling with the biodiversity I commonly associated with southern grasslands. Less than 50 km from Edmonton, I heard the ‘UFO’ call of a Sprague’s pipit (Anthus spragueii, listed as threatened) and the Spring-of-the-gurgling associated with the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  This tiny patch of prairie was an oasis in a sea of wheat and canola. This illustrates the importance of preserving intact, native grasslands for obligate wildlife, and demonstrates that grassland is not simple, leafy, indistinguishable phytomass but has irreplaceable structure and heterogeneity which provides habitat.

Plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii) flowers irregularly; this was impressive for mid-May!

While surveying plant communities in vast open grasslands, I frequently pause for about 10 to 15 minutes to record plant community characteristics from my quadrat. In these moments, you can see over great distances – which is ideal for observing prairie wildlife. However, sometimes when you are too focused, animals surprise you!  There have been numerous occasions when I have been nose-deep in grass and startled by the huff of a deer standing behind me, or surprised by a flush of birds that settled nearby while I was absorbed by scrutinizing glumes and counting florets.  One of my more interesting encounters occurred when I sat up quickly after observing plant cover and came face-to-face with a male ruby throated humming bird (Archilochus colubris). Hummingbirds are capable of hovering in flight, and that sustained moment of mutual alarm and intrigue filled me with awe: moments like these are why I love field work. It is the unexpected encounters, rare findings, and spontaneous invitations to explore nature or observe the interactions of organisms that make long days outside in variable weather worth it.

This is a quadrat (50 cm x 50 cm frame). Here we measure the relative cover of species.


I don’t have any pictures of birds but here are some other surprises. A baby pronghorn, and North American long-tailed weasel–observing the researchers from a distance of course.

Naturalism and botany, which often provide a foundation in taxonomy, can be a gateway into many other disciplines, and once you master one taxa the mind can wander onto new research questions and other organisms. If you look down and look beyond the grass while in the prairie, you will discover an intriguing community layer of cryptogamic organisms like lichen, mosses, and spike-mosses called a biological soil crust. Soil crusts can cover up to 90% of the soil surface, contribute cryptic biodiversity to the ecosystem, prevent soil erosion, and fix atmospheric nitrogen and carbon! For my Ph.D. research, I have incorporated this community into my understanding of seed bank composition in Dry Mixedgrass Prairie disturbed by oil and gas pipelines. Organisms like lichen, which can have delicate branches, cups, and leaf-like bodies, are sensitive to disturbance and recover extremely slowly. Although they are an intrinsic attribute of grasslands, many botanists, like me, are unaware of them and policies regarding the reclamation and revegetation of industrially disturbed areas in prairies ignore these organisms.

These are some lichens you can find in prairie soil crusts. The white crusty species on the left side (Diploschistes muscorum) is called cow-pie lichen in common vernacular.

Working in the field, I value the independence and the time allowed for self-reflectance while wandering a tortuous path to a survey location. The ritual of parking, packing, swinging a quadrat over my shoulder and scouring my path for any unique organisms or movement in the grass is an experience I look forward to every field season. However, grasslands are sensitive, fragmented ecosystems.  Although they are often described as ‘marginal’ or ‘waste’ lands, grasslands are in fact the most threatened and least protected ecosystem in Canada, as is easily demonstrated by driving across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba on the Trans-Canada Highway observing a patchy mosaic of cultivated fields with small margins of native grass and trees remaining along hillsides, coulees, and wetlands.  As a young ecologist, I want to communicate the irreplaceable and invaluable ecosystem services (carbon storage, biodiversity, water purification, etc.) prairies provide as they benefit society and host understudied taxa and ecosystem processes.

Surveying pipeline disturbance. Those cute calves chewed holes in that measuring tape after this photo was taken.


Lysandra studies rangeland ecology and management at the University of Alberta. Her Ph.D. research addresses grassland disturbances and land use history on soil seed banks, plant communities, and soil. You can find her on Twitter at @GrasslandNerd 

Dispatches from 2016

Well, another year has come and gone. 2016 took us lots of places and was filled to the brim with adventures in the field. We started the year off chasing the mighty elf owl in Arizona, and followed up with talk of butterflies and bats.  Our first story from Ecuador then surfaced – Alpaca my bags – but we didn’t stay there long as we headed right back to Canada – this time to check out some salmon along the east coast.

As the spring began, we got sprayed with bear spray, and then had not one, but two battles with everyone’s favourite beefy animal.  We pictured the tides in Haida Gwaii, imagined guppies splashing around in Trinidad, and felt a little “tipsy” in the Adirondacks.

We spent summer in the redwoods, but took a couple of stops in Yellowstone, and White Salmon. In the fall we hit Costa Rica,  played with some honeybees and had an awesome Thanksgiving meal in Alaska.

Our most sincere thanks to everyone who contributed to those blogs featured here and the MANY other posts we had in 2016. Of course, thanks to everyone who read our blog and we promise more exciting stories in 2017. We are very excited to see what the new year brings!

Amanda, Catherine & Sarah

Stranger things have happened in Wire Fence field

Seven years. I have spent seven years doing fieldwork in Wire Fence field, and just last weekend, I collected my final data from that site. Next year the field is set to be bush-hogged and that will mark the end of my time at the site. I wanted to take a moment today to write a bit about the wonderfully beautiful and endlessly frustrating Wire Fence field.

Wire fence field is a beautiful field site, and over the seven years I have worked there, I have developed a very strong love-hate relationship with this place. Wire fence field is a small old-field that is entirely surrounded by closed canopy forest. It is located about 500 m off Opinicon Road on route to the Queen’s University Biological Station. To access it, there is a laneway through the forest. The laneway is accessible enough to travel by vehicle or it can be easily hiked in about five minutes. Friends and colleagues that know me well have certainly heard me complain about this field site. Statements like “I’d rather stare at a wall all day than ever have to spend another moment in that       field” or “This field is ruining my life” are not uncommon in the peak of a field season. It is a rewarding but challenging place to work for many reasons.

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

The beautiful walk into Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Getting there – yes, a short five-minute walk doesn’t seem that bad. And it isn’t. Except in the summer months, when mosquitoes swarm like the monster from Stranger Things would if you cut off your finger. Then that five-minute walk quickly seems endless. The path to the field is well-maintained, generally flat and easy to walk or drive on. Except that it dips down into a very low-lying area right before you hit the field site. This summer wasn’t so bad because we were hit with a really bad drought but in previous field seasons this has made for many boots getting stuck in the muck, and well, with a 2 wheel, rear wheel drive Astro van- It wasn’t just boots getting stuck in there. Getting to Wire Fence field isn’t always easy.

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field

You always get stuck in Wire Fence field (November 2015)

Surviving there – There is no cell phone service in this field, so if something bad happens, let’s hope it’s before dark and you’re well enough to walk out on your own. Evidence of black bears have been found at this site on more than one (hundred) occasions so being aware of that is important. The field has more and more thistles in it every year. Also, there is one spot where an old Wire Fence (coincidence??) has fallen over and grown into the ground, and in one spot it sticks up and I kid you not SOMEONE trips over that fence EVERY single time we work there. And it’s usually me, who has been to the field site probably over 500 times. I’ve also never seen deer flies like I have seen them at this site. In the peak of deer fly season, you have to be fully clothed from head to toe and with layers. At one point I was wearing gloves and still got more than 10 bites on my hands alone. Surviving in Wire Fence field is a challenge.


Staying there – Things disappear – it’s almost as if there is some ‘Upside down’ Wire Fence field somewhere and the monster comes to the field in the night, and steals stuff and takes it back to the Upside down. Stranger Things fans, you’ll know what I mean. Shovels, cages, individual tagged plants, you name it! If we have brought it there we have also lost it there. Of course, on the other side of the main road there is a camp ground and patrons often venture across the road for hikes, so it might not be too surprising that we have lost some items here and there. The more troubling part is that I have installed cylinders into the ground at this site (100 of them in fact). That are only about 1 inch above the ground and cannot be removed with ease. With grass that reaches well over one metre at its peak they definitely aren’t easy to spot. Even some of those have gone missing. Including plot 11 (Eleven)..I am not even kidding….OK perhaps it is time to call in Hopp, Mrs. Byers and the whole crew to investigate.


Even though getting there, surviving there and staying there all present their own set of unique challenges, I love the place. And I miss it already.


Wire fence field is surrounded by closed canopy forest with lots of very large oak, basswood, ironwood and blue beech trees towering over it. In the spring months, sides of the laneway and all of the ground surrounding the field edges is sprinkled with white and red trilliums, trout lilies and wild ginger. For about one week in early May, the entire laneway is covered in spring beauties. Tens of thousands of them peak out from the decaying autumn leaves and brighten up the forest. As the season progresses along buttercups burst open and give the field vibrant pops of yellow among the tall green grass. I haven’t seen buttercups in such numbers as I do at Wire Fence field. And then there are the deer. Deer love buttercups and thus, deer love Wire Fence field. Many mornings we would walk up to the field site and see anywhere from one to a dozen deer happily grazing on all of our experimental plots and lots of pressed down areas of grass each morning suggested that it was a common place for them to spend their nights. Sometimes we would stand there and just watch them for a few minutes, before they noticed us and re-located for the day.

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Even in early spring, with nothing growing, this field is a beautiful place (April 2014)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Last day of fieldwork in Wire Fence field (October 2016)

Even though working in Wire Fence field has many challenges, it was a beautiful, peaceful and quirky place to spend the last seven years.

The Fire and Ice Tour Part 2

#TeamFire is now over with (see last week’s post), and onto the second half of the adventures from Dr. Jeff Havig:

#TeamIce (Glacial systems on Pacific Northwest stratovolcanoes)

  • Dr. Jeff Havig (Department of Geology, University of Cincinnati)
  • Professor Trinity Hamilton (Department of Biological Sciences, UC)
  • Jordyn Miller (Graduate Student, Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Purdue University)
  • Helen Rogers (lab worker, Department of Biological Sciences, UC)

#TeamIce was now assembled in White Salmon, WA, in the home of Bob and Sally Havig (my parents). Our goal was to hike into multiple glaciers and camp overnight, allowing us to collect samples and conduct carbon uptake incubation experiments to characterize primary productivity and nutrient cycling in these systems. Our targets were: Gotchen Glacier on the southwest flank of Mt. Adams, WA (north of White Salmon), Eliot Glacier on the northeast flank of Mt. Hood, OR (south of White Salmon), Diller Glacier on the east flank of Middle Sister, OR, and Collier Glacier on the west flank of North Sister, OR. For the glaciers on the sisters, we would move our forward base of operations to the Bend/Sisters area. Our meals would primarily consist of sandwiches we made supplemented with trail snacks, plus oatmeal and coffee in the morning.

Professor Trinity Hamilton looking over the climb

Professor Trinity Hamilton resting after climbing several thousand feet in a couple miles as we made our way to Gotchen Glacier on Mt. Adams, WA, looking towards the southwest.

Gotchen Glacier, Mt. Adams, WA. A fortuitous stop at the National Forest Ranger Station in Trout Lake, WA provided us with valuable intelligence:

processing water samples on the edge

Gotchen Glacier was kind enough to provide me this little table for processing water samples. Fortunately, the crampons, helmet, and ice ax were not needed here. Note the most excellent 140 mL syringe and caulking gun setup for filtering samples, and the little foam cutout I made for holding sample bottles while distributing filtered water.

there had been a fire the year before in the area we had planned to approach Gotchen from (giving us a relatively easy ~1.5 mile (~2.4 km) hike), and it had been closed. We had to amend our trajectory, now having a ~2.5 mile (~4 km) hike to tackle. The hike was through an area that had burned a few years previous, and was thus devoid of any shade, making the hike much hotter and dustier. Nevertheless, we persevered and made it to Gotchen Glacier.

Red snow

Red snow (center) and orange snow (center top) on Gotchen Glacier, Mt. Adams, WA. This was our target for sampling and carbon uptake incubations.

Finding no place on the moraine to camp, we elected to set up on the snow near the lake at the base of the glacier, making for a chilly night’s sleep. We found plenty of snow algae to sample, and the water in the lake was some of the best tasting water I have ever had! We packed up in the morning and made our way back to the car and on to White Salmon.

Eliot Glacier, Mt. Hood, OR. We wound our way south through the apple and pear orchards of the Hood River Valley, stopped at the NFS Ranger Station, and then headed to the Cloud Cap Inn (not functioning…don’t bother to try to make a reservation) where our trailhead awaited us. We loaded up and made our way up through an ancient grove of Mountain Hemlocks (many trees over 500 years old, some far older) and on up to the windswept moraines of Eliot Glacier. We were rewarded for our efforts with an amazing view north of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier (all in WA).

Eliot Glacier

Panoramic image of the summit of Mt. Hood, OR, Eliot Glacier, and Eliot’s moraines. Note the pink, yellow, and grey rocks in the moraine, sourced from different lava flows. To the upper right we could see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and even Mt. Rainier on the horizon. We camped and sampled on the part of the glacier just below the dark grey rock outcrop in the center of Eliot Glacier.

Jeff with the massive water syringe.

I snapped this selfie while the crew was busily working on a sample we had collected in the morning on Eliot Glacier (note all of the layers and the lack of sunshine). Pictured are (left to right) myself, Helen Rogers (UC Biology lab worker), Jordyn Miller (Purdue University graduate student), and Professor Trinity Hamilton. Finding enough level, non-rocky space to pitch tents on was no small feat, but we were lucky enough to find space to do so. The suspended solids in the water (see the syringe) are typical of water with a large subglacial melt component, but the large diameter filter made life a LOT easier in dealing with that.

We were able to find two spots of loose sediment large enough to pitch our tents, and proceeded with sampling. Above us loomed a plug of andesite that had resisted the glacier, leaving a cliff over which a large waterfall of glacial meltwater poured. We headed out with our collection of incubations and snow, glacial ice, supraglacial and subglacial water, rocks, sediments, and algae samples. The next day we packed everything into the minivan and took the scenic drive along highways 35 and 26 to Bend, OR.


The view that greeted us as we made it up the moraine at the base of Diller Glacier on Middle Sister, OR. We were excited to see the lake at the base of the glacier, and even more excited to not have any moraine rocks tumbling down on us.

The view that greeted us as we made it up the moraine at the base of Diller Glacier on Middle Sister, OR. We were excited to see the lake at the base of the glacier, and even more excited to not have any moraine rocks tumbling down on us.

Diller Glacier, Middle Sister, OR. This was to be a scouting missing to assess its utility as a field site for future expeditions, since we had never been to Diller before. As such, we decided to hike up and back in one day, alleviating the need for extra food and all of our camping paraphernalia. (This would also buy us an extra day to recuperate before our full pack ~5 mile (~8 km) trek into Collier.)

Purple penstemons and reddish-orange paintbrush

The wildflowers on the trip were amazing. Here there were purple penstemons and reddish-orange paintbrush on an end moraine below Diller Glacier on Middle Sister. Always a surprise to get buzzed by hummingbirds at 8000+ ft.

While the climb was rather gradual, it was also ~5.5 miles (~8.9 km) one way. We pushed through to Camp Lake to replenish our drinking water reserves and eat lunch, and then made our way to Diller. After the prerequisite scrambling up and over sketchy glacial moraines, we reached the base of Diller, where we were greeted by another beautiful glacial lake. We collected samples (no time for C-uptake experiments), and then hiked back down to our awaiting transport. We were able to make it down before it was pitch black, but there was minimal light for pitching our tents off the road in the National Forest land.

Jeff's massive bag overflowing with equipment.

A picture of my nemesis. I was carrying my sleeping bag, geochemical sampling equipment, food for three days, a stove, crampons, ice ax, helmet, 3 L of water, drinking water filtration kit, first aid kit, several layers of clothes, and let’s not forget the cooler with 20 lbs of dry ice for flash freezing DNA samples and carbon uptake experiments. And yes, that’s a full day pack strapped to the outside of my pack. My pack topped off around 55 to 60 lbs. Needless to say, I was moving pretty slow on the steep climbs, and we were all very excited to take our packs off upon arrival at the site!

Our crew at the trailhead about to head to Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR, including (left to right) myself, Professor Hamilton, Helen Rogers, and Jordyn Miller. Don’t let the smiling faces fool you…we were loaded with determination as well as heavy packs as we set off on the 5 mile trek with a ½ mile elevation gain. As they say, that which does not kill you leaves deep and permanent scarring…

Our crew at the trailhead about to head to Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR, including (left to right) myself, Professor Hamilton, Helen Rogers, and Jordyn Miller. Don’t let the smiling faces fool you…we were loaded with determination as well as heavy packs as we set off on the 5 mile trek with a ½ mile elevation gain. As they say, that which does not kill you leaves deep and permanent scarring…

Collier Glacier, North Sister, OR. After two days to refit and recuperate from the ‘Diller Death March’, we found ourselves at the trailhead that would take us to Collier Glacier. This hike was through the Obsidian Limited Access Area (requires a special access permit) on a trail that goes up and over the 400 year old Jerry Lava Flow (in which we found some small mantle xenoliths) and terminates at the Pacific Crest Trail. We followed the PCT for a short period before we had to break off to traverse Little Brother, climb ~1000 ft (~300 m) in elevation over about half a mile (~ 0.8 km), and then cross Collier Glacier with crampons and ice axes. We were rewarded for our long day with an amazing sunset and a view looking north up the line of stratovolcanoes.

red and orange sunset over Collier Glacier

Our reward after making it onto Collier Glacier, setting up camp, and having dinner. An amazing view looking north up the Cascade Range of (from left to right) Mt. Washington, Three-fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, and the very tip top of Mt. Adams. In the Foreground is Collier Glacier, to the right is the peak of North Sister, to the left is Little Brother, and in the center is a lake at the base of a small cinder cone (Collier Cone), which erupted a mere 400 years ago.

Dinner was a New York City Sub Shop sub (the Bronx is my favorite, check them out if you are in Bend or Hood River). The next day we sampled up and down Collier Glacier, from our camp on the upper portion of the glacier on down to the glacial meltwater fed lake below, collecting water, snow, ice, and sediments and setting up multiple incubation experiments. A Purdue University group (led by Dr. Briony Horgan and Dr. Allie Rutledge) had been planning to meet us on our second day, to overlap sampling and exchange data/information, but all day we did not see them. Late into the evening we had nearly given up hope (assuming they had a late start and wouldn’t make it in until the next day), when off in the distance near the lake we saw the glow of two lights appear. I immediately attempted to signal with my headlamp to disclose our camp position (as it was now dark), and thought I saw a return signal. Professor Hamilton and I stayed up to continue signaling, and two weary travelers arrived: Dr. Rutledge and a Purdue graduate student (Marie). They hurriedly pitched their tent and settled in for the night, exhausted from their long 6+ mile (~10 km) trek with 50+ pound (23+ kg) backpacks.

sampling in the early morning

I paused from filtering a water sample to snap this picture of the crew hard at work for an early morning sampling on Collier Glacier (the day star wouldn’t grace us with it’s warm embrace for several hours). Believe it or not, the tent behind Professor Hamilton is actually on a patch of soft sediments that I was able to clear of (many!) large rocks.

The morning was great, collecting a last water sample and sharing information with Allie and Marie.


The rest of the Purdue group came in and set up camp down by the lake as we packed up and left to make our way back down to camp.

UC written in stones

We were at Collier Glacier in advance of a Purdue University team that would overlap with us for our last day. I decided to leave them this little reminder of our presence… (Go Bearcats!)


I yodeled my goodbye to our friends and colleagues as we crested the saddle next to Little Brother before dropping down the other side.

Posing with the advanced party from the Purdue expedition as we were about to head out from Collier Glacier. From left to right: myself, Dr. Allie Rutledge (Purdue University Postdoc), Professor Hamilton, Marie (Purdue University graduate student), Jordyn, and Helen.

Posing with the advanced party from the Purdue expedition as we were about to head out from Collier Glacier. From left to right: myself, Dr. Allie Rutledge (Purdue University Postdoc), Professor Hamilton, Marie (Purdue University graduate student), Jordyn, and Helen.

A rainbow beside a geyser.

A parting shot of Old Faithful, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park.

It might be hot, but things are about to get even hotter

I love field work. It’s made my decade of post-secondary education so worth it. And just this last week, I started sampling my PhD field experiment for the last time. I’ve sampled this project in the month of August for 3 straight years now and this year it’s tougher than ever. I think there are at least a couple of reasons for the struggle this year. It’s my last field season and I don’t really know where I’m headed after this. I’ve been comfortable here for years, hanging out in my plots and counting my plants. Beyond the fear of the unknown and the comfort of the familiar, it’s also just stinking HOT. Our readers from Southern Ontario will know well that it’s been a brutal summer here with temperatures averaging the mid to high 30’s with the humidity for well over a month now. That, combined with the lack of rain (wait…what’s rain? It still rains nowadays???), has made sitting in these old abandoned fields slightly less enjoyable, by no means miserable, but certainly not wonderful.

Even though the struggle is real, I’ve persisted. Yesterday the sun was beating down so intensely on the back of my neck that I could have melted. On top of that, the humidity is so high that every piece of clothing no matter how loose clings to your body and of course there’s the deer flies. I sat there, on a bright orange milk crate, in the middle of an old farmer’s field and I thought to myself – why am I still here? I could have given up long ago. How am I persisting?

There’s a few reasons. First, I want to know the answers. I know I can’t answer my questions until I sit my butt down, and count my plants. And I do really, really want to know the answer, so I keep going. Second, I remind myself that it isn’t always like this. I’m not always going to be melting and drenched in sweat. There are lots of ups and downs in fieldwork and although, the heat might be a big downer, there’s still lots of neat things to see and experience that desk life just simply doesn’t permit. Finally, I love sharing the fieldwork experience with others. I love blogging about my experiences and I love giving our readers a true picture of what fieldwork is like. This is part of the experience, an experience most people do not get but would love to have. As field biologists we truly are the lucky ones.

Here at the blog we are even luckier because we get to share our stories with all of you, and because sharing those stories has resulted in so many new and interesting opportunities, collaborations and outreach experiences. Despite the heat Dispatches from the field has been keeping very busy this summer and have been sharing our fieldwork experiences with all kinds of people in all kinds of places. Back in May we went out to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre and did a presentation for Youth. We told some fieldwork stories while also incorporating information about what field biology actually is and the various career opportunities that involve field research.

In June, Sarah took our display up to the QUBS Open House and promoted our blog to those in attendance. This is always such a fun opportunity to showcase the neat research and other endeavors associated with the station and also marked our 2 year anniversary!

In July we gave a talk at the QUBS weekly seminar series that was in collaboration with the Kingston Frontenac Public Library called “The Truth About Stories” where we told the many tales, trials and tribulations of fieldwork in an intimate cottage-esque environment at QUBS.

This week we just completed an interview with GradChat, a weekly radio show with CFRC about our blog. It was a great opportunity to showcase our own research and the blog! We will post a link to that when it’s available next week.

In the fall we are giving the inaugural Kingston Field Naturalists talk for the 2016-17 season and also will be involved with some events with Science Literacy Week so stay tuned and check back for more details about that!

As always thanks for reading and if you’re out in this heat doing fieldwork, stay cool and send us your stories!


I just returned to Kingston, Ontario from a whirlwind three weeks of travelling. I spent awhile in Colorado, mostly Colorado Springs and Denver, and then went on to present my research at the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution’s annual conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was a mix of scorching heat and nipping cold, desert-like brush and lush green rolling hills, Rocky Mountains and coastal cliffs. It was amazing.

It wasn’t all just fun and games though. At the conference in St. John’s I presented one of the projects that I’ve been collecting data for 2 years for. I was interested in the role that body size played in predicting the abundance of seeds in the seed bank.  So to answer this question, I went out and collected soil cores, which is a fancy way of saying I collected dirt.

I hadn’t put much thought into dirt before. I played with it as a kid, my brother used to eat it, it is brown, and plants grow in it. Even as a plant biologist I really hadn’t thought too much about it. After I started this experiment, I quickly realized that dirt was more than ‘just dirt’.

Early in April 2014 I collected my first set of soil cores. It was surprisingly laborious work with lots of bending and pulling to get 4 samples from each of 200 plots. Keep in mind that it was still teetering around 0 degrees C and doing things like opening Ziploc bags with mittens on is next to impossible. Timing here was critical because as soon as the first seeds germinated in that field, we would be too late. At each plot, 4 samples were taken and placed in the same plastic bag. They were then stored temporarily in a fridge at 4 degrees C until they could be processed.

cllecting soil core

Collecting soil cores

Processing these soil cores was such a neat experience and it made me realize just how neat (and also cute and sometimes terrifying) dirt really is. The cores were all so different. Some had soft, loamy soil that fell apart and crumbled in between your fingers. Others were like taking a piece of freshly made fudge and squeezing it between your fingers. We would sort through the dirt and pull out rhizomes and pieces of roots, gently brush the dirt off and throw them away. We pulled out hundreds if not thousands of worms from the cores, as well as larva, dead insects and even sometimes bones of what appeared to be voles or other small mammals. On more than one occasion, the bag housed an army of ants, which then proceeded to attack everyone and everything at the table. Those bags were the ones I let the minions take care of…*gross*.

soil core

Soil core – Note: the worm trying to escape

bagging cores

Bagging more soil cores

My favourite discovery was a small grey tree frog. I opened a Ziploc bag, took out a core, and as the dirt fell out onto the tray, a small tree frog hopped onto the table. As it came to it was just as confused as I was and attempted to hop away and right off the table (of course we released him somewhere a bit more suitable than the halls of the Biology building).


Our new friend who lived to tell a pretty cool story

After the cores were all sorted we emptied each bag into a small plastic tray, and put it up in the Phytotron at Queen’s. We watered them and monitored them regularly, and what happened was pretty cool. Seeds from close to 60 species germinated and grew into tiny seedlings in those trays. Sometimes you would even see hundreds of individuals of different species coming up in one 4 x 6 inch tray.

phytotron plants

All the seedlings that grew in the Phytotron from seeds in the seed bank

This project, fieldwork, greenhouse work, and all, has remained one of my favourites I’ve done to date. Not for its simplicity, or low maintenance nature, but because it made me think about dirt, and dirt deserves a lot more credit than it gets because damn, it’s pretty neat.

#fieldwork – #itsallinthehashtags

We love our Twitter followers SO much. Thanks to everyone who follows us each week, retweets our posts and supports Dispatches from the Field. As we approach the 2 year anniversary of the blog we reached out to you, our Twitter followers and asked “If you could sum up your fieldwork experience in one hashtag, what would it be”? And you certainly answered.

We got lots of great tweets.




Of course we got several about the challenges of doing fieldwork.


And the sentimental ones we can all agree with (or maybe not!)


Some make no sense…but certainly sound freaking awesome!


And of course, some were just downright badass.



Thanks for the love, all!