Cows, Creosotes, and Checkerboards

This week we welcome Dr. Kaiya Provost to the blog. Kaiya is a Postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. For more about Kaiya, see the end of this post or find her on Twitter @KaiyaProvost.

Big Bend National Park, Texas, 2016, is where my hatred of cows began. That summer, one charged me when I rounded a corner and got too close. I thought for sure I was going to get gored or trampled, but I didn’t. For some reason, I decided to continue being an ornithologist who works on southwestern ranch land. What can I say? Ranch land birds are great. 

Ranchers’ cows, which are common to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and are the nemeses of the author. Credit to B.T. Smith

By 2018, I was in the Big Hatchet Mountains, New Mexico. Hard to get to. Extremely dry. You can see creosote bushes for miles, dry canyons that capture what little rainwater there is, and no people.

My advisor, Brian, and I were out in the field before heading to a conference in Tucson. I’d spent my morning looking for Canyon Towhees. I’d been trying to lure them in with a recording of their song, holding a handheld bluetooth speaker over my head. I’d seen zero. 

It was a 3 km hike uphill to get into that particular canyon, and I could make out our truck only as a black pinprick among creosotes. Lunch was in that truck, and breakfast had been only half of a Clif bar. 

As both humans and birds agree that midday in the desert is unpleasant, I started hiking back to the truck. Brian was around somewhere. In the canyons I didn’t have cell service, so I couldn’t text him until I got up on a hill. 

A typical field work lunch or dinner for the author. Tortillas with canned refried beans and pickled jalapenos. Not pictured: diluted Gatorade and apples. Credit to B.T. Smith

As I rounded a corner, I froze. 10 feet in front of me was something big. Much bigger than me. It was a cow, I realized. And it stared at me with big black eyes. 

I bolted through the mesquite, thorns everywhere; I scrambled down that hill, my hands grabbing at creosote bushes to keep me from slipping. I slipped anyway, landing on my hands, shredding my palms. I heard my bluetooth speaker chime off and power down, but dismissed it, running as fast as I could until I realized the cow had not charged me. No, as I turned around, the cow was placidly munching on a bush.

Heart pounding, I glared at the cow and its dopey black eyes, hoping that it could sense my anger and not my panic. For ten minutes I cussed out the cow, field work, Canyon Towhees, and Clif bars. After that I ran out of steam and limped to the truck in the desert heat.

After another half hour, I reached for my phone to text Brian. Shoot. Where was it? I must have misplaced it.

There was a mesh pocket on the side of my bag, one I’d been keeping my phone in. The problem? The bottom of the pocket was gone and the mesh was full of mesquite thorns.

Icy dread clogged my throat. I dumped my bag on the passenger seat. Half a Clif bar. Water bottle. Pencil. Paper. Field notebook. Bluetooth speaker. Another pencil. No phone. Which meant no directions, no playback, no field work. I went through the pile again. I turned the bag inside out. 

Brian came back as I went through the pile again

“What’s up?” he asked. 

I looked under the seat. I went through the pile a fourth time. “I lost my phone,” I said.

“Yikes,” he said. 

I stared up at that hillside, at the mountain. It loomed over me, like it spanned forever. I wondered, I was out for six hours. Where could my phone have fallen? I could see it in my mind’s eye, the blue case knocked off, battery slowly discharging.

I thought I was a failed scientist. 

As I started putting my bag together, I saw the bluetooth speaker. Oddly, it was still on. Hadn’t I heard it turn off before, while I was scrambling through that mesquite bush?

Wait. It was a bluetooth speaker. Connected to my phone, with a range of 30 feet. And it chimed anytime it lost or gained the connection. I could use the speaker to find my phone! Like a metal detector, with a 30 foot sensor on the end! 

Determined, hopeful, I walked back up into the Big Hatchet Mountains. Uphill. At high noon.

The hike felt like it took hours. To add insult to injury, I could see the offending cow as a speck in the distance. There were more mesquites than I remembered up there. They all looked the same. Was that the one I fell through? I can’t give up, I told myself. I’m gonna find that phone or pass out from dehydration. 

I picked a bush, took out the speaker, and started moving in circles. One loop around. Two loops. Three. I’m never going to find it, I thought. I’m a bad scientist, I couldn’t even find a Towhee, this was a mistake —

The speaker chimed. 

I could have cried from sheer relief. Somewhere close to me was my phone. I wasn’t a failure. 

Of course, as I moved forward, the speaker disconnected. Turns out, a 30 foot radius is a lot of ground to cover when looking for something that small, even if it’s in a bright blue case. I walked one way, the speaker turned on. Another, it turned off. I made a checkerboard across the hillside, the day well past noon and the sun relentless, but not as relentless as me. 

Forever later, finally, I saw it under a mesquite. A rectangle with a bright blue case on it and a bird sticker on the back. My cell phone, which could have been a bar of solid gold at that moment. 

I grabbed it and dropped to the ground. The screen was newly cracked, but I could still see everything and swipe through. I even had service! A text from Brian popped up, asking if I was still alive. 

I did it! 

As I went back down the hill, that cow still stared at me. When I made it to the truck, my lunch was the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Diluted Gatorade and cold refried beans; a victory feast. 

I didn’t tell Brian about the cow until after we got to Tucson. 

A view from the base of the Big Hatchet Mountains. Credit to the author
Kaiya Provost is an ornithologist, evolutionary biologist, and self-declared cow nemesis. She is a postdoc at the Ohio State University working with Bryan Carstens on bioacoustics and phylogeography of North American birds. She got her PhD with Brian Tilston Smith at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School working on desert bird genomics and demographics. 

Things that go Bump in the Field


I have spent a lot of time at a lot of different field sites over the years. I have spent days in the blistering sun, days in the frigid cold, and days in the pouring rain, but until this spring, I had never spent any time in the field after dark.

Every year, there is one field site with several kilometres of fencing that need monitoring to ensure the fence is in good working order. This work can take many more hours than we expect and is often completed in very early spring, so the days are still quite short.


This year, after a few days of repairing broken wires, straightening crooked poles and pulling tree branches out of the way, my field assistant and I were almost finished. It was nearing dusk and with a 1.5 km walk back to the road, we knew we had to leave shortly to make it out before dark. But we were so, so close to being done.


Let’s just go for it, we thought. We fixed the final panel of fencing and we started the trek back to the road where our vehicles were parked. But when I said it was “nearing dusk”, I really meant that it was already dusk, so by the time we were on our way out the sun had fully set and it was, well, total darkness. I have particularly bad night vision, so walking over ground was full of hummocks, rocks and small shrubs was particularly challenging for me. Given the terrain, a quick pace was far from possible, so I just trudged steadily along in the dark.


It was quiet. It was so very quiet. Since it was spring, birds were starting to migrate back to their Ontario breeding grounds, so the quiet skies were slowly beginning to come to life again during the day, but night was a different experience. There was only our heavy breaths and the slight rustle of leaves in the trees above to break the silence.

The only photo I got before the sun disappeared.


Suddenly, the quiet was interrupted by a very quick, almost vibration-like sound…and whatever made it was right behind us. Before we could even turn around, we heard a forceful “peeeent” from that same direction. My field assistant and I spun around, but halfway through our rotation, we heard the same vibrating sound again and it was gone.


We took a few more steps and then heard the same quick vibration sound followed by a loud “peeeent”. After this happened consistently for another 2 minutes, I knew I needed to figure out what was making this sound. The vibrating sound was definitely the wind rushing through feathers, so we knew it was a bird, but this was still very early in my birding career (I still knew almost nothing about birds), so that was about it. Something about the sound was oddly recognizable to me, but I just couldn’t place it. So, we walked slowly a few metres away and then turned around quietly and waited. As if perfectly on cue, the vibrating sound was back and as soon as it settled, I shone the light of my phone camera in front of us. And as soon as I caught sight of the bird, I knew exactly what it was, having watched this hilarious internet sensation many times. It was a woodcock!


As soon as I got a glimpse he was off again, and we continued to walk back to the road. The whole way back the woodcock followed us, “peent-ing” the entire time. Maybe we were bothering him and he was trying to get rid of us? Maybe he was protecting something? Or maybe he was just genuinely curious about what we were doing in his home territory so late in the day? Either way, when he escorted us to the car, it gave me a feeling of safety – like something was watching out for us in the darkness.


As we reached the vehicle and packed up our tools and equipment, I heard another nighttime sound, more immediately recognizable: the familiar call of the whip-poor-will was bouncing around in the distance. Having never spent any time in the field at night, that night was a very memorable experience for me. And it was certainly an excellent reminder that when you’re doing fieldwork or spending time in nature, no matter what time it is, you are never truly alone.

Praia, Paradise, & Petrel Poop

We are excited to welcome Alyssa J. Sargent to the blog today. Alyssa is a PhD student at the University of Washington studying tropical hummingbird ecology. For more about Alyssa, see the end of this post.

When seabirds colonize a tiny island, they truly reign. Humans no longer have the last word on dominance—at best, we are tolerated from a safe distance; at worst, we are considered threats most sensibly handled by mobbing.

As tiny islands go, Praia Islet fits the bill: a mere 0.039 square miles, it is a snippet of the Azores, a Portuguese island chain in the middle of the Atlantic. What’s more, it is a hub of ornithological research, positively inundated by birds.

Praia Islet! Teeny-tiny.

During the day, the common tern is king. When I worked on Praia, there were certain sections of the island that our field crew dared not disturb, for fear of either reprisal or treading on a nest. If we waded through the waist-high grasses close to the tern colony, the birds rose into the air in a great white wave, circling overhead; their shrill, burry calls rang and rattled in our ears, and every few seconds a particularly brave or irritable tern would dive toward us, swooping inches from our heads. Their nests, which resembled flattened divots in the golden-green stems, were tightly-spaced—a crammed neighborhood for new families, with no vacancies. If we were lucky, we could catch a glimpse of a fluffy nestling or two, miniscule punks with spiky feathered heads. If we were unlucky, we got parting gifts—delivered directly onto our heads. And after speedily escorting us off the premises, several terns would trail us for a time, like a multi-bodied kite suspicious of our intentions.

From a respectful distance, we could observe the terns wheeling over the sapphire Atlantic, plunging into the water. They often emerged victorious, beak clamped down on a silvery fish; equally often, a rival would attempt to snatch the victor’s hard-earned spoils in midair. We would see these fish strewn across the well-worn trail, vestiges of past battles and unsuccessful thieveries.

When the sun began to drop, drenching the ocean creases in pink and lilac, a changing of the guard soon followed. The terns settled quietly into the grasses for the night, and a steady stream of newcomers arrived: burly shearwaters—Cory’s and little—and their much daintier relatives, Monteiro’s storm-petrels. Fresh from foraging expeditions, these birds trumpeted their arrival, until the darkening sky was awash with darting shadows and a cacophony of calls.

A little shearwater nestling! Pure fluff.
Sunset in the Azores.

Any one of these small storm-petrels could have traveled over 300 miles in one foraging trip. You’d expect them to collapse in exhaustion, but these birds meant business. They returned to land for all things breeding: to find a mate, choose a nest burrow, incubate their eggs, or feed their nestlings. Deep into the night, while the Milky Way glittered overhead and the moon bathed the island and surrounding waters in silver, their silhouettes darted erratically through the air like bats. Above the distant sound of the waves, we could hear them squeakily calling to one another.

The Monteiro’s storm-petrel is endemic to the Azores. This fact, combined with their mostly-uncharted foraging patterns, nocturnal habits, and affinity for nesting in burrows, makes them a tricky study subject. But what’s science without a challenge?

It was with the goal of cracking such mysteries that I joined a research team studying these petrels—which we affectionately dubbed “stormies”—in the Azores. We camped out on Praia, a scrap of land off the shore of Graciosa, one of the smaller islands in the chain. We were the sole inhabitants; the islet had a single, cramped building with no electricity or running water—and quite a few cracks in the roof, which the rain was fond of worrying its way through. Our bunkmates were omnipresent Madeiran wall lizards, which dispersed in a scrabbling frenzy when we passed them, and flies that hung sleepily in the air with no apparent destination. Occasionally a bemused shearwater would wander its way inside. Once a pair of enterprising terns, in the market for real estate, snuggled their nest among the shingles of our battered roof.

Pure fluff, miniaturized: a Monteiro’s storm-petrel nestling.

It was, as we put it, “rustic”. But this suited our purposes well. We had the run of the islet—that is, the sections not ruled by terns—and there were plenty of opportunities to study the stormies. Monteiro’s are handsome little seabirds, the dark gray of thunderclouds and smelling strangely of wax. In order to disentangle their enigmas, we used many instruments familiar to field ornithologists: mist nets to catch birds on the wing, bands to individuate each bird, camera traps nestled into burrows to see the petrels’ hidden activity, GPS tags to track their odysseys out to sea, and other tools like acoustic playback and diet analysis.

Measuring a little shearwater nestling to gauge how much it’s grown!

Of course, diet analysis is a euphemism for what, in the field, amounts to collecting bird poop. And oh, was there bird poop. That might not be the first thing that comes to mind when imagining these fluffy little birds, but it’s no small detail—it stippled the rocks in a layered mosaic and graffitied our clothes. Every time we handled a bird, we—and our trousers—were at risk.

Things weren’t glamorous, but Praia was its own sort of paradise. Yes, we were crammed into a building with three times as many people as rooms. Yes, we got mobbed by terns, and yes, we got pooped on. Habitually. As is always the case in the field, we hit snags. But there was unmistakable beauty in the windswept grasses tangled with wildflowers and the iridescent, crumpled ocean surface; there was the thrill of witnessing a mother and father stormy reunite at their burrow through the feed of a miniscule camera, and of cupping one of these small birds between our fingers—his powerful wings folded crisply against skin, his tiny heart playing a tangible staccato, and his dark eyes shining with intelligence. Finding magic in these moments is at the heart of fieldwork. That, and being okay with a little bird poop.

I’m a field ornithologist by trade. During my PhD, I intend to study tropical hummingbird ecology, and leverage advanced technology to answer previously inaccessible questions about these tiny gems. With this information, I hope to contribute to conservation efforts by increasing knowledge and fostering local engagement. I believe that sharing science with others is incredibly important, and that writing is a particularly effective medium to do so!  

Of catbirds, chats, and challenges

We are excited to welcome Kristen Mancuso to the blog today! Kristen is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. For more about Kristen, see the end of this post. 

As I wrap up my PhD at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, I think back fondly on 4 summers of field work across North America. In collaboration with other organizations, I did fieldwork in northern California, western Montana, and Mexico…but most of my time was spent in the south Okanagan Valley.

One of my study sites in the South Okanagan Wildlife Management Area. The wild rose sure smells nice but walking through it is very scratchy.

The Okanagan Valley is a hot tourist destination in the summers, known for its lakes, beaches, wineries, and fruit. For biologists, it’s also known for its unique biodiversity – the semi-arid desert habitat is home to species occurring nowhere else in Canada.

My PhD research aims to learn more about the full annual cycle of 2 species of songbird: the yellow-breasted chat and the gray catbird. The population of yellow-breasted chats in the south Okanagan Valley is listed as Endangered federally, with only a few hundred breeding pairs in the province. In contrast, the gray catbird is abundant and not of conservation concern. Studying the two species together allows for a comparison between a common and an at-risk riparian songbird species. Environment and Climate Change Canada has been monitoring both species in the region for many years, and this PhD project piggybacks on their efforts.

Both yellow-breasted chats and gray catbirds are migratory, spending most of the year south of the Canadian border. In North America, most research on migratory songbirds occurs on the breeding grounds, but a better understanding of their migration and overwintering life stages is crucial to identify and address potential threats. This is especially important for endangered species, such as the yellow-breasted chat, to aid recovery efforts.

However, it wasn’t until very recently that tracking technology became small enough to use on songbirds. Now, we have lightweight GPS tracking devices, weighing only 1 gram, that birds can carry with them on migration. This is the technology I used to track chats and catbirds across their full annual cycle. But in order to follow the path of a migrating bird, we needed to capture birds and attach the GPS tags, then recapture them a year later to remove the tags and download the data. Therefore, most of my time in the field was spent capturing, resighting, and recapturing birds.

Bird capture

To capture birds, we used mist-nets. Mist nets are a common tool to capture songbirds and are made of a very fine, soft mesh that is nearly impossible to see. The net is stretched between two poles and contains multiple pockets. When a bird flies into the net, it falls into a pocket and gets tangled but is not harmed. We gave each bird we caught a combination of 3 unique colour bands and a standard numbered band.  The colour bands allowed us to identify the individual from afar. A subset of birds were also given a harness with a GPS tag attached, which they carried like a backpack.

Chats are territorial and will respond to playback of other chats’ songs, so we targeted specific territorial males with strategically placed nets, using a stuffed dead chat as a decoy. Catbirds don’t appear to be as aggressively territorial as chats and unfortunately, don’t consistently respond to playback, so our best bet was to passively capture them first thing in the morning. This meant getting up at ungodly hours. I had my schedule down to the minute: wake up at 2:30 AM, leave by 3:00 AM, arrive at site by 3:20 AM, and then set up ~ 8 mist-nets by headlamp as fast as possible so they were ready to catch birds before first light, around 4 AM.

My field technicians carrying banding gear from a chat territory.  The white styrofoam box contains the decoy.

My main catbird site along a trail. A mist net is barely visible on the left.

A catbird given some fresh colour bands. Two black bands on its left leg, plus a green and standard band on its right leg.

GPS tags attached to the back of yellow-breasted chat.

GPS tags attached to the back of colour-banded gray catbird.

Resighting colour banded birds

The purpose of resighting colour-banded birds was to identify individuals that needed to be recaptured to remove GPS tags and also to monitor the return rates and survival of birds. Survival estimates are valuable for conservation and monitoring efforts to better understand if birds are making it through the winter and migration and returning to breed.

To resight birds, we used binoculars and high-zoom cameras, which sounds easier than it is. Yellow-breasted chats and catbirds live in places no sane person would normally venture into: dense bushes of wild roses and thickets of poison ivy. In order to protect ourselves, we wore thick rain gear. Did I mention that the south Okanagan is also known for its intense sun and heat? Temperatures in excess of 30°C are not uncommon, and the rain gear quickly turned into a sweat trap. To add to the challenge, the clouds of mosquitoes (and to a lesser extent, ticks) meant we also often wore bug nets to cover our faces.

Both chats and catbirds are relatively sneaky and hard to see, but males periodically pop up out of the dense vegetation to sing and defend their territory. This often meant a long, hot wait for the bird to appear – and when it finally did, we typically only had a few seconds to get a photo. All too often, our attempts ended in failure. Sometimes we heard the bird but couldn’t see it; other times, we saw the bird with our eyes but couldn’t find it with the camera. Often we were too slow, and the bird went back into thicket before we could snap the picture. And in the most frustrating cases, we got the photo – only to find that it wasn’t usable for identification purposes for a multitude of reasons: the camera focused something other than the bird, the photo was over- or underexposed, the bird’s legs (and therefore colour bands) were hidden…

The chat is front and centre and yet my camera focuses on the tree in the background.

Catbird silhouette. Not helpful for ID.

Nice shots of chat but can’t see legs.

Nice shots of catbird but can’t see legs.

Even when we did get a clear photo, interpreting the colour of the bands wasn’t always easy. Standard aluminum bands can appear white or light blue. Red bands can fade and look like orange.

But the challenge was in part what made it so appealing! When we finally nailed a bird’s colour band combination, there was a definite sense of accomplishment. Looking up who the bird was, when and where it was banded, and whether it was seen the previous year – in short, its whole history – was exciting. The oldest catbird in our study was at least 6 years old, and the oldest chat at least 11!

Despite the sleep deprivation, poison ivy rashes, and rose scratches, spending the summers studying these birds was something I looked forward to every year. Being outside watching the birds at dawn in their natural habitats, foraging, singing, and building nests, was beautiful and peaceful. Using new technology to learn more about their migration was fascinating. Having great field technicians was an added bonus, and being able to go swimming or go for ice cream after a long day in the field made the summers unforgettable.

Kristen Mancuso is a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan studying songbird migration ecology and physiology. Her PhD project is in partnership with Environment and Climate Change Canada. She has a love for fieldwork and exploring the great outdoors. After her PhD, Kristen hopes to continue her career in wildlife conservation. This fall she will be working as a bird bander for Mackenzie Nature Observatory. Follow her research on Instagram @yellowbreastedchatresearch

Good things in the world and on the horizon

I am a planner. I find comfort in knowing exactly when everything is happening. I plan out every month of the year, every week and every day. While I have become more flexible over the years, I still struggle when one of those things changes, especially at the last minute.

With a global pandemic being announced as a result of the coronavirus, I knew things would change in my schedule. Between Friday March 13th and Monday March 16th my schedule went from full, colour-coded, organized chaos to empty. All appointments, meetings, events, etc. cancelled or postponed. Watching the news was overwhelming: more cases of COVID-19 worldwide, more deaths, the first local cases. This of course causes us all to worry. My brother works at an airport – what does this mean for him? How will my Grandma weather this – will she have what she needs? So many questions, so many worries, so much change.

Since I am now working from home in the short term, I had to run into my office the other day to grab a few supplies and on the way home I stopped by one of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s field sites. I parked by the roadside and walked up to the gate and just stared. Keep in mind, this is an alvar and it is March, so there it doesn’t look particularly exciting at first glance. But in the end, there was a lot to see, I just had to be patient.

I could see a small Prairie Smoke plant just beside the gate that survived the winter. It was covered in ice crystals. If you stared long enough, you could see the ice crystals begin to change shape and disappear as the bright morning sun melted them away into nothing. A bit of rustling caught my eye to the right where a large stand of Eastern Red-cedar trees stood tall and a Red Squirrel poked its head out and scanned the open area. A large Hawthorn in the distance had two birds perched in its leafless branches. I grabbed my binoculars from the car to take a closer look. Two American Robins sat still in the tree. Their beautiful red breasts were lit up like fire, catching the morning light in just the right places. A large crow flew overhead letting out a couple of loud “caws” from above. This spooked the robins and off they went into the tree line to the south.

I closed my eyes and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. For a moment I escaped the present. And I thought of the things to come. Soon, the alvar will be alive. Pink and yellow blooms will line the ground. Meadowlarks will return and sing their sweet songs from the tops of trees. The butterflies will flutter around like delicate paper caught in the wind.

For a solid ten minutes, I didn’t think about my schedule changing. I didn’t worry about my family. I didn’t even think about coronavirus. These moments reminded me that there is hope and there are good things on the horizon. The world is still filled with beauty, despite what we feel and what we see on the news. Nature can be refreshing and may give us the energy we need to weather this storm.

Wishing the best to all our readers in this uncertain time. You are all in our thoughts.

Technology in Fieldwork: Friend or Foe?

When I started doing fieldwork about 12 years ago, I didn’t use technology in the field. In fact, the only technology I had access to was an old flip phone that took photos so blurry I could barely tell if they were of plants or animals when I got back to the lab. I didn’t even pre-print my Excel data sheets and fill them in as I collected data. I just drew freehand columns in a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and then spent hours afterwards trying to decipher my messy handwriting.

But over the last decade, technology has really boomed and it has changed the lives of field biologists everywhere. Take GPS, for instance. While hand-held GPS devices were certainly around 10 years ago, they tended to be clunky and slow, with limited functions – nowhere near as streamlined as current technology. In fact, they were often more trouble than they were worth. When I used to monitor roadside populations of wildflowers throughout the summer, I would simply remember where locations were based on landmarks, nearby street addresses, etc.

But now, I do my fieldwork using Collector, an mobile data collection app which allows me to take points instantly from my smartphone. If I were monitoring roadside wildflower populations now, I could just drop a point for a population, take a photo and attach it to the point and then navigate directly back to the point on follow up visits.
While GPS advances are very cool, the advent of iNaturalist is likely responsible for the greatest change to my life as a field biologist. According to their website, iNaturalist “is a lot of different things, but at its core, [it’s] an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature. It’s also a crowdsourced species identification system and an organism occurrence recording tool. You can use it to record your own observations, get help with identifications, collaborate with others to collect this kind of information for a common purpose, or access the observational data collected by iNaturalist users” iNaturalist.

That explanation is much more eloquent than my description of iNaturalist, which can be summed up as, “a crazy-cool identification app that must be magic!”
When I was learning how to identify plants during my Undergraduate degree, I didn’t have access to anything like iNaturalist. To figure out what something was, I would excitedly bust out my plant bible, Newcomb’s Guide to Wildflowers, and open the book to the first page. Then I would carefully examine the features of the plant I was trying to ID. I would check if the leaves were alternate or opposite, determine whether the leaf edges were serrated, and then classify the radial symmetry of the flower. This information would lead me to a page number; with great anticipation I would flip to that page and quickly scan the images and descriptions. Inevitably, one of two reactions would follow: heart-beating excitement when my eyes stopped at a sketch that looked just like the flower in front of me…or sheer disappointment when nothing matched. In the second case, the next step was to flip back to the first page and take another look at the plant in front of me to try to figure out where I went wrong. Perhaps I miscounted the petals, or maybe the leaves were whorled, rather than opposite? It sometimes took a whole lot of trial and error, but eventually I almost always arrived at the right answer. And it was those mistakes that really made me remember the identity of the plant long after.

It is with some hesitation that I admit this, but I mostly use iNaturalist to identify things now. I just snap a photo of something in nature – be it a plant, an animal or a fungus – and iNaturalist gives me its best guess at the identity. It only takes a couple of seconds and it’s incredibly accurate. (Hence, magic app!) iNaturalist is such an exciting concept. In fact, I recently was part of a class visit at a Nature Reserve which involved a scavenger hunt as part of the tour. One of the species the students needed to find was Sensitive Fern, but this species is only really found in one small area, so it was easily missed by the students. To help them out, I pulled out my phone. I pointed to a specimen on the ground beside me and took a photo. Below is what iNaturalist came up with:


We proceeded to try the app on about a dozen more species of plants (even just the bark of trees!) and it was bang on every time. The entire grade 7 class was hooked on the app after that.

I love iNaturalist and all that it stands for. It intrigues people, it helps them learn about nature, and it fosters a curiosity about the natural world around us. It even helps collect important data about rare species and Species-at-Risk that monitoring biologists may miss. However, even though iNaturalist is useful in so many ways, it left me feeling very conflicted.

I can’t deny that iNaturalist has also made me a less engaged (or maybe a lazier) field biologist. To be clear, I don’t mean I am worse at my job now, by any means. In fact, I am probably more efficient. That being said, I don’t notice the things I used to notice about plants. I snap a photo and the answer is right in front of my eyes. I don’t spend 5 minutes flipping through the pages of field guides attempting to identify an unknown specimen. Moreover, when I do use iNaturalist, I often quickly forget the identity of the species – because I haven’t spent those long minutes working for my answer.
So, as I wind down this field season and think forward, I vow to reach for the book and not the phone next spring when I spot a new species or can’t recall what something is.

That being said, I think there is certainly a place for both technology and more traditional approaches as well. For those getting started, or in time sensitive situations, perhaps iNaturalist is the way to go. But maybe for those looking to thoroughly and deeply understand nature, the old school approach may be more suitable. Either way, I will continue to promote iNaturalist like the “crazy-cool magical app” it is, in hopes that more folks learn about, and begin to care about the natural world around us.

Do you use technology to do your fieldwork? Has the role of technology changed over the past few years? I would love to hear about your experiences! Leave a comment below and tell me – is technology a friend or a foe in your fieldwork?

Fast Forward Five Years

Five years ago over beers at the Grad Club, the three of us decided to start a blog. The purpose of the blog was to share stories about fieldwork: why we love it, why we keep doing it, and why everyone should get the chance to experience it. At that point in time, two of us were knee deep (or maybe neck deep??) in PhD fieldwork and the third was managing a lab, which included lots of fieldwork as well.

Fast forward five years, and we are all still out in the field, where we love to be…but things have changed (more than a little). Catherine and Amanda both defended their PhDs and have since started working for Bird Studies Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada, respectively. Sarah wrapped up her work as a lab manager and has since started a PhD in ecotoxicology at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (Université de Québec). But the adventures of new jobs, new studies, and re-locating, combined with busy field seasons and all the other quirks life brings, meant that we all ended up pushing the blog to the back burner.

However, as we started to wrap up the 2019 field season, we reflected on all the great things that have happened in the field this summer…and realized we wanted to share those stories (and more!) on Dispatches.  So with renewed excitement, we are happy to announce that we will be back to our bi-weekly posting schedule effective October 2019! You can also look forward to some updated features on the blog and even a new layout.

And if you can’t wait until October to get your fieldwork stories fix, check our Twitter feed, where we will be travelling back in time to feature some of our favourite posts from 2014, the year it all started.

We are all thrilled to be back and just itching to share the many adventures of our recent #fieldwork with you! And we’d love to hear about your adventures as well…so if you have a story you want to share, shoot us an e-mail!

Spring fieldwork feeds the soul

Those of you who have been following the content on Dispatches for the last four years know that when the spring finally rolls around, I am a very happy camper. Spring fieldwork feeds my soul. There really is nothing better than spring fieldwork. And for so many reasons. The trees haven’t leafed out yet, so you can see so much more than you normally could. There are fewer bugs. And you aren’t melting from the intense summer heat. Just over four years ago, I wrote a post about my eternal love and appreciation for spring ephemerals called “Spring wildflowers make my heart beat a little harder”. Back then, I was still working on my PhD, which was entirely focused on plants. Plants, plants and more plants. Now, working as a Conservation Biologist, spring fieldwork means more than just waiting for those first few early blooms. The sights, sounds and signs of life beyond just the plants poking through the soil are incredible, almost overwhelming.

This past weekend was filled with spring fieldwork activities. On Saturday, I was part of a garbage clean up, at a site near Napanee. Of course, being a garbage cleanup we found some interesting and unnatural things.

Of course there was a significant amount of trash.

Many, many, many, teeny tiny shoes

I even unintentionally found a geocache site!

Beyond garbage and other treasures, we found some pretty incredible signs of life. I lifted up a piece of old linoleum flooring to find these two guys below, a Blue-spotted Salamander and a Red-spotted Newt. This might be embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t actually think that the newt was real. I thought it was a toy, and promptly realized it was indeed very much alive when it opened up a tired, cold eye and glared at me. Don’t fret, I quickly lied that piece of linoleum back down to keep these guys warm and safe.

A very cold Red-spotted Newt resting. You can see the Blue-spotted Salamander along the left.

On Sunday, I was part of a hike along the south shore of Prince Edward County. The south shore is an important area of coastal habitat for migratory birds that juts out into Lake Ontario. I joined the hike to connect with partners, but also to start some baseline inventory work for the protected property in that area. The air was alive with chirps and whistles as birds sang to attract mates and establish territory. This past summer I became interested in bird song, despite finding bird song an exceptionally difficult thing to learn. I will admit, I am not very good at seeing birds. I have poor eye sight and I get motion sick looking through binoculars, so song seemed like the route to take. One of the first bird songs I learned last year was that of the Eastern Towhee who sings a very clear and obvious “Drink your TEEAAAAAAAAAAA”.

As we walked down the side of an un-maintained road I heard the distinct “Drink your….”.

Wait…what? I thought to myself “what bird sings “Drink your…” and then stops?”

And then again, “Drink your….”, “Drink your…”, “Drink your…” over and over and over.

“Does everyone hear that Eastern Towhee?” the hike leader asked. Everyone nodded, enjoying the sound. Quietly I then asked “But where’s the tea?” “They don’t always include the tea!” she laughed. Wow, if learning bird song wasn’t complicated enough already.

We continued along an 8 km stretch of wonderful meadow, alvar and woodland landscape, recording all the signs of life we encountered. At one point we heard a loud honking in the distance. We all debated if the muffled sounds were a goose, maybe a turkey or two. And then, if not perfectly timed, three Sandhill Cranes glided through the sky above us towards Lake Ontario. Other highlights included two ravens courting, beautifully dancing together in the sky, and some frog eggs including some eggs with tadpoles emerging in the flooded ditches along the road.

Frog eggs

Tadpoles emerging from eggs

Of course, I still go back to my real first true love of the spring, the spring ephemerals. I saw my first ones this past weekend, and just like the good old days, my heartbeat jumped a little. But now, it’s not just the flowers that make my heart skip a beat, it’s the flowers, mixed with the bird song and all the other signs of spring  that make me feel alive and ready to tackle another busy field season.

Round-lobed Hepatica – my first wildflower sighting of 2019 ❤

Happy damselfly catching in Sweden

We are excited to welcome Hanna Bensch, a PhD candidate at Linnaeus University Kalmar, Sweden, to the blog today. For more about Hanna, see the end of this post.

The summer of 2012 was the first of six summers I spent with a butterfly net and boots, catching damselflies. I had just finished my first year of bachelor studies in biology and had limited experience with field work. To be honest, I think the main reason I got the job was that I had a driver’s license: when I spoke to professor Erik Svensson about whether he needed field assistants for the summer, his first and only question for me was about the license.

The field work involved studying a species of damselfly common in Europe, Ischnura elegans. One of the interesting things about it is that females exhibit three color morphs, and Erik is conducting a long-term population study on phenotypic polymorphism and evolution in this species. The field sites I visited were located around Lund, in southern Sweden, and my work involved population sampling, running mesocosm experiments in large outdoor cages, conducting behavioral observations, and spending hours in the lab sorting the collected animals and entering their information into a huge database. (To give you an idea of its size: last year individual number 50 000 was entered in this database!)

Some of the sites I went to during this field work were not exactly what one pictures when thinking about good damselfly habitats. For example, we caught damselflies in a small dirty pond squeezed between an IKEA and a major road, which for some reason had surprisingly large numbers of some of the rarer color morphs. It definitely must have looked weird when we parked next to all the IKEA shoppers’ cars and, instead of grabbing our wallets and taking the elevator up to the store, started putting on boots and preparing nets and cages. The best thing about this site was the 5 krona coffee and cinnamon bun from IKEA’s bistro after a successful catching session. I highly recommend anyone doing field work in Sweden (close to an IKEA) not miss this iconic experience.

Ready for a fika at IKEA after a catching session. Fika, for those that aren’t familiar, is the first word you learn when visiting Sweden.  It means having a coffee and maybe something sweet.

People who study damselflies often comment that one of the biggest advantages is that going out before 9 AM is not worth the trouble, because the insects are hiding deep down in the grass at that hour. Because I am a morning person, I never felt that was a big advantage of the job. But I have heard a lot of, “Lucky you! I have to get up at 3 AM for my field work!” from friends working with birds. On top of that, damselfly field work usually occurs in perfect weather conditions: lots of sun, little wind, and no rain. Working with damselflies is a great way to enjoy the very best of Scandinavian summers, and it’s hard to find a field biologist who doesn’t enjoy spending a sunny day outside at a small stream, flowering meadow or pond, with a butterfly net in hand.

Katie catching at “Vomb”, one of the higher Ischcnura-dense field sites.

Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve learned from field work is that the sun does not shine when you want it to. In the summer of 2014, I was in the field with Beatriz Willink and Katie Duryea to catch damselflies for experiments.  However, that summer was exceptionally cold and wet: not ideal for catching flying insects. At the beginning of the season, we decided not to go out when it was below 16 degrees or raining. As our frustration increased, we pushed it and decided that 15 degrees and cloudy was probably okay. Then as the days dragged on and the sun never came, we said 13 degrees and slight rain was okay. Finally, we created a scale from 1 to 5 to rate how good the weather was for catching. Below 3 meant it wasn’t worth leaving the car. When we looked back on it, we realized our initial scale (set at the beginning of the season) went from 1 to 10. But even our best day that summer never made it past a 5. It was a miserable summer (at least, in terms of weather), and in the end we resorted to going out in heavy rain dressed in hats and long johns to pick the wet damselflies from the grass with our hands. However, thanks to lots of jokes and friendship, we kept our good moods intact and the field season was not a failure.

2016 was a good year: we caught more than damselflies …

My last year working for the project, 2017, I helped to start the field season. I introduced new assistants to the work and taught them all my tips and tricks. Now, even though I have moved to other projects, I am still updated on how things go each season. I am so happy that I stumbled on the opportunity to join the work with the damselflies. It certainly got me hooked on field work and was a fantastic start to my academic career. I learned early on that when looking for field work, it never hurts to ask researchers if they need help with their field season. Most of them do, but are probably too busy to advertise and will be happy that you are showing interest in their work!

Hanna worked as a research assistant for six seasons while completing her undergraduate degree in Biology at Lund University in Sweden.  Over that time, she helped carry out fieldwork for a number of different damselfly projects. As of January 2019, Hanna is a PhD candidate at Linnaeus University Kalmar, Sweden, where her work will be on African mole-rats. Follow her on Twitter (@HannaBensch) or check out her webpage for more info: www.bensch.se

Weird Field Finds: Part 3

We are excited to offer the third edition of the weirdest things our followers have found in the field. And we swear, every edition we write, it gets weirder and weirder.

Jason found this rather…unique…version of a ‘ship in a bottle’…

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Poor, poor squirrel.

We’re not sure if we should be scared or intrigued by Christie’s field find below….

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We think we can settle on a little scared and a little intrigued.

In he spirit of dolls, let’s continue with Thomas’ weird field find…

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Ok… we’re putting our foot down. NO MORE DOLLS #soooocreepy

Clayton’s field find below traumatized a field tech…

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And now it traumatized all of us too. Thanks, Clayton.

And finally, Arielle found something unexpected in the middle of a trapping grid…

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We suppose trekkies can do fieldwork too, right?

Have a weird field find to share? Shoot us an e-mail or tweet!