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!

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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!

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:

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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…

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Run away, Jenn! RUN AWAY!!

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

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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…

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

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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!

A harrowing end to our fieldwork

With field seasons winding down and wrapping up, we are excited to post another story from Mark Scherz today. Mark originally posted this story on his own blog www.markscherz.com and with his permission we share it with you here today. For more about Mark, see his website

Left to right, top to bottom: Big John (Cook), Angeluc (Guide), Justin (Guide), Jary (Postgrad Student), Mark (yours truly), Ricky (Master’s student), Ella (PhD student, volunteering for the team), Andolalao (Postdoc), Safidy (PhD student), Onja (Master’s student).

After two months in the forest, fieldwork in Montagne d’Ambre has now drawn to a close. On the 6th of December, we exited the forest in some haste (for reasons that will become apparent below), and over the next few weeks we will be working on getting permits and transportation arranged to get back to Antananarivo, and thence bring part of the specimens and tissue samples back to Germany.

This small rosewood log was too heavy for one person to lift

Moving around the forest at 750 m

One of the largest rivers running off Montagne d’Ambre, tranquil before heavy rains

The last few weeks were the hardest of this fieldwork season, and possibly the hardest time I have ever had in the field. After Christmas, we moved down from the Gite site at 1050 m above sea level to an area of forest around 680 m asl, where we intended to continue to sample as we had until this point, moving horizontally across the altitudinal band, swabbing chameleons and collecting new specimens/records. Our move to this site was somewhat overshadowed by the threat of encounters with illegal rosewood loggers, whose activity and presence in the forest was evident. We employed a small team of men from the local village to help keep the team and camp secure while we worked in this area.

As it transpired, none of our focal species were present at this site, nor indeed for 200 m above it, except for the frogs, and so the chameleon plan dissolved. We therefore focussed on the biodiversity sampling with some success, adding a few species to our inventory, and increasing the distribution of others. Work on the frogs by Safidy continued unabated.

Then, after New Year’s, the weather changed for the worse as cyclone Ava gathered strength in the Indian Ocean. It finally made landfall on the fifth on the East Coast (fortunately not the north, where it was originally headed), tracked southwards, and exited into the ocean again on the seventh, dealing considerable damage as it went. Although we were around 300 km northwest of Tamatave, where the cyclone hit at its strongest, we felt its effects: high winds and extremely heavy rain flooded part of our camp, turned the rest into a network of streams, and raised the water level of the near-by river by almost a metre. Tents were flooded, hammocks soaked, and, worst of all, some of the rice got wet. Far more damaging however were the psychological effects, with most of the team, and especially myself, losing a great deal of sleep for fear of falling trees and/or branches in the bad weather.

Our slow river turned raging torrent

A selection of the rivers running through our camp. Photo by Ella Z. Lattenkamp

So on the fifth we arranged to be extracted the following day, and dutifully on the sixth a team of 23 porters showed up, and took our equipment with us out of the forest.

Our fieldwork on the whole went very well, and we are already in the early stages of planning the resulting publications. Since my update at Christmas we found over ten additional species, bringing us to over 90 species of reptiles and amphibians on the mountain, many of which are new to the park and several of which are probably new to science. Work on a paper describing the biological survey results from our fieldwork has already begun, so we may be able to publish some of our results already in 2018 (somewhat dependant on how quickly we can get the genetic side done). In any case, there will be an update here as soon as any results are published.

So from myself and the team, now safely out of the forest and trying to get back to Antananarivo in the face of many flooded roads and broken bridges, I wish you a happy new year, and look forward to sharing more of our results with you in the coming months.

Weird Field Finds: Part 1

our tweet

I (Amanda) actually first asked this question because I had found some pretty weird things in the field. I think the weirdest thing I found was on a remote and rocky cliff site where we were monitoring some rare plant populations. We were there almost every other day for 4 months that summer and in July we found the packaging from a rather risque maid costume. Now this costume was definitely meant for the bedroom, NOT Halloween. I don’t have a photo but I am sure you can use your imagination.

So, last week we asked our Twitter followers – “What is the weirdest thing you have found while doing fieldwork?” The response was overwhelming … ya’ll have found some weird stuff. This week we highlight a few of the weird field finds, but stay tuned, as we will keep this ball rolling in the coming months, so keep sending us your weird field finds!

 

This first one is kinda strange…

 

OK…this one is just plain WEIRD.

 

Ummm, yeah, this next one is super weird.

Now this one is weird, but pretty darn COOL too!

Poor poopy porcupine 😦

 

What on earth?????

Stay tuned! We will feature more weird(er) field finds in the coming months!