Look – a Chamois! 

We are excited to welcome Dr. Deborah Leigh to the blog today. Deborah is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Although Deborah is a seasoned Field Biologist, today she writes about her first adventure in the field doing her own work! For more about Deborah, see the end of this post. 

Fieldwork for me has taken many forms. It has ranged from a few exhausting hours scrambling around the Alps to get Ibex tissue samples, to months at remote field stations, living and breathing for each data point or blood sample. But whatever the length, location or purpose, fieldwork has always been inspiring. Sure you have the moments where you are wet, grumpy, tired, and probably shouldn’t have just said what you did to your equally soggy companion, but being in the field and seeing your study organism is blissful to me. (I write this of course, from the warm and dry of my office. So the field’s gifts of blisters, bruises from falls (every time I go into a forest!), and damp socks, have been erased by nostalgia.)

Though I was lucky enough to do fieldwork from early on in my Bachelor’s degree, the first time I went into the field for myself was during my PhD. (Sadly, I never saw the elusive Corncrake from my Master’s in the wild.) So it was with impish glee that I stumbled upon my first Alpine Ibex at the top of Pilatus in the first month of my PhD. There she was, hiding in amongst the rocks, basking in the sun.

The first Ibex I saw

For those of you who have been to Pilatus, you will know that this is not a difficult site to reach. There is a funicular train that takes you up to the top of the two thousand meter peak, and you will probably see Ibex from the train if you are lucky. Due to the accessibility of the site, I shared my profound moment of scientific development with two tourists who insisted that my Ibex was, in fact, a Chamois. (Dude, no – just no).

For me, however, the journey to this Ibex was so much more arduous then the planes, trains and automobiles the tourists had used to arrive on the peak.  I had moved to Switzerland only weeks before, starting my PhD immediately after finishing my MSc and spending a field season in New Zealand. Needless to say, I was exhausted and felt completely out of my depth. My lab mates all seemed very tall, very wise, and painfully smart.  No one understood my British sarcasm; in fact, they initially thought I was horribly rude because of it. And I certainly did not understand Swiss German.

However that moment of seeing an Ibex amongst the rocks made me glow with happiness. The angst and exhaustion melted away and I knew I was working on something I found amazing and I would make the most of this – if not for me then for the Ibex. In amongst the tourists’ Chamois proclamations, I snapped a picture that still fills me with the joy and peace of that moment.

I guess my point is that though fieldwork physically serves a purpose in many graduate student projects, it should also form a part of those for which it isn’t ‘essential’. Without those amazing moments, you might never have a fire for your project, and you really need that fire in your gut to drag yourself through a PhD.

Fieldwork doesn’t have to be an epic saga where you sit in a tent for 6 months and grow increasingly mouldy; it can be a few hours or days of just observing. I think that’s important to say, because many field biologists look down on fieldwork that isn’t all encompassing. But there’s no reason they should: the point of fieldwork can be scientific exploration, collection, or inspiration, and it can be a sprint or a marathon. Whatever lights that fire and keeps you going through the dark tunnel of the thesis write-up work for me.

So go get your boots muddy.

 

Deborah is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, Canada. She currently works in the Friesen lab, using genomic tools to understand local adaptation in Seabird populations. Her career has taken her from Edinburgh University (BSc), to Imperial College London (MRes), to the University of Zurich (PhD). She dabbled in behavioural ecology before moving to genetics and then genomics. Deborah has done field work in the Cairngorms (Hoverflies), St Kilda (Soay Sheep), New Zealand (Hihi project), Switzlerand and Italy (Ibex). You can read more at https://deborahmleigh.weebly.com/ 

Advertisements

Falling in love with fieldwork

We are excited to welcome our good friend Bronwyn Harkness to the blog today! Bronwyn recently completed a Masters of Science in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University where she studied seabirds. She did some pretty amazing fieldwork on the eastern Canadian coast and she tells us all about that today. For more about Bronwyn, see the end of this post. 

I recently found the journal I kept during my first ever field season as I was doing a bit of spring-cleaning.  I thought it might be fun to look back and reflect on some of my first fieldwork experiences! I remember being excited but nervous about going into the field for the first time. After waving goodbye to my parents at the airport I thought ‘What have I gotten myself into!?’ Thankfully it was a wonderful experience and quite the adventure!

I studied seabirds during my Master’s and was fortunate enough to spend time in Newfoundland working with Environment and Climate Change Canada on remote seabird colonies. Fieldwork wasn’t a necessary part of my Master’s project (although I did do some of my own sample collection later on), and so I was mostly there to get experience and help out with a variety of Environment and Climate Change Canada projects. I spent my first few weeks on Gull Island, which is a small island in Witless Bay, about half an hour south of St. John’s. The island is protected and only those with permits (typically researchers) are allowed on the island, however the bay is a popular place for whale watching tours. Gull Island is an active field station, with lots of coming and going, and I met so many wonderful people while I was there (it’s true was they say about Newfoundlanders – they really are the friendliest people you will ever meet). I am grateful to all of the people I worked with for their patience and kindness while I got the hang of seabird fieldwork!

Here are snippets from some of my journal entries during those first few days on Gull Island, NL:

June 20/2016 

Island day! I got picked up at 8:00 am this morning and went to the Environment Canada office to do some paperwork and meet the rest of the team 🙂 We packed up all of our supplies (including food and equipment) and went to the warehouse where I got kitted up with a pair of rubber boots, some dry bags, and a survival suit. It took us about 45 minutes to get from St. John’s to Witless Bay, where we unloaded the gear and launched the boat.  Half the group went to the island on the first trip and the other half went to the grocery store, while I guarded the gear. Eventually our driver came back with the boat and we piled in with the rest of the gear. When we got to shore we hopped onto the rocks and unloaded everything. It was pretty amazing to see the island for the first time. There were birds everywhere! We had to carry all the gear up a steep hill, which was covered in puffin burrows. It was tough going but luckily there was a group of us working together.  Had a beer once we were done lugging gear – beer has never tasted better. I helped make pasta for dinner and I was so hungry and tired that it tasted so good! [I have since learned that everything always tastes better in the field.] I am excited to see what tomorrow brings.

1.jpg

There are birds everywhere! (These are Common Murres!)

 

June 21/2016

Slept decently well last night although I did have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  There were Leach’s storm petrels everywhere and they were so loud! I could see their silhouettes but couldn’t get one in the light so I’m looking forward to seeing them up close today.

Last night I asked when everyone usually gets up and everybody sort of shrugged and said there wasn’t a specific time, so I foolishly set my alarm for 8:30 a.m.  Ha. I got out of bed at 6:40 a.m. (a.k.a. 5:10 a.m. in Ottawa), and I was the last one up. But I woke up to freshly brewed coffee and french toast so I have no complaints.

Later that day

What a cool day! Grubbed my first petrel! Then grubbed a lot more haha. To ‘grub a petrel’ you find a burrow and stick your arm in slowly, feeling around for the egg and / or bird. The egg is small, white, and paper thin, so you have to be very careful with it.  The birds are very sweet, although they do nibble at your fingers when you get close. Petrels also have a very peculiar smell, like musty laundry. Grubbing attire includes long sleeves and fingerless rubber gloves duct-taped to your sleeves.

2.jpg

Leach’s Storm Petrel that I grubbed from a burrow

June 22/2016

Saw three whales today – I love whales! In the morning we attached GPS geolocators to five petrels and in the afternoon we worked at the PIT tag plots. [The GPS geolocators are used to track where the petrels go on their foraging trips while the PIT tags are used to monitor each time a petrel returns to its burrow.  Leach’s storm-petrel populations have been declining and researchers are not entirely sure what is causing this.  By tracking petrels during foraging trips and monitoring their survival throughout the breeding season we can hopefully get a better idea of when mortality might be occurring.]   I got to band, bleed, and do all of the measurements for one of the petrels! Hopefully I’ll get to do this with some of the larger birds too!

extra2.jpg

Recording data at PIT tag plots

June 25/2016

After lunch we did some murre stuff! There were three of us, so one person used the noose pole to catch the birds, while the other two recorded data and took blood samples. [If you’ve never seen someone use a noose pole to catch murres then I will do my best to explain this somewhat comical procedure. Murres live in large colonies on cliff edges and will sometimes flush off the cliff quite easily if there is a sudden movement or loud disturbance. This means you have to crawl on your stomach to the edge of the cliff, then extend the pole out and try to slip the loop over a murres’ head. A noose pole (also known as a catch pole) is a long extending pole with a large plastic loop on the end that is placed over the bird’s head and then tightens slightly to allow you to retrieve the bird.  Once you’ve got the loop over the bird’s head, you need to guide the pole with the bird up over the cliff edge and get the bird into a bag to calm it down. It’s a bit like fishing for birds! To release the murre when you’re done, you have to launch them up high and over the edge of the cliff because they are such terrible fliers that they will just plummet straight down otherwise. Rest assured murres are quite sturdy and are not at all hurt by this process.]

Also, murre eggs are gorgeous. They vary in colour but some are bright blue and they all have these black markings that look as though someone has dipped their fingers in black paint and dribbled it over the eggs. Beautiful!

Also also, I got seriously pooped on by a murre today. Thank god for MEC pants!


3.JPG

Common Murres

extra1

Common Murre eggs (These were far from the breeding site and were likely predated by gulls)

4

Trying to catch Murres with a noose pole – not as easy as it looks! (Photo taken by Brody Crosby)

June 26/2016

Today we went out to the other side of the island to do some puffin work. We were measuring 50 eggs (they looked like chicken eggs) and catching a few adults to weigh, band, and take blood samples from. They are super cute but man are they angry! They have such a nasty bite and one actually managed to take a chunk out of my hand even though I was wearing gardening gloves!  [To be fair, if someone appeared uninvited in my home (and grabbed me!), I would also be quite upset!]

 

5

Atlantic Puffins (and a Herring Gull) congregating outside their burrows

July 4/2016

As I was brushing my teeth this morning beside the cabin I heard the pitter-patter of footsteps on the roof. I looked up and one-by-one a group of puffins poked their heads over the edge of the roof until there were five of them watching me. I love it here!

July 6/2016

Last day on the island! Sad to be saying goodbye but excited to have a shower (day 17 of not showering!).  Arrived at my new accommodations in St. John’s. I think the guy at the front desk thought I was a little odd because I looked like dirt and was overly excited about the soap that they were selling at the front desk and the opportunity to buy a laundry card. Little does he know what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks…

And so ended my first experience in the field! Since then, I have spent lots of time out at different seabird colonies on the east coast of Canada, but I always love going back to Gull Island. Thank you to the lovely folks at Environment and Climate Change Canada for introducing me to the wonderful world of fieldwork and allowing me to join their team each summer. I will always cherish my time in Newfoundland!

IMG_8598

Bronwyn Harkness is a research assistant in Dr. Vicki Friesen’s lab at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.  Bronwyn completed both her Bachelor of Science Honours and Master’s degrees at Queen’s, studying seabird population genetics with Dr. Friesen.  Bronwyn is broadly interested in avian research and conservation and will be joining Bird Studies Canada this summer to study and monitor Aerial Insectivores. You can find Bronwyn on Twitter at @BronwynHarkness.

Clean up, clean up, everybody, everywhere

Setting up experiments in the field is some of the most challenging, but also fun and rewarding work. Cleaning up experiments in the field is… well…just as challenging but a lot less fun! As I wrapped up my Ph.D. in the fall, I had to start to clean up the mess that I had made over the years. In this old field site, I was trying to understand what predicted abundance of introduced plant species and thus, I installed 10 inch deep aluminum cylinders (100 of them!) to create micro-communities, introduced some species, then installed cages (made of hardware cloth) to keep deer and voles away. It took several months to set up and it was a beautiful sight! But after many years of sampling and a few years of negligence, the beauty quickly turned to chaos. And then, it was time to clean it up. This clean up included three main tasks, all of which seemed fairly easy at the time.

field.jpg

The field site in it’s peak summer bloom

Task #1: Mark 50 cylinders for future re-location

We chose to start with this task because we thought it would be the easiest. All we had to do was randomly select 50 of the 100 cylinders to mark with a wooden stake. Once the plots were selected, we drove a wooden stake on the north corner of the plot. The first plot, in the low-lying corner of the field where the soil is very loamy, was very easy to drive the stake into. And from there, things went downhill very quickly. I remembered 5 years earlier, when I had installed those aluminum cylinders, that the field was quite rocky and difficult to dig in. And that certainly had not changed! 8 hours later, after many cursed rocks, splinters in my fingers and hot, stinging biceps, it was done. The next day we would tackle my next task, which had to be easier than this one.

 

Task #2: Remove the other 50 cylinders

Installing these cylinders in 2013 SUCKED. It was a back-breaking, miserable task. They were installed for almost 5 years and until I finished using them, we never considered what it would take to remove them. It was late fall and the ground was very wet, so we figured this would be the prime time to move them. We figured they would just slide right on out…like a knife in soft butter! But once again, what you think, is not always realistic. Those cylinders would not budge. I had a field assistant with me, and we had a pair of pliers in each hand. We grasped the cylinder with both hands and heaved upwards…and nothing. Not even a slight movement. Even worse, the cylinders were made of aluminum flashing and if you pulled too hard, or on an angle, you would tear a piece of it off, your arms would fling up in the air and you would quickly lose your footing and land smack right on your bum! Eventually, after bruised tailbones and callused hands, we developed a system of careful jiggling, wiggling and coordinated heaving that removed those 50 cylinders. But I will admit, I cried several times that day! That day was terrible…at least the final task of the clean up would be easy!

 

Task #3: Tidy up fences

Like I said before, we used hardware cloth fencing throughout the project to keep herbivores and granivores out of the cylinder plots. However, as the experiment ended and the final sampling occurred, some cages did not end up back on the plots, and in the subsequent years, many blew off and were now littered all over the field site. But all we had to do was pick them up and store them in the field house. Simple, right? Well, it wasn’t so simple. The difficult part was that, like I said, they had been like that for a few years. Thick tufts of grass were growing up and intertwined between the quarter inch holes in the hardware cloth. If you pulled on the cage to pick it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was even worse than the cylinders. It took us over 30 minutes to coax one of them out from the jungle of grass, and it was at that point, we accepted that this was a task that would be easier in the spring, once the vegetation had died back a bit more. I am not totally convinced that this is true, but it does leave me with an excuse to do more field work in one of the best field work seasons!

Love birds: the day I broke a turkey’s heart

One of my favourite field work stories comes from my very first field season. I’ll be the first to admit that I had no idea what I was doing back then. I couldn’t identify most plants, was slightly scared (ok, terrified) of dragonflies and went to the field wearing outfits I would wear to work at my part-time retail job later in the day…what was I thinking???

Anyways, I remember it being a brisk morning in May. We were looking for target plants of about 30 species in an old-field at the Queen’s University Biological Station to monitor flowering time and plant size. We had no idea what species we were targeting as plants were too small that early in the season. Instead we were simply looking for morphological differences and naming them something we would remember. For example, Danthonia spicata, or poverty oat grass, is a low-growing grass with soft and fuzzy leaves. Grasses are difficult to identify without flowers so in the earliest parts of the season we referred to poverty oat grass as “fuzzy grass”.

That morning I was working in a low-lying area of the field right next to some bushes at the tree line. I was uncomfortably crouching down wearing dark jeans that had little movement in them and my dressy brown blouse was catching in the wind and blowing up to meet my brown baseball cap. I had my back to the bushes and was busily searching the ground looking for “looks like marijuana plant” aka Potentilla Recta. I heard a rustle behind me, and before I could even turn around, I glanced up at another field crew member who was standing about 20 feet in front of me. “Oh my God, turn around,” she exclaimed. I briskly turned my head and just a few feet behind me was a huge Tom (an adult male wild turkey). He had emerged from the bushes and was fanning his beautiful and bright tail feathers and dragging his strong wings along the ground beside him.

I was frozen and had no idea what to do. I had seen plenty of wild turkeys in my life but generally they had avoided me, like they do most humans. What on earth was this turkey doing? Why was he …. *holy *&#%*… it came to me. He thought I was a TURKEY TOO. My wavy brown blouse, brown hat and crouched down position probably made the poor guy think “WOW, now that is a BIG turkey…and she WILL be mine”. So out he came with his best face on and tried to impress me.

Suddenly, in a panic, I stood up. The turkey paused for a moment, let out a weird yelp and then a cluck. He jumped two feet in the air, spun around and crashed back into the bushes. I’m sure he was just as shocked about the whole situation as I was. The love of his life, the most beautiful hen he had ever set eyes on, was not actually a hen, but an awkward field biologist lurking in the grass. After that incident, I started wearing bright colours in the field, and now I never stay in the same spot for too long. I wouldn’t want to break another turkey’s heart.

Bringing the Field Back to the Community

We are very excited to welcome a fellow #scicomm fanatic to the blog today! Tianna Burke tells us all about bringing fieldwork back to the community. For more about Tianna, see the end of this post.

This year I have been lucky enough to put two of my favourite things together in my current position with the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve (GBBR) – field work and outreach education.

As a UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve, one of our missions at GBBR is to support the conservation of biodiversity through education and public outreach to foster a sense of shared responsibility to protect this special place.  In 2017, GBBR has helped support conservation efforts through the work we have done thanks to funding from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Canadian Wildlife Service grant programs. Part of this effort was the monitoring of massasauga rattlesnake gestation sites and foxsnake hibernation sites.

This field work made me feel so lucky to live here! It allowed me to see amazing tracts of forest, fantastic rock outcrops, and some of the incredible islands out on Georgian Bay.  The geology around here is something else!

Geology Example

When you are in the field so often, you are also more likely to see species other people rarely get to see.  On one of our site visits we spotted this amazing Eastern hog-nosed snake, which put on quite the dramatic performance. This species is known for the dramatic hissing and cobra-like displays it employs before resorting to its plan B – playing dead. It looks terrifying, but is actually harmless!

So, why is it important for us to monitor gestation and hibernation sites?  Well, because these areas are essential to the life cycle of these two species at risk. During July and August, we surveyed a variety of rock outcrops for gestating massasauga rattlesnakes. Massasaugas gestate alone, however they can be within proximity to other snakes.  Shorter summers in Parry Sound mean that most of our massasaugas give birth every 2-3 years, whereas in more southern areas they are known to have yearly litters.  A litter can consist anywhere from 5-20 neonates (baby rattlesnakes)! Since it’s important to monitor these areas regularly to ensure habitat availability and quality, we were able to partner with other organizations and individuals for future monitoring.

Massasauga Photo

A beautiful massasauga rattlesnake

Foxsnake hibernation site surveys were conducted on properties that had been monitored back in 2004, as part of a University of Guelph master’s thesis. Most of these snakes were known to hibernate on islands and lay their eggs inland. Unlike the massasauga, foxsnakes do not give live birth. We wanted to see if they were still available and active 13 years later (hint: excitingly, they were!!).

Me and Foxsnake

Holding a beautiful foxsnake

Since we are working in an area with venomous snakes there are safety protocols that we obviously need to follow.  These include wearing high-ankle hiking boots, long pants, and carrying, snake hooks. If we got lucky and found a snake, we would capture and process it, which included taking photos and checking for pit-tags. Pit tags are tiny microchip, similar to what a pet dog or cat would get, that are implanted just under the skin.  Although we don’t tag snakes ourselves, many of them may be pit-tagged thanks to a history of snake research in the Parry Sound area, especially at Killbear Provincial Park.

One might assume that the most difficult part of this job was working with a venomous and potentially dangerous snake. However, that wasn’t the case! In fact, the most difficult part is challenging the misconceptions that surround snakes.

Outreach.jpg

Doing some snake outreach in the community

The massasauga rattlesnake is Ontario’s only venomous snake, and the eastern foxsnake mimics the massasauga by rattling its tail when threatened.  Due to habitat loss and persecution by humans, they have both been listed as species at risk. There are so many misconceptions about snakes by people who live in and visit the Georgian Bay area, but social media has been a fun way to bust some of these myths.

Social media platforms allow us to reach more people than conventional methods of outreach such as booths and presentations.  I’m sure many people reading this blog have heard of Scicomm, or science communication, and this is pretty much what we are aiming to do – bring the field to everyone’s computer.

But how do you grab people’s interest?  By coming up with engaging and unique posts!  One of my personal favourite ways of doing this is using the #TriviaTuesday or #WildlifeWednesday hashtags!  These have made our posts fun and informative and have resulted in higher engagement levels. People love a good game, but they also learn from our trivia, as it revolves around the species biology, identification, or safety.  Here are just a few of the examples!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One of our biggest hits on Facebook was a post I wrote about rattlesnake neonates. I was a little worried that there would be some negative feedback about “breeding rattlesnakes”; however, it was quite the opposite.  We wanted this post to share the excitement of a successful breeding attempt by a species at risk, so we chose to take the same approach as we would for humans: we made it a birth announcement!  It was positively received by most people on our page and also by the local radio station.

Baby Rattlesnake Announcement

The birth announcement

Georgian Bay is an amazing place because of the beautiful scenery and amazing creatures that live here.  Many times the public only sees the scenery and rarely the species within it.  Even when we, as biologists, go out into the field looking for certain species, we often have to do more than one survey because they are so cryptic and hard to find.

Much of what is known about some species, especially snakes, is what has been portrayed by folklore, popular media, or family/friends, often leading people to be afraid of or dislike these important creatures.  By running trivia games and writing unique social media posts, I hope that we are able to not only change people’s negative opinions of these species but also educate them on how to live alongside wildlife by understanding how animals and plants live, how to ID them, and why they are important. At GBBR, we are slowly but surely seeing a change in public perception, a shift in behaviour, and increasing respect for the natural world…I love it!

Tianna is a conservation biologist currently working for the Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve. She obtained her undergraduate degree at the University of Waterloo in environmental studies and completed her M.Sc. at Trent University studying Bank Swallow habitat. Working with so many passionate people is what fueled her love for the environmental field, especially her love of birds. She can be found on twitter @Tingo_89, where she co-manages the #BioLitClub and shares her passion for birds, cats, and her strange hobby of taxidermy.

Confessions of a lab biologist

We are excited to welcome Leslie Holmes to the blog today. Leslie is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, and while she may only be a novice field biologist…she “gets it”. For more about Leslie, see the end of this post. 

While I’m no field biologist, I have had short expeditions in field biology. As a novice ‘field biologist’ I can honestly say “I get it”, that is, I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be outside all day? Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your body is flooded with sun induced happy hormones and your mood instantly peaks. But it’s days like this, that it’s just as difficult to get your work done outside as it is inside sitting at a microscope, lab bench, or computer; my usual forte. Because, while inside there are birds constantly flying by your window casting animated shadows across your computer screen or field of view, and the idea of being outside trying out your lab’s recent purchase of a slip and slide is far more appealing than lab work, the work to be done outside is just as daunting. Inside, you’re (hopefully) cool and comfortable, struggling only with your mental capacity of getting your work done, while outside, in addition to mental anguish, you’re often overheating, sweating, and physically drained, and while you know these insects won’t collect themselves, all you want to do is lay down in the shade and read a book or go for a swim.

ss

Trying out the slip and slide

But I think every field biologist out there would agree, not every day is like this. In the spring and summer, you might have rainy days, where it’s coming down so hard you feel like a tin can and a sponge at the same time, rain drops hitting you like golf balls, not to mention the added 20 lbs of water weight you must now carry with you. As temperatures rise, you literally become a buffet for every biting insect in a 1-kilometer radius. Then there are days you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can take a single step more, even if it’s the first step back to the biology station where a nice meal awaits you. However, this utter exhaustion will almost certainly guarantee you a solid night’s sleep, an anomaly for most of us lab biologists.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought back to my very first field biology experience and the absolute wonder it brought to my life. It was July 10th 2009 in the McFadden National Wildlife Refuge of Sabine Pass, Texas, and our lab was trying to verify the range expansion of an invasive blowfly species Chrysomya megacephala. The landscape chosen to put some carrion out was less than 500 m from the coastal beach and was still recovering from the destruction of hurricane Ike that had passed through in 2008. In addition, the landscape had fallen victim to a large-scale lightning induced fire less than a week prior to our arrival. It was incredible, the flooding from the previous year’s hurricane, left little in the way of plant and wildlife, and what little that was there, had burned from the fire the week before, but to our amazement, the blowflies arrived within minutes of setting out the carrion. Minutes! It was here that I realized just how little we know about ecology and how it appears that the simplest organisms seem to have it all figured out.

I’ve also done some field work in the winter, and I have to say, if you’re a field biologist and you’re about to embark on a day, you know in advance is not going to be good, take someone like me with you! That is, take a novice, someone who is eager and happy to help and get experience, but has never seen a truly bad day in the field! Trust me, they will make light of what you most certainly believe will be an awful situation. The day was December 23rd, 2013, I was working in the lab over the holidays on my own experiments, so when my friend Amanda needed help in the field so that she could go home for Christmas, I didn’t even hesitate to offer my services, as limited and inexperienced as they may have been. Side bar: December of 2013 in Kingston, Ontario has come to be known as the year we got more snow than we’d seen in 5 years, and ice storm, after snow storm, after ice storm, etc.  Over the course of a week, Kingston, Ontario was blanketed with 30-100 cm of snow (depending on presence or absence of snow drifts), and 20-30mm of freezing rain. Specifically, there were layers of snow and ice throughout the landscape, and on December 23rd, the day after a second ice storm, we were headed to Amanda’s field study site. As we were driving to the Opinicon region, it occurred to us that the ATV typically used to haul us and our equipment to the field site might not be a viable option due to the deep drifts of ice and snow. But given the trek into the field site from the road was long and winding, we gave it the good ol’ college try, getting the ATV stuck in the snow/ice the instant we drove it out of the garage. So with 100+ lbs of equipment, Amanda and I started trudging through the deep snow/ice/snow/ice layers in an open field. And while Amanda would probably tell you, this day is probably one her top 5 worst days in the field, I would tell you, I laughed so much that day, that it was a good thing it was a mild -2˚C day, or my tears of laugher would have frozen to my cheeks!

snow

Amanda crawling across the snow to place boxes containing seeds for overwintering. Distributing our weight across the snowy, icy surface was an effective strategy but drastically delayed our time to completion.

Being a novice field biologist however, is not always ideal. It was late fall (my first time out in the field in any other season but summer), and the lab was bringing the dock in from Round Lake at the Queen’s University Biology Station. I was told that it was going to be a half day job and we were leaving first thing in the morning, so I had my usual late fall hearty breakfast of stone rolled oats and was ready to go, dressed in warm layers with a new waterproof jacket, pants and winter boots. Let’s just say, just like in the lab, things always take longer than your supervisor thinks it will and here we were, 8 hours later, heading back to Kingston after a long, but successful task of taking the dock out of Round Lake. Ignorant to the whole field biology experience, I had not prepared for this task to take longer than half a day, and thus I had not packed a lunch. So, when everyone paused in their tasks for a lunch break, my lack of preparedness was evident for all to see. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I told everyone that I didn’t usually eat lunch, silently willing my many layers of clothing to mask my thunderous hunger rumbles. By the end of the day I was starving, cold, wet and very hangry! Picking up some pizza and a large hot chocolate on my way home, I could not wait to peel my cold wet clothes off and have a scalding hot bath, only to discover my housemate had just used the last drop of hot water!

I’ve learned a lot from my limited experience in field biology, and while I often get envious of all my field biologists friends and the exciting places they get to discover, I certainly don’t regret moving to the dark side and doing most of my research in a lab setting. I think I’ll always gravitate towards laboratory research, where I like to think I’m in control of everything (although my entire PhD thus far would suggest otherwise). However, I do hope to continue to collaborate on field biology research and probably most ideally, pair laboratory studies with field studies.

2016-12-08 11.19.38A bit more about Leslie: “I received my bachelor of forensic science degree from the University of Windsor in 2008. Early in my undergraduate degree, I branched into the field of biology by working in a forensic entomology lab as a work study student. Helping graduate students at the time with their theses, I was engulfed into the world of forensic entomology. From there I was offered a Master’s position in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in Windsor to complete a development study on the black soldier fly for the purposes of maintaining a waste management facility year round in southern Ontario. I enrolled in my Master’s degree in the fall of 2008. Prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in the summer of 2008 on a ‘side’ project. As a result of this project, I travelled with my lab to the North American Forensic Entomology Association conference in Atlantic City to present our findings. It was at this conference that I met Dr. Tomberlin from Texas A&M University, the leading expert on the black soldier fly and landed a visiting research scholar position in his laboratory at Texas A&M. As a result, I spent the last year of my master’s in Dr. Tomberlin’s lab, where I completed 3 out of the 4 experiments of my master’s. An electronic copy of my thesis titled “Role of Abiotic Factors on the Development and LIfe History of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens (L.) (Diptera: Stratiomyidae)” can be download here.

I completed my master’s degree in October of 2010 and was able to land a part-time faculty position at Trent University in January 2011. I was employed in their Forensic Science Department and taught their first year introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation courses. I also developed a new online course in forensic entomology and taught it in the summer of 2012 online. While teaching online at Trent University in 2012, I also worked as an entomological researcher, raising beneficial insects for the purposes of integrated pest management. It was in September 2012, that I decided to return to school to embark on my PhD at Queen’s University.”

Not a Foreign Field

This week we are thrilled to welcome Pratik Gupte to the blog. Pratik is a research assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. For more about Pratik, see the end of this post. 

Last autumn, I was on the River Ijssel in the Netherlands looking for something – or someone – pretty specific. White-fronted goose No. 34 was somewhere close by and I was in the process of tracking her down. She didn’t look very pleased when I found her, but I dare you to try travelling a couple thousand kilometres from Russia on your own power while wearing a GPS transmitter and look happy at the end of it.

Though it could have been, this isn’t a story full of exotic locations, harsh conditions, and action-packed days, telling the tale of how this bird got her tag (mostly because National Geographic, which funded the expedition, owns the rights to this Russian part of the story). Instead, the point I want to get across is that the process of collecting data that helps answer important and/or interesting questions doesn’t have to conform to the general public or even other biologists’ idea of fieldwork1.

For my master’s thesis, I joined Andrea Kölzsch at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany and Kees Koffijberg of the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, to study the winter distribution of migratory geese in western Europe. Most of my data were from flock censuses done by citizen scientist volunteers, so I set off for Holland and the Rhinelands of Germany to take a look at how these censuses were done. The idea was to identify issues in sampling that could affect analysis, and to log a few flocks myself. This is one of the major ways in which data scientists get to go outdoors (and a popular one).

I was prepared for conditions like I’d encountered in Russia that summer: open tundra and skittish geese – hard to spot, let alone count. But western Europe is human dominated, and geese are accustomed to people. Most of our observations were literally in farmers’ fields. Often, geese were just a few hundred metres from wind turbines or power plants.

20161005_164110

All the dull colours in the world won’t help you hide if your field car is this yellow. Luckily, it
doesn’t always matter.

Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on the origin of the idea of fieldwork and how local sites are great.

One of our three datasets included many thousands of records of goose flocks and individually marked birds. But when broken down over 17 winters, the average volunteer (75 were listed in the data) would need to find only a couple of flocks each winter. Most of the volunteers were a bit older, armed with a love for birds, some spare time, and a telescope and notebook. Some, like Kees (who’s also the census coordinator), roll around the countryside on their bicycles.

DSC_0895.JPG

A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser) rests as a farmer works in the Netherlands. Field sites don’t have to be exotic, good data can come from anywhere.

Field data collection stories are often biased towards the exciting, the novel, and the harsh. But this represents only one aspect of the assignments biologists undertake outside the office or lab. A lot of fieldwork happens in everyday settings, with average equipment and transport. It happens in full view of locals. It could easily involve your neighbour, who does it as a hobby, or as a way to contribute to our understanding of the world. For example, it was the collective effort of dedicated citizen scientists like Thijs de Boer and Jan Kramer (who showed me around Friesland) chipping in over many years that provided most of my data.

So if you’re a student considering whether the ‘field’ is for you, or a member of the public wondering how you can contribute, remember: field biologists don’t always drop from helicopters, catch animals, or trudge through the desert (though I’ll admit to having done all three). Instead, we often work pretty close to home, and we need people like you to help out. There’s always a way to get involved, and often more than one way to get data. If you see a team doing something interesting, stop and ask: more likely than not, they’ll be happy to share what they’re doing with you.

 

20170418_141903

 

Pratik Gupte is a research assistant in Maria Thaker’s Macrophysiology Lab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Pratik studies the movement and physiology of elephants in response to water sources in South Africa. This follows his master’s thesis work at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, on spatial patterns and movements of migratory geese in western Europe. Pratik can be found on Twitter at @pratikr16.