It’s the journey that matters

It’s that time of year again.  Buds decorate the trees, shoots are pushing their way up through the soil, and birds are sounding the first tentative notes of spring.  And at universities all across North America, field biologists are rushing around like headless chickens getting ready for the field season.

Each year, the advent of spring makes me think about the beginning of my first field season – specifically, my first journey out to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  I was driving my supervisor’s pride and joy: an ancient and enormous blue van, inexplicably named Pooh, which retained many aspects of its previous life as a travelling library, including solid wood bookshelves in the back.  The heat didn’t work, the radio produced only static, and the brakes were less than trustworthy.  I had never driven a vehicle that big before, and as I navigated the twists and turns of the extremely curvy road to the field station, I was both terrified and more than a little nauseous.  (Opinicon Road was, in fact, the first road to teach me that it is possible to get carsick even when you’re the one driving.)

Travelling in style: me and the very trustworthy Pooh.

Luckily, I made it safely to the station with both my breakfast and my supervisor’s precious field vehicle intact.  (Although, to be accurate, the vehicle wasn’t exactly intact, it just wasn’t any less intact than it had been at the start of the journey.)  And by the end of that summer, I had become extremely comfortable with both the road and the vehicle. In fact, perhaps too comfortable: one of the cottagers on Opinicon Road actually called QUBS to complain about the maniac driving the huge blue van.

Since that trip, I’ve done fieldwork at sites across the continent, and along the way, I’ve come to an important realization: in many cases, just getting out to a field site is more than half the battle.

Coming in for a landing on the Sable Island Beach

I’ve donned a bright orange survival suit to helicopter in to a remote tundra field station, covered my eyes in a small plane headed for a landing on an empty stretch of Sable Island beach, and convulsively gripped the passenger door on a high speed night drive along Carmel Valley Road in California – well known for its blind curves – trying not to worry about the fact that my boss did not seem terribly concerned about driving on any particular side of the road.

But if I were awarding prizes for most arduous journey to a field site, first place would go to an unexpected place: a small island in the middle of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

When I agreed to work as a field assistant for my friend, helping her to catch some of the terns nesting in the large colony on Egg Island, I didn’t think much about the journey.  After all, Manitoba was certainly not the farthest I’ve travelled for fieldwork.  I figured one short flight and I’d be ready to go.

My journey from Kingston to Egg Island started at 5:00 a.m. one hot June morning, when I boarded a tiny prop plane at the equally tiny Kingston airport.  In Toronto, I changed to a bigger plane for the flight to Winnipeg.  After arriving in Winnipeg, I jumped into my friend’s field truck, and – once we’d purchased enough groceries for a month and survived a couple of false starts (a result of my abysmal navigation skills) – we drove the 3 hours out to a ferry dock on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.

When we arrived at the deserted dock, it seemed almost inconceivable that a ferry would ever actually show up.  Apart from a couple of apparently abandoned vehicles, the gravel lot was empty; the only sign of human presence was a trailer that had seen better days and a single man standing outside it smoking.  He seemed bemused by our presence, and gleefully informed us that, contrary to what we’d been told by our contacts, the ferry wouldn’t be coming back for at least another day.

How better to spend your time on the long ferry ride than grilling some steaks?

After a panicked conference, we decided to trust our instructions, and wait it out.  And after a mere 2 hours, a dot appeared on the lake: our ride was on its way.

There wasn’t really anywhere for passengers to stand on the tiny ferry, so we spent the hour-long ride in the car, watching curiously as one of the ferry crew lit a barbecue on deck and applied himself to cooking some steaks.

The ferry dropped us off in Princess Harbour, a tiny community of approximately 6 souls.  We parked the truck beside our cabin, tossed the groceries into the fridge, grabbed our field gear…and then climbed into yet another (smaller) boat to head out to the island itself.

The trip from Princess Harbour to Egg Island took almost another hour, but finally, after the majority of the day in transit, we approached our goal, a tiny splash of sand in the middle of the lake.

As we approached the island, the raucous screams of terns floated across the water, indicating that we were in the right place.  However, as we got closer to the island’s only safe access point, we realized there was a slight wrinkle in our plans: part of the island had flooded, leaving the small beach where the boat could land cut off from the main body of the island.

After unsuccessfully circling the island to look for other access points, we landed on the beach and clambered out to inspect the flooded area.  It turned out that the water was shallow – relatively speaking.  Before my friend even opened her mouth, I could guess what was coming.  She pulled on her waders and strode cheerfully into the lake, quickly becoming submerged to the knees.

My very determined friend dons her waders and heads straight for the tern colony.

Unfortunately, as a terrestrial bird biologist, waders are one of the few items of field clothing that I do not own.  I stared blankly after her for a few seconds, before realizing there was nothing else for it: I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, and followed her cautiously into the water.

It was mid-June, and the lake was still quite cold.  I couldn’t see the bottom through the murky water, and the sand shifted under my feet with each step, making the journey quite perilous – especially considering that none of the expensive equipment in my backpack was waterproofed.

Halfway across, I slipped and nearly fell face-first into the water.  Although I managed to regain my footing just in time, my pants began to unroll themselves.  Since both my hands were occupied with field gear, there was nothing I could do about it as the cuffs unrolled towards the water.  As they hit the surface, they began absorbing water, which wicked rapidly up my pants, ensuring that by the time I reached the main part of the island, I was soaked through to my underwear.  I’ve never been so happy to step onto a beach – even if it was covered in bird guano and ringing with the screams of terns.

For the next three weeks, every day began the same way: a bumpy, windy boat ride to the island, followed by a nerve-wracking wade over to the colony.  Despite my best efforts, my pants always unrolled themselves halfway across, and every day I sloshed up onto the beach soaked and swearing.

But every day, the sunshine and light breeze dried me off quickly, and by lunchtime, I would be warm and content on the beach, munching my sandwich and relishing in the fact that we had the entire island to ourselves.  And I think that’s the real lesson here.  Field scientists get to experience places that many other people don’t, and that often involves a long, arduous, and frustrating journey.  But once you’re out there, there’s no doubt that the journey was worth it.

Clash of the cattle

In my tenure as a field biologist, I’ve experienced and had to deal with many problems…unfortunate events…hideous disasters…whatever you want to call them. Catherine’s blog about the revenge of the ruminants from earlier this month got me thinking about an encounter that I had with these beefy creatures way back at the start of my time doing fieldwork.

Back in my first field season in the summer of 2009, our lab was setting up a long term experiment (about 10 years) to assess the effects of climate change on temperate grassland communities. The first step after getting the overall design and relevant details in order was to find an appropriate field site. We trekked around all over QUBS’ properties, and eventually found a good-sized piece of land on the Bracken tract. It met all of the criteria including having a high species richness, easily accessible by foot and was relatively flat. There had been some cattle grazing allowed on the property but the farmer assured us that they were now back on his property, and for good.

This particular study had 240 replicate 1 x 1 m plots. Treatments included plots with excess water added each week, control plots, and those with rainout shelters to minimize the access of water. There were also nutrient addition plots, and those with herbivore exclosures. Needless to say, it was a huge experiment. We spent a solid week mapping and measuring out the field. We set up the 240 plots and then used 6 different colours of flags to mark them all with their respective treatments. By the end of the week, we had made serious progress. We even left early that Friday just because we had worked so hard.

bracken shelters fence shot

An example of what the rainout shelters look like. 

We came back Monday ready to start putting up some of the shelters and fences together for the treatments. But the field wasn’t exactly as we had left it. In fact, it wasn’t even close to the condition we left it in. This would have been early June, so the grass was well over a foot tall and there were buttercups ad hawkweeds blooming galore. At least, there were when we had left the field on Friday.

Now the grass was barely an inch tall. The flags were no longer upright. Some were crushed. Some were torn to shreds. Some were just completely gone. And the source of this damage didn’t cover it up well. They certainly left their mark. There were cow patties all over the field site.

This led to a very awkward and upsetting call to our Supervisor about the state of the field, and the wasted hours of work put into setting it up. The next week a bunch of guys came down from Queen’s and installed a barbed wire fence around the site to prevent this from happening again. Luckily, the story has a happy ending because this ended up being an isolated incident and the cows have never broken into the field site after the fence was installed, and the experiment is now going into it’s 6th year.

The cows make an appearance now and then, and in large numbers, often around 70 at a time. As free-ranging beef cattle they aren’t exactly friendly or unfriendly. If you look them in the eyes, they run the other way. But 5 minutes later you’ll see their heads poking out of the bush wanting another look at what you’re doing. Occasionally one gets stuck in the barbed wire trying to get a taste of the grass in our site. They have at least a hundred acres to roam free on, but of course, the grass is always greener on the other side…or so they say.

My first “field” work

What is the meaning of “field” work? Does it have to be outside? Do you have to be running around chasing after your study species? Does it have to include getting wet or dirty or sun burnt? According to Wikipedia, fieldwork is the “collection of information outside a laboratory, library or workplace setting”. Maybe the “field” part is a lot more versatile than what you (or I) originally thought.

My first “field” work experience was collecting samples for my undergraduate thesis project. In such a short time frame to complete a research project, I was excited to actually be collecting my own samples! However, collecting samples for my project didn’t end up meaning what I thought it meant when I read the project description. We did not have to snoop around in the mud looking for seabird burrows. Instead, we were snooping around behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum looking for seabird specimens. It may not be the tropical island that many seabird biologists get to visit to collect samples, but I was still excited to get out of the lab for a day.

The behind-the-scenes archives in museums are quite astonishing. In the bird archives of the ROM, there were rows upon rows of shelves stacked up to the ceiling with drawers full of bird specimens.

hallway of drawers filled with bird specimens

The extensive drawers on drawers of bird specimens at the behind-the-scenes at the ROM.

Besides being awestruck by the number of bird specimens squeezed into these drawers, I was interested in finding specimens from the tube-nosed seabird subfamily Hydrobatinae, the northern hemisphere storm-petrels.

In my biology classes, professors always stressed that museum specimens are very valuable. I never truly understood just how valuable until I used them in my own project. For one, museum specimens offer a glimpse into a timeline where you can see changes in traits over time. These traits can also be compared among species very easily when they are laid out side by side. You may recognize differences that you otherwise would not have noticed if you were catching species in the wild at different times. In addition, museum specimens also offer an opportunity to see species that you might otherwise not be able to see in the wild (i.e. if they are hard to catch). This was the important point for my project!

Sarah poses with the drawers of hydrobatin storm-petrels

Excitement from being so close to my study species!

There are 14 species in the Hydrobatinae subfamily.  They are distributed across the globe, making it difficult to collect samples from every species. Therefore, we relied on a lot of museum samples for our study. In addition, besides some minor plumage differences, they look very similar (as you can see above). Because of this, I used genetics as a conservation tool to investigate how the different species arose.  I was able to collect a toepad (carefully of course so that we did not damage the specimen) to extract DNA from once I was back in the lab.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel.

Oceanodroma macrodactyla, the extinct Guadalupe storm-petrel. Check out the characteristic tube-nose!

Not only do museums allow you to study birds that may be hard to catch in the wild, they also let you study species that you can no longer catch in the wild. The ROM had specimens of extinct birds, including a passenger pigeon, a labrador duck, and a great auk. I also got to collect a toepad from Oceanodroma macrodactyla, an extinct storm-petrel species from Guadalupe Island. I felt like I was on CSI extracting DNA from a species that longer exists in the wild!

Next time you are at a museum, remember to think about all of the value you can get out of observing these specimens and thank a museum curator!

Reflections from my first polar bear field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Michelle Viengkone, a former M.Sc. student (and one of Sarah’s field companions in Mexico), to tell us about her field season working with polar bears. Check out her biography at the end of the post!

When I took my first trip up north to Canada’s Arctic to participate in a non-invasive sample survey of polar bears, I was 21 years old. Fast-forward 5 years and it still gives me goose bumps thinking about the experience: from the people, to the sights, to the cold fresh air. It is a pleasure to be sharing this experience via Dispatches From The Field in a guest blog. I would also like to acknowledge that the learning moments that I describe here are a product of an opportunity made possible by De Groot/Boag lab, Queen’s University, and Northern Scientific Training Program.

Learning moment #1: Nothing prepares you for being in the Arctic

Of course I tried to prepare: I spoke to others who had done fieldwork in the Arctic and to those who lived there before. Their advice and stories were invaluable and added to my excitement to be in the serene beauty of the North and so close to a majestic predator. I wanted to make sure I would have everything I might need, so I went all out and bought all the gear I could think of! From winter boots, an $800 jacket, and base layer items to hunting knives, paracord, bear bangers and an assortment of hand/foot warmers: I had it all, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise when I arrived to Gjoa Haven and I was cold! Nothing prepares you for that chill. My new Sorel winter boots with 3 layers of socks underneath didn’t stand up to traveling by sled, which entailed sitting exposed to the elements on top of supplies and equipment and being pulled kilometer after kilometer by the snowmobile. By the time we arrived at the hut after our first day, I no longer felt my toes and the other members of the team had to help me to take off my boots. After hanging my felt liners and boots to dry, it took dry socks and bit of time to feel the sensation again in my toes. We figured that my boots were actually frozen solid at the toes from the moisture, so “Buh bye boots, hello extra Kamiiks (Inuit hide boots)!”

Warm feet make for a comfortable ride on the sled.

Warm feet make for a comfortable ride on the sled.

Learning moment #2: Feeling alone and being alone are two different things in the Arctic.

After a few delays, the majority of our field team including myself, the PhD candidate, two European researchers and two Inuit guides set out from Gjoa Haven to our field hut. It was glorious: I was bundled with ski goggles in place; mitten-covered hands grasping onto the ropes wrapped around our equipment and supplies of our sled. The scenery, the pull of the snowmobile ahead, and the stillness of the surroundings were all wonderful. The ability of the Inuit guides to navigate the landscape amazed me; however as the sun went down and we realized that we were not even halfway to the field hut, we realized we had to make camp. We made it to a small fishing cabin, and we dug our glorified wooden box out of the snow while the guides pitched a tent outside, got a stove going and were warming up. Once in the fishing hut, the four of us researchers laid in there like sardines, trying our best to keep the door closed from the wind and get some much-needed rest. I have to admit that first night was a bit scary: you hear everything from the howling wind to every little crunch in the snow. Eventually I fell asleep, wedged between two new companions. What felt like moments later, we woke to the sound of thumping -like full body contact on the side of the cabin. We figured it wasn’t a polar bear (it didn’t seem heavy enough) but thought it may be a wolf. Panicked and without weapon to drive the culprit away, we began to scream for the guides and bang pots and pans to scare “it” off. All four of us were barricading the door and listening between the thumps when we heard footsteps rounding the corner coming towards us, and then a knock. It was the guide! He had been thumping against the cabin walls trying to reach a rope draped on the roof! Our fears subsided and we began our day with an oatmeal breakfast. That relief was jarred by the reality of being in the wilderness as we spotted fresh wolf tracks, droppings, and urine markings around our site.

Looking for fresh tracks.

In order to set up traps, we wanted to make sure polar bears were using the area. Guides identified fresh tracks for potential hair traps.

Learning moment #3: Emotions can run hot and cold when in the field – even in the Arctic!

The field is a tricky working environment because you work and live together all day, every day. Back in the city, you can leave work behind and go home; in the Arctic, regrouping and having alone time are complicated by the remoteness, the undeveloped field stations, and the dangers of straying too far from camp. Everyone has a different way of finding that solitude in the midst of a research team: I found my refuge hanging onto the sled and letting the landscape wash over me on the long sled rides between field sites where we set up hair traps. The long days and hard work could take a lot out of everyone, and that combination of physical and mental exhaustion sometimes provided fertile ground for interpersonal conflict. I learned that when emotions run high in the field, being able to take a moment for yourself while also ensuring others know where you are is key to keeping yourself safe.

Learning moment #4: The Arctic saves the best for last

Our field days were filled by traveling in search of fresh polar bear tracks, setting up hair traps and returning to them in subsequent days to collect snagged hair samples. We also kept a look out for polar bear poo, and bagged that too! On our days out we didn’t see much in terms of wildlife, aside from a seal head popping up from a breathing hole in the distance and rock ptarmigan hopping about. I was relieved to not have encountered a polar bear – seeing tracks and chipping poop into a Ziploc was enough for me. This is mostly because human-bear interactions often result in injuries to human and polar bear alike, the polar bear being shot and/or the human becoming a snack.

A used hair trap and a hair snag.

Polar bears are naturally curious, let alone destructive. Here’s a used hair trap and the hair snag.

Sampling polar bear poop.

Opportunistic sampling of polar bear poop was a part of the project, we bagged and labeled sample with GPS coordinates.

For some, the expectation was to see the white bear, but it did not look promising as we woke to our last day before us. As with the days before, getting breakfast going was the priority – for oatmeal you need boiling water, so that’s where a pot full of snow comes in. The PhD student went to fetch the snow but upon opening the door to the cabin she was greeted by the stunned faces of Tundra wolves! She turned around and closed the door calmly, but when pressed about where the snow was she softly told us about her encounter. Later on, after giving the wolves time to move along, she retrieved the snow and got breakfast going. I got ready and waited my turn to use the latrine that morning, checking to see when it was my turn. On one of those checks I suddenly lost the urge to pee as one of the crewmembers spotted a teenage male polar bear just down the hill from us, a mere 200m away. The bear’s presence energized everyone. Soon enough the Inuit guides hopped on their snowmobiles and tried to drive the curious bear away. Once the bear was sufficiently tired, the chase was over and he went on his way disappearing into the whiteness. We decided to check out the area of the chase and we found flecks of blood in the tracks, likely from cracked footpads. We took a sample just in case!

It was quite the introduction to the Arctic and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of the research project. Our work would not have been possible without the support of the community. There’s no place quite like the Arctic, I hope we can strive to keep it that way.

Little rock ptarmigan near the field hut.

Little rock ptarmigan near the field hut.

Originally from Ontario, Michelle studied at Queen’s University for her Bachelor of Science during which she became involved in a non-invasive study of polar bears in the M’Clintock Michelle ViengkoneChannel and Gulf of Boothia. Having developed laboratory and field skills, she opted to take a gap year before pursuing graduate studies. Through marine mammal research internships, volunteering on research vessels and traveling to New Zealand, Edmonton was to be her home for 2-3 years in pursuit of  a Master’s degree. Continuing research on polar bears, she defended her thesis examining the population in Hudson Bay in the spring and currently is living in Calgary and gearing up for a season of guiding in Churchill. From Michelle: “I hope you enjoy this blog, thanks for checking it out here on Dispatches From The Field. Ciao, Michelle Viengkone”.

Thinking outside the lab

Shortly after starting my PhD, I was assigned to TA a class called “Diversity of Plants”.  As an ornithologist, I did not feel entirely confident teaching undergraduates about plants.  But what worried me most was the first lab, which focused on how to use a microscope properly.  “This is going to be a disaster,” I lamented to a friend over the phone.  “How am *I* qualified to teach people to use a microscope?”

“Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “I would think you’re actually extremely qualified.  Don’t you use microscopes all the time?”

I stared at the phone in consternation.  “Um…I study bird behaviour, so…not so much, no.”

There was a long silence, and then my friend said uncertainly, “But you’re a scientist!  All scientists use microscopes…don’t they?”

 

My friend is not alone in her misconception.  For most people, the word ‘scientist’ conjures images of serious people wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, ensconced in pristine labs full of Erlenmeyer flasks and microscopes.  Few people immediately picture dirty, windswept individuals wearing an excess of plaid, large floppy hats, and socks with sandals.  Fieldwork isn’t usually the first thing the general public associates with the word ‘science’.

And this misconception often extends to science students as well.  As an undergraduate in Biology, I spent a lot of time gathered around lab benches counting fruit flies or looking at slides – but I didn’t really understand that science doesn’t always take place in a laboratory until I was in third year.  That year, my ecology course went on a mandatory weekend field trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  This trip was a long-standing tradition in the course; its purpose was essentially to introduce us to some of the questions, methods, and experiences of field biology.

Years later, that trip is one of the few things that stands out vividly in my memories of undergrad.  I remember dragging myself out of bed obscenely early to catch the bus to QUBS (and getting carsick on the twists and turns of the gravel road).  I remember stepping out of the bus into quiet air that smelled faintly of pine and rain.  I remember tromping through a field wet with dew to check live traps for small mammals, and I definitely remember the large and extremely angry weasel that the lab coordinator very carefully released from one of the traps.  I remember discovering that chickadees, although small, pack a surprisingly powerful bite, and the moment I realized that the chest waders I was wearing to seine for sunfish had a rather large leak.  Most of all, I remember being completely entranced by the whole experience.  That field trip was my first real exposure to the world of field biology – and clearly it made a lasting impression.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

 

Fast forward a few (okay, many) years, and suddenly I found myself TAing that ecology course.  I was really excited to help organize and teach those field weekends – not least because it would be my first chance as a PhD student to teach something I felt passionate about.   But I was also a bit apprehensive about it.  The field weekend had been one of the most important parts of my undergraduate experience, but this group of students didn’t seem particularly excited about it.  I was frustrated because I wanted them to love it as much as I had.

Throughout the early weeks of September, I spent several long days at QUBS with the lab coordinator, preparing all the weekend activities – from digging holes for pitfall traps to carefully laying out and flagging grids of small mammal traps.  In doing so, I got a firsthand look at just how much work was involved in pulling off the trip each year.  Planning a field weekend for 160 young adults is no small task.  The lab coordinator, who had been organizing these weekends for many years, was a bit like a general in charge of a very intricate military campaign.

On the last Friday of September, she and I headed up to the field station late on Friday evening.  I was driving the (very sketchy) departmental van, which made for a somewhat nerve-wracking drive.  The brakes creaked ominously, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to turn on the high beams.  On top of that, the road was inexplicably covered in frogs – so the drive was a bit like an obstacle course, as I swerved first one way and then the other in an attempt to minimize the carnage.

However, I made it unscathed (although sadly the same could not be said for all the frogs) – and upon arriving, was immediately put to work.  It was late and dark, but there was so much to be done before we got to sleep.  Cabins needed to be assigned, lists and maps needed to be printed and posted, and supplies needed to be distributed to the appropriate places around the station property.

Finally, before falling into bed, we headed out to bait the 40 small mammal traps we’d laid out with seed.  When we put the traps out earlier in the month, we’d flagged them with glow-in-the-dark flagging tape to make them easier to find.  However, I learned a few valuable lessons that night.  First, glow-in-the-dark flagging tape doesn’t really glow in the dark.  Second, forests are tricky places at night, even with a headlamp.  And third, spider eyes glow when light hits them.  The last lesson led to another discovery: there are many, many, many more spiders in the forest than one might think.

With the traps baited, everything was ready for the arrival of the students the next morning and I finally got to crawl into my sleeping bag – for a short time, anyway.  Very early the next morning, we climbed back into the departmental van and headed out to meet the students.

The bus had been scheduled to leave Kingston at 6 a.m., so it was no surprise that the students staggering through the doors into the cool fall morning were sleepy and cranky.  Despite having been told multiple times about appropriate footwear, at least five or six of them were wearing flip flops.  Several others were still in pyjama pants.  They stood shivering in the field beside our grid of mammal traps, leaning against each other, yawning, and complaining about the hour and the cold.

Naturally, the order to split up into pairs and go retrieve the traps was met with some muted resistance.  But eventually, they all grudgingly trooped off into the woods, and then ambled slowly back carrying the metal Sherman traps.  At first it seemed like all the traps were empty…until one last pair of students came running out of the forest, clutching their trap and shouting, “I think there’s something in here!”

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

I watched as the coordinator carefully emptied the contents of the trap into a plastic bag.  A surprised deer mouse slid out, which she then held up for everyone to see…and a collective “Ooooohhhhhh” rose from the students around me.  All of a sudden, no one was yawning.  Everyone’s eyes were on the deer mouse, and everyone looked awake and interested.  Suddenly, I was less worried about the weekend.

 

I ended up TAing that course for four years, and helping to run the field trip is still the most fulfilling teaching experience I’ve ever had.  Every year I watched tired, cold, and disinterested students straggle off the bus on Saturday morning – and energized, excited students climb back onto the bus on Sunday afternoon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I know that the skills and techniques learned in labs are an essential part of a scientific education.  But I think it’s also important that we give students a chance to explore the other side of science.  For most people, the experience may change the way they think of the discipline.  For some people – like me – the experience may change the course of their lives.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

A night at the symphony

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Amanda Cicchino, who shares some of her adventures wading through the marshes of QUBS in the dark to record frog songs.  For more about Amanda, check out her bio at the end of this post.

I like to compare the frog chorus to a symphony. The orchestra in this case is composed of many different species, each with the same end goal. The timing and frequencies of the noises they make have been molded over time to allow them to be heard simultaneously, yet they still compete with one another. Over the course of the night, the entire chorus comes together and tells a story.

My last field season was done at QUBS (Queen’s University Biological Station) and focused on frog acoustics. As I learned from presenting a poster at the annual Open House, not many people are aware of the different sounds frogs and toads can make. Though some species sound quite pleasant, others present you with ear-splitting, gurgling screams that result in a pounding headache1. Most frogs and toads call during the breeding season as a way to attract mates. Most calling and breeding is done at night in marshes or swamps. My original aim for that season was to record the mating calls of Spring Peepers to supplement a dataset, but I developed a “small” side-project with a lab-mate that would require recordings from each species found at QUBS2. What a shame.

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.

Single, lonely spring peeper seeks soulmate…

A typical night of sampling involves organization and proper preparation. Prior to leaving for the site, a few cups of coffee must be ingested, with at least one travel mug packed. The field pack must include digital calipers (to measure the frogs), plastic calipers (in case it rains and the digital ones can’t be used), multiple flashlights and headlamps, a heat gun, my notebook and pencil, recording equipment, back-up batteries (in case the ones in the devices die during the night), and emergency back-up batteries (in case the back-ups die or spontaneously combust3). Everything digital is kept in Ziploc bags in case it rains through the car or through the rain-cover on the pack.

Wearing the right attire is also a necessity for a smooth sampling night2. Fashion has always been a priority in my life, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to maintain that passion while sampling. Since the first frogs (typically Wood Frogs) begin calling when there is still ice floating on the marsh, the temperatures I sample in can be quite low.  I won’t bore you with specifics of how I dress, but I do want to give you an image of how I feel I look.  (But also stuffed into brown neoprene chest-waders). Of course, dressing with that many layers might impede my speed and agility in the marsh, so I tend to invest in good thermal clothes.

Once the sun sets, a few individuals will start to call until the peak is hit and the chorus is in full swing. My sampling begins at the peak and ends either when I have transected the whole marsh, reached my sample size limit for the site, or the chorus goes silent (usually the last one). I record every individual I come across for at least 20 consecutive calls using a Marantz PMD660 recorder and Sennheiser microphone. This can look quite humourous as the microphone is at least 30cm long and some frogs are approximately 2cm in length. I then catch the individuals and take morphometric measurements before releasing them. This can be a slow process as some individuals are “mic shy”. When they stop calling once the microphone is put near them, my general tactic is to turn off all my lights, splash a bit, and wait. Usually after a minute, they start calling again and I can feel good about myself for out-smarting a 2cm long frog. This tactic does not have to be employed too often, as I find that frogs can be quite bold. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a frog making mating calls when the lower half of its body was inside a snake’s mouth. Once I have finished my sampling, exhausted and exhilarated, I look forward to reliving the night when I analyze the call recordings the next day.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

Perhaps comparing a frog chorus to a symphony seems a bit quixotic, but they do have some similarities. They both require a specific dress code, they both overlay impressive sounds and rhythms, and they both tell an extravagant story. Of course, the frog chorus’s story is one of acoustic niche and evolution, but that is one of the most interesting stories I can think of! This kind of field work isn’t for everyone, but I truly love it. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a marsh during peak breeding season, with a full chorus of hundreds of frogs desperately calling to attract a mate. The frog chorus is quite literally music to my ears.

  1. Google ‘Bird Voiced Tree Frog call” and “American Toad call” for this comparison. You may want to make sure your speakers are turned a bit low for the latter.
  2. Please beware of extreme sarcasm used ahead.
  3. A pessimistic mindset leads to the best preparation.

AmandaAmanda recently completed her BScH at Queen’s University, researching acoustic divergence in the Spring Peeper for her Honour’s thesis. She is starting her MSc at Queen’s this fall, and will continue to study the role of mating systems on speciation.

Who’s the boss?

A few weeks before I started my first field assistant job, my friends all contributed to buy me a full set of rain gear for my birthday.  The rubbery, canary yellow jacket and pants were definitely not a fashion statement (at least, not one I wanted to be making), but I was extremely grateful nonetheless.  I assumed that being a field biologist would mean working in all sorts of unpleasant weather conditions, and I wanted to be prepared.

But shortly after arriving at QUBS, I found out that ornithologists have a reputation for being wimps when it comes to bad weather.  In fact, there’s a longstanding tradition that birders don’t work at all when it’s raining, because birds don’t do anything in the rain.  (How we know this without going out in the rain to check is something that we don’t talk about.)

I was – not surprisingly – very pleased to hear this.  I like the outdoors as much as the next person (actually, at that point, that wasn’t true, but it was growing on me), but I’m not a fan of wandering around in soggy clothes – and it soon became clear that, while my shiny new rain gear did indeed keep out the rain, it also made me sweat so much that I got soaked from the inside out anyway.  I folded the rain suit back into my suitcase with a relieved sigh.

However, less than a week later, I found myself pulling it back out.  What I quickly came to realize is that there’s a giant loophole in the ‘no working in the rain’ rule.  While it is true that ornithologists don’t usually catch and band birds in the rain, there are plenty of other field duties that can easily be performed even if everyone else is contemplating building an ark.  If you happen to study a cavity nesting bird, like the tree swallow, then you can certainly monitor nests in the rain.  And if you’re looking to re-sight colour banded birds, then the rain can actually make your job easier because the birds tend to move less..

The upshot is that I have spent many hours on many different field jobs staring through rain-streaked binocular lenses, trying to see colour bands on soggy birds and ignore the rain dripping down the back of my collar.  And from this experience, I have determined that there’s a strong correlation between the number of clothing layers the rain has soaked through and the frequency and intensity of thoughts of mutiny.

I always thought that when I was in charge, things would be different.  With a whole breeding season to collect data, I reasoned, who cares if you lose a few days to inclement weather conditions?  I swore up and down that no field assistant of mine would ever find themselves courting trench foot as they squelched home at the end of a long, wet, miserable day.

Little did I know.

 

The first year I ran my own field season was an eye opening experience.  Before that, I’d only given fleeting thought to what kind of boss I’d be (except for the no-working-in-the-rain thing; I’d thought about that a lot).  If you’d asked me, I would have probably said I’d be easy to work for – after all, I’m pretty approachable and relaxed, and I hate working in soggy clothes.  I might even have guessed that I’d really enjoy the chance to mentor students just starting out in field biology.

The reality turned out to be totally different.  What I hadn’t considered was the toll that collecting data for my own project would take – not to mention the strain of projecting an air of confidence and authority when I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  That first year, I spent most of the field season stressed, frustrated, and running on 4 hours of a sleep a night.  It’s hard to be a mentor to anyone under those conditions.

Being in charge was a totally new experience for me: I’d never been anyone’s boss before, and I had no idea how to go about doing any of the things I needed to do – starting with interviewing prospective candidates.

Even under the best of circumstances, I think interviews are a pretty awkward experience.  But in the case of field assistant jobs, they tend to be even worse, perhaps because what you’re really evaluating is whether the candidate’s personality is compatible with yours.  Because of this, I discovered, it is very easy to forget to ask vital questions – meaning that you can later find yourself stuck on an island, trying to re-sight colour banded birds with a field assistant who is colour blind.

Sometimes, you just need to take a break...

Sometimes, you just need to take a break…

I also didn’t know anything about recognizing someone’s breaking point.  When it’s your own data you’re collecting, your tolerance level increases dramatically – at least, mine did.  It’s easy, when you’re in the thick of fieldwork, to forget that these people who soldier alongside you do not have the same stake in the data as you.   Walking home late one evening with my first field assistant, I realized rather abruptly that there are points beyond which you really should not push people.  As we trudged along the Sable Island beach, an angry gull swooped towards us, buzzed our heads, and then crapped all over my assistant’s hat.  He stopped in his tracks, stood stock still for a second…and then took off after the gull, screaming profanities and hurling our mist net poles in its general direction.  I decided on the spot that he was taking the next day off.

Being in charge, I realized quickly is that the boss-employee relationship becomes a bit blurry when it comes to fieldwork.  When you’re working, eating, and living with someone, you get to know them pretty quickly – and while that makes it easy for friendships to develop, it also makes it inevitable that you’re going to get frustrated sometimes.  And that goes both ways.  I’m sure my disorganization sometimes drove my field assistants up the wall – they learned fast to never, ever ask, “What are we doing tomorrow?”

My father releasing a bluebird in the Okanagan Valley, BC.

That’s right, Dad…I’m in charge now!

And that boss-employee relationship can become significantly more complicated depending on who your employee is.  For example, it can be quite awkward giving orders to your PhD advisor’s daughter.  Or to your parents: I was lucky enough to have my Dad volunteer to help me during all three of my PhD field seasons – and while it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with him, the role reversal involved in me telling him what to do was a bit disconcerting.

After running six of my own field seasons, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a bit better at being the boss – but mostly I think the credit for these successfully completed field seasons goes to the incredible group of field assistants I’ve been lucky enough to work with.  They’ve rescued me in so many ways over the years – acting as my personal translator when my grasp of Spanish proved inadequate for the Dominican Republic, spending hours staking out a mist net to catch the one bird I really needed, refusing to let me drive when I was really, really sleep deprived, and making me laugh when I most needed it.  Though I’m sure that I’ve given each and every one of them cause to contemplate mutiny, I’ve appreciated their patience, enthusiasm, and sense of humour more than I can say.

But I still make them work in the rain.

Walking home at the end of a long day.

Heading home after a long day in the field.