Careful queries

“Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully.  And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 -David Quammen

Having spent more than a decade doing fieldwork all over North America, you might think I would have learned by now how to see beauty anywhere – how to look past the surface of a place to the awe-inspiring intricate connections beneath.  But last week’s guest post about the beauty of the tallgrass prairie got me thinking about my own experience in the prairies last fall.

In October, I took a trip out west with my father, who is a big fan of Canada’s national park system and wanted to see some of the western parks and historic sites.  We originally planned the trip as my ‘thesis submission celebration’.  (Of course, as any grad student knows, thesis submission dates are slippery things, very prone to change.  So when the time came to leave, my thesis was decidedly unsubmitted – but lucky for me, we decided to go anyway.)

When we sat down to finalize our itinerary, we discovered that we disagreed fairly substantially.  My father’s top priority was to visit Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan.  But to be honest, I just wasn’t that excited by the thought of an endless flat plain.  No, if I was going out west, my top priority was to see some mountains.

I’ve been fascinated by mountains since my first trip to Alberta with my family, when I was only six.  Even now, I find the dramatic landscape of the Rocky Mountains enthralling and iconic.  Despite growing up in Ontario, when I think of the Canadian wilderness, I picture the snowy peaks, mysterious green valleys, and jewel-bright lakes of the Rockies.

My dad was considerably less enchanted by the mountains than I was, but eventually agreed to add Waterton Lakes National Park to our schedule.  Waterton Lakes, in southwestern Alberta, lies at the point where “the prairies of Alberta meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains”.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place than Waterton Lakes National Park on a sunny fall day.

If you look the park up on Google Images, the pictures that pop up are so perfectly gorgeous that they seem almost unreal.  But as amazing as those pictures are, they don’t begin to the do park justice.  We visited on a sunny, crisp fall day.  The wind was so strong it almost felt like an assault, and the sheer majesty of the sun reflecting off the snow-covered peaks took my breath away.

We spent three wonderful days in the shadow of the mountains before starting our long drive east to Grasslands.  Not feeling all that inspired by the second part of our trip, I was reluctant to leave, and the seemingly endless drive across the flattest part of Canada didn’t increase my enthusiasm at all.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Rumpled, tired, and cranky in the way that can only result from spending a day in the car, we arrived at our accommodation, right on the edge of the park, just as the sun was going down.  As I stepped gratefully out into the fresh air and gazed over the sea of grass stretching from right in front of us all the way to the horizon, I felt the first faint stirrings of interest in this park.

First thing the next morning, we set off to explore.  My dad was single-minded in pursuit of his main goal: to see a buffalo.  I had visions of us roaming for hours, searching fruitlessly.  But within a few minutes of entering the park, we spotted one of the massive animals standing not far from the road, gazing haughtily into the distance.  As my dad pulled out his camera, I noticed a flash of movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned to investigate – and realized that on the other side of the road was a busy prairie dog colony.  Hundreds of the chubby rodents bustled around their burrows, often coming within a few feet of me.

Face to face with a curious prairie dog.

It was slowly dawning on me that, although this park lacked the obvious, dramatic majesty of Waterton Lakes and the other mountain parks, it had a quiet splendour all its own.  We’d been in the park only a few minutes, and already we’d had two up close and personal encounters with wildlife.  That night, as I stared up at one of the most phenomenal night skies I’ve ever seen, I realized that Grasslands was something special.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the experience was that we had the park essentially to ourselves.  During the three days we spent there, I don’t think we saw more than ten other visitors.  When I got home, I looked up the stats.  Between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017, Grasslands had just over 13,000 visitors.  In comparison, Waterton Lakes recorded more than 500,000 visitors over the same time period, and Banff recorded more than 4 million.  Apparently I am not the only person who prefers the mountains to the plains.

I can’t deny that having an entire national park to ourselves was mind-blowing, and part of what made our time in Grasslands so special.  There’s something about being the only car on the road – the only people within sight – that allows you to become truly immersed in the landscape.

But I also can’t help but think the vast difference in visitor numbers between Grasslands and Waterton Lakes may be indicative of a larger problem.  Many people – whether consciously or unconsciously – equate ‘nature’ with those grand, awe-inspiring mountain vistas that we are all so fond of.  And I can’t deny that those vistas are amazing, certainly well worth a visit.

However, a single-minded focus on majestic and dramatic landscapes can cause us to miss the more subtle beauty found in less obvious places – whether it be the muddy edges of a marsh, the vast grasslands of the North American plains, or even our own backyards.

And so the main thing I learned from my trip was to put a bit more time and effort into making those ‘careful queries’ that David Quammen advocates.  Less obvious landscapes may demand a bit more of us, but they have so much to teach.

Looking out over the badlands at Grasslands National Park.

 

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Fieldwork: more than data

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome fellow WordPress blogger Cindy Crosby.  Cindy shares some of the lessons she’s learned from the landscape she loves most – the tallgrass prairie of Illinois.  For more about Cindy, and to read more of her work, check out her bio at the end of the post.

Prescribed burning on the prairie.

After a prescribed burn, the prairie may look a bit desolate.

“Weeds, Cindy. It’s just weeds.”

I heard this from a friend I took out to see the prairie where I serve as steward supervisor, expecting him to feel the same wonder and joy I experienced. Fieldwork—pulling weeds, managing invasives, collecting native prairie seeds, monitoring for dragonflies and damselflies—had brought me into a close relationship with the Illinois tallgrass prairie.

And yet, all my friend saw was “weeds.”

 

This experience was a turning point for me in how I explained my fieldwork and passion for prairies and other natural areas to friends. I realized that without spending time there, family members and acquaintances couldn’t be expected to understand why I invested thousands of hours hiking, sweating, teaching, planning, and collecting data about a place that—on the surface—looks a bit wild and messy to the untrained eye.

An eastern amberwing takes a momentary rest.

Sure, visit the two prairies where I am a steward in the summer months, and it’s all eye candy. Regal fritillary butterflies and amberwing dragonflies jostle for position on butter-yellow prairie coreopsis, pale purple coneflowers, and silver-globed rattlesnake master. The bright green of the grasses stretches from horizon to horizon. But drop in right after we do a prescribed burn in the spring, or in late winter, when the tallgrass is matted and drained of color, and yes… it doesn’t look like much.

People ask me, “Why so much work? Can’t you just let nature do its thing?” Visitors come to the prairie with buckets to pick the “weeds” for their dinner party table arrangements. Others cringe when a dragonfly buzzes by. “Won’t it bite me?”

As someone who came later in life to fieldwork, I remember how it felt to only see “weeds” or “bugs.” I had the same questions.  These questions remind me that I need to find different ways to connect hearts and minds with the places and critters I love.

Our morning fieldwork commute.

Commuting, prairie style…

So—I train new dragonfly monitors each season to collect data. Then, I watch them fall in love with the prairie and its beautiful flying insects through walking a regular route. I work with my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie volunteer group, and see men and women who have never seen a prairie before become deeply invested in its wellbeing. It’s all about showing up each week to do whatever task needs to be done. Seeing the prairie and its creatures in all sorts of weather, different seasons, and times of day. Reading a book about it. Taking a class. Building a relationship.

Each person has a different connection to my fieldwork. For some, it’s the history of the prairie. For others, it’s the amazing migration of some of our dragonflies. A few bring their cameras, and later write or paint about what they see. Some just like being outdoors and socializing in a natural environment. All good reasons. All points connecting to the restoration and science being done. Time well spent.

The poet Mary Oliver reminds me: “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.”  Fieldwork is all about paying attention, isn’t it? Keeping our sense of wonder. Then, building a relationship with a place or a creature.

A land to love.

And relationships are about spending time with someone or something, then sharing what you love with others. Hoping, of course, that they’ll come to love the places you love too.  Support the science. Change public policy because they care about the place they live.

Building relationships. Taking care of my landscape of home. That’s what keeps me out there. Doing fieldwork.

Cindy Crosby has authored, compiled, or contributed to more than 20 books, including The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017). A prairie steward and dragonfly monitor, she blogs weekly on Tuesdays in the Tallgrass and speaks and teaches about the prairie and other natural history topics in the Chicago region. Read more at www.cindycrosby.com.

Seeing the land in a different way

This week, we have a change of pace on Dispatches from the Field!  We are very excited to welcome archaeologist Marianna Cervantes, who tells us a bit about her experience doing archaeological field work in British Columbia.  For more about Marianna, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For many, the field of archaeology is tied to the image of Indiana Jones defeating Nazis with whip in hand. Others associate archaeology with trowels, brushes, and meticulous desert excavations done by guys in pith helmets. Cultural Resource Management archaeology, or CRM, is neither…but maybe a bit of both. (No dinosaurs, though!) Dubbed “hit and run” archaeology by one of my undergrad profs, it is rapid assessment and testing of sites ahead of development to ensure nothing of archaeological importance is disturbed or destroyed.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Where I worked, in northeastern British Columbia, we would dig year-round, even in the winter (using pick-axes and cement saws). Areas to be assessed are accessed by any means necessary, be it on foot, by ATV, by snowmobile, or by helicopter. I will never say that my time in the field was not an adventure. I have so many stories, but for now I’m going to stick with my very first day working in the field…

In spring 2006, I went out in the field in the wilderness of northeastern British Columbia with an experienced archaeologist. As we drove down the dirt oilfield road, she called our position on the radio for other road users, a common practice on logging and oilfield roads, while I tried to figure out the maps in the passenger seat. In the back, and in the two trucks following us, were First Nations participants. We asked First Nations bands whose traditional lands we were assessing to send members with us, to provide input, represent their bands, and help us find areas that should be reported as important. That day, because of the geographic location we were assessing, there were representatives from eight bands – considerably more than usual. Indigenous representation and investment in the land is something important to consider for anyone working in nature.

We started down the final road to the site and found gigantic dump trucks, in the midst of building a wellsite, at the end. The dirt road had become mud, covered with ruts easily a foot deep caused by all of the traffic to the active construction site. To get down the road, our trucks had to be expertly balanced on the higher areas. When we made it to the end, we parked our trucks in a convenient spot, and struck off into the woods to have a look at the land. We had a large area to cover, with several kilometres to walk, and a lot of gear to carry. I was pretty overwhelmed by the logistics so far, and my boots weren’t even broken in yet. This was neither classroom nor field school, where I had learned about slow, controlled excavations rather than fast and decisive tests of areas that have archaeological potential, or simply ‘potential’.

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

While some scientists look at habitats, vegetation, water, or wildlife, the archaeologist looks at both nature and the land, trying to determine how it was used in the past and digging where there may be evidence of that. Those areas are areas of ‘potential’.  In the context of northeastern BC, we were looking for artifacts left by the past inhabitants, ancestors of some of the participants who accompanied us. Identifying potential is complicated though, because the use of land in the past is often different than what we would expect, given its present-day form. A dip in the landscape may be all that remains of an old oxbow lake, where someone may have camped because of access to water and fishing, whereas a south facing barren rise may have been a treed elevation over swampy ground, catching sunshine on short winter days.

After some interpretation, as well as input from the participants (if they are present), dig locations are decided upon. That first day, I recall digging tests. Tests are about 30x30cm, reaching down to glacial soils, and are dug on areas of potential.  They act as a representative sample of the topographic feature and hopefully show whether there are artifacts present. Artifacts indicate previous habitation or use, which can require a change in the client’s development plans. (For example, on that first day, we were scoping out a location where an oil and gas company were planning to build a wellsite).

A projectile point found in a test.

A projectile point found in a test.

Artifacts are sometimes obvious, like ‘arrowheads’, scrapers, and other tools; at other times, they can be less obvious. For example, stone tools are shaped using other stones, and their construction may leave behind identifiable (and important) flakes. Sometimes the source of the stones used for tools can even be traced. In the environment we were working in, organic artifacts don’t tend to be preserved well due to soil conditions, so stone flakes and tools are often all that remain. Disappointingly, despite doing several tests on potential areas, we did not find anything that first day in the field… which is often the case when doing archaeological assessments.

We ate our lunch sitting on the ground under the trees, a lunch environment I would eventually take for granted. I remember one of the First Nations Participants chatted cheerfully with me, knowing I was new. He explained to me how to tell the direction from the sun (a skill I used often during the rest of my time in the field), and told me that the direction of the shadow can help you tell time. Then he leaned in, and with the serious air of someone imparting deep, secret knowledge, told me that at night time I could use a flashlight.  I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. We ended up having a good laugh at my bafflement while walking back to the truck.

While we were packing our gear back into the trucks, a big pickup with gigantic tires roared onto site. A man jumped down from the cab and came over.

“What are you guys planning to do?” he asked.

My co-worker replied, “We’re just on our way out; we did the archaeological assessment on the new site.”

“Well dear,” he replied somewhat condescendingly, “I’m thinking you’re not going to make it down that road there; the dump trucks have chewed it up pretty good the past few days”

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

My co-worker just raised an eyebrow.  One of the First Nations men came over and stated the obvious: “She got us down the road fine this morning. ”

“Oh….huh.” At a loss for words, the guy walked away muttering. My co worker drove again, leading back out with the same easy skill she exhibited on the way in.

That first day showed me that if this was just the start, I was going to like this much more than the waitressing I’d done to supplement my university loans.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

That was one day, and one assessment. Over the next few years, I became a field director and a permit holder, and I was involved in hundreds of site assessments, working in the field almost daily, driving many of the same roads I’d driven that first day. I identified many archaeological sites and had so many incredible moments. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave fieldwork,  but I sorely miss it…although it is nice to work indoors in the winter and have regular hours.  However, the lure of fieldwork will always be there. The way I see the environment and my world in general has been changed by the time I spent seeing the land and nature in a different way.

Marianna Cervantes started working in archaeology after completing a BA in Anthropology, and left archaeological fieldwork in 2010, to spend more time with family and have a chance to recuperate. She recently finished her dissertation in forensic anthropology as part of a part time MSc in Forensic Science, while also working full time assisting at autopsies. She is currently getting ready to start working on PhD applications and is looking forward to having some form of fieldwork in her future. She can be found on Twitter at @BoneArky.

 

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!

These boots are made for walking

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Sian Green, who shares some stories about her ‘fieldwork style’.  For more about Sian, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For my 21st birthday I wanted what all girls want…a new pair of shoes! I got my wish and, although they were somewhat lacking in heels and glitter, since then they have taken me all over the world and been an essential part of my fieldwork outfit for nearly 5 years now. When you’re on your feet and walking long distances day after day, a good, comfortable pair of boots can make a big difference!

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My boots have travelled with me to Costa Rica, Tanzania and Kenya; however, sadly, during my last expedition to Romania, while trekking the Carpathian foothills in search of large mammals, they walked their last mile. Having been soaked in the dewy grass every morning then baked by the fierce Transylvanian summer sun every afternoon, they finally fell apart.

In memory of my favourite pair of shoes, I thought I would share some of the most memorable moments I had whilst wearing them out in the field.

Scariest moment: After graduating from my BSc in Zoology, I wanted to get some more field experience. I decided to volunteer on a project in Costa Rica, working in a remote camp in the jungle, right next to a turtle nesting beach. At night we would go out along the beach to monitor the turtles, recording condition and taking shell measurements, as well as marking locations of new nests. On one night we saw a turtle about to start digging her nest. Not wanting to disturb her at this crucial point, we walked on and spotted another turtle about 25 meters up the beach. She had finished laying her eggs, so we set to work measuring her shell. I should mention at this point that it is important to use minimal light, and only red light on torches, so as not to disturb the turtles, meaning visibility was limited. Anyway, having finished measuring our turtle, we turned back to see if the first turtle had finished her nest…only to find her carcass lying on the beach surrounded by large jaguar tracks! This silent hunter had made a kill a few metres away from us in the dark and was surely now watching us from the forest edge…possibly annoyed by having been disturbed from its dinner. Needless to say, we moved on quickly and kept in a tight group at a healthy distance from the forest edge after that!

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

Proudest moment: I am very proud of all the fieldwork I have done, in particular my work in Kenya I undertook as part of my own independent research project for my Masters thesis. Of course, I am proud of my thesis, but sometimes it’s the little things that really stick in your memory. To study the elephants using the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor, I set up a grid of camera traps. I would regularly trek through the corridor to check the cameras, aided and guided by rangers from the Mount Kenya Trust. I am tremendously grateful to these extremely helpful rangers… but they were sometimes almost too helpful, insisting on doing all the climbing and retrieving of awkwardly-placed cameras. After a couple of expeditions, my confidence grew and I started to feel I needed to prove a point – that I could climb trees just as well as they could! At one point this did result in me being up a tree covered in biting ants while playing it cool and pretending I was totally fine – but mentally questioning whether it was worth it to prove my point! But one very satisfying moment came when a ranger was unable to unlock one of the padlocks attaching our camera to a tree. I asked if he wanted me to try but he said no and called over one of the other rangers, who also failed to get the key to budge. Ignoring me, they called over a third (male) ranger. While they were discussing the problem, I went over, gave the key a jiggle and the lock popped straight open! They were all very impressed and claimed that I must be very strong. I think it was more about technique than strength, but I wasn’t about to correct them!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Most rewarding moments: All surveys are important, even when you don’t find what you are looking for. In fact, the latter type of survey can sometimes be the most important, as if you don’t find what you are expecting it may indicate a decline in population, or lack of accurate understanding of a species’ biology. This is what I would explain to all the volunteers I led on large mammal surveys when working in Transylvania. However, there is no denying that it is hugely rewarding when your hours of trekking up steep slopes result in finding a beautiful trail of perfect brown bear prints, or when that early start results in getting to see your (normally elusive) study species. Working in Transylvania was incredible, as we found signs and got camera trap footage of many elusive mammals, including martens, badgers, foxes, wild boar, wildcat and brown bear – and I even got to see a brown bear!

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

This fieldwork was also particularly rewarding because I got to share my knowledge and experience with the volunteers that came out. Teaching camera trapping skills and seeing how excited everyone got when we checked the memory cards was a great feeling. Hopefully some of these volunteers will go on to use the knowledge further on their own fieldwork adventures – and hopefully they will remember to pack a good pair of shoes!

Sian completed her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Reading and her Master’s by Research with the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife studying elephants in a wildlife corridor in Kenya. She loves to travel and explore new places – and if she gets to put up a few camera traps all the better! Her fieldwork has taken her to Costa Rica, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Romania; however, she is now back in Devon, UK looking to move on to a PhD and camera trapping any innocent animals that pass by! She can be found on Twitter at @SianGreen92.

Naturalists Notice Nature – even in the winter!

For some, it is easy during these cold, snowy days to curl up with a cozy blanket, a good book, and a hot cup of tea. But where does the wildlife go? Sure, some animals migrate to where it is warmer (sounds like a good idea about now…), but others seem to do just fine despite their surroundings!

Winter in the forestWhen you look at this picture, what do you see? This is a typical question we ask the Kingston Junior Naturalists during our twice-monthly meetings. “Not much!” one kid yells. “Snow!” another one says (cheeky little kids). But if you look closer, there’s a lot more happening than you may first think. As leaders, we try to incorporate as many natural items as possible during our indoor evening meetings, but it is not the same for the kids as going outside to notice nature for themselves. So, once a month, a field trip is organized to various natural areas to get a taste of what the outdoors is really like. This month, I joined the Junior Naturalists on their field trip to The Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre. At first, I wasn’t sure how we could keep busy for an afternoon in the cold and snow. And you can probably imagine when we arrived after the hour drive, the kids burst out of the cars and started sliding around on the icy paths, paying very little attention to us leaders.

kids checking out something on the forest floorBut it is amazing how quickly kids will focus when you can show them something in your hands. We acted like real field biologists and set up a sampling grid, which consisted of pylons at four corners of an area approximately the size of four classrooms. We asked the juniors to search for signs of wildlife within the designated area. When they found something, they put a stake beside it tied with brightly coloured flagging tape.

You can tell a lot about an animal by looking at what it has left behind. An easy sign to see, and one the kids were especially excited about pointing out (unsurprisingly), is a pile of (or single piece of) scat. From scat, you can tell what species was there and what it might have been eating. Similarly, footprints in the snow or tracks can identify the species, but can also help you decipher in which direction and how fast the individual was going based on the orientation and spacing of the track. Other signs of wildlife in the winter include holes in the snow where small mammals are likely building tunnels, and holes and scars in trees where insects are likely hiding.

When the time was up, we looked into the grid again and saw a sea of brightly coloured flagging tape…even though we didn’t actually have a single wildlife sighting. And really, this is how field biologists often spend their time! If you’re studying a cryptic species, you are usually just documenting signs of their presence and are lucky if you get to see them in the flesh.  In those cases, we get super excited to even find a feather. (There are ways to increase the chance of seeing your study species, such as covering your camera in a pile of dung, but we weren’t ready to let the kids in on that secret!).

In the end, although the kids did not remember why exactly they’d put up the flagging tape in roughly half of the flagged spots (admittedly this can happen with field biologists too…), they had fun being able to notice nature by themselves!notes from the juniors about saving the Earth

What would a real field work resume look like?

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome back Emily Williams, who polled some of her friends and colleagues on what their real fieldwork resume would say. Read more about Emily at the end of her post!

While every career on the planet probably has its own idiosyncrasies and oddities, some careers have more than most. I’d wager that many people in the science field could easily give Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs a run for his money. From negotiating with a monkey over jungle space to place invertebrate light traps, to diving several meters through a slurry of whale poop, the pursuit of scientific knowledge doesn’t always occur in a shiny and bright ivory tower.

Many of the routine tasks we do and techniques we employ as field biologists would give pause to and cause discomfort for many. A majority of those same tasks and techniques, because of their nature, are not included in the carefully crafted methods sections of manuscripts, or the protocols of field manuals. Moreover, they are also usually not fit to appear on professional resumes or be discussed in detail during an interview.

I’ve often wondered what a field work resume would really look like, if we were to be completely honest about the skills we’ve gained from the myriad experiences we’ve had as field biologists. Most of us are well versed in eloquently stating our know-how working in “adverse conditions” such as extreme heat or cold, along with biting or stinging insects, alone and in remote conditions. Most of us, however, are not as versed in honestly detailing the unique skillsets we learn on the job.

In a scientifically inquisitive spirit, I posed this question to many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances:  if you were to write your resume without having to be professional and could be completely honest about the tasks you did and conditions you lived in, what would you say?

I have compiled their answers here, written in traditional resume fashion.

THE REAL FIELD WORK RESUME

  • Excels at three-dimensional tetris, most notably in small vehicles
  • Demonstrated ability to use bandannas in a multitude of ways and for various purposes
  • Ability to control levels of teeth chattering when sitting for hours in blinds at -30°C
  • Ability to live in harmony with various groups of black flies and mosquitoes constantly in face and near body

    full body bug suit

    Wrench in one hand, bucket in the other, topped off with a head-to-toe bug suit and muck boots. Just another day in detritus–filled, smelly, muddy paradise.

  • Ability to play beer hockey using water instead of beer
  • Ability to build drones out of foam, hot glue, bamboo skewers, and paint sticks, then proceed to fly them at large flocks of blackbirds on crop fields
  • Adaptable to fluctuating levels and availability of caffeine
  • Fondness for early mornings, late evenings, working at all hours of the day, and overtime
  • Skilled at pooping outdoors (you wouldn’t believe how many times this was listed!)
  • Skilled at peeing off of wooden platforms/boats/planes
  • Adept at constructing mist-net poles out of bamboo and liana vines

Our kitchen and food supply for 5 months. Getting crafty with potatoes, beans, and rice is a necessary on-the-job skill.

  • Inventive when coming up with >10 ways to eat lentils and beans
  • Demonstrated ability using gorilla tape to keep capuchins from accessing food stores
  • Demonstrated ability problem solving with ridding housing of resident bats without causing harm to anyone involved
  • Skilled at intuitively cutting onions to crew’s preferences
  • Fluent in sweet-talking foxes who have taken up residence on archaeological sites
  • Have perfected excavation of the 30 cm diameter multi-utility hole
  • Well versed in the art of extracting ticks from myself and others

    Home for 5 months. No running water, no electricity, no soft, comfy bed.

  • Competent at estimating the size of mouse population adjacent to field cot using 5-gallon peanut butter traps. Reduction in population estimates were used to determine the likelihood of contracting Hanta Virus or risk of rattlesnake bites
  • Adept at turning PB & J into three months of delicious cuisine
  • Knows exactly what sending electricity through water feels like going through the human body (e.g., too many falls in streams when electrofishing)
  • Skilled at identifying animals on dark forested roads using eye shine (i.e., whip-poor-will lifeguard certification)
  • Amateur tight-rope (downed slash pine) walker
  • Skilled at handling animals under various amounts of fecal matter
  • Skilled at rolling up broken tape measures
  • Adept at maintaining top hiking pace while removing and stowing jacket with backpack still attached
  • Used to being damp 24/7

    The nature of field work is that often, things do not go as planned. In this case, not only did the main field site burn down (not on purpose), but the second main field site then did, and then the ALTERNATE field site (third time’s a charm, right?!) also went ablaze. Bye bye, data! How does this translate to a transferable skill? –Skilled at having no expectations and being adaptable to anything goes.

  • Adept at sharing living quarters with rodents, both living and deceased
  • Adept at dealing with exposure to permanent fish smell
  • Possesses indestructible gut biota due to frequent consumption of unrefrigerated leftovers
  • Development of diverse and unique personal hygiene techniques
  • Demonstrated ability to work under pressure while being excreted upon and repeatedly smacked in the head by thousands of screaming birds
  • Demonstrated ability to extract a variety of broken down or barely-running trucks from remote locations, in all weather conditions
  • Adept at splinting the legs of songbirds injured in mist-nets
  • Adept at getting chainsaw stuck, then guarding stuck chainsaw through the night, while waiting for back up
  • Skilled at getting stuck chainsaws unstuck
  • Skilled at coordinated movement through tall, stabby marsh vegetation, as well as extrication from potholes in said marsh
  • Skilled at running towards mist-nets in tall vegetation while waving long sticks
  • Proficient at hurling profanities at butterflies and their predators
  • Experienced at doing public outreach activities in youth hostels while feeding butterflies in the common areas
  • Skilled at shaving fox necks (may be transferable to human haircuts)
  • Adept at advanced choreography in tussock habitat
  • Proficient at scaring eagles from landfills
  • Well versed in identifying birds at 40 mph
  • Proficient at endurance swabbing of goose throats and cloacas
  • Skilled at chasing cattle from camp and study sites

    Devising a plan to avert an imminent cow invasion of unsuspecting and innocent grassland bird nests .

  • Adept at persuading police officers to not perform arrest while searching for injured birds
  • Well versed at rendering human fat tissue for stable isotope analysis
  • Experienced at playing cat and mouse around a tree with a pissed off moose that wants nothing more than to squash you into humanoid jelly
  • Skilled at running from one end of boat to the other to remove stuck boat from underwater stump
  • Adept at removing rotting fish from net and eating lunch immediately thereafter
  • Proficient of walking 10+ miles on the beach trying to outrun a thunderstorm (while noting as many birds as possible)
  • Skilled at writing legible numbers on mammals with a small paint brush and black hair dye
  • Inventive in turning found trash into boat identification symbols
  • Experience accidentally tasting what digested fish Long Island Sound had to offer Common Terns at least once for four summers
  • Well versed in using ice cream to prevent field crew mutinies
  • Experienced at at politely nodding while listening to wide-ranging, uncomfortably long diatribes about “the government” from every hiker/commercial fisherman/rancher you meet
  • Proficient at staying zen through thousands of insect bites

    Ah, the joys of field work: insect bites on every part of your body.

  • Skilled at spotting road-killed hummingbirds at ~65 mph
  • Highly adept at avoiding trampling by large bovines
  • Skilled at tracking down falcon pellets from ~20 m away
  • Skilled at wrestling and wrangling 30 lb condors in pitch black, cramped enclosures with minimal personal bloodshed
  • Effective at removal of multiple rigs stuck in sand pits, snow banks, and mud hollows, both independently and with a partner
  • Adept at securing >50 lb carcasses to the ground in under 2 min per body, under cover of night in all weather conditions
  • Experienced at piercing wings and attaching “wing-bling” ID tags to patagials of >300 vultures with a flinch reaction of <5%

I give huge thanks to all of the people who contributed to the above list, which is not exhaustive. These bullet points do not even scratch the surface of the unique and varied skillsets field biologists acquire over their careers.

Job recruiting websites always stress how resumes must showcase maximum wow factor. If any of the above were included on a resume, they would do more than drop a few jaws.

If you were to be completely honest, what would your resume look like?

Emily Williams works as an Avian Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s Emily Williamsresearch focuses on the behavior, migration, and ecology of birds. While she now works among the boreal forests of Alaska chasing Gray Jays, she has been lucky to work with many taxa among different ecosystems worldwide.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

Website: emilyjwilliams.weebly.com

contact: ffyngau@gmail.com