On Murphy’s Law and quick fixes in the field

Over the past 8-10 years, I have done a lot of fieldwork. This means that I have designed a lot of field experiments, and as such I have also dealt with a lot of planning, anticipating and building/purchasing of fieldwork-related equipment. This also means I have done a lot of tweaking, troubleshooting and repairing in the field. I am a firm believer that fieldwork operates under Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. Murphy’s Law, of course, just doesn’t apply to fieldwork, I am most certain it applies to all work, or perhaps even life in general, but for many reasons fieldwork is more sensitive to things going wrong, and for a couple of key reasons.

1) Most fieldwork is done far enough away from civilization that running to the hardware store just simply is not an option. This means that creativity and resourcefulness are two of the top qualities needed in field biologists.

I remember when the latch on the driver’s door of the field van just mysteriously stopped working. The door would simply not stay closed. We still had over an hour to drive home, and we were not letting this silly door stop us. One of the girls working in the field, Sarah, took her belt right off her pants, and looped it around the handle on the inside of the door. I sat behind her and held on for dear life as we flew down the windy country roads hoping that the belt would not slip and cause the door to fly off… or Sarah to fly out… or any other hideous disasters. We survived and made it back in one piece. It ended up being that the lock was just jammed and it was an easy fix…oh, life’s lessons!

 

 

Another time, I was building cages out of fencing for a herbivory treatment and had arrived very prepared with rabbit clips, and the special pliers to clamp them on. Quickly, I realized that this plan was not going to work. The pliers were too big to fit through the holes in the fencing. Luckily, between tape from the First Aid kit, Zip ties from the floor of the van, and a package of twist ties, we made it work! FIVE years later, those cages are still holding strong! Originality in the field is key!

2) Most fieldwork experiments are put in place with very little control over what happens. You can plan and anticipate until you are blue in the face, but there is always something you miss, and for years after you might think, “what if I had just…”

During my Master’s I was working on an experiment where I isolated target plants to obtain their maximum potential body size, in the absence of competition. We carefully chose plants, tagged them, cleared all the neighbouring plants, placed straw on the ground as mulch, and caged them with cages 1 metre in height to prevent deer grazing. We had thought of it all! Nothing could go wrong…WRONG! Not only did the entire field flood (that’s for another story) but we realized that it’s harder than we thought to outsmart a deer. While we had caged only 5 buttercups in an entire field filled with hundreds of thousands of buttercups, the deer wanted the ones in the cage. And they did anything they could to get the ones in the cage. They would pull cages up using…I don’t quite know, maybe their faces, or their front limbs…there was lots of hair stuck to the fencing to suggest they used some body part to lift them up. They also tried lying down on the cages or pushing them over just enough so that they could grab hold of and tug my precious sample right out of the ground. As frustrating as this experience was, I can only look back on it and laugh at the persistence of those pesky deer.

A “deer proof cage”

These are only a couple of examples of how Murphy’s Law is very applicable to fieldwork and field biology. If you have some stories about Murphy’s Law and your fieldwork, shoot us an email at fieldworkblog@gmail.com!

The Challenges of Tracking a Ghost Cat

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Katey Duffey, a researcher who shares the hardships and rewards of searching for snow leopards. Check out her bio and website at the end of the post!

Sitting on a mountaintop, feeling the chilly crisp air, my senses absorb the environment that I think of as my second home. Yet it couldn’t be any more different from the flat, cornfield-covered state of Ohio where I grew up and currently live. The region is almost eerily quiet except for the occasional clucking of a chukar partridge echoing from somewhere nearby, and seems barren and devoid of life. The only movement is the gentle sway of a tuft of brown grass clinging to its existence on the shallow rocky substrate between boulders. A cloudless blue sky appears to reach down and embrace the endless horizon as the earth sparkles below. This is the very definition of remote wilderness: a place where the environment is as dangerous as it is beautiful. It’s an environment with many risks and many challenges. While other mountaineers explore the peaks of mountains for sport or a personal goal, I have a different purpose….to find snow leopards.

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Overlooking a transect.

The snow leopard is quite difficult to study. There is still so much unknown about them and I often hear people ask why that is the case when snow leopards are such a charismatic animal. They should have no problem acquiring scientific attention. But they are solitary and elusive within their huge home ranges: 220km for males and 130km for females. Those who study them rarely, if ever, even glimpse one outside of a camera trap image. However, it’s their habitat that really makes this endangered big cat a challenge to monitor.

Snow leopard

Snow leopards are found in the mountains of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 5,000m. Their range overlaps boundaries of 12 countries. The area is as remote as you can get for a field site and the rugged terrain makes possible survey areas inaccessible. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten to my transects via a Russian Soviet era van, jeep or a motorbike. Some areas even require getting there by horse.

Katey in the snow picking up scat

Having fun collecting scat.

Once I’ve managed to access a site, I then begin to survey the area for signs of snow leopards: hiking, climbing, and wishing the golden eagles I see were large enough to ride, like the Great Eagles in Lord of the Rings. When I’m looking up the slope of a mountain to scout a route to survey for snow leopard signs, some terrain features stand out as the best potential places for tracks, scat, scrapes, and urine spray. These key features include rocky outcrops, cliffs, rock walls, steep slopes covered in thick scree (loose rocks), and narrow ledges. But the question that usually pops into my mind is: “Where is the most technical section that would be the biggest pain in the rear to get to?” Because that’s where I’m going to find snow leopard signs.

Valleys, draws, and saddles are other mountain features where signs can often be found, since snow leopards use those as a relatively easy path to patrol and leave their territorial marks. If I see a big, rocky outcrop on a super steep slope, I’ll use a nearby draw (a sloped indent in the mountain that travels from the base to the top) to hike up, and then cut across a less precarious way. Doing so saves energy, saves time, and more importantly is much safer than taking my chances with a rockslide or ice. If you get your leg caught by a falling boulder or get injured on ice, your field season is not going to end well.

Winter and early spring are the best seasons for tracking snow leopards. This is the time of year when the cats are more active as they mate and get ready to raise cubs. Snow helps to locate tracks and fresh scat, while frozen rivers become roads allowing deeper access into valleys.van stuck in the snow A bonus is that the snow makes hiking down slopes more fun, since you can carefully “ski” down and will also have a softer landing if you humiliate yourself with an ill-placed step. However, in places with deep snow that comes up past your knees or to your waist, you become envious of the tracks of a cat with snowshoe-like paws. Deep snow is a problem for field vehicles as well and often turns into a delay that cuts into precious, limited daylight hiking time.

While staying in snow leopard country during winter seasons, my team stays in either our own ger* or with host families. There is no plumbing, no electricity (except what we can get from a car battery), and no Wi-Fi. I’m usually with maybe one other person who speaks English. Add being immersed in a traditional culture completely different from that of most “westerners”, and the thought of doing this type of work seems almost alien. The job can be lonely, despite being around many locals during home visits. Living conditions include exposure to dirt from livestock, unpasteurized dairy and raw meat contaminating surfaces in homes. On top of that, the ventilation in homes is poor, so you’re constantly trying not to choke on smoke, while in close quarters with strangers who are often ill. In other words, your immune system gets a workout!

Another challenge of winter fieldwork in snow leopard country is the extreme cold. Average daytime temperatures range between -15˚ and -30˚ Celsius. While hiking transects, it is important to wear warm, breathable layers. The lowest temperature I experienced was a nighttime temperature of -50˚ Celsius (with added wind chill)! If you can’t fathom what that feels like, imagine an industrial freezer filled with dry ice.

Needless to say, toilet trips outside are avoided as much as possible (This is when being a woman is quite inconvenient.) The cold also makes camp life a bit more difficult. Everything is frozen, including the firewood and livestock dung. Your water comes from boiled snow or ice and food needs to be set near the stove to thaw. While waiting for that to happen, I usually spend some time doing some warm-up exercises to get the circulation going in my frozen digits.

human hand beside a snow leopard print

The climate and environment are treacherous, the landscape pretty much looks the same in all directions, wildlife is not often seen, and I frequently question if I even belong out there. However, it’s those challenges that drew me to this work, and they give me a sense of purpose. Rewards come in many different forms. On my last trip in March, a teammate and I were rewarded by a glimpse of a ghost cat leaping across boulders before disappearing. That sight in and of itself was more than enough reason to endure the hardships (or abuse) of this remote fieldwork.

KateyKatey is from Canton, Ohio and has a MA in Zoology from Miami University. She currently works as an independent researcher and collaborates with various partner organizations. Her research focuses on the effects of livestock depredation by snow leopards, and the potential for transmission of zoonoses from livestock to snow leopards. Although her work has been in western Mongolia, she is always looking for opportunities to expand her projects to other countries in the snow leopard range or work with other carnivores. You can follow her on Twitter at @UnciaKate, and learn more about her work from her blog https://kateyduffey.wordpress.com/ 

*A note from Dispatches: a ger is a dome- shaped traditional home of nomadic herders (also referred to as a yurt).

Don’t worry, be happy

Being in the field can bring up many emotions. Sure, there are the times when you are elated by a breathtaking view on a remote island that very few people get to visit. However, there are also lonely, boring, and frustrating aspects of fieldwork. If you think about it, you are away from home, usually out of your comfort zone, and more often than not doing very repetitive things.So sometimes, when you’re in the field, you need to look for ways to keep smiling!

When I shared this post with my fellow co-bloggers, Amanda pointed out she wrote a similar post about how to stay sane when you think you are going crazy. It just goes to show how important it is to stay positive when you’re out there doing all types of fieldwork.

Here are my top 10 tricks for staying positive during fieldwork:

1. Sing – Nothing like belting your heart out alongside the dawn chorus as you peer over a cliff (which actually helps the acoustics a lot!). Let’s not forget the famous field vehicles that have their share of karaoke stars.

2. Dance – Whether you’re practicing your signature move or making up a new sequence, it’s always beneficial to shake off those frustrations.

volleyball on the beach during the sunset

A little beach volleyball to pass the time.

3. Do something active – Although you are probably exhausted from climbing over and squeezing under fallen trees all day, sometimes it is good to do something different. If you’re looking to stretch and relax, yoga can be a good way to boost your mood. Check out the new hashtag #ScientistsWhoYoga on Twitter for some pretty amazing shots.

4. Make up stories for organisms, sites, and/or co-workers (nice things only of course) – Creating your own narrative for your surroundings can make the time tick by a little bit faster by introducing suspense and excitement.

5. Make it a competition – Similar to how people often keep kids busy, you can ask “Who can find the most bird nests this morning?”. In my opinion, the best approach to win at this competition is to divide and conquer the area and to pick the expert as your teammate. This is especially true when you are following transects as part of a long-term study and the expert knows all the “hot spots” for nests!

sunset on the ocean

My happy place by the water.

6. Think about your happy place – Although you may be on a beautiful beach looking for glimpses of marine mammals, sometimes it helps to think of something more familiar.

7. Take a shower – Yes, even this simple task can make you feel refreshed and ready to take on the next day!

8. Eat well – Ingesting the right nutrients can give you energy and instantly lift your spirits. The sheer absurdity of baking a cake on a small remote island is also bound to cheer you up. Alternatively, it can help to fantasize what you would make for dinner if you could have anything you wanted. (Warning: this will likely make you extremely hungry so make sure to have some snacks on hand.)

9. Chocolate – Need I say more?

holding up a team member

My supportive field team

10. Have a supportive field team – When you’re feeling under the weather, there is nothing worse than being away from home. Being surrounded by people who have your back in any situation will always go a long way.

Even when the effort  of fieldwork seems to outweigh the reward by several orders of magnitude (for example, imagine walking around for countless hours searching for signs of your study organism only to find out they don’t nest where you’ve been looking at all), remember that is worth it! Don’t worry because being a field biologist may just be the coolest job out there and there are lots of reasons to be happy!

How do you stay positive in the field?

Let’s talk field biology again

When Amanda, Sarah, and I started Dispatches from the Field almost three years ago, we wanted to inspire people to notice and love the nature around them.  Because doing field biology allows you to get to know a place intimately, we thought the best way to achieve our goal was by giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fieldwork: the triumphs and the frustrations of working in nature, and the incredible places and breathtaking sights that field biologists get to experience.

Over the past three years, we’ve posted more than 150 stories about fieldwork in locations as diverse as the Canadian arctic, the wilds of Patagonia, and a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic.  Our posts have drawn both on our own experiences and on those of our many guest posters, and they’ve been read and shared by thousands of people all around the world.  I think we’ve made great strides towards achieving our goal.

But sometimes, just writing about something isn’t enough, and there’s no better way to share the highs and lows of fieldwork than to give people the opportunity to experience the field for themselves!

A few weeks ago, Amanda wrote a post about an upcoming event that she and I were hosting as coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s University: the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House.  When she wrote that post, we were in the final, frantic stages of planning the event.  We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive: it can be difficult to get people to drive half an hour outside the city to attend an event, even if it is free.

When I woke up the morning of April 22nd, the grey skies and cold wind did not inspire my confidence.  But when I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, I saw I a text from Amanda: “Happy event day!!”

That set the tone for the day.  The weather wasn’t ideal, we had no idea whether or not people would come, but we were going ahead anyway!  We packed our cars with piles of field gear and food, gathered our many volunteers, and headed up to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre.

It took a couple of hours of frenzied preparation to set up for the many activities we had planned, including grad-student led modules on trapping birds, identifying plants, recording frog calls, and studying lake sediments.  We also filled the Elbow Lake Pavilion with a host of activities, ranging from making a smartphone microscope to painting with maggots (yes, you can do that!).

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Learning to record frog calls

But finally, we were ready to go.  And just as we put the finishing touches on our activities, the Pavilion door opened: our first visitors had arrived!

Over the course of the day, the clouds blew away, the sun came out to warm us, and we ended up welcoming almost 100 visitors.  Some stayed for only an hour, and some stayed for the entire day.  We showed people how to catch birds using a mist net, how to record frogs using a directional microphone and hip waders, and how to learn about past climates using sediment cores from the bottom of a lake.  Visitors learned to age trees by counting rings (the science of dendrochronology), built their own popsicle stick birdfeeders, and used maggots as paintbrushes to create explosions of colour on paper.

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Maggot art created by a group of Beavers & Scouts that visited the open house

As dusk fell, we gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about some of our favourite funny, scary, or inspiring fieldwork experiences.  And we finished the evening standing quietly on a bridge in the dark, listening to a cacophonous duet between two barred owls.

It was a magical day: despite our anxiety beforehand, it couldn’t have unfolded better.  We hope we’re not mistaken in believing that all the visitors who attended had a great time; however, we certainly know that the almost 20 volunteers who helped us plan and execute the event enjoyed it!

“It was a really neat experience to not only tell our stories out loud but to share them around the campfire. I think it is one thing to read about a story, but to actually hear it first-hand from the one who went through it – now that is putting a face to fieldwork!” – Sarah Wallace, field biologist and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

My favourite experience of the Open House was when we went in search of owls at dusk. The moment where the pure silence and peacefulness of that night was broken by an eruption of hoots and screeches is an unforgettable memory.” – John Serafini, field biologist and volunteer

“Having some children (and adults) really learn something new was inspiring to see. Watching people have that ‘aha’ moment while listening to our talks or going through the workshops really inspired me.” – Alastair Kierulf, Let’s Talk Science Volunteer

“I especially enjoyed both telling and listening to other people tell stories about the other amazing things that happen in the field, that might not necessarily be related to the focus of their research.  It really honed in on the unique experiences that make fieldwork what it is.  It didn’t matter if the stories were funny or frightening…people in attendance were all so interested in what we had to say, and for me that was a special moment!” – Amanda Tracey, Let’s Talk Science Coordinator and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

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Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”

 

By the time we stumbled out into the empty, dark parking lot at the end of the day, we were exhausted in the way that only fresh air and hard work can cause – but also tiredly thrilled to know that we had been able to share the enchantment of fieldwork with so many people, both adults and children.

Maybe some of those children will go on to be field biologists.  (In fact, at least one of our visitors said that was her career plan!)  But we think the experience was important for everyone.  It’s easy for us, as field biologists, to care about the amazing diversity of flora and fauna we get to see up close and personal.  But how can you expect people to care about what they never experience?

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A keen high school student holding a bird for the first time…future field biologist? I think so!

Conservation efforts won’t work if only a few have access to what we’re trying to conserve.  If we want people to care about, respect, and preserve the natural world, they need to feel it belongs to them too.  And that, ultimately, was our goal for Let’s Talk Field Biology.  We hope we succeeded.

 

If you came out to the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House, we’d love to hear from you!  Send us an e-mail or comment on our blog to let us know what your favourite part of the day was!

 

 

Femininity and Fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Jodie Wiggins, a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, who discusses some of the unique challenges that female field ecologists face.  For more about Jodie, read her bio at the end of the post or check out her website.

A field biologist from the start…

I started my career as an ecologist crawling through muddy drainage ditches hunting frogs, investigating rabbit warrens dug open by a plow, and studying “lighting bugs” through the glass of a mason jar. I was 5, and 6, and 10… held captive by the magic of nature. I was a really fortunate kid. I ran wild, and that is probably why I still love the wilds today.

Now, thanks to an invitation from Dispatches from the Field, I have to opportunity to consider the challenges I’ve faced as a woman navigating a culture (ecology and fieldwork, specifically) shaped by men.

 

You just drive along, find a roadside park. Set your line of traps and get up in the morning and check ‘em.”

These were the instructions from a veteran field mammologist to the first field biology course I ever took. I looked around at the other members of the class. No one seemed to think these instructions were out of the ordinary. I, however, was gripped by terror. This man wanted me to drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone.

No doubt a lot of women have done this, successfully. No doubt countless women camp and hunt and sleep in their cars alone. A lot of women are also attacked, every single minute of every single day.

That was not something that crossed this man’s mind and I felt weak because it crossed mine. I felt like I should suck it up and just do the work. But it wasn’t about the work. It was about a risk that a woman takes anytime she is alone that a man does not, a risk that she should not be shamed for refusing to take.

…and sticking with it, despite the challenges.

This was the first time in my academic career that I felt other. I felt ignored. I felt invisible. Because I am a woman. I began to realize that the scaffolding constructed over hundreds of years, meant to guide and hold emerging scientists as they ascend, simply was not constructed to lift, hold, or guide women. The fact that it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced this otherness reflects the privilege I experienced growing up as a middle class white child. Many people, women of color particularly, experience this otherness so much earlier than I did. They experience it as girls, and it devastates their desire to pursue their dreams.

 

But where do I pee?”

Not all of the issues we face as women field biologists are quite as dire as staying safe while sleeping in a car alone, but that is not to say that they are not equally urgent. It’s been a decade since I stood in a hallway with a group of newbie grad students and realized that being a female field biologist would be a battle. For a very long time I was cowed by this realization, feeling demeaned and less worthy than my male counterparts. But, as it should, my journey through my PhD has taught me a great deal more than just evolutionary ecology.

Studying lizards…and learning life lessons.

My need for a team of field assistants every year for the past three years has required me to learn to step up and be a supervisor. Undoubtedly, I struggled in the beginning, but now, I do a couple of things as unapologetically as I can muster in an attempt to “be the person you needed when you were younger”:

  1. I say “pee.” As in, this is where you can go pee. What on earth is wrong with us that young women don’t feel comfortable saying “Hey, where do I go pee?” This is necessary because my field site is a little like Area 51, lit up and barren with a camera pointed at it all of the time. My study species likes it open and hot, so for a mile stretch of rock dam, there is no place to hide, anywhere.
  2. I keep tampons with the group field supplies (gasp! Did she say tampons?!). Yeah, I did and if you work for me you might just pull one out with your data sheet or your lizard noosing pole and you might have to deal with it because OH MY GODS ALREADY! The need to have these supplies for the women on my team simply outweighs worrying about whether someone will feel grossed out by the possibility of touching an unused tampon.
  3. I say “Do not do xyz if you are not comfortable with doing xyz” and I mean XYX is usually something like coming out to the field site alone or riding with another member of the field team alone. Seriously, if it doesn’t feel right and makes you feel unsafe, don’t do it, period. We’ve all got to remember that our people are more important than our project.

It’s the people that matter: my field team from 2016.

Fortunately for me, my future husband was in that field mammalogy class with me all those years ago. He accompanied me on countless nights sleeping in a ridiculously uncomfortable truck bed waiting for the blessed dawn when we could check our traps. Most of the other women in that class paired up with someone as well, but some didn’t and I don’t know if they felt safe going out alone or if they felt like they needed to prove they could. Either way, the person in a position of power in this situation left half that class without an advocate.

The balance between being a leader and a learner can sometimes be precarious but what I’ve learned over the last decade in the field is this: I need to use my voice, my position, and my strengths to make sure no one on my team ever feels invisible and to encourage others to do the same. The female ecologists in my life who repeatedly tell me that I matter, that I am strong, and that my voice should be heard bolster me to do this for others.  Together, we are making each other visible.

Jodie is a fourth year (sort of; it’s complicated) PhD candidate studying the evolutionary ecology of color in collared lizards. She hails from New Mexico and Texas, but now lives in Oklahoma with her husband (also a PhD candidate, who studies spider behavior), their 11 and 3 year old sons, and a crazy dog named Fortinbras.

Tic-Tac-UXO or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest poster Joseph Drake, a PhD student from the University of Massachusetts, who tells a nerve-wracking story about his time doing fieldwork on a military base in the Sonoran Desert.

I brought the truck to a gravelly sliding stop.  A wave of dust washed past the truck and filled our open windows with fine sediment.  When the dust and coughing settled, I got out of the truck, stepped gingerly on the 2-track “road” the military had bladed through this section of desert and looked at what lay before me. Tanks to the left of me, bombs to the right, here I am stuck in the middle with you. Wait, that’s not how the song goes. But it does do a fairly good job of describing our precarious situation.

Tanks to the left…

…and bombs to the right.

Some background: I worked for several years in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, working sometimes on United States Bureau of Land Management land, but mostly in the vast emptiness of the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.  This active military bombing and live munitions training ground is one of the biggest chunks of “untouched” Sonoran Desert.  Containing desert mountains, sand dunes, and many of the most interesting desert habitats in between, this parcel of land stretches for over 1.5 million acres.  It may be a toss-up, but that is about the size of the state of Delaware.  Having such a large undeveloped area means that it is home to lots of different species of wildlife, and is one of the last refuges of the endangered Sonoran Desert Pronghorn.

Surveying the site from the air to see which water sites needed to be visited on foot.

It was a surprise to me to learn that military lands often have some of the best habitat available for plant and wildlife management.  When I stopped to think about it though, it made sense.  The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has over 400 installations in the US with about 25 million acres.  Many, if not most, of these acres are undeveloped.  That means that apart from military operations, these areas go mainly untouched, and because of the country’s resource protection laws (which the military abides by), are fairly well managed.  Security and safety reasons mean that these large swaths of land have not felt the pressure of habitat-loss; some 300 U.S. endangered or threatened species make DoD lands their home, and the military helps take care of them.

Back to the story:  I was looking at a small marker bomb sitting in the road way, a new bit of UXO (unexploded ordinance).  It was only a small bomb, used in training runs to show how well the pilot hit his mark, but since the sighting towers had to be able to see where it hit, there was still enough explosive to tear the front end of the truck apart and send the diesel engine block into my chest cavity.  That may sounds like an exaggeration, but that is how the managers on the range described it to me and I didn’t want to find out if they were right.

You see all kinds of life at desert watering holes…

We had been granted access to this live-fire part of the range, a rare treat for our research team.  We were trying to reach some of the most remote desert water sites to study their water quality and biodiversity – with the ultimate goal of creating better man-made water sites for desert wildlife. We were studying the differences in construction and ecology at natural and man-made “guzzlers” to better serve not only large game species, such as bighorn sheep, but also small creatures like Sonoran Desert Toads and dragonflies.

Like I said, we wanted to get there and we only had a small window to get through this section of the desert before the range opened back up for live fire exercises.  To go off road in this section was strictly forbidden; even if it weren’t, it would be extremely dangerous. The small bomb before us had many siblings in the sand and brush around us.  Many of these siblings were much larger than the one we could see.  And just like with people, age and exposure to the elements makes bombs much more persnickety.  We had about 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the truck and the item.   A decision had to be made: either turn around and race for the last staging area, which we could get to just within our time window, or drive over the thing to get to the end of the road and hope for the best.

Upon reflection, I made the wrong decision that day: I crept the truck along until we silently (as silent as the idle speed of a diesel can be) glided over the top of the marker bomb.  I don’t think I breathed during the entire time it took to painstakingly thread our 4WD differentials, which hung low on the less-than-even road, around the obstacle.  Finally I was able to breathe as my research partner Jordan waved an all clear from a safe distance down the road.  I got GPS coordinates so the military could remove the bomb and we were on our way!

We were eventually able to collect some great data at those water sites, but it could have gone poorly.  Fieldwork on the Air Force Range was often a trade-off between safety and results. Our supervisor probably would have had an aneurism if she had known about many of our choices, and rightfully so.  At times the temperatures were above 120 °F with 70% humidity, making it literally dangerous just to walk for longer than a mile.  Spiny plants and toothy reptiles abounded and rugged terrain was always trying to destroy our ankles.  We had encounters with military security, Border Patrol, and the infamous drug smugglers of the area.

We weren’t the only ones facing the problem of spiny plants…

Despite all of it, though, the desert became my adopted home: I really love the place. I care deeply about the people, plants, and animals. I could tell many more stories and hopefully I will down the road, but right now I have to get back to chasing some wildlife.

Chasing some desert dragonflies…

Joe Drake is a recovering field biologist. A member of several professional  scientific societies, he is interested in spatial ecology, desert  ecology, wildlife conservation, and science outreach/communication.  When he isn’t studying or working, you can find him in the woods, on  the river, or in his workshop; he loves home brewing, backpacking,  fishing, writing, and photography. Before he returned to school, Joe worked for various federal agencies and universities across the Western U.S. (living out of the back of his beat-up Ford Ranger) and  internationally in the “bio-tech circuit” for 4 years.  The West’s wilderness stole his heart before he returned to school to get his  M.S. at Texas Tech University, and he has continued on to the University of Massachusetts where he is working towards his Ph.D. in the lab of Dr. Chris Sutherland.  He is just about to embark on a new field project in the Scottish Highlands, and will be blogging and tweeting about the experience as he goes.  Keep  up to date with his work or get in touch at  https://secretlifeofafieldbiologist.wordpress.com/.

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.