Prairies provide cryptic, undervalued, and threatened biodiversity

We are excited to welcome Lysandra Pyle to the blog today. Lysandra is an Ecologist from the University of Alberta and today she tells us about her fieldwork in the prairies. For more about Lysandra, see the end of this post!

My first memories of prairies are engrained in the experiences of my childhood growing up in south eastern Saskatchewan. Checking for ticks (Dermacentor variabilis), picking sharp seeds (Hesperostipa spp.) or spines (Opuntia spp.) out of skin, and waiting for my mom to forage every last Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia) or choke cherry (Prunus virginiana) from a bush along a grid road were common summer activities. I remember sitting by a pond, home to painted turtles (Chrysemys picta), on a farm in the bald prairie south of Radville, SK and feeling the barometric pressure drop, warning of significant thunderstorm which rolled powerfully over the hills.

Saskatoons on the left and choke cherries on the right! Provides forage for coyotes, birds, and graduate students.

However the first time I was truly awakened to the wonder of this environment was during my first fieldwork experience. Thanks to the serendipitous luck of my university’s match-making internship program and the first choice candidate not having a driver’s licence, I moved to south western Saskatchewan for a summer term, working in a small rangeland plant ecology program. There I was bitten by the botany bug, as I gained hands-on experience working with native prairie plants and exposure to species at risk. That summer I purchased numerous field guides, started teaching myself plant identification, and enriched my native prairie immersion by frequently visiting Grasslands National Park and Saskatchewan Landing. Shadowing my supervisors as they effortlessly identified all of the plants in a quadrat and pulled back grass leaves to reveal unique ligules and collars had me hooked. Perhaps I was impressionable, but learning grasslands were so diverse changed me, provided me with a profound appreciation for where I am from, and gave me purpose.

This is the ecosystem I love and study. You can easily identify needle and threadgrass with curly awns (Hesperostipa comata) which is common in Mixedgrass Prairie. Its fruit has evolved to burrow into fur and skin!

Native prairie provides invaluable ecological services and irreplaceable habitat for wildlife. For my M.Sc. research I was transplanted into north central Alberta’s Aspen Parkland in January.  I spent that winter and spring anxiously waiting to explore northern fescue prairie. That summer I was tasked with driving around the peri-urban area of Edmonton, AB to interview landowners about their pasture management, score the health of their pasture, survey their plant communities, and sample the seed bank. Imposing my experience from SW SK, I planned to run a survey transect that was just over 1 km long. What I found was a landscape heavily modified by cultivation and fire suppression which caused woody encroachment (invasion by a clonal trees like aspen (Populus tremuloides)); the land was also subdivided into many smaller mixed farms which called for the reduction of the transect length (to 265 m) and a lowering of my expectations regarding the discovery of intact native pastures.  Historically, grasslands in the Parkland were dominated by plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii); currently, ecologists struggle to restore this grass, and these ecosystems are in my opinion endangered. Luckily I found an ecosite with relatively saline soil (which deterred cultivation) dominated by fescue.  This patch less than 260 ha was bustling with the biodiversity I commonly associated with southern grasslands. Less than 50 km from Edmonton, I heard the ‘UFO’ call of a Sprague’s pipit (Anthus spragueii, listed as threatened) and the Spring-of-the-gurgling associated with the western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta).  This tiny patch of prairie was an oasis in a sea of wheat and canola. This illustrates the importance of preserving intact, native grasslands for obligate wildlife, and demonstrates that grassland is not simple, leafy, indistinguishable phytomass but has irreplaceable structure and heterogeneity which provides habitat.

Plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii) flowers irregularly; this was impressive for mid-May!

While surveying plant communities in vast open grasslands, I frequently pause for about 10 to 15 minutes to record plant community characteristics from my quadrat. In these moments, you can see over great distances – which is ideal for observing prairie wildlife. However, sometimes when you are too focused, animals surprise you!  There have been numerous occasions when I have been nose-deep in grass and startled by the huff of a deer standing behind me, or surprised by a flush of birds that settled nearby while I was absorbed by scrutinizing glumes and counting florets.  One of my more interesting encounters occurred when I sat up quickly after observing plant cover and came face-to-face with a male ruby throated humming bird (Archilochus colubris). Hummingbirds are capable of hovering in flight, and that sustained moment of mutual alarm and intrigue filled me with awe: moments like these are why I love field work. It is the unexpected encounters, rare findings, and spontaneous invitations to explore nature or observe the interactions of organisms that make long days outside in variable weather worth it.

This is a quadrat (50 cm x 50 cm frame). Here we measure the relative cover of species.

 

I don’t have any pictures of birds but here are some other surprises. A baby pronghorn, and North American long-tailed weasel–observing the researchers from a distance of course.

Naturalism and botany, which often provide a foundation in taxonomy, can be a gateway into many other disciplines, and once you master one taxa the mind can wander onto new research questions and other organisms. If you look down and look beyond the grass while in the prairie, you will discover an intriguing community layer of cryptogamic organisms like lichen, mosses, and spike-mosses called a biological soil crust. Soil crusts can cover up to 90% of the soil surface, contribute cryptic biodiversity to the ecosystem, prevent soil erosion, and fix atmospheric nitrogen and carbon! For my Ph.D. research, I have incorporated this community into my understanding of seed bank composition in Dry Mixedgrass Prairie disturbed by oil and gas pipelines. Organisms like lichen, which can have delicate branches, cups, and leaf-like bodies, are sensitive to disturbance and recover extremely slowly. Although they are an intrinsic attribute of grasslands, many botanists, like me, are unaware of them and policies regarding the reclamation and revegetation of industrially disturbed areas in prairies ignore these organisms.

These are some lichens you can find in prairie soil crusts. The white crusty species on the left side (Diploschistes muscorum) is called cow-pie lichen in common vernacular.

Working in the field, I value the independence and the time allowed for self-reflectance while wandering a tortuous path to a survey location. The ritual of parking, packing, swinging a quadrat over my shoulder and scouring my path for any unique organisms or movement in the grass is an experience I look forward to every field season. However, grasslands are sensitive, fragmented ecosystems.  Although they are often described as ‘marginal’ or ‘waste’ lands, grasslands are in fact the most threatened and least protected ecosystem in Canada, as is easily demonstrated by driving across Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba on the Trans-Canada Highway observing a patchy mosaic of cultivated fields with small margins of native grass and trees remaining along hillsides, coulees, and wetlands.  As a young ecologist, I want to communicate the irreplaceable and invaluable ecosystem services (carbon storage, biodiversity, water purification, etc.) prairies provide as they benefit society and host understudied taxa and ecosystem processes.

Surveying pipeline disturbance. Those cute calves chewed holes in that measuring tape after this photo was taken.

 

Lysandra studies rangeland ecology and management at the University of Alberta. Her Ph.D. research addresses grassland disturbances and land use history on soil seed banks, plant communities, and soil. You can find her on Twitter at @GrasslandNerd 

Behind the scenes of “Be Prepared”

Springtime is supposed to signify new beginnings and a fresh start, with the attitude of “out with the old and in with the new”. However, for many field biologists, spring is a fairly stressful time. While you are still writing up the results from the previous field season, you are also supposed to be planning for the next. A lot of “behind the scenes” work occurs in the planning process – all of which ends up being represented by one sentence in your thesis: “Samples were collected in ….”.

Sure, we all love being in the field; this is why we do what we do! But the getting there is often the hardest part (sounds a lot like my reasoning when going to the gym!). Here are some of the questions that fill a field biologist’s head when they are trying to plan a field season:

Who? Well, you, obviously…but this also includes finding the right field assistant(s). You want someone who is (almost) as excited as you are about your project, someone who is willing to work long days (or nights), and someone who doesn’t mind using the woods for a washroom break.

a view of the facilities, consisting of rocks, a log and the ocean.

The “washroom facilities” on Reef Island, Haida Gwaii.

 

 

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

What? This is often easy to answer – at first. You have this super cool idea in mind and you know what type of data you need to answer this question. However, is it feasible? Are you actually going to be able to catch 30 seabirds per site? It could be that there was a storm that winter which destroyed all the nest boxes you were hoping would make it easy to find birds!

 

 

Maps of Scotland

Maps of central Scotland stuck together to find rivers for field sites.

Where?  Sometimes it is hard to plan where to go when you don’t really know exactly where your study species lives. Most of the time you have a general idea, but when it comes to which patch of grass to search, it can be difficult to pinpoint (as Megan observed about Butler’s gartersnakes). Or maybe you do know where you need to go, but this includes marking your route on multiple maps (as Zarah shared about studying invasive plants along rivers in Scotland).

 

ponds at the fish farm

With the weather changing from cold to warm and back to cold, it is hard to judge when ponds will be ice free.

When? If you work with wild animals, the timing is the hardest part to nail down. These animals do not wait for the biologist to be ready. Their habits are follow the weather and season; however, if you live in southern Ontario, Canada, you know that the weather can change hourly (especially this spring!). This unpredictability makes it difficult to know when lakes will be completely ice free and fish will begin to spawn…which can make planning when to go to the field very difficult.

 

Why? This may be the easiest one to answer – because we love what we do! In the end, despite all the things that could go wrong when preparing for field work, it all comes together. There’s nothing better than waking up to the early morning choral ensemble of birds, playing in nature’s wonderland all day, and falling asleep under the stars.

forest with the light shining through

Nature’s wonderland in Haida Gwaii.

Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign

The bear necessities

Anyone who has been following my posts has probably figured out by now that I am essentially a scaredy-Cat.  I love being in the field, but when I’m there, I worry about anything and everything – from mountain lions all the way down to cows.  Unsurprisingly, bears have always featured pretty high on my list of worries.  Huge, powerful bodies, sharp teeth, and a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised…what’s not to love?

My initial bear encounter took place during my very first field season, up the Queen’s University Biological Station – and, in fact, wasn’t an actual encounter at all.  I was working at the station as a field assistant, and my duties included daily inspections of approximately 200 tree swallow nest boxes.  One day, as I made my way through a grid of boxes, I suddenly realized that one was missing.  At first, I wondered if I was losing it: how could a nest box just vanish?  However, closer inspection revealed that the box was actually still there…in pieces on the ground.  The nest was torn apart, the nestlings were gone, and a pile of bear scat sat on the ground close to the wreckage.

Until that point, I had thought of QUBS as an entirely safe place to do fieldwork.  Finding the ruins of that box was a rude awakening.  I froze in place and stared frantically around the field, looking for other indications that a bear had been there – or, more problematically, was still there.

In the end, of course, I found nothing; the bear that had destroyed the box was long gone.  In fact, over the course of my two summers at QUBS, I never actually saw a bear, just heard occasional second- or third-hand stories of sightings.  I eventually accepted that I was highly unlikely to actually meet a bear at QUBS, and I relaxed.

All that changed when I started my PhD.  I was thrilled to be doing my fieldwork in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia…but at the same time, my mind heard the word “mountains” and interpreted it as “bear country”.  And while no one would claim the Okanagan is overrun by bears, my research informed me that black bears are reasonably common there, and even grizzlies aren’t unheard of.  Too make matters worse, a lot of my work took place in vineyards, where bears can be a big problem in late summer, when they come down out of the hills to gorge themselves on the grapes.

In preparation for this ‘highly dangerous’ fieldwork, I purchased a plethora of bear bells (to warn bears people were coming) and a few cans of bear spray (to deal with bears that didn’t heed the warning).  Armed with these tools (and accompanied by a ceaseless jingling), I felt pretty secure wandering around my field sites.  That is, until one day, when a local asked me, “How do you tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?”

“I don’t know,” I said innocently.  “How do you tell the difference?”

“Well, black bear scat is full of berries.  And grizzly bear scat…well, it smells like pepper spray and jingles a bit when you kick it.”

With a wicked smile, he went on his way.  I stared foolishly after him, clutching my pepper spray while my backpack jingled faintly.

This conversation somewhat eroded my faith in my bear spray and bells.  On top of that, it turns out that ceaseless jingling is phenomenally annoying after a few days.  Add to that the fact that I kept accidentally leaving my bear spray behind in various locations (forcing me to spend additional time wandering around in bear country attempting to retrieve it) and it’s not hard to understand why I decided to abandon that approach.

But I was still not enthusiastic about encountering a surprised, irritable bear.  So I devised a new strategy: I would just talk to myself as I wandered the hills, providing fair warning to any bear in earshot.

However, I quickly found out that it’s hard to talk constantly when you don’t have anything in particular to say.  In desperation, I found myself thinking back to high school, trying to recall any lines of the poetry or prose we’d recited in English class.  As it turns out, the only thing I remembered was the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.  So day after day, I would stumble around the Okanagan back country, repeating “Two households both alike in dignity / In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” as loudly as possible.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t encounter too many people on my wanderings.  At least the bears of the Okanagan are now well educated.

I guess the star crossed lovers did the trick, because I didn’t actually see any bears for most of my first field season.  But one day in early August, as I was making my way back to the car in one of my most isolated field sites, I rounded a corner and found myself about a hundred feet from a black bear.

Given that I’d worried about this exact scenario all summer, I was surprisingly taken aback. I turned on my heel and started walking away briskly, trying not to look back over my shoulder.  Finally, though, I just had to know.  I whipped around to survey where the bear had been…only to realize it had vanished.  Now I had a new problem: there was definitely a bear in my immediate vicinity, but I no longer had any idea where it was, and it was a very long walk back to the car.

Isolated ranch field site in the Okanagan

Can you spot the bear in this picture?… Nope, I can’t either.

Clearly the thing to do was keep talking to avoid surprising it; unfortunately, though, Romeo and Juliet deserted me in my panic.  So I decided that the logical thing to do was call home and talk to my parents.

When I dialed my home number, my sister picked up.  I told her about the bear and explained that I just needed to stay on the phone to keep talking.  “That’s too bad,” she said impatiently.  “But I need to call my friend now.  Call Mum on her cell instead.”

Right.

I hung up with her, and did as she suggested, still striding in the direction of the car while swiveling my head vigilantly in all directions. This time, I managed to get a hold of my mum…and that’s when I learned that you never, ever, ever call your mother and tell her that you’re in the middle of nowhere, with an unseen but very real bear lurking around.  She was quite willing to stay on the phone with me, but had no problem letting me know that she was not thrilled with the situation overall.

Much to our mutual relief, I made it to the car with no problems, and I didn’t see another bear for the rest of the field season.  In fact, it was over a year before my next bear encounter.  This second run-in happened at a less isolated site, but played out in much the same way as the first.  I froze briefly, then did an about face and walked away.  And once again, after a few seconds, I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder.  This time, the bear was still visible.  In fact, it looked an awful lot like he had also done an about face and was hurrying in the opposite direction as fast as his furry paws could take him.

Apparently some bears are aware that humans also have a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised.

Tales of Turtles In New York City

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Rebecca Czaja, a recent graduate, to share her fieldwork story from her Masters project studying turtles in New York City (yes you heard her!). Check out the end of the post for more about Rebecca!

Turtles in New York City? That’s the reaction I usually get when I explain my Masters research project. I worked with the Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Project, which has been studying diamondback terrapins at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge (JBWR) for almost 20 years. JBWR, which sits on the border between Queens and Brooklyn, is not only the nesting site for hundreds of terrapins but also an important habitat for migratory and resident birds, insects, and other reptiles.

As part of a long term monitoring and conservation project, I was responsible for finding nesting terrapins, which are then collected to gather data such as weight and shell length. In addition, a protective cage is placed over the nests to prevent predation. Finding a nesting terrapin without scaring her off the nest requires a little bit of skill, good eyes (or binoculars), and a lot of luck. While a few terrapins are bold enough to nest right at your feet, most will abandon their attempt to nest if they see you. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself tiptoeing through thorny rose bushes or carefully kneeling in a field of poison ivy just to hide from a terrapin. The key is to stay out of sight until she’s laid her eggs, at which point she’ll finish burying the eggs even if you get too close for comfort. How do you know she’s done laying her eggs? She does a little dance. As she pushes dirt into the hole and pats it down, she appears to be doing a jig.

diamondback terrapin

A female diamondback terrapin collected after nesting.

For my project, I focused on studying how precipitation impacts whether terrapin nests get eaten by raccoons. In addition to monitoring unprotected, natural nests for signs of predation, I also built and monitored over 200 artificial nests.

There are a bunch of possible ways to build artificial nests. I picked the simplest method: dig a small hole and fill it back up. Even without any eggs or terrapin scent, raccoons were attracted to these nests. I also tried filling nests with terrapin-scented sand, which was made by putting a terrapin in a box full of sand for at least 20 minutes. Unfortunately, getting the sand to smell just enough like a natural nest is an imprecise science. The terrapin-scented artificial nests ended up smelling so strongly that raccoons tried to predate every single nest, rain or shine. But the beauty of science is you live and you learn. So I stuck with artificial nests filled with plain old sand.

plastic bottle used for a rain gauge

Ecology is the art of doing meaningful science with the simplest materials. My rain gauges were made from plastic bottles washed up onshore, duct tape, and sticks.

Doing research that depends on it raining at just the right time is nerve-wracking, to say the least. The month of June was unusually dry this summer, which left me constantly worried that I’d never get enough rain to finish the project. Especially because I not only needed it to rain, but to rain on a day when I had found a nesting terrapin. The first time it rained on a day when I had natural nests, I was ecstatic. The rain was unexpected, so I only had about an hour’s warning to hurry almost 1.5 miles across the park to place rain gauges at my nests. Fueled by my excitement, I got the rain gauges installed just in time. Of course, on the walk back I got soaked by the downpour and was chased by a Canada goose, but nothing was going to spoil my day!

 

Terrapin nesting season lasts about two months at JBWR, and then come the hatchlings. Yes, they’re as cute as you’re imagining. Just like adult females, hatchlings are measured and weighed. I then cut out a small piece from the edge of their shell in a specific location so that if they’re recaptured as adults, we’ll know what year they hatched. The piece of shell will also be used for DNA analysis. Hatchlings are then released near their nest, where they either run for cover in some vegetation or make a break for the water. All we can do from that point on is hope we see them again when the females are old enough to nest!

diamondback terrapin hatchlings

Diamondback terrapin hatchlings after being released at JBWR

It’s amazing to think that less than a year ago I didn’t even know there were turtles in New York City. My Masters project taught me a lot: beach trash has endless uses, rain is unpredictable, and terrapins are much faster on land than you expect. But most importantly it reminded me each and every day of nature’s resilience. Watching a new cohort of terrapins hatch and make their way into Jamaica Bay’s marshes, despite pollution and habitat destruction, makes me optimistic that there’s still time to protect mother nature’s invaluable resources and beauty.

Rebecca CzajaRebecca Czaja recently completed her Masters in Marine Biology at Northeastern University. She conducted her Masters research project in Dr. Russell Burke’s lab at Hofstra University. She is also an alum of Tufts University, where she studied Biology and Environmental Studies.

Twitter: @becca_sea

Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.

garter-snake-1

A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.

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The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.

Family in the Field

Fieldwork often takes you away from home – whether it is 1 hour away for a day trip or across the country. As with your actual family, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly memories with members of your field team. Regardless of the circumstances, your field team becomes your family in the field.

They keep you company

Fieldwork can get pretty lonely, especially if you are in a remote location. At first this sounds quite appealing: you can just listen to the birds chirping and the waves crashing against the rocks without any interruption. However, it is always nice to share the experiences with someone. Even what might seem like the worst moment in the field at the time can always be laughed about later on with your field team.

field team in Mexico

Team “BioCaliente” – Field team in the Yucatan, Mexico

Sometimes you look up to them

As Sarah tells it: Although I only spent about 3 weeks in the field with Ed*, he became like a grandfather to me. He had so much experience with fieldwork and so much wisdom. At the beginning, it took all of my strength to not just stare in awe listening to the many stories he shared. Not only did he teach me all of the skills I needed to know for the fieldwork ahead, he also shared simple life hacks. For example, he taught me the proper way to wash dishes – cutlery first (the item that goes directly in your mouth), then glasses (also touches the outside of your mouth), and finally the plates. He was able to push me to my limits but did not let me fall past them. He literally caught me at the bottom of a hill that I was sliding down! Although our lives are different at home, we were able to connect in the field and share our love of conservation and biology.

But sometimes you can’t get away from them

I think of the relationship with members of field teams like a relationship

Sarah with her best field mate

Sarah with her best field mate (and bff) experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly (she knows what I mean!).

with a sibling – you enjoy each other’s company but spending every waking moment together can result in getting on each other’s nerves. You know each other’s schedule even down to the details you don’t necessarily want to know about! However, you don’t really have a choice. You have to have at least two people in the field for safety purposes. On the plus side, two sets of eyes are always better than one and they are often at your side to save you when you start to go a little crazy worrying about where that bird may be hiding, or maybe where you last put your water bottle.

Despite knowing every detail, they still support you

amanda_fieldwork-clothesAs Amanda tells it: One of the best things about having a field family is that you get really close really fast. You learn interesting facts about each other and because you spend so much time together day after day, you also learn about each other’s personal lives (past and present) and their goals for the future. Whether it was support or advice on a new relationship, talking about where we wanted to be in ten years, or chatting about family problems, my field family has remained one of my biggest support systems throughout graduate school. In fact, to date, I still keep in close contact with almost all of my field family and we continue to support one another as our stories continue to develop.

 

Thank you to our followers for keeping us company as we continue to share dispatches from the field from around the world!Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster board

 

*name changed for the purpose of this story