Yes, those boring safety training sessions are important

Dispatches from the field is happy to welcome Katie Grogan, a postdoctoral fellow to share a post this week about a scary field safety lesson! Check out the end of the post for more about Katie.

The second scariest moment of field work I ever experienced happened basically on campus, exactly one mile from our lab and office.

Caught in the mist net. Photo by JRM.

Some people may argue that catching sparrows in downtown Atlanta in the morning, spending a few hours working in the lab in the afternoon, and sleeping in your own bed every night doesn’t qualify as “true” field work – no airplanes, hours in a truck, or having to sleep in tents. But I completely disagree. Any activity that forces you to get out of bed at 3 am in December, and sit staring at a mist-net in a cold field for at least 6 hours, freezing and exhausted, is absolutely field work*.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by JRM.

The reason for this field work is one of the major projects in my postdoctoral lab at Emory University, studying how genetic variation underlies variation in behaviors like aggression or parenting. To do this, we catch wild white-throated sparrows during their fall migration south and bring them into the lab for behavioral testing. The white-throated sparrow, common throughout North America, is an incredibly interesting bird (See this Nature News Feature!) and uniquely suited for this kind of study because of its two behavioral phenotypes: the more aggressive white morph and the less aggressive tan morph.

We catch the birds using mist-nets set up in a field near campus in November and December, an activity that seems fairly low risk apart from some occasional frostbite. However, in order to set up the mist-nets, ‘lanes’ must be cleared through the field so that tree branches and brush don’t snag the nets. We clear these lanes using a machete, and therein lies my story.

The field site.

There are typically no ‘rules’ for doing field work, except to collect your samples without doing anything too dangerous or illegal. But doing local field work a mile from our lab, rather than traveling to Costa Rica or Madagascar, obviously lulled me into complacency, because a safety briefing was the last thing on my mind that sunny afternoon in early November.

For starters, although I have accumulated months of field work in multiple countries, I was relatively new in the lab and I had never caught birds before. Marmots, howler monkeys, and lemurs, yes, but not birds. So who was I to speak up? Like in so many of my previous field experiences, I was the one in training, not the one training other people. Also, this was Atlanta! In the Rocky Mountains, we worried about bears and lightning strikes; in Costa Rica it was heat stroke (or having a monkey fall on you); and in Madagascar it was rocks in the food and stomach problems from ingesting any unfiltered water. But in Atlanta, what was there really to worry about? Basically, I was worried about bugs, twisting an ankle, and being hungry, but not about potential trips to the emergency room. Big mistake.

Grad student with a machete. Photo by KEG.

I realized the severity of this mistake when I looked up from moving freshly cut branches out of the lane to see our machete swinging with wild abandon less than a foot from the head and torso of our newest graduate student, whose back was turned.

I froze in horror, visions of dismemberment flashing before my eyes. Then I sprang into action. Yelling at the machete swinger, I leaped forward to pull the student away from their peril. No one was hurt, nothing happened…but the potential danger of that situation made my heart virtually stop in terror.

I made everyone drop what they were doing for a quick crash course in field safety and awareness. In this instance, the most important lesson was to always be aware of your surroundings, and know where your team members are located and what they are doing. This included keeping at least a 10 foot clearance around anyone doing anything dangerous such as swinging a machete or an ax. I also instituted a personal policy that dangerous tasks should be saved for the postdocs and older grad students – we try not to maim the undergrads or new grad students during their first field experience because it sets a bad precedent for recruiting more help the following year. (I’m absolutely kidding! We don’t maim anyone at all).

This incident was less than 30 seconds long, but was a defining moment in my realization that all field work, whether far away or on campus, should be accompanied by a thorough safety plan, and everyone should be briefed on this plan before work begins. (See here for a good example of how to do this!)

*Just to clarify: I never actually had to endure this hardship for this particular project. By the time I started in this lab, I was a postdoctoral fellow and had already paid my dues years earlier, following marmots in the Rocky Mountains. The graduate students needed the samples and so they got to suffer through this one!

Katie Grogan is interested in the intersection of genetic diversity, fitness, and environmental change, especially for endangered species. She is currently studying the epigenetics of growth and stature in human hunter-gatherers as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Prior to moving to State College, she worked on gene expression in white-throated sparrows as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow (a GREAT fellowship for postdocs also interested in teaching). She did her PhD at Duke University, studying the relationship between genetic diversity of the immune system and survival and reproduction in ring-tailed lemurs. When not in the lab or the field, she can be found playing with her dog and reading novels. Photos by KEG (Kathleen Grogan) and JRM (Jennifer R. Merritt, a graduate student in her former lab).

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What science literacy means to us

Science rules! And reading rocks! September 18 – 24th 2017 marks the second annual Science Literacy Week in Canada. But what is science literacy?Science literacy week logo

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) defines scientific literacy as “the ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.”

To us here at Dispatches from the Field, promoting scientific literacy means being able to effectively communicate and share the excitement of science with the public. As scientists, we are taught how to write academic papers for publication in specialized journals – journals that not everyone has access to. But what good is it to find a really cool result when you can’t share it with anyone outside your own narrow field?

Sharing the thrill of doing science is one reason we started Dispatches from the Field. Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster boardTo those of you who regularly read our posts, we’d like to say THANK YOU! And to any new readers, welcome! To give you a bit of background about this blog, we (the creators and managing editors) are three woman in science who study quite different topics but have at one big thing in common: we love fieldwork. The three of us first started this blog as a way to share those stories from the field that never make it into scientific papers. For example, Catherine recently shared the story of her mayonnaise brownies, Amanda described how she made artificial natural plant communities, and Sarah talked about how hard it is to remember to take selfies in the field.

But since we launched the blog more than three years ago, it has grown into a place for field biologists from all over the world to share their own fieldwork experiences with the public and describe the reasons they love what they do. It has been awesome reading other stories and getting a feel for fieldwork in all types of environments and situations.

And although Dispatches from the Field has published blog posts about working in field sites around the world, many of our stories are about Canadian fieldwork which fit right in with Canada’s Scientific Literacy Week. Our blog features stories from the sand dunes of Sable Island on the east coast, from the remote islands of Haida Gwaii on the west coast, from tundra field stations in the extreme Arctic, and from almost everywhere in between – including close to our home base of Kingston, in the fields and rock ledges of the Frontenac Arch.

Science borealisThere is so much great science being done in Canada – and so many scientists and science communicators eager to share their work with the public. Dispatches from the Field is just one of many great Canadian blogs that showcase the work of Canadian scientists. And if you’re looking for a place to find those blogs, we recommend Science Borealis, a not-for-profit organization that brings together science blogs from across the country, acting as a “one-stop shop” for digital Canadian science information.

Dispatches from the Field is lucky to be one of those Canadian science blogs featured by Science Borealis. And this year, we are super excited to announce we have been nominated by Science Borealis for their People’s Choice Award: Canada’s Favourite Science Online! So whether you’re a Dispatches regular or you’re just finding our blog for the first time, if you enjoy reading our posts, please vote for us in the People’s Choice Award poll!

Nominated for People's choice award

In the top 12!

And for more information on Science Literacy Week and to find events near you, check out:

http://scienceliteracy.ca

Twitter: @scilitweek

#scilit17

 

Squirrel Chatter

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Sarah Westrick, a Ph. D. student at University of Michigan who shares her experiences at Squirrel Camp! For more about Sarah, check out her bio at the end of the post. 

As a biologist, I’m enamored with nature. Learning more about the natural world around us is what drew me to the field, and biological fieldwork provides some amazing opportunities for me to connect with the natural world. I am lucky to be participating in an incredible long-term field biology program as a third-year PhD student in Dr. Ben Dantzer’s lab at the University of Michigan.

tree line with mountains in the background

The view of our study grid from the Alaska Highway, St. Elias Mountain Range in the background. The boreal forest in this area is predominated by white spruce. (photo by: Sarah Westrick)

The Kluane Red Squirrel Project (KRSP) is an active research program focused on understanding the ecology, evolution, behavior, and energetics of the North American red squirrel. Since 1987, when Dr. Stan Boutin at University of Alberta established the project, KRSP has grown into a large collaborative effort between the University of Alberta, McGill University, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Guelph, and the University of Michigan.

“Squirrel Camp” is our field research site, located in the boreal forest along the Alaska Highway in the Shakwak Trench near Kluane National Park in the Yukon Territory, Canada. The boreal forest in this region has been studied since the 1970s by researchers on the Kluane Ecological Monitoring Project, including Dr. Boutin, and continues to be well studied by ecologists from all across Canada and the US.

Working at Squirrel Camp is an incredible experience for many different reasons. One of my favorite parts of doing fieldwork in this region is the chance to really get to know the land we live on and the ecosystem we work in. When you’re out in the forest every day, you learn about the plants and animals intimately. I believe one reason the boreal forest of the Yukon has been studied for so long is its ability to excite ecologists’ natural curiosity. Questions about the ecosystem can come quickly to an inquisitive mind wandering the area.

At Squirrel Camp, we have multiple active study grids in the forest. Each morning “squirrelers” head out to their respective grids to monitor the red squirrels living in that patch of forest. Although the grids become familiar old friends, each day when you go into the forest you never know exactly what you’re going to see. You may see arctic ground squirrels alarm calling, encounter goshawks hunting, or accidentally flush out a mother spruce grouse and her chicks.

An ear-tagged North American red squirrel rattling, a territorial vocalization. Both male and female red squirrels defend their cache of spruce cones by rattling. (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

This past summer was my third field season at Squirrel Camp. One day in July, I went out in the forest expecting to have an easy morning live-trapping my target squirrels. Each squirrel defends its own territory and can typically be trapped there, allowing us to monitor its reproductive status throughout the breeding season. Preoccupied by my thoughts, I moved between two of my trapping locations on autopilot, taking a trail well worn by many squirrelers past. As I neared my destination, I began to hear the familiar barking call of the red squirrel, a common sound in a forest with ~2 squirrels per ha.

lynx in a tree

Canadian lynx in a tree chasing a juvenile red squirrel. Lynx are very cryptic in the boreal forest and can be hard to spot – this lynx is midway up the tree under the witch’s broom. (Photo by: Sarah Westrick)

Not giving it much thought, I continued down the trail. The barks got louder and more frequent. Multiple squirrels joined in the chorus. At this point, I was curious to see who could be causing such a racket and if it meant there was a shift in the red squirrel social neighborhood. My eyes searched the trees for the telltale wiggling branch of a spruce tree or a small furry red tail darting between branches, but I couldn’t find that search image. Instead, I found a much larger furry form in a tree about 10 m away: the long legs, tufted ears, and bob tail of a Canadian lynx. I stopped dead in my tracks, staring, and the lynx looked back at me, panting. We took each other’s measure. After a few seconds, with me fumbling for my camera, the lynx decided to move on and jumped out of the tree, trotting into the forest.

While seeing lynx from a distance is not uncommon in our forest in the winter, we hardly ever get near this cryptic predator in the summer, as they move with stealth and blend into the trees before we can see them. But while the stealthy lynx is difficult for us to see amidst the leaves and spruce needles, to a squirrel it’s critical to spot a lynx before it ambushes them.

baby squirrel in hand with green ear tag

A 25 day old juvenile red squirrel with ear tags. Each squirrel in our study has two unique ear tags to identify individuals throughout their lifetime, as well as colors in each tag to identify individuals from a distance. Colored disks differentiate juveniles from adults. (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

After giving the lynx a few seconds to walk away, I approached the tree he was in and found one of our juvenile squirrels frozen atop a witch’s broom in the tree, having narrowly escaped becoming lunch for the lynx. In a nearby tree, his mom was responsible for part of the racket that had attracted my attention in the first place. She was still barking like mad and the neighbors were still in an uproar. It’s not often we squirrel researchers observe a predation event – or a near-miss – and I appreciated being privy to this part of the ecosystem that we rarely get to witness.

To top it off, this wasn’t just any random lynx in the boreal forest; this lynx had a blue tag in his right ear. A group of my colleagues at Squirrel Camp had trapped him the previous winter to tag and take a DNA sample. (Squirrel Camp is in fact a multi-purpose field camp: ss our “squirrel season” comes to a close each year in late fall, the Lynx Crew, as we affectionately refer to them – to differentiate them from the Hare Crew (studying snowshoe hares) – moves into camp to track the abundance and behavior of this elusive predator in the ecosystem.) This particular lynx had been followed through the winter farther west down the Alaska Highway, but had since made his way east to our squirrel study grid.

A vigilant red squirrel ready to run up the tree in case of danger (photo by: Juliana Balluffi-Fry)

To me, this encounter was a reminder to savor the special moments in the forest while doing fieldwork. Even through the stressful, frustrating moments in the field, I can always find some part of the ecosystem to ground me. Not many people are fortunate enough to be in the forest often enough to develop such a connection to the land and the ecosystem. Now I walk the forest with open ears, listening closely to my squirrels, and open eyes, scanning the trees for surprises.

 

Sarah Westrick

Sarah Westrick is a PhD student at University of Michigan in the biopsychology program. Her research focuses on maternal behavior and physiology in red squirrels. She received a BS in Zoology and Biology from Colorado State University, where she worked on the behavior and neural mechanisms of Trinidadian guppies. You can learn more about her work at her website: sewestrick.strikingly.com or follow her on Twitter @sewestrick. If you’re interested in working with KRSP, the Dantzer Lab is currently seeking graduate students to start in Fall 2018 – check out Dr. Ben Dantzer on Twitter @ben_dantzer. For more information on the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, check out our website: redsquirrel.biology.ualberta.ca and on Twitter: @KluaneSquirrels

 

Barren, desolate, magical, rugged, and peaceful: 9 days of labour and laughs in the tundra

This week Dispatches from the field are very excited to welcome a guest post co-written by a professor’s wife and 14 year old son when they went to the tundra to help with fieldwork. It is very rare that we have someone under the age of 20 contributing to our blog! For more about Paul, Anne, and their son Louis, check out the end of this post!

Finally, this is it!  After all the preparations, Louis and I are now on our first ever float plane flight heading 300 kilometers north of Yellowknife to the remote low Arctic tundra station at Daring Lake.

We are being flown in by a pair of bush pilots on a plane loaded with lots of wood, screws, nails, and rolls of plastic for one of Paul’s long-term experiments.

Louis: The plane’s engines rise to a dizzying roar so I put my headphones on, which only partly subdue the noise. We start off with a lurch and then float out to the “runway” – a long section of slightly wavy lake. The pilot then heads us into the wind, facing towards the shore no more than 200 meters away. After some last checks, he pushes the throttle to max and we’re off bouncing over the waves until we lift up completely, with plenty of space between us and the shore.

The Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake has been in operation since 1996, when it was opened by the Northwest Territories government for research and environmental monitoring. Government scientists, university professors and their students come up here to do field work.

Views of the tundra.

We fly for 75 minutes across the treeline and over a seemingly uninhabited land of lakes, rivers and rocky barren land, towards Daring Lake in the land of the indigenous Dene people.

The camp consists of 10 all-season large tents. Each has a lovely white and orange cover, and sits up on wooden supports. A boardwalk connects one tent to the next. The flags flying represent the Tli-Cho Dene territory, NWT, and Canada.  It is very obvious that a lot of care has gone into developing this camp.

many people on the dock to unload items.

Unloading the float plane.

After unloading our stuff and then reloading the plane with all the waste from camp (empty fuel tanks, trash, etc.) the plane is ready for take-off. Once it is up and away, leaving behind a spray of water that washes our faces, we are all alone – just 8 of us on this desolate landscape, kept secure from the local wildlife by an electrified bear fence.

Louis: We trudge across the tundra to a natural cut in the esker through which a river flows. I cast off from the edge, when soon one line gets tugged, and then another, and then one of the fishermen asks me if I want to reel the fish in… and for the next minute it’s fish versus my forearm. At last, the fish flops out from the water; the fisherman gives me a smile while removing the hook, and proceeds to whack the base of the fish’s skull until it is looking at me with dead eyes.  

The soft “beds” of the tundra.

Our day’s work starts….. Paul takes us on a walk to see his greenhouse experiment in a nearby valley. Walking across the tundra is not like any walking I have ever done before. It is very strenuous, with lots of ups and downs, full of water holes and low shrubs so you become unsure of where your foot is going to land next. You can get a wet foot very easily if you do not judge a tussock carefully. But lying down on the mat of plants feels like sinking into a nice soft mattress. The bog cotton blows in the wind, the ground is full of low vegetation, rich in colour, and laden with blueberries and cranberries.

Louis holds the wood while Anne uses the power drill.

Louis and Anne work hard to put together sturdy greenhouses.

Louis: The high-pitched whine beside my ear tells me that the powerdrill is working and the screw is piercing the wood, making the greenhouse frame stronger. The end goal is to make the greenhouses last another 13 years… but they look like they will last until the next ice age. These greenhouses are supposed to show the likely effects of climate change on plant growth by accelerating the process and then recording the results. For me, it was all about the challenge of fortifying the greenhouses.

It’s grizzly bear country and we have to carry shortwave radios, pepper spray and bear bangers at all times. There are resident ground squirrels, lemmings and voles. They run around the camp keeping us company.

At 2.30 am we get up to see the northern lights – lovely green hues swirling 100-300 kilometers above us.

Louis and Anne putting in some hard work!

After a long day in the field, we head home to camp, tummies empty. The kitchen is the hub; we cook and eat together. It provides a unique setting to develop a real sense of community and to share ideas and experiences. We will have lasting memories of this safe haven, a home away from home.  As the Sami people of the Swedish tundra used to say: “My home is where my heart is, and it travels with me wherever I go”.

Louis, Anne, and Paul

Louis Grogan: 14 year old teenager. He loves the outdoors and having fun on his bike. He was very disappointed he could not bring up his bike to the field station and ride around in the tundra.  This is Louis’ first time to visit any of Paul’s field sites. Louis loves to use a power drill and is always very excited to build with wood. At this time in his life he has shown no interest in science.

Anne Keegan: Registered Nurse, wife of Paul and mom of Louis. She has travelled with Paul to several of his field sites in the Arctic, and this was her first visit to Daring Lake.

Paul Grogan: Professor of Plant and Ecosystem Ecology, Queen’s University, Kingston. Paul has been doing research at Daring lake, NWT for the past 13 years. His students typically spend 10 to 12 weeks at the site in the summer working on their experiments.

But first, let me (remember to) take a selfie

When exploring the recent trends of #ScientistsWhoSelfie and #ScientistInHabitat in the science communication Twitterverse, I realize I might belong to the #ScientistsWhoDontSelfie group.  In fact, maybe even the #ScientistsWhoDon’tTakePicturesAtAll group.

As a biologist who gets to go to some really cool places, I always love to share how beautiful those places really are. There’s only one slight problem: I have trouble remembering to take pictures. You can describe a place using words but when a picture is worth a thousand words, there’s no contest which one makes a more lasting impression.

holding on a turtle shell to guide to other side

Helping a turtle cross the road in my handy hiking shoes

I remember asking a former grad student, a seasoned field biologist, what advice she had for me, a new field biologist. She said, “Wear good shoes, bring lots of clothing layers, and remember to take pictures because you always wish you had more”. I had good hiking shoes that survived many steps. I wore every piece of clothing I brought – sometimes all at the same time. But did I take pictures? Not enough!

The thing is, it’s often difficult to take pictures in the field. For one, there were times I was holding a bird in one hand, scrambling through my bag for my measuring device with my other hand, and holding tweezers (clean, of course – at least I hope) in my mouth. Not surprisingly, grabbing my camera was not my top priority. Also, when I finally found a nest after searching all day in the hot sun, I was so tired that all I wanted to do was process the bird and not waste extra time taking a picture.  And it didn’t help that on the first day, the field team leader was frustrated that the team was taking too long with their cameras. Perhaps it was easy for him to say forget about the photos, as he had been coming to that site for years, but for everyone else, it was the first time!

Sarah sitting in the forest

My (third?) attempt at a selfie. It may be dark but at least you can see my whole face!

But despite my completely logical reasons for minimal camera use, when I prepare research seminars or share stories with friends, I am constantly kicking myself that I did not take more pictures.  And the one thing I never seem to have is pictures with me in them!  I have tried to take selfies but that seems to be a skill that I just don’t have. Sometimes you’ll be able to just see the top of my head, while other times you are able to see five of my chins. Luckily for me, the birds don’t seem to mind being models when the camera is pointed towards them.

 

Sarah holding a bird in hand

“Make sure you get my good side”. – warbler

My saving grace, though, is friends who like to take pictures. One of my friends mentioned once that she likes taking pictures when we are out in the field together as I am constantly standing on a rock somewhere or checking something out in the grass. I guess you could say that is my ideal habitat!

Catherine and Sarah kneeling to investigate

Checking out the cool alvar habitat.

Pulling a Jane Goodall

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Stacey Hollis.  A field biologist turned communicator, Stacey shares some details of her time in the field – and also what led to her decision to leave the field and pursue journalism.  For more about Stacey, check out her bio at the end of the post.

I like to say I “pulled a Jane Goodall”.

After more than five years of working in the field, studying all manner of bird species, I wanted out.

As much as I love working in nature, in even the most remote locales I was seeing first hand just how deeply humans are impacting this planet’s ecosystems. In fact, there is no better way to understand the effect humans have on the environment than by living in the middle of it – and that’s exactly what field biologists do.

I grew up reading Jane Goodall’s books about her work with chimpanzees and how she lived out in the rainforest alone in what seemed like a dream life. But she also saw the devastation that humans inflicted on that ecosystem. There’s no looking the other way when you’re trying to save a species that is suffering right in front of you. So Goodall came out of the field to bring the message of the chimpanzees to the public, to stop the destruction of the species by poaching and habitat loss.

Goodall didn’t want to leave the field, of course. I know she would have preferred to just stay in the forest with the chimps, just like I would have preferred to remain among the birds. But she realized that the only way to save the animals she loved was to spread the word to the masses. It was only through her tireless efforts in public speaking, advocating and raising awareness that she could hope to change the future for the chimps.

So out of the field I came, trying to emulate my hero and seeking ways to help the ecosystems and species that I so loved from afar. Since we spend so much time been on the front lines of conservation, field biologists need to share what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned with the public, for the love of nature and in order to conserve it.

A magnolia warbler in the hand.

Energetic and colourful: a magnolia warbler

Having spent practically the entirety of my childhood enamored with birds–I’ve been told my first word was “duck”–my intention has always been to dedicate my life to these feathered beings that have captured my attention since my eyes first met the sky. Wherever I was, walking down a forest or along a beach, even down a busy city sidewalk, they were ALWAYS there, decorating the world with their energetic, colourful lives.

When I was seven years old, my mother brought me on my first official birdwalk after convincing the hesitant leaders that a little girl would be overjoyed to walk at a snail’s pace for four hours, staring into the branches. I remember walking up to the group of binocular-adorned adults, clad in beige vests each sporting a plethora of pockets. They stood outside The Backyard Naturalist, the wild bird feed store and gift shop that organized these walks which ultimately helped steer the course of my life.

A birder from an early age…

Though approaching such a group of experts was intimidating for a little girl, it took me no time to warm up to these friendly, knowledgeable birders who, over time, became my teachers and who I still know and love to this day. After taking the entire morning to master the tiny binoculars they loaned me, determinedly attempting to train them on the frenzied flitting of spring warblers in the highest reaches of a huge old tree, I knew I was hooked.

But the greatest, most vivid memory was my first encounter with an American Kestrel. Our group was approaching Centennial Lake when someone said “kestrel” and suddenly tripods were propped into place and birding scopes were pointed at a tree at the edge of the lake down the hill from us. Being the youngest in the group, everyone very generously pushed me to the head of the line. I approached the scope and the powerful lens towered above me. From behind, I was held aloft to be able to train my eye to the viewfinder. Inside, I found what all the fuss was about: a tiny, brilliantly coloured falcon with a fierce stare belying its delicate appearance. I could hardly tear my eyes away; it was like I was looking through a portal to the future of what birds would forever mean to me.

A memorable sight: an American kestrel surveys his kingdom

This passion never faltered as I made my way through college, earning a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies, which gave me the opportunity to begin my first job in the field, working as an intern on islands off the coast of Maine with Audubon’s Project Puffin. Of my various field jobs – working in Canada with warblers, in Puerto Rico with Smooth-billed Anis, and out west with Burrowing Owls and woodpeckers – I’m not going to say Project Puffin was my favourite (because they all were), but this was the only field job I returned to twice more after the first go-round.

Fresh fish, anyone?  An Atlantic puffin with his catch

One of my most vivid memories from this job was also my very first:

Follow the leader: a female common eider leads her ducklings to water.

As a 19-year-old, shiny new field biologist (so designated by one Dr. Steve Kress), riding the swells of Maine’s Saco Bay to one of the Project Puffin-managed nesting colonies where I’d be spending my summer studying terns and puffins, a flurry of wings caught my attention from the beach of my soon-to-be island home. A momma Common Eider, a species of sea duck, was making her way up the beach followed by seven sooty, cottonball chicks. But those little vulnerable morsels out in the open were just too tempting for any nearby gull to pass up. Before my jaw could even drop in disbelief, every one of the chicks had already disappeared down the gullet of one of the gang of hungry gulls.

Fearless and opportunistic, a California gull scans the landscape for its next meal.

Gulls were a main contributor to tern and puffin mortality on the colonies and, were humans not stationed on these islands to help drive them away, they could easily and completely wipe out these sensitive seabird colonies. It’s because gulls do so prolifically well around human communities (thanks to their fearless and opportunistic nature and penchant for the occasional errant french fry), that they’ve become such a problem for these offshore-nesting birds which haven’t evolved adequate defences against them.

And these kinds of sights didn’t just stop at gulls, I found as I found myself witness to a broad and ever-widening range of human-related impacts on these avian ecosystems.  Raccoons and crows are an enormous problem for nesting shorebirds, as are the ever-strengthening storms that hit our coasts. Changing sea temperatures affect food supply of diving seabirds and we’ve seen it in the piles of warm water dwelling butterfish piled next to starving puffin chicks, whose mouths are unable to encompass the wide, silver-dollar-sized fish that their parents see as easy foraging. Habitat loss is also often an issue, as conversion of forests to logging lands leaves warblers returning from migration to a tragically devastated landscape where their nesting territory once was. Species are relegated to smaller and smaller patches of protected lands. And human influence is, of course, at the heart of all of these problems.

In 2011, I went for a Master’s degree in Journalism so I could learn to communicate my passions and frustrations in a way that could reach far and wide. If I can share my stories and the sights I’ve witnessed, maybe I can reach others in an attempt to help incite change for the better. As a field biologist turned environmental writer, I hope to convey information in a way that’s less dry and unappealing to the regular Joe than a scientific journal article tends to be. I’ve since written about my various travels working with a variety of birds, and I’ve found that, through photography and social media and a little humour, I can get the word out. It’s impossible to quantify whether my efforts have been a success and I feel like I’m still only just getting started, but if I can even just reach one person, perhaps a ripple effect will occur and future change might be achieved.

And if you ever find yourself in Olney, Maryland, be sure to ask Debi and Mike Klein, owners of Backyard Naturalist, for a look at the now-yellowed marker drawing of that American Kestrel still hanging in a corner of the store. Obviously, they got the message across.

Stacey has devoted her life to learning about and promoting awareness about birds and wildlife conservation. Graduating from Warren Wilson College with a BSc in Biology and Environmental Studies, she went on to work in avian field ecology and conservation research for five years. She’s worked on puffin nesting colonies off the coast of Maine, monitored and banded burrowing owls in the western United States, radio-tracked smooth billed anis in Puerto Rico and more. While her desire to stay in the field was strong, Stacey decided she needed to “pull a Jane Goodall” and leave the wild birds she loved in order to spread the message about the dire straits that they, and many other wildlife species, are in. Now with a MSc in Journalism from University of Oregon, she has gone on to write for Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and now manages and writes for Wild Lens, Inc.‘s Eyes on Conservation blog. Learn more about her at www.staceymhollis.com and @stacebird on Twitter.

Why we need more than science

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to feature a guest post from Dr. Laura Coristine.  In her post, Laura shares a bit about her early passion for working with one of the most charismatic megafauna out there: wolves.  To learn more about Laura, check out her bio at the end of the post.

My passion for science started with wolves. As an 11 year old I read every book on the topic that I could find. I hadn’t yet heard of journal articles; back then, finding my way to a university and wading through the stacks would have been a two-hour metro ride, and who knows what I would have found. Suffice it to say, the world was not connected. There was no information at anyone’s fingertips, unless they sought to become an expert.

Fast forward to university: by third year I was desperately contacting every researcher in North America who had ever studied wolves. I sent e-mails. I mailed letters. I made long distance phone calls. It was a full-time job, and finally, impressed by my determination, a researcher put me in touch with Canada’s foremost wolf expert. I was hired for the summer.

When I showed up for my first day, I was told I would be learning the secrets of what wolves eat. I was enchanted, for a very brief moment. And then came reality.  “Do you know,” I was asked, “that wolves eat vegetation and berries?”. Of course, I knew. I had first read that fact as a child. I have to confess though, that for someone reputedly intelligent enough for academia, I was remarkably slow to connect the dots. But finally it clicked: I had been hired to study wolf dung.

The job, in a nutshell, involved teasing apart differences between what different species of wolves ate through the seasons. I was rinsing and sterilizing wolf scat until the particulate matter had washed down the drain (the janitor was called almost daily to deal with the clogs in the sink). And at the end of this process, I was left with a tangle of hairs from the wolves’ prey – rabbit, beaver, and the occasional deer or moose and the even more occasional berry. Although I must say identification of hairs was fun, the process, in a nutshell, stank.

Then there was the process of assessing wolf skull morphology to assess hybridization and species composition of wolf packs. I thought this was a step up from the fecal analyses…but it turns out we were boiling wolf heads – road kill and hunting remnants – in a vat until the meat fell off. I became vegetarian after that task.

In the field and on the trail of wolves at last! Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

But finally, as a reward for my patience with unappealing lab tasks, I was let loose into the field to sample wolf vocalizations for my honours project, which aimed to replicate a study conducted 30 years earlier. My supervisor was convinced that with better methodology and better sound recording equipment, we might see new results.

Through each night of August, I chased wolf packs and coyote-wolf hybrids across the Madawaska Plains of Ontario.  After staking out known pack territories during the day, my field assistant and I followed a rigorous protocol of night-time howling and waiting for wolves to respond.  I learned the crack and waver of a wolf call, the higher pitch of a coyote, and the excited yips of the youngest wolves.

The crowning moment of my field season, though, was the evening a small farming community invited us to a corn roast before letting us roam through a farmer’s field to collect our audio recordings.

It was a quiet night; my call raised only a single howl, rapidly swallowed by the inky dark of a rural night sky.  We waited.  And waited.  Waiting was not part of the protocol – we were supposed to move on, but we had been told that this was the place to find our wolves.

And then I jumped.  There, off to the side, was a flash of eyes, and then another.  Not a sound. But as I turned slowly in a circle, I realized that we were surrounded on all sides.  Breath catching, we were held immobile by a circle of glowing wolf eyes.

There is a tension between human and nature – at least for a human who has not grown up completely inside of nature.  My mind turned to Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, to Russian folktales of wolves chasing man, human fear warring with the scientific fact that no healthy wild wolf in North America had ever killed a human.  And then I howled, and the wolves howled back: long, wavering calls that rose and broke in a symphony of nature, until slowly, gradually, the wolves quieted and watched us.  Long moments of looking at each other across the farmer’s field, silence stretching out to eternity before their eyes winked out and disappeared.

There is a tension between human and nature. Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

At the end of the summer, I was asked to return for a Master’s.  Despite the scat and the boiled skulls, the entire summer had been one of the most amazing educational experiences of my life. But I didn’t know how to break the news: science had already collected so much information on wolf ecology – what was left to discover? I couldn’t see myself returning for graduate studies to continue studying what we already knew.

Wolves, like many large mammals, are under threat from climate change, from habitat loss, and from human fear and persecution.  Wolf ecology, behavior, and diet are well known, well established.  When I was asked to return, I realized that sometimes it isn’t a matter of learning more about a species.  Instead, it is a matter of using the information we have to change policies and decisions about nature.

Dr. Laura Coristine is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her research focuses on ways to promote native species’ range movements in response to climate change. She is actively involved in efforts to inform Canada’s CBD2020 commitment to increase terrestrial and aquatic protected areas. Her research has been featured on Quirks and Quarks, and various other online, radio, and television media. ​On dark summer evenings, you can sometimes find her outside howling for wolves. To hear more about her adventures, follow her on Twitter: @LauraCoristine.