Beggars can’t be choosers

My supervisor has always told me that a good field crew runs on its stomach.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a veteran of many field seasons in many different places, I personally have to agree with her.  When I’m in the field, an excessive amount of my time is spent thinking about lunch or dinner.

When it comes to eating in the field, you have to take the good with bad.  On the plus side, fieldwork makes food taste abnormally good.  When you’re exhausted and stressed, just sitting down to dinner is a treat, and almost anything tastes fantastic.  I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in the field.

I especially enjoy the days when, after working late and returning home worn out and grimy, you succumb to weariness, suspect the normal dinner rules, and take the easy way out.  For example, one day near the end of my second field season in BC, my field assistant and I decided to test the theory we’d been hearing from vineyard workers all summer: that the smooth, buttery taste of Chardonnay goes beautifully with popcorn.  That night, our dinner consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn and half a bottle of local Chardonnay each, and we discovered two things.  First, Chardonnay actually does go extremely well with popcorn.  Second, early mornings are considerably more difficult after a dinner of popcorn and wine.

On the minus side, sometimes fieldwork means finding yourself in remote areas where access to food is extremely limited.  In these places, as you sit down to your fourteenth meal of rice and beans in as many days, you often find yourself engaging in an activity that one of my field assistants dubbed “food porn”: daydreaming about what you’d really like to eat, and what you’re planning to eat as soon as you get out of the field.

But in the meantime, you’re stuck with what you have with you…which sometimes means eating things that you would not otherwise touch.  For example, about seven weeks into my second field season on Sable Island, we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel with respect to food.  About all we had left was potatoes, pasta, and some mayo.  In a moment of desperation, we decided to see whether you could make potato salad with just mayonnaise and potatoes.  After all, we reasoned, those are definitely the most important ingredients.  Who needs all that other stuff?

As it turns out, all that other stuff is quite important.  No matter how hungry you are, facing a container of mayo-encrusted potato pieces for lunch can kill your appetite.

But perhaps my most epic field food fail happened during my time in Alaska.  There were six of us living in a small, lonely cabin in the middle of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.  The station was actually incredibly well stocked when we arrived, but with six people eating, supplies dwindled quickly.  Unfortunately, as our grocery ‘wish list’ grew, it became increasingly apparent that getting restocked was going to be an issue.

The field station was run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they were responsible for dropping off supplies on a regular basis.  In the winter, this was relatively easy, as ski planes could land on the iced-over lake beside the cabin.  In the summer, supplies arrived by float plane.  But in the spring, when the ice was just melted enough to be unstable, but not melted enough to leave any patches of open water, the cabin was essentially inaccessible.  USFWS was reduced to doing low-altitude fly-overs, during which they would drop our mail or some small supplies out of the plane on to our ‘front lawn’.

Unfortunately, there are some things you simply cannot drop out of a plane window.  Eggs, for example, do not tolerate a 50 foot drop well.  And thus begins the story of the brownies.

We had been in the field for about a month, and had eaten our way through just about every treat in the cabin.  But when bad weather trapped us in the house for a day, we all found ourselves on the hunt for snacks.  After a great deal of rummaging, someone unearthed a box of brownie from the back of the cupboard.

We were all thrilled.  After all, there aren’t many snacks that can beat a warm, gooey pan of brownies.  We wiped the dust off the top of the box, skimmed the instructions on the back and quickly determined that we had almost all of the required ingredients.  Water? Check.  Oil? Check. Package of brownie mix? Check.  Eggs? Oh.

Now, you would think that eggs are one of the few ingredients that it’s almost impossible to find a substitute for.  So we were briefly stymied.  But we were very, very determined to have those brownies…and after a few minutes of staring blankly into the fridge, someone quietly observed, “You know, mayonnaise is made with eggs.”

That was all it took – before we had time to really think things through, we had emptied the brownie mix into a bowl and added the oil and water.  There was a brief pause, as we all stared at the container of Hellman’s, but then we screwed up our determination and scooped up a large glob of mayo – which we then dropped unceremoniously into the mix.

Of course, no one knew just how much mayo would be needed to replace three eggs.  So we just kept adding it until the consistency seemed about right.  Then we emptied the mixture into a baking pan, popped it in the oven, and sat back to wait, already anticipating the first decadent, chocolatey bite.

By the time the timer went off, the rich smell of chocolate filled the small kitchen and we were practically drooling.  As we opened the oven and slid the brownies out, we all crowded around in excitement – only to recoil as we got a good look at the pan.

Our initial view of the brownies was obscured by the thick layer of oil that filled the pan almost to the top.  Underneath lay a charred and crispy block of something that resembled brownies only in the vaguest form.

The oh-so-appetizing results of our brownie experiment…

It is a measure of just how desperate we were that even considered eating the brownies anyway.  However, when we approached our creation to try to cut it, we met with what felt like a block of cement underneath the knife.  After considerable hacking, we managed to prise the block out of the pan – but no one could figure out how to cut it up.  It didn’t matter anyway; no one was brave enough to venture a bite.

At last we had to admit defeat: there were no brownies for us that day.  But only a few days later, the ice cleared off the lake, the float plane arrived, and our cupboards were well-stocked once more.  The evening after we received our supplies, we sat down to a warm, gooey tray of brownies.  And I can honestly say that I’ve never had better-tasting brownies, before or since.

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Creating artificial natural communities

I have always been interested in understanding how plant communities are structured and assembled. That’s why I’ve spent the last half decade tromping around in old-fields, shrublands and woodlands, collecting, counting and measuring plants. While most of my research has involved surveys of different types of natural plant communities, in 2013 I was trying to understand the structure of communities when all plants were the same age. This meant that the established habitats I was used to studying were no longer suitable. I had to start my own communities from scratch.

One of my beautiful old-field sites.

The easy option would have been to collect seeds from an already existing herbaceous plant community and create a new community in a controlled greenhouse setting. But I didn’t want to do that. When you start moving experiments to a “controlled” greenhouse setting, things can often end up more complicated than you ever imagined. Greenhouse disasters I have witnessed in my time in graduate school include aphid/spider/mite outbreaks, extended water outages/contamination, issues with heat/lighting control, sabotage by angry colleagues and even, I kid you not, the panes of glass on the roof smashing. (Incidentally, those panes of glass are 1.5 inches thick…and the offending object was never found… can anyone say UFO???) In addition to having little control in these supposed controlled experiments, when you use a greenhouse setting, you are also introducing other sources of variation that you wouldn’t see naturally. For example, the water/ fertilizer you apply is different from a plant’s natural environment, as is access to sunlight, and often plants end up root-bound and limited by their pot size.

So, for me, the obvious solution was to take the hard route, and attempt to set up my own communities in the field.  To create these communities, I installed aluminum cylinders into the ground (about 9 inches deep) to ensure neighbouring roots couldn’t access them. I then applied a herbicide to the resident plants in those plots, and after they died, I cleared the dead vegetation out. At one site I installed 100 cylinders and just left them as they were after clearing the dead vegetation. This allowed seeds from the natural seed bank to germinate and grow and eventually reproduce. The issue with this site though, was that I had no idea how many seeds of each species were present in each plot. So for the second site, I spent the entire summer of 2013 collecting seeds. I chose species that didn’t overlap with those already at the field site, but had been found growing in similar habitats and had a wide range in body size, flowering time and life history strategy (annual, biennial, perennial). I ended up collecting seeds of 46 species, and putting 200 seeds of each of the 46 species into each of the 100 plots. I followed these communities over the next three growing seasons, and the results were amazing.

Early growing season plot (early May) versus mid-June

In the site without introduced species (just from the seedbank), the first year plots were filled with species I didn’t recognize. This site is normally dominated by perennial wildflower and grass species, but suddenly all sorts of annuals were popping up again. In the site with introduced species, I saw tonnes of beautiful annuals flowering in year one. In year two, the plots were exploding with biennials and in year 3 finally a perennial dominance was seen. The interesting part is that now this experiment is in year 4, and although we aren’t monitoring or collecting any data, we see the resident species starting to slowly make their way back into these plots. So even though we planted tens of thousands of seeds from introduced species at the site, the resident species seeds from the seed bank and plants surrounding the plots are slowly starting to take over again. This is the perfect example of how plant community dynamics are always changing.

So taking the hard route really did pay off in the end. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t a whole slew of hideous disasters that could have affected my natural plant communities. But I could definitely sleep better at night knowing that these experimental plant communities were experiencing as close to natural conditions as possible!

Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

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

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

Clam Gardens Revisited

**This blog was originally posted on Sci/Why —  a blog where Canadian children’s writers discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why? Check it out here: http://sci-why.blogspot.ca

We are happy to welcome Paula Johanson to the blog today. Paula tells us about helping intertidal biologists studying traditional First Nations clam gardens on the west coast. You can follow Paula on Twitter @PaulaJohanson and you can read more about her at the end of this post. All photos are credited to Amy Groesbeck, intertidal biologist

 

Ever dig clams on a beach? If you had to race razor clams as they ducked away in sand, it’s easy to think “There HAS to be a better way!” But if you scraped for butter clams only a few inches down in the stony muck of a clam garden, you’d know that clam gardens ARE a better way.

clam1

Clam gardens are beaches modified by First Nations people on shorelines along the West Coast, to increase and improve the habitat for clams that are particularly tasty and easy to gather. Back in 2011, I was lucky to be a volunteer helping biologist Amy Grosbeck in her study of clam gardens, and wrote for Sci/Why about the experience. Click here to read that post and see some excellent photos by that scientist. Amy Grosbeck and her colleagues went on to write a journal article about their study (and it’s really interesting to read).

clam2

Amy called me up this summer to offer another chance to volunteer to help her with another study. Hurray! My spouse Bernie and I were glad to join her on Quadra Island, to take some samples and tidy the clam gardens she was studying this summer. We stayed a few nights in a bunkhouse maintained by the Tula Foundation for the Hakai Institute, which supports intertidal biology research by Amy and many of her colleagues.

clam3

At 4am, you better have a headlamp!

Studying intertidal biology means getting up before dawn, and getting to our launch point at Granite Bay before low tide.We left the bunkhouse at four o’clock in the morning, after a quick breakfast. Amy and Bernie paddled a canoe loaded with pails of scientific gear, while I paddled alongside in my inflatable kayak (The Lagoon is a very practical boat, sent to me by Advanced Elements, and a big improvement on the already excellent version I paddled on my 2011 trip with Amy.)

clam4.jpg

When the sun came up, we could see clouds, fog, and rain all around Kanish Bay.

Paddling in a light drizzle of rain at 4:30am was made more interesting by the swirls of phosphorescence in the water. Every time our boats moved, the water would sparkle with tiny specks of light made by plankton. If there had been a moon or lots of electric lights, the dim sparkles wouldn’t show. On that dark early morning, the swirls of light were amazing. Each stroke of a canoe paddle left big swooshes of light, and my kayak was skimming on waves of sparkles. Then we paddled over a bed of kelp, which lit up with the movements of fish and shrimp. Too bad the sparkles are too dim to photograph well with ordinary cameras. The light show made getting up so early seem worthwhile.

clam5

It seemed even more worthwhile when we got to the clam garden and learned how much work Amy had been doing there. Quickly she showed Bernie how to take samples of the beach material — stony sand mixed with broken clam shells and muck — while she and I gathered up sample bags she had fastened to metal rods driven into the beach at intervals.

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Somehow we got all the samples taken, all the bags gathered, and all the rods retrieved before the rising tide covered her sample sites. The beach was tidied up at the end of Amy’s study season, and our work was done.

clam7

And then we did it all again the next day on new beaches. Science! Paddling at 4:30 am in the rain for science! Soaked to the skin all day for science! It was worth it, and I’ll go again when Amy calls me to come do for a few days what she does over and over many times a year.. To be an intertidal ecologist for a few days, gathering data for scientific studies, is a wonderful opportunity.

clam8

 

Paula Johanson writes nonfiction books on science, health, and literature for educational publishers. She’s an avid kayaker who enjoys paddling, biking, and hiking with friends. Check out her novel Tower in the Crooked Wood from Five Rivers Publishing at http://fiveriverspublishing.com/?page_id=356 Many of her books are profiled at http://paulajohanson.blogspot.ca

We need YOU!

With the beginning of our fourth year of Dispatches from the Field, one of our goals for the year is to increase the number of guest posts we have on the blog. We like to keep the story topics diverse ranging from studying birds in the Arctic, to mammals in the tropics, and all the way to the plants in your backyard. We also like to add more location markers on our map to indicate where the stories originate. By sharing the reasons we run this blog, we hope it might spark an idea in you for a post!

  1. Writing a blog post for Dispatches from the Field allows you to share with the public the very things that make you love what you do. It may be a story about a funny event that happened, or about that one thing you never thought would happen but guess what, it did!

 

  1. It allows you to write down the stories before you forget them. With all that time spent in the field, the data itself gets to be presented in a scientific paper but the stories tend to get lost. What was that little town we visited? Did we do a,b,c or c,b,a? Writing a blog post allows you to re-live the stories and share that experience with others.

Sarah and Catherine present the Dispatches poster

  1. It allows you to describe an almost magical place that not many people get the opportunity to visit. As field biologists, we are fortunate to be able to visit areas that are restricted to regular foot traffic. If we can share with the public why these areas might need to remain that way due to environmental sensitivity for example, it will increase the public’s understanding more than reading a sign that says do not enter.

 

  1. It allows you to contribute to conservation efforts. If you can teach and show someone about why they should care about a place or a species then they are more likely to!

 

If you’re interested in sharing your fieldwork story, email us at fieldworkblog@gmail.com!

Haaaaapppppy Birthday to you!

canada-159585_1280Today marks the 150th anniversary of confederation in Canada, so happy birthday Canada! Today also marks the third anniversary of our blog and, we kid you not, the 150th blog post on Dispatches from the field! Today I was at a bookstore and I saw a children’s book about Canada and why we love it. It was perfect because it was, for the most part, all nature-related content. It made think about how lucky I am to be a field biologist in Canada. Canadian fieldwork certainly features the most beautiful places, the neatest flora and fauna, the sharpest researchers and an engaged and thoughtful community.

Those of us working here are privileged to have so many different land types – each one beautiful in its own way. Our country stretches from one ocean to the next. Some of us are sticking our hands into the sea bird nests of Haida Gwaii nestled in the Pacific, or frolicking with wild horses on Sable Island in the Atlantic. Others might be roaming the vast open grasslands of the Prairies, looking on into the distance forever, or scampering through lush, enchanting woodlands and forests in awe. And a few lucky ones are able to enjoy the journey across the country in its entirety.

Incredible places are a big reason why Canadian fieldwork is so awesome, but amazing creatures is another one. Just last week, we had a field biologist talk about her incredible work with the Gray Jay: Canada’s national bird, whose distribution spans from coast to coast. And until recently, who knew we had such an incredible diversity of bats! And of course, the icon of the Canadian north, the polar bear, which one of our bloggers had the neat experience of tracking in the Arctic.

And then of course there are the people and the researchers themselves. We have some amazing Canadian scientists doing fieldwork. In fact, our most viewed post of this past year was all about being female in the field. So to all of the wonderful women who have posted their stories over the past 3 years – thank you! I also wanted to take a minute to thank two very special women – my two incredible fellow female Canadian co-founders of Dispatches from the field. For those of you who don’t know, this blog was created over (one too many) drinks at the local campus pub, and here we are with 150 posts and 3 years under our belt. I have loved every minute of working with Sarah and Catherine and couldn’t think of stronger, more inspirational women in science. And of course, I need to send my love to all the other amazing scientists out there, Canadian or not, and let you know just how much we have appreciated you supporting us through this journey, contributing your stories, and reading the blogs we put up each week.

Finally, the community network I’ve noticed doing my fieldwork is something to be jealous of. Just last week Sarah, Catherine and I attended the Queen’s University Biological Station Open House where we chatted with members of the public about our blog, the success we have had and where we see it going in the future. We were met with genuine interest and support from all who spoke with us and were given many well wishes going forward. I can’t tell you how much that means to us. Three years down, and many more to come. From coast to coast, we are wishing everyone a relaxing long weekend and of course a big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Canada and Dispatches from the Field! Cheers to 150 more years and 150 more posts!

The Crossing

With Canada’s 150th birthday around the corner, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Emily Williams to talk about her adventures in Alaska searching for Canada’s national bird, the Gray Jay. For more on why the Gray Jay was chosen for Canada’s bird, check out the Canadian Geographic article. For more about Emily, see her bio at the end of this post!

The last time I had to do a river crossing to access a nest, in 2011, I got the s*%! scared out of me. I managed to make it to the other side only with the help of the hand that grabbed my arm at lightning speed after it was apparent I had lost my footing and was starting to get swept away by the current.

About a month ago, I had to face the fear I’d been harboring since that experience. Compounding this fear was the knowledge that I was residing in a place well known for its fast-flowing, muddied, arctic-temperature waters, where everyone has a story of someone they know that wasn’t so lucky during a seemingly harmless packrafting or fishing trip. If there’s one thing I learned when I was last in Alaska nearly ten years ago that hasn’t changed, it’s this: respect this land, be prepared, and have the humility to know that you are a small, fragile human in a large, harsh, and unforgiving landscape.

Banding a chick

Placing unique combinations of color bands on the legs of Gray Jay nestlings allows us to identify each individual from each nest. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

In the middle of May this year, I was wrapping up my first Gray Jay field season and monitoring the last remaining nests that still had nestlings. There was just one nest left to band nestlings at, but it had been eluding me for days. While we generally try to check nests every few days, 10 days had passed since this nest had last been checked. I had the gut feeling that the nestlings hadn’t fallen prey to a predator, because I kept seeing the parents nearby, acting suspicious. But the problem was, when we found the nest back in late March, we had easily accessed it by crossing a frozen creek. Now it was mid-May, and the nest was still across a creek – a creek that was raging at high levels due to the runoff from all the snow we received this winter.

Gray Jay chick in hand

This little guy will be known as WW-OS. WW stands for “white-white” on the right leg, and OS stands for “orange-silver” on the left leg. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

I had hiked down to the creek a couple of times already, hoping the water levels had gone down, but to no avail. The next option was to try to access the nest from the other side of the creek. This involved a long six miles of bushwhacking through thick willow and alder, culminating in the realization that that route led us to a place where the creek forked, which took us further away from our goal. The final option was to try to cross the creek.

With three intrepid Gray Jay thrill seekers and two ladders

Measuring length of leg with caliper

In addition to color banding, we conduct standard morphometric measurements of the nestlings to compare growth rates across nests. NPS Photo/Devdharm Khalsa

– one to try to cross the creek with, the other to climb up to the nest – in tow, I set out to face this obstacle head on. A few attempts at extending the ladder across the creek and onto the other side ended without coming any closer to achieving a viable crossing – the 25-ft extension ladder just wasn’t long enough.

 

We then scoured up and down the creek sides, looking for a better passage that didn’t seem so swift or deep. After several minutes, we found the spot: the eddies didn’t look nearly as fast or scary, and there was a tree hanging over the width of the creek, offering a steady hand rail for our passage.

large ladder leaning against the tree

Not only did we have to cross the creek, but we also had to lug this big ladder with us. We have to use extension ladders to access the nests, which are often over 20 feet high. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

Doing all the things they teach you about swiftwater crossings – wearing life jackets, attaching ourselves to a rope that another held onto from solid ground, using trekking poles to stabilize us, and crossing together, two sets of feet moving in tandem – we waded into the current, one step at a time. Several nervous, adrenaline-pumping minutes later, we made it to the other side.

All social niceties thrown aside, I let out a huge “Whoop!” of relief, allowing all that adrenaline coursing through my veins to slowly seep out into a feeling of triumphant euphoria, knowing I had conquered my long-held fears. It’s amazing how a few nerve-wracking moments can end in such an enormous natural high.

holding 4 nestlings in hand

These nestlings may have been the hardest to get to, but seeing all four little fluff balls sitting there in the nest begging for food made it all worth the effort. NPS Photo/Julien Appignani

After crossing, we gathered our equipment and proceeded towards the nest. And what do you know? We found that nest full of expectant, 13-day old nestlings, throwing their mouths open with reckless abandon in the hopes of being fed a tasty morsel.

This nest, pardon my French, was a b%#*! to get to. But seeing all four of those fluff balls sitting there, as if they were waiting on us this whole time, (“it took you long enough!”) made it all worthwhile.

 

 

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