Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

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Algonquin Adventures

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Alex Sutton, a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada to share his adventures chasing Canada Jays in the beautiful Algonquin Park. For more about Alex, check out his bio at the end of this post!

One of the things I enjoy most about field work is being immersed in an environment every day, and, as a result, having the opportunity to see things that many others do not get to experience. Over the past four years I have been lucky enough to spend countless months following Canada jays (formerly known as gray jays) throughout Algonquin Provincial Park in central Ontario.

Russ Rutter, a former chief park naturalist, first started studying Canada jays in Algonquin in 1964. He was interested in understanding the natural history of this fascinating bird and was one of the first people to use colour-bands as a way to follow individuals throughout their lifetime. After he retired from the park, Dan Strickland, another former chief park naturalist, continued studying the jays, following them throughout the year and collecting information about their nesting behaviour for over 40 years!

This long-term dataset has allowed us to track how the population of Canada jays in Algonquin Park has changed over the last 54 years. Unfortunately, since the 1980’s we have observed a decline of over 50%. The Algonquin population appears to be experiencing more severe declines than other Canada jay populations, which may be because Algonquin Park is at the southern edge of the Canada jay’s range in Ontario. Understanding the drivers of this population decline, the main focus of my PhD research, will hopefully allow us to predict how other populations may respond to climate change.

3 Canada Jay nestlings in hand

These nestlings are all 14 days old and ready to receive colour bands. Photo credit Alex Sutton

To figure out what factors are causing the Algonquin population to decline, we need to follow Canada jays throughout the entire year. In autumn, while enjoying the beautiful fall colours of maples and tamaracks, we determine which territories are occupied and which individuals are present on a given territory. The autumn is an important time of year for a Canada jay because during this time they begin caching food that they will rely on throughout the winter for survival and reproduction. Amazingly, one Canada jay can make thousands of food caches in a day and return to these caches months later! Throughout the autumn, jays will actively seek out humans because they see humans as a good source of food, making it one of the best times to see them (and their colour bands!).

After determining which territories are occupied, we return in the winter to begin monitoring each pair throughout the breeding season. Unlike most other Canadian songbirds, Canada jays begin building nets in late February. This means that for most of the breeding season I travel through the landscape on snowshoes and have to bundle up to brave temperatures as low as -30°C! But despite the cold, there are few things as rewarding as finding jay nests. Sometimes it can take weeks to find a single nest, and it often requires some imaginative use of natural features like beaver dams to avoid getting soakers (when your boots fill with water) in the sub-zero temperatures.

Alex carrying a ladder to a nest. Photo credit Koley Freeman

As winter slowly becomes spring, eggs that have been incubated through freezing temperatures and snowstorms begin to hatch. Once the eggs hatch, we monitor each nest for about two weeks before we return one last time to band the nestlings. We typically carry ladders through the forest and sometimes across frozen rivers to each nest tree. Once the ladder is in place, we carefully scamper up the rungs to collect the nestlings for banding. This is one of the most rewarding parts of the field season, because all the hard work we have put into finding and monitoring each nest has finally paid off with the sight of several fluffy Canada jay nestlings trying their best to emulate Einstein’s signature hair-do.

One of my fondest memories of my time in Algonquin is of banding a nest last spring. The adults were circling around us while we banded their young and the male had a full mouth of food he was bringing back for the nestlings. As he got closer, my colleague held up the nestling being banded. Remarkably, he landed on my colleague’s hand and fed the nestling right then and there! This was the first time I had ever seen something like this and I will remember that moment forever! (Video of this encounter here).

Canada Jay in hand

This young Canada jay has been outfitted with a radio tag. Photo credit Dan Strickland

As spring turns into summer, the young Canada jays begin to fledge from their nests – and my fieldwork continues, as we follow the dispersing fledglings. Beginning in May, I and another PhD student, Koley Freeman, track radio-tagged juveniles while they move around their natal territories. Each radio tag ‘backpack’ emits a unique frequency and allows us to track down birds, even when we cannot see or hear them. After about six weeks, these juveniles start to leave their parent’s territories and disperse across the vast Algonquin landscape. These young birds can travel over 15 km, so to follow them, we need to track them from the air! Being in a plane flying over my study area provides a great perspective of the vastness of the landscape and gives me a new appreciation of how diverse Algonquin is.

Each year in Algonquin has been an exciting experience that has taught me something new. With each passing field season, I learn more about the jays and how they cope with the ever-changing environment. Canada jays are resilient enough to survive harsh boreal winters throughout North America, but climate change is wreaking havoc on their breeding success. Changing fall conditions negatively influence their cached food, contributing to the record low number of nestlings produced that I have observed over the course of the last three field seasons.

The view of a Canada jay territory from the air. Photo credit Alex Sutton

I am lucky to have called Algonquin a home away from home for the past four years, and had so many great experiences in the park. I would like to thank Dan Strickland, all the staff of Algonquin Provincial Park, the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station, and my partner in crime Koley Freeman for helping with field work and making every day in the field more exciting than the last.

For me, the joy of fieldwork comes not only from pushing yourself to learn from and about your study species, but also learning to appreciate the beautiful places that this work can take you. I will always remember the sights and sounds of Algonquin, the Canada jays, and the unexpected experiences I have had over the course of the last four years of fieldwork.

 

Me with the Canada jay – Photo credit Koley Freeman

Alex Sutton is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. During his undergraduate degree, he worked throughout North and Central America studying the population ecology and habitat use of migratory songbirds. If you would like to keep up with his ongoing research follow him on Twitter @Alexsutto.

Life with owls

This week, Dispatches is excited to welcome a good friend of ours, Lauren Meads.  Lauren is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC – and is in the enviable position of working with some of the most charismatic (micro)fauna around.  For more about Lauren and the BOCSBC, check out the bio at the end of the post.

As the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia, I’m often asked how I wound up working in this field. I don’t have a simple answer. My path to this career — which I love — has been somewhat meandering. And honestly… birds?! I never thought in a million years that my passion for birds, specifically owls, would be such an important part of my life.

I’ve always loved animals and growing up had dreams of being a zookeeper. This led me to an undergraduate degree in Biology and then an internship working with exotic cats in the US. To further my career, I went back to school for my master’s degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh. My first job after finishing that program was at a zoo that focused on conservation, which drew me into the world of breeding animals for the purpose of reintroduction into the wild. My expertise in working with mammalian carnivores led me to working with raptors. And from there, I found myself working on the beginnings of the Northern Spotted Owl breeding program in BC.

Remember how I said the route was meandering? Well, after two years working with spotted owls, I decided it was time to move on to another job. During a co-op placement in my undergraduate degree, I had dabbled a bit in lab animal work and I decided to give that a try again. This was a short-lived decision, as I quickly realized that world was not for me. I longed to get back into conservation and working in the wild. Luckily, I had kept in contact with my colleagues from the Northern Spotted Owl project. When I reached out to them, they alerted me to an opportunity to work in the field with burrowing owls. That was ten years ago, in 2008. And ever since then, I have been deeply involved with burrowing owls. First volunteering, and then working in the field monitoring releases, and now overseeing the breeding and reintroduction of a native grassland species throughout British Columbia. As you can tell by the length of time I’ve been working at this job, I finally found my calling working with the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea).

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

I fell in love with burrowing owls as soon as I started working with them. I love how unusual they are among owls. While they do fly, like all owls, they also spend a lot of time on the ground hunting and roosting. They nest underground and are active during both day and night.

Unfortunately, burrowing owls are also currently threatened across North America, and endangered in Canada. Populations in Manitoba have been extirpated, while in Alberta and Saskatchewan they continue to decline.  And where I work, in British Columbia, burrowing owls have been extirpated since the 1980s. While the causes of these dramatic population declines are complex, we do know that losses of burrowing mammals, such as badgers, have played a major role in the owls’ decline.  Despite their name, burrowing owls don’t excavate their own burrows, but instead use those abandoned by other animals – so without animals like badgers, they have nowhere to nest.  Other issues facing the owls include pesticides, increases in populations of aerial predators such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, road construction, and climate change.  Conservation efforts are underway in all four Canadian provinces, as well as several places in the States.

In 1990, volunteers in British Columbia initiated a comprehensive re-introduction program, including three captive breeding facilities, artificial burrow networks and field monitoring research. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (formed in 2000) produces over 100 owls each year to release in the Thompson-Nicola and South Okanagan grasslands of BC. In recent years, improved release techniques have resulted in higher adult survival and greater numbers of wild-hatched offspring with the potential to return in following years.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release. (Photo credit: Mike Mackintosh.)

What my work looks like varies greatly depending on the season. Right now, in winter, I’m busy with the joys of writing reports and grant applications, as well as fixing the breeding facilities, installing artificial burrows in the field, and providing outreach to the public. Come spring, I and a field assistant (more than one, if funding is good!), plus some dedicated volunteers, will check each of the ~600 active burrows across our field sites. Our task is to check each one for owls returning from migration, and to ensure the burrow is in good working condition. In April, we will take the 100 owls bred in our facilities and release them into our artificial burrows. We have placed these burrows on private ranches, land owned by NGOs, Indigenous band lands, and provincial parks. This work requires a LOT of driving — sometimes up to 3-5 hours per day as we go from site to site.

After the release, we continually monitor the nesting attempts of the released owls, as well as those returning from migration, and provide supplemental food to help them raise their chicks. Along the way, we band the young born in the field. We monitor them until they all leave in September and October to head south.

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Where exactly the owls go during the winter is still something of a mystery. We sometimes get reports of sightings of our banded owls, and we also get data from groups in the US and elsewhere in Canada that have deployed satellite tags.  (We’d love to use satellite tracking tags ourselves, but they are expensive, and our organization runs on limited funds!) Based on the information we’ve received, we know that BC owls have been seen throughout the western United States, and most likely spend the winter in Mexico.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of owls that return to BC in the spring; however, currently we still don’t have a self sustaining population.  Our next step is to work on understanding the owls’ migration movements, and determine ways  to increase survivability.  This will involve working across Canada and internationally.

Something else I’m often asked is what the next steps are for burrowing owl conservation. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question either. While there are many organizations dedicated to conserving these unique owls, they all run on limited funds and resources. BOCSBC uses almost all of its funding breeding and releasing owls, as well as creating and maintaining the artificial burrows they use.  Certainly, this is essential for the species’ recovery, but we also need to tackle the many unanswered questions about the causes of their decline before we can hope to reverse it.  At the moment, there’s still so much information we’re lacking, including where the birds’ winter, issues of migratory connectivity, changes in prey availability and shifts in climate across their range.

The path that brought me to working in burrowing owl conservation was unconventional. But ten years into this career, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be!

Photo credit: Lia McKinnon.

Lauren Meads is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC.  She has worked with owls for over 10 years, although she still has a passion cats both big and small.  She lives in the South Okanagan Valley in BC with her husband Tim and their three (small) cats.  To learn more about the ongoing effort to reintroduce burrowing owls in BC, check out this video from Wild Lens.  If you are interested in helping out with this project, you can contact the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC at bocsbc@gmail.com or donate via Canada Helps.

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Dr. Tara Imlay, a recent PhD graduate, swallow conservation expert, and parent. In her post, Tara shares some of the challenges of this kind of multi-tasking – as well as some of its rewards. For more about Tara, see her bio at the end of the post.

Just call me Dr. Mama… after all, my precocious nearly three-year-old does.

Field work was one of my primary considerations when I chose to have a baby during my doctoral degree.  Specifically, I wanted to avoid being in the third trimester during my second field season, and I wanted the baby to be at least six months old during my third field season.  As you can imagine, that left a very small window in which to get pregnant.

Luckily, for me, that wasn’t a big challenge.

Instead, the challenges during my second field season came in the form of prolonged morning sickness, food aversions, exhaustion, and changes to my centre of gravity.  The latter landed me in the hospital after I fell over a bank one morning while mist-netting Bank Swallows.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured – and one of my field assistants now has an amazing response to any interview questions about dealing with unexpected problems in the field!  After that experience, though, I began delegating a lot more field work to my assistants, especially anything involving heights.

Danny demonstrating the safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

Danny demonstrating safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

The challenges in my third field season came in the form of exhaustion from lack of sleep.  At that time, Robin* was still waking up routinely through the night for feedings.  On numerous nights, she was up at 11, again at 2, and my alarm would go off at 3.  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that field season, but somehow we managed to get everything done.

But despite the challenges, there were a lot of amazing moments during those field seasons and the field seasons since.

Moments like sitting in the field banding birds, with a very chubby baby propped up beside me.  Or watching how excited she got over seeing all the birds, cows, sheep, dogs, and anything else that moved at my field sites.

This past year, she’s taken on a more helpful bent in the field: carrying equipment, checking swallow nests, and, her favourite task of all… getting to let birds go after they’ve been captured and banded.

The field team, including its smallest member, busy tagging captured Bank Swallows.

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to manage her short attention spans, and I can’t always bring her with me when I’m in the field.  Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several great people who don’t mind helping out with an inquisitive child, when needed.

But despite the challenges, having a baby during my PhD didn’t affect my ability to finish my degree, and hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other opportunities, both in and out of the field.  Becoming a parent with a busy field schedule isn’t a common occurrence, but if it’s something you want, then you just have to go for it, deal with the challenges as they come, and enjoy the special moments along the way.

*Her middle name, for anonymity when she’s older.

Tara Imlay is a recent PhD graduate from Dalhousie University.  Her PhD and postdoctoral work focuses on the ecology and conservation of four species of swallows throughout their annual cycle.  Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked on various conservation programs for birds and reptiles in Canada, the USA and Mauritius.

The birds and the bees

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Alannah Gallo. Alannah got her start in environmental consulting over the summer, and shares some of her adventures surveying both avifauna and pollinators in western Canada.

As I write this, I am about to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for my last round of pollinator surveys of the year…and I’m so relieved I’ve made it through the field season.

These past few months have been my first exposure to field work. I was fortunate to have two employers willing to share me as I worked on bird surveys for one company, and pollinator surveys for the other. Working two very different jobs at the same time and the huge learning curve that came with both was a lot to take on, but I’m so happy I did. In my bird survey position, I was fortunate to have an amazing and supportive set of coworkers to help me become a better birder. The pollination surveys, though, were a bit more challenging, as I was completely on my own for all the travelling, planning, and surveying I had to do from June to September.

A pollinator visits one of the flowers grown from our seed mixes.

The objective of Operation Pollinator was to measure the effect of pollinator seed mixes on pollinator diversity. Seed mixes were sent to landowners in Northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan who would plant them in sites they had set aside for the project. The idea is that I would have an initial meeting with the landowners, who would show me where they had planted the seed mixes, and then I would visit these sites, along with a control site (i.e., an area where no seed mix was planted), once a month from June to September to survey for pollinator diversity and abundance. There were five pollinator sites and one control in each province, for a total of 18 sites…so it was a lot to handle.

The process of surveying for pollinators is fairly straight forward. I placed pan traps, which are plastic yellow or white bowls filled with water and soap, along transects and waited for insects to fly in. (This works because pollinators are attracted to the colours yellow, and white). I also conducted net sweeps, using a bug net to sweep through the vegetation at each site. Finally, I did visual surveys – in other words, I watched what species visited the flowers from the seed mixes.

A common alpine butterfly captured during a net sweep.

When I got the job, it sounded totally manageable. I was eager to prove myself and set out to do what I could to prepare myself for the field work. I first studied pollinators during my undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, where I took courses on invertebrates and entomology. Then I volunteered with John Swann, the curator of the Entomology Museum at the University of Calgary , who trained me to process and identify specimens. (One of the best things I learned from this training was how to fluff bumblebees – probably one of my favourite things to do!) Once I got the pollinator survey job, I refreshed my knowledge by reading up on the most common species of pollinator in western Canada and creating flashcards for the flowers I was told to focus on when at each of my field sites. I thought I was decently prepared, and ready to tackle this project.

I was so, so, wrong.

Identifying insects in the field was so much more difficult than I had anticipated. Insects at the museum were pinned and sat still, allowing me to focus, use my reference texts, and take my time. Insects in the field…not so much. I had to adapt quickly. Each month also came with a new set of organisms to ID, as both the flowers and the pollinators changed with the season. On top of that, although there was overlap, the biomes of the sites varied significantly across the provinces. In the end, I basically had to re-learn and memorize everything there was to know about pollinators…over, and over, and over again. During each day of surveying I would take photos or sketch doodles of the species I didn’t know and figure out what they were at night in my hotel. Then the next day, I would have to wake up and continue to my next sites. It was exhausting, but so rewarding.

One of my favourite memories of this summer took place at one particularly beautiful (and terribly tick infested) forested site near Erickson, Manitoba in June. I had laid out my pan traps and was waiting for whatever was in the area to land in them while I conducted my visual survey. After a few minutes, I checked on my traps and was surprised to see that a beautiful Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) had been attracted by the colour of the pan trap and fallen inside. I quickly reached in to pull it out, but saw that my trap had soaked and damaged its wings. It needed a safe place to rest while it dried out…so I placed the butterfly on my arm, and it sat there while I continued my work for the next 20 or so minutes. Slowly, its wings dried, and eventually I placed it in some nearby clover. At that point, it was able to fly short distances, so I hope it was okay in the end.

The rescued tiger swallowtail who kept me company for half an hour of fieldwork.

I’ve come so far in four months, and I now have a much better feel for wildflowers and insects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Considering how much I had to deal with, between managing life and working two consulting positions, I’m immensely proud of myself for handling it so well. I want to continue to pursue work in the consulting field, and so I need to become proficient at identifying birds, bees and plants. It’s an exciting journey, and I can’t wait to tackle more work next season and continue to push myself to learn and become an excellent naturalist.

Alannah Gallo is a biologist who works in environmental consulting in Calgary, Alberta. She has just started her Master of Science in Environment Management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia.

 

Seeing the forest AND the trees

Within half an hour of starting my new job, I knew I was in trouble.

I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck driven by my new boss, travelling down an Alberta highway at 110 kilometers per hour.  Every few minutes, without taking his eyes off the road, he would randomly (at least, so it appeared to me) toss out the name of another bird species.

“Hooded merganser.”

“Blue-winged teal.”

“Black tern.”

Most of these species were only names to me.  Given a good bird book, a pair of binoculars, and at least a full minute with a clear view of the bird, I would probably be able to ID them.  But IDing them based on a silhouette glimpsed for a second out the window of a moving truck…it didn’t take me long to conclude that my boss had to be superhuman.  And also that my tenure at this job might be a great deal shorter than I had originally hoped.

 

Having (finally) finished my PhD this past winter, I’m now in the painful stage of figuring out what exactly I want to do with it.  So when I was offered a job as a field tech for a wildlife consulting company in Calgary, I jumped at the chance.  I figured that a decade of doing fieldwork for various degrees would equip me well for the job.  Shows how much I know….

As a grad student, I spent all my time in the field completely focused on my study species (whatever that happened to be at the time).  I’ve put in endless hours catching and banding individual birds, recording their behaviour, and monitoring their reproductive success.  For me, fieldwork has always been narrow in scope, focused on learning every single detail about one very small part of the ecosystem.

Working as a consultant is pretty much the exact opposite: the focus is broad.  No one is interested in the details of each individual bird; what clients want is the big picture.  So instead of spending all my time identifying colour banded individuals, instead I’ve been frantically trying to learn to identify dozens of species by both sight and sound.  (Given that more than 750 bird species breed in North America, you can imagine that the learning curve is pretty steep.)

And the broad focus of consulting extends beyond simply identifying species.  In fact, perhaps the best example of the differences between grad school and consulting is an activity common to both: nest searching.

Grad students studying birds frequently have to find nests in order to measure individuals’ reproductive success.  They need to know who an individual mates with, how many eggs it has, when those eggs hatch, how often (and what) the parents feed the nestlings, and how many of the babies survive and make it out of the nest.

Nest searching is also a common activity for consultants, but with an entirely different focus.  Under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, companies undertaking construction activities during the breeding season are required by law to take steps to avoid disturbing bird nests.  To do so, they hire consultants to map out the location of those nests, so they can be avoided during construction.

But finding a nest – particularly a grassland bird nest – can often take hours and hours of careful observation, lying in the grass and waiting for the birds to get so accustomed to your presence that they’ll bring food to the nestlings even though you’re close enough to see where they land.  Often you’ll be sure that you have the nest pinpointed – but when you leap to your feet and peer into the suspect patch of grass, you’ll find nothing, and have to start from the beginning again.  It can be an incredibly frustrating process, but it’s accepted as par for the course when you’re a grad student.  And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally part the grasses and see the gaping mouths of baby birds begging for food makes it all worth it.

The problem is, in the real world, it’s usually not possible to spend a whole day finding one nest.  As a consultant, you have a given area to search, and a hard deadline: at some point, construction will start, and you need to know where the nests are before then.  So instead of pinpointing nest locations, you’re on the lookout for any sign of breeding in the birds you see – then you watch them for just as long as it takes to approximate the general location of the nest.

When I first started doing nest sweeps as a consultant, I found this incredibly frustrating.  After many years of grad school, I’m used to taking my time, and discovering as much as possible about the birds (and nests) I encounter.  Having to approximate nest location (not to mention the stage of the nest) and then move on immediately to the next one drove me nuts.

But the more I do this job, the more I realize that it’s a trade-off.  I may not know every single detail about the birds I observe, but I’m also learning to recognize many species that I’ve never paid much attention to before.  I can’t tell you exactly where each nest is or how many eggs it has, but I can make an educated guess about how many species are nesting in a given area.  In fact, the more time I spend as a consultant, the more I like it.  The work is challenging, but it’s making me a better birder and a better naturalist.

I can’t deny that I do still miss the detail-oriented focus of graduate fieldwork.  But every once in a while, when it becomes necessary to know exactly where a nest is, I get to use those skills.  And when I do, the moment of discovery is just as satisfying as ever.

Aha! Baby savannah sparrows peering up from their hidden nest.

Back to the drawing board

To summarize my last post, plan A didn’t work out. I bet that most field biologists would nod their head in understanding of that statement as rarely does plan A go as successfully as one would hope. So it was back to the drawing board (we actually did draw out the location of cormorant colonies on the white board in my supervisor’s office!).

What were we going to do next? We decided that with time restraints, we better play it safe and stick with something we knew. We chose a colony that my supervisor had visited year after year and it had never failed him. We also had some insider information from another field biologist who had recently visited the colony that said the birds were being productive in creating nests and laying eggs. So this time it was all going to go as exactly as planned!

The truck loaded up with all of our gear hauling the boat behind.

We checked the weather in the morning as is common practice when you are leaving the shore in a boat. The forecast was not ideal weather for fieldwork but the wind speed was under the threshold for safe boating. We packed up the truck and drove 1.5 hours to the boat launch. As we arrived, a fairly thick fog was rolling in and it was drizzling slightly. The field team agreed that it was still safe to go, so we unloaded all of our gear from the truck into the boat and set sail.

The line is zig zag from the port to the island.

**An artist’s rendition** on the drawing board of the route to the island in the fog.

It was a little surreal being out on the open water without being able to see maybe 20 ft in front of you, let alone the lack of visibility of the shoreline to follow. Luckily we had all the fancy GPS and radar equipment to help position and orient ourselves. However, if you’ve ever tried to rely solely on technology, you’ll notice there is a slight lag time. This means that instead of a straight line to the colony, the route we were taking looked more like a roller coaster – if we were going too far towards the left we would turn right but then would be too far right so we would turn left. This lead to a zig zag pattern towards the island. I wish I could have taken a picture of our route, but unfortunately I was being splashed in the face with cold water while holding onto the boat tightly (perks to being the new member on board!) and did not want to risk falling into the lake.

The extra mileage (and therefore time) that it took us to get to the colony left a lot of time for my supervisor to quiz me with questions about statistics. So fun (said no one ever)! Once we finally made it to the island, I was so happy to be standing on solid ground again, even though I still couldn’t see very far in front of me to know what was ahead.

The island in the fog.

As we walked towards the cormorant colony, we did see birds, nests, and even eggs – what a relief from last time! Unfortunately there still was not enough eggs for my project which meant for another boat ride in the fog to get back to the drawing board.