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.

A quick brown fox jumps over the cormorant nests

One week before I officially started a Ph.D., I was already preparing to go into the field. Since I had done fieldwork in a bird colony before, I knew what to expect. I wasn’t fazed when my supervisor warned, “Make sure to bring clothes that you’re willing to get poop on, a wide brimmed hat so you don’t get poop on your face, and ear plugs.” Despite the common theme in his warnings, I was still overly stoked to be going back out to the field. I think one of the biggest perks of going into the field as a biologist is the chance to get your hands dirty.

I was feeling confident about the fieldwork this time around. I had my bags packed – sunscreen (check!), snacks (check!), extra socks (check!), and binoculars (check!). I was prepared and feeling good. The field team took the boat out for the first test ride of the season and everything went smoothly. All was fine. What possibly could go wrong?

items in my field bag

All the essential items for fieldwork. Especially the snacks – can never have enough!

As you read this, you are probably shaking your head and thinking, “Shouldn’t have said that…”

It was a beautiful day in late April. The wind was a little chilly, but nothing a few clothing layers couldn’t solve. The sun was shining, making the lake sparkle with an invitation to jump in. The colony we were headed towards was only just outside the harbour, which made for a very short boat ride to enjoy the weather but a long enough ride to bring my excitement to a peak. This colony was known to have one of the highest densities of nesting cormorants in Lake Erie, so there were bound to be enough nests with eggs for my project.

Almost right after leaving the dock we could see there were adult cormorants gathered in the centre of the island, which was a good sign. We drove the boat up closer to the island, as close as we could get without grounding ourselves on large rocks and piercing a hole in the bottom, then dropped anchor and climbed ashore. (This all sounds very streamlined, but in fact it took about 30 minutes to unload all of our gear while wading in knee deep water wearing oversized survival suits. Not the easiest of tasks.)

Cormorants gather in the middle of the island.

Finally, we grabbed the pelican cases that we would use to carry the eggs we collected and headed over the edge of the rock pile towards the centre of the island. As we approached the colony, the adults flew off their nests into the nearby water as they usually do. Only this time, when we looked at the nests they had just left, there were no eggs!

Baffled, we spent several minutes observing the empty nests. There weren’t even any signs of broken egg shells, a normal result of predation. But then as we stood there, a small fox scurried right past our feet and through the cormorant nests to the other side of the island.

“Well…that can’t be a good sign,” my supervisor said. With the empty egg cases in hand, we walked back to the water and started the process of reloading the boat.

It is still a mystery what happened on that island. Was the fox able to steal and cache every egg that the cormorants laid? Or did the presence of the fox on the island scare the cormorants enough that they did not reproduce in the first place?

All I know is the next time I need to go collect eggs, I should hire a fox as an assistant.

Close encounters of the bird kind

This week, Dispatches from the Field is thrilled to welcome Dr.  Bob Montgomerie as our guest blogger.  Dr. Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University, and his fieldwork has taken him on adventures all over the world.  Below, he shares one of those adventures with us.

I go into the field to do research for three different reasons. The first is, understandably, to collect data to test hypotheses that interest me. The second is to help graduate students and colleagues with their research, to widen my experience and help me better understand their findings. The third is just to get close to species that I have read about and to see them in action, in part so I can write with more authority about the published literature. This is a story about a close encounter of the third kind.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored in red.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored (red).

I went to Ecuador in February to lecture to some Queen’s alumni on a Galápagos cruise. En route I went to the Andes for a few days before the cruise to work with a colleague, and to see some iconic Andean birds with unusual morphologies: Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, and Club-winged Manakins.

My old friend Dave McDonald (Univ Wyoming) was in Ecuador on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, and he generously offered to show us around. Dave is Dr Manakin, having done his PhD at the University of Arizona on Long-tailed Manakins and continued to study that group for his entire career. We began our trip with the (almost unbelievable) Sword-billed Hummingbird early the first morning at the Yanacocha Natural Reserve (altitude 3500 m) near Quito.  On Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 Feb), we settled into the eponymous Mirador Río Blanco lodge, overlooking the valley of the Río Blanco below. From there, we would have easy access to both the hummingbird and the umbrellabird in the next couple of days.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

The next morning, we went to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1100 m) for the manakin. Dave and his students have been studying manakins here for years but it is also a great place to watch hummingbirds, which we did for most of the morning. Just as we finished lunch, Dave got a call from a friend to say that he was needed in Nanegalito, so he left for a few hours to deal with that, leaving us to find the manakins on our own. “It’s easy,” he said, “just go about 30 minutes down the trail and take the first side trail to the left, then down to the bottom of the hill and the birds will be somewhere near the first sharp corner.”  Even if we failed he’d be back in time to show us the birds. And how could we possibly fail? My friend Tim and I had been studying birds in the field for more than a century in total.

Our trek down the trail was magical with birds and anticipation. Just as we arrived at the spot that Dave had described, we heard the tell-tale tuk-tuk-zzzzing of the male’s display. This was the courtship display so beautifully described just a few years ago by Kim Boswick. Using high speed video she discovered that the males the zzzzing sound by rubbing their wing feathers together at more than 100 times a second. It is also the species that apparently revealed the secrets of sexual selection to Rick Prum (2017. The Evolution of Beauty. Yale Univ Press).

At last we could witness this display first-hand…but where was the bird? Even though he tuk-tuk-zzzzinged every 30 seconds or so, and seemed to be less than 3 m away, we simply could not find him. Was the bird ventriloqual? Was he hiding in the dense foliage? And then, after 10 tantalizing minutes, he stopped.

We had the same experience further down the trail, with probably another male. Frustrated by this little bird, and by Dave for not giving us better instruction, we decided to head back to the trail head to wait for Dr Manakin’s return.

As we passed that first spot, we again heard a tuk-tuk-zzzzing  on the other side of the trail and higher up—but the bird was still invisible. By triangulating we eventually found him high on a bare branch amidst the dense foliage about 10 metres away. He called a few more times then disappeared, only to return again every few minutes to resume his displays. Such fidelity to display sites is typical of lekking male birds.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

After taking a few photos, I went back to where we had first heard a male tuk-tuk-zzzzinging. As soon as I stepped off the trail into the dense underbrush, a female landed right in front of me, less than 2 metres away. Almost immediately she was joined by two males who both tuk-tuk-zzzzinged before they saw me and spooked, disappearing into the forest.

tuk-tuk-zzzing

“tuk-tuk-zzzing”

When we returned to the trailhead, Dave was there, smiling when we told him our story. I think he knew that finding elusive species on your own is way more exciting than being shown by experts. Long before daybreak on the last day a local guide showed us the umbrellabird near a town called ’23 de Junio’ (about 1000 m), halfway down the western slope of the Andes. The males of this species also lek, but they were relatively inactive that morning and visible only through a telescope in the dense early morning fog. We had achieved all of our goals, but the manakin was the most memorable, in part because it was the hardest work.

Morning has broken (me)

When the repetitive beeping of my alarm rouses me, it seems like the punchline of an exceptionally cruel joke.  The room is pitch black; the glowing red numbers on the clock read 3:00 am.  I know I need to get out of bed if I’m going to make it to the field site for sunrise… but the sheets feel like they’re made of Velcro, pulling me back down every time I make a move to get up.

When I finally do manage to put my feet on the floor and stand upright, I’m as uncoordinated as drunk toddler.  I stumble around my room with my eyes half closed.  Despite the fact that I always lay my clothes out neatly the night before, getting dressed seems to take twice as long as it should.  I drop items of clothing, tie my hiking boot laces wrong, and even occasionally try to put both my feet into the same pant leg.

It doesn’t get any easier when I finally get myself out the door.  The world is eerily quiet and still at 3 am.  The occasional person I do encounter looks startled to see me, and often avoids my eyes.  It’s very clear that anyone with any sense is sleeping, and it’s hard not to let my thoughts drift back to the warmth and comfort of my covers.  I aim myself directly towards the nearest source of caffeine – but as I move farther away from my bed, I can feel myself getting crankier.

 

People who know me often ask why I choose to work with birds.  After all, I’m the first to admit that I am the opposite of a morning person.  So what on earth possessed me to study animals that start their day long before the sun has properly risen – and even have the gall to greet the dawn with a song?

It’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer.  And it’s been on my mind a lot this summer, because I’m back in the field for the first time in several years.  Each day, as I drag myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, every cell in my body resisting, I find myself seriously questioning my life choices.  (In my defence, I’m not sure being a morning person would make a difference, because frankly 3 am can’t be considered ‘morning’.)

But over the past few weeks, I’ve realized something.  I can’t deny that I really hate getting out of bed before the sun.  But I also can’t deny that once I’m up, I’m glad to be awake.

The day has a very different feel first thing in the morning.  The world is new and fresh, and there’s a sense of infinite possibility.  The entire day stretches ahead like a blank canvas, as yet unmarred by the small disappointments and frustrations that inevitably pile up over the hours.  As I drink my coffee and watch the sun peek over the horizon, I feel like I can do almost anything.  It’s exhilarating…and perhaps even worth the struggle it takes to get myself there each day.

Nevertheless: on my days off, I’m more than happy to let the sun win the race!

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back another familiar guest blogger: Kim Stephens, a graduate of Queen’s University who now works for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust.  Kim shares with us the importance of citizen science and some of the many opportunities for citizen scientists to get out in the field!

I’m flipping the blog this week: instead of bringing the field experiences to the community, I’m aiming to bring the community to the field! Since finishing my undergrad, I’ve moved into the environmental not-for-profit world, working at the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust as a ‘BioBlitz Coordinator’.  My job involves planning events which teach the public about species found in their area, while giving them an opportunity to interact with local flora and fauna in the field.

The aptly-named violet coral fungus.

I love BioBlitzes! They’re a great way to get outdoors, explore nature, and learn about the species found in different habitats. Here’s what happens: over a 24 hour period, taxonomic experts and volunteers work in small groups to complete a full biological inventory of a property, identifying all the birds, trees, insects… you get the drift. BioBlitzes have taken Ontario and Canada by storm, with dozens of them taking place across the country last year for Canada’s 150th.  The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust hosted three BioBlitzes last year, and identified over 700 species in total! It’s a great way for volunteers to contribute to the knowledge that organizations need to direct management activities – and it’s also extremely fun! From exploring the leaf litter to find a violet coral fungus, to trying to spot an Eastern Wood-pewee calling in the forest, or sneaking up on a butterfly or dragonfly to catch and identify it, there’s something for everyone. With an estimated 140,000 species in Canada, only half of which have been identified, there are always new species to learn about and discover. Which will you find at a BioBlitz?

Although BioBlitzes are relatively new, having started in the late 1990s in the United States, ‘citizen science’ initiatives have been around for over 100 years. Simply put, they are ways for the general population to contribute data to scientific projects, and often require little more than a smartphone by way of equipment. There are many initiatives available for you to get involved in, whether you want to attend an event locally, or contribute data to provincial, national, or global projects.

Below are just some of the many other ways to get involved in citizen science.

Join me in the field:

Christmas Bird Count

A male and female downy woodpecker spending a cold winter morning together.

Last December, I participated in my first (and second) CBC. This annual bird census is administered by the National Audubon Society and has been around for over 100 years. For several chilly hours we hiked through conservation areas and drove through the countryside, counting every single bird we saw or heard in a pre-set 24km diameter circle. I was paired with birders who were far more experienced in identification than me. They took me under their wing and taught me tricks for remembering ID features. Once I was more confident in my skills, they encouraged me to try them out, confirming the correct IDs. It’s amazing to think that the species I saw on one winter day – as well as the species I should have seen but didn’t – could contribute to peer-reviewed scientific articles. I can’t wait to participate again next season.

Continue the research at home:

iNaturalist

I love getting out into the field and learning about what’s out there. During my undergraduate research project, in addition to measuring plants, I met a grey rat snake, lots of snapping and painted turtles, spiders, birds, and more. That summer, I snapped endless pictures of critters I either found fascinating or hadn’t encountered before. I was taking pictures because I loved doing it. But now, with smartphone apps like iNaturalist, anyone can take pictures and contribute directly to research, right from their phone! The primary goal of this app is to connect people to nature, and I find it great for those moments when you think: “Look at the cool thing I found… what is it?”. Users can post pictures of the species they see, and other users will add their identification to the picture. So there’s no need to worry: you don’t need to know what you’re taking a photo of. I sure didn’t know what mating adult caddisflies looked like until last summer!

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

Northern map turtles basking in the summer sunshine.

Turtles, frogs, snakes, salamanders and a skink: we have several species of reptiles and amphibians in Ontario, and many are at risk. But the full distribution of some species is unknown. This is not because their habitat doesn’t exist, or there aren’t individuals present, but simply because no one has reported seeing that species in that location. To address this issues, Ontario Nature developed a very useful app – the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (ORAA)– that allows you to report sightings of these species across the province. If you find individuals, reporting them to the ORAA can provide crucial information to help scientists accurately map the distribution of species.

eBird

I’ve picked up a new hobby since participating in the CBC: birding. As of last summer, I could identify about 20 different birds. Over the winter I became confident about a few dozen more. By the end of the year, I’m hoping that number breaks 3 digits. I’ve recently started logging my sightings into eBird, which allows you to submit ‘checklists’ of birds you’ve identified. Whether you went out birding for 4 hours, or watched your feeder for a few minutes, you can report species that you saw on eBird, adding to population and distribution records.  You can even submit reports from a ‘wild goose chase’ – that is, trying to spot a rare bird that is only around by accident, such as a Barnacle Goose.  Although the species is native to Greenland and Europe, I saw the directionally confused individual in the photo below an hour north of Toronto in Schomberg. If you want, you can even make it competitive, by adding to your personal life list. It’s like real-life Pokemon – gotta find them all!

A single Barnacle Goose among hundreds of Canada Geese in Schomberg, ON

I really hope you can join me this summer at a BioBlitz, on a wild goose chase, or digitally on iNaturalist, ORAA, or eBird!

Kim Stephens is a graduate of Fleming College, and Queen’s University, where she researched the relationship between the different metrics of plant body size. She is now working for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, getting people outside to explore and learn about nature. When not in the office or at a BioBlitz, she enjoys directing Quidditch tournaments and trying to photograph every species of butterfly she can find.  Follow her on Twitter at  @kastep15.

Morabeza!

This week, Dispatches is very excited to welcome back guest poster Becky Taylor – who has become Dr. Taylor since we last heard from her.  Becky shares with us a true story of surviving a full-fledged fieldwork catastrophe with nothing more than determination and a lot of kindness from strangers.  For more about Becky, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It’s funny how some moments are forever fixed in your mind’s eye, like a snapshot that you can recall in absolute detail. I am standing on a beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, marooned on an uninhabited desert islet in Cape Verde (off the coast of western Africa), with two other people and no possessions but the clothes on our backs (and a bottle of Cape Verde wine), gazing at the carnage that was our campsite. How, you may ask, did I find myself in this situation?

The isolated beaches of Cape Verde are a beautiful place to work…and a frightening place to be marooned.

I don’t want this post to be in any way negative about Cape Verde itself. Quite the contrary. It is by far one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I have ever been to, and the sheer kindness of the people who live there was not only welcoming from the minute I arrived, but a life saver when things didn’t go to plan. They have a saying in Cape Verde: ‘Morabeza’! From what I understand, it translates as ‘treat guests exactly as family’…and that is exactly what they did.

I travelled to Cape Verde during my Ph.D., for which I was studying genomic variation in band-rumped storm-petrels. These are small, nocturnal seabirds that breed on remote islands, and a population of particular interest to me lives on some of the small islets in Cape Verde. I travelled first to Fogo Island, one of the bigger inhabited islands, to plan for field work and meet up with my wonderful field leader, Herculano, the manager of Parque Natural de Fogo.

Pico do Fogo

While we were planning our work, Herculano took me to Pico do Fogo, the active volcano that gives the island its name. It is an area of stunning beauty, and I had the opportunity to hike on the lava field and go caving through lava flow tunnels. While on Fogo, I also swam in a beautiful lagoon, enjoyed the soft black sand beaches, sampled wine in the local winery, and ate fried eel (which is actually very good)! There are few tourists who visit Fogo island, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets!!

Our campsite home on Ilheu de Cima.

After sightseeing and gathering supplies, it was time to start fieldwork! We needed to catch storm-petrels on a small islet called Ilheu de Cima. As Cima is nothing but rock and a string of beaches, we had to bring all of our supplies with us, including food and water. Herculano arranged for some local fisherman to drop the three of us (himself, my field assistant and childhood bestie Freyja, and me) off on Cima with our camping supplies. And for the first few days we enjoyed our own little island paradise.

By day we would explore the small islet, trying to find some shelter from the sun, although shade was very hard to come by. Luckily I like hot weather, so I was thoroughly enjoying the heat and our many private beaches.

All ready for action: Freyja and Herculano with our mist net.

As the storm-petrels are nocturnal, we would hike to the nesting colony before sunset, scramble down a rock face on the far side of the 1km islet, and set up our mist net to catch birds as they flew to and from their rock crevice nests. Usually we would catch birds until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before packing up and hiking back to camp. As it was September we were fortunate enough to be there during the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, and we (very quietly) would watch females lay their eggs as we wound down from our work!

It all sounds amazing, right? Too good to be true, I suppose. One night, after a really great night of sampling, we hiked back to camp to find….well…no camp.

All that remained of our campsite…

And that brings us to the point at which I started my story. We stood on the beach realizing that our entire camp was gone (aside from that one bottle of wine, which had somehow survived). We can’t be 100% sure what happened, but it looked like a big wave came in and washed everything out to sea. Bits of debris were scattered across the beach, and our tents (which we had anchored with boulders) were gone – along with everything that was inside. And obviously when you are camping on an uninhabited islet, there is no one to steal your possessions, and so you don’t mind leaving everything in your tent. For example, your passport, money, bank cards, and ID’s. Damn.

Can’t complain about the view…

So what do you do in that moment? Well, we sat on top of the islet, watched one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and swigged from the wine bottle, feeling defeated. Thankfully we had kept our phones on us and so could call for help.  Eventually, we managed to get hold of the fisherman, who rescued us that afternoon.

Back on Fogo, Freyja and I realised we were now in a foreign country with no way of accessing money or identifying ourselves. We relied on the kindness of Herculano, his family, and the other locals, to provide food and shelter (and some spare clothes). Without their help I don’t know what we would have done. It was a big learning experience for me, accepting so much from people I hardly knew. Morabeza indeed!

Freyja and I are both British citizens, but there is no British consulate in Cape Verde, so the British consulate communicated with the Portuguese consulate to provide us with temporary travel documents. Eventually, with the concerted efforts of a whole host of people, we managed to arrange our way back home. (It took a few days, though, by which point we were looking particularly haggard). At the time I was pretty traumatised, feeling like the whole experience had been a complete disaster. However, looking back I learnt a lot from it. Possessions can be replaced; the fact that we were safe was all that really mattered. And I will never be too proud to accept help when I need it.

I don’t regret my time on Cima: it was a unique experience and a wonderful place to have spent some time (not to mention a great story).

Plus, the samples we had collected that night were still in my bag, and thankfully provided enough material for me to sequence the storm-petrels’ DNA and finish my research project!

Cima has a unique combination of both black and white sand beaches. The wind mixes the two together in some places to create beautiful marbled beaches.

 

I would like to dedicate this story to Herculano, Emily, Bianca, and the rest of their family for their help and kindness, to Freyja for being a great person to go through a disaster with, and to everyone who was involved in helping to find us money and a way home.

Dr. Becky Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, after which she spent two years as a researcher for the conservation charity Wildscreen. She then completed her Master’s degree in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. During her M.Sc. she became passionate about wildlife genetics as a tool to study evolutionary questions but also for conservation purposes. This led her to undertake her Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Ontario, studying genomic variation in the Leach’s and band-rumped storm-petrel species complexes. She completed her Ph.D. in 2017 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, undertaking further work with the band-rumped storm-petrels and a few other wildlife genetics projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeckySTaylor.

The things we do…

My advisor has always maintained that a field crew runs on its stomach.  In other words, well-fed field assistants are much happier and much more productive – not to mention much less likely to mutiny.

There is no doubt that this is true.  Trying to run a field crew without an adequate supply of coffee, chocolate, or wine is an enterprise doomed to failure.  But – at the risk of disagreeing with my advisor – I would argue that food alone is not enough.

Spending time in the field often leads to awe-inspiring experiences, like the moment when you come face to face with a lynx or watch a fierce lightning storm at sea from the safety of a remote island.  But in between those moments, if we’re being honest, field work can be pretty tedious.

And if it’s tedious as a graduate student – when your entire thesis depends on the data you collect – it’s a hundred times more tedious for your assistants.  Field assistants are expected to work long hours, rain or shine, for weeks on end without a break.  So as a boss, keeping morale up can be a huge challenge, and when you have a chance to provide some fun for your assistants, you really have to take it.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I ended up lugging a dead beaver up a mountain.

 

Let’s back up a step, so I can set the scene.  It was the first field season of my PhD, and my field assistant and I had spent half of January driving across a large chunk of the continent, ending up at an old, somewhat isolated house in the southern Okanagan Valley.  The house was large, drafty, and empty, and our days were spent trekking through the snow and waiting around in the cold in a (largely futile) attempt to catch bluebirds.  Every night, we came home, made dinner, and then went to sleep.  It was not the kind of field work you write home about.

Our cozy field home in the Okanagan.

But my field assistant – being a nature-loving type – was prepared to make his own fun.  He had brought with him a game camera, which he intended to mount on a tree to take automatic motion capture pictures of the local wildlife.  During our first week in BC, he trekked up the mountain behind our house and spent hours looking for the perfect spot to leave it – hoping to capture a black bear or maybe even an elusive mountain lion.

Unfortunately, when he went back a week later, the camera had not taken a single photo.  Undaunted, he decided that the logical course of action was to use bait.  At first, he contented himself with scraps from our kitchen, hiking up the mountain regularly to drop them in front of the camera.  And indeed, the camera did capture photos of the occasional crow or raven checking out his offerings.  But no bear or cougar appeared, much to his disappointment.  He started talking about finding something better to bait the camera with.

And then – lo and behold – as we returned home one grey winter afternoon, he spotted the ‘perfect’ bait.  A dead beaver lay at the side of the road right beside our driveway, the clear victim of a fast-moving vehicle.

My field assistant was completely ecstatic, but I wasn’t entirely convinced: I couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden appearance of a beaver halfway up a mountain, several kilometers away from any water, might be more puzzling than enticing for any lurking bears or cougars.

But then I thought about how limited opportunities for fun had been so far.  And I thought about how excited he was.  And – against my better judgement – I found myself offering to help him lug the beaver up to his camera.

The first step was to wrestle the body into a garbage bag, to facilitate transport.  But this was not a small beaver, and coaxing it into the bag was…challenging.  By the time all of its limbs had been stuffed inside, I was sweating – and starting to regret my offer.

Then we started up the hill, each grasping one end of the bag.  It rapidly became apparent that beavers are not particularly light animals.  We staggered along, panting, the thin plastic slipping out of our awkward grasp frequently.

We hadn’t made it more than a few hundred yards before we concluded that another approach was required.  We decided the best approach was to take turns dragging the beaver.  Of course, the side of a mountain isn’t known for smooth passage, and the garbage bag – never particularly sturdy – became progressively more torn and tattered as we struggled towards our destination.  A paw appeared out one corner; a glimpse of tail was visible through another rip.

In the end, our gruesome task took us almost two hours.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to drop something as I was to let go of that bag when we finally reached the camera.

And the result of all this work?  Well, as far as I can remember (although to be honest, I’ve tried pretty hard to block the memory out), the camera failed to capture a single animal coming to check out the beaver; indeed, when my assistant climbed the mountain a week later, the body was still completely undisturbed.

But hey.  At least I got to feel like a good boss.

Not a Foreign Field

This week we are thrilled to welcome Pratik Gupte to the blog. Pratik is a research assistant at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. For more about Pratik, see the end of this post. 

Last autumn, I was on the River Ijssel in the Netherlands looking for something – or someone – pretty specific. White-fronted goose No. 34 was somewhere close by and I was in the process of tracking her down. She didn’t look very pleased when I found her, but I dare you to try travelling a couple thousand kilometres from Russia on your own power while wearing a GPS transmitter and look happy at the end of it.

Though it could have been, this isn’t a story full of exotic locations, harsh conditions, and action-packed days, telling the tale of how this bird got her tag (mostly because National Geographic, which funded the expedition, owns the rights to this Russian part of the story). Instead, the point I want to get across is that the process of collecting data that helps answer important and/or interesting questions doesn’t have to conform to the general public or even other biologists’ idea of fieldwork1.

For my master’s thesis, I joined Andrea Kölzsch at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany and Kees Koffijberg of the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology, to study the winter distribution of migratory geese in western Europe. Most of my data were from flock censuses done by citizen scientist volunteers, so I set off for Holland and the Rhinelands of Germany to take a look at how these censuses were done. The idea was to identify issues in sampling that could affect analysis, and to log a few flocks myself. This is one of the major ways in which data scientists get to go outdoors (and a popular one).

I was prepared for conditions like I’d encountered in Russia that summer: open tundra and skittish geese – hard to spot, let alone count. But western Europe is human dominated, and geese are accustomed to people. Most of our observations were literally in farmers’ fields. Often, geese were just a few hundred metres from wind turbines or power plants.

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All the dull colours in the world won’t help you hide if your field car is this yellow. Luckily, it
doesn’t always matter.

Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on the origin of the idea of fieldwork and how local sites are great.

One of our three datasets included many thousands of records of goose flocks and individually marked birds. But when broken down over 17 winters, the average volunteer (75 were listed in the data) would need to find only a couple of flocks each winter. Most of the volunteers were a bit older, armed with a love for birds, some spare time, and a telescope and notebook. Some, like Kees (who’s also the census coordinator), roll around the countryside on their bicycles.

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A small flock of greylag geese (Anser anser) rests as a farmer works in the Netherlands. Field sites don’t have to be exotic, good data can come from anywhere.

Field data collection stories are often biased towards the exciting, the novel, and the harsh. But this represents only one aspect of the assignments biologists undertake outside the office or lab. A lot of fieldwork happens in everyday settings, with average equipment and transport. It happens in full view of locals. It could easily involve your neighbour, who does it as a hobby, or as a way to contribute to our understanding of the world. For example, it was the collective effort of dedicated citizen scientists like Thijs de Boer and Jan Kramer (who showed me around Friesland) chipping in over many years that provided most of my data.

So if you’re a student considering whether the ‘field’ is for you, or a member of the public wondering how you can contribute, remember: field biologists don’t always drop from helicopters, catch animals, or trudge through the desert (though I’ll admit to having done all three). Instead, we often work pretty close to home, and we need people like you to help out. There’s always a way to get involved, and often more than one way to get data. If you see a team doing something interesting, stop and ask: more likely than not, they’ll be happy to share what they’re doing with you.

 

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Pratik Gupte is a research assistant in Maria Thaker’s Macrophysiology Lab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Pratik studies the movement and physiology of elephants in response to water sources in South Africa. This follows his master’s thesis work at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Germany, on spatial patterns and movements of migratory geese in western Europe. Pratik can be found on Twitter at @pratikr16.