Squirrel Chatter

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

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

tree line with mountains in the background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lynx in a tree

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

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

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

baby squirrel in hand with green ear tag

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

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

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

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

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


Sarah Westrick

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


An ode to the boreal forest

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Julia Shonfield, who shares some of her stories about working in Alberta’s beautiful boreal forest.

Helicopter flight in

Sitting up front with the pilot; can’t complain about our mode of travel from site to site!

I could hardly contain my excitement as I started to feel the ground pull away as we lifted up into the air. I’ll never forget that feeling as we zoomed over the tops of the trees. It was my first time in a helicopter, and I was being flown out to a remote field site somewhere north of Fort Chipewyan in northeastern Alberta. Our map had some small white patches, which it turned out were large patches of white lichen on the ground. The area was rocky with jack pine trees scattered across the landscape. This area is part of the Canadian Shield, which stretches across much of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but only reaches a small corner of Alberta. The pilot brought the helicopter down, and I awkwardly climbed out and felt the dry lichen crunch under my feet. I felt ridiculous wearing a pair of chest waders, but I had been warned that most of the natural open areas where the helicopter could land would be wet.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

That was the summer I did field work by helicopter for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) in northeastern Alberta. I got flown in to each site with my field partner and we’d set up our tents in the middle of nowhere, wake up early the next morning and survey birds, plants, and trees, and take soil samples. The next couple sites after that first one had wetter landing areas, but the water was still not very deep. I decided to take a risk and wear my rubber boots instead of my chest waders in the helicopter. The first few days of any field work project can be tricky and stressful as you try to figure out what clothing and equipment works and what doesn’t. A few days in, I thought I had figured it out – and then we landed at one particular site and I watched my field partner, Bryce, get out of the helicopter and sink up to his mid thighs in water. He was at least a foot taller than me, and I groaned as I stepped out of the helicopter, flooded my rubber boots and continued to sink nearly up to my waist. But that’s the thing about doing field work in the boreal forest: you never really know what to expect and what you’ll encounter out there. The boreal forest is incredibly varied and probably a lot more so than many Canadians realize.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

This was not my first time doing field work in the boreal forest. I had previously worked on a forestry project in northern Ontario doing small mammal live-trapping for a couple summers. I also spent a few seasons working on the Kluane Red Squirrel project in the Yukon for my Master’s work on territorial behaviour of red squirrels. But it wasn’t until I worked for ABMI that I fully realized just how varied and truly spectacularly the boreal forest is. That’s not to say that the boreal forest in Ontario and the Yukon is all the same, but those projects specifically targeted certain habitats: in Ontario the project was on the impact of forestry practices on mixedwood forests, and the project in the Yukon targeted preferred red squirrel habitat (white spruce forests). The variation of the boreal forest was likely less apparent to me when I worked in Ontario and the Yukon because there wasn’t the same range of variation across the study sites within each project. The study sites for ABMI were randomly selected, and no two sites that summer were exactly the same.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire and water play huge roles in shaping the landscape of the boreal forest, and those forces were evident almost everywhere I looked. The sites I surveyed that summer ranged from very dry jack pine forest to wet bogs and very wet fens, and from very recently burned forests with lots of standing dead trees to older burned forests where almost all the trees had fallen down.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Some sites were so beautiful I just couldn’t believe they were random dots on a map. My favourite was a sandy site with an open canopy of mature jack pine trees that sloped gently down to a small lake with sandy banks and clear blue water. Others were downright awful; my least favourites tended to be very wet with dense shrubs and patches of burned trees that inevitably would leave me covered in black ash as I tried to navigate around them.

My favourite site, the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

My favourite site: the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta and I’m still just as excited about working in the boreal forest as I was when I started. My project looks at the impacts of industrial noise on several species of owls in northeastern Alberta. The field work involves travelling by snowmobile/ATV and on foot to set up recording units to survey for owls calling over a large area. I continue to be amazed when I get to an area that looks different than any other place I’ve been before. The boreal forest is not that rich in species diversity, but a surprising number of different combinations and configurations can be formed from a limited number of tree and shrub species. The boreal forest is an incredibly fascinating, enjoyable, but tough place to work. It’s not just an endless carpet of coniferous trees, which is often what’s depicted in nature documentaries. Few people dream about working in Canada’s boreal forest and it doesn’t have quite the same allure as exotic and tropical locations, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences in the boreal for anything!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

Shonfield_Profile PicJulia Shonfield is currently a PhD candidate in Erin Bayne’s lab in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her PhD project is on the effects of industrial noise on owls in northeastern Alberta. Follow her on twitter @JuliaShonfield for updates on field work, owls and bioacoustics. The Bayne lab also has a lab blog (http://wild49.biology.ualberta.ca/) and a twitter account (@Wild49Eco).