Nest building

Early one May morning in 2019, I disembarked from the ferry in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, bewildered and discombobulated from too many days of long-distance driving and too little sleep. The previous evening, I had left continental North America behind; however, I still had a long way to go before reaching my new home in St. John’s.

The route from Port aux Basques to St. John’s.

Back when I started planning my inter-provincial move, it seemed an entirely reasonable proposition make the 900 km drive from one end of Newfoundland to the other in a day. Blinking in the cold, salty ocean air that morning, I wasn’t quite as sure. But turning around wasn’t an option, so I filled my travel mug with coffee and climbed back into my car.

However, as the day wore on, it became clear to me that I had severely underestimated the size of my new home. By early afternoon, I was barely at Grand Falls-Windsor (town motto: “Perfectly Centered”). Many hours later, I crossed onto the Avalon Peninsula – only to find an impenetrable fog blanketing the highway. I gripped the wheel a bit tighter as my mind filled with images of moose lunging suddenly into the path of my car.

The sun had long since set by the time I drove into St. John’s. All day, as my tires ate up the miles, my panic had also been ratcheting up. I had moved to Newfoundland to coordinate a breeding bird atlas – a massive citizen science initiative to inventory all the bird species breeding on the island. But as I drove…and drove…and drove…I couldn’t help but think, “We have to atlas all this?”

A very different view.

And my panic went deeper than that. The scraggly fir and spruce trees and quiet waterways scrolling uninterrupted past my window were very different to the deciduous trees, crop fields, and suburbs of southeastern Ontario. The landscape felt very alien, and I felt very out of my depth. It seemed impossible that this place would ever be home.

***

If left to my own devices, I might never have left my apartment. But I had moved to Newfoundland to do a job, and part of that job involved learning what fieldwork in Newfoundland was like. If we were going to ask citizen scientists to brave the island’s bogs, forests, and windswept cliffs, it seemed only fair to understand what we were asking of them.

Where’s Waldo?

And so, less than a month after arriving, I found myself setting up camp on a small island off the north coast, spending my days plunging my arm into underground burrows, groping blindly for Leach’s storm petrels, and my nights untangling them from mist nets by the dozens. A few weeks after that, I perched on the edge of a precipice at Cape St. Mary’s, staring at northern gannet nests until my eyes crossed and my vision blurred. (Magic eye pictures are nothing compared to trying to find a particular nest among hundreds packed onto a rock ledge.) And shortly after that, I was in a helicopter, heading out to the rugged backcountry of Gros Morne National Park.

***

Yup.

And suddenly a year had passed, and I found myself right back where I started. After a long day on the road, my car was suddenly encased in fog. Between the dark and the dense air, it was impossible to see more than a few meters ahead; I crept along at a snail’s pace just in case a moose suddenly got the urge to cross the road. Our headlights lit up two words painted onto a rock by the side of the road: “Fog off”. I couldn’t have agreed more.

The parallels were striking. But over the year, many things had changed

“You know, it’s a mistake to think of Newfoundland as a terrestrial place,” said my friend from the passenger seat. “It’s half marine, at least at times like now. That fog? That’s the ocean paying us a visit.” I couldn’t decide whether that made the fog more benign or less.

My friend and I were on the first leg of an epic journey to survey for birds in some of the farthest flung places on the island. In planning for the trip, we decided to target locations citizen scientists would be unlikely to get to. In other words, we picked a few peninsulas and followed them right to the end.

A perfect day for a dip in the ocean.

And so my second summer in Newfoundland consisted of exploring some of the small towns, dirt roads, and hidden gems of the island’s interior, serenaded by the omnipresent “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada” of white-throated sparrows. From an ocean dip in St. Alban’s, to the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted in Grand Falls-Windsor (they should put that in their town motto!), to exploring an enchanted little park in Summerford, it was the kind of trip that can make you fall in love with a place.

I’ve often said that fieldwork offers a unique opportunity to get to know a landscape. But I don’t think I realized just how true that is until I moved here. Over the last year and a half, fieldwork has given me the means and opportunity to get out and explore this windy, foggy, magical island. Newfoundland still isn’t home to me, but it no longer feels impossible that one day it might be. And in the meantime, I can’t wait to get back out there next summer and explore some more.

Tagging along on the Great Trail

One of the reasons Amanda, Sarah, and I started this blog five years ago (!) is because we wanted to use stories to share some of the amazing places field biologists get to work – places that often aren’t accessible to everyone.  And over the years, we’ve highlighted a lot of stories from these places, from Sable Island to Line P in the Pacific Ocean to an uninhabited islet in Cape Verde.

But you don’t necessarily have to be doing field biology to access amazing places.  In many cases, all you need is enthusiasm and possibly a healthy dose of determination.

This spring, hikers Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton sold their house in Simcoe and the majority of their possessions, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.  Over the next three years, Sonya and Sean plan to hike across Canada from coast to coast to coast, along the 24,000 km Great Trail.  Obviously, this will be no small feat – in fact, as Sonya has pointed out, fewer people have finished this trail than have gone to the moon.

So why do it? Sonya and Sean are undertaking this epic journey with one major goal: to inspire people to connect to the natural world.  In collaboration with Bird Studies Canada, they hope to encourage this connection with nature through birding, and will be sharing information about ways to help birds, bird citizen science projects, and Important Bird Areas across Canada with the people they meet on their journey.

On the morning of June 1st, Sonya and Sean set off from Cape Spear – the most easterly point in North America.  To start them on their way, Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (a local naturalist group) had organized a group hike to keep them company for the first few kilometers, and I was lucky enough to tag along on this hike.

It was a cool, overcast morning (as far as I can tell, Newfoundland is several weeks behind the rest of Canada when it comes to spring), but the crisp air turned out to be perfect for cooling down after long scrambles up rocky slopes.  The air was quiet and calm, unusual for these normally windswept coastal barrens, where the trees are bent from bracing against the wind, and the grey-blue water turned the most amazing shade of turquoise where the waves met the rocky coast.  Of course, the highlights for me – as a newcomer to Newfoundland – were the two icebergs we came face to face with along the trail.

I also learned something important about hiking in Newfoundland.  What counts as an ‘easy’ trail here is not the same as an easy trail in Ontario.  When I set out that morning, I couldn’t find my hiking boots or clothes in my pile of suitcases – but I figured it was an easy trail, so I threw on a pair of jeans and some sneakers and assumed that would be good enough.  I quickly came to regret that decision, as I slipped and slid my way up and down the steep ascents and precarious descents.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the end of that first trail segment (only about 3.5 km away from where we’d started – but those 3.5 km involved an awful lot of ups and downs!).  It’s embarrassing to admit just how happy I was to stop and take a break – particularly since I had made the walk completely unencumbered, while Sonya and Sean were loaded down with their huge packs.  It was impossible not to be impressed by their determination and energy as we waved goodbye to them, and they continued on their way to St. John’s, their destination for the day.

As they make their way across the country, Sonya and Sean will be blogging about the places they see and the people they meet, and we will be reposting some of those blogs on Dispatches from the Field.  But to keep up to date with them, learn more about their travels, or find out how you can help, check out their website.

Safe travels and good luck, Sonya and Sean!

 

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.

A quiet night

Nightswimming deserves a quiet night
I’m not sure all these people understand
It’s not like years ago
The fear of getting caught
The recklessness in water
They cannot see me naked
These things they go away

“Nightswimming”, R.E.M.

Full confession: I am not a particularly audacious person.  I invariably choose Truth over Dare, and I’m probably one of the few people over the age of 18 who can play Never Have I Ever and be virtually sober at the end.

However, on those rare occasions when I play Never Have I Ever, I usually get to have at least one drink – because there’s one question that almost always comes up: “Never have I ever gone skinny dipping”.

In one of my first posts on Dispatches, I mentioned that my first summer in the field was also the first time I ever went skinny dipping.  In fact, that is one of my favourite memories of that summer.  Skinny dipping is something of a tradition at the Queen’s Biology Station, where evening parties more often than not end with the last few party-goers relaxing on the lake shore.  Inevitably, someone will suggest that the next logical step is for everyone to strip and jump off the diving board.

The first time I went skinny-dipping was just such an evening.  I vividly remember the giggles, sidelong glances, and excitement as we all shed our clothes, and the rush to get into the water as fast as possible.  It was a perfect summer evening: the night air was soft and scented, rife with anticipation and sexual tension.  I remember lazily treading water in a circle with half a dozen others, feeling exposed but also sheltered by the dark water.

There have been many, many skinny dipping experiences since that first time, in lakes, rivers, and even in oceans.  For me, skinny dipping is now inextricably linked with fieldwork.  But over time, my feelings about the experience have evolved.

After leaving QUBS, I worked at a number of smaller field stations, some in very remote and isolated areas.  In most of these places, skinny dipping was much less of a tradition – in fact, in a couple of them, it was actively discouraged.  That didn’t mean that no one did it, of course, but it certainly changed the nature of the activity.  The excitement became more about transgression than sexual tension: the thrill of doing something you were not supposed to.  For me, a consummate ‘good girl’, that thrill was very appealing.

Of course, it turns out that some of those places discourage skinny dipping because they are just not ideal for the activity – which has led, on occasion, to a couple of rather epic skinny dipping fails.  One summer night just after the end of my first field season, I found myself on a Lake Erie beach with a couple of friends.  Emboldened by my field experience – and the fact that the beach was deserted at midnight – I managed to talk both of them into trying skinny dipping (which was definitely not permitted in this park).

The decision made, we glanced cautiously around before stripping off our shorts, tops, bras, and underwear, then tore towards the lake as fast as we could.  We flung ourselves in, feeling the bite of the cold water against our calves.  We ran farther…and still the water lapped against our calves.  We ran farther still…and now the water felt almost warm, and yet still came up no farther than our calves.  We began to glance rather desperately at one another.

In my newborn enthusiasm for skinny dipping, I had forgotten the reason that so many parents liked to bring their children to this particular beach: the extremely shallow plateau that extended for several hundred yards away from the shore.  Now, several hundred yards might not feel like a long distance when you’re wearing a bathing suit under the afternoon sun; however, it feels a good deal longer when you’re running stark naked in the dead of night.

I think about that experience every few months, when another story surfaces about tourists getting arrested for shedding their clothing in various notable, scenic, and even spiritually important places, such as Machu Picchu and Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu.  These hapless tourists are inevitably accused of being disrespectful – and I always wonder whether you could say the same thing about my nude foray into Lake Erie.

If I’m honest with myself, maybe part of it is disrespect: flouting the rules and defying authority.  Certainly, I’ve already admitted that there’s considerable appeal in the transgressive thrill of skinny dipping.  But over the last few years, that thrill has become less and less important to me.

The thing is, skinny dipping is at its best when it’s not rushed or panicked or fraught with sexual tension.  On those occasions when you can calmly slip naked into a quiet lake in the dark, and relax in water that is almost as warm as the air…on those occasions, skinny dipping is an almost spiritual experience.  It becomes about freedom and connection with the world around you, and more than anything, it becomes about being comfortable with your body, who you are, and where you are.

Now when I think of skinny dipping, I don’t picture giggling friends and stolen glances, or a headlong rush to make it to the water before being caught.  Now, I imagine a calm, dark Canadian Shield lake, the warm water lapping softly against the rocks, the stars stretching endlessly above.  Now, all these years after my first skinny dipping experience, I understand that nightswimming does deserve a quiet night.

Femininity and Fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Jodie Wiggins, a PhD candidate at Oklahoma State University, who discusses some of the unique challenges that female field ecologists face.  For more about Jodie, read her bio at the end of the post or check out her website.

A field biologist from the start…

I started my career as an ecologist crawling through muddy drainage ditches hunting frogs, investigating rabbit warrens dug open by a plow, and studying “lighting bugs” through the glass of a mason jar. I was 5, and 6, and 10… held captive by the magic of nature. I was a really fortunate kid. I ran wild, and that is probably why I still love the wilds today.

Now, thanks to an invitation from Dispatches from the Field, I have to opportunity to consider the challenges I’ve faced as a woman navigating a culture (ecology and fieldwork, specifically) shaped by men.

 

You just drive along, find a roadside park. Set your line of traps and get up in the morning and check ‘em.”

These were the instructions from a veteran field mammologist to the first field biology course I ever took. I looked around at the other members of the class. No one seemed to think these instructions were out of the ordinary. I, however, was gripped by terror. This man wanted me to drive to the middle of nowhere, stay overnight, and sleep in my car, alone.

No doubt a lot of women have done this, successfully. No doubt countless women camp and hunt and sleep in their cars alone. A lot of women are also attacked, every single minute of every single day.

That was not something that crossed this man’s mind and I felt weak because it crossed mine. I felt like I should suck it up and just do the work. But it wasn’t about the work. It was about a risk that a woman takes anytime she is alone that a man does not, a risk that she should not be shamed for refusing to take.

…and sticking with it, despite the challenges.

This was the first time in my academic career that I felt other. I felt ignored. I felt invisible. Because I am a woman. I began to realize that the scaffolding constructed over hundreds of years, meant to guide and hold emerging scientists as they ascend, simply was not constructed to lift, hold, or guide women. The fact that it wasn’t until graduate school that I experienced this otherness reflects the privilege I experienced growing up as a middle class white child. Many people, women of color particularly, experience this otherness so much earlier than I did. They experience it as girls, and it devastates their desire to pursue their dreams.

 

But where do I pee?”

Not all of the issues we face as women field biologists are quite as dire as staying safe while sleeping in a car alone, but that is not to say that they are not equally urgent. It’s been a decade since I stood in a hallway with a group of newbie grad students and realized that being a female field biologist would be a battle. For a very long time I was cowed by this realization, feeling demeaned and less worthy than my male counterparts. But, as it should, my journey through my PhD has taught me a great deal more than just evolutionary ecology.

Studying lizards…and learning life lessons.

My need for a team of field assistants every year for the past three years has required me to learn to step up and be a supervisor. Undoubtedly, I struggled in the beginning, but now, I do a couple of things as unapologetically as I can muster in an attempt to “be the person you needed when you were younger”:

  1. I say “pee.” As in, this is where you can go pee. What on earth is wrong with us that young women don’t feel comfortable saying “Hey, where do I go pee?” This is necessary because my field site is a little like Area 51, lit up and barren with a camera pointed at it all of the time. My study species likes it open and hot, so for a mile stretch of rock dam, there is no place to hide, anywhere.
  2. I keep tampons with the group field supplies (gasp! Did she say tampons?!). Yeah, I did and if you work for me you might just pull one out with your data sheet or your lizard noosing pole and you might have to deal with it because OH MY GODS ALREADY! The need to have these supplies for the women on my team simply outweighs worrying about whether someone will feel grossed out by the possibility of touching an unused tampon.
  3. I say “Do not do xyz if you are not comfortable with doing xyz” and I mean XYX is usually something like coming out to the field site alone or riding with another member of the field team alone. Seriously, if it doesn’t feel right and makes you feel unsafe, don’t do it, period. We’ve all got to remember that our people are more important than our project.

It’s the people that matter: my field team from 2016.

Fortunately for me, my future husband was in that field mammalogy class with me all those years ago. He accompanied me on countless nights sleeping in a ridiculously uncomfortable truck bed waiting for the blessed dawn when we could check our traps. Most of the other women in that class paired up with someone as well, but some didn’t and I don’t know if they felt safe going out alone or if they felt like they needed to prove they could. Either way, the person in a position of power in this situation left half that class without an advocate.

The balance between being a leader and a learner can sometimes be precarious but what I’ve learned over the last decade in the field is this: I need to use my voice, my position, and my strengths to make sure no one on my team ever feels invisible and to encourage others to do the same. The female ecologists in my life who repeatedly tell me that I matter, that I am strong, and that my voice should be heard bolster me to do this for others.  Together, we are making each other visible.

Jodie is a fourth year (sort of; it’s complicated) PhD candidate studying the evolutionary ecology of color in collared lizards. She hails from New Mexico and Texas, but now lives in Oklahoma with her husband (also a PhD candidate, who studies spider behavior), their 11 and 3 year old sons, and a crazy dog named Fortinbras.

“We’ll be singing…”

This week’s Dispatch comes from guest blogger Haley Kenyon, who offers a valuable bit of insight gained during her field season studying warblers in British Columbia.  For more about Haley, see her bio at the end of the post.

Today I’m going to tell you about something that is very important. It may even be the key to a successful field season, but no one seems to talk about it. Yes, to have a successful field season you need to be organized, you need to be prepared to test your mental and physical strength, you need to be ready to embrace challenges, you need to have contingency plans, you need to be able to “go with the flow,” and you need to be ready to accept that some things you try just will not work, etc. A lot of time and effort (not to mention blood, sweat and tears) go into all of this preparation, but I would argue that not enough consideration goes into one very important piece of field season prep: how carefully do you think about your choice of field season theme song?

While it may seem trivial at first, who’s to say that your field season theme song choice can’t be your key to success?

During the field season for my master’s degree, I worked in northeastern British Columbia recording and catching birds in a warbler hybrid zone. After my generous lab mates came up and showed us the ropes, my awesome field assistant and I were on our own catching birds and recording them. To be honest, it was a little overwhelming. We had some really awesome days (we developed a scoring system by which we could describe how well our day went: one bird = not the best day, two birds = fine day, three birds = OK day, four birds = good day, five birds = very good day, six birds = great day!). We also had some not-so-great days during which we drove for hours and found no birds, got stranded at our campsites and drenched in heavy rain, or had to give up on birds that we were working on because of friendly grizzly bears nearby (notice that we deliberately left no room for bad days on our scale).

We were lucky enough to have a huge assortment of music available to us, from which we ended up choosing our theme song for the season: Tubthumping by Chumbawumba. It may seem like an unconventional choice, but driving out of our various campsites every morning listening to the lyrics, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down,” was a pretty great way to start off the day in good spirits – even if we were getting out of bed at 3 a.m..

Bedtime!: Other parts of the song weren’t so true-to-life for us - going to sleep early enough to get up at 3 a.m. didn’t leave much time for the excessive drinking that the song references…

Bedtime!: other parts of the song weren’t so true-to-life for us – going to sleep early enough to get up at 3 a.m. didn’t leave much time for the excessive drinking that the song references…

When anything bad happened during the day, we played our song again and it gave us enough silly energy to carry on. One day we drove 300 km in an afternoon, intending to record a specific population of birds the next day…and found none. You’d better believe that we listened to Tubthumping several times as a result, mentally preparing ourselves to have a super successful morning the next day to make up for it.

A washed out bridge that we had planned to cross – definitely a reason to give Tubthumping another play.

A washed out bridge that we had planned to cross – definitely a reason to give Tubthumping another play.

But we also played our song to celebrate when good things happened (“We’ll be singing… when we’re winning…”).  One day when working in the centre of the hybrid zone, we made high-quality recordings of nine birds and caught them all (off-the-charts!).  We listened to Tubthumping as we searched for a new place to camp that night – what a way to celebrate!

So as you’re getting ready for your next field season, don’t forget to put a bit of time into choosing an awesome song to get you through. Who knows? It might just be the key to success! (But maybe also put a lot of time into preparing other things, too…)

haley-kenyonHaley Kenyon completed her MSc degree at the University of British Columbia (and made sure to thank Chumbawumba in the Acknowledgements section of her thesis).  She is currently a PhD candidate in the Biology Department at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on the role that signal divergence plays in speciation in birds.

 

What’s for lunch? #fieldeats

During our recent outreach events with the Kingston Field Naturalists and the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, we noticed that people were really interested in our eating habits. The what’s, where’s, and how’s of eating during fieldwork were questions that kept coming up. If your fieldwork entails living in isolation from the public for many weeks, how do you get the food there and store it properly? If you have no access to refrigeration, what do you eat? These are all valid questions for such a necessity in life that you don’t really take into consideration until you are removed from the luxury of everyday life. I’m sure anyone who has been camping is nodding in agreement.

Jeff's massive bag overflowing with equipment.

Normally, since field biologists are already carrying a lot of equipment, food in the field tends to be pretty basic. However, believe it or not, food can change your mood. What you eat that day could determine how that whole day turns out. In the past two guest posts, Jeff Havig told us about the exciting daily meals that he shared with his #teamfire and #teamice. Meals included burritos, sausages, and even chicken alfredo (cue drool). The ingredients for these meals had to fit in the packs that they carried with them (among other items that you can read about here).

 

Camp at Reef Island

Luxury 5 star accommodation on Reef Island

Sarah, one of our resident bloggers, and her field team had to carry a month’s worth of food in large plastic totes across slippery rocks and  over fallen logs to make it to the “camp” – consisting of a large tarp over a picnic table. Despite the rugged conditions of the “camp” it was equipped with an oven where she was able to bake a cake!

 

 

Instead of limiting the answers to just our experiences in the field, we also opened up the question to our followers and fellow field biologists on twitter with the hashtags #fieldeats and #fieldworklunch:

Some field biologists like to stay healthy:

celery

Or keep it simple (as long as you beat the wildlife to it!):

cliff

A popular choice of lunch for field work seems to be including one magic ingredient:

roberto

amanda

(Which we have heard was as a result of miscommunication with her field assistant to get “bread”)

Or mixing it up a bit:

tomatoes

(I don’t know if I have the guts to try this!)

When you think about it, Peanut Butter Jelly time does make sense in the field:

whypbj

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).

Helping the elephant cross the road: restoring lost elephant corridors in the Western Ghats

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Aditya Gangadharan, who continues our exploration of fieldwork in remote places with some stories from his PhD work in India’s Shencottah Gap.  As part of our ongoing collaboration with Wild Lens, Aditya also shared his experiences with Matthew Podolsky in an Eyes on Conservation podcast.  

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

This is what your shoe looks like after a few minutes walk in the monsoon season.

You might wonder what is so remote about a region where more than 300 people live per square kilometre on average. I mean, that’s more than twice the population density of a city like Edmonton, where I currently live. But such profound thoughts are far from your mind when you are trying to sneak down from your camp to the nearby stream for a bath after a hard day of fieldwork in the rainforest (also known to insiders as ‘death by a million leech bites’).

The reason you are sneaking is that there are lots of elephants around. They like to bathe in the stream too, and don’t like to be interrupted by pesky humans…

Elephant 1

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

Elephants making their way down to the water in the evening.

… and if (correction: when) they charge at you in the dark, the 200m to your camp may as well be 200km for all the help you will get!

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

If you see this next to your face, you can safely conclude that you are in big trouble.

Such is fieldwork in the Western Ghats of India – one of the richest and most threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world. My PhD research was in the 400 sq. km Shencottah Gap, an economically-productive region that separates two reserves – and my goal was to identify corridors that could be restored, so that elephants and tigers could move between these reserves once again.

Rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

The Shencottah Gap: rubber plantations in the valleys and forests above

A typical campsite - no fuss, nothing fancy required!

A typical campsite – no fuss, nothing fancy required!

Many of those remnant corridors are in the more rugged areas, because people tend to be concentrated into towns, villages and farmland in the flat, fertile valleys – and so, we follow the wildlife upwards! Of course that is easier said than done – there are few roads, so you have to walk to most places. You often have to camp out to reach those places, which in our case simply involves putting one tarpaulin sheet on the ground, another on top, and keeping a fire going.

But how do you find the animals? The vegetation is thick, so you rarely have any direct sightings – instead, you have to look for animal signs (like tracks and dung), or set up camera traps that automatically take a picture when an animal passes by. Normal people do this fieldwork only during the 6-9 months of the year when it is not raining. Less normal people such as myself are often in the field during the entire year, including the monsoon!

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.

Carrying out visual and sign-based surveys for large mammals.

 

Setting up a camera trap.

Setting up a camera trap.

Now, in the photo above, you probably noticed that the camera is encased in a very solid metal case, and secured by a heavy chain (no wonder my back hurts!). You might also be wondering: why is there elephant dung on top of the camera?

Well, elephants like to destroy cameras. And it is not fun to toil up a rugged mountain, place a camera there, go back after 3 weeks, and see that your camera was smashed on the same day you deployed it. So I had this brilliant and cunning idea that if I smeared the camera cases with dung, elephants might treat them with more kindness. The results I got were spectacularly useless: elephants are intelligent animals, and they are not going to be fooled by such a simple plan. The only tangible result of my experiment was my backpack smelling of dung for many weeks.

But I didn’t even mind them smashing the cameras…as long as they didn’t damage the SD cards!  Due to the kindness shown by some elephants in sparing our SD cards, we were able to document, for the first time in 30 years, elephants attempting to cross the Shencottah Gap. Specifically, we got them at the exact place that they had to turn around, because they were blocked from crossing by the steep descent down to the highway and the heavy traffic at this narrow pass:

Definitely a challenge for elephants to negotiate...

Turn back here: this steep descent and busy highway were impossible for elephants to cross.

And so, that’s where we are at today: it is demonstrably possible to restore these corridors in the Shencottah Gap. But actually implementing this restoration is a huge task – one that will likely take many years, and has to be led by the government. Luckily, there are positive signs from the government so far. One day, I hope this little guy will be able to migrate across the Shencottah Gap as his ancestors once did.

Elephants 3

AdityaAditya Gangadharan works on conserving biodiversity in fragmented landscapes that are subject to multiple uses by humans. He focuses on converting technical research into actionable policy recommendations, and communicating these to managers and the general public. He blogs about elephants, tigers and frogmouths at http://adityagangadharan.com.

Electric shocks or time alone? Most choose shocks.

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska, who tells us a bit about her experiences working alone in the field during her PhD.  For more about Maggie and her research, check out her bio the end of this post.

I recently read that most people would prefer electric shocks to spending time alone with their thoughts. This of course made me think back to the first summer I spent in the field during my PhD. I worked along the shoreline of Lake Travers in Algonquin Park studying the very charismatic flowering beauty Lobelia cardinalis. Although most people do not venture into fieldwork on their own, most have spent some time alone in the field. Alone is how I spent most of that field season.

Pollination - wait, no, thievery by hummingbird  at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

Pollination – wait, no, thievery by hummingbird at Lobelia cardinalis in Algonquin Park.

When people hear that I spent time alone in the backwoods of Algonquin they either start playing air-banjo and humming that well-known tune from the movie “Deliverance” (this was my advisor’s reaction) or they ask if I was afraid of the wildlife. I was raised by people who’d never gone camping, and thus I had never gone “real” camping (sorry folks, car camping doesn’t count). My point in telling you this is that I had no idea what doing fieldwork alone would be like. I had spent time as an undergrad at QUBS, but fieldwork in the backcountry of Algonquin while living in a tent is an entirely different experience – although working at QUBS did help me establish some basic codes of conduct for my assistants and myself (i.e., no alcohol and 9 p.m. bedtime). At the time of developing my project, all I was concerned with was getting data for my PhD; my data or bust attitude is a story for another time.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Home sweet home in Algonquin Park.

Most of my solo sojourns into the field lasted a day or two, but in 2009 (the first year of field work) I’d often camp Monday to Friday on my own. Surprisingly, I found those lonely days to not be so lonely—I found talking to my plants helped. During the day my work kept me focused. But, when the work of the day was finished, fatigue set in and I was left alone with my thoughts—there was no option of electric shock. After running through thoughts of what I’d done and what I had left to accomplish that week, I’d daydream about finding ways to let me do this forever.

Truthfully, there were times I was terrified and a bit nuts. I once jumped right out of my skin when I caught sight of my shadow moving. At the time, I was just under 5’3 and somewhere around 120lbs. I assume this is the perfect shape and size for a quick little appetizer for a bear or pack of wolves (both of which were present in the area).  I also once lost my self-composure and started killing every slug I saw (that year most of my plants were eaten by slugs). As a warning to other slugs I mounted a smooshed slug body on a stake (i.e., small twig).

As my first season progressed, I became more competent with data collection and backcountry camping. I became an expert in setting up and breaking down a campsite solo in under 40 min, and became a backcountry gourmand (dried garlic and parsley are invaluable). More importantly, I picked up several handy tips from people I met in the field (mostly from Chris, who helped out at the Algonquin Radio Observatory and Jeremy, a park ranger).  These are my camping “must-haves” in order of decreasing importance.

  1. SPOT. This device should be required for everyone doing fieldwork. This device connects to satellites and allows you to send email messages to a set contact list (I used this to check in with my partner every night). It also can send two types of emergency signals. You can select the option that is sent only to your contact list and provides the GPS coordinates of your location (I programmed a message that read, “I’m alive but need you. Come find me”. The other option lets you send an emergency message to the nearest search and emergency system in your area (police and EMTs). I had no cellphone reception in the field, so this device was crucial for safety. I’d also recommend it for folks who are within cellphone range. You can always use a backup system to call for help.
  2. Headlamps, backup flashlights and spare batteries.
  3. Pocket flare/bear banger combo available at MEC is also a good idea. Even when you think you are alone in the woods you probably aren’t too far away from other people. I worked near the access point at Lake Travers. People starting their camping trips would often comment about how remote and isolated the area felt. On a busy week in August I would have this chat several times a day. A flare is likely to be seen by people nearby and if you’re lucky they’ll investigate.
  4. Always make sure you have enough water on hand and either rehydration crystals and/or powdered Gatorade. I used a hand pump system with a ceramic cartridge to filter lake water. I carried this everywhere.
  5. This is connected to the last point. Be very mindful of early signs of heatstroke. Different individuals have different tolerances. I once had an assistant suffer from mild heatstroke on our first day out. I was perfectly fine, but she wasn’t. Water and salts were sufficient to get her back on her feet, but I learned to become more mindful of how my assistants were feeling during the day.
  6. Always carry a small firstaid kit. Mine had tweezers, safety pins, bandaids, gauze, an aluminum emergency blanket, rehydration crystals, a whistle, duct tape and clothes pins.
  7. If you are responsible for packing food for a camping trip, always pack extra dry pasta, dry garlic, and other dried herbs. I once had to carefully consider whether starving my field assistant and finishing my work for the week was ok.
  8. For those of you driving older model field vehicles, don’t leave a cellphone charger connected to your car’s cigarette lighter. This will drain your car battery.
  9. Figure out who else is in your work area. I was near the Algonquin Park Radio Observatory and knew I could reach them if I needed help (like needing to make arrangements to send a field assistant home because they were not feeling well). Cottagers and other campers are often interested in the work we nutty biologists do and are often keen to help you out.

Although camping alone seems sketchy to most people, it’s really not that uncommon. Spending a day alone in the field is extremely common. Be safe and prepare for the unexpected. Carry emergency supplies, and a way to contact help.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.

The view makes it all worthwhile: a shot of one of my field sites.

 

Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Maggie, happy as can be, working at one of her field sites.

Dr. Magdalena Bartkowska is currently a postdoc at the University of Toronto studying population genomics of the world’s most charismatic group of small-flowered plant (duckweed). She did her PhD at Dalhousie University under the mentorship of Dr. M. Johnston. Her work has largely focused on plant-pollinator interactions and other ecological factors shaping the evolution of plant traits.