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.

How do you solve a problem like migration?

This post was initially published on the Science Borealis blog on April 27th, 2020. Check out their blog for more great science stories, published every Monday!

An ornithological pedicure: taking a claw clipping from a western bluebird for stable isotope analysis. Photo credit: Catherine Dale.

I can feel the rapid thrumming of the bluebird’s heart against my palm as I carefully manoeuvre its foot into position over a tiny Ziploc bag. I pick up my nail scissors and take a deep breath to steady my hand. I will only get one chance to make sure the miniscule claw clipping lands in the bag. If it doesn’t, I will have no chance of finding it…and no way to discover where this bird spent the winter.

Field biology often requires unusual skills. I have spent the last decade becoming an experienced bird pedicurist, because analyzing the chemical composition of tissues like claws and feathers is one method scientists use to determine the movements of migratory animals.

Unfortunately, this method suffers from the same drawback as many others: a lack of precision. As a result, many aspects of bird migration remain a mystery. But this spring, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany are entering the final testing phase of a new space-based tracking system, which they hope will revolutionize our understanding of animal movement.

The puzzle of migration

For Canadians across the country, the return of our migratory birds marks the beginning of spring. Each year, 2.6 billion birds cross the Canada-U.S. border, heading north to their breeding grounds.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle believed the spring reappearance of barn swallows meant they were emerging from their winter hibernation at the bottom of ponds. Although we now understand more about animal migration, many questions remain – largely because it’s very difficult to track individual animals as they travel vast distances around the globe.

For many years, the only approach was to mark animals with bands or tags in the hopes of re-sighting them somewhere else. But the sheer number of animals that migrate makes seeing a marked individual again extremely unlikely.

A flock of shorebirds takes to the air at Oak/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a migration stopover site in Manitoba. The mixed-species flock includes Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, stilt sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

Putting the pieces together

In the 1990s, migration research took a leap forward when scientists realized the chemical composition of animal tissue reflected the place where it was grown. By analyzing the ratio of various isotopes in tissue (termed stable isotope analysis), researchers can roughly reconstruct an animal’s geographic history…which is why I found myself giving bluebird pedicures.

Scientists can also now track moving animals directly by fitting them with tags that record location. These tags can be divided into two broad categories. Archival tags, such as geolocators, record and store movement information. In order to find out where a tagged animal has been, researchers must recapture it and retrieve the tag.

Recapturing migratory animals often proves difficult, especially as many fail to return from migration. So when possible, researchers prefer to use tags that remotely transmit data to a receiver, eliminating the need to recover them.

But transmitting tags face a fundamental constraint: transmitting takes power, and the more power a tag requires, the larger it needs to be. Tags must weigh less than 5% of an animal’s body weight to avoid affecting its behaviour or survival. Considering that many migratory birds weigh less than 10 grams, making tags small enough for them to carry is a huge challenge.

A sanderling carrying a Motus nanotag. The tag’s long antenna is easily visible. Photo credit: Jessica Howell.

The amount of power required to transmit data depends largely on where the receivers are. Tags for ground-based tracking systems – with receivers located on the Earth’s surface – can be very small. For example, the nanotags used by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System range from 0.2 to 2.6 grams, and can even be carried by some large insects. However, the range over which ground-based systems can track individuals is limited. Animals carrying Motus tags can only be detected within approximately 15 km of a receiver.

In contrast, satellite tags send data to receivers on orbiting satellites. They can track movement at a much larger scale than ground-based systems, and have been used for years on big animals, such as seabirds and caribou. But most satellite tags are too heavy for small migratory birds.

The Icarus Initiative

In 2007, Martin Wikelski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, proposed a novel space-based system for tracking animals across the globe.

It took more than 10 years, and the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), for the system to become a reality. In March 2020, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) entered its final testing phase. The first Icarus tags are waiting to be shipped to researchers, and the system will be available to the scientific community this fall.

“We wanted to build [a tracking system] specifically for wildlife,” Wikelski says of Icarus. “It’s built by the community, for the community.”

The International Space Station, pictured here in 2009 after a visit by the space shuttle Discovery to add additional solar panels. Photo credit: STS-119 Shuttle Crew and NASA.

Icarus tackles the trade-off between tag size and transmission distance in part by the simple expedient of moving the receiver closer. Conventional satellite tags transmit their data to Argos satellites, which orbit the poles at an altitude of 850 km. Icarus tags will transmit their data to a receiver on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting at an average altitude of 400 km.

Data collected by Icarus will be stored in Movebank, a free online database accessible by the public.  The system will also incorporate a citizen science initiative: Animal Tracker. While Icarus tags tell scientists where an animal is, citizen scientists can provide information about what it’s doing there. Using the Animal Tracker app, people can follow tagged animals online, and anyone who spots those animals in the wild can submit their observations to the database.

Of course, like any tracking system, Icarus will have some limitations, at least initially. The first tags will weigh five grams, which – while smaller than many satellite tags – is still too heavy for most migratory birds. However, the design of a new generation of tags weighing only one gram is already underway.

Satellite coverage will also be an issue. The receiver on the ISS will be able to pick up signals from most of the Earth’s surface; however, high latitude regions in the north and south will not be covered. Eventually, Wikelski’s goal is to deploy dedicated Icarus satellites strategically to cover the entire globe.

But even with these limitations, scientists are eager to begin harnessing the power of Icarus to tackle some of the unsolved mysteries of migration. Dr. Kevin Fraser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is keenly awaiting his first shipment of tags. He and his graduate students plan to put them on saw-whet owls – and they are most interested in the birds that don’t come back in the spring.

Banding a saw-whet owl. Kevin Fraser’s lab hopes to use Icarus tags to track these small owls during migration. Photo credit: Kevin Fraser.

Fraser’s previous research has largely depended on archival tags, meaning tagged birds must be recaptured to determine where they went. Individuals that don’t return to the study sites to breed – those that die along the way, or the young birds that disperse to breed elsewhere – are lost data.

“Most of what we know about migration, we know from birds that have successfully migrated,” Fraser says. “We know much less about where survival might be limited, or what the juveniles are doing. But [with Icarus], for the first time, we will be able to track 100 gram birds (the smallest yet) in near real-time, without the bias of only focusing on survivors and adults.”

Solving the puzzle

With the sliver of claw safely stowed in a bag for later analysis, I’m ready to liberate my captive bluebird. I position its feet over my empty hand and release my hold. For a moment, it perches on my palm, apparently unaware of its freedom…then, in a flutter of wings, it’s gone.

Of the 450 bird species found in Canada, 78% spend at least part of the year outside our borders. This fall, four billion birds will cross our southern border to spend the winter in warmer climes. More than a billion of them will not return, succumbing to the dangers of the journey or the hazards of their wintering grounds.

Icarus offers us a unique window into the world of migratory birds, and a chance to improve their odds. If we know where they go and how they get there, we can begin to understand the perils they face – and perhaps develop solutions.

Technology in Fieldwork: Friend or Foe?

When I started doing fieldwork about 12 years ago, I didn’t use technology in the field. In fact, the only technology I had access to was an old flip phone that took photos so blurry I could barely tell if they were of plants or animals when I got back to the lab. I didn’t even pre-print my Excel data sheets and fill them in as I collected data. I just drew freehand columns in a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook and then spent hours afterwards trying to decipher my messy handwriting.

But over the last decade, technology has really boomed and it has changed the lives of field biologists everywhere. Take GPS, for instance. While hand-held GPS devices were certainly around 10 years ago, they tended to be clunky and slow, with limited functions – nowhere near as streamlined as current technology. In fact, they were often more trouble than they were worth. When I used to monitor roadside populations of wildflowers throughout the summer, I would simply remember where locations were based on landmarks, nearby street addresses, etc.

But now, I do my fieldwork using Collector, an mobile data collection app which allows me to take points instantly from my smartphone. If I were monitoring roadside wildflower populations now, I could just drop a point for a population, take a photo and attach it to the point and then navigate directly back to the point on follow up visits.
While GPS advances are very cool, the advent of iNaturalist is likely responsible for the greatest change to my life as a field biologist. According to their website, iNaturalist “is a lot of different things, but at its core, [it’s] an online social network of people sharing biodiversity information to help each other learn about nature. It’s also a crowdsourced species identification system and an organism occurrence recording tool. You can use it to record your own observations, get help with identifications, collaborate with others to collect this kind of information for a common purpose, or access the observational data collected by iNaturalist users” iNaturalist.

That explanation is much more eloquent than my description of iNaturalist, which can be summed up as, “a crazy-cool identification app that must be magic!”
When I was learning how to identify plants during my Undergraduate degree, I didn’t have access to anything like iNaturalist. To figure out what something was, I would excitedly bust out my plant bible, Newcomb’s Guide to Wildflowers, and open the book to the first page. Then I would carefully examine the features of the plant I was trying to ID. I would check if the leaves were alternate or opposite, determine whether the leaf edges were serrated, and then classify the radial symmetry of the flower. This information would lead me to a page number; with great anticipation I would flip to that page and quickly scan the images and descriptions. Inevitably, one of two reactions would follow: heart-beating excitement when my eyes stopped at a sketch that looked just like the flower in front of me…or sheer disappointment when nothing matched. In the second case, the next step was to flip back to the first page and take another look at the plant in front of me to try to figure out where I went wrong. Perhaps I miscounted the petals, or maybe the leaves were whorled, rather than opposite? It sometimes took a whole lot of trial and error, but eventually I almost always arrived at the right answer. And it was those mistakes that really made me remember the identity of the plant long after.

It is with some hesitation that I admit this, but I mostly use iNaturalist to identify things now. I just snap a photo of something in nature – be it a plant, an animal or a fungus – and iNaturalist gives me its best guess at the identity. It only takes a couple of seconds and it’s incredibly accurate. (Hence, magic app!) iNaturalist is such an exciting concept. In fact, I recently was part of a class visit at a Nature Reserve which involved a scavenger hunt as part of the tour. One of the species the students needed to find was Sensitive Fern, but this species is only really found in one small area, so it was easily missed by the students. To help them out, I pulled out my phone. I pointed to a specimen on the ground beside me and took a photo. Below is what iNaturalist came up with:


We proceeded to try the app on about a dozen more species of plants (even just the bark of trees!) and it was bang on every time. The entire grade 7 class was hooked on the app after that.

I love iNaturalist and all that it stands for. It intrigues people, it helps them learn about nature, and it fosters a curiosity about the natural world around us. It even helps collect important data about rare species and Species-at-Risk that monitoring biologists may miss. However, even though iNaturalist is useful in so many ways, it left me feeling very conflicted.

I can’t deny that iNaturalist has also made me a less engaged (or maybe a lazier) field biologist. To be clear, I don’t mean I am worse at my job now, by any means. In fact, I am probably more efficient. That being said, I don’t notice the things I used to notice about plants. I snap a photo and the answer is right in front of my eyes. I don’t spend 5 minutes flipping through the pages of field guides attempting to identify an unknown specimen. Moreover, when I do use iNaturalist, I often quickly forget the identity of the species – because I haven’t spent those long minutes working for my answer.
So, as I wind down this field season and think forward, I vow to reach for the book and not the phone next spring when I spot a new species or can’t recall what something is.

That being said, I think there is certainly a place for both technology and more traditional approaches as well. For those getting started, or in time sensitive situations, perhaps iNaturalist is the way to go. But maybe for those looking to thoroughly and deeply understand nature, the old school approach may be more suitable. Either way, I will continue to promote iNaturalist like the “crazy-cool magical app” it is, in hopes that more folks learn about, and begin to care about the natural world around us.

Do you use technology to do your fieldwork? Has the role of technology changed over the past few years? I would love to hear about your experiences! Leave a comment below and tell me – is technology a friend or a foe in your fieldwork?

Patrolling for pufflings

The prisoner looks up at us from his metal enclosure.  Huddled in a corner, he freezes against the wall, hoping we haven’t seen him.  But as the beam of our flashlight comes to rest on him, he’s gone.  With a flip of his wings, he dives beneath the surface of the shallow pool, disappearing into the shadows of the enclosure.

“Well, crap,” says one of my companions.  “He’s not going to be easy to rescue.”

***

When my friend asked me if I wanted to join her doing Puffin Patrol, it sounded almost too fantastic to be real.  But it is: run by the Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Puffin and Petrel Patrol is a program that provides an extra helping hand to newly fledged seabirds which have lost their way.

The program takes place in the communities surrounding the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.  The reserve is home to the largest breeding colony of Atlantic puffins in North America, and the second-largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels in the world.

This is what the word ‘puffling’ conjures for me…

The puffins (and petrels) nest in burrows on islands close to shore.  They lay only one egg, and after it hatches, the puffling remains in the burrow for 6-7 weeks.  (Can we just pause here to enjoy the fact that baby puffins are called pufflings?  Whenever I hear that word, I immediately picture the tribbles from Star Trek…)

The trouble starts when it’s time for the pufflings to leave the burrow.  They fledge at night, giving them protection from predators as they first venture into the outside world.  For centuries, pufflings have emerged from their burrows in the dark and followed the light of the moon and stars out to sea.

But growing development along the coast poses a problem for the fledglings.  An increase in the number of houses and businesses also means an increase in artificial light.  More and more, pufflings are being drawn towards the streetlights, headlights, and house lights that illuminate the shoreline.  Many of these confused travellers land on dark streets, and fall victim to traffic mishaps.  Even those that avoid this fate are unlikely to make it back to sea without help.

This is where the Puffin Patrol comes in.  Every night during the fledging season (mid-August to early September), volunteers armed with butterfly nets patrol the streets of the coastal towns near the ecological reserve.  When they find a stranded puffling, it is scooped up in a net and placed into a plastic bin to await release the next morning.

Releases are sometimes done from a boat, but also frequently occur on the beach – and they gather quite a crowd.  While biologists weigh and measure the birds, and fit them with a band to allow for identification if they’re ever recaptured, CPAWS takes the opportunity to tell the watching group a bit about puffins.

Watching  a freshly released puffling make his way out to sea.

So not only does the Puffin and Petrel Patrol help two species of birds, both designated as vulnerable by the IUCN, it’s also a great outreach tool.  In addition to the public releases, locals and visitors alike can volunteer to be patrollers, providing they sign up in advance.  Since its inception in 2004, the program has attracted hundreds of volunteers, and has captured the imagination of Canadians across the country: to date, it’s been the subject of a picture book and the focus of an episode of The Nature of Things.

***

It’s a foggy, cool night in mid-August, and my first time out on patrol.  As I don a fluorescent safety vest and arm band reading “Puffin Patrol”, it feels a bit surreal that we’re going to spend the next few hours wandering around in the dark looking for stranded pufflings.  Only in Newfoundland.

At first it’s a fairly quiet night, with only a few teams reporting puffling encounters, and I start to think that maybe our services aren’t needed.  But as we make the rounds of a local fish plant, my friend shines her flashlight into the flat-bottomed barge used to take waste offshore for disposal.  There’s a shallow pool of water at the bottom – and there, pressed into a corner, is my first puffling.

As soon as the light hits him, he dives under the surface, eventually reappearing on the far side of the enclosure.  The barge is several feet below us as we stand on the dock, and we realize quickly that to get him out of his prison, we’re going to need a longer net.

As we turn to leave, we come face to face with another puffling, only a few feet away, looking for all the world like he wants to know what we’re up to.  As we stare at him, he begins sidling towards the edge of the dock and the barge – until my friend makes a sudden, heroic lunge with the net.  One puffling trapped on the barge is more than enough to deal with.

Up close and personal: a puffling being banded prior to release.

We stow our captive safely in a plastic bin and take him to Puffin Patrol headquarters, then return to the first puffling to see what we can do.  But even with a longer net, as soon as we come anywhere close, he disappears under the water and pops up at the other end of the barge.  We can only access the end closest to us, so we are forced to wait for him to come back within reach.  At one point, we actually do get him in the net – but as we lift it towards the dock, he jumps right back out.

It’s getting late and we’re all tired and frustrated…but we persevere.  We’re not leaving the puffling to die if we can help it.  It’s well after 1 a.m. when we get him in the net again.  This time we take no chances, holding the open end carefully against the side of the barge as we lift the net, giving the puffling no chance to escape.

And then he’s in our (gloved) hands, looking none too pleased with us as we place him into his plastic bin.  But that’s okay.  We’re pretty pleased with ourselves, because we know that tomorrow morning he’ll be going in the right direction, headed back out to sea.

4 reasons I shouldn’t be a field biologist

My lungs are bursting as I stumble to a halt, slipping on melting snow crystals.  Squinting against the glare, I lift my head – and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Behind me, a vertigo-inducing slope of snow drops away.  In front of me, the sight is even worse: the slope continues up…up…up.  At the top, four figures stand waiting impatiently.  It’s clear that I’m hopelessly outclassed. As I force myself to start climbing again, I can’t help but wonder: is it too late for a career change?

***

I guess I should back up and explain how I got myself into this situation.  When I finished my PhD, I had a singular goal: I wanted to continue doing fieldwork and research.  So when Bird Studies Canada offered me a job coordinating Newfoundland’s first Breeding Bird Atlas, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Breeding Bird Atlases (BBAs) are ambitious projects that aim to map the distribution and abundance of all birds breeding in a province or state over a 5-year period.  Every Canadian province except Newfoundland has (or is in the midst of producing) at least one BBA.  The end product allows us to better understand the health and distribution of bird populations and can be used as a tool for conservation planning.

Most atlas data is collected by volunteer citizen scientists, making atlases a great forum for community engagement.  But once in a while, the coordinator is lucky enough to get out into the field too.  And when the opportunity presented itself to do some pilot surveys in the remote regions of Gros Morne National Park…how could I say no?

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

I drove into Gros Morne under a spectacular rainbow, arcing across hills and lakes of the park.  It seemed like a good omen.  And although a few days of weather delays frayed our patience a bit, finally the skies cleared and we climbed into a helicopter for our flight to the top of Big Level, one of the highest points in the park.  As we swooped over Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne’s famous freshwater fjord, I couldn’t wait to get started.

We descended into an alien landscape: the arctic-alpine habitat found in only few places in Newfoundland.  For a few hours, we wandered under the widest blue sky imaginable, exclaiming when we crossed paths with an enormous arctic hare and enjoying the silvery sound of horned lark song.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

But then we started our hike towards the cabin where we’d be staying the next few nights.  And once we were on the move, the evidence that I was way out of my depth accumulated rapidly.

Pausing to take a picture is a great excuse to catch your breath an on strenuous hike…

I’m a fairly active person, and I thought I was in reasonable shape…until I spent a day trailing four people (all with a distinct resemblance to gazelles) across tundra, snow, and bogs.  As the warthog among gazelles, I was also the most likely to plunge without warning through the crust of snow we were walking on, landing with a thump in whatever was below.  With each minute, I lagged farther and farther behind.

My problems were compounded by my short legs and terrible balance, which resulted in me frequently tripping over rocks, trees, and my own feet – not to mention being unable to cross many of the streams my gazelle companions leapt over easily.

Reasons #1 and 2: Warthogs aren’t made for long-distance hikes involving lots of climbs.  Short legs and poor balance don’t help either.

By the time we made it to the cabin – after a solid eight hours of hiking – I was beyond done.  I collapsed on the cabin deck, and I might still be there, if some kind soul hadn’t provided incentive to get up in the form of a cold beer.

I told myself the next morning would be a fresh start.  But when the alarm sounded at 4:30 and I rolled my aching body out of bed, I realized I had overlooked another reason I’m not cut out to be field biologist – or at least an ornithologist.

Reason #3: As documented in previous posts, I’m very much not a morning person.

But birds start the day early, so we had to as well.  Our plan was to conduct 8 to 10 point counts each morning.  A point count involves standing in one place for a set amount of time (in this case, 5 minutes), and documenting every bird seen or heard.  Sounds straightforward, right?  But because birds are more often heard than seen, point counts require sharp ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of bird song.

As we climbed a steep hill to our first point, all I could hear was my own panting.  I managed to catch my breath when we stopped to conduct the count…only to become aware of yet another problem.

Reason #4: I don’t know enough bird songs.

I could recognize some of what we heard, but definitely not all of it.  I especially struggled with the partial songs and quiet ‘chip’ notes that were often all we heard.  Luckily I was with several spectacularly talented birders, who were more than capable of conducting the counts.  But after a few days in the field, I was feeling pretty discouraged.

And then on our last day, we came across a(nother) sound I hadn’t heard before: a single repetitive note, like the alarm on a tiny car.  We tracked the sound to a nearby conifer.  Perched at the very top, staggering as the tree swayed, was a greater yellowlegs.

Shorebird in trees look undeniably ridiculous.  Gawky and awkward, the yellowlegs scrabbled constantly for balance as it fought to stay on its perch.  It was impossible to watch without laughing…and I began to feel better.

A greater yellowlegs perches at the very top of a conifer.

Some birds just aren’t meant to perch in trees. But this greater yellowlegs isn’t letting that bother him.

Shorebirds aren’t built to perch at the top of trees, but the yellowlegs was there anyway.  And now that my first atlassing excursion is over, I’ve reached a conclusion.  Maybe I’m not naturally suited to this job.  It certainly doesn’t always come easily to me.  But the things I don’t know, I can learn; the things I struggle with, I’ll improve at with practice.  What matters is to be out there trying.

It’s true there are many reasons I’m not cut out to be a field biologist…but there’s one reason I am: doing this job makes me feel alive.  And for me, that cancels out everything else.

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!

 

Butterflies here, Butterflies there, Butterflies everywhere

My last post was about how my time slugging through swamps and meandering through marshes to learn to evaluate Ontario’s wetlands pushed me pretty far outside of my comfort zone. And since then, I can’t say things have slowed down at all! My new role as a Conservation Biologist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has kept me all kinds of busy this summer. I have loads of stories to tell about new species, new habitats, new adventures and new experiences from this summer’s field work (which is still in full swing for another 6-8 weeks!) and it is so hard to choose where to begin. As I left the house this morning, a beautiful monarch butterfly was resting on the hood of my car, basking in the sun. And then it hit me (the idea…not the monarch)…. butterflies! That’s where I’ll start.

As all of our readers know by now, I am a plant person. Plants are just so wonderfully easy. They sit still. They don’t move or fly or bite you (well, usually not). If you can’t figure out what it is (which is still often the case for me), you have time to sit and stare and think and take a million photos. If it hasn’t flowered, you can return, and pending any unfortunate events, it will still be there! I knew though, starting this new role, I needed to branch out. Plants were my comfort zone, and I needed to start paying attention to things that moved. I started birding more and brushed up on herps (the nickname for herpitles; amphibians and reptiles), but what I really started to appreciate were butterflies.

I have spent the better part of the last decade staring at the ground and counting plants. All of that work resulted in some cool research findings and papers, some serious neck pain and farmer’s tans but it also resulted in me missing a lot of what was going on around me.  As I started to think about more than just plants, I started to see habitats, communities, and relationships more clearly. I walked into an alvar site in the Napanee, Ontario area at the start of June and could not believe the diversity of butterflies flying around. I thought to myself “why weren’t my grasslands filled with butterflies?” And then I quickly realized, these grasslands I used to work in were prime butterfly habitat and they were most definitely there, I just never noticed them.

There is an annual Rice Lake Plains Joint Initiative Butterfly Count that happens each year, and NCC has a big role in organizing this event. I knew this was something I wanted to see happen in my area, so I helped out with the count to see what it was all about. We divided into small groups and conquered several properties over the course of a long, hot day. We recorded each species and how many we saw and then met back up at the end of the day to tally the results. We found an incredible 58 species and counted 1847 individual butterflies.

If you would have asked me a year ago to name as many butterflies as I could, my list would have likely started and ended with monarch. Now, my list is couple dozen species in length and seems to grow almost daily. This experience is a perfect example of how “naturalists notice nature” and how fulfilling and rewarding it can be to challenge yourself to learn something new.

Black swallowtail

Coral hairstreak

Silvery blues

White admiral

 

 

 

There’s no place like home

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back.” – Henry David Thoreau

Western bluebird nestling peers out of nestbox.

Who’s there? Western bluebird nestling peers out of nest box.

It seems to be an immutable law of nature photography (at least in my experience) that anything mobile will move the second you’ve gotten your camera ready, leaving you standing forlornly with your lens pointed at empty space.

But on this particular summer morning, I seemed to be witnessing an exception to this law.  As two hikers scrabbled through their backpacks for cameras, a male western bluebird sat calmly on top of the nearby nest box, singing his heart out – completely unperturbed by his audience.

From my perch beside the hiking trail, I watched the hikers rifling through their bags somewhat frantically.  Although I’m very familiar with ‘perfect shot’ panic, in this case I was pretty sure the would-be photographers would have no trouble snapping their photo – since the bluebird in question was in fact my wooden decoy bird, Webster.  I had set him up on the box about 20 minutes earlier, hoping to lure in the bluebird that actually owned it.  Apparently neither hiker had noticed the clip attaching Webster to the box – or the speaker below, broadcasting bluebird song.

As the hikers finally pulled out their cameras, I thought about explaining the situation – but somehow it just seemed mean to spoil their excitement.  A few minutes later, as they continued on their way, their conversation floated back to me: “That was amazing!  I can’t believe he sat so still.  I love bluebirds; they’re so beautiful.  That just made my day!”

Webster, my decoy Western Bluebird, perches on the edge of a nest box.

Webster, my decoy Western Bluebird, perches on the edge of a nest box.

 

Everybody loves bluebirds.

One of the first things you learn as a science student is to be wary of making absolute statements.  When you say something is ‘always’ true, or the ‘the cause’ of something, you had better be able to back it up.

And yet, even though I am not willing to go out and interview the 7.2 billion people in the world to determine their opinion on bluebirds, I’m still comfortable making this statement: everybody loves bluebirds.  They are, in fact, inherently lovable – charismatic, highly visible little birds with beautifully vivid plumage, associated with happiness, spring, and the land somewhere over the rainbow.

All three bluebird species (eastern bluebird, left; mountain bluebird, centre; western bluebird, right) have beautifully vivid blue plumage.

All three bluebird species (eastern bluebird, left; mountain bluebird, centre; western bluebird, right) have vivid blue plumage.

I have to admit, when I decided to focus my PhD research on bluebirds, I didn’t realize just how much people love them.  I quickly discovered that there are both upsides and downsides to working with a group of birds so universally beloved.  To be honest, sometimes it made things considerably more complicated.  For one thing, it meant that people tended to be very interested in what I was doing.  While this is mostly a good thing, it can be difficult to focus on answering questions and doing fieldwork simultaneously.  For another, people were often very protective of ‘their’ birds, and reluctant to allow me to capture and band them – a totally understandable attitude, but one that sometimes made my work a bit harder.  All ornithologists are aware that banding is a stressful experience for a bird.  Although we try to mitigate that stress as much as possible, being ensnared by a net, grabbed by a giant hand, and then handled, poked, and measured…well, it just can’t be that much fun.  Ornithologists do what we do because being able to identify individual birds gives us important insights into behaviour and ecology that would otherwise be impossible.  Ultimately, banding birds may provide us with information that benefits the species (for example, by informing management plans) – but we are all very aware that no individual bird ever benefits from being banded.

But while public interest in bluebirds occasionally made my life a bit more difficult, there were also many upsides to working with such an iconic group of birds: chief among them, having a species to study at all.

Perhaps one of the main reasons that people love bluebirds is that they are, relatively speaking, easy to see.  They are dwellers of disturbed areas.  They love the long forest edges and wide open fields created by agriculture; unlike many other bird species, human-wrought habitat changes were largely beneficial for them.  However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, naturalists began to notice a troubling trend: a persistent decline in bluebird populations.

Although bluebirds forage mainly in open areas, they build their nests within cavities in trees.  All three species of bluebird are secondary cavity nesters – meaning that, while they need cavities for nesting, they do not create those cavities themselves.   Instead, they depend on finding holes created and abandoned by other species of cavity nesters, such as woodpeckers.

So when bluebird numbers began to decline, people wondered if maybe there simply weren’t enough cavities for them to nest in anymore.  But if that was the problem, what had caused the decrease in available nesting cavities?  The answer was simple: while the actual number of cavities available was staying the same, the competition to use them was likely getting increasingly fierce – thanks mainly to the introduction of a number of invasive cavity nesting species, such as the European starling and the house sparrow, to North America.

Concerned citizens were determined to tackle the problem.  Getting rid of the advancing hordes of invasive cavity nesters was virtually impossible – so they approached the problem from the other direction, by building and installing artificial nest boxes.  These boxes were designed to exclude some of the larger competing species (such as starlings), and were carefully positioned away from sources of food for house sparrows, to decrease their interest in the boxes.

Putting up bluebird nest boxes in the southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia

Putting up bluebird nest boxes in the southern Okanagan Valley of British Columbia

As public interest in the plight of the bluebirds grew, enthusiastic citizen scientists began to establish nest box trails across the continent – and populations of all three bluebird species began to rebound.  In 1978, scientist Lawrence Zeleny enlisted the help of the Audubon Society to found the North American Bluebird Society (NABS) – an organization which continues to actively promote the conservation of bluebirds and other cavity nesters today.

Currently, many populations of all three bluebird species are stable or increasing – thanks in large part to NABS and its network of citizen scientists.  Every spring, these citizen scientists maintain and monitor thousands of bluebird nest boxes across North America.  Volunteers like 91 year old Al Larsen (the subject of Bluebird Man, a recent documentary by wildlife filmmakers Wild Lens) spend many hours each year gathering detailed information on box usage and nesting success of bluebirds and the many other species of cavity nesters that use the boxes – ultimately producing huge amounts of data on a much larger scale than any single researcher ever could.

The bluebird recovery story is an inspiring tale of grassroots conservation success – a win for the birds, but also a win for the people who continue to put so much effort into protecting them.  Although I encountered a few challenges working with this ‘poster species’, I don’t regret for a second choosing to study bluebirds for my PhD.  Getting to know the bluebirder community gave me the opportunity to work with some of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever met – people who went out of their way to help and support me.  Without them, my project would not have been a success.  But more than that, I found that I loved watching the bluebirds too. Even on the most frustrating field days, they made me smile – partly because of their charisma, but also because they are living proof that sometimes, we can make a difference.

Home sweet home

Home sweet home