Studying a species you’re not sure exists

This week on the blog, we are happy to have Charlotte Hacker, a PhD student at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA, who shares her adventures of studying the elusive snow leopard on the Tibetan Plateau of China. For more information about Charlotte, check out her bio at the end of the post!

I have a confession to make…

But first, some background. I’m a noninvasive conservation geneticist using DNA extracted from snow leopard scat to answer questions about the diet, distribution, abundance, density, and landscape connectivity of these animals, among other things. I predominantly focus on populations of snow leopards living on the Tibetan Plateau of China. I’ve been fortunate to establish collaborative projects with other scientists at an incredible research institute in Beijing which have facilitated opportunities for my favorite part of research – fieldwork. 

Charlotte Hacker in snow leopard habitat collecting carnivore scat samples. Photo credit: Rou Bao

I’ve been back and forth between the United States and China since 2017. I’ve sampled hundreds of kilometers of transects, I’ve picked up approximately 600 carnivore scat samples, and I’ve extracted DNA from over 1,500 samples. I’ve met and interviewed dozens of local people about their attitudes towards wildlife. I’ve spent hours staring out the window of an all-terrain vehicle. I’ve identified individual snow leopards based on their genetic profile, determined their sex, and figured out what they ate. I’ve published a handful of peer-reviewed papers and technical reports. I’m one year out from getting my doctorate, which is basically a PhD in snow leopards.

The big secret? I’ve never seen a live one in the wild.

In my defense, there’s good reason for that. There are reasons why there’s still so much we don’t know about snow leopards. They are well camouflaged and elusive. They live at low densities and at high altitudes in terrain that can be inhospitable to humans.

One incredible advantage of my research is that I don’t need to find a snow leopard to study the species, but seeing one in the wild has been on my bucket list since the first time I stepped foot on the Tibetan Plateau. I’ve had three close calls, which I hang on to each time I go into the field, thinking, “Remember when you almost saw one? Remember when one probably saw you but you didn’t see it? Hold on to hope!”

Close call #1:

In addition to collecting scat, we record and take pictures of any signs indicating carnivore presence. Typically we find things like pugmarks (paw prints) and claw scrapes along our collection transects in the thick of snow leopard habitat. But one afternoon, driving along a well-traveled dirt road, our driver slammed on his breaks. “看看! (Look, look!),” he exclaimed. I sat up, holding onto the headrest in front of me. On the left periphery of the dirt road were immaculate snow leopard pugmarks. One after the other, in succession: two sets. We immediately hopped out and inspected, careful not to disrupt the tracks.

The snow leopards had to be nearby. The pugmarks were fresh. A downpour of rain had occurred within the last half hour, which would have washed older tracks away. We started looking in all directions. The pugmark sizes suggested they were from an adult and juvenile – a mother with offspring? Snow leopards can move quickly, but with a cub in tow she could be right in front of our faces.

The pugmarks of an adult and juvenile snow leopard along a dirt roadside. Photo credit: C. Hacker

But despite our best efforts, we didn’t spot the pair of snow leopards. I took dozens of pictures of the area and spent hours after my return to Beijing scanning through each one, hoping to find them hidden in an outcrop. Still no luck.

A picture of the surrounding area where fresh pugmarks were found. Photo credit: C. Hacker

Close call #2:

When we’re on or traveling to and from transects, we count the number of all other animals we spot to get an idea of prey abundance. One afternoon, within 200m of a transect, a herd of blue sheep bounded in front of us. Snow leopards love blue sheep, and I was frustrated because this herd moved so quickly that I wasn’t confident in my count. We had started sampling the transect when our local field guide pointed out bright red blood on a large rock. We followed the blood trail until we found it – the carcass of a young blue sheep with fresh puncture wounds to its neck.

Our field guide started to explain the scene. It hadn’t been killed by a wolf; they attack from behind. Snow leopards and foxes attack at the neck, but the space between the puncture wounds, and therefore the canines, was too big to be from a fox. “雪豹. (Snow leopard),” he confidently stated.

A freshly killed young blue sheep with puncture wounds to the neck. Photo credit: C. Hacker

We started putting the pieces together. Our vehicle hadn’t caused the blue sheep herd to run: a snow leopard had. That snow leopard had been successful in its kill. What if our presence forced it to abandon its meal to get away from us? We elected to leave the transect to allow the animal to reclaim its prey, feeling guilty that we had disrupted the natural order of things in the first place.

Close call #3:

Snow leopards sometimes predate livestock. We’re still trying to figure out why and how often, but it happens. Losing livestock can be a financial burden on herders, so finding non-lethal ways to stop predators from attacking livestock is a high priority. We wanted to test the effectiveness of one of these deterrents, a flashing light called a Foxlight. This entailed interviews of area residents, including one who casually pulled out his phone and showed us photos from a couple days earlier – a snow leopard, sitting in a predator-proof corral (maybe not so predator-proof?), amongst a couple sheep carcasses, just… hanging out.

The herder described the snow leopard as calm. We knew from earlier work in the area that the herders there had positive attitudes towards snow leopards, despite losing livestock to them relatively frequently. This herder was no exception. He waited for hours for the snow leopard to leave, reported the loss to his insurance, cleaned up the mess, and carried on. I sat back impressed but dismayed. If only we had gotten there two days earlier… Another chance to see a snow leopard that just wasn’t meant to be.

A snow leopard resting in a corral after having killed livestock. Photo credit: Bawa

For now, my fieldwork is on hold because of COVID-19, but I’m confident that one day I’ll get to spot the world’s most elusive cat. I sometimes think of what that moment will be like. A sigh of relief? Sheer awe? Accomplishment? Only time will tell. For now, I’ll keep my three close calls in the forefront of my mind to keep the hope alive.

Charlotte Hacker is a conservation geneticist using molecular approaches coupled with traditional field techniques and collaborative work with local communities to study at-risk species. Her PhD work through Duquesne University focuses on bridging knowledge gaps surrounding the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and entails a set of research initiatives between numerous conservation partners and organizations both in the United States and Central Asia. For more about Charlotte, visit her website.

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.

The power to teach and the right to learn

Last summer, something unbelievable happened to me. While attending the final banquet of an ornithology conference, I won the raffle prize. Now, if you’re like me, winning anything is already a pretty amazing stroke of luck. But this wasn’t just any raffle prize: I won a 3-week cruise to Antarctica. Honestly, it felt like my life’s entire allotment of luck, all in one fell swoop.

It was so phenomenally fortunate, in fact, that I told myself not to believe it was going to happen until I actually set foot on the ship. But when the RCGS Resolute pulled away from dock in Buenos Aires October 2019, I officially gave myself permission to get excited.

Boarding the Resolute by the light of a Buenos Aires sunset.

However, during the first two days on board, I felt faintly perturbed by something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t until I went to an on-board seminar, where one of the staff members told us about her role in a massive conservation initiative to eliminate rats from South Georgia Island, that I realized what was bothering me. It felt very strange to be just another audience member at a wildlife seminar…travelling to a remote, inaccessible place as a tourist, rather than a field biologist.

Of course, as it turned out, I wasn’t going to Antarctica in either capacity. Our cruise made headlines when it was cancelled only a few days into the trip, stranding all 140 of us passengers in Argentina.

I’m not going to lie; it was pretty devastating. Not just the stress and expense of changing travel plans, but also letting go of all that excitement I’d just given myself permission to feel…not to mention the dream of going to Antarctica. I can’t claim that seeing Antarctica had been a long-term goal of mine: in fact, if I hadn’t won the prize, it would never have entered my head, for the simple reason that the trip was far, far beyond my means. But now that it had been dangled in front of me and then snatched away, I wanted desperately to go.

The one faint hope was the replacement cruise the company offered as compensation for our disastrous trip. But given that the cancellation of our voyage was a result of the company’s financial troubles, the chances that this second cruise would ever materialize were…slim at best.

After we returned to Canada, all communication from the company stopped. My e-mails went unreturned; no one picked up the phone at the office. Left completely in the dark, I couldn’t stop myself from obsessively searching the news for stories about the situation. It was like probing a sore tooth with your tongue – painful but strangely addictive. And there were plenty of stories to feed the addiction.

But then I made the mistake of scrolling past the end of a story, all the way down to the infamous ‘Comments’ section of the CBC website. (If you’re not familiar with CBC news stories, my advice is to avoid the comments entirely…unless you feel the need to work up a good rage.) And I came across this comment: “Cancelling the trip works better for the penguins and the environment.”

My first response, I have to admit, was visceral fury at the commenter’s cavalier disregard of what had been a painful experience for everyone onboard the Resolute. But I couldn’t deny that she had a point. Cruises are not particularly environmentally friendly. Antarctic cruises, in fact, are often extremely environmentally unfriendly. They produce high greenhouse gas emissions, may lead to pollution and waste on land and in the water, and bring human disturbance to some of the last remaining undisturbed places on Earth.

To be fair, some cruise operators take steps to minimize their impact on the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Many of them are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, an organization which promotes environmentally responsible travel among its members.  Cruise operators also often try to offset the negative effects of Antarctic travel by claiming that tourists will go on to be “ambassadors” and conservation champions for the places they’ve had the privilege to see. However, evidence doesn’t necessarily support that claim.

So on the face of it, the answer seems simple – maybe no one should be going on cruises to the Antarctic, or other remote, vulnerable places. But that raises an important question: who does get to see these places?

The Dispatches website features a quote from David Quammen: “Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully. And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.” One of the reasons we started this blog is to share the lessons we’ve learned travelling to these remote landscapes.

But the truth is, nothing can beat a personal experience.  And when it comes to conservation, it’s hard to ask people to care about things they haven’t seen or experienced themselves. No matter how good March of the Penguins is, it can’t compare to seeing emperor penguins in the flesh.  And once you’ve seen one, I have to believe that what happens to the species becomes more important to you.

The Resolute heads for home, trailed by shearwaters and petrels.

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.

Life with owls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Lia McKinnon.

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

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Full mind, huge heart, tired eyes

I had a wonderful summer of fieldwork…my mind is full, my heart is huge and my eyes are tired. I think that’s what all field biologists strive for at the end of a summer field season. I still have a significant amount of fall fieldwork to do, but I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my summer in the field.

My mind is full

I learned SO much this summer… SO SO SO much! I learned new plant species I had never seen or heard of before. I started noticing more of nature including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  I noticed the arrangement of holes and cavities in trees. I noticed the behaviours of birds during mating season and the incredible defense of nests during nesting season. I started learning spider species (surprising given this), recording calls of birds to look them up later and taking photos of tracks in the mud. My mind is still overloaded from everything, I noticed and learned this summer, and I hope every field season from here on out is the same.

Grass of parnassus – new species for me!

My heart is huge

I love field work. I love being outside. I love nature and everything about it. My heart was in the Frontenac Arch for most of the past decade, and now my heart is stretched across so many new places I have grown to love: the scrubby wonders of the Napanee Plain, the always adventurous Prince Edward County, the quiet beauty of the Kawarthas, the wavy coast of eastern Lake Ontario and the rolling hills of Northhumberland County. Next summer will come quickly, and it will bring many more new places to fall in love with, I’m sure.

My eyes are tired

Fieldwork can be tough. Most of your time is spent hiking to specific points, carrying lots of equipment, and in weather or conditions that aren’t ideal. For instance, this summer, I did a lot of “bushwhacking” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. My definition is a little different. My definition of bushwhacking is “to get from point A to point B through thick vegetation, which often has thorns, prickles, and other irritants present, while trying to disturb the natural environment as little as possible and leave some sort of remnant path to find your way back”. A little wordier perhaps, but all very true and relevant to my summer in the field. Thick red cedar on alvars, cattails twice as tall as me, and prickly ash pricklier than ten prickly things were common settings to be “bushwhacking” through. But the reward is always worth the hardship in the end. Check out a couple of the epic places we found as a result of some serious bushwhacking.

Open alvar pavement (a globally rare habitat)

The most picturesque stream I have ever seen

So as I wrap up the summer field season, and start the cooler, wetter, wilder fall field season, I sit here smiling with my full mind, huge heart and tired eyes and I think about all the possibilities the next summer field season will bring.

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

 

 

 

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

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

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

The aptly-named violet coral fungus.

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

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

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

Join me in the field:

Christmas Bird Count

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

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

Continue the research at home:

iNaturalist

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

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

Northern map turtles basking in the summer sunshine.

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

eBird

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

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

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

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