Eliminating the uncertainty of “fieldwork” in 2020

With 2020 coming to an end, it’s time to reflect on all of the uncertainty that came with this year. Normally, I use my agenda every day, planning out my daily, weekly, and monthly activities. So the idea of the “unknown” is what has stressed me out the most this year. Not knowing when we will be able to work in the lab, when I can travel to see my family, or when I might be comfortable eating out at a restaurant again makes it difficult to plan ahead.

But this sense of uncertainty is not unknown to field biologists. When working with wild animals, it is often a gamble whether you’ll be able to enough of them catch them at the right time in the right place. Sure, for many species, we have a lot of data about where they can be found, for how long, and at what time of year. But if you’re trying to plan your fieldwork to coincide with a specific period in a species’ annual cycle which may only last a few weeks or even days, it can be stressful to try to guess the right time.

adult cormorant

Since I started the third year of my PhD this past spring, I planned to have a big last field season to collect lots of wild bird eggs for many lab experiments. My plan was to collect freshly laid eggs from different seabird colonies throughout the Great Lakes region. The key word in that sentence is freshly laid eggs – in other words, I needed to collect eggs within a day or two of laying so I could artificially incubate them and monitor embryo growth from the beginning.

Normally, we pinpoint egg laying by checking eBird for reports of breeding from birders, or by calling birders in the area for their observations. However, even when we make use of the detailed knowledge of local birders, we still can’t be 100% sure what we’re going to find when we show up at the colony. It’s always a guessing game trying to figure out when the breeding pairs of birds will lay their first egg.

But just like most other field biologists, COVID interrupted my ambitious fieldwork plans for this year. Due to restrictions, I was not able to collect wild cormorant eggs during the birds’ short breeding season at the beginning of May. I was pretty discouraged when I realized I’d be missing out on a whole year of experiments. But after a discussion with my supervisors, I decided to compensate by adding a model lab species into my research and avoid delaying my PhD.

The domestic chicken is a model bird species – in other words, they have been used in many studies and there’s lots of data available on them. Turns out that chickens are actually a great species to study during a pandemic, because they breed throughout the year and hatcheries are considered an essential business (since the chickens are being raised for eggs or meat).

Working with chickens was a big change from previous years of playing the waiting and guessing game with wild bird fieldwork. My “fieldwork” this year consisted of calling a local hatchery a week before I planned to run an experiment and driving an hour to pick up as many fertilized eggs as I needed. While I still treated the eggs with care, putting them in a cushioned egg box and monitoring the ambient temperature, the challenges were very different this time around. Normally I collect wild eggs in the spring, when it’s warm outside, and I have to blast the air conditioning during transport to keep them cool. This time, I collected domestic eggs in the winter, so it was more of a challenge to keep the ambient temperature warm enough!

waiting at the hatchery

Waiting only 15 minutes at the hatchery to collect the chicken eggs and transport them to the lab.

egg carrying case in the car

While studying chickens wasn’t my first choice – and the ‘fieldwork’ wasn’t as much fun – my chicken experiments will help me to compare my results with those of previous studies and integrate my wild bird results into a broader context. So while 2020 was full of uncertainty and frustration, the resilience and persistence we all needed to make it through the year can sometimes produce unexpected benefits. I am learning quickly that these two traits are useful for succeeding in grad school – particularly during a pandemic!

Back to the drawing board

To summarize my last post, plan A didn’t work out. I bet that most field biologists would nod their head in understanding of that statement as rarely does plan A go as successfully as one would hope. So it was back to the drawing board (we actually did draw out the location of cormorant colonies on the white board in my supervisor’s office!).

What were we going to do next? We decided that with time restraints, we better play it safe and stick with something we knew. We chose a colony that my supervisor had visited year after year and it had never failed him. We also had some insider information from another field biologist who had recently visited the colony that said the birds were being productive in creating nests and laying eggs. So this time it was all going to go as exactly as planned!

The truck loaded up with all of our gear hauling the boat behind.

We checked the weather in the morning as is common practice when you are leaving the shore in a boat. The forecast was not ideal weather for fieldwork but the wind speed was under the threshold for safe boating. We packed up the truck and drove 1.5 hours to the boat launch. As we arrived, a fairly thick fog was rolling in and it was drizzling slightly. The field team agreed that it was still safe to go, so we unloaded all of our gear from the truck into the boat and set sail.

The line is zig zag from the port to the island.

**An artist’s rendition** on the drawing board of the route to the island in the fog.

It was a little surreal being out on the open water without being able to see maybe 20 ft in front of you, let alone the lack of visibility of the shoreline to follow. Luckily we had all the fancy GPS and radar equipment to help position and orient ourselves. However, if you’ve ever tried to rely solely on technology, you’ll notice there is a slight lag time. This means that instead of a straight line to the colony, the route we were taking looked more like a roller coaster – if we were going too far towards the left we would turn right but then would be too far right so we would turn left. This lead to a zig zag pattern towards the island. I wish I could have taken a picture of our route, but unfortunately I was being splashed in the face with cold water while holding onto the boat tightly (perks to being the new member on board!) and did not want to risk falling into the lake.

The extra mileage (and therefore time) that it took us to get to the colony left a lot of time for my supervisor to quiz me with questions about statistics. So fun (said no one ever)! Once we finally made it to the island, I was so happy to be standing on solid ground again, even though I still couldn’t see very far in front of me to know what was ahead.

The island in the fog.

As we walked towards the cormorant colony, we did see birds, nests, and even eggs – what a relief from last time! Unfortunately there still was not enough eggs for my project which meant for another boat ride in the fog to get back to the drawing board.

A quick brown fox jumps over the cormorant nests

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

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

items in my field bag

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

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

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

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

Cormorants gather in the middle of the island.

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

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

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

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

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

Oversized survival suit

At the end of this summer, one of my supervisors said he was coming to town and

Double-crested cormorants on perches on an island.

asked if I wanted to help him collect cormorant eggs on small islands in Lake Ontario. Since the double-crested cormorant is a species that I spend a lot of time studying in the lab, I jumped at the chance to get out in the field again.

Despite it being August, the depth and breadth of Lake Ontario results in the water still being very chilly. So for safety and comfort, the field team donned survival suits. These are essentially bright orange onesies that are meant to keep you both dry and warm, especially if you were immersed in cold water. If you google “survival suit” you will see what I mean. Unfortunately, I do not have any pictures because I could hardly move, let alone take out a camera.

two survival suits

Survival suit hanging to dry after a boat ride in the Pacific Ocean.

I am no stranger to survival suits, having worn them when I was looking for seabirds in Haida Gwaii. Based on my few experiences, I am convinced that survival suits only come in size Large and Extra-Large. I understand they are designed to be large enough to fit over your warm field clothes. However, when I met my supervisor this time, it seemed that all the large survival suits were taken and all that was left was an extra-extra-large one. The boot was so large that I could fit my foot in with hiking shoes, and I still had room to move around! Survival suits normally do not allow you much movement, but this one was bunched so much around my body and neck that I could hardly turn left or right (good thing I wasn’t driving!). I even had to use my arms to pick up my feet to step over field gear on the boat!

Trying to stay in good spirits and not embarrass myself, I volunteered to get off the boat to collect the eggs on the island. You can probably imagine this was not an easy task! Have you ever jumped into a big puddle with rain boots on?

One of the islands we visited.

To me, it feels like how I would imagine walking on the moon feels like – the extra air in the boots prevent you from actually touching the ground making balance very tricky.

 

The boat could only drift in a few meters from shore so after a couple wobbly steps on uneven rocks trying not to fall into the water, I was relieved to make it onto land. For more mobility, I unzipped the top half of my survival suit and attempted to tie the arms around my waste. Carrying the heavy pelican case to hold the eggs in one hand, and holding onto the survival suit with the other, I managed to drag my feet to waddle across the island to the cormorant nests.

juvenile cormorant asking for food

“Who are you?!”