Our “why”

2020 was a difficult year for everyone. It was challenging. It was tragic. At some points it didn’t even seem real. The beginning of a multi-year pandemic, locust swarms in Africa, and fires devastating Australia are just a subset of the terrible turns that 2020 took.


Implications for field biologists ranged from minor to significant. With many universities and institutions closed, some projects were put on hold or cancelled. Work was only permitted if considered “essential” – which, more often than not, didn’t include fieldwork. Even when fieldwork could be completed safely without traveling too far from home, it could only continue with additional safety precautions in place. It’s a virtual certainty that all fieldwork was affected in some way in 2020.


For us at Dispatches from the Field, 2020 was a tough year. When we started this blog six years ago, our lives looked very different. With changing geographies, changing life situations, new jobs, and new challenges, keeping up with Dispatches from the Field hasn’t been easy and the motivation hasn’t always been there. And 2020 just reinforced that. With the state of the world, we weren’t always on top of our game. We aren’t afraid to admit that. This past year was not easy.


So, the three of us (Amanda, Catherine, and Sarah) all sat down (virtually, of course) to figure some things out. Could the blog continue? Were we motivated enough to keep it going? Did we have the time? After much discussion, the answer was clear: yes. Yes, to all of the above. While the focus of the discussion was a lot of logistical stuff about dividing up the work and how we can attract more guest posters, what we really needed to consider was why we started the blog in the first place.


Dispatches was created to share stories about fieldwork, stories capturing the core of the experience and the moments that never make it into scientific papers. We wanted to teach people about important places and species by sharing engaging stories about our experiences with them. Our ultimate goal was to inspire people to care. When people care about something, it elicits action. It provokes calls to change. It results in movements to protect our beautiful planet. We need people to care more now than ever about the world, about our precious natural resources, about conservation and protection, about each other and about the incredible diversity of life on earth.


Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously remarked, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In creating Dispatches from the Field, it was never our intention to change the world. But we hoped, by telling our stories, to inspire others to care. And if even a small handful of people start to care about a place, or a plant, or a rare animal because they connected with one of the stories we told, then that could be the beginning of a real push for change.


With that thought in mind, we are all really excited to keep this blog going. It won’t be easy; it never has been and it never will be. There will always be other stuff going on in our lives: new commitments, new changes, and new challenges. But at the back of our minds, we will remember why we are doing this, why we started it, and why we can’t let it go.


If you have a story you want to share please reach out to use at fieldworkblog[at]gmail.com.

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!

What do you miss most about fieldwork?

As time slips by during the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic, my plans for fieldwork keep changing. Even in a normal year, fieldwork can be unpredictable. However, when social distancing rules are in effect and uncertainty about how long this could last keeps growing, fieldwork plans may not even have a chance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the small window of time I had during the cormorant breeding season to conduct my field study still seemed far away. But as cities stayed closed and travel remained risky, that small window approached. If I walk through my neighbourhood down to the shoreline of Lake Ontario, I can see an island where cormorants nest. Through binoculars, I’ve watched the cormorants arrive on the island and build their nests. Although the island is too far away to see any details, as the parents sit on their nests more consistently, I can only assume they are incubating eggs. I’m happy for the birds, but I am also watching the opportune window of time for my fieldwork plans slip away.

However, while I am frustrated, researchers are used to coming up with plan B (and C, D, etc.)! For now, I am fortunate to be able to use the time to work on results from my last field season.

But as I look back through my data, I keep thinking about everything I miss about fieldwork – and I’m guessing that I’m not alone. So we asked field biologists on Twitter what they missed most about fieldwork. You can check out the full conversation here, but here’s a summary of what we’ve been hearing:

  • Surprisingly, the things that bug you the most when you’re in the thick of it (such as early mornings and the sights and smells of a seabird colony) turn out to be the things you miss the most.

 

  • Your field crew really does become your field family, through all of your experiences together  (including getting a positive response from saying “poop!” and competitions running through sagebrush).

 

 

 

 

 

  • The idea of being unplugged and outside – and everyone else you know understanding why.

 

 

 

  • Enjoying the little things after a hard day’s work (like being covered in dirt and the best tasting ice cream).

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • The cool questions we get to ask and try to answer in limited amounts of time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading all the responses we got really solidified the reasons why we love fieldwork. In these times of uncertainty, what we all keep hearing is true – we really are all in this together! So feel free to keep sharing what you miss most about fieldwork and let us know if you want to share a fieldwork story on the blog. We are always looking for guest posts!