Things I had to learn the hard way during my first winter in Alaska

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Emily Williams, an Avian Biologist who left her warm home in Florida to work at the chilly (might be an understatement) Denali National Park and Preserve. For more about Emily, check out the end of the post!

I usually scoff when I hear stereotypes or clichés that are used to generalize people that come from a certain state or region of the country. Beyond a personal aversion to phrases such as “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” I am always quick to point out when most people break the stereotypical mold.

As a person from Florida, I am no stranger to southern sayings. I’ve heard them my entire life – and can hold my own in a discussion about the differences between being southern, country, or redneck. While I may be from Florida, I often don’t claim my latitudinal roots because I am easily captivated by topography, cool temperatures, and an absence of urban sprawl. If anyone ever attempts to call me a southern belle or a Florida girl, I am quick with a terse response, usually containing an expletive or two.

But as much as it makes me cringe to say it, I have to admit that the phrase “Florida girl” – in reference to yours truly – couldn’t ring more true than it has over the past few months while I’ve been living in Alaska.

Let’s step back a minute so I can regain some of my last remaining bits of dignity, despite what I just very publicly admitted. Over the past nine years I’ve been doing field work, I have faced a number of the trials, tribulations, and “less than ideal” conditions that characterize a typical field job, and then some. I’ve found myself in the seed tick and mosquito-infested scrub of Maryland, where not an inch of skin was not red and itchy; I’ve (very stupidly) forded chest-high rushing rivers and cascaded down landslides in Manu National Park, Peru; I’ve careened my way driving stick through 5-o’clock traffic in the heart of Brisbane on the wrong (left) side of the road; I’ve slogged through 10-foot tall grass lugging 50 lbs of trapping equipment;  I’ve bartered with capuchins over who would win the revered sheet of toilet paper; and the list goes on.

capuchin looking over the side of the roof

Capuchins were always slinking around our field station in Peru. We frequently caught them stealing our food, in addition to the toilet paper.

In each of these situations, while much of the hazardous, chaotic excitement occurred unexpectedly, I usually felt prepared for whatever might come. Most of my friends and family would use those words to describe me:  “prepared,” “organized,” “plans everything ahead.” Given these particular traits, I usually can pass as someone who knows a thing or two, or at least as someone who doesn’t act like a noob in a new, foreign environment.

Now fast forward to May 2016, when I took a position at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Being an organized, well prepared person, I had solicited the advice of countless locals, my landlords, my supervisors, coworkers, friends, people off the street, etc.

winter sleeping bag and booties

This is a -60◦F sleeping bag I bought as part of my car winter survival kit. You can see it’s huge in comparison to my hiking boot, and stands several inches from the floor. Most guides recommend stocking your car with a sleeping bag in case you get stuck somewhere and have to sleep overnight. The temperature rating should be between -40 and -60◦F to ensure you don’t freeze to death. I also bought down booties to wear for winter camping.

– anyone who knew more than I did about life in Alaska, or more specifically, how to survive the winter in Alaska. Knowing that the winter basically begins at the end of September, I figured had roughly four months to prepare (May – August). I had researched several websites and good sources of information about how to prepare a car winter survival kit – which must contain such essential items as a heat source, way to ignite said heat source, and any number of items that in effect guarantee you won’t freeze to death if you happen to plow into a snow bank/slide off the road and get stuck overnight.

Alaska, as a state and a culture, has won the hearts of many Americans and people throughout the world, as it has been popularized over the last several years by reality tv shows such as “Bush People,” “Alaska, the Last Frontier,” and “Deadliest Catch” . You also can’t understate the important role Sarah Palin played in bringing Alaska to fame. Several of these “reality” tv shows (and Sarah Palin) trivialize and form a caricature of life in Alaska. Yet, many of the shows’ aspects which highlight preparation for cold, snowy winters and long, sunlight-less days and nights are no joke.

Alaska, true to the cliché, is entirely a land of extremes. In interior Alaska where I live, winter lasts for eight to nine months of the year. Days and weeks of -40F are a regular occurrence, and wind chill can cause temperatures to feel like -55 or -65F. (The bikini and board short shots of students in front of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks sign proudly displaying -60F is really a thing.) The landscape looks like a  barren, snowy wasteland: deciduous trees and vegetation are stripped of their foliage, many species of wildlife are hibernating, and everything is blanketed in white. On the shortest day of the year in the Denali area, we receive just under four hours of sunlight. That’s also not to say we don’t experience months of low light before and after Winter Solstice. Even the light we do receive is at less than half mast; the angle of the sun is so low in many parts of interior Alaska that it doesn’t reach over mountain tops, causing valleys and anywhere at low elevation to be largely in shadow.

landscape of Denali National Park

The landscape of Denali National Park and Preserve in the winter can be a forbidding, albeit beautiful place, with subzero temperatures, chilling wind, and heaps of snow. NPS Photo/Jacob Frank

While all the research, advice, and hundreds of dollars spent on equipment could help prepare me to some extent, nothing could actually prepare me for truly experiencing winter in Alaska. Or, for that matter, conducting my first winter field season – in a subarctic ecosystem.

This year the avian ecology program at Denali is piloting a study on Gray Jays – a charismatic denizen of the boreal forest. Unlike most birds, which start breeding in April and May, Gray Jays start nest building by late February. Which means that us crazy folks who study these oversized chickadees (in my opinion) must be out there with them – come hell (frozen over) or high water (or snow).

To conduct field work in Alaska during February, March, and April, one must be prepared for all conditions – be it blowing wind and snow directly to the face, -25F temperatures (give or take another -5 to -15 degrees  with wind chill), freezing rain, or waist-high snow to post-hole in.

Emily in the deep snow

My knees are just above the surface of the snow in this photo. This was before we received an additional two feet of snow a couple of weeks later!

While I have researched and talked to many people about how to clothe myself during subzero temperatures, all the talking in the world doesn’t really help, to be honest. There’s really no way to describe what -30F feels like until you actually feel it. Each time the temperature gets lower I receive a new experience. How could you know what -40F feels like when you’ve only just felt -29F?!

The best way I have learned what to wear in such temperatures is to go outside, suffer persevere through it, and figure it out. One thing I learned while living here is that there are multiple “weights” to base layers. A summer spent working on wind farms in Wyoming, where it snowed until June and could be bitterly cold and windy, still didn’t instill this knowledge. I naively assumed that one wore long johns and that was it – little did I know that there are sometimes 2, 3, and 4 under layers to choose from!

I feel as if most everyone in the lower ’48 told me the best way to prepare for winter is to layer up. Layer, layer, layer. However, what I didn’t realize is that layering can also sink you. Dressing to stay warm for subzero temperatures while also doing strenuous activity is a constant balancing act; one must walk a tenuous tightrope between trying to be warm, but not too warm.

gray jays on top of the trap

Two Gray Jays having a discussion about whether to pursue the delicious bread inside the Potter trap. Photo by John Marzluff.

Field work at Denali during this time of year involves snowshoeing on mountainous terrain that is oftentimes more uphill than downhill – which can quickly cause you to sweat (despite the -20F surroundings!). Working with Gray Jays and trying to find their nests means that bursts of strenuous hiking are broken up by hours-long periods of standing still, making observations.

Emily bundled up with a Gray Jay in her hand

Winter trapping of Gray Jays involves much more clothing than I am generally used to wearing when capturing birds: most days only my eyes are exposed.

Wearing too many layers in such cases can swiftly cause you to become hypothermic, as all that sweat acts to cool your body down. Wearing down, which I previously had been told was the warmest jacket material, only compounds this problem. Sweat can cause down to get wet – so that all the magical insulating properties of down feathers are virtually rendered useless, and ultimately only serve to make you colder.

Another hard lesson I had to learn by living it was that cold temperatures make things freeze. Who knew?! Having never had to think about it before, I left my full Nalgene of water secured in my backpack in the field vehicle one night. The next morning, when I went to grab my bottle, I ended up grabbing just the top lid – the lid had broken cleanly off from the rest of the bottle! The water within had expanded during the freezing process and completely burst the bottle. Of course, as the structural integrity of the Nalgene had been compromised, my pack was now covered in thousands of tiny crystals of ice, which meant that I had to air out (in a heated room) all the contents of my bag. Along these same lines, after a frozen salad incident subsequently concluding in a very hangry biologist, I learned to keep field food (and water!) insulated in my pack.

This is just a small sample of the lessons I’ve had to learn the hard way during my first winter field season in Alaska.

While I have chiefly highlighted the harshness of living and working in Alaska for this blog post, I cannot emphasize enough how amazingly beautiful this place is. I count my lucky stars every day that I have been granted such an amazing opportunity to live and work in a place such as Denali. The good stories full of nights of aurora borealis gazing, cool, quiet mornings listening to birdsong, unexpected encounters with wolves, and quirky Alaska-isms far outweigh the bad.

looking up to the nest in the tree

A Gray Jay nest high up in a spruce tree. NPS Photo/Reina Galvan

While my usual, overprepared self had many growing pains and much knowledge to gain this year, I am sure there will be many more adventures to come for this Florida girl digging life in the Great White North of Alaska.

Opinions on this blog post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Emily WilliamsEmily Williams completed her MSc degree at Kansas State University and now works as an Avian Biologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s research focuses on dispersal and migration ecology of birds. While her heart still remains with the Grasshopper Sparrows of the tallgrass prairie, she is excited to work among the boreal forests chasing Gray Jays and other arctic birds.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

For more info:

Emily Williams: http://www.aliceboyle.net/BoyleLab/BoyleLab_EJWilliams.html

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page: https://www.nps.gov/dena/learn/nature/birds.htm

UAF swimsuit photo: http://www.photos.uaf.edu/keyword/temperature%20sign

The bear necessities

Anyone who has been following my posts has probably figured out by now that I am essentially a scaredy-Cat.  I love being in the field, but when I’m there, I worry about anything and everything – from mountain lions all the way down to cows.  Unsurprisingly, bears have always featured pretty high on my list of worries.  Huge, powerful bodies, sharp teeth, and a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised…what’s not to love?

My initial bear encounter took place during my very first field season, up the Queen’s University Biological Station – and, in fact, wasn’t an actual encounter at all.  I was working at the station as a field assistant, and my duties included daily inspections of approximately 200 tree swallow nest boxes.  One day, as I made my way through a grid of boxes, I suddenly realized that one was missing.  At first, I wondered if I was losing it: how could a nest box just vanish?  However, closer inspection revealed that the box was actually still there…in pieces on the ground.  The nest was torn apart, the nestlings were gone, and a pile of bear scat sat on the ground close to the wreckage.

Until that point, I had thought of QUBS as an entirely safe place to do fieldwork.  Finding the ruins of that box was a rude awakening.  I froze in place and stared frantically around the field, looking for other indications that a bear had been there – or, more problematically, was still there.

In the end, of course, I found nothing; the bear that had destroyed the box was long gone.  In fact, over the course of my two summers at QUBS, I never actually saw a bear, just heard occasional second- or third-hand stories of sightings.  I eventually accepted that I was highly unlikely to actually meet a bear at QUBS, and I relaxed.

All that changed when I started my PhD.  I was thrilled to be doing my fieldwork in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia…but at the same time, my mind heard the word “mountains” and interpreted it as “bear country”.  And while no one would claim the Okanagan is overrun by bears, my research informed me that black bears are reasonably common there, and even grizzlies aren’t unheard of.  Too make matters worse, a lot of my work took place in vineyards, where bears can be a big problem in late summer, when they come down out of the hills to gorge themselves on the grapes.

In preparation for this ‘highly dangerous’ fieldwork, I purchased a plethora of bear bells (to warn bears people were coming) and a few cans of bear spray (to deal with bears that didn’t heed the warning).  Armed with these tools (and accompanied by a ceaseless jingling), I felt pretty secure wandering around my field sites.  That is, until one day, when a local asked me, “How do you tell the difference between black bear scat and grizzly bear scat?”

“I don’t know,” I said innocently.  “How do you tell the difference?”

“Well, black bear scat is full of berries.  And grizzly bear scat…well, it smells like pepper spray and jingles a bit when you kick it.”

With a wicked smile, he went on his way.  I stared foolishly after him, clutching my pepper spray while my backpack jingled faintly.

This conversation somewhat eroded my faith in my bear spray and bells.  On top of that, it turns out that ceaseless jingling is phenomenally annoying after a few days.  Add to that the fact that I kept accidentally leaving my bear spray behind in various locations (forcing me to spend additional time wandering around in bear country attempting to retrieve it) and it’s not hard to understand why I decided to abandon that approach.

But I was still not enthusiastic about encountering a surprised, irritable bear.  So I devised a new strategy: I would just talk to myself as I wandered the hills, providing fair warning to any bear in earshot.

However, I quickly found out that it’s hard to talk constantly when you don’t have anything in particular to say.  In desperation, I found myself thinking back to high school, trying to recall any lines of the poetry or prose we’d recited in English class.  As it turns out, the only thing I remembered was the prologue to Romeo and Juliet.  So day after day, I would stumble around the Okanagan back country, repeating “Two households both alike in dignity / In fair Verona where we lay our scene…” as loudly as possible.  It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t encounter too many people on my wanderings.  At least the bears of the Okanagan are now well educated.

I guess the star crossed lovers did the trick, because I didn’t actually see any bears for most of my first field season.  But one day in early August, as I was making my way back to the car in one of my most isolated field sites, I rounded a corner and found myself about a hundred feet from a black bear.

Given that I’d worried about this exact scenario all summer, I was surprisingly taken aback. I turned on my heel and started walking away briskly, trying not to look back over my shoulder.  Finally, though, I just had to know.  I whipped around to survey where the bear had been…only to realize it had vanished.  Now I had a new problem: there was definitely a bear in my immediate vicinity, but I no longer had any idea where it was, and it was a very long walk back to the car.

Isolated ranch field site in the Okanagan

Can you spot the bear in this picture?… Nope, I can’t either.

Clearly the thing to do was keep talking to avoid surprising it; unfortunately, though, Romeo and Juliet deserted me in my panic.  So I decided that the logical thing to do was call home and talk to my parents.

When I dialed my home number, my sister picked up.  I told her about the bear and explained that I just needed to stay on the phone to keep talking.  “That’s too bad,” she said impatiently.  “But I need to call my friend now.  Call Mum on her cell instead.”

Right.

I hung up with her, and did as she suggested, still striding in the direction of the car while swiveling my head vigilantly in all directions. This time, I managed to get a hold of my mum…and that’s when I learned that you never, ever, ever call your mother and tell her that you’re in the middle of nowhere, with an unseen but very real bear lurking around.  She was quite willing to stay on the phone with me, but had no problem letting me know that she was not thrilled with the situation overall.

Much to our mutual relief, I made it to the car with no problems, and I didn’t see another bear for the rest of the field season.  In fact, it was over a year before my next bear encounter.  This second run-in happened at a less isolated site, but played out in much the same way as the first.  I froze briefly, then did an about face and walked away.  And once again, after a few seconds, I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder.  This time, the bear was still visible.  In fact, it looked an awful lot like he had also done an about face and was hurrying in the opposite direction as fast as his furry paws could take him.

Apparently some bears are aware that humans also have a distinct tendency to be irritable when surprised.

Looking for cryptic animals…without location information

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome our first guest poster of 2017.  Megan Snetsinger shares some stories from her often frustrating hunt for Butler’s Gartersnakes in the wilds and not-so-wilds of Michigan.  For more about Megan, check out her bio at the end of the post.

garter-snake-1

A snake in the hand is worth two in the bush…

I’m working on a research project about the Butler’s Gartersnake. As I’m currently in the writing process, it’s easiest to write ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING ELSE. So let me tell you about planning my last field season.

Studying an at-risk snake in Ontario can be challenging, due to the restrictions placed on even considering touching one. But in some ways, it’s also fairly convenient, because the province has a strong philosophy on maintaining a record of species presence. As my project mainly covers Ontario snakes, most of my field season prep consisted of drowning myself in permit applications. But we (i.e. my supervising committee) decided that it would be useful to include some American snakes from locations adjacent to the Canadian range. And thus began my quest to find Butler’s Gartersnakes in Michigan.

This quest almost immediately hit a roadblock – because there’s no database recording location information for reptiles in Michigan. And the Butler’s Gartersnake isn’t endangered there. It’s considered as much of a ‘throwaway’ species as the much more widespread Eastern Gartersnake, so even the herpetologists don’t put too much effort in recording where they’re found. I was on my own.

map

The not-so-wilds of Michigan

My first step was to check maps for potential habitat. Not a good beginning. Check out the stretch of Michigan across from Southwestern Ontario on Google Earth. Half of it is taken up by the sprawl of Detroit and the rest is a patchwork of municipalities and farm fields. Not that I’m unaccustomed to that kind of layout – take away the giant urban centre, and that’s what the Ontario side of the border looks like. As much as I wish this weren’t the case, the Butler’s Gartersnake populations don’t have access to huge swaths of habitat; they eke out their existence in whatever pockets are available to them. I had to go smaller scale.

Zooming in on land features, I tried to pick out any locations that might have potential. While prairie-type habitat adjacent to water is the best, I settled for anything that might have long grass. This had no guarantee of working. It’s tricky to identify long grass. And even when satellite imagery is up to date, mowing can happen at any time. And there was another problem. Many of the most promising sites were on private land, owned by … somebody. Usually a corporation of some sort, which isn’t identified on Google and isn’t apparent in the street view. Trespassing on these sites seemed unwise. I needed to limit my search to locations that had public access, or at the very least had a name and face attached so I could request access.

Using these criteria, I had a working list of definite and possible places to check out. And this is where I learned that you never ever ever escape permits in fieldwork. The sampling permit was a gimme, again because no one there seems to care overly much about the snakes, but everyone I asked required intensive access permits. But I am nothing if not tenacious, and by the time I set out for the field I was wielding a binder full of printouts.

Once in the field, it was Google Earth all over again, with the added joy of trying to look for animals that are evolved to blend into and move quickly in grass, and have a habit of diving under said grass whenever someone walks nearby. We usually get only moments to react to their movement before they’ve vanished. And if they do get under the grass, that’s game over. A lot of grass-stained knees were acquired from diving to catch snakes.

Spot the snake...

Spot the snake: Butler’s Gartersnakes are quite good at hiding in grass!

With less than 2 weeks to work with, we started in St. Clair, Michigan and worked our way south, checking off stops on my (increasingly dubious) list. Some places that seemed like sure bets (e.g. state parks with a lot of open, grassy areas) turned up few to no Butler’s, and some “mayyyyyybes” (e.g. a mostly-mowed municipal park with a little patch of longer grass) were my only successful locations in a given region. That’s not to say that all my questionable locations were winners. We went though a lot of ‘drive in, look around, drive out.’

Some of the larger locations, particularly the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, even had site ecologists who were helped by telling us what they knew about sightings on-site. One of the best location resources was the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. They were happy to help conservation research, and gave us access to many of their locations, also suggesting which of their sites would prove most fruitful to search. Really, everyone was very nice. While checking out one of the Refuge sites, we met a farmer who was interested in what we were doing and offered us access to survey his land if we wanted. It turns out that even though Michigan lacks the ecological infrastructure that Ontario has, cooperation is always what drives successful fieldwork.

And it all worked out. I would have liked to have found more snakes (more data is never a bad thing, and what I got was not enough to study Michigan snakes as a focal population in my thesis), but I got a smattering of samples covering the stretch of land I wanted to cover. So all you really need for successful field work is months of prep, great collaborators, and a fantastic field assisstant (thanks Tori!). It’s simple really…

bio-picMegan Snetsinger is a Master’s student at Queen’s University working in Dr. Stephen Lougheed’s lab. Her research is a population ecology study, using genetic methods to determine how and why Butler’s Gartersnakes are distributed across their range. Like any geneticist, she spends a lot of time in the lab, but the real joy of the process is letting out her inner 8-year-old when running around catching snakes.

Family in the Field

Fieldwork often takes you away from home – whether it is 1 hour away for a day trip or across the country. As with your actual family, there are the good, the bad, and the ugly memories with members of your field team. Regardless of the circumstances, your field team becomes your family in the field.

They keep you company

Fieldwork can get pretty lonely, especially if you are in a remote location. At first this sounds quite appealing: you can just listen to the birds chirping and the waves crashing against the rocks without any interruption. However, it is always nice to share the experiences with someone. Even what might seem like the worst moment in the field at the time can always be laughed about later on with your field team.

field team in Mexico

Team “BioCaliente” – Field team in the Yucatan, Mexico

Sometimes you look up to them

As Sarah tells it: Although I only spent about 3 weeks in the field with Ed*, he became like a grandfather to me. He had so much experience with fieldwork and so much wisdom. At the beginning, it took all of my strength to not just stare in awe listening to the many stories he shared. Not only did he teach me all of the skills I needed to know for the fieldwork ahead, he also shared simple life hacks. For example, he taught me the proper way to wash dishes – cutlery first (the item that goes directly in your mouth), then glasses (also touches the outside of your mouth), and finally the plates. He was able to push me to my limits but did not let me fall past them. He literally caught me at the bottom of a hill that I was sliding down! Although our lives are different at home, we were able to connect in the field and share our love of conservation and biology.

But sometimes you can’t get away from them

I think of the relationship with members of field teams like a relationship

Sarah with her best field mate

Sarah with her best field mate (and bff) experiencing the good, the bad, and the ugly (she knows what I mean!).

with a sibling – you enjoy each other’s company but spending every waking moment together can result in getting on each other’s nerves. You know each other’s schedule even down to the details you don’t necessarily want to know about! However, you don’t really have a choice. You have to have at least two people in the field for safety purposes. On the plus side, two sets of eyes are always better than one and they are often at your side to save you when you start to go a little crazy worrying about where that bird may be hiding, or maybe where you last put your water bottle.

Despite knowing every detail, they still support you

amanda_fieldwork-clothesAs Amanda tells it: One of the best things about having a field family is that you get really close really fast. You learn interesting facts about each other and because you spend so much time together day after day, you also learn about each other’s personal lives (past and present) and their goals for the future. Whether it was support or advice on a new relationship, talking about where we wanted to be in ten years, or chatting about family problems, my field family has remained one of my biggest support systems throughout graduate school. In fact, to date, I still keep in close contact with almost all of my field family and we continue to support one another as our stories continue to develop.

 

Thank you to our followers for keeping us company as we continue to share dispatches from the field from around the world!Amanda, Sarah and Catherine at the QUBS open house with their poster board

 

*name changed for the purpose of this story

 

Dressing like a woman

There’s an interesting phenomenon anyone who has spent time in a university science department has probably noticed: the epidemic of the vanishing women. If you walk into an undergraduate lab or lecture hall, many of the seats will be filled by women. If you look at the graduate students in a science department, there will still be lots of women – but maybe not quite as many. If you consider the post docs in that department, you’ll see fewer women still. And finally, if you look at the faculty, it’s almost certain that the men will far outnumber the women.

It’s a fact that there are fewer women than men in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields – even if it doesn’t always start out that way at the undergraduate level. So where are all these women going?

Detailing the many answers to that question is far beyond the scope of this post. But at least part of the problem arises from the fact that women face different challenges than men in the sciences. Some of these challenges are trivial. For example, I’m sure every female field biologist has had a moment of pure jealousy about how easy it is for men to pee in the field. Certainly all of us at Dispatches can remember frantically searching for sufficiently dense clumps of underbrush, while our male field assistants simply turned their backs and got on with things.

However, many of the challenges facing women in science are far from trivial. Being a woman in science sometimes means having to prove your competence over and over – often even to your male field assistants, colleagues, and supervisors. Being a woman in science regularly means fighting for respect in the field, in the lab, and in the world at large.

Recent political events in the United States have once again brought the topic of women in science into the public eye. And so as we here at Dispatches launch into a new year of reporting field adventures from all over the world, we thought we’d get off to a good start by focusing on an oft-neglected topic: field fashion. What does it mean to dress like a woman…in the field?

Cat

It was a muggy, hot July day in eastern Ontario. I dragged myself out of bed at the usual 5 a.m. to get myself ready for a day of trudging around fields, peering into bird boxes to check on the nestlings inside. It had been raining steadily for several days – but that morning, the sun came back with a vengeance, creating that miserable steamy humidity so characteristic of Ontario summers.

cat_boots

Rocking the rubber boots and jean shorts combo.

I could tell from the moment my feet hit the floor beside my bed that it was going to be a scorcher of a day – and so I decided that I had no choice but to wear my old cut-off jean shorts (almost knee length, high waisted, trailing bits of thread as they unravelled, overall incredibly flattering). However, I realized I had another problem: the ground was still soaking wet from the days of rain. Obviously, the logical choice was to pair the jean shorts with my big, clunky black rubber boots. To complete the ensemble, I pulled an old tank top out of the pile of clothes by my bed, realizing as I did so that it was decorated with streaks of bird poop, which I decided not to worry about, since I would shortly be adding to them. I topped the whole thing off with my stupidly big floppy hat and my massively sexy binocular bra – a harness that crosses over my back and suspends my binoculars in the middle of my chest. (And yes, I fully admit that there are few things in the world as geeky as a bino bra – but what they lose in the fashion department, they more than make up for in comfort.)

As I left my room to start the day, my boss burst out laughing at the sight of me – but I’ve never felt better dressed for the day ahead.

Amanda

The problem with being a field biologist, particularly a plant community ecologist, is that I really never know exactly what to wear. In early spring, I have to wear rain gear, and a lot of it. In summer, I want to wear as little as possible, but that just doesn’t work. Long pants are necessary…always. In fact, long pants tucked into socks are all the rage, as ticks (and Lyme disease) are a real and present threat. And even when it’s sweltering, and I want to wear a tank top, there is not enough bug spray in the world to keep away the swarming deer flies in an old field. So sleeves – preferably long- are a necessity. And even on a windy day, when the flies are blissfully absent, too much exposed skin is still a bad idea, because no amount of sunscreen protects me from the heat of the July sun beating down on the back of my neck. To top it all off, to deal with the constant run-ins with thistles and wild parsnips, I usually wear rain boots to protect myself. Long pants (tucked into my socks), long sleeves, and rain boots in the sweltering July heat…quite the fieldwork outfit.

amanda_fieldwork-clothes

Fall field ensemble . And yes, Jen does have a bucket on her head.

My favourite outfits, though, are the fall fieldwork outfits. Dressed in layers to keep warm, covered in rain gear, and then decked out in bright orange so no one mistakes me for a deer. Hats and toques (at the same time, of course) are also a must, as they keep the sun and rain off my face, and also keep my head warm. And of course, I still have my pants tucked into my socks.  But at least I complement the fall colours nicely. That’s some serious fieldwork fashion!

 

Sarah

As a first time field biologist, whose training to date had been exclusively in the lab, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I headed out to the west coast of Canada to sample seabirds. Everything I heard regarding the weather in northern British Columbia included the words “dreary” and “wet”. In addition, since I was going in early spring, I was expecting it to be cold as well.

sarah_rain-coat

Take that, “cold, dreary, wet” BC!!

I wanted to make sure I was prepared for the type of weather I was likely to encounter…but some might say I was overprepared. This is a picture of me on my first day: I was wearing two pairs of socks, rain boots, two pairs of pants, rain pants, 3 shirts, a rain coat, a thicker rain over jacket (of heavy plastic), a toque, mitts, and a lifejacket (safety first!). My ‘feminine curves’ were well and truly hidden from view!

Luckily, all of the rain gear protected me from the rain and the waves splashing over the side of the boat on our way to the island. However, the rest of my time there featured beautiful, warm weather with lots of sunshine. Needless to say, traversing the cliffs of remote islands wasn’t too easy in all of that gear and the layers came off one by one.

 

So what’s the take-home message of these stories? Well, for one thing, it’s pretty certain that none of us will be getting a job at the White House any time soon.

However, there’s another message as well. The start of a new year here at Dispatches seemed like a good time to reflect on why we started this blog in the first place. First and foremost, we wanted to give field scientists a place to share stories about the places they love.

But we also developed Dispatches because all three of us are women in the sciences who love what we do. We hope that by sharing our passion for fieldwork and science, we might provide a bit of inspiration to young women starting out in science, and do our small part to combat the epidemic of the vanishing women.

Cold comfort

Light raindrops pattered against the tarp stretched above my head.  Deep inside my tank top, t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, and jacket, I shivered.  The damp cold of the day had made its way insidiously through my layers of clothing, freezing me from the inside out – and we had only been sitting here for two hours, meaning we had at least six more to go.  I sighed, resigning myself to a(nother) cold, clammy, uncomfortable day.

Most field biologists have spent at least a few days freezing their butts off in the field.  Unfortunately for me, however, being cold is not something I’m particularly tolerant of.  And in this case, the deep chill seeping into my bones was somewhat unexpected – because most people don’t go to Hawaii to be cold.

As we’ve mentioned before on this blog, field biologists often get a unique perspective of the places where they work.  So while bikini-clad tourists lay tanning on the beach less than 50 km away, I spent most of my time in Hawaii clad in at least three layers of clothing, huddled on the northeastern slopes of the Big Island’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea.

As it happens, Mauna Kea is not just the tallest mountain in Hawaii – it is, in fact, the tallest mountain in the world (depending on how you look at it).  From its base on the sea floor, it rises over 33,000 feet – almost 1,000 feet higher than Mt. Everest.  Of course, only 13,802 of those feet actually rise above the surface of the ocean – but it’s still a lot colder at thirteen thousand feet in the air than it is at sea level.  The top of Mauna Kea is frequently snow-covered in winter, and spending a rainy day hanging out on its slopes can be a chilly experience.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

Watching the sunset from the top of Mauna Kea.

No one mentioned this aspect of Mauna Kea to me before I took the job – or, indeed, filled me in on the fact that our field accommodations were luxurious in every way except one: they had no heat.  And so I spent a great deal of my time in Hawaii shivering.  (In fact, I was once so cold that I tried warming my hands over the open flame of our gas stove.  This backfired when the sleeve of my sweatshirt caught fire – but for just an instant, before I extinguished the flames in the sink, all I could think was, “Wow! My hands are finally warm!”)

However, while the damp, misty chill of the Hawaiian forest was perhaps not ideal for field biologists (at least, not for me), it turns out that it’s pretty important for the organisms we were there to study: the birds.

I went to Hakalau to work as a field assistant on a long-term study examining population trends of Hawaiian forest birds.  Although just about anyone would be excited to be spending the winter months in Hawaii, I was excited for an entirely different reason than most people: Hawaiian honeycreepers are one of the poster children of adaptive radiation.

An 'akiapola'au shows off his amazing multi-tool bill.

An ‘akiapola’au shows off his amazing, multi-purpose bill.

Arising from a single, unspecialized ancestor species, Hawaiian honeycreeper species have exploded to fill multiple ecological niches on the islands.  There are finch-like honeycreepers and parrot-like honeycreepers and warbler-like honeycreepers.  And then there’s my particular favourite: the ‘akiapola’au – which we nicknamed the ‘Swiss Army knife bird’.  ‘Akis fill the woodpecker niche in the Hawaiian forest.  They use their straight, strong lower bills to drill holes in tree bark, and their long, curved upper bills to probe those holes for insect larvae.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, i'iwis are hard to miss.

With their striking scarlet and black plumage, ‘i’iwis are hard to miss.

It’s one thing to learn about adaptive radiation in a lecture hall…but quite another to see its results, firsthand, in the field.  Honeycreepers may not be the quintessential example of adaptive radiation – that honour being reserved for Darwin’s Galapagos finches – but they are (with all due respect to Darwin) definitely one of the most dazzling.  My first day at Hakalau, I was constantly distracted by flashes of colour, as the deep scarlet of an ‘i‘iwi or the bright orange of an ‘akepa flitted through the nearby ‘ohi‘a trees.  Seeing their endless, beautiful forms brought evolution to life for me in a way that four years of undergraduate biology textbooks never had.

Unfortunately, however, Hawaiian birds are not just the poster child for adaptive radiation.  They could also be featured on posters for another buzzword concept in biology: multiple stressors.  Hawaiian birds are currently under attack from every side…and, more often than not, they’re losing the fight.

The plight of Hawaii’s forest birds started – as these stories so often do – when humans showed up, changing habitats and trailing with us the usual host of desired and not-so-desired biological companions.  From rats and house cats to feral pigs, non-native bird species, and mosquitoes, humans unleashed (sometimes intentionally, but more often unintentionally) a tidal wave of invasive species that swamped the delicate balance of life on the remote Hawaiian islands.

While each of these invasive species individually has a negative effect on Hawaii’s native birds, it’s in concert with each other that they become especially dangerous.  Some of the introduced bird species on the island arrived there carrying avian malaria, a blood parasite that is relatively common in most places, but foreign to Hawaii.  The introduced mosquitoes acted as vectors to transfer that parasite to the native birds – which had never been exposed to it, and hence were completely lacking any defences.  Even the feral pigs got in on the act, digging up roots in the forest and inadvertently creating hollows which filled with water, providing ideal breeding sites for mosquitoes.  It’s a multi-pronged attack, and one that has resulted in the decimation of many of Hawaii’s native bird species.

But these native birds do have one thing going for them – the cold.  Mosquitoes are largely restricted to low elevation areas of the islands (~5000 feet), as their larvae don’t develop properly at the lower temperatures found further up the slopes.  So high elevation forests, like those found at Hakalau, have for decades acted as refuges for Hawaiian honeycreepers.

And therein lies yet another problem: we all know, as the climate warms, that cold places will not necessarily stay cold.  In Hawaii, climate change is yet another stressor for the birds.  Increasing temperatures will likely mean the end of these high altitude refuges, and even more dramatic declines in honeycreeper populations, as has been documented in recent studies on the island of Kaua’i.  Slowing the rate of climate change may be the only hope for some of these already beleaguered species.

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not very good at being cold – in fact, it makes me decidedly grumpy.  But while I was in Hawaii, watching an ‘i‘iwi feed on the bright pink flowers of an ‘ohi‘a or an ‘akiapola’au hammering holes in the bark of a koa tree more than made up for the damp chill.  Without the cold, I might never have had the chance to see these spectacular and declining species.  That realization alone was enough to make me almost appreciate the shivering…except perhaps for the day I caught my sleeve on fire.

An endangered Hawaii 'akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

An endangered Hawaii ‘akepa perches on a convenient branch after banding.

Dispatch from the jungle

We are very excited to welcome Dr. Alice Boyle back as a guest poster today. In her previous post, Alice shared some of her adventures from her doctoral fieldwork in Central American, and this week she takes us back to the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, check out her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month we would work very hard for 23 days, and then my assistants visited beaches and volcanos, while I prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family during those breaks, and my father urged me to publish them. A while back, I posted excerpts from the April letter. Here, I continue that story with an account of the crazy first week of May as we initiated a nest predation experiment across at 3000 m elevational gradient.

When I last wrote I was just getting ready for the big “nest predation experiment” month. All was going smoothly until the very last minute. Three days before starting to place nests, I went to San Jose to pick up the car*, the last batch of canary eggs, 400 wicker nests, bags of moss, and other weird miscellaneous supplies (for example, tiny decorative ice-cube trays for transport of jelly-bean sized fragile canary eggs). My last stop was to get the baskets that would become “nests”, made to order by a Guatemalan artisan. When I arrived, the store owner started bringing out bundles of NOT the 8-cms diameter cup-shaped baskets I had ordered, but huge pigeon-nest-sized baskets! AGH! Four hundred useless wicker baskets… crisis! The poor owner of the basket store was almost as dismayed as I was.

We tried modifying the baskets, savaging one with an exacto knife. It disintigrated into a sharp mess, and poor Emilia (the store owner… we were on a first-name basis by this point) got badly cut. Eventually, I realized there were three alternatives: 1) somehow find 400 smaller baskets elsewhere, 2) use some other cup-shaped product (…like a cup?), and get really creative with paint and glued-on moss as to make them look as nest-like as possible, or 3) give up. Option 3 wasn’t really an option. I had way too much invested. Aside from hoarding canary eggs for over a month**, I’d found a cheap vehicle to rent, gotten extra permits, and had a friend flying in to fill in a 2-week personnel gap. Option 1 really seemed pretty unlikely too. It had taken 2.5 months to get these baskets, and I had only 3 days left to find replacements. After deciding I had little option but to look for some other cup-shaped object, Emilia appeared with a hopeful look, holding a different style of small basket. Not quite so perfectly nest-shaped as the ones I’d ordered, but small and definitely better than a plastic cup! She only had 149, but the maker lived in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica. He had a phone and answered her call. I only heard one side of the conversation: “you know those little baskets you make me? how many can you make by Monday? ………. and how many more by Thursday? ……….. well, how soon could make an extra 250 for me? ……… look, we have an EMERGENCY here! Can’t you HIRE someone to help you!?……” And so we resolved the problem. They cost twice as much and I had to make 2 extra trips to San Jose to pick them up by installments, but it worked. This little glitch meant that our grueling itinerary now included late-night nest preparation before they could placed out in the forest… at 8 sites over a 3000 m elevational gradient. Unfortunately, the nest glitch wasn’t the only set-back.

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

Three days later we started wiring fake nests into trees in the forest, each containing a real canary egg and matching plasticine egg***. As we left the La Selva lab the first morning, it started raining hard, and it didn’t stop for the next 8 days. During that week, so much rain fell that a car was swept off the road and landslides closed the highway between San Jose and the Atlantic lowlands. All rivers were transformed into roiling muddy torrents and there was massive flooding. At La Selva, dorms were evacuated, access to the station was by boat, and the river reached its highest level since 1970. Meanwhile all the rain was falling on us

 

After the two lowland sites, we headed up to Rara Avis**** for the 650 m and 800 m sites, but our reservations at the station had been forgotten and the tractor (only transport option) wasn’t going to leave until late. That meant we got a day behind schedule, and I was starting to panic, until we took on ‘Crazy Mike’ as the 5th member of our team. Mike was a volunteer guide but didn’t get along with his new boss. When he heard about our nest, weather, and tractor-delay woes, he simply quit his guiding gig and came along for the adventure. Mike was a godsend! He rarely stopped joking and never let the rain get him down. True, he did also drink an incredible amount. But he was tireless in machete-ing his way along a compass bearings through treefalls and vine tangles. So we caught up, doing 2 sites in one brutal 13 hour field day.

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Next day we were back down on the tractor, and around to a different side of the park, back up the mountain to higher elevations. We got behind again because the nests weren’t ready, and now were working in cloud forest where the rain was distinctly chilly. Luckily we were able to spend a night in San Jose where we all got hot showers, ate pizza, and drank copious amounts of beer! Had we not had to prepare more nests after dinner it would have been a fun party. But the schedule was relentless. The next day we went to the highest site—2800 m near the peak of Volcan Barva. The drive was awful. With every bump in the road I thought we were going to destroy the suspension. With five of us, nests, spray paint, wet rain gear, half eaten food containers, muddy rubber boots, gross packs, and canary eggs, the Bronco was the definition of sordid. But we made it up, and comforted ourselves with strong liquor purchased in San José.

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

The next morning there was a slight rain respite. Everyone got to see quetzals and I was feeling optimistic… the end was in sight. Only our last day and our last site remained. Getting there involved looping around Barva volcano on country roads, ending on a red dirt road leading to a little-used park access point. The drive was long, rainy, and very uncomfortable. We were exhausted. The little farmhouses seemed unoccupied near the end of the driveable road, so I continued farther than I should in hopes of finding a safe place to leave the full car.

And then, I drove into a ditch. Yup, right into a deep ditch. The whole right side of the Bronco was SERIOUSLY stuck. I have been stuck enough times to know when it is serious. We had no shovel nor anything other than sticks and rocks to help us. After probably 1.5 hours, many failed strategies, and admirable teamwork, we got the Bronco out! But we had lost a lot of time, and when I made it clear we were still going to try to get into the site and get the last batch of nests placed, there was near mutiny. Obviously, no one wanted to do anything other than shower, do laundry, and collapse into a clean bed. It was now early afternoon and we had to walk over an hour to the forest. Eventually I decided to leave Mike with the car and get as many nests placed at this site as possible. Even if we didn’t get all 50, we wouldn’t lose a whole site. So we did it, and as we hiked out with the last light, the clouds finally parted and rain finally stopped. We had panoramic views of Poas volcano and the whole drenched Atlantic lowlands almost as far as the coast. NOW our woes were over, surely!

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

The Bronco had one last devilish trick in store, however: loss of power brakes and a mysterious stalling problem. Somehow the strain of getting out of the ditch had caused new problems. Whenever I braked or changed gear, we stalled. For two dark, foggy hours on winding mountain roads, I was constantly stalling and roll starting, terrified of losing brakes entirely and peeling off the cliff into the abyss. The headlights pointed unhelpfully into space instead of illuminating the road. And as a last straw, the driver-side windshield wiper stopped working. We limped into Puerto Viejo, completely drained from stress and exhaustion. Fortunately, the pizza joint was open and had an ample supply of cold beer, despite the floods that cut off both water and sewage service. It wasn’t til 9:30 that we finally found our beds at La Selva.

That week was, without doubt, the most stressful and dangerous week of field work in my life. It was crazy and hectic the whole rest of the month, as part of the crew rechecked all the nests in sequence repeatedly over subsequent weeks, while others continued our monthly bird and plant sampling. But thankfully, fieldwork has never been quite that crazy since. It is good to know what you can tolerate. And it is good to remember the hardship, when, during long days in front of my computer, fieldwork seems to become a romantic memory. Yes, being in the field work is amazingly fun and rewarding, but it also stretches you to the max, testing your ingenuity, tolerance for discomfort, ability to remain cheerful, and to make really hard decisions that often seem to pit personal safety against scientific discovery.

* I had an incredibly tight budget! My entire PhD was completed on funding from small grants, so there was no way to get a commercial car rental. Fortunately, I found an old 4×4 Bronco to rent for cheap from a friend who was thinking of getting rid of it.

** Several months before, I had cultivated a relationship with a canary breeder who set aside all the infertile eggs in the refrigerator for me

*** We used plasticine (modeling clay) eggs to determine the types of predators attacking nests

**** Rara Avis was the mid-elevation field site where I did a lot of my PhD research.

aliceAlice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past few years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.