These boots are made for walking

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Sian Green, who shares some stories about her ‘fieldwork style’.  For more about Sian, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For my 21st birthday I wanted what all girls want…a new pair of shoes! I got my wish and, although they were somewhat lacking in heels and glitter, since then they have taken me all over the world and been an essential part of my fieldwork outfit for nearly 5 years now. When you’re on your feet and walking long distances day after day, a good, comfortable pair of boots can make a big difference!

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My poor, finally beaten, boots.

My boots have travelled with me to Costa Rica, Tanzania and Kenya; however, sadly, during my last expedition to Romania, while trekking the Carpathian foothills in search of large mammals, they walked their last mile. Having been soaked in the dewy grass every morning then baked by the fierce Transylvanian summer sun every afternoon, they finally fell apart.

In memory of my favourite pair of shoes, I thought I would share some of the most memorable moments I had whilst wearing them out in the field.

Scariest moment: After graduating from my BSc in Zoology, I wanted to get some more field experience. I decided to volunteer on a project in Costa Rica, working in a remote camp in the jungle, right next to a turtle nesting beach. At night we would go out along the beach to monitor the turtles, recording condition and taking shell measurements, as well as marking locations of new nests. On one night we saw a turtle about to start digging her nest. Not wanting to disturb her at this crucial point, we walked on and spotted another turtle about 25 meters up the beach. She had finished laying her eggs, so we set to work measuring her shell. I should mention at this point that it is important to use minimal light, and only red light on torches, so as not to disturb the turtles, meaning visibility was limited. Anyway, having finished measuring our turtle, we turned back to see if the first turtle had finished her nest…only to find her carcass lying on the beach surrounded by large jaguar tracks! This silent hunter had made a kill a few metres away from us in the dark and was surely now watching us from the forest edge…possibly annoyed by having been disturbed from its dinner. Needless to say, we moved on quickly and kept in a tight group at a healthy distance from the forest edge after that!

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

A green turtle carcass. Jaguar predation of turtles seems to be on the rise, and is being monitored in Costa Rica.

Proudest moment: I am very proud of all the fieldwork I have done, in particular my work in Kenya I undertook as part of my own independent research project for my Masters thesis. Of course, I am proud of my thesis, but sometimes it’s the little things that really stick in your memory. To study the elephants using the Mount Kenya Elephant Corridor, I set up a grid of camera traps. I would regularly trek through the corridor to check the cameras, aided and guided by rangers from the Mount Kenya Trust. I am tremendously grateful to these extremely helpful rangers… but they were sometimes almost too helpful, insisting on doing all the climbing and retrieving of awkwardly-placed cameras. After a couple of expeditions, my confidence grew and I started to feel I needed to prove a point – that I could climb trees just as well as they could! At one point this did result in me being up a tree covered in biting ants while playing it cool and pretending I was totally fine – but mentally questioning whether it was worth it to prove my point! But one very satisfying moment came when a ranger was unable to unlock one of the padlocks attaching our camera to a tree. I asked if he wanted me to try but he said no and called over one of the other rangers, who also failed to get the key to budge. Ignoring me, they called over a third (male) ranger. While they were discussing the problem, I went over, gave the key a jiggle and the lock popped straight open! They were all very impressed and claimed that I must be very strong. I think it was more about technique than strength, but I wasn’t about to correct them!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Positioning camera traps to catch elephant images, while keeping them out the way of curious hyenas!

Most rewarding moments: All surveys are important, even when you don’t find what you are looking for. In fact, the latter type of survey can sometimes be the most important, as if you don’t find what you are expecting it may indicate a decline in population, or lack of accurate understanding of a species’ biology. This is what I would explain to all the volunteers I led on large mammal surveys when working in Transylvania. However, there is no denying that it is hugely rewarding when your hours of trekking up steep slopes result in finding a beautiful trail of perfect brown bear prints, or when that early start results in getting to see your (normally elusive) study species. Working in Transylvania was incredible, as we found signs and got camera trap footage of many elusive mammals, including martens, badgers, foxes, wild boar, wildcat and brown bear – and I even got to see a brown bear!

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

European brown bear tracks found while out on survey in rural Transylvania.

This fieldwork was also particularly rewarding because I got to share my knowledge and experience with the volunteers that came out. Teaching camera trapping skills and seeing how excited everyone got when we checked the memory cards was a great feeling. Hopefully some of these volunteers will go on to use the knowledge further on their own fieldwork adventures – and hopefully they will remember to pack a good pair of shoes!

Sian completed her undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Reading and her Master’s by Research with the University of Southampton and Marwell Wildlife studying elephants in a wildlife corridor in Kenya. She loves to travel and explore new places – and if she gets to put up a few camera traps all the better! Her fieldwork has taken her to Costa Rica, South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, and Romania; however, she is now back in Devon, UK looking to move on to a PhD and camera trapping any innocent animals that pass by! She can be found on Twitter at @SianGreen92.

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What would a real field work resume look like?

This week Dispatches from the Field is happy to welcome back Emily Williams, who polled some of her friends and colleagues on what their real fieldwork resume would say. Read more about Emily at the end of her post!

While every career on the planet probably has its own idiosyncrasies and oddities, some careers have more than most. I’d wager that many people in the science field could easily give Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs a run for his money. From negotiating with a monkey over jungle space to place invertebrate light traps, to diving several meters through a slurry of whale poop, the pursuit of scientific knowledge doesn’t always occur in a shiny and bright ivory tower.

Many of the routine tasks we do and techniques we employ as field biologists would give pause to and cause discomfort for many. A majority of those same tasks and techniques, because of their nature, are not included in the carefully crafted methods sections of manuscripts, or the protocols of field manuals. Moreover, they are also usually not fit to appear on professional resumes or be discussed in detail during an interview.

I’ve often wondered what a field work resume would really look like, if we were to be completely honest about the skills we’ve gained from the myriad experiences we’ve had as field biologists. Most of us are well versed in eloquently stating our know-how working in “adverse conditions” such as extreme heat or cold, along with biting or stinging insects, alone and in remote conditions. Most of us, however, are not as versed in honestly detailing the unique skillsets we learn on the job.

In a scientifically inquisitive spirit, I posed this question to many of my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances:  if you were to write your resume without having to be professional and could be completely honest about the tasks you did and conditions you lived in, what would you say?

I have compiled their answers here, written in traditional resume fashion.

THE REAL FIELD WORK RESUME

  • Excels at three-dimensional tetris, most notably in small vehicles
  • Demonstrated ability to use bandannas in a multitude of ways and for various purposes
  • Ability to control levels of teeth chattering when sitting for hours in blinds at -30°C
  • Ability to live in harmony with various groups of black flies and mosquitoes constantly in face and near body

    full body bug suit

    Wrench in one hand, bucket in the other, topped off with a head-to-toe bug suit and muck boots. Just another day in detritus–filled, smelly, muddy paradise.

  • Ability to play beer hockey using water instead of beer
  • Ability to build drones out of foam, hot glue, bamboo skewers, and paint sticks, then proceed to fly them at large flocks of blackbirds on crop fields
  • Adaptable to fluctuating levels and availability of caffeine
  • Fondness for early mornings, late evenings, working at all hours of the day, and overtime
  • Skilled at pooping outdoors (you wouldn’t believe how many times this was listed!)
  • Skilled at peeing off of wooden platforms/boats/planes
  • Adept at constructing mist-net poles out of bamboo and liana vines

Our kitchen and food supply for 5 months. Getting crafty with potatoes, beans, and rice is a necessary on-the-job skill.

  • Inventive when coming up with >10 ways to eat lentils and beans
  • Demonstrated ability using gorilla tape to keep capuchins from accessing food stores
  • Demonstrated ability problem solving with ridding housing of resident bats without causing harm to anyone involved
  • Skilled at intuitively cutting onions to crew’s preferences
  • Fluent in sweet-talking foxes who have taken up residence on archaeological sites
  • Have perfected excavation of the 30 cm diameter multi-utility hole
  • Well versed in the art of extracting ticks from myself and others

    Home for 5 months. No running water, no electricity, no soft, comfy bed.

  • Competent at estimating the size of mouse population adjacent to field cot using 5-gallon peanut butter traps. Reduction in population estimates were used to determine the likelihood of contracting Hanta Virus or risk of rattlesnake bites
  • Adept at turning PB & J into three months of delicious cuisine
  • Knows exactly what sending electricity through water feels like going through the human body (e.g., too many falls in streams when electrofishing)
  • Skilled at identifying animals on dark forested roads using eye shine (i.e., whip-poor-will lifeguard certification)
  • Amateur tight-rope (downed slash pine) walker
  • Skilled at handling animals under various amounts of fecal matter
  • Skilled at rolling up broken tape measures
  • Adept at maintaining top hiking pace while removing and stowing jacket with backpack still attached
  • Used to being damp 24/7

    The nature of field work is that often, things do not go as planned. In this case, not only did the main field site burn down (not on purpose), but the second main field site then did, and then the ALTERNATE field site (third time’s a charm, right?!) also went ablaze. Bye bye, data! How does this translate to a transferable skill? –Skilled at having no expectations and being adaptable to anything goes.

  • Adept at sharing living quarters with rodents, both living and deceased
  • Adept at dealing with exposure to permanent fish smell
  • Possesses indestructible gut biota due to frequent consumption of unrefrigerated leftovers
  • Development of diverse and unique personal hygiene techniques
  • Demonstrated ability to work under pressure while being excreted upon and repeatedly smacked in the head by thousands of screaming birds
  • Demonstrated ability to extract a variety of broken down or barely-running trucks from remote locations, in all weather conditions
  • Adept at splinting the legs of songbirds injured in mist-nets
  • Adept at getting chainsaw stuck, then guarding stuck chainsaw through the night, while waiting for back up
  • Skilled at getting stuck chainsaws unstuck
  • Skilled at coordinated movement through tall, stabby marsh vegetation, as well as extrication from potholes in said marsh
  • Skilled at running towards mist-nets in tall vegetation while waving long sticks
  • Proficient at hurling profanities at butterflies and their predators
  • Experienced at doing public outreach activities in youth hostels while feeding butterflies in the common areas
  • Skilled at shaving fox necks (may be transferable to human haircuts)
  • Adept at advanced choreography in tussock habitat
  • Proficient at scaring eagles from landfills
  • Well versed in identifying birds at 40 mph
  • Proficient at endurance swabbing of goose throats and cloacas
  • Skilled at chasing cattle from camp and study sites

    Devising a plan to avert an imminent cow invasion of unsuspecting and innocent grassland bird nests .

  • Adept at persuading police officers to not perform arrest while searching for injured birds
  • Well versed at rendering human fat tissue for stable isotope analysis
  • Experienced at playing cat and mouse around a tree with a pissed off moose that wants nothing more than to squash you into humanoid jelly
  • Skilled at running from one end of boat to the other to remove stuck boat from underwater stump
  • Adept at removing rotting fish from net and eating lunch immediately thereafter
  • Proficient of walking 10+ miles on the beach trying to outrun a thunderstorm (while noting as many birds as possible)
  • Skilled at writing legible numbers on mammals with a small paint brush and black hair dye
  • Inventive in turning found trash into boat identification symbols
  • Experience accidentally tasting what digested fish Long Island Sound had to offer Common Terns at least once for four summers
  • Well versed in using ice cream to prevent field crew mutinies
  • Experienced at at politely nodding while listening to wide-ranging, uncomfortably long diatribes about “the government” from every hiker/commercial fisherman/rancher you meet
  • Proficient at staying zen through thousands of insect bites

    Ah, the joys of field work: insect bites on every part of your body.

  • Skilled at spotting road-killed hummingbirds at ~65 mph
  • Highly adept at avoiding trampling by large bovines
  • Skilled at tracking down falcon pellets from ~20 m away
  • Skilled at wrestling and wrangling 30 lb condors in pitch black, cramped enclosures with minimal personal bloodshed
  • Effective at removal of multiple rigs stuck in sand pits, snow banks, and mud hollows, both independently and with a partner
  • Adept at securing >50 lb carcasses to the ground in under 2 min per body, under cover of night in all weather conditions
  • Experienced at piercing wings and attaching “wing-bling” ID tags to patagials of >300 vultures with a flinch reaction of <5%

I give huge thanks to all of the people who contributed to the above list, which is not exhaustive. These bullet points do not even scratch the surface of the unique and varied skillsets field biologists acquire over their careers.

Job recruiting websites always stress how resumes must showcase maximum wow factor. If any of the above were included on a resume, they would do more than drop a few jaws.

If you were to be completely honest, what would your resume look like?

Emily Williams works as an Avian Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve. Emily’s Emily Williamsresearch focuses on the behavior, migration, and ecology of birds. While she now works among the boreal forests of Alaska chasing Gray Jays, she has been lucky to work with many taxa among different ecosystems worldwide.

Twitter: @wayfaringwilly

Website: emilyjwilliams.weebly.com

contact: ffyngau@gmail.com

 

A beginner’s guide to making a unique first impression

This week Dispatches from the Field welcomes Jenna Finley, an undergraduate student from Queen’s University studying plant ecology, to tell us about her first time in the field with her supervisor. Check out the end of the post to learn more about Jenna!

My very first field season has now come to an end. I managed to learn a lot and pick up a few good stories at the same time. The earliest, and as it turns out the most important, lesson I learned came courtesy of my supervisor: things go wrong sometimes and there’s nothing you can do about it. Although he didn’t phrase it quite like that!

The day I learned this lesson, I had only been in the lab for about a week.  I had been in the field twice since my arrival, but for the first time, I was going out with my supervisor. The plan for the day was simple – he was going to show me around a few sites that he thought would be good for the experiment I was going to run. Most of the day would be spent in the lab van, probably in silence, as I tried really hard not to give a bad first impression of what it’s like to work with me.

It was a gorgeous June morning: the sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and I was full of hope. I ended up driving, even though every fibre of my being told me this was a terrible idea. But despite my initial misgivings, I actually ended up feeling a lot better as the morning wore on and the situation turned out to be less awkward than I’d feared.

Just before lunch, we stopped at one final site. The field was across from a cemetery, filled with bird boxes, and only accessible by driving down a gravel incline. Getting in was no problem. We looked around for a bit and my supervisor told me a little about the history of the field before we decided to move on.

Now, getting in may have been a cinch, but getting out…

I tried to reverse back up the incline, but the van slid back down, presumably due to the loose gravel under the wheels. I turned to my supervisor, hoping he had a plan, only to see him getting out of the van. He told me that he was going up onto the road to make sure no other cars were coming, and when he gave me the all-clear, I was going to floor it.

This wasn’t the type of plan I had been hoping for, but I had no other ideas.  A hundred worst case scenarios flashed through my mind, but I just nodded, praying that I didn’t overdo it and end up stuck in the cemetery across the road.

As soon as I got the thumbs up, I stomped on the gas and immediately started moving… for about two seconds. Instead of backing straight up, the van slid sharply to the and very quickly jerked to an abrupt halt – even though I had yet to release the gas pedal.

The mystery was solved when I got out and looked underneath the van.  It turns out that when I slid off the incline, I landed on top of a short fence post… effectively impaling the vehicle.

van impalled by the fence

The poor lab van

Luckily we had cell service and were able to call the nearby field station for help. As I felt horror and total mortification flood my body, my supervisor chuckled. When I looked at him, he said ‘s*** happens,’ and started snapping pictures he thought would be great to showcase during my seminar in a few months. He seemed totally unconcerned with the situation we now found ourselves in – in fact, he ended up presenting it as a plus, telling me people would find it hilarious.

The more he spoke, the more I began to see the bright side in the situation myself, and finally managed to have a pretty good laugh… even when we found out that it would be a few days before our van could be recovered. And the day was not lost! We were dropped off at another vehicle to continue where we’d left off.

So while I was still pretty embarrassed, everything turned out a lot better than I imagined it would in the moment. And I’d picked up a valuable lesson that served me well for the rest of the season: ‘s*** happens’.

Not to mention, it was pretty nice not driving for the rest of the day.

Jenns with a tall plantJenna Finley is an undergraduate thesis student at Queen’s University focusing on plant ecology. Since joining Dr. Lonnie Aarssen’s Lab, she has been looking at plant adaptive strategies involving meristem allocation and the affects of factors like body size, leafing intensity, and apical dominance on those strategies. She also works part-time in the Queen’s University Phytotron, trying to always stay connected in some way with her plant brethren. She can also be found on Twitter: @Jennafinley.

The things we do…

My advisor has always maintained that a field crew runs on its stomach.  In other words, well-fed field assistants are much happier and much more productive – not to mention much less likely to mutiny.

There is no doubt that this is true.  Trying to run a field crew without an adequate supply of coffee, chocolate, or wine is an enterprise doomed to failure.  But – at the risk of disagreeing with my advisor – I would argue that food alone is not enough.

Spending time in the field often leads to awe-inspiring experiences, like the moment when you come face to face with a lynx or watch a fierce lightning storm at sea from the safety of a remote island.  But in between those moments, if we’re being honest, field work can be pretty tedious.

And if it’s tedious as a graduate student – when your entire thesis depends on the data you collect – it’s a hundred times more tedious for your assistants.  Field assistants are expected to work long hours, rain or shine, for weeks on end without a break.  So as a boss, keeping morale up can be a huge challenge, and when you have a chance to provide some fun for your assistants, you really have to take it.

And that, in a nutshell, is how I ended up lugging a dead beaver up a mountain.

 

Let’s back up a step, so I can set the scene.  It was the first field season of my PhD, and my field assistant and I had spent half of January driving across a large chunk of the continent, ending up at an old, somewhat isolated house in the southern Okanagan Valley.  The house was large, drafty, and empty, and our days were spent trekking through the snow and waiting around in the cold in a (largely futile) attempt to catch bluebirds.  Every night, we came home, made dinner, and then went to sleep.  It was not the kind of field work you write home about.

Our cozy field home in the Okanagan.

But my field assistant – being a nature-loving type – was prepared to make his own fun.  He had brought with him a game camera, which he intended to mount on a tree to take automatic motion capture pictures of the local wildlife.  During our first week in BC, he trekked up the mountain behind our house and spent hours looking for the perfect spot to leave it – hoping to capture a black bear or maybe even an elusive mountain lion.

Unfortunately, when he went back a week later, the camera had not taken a single photo.  Undaunted, he decided that the logical course of action was to use bait.  At first, he contented himself with scraps from our kitchen, hiking up the mountain regularly to drop them in front of the camera.  And indeed, the camera did capture photos of the occasional crow or raven checking out his offerings.  But no bear or cougar appeared, much to his disappointment.  He started talking about finding something better to bait the camera with.

And then – lo and behold – as we returned home one grey winter afternoon, he spotted the ‘perfect’ bait.  A dead beaver lay at the side of the road right beside our driveway, the clear victim of a fast-moving vehicle.

My field assistant was completely ecstatic, but I wasn’t entirely convinced: I couldn’t help but wonder if the sudden appearance of a beaver halfway up a mountain, several kilometers away from any water, might be more puzzling than enticing for any lurking bears or cougars.

But then I thought about how limited opportunities for fun had been so far.  And I thought about how excited he was.  And – against my better judgement – I found myself offering to help him lug the beaver up to his camera.

The first step was to wrestle the body into a garbage bag, to facilitate transport.  But this was not a small beaver, and coaxing it into the bag was…challenging.  By the time all of its limbs had been stuffed inside, I was sweating – and starting to regret my offer.

Then we started up the hill, each grasping one end of the bag.  It rapidly became apparent that beavers are not particularly light animals.  We staggered along, panting, the thin plastic slipping out of our awkward grasp frequently.

We hadn’t made it more than a few hundred yards before we concluded that another approach was required.  We decided the best approach was to take turns dragging the beaver.  Of course, the side of a mountain isn’t known for smooth passage, and the garbage bag – never particularly sturdy – became progressively more torn and tattered as we struggled towards our destination.  A paw appeared out one corner; a glimpse of tail was visible through another rip.

In the end, our gruesome task took us almost two hours.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to drop something as I was to let go of that bag when we finally reached the camera.

And the result of all this work?  Well, as far as I can remember (although to be honest, I’ve tried pretty hard to block the memory out), the camera failed to capture a single animal coming to check out the beaver; indeed, when my assistant climbed the mountain a week later, the body was still completely undisturbed.

But hey.  At least I got to feel like a good boss.

Yes, those boring safety training sessions are important

Dispatches from the field is happy to welcome Katie Grogan, a postdoctoral fellow to share a post this week about a scary field safety lesson! Check out the end of the post for more about Katie.

The second scariest moment of field work I ever experienced happened basically on campus, exactly one mile from our lab and office.

Caught in the mist net. Photo by JRM.

Some people may argue that catching sparrows in downtown Atlanta in the morning, spending a few hours working in the lab in the afternoon, and sleeping in your own bed every night doesn’t qualify as “true” field work – no airplanes, hours in a truck, or having to sleep in tents. But I completely disagree. Any activity that forces you to get out of bed at 3 am in December, and sit staring at a mist-net in a cold field for at least 6 hours, freezing and exhausted, is absolutely field work*.

White-throated sparrow. Photo by JRM.

The reason for this field work is one of the major projects in my postdoctoral lab at Emory University, studying how genetic variation underlies variation in behaviors like aggression or parenting. To do this, we catch wild white-throated sparrows during their fall migration south and bring them into the lab for behavioral testing. The white-throated sparrow, common throughout North America, is an incredibly interesting bird (See this Nature News Feature!) and uniquely suited for this kind of study because of its two behavioral phenotypes: the more aggressive white morph and the less aggressive tan morph.

We catch the birds using mist-nets set up in a field near campus in November and December, an activity that seems fairly low risk apart from some occasional frostbite. However, in order to set up the mist-nets, ‘lanes’ must be cleared through the field so that tree branches and brush don’t snag the nets. We clear these lanes using a machete, and therein lies my story.

The field site.

There are typically no ‘rules’ for doing field work, except to collect your samples without doing anything too dangerous or illegal. But doing local field work a mile from our lab, rather than traveling to Costa Rica or Madagascar, obviously lulled me into complacency, because a safety briefing was the last thing on my mind that sunny afternoon in early November.

For starters, although I have accumulated months of field work in multiple countries, I was relatively new in the lab and I had never caught birds before. Marmots, howler monkeys, and lemurs, yes, but not birds. So who was I to speak up? Like in so many of my previous field experiences, I was the one in training, not the one training other people. Also, this was Atlanta! In the Rocky Mountains, we worried about bears and lightning strikes; in Costa Rica it was heat stroke (or having a monkey fall on you); and in Madagascar it was rocks in the food and stomach problems from ingesting any unfiltered water. But in Atlanta, what was there really to worry about? Basically, I was worried about bugs, twisting an ankle, and being hungry, but not about potential trips to the emergency room. Big mistake.

Grad student with a machete. Photo by KEG.

I realized the severity of this mistake when I looked up from moving freshly cut branches out of the lane to see our machete swinging with wild abandon less than a foot from the head and torso of our newest graduate student, whose back was turned.

I froze in horror, visions of dismemberment flashing before my eyes. Then I sprang into action. Yelling at the machete swinger, I leaped forward to pull the student away from their peril. No one was hurt, nothing happened…but the potential danger of that situation made my heart virtually stop in terror.

I made everyone drop what they were doing for a quick crash course in field safety and awareness. In this instance, the most important lesson was to always be aware of your surroundings, and know where your team members are located and what they are doing. This included keeping at least a 10 foot clearance around anyone doing anything dangerous such as swinging a machete or an ax. I also instituted a personal policy that dangerous tasks should be saved for the postdocs and older grad students – we try not to maim the undergrads or new grad students during their first field experience because it sets a bad precedent for recruiting more help the following year. (I’m absolutely kidding! We don’t maim anyone at all).

This incident was less than 30 seconds long, but was a defining moment in my realization that all field work, whether far away or on campus, should be accompanied by a thorough safety plan, and everyone should be briefed on this plan before work begins. (See here for a good example of how to do this!)

*Just to clarify: I never actually had to endure this hardship for this particular project. By the time I started in this lab, I was a postdoctoral fellow and had already paid my dues years earlier, following marmots in the Rocky Mountains. The graduate students needed the samples and so they got to suffer through this one!

Katie Grogan is interested in the intersection of genetic diversity, fitness, and environmental change, especially for endangered species. She is currently studying the epigenetics of growth and stature in human hunter-gatherers as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State University. Prior to moving to State College, she worked on gene expression in white-throated sparrows as an IRACDA postdoctoral fellow (a GREAT fellowship for postdocs also interested in teaching). She did her PhD at Duke University, studying the relationship between genetic diversity of the immune system and survival and reproduction in ring-tailed lemurs. When not in the lab or the field, she can be found playing with her dog and reading novels. Photos by KEG (Kathleen Grogan) and JRM (Jennifer R. Merritt, a graduate student in her former lab).

Beggars can’t be choosers

My supervisor has always told me that a good field crew runs on its stomach.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but as a veteran of many field seasons in many different places, I personally have to agree with her.  When I’m in the field, an excessive amount of my time is spent thinking about lunch or dinner.

When it comes to eating in the field, you have to take the good with bad.  On the plus side, fieldwork makes food taste abnormally good.  When you’re exhausted and stressed, just sitting down to dinner is a treat, and almost anything tastes fantastic.  I’ve had some of the best meals of my life in the field.

I especially enjoy the days when, after working late and returning home worn out and grimy, you succumb to weariness, suspect the normal dinner rules, and take the easy way out.  For example, one day near the end of my second field season in BC, my field assistant and I decided to test the theory we’d been hearing from vineyard workers all summer: that the smooth, buttery taste of Chardonnay goes beautifully with popcorn.  That night, our dinner consisted of a bag of microwave popcorn and half a bottle of local Chardonnay each, and we discovered two things.  First, Chardonnay actually does go extremely well with popcorn.  Second, early mornings are considerably more difficult after a dinner of popcorn and wine.

On the minus side, sometimes fieldwork means finding yourself in remote areas where access to food is extremely limited.  In these places, as you sit down to your fourteenth meal of rice and beans in as many days, you often find yourself engaging in an activity that one of my field assistants dubbed “food porn”: daydreaming about what you’d really like to eat, and what you’re planning to eat as soon as you get out of the field.

But in the meantime, you’re stuck with what you have with you…which sometimes means eating things that you would not otherwise touch.  For example, about seven weeks into my second field season on Sable Island, we were really scraping the bottom of the barrel with respect to food.  About all we had left was potatoes, pasta, and some mayo.  In a moment of desperation, we decided to see whether you could make potato salad with just mayonnaise and potatoes.  After all, we reasoned, those are definitely the most important ingredients.  Who needs all that other stuff?

As it turns out, all that other stuff is quite important.  No matter how hungry you are, facing a container of mayo-encrusted potato pieces for lunch can kill your appetite.

But perhaps my most epic field food fail happened during my time in Alaska.  There were six of us living in a small, lonely cabin in the middle of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.  The station was actually incredibly well stocked when we arrived, but with six people eating, supplies dwindled quickly.  Unfortunately, as our grocery ‘wish list’ grew, it became increasingly apparent that getting restocked was going to be an issue.

The field station was run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they were responsible for dropping off supplies on a regular basis.  In the winter, this was relatively easy, as ski planes could land on the iced-over lake beside the cabin.  In the summer, supplies arrived by float plane.  But in the spring, when the ice was just melted enough to be unstable, but not melted enough to leave any patches of open water, the cabin was essentially inaccessible.  USFWS was reduced to doing low-altitude fly-overs, during which they would drop our mail or some small supplies out of the plane on to our ‘front lawn’.

Unfortunately, there are some things you simply cannot drop out of a plane window.  Eggs, for example, do not tolerate a 50 foot drop well.  And thus begins the story of the brownies.

We had been in the field for about a month, and had eaten our way through just about every treat in the cabin.  But when bad weather trapped us in the house for a day, we all found ourselves on the hunt for snacks.  After a great deal of rummaging, someone unearthed a box of brownie from the back of the cupboard.

We were all thrilled.  After all, there aren’t many snacks that can beat a warm, gooey pan of brownies.  We wiped the dust off the top of the box, skimmed the instructions on the back and quickly determined that we had almost all of the required ingredients.  Water? Check.  Oil? Check. Package of brownie mix? Check.  Eggs? Oh.

Now, you would think that eggs are one of the few ingredients that it’s almost impossible to find a substitute for.  So we were briefly stymied.  But we were very, very determined to have those brownies…and after a few minutes of staring blankly into the fridge, someone quietly observed, “You know, mayonnaise is made with eggs.”

That was all it took – before we had time to really think things through, we had emptied the brownie mix into a bowl and added the oil and water.  There was a brief pause, as we all stared at the container of Hellman’s, but then we screwed up our determination and scooped up a large glob of mayo – which we then dropped unceremoniously into the mix.

Of course, no one knew just how much mayo would be needed to replace three eggs.  So we just kept adding it until the consistency seemed about right.  Then we emptied the mixture into a baking pan, popped it in the oven, and sat back to wait, already anticipating the first decadent, chocolatey bite.

By the time the timer went off, the rich smell of chocolate filled the small kitchen and we were practically drooling.  As we opened the oven and slid the brownies out, we all crowded around in excitement – only to recoil as we got a good look at the pan.

Our initial view of the brownies was obscured by the thick layer of oil that filled the pan almost to the top.  Underneath lay a charred and crispy block of something that resembled brownies only in the vaguest form.

The oh-so-appetizing results of our brownie experiment…

It is a measure of just how desperate we were that even considered eating the brownies anyway.  However, when we approached our creation to try to cut it, we met with what felt like a block of cement underneath the knife.  After considerable hacking, we managed to prise the block out of the pan – but no one could figure out how to cut it up.  It didn’t matter anyway; no one was brave enough to venture a bite.

At last we had to admit defeat: there were no brownies for us that day.  But only a few days later, the ice cleared off the lake, the float plane arrived, and our cupboards were well-stocked once more.  The evening after we received our supplies, we sat down to a warm, gooey tray of brownies.  And I can honestly say that I’ve never had better-tasting brownies, before or since.

Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.