4 reasons I shouldn’t be a field biologist

My lungs are bursting as I stumble to a halt, slipping on melting snow crystals.  Squinting against the glare, I lift my head – and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Behind me, a vertigo-inducing slope of snow drops away.  In front of me, the sight is even worse: the slope continues up…up…up.  At the top, four figures stand waiting impatiently.  It’s clear that I’m hopelessly outclassed. As I force myself to start climbing again, I can’t help but wonder: is it too late for a career change?

***

I guess I should back up and explain how I got myself into this situation.  When I finished my PhD, I had a singular goal: I wanted to continue doing fieldwork and research.  So when Bird Studies Canada offered me a job coordinating Newfoundland’s first Breeding Bird Atlas, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Breeding Bird Atlases (BBAs) are ambitious projects that aim to map the distribution and abundance of all birds breeding in a province or state over a 5-year period.  Every Canadian province except Newfoundland has (or is in the midst of producing) at least one BBA.  The end product allows us to better understand the health and distribution of bird populations and can be used as a tool for conservation planning.

Most atlas data is collected by volunteer citizen scientists, making atlases a great forum for community engagement.  But once in a while, the coordinator is lucky enough to get out into the field too.  And when the opportunity presented itself to do some pilot surveys in the remote regions of Gros Morne National Park…how could I say no?

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

I drove into Gros Morne under a spectacular rainbow, arcing across hills and lakes of the park.  It seemed like a good omen.  And although a few days of weather delays frayed our patience a bit, finally the skies cleared and we climbed into a helicopter for our flight to the top of Big Level, one of the highest points in the park.  As we swooped over Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne’s famous freshwater fjord, I couldn’t wait to get started.

We descended into an alien landscape: the arctic-alpine habitat found in only few places in Newfoundland.  For a few hours, we wandered under the widest blue sky imaginable, exclaiming when we crossed paths with an enormous arctic hare and enjoying the silvery sound of horned lark song.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

But then we started our hike towards the cabin where we’d be staying the next few nights.  And once we were on the move, the evidence that I was way out of my depth accumulated rapidly.

Pausing to take a picture is a great excuse to catch your breath an on strenuous hike…

I’m a fairly active person, and I thought I was in reasonable shape…until I spent a day trailing four people (all with a distinct resemblance to gazelles) across tundra, snow, and bogs.  As the warthog among gazelles, I was also the most likely to plunge without warning through the crust of snow we were walking on, landing with a thump in whatever was below.  With each minute, I lagged farther and farther behind.

My problems were compounded by my short legs and terrible balance, which resulted in me frequently tripping over rocks, trees, and my own feet – not to mention being unable to cross many of the streams my gazelle companions leapt over easily.

Reasons #1 and 2: Warthogs aren’t made for long-distance hikes involving lots of climbs.  Short legs and poor balance don’t help either.

By the time we made it to the cabin – after a solid eight hours of hiking – I was beyond done.  I collapsed on the cabin deck, and I might still be there, if some kind soul hadn’t provided incentive to get up in the form of a cold beer.

I told myself the next morning would be a fresh start.  But when the alarm sounded at 4:30 and I rolled my aching body out of bed, I realized I had overlooked another reason I’m not cut out to be field biologist – or at least an ornithologist.

Reason #3: As documented in previous posts, I’m very much not a morning person.

But birds start the day early, so we had to as well.  Our plan was to conduct 8 to 10 point counts each morning.  A point count involves standing in one place for a set amount of time (in this case, 5 minutes), and documenting every bird seen or heard.  Sounds straightforward, right?  But because birds are more often heard than seen, point counts require sharp ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of bird song.

As we climbed a steep hill to our first point, all I could hear was my own panting.  I managed to catch my breath when we stopped to conduct the count…only to become aware of yet another problem.

Reason #4: I don’t know enough bird songs.

I could recognize some of what we heard, but definitely not all of it.  I especially struggled with the partial songs and quiet ‘chip’ notes that were often all we heard.  Luckily I was with several spectacularly talented birders, who were more than capable of conducting the counts.  But after a few days in the field, I was feeling pretty discouraged.

And then on our last day, we came across a(nother) sound I hadn’t heard before: a single repetitive note, like the alarm on a tiny car.  We tracked the sound to a nearby conifer.  Perched at the very top, staggering as the tree swayed, was a greater yellowlegs.

Shorebird in trees look undeniably ridiculous.  Gawky and awkward, the yellowlegs scrabbled constantly for balance as it fought to stay on its perch.  It was impossible to watch without laughing…and I began to feel better.

A greater yellowlegs perches at the very top of a conifer.

Some birds just aren’t meant to perch in trees. But this greater yellowlegs isn’t letting that bother him.

Shorebirds aren’t built to perch at the top of trees, but the yellowlegs was there anyway.  And now that my first atlassing excursion is over, I’ve reached a conclusion.  Maybe I’m not naturally suited to this job.  It certainly doesn’t always come easily to me.  But the things I don’t know, I can learn; the things I struggle with, I’ll improve at with practice.  What matters is to be out there trying.

It’s true there are many reasons I’m not cut out to be a field biologist…but there’s one reason I am: doing this job makes me feel alive.  And for me, that cancels out everything else.

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Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

No Exit

“Hell is other people” – or so said French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  Sometimes I can’t help but think Sartre must have been working as a field biologist when he wrote that.

Sartre’s quote is frequently misinterpreted: he wasn’t saying that other people are terrible beings who should be avoided at all costs.  Rather (at least, as I understand it), he meant that hell is always being in the presence of other people – inescapably watched, and therefore inevitably judged, by those other people.

Most people who have worked at remote field sites would recognize that claustrophobic feeling, at least to some extent.  When you’re in the field, you put in 14 hour days with your co-workers – only to go home, have dinner with them, and then hang out together until it’s time for bed.  When you wake up in the morning, you do the whole thing over again.  There’s no escape: you work, live, and sleep with the same people.  No matter how fantastic those people are, it gets wearing.

And of course, when you are always with the same people, it is inevitable that some of their habits will rub you the wrong way.  At first, it might just be a minor annoyance – a bit like the slightly irritating tag in your jeans that you keep meaning to cut off.  But when you’re in the position of wearing those jeans all day, every day, for months on end, that slightly irritating tag eventually becomes almost intolerable.

After many field seasons at many different sites, I can definitely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of interpersonal drama.  For example, one of my field jobs involved working at an isolated field station, which I shared with only five other people.  A group of six people doesn’t provide all that many conversational options under the best of circumstances – but things get a whole lot more awkward when three of those people aren’t speaking to the other three.

You don’t really know someone until you’ve spent hours sitting in a 2 m-squared blind with them, waiting to catch trap-shy birds.

But despite the interpersonal drama that is almost always part and parcel of the experience, I maintain that other people are often the best part of field work.  I’ve heard it said that only your siblings can understand your family’s unique brand of craziness; in the same way, only people you make it through a field season with can really understand the insanity you both survived.  Adversity has a way of creating strong bonds, and most field seasons involve enough adversity to produce some pretty robust adhesive!   Your field colleagues are the ones who bang on your door at 4 am when your alarm doesn’t go off, and the people who share your bouts of hysterical laughter about something (or nothing) when too little sleep and too much stress take their toll.

Too many early mornings are more tolerable when you have someone to complain with!

But it’s more than that.  My blog posts for Dispatches frequently focus on the importance of place – but most of the time, it’s the people who make a place.  My memories of the amazing places I’ve worked are inextricably intertwined with the amazing people that I shared those places with.  And while I’d love the chance to go back to visit some of those field sites, I know they wouldn’t be the same.

Ultimately, the people you share a field season with are the ones who experience in all the frustrations and triumphs of that field season right along with you.  And as we all know, both frustration and triumph are so much better when shared.

And hey – if all else fails, your field colleagues at least provide a measure of protection against bears…as long as you can run faster than them.  🙂

Morning has broken (me)

When the repetitive beeping of my alarm rouses me, it seems like the punchline of an exceptionally cruel joke.  The room is pitch black; the glowing red numbers on the clock read 3:00 am.  I know I need to get out of bed if I’m going to make it to the field site for sunrise… but the sheets feel like they’re made of Velcro, pulling me back down every time I make a move to get up.

When I finally do manage to put my feet on the floor and stand upright, I’m as uncoordinated as drunk toddler.  I stumble around my room with my eyes half closed.  Despite the fact that I always lay my clothes out neatly the night before, getting dressed seems to take twice as long as it should.  I drop items of clothing, tie my hiking boot laces wrong, and even occasionally try to put both my feet into the same pant leg.

It doesn’t get any easier when I finally get myself out the door.  The world is eerily quiet and still at 3 am.  The occasional person I do encounter looks startled to see me, and often avoids my eyes.  It’s very clear that anyone with any sense is sleeping, and it’s hard not to let my thoughts drift back to the warmth and comfort of my covers.  I aim myself directly towards the nearest source of caffeine – but as I move farther away from my bed, I can feel myself getting crankier.

 

People who know me often ask why I choose to work with birds.  After all, I’m the first to admit that I am the opposite of a morning person.  So what on earth possessed me to study animals that start their day long before the sun has properly risen – and even have the gall to greet the dawn with a song?

It’s a question I’ve never really been able to answer.  And it’s been on my mind a lot this summer, because I’m back in the field for the first time in several years.  Each day, as I drag myself out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness, every cell in my body resisting, I find myself seriously questioning my life choices.  (In my defence, I’m not sure being a morning person would make a difference, because frankly 3 am can’t be considered ‘morning’.)

But over the past few weeks, I’ve realized something.  I can’t deny that I really hate getting out of bed before the sun.  But I also can’t deny that once I’m up, I’m glad to be awake.

The day has a very different feel first thing in the morning.  The world is new and fresh, and there’s a sense of infinite possibility.  The entire day stretches ahead like a blank canvas, as yet unmarred by the small disappointments and frustrations that inevitably pile up over the hours.  As I drink my coffee and watch the sun peek over the horizon, I feel like I can do almost anything.  It’s exhilarating…and perhaps even worth the struggle it takes to get myself there each day.

Nevertheless: on my days off, I’m more than happy to let the sun win the race!

Morabeza!

This week, Dispatches is very excited to welcome back guest poster Becky Taylor – who has become Dr. Taylor since we last heard from her.  Becky shares with us a true story of surviving a full-fledged fieldwork catastrophe with nothing more than determination and a lot of kindness from strangers.  For more about Becky, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It’s funny how some moments are forever fixed in your mind’s eye, like a snapshot that you can recall in absolute detail. I am standing on a beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, marooned on an uninhabited desert islet in Cape Verde (off the coast of western Africa), with two other people and no possessions but the clothes on our backs (and a bottle of Cape Verde wine), gazing at the carnage that was our campsite. How, you may ask, did I find myself in this situation?

The isolated beaches of Cape Verde are a beautiful place to work…and a frightening place to be marooned.

I don’t want this post to be in any way negative about Cape Verde itself. Quite the contrary. It is by far one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I have ever been to, and the sheer kindness of the people who live there was not only welcoming from the minute I arrived, but a life saver when things didn’t go to plan. They have a saying in Cape Verde: ‘Morabeza’! From what I understand, it translates as ‘treat guests exactly as family’…and that is exactly what they did.

I travelled to Cape Verde during my Ph.D., for which I was studying genomic variation in band-rumped storm-petrels. These are small, nocturnal seabirds that breed on remote islands, and a population of particular interest to me lives on some of the small islets in Cape Verde. I travelled first to Fogo Island, one of the bigger inhabited islands, to plan for field work and meet up with my wonderful field leader, Herculano, the manager of Parque Natural de Fogo.

Pico do Fogo

While we were planning our work, Herculano took me to Pico do Fogo, the active volcano that gives the island its name. It is an area of stunning beauty, and I had the opportunity to hike on the lava field and go caving through lava flow tunnels. While on Fogo, I also swam in a beautiful lagoon, enjoyed the soft black sand beaches, sampled wine in the local winery, and ate fried eel (which is actually very good)! There are few tourists who visit Fogo island, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets!!

Our campsite home on Ilheu de Cima.

After sightseeing and gathering supplies, it was time to start fieldwork! We needed to catch storm-petrels on a small islet called Ilheu de Cima. As Cima is nothing but rock and a string of beaches, we had to bring all of our supplies with us, including food and water. Herculano arranged for some local fisherman to drop the three of us (himself, my field assistant and childhood bestie Freyja, and me) off on Cima with our camping supplies. And for the first few days we enjoyed our own little island paradise.

By day we would explore the small islet, trying to find some shelter from the sun, although shade was very hard to come by. Luckily I like hot weather, so I was thoroughly enjoying the heat and our many private beaches.

All ready for action: Freyja and Herculano with our mist net.

As the storm-petrels are nocturnal, we would hike to the nesting colony before sunset, scramble down a rock face on the far side of the 1km islet, and set up our mist net to catch birds as they flew to and from their rock crevice nests. Usually we would catch birds until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before packing up and hiking back to camp. As it was September we were fortunate enough to be there during the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, and we (very quietly) would watch females lay their eggs as we wound down from our work!

It all sounds amazing, right? Too good to be true, I suppose. One night, after a really great night of sampling, we hiked back to camp to find….well…no camp.

All that remained of our campsite…

And that brings us to the point at which I started my story. We stood on the beach realizing that our entire camp was gone (aside from that one bottle of wine, which had somehow survived). We can’t be 100% sure what happened, but it looked like a big wave came in and washed everything out to sea. Bits of debris were scattered across the beach, and our tents (which we had anchored with boulders) were gone – along with everything that was inside. And obviously when you are camping on an uninhabited islet, there is no one to steal your possessions, and so you don’t mind leaving everything in your tent. For example, your passport, money, bank cards, and ID’s. Damn.

Can’t complain about the view…

So what do you do in that moment? Well, we sat on top of the islet, watched one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and swigged from the wine bottle, feeling defeated. Thankfully we had kept our phones on us and so could call for help.  Eventually, we managed to get hold of the fisherman, who rescued us that afternoon.

Back on Fogo, Freyja and I realised we were now in a foreign country with no way of accessing money or identifying ourselves. We relied on the kindness of Herculano, his family, and the other locals, to provide food and shelter (and some spare clothes). Without their help I don’t know what we would have done. It was a big learning experience for me, accepting so much from people I hardly knew. Morabeza indeed!

Freyja and I are both British citizens, but there is no British consulate in Cape Verde, so the British consulate communicated with the Portuguese consulate to provide us with temporary travel documents. Eventually, with the concerted efforts of a whole host of people, we managed to arrange our way back home. (It took a few days, though, by which point we were looking particularly haggard). At the time I was pretty traumatised, feeling like the whole experience had been a complete disaster. However, looking back I learnt a lot from it. Possessions can be replaced; the fact that we were safe was all that really mattered. And I will never be too proud to accept help when I need it.

I don’t regret my time on Cima: it was a unique experience and a wonderful place to have spent some time (not to mention a great story).

Plus, the samples we had collected that night were still in my bag, and thankfully provided enough material for me to sequence the storm-petrels’ DNA and finish my research project!

Cima has a unique combination of both black and white sand beaches. The wind mixes the two together in some places to create beautiful marbled beaches.

 

I would like to dedicate this story to Herculano, Emily, Bianca, and the rest of their family for their help and kindness, to Freyja for being a great person to go through a disaster with, and to everyone who was involved in helping to find us money and a way home.

Dr. Becky Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, after which she spent two years as a researcher for the conservation charity Wildscreen. She then completed her Master’s degree in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. During her M.Sc. she became passionate about wildlife genetics as a tool to study evolutionary questions but also for conservation purposes. This led her to undertake her Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Ontario, studying genomic variation in the Leach’s and band-rumped storm-petrel species complexes. She completed her Ph.D. in 2017 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, undertaking further work with the band-rumped storm-petrels and a few other wildlife genetics projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeckySTaylor.

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.

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