The Crossing

With Canada’s 150th birthday around the corner, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back Emily Williams to talk about her adventures in Alaska searching for Canada’s national bird, the Gray Jay. For more on why the Gray Jay was chosen for Canada’s bird, check out the Canadian Geographic article. For more about Emily, see her bio at the end of this post!

The last time I had to do a river crossing to access a nest, in 2011, I got the s*%! scared out of me. I managed to make it to the other side only with the help of the hand that grabbed my arm at lightning speed after it was apparent I had lost my footing and was starting to get swept away by the current.

About a month ago, I had to face the fear I’d been harboring since that experience. Compounding this fear was the knowledge that I was residing in a place well known for its fast-flowing, muddied, arctic-temperature waters, where everyone has a story of someone they know that wasn’t so lucky during a seemingly harmless packrafting or fishing trip. If there’s one thing I learned when I was last in Alaska nearly ten years ago that hasn’t changed, it’s this: respect this land, be prepared, and have the humility to know that you are a small, fragile human in a large, harsh, and unforgiving landscape.

Banding a chick

Placing unique combinations of color bands on the legs of Gray Jay nestlings allows us to identify each individual from each nest. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

In the middle of May this year, I was wrapping up my first Gray Jay field season and monitoring the last remaining nests that still had nestlings. There was just one nest left to band nestlings at, but it had been eluding me for days. While we generally try to check nests every few days, 10 days had passed since this nest had last been checked. I had the gut feeling that the nestlings hadn’t fallen prey to a predator, because I kept seeing the parents nearby, acting suspicious. But the problem was, when we found the nest back in late March, we had easily accessed it by crossing a frozen creek. Now it was mid-May, and the nest was still across a creek – a creek that was raging at high levels due to the runoff from all the snow we received this winter.

Gray Jay chick in hand

This little guy will be known as WW-OS. WW stands for “white-white” on the right leg, and OS stands for “orange-silver” on the left leg. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

I had hiked down to the creek a couple of times already, hoping the water levels had gone down, but to no avail. The next option was to try to access the nest from the other side of the creek. This involved a long six miles of bushwhacking through thick willow and alder, culminating in the realization that that route led us to a place where the creek forked, which took us further away from our goal. The final option was to try to cross the creek.

With three intrepid Gray Jay thrill seekers and two ladders

Measuring length of leg with caliper

In addition to color banding, we conduct standard morphometric measurements of the nestlings to compare growth rates across nests. NPS Photo/Devdharm Khalsa

– one to try to cross the creek with, the other to climb up to the nest – in tow, I set out to face this obstacle head on. A few attempts at extending the ladder across the creek and onto the other side ended without coming any closer to achieving a viable crossing – the 25-ft extension ladder just wasn’t long enough.


We then scoured up and down the creek sides, looking for a better passage that didn’t seem so swift or deep. After several minutes, we found the spot: the eddies didn’t look nearly as fast or scary, and there was a tree hanging over the width of the creek, offering a steady hand rail for our passage.

large ladder leaning against the tree

Not only did we have to cross the creek, but we also had to lug this big ladder with us. We have to use extension ladders to access the nests, which are often over 20 feet high. NPS Photo/Jason Gablaski

Doing all the things they teach you about swiftwater crossings – wearing life jackets, attaching ourselves to a rope that another held onto from solid ground, using trekking poles to stabilize us, and crossing together, two sets of feet moving in tandem – we waded into the current, one step at a time. Several nervous, adrenaline-pumping minutes later, we made it to the other side.

All social niceties thrown aside, I let out a huge “Whoop!” of relief, allowing all that adrenaline coursing through my veins to slowly seep out into a feeling of triumphant euphoria, knowing I had conquered my long-held fears. It’s amazing how a few nerve-wracking moments can end in such an enormous natural high.

holding 4 nestlings in hand

These nestlings may have been the hardest to get to, but seeing all four little fluff balls sitting there in the nest begging for food made it all worth the effort. NPS Photo/Julien Appignani

After crossing, we gathered our equipment and proceeded towards the nest. And what do you know? We found that nest full of expectant, 13-day old nestlings, throwing their mouths open with reckless abandon in the hopes of being fed a tasty morsel.

This nest, pardon my French, was a b%#*! to get to. But seeing all four of those fluff balls sitting there, as if they were waiting on us this whole time, (“it took you long enough!”) made it all worthwhile.



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:

Denali National Park and Preserve bird page:

Fears of fieldwork

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

In reading responses to the recently popular hashtag #fieldworkscares, I realized that luckily I haven’t had to deal with any major scares in the field (knock on wood!). But nonetheless, to a first time field biologist, some minor things can feel pretty scary! So I am going to share some of my #fieldworkfears as well and how I overcame them. One of the best feelings is being able to recognize that fear and conquer it.

– Travelling on my own for the first time to meet the field team leader whom of which I had no idea about what he looked like. It was a good thing that the plane could only sit 10 people (a turbulence-filled flight where you feel every movement)! Based on attire alone, it is no surprise that I was able to pick out the field biologist pretty easily.

Sarah holding a large snake

That smile is saying “I can’t believe I am doing this”.

– Holding a snake for the first time. I know this is an embarrassing fear to mention as a field biologist, but, like a lot of people, I was not a fan of the way snakes were able to move without limbs. However on a field course in Mexico, I couldn’t be the only one not to hold the massive snake (can anyone say FOMO (fear of missing out)!?). It turns out that snakes are not slimy at all and are really neat creatures that don’t want to bother you as long as you don’t bother them.

Nest box for ancient murrelets.

Nest box for ancient murrelets.


– Arriving to your study location and your study species are no where to be found. The winter before I arrived in Haida Gwaii, there was a massive storm that destroyed the whole south side of the island – exactly where a long term study was being conducted on ancient murrelets. Unfortunately, this meant that any nest boxes that were still intact were mostly empty (save for a few strong survivors) and any data loggers that were deployed on chicks last year were likely not to be returned. Luckily birds were still nesting in natural burrows on the north side of the island and we could collect some data.

view of the side of the mountain

View of the side of the mountain I had to traverse.

– When your team lead suddenly slides down on bushes over the side of the mountain, disappears, and yells up to you “don’t worry I’ll catch you!”. In case you are worried if I crushed him – I did successfully make it down with only a few minor scrapes from the twigs poking at me on the way down.

– Having to jump from a tiny zodiac that is riding the waves onto the wet, slippery, and sharp rocky shore carrying all of your equipment.  On one attempt, a colleague did slip and fall but was able to hold on strongly enough so only her feet entered the cold, icy water. On the plus side, she got to take the morning off to warm her feet by the heater! After making your first jump successfully, the daily activity becomes more of a challenge.Zodiac to the island

What I have learned throughout my fieldwork experiences is that you will always have fears (some rational; some not so much) and it seems like it always comes down to the fear of the unknown. In any case, it seems the best way to get over them is to just jump right in (while being safe of course)!