Barren, desolate, magical, rugged, and peaceful: 9 days of labour and laughs in the tundra

This week Dispatches from the field are very excited to welcome a guest post co-written by a professor’s wife and 14 year old son when they went to the tundra to help with fieldwork. It is very rare that we have someone under the age of 20 contributing to our blog! For more about Paul, Anne, and their son Louis, check out the end of this post!

Finally, this is it!  After all the preparations, Louis and I are now on our first ever float plane flight heading 300 kilometers north of Yellowknife to the remote low Arctic tundra station at Daring Lake.

We are being flown in by a pair of bush pilots on a plane loaded with lots of wood, screws, nails, and rolls of plastic for one of Paul’s long-term experiments.

Louis: The plane’s engines rise to a dizzying roar so I put my headphones on, which only partly subdue the noise. We start off with a lurch and then float out to the “runway” – a long section of slightly wavy lake. The pilot then heads us into the wind, facing towards the shore no more than 200 meters away. After some last checks, he pushes the throttle to max and we’re off bouncing over the waves until we lift up completely, with plenty of space between us and the shore.

The Tundra Ecosystem Research Station at Daring Lake has been in operation since 1996, when it was opened by the Northwest Territories government for research and environmental monitoring. Government scientists, university professors and their students come up here to do field work.

Views of the tundra.

We fly for 75 minutes across the treeline and over a seemingly uninhabited land of lakes, rivers and rocky barren land, towards Daring Lake in the land of the indigenous Dene people.

The camp consists of 10 all-season large tents. Each has a lovely white and orange cover, and sits up on wooden supports. A boardwalk connects one tent to the next. The flags flying represent the Tli-Cho Dene territory, NWT, and Canada.  It is very obvious that a lot of care has gone into developing this camp.

many people on the dock to unload items.

Unloading the float plane.

After unloading our stuff and then reloading the plane with all the waste from camp (empty fuel tanks, trash, etc.) the plane is ready for take-off. Once it is up and away, leaving behind a spray of water that washes our faces, we are all alone – just 8 of us on this desolate landscape, kept secure from the local wildlife by an electrified bear fence.

Louis: We trudge across the tundra to a natural cut in the esker through which a river flows. I cast off from the edge, when soon one line gets tugged, and then another, and then one of the fishermen asks me if I want to reel the fish in… and for the next minute it’s fish versus my forearm. At last, the fish flops out from the water; the fisherman gives me a smile while removing the hook, and proceeds to whack the base of the fish’s skull until it is looking at me with dead eyes.  

The soft “beds” of the tundra.

Our day’s work starts….. Paul takes us on a walk to see his greenhouse experiment in a nearby valley. Walking across the tundra is not like any walking I have ever done before. It is very strenuous, with lots of ups and downs, full of water holes and low shrubs so you become unsure of where your foot is going to land next. You can get a wet foot very easily if you do not judge a tussock carefully. But lying down on the mat of plants feels like sinking into a nice soft mattress. The bog cotton blows in the wind, the ground is full of low vegetation, rich in colour, and laden with blueberries and cranberries.

Louis holds the wood while Anne uses the power drill.

Louis and Anne work hard to put together sturdy greenhouses.

Louis: The high-pitched whine beside my ear tells me that the powerdrill is working and the screw is piercing the wood, making the greenhouse frame stronger. The end goal is to make the greenhouses last another 13 years… but they look like they will last until the next ice age. These greenhouses are supposed to show the likely effects of climate change on plant growth by accelerating the process and then recording the results. For me, it was all about the challenge of fortifying the greenhouses.

It’s grizzly bear country and we have to carry shortwave radios, pepper spray and bear bangers at all times. There are resident ground squirrels, lemmings and voles. They run around the camp keeping us company.

At 2.30 am we get up to see the northern lights – lovely green hues swirling 100-300 kilometers above us.

Louis and Anne putting in some hard work!

After a long day in the field, we head home to camp, tummies empty. The kitchen is the hub; we cook and eat together. It provides a unique setting to develop a real sense of community and to share ideas and experiences. We will have lasting memories of this safe haven, a home away from home.  As the Sami people of the Swedish tundra used to say: “My home is where my heart is, and it travels with me wherever I go”.

Louis, Anne, and Paul

Louis Grogan: 14 year old teenager. He loves the outdoors and having fun on his bike. He was very disappointed he could not bring up his bike to the field station and ride around in the tundra.  This is Louis’ first time to visit any of Paul’s field sites. Louis loves to use a power drill and is always very excited to build with wood. At this time in his life he has shown no interest in science.

Anne Keegan: Registered Nurse, wife of Paul and mom of Louis. She has travelled with Paul to several of his field sites in the Arctic, and this was her first visit to Daring Lake.

Paul Grogan: Professor of Plant and Ecosystem Ecology, Queen’s University, Kingston. Paul has been doing research at Daring lake, NWT for the past 13 years. His students typically spend 10 to 12 weeks at the site in the summer working on their experiments.

Advertisements

Pulling a Jane Goodall

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Stacey Hollis.  A field biologist turned communicator, Stacey shares some details of her time in the field – and also what led to her decision to leave the field and pursue journalism.  For more about Stacey, check out her bio at the end of the post.

I like to say I “pulled a Jane Goodall”.

After more than five years of working in the field, studying all manner of bird species, I wanted out.

As much as I love working in nature, in even the most remote locales I was seeing first hand just how deeply humans are impacting this planet’s ecosystems. In fact, there is no better way to understand the effect humans have on the environment than by living in the middle of it – and that’s exactly what field biologists do.

I grew up reading Jane Goodall’s books about her work with chimpanzees and how she lived out in the rainforest alone in what seemed like a dream life. But she also saw the devastation that humans inflicted on that ecosystem. There’s no looking the other way when you’re trying to save a species that is suffering right in front of you. So Goodall came out of the field to bring the message of the chimpanzees to the public, to stop the destruction of the species by poaching and habitat loss.

Goodall didn’t want to leave the field, of course. I know she would have preferred to just stay in the forest with the chimps, just like I would have preferred to remain among the birds. But she realized that the only way to save the animals she loved was to spread the word to the masses. It was only through her tireless efforts in public speaking, advocating and raising awareness that she could hope to change the future for the chimps.

So out of the field I came, trying to emulate my hero and seeking ways to help the ecosystems and species that I so loved from afar. Since we spend so much time been on the front lines of conservation, field biologists need to share what we’ve seen and what we’ve learned with the public, for the love of nature and in order to conserve it.

A magnolia warbler in the hand.

Energetic and colourful: a magnolia warbler

Having spent practically the entirety of my childhood enamored with birds–I’ve been told my first word was “duck”–my intention has always been to dedicate my life to these feathered beings that have captured my attention since my eyes first met the sky. Wherever I was, walking down a forest or along a beach, even down a busy city sidewalk, they were ALWAYS there, decorating the world with their energetic, colourful lives.

When I was seven years old, my mother brought me on my first official birdwalk after convincing the hesitant leaders that a little girl would be overjoyed to walk at a snail’s pace for four hours, staring into the branches. I remember walking up to the group of binocular-adorned adults, clad in beige vests each sporting a plethora of pockets. They stood outside The Backyard Naturalist, the wild bird feed store and gift shop that organized these walks which ultimately helped steer the course of my life.

A birder from an early age…

Though approaching such a group of experts was intimidating for a little girl, it took me no time to warm up to these friendly, knowledgeable birders who, over time, became my teachers and who I still know and love to this day. After taking the entire morning to master the tiny binoculars they loaned me, determinedly attempting to train them on the frenzied flitting of spring warblers in the highest reaches of a huge old tree, I knew I was hooked.

But the greatest, most vivid memory was my first encounter with an American Kestrel. Our group was approaching Centennial Lake when someone said “kestrel” and suddenly tripods were propped into place and birding scopes were pointed at a tree at the edge of the lake down the hill from us. Being the youngest in the group, everyone very generously pushed me to the head of the line. I approached the scope and the powerful lens towered above me. From behind, I was held aloft to be able to train my eye to the viewfinder. Inside, I found what all the fuss was about: a tiny, brilliantly coloured falcon with a fierce stare belying its delicate appearance. I could hardly tear my eyes away; it was like I was looking through a portal to the future of what birds would forever mean to me.

A memorable sight: an American kestrel surveys his kingdom

This passion never faltered as I made my way through college, earning a degree in Biology and Environmental Studies, which gave me the opportunity to begin my first job in the field, working as an intern on islands off the coast of Maine with Audubon’s Project Puffin. Of my various field jobs – working in Canada with warblers, in Puerto Rico with Smooth-billed Anis, and out west with Burrowing Owls and woodpeckers – I’m not going to say Project Puffin was my favourite (because they all were), but this was the only field job I returned to twice more after the first go-round.

Fresh fish, anyone?  An Atlantic puffin with his catch

One of my most vivid memories from this job was also my very first:

Follow the leader: a female common eider leads her ducklings to water.

As a 19-year-old, shiny new field biologist (so designated by one Dr. Steve Kress), riding the swells of Maine’s Saco Bay to one of the Project Puffin-managed nesting colonies where I’d be spending my summer studying terns and puffins, a flurry of wings caught my attention from the beach of my soon-to-be island home. A momma Common Eider, a species of sea duck, was making her way up the beach followed by seven sooty, cottonball chicks. But those little vulnerable morsels out in the open were just too tempting for any nearby gull to pass up. Before my jaw could even drop in disbelief, every one of the chicks had already disappeared down the gullet of one of the gang of hungry gulls.

Fearless and opportunistic, a California gull scans the landscape for its next meal.

Gulls were a main contributor to tern and puffin mortality on the colonies and, were humans not stationed on these islands to help drive them away, they could easily and completely wipe out these sensitive seabird colonies. It’s because gulls do so prolifically well around human communities (thanks to their fearless and opportunistic nature and penchant for the occasional errant french fry), that they’ve become such a problem for these offshore-nesting birds which haven’t evolved adequate defences against them.

And these kinds of sights didn’t just stop at gulls, I found as I found myself witness to a broad and ever-widening range of human-related impacts on these avian ecosystems.  Raccoons and crows are an enormous problem for nesting shorebirds, as are the ever-strengthening storms that hit our coasts. Changing sea temperatures affect food supply of diving seabirds and we’ve seen it in the piles of warm water dwelling butterfish piled next to starving puffin chicks, whose mouths are unable to encompass the wide, silver-dollar-sized fish that their parents see as easy foraging. Habitat loss is also often an issue, as conversion of forests to logging lands leaves warblers returning from migration to a tragically devastated landscape where their nesting territory once was. Species are relegated to smaller and smaller patches of protected lands. And human influence is, of course, at the heart of all of these problems.

In 2011, I went for a Master’s degree in Journalism so I could learn to communicate my passions and frustrations in a way that could reach far and wide. If I can share my stories and the sights I’ve witnessed, maybe I can reach others in an attempt to help incite change for the better. As a field biologist turned environmental writer, I hope to convey information in a way that’s less dry and unappealing to the regular Joe than a scientific journal article tends to be. I’ve since written about my various travels working with a variety of birds, and I’ve found that, through photography and social media and a little humour, I can get the word out. It’s impossible to quantify whether my efforts have been a success and I feel like I’m still only just getting started, but if I can even just reach one person, perhaps a ripple effect will occur and future change might be achieved.

And if you ever find yourself in Olney, Maryland, be sure to ask Debi and Mike Klein, owners of Backyard Naturalist, for a look at the now-yellowed marker drawing of that American Kestrel still hanging in a corner of the store. Obviously, they got the message across.

Stacey has devoted her life to learning about and promoting awareness about birds and wildlife conservation. Graduating from Warren Wilson College with a BSc in Biology and Environmental Studies, she went on to work in avian field ecology and conservation research for five years. She’s worked on puffin nesting colonies off the coast of Maine, monitored and banded burrowing owls in the western United States, radio-tracked smooth billed anis in Puerto Rico and more. While her desire to stay in the field was strong, Stacey decided she needed to “pull a Jane Goodall” and leave the wild birds she loved in order to spread the message about the dire straits that they, and many other wildlife species, are in. Now with a MSc in Journalism from University of Oregon, she has gone on to write for Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and now manages and writes for Wild Lens, Inc.‘s Eyes on Conservation blog. Learn more about her at www.staceymhollis.com and @stacebird on Twitter.

Why we need more than science

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to feature a guest post from Dr. Laura Coristine.  In her post, Laura shares a bit about her early passion for working with one of the most charismatic megafauna out there: wolves.  To learn more about Laura, check out her bio at the end of the post.

My passion for science started with wolves. As an 11 year old I read every book on the topic that I could find. I hadn’t yet heard of journal articles; back then, finding my way to a university and wading through the stacks would have been a two-hour metro ride, and who knows what I would have found. Suffice it to say, the world was not connected. There was no information at anyone’s fingertips, unless they sought to become an expert.

Fast forward to university: by third year I was desperately contacting every researcher in North America who had ever studied wolves. I sent e-mails. I mailed letters. I made long distance phone calls. It was a full-time job, and finally, impressed by my determination, a researcher put me in touch with Canada’s foremost wolf expert. I was hired for the summer.

When I showed up for my first day, I was told I would be learning the secrets of what wolves eat. I was enchanted, for a very brief moment. And then came reality.  “Do you know,” I was asked, “that wolves eat vegetation and berries?”. Of course, I knew. I had first read that fact as a child. I have to confess though, that for someone reputedly intelligent enough for academia, I was remarkably slow to connect the dots. But finally it clicked: I had been hired to study wolf dung.

The job, in a nutshell, involved teasing apart differences between what different species of wolves ate through the seasons. I was rinsing and sterilizing wolf scat until the particulate matter had washed down the drain (the janitor was called almost daily to deal with the clogs in the sink). And at the end of this process, I was left with a tangle of hairs from the wolves’ prey – rabbit, beaver, and the occasional deer or moose and the even more occasional berry. Although I must say identification of hairs was fun, the process, in a nutshell, stank.

Then there was the process of assessing wolf skull morphology to assess hybridization and species composition of wolf packs. I thought this was a step up from the fecal analyses…but it turns out we were boiling wolf heads – road kill and hunting remnants – in a vat until the meat fell off. I became vegetarian after that task.

In the field and on the trail of wolves at last! Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

But finally, as a reward for my patience with unappealing lab tasks, I was let loose into the field to sample wolf vocalizations for my honours project, which aimed to replicate a study conducted 30 years earlier. My supervisor was convinced that with better methodology and better sound recording equipment, we might see new results.

Through each night of August, I chased wolf packs and coyote-wolf hybrids across the Madawaska Plains of Ontario.  After staking out known pack territories during the day, my field assistant and I followed a rigorous protocol of night-time howling and waiting for wolves to respond.  I learned the crack and waver of a wolf call, the higher pitch of a coyote, and the excited yips of the youngest wolves.

The crowning moment of my field season, though, was the evening a small farming community invited us to a corn roast before letting us roam through a farmer’s field to collect our audio recordings.

It was a quiet night; my call raised only a single howl, rapidly swallowed by the inky dark of a rural night sky.  We waited.  And waited.  Waiting was not part of the protocol – we were supposed to move on, but we had been told that this was the place to find our wolves.

And then I jumped.  There, off to the side, was a flash of eyes, and then another.  Not a sound. But as I turned slowly in a circle, I realized that we were surrounded on all sides.  Breath catching, we were held immobile by a circle of glowing wolf eyes.

There is a tension between human and nature – at least for a human who has not grown up completely inside of nature.  My mind turned to Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, to Russian folktales of wolves chasing man, human fear warring with the scientific fact that no healthy wild wolf in North America had ever killed a human.  And then I howled, and the wolves howled back: long, wavering calls that rose and broke in a symphony of nature, until slowly, gradually, the wolves quieted and watched us.  Long moments of looking at each other across the farmer’s field, silence stretching out to eternity before their eyes winked out and disappeared.

There is a tension between human and nature. Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

At the end of the summer, I was asked to return for a Master’s.  Despite the scat and the boiled skulls, the entire summer had been one of the most amazing educational experiences of my life. But I didn’t know how to break the news: science had already collected so much information on wolf ecology – what was left to discover? I couldn’t see myself returning for graduate studies to continue studying what we already knew.

Wolves, like many large mammals, are under threat from climate change, from habitat loss, and from human fear and persecution.  Wolf ecology, behavior, and diet are well known, well established.  When I was asked to return, I realized that sometimes it isn’t a matter of learning more about a species.  Instead, it is a matter of using the information we have to change policies and decisions about nature.

Dr. Laura Coristine is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her research focuses on ways to promote native species’ range movements in response to climate change. She is actively involved in efforts to inform Canada’s CBD2020 commitment to increase terrestrial and aquatic protected areas. Her research has been featured on Quirks and Quarks, and various other online, radio, and television media. ​On dark summer evenings, you can sometimes find her outside howling for wolves. To hear more about her adventures, follow her on Twitter: @LauraCoristine.

It only took one run

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Scott Lynch, a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, to share how his love for field biology (with sharks!) started.

There are few experiences more unnerving than being told you have to run off a boat, up a ramp, and through a parking lot while carrying a 3-foot shark in your arms. I peered through the hot August Virginian sun, eyeing the obstacles along the boat, not quite believing that this was actually happening.

Just a few days beforehand I had been a newly hired undergraduate intern, working for a month optimizing my supervisor’s western blot protocol. Although I had said I wanted to work in the field when I was hired, I understood the importance of paying my dues. I worked hard at the tasks my supervisor gave me, until one day he asked to see me in his office. When I walked in he had one simple question for me: “How do you feel about Virginia?”

small town signWithin a few short days I was landing in Norfolk, Virginia, headed to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Eastern Shore Lab in Wachapreague. As a new undergraduate researcher I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a sleepy little town of 400 people, characterized by its charter fishing fleet, one large restaurant, and the research lab. As I approached the research lab I found it to be a small complex of buildings, including offices, staff housing, an under-construction dry lab, and a newly opened, state-of-the-art, wet lab. The newly opened building was a concrete hulk nestled on the edge of the salt marsh, the home of the animals studied there. It was accompanied by a set of docks and bobbing boats.

As I got out of the car I was immediately met by a rush of activity. A fresh set of oysters had been brought in for study. The boat was being unloaded and the huge clumps of mud containing oysters along with whatever else happened to get caught up in the shovel were being cleaned and separated. I immediately jumped in and learned just how frenzied and tiring life at a field station can be.

view of the salt marsh

The next morning I was up bright and early for my first encounter with sharks. The salt marsh around the lab is a common place to find juvenile sandbar sharks that time of year. I went out with the senior fish scientists at the lab and learned a great deal, very quickly about fishing and shark handling.

I also learned a great deal about the brutality of bugs on the Virginian Eastern Shore. They have these bugs that look like houseflies with green heads, earning them the creative nickname of “greenheads”. However, unlike houseflies, when they land on you, their bite draws blood – even straight through jeans sometimes. This leaves you with a hard choice: wear jeans, melt to death in the 100 degree (when you include the brutal humidity) weather, and still get bitten occasionally, or wear shorts, keep cooler, but get home with blood running down your legs?

Later that afternoon when we got back to the lab, it came time for that run with a shark in my arms to deposit it into the large outdoor holding tank. I have been asked time and again why we would transport the sharks in such a way and the simplest explanation is to minimize time in between breaths for the sharks. These animals are obligatory ram ventilators, meaning that they need to swim forward to be able to breath. In other words, they can breathe in the tank on the boat and in the holding tank, but still wouldn’t be able to breath in a tub small enough to also be able to carry or wheel around. Therefore, covering their eyes and gills with a wet cloth to protect them and simply running them between locations means that they have the smallest possible window between breaths.

I eyed the path I had to take to get off the boat: up the floating dock, around the corner, through the water tables (being careful not to trip on the pipes running along the ground), and up some stairs. Once at the top, I could carefully slide the shark into the water. Easy, right?

I wrapped the shark’s head in a soaked towel, held its jaw shut with my hands, and went for it. Now I’m a big guy (6’3”, around 300 lbs) so running is not my strong suit, but there is no motivator quite like having a shark in your arms and being responsible for its safety. Especially when a big part of that safety includes getting it back in the water as quickly as possible. I jumped off the boat, ran up the ramp, through the water tables, up the stairs, and with great relief deposited the shark into the water. As the shark slipped out of my hands and took off, I was immediately hooked.

taking some measurementsFrom that point on, working 17 hour days dealing with the heat, the bugs, and the danger of handling live sharks was nothing but exhilarating to me. I worked through meals, woke up in the middle of the night to check on my sharks, and was happy for every minute of the work. I had absolutely caught the shark bug, and the field work bug too.

From those summers working with juvenile sandbars in remote Virginia I have stories of near shark bites, drowning scares out on the mud flats, and so many stories of evil salt marsh bugs. While I love telling all of these stories, and gladly will if you give me a minute of your time, nothing since has ever affected me as much as that first day at the field station, and that first time running a shark.

 

Scott on a boatScott Lynch is a Master’s Candidate at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he studies white shark movement and also works full time as the Technical Services Coordinator for Campus Services. He holds his BS in Marine Biology from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he conducted work on the effects of satellite telemetry tags on juvenile sandbar sharks. Twitter: @savindafishies

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.

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

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