The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Dr. Tara Imlay, a recent PhD graduate, swallow conservation expert, and parent. In her post, Tara shares some of the challenges of this kind of multi-tasking – as well as some of its rewards. For more about Tara, see her bio at the end of the post.

Just call me Dr. Mama… after all, my precocious nearly three-year-old does.

Field work was one of my primary considerations when I chose to have a baby during my doctoral degree.  Specifically, I wanted to avoid being in the third trimester during my second field season, and I wanted the baby to be at least six months old during my third field season.  As you can imagine, that left a very small window in which to get pregnant.

Luckily, for me, that wasn’t a big challenge.

Instead, the challenges during my second field season came in the form of prolonged morning sickness, food aversions, exhaustion, and changes to my centre of gravity.  The latter landed me in the hospital after I fell over a bank one morning while mist-netting Bank Swallows.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured – and one of my field assistants now has an amazing response to any interview questions about dealing with unexpected problems in the field!  After that experience, though, I began delegating a lot more field work to my assistants, especially anything involving heights.

Danny demonstrating the safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

Danny demonstrating safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

The challenges in my third field season came in the form of exhaustion from lack of sleep.  At that time, Robin* was still waking up routinely through the night for feedings.  On numerous nights, she was up at 11, again at 2, and my alarm would go off at 3.  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that field season, but somehow we managed to get everything done.

But despite the challenges, there were a lot of amazing moments during those field seasons and the field seasons since.

Moments like sitting in the field banding birds, with a very chubby baby propped up beside me.  Or watching how excited she got over seeing all the birds, cows, sheep, dogs, and anything else that moved at my field sites.

This past year, she’s taken on a more helpful bent in the field: carrying equipment, checking swallow nests, and, her favourite task of all… getting to let birds go after they’ve been captured and banded.

The field team, including its smallest member, busy tagging captured Bank Swallows.

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to manage her short attention spans, and I can’t always bring her with me when I’m in the field.  Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several great people who don’t mind helping out with an inquisitive child, when needed.

But despite the challenges, having a baby during my PhD didn’t affect my ability to finish my degree, and hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other opportunities, both in and out of the field.  Becoming a parent with a busy field schedule isn’t a common occurrence, but if it’s something you want, then you just have to go for it, deal with the challenges as they come, and enjoy the special moments along the way.

*Her middle name, for anonymity when she’s older.

Tara Imlay is a recent PhD graduate from Dalhousie University.  Her PhD and postdoctoral work focuses on the ecology and conservation of four species of swallows throughout their annual cycle.  Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked on various conservation programs for birds and reptiles in Canada, the USA and Mauritius.

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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.  🙂

Full mind, huge heart, tired eyes

I had a wonderful summer of fieldwork…my mind is full, my heart is huge and my eyes are tired. I think that’s what all field biologists strive for at the end of a summer field season. I still have a significant amount of fall fieldwork to do, but I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my summer in the field.

My mind is full

I learned SO much this summer… SO SO SO much! I learned new plant species I had never seen or heard of before. I started noticing more of nature including butterflies, dragonflies, birds, reptiles and amphibians.  I noticed the arrangement of holes and cavities in trees. I noticed the behaviours of birds during mating season and the incredible defense of nests during nesting season. I started learning spider species (surprising given this), recording calls of birds to look them up later and taking photos of tracks in the mud. My mind is still overloaded from everything, I noticed and learned this summer, and I hope every field season from here on out is the same.

Grass of parnassus – new species for me!

My heart is huge

I love field work. I love being outside. I love nature and everything about it. My heart was in the Frontenac Arch for most of the past decade, and now my heart is stretched across so many new places I have grown to love: the scrubby wonders of the Napanee Plain, the always adventurous Prince Edward County, the quiet beauty of the Kawarthas, the wavy coast of eastern Lake Ontario and the rolling hills of Northhumberland County. Next summer will come quickly, and it will bring many more new places to fall in love with, I’m sure.

My eyes are tired

Fieldwork can be tough. Most of your time is spent hiking to specific points, carrying lots of equipment, and in weather or conditions that aren’t ideal. For instance, this summer, I did a lot of “bushwhacking” which according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to clear a path through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches”. My definition is a little different. My definition of bushwhacking is “to get from point A to point B through thick vegetation, which often has thorns, prickles, and other irritants present, while trying to disturb the natural environment as little as possible and leave some sort of remnant path to find your way back”. A little wordier perhaps, but all very true and relevant to my summer in the field. Thick red cedar on alvars, cattails twice as tall as me, and prickly ash pricklier than ten prickly things were common settings to be “bushwhacking” through. But the reward is always worth the hardship in the end. Check out a couple of the epic places we found as a result of some serious bushwhacking.

Open alvar pavement (a globally rare habitat)

The most picturesque stream I have ever seen

So as I wrap up the summer field season, and start the cooler, wetter, wilder fall field season, I sit here smiling with my full mind, huge heart and tired eyes and I think about all the possibilities the next summer field season will bring.

The birds and the bees

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome Alannah Gallo. Alannah got her start in environmental consulting over the summer, and shares some of her adventures surveying both avifauna and pollinators in western Canada.

As I write this, I am about to land in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for my last round of pollinator surveys of the year…and I’m so relieved I’ve made it through the field season.

These past few months have been my first exposure to field work. I was fortunate to have two employers willing to share me as I worked on bird surveys for one company, and pollinator surveys for the other. Working two very different jobs at the same time and the huge learning curve that came with both was a lot to take on, but I’m so happy I did. In my bird survey position, I was fortunate to have an amazing and supportive set of coworkers to help me become a better birder. The pollination surveys, though, were a bit more challenging, as I was completely on my own for all the travelling, planning, and surveying I had to do from June to September.

A pollinator visits one of the flowers grown from our seed mixes.

The objective of Operation Pollinator was to measure the effect of pollinator seed mixes on pollinator diversity. Seed mixes were sent to landowners in Northern Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan who would plant them in sites they had set aside for the project. The idea is that I would have an initial meeting with the landowners, who would show me where they had planted the seed mixes, and then I would visit these sites, along with a control site (i.e., an area where no seed mix was planted), once a month from June to September to survey for pollinator diversity and abundance. There were five pollinator sites and one control in each province, for a total of 18 sites…so it was a lot to handle.

The process of surveying for pollinators is fairly straight forward. I placed pan traps, which are plastic yellow or white bowls filled with water and soap, along transects and waited for insects to fly in. (This works because pollinators are attracted to the colours yellow, and white). I also conducted net sweeps, using a bug net to sweep through the vegetation at each site. Finally, I did visual surveys – in other words, I watched what species visited the flowers from the seed mixes.

A common alpine butterfly captured during a net sweep.

When I got the job, it sounded totally manageable. I was eager to prove myself and set out to do what I could to prepare myself for the field work. I first studied pollinators during my undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary, where I took courses on invertebrates and entomology. Then I volunteered with John Swann, the curator of the Entomology Museum at the University of Calgary , who trained me to process and identify specimens. (One of the best things I learned from this training was how to fluff bumblebees – probably one of my favourite things to do!) Once I got the pollinator survey job, I refreshed my knowledge by reading up on the most common species of pollinator in western Canada and creating flashcards for the flowers I was told to focus on when at each of my field sites. I thought I was decently prepared, and ready to tackle this project.

I was so, so, wrong.

Identifying insects in the field was so much more difficult than I had anticipated. Insects at the museum were pinned and sat still, allowing me to focus, use my reference texts, and take my time. Insects in the field…not so much. I had to adapt quickly. Each month also came with a new set of organisms to ID, as both the flowers and the pollinators changed with the season. On top of that, although there was overlap, the biomes of the sites varied significantly across the provinces. In the end, I basically had to re-learn and memorize everything there was to know about pollinators…over, and over, and over again. During each day of surveying I would take photos or sketch doodles of the species I didn’t know and figure out what they were at night in my hotel. Then the next day, I would have to wake up and continue to my next sites. It was exhausting, but so rewarding.

One of my favourite memories of this summer took place at one particularly beautiful (and terribly tick infested) forested site near Erickson, Manitoba in June. I had laid out my pan traps and was waiting for whatever was in the area to land in them while I conducted my visual survey. After a few minutes, I checked on my traps and was surprised to see that a beautiful Canadian tiger swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) had been attracted by the colour of the pan trap and fallen inside. I quickly reached in to pull it out, but saw that my trap had soaked and damaged its wings. It needed a safe place to rest while it dried out…so I placed the butterfly on my arm, and it sat there while I continued my work for the next 20 or so minutes. Slowly, its wings dried, and eventually I placed it in some nearby clover. At that point, it was able to fly short distances, so I hope it was okay in the end.

The rescued tiger swallowtail who kept me company for half an hour of fieldwork.

I’ve come so far in four months, and I now have a much better feel for wildflowers and insects in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Considering how much I had to deal with, between managing life and working two consulting positions, I’m immensely proud of myself for handling it so well. I want to continue to pursue work in the consulting field, and so I need to become proficient at identifying birds, bees and plants. It’s an exciting journey, and I can’t wait to tackle more work next season and continue to push myself to learn and become an excellent naturalist.

Alannah Gallo is a biologist who works in environmental consulting in Calgary, Alberta. She has just started her Master of Science in Environment Management at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia.

 

It’s the journey that counts

This time I was prepared for things to go wrong. We waited a few days after our last trip to the island, so that cormorants would have time to lay another egg before we arrived. However, there was still no sure way to tell if there would be enough eggs to collect until we actually arrived on the island. The next morning we decided to test our luck. It was a good day; the sun was shining, the wind was calm, and we could actually see the shoreline. I kept thinking to myself, “This has got to be too good to be true!”. So to prepare myself,on the way out to the island, I kept thinking of ways to change my project if things didn’t go as planned again. Maybe I could make it into a smaller project. Or maybe I could change species. Or maybe I could skip this year and start over again next year. Although it may sound extreme, these are often thoughts field biologists have on a regular basis. When you work with wild animals, you never know for sure if you will be there at the right place at the right time. So instead, you need to plan A – D, possibly plan all the way to F, when you are close to marking it as a fail and move on.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to go all the way to plan F (we try everything possible not to get there). When we arrived on the island there were a lot of fresh eggs in nests! I could have jumped for joy! Instead, we got right down to business. When you head towards cormorant nests, the adults get scared and fly off to nearby water leaving their nests exposed to potential predators. This meant two of the team members were in charge of keeping guard. This may sound like a boring job at first; until you hear that it involves using water guns to keep the gulls away from the exposed nests!

Sarah dressed in a toque and sweater with eggs in boxes in the car.

Me keeping warm while I keep the eggs cool!

The rest of us collected all of the eggs we needed. But that ended up being the easy part. Now I had to figure out how to get transport them 9 hours to our lab for artificial incubation. I knew it was important to do everything in my power to get them to the lab safely. Otherwise, all the effort to collect them would not have been worth it! So there I was, on a summer day, not only driving a car full of eggs, but doing it dressed in a double layer of sweaters and a toque because I had to keep the car at a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius. I was wondering how I would explain my situation if I got pulled over on the side of the highway!

Surprisingly, despite all of the potholes, traffic, and temperature fluctuations from the sun’s rays, the eggs survived the trip and I was able to continue with my project. I’ll let you know when I have published the results of this study in a scientific journal. Despite the manuscript only reading “Eggs were collected in Lake Erie and incubated in Quebec”, you will know and appreciate the sweat (and tears) that went on behind the scenes!

Seeing the forest AND the trees

Within half an hour of starting my new job, I knew I was in trouble.

I was sitting in the passenger seat of a truck driven by my new boss, travelling down an Alberta highway at 110 kilometers per hour.  Every few minutes, without taking his eyes off the road, he would randomly (at least, so it appeared to me) toss out the name of another bird species.

“Hooded merganser.”

“Blue-winged teal.”

“Black tern.”

Most of these species were only names to me.  Given a good bird book, a pair of binoculars, and at least a full minute with a clear view of the bird, I would probably be able to ID them.  But IDing them based on a silhouette glimpsed for a second out the window of a moving truck…it didn’t take me long to conclude that my boss had to be superhuman.  And also that my tenure at this job might be a great deal shorter than I had originally hoped.

 

Having (finally) finished my PhD this past winter, I’m now in the painful stage of figuring out what exactly I want to do with it.  So when I was offered a job as a field tech for a wildlife consulting company in Calgary, I jumped at the chance.  I figured that a decade of doing fieldwork for various degrees would equip me well for the job.  Shows how much I know….

As a grad student, I spent all my time in the field completely focused on my study species (whatever that happened to be at the time).  I’ve put in endless hours catching and banding individual birds, recording their behaviour, and monitoring their reproductive success.  For me, fieldwork has always been narrow in scope, focused on learning every single detail about one very small part of the ecosystem.

Working as a consultant is pretty much the exact opposite: the focus is broad.  No one is interested in the details of each individual bird; what clients want is the big picture.  So instead of spending all my time identifying colour banded individuals, instead I’ve been frantically trying to learn to identify dozens of species by both sight and sound.  (Given that more than 750 bird species breed in North America, you can imagine that the learning curve is pretty steep.)

And the broad focus of consulting extends beyond simply identifying species.  In fact, perhaps the best example of the differences between grad school and consulting is an activity common to both: nest searching.

Grad students studying birds frequently have to find nests in order to measure individuals’ reproductive success.  They need to know who an individual mates with, how many eggs it has, when those eggs hatch, how often (and what) the parents feed the nestlings, and how many of the babies survive and make it out of the nest.

Nest searching is also a common activity for consultants, but with an entirely different focus.  Under the Migratory Bird Convention Act, companies undertaking construction activities during the breeding season are required by law to take steps to avoid disturbing bird nests.  To do so, they hire consultants to map out the location of those nests, so they can be avoided during construction.

But finding a nest – particularly a grassland bird nest – can often take hours and hours of careful observation, lying in the grass and waiting for the birds to get so accustomed to your presence that they’ll bring food to the nestlings even though you’re close enough to see where they land.  Often you’ll be sure that you have the nest pinpointed – but when you leap to your feet and peer into the suspect patch of grass, you’ll find nothing, and have to start from the beginning again.  It can be an incredibly frustrating process, but it’s accepted as par for the course when you’re a grad student.  And the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finally part the grasses and see the gaping mouths of baby birds begging for food makes it all worth it.

The problem is, in the real world, it’s usually not possible to spend a whole day finding one nest.  As a consultant, you have a given area to search, and a hard deadline: at some point, construction will start, and you need to know where the nests are before then.  So instead of pinpointing nest locations, you’re on the lookout for any sign of breeding in the birds you see – then you watch them for just as long as it takes to approximate the general location of the nest.

When I first started doing nest sweeps as a consultant, I found this incredibly frustrating.  After many years of grad school, I’m used to taking my time, and discovering as much as possible about the birds (and nests) I encounter.  Having to approximate nest location (not to mention the stage of the nest) and then move on immediately to the next one drove me nuts.

But the more I do this job, the more I realize that it’s a trade-off.  I may not know every single detail about the birds I observe, but I’m also learning to recognize many species that I’ve never paid much attention to before.  I can’t tell you exactly where each nest is or how many eggs it has, but I can make an educated guess about how many species are nesting in a given area.  In fact, the more time I spend as a consultant, the more I like it.  The work is challenging, but it’s making me a better birder and a better naturalist.

I can’t deny that I do still miss the detail-oriented focus of graduate fieldwork.  But every once in a while, when it becomes necessary to know exactly where a nest is, I get to use those skills.  And when I do, the moment of discovery is just as satisfying as ever.

Aha! Baby savannah sparrows peering up from their hidden nest.

Adventures of a Red Sea diver

This week on Dispatches, we are excited to welcome Alysse Mathalon, who adds a point to a brand new area of our map as she tells us about her adventures doing fieldwork in Israel’s Red Sea!

When I first accepted my Master of Science research project, I had no idea what I would be diving into – literally. I knew that there would be diving involved, that my dive site would be accessible by boat, and that I would be doing a lot of fieldwork. This combined with the location of the project, in Eilat, Israel, on the Red Sea, was enough for me to accept the opportunity and not look back. I got myself to Eilat four days after officially accepting the position.

A view of the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. A strong wind event resuspended shallow sediments, making the water murky. Mountains in the frame are in Aqaba, Jordan.

Eilat is a spectacular place. Situated at the southern point of Israel’s Negev Desert, it is surrounded by mountains as old as 500 million years. From its short coastline there are 3 countries in view; bordering from the north is Jordan, from the south, Egypt, and just across the narrow sea is Saudi Arabia. To make it even more extraordinary, beneath the sea surface are some of the most northern coral reef ecosystems in the world.

Eilat is located in a desert climate, where the weather is hot and sunny the majority of the time. However, rains can shower unpredictably and cause flashfloods in the otherwise silent and still desert. Dry river beds transform into rushing rivers, flowing seaward. My supervisors were fascinated by this unique phenomenon, which can bring tens of thousands of tonnes of sediment into the Red Sea in hours. Little is known about the frequency and magnitudes of flashfloods in this region, as such events have only been documented in the past 24 years. Flashfloods are important because they supply large amounts of sediment from land directly to the sea. The presence of flood sediments within the seafloor can therefore help paint a picture of past climatic events.

Flashflood flowing into the Red Sea in October 2016.

For our research project, we looked to the sediment layers below the seafloor to tell us stories of flashflood history. We asked whether it was possible to find flashflood deposits in the seabed from the previous 2000 years. First, we had to try and determine if flashflood deposits were actually getting preserved within the seafloor. This is where I came in. I set out to discover what happened to flood sediments after they settled on the shallow seafloor. Were they being removed by water currents, or being redistributed by fish? Were animals in the sediment mixing them up, destroying their pristine layering and making them unrecognizable?

To answer these questions, we conducted underwater experiments at a research station 13 metres below the sea surface, just offshore of the main location where flashfloods entered the sea. Here, instead of the vibrant coral reefs in the shallow waters by the marine institute, the waters were murky and the seafloor was packed with sediment.

On a field dive after a year and a half of experience. Neutral buoyancy? Check!

Upon arriving in Eilat, I immediately got my dive certification, as I had to jump right in and start the experiments. My supervisors now admit that they were slightly concerned about my diving skills; I was not the most graceful. A big part of being a good diver is being able to achieve neutral buoyancy. This means choosing the perfect balance of weight versus air in your diving vest, so you are hovering in the water. Each time I failed to be neutrally buoyant I would crash down onto the seafloor, and plumes of sediment would rise up, driving the visibility to zero. Diving in this challenging environment so frequently pushed me to become a much better diver, quickly.

The PhD Candidate and I about to jump into the water for a dive! We are pretty happy about it .

Throughout the project I brought many fellow researchers and friends along to help out with the experiments. We usually had to carry armloads of supplies on our dives to collect our samples. We became expert silent communicators, and we were highly determined to achieve our dive goals each time.

However, despite our determination, some frightening things happened down there that put me in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once, we became so disoriented by the murky water that we didn’t know which way was up. We lost countless lab supplies, and had to avoid poisonous animals such as huge lion fish and potentially deathly scorpion fish. We spent hours upon hours under water at that station, and surfacing from those dives was always a glorious feeling. If we were extra lucky, on our way back to the marine institute we would stop by the Dolphin Reef to say hello to the dolphins, who live in a partially enclosed area of the sea.

Poisonous scorpion fish making himself at home in our equipment.

I am so grateful for my exciting fieldwork experiences, and for all of the outstanding people and friends I got to share those adventures with. If you have an opportunity to do fieldwork, even if you aren’t necessarily passionate about the purpose of the fieldwork, I would still recommend doing it. Communicating in a field setting is an incredible way to get to know people. Team work is ample, and being out in the natural world feels so messy, and challenges you to adapt. I learned a lot, and grew through those experiences. I wish you all the best in your field adventures. Happy fieldwork!

Alysse grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and got her first taste of the Atlantic Ocean while visiting her grandparents in Florida throughout her childhood. She decided to study marine biology during her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, and once she started, she never looked back. She is fascinated by ocean life, and has developed a passion for promoting ocean sustainability. During her undergraduate degree she published a scientific study quantifying microplastic pollution in sediments and mussels in Nova Scotia. This summer, Alysse is working for the Ontario Government as a Stewardship Youth Ranger Team Leader. She will guide high school students in carrying out environmental projects in the field. When it comes to the water, Alysse enjoys surfing, swimming, snorkeling, and going for fun dives!