The many joys of tropical fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Zachary Kahn, who tells us about some of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of his fieldwork in Costa Rica.  For more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the post.

I was surprised the first time it happened, although I really shouldn’t have been. I had been warned many times. I had been told to wear bug spray and bring tape, but that it was inevitable. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little shocked to see hundreds of tiny poppy seed-like critters crawling all over my body. Indeed, I had been “tick-balled”, a term referring to having an army of tiny ticks latch onto your clothing and spread across your body like a group of crazed protesters. The trick was to make a ring of duct tape, with the sticky surface facing outwards, and peel them off. Sadly, I didn’t have any tape that day. This was the first of many times I would be tick-balled, and my first introduction to one of the many joys of doing tropical fieldwork in Costa Rica.

I am currently a Masters student at the University of Windsor, and my research is focussed on the behavioural ecology of tropical songbirds. Why study birds in the tropics, you ask? Well, unlike in the temperate zone where it is primarily males that sing, often both males and females sing in the tropics, and sometimes combine their songs into cool vocal displays called duets by overlapping or alternating their songs. I became interested in studying the reasons birds in the tropics sing duets, and I have tried to do this this by studying a population of Rufous-and-white Wrens in Santa Rosa National Park, in northwestern Costa Rica. I have spent the past two field seasons in the tropical dry forests of Santa Rosa romping around and chasing birds like a crazy person, all the while getting tick-balled and falling down more times than I’d like to admit.

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My day in the field is pretty similar to any other field ornithologist. I get up super early to record birds while they are singing, set up mist nets to catch and band birds for identification, and closely monitor their behaviour. I also need to check inside their nests in order to assess what breeding stage (i.e. eggs or nestlings, and how many) each pair is at throughout the field season. For many species, this is fairly straightforward. You find the nest, make a note of its location, look inside, and you’re done! Finding the nest is usually the most difficult part since many species have mastered the art of nest concealment and camouflage.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

Luckily for me, I don’t have this problem. Rufous-and-white Wrens nest in Bulhorn Acacia trees over 80% of the time at my study site. Their nests are bulky conspicuous globs, and there are very few acacia trees in the forest, making it relatively easy for me to find their nests. Simple, right? Wrong. The funny thing about acacia trees is that ants like them too. In fact, many species of ants have a symbiosis with the trees: the tree provides the ants with food and shelter in return for defense from predators, other plants, and stupid field biologists. To get inside the wren nests, I have to use a ladder, open a hole in the back of the nest (they are enclosed domed structures instead of open cups), feel inside, then sew the nest back up, all while being bitten by a swarm of angry acacia ants and nearly falling off the ladder. My hands swell up like balloons every time I have to do this, giving me yet another visual reminder of the joys of tropical field work.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

I don’t mean to imply that all of my experiences in the tropics have been bad because overall it really has been amazing. I have been fortunate enough to see an incredible assortment of bird species, such as the Elegant Trogan, Blue-crowned Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, and Long-tailed Manakin. And it’s not just birds. There are monkeys too. Yes, they throw sticks at you and sometimes try to pee on you (one missed me by about a foot last summer), but getting to watch them move through the trees each morning is more than worth it. It’s also really cool seeing different species of snakes (including some that are extremely venomous), frogs, lizards, and mammals like Tamanduas, Coatis, and Agoutis. We even saw a Tapir this summer! Having the opportunity to see so many cool animals on a daily basis is really awesome, and by far my favourite part of doing fieldwork in the tropics.

Perhaps the most incredible thing I have experienced during my time in Costa Rica is what my lab refers to as “Toad Day”. Once a year, for only 1-2 days after the first large rainfall of the year in May, huge numbers of frogs and toads congregate at previously dried-out ponds and rivers in the park as they begin to fill up with water. Hundreds of them come to the water and begin to chorus together in order to attract females to come and breed. Many species do this, including Cane Toads, Mexican Burrowing Toads, and several species of tree frogs, but the most interesting of them all is the Yellow Toad. For most of the year, males and females of this species look like your typical run-of-the mill toads, mostly brown in colour with the occasional splotch of grey or rufous. However, as soon as it starts to rain in early to mid-May, the males turn a spectacular lemon-yellow as they congregate at the breeding pools. This transformation corresponds with intense competition for females, and aggressive fights between 2,3,4 or more toads for a single female are common to see. This sight – hundreds of bright yellow toads and other species chorusing together all in one place – is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and is something I look forward to every time I go back to the field.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

Anyone who has done field work knows  it can be a rollercoaster of highs and lows, an endless series of amazing experiences and unique challenges. This is especially true in the tropics. On one hand, there are tick balls, venomous snakes, valleys of slippery boulders, and hordes of biting ants to deal with. On the other, there are amazing animals to see, scenic beaches to swim at, and daily exposure to unique tropical ecology. I have had a blast over the past two field seasons in Costa Rica, and I would highly recommend that others  go down and do fieldwork in the tropics if they get the chance!

headshotZach Kahn is a 2nd year Masters student in Dan Mennill’s bioacoustics lab at the University of Windsor, studying the behavioural ecology of tropical wrens in Costa Rica. He completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Queens University, where he studied interspecific competition in closely-related songbirds for his Honours thesis project under Paul Martin. He is passionate about wildlife ecology, natural history, and conservation, as well as being outdoors and playing softball and football.


How field biologists are like Olympians

Like a lot of people I am sure, I become very patriotic during the Olympics. I am even watching sports I never thought I would like but I find myself getting lost in the hype. Watching the Olympics while working on the blog has me comparing how field biologists are (maybe only slightly) similar to Olympians.

You may be thinking: “what could they possibly have in common?!” or “that is not a fair comparison!”, but hear me out. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the superhuman aspect of Olympic athletes; but if you think about it, there are some similarities.

You get to travel all over the world

Dispatches from around the worldAmong World Championships, PanAm games, Olympics, and other competitions in between, athletes are busy travelling around the world chasing the competitions. As you can see from our Dispatches from around the world map, field biologists are also fairly cosmopolitan.

Lots of preparation for a little time to perform

Olympians often train for years for their Olympic debut. Field biologists also have a lot of preparation to do before they set out for fieldwork. You have to chose your study

Fork-tailed storm-petrel in a burrow in the dirt

Knock knock

location, apply for permits, apply for funding, purchase (or find in the overflowing storage closet) equipment, practice your field techniques, and make sure you have a good idea of what type of data you want to collect. All this preparation is necessary for even a short field season such as a breeding season. If you are not prepared, you might not find the nesting sites or the birds may have already left!



Sometimes you have to perform in unpleasant conditions

Standing under the massive roots of a fallen tree

Can you ever be prepared enough for a ride on a tiny zodiac in the ocean?

Olympians in Rio this year have had to deal with many different conditions including an algae infested pool, sewage littered in the open water, and torrential downpour on the track. As a field biologist, it is no surprise that you will encounter some interesting weather, and likely conditions you were not prepared for. When I was going out to British Columbia for fieldwork, I expected it to be all wet and rainy. It turned out to be very warm and sunny, leaving me with only 2 t-shirts to cycle through (but lots of unused rain gear).


You are the best of the best; and yet still an amateur

The Olympic games are for non-professional athletes to compete. Similarly, students are the ones who are doing fieldwork to fulfil their degree so that they can become a “professional”. The expectation to do your best is evident during fieldwork as well – if you do not collect the right data you will not end up with the right results. This expectation leaves only dedicated and determined individuals to get the job done.

It looks deceivingly easy

I recently heard someone mention that a “normal” person should be included in Olympic events to remind the public that these athletes are in fact “superhuman”. The same could be said for field biologists. How hard could it be to sit in the sun on the beach all day to watch birds? If you take into account how many hours you spend sitting still in the sweltering heat, holding up your binoculars, with sand getting everywhere, it isn’t as easy as you may think.

There are also some similar events during the Olympics and fieldwork:

A tired selfie in the woods.

A field biologist’s hurdles.

-hurdles = climbing over fallen trees

-marathon running = marathon writing (workout for your brain when you return to the office)

-tennis = Cassin’s auklet, the seabird I studied for my Master’s degree, was known as a “tennis ball with wings”. Except this time you want them to get caught in the net!

What happens in the field stays in the field

As I have heard in interviews with Olympic athletes it sounds like this is true. They put everything they have into their events and leave it all out in the field. It is also a common saying among field biologists which is why we have it as our tagline for Dispatches from the Field. However, we have added “until now” as we would like this blog to be a place where field biologists can share all their stories that don’t make it into scientific papers.

Do you have what it takes?

Unweaving the rainbow

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wing

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

Unweave a rainbow

(John Keats, “Lamia”)

When I first came across the Keats poem “Lamia”, I was a defiant science student sitting in a third year English class, fighting to prove to myself and to my somewhat sceptical professor that there was no reason a Biology major shouldn’t also do a minor in English Literature.

The poem immediately got my back up.  In it, Keats laments the rise of science, which he claims has robbed the world of its mysteries and made it predictable and boring.  Science will, he says, “unweave [the] rainbow” in a quest to understand it – and in doing so, destroy its magic.  No leprechauns and pots of gold for scientists; they’re all about wavelengths, prisms, and refraction.

Of course, when I read the poem as an undergraduate, I was full of enthusiasm for my chosen field and leapt to its defence.  It’s true that scientists conquer mysteries (if they’re lucky), I found myself arguing in class, but that doesn’t mean they take the joy out of the world.  Why should knowing how things work make them less interesting?

A bad day for Webster: Western bluebird male attacks Webster, my bluebird decoy.

“This is my box!”: bluebird attacking my decoy.

In fact, I thought – and still think today – that understanding the world, knowing what things are and how they work, makes life more interesting, not less.  For example, over the last decade or so, I’ve spent countless hours trying to catch birds, using a decoy and recorded birdsong to make individuals think their territory is being invaded.  And despite having done this hundreds of times, I still get a thrill when the territory owner reacts as science says he should, and comes in to defend his turf – every single time.

But I have a shameful admission to make: as I’ve continued in science, I’ve occasionally had the guilty thought that maybe Keats had a point.  The thing is, science can sometimes be really, really boring.  You can spend whole days weighing the smallest things (beans, bugs, fragments of bird claw) with a mind-numbing degree of precision.  You can spend so long staring up at the trees, looking for birds – or staring down at the ground, counting plants – that you develop a permanent crick in your neck.  You can enter data until your vision blurs, pipette until your wrist begs for mercy, and label samples until your fingers cramp.  It’s easy, while you’re wrapped up in the small, tedious, and sometimes mindless details, to miss the big picture.

And when you’re out in the field, the single-minded focus necessary to collect your data sometimes feels a bit like having blinkers on.  There may be beauty all around you – the view from your ‘office’ may be the most spectacular one imaginable – but there’s so much that has to get done, and so little time to do it.  Who has time to waste on stopping to smell the roses when it feels like your whole PhD depends on catching this bird or collecting that sample?

For example, people often assume that, because I work with birds, I must be an expert on them – the person to go to if you’re not sure what kind of bird you saw at your feeder last week.  These people are almost always disappointed.  In fact, I probably know less about birds than your average outdoor enthusiast, because when I’m out in the field collecting data, I divide them into only two categories: bluebirds (interesting; keep watching to gather data) and not-bluebirds (not interesting; forget about them or risk being distracted).  While this is kind of a sad way to look at the world, it’s also understandable. When you’re panicking about collecting every scrap of data you can in the little time available to you, it’s all too easy to forget to appreciate the mysteries, the haunted air, and the rainbow.

All this has been on my mind recently because I’m currently in the midst of completing perhaps the most joyless task a scientist can undertake: writing the Methods section of my PhD thesis.  Normally, I love to write – but every time I open this particular document, my heart sinks.  If there’s a way to make the meticulous detail of a scientific Methods section interesting, I haven’t found it yet.  Intellectually, I know that these details are important, because science is all about repeatability – but I can’t help but feel that focusing on them is sucking the magic out of what we do.  As I labour through lists of dates and times, equipment manufacturers and specifications, sample sizes and standard errors, I feel slightly sick that all my blood, sweat, and tears have been reduced to numbers on a page.

But when I sat down to write my blog post this week, I realized that that’s where stories come in.  To me, telling stories – like we do here at Dispatches from the Field – is a way of finding my way back to the magic that sometimes gets lost in the everyday routine of science.  The stories we tell here exist at the intersection of art and science: they provide context, let us focus on the big picture rather than individual elements, and allow us to capture parts of our experience that could never be conveyed in the minute detail of a Methods section.  Writing and sharing stories reminds me of the mystery and wonder in the work we all do.

I still think it’s incredibly satisfying to understand how the rainbow works – but I also see value and joy in using stories to weave it back together again once in a while.


A different kind of field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is very excited to welcome Stephanie Kim to the blog.  Steph is a graduate student at Queen’s University, and in her post she shares some her experiences from a very unusual field season.

When you hear the words “field season”, you probably think of forests or swamps or lakes or just the great outdoors. When I hear the words, I think of dark, lonely basements and skeletons…but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Last summer, I went on a whirlwind museum tour/data collection extravaganza across North America to collect data for my MSc project. I spent the summer perusing some of the best museum collections in North America and taking pictures of bird skulls and legs, all while getting to visit some places I probably would never have seen otherwise! I went on three amazing trips and, while it was lonely at times, I wouldn’t trade my basement skeletons for anything else in the world.

Instead of wild adventures and close encounters with amazing (live) animals, I’ll give you a few highlights from one of the coolest summers I’ve ever had:

TRIP 1: Museum of Comparative Zoology (Boston) – American Museum of Natural History (New York) – Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) – Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh) – Field Museum (Chicago) – Michigan University (Ann Arbor)

TRIP 2: Kansa University Museum (Lawrence) – Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge) – Museum of Southwestern Biology (Albuquerque) – University of Colorado (Boulder)

TRIP 3: Yale University (New Haven) – University of California, at LA (Los Angeles) – LA County Museum of Natural History (Los Angeles) – Moore Lab of Zoology (Los Angeles) – Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (San Francisco) – California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco)

The oh-so-fashionable 'airport bag lady' look.

The oh-so-fashionable ‘airport bag lady’ look.

First off, imagine me running through airports, trying to catch my next flight with only 30 minutes of layover time and no idea where I’m going…looking like this. It wasn’t my best look. I was carrying a tripod, a camera, my laptop, a full desktop scanner, and 3-4 weeks worth of clothes. My backpack hardly made it back in one piece and my shoulders have never been so sore.

My first experience during this trip was: a) something I’ll never forget; b) an embarrassing fan-girl situation; and c) not at all science related. I met Viggo Mortensen…aka Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. And because I was so nervous I was going to miss my flight, I was at the airport 4 hours early. So I have a lot of pictures of the back of his head…like this one.

Even from the back...the most exciting part of the trip!

Even from the back…the most exciting part of the trip!

So let’s marry these two pieces of information: the first (and probably only) time I  met a famous person… I looked like an airport bag lady.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

After leaving Aragorn behind, I started my actual museum tour. The MCZ at Harvard University in Boston was my first stop. It was a gorgeous little museum right in the middle of  campus. The company was scarce, but I did have a lovely stuffed dodo bird to keep me company. To be honest, this was the beginning of my extreme summer of nerding out and instagramming everything with the hashtag “Darwinning”.

Museums are such an amazing source of information and research! There were huge libraries in almost every collection I visited and the staff were founts of knowledge. As part of my data collecting, I was taking images of the three leg bones in birds (femur, tibiotarsus, and tarsometatarsus). Before leaving, I had done lots of research into correctly ID-ing the leg bones, but when I opened my first specimen box, it was just a slurry of bones. Some were broken, while some were still attached together… I had no idea where to start. Thankfully, one of the staff members helped me out and pushed me in the right direction. Needless to say, if you ever need to ID the left leg bones of a bird, I’m now your girl. Seeing the work being done in these collections and the army of people behind the scenes at museums was something I will never forget…and something that has made me admire and appreciate museums even more!

The Darwin bird! The top two tags are even in his handwriting... #darwinning

The Darwin bird!

Working in these museums also meant that on my breaks, I got to walk around and see all the exhibits. Sometimes, I would even get a cool badge that made me look super official. The American Museum of Natural History (in New York) had some of my favourite exhibits, but the coolest thing I saw on my journey was behind lock and key at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: a Hudsonian Godwit that was collected by Charles Darwin himself!! It was collected on the HMS Beagle’s second voyage to the Falkland Islands – the top two tags are the original ones that Darwin wrote when he collected this bird! Pretty cool. …#darwinning.

Happy the Penguin

Happy the Penguin

Other adventures include going to a National Aviary in Pittsburgh, where I met a 6-month old penguin named Happy, spending Canada Day at the Bean in Chicago after a day at the Field Museum, walking through Kansas University campus where I saw real-life Greek row, filled with giant fraternity/sorority houses, visiting the giant collection at LSU, and finishing some amazing hikes in Albuquerque (Sandia Peaks) and Boulder (Iron flats).

It’s worth mentioning that I was given a to-do list for my time in Baton Rouge: eat a shrimp po’boy and see the Mississippi river. Unfortunately, everything is fried in peanut oil in Louisiana…and I happen to be allergic to peanuts.  Instead, I was offered a very sad, blanched, shrimp sandwich… that wasn’t great. As for the Mississippi river, I walked 40 minutes to get a glimpse, but the only place I could get to was guarded by security and I wasn’t allowed to approach the actual shoreline, BUT if you look realllllyy closely at the picture… you can see a tiny sliver of the river (behind the swampy waters). Check.

The Mississippi river. No,'s actually there if you look closely!

The Mississippi river. No, really…it’s actually there if you look closely!

My last trip started in New Haven, on Yale’s beautiful campus. (Shout out to any Gilmore Girl fans – I went to all the libraries to channel my inner Rory!) Yale has some of the most stunning libraries I’ve ever seen, gorgeous art museums, and the headquarters of a secret society called “Skull and Bones”, which was formed in 1832! There’s some pretty cool history on that campus.

After New Haven, I headed to the beautiful state of California. While in LA, I stayed at a youth hostel right on Hollywood Blvd. where I quickly became the odd one out. Everyone kept asking me to play beer pong or go bar hopping, but I was constantly in a corner, with bird skeletons plastered on my computer screen After day 3, they stopped asking. On the night of the “biggest club crawl in LA”, I opted out to go see Diana Krall perform at the Hollywood Bowl, which turned out to bean insanely cool concert venue.


The Hollywood Bowl: coolest concert venue ever!

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

After visiting three great museum collections in LA, I went on to the last stop of my summer museum tour: San Francisco. The Berkeley campus was gorgeous, but the award for my favourite location of all three trips goes to the California Academy of Sciences. It was basically a science lover’s dream come true. There was an albino alligator, huge aquariums, a four storey rainforest with butterflies and birds flying all around, a museum with amazing displays and exhibits, a planetarium…and everything else sciency and cool you can think of. I only photographed a few specimens in their collection, but I ended up staying two days so I could see everything inside – if you’re ever in San Fran, I would highly recommend this incredible place!

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

All in all, while I love the great outdoors and traipsing around in swamps, my museum tour field season was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It brought me to incredible museums and collections, and gave me the chance to be independent and explore some awesome cities, meet some cool people (including all the incredible staff at the museums). Most importantly, it brought me to Aragorn.

P.S. As an aside to any arachnologists out there, I came across this beautiful spider in the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge and have no idea what kind it is! I also have a slight fear of spiders so it took a lot of courage to snap this pic…

Mystery spider - any ideas, anyone?

Mystery spider – any ideas, anyone?


Bio picSteph Kim is a MSc candidate in the Biology department at Queen’s University. She completed her BScH in Biology in 2013 and her B.Ed in 2014, both at Queen’s, and is finally gearing up to leave this great school and city. Her MSc project is focused on comparing trait morphologies between closely related species of birds to answer the question: can species interactions influence the evolution of bill morphologies in birds, worldwide? Outside of school, she enjoys music, hiking, playing around with her camera, and being around her awesome friends and family!

Revenge of the ruminants

When I first started doing fieldwork, I must admit that I spent a lot of time worrying about large mammals.  Even when I worked up at QUBS, in the relatively safety of eastern Ontario, I fretted about bears.  When I went to California, I obsessed about mountain lions.  And after working in Hawaii, I added feral pigs to my list of formidable and frightening creatures.

But until I began my PhD fieldwork in the Okanagan Valley, it would never have occurred to me to worry about cows.

I know what you’re thinking: how can cows be in the same league as bears or mountain lions?  After all, they’re vegetarians!  There is no chance that you’re ever going to be eaten by a hungry cow.  They just stare at you with their huge brown eyes and chew their cud meditatively.


As it turns out, you really don’t run into bears or mountain lions that often in the field.  (Not that I’m complaining.)  But what you do see – especially doing fieldwork in an agricultural area like the Okanagan Valley – is cows.  They’re everywhere.

This is especially true if your study species is partial to the type of habitat that often holds grazing cows.  When I was setting up my PhD field sites, I wanted to make sure to cover as many types of bluebird habitat as possible.  So while much of my research took place in vineyards or along walking trails, I also had two sites that were open rangeland.

The wide open spaces of one of my two rangeland sites.

The open spaces and sage brush of one of my two rangeland sites.

When I first set up nest boxes at these sites, I fell in love with the wide, empty spaces and the scent of sagebrush.  My rangeland sites instantly became my favourite.  But on my second visit to one of these sites, I got an inkling that they might be more problematic than I’d thought.  As the car rounded the last corner on the way to the site, I had to hit the brakes hard.  My field of vision was suddenly filled with milling brown and black bodies.  Cows, cows, and more cows…as far as the eye could see.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my phone to call the landowner.  He’d mentioned to me that they’d be bringing the cows in, but I had to assume they weren’t supposed to be blocking traffic.  “There must be a break in the fence,” I told him.  “The cows have gotten out and are all over the road.”

“Oh, that’s normal,” he replied.  “I’m sure the fence is fine.”

“But…” I started at the solid wall of bodies on the road in consternation. “…how did they get out, then?”

“Well, fences are more like…suggestions…to cows,” he responded.  “They usually ignore them.  But I’m sure if you honk at them enough, they’ll get out of your way.”

More trouble than they look...

More trouble than they look…   (Photo credit: Manisha Bhardwaj.)

From then on, the two rangeland sites were the bane of my existence.  No matter what was on my agenda when I arrived, the cows always seemed to be between me and where I needed to go.  It was like they had a copy of my schedule.  And it was never just one or two cows – wherever one went, the other 30 animals in the herd joined it, forming a dense, noisy, smelly barrier between me and my destination.

Also, as it turns out, cows and bird boxes are not a good combination.  The cows decided that the boxes were perfect scratching posts, and were irresistibly attracted to them.  Almost every time I arrived at the sites, one or more of the boxes would be hanging at a precarious angle – often with a perplexed bluebird sitting beside it.

And then, of course, there were the cow patties everywhere.

After a month or so, though, the cows and I had settled into an uneasy détente.  I was starting to think the situation was relatively under control – and that’s when the bulls showed up.

The first time I realized the cows had been joined by their male friends, I had just dropped my field assistant off at a site.  I happened to glance in the rearview mirror as I pulled away, only to see my assistant standing completely still about 100m away.  Straight across the field from her, staring her down, was a very large cow.  As it lowered its head and began pawing at the ground, it slowly dawned on me that it was really too big…and muscular…and horned…to be a cow.  As my field assistant ran for the car, I realized we had a problem.  From then on, we spent considerably less time at that site.

My other ranch site, on the other hand, remained blissfully free of bulls for most of the summer.  So while the cows and I continued to wage a cold war, I usually felt pretty safe.  By the time August rolled around, the fieldwork was slowing down and I had pretty much relaxed.

Then one day, I was out in the field with my assistant, banding a nest full of bluebird nestlings.  I had just taken two out of the box and was settling onto the ground with one in each hand, when I felt a malevolent gaze on the back of my neck.

I looked around in surprise…only to find myself making eye contact with a bull.  He was about 50m away, and though he appeared relatively unconcerned, there was no doubt that he was sizing me up.

I scrambled to my feet and started backing away, urging my field assistant to do the same.  We struggled cautiously up the small hill behind the box, turning frequently to watch the bull as he meandered closer to the box we’d abandoned. Every time we stopped moving, he would start towards us again – so we kept climbing.

As we reached the top of the hill, I realized two things simultaneously. One – we were out of hill to climb; if he kept coming, we were going to have to make a run for the car.  And two – I still had the nestlings I’d been intending to band clutched in my hand, peeping faintly.

Luckily, after 20 very tense minutes, the bull lost interest and headed on his way, allowing us to creep back down to the box and finish banding.  It took a little longer than that for my heart rate to come back to normal.

So, after more than a decade of fieldwork, here’s what I’ve learned: if you must worry, focus less on bears and the mountain lions, and more on the things you’re likely to actually run into.  And don’t let those big brown eyes fool you – cows are usually up to no good.


Pushing the limits

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest blogger Laura Hancock, a Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who tells us why she loves fieldwork.  For more about Laura, see her bio at the end of the post.

Field work can be great. Sometimes field work means being outside in the warm sun, or camping under the stars. I love field work. In fact, as a second year Master’s student, I feel like I’m not doing nearly enough field work. I don’t miss field work because I love being outside (which I do), but I miss pushing myself, discovering how much I can do, and what I’m made of. As cliché as this sounds, I felt like I discovered myself when I had my first field experience during my freshman year in college. A graduate TA of mine invited me out to help him and some other graduate students measuring tree growth in a created wetland. This was the opportunity I had wanted for a year and couldn’t wait to get out there! I even skipped studying for a quiz because I was so excited about the opportunity (as someone who at the time was a perfectionist and had a 4.0 GPA, this meant a lot). As soon as I was out in the field, knee deep in mud and dirt, I knew I was in the right place and had made the right choice of activities at the time and overall in my life. I loved the work, the fresh air, talking with people who loved ecology, and like me, loved being out there. But what I found was the most invigorating was how real and raw everything was. This might seem like a complete “duh” (you’re outside for gosh sakes, how much “realer” does it get than trees, dirt, sun, and bugs?), but everything just clicked for me. I was able to let go of being a perfectionist or thinking about getting everything done. I felt like what I was doing made a tangible difference to someone and the environment.

I continued to do various field work projects through my senior year in undergrad – and then I got the opportunity of a lifetime. One of my favourite professors works with bats (possibly the most interesting group of animals on the planet). He offered me a position after I graduated where I would help monitor and track an endangered species of bat out in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of course I said yes, and patiently waited until I could finally graduate, not because I hated school (which I don’t), but because I wanted to be outside in one of the coolest places on Earth – Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

In June of 2013, two graduate students, a Death Valley park ranger, and I were tasked with the job of going out to monitor a maternal roost site in an abandoned mine. (Bats really love roosting in abandoned mines, especially in areas where humans have destroyed natural caves.) The best part? The mine was a 7 mile hike each way, off any paths accessible to regular park goers. Even better? It was June IN DEATH VALLEY. Hellooo, heat stroke!

Right now some of you might be thinking I’m being sarcastic, I’m 100% serious. I was SO excited for this. I grew up as not the healthiest kid. I was constantly tired and got sick a lot, on top of other issues. However, as I got older most of that stuff went away. As that happened, I realized how important it was to me to have a healthy body. I liked pushing my limits and seeing what I was capable of; when you put yourself in extreme conditions you have to be hyper aware of you, your body, your surroundings, and how you’re feeling. It’s like yoga, but for thrill seekers.

Now back to Death Valley in June. I was really excited to push my limits and hike 14 miles in one of the hottest places on Earth, in the middle of the summer. Turns out there was a “cold wave” the week the crew and I were there, so it was only 112 °F . Just kidding! That’s still PRETTY hot! The crew and I made the trek to the mine early on in the day, hiked to another mine a mile away over sand dunes and headed back. By the time all the work was done, it had been 10 hours and over 16 miles of hiking. I was by far the happiest and most energetic person on the field crew that night. We just hiked 16 miles in 112 °F heat – what couldn’t we do!?

Now that I spend most of my day e-mailing and reading papers as a graduate student, I long for those days when I got to be out in the field. I love the feeling of accomplishment and mental growth, but air conditioning isn’t bad either.

Laura HancockLaura graduated from Christopher Newport University with a B.Sc. in Biology in 2013.  Now she is a second year Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researching metapopulation and source-sink dynamics of garlic mustard.  Her background is in plants and plant-insect ecology, but a few years ago, she took a nine month break from plant and insect work to study bats and has missed the work every day since!


The right question?

The most important lesson I learned during my MSc came from a seminar given by one of the professors in my department.  “Science,” he said – pausing to emphasize the gravity of the wisdom he was about to impart, “Science…is all about asking the right question.”

Ah!  I thought, feeling a lightbulb go on in my head.  That made so much sense!  But…how would I know what the right question was?  Fortunately, he must have believed in teaching by example, because he went on to tell us the question that had inspired his years of work on marine mammal behaviour. “My question,” he said, “was quite simple: how can I spend as much time as possible sailing in the tropics?”

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

I took his advice to heart, and immediately developed a question of my own: “Where’s the most amazing place I can do fieldwork, and how do I get myself there?”

This question at least partly guided my MSc research, leading to a project involving fieldwork on Nova Scotia’s iconic Sable Island.  In fact, by the time I finished my MSc, I’d been lucky enough to do fieldwork in some pretty fantastic places, from Sable to Alaska.

However, as I prepared to begin my PhD, I noticed a major gap in my experience: I’d never done tropical fieldwork.  And from everything I’d heard, that was an experience well worth having.  Anyone who’s ever taken a biology class has probably heard the term “biodiversity hotspots” used to describe latitudes around the equator.  Well, after spending a few summers freezing in the fog of Sable Island, I was ready to try something different, and a hotspot of any kind sounded pretty good to me.

Thus, when I started my PhD at Queen’s, I knew where I wanted to go, if not what I wanted to study: I was determined to develop a project that would allow me to do fieldwork somewhere tropical.  However, I’d learned more than one lesson during my MSc degree – and so I was also determined not to repeat some of the more egregious mistakes I’d made.  Unfortunately, it turned out that these two goals were somewhat incompatible.

The second most important lesson I had learned during my MSc is that you can make your life a lot easier by working on a ‘lab’ study system – that is, one that has had the kinks worked out of it by earlier generations of grad students.  Using a lab study system gives you access to well established methods and sites, other people who know and understand your system, and, often, years worth of previously collected data.

However, despite the availability of two amazing study systems in the lab I joined at Queen’s, I was less than a week into my PhD when I decided that I wasn’t interested in either of those systems: instead, I was going to strike out on my own.  How quickly we forget.

In fact, for my PhD study system, I decided to go a step farther: instead of just picking a system that no one in my lab studied, I decided to go for broke and choose a study system that pretty much no one in the world studied.

I knew from the outset that I wanted to study partial migration – that is, the odd (although not uncommon) situation where some birds in a population migrate, while others do not.  I set about finding a study system that would allow me to pursue the questions I wanted to answer…but also finally do some tropical fieldwork.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Black-whiskered vireos seemed to fit the bill perfectly: distributed mainly throughout the Caribbean into South America, they display variable migratory behaviour throughout their range.  I started digging through the literature, trying to find out what we already knew about the species and who had figured it out.  It turned out that what we knew was slightly more than nothing – and those few facts had been figured out by a Canadian researcher affiliated with an institution not too far from mine.  Excited, I immediately sat down to send him an e-mail.  I received a response the next day – telling me that the researcher I was trying to get in touch with had passed away the day before I sent my e-mail.

It was hard not to feel that that might be a bad omen.  However, I remained determined.  I knew what I wanted to study – now I just had to figure out where to go.  Through an amazing stroke of luck, I connected with Kate Wallace, who runs an ecotourism company (Tody Tours) in the Dominican Republic.  Kate had a small camp deep in the Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range in the far southwestern end of the country – and she was eager to host scientists wanting to learn more about the Dominican’s chronically understudied avian species.

Now I had one study site – but I also wanted to be able to compare the Dominican partially migratory vireos with fully migratory vireos, so I had to look elsewhere for another.  After some searching, I found a migratory population in the Florida Keys – and thus, unwittingly, set up a Byzantine labyrinth of permitting requirements for myself.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning feather and claw samples in the field.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning samples in the field.

Multiple government agencies in three different countries, using two different languages: all the necessary ingredients for a Kafkaesque disaster.  I spent hours on the phone, mostly on hold but occasionally insisting through clenched teeth that yes, I really did need someone to explain why, despite the fact that I held a U.S. master bird banding permit, I also needed to obtain a Canadian master banding permit to band birds in the Dominican Republic.  Or trying not to yell while explaining for the fifth time that using chloroform to clean feather and claw samples while staying at a remote field camp with no lab facilities would be…challenging, to say the least.

Finally, less than a day before I was scheduled to board a plane, all the permit issues were sorted, all the necessary equipment and various backups had arrived, and I was ready to go.  But, as often happens (to me, at least), once I knew I was going to be able to go, I was suddenly no longer sure I wanted to.  I was on edge for the entire journey, from the first flight (Toronto to Miami), through the second flight (Miami to Santo Domingo), to the long drive from Santo Domingo to the field site.  I had wanted to try something different for my PhD fieldwork, but I was feeling seriously out of my element.  The drive itself only added to my worries: the farther we travelled from the city, the more our surroundings (notably, the road itself) seemed to have fallen into disrepair.

Uh...detour, anyone?

Uh…detour, anyone?

However, when the truck finally slowed to a halt outside the gates of Rabo de Gato, I knew it had been worth the battle to get there.  As we stepped out into the warm, humid air, all I could see was vivid colour, and all I could hear was the calls of unseen birds seemingly everywhere.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

The next two months were a blur of new experiences.  The scenery was awe-inspiring, the weather was great (except for the regular afternoon thunderstorm – but at least that was predictable), and the fantastically colourful birds were everything a bird nerd could wish for.  (I quickly acquired a new favourite: the broad billed tody.  These flying neon green and pink pompoms live in tiny ‘tody holes’, little caves that they excavate in clay banks.)

Perhaps the best part of the entire experience was the people I met.  Despite the fact that my abysmal Spanish skills meant we could barely communicate, they nonetheless went out of their way to help me.  For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced at Rabo de Gato was the constantly fluctuating electricity.  Sometimes we had power, sometimes not – and there didn’t seem to be any pattern to it.  Unfortunately, virtually every piece of equipment I’d brought with me, from our digital sound recorder to our emergency cell phone, needed to be charged regularly.  But with no way to predict when the electricity would come on, there was a good chance we’d be out in the field when it did, and miss the rare chance to plug in our myriad electronic devices.  The camp caretaker took it upon himself to solve this problem for us.  No matter where we were, if the electricity came on, he would come chasing after us, panting and calling out, “Luz! Tenemos luz!” – giving us the chance to rush back to camp and plug in everything we owned.

At last...luz!

At last…luz!

At the end of my field season, I found it hard to leave the colour and light of Rabo de Gato – but I told myself that I’d be back.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that, while the tropic were everything I’d hoped, the science hadn’t worked out the way I’d imagined.  The birds had proved challenging to work with in a number of ways, but the biggest problem was my inability to tell migrants and residents apart.  And so ultimately, my first field season in the tropics also ended up being my last.

Does this mean I asked the wrong question?  I’ve wondered that a lot over the last few years – but I still don’t think so, and not just because I got the opportunity to explore an amazing new ecosystem.  I also learned one of the hardest lessons of my PhD.  I took a risk on a study system that no one knew much about – and in my case, it didn’t pan out.  But I think that it was worth trying, because taking risks is so often how science advances.  Since so much science is done by students, if we don’t take risks, who will?

Worth the risk...

Possible impossibilities

Over the last year, I’ve come to realize that one of the major downsides to writing up your thesis is sitting behind a desk for 16 hours a day – especially when you’re used to spending lots of your time outside.  So to remedy the situation, I’ve started taking every possible opportunity to sneak in a little fieldwork.  Early last spring, I decided to get my field fix by heading up to QUBS with a friend who needed to catch a few black-capped chickadees for her own thesis work.

It was a beautiful early March day – frigid, but bright and blustery.  Mounds of snow glittered in the dazzling sunlight, and the lake was still covered in ice.  We arrived at my friend’s study site, and set up the Potter trap (essentially a cage with trap doors over a feeding platform; when birds go for the food they trigger the doors and trap themselves), and backed off to await our first hapless victim.

Then we waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

The woods, usually alive with movement and calls, had never seemed so silent. Even though I knew better, it seemed to me that there were no chickadees within 5 miles of our trap.  Sitting and waiting for something that seems increasingly unlikely to ever happen tends to cause your mind to wander.  As I sat there that day (getting progressively colder), I found myself thinking about all the time I’ve spent trying to catch birds over the years.

Ornithologists – indeed, all field biologists – frequently have to catch wild animals for research purposes.  However, although this is often the key step on which all subsequent steps depend, it is usually only briefly mentioned in the Methods section of scientific papers, glossing over all the effort, patience, and utter frustration involved in the process.  In reality, catching birds is a study in contradictions: simultaneously extremely stressful and extremely tedious.  This became particularly apparent to me during my first PhD field season in British Columbia.

I arrived in BC in early February, fired up with enthusiasm and determination.  My first goal was to find and catch as many wintering western bluebirds as possible.  On our first morning in the field, I dragged my field assistant out into the cold and snow, and headed for a place where (according to our sources) we’d be sure to see bluebirds.

Sure enough, we had only been walking along the trail for a few minutes when a small flock of the little thrushes appeared and settled into a nearby tree.  I threw down my bag and tugged out our net and poles, flinging supplies every which way in a frenzy to get set up and catch my first bird.

It seemed to take forever to get the net up.  We had to use a rubber mallet to pound the aluminum poles into the frozen ground.  Then we began to string the net between them.  But mist nets are delicate things, made of fine mesh to make them more difficult for birds to see.  They tangle easily and are quite difficult to handle with gloves; the more I hurried, the more complicated the tangles seemed to be.  So off came my gloves, thrown unceremoniously on the ground with the other discarded equipment, and I started untangling the net with my numb fingers.

Finally everything was in place, ready to go…at which point the little flock of bluebirds took off over the hill, leaving us sitting there in silence.

Having spent the effort getting the net up, I thought we might as well stay and see if the birds came back.  So we plopped down into the snow, staring at the empty net, blowing in the fierce wind.  The 6 by 4 foot stretch of mesh looked impossibly small in the big, wide world.  It seemed ludicrous to imagine that a bluebird would ever occupy that particular space – why would it, when there were so many other places it could be?

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan - and one lonely little mist net.

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan – and one lonely little mist net.

I was starting to get quite discouraged when suddenly soft chattering and whistles heralded the return of the bluebird flock.  I held my breath as they approached the general area of the net – and then let it out as they sailed straight over it to perch in a nearby tree.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

The next thirty minutes felt a bit like being on a rollercoaster.  My hopes would go up, up, up as the flock fluttered their way towards the net…and then drop like a stone as they bypassed it.  (Or, in several extremely irritating cases, actually perched on the net itself.)

But then…it finally happened!  One of the males in the flock misjudged his trajectory, hit the mesh, and got tangled in its strands.  Despite my frozen and creaky muscles, I leapt to my feet, running full out towards the net.  But just as I stretched out my hand to grab him, he managed to free himself and took off into the nearby trees – quite literally slipping through my fingers.  (This happens more often than you might think.  In fact, just a few weeks later, a camera crew from a local station, filming us for a news story, witnessed a similar mishap.  They also recorded my frustrated response, which – if I’m going to be honest – involved a fair amount of profanity.  Luckily they edited the footage before it hit the news!)

We never did catch a bluebird that day…or the next…or the next.  In fact, although we put in roughly ten hours of effort a day, every day, for the next six weeks, we only managed to catch seven bluebirds in total. That works out to approximately 0.017 bluebirds per hour effort – a pretty high ratio of time spent sitting around to time actually spent handling a bird.  There were days when, as I stared at our little net blowing in the breeze, the idea of capturing a bird seemed absurd: a complete impossibility.

But then, every once in awhile, there would be a bird hanging in our net and the impossible would suddenly become possible.  And every time that happened, the feeling of triumph would make all the days of frustration worthwhile.  It’s amazing how good outsmarting a bird can make you feel!

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

Mischief in Sparrow-land

This week, we at Dispatches from the Field are very excited to welcome guest blogger Amy Strauss, a fantastic field biologist and a former field assistant for resident Dispatches blogger Catherine Dale.  Amy, who is now pursuing her own graduate work, shares stories of deception and duplicity from her fieldwork studying song sparrows in Massachusetts.

Fieldwork is about beautiful landscapes, vibrant sunrises, and becoming one with the great outdoors. It’s about pursuing scientific exploration in a natural setting, free from the limitations of a superficial laboratory environment.

My fieldwork is also about trickery.

A thick morning fog begins to burn off just as the sun rises over Wentworth Farms Conservation Area in Amherst, MA.

A thick morning fog begins to burn off just as the sun rises over Wentworth Farms Conservation Area in Amherst, MA.

I am a behavioral ecologist, driven by an intense curiosity about what evolutionary and ecological factors have shaped the behaviors exhibited by animals today.  Why do some species hibernate and others don’t? Why do we see such elaborate courtship displays exhibited by some animals and not others? Why is it adaptive for some lizards to squirt blood from their eyes when threatened, and for some female spiders to eat their mates after sex? This is the sphere of biology where my intellectual curiosity peaks.

One way to try to understand the biological function of a particular behavior is to manipulate something in an animal’s environment and see how the animal behaves in response. I study singing in birds, a communication behavior used in social interactions, so I get to manipulate birds’ social environments to figure out how song functions. And that’s where the trickery comes in.

Envision a team of field biologists – clad in full nerd attire, binoculars dangling around their necks, and each toting multiple large bags of equipment. This brigade of researchers woke up at 3:30am, bathed themselves head to toe in DEET, and are all geared up for a day in the field. Their goal? To fool unsuspecting little song sparrows into perceiving the presence of birds that aren’t really there.

Let me explain.

Song sparrows are territorial during the breeding season, which means that in areas of adequate habitat, individual males claim space and resources and then fiercely defend them. Those males then work to attract a female to their territory – and fiercely defend her as well. Land gets divided up amongst song sparrows in more or less the same way we humans divide up land amongst ourselves: ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours’. Neighbors are just fine as long as they don’t cross over the designated property line – or in the case of birds, the designated territory boundary. And just like in humans, anyone who crosses into another’s territory is considered an intruder and an aggressor.

Song sparrows use song in this context to negotiate territory boundaries in the springtime, and to maintain those borders throughout the breeding season. Have you ever taken a stroll through the woods or through a meadow in the spring and summer months? If so, you’ve probably heard the perpetual, beautiful singing of many songbird species. What they’re saying, essentially, is: “This is mine! I’m here! Stay away! Back off!”…a loud chorus of self-promoting, resource-hungry birds all broadcasting their positions outward to a network of listening competitors.

I, a human researcher interested in some of the finer points of birdsong biology, can take advantage of this vocal communication system by posing as a song sparrow and attempting to infiltrate established song sparrow neighborhoods. And this is my mission each day in the field: to manipulate the social environment of these birds by masquerading as a rival male song sparrow and observing the birds’ responses.

How do I pull of such a disguise? Good question. No, I don’t try to pass for a song sparrow by gluing feathers onto my head or taping wings onto my back or rigging up some fancy flying machine, although that sounds like fun. I do it entirely through sound. It’s convenient for me that birds rely so heavily on acoustic communication, though it’s not a coincidence at all; their reliance on song is precisely what got me interested in singing behavior in the first place. So my disguise in the field consists of song sparrow song recordings played through a camouflaged speaker connected to – you guessed it – my iPhone.

Amy and her field assistants raise a net and plot their strategy for capturing their next song sparrow.

Amy and her field assistants raise a net and plot their strategy for capturing their next song sparrow. Can you spot the net?

Using this simple system, there is a whole lot I can do with a population of song sparrows, and a lot of fascinating biological hypotheses that I can test. A favorite trick of field ornithologists everywhere is to catch birds from the air, using song to lure birds into their nets. Remember: a bird that crosses into the territory of a conspecific, when detected, will be challenged by the territory-holder. And an audio speaker playing conspecific song from inside the boundaries of a song sparrow territory, when detected, will be challenged by the territory-holder. And so the poor suckers fly right into our nets! [Side note for the wary: birds are not injured during this process.]

A banded male song sparrow, fashionably clad in hot pink bands!

A banded male song sparrow, fashionably clad in hot pink bands!

Once the bird is in hand, there are many things that researchers can do – take morphological measurements, gather DNA/blood/tissue samples, or attach GPS trackers to the birds. As a behaviorist, what I do next is place small bands around the bird’s legs that will stay on over time so I can identify that individual in the future. One band has a unique identification number on it, and the other bands are a combination of bright colors that allow me, even from afar, to determine the identity of the bird. Once they are banded and released, I can track individual birds as they fly around their territories, allowing me to create very precise maps of territory boundaries and to learn “who’s who” in the song sparrow neighborhood. I’m now further equipped to meddle in the social lives of these song sparrows.

A portable speaker broadcasts recorded song sparrow vocalizations, fooling the (real) sparrows of the neighborhood.

A portable speaker broadcasts recorded song sparrow vocalizations, fooling the (real) sparrows of the neighborhood.

The real meat of my work comes next – when I throw on my audio-disguise again, this time not to catch birds, but to investigate the function and relevance of variations in song sparrow singing behavior. My field assistants and I, in the form of a portable audio speaker, work together to simulate a trespassing song sparrow intruding on another’s territory. From this speaker, we can present a range of vocal recordings and closely monitor how a bird responds to each. Because we can identify individuals by the colored ID bands affixed to their legs, we are able to perform repeated experiments on the same individual song sparrows to compare responses over time or across treatments.  We can vary the song stimuli presented, we can vary the location of the speaker, and we can vary the time of presentation – to see what effect these changes have on the unknowing, outwitted song sparrow. Across these and many more axes of variation, big questions can be asked about the factors that affect avian vocal behavior, territoriality, and aggression. All with just a speaker posing as a song sparrow and some super stealthy field assistants.

Fieldwork is just trickery…in the name of SCIENCE.

Amy&MistNetAmy Strauss is currently working on her PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) in the Podos Lab at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  Prior to joining the OEB community, Amy worked as a Scientic Assistant in Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, where she did things like inventory elephant skulls and read through curator field notes from the 1920’s.  Amy was inspired to work on birdsong after assisting on a few song-related field projects during and after college — including a summer job in the Dominican Republic working for Dispatches co-creator Catherine Dale!

The incredible journey

Even though it’s still August, and the air is hot and humid, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that the days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and some of the leaves have a distinct reddish tinge to them.  We may prefer to pretend it’s not happening, but we all know it: fall is on the way.  For millions of birds across North America, it’s time to start thinking about packing their bags and turning their sights to the south.  As summer draws to a close and our forests and fields begin to empty out, I’d like to share a post about migration that I originally wrote for Land Lines, the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s blog, back in the spring – when all the birds were just returning.

“We’ve got rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and…rocks and  trees, and trees and rocks, and water…in Canada.”

-Arrogant Worms, “Rocks and Trees”

Canada: land of rocks, tress, water...and endless highways.

Canada: land of rocks, trees, water…and endless highways.

Ever since getting my driver’s licence, I’d dreamed of driving across Canada.  As a concept, it seemed romantic and adventurous – the perfect way to really get to know my own country.  But the reality, it turned out, was a bit different.  As I set off from Sudbury on my second day of cross-country driving, I wanted to be excited.  The first day had been easy: only six hours in the car, and a friend waiting for me at the other end.  But today was the real start of the adventure.  Today, I’d be leaving the relative safety of roads I knew well and passing into territory that was unknown, at least to me.

As I pointed my car west and hit the gas, I was more terrified than excited. Six thousand kilometers is a lot of road – especially when you’re driving alone.  In an effort to kickstart my enthusiasm, I reached over to slide the “Canadiana” mix CD a friend had made for me into the car’s CD player.  As the first strains of the Arrogant Worms’ “Rocks and Trees” came over the speakers, I glanced out the window and couldn’t help but laugh.  A vast, lonely landscape met my gaze, composed of…well, rocks, trees, and water.  Somehow, the song wasn’t actually making me feel any better.

The purpose of this epic journey was to get myself out to BC, and begin my PhD research on the population of western bluebirds that breeds in BC’s Okanagan Valley.  Although there are bluebirds (of one species or another) across the country, I was particularly interested in this population because of their migratory behaviour: the western bluebirds in the Okanagan are partial migrants.  This means that while some birds migrate south in the fall, others hang around the Okanagan, gather into flocks, and brave the snow and cold of a Canadian winter.

Western bluebird flock (and one lone goldfinch) check out a heated bird bath on a cold winter day. Photo credit: Eva Durance.

Western bluebirds (and one lone goldfinch) check out a heated bird bath on a cold winter day. Photo credit: Eva Durance.

I’ve been fascinated by avian migration ever since taking my first Animal Behaviour course as an undergraduate.  This fascination has shaped the last eight years of my life, informing my research interests as a graduate student.  Migration is a common phenomenon:  every year, billions of individuals from more than 350 bird species across North America embark on migratory journeys.  Migration is ubiquitous, and each spring and fall, as I hear the honks of Canada geese passing overhead, I’m tempted to call it ordinary.  But this common phenomenon is composed of extraordinary feats.  As summer winds down in the northern hemisphere, birds like the 25g northern wheatear set off into the unknown, often travelling thousands of kilometers south to spend the winter in more hospitable climates.  In the case of the wheatear, individuals breeding in the Canadian Arctic and Alaska brave the perils of crossing the Atlantic, ultimately covering 14,000 km to reach their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.  Then, come spring, they do it all over again in reverse.

Migration captures the imagination of scientists and the public alike.  But what is it about these journeys that inspires and enchants us?  That’s a question I’d never been able to answer satisfactorily, but as I faced the vast, lonely distances of my own incredible journey, the answer became clearer: migration may be common, but it is also an extraordinary story of adventure and challenge.

It's just possible that I should have left earlier...

It’s just possible that I should have left earlier…

To begin with, you must decide when to leave.  For birds, timing of migration is affected by many things – from predator abundance to food availability and individual condition – but it’s crucial that they get it right.  This is especially true in the spring, when arriving too late on the breeding grounds can undermine the success of an individual’s breeding season.  However, timing is also important in the fall, when staying too late can mean encounters with the kind of weather you’d rather avoid – as I found out the hard way.

Of course, once you’ve decided to leave, it’s also very important to know where you’re going.  Unfortunately for me, I’m one of the most directionally challenged people imaginable.  (Despite the fact that driving from Ontario to BC essentially involves following the Trans-Canada highway west, a number of people were actually placing bets on whether I’d end up in BC or Nova Scotia.)  Luckily, I had help: before I embarked on my journey, my mother dragged me to the CAA to purchase a staggering number of maps.  I ended up with a separate map for every Canadian province west of Quebec, a very long set of driving directions, and a North American road atlas for good measure.  Despite this plethora of directional aids, I can’t deny making the occasional U-turn on quiet parts of the Trans-Canada.

Just in case you’ve misplaced your country: thank goodness for maps, directions, and road signs.

Just in case you’ve misplaced your country: thank goodness for maps, directions, and road signs.

Birds, of course, have to manage without the help of the CAA.  Instead, they get their directional cues from a variety of sources: the sun, the stars, and the Earth’s magnetic field.  Recent research also suggests that scent cues may play a role in guiding migrants to their destination.  In fact, despite decades of study, we’re still learning new things about how birds manage to navigate the vast distances involved in migration.

You can meet almost any need along the way, as long as you pick your stopping places carefully. If you find yourself suddenly in need of custom embroidery halfway across the continent, the World’s Largest Truckstop in Iowa is the place for you.

You can meet almost any need along the way, as long as you pick your stopping places carefully. If you find yourself suddenly in need of custom embroidery halfway across the country, consider taking a detour to the south: the World’s Largest Truckstop in Iowa is the place for you.

Now on your way, you face another problem: finding places to stop.  As I made my way across the country, I realized that Canada’s seemingly endless rocks, trees, and water didn’t make that challenge easy to overcome.  I quickly learned to appreciate the value of a good refueling point, preferably one with gas, clean washrooms, good coffee, and food packaged within the last decade.  As every migrant knows, finding ideal stops as you navigate an unfamiliar world is not easy.  You need to be able to quickly size up potential sites for their value.  If you decide to stop, you need to quickly figure out what to eat and how to avoid being eaten yourself.  For me, the most important part of finding stops was learning to compromise.  Under less than ideal circumstances, I decided, fresh food was optional.  Even clean washrooms could be optional – after all, all those trees have to be good for something.  Gas and good coffee, however, were non-negotiable.

Even when you finally reach your general destination, the challenges aren’t over.  It’s important to know exactly where and when to stop.  When I crossed the border from Alberta into BC, I cheered, pulled over, and took a victory photo.  Little did I know that finding my new home in the Okanagan would involve more U turns than the rest of my trip put together.  My directions said, “Follow the highway around a curve and the driveway will be on your left”.  Unfortunately, the highway in the Okanagan is nothing but curves.  I drove past my new accommodations three times before finally focusing on the right curve, noticing the driveway, and making the turn.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to stop driving in my life.

During the course of my PhD, I made the drive to the Okanagan and back three times.  Each time, I took a different route, and each journey brought its own adventures, trials, and excitement.  Of course, I had it easy during my ‘migrations’: unlike me, birds travel under their own power, at the mercy of the unpredictable (and often nasty) elements.  But I still feel that my cross country travels gave me a unique opportunity to gain a more personal understanding of the ordinary, extraordinary phenomenon of migration.

Well worth the trip: the Okanagan Valley from above.

Well worth the trip: the Okanagan Valley from above.