Fieldwork: more than data

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome fellow WordPress blogger Cindy Crosby.  Cindy shares some of the lessons she’s learned from the landscape she loves most – the tallgrass prairie of Illinois.  For more about Cindy, and to read more of her work, check out her bio at the end of the post.

Prescribed burning on the prairie.

After a prescribed burn, the prairie may look a bit desolate.

“Weeds, Cindy. It’s just weeds.”

I heard this from a friend I took out to see the prairie where I serve as steward supervisor, expecting him to feel the same wonder and joy I experienced. Fieldwork—pulling weeds, managing invasives, collecting native prairie seeds, monitoring for dragonflies and damselflies—had brought me into a close relationship with the Illinois tallgrass prairie.

And yet, all my friend saw was “weeds.”

 

This experience was a turning point for me in how I explained my fieldwork and passion for prairies and other natural areas to friends. I realized that without spending time there, family members and acquaintances couldn’t be expected to understand why I invested thousands of hours hiking, sweating, teaching, planning, and collecting data about a place that—on the surface—looks a bit wild and messy to the untrained eye.

An eastern amberwing takes a momentary rest.

Sure, visit the two prairies where I am a steward in the summer months, and it’s all eye candy. Regal fritillary butterflies and amberwing dragonflies jostle for position on butter-yellow prairie coreopsis, pale purple coneflowers, and silver-globed rattlesnake master. The bright green of the grasses stretches from horizon to horizon. But drop in right after we do a prescribed burn in the spring, or in late winter, when the tallgrass is matted and drained of color, and yes… it doesn’t look like much.

People ask me, “Why so much work? Can’t you just let nature do its thing?” Visitors come to the prairie with buckets to pick the “weeds” for their dinner party table arrangements. Others cringe when a dragonfly buzzes by. “Won’t it bite me?”

As someone who came later in life to fieldwork, I remember how it felt to only see “weeds” or “bugs.” I had the same questions.  These questions remind me that I need to find different ways to connect hearts and minds with the places and critters I love.

Our morning fieldwork commute.

Commuting, prairie style…

So—I train new dragonfly monitors each season to collect data. Then, I watch them fall in love with the prairie and its beautiful flying insects through walking a regular route. I work with my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie volunteer group, and see men and women who have never seen a prairie before become deeply invested in its wellbeing. It’s all about showing up each week to do whatever task needs to be done. Seeing the prairie and its creatures in all sorts of weather, different seasons, and times of day. Reading a book about it. Taking a class. Building a relationship.

Each person has a different connection to my fieldwork. For some, it’s the history of the prairie. For others, it’s the amazing migration of some of our dragonflies. A few bring their cameras, and later write or paint about what they see. Some just like being outdoors and socializing in a natural environment. All good reasons. All points connecting to the restoration and science being done. Time well spent.

The poet Mary Oliver reminds me: “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.”  Fieldwork is all about paying attention, isn’t it? Keeping our sense of wonder. Then, building a relationship with a place or a creature.

A land to love.

And relationships are about spending time with someone or something, then sharing what you love with others. Hoping, of course, that they’ll come to love the places you love too.  Support the science. Change public policy because they care about the place they live.

Building relationships. Taking care of my landscape of home. That’s what keeps me out there. Doing fieldwork.

Cindy Crosby has authored, compiled, or contributed to more than 20 books, including The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017). A prairie steward and dragonfly monitor, she blogs weekly on Tuesdays in the Tallgrass and speaks and teaches about the prairie and other natural history topics in the Chicago region. Read more at www.cindycrosby.com.

Lessons learned in the field

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Kim Stephens, an Undergraduate student from Queen’s University. Kim was a field assistant in 2013 to one of our resident bloggers, Amanda and today she tells us about some of the lessons she learned during her first summer in the field. 

During the summer of 2013 I worked as a field technician for the Aarssen Lab at Queen’s University – meaning I got to spend my summer working outside almost every day. I was incredibly excited to not be stuck in an office or store, gazing longingly at the sunshine outside. My 4 months were spent digging in the dirt, watering plants, and picking flowers – a dream job! We worked on 4 different projects throughout the summer, which were at varying degrees of completion. That summer, I was continually learning, and by the end I could identify a multitude of flowers and grasses, and knew my way around areas surrounding Kingston. I also learned quite a few lessons about field work… many of them the hard way. Here are some of them!

Science happens, despite the weather. One of the projects that I was helping with involved differing water levels on the study sites (decreased, control, and enriched) which meant that once per week, we pulled the Rhino out of the white house, and watered study plots for an entire day. This made complete sense to me on a scientific basis, but when I was standing out in the rain watering, it didn’t make quite so much sense anymore. That being said, watering in the rain was sometimes a nice break from the +30oC, when you wished you could turn the spray nozzle around, and get cooled off by the pond water.

watering study plots

Adam Sprott watering study plots at Bracken Field.

The Rhino.

The Rhino.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Protect yourself from the elements. Sunscreen is your best friend! I was used to my typical days out in the sun – sitting in the shade, hanging out at the beach – being able to enjoy the weather without being in the direct sun. This was completely different! Bracken field, where we watered, was exactly that – an open field. We had very little reprieve from the high UV, except while filling up the water tank, and after a couple of encounters with lobster-coloured skin, I started applying sunscreen more frequently. On the opposite end of the spectrum – invest in a good rain suit… especially if you’re working in and around Kingston. Field work continues in the rain, so not having to sit in wet clothes all day, or change multiple times, makes the work day much more pleasant.

Plant ecology can be dangerous – watch where you’re walking. Late in the summer, during seed collection for Amanda’s project, I discovered that I was thankfully not allergic to wasps. We were in an area which had very little, if any, cell service and virtually no houses nearby. I was walking along the side of the road, and found some plants that looked like they might have seeds that we needed. The ground camouflaged the wasps’ nest, and unfortunately I stepped right on it. They didn’t take too kindly to my intrusion, and stung me 12 times.

Double check that you’ve packed everything. Early in the field season, just after we started digging trenches around study plots, Amanda and I were taking a break for lunch, when she discovered that she hadn’t packed a fork for her salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one either, and since we were so far from a town, we had to make do with what we had, which ended up being a garden trowel that we had been using to dig. After rinsing, sanitizing, and rinsing again, it was designated ‘safe’, and she created a new meaning to ‘shoveling food in your mouth’. We didn’t forget cutlery very often after that.

Trenches dug.

Trenches dug.

eating with a garden trowel.

Amanda making do with a garden trowel as a fork.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Offence is the best defense. Poison Ivy, a tricky little plant which causes rashes and other irritation, quite enjoys hiding in the most unsuspecting places. A good portion of the summer was spent collecting samples which were conveniently located in patches of poison ivy. My solution – full yellow PVC-coated rain suit (read: homemade biohazard suit) complete with rain boots and gloves. Armed with this protective layer, I ventured into the area which held the Dame’s Rocket flowers I wanted to collect for my project.

 

 

 

Back up your pictures. You will see many amazing things while working in the field and take pictures of as many as you can– I took over 2000 during my time in the field. Weather happens, equipment breaks, and phones reach the end of their lifespan. While I was putting together this blog post I had a perfect picture in mind of one of the other field technicians watering plots in the rain. I discovered far too late that it had been taken on my cell phone – which gave up a few weeks ago…. before being properly backed up. 

Stop and smell the roses. Fieldwork has its ups and downs, but while you’re out in the field, take the time to appreciate the beautiful nature around you. I took an office job the summer of 2014, and spent most of it inside, appreciating how amazing the previous summer had been.

View of Upper Rock Lake

Rideau Trail overlooking Upper Rock Lake

Butterflies smell the flowers

Ele campane and Swallowtail butterfly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kim StephensKim did her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Biology and studied the relationships between metrics of plant body size for her undergraduate thesis. She returned to Queen’s for the 2014-15 school year to finish off her degree in German and is headed to Germany this year to work and attend graduate school.

Land of living skies

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Krista Cairns, to tell us about some of her adventures as a resource management officer in the Canadian prairies.

Grasslands National Park

Welcome to Grasslands National Park in southwestern Saskatchewan, the northern edge of the mixed- grass prairie ecoregion!  This is where I work as a resource management officer for Parks Canada.  I am a part of a team that works to protect, preserve, and present this special ecoregion to Canadians, and my job is focused on monitoring, maintaining and recovering prairie ecosystem function. The mixed-grass prairie ecoregion is named after the short- and mid-height grasses that grow in mixed stands here, most notably in our region blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis), wheatgrasses (Agropyron spp.) and spear grasses (Stipa spp.) This beautiful broad plain, interrupted by deep valleys and hilly uplands, stretches all the way from the Canadian prairies to the Gulf of Mexico.  Grasslands National Park is Canada’s only park representing mixed-grass prairie, and efforts to preserve this landscape were launched 50 years ago by conservationists and local land owners.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park.

Worth preserving: the seemingly endless sea of grass in Grasslands National Park

Canadian prairie – mixed-grass or otherwise – has largely been converted into agricultural or developed land. In Saskatchewan, mixed-grass prairie makes up about 13% of the province, and about half of that has been cultivated (Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, 1998).  I feel extremely fortunate to work in such a rare and beautiful landscape along with other people who share my passion for the prairies.

During the spring and summer field season, I am posted in the East Block of the park, a particularly remote and sparsely populated area of Saskatchewan. The horizon is wide and largely uninterrupted; however, severe weather systems still manage to sneak up on me in an instant.

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

Awesome power: a storm approaches the East Block

There is spectacular storm viewing in East Block; however, that is not the only upside to storms – the thunderstorm activity at the end of April and beginning of June in our last field season in East Block brought up plains spadefoot toads.

Plains spadefoot toad

Plains spadefoot toad

Spadefoot toads aren’t actually toads or frogs – in fact, they’re in their own suborder. Check out the hind foot (pictured above): see the black protrusion? That is the spade!  These toads are excellent diggers, and spend most of their life underground. This means they are not dependent on permanent waterbodies: in fact, they are dry-land specialists. Spadefoots are particularly tied to thunderstorms, emerging only after those really big storms to breed, possibly drawn out by the rumble of the thunder. In dry years, they may not emerge at all! We feel pretty lucky to have seen and heard these spadefoots breeding. We would wait up until after dark to hear them calling, and would wade out into the ankle-deep pools to find them.

Catching spadefoot toads

Catching spadefoot toads

During our last field season, it continued to be rainy well into June, and we were able to observe the tadpoles’ progress in nearby ditches, ponds and other shallow, water-filled depressions.  Come August, as the landscape was drying up, the last clutches that had not yet metamorphosed were surviving in puddles of moisture collecting in cow hoof prints (neat, eh?). Spadefoots are one of the fastest metamorphosing “frogs” out there! In good conditions, they take only two weeks to go from egg to adult form, which is important considering they use such ephemeral, shallow pools. If the water starts drying up early, the algae-eating tadpoles turn cannibalistic, thereby achieving both more elbow space in the disappearing puddle as well as additional protein (which presumably helps them metamorphose faster). Sure enough, in the most crowded puddles you could differentiate vegetarians from carnivores by both jaw structure and size – both were a lot beefier on the cannibals!

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Encore, please: lekking sharp-tailed grouse male

Lekking grouse are another fun springtime sighting. The park is home to both the endangered sage grouse, and the sharp-tailed grouse. Sharp-tailed grouse are a lot easier to find, as they occur across their range in greater numbers. Their name comes from their tail shape, which tapers to a sharp point thanks to elongated central tail feathers. Like many grouse, male sharp-tailed grouse gather in groups on specially selected dancing grounds called leks. On the leks, the males puff up special air sacs, flair up colourful combs above their eyes and do a noisy and extremely entertaining dance. Females watch from the sidelines and select only the most deserving male specimen (usually only a couple get any of the action from what I’ve been able to observe). Every year, I get to watch these very interesting birds at several dancing grounds throughout the park. They dance the hardest in the wee hours of the morning, but will sometimes perform an encore in the evenings near sundown.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

Black-tailed prairie dog surveys the landscape.

When I get called over to the West Block of the park, the black-tailed prairie dog is a dependable wildlife sighting. These critters live in small clusters of family groups within a larger colony, which can be quite extensive. They create habitat and foraging areas for many other species, as well as form a reliable source of food for many predators.

Rattlesnake

Home sweet home: a prairie rattlesnake takes advantage of a prairie dog burrow

Burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, prairie rattlesnakes, black widows and tiger salamanders are examples of some of the very interesting fauna you can find taking shelter in a prairie dog burrow. Bison and other grazers are often found near or on prairie dog colonies, whether attracted there by the new green shoots of a lawn kept well-grazed by prairie dogs, or by the dependable alarm system that results from having so many sets of eyes peeled for predators.

Coyote

A coyote prowls near a prairie dog colony

If I sit hidden among the hills surrounding any one of our colonies for any length of time, I often see owls, hawks, golden eagles, foxes and coyotes swooping over the colony or skulking by, looking to catch a prairie dog off guard. Sometimes I am lucky enough to see a badger, which is always interesting because of their amazing digging skills – they will excavate a prairie dog if need be; you can see the evidence of their diggings if you walk around a colony.

Better yet are the things that happen when no one is watching. We set up remote cameras on prairie dog colonies which monitor several handy things, for example presence/absence of burrowing owls and ferrets and emergence of prairie dogs and the associated temperature and date. However, we capture many additional images, such as predation events, interesting intra- and interspecies interactions, and animals looking into the camera!

Saskatchewan: land of the living skies

Not another soul in sight

But when working on a monitoring project in the more remote areas of the park, the rarest sighting can be other people. When I prepare for fieldwork, I have to plan, plan, plan because it’s an open landscape, devoid of people and services, exposed to the elements – and it is a loooong way back home. Packing involves collecting back-ups of all equipment, plenty of food and water, first aid supplies, navigation and communication tools, clothing for all weather, and emergency shelter, and then filing a detailed plan of where I’m going and when I’ll be back with several people. It’s also essential to have a plan (and back-up plan) for which route I am going to use for access and how – it’s usually not a matter of driving to the field site; most field sites are remote. If a site is accessible by vehicle, there are river crossings, washouts and rough terrain to navigate. Above all, I have to watch the weather: checking weather before leaving is key, but even more important is watching the weather while I’m in the field. It’s easy to forget to look up when you are doing vegetation surveys or looking for small animals in the grass, which can lead to being stuck in the field.

Working in the park is both a pleasure and a challenge, providing plenty of opportunity for fieldwork as well as a lot of deskwork. I love this beautiful place, and encourage everyone to come explore.

Krista

Krista has worked for Grasslands National Park in various capacities since 2008, contributing to a variety of projects, including species at risk monitoring, wildlife management, prairie restoration and invasive species control. Occasionally, she also has the pleasure of working with the public, through volunteer programs, guided tours or educational programs.

Reference:

Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management, D.F. Acton, G.A. Padbury, C.T. Stushnoff. 1998. The Ecoregions of Saskatchewan. Canadian Plains Research Center. University of Regina

 

Changes, invasions and transformations

One of the neat things about spending so much time doing field work in the same place is that I’m really in tune with a lot of my sites. For example: Wire Fence field is an old-field site belonging to the Queen’s University Biological Station and I have collected data on different projects there since 2009. When I walk into Wire Fence today, some things have changed since 2009. For example, when I first started in that site, there were two main grasses that dominated there, Poa pratensis or Kentucky blue grass and Phleum pratense or Timothy grass. They were pretty evenly distributed across the field. Most of the perennial wildflowers present were distributed widely across the field as well, but without doubt every year there would be a big patch of Dianthus armeria, or Deptford pink southeast of the trees in the middle of the field, and nowhere else. Lotus corniculata thrived in the most Southern parts of the field and Oxalis corniculata or creeping wood sorrel was always hiding in the far west corner. If you can imagine it’s almost like each species is a neighbourhood within a city, and each year when you visit that city it’s like nothing has changed, you go to the westside, you know what you’ll find. Head up North and it’s the same old thing. But, like any city, while lots of things remain the same, there are often subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes. In 2009 there was a small patch of Bromus Inermis or Smooth Brome grass growing on the east side of the trees in the middle of the field- there was maybe 100 individual plants there.  Since Smooth Brome is a pretty agressive invader, each year the abundance and distribution of Smooth Brome throughout the field increases. Today, while Timothy and Kentucky blue grass are still very dominant, Smooth Brome has taken over almost the entire east side of the field and appears to have displaced the native grasses in the densest patches. Milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca) was always dominant on the North side of the field, and this year it’s the South side. Thistles used to only be found on the North side and in very high abundance and now they’re spread out all over the field, but not as densely as they were before.

 

Kentucky blue grass flowering

Kentucky blue grass flowering

 

 

Timothy grass flowering

Timothy grass flowering

 

 

Smooth Brome flowering

Smooth Brome flowering

 

 

milkweed flowering

Milkweed flowering

Deptford pink

Deptford pink

Another field site I used to visit was the Bee field, another QUBS property. In 2009 there was one individual of a very invasive plant called Dog strangling vine (Cynanchum rossicum) right in the middle of the field. We told the QUBS manager at the time about this and he came and dug it up and got rid of it. From that day until summer 2012 I never saw that plant again. When I started my field season last year, I noticed a whole bank of dog strangling vine by Clear Lake Rd. along Opinicon Road. It certainly wasn’t there the year before. For those of you familiar with the Opincion Road area, you probably noticed that this year, much of the East side of Opinicon road side is densely covered in this species and it’s probably going to get worse. In fact, even in Kingston the roadsides leading into Lemoine point are littered with this species too! (On a brief side note: I’m really interested in getting the public involved with and aware of this issue so if you’re also concerned about this or just want to get involved shoot me an email at fieldworkblog@gmail.com and we can chat!)

Dog strangling vine flower

Dog strangling vine flower

dog strangling vine field

Dog strangling vine along the roadside

One other neat thing I’ve seen out in the field is old field succession. In 2009 Wire Fence field was entirely dominated by herbaceous species. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything woody in that field. Now it is slowly becoming filled with white ash saplings the occasional birch sapling and tonnes of blackberry and raspberry bushes, all species typical of mid-successional habitats. If the field isn’t bush-hogged soon, it will most certainly end up as a shrubland site and eventually overtime become young woodland and then a mature forest. It’s an amazing transformation and I’m lucky I’ve spent enough time to notice it happening. Changes, invasions, and transformations like these and rarely observable in person unless, like me, you spend countless hours poking around the same site!