Searching for a new home

My partner and I have been searching for a new house recently. It is considered a “seller’s” market here, and houses that are listed in the morning are off the market by the evening. It is frustrating how fast houses sell, but at least we are in a good place where we don’t need to move immediately. However, what about when your home has been destroyed or it has disappeared? With all of the wildfires across the country this year, this is unfortunately a question some people have to deal with.

Thinking about this made me wonder how do the birds do it?! Most seabirds are philopatric, meaning they tend to return to their nesting site year after year for breeding. Where do they go if they can’t return to that same nesting site? For instance, during the 2010-2011 winter, massive storms hit the islands in Haida Gwaii, BC. One island in particular, Reef Island, normally supports thousands of ancient murrelet breeding pairs (about half of the world’s population).

Reef Island field station signIn the summer of 2011, the field team and I packed our bags for our week trip on Reef Island. We knew about the storms during the winter that had destroyed the entire camp but we did not know the extent to which it would affect the ancient murrelet population. As the island came into sight through the fog, we could see that giant Sitka spruce and massive red cedars that once stood tall now lay every which way fallen on the forest floor. This was not a promising sight for nesting seabirds.

fallen trees on the island

View of the fallen forest on Reef Island

nest box

A lucky intact nest box – but an unlucky nest abandoned.

Following transects that had been followed for years for population estimates lead us to find nest boxes that once supplemented the natural nests in this colony were now either crushed under the fallen brush or scattered around the forest at random. Sadly, we were only able to find one nesting ancient murrelet.

But weirdly enough, despite the loss of suitable habitat at the most popular nesting site on Reef Island, the global population of ancient murrelets was not declining. Where were these suddenly homeless breeding pairs going?

Sarah using binoculars to look for birds in the forest

Searching for a new home.

The logical answer is to assume they searched for a new home. But previous surveys in the area suggested that most nest sites were already occupied. So did they settle for nesting sites that were less desirable? Without knowing about the storm in advance (I think being able to accurately predict the weather is every field biologist’s wish), and pre-emptively equipping the birds with tracking devices, it is difficult to know where the birds went. The stable population suggests they figured something out! Perhaps some started to nest in ferries like the pigeon guillemot pair I spotted.

A similar situation happened to me with finding a job after my master’s degree. Jobs related with fieldwork were no where to be found but I thought I would try a lab job instead. When I first started as a research assistant in a lab I thought I was choosing a working site that was less desirable (how would I ever survive working without constant fresh air!?). Now I am surrounded by the beeps and hums of machines rather than the birds chirping up above and wind whistling though the trees. It turns out that I love my job but one thing is still true – I may have acquired a lab coat but I will never give up my fieldwork uniform of a plaid shirt and hiking boots.

Checking out some cool habitat in the fieldwork uniform.

Don’t worry, be happy

Being in the field can bring up many emotions. Sure, there are the times when you are elated by a breathtaking view on a remote island that very few people get to visit. However, there are also lonely, boring, and frustrating aspects of fieldwork. If you think about it, you are away from home, usually out of your comfort zone, and more often than not doing very repetitive things.So sometimes, when you’re in the field, you need to look for ways to keep smiling!

When I shared this post with my fellow co-bloggers, Amanda pointed out she wrote a similar post about how to stay sane when you think you are going crazy. It just goes to show how important it is to stay positive when you’re out there doing all types of fieldwork.

Here are my top 10 tricks for staying positive during fieldwork:

1. Sing – Nothing like belting your heart out alongside the dawn chorus as you peer over a cliff (which actually helps the acoustics a lot!). Let’s not forget the famous field vehicles that have their share of karaoke stars.

2. Dance – Whether you’re practicing your signature move or making up a new sequence, it’s always beneficial to shake off those frustrations.

volleyball on the beach during the sunset

A little beach volleyball to pass the time.

3. Do something active – Although you are probably exhausted from climbing over and squeezing under fallen trees all day, sometimes it is good to do something different. If you’re looking to stretch and relax, yoga can be a good way to boost your mood. Check out the new hashtag #ScientistsWhoYoga on Twitter for some pretty amazing shots.

4. Make up stories for organisms, sites, and/or co-workers (nice things only of course) – Creating your own narrative for your surroundings can make the time tick by a little bit faster by introducing suspense and excitement.

5. Make it a competition – Similar to how people often keep kids busy, you can ask “Who can find the most bird nests this morning?”. In my opinion, the best approach to win at this competition is to divide and conquer the area and to pick the expert as your teammate. This is especially true when you are following transects as part of a long-term study and the expert knows all the “hot spots” for nests!

sunset on the ocean

My happy place by the water.

6. Think about your happy place – Although you may be on a beautiful beach looking for glimpses of marine mammals, sometimes it helps to think of something more familiar.

7. Take a shower – Yes, even this simple task can make you feel refreshed and ready to take on the next day!

8. Eat well – Ingesting the right nutrients can give you energy and instantly lift your spirits. The sheer absurdity of baking a cake on a small remote island is also bound to cheer you up. Alternatively, it can help to fantasize what you would make for dinner if you could have anything you wanted. (Warning: this will likely make you extremely hungry so make sure to have some snacks on hand.)

9. Chocolate – Need I say more?

holding up a team member

My supportive field team

10. Have a supportive field team – When you’re feeling under the weather, there is nothing worse than being away from home. Being surrounded by people who have your back in any situation will always go a long way.

Even when the effort  of fieldwork seems to outweigh the reward by several orders of magnitude (for example, imagine walking around for countless hours searching for signs of your study organism only to find out they don’t nest where you’ve been looking at all), remember that is worth it! Don’t worry because being a field biologist may just be the coolest job out there and there are lots of reasons to be happy!

How do you stay positive in the field?

Protecting the Canadian Galapagos

“Our culture is born of respect, and intimacy with the land and sea and the air around us. Like the forests, the roots of our people are intertwined such that the greatest troubles cannot overcome us. We owe our existence to Haida Gwaii. The living generation accepts the responsibility to ensure that our heritage is passed on to following generations.”                                       -Council of the Haida Nation

One common theme in posts on this blog is you really get to know a place intimately. This is certainly true – but if you’re lucky, not only do you get to fully explore the outdoor habitats where the fieldwork is taking place, you also get a chance to immerse yourself in a different culture.

When I first started my master’s, I gave a talk about my research titled “Why a pipeline should not be built to the west coast”. I had just come back from my fieldwork in Haida Gwaii and I couldn’t believe that there was a proposal to build a pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat, BC. This would inevitably bring oil tankers into the waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. I’ve been there. I’ve walked among the enormous sitka spruce and towering red cedar. I’ve heard the dawn chorus of the songbirds and noted the already declining occupancy of seabird nests. I’ve felt the spray from a humpback whale’s blowhole. I’ve been there and I have felt the magic of Haida Gwaii. I couldn’t believe that if this project was approved, it could lead to devastation of the precious habitats. Luckily, we heard this week that the Canadian government has rejected the Northern Gateway project (you can read more about the approval in this CBC article). A big player influencing the rejection of this project was the Haida Nation themselves. This I can believe. During my time on Haida Gwaii, I also learned a great deal about the Haida culture and their views on conservation.

bc-field-work-035

The Haida Nation live on the islands that make up Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of northern British Columbia. As is evident from the Haida Proclamation (above), the Haida Nation are intimately linked with their surrounding natural environment and work hard to conserve it.

bc-field-work-254In fact, the Proclamation sounds as if it could have come from a field biologist! Much of their efforts towards preservation of the natural world has been documented through storytelling in art form. For example, the Haida people carve different animals and items into wood totem poles to tell stories and teach lessons. These teachings are passed on from generation to generation – and some even turn into places for new generations to start (check out one of my previous posts about nurse logs). Even today, poles are carved with stories by community members and carried by many hands to the designated spot.

Haida peoples carrying a totem pole

Haida people carrying the 42ft Legacy Pole – unfortunately I couldn’t go to the ceremony as my flight was leaving that afternoon but I did manage to sneak this picture.

Not only do the Haida people share traditional knowledge from past generations, they also care about protecting the environment for future generations. The Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve protects the southern half of the archipelago, which is home to 39 distinct subspecies (7 mammals, 3 birds, and 15 stickleback fish species) endemic to Haida Gwaii. You cannot find these variants anywhere else! It is because of these endemic species that Haida Gwaii is often referred to as the Canadian Galapagos.

If I haven’t managed to convince you that Haida Gwaii is a beautiful place teeming with interesting wildlife and vegetation, I hope that this at least makes you think twice about the consequences of potential habitat destruction. Today I am happy to say that Haida Gwaii itself and the Haida Nation that has fought for its preservation will be thankful for the rejection of the Northern Gateway project. However, with other pipeline proposals being approved, I can only hope that there are stewards of the land willing to stand up for the natural and cultural world.

The tide is high, but I’m holding on

Being by the water is one of my “happy” places and an ocean coast is one of my favourite places to be (a good reason to study seabirds!). The sound of the water splashing against the rocks, the smell of salt in the air, and the  sight of the horizon as far as the eye can see, all add to the experience. However, each coast is slightly different in topography, geography, and biology.

One thing that is consistent among ocean coasts is the tides. Tides are the rise and fall of the water level as a result of the gravitational pull from the moon and the sun in addition to the rotation of the earth. Tides are a very neat phenomenon and on the coast they are often quite dramatic. However, if your field work requires you to be on a boat in the water, you are stuck having to schedule your days around them. I’ve encountered these intense tides during some of my field work experiences on two of Canada’s coastlines.

Fun(dy) tides on the east coast

I took a field course titled “Marine Mammals and Seabirds”, based out of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. The field station we were staying at was in a cove just off of the Bay of Fundy, which is known for having the greatest tides in the world. Tides there can range over 14 m! If the title of the course gives anything away, it is that we needed to be out on the water to have a good view of our study species. Due to the great tides, our boat would move up and down substantially when tied to the dock. In order to get into the boat safely when the water level was not too low, we either had to leave very early (before the sunrise) or we would have to wait until closer to lunch time. You can probably imagine how hard it would be to get 20 undergraduate students up before the sun every day, but somehow we managed to do it (even if we had to climb down a little farther to our boat)! On days when the tide was too low, at least we got to explore the intertidal zone that is normally underwater (but that warrants a whole new post, or check out last week’s guest post The Sea).

low tide at the dock

Low tide at the docks in St. Andrews, New Brunswick

Rocky west coast

One day when I was doing seabird fieldwork on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, we had to travel from the east coast of the south island to the west coast of the north island. We had two choices: we could either sail around the northern or southern tips of the archipelago (would take days to arrive) or we could travel between the two islands through a channel called the “East Narrows”. As you can guess by the name, it was very narrow, with towering cliffs and trees on either side of the channel. The tides were very evident in this channel, ranging from 0.1 m to 4 m over the course of a day. Therefore, we had to plan our voyage perfectly so that we would have enough time to make it to the other side of the archipelago before the water level got too low. If the water got low enough, there was a chance we would hit the bottom of the channel and we would be stranded in the middle of the two islands, possibly damaging our boat. Luckily, we had experienced sailors with us who had timed and completed the trip successfully many times!

Intertidal zone, water, mountains in the background

Intertidal zone on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.

When we arrived at the northern island, we anchored the sail boat and the captain brought us in a small dingy to the different islands we were surveying that day. One morning, it was low tide and the wind had picked up. As a result, the waves were larger than usual. We headed out to the island and one by one we had to jump out of the dingy onto the rocks.

Low tide exposing the slippery rocks.

Slippery rocks to jump on at low tide.

The rocks on the edge were very slippery as the low tide left the algae covered rocks exposed. One member of our field crew went to jump off, slipped on the rocks, and fell into the cool water! Luckily she was able to climb out, dry off, and warm up before continuing with the day.

 

In the end, the tide may be low, but I will still be holding on!

 

Something old, something new

For my field work for my master’s, I was in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. I talked a bit about it in my previous post (Home Sweet (mobile) Home) but this place is so amazing I will be writing quite a few posts about it to try to convince you how this place receives names such as “Islands of Beauty” or “Place of Wonder”.

The winter before I went to Haida Gwaii was full of major storms that caused a lot of damage to the islands. Reef Island, where we spent most of our time, got hit very hard by storms, where massive Sitka spruce, western hemlock, red and yellow cedar trees were knocked down including trees that were completely uprooted. Here is a picture of me standing under one of the roots for size comparison (and yes I understand I look a bit too prepared –rain boots, rain pants and jacket, extra rain coat that was way too big for me, PFD, binoculars –but when you are in the ocean on a tiny zodiac this is the only way to stay dry (mostly)).

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?

These fallen trees made it for a fun obstacle course to find all of the nest boxes of seabirds we were looking for. The other researcher I was with is quite a bit older and I thought I would be fit enough to keep up with him. But even with the climbing over and under trees and running beside the edges of the cliffs, he would disappear up the mountain and I would be stumbling behind trying to figure out which way he went!

Unfortunately, the cabin that was on Reef Island was destroyed by the storms and thus we were stuck really “roughing it”. Our 5 star accommodation included tents and a big tarp for our kitchen (based on the views alone I am not joking about the 5 stars). Although we were limited in some luxury items (for instance, I lost my water bottle and was left with a mayonnaise jar filled with water which surprisingly is very hard to get the taste out of) we did have an oven in which we baked a cake. The most simple pleasures always seem so much better when you are out in the field!

Camp at Reef Island

Luxury 5 star accommodation on Reef Island

While I was stumbling after the other researcher, I became fascinated with how the fallen logs provided habitat for new growth. Commonly known as “nurse logs”, the fallen and dying trees provided perfect habitat for new saplings. The coolest nurse logs are the ones that used to be totem poles or structures in the old villages we visited. The purpose of totem poles is to document stories and to represent the family’s status. Although these stories had fallen to the ground, they provided new habitat for other species to begin to grow. I think this is a neat way to look at conservation.

The Haida could not have said it better themselves:

We do not inherit this land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

-Haida saying, anonymous  

Sapling growing on a fallen log

Sapling growing on a fallen log

plants growing out of totem pole

New plants growing out of an old totem pole

Tree growing on old carving

Can you see what it used to look like?