Look – a Chamois! 

We are excited to welcome Dr. Deborah Leigh to the blog today. Deborah is currently working as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Although Deborah is a seasoned Field Biologist, today she writes about her first adventure in the field doing her own work! For more about Deborah, see the end of this post. 

Fieldwork for me has taken many forms. It has ranged from a few exhausting hours scrambling around the Alps to get Ibex tissue samples, to months at remote field stations, living and breathing for each data point or blood sample. But whatever the length, location or purpose, fieldwork has always been inspiring. Sure you have the moments where you are wet, grumpy, tired, and probably shouldn’t have just said what you did to your equally soggy companion, but being in the field and seeing your study organism is blissful to me. (I write this of course, from the warm and dry of my office. So the field’s gifts of blisters, bruises from falls (every time I go into a forest!), and damp socks, have been erased by nostalgia.)

Though I was lucky enough to do fieldwork from early on in my Bachelor’s degree, the first time I went into the field for myself was during my PhD. (Sadly, I never saw the elusive Corncrake from my Master’s in the wild.) So it was with impish glee that I stumbled upon my first Alpine Ibex at the top of Pilatus in the first month of my PhD. There she was, hiding in amongst the rocks, basking in the sun.

The first Ibex I saw

For those of you who have been to Pilatus, you will know that this is not a difficult site to reach. There is a funicular train that takes you up to the top of the two thousand meter peak, and you will probably see Ibex from the train if you are lucky. Due to the accessibility of the site, I shared my profound moment of scientific development with two tourists who insisted that my Ibex was, in fact, a Chamois. (Dude, no – just no).

For me, however, the journey to this Ibex was so much more arduous then the planes, trains and automobiles the tourists had used to arrive on the peak.  I had moved to Switzerland only weeks before, starting my PhD immediately after finishing my MSc and spending a field season in New Zealand. Needless to say, I was exhausted and felt completely out of my depth. My lab mates all seemed very tall, very wise, and painfully smart.  No one understood my British sarcasm; in fact, they initially thought I was horribly rude because of it. And I certainly did not understand Swiss German.

However that moment of seeing an Ibex amongst the rocks made me glow with happiness. The angst and exhaustion melted away and I knew I was working on something I found amazing and I would make the most of this – if not for me then for the Ibex. In amongst the tourists’ Chamois proclamations, I snapped a picture that still fills me with the joy and peace of that moment.

I guess my point is that though fieldwork physically serves a purpose in many graduate student projects, it should also form a part of those for which it isn’t ‘essential’. Without those amazing moments, you might never have a fire for your project, and you really need that fire in your gut to drag yourself through a PhD.

Fieldwork doesn’t have to be an epic saga where you sit in a tent for 6 months and grow increasingly mouldy; it can be a few hours or days of just observing. I think that’s important to say, because many field biologists look down on fieldwork that isn’t all encompassing. But there’s no reason they should: the point of fieldwork can be scientific exploration, collection, or inspiration, and it can be a sprint or a marathon. Whatever lights that fire and keeps you going through the dark tunnel of the thesis write-up work for me.

So go get your boots muddy.

 

Deborah is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, Canada. She currently works in the Friesen lab, using genomic tools to understand local adaptation in Seabird populations. Her career has taken her from Edinburgh University (BSc), to Imperial College London (MRes), to the University of Zurich (PhD). She dabbled in behavioural ecology before moving to genetics and then genomics. Deborah has done field work in the Cairngorms (Hoverflies), St Kilda (Soay Sheep), New Zealand (Hihi project), Switzlerand and Italy (Ibex). You can read more at https://deborahmleigh.weebly.com/ 

Careful queries

“Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully.  And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 -David Quammen

Having spent more than a decade doing fieldwork all over North America, you might think I would have learned by now how to see beauty anywhere – how to look past the surface of a place to the awe-inspiring intricate connections beneath.  But last week’s guest post about the beauty of the tallgrass prairie got me thinking about my own experience in the prairies last fall.

In October, I took a trip out west with my father, who is a big fan of Canada’s national park system and wanted to see some of the western parks and historic sites.  We originally planned the trip as my ‘thesis submission celebration’.  (Of course, as any grad student knows, thesis submission dates are slippery things, very prone to change.  So when the time came to leave, my thesis was decidedly unsubmitted – but lucky for me, we decided to go anyway.)

When we sat down to finalize our itinerary, we discovered that we disagreed fairly substantially.  My father’s top priority was to visit Grasslands National Park, in southern Saskatchewan.  But to be honest, I just wasn’t that excited by the thought of an endless flat plain.  No, if I was going out west, my top priority was to see some mountains.

I’ve been fascinated by mountains since my first trip to Alberta with my family, when I was only six.  Even now, I find the dramatic landscape of the Rocky Mountains enthralling and iconic.  Despite growing up in Ontario, when I think of the Canadian wilderness, I picture the snowy peaks, mysterious green valleys, and jewel-bright lakes of the Rockies.

My dad was considerably less enchanted by the mountains than I was, but eventually agreed to add Waterton Lakes National Park to our schedule.  Waterton Lakes, in southwestern Alberta, lies at the point where “the prairies of Alberta meet the peaks of the Rocky Mountains”.

It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place than Waterton Lakes National Park on a sunny fall day.

If you look the park up on Google Images, the pictures that pop up are so perfectly gorgeous that they seem almost unreal.  But as amazing as those pictures are, they don’t begin to the do park justice.  We visited on a sunny, crisp fall day.  The wind was so strong it almost felt like an assault, and the sheer majesty of the sun reflecting off the snow-covered peaks took my breath away.

We spent three wonderful days in the shadow of the mountains before starting our long drive east to Grasslands.  Not feeling all that inspired by the second part of our trip, I was reluctant to leave, and the seemingly endless drive across the flattest part of Canada didn’t increase my enthusiasm at all.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Sunset over a sea of grass.

Rumpled, tired, and cranky in the way that can only result from spending a day in the car, we arrived at our accommodation, right on the edge of the park, just as the sun was going down.  As I stepped gratefully out into the fresh air and gazed over the sea of grass stretching from right in front of us all the way to the horizon, I felt the first faint stirrings of interest in this park.

First thing the next morning, we set off to explore.  My dad was single-minded in pursuit of his main goal: to see a buffalo.  I had visions of us roaming for hours, searching fruitlessly.  But within a few minutes of entering the park, we spotted one of the massive animals standing not far from the road, gazing haughtily into the distance.  As my dad pulled out his camera, I noticed a flash of movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned to investigate – and realized that on the other side of the road was a busy prairie dog colony.  Hundreds of the chubby rodents bustled around their burrows, often coming within a few feet of me.

Face to face with a curious prairie dog.

It was slowly dawning on me that, although this park lacked the obvious, dramatic majesty of Waterton Lakes and the other mountain parks, it had a quiet splendour all its own.  We’d been in the park only a few minutes, and already we’d had two up close and personal encounters with wildlife.  That night, as I stared up at one of the most phenomenal night skies I’ve ever seen, I realized that Grasslands was something special.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the experience was that we had the park essentially to ourselves.  During the three days we spent there, I don’t think we saw more than ten other visitors.  When I got home, I looked up the stats.  Between April 1st, 2016 and March 31st, 2017, Grasslands had just over 13,000 visitors.  In comparison, Waterton Lakes recorded more than 500,000 visitors over the same time period, and Banff recorded more than 4 million.  Apparently I am not the only person who prefers the mountains to the plains.

I can’t deny that having an entire national park to ourselves was mind-blowing, and part of what made our time in Grasslands so special.  There’s something about being the only car on the road – the only people within sight – that allows you to become truly immersed in the landscape.

But I also can’t help but think the vast difference in visitor numbers between Grasslands and Waterton Lakes may be indicative of a larger problem.  Many people – whether consciously or unconsciously – equate ‘nature’ with those grand, awe-inspiring mountain vistas that we are all so fond of.  And I can’t deny that those vistas are amazing, certainly well worth a visit.

However, a single-minded focus on majestic and dramatic landscapes can cause us to miss the more subtle beauty found in less obvious places – whether it be the muddy edges of a marsh, the vast grasslands of the North American plains, or even our own backyards.

And so the main thing I learned from my trip was to put a bit more time and effort into making those ‘careful queries’ that David Quammen advocates.  Less obvious landscapes may demand a bit more of us, but they have so much to teach.

Looking out over the badlands at Grasslands National Park.