4 reasons I shouldn’t be a field biologist

My lungs are bursting as I stumble to a halt, slipping on melting snow crystals.  Squinting against the glare, I lift my head – and immediately wish I hadn’t.  Behind me, a vertigo-inducing slope of snow drops away.  In front of me, the sight is even worse: the slope continues up…up…up.  At the top, four figures stand waiting impatiently.  It’s clear that I’m hopelessly outclassed. As I force myself to start climbing again, I can’t help but wonder: is it too late for a career change?

***

I guess I should back up and explain how I got myself into this situation.  When I finished my PhD, I had a singular goal: I wanted to continue doing fieldwork and research.  So when Bird Studies Canada offered me a job coordinating Newfoundland’s first Breeding Bird Atlas, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Breeding Bird Atlases (BBAs) are ambitious projects that aim to map the distribution and abundance of all birds breeding in a province or state over a 5-year period.  Every Canadian province except Newfoundland has (or is in the midst of producing) at least one BBA.  The end product allows us to better understand the health and distribution of bird populations and can be used as a tool for conservation planning.

Most atlas data is collected by volunteer citizen scientists, making atlases a great forum for community engagement.  But once in a while, the coordinator is lucky enough to get out into the field too.  And when the opportunity presented itself to do some pilot surveys in the remote regions of Gros Morne National Park…how could I say no?

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

A rainbow stretches across the green hills of Gros Morne.

I drove into Gros Morne under a spectacular rainbow, arcing across hills and lakes of the park.  It seemed like a good omen.  And although a few days of weather delays frayed our patience a bit, finally the skies cleared and we climbed into a helicopter for our flight to the top of Big Level, one of the highest points in the park.  As we swooped over Western Brook Pond, Gros Morne’s famous freshwater fjord, I couldn’t wait to get started.

We descended into an alien landscape: the arctic-alpine habitat found in only few places in Newfoundland.  For a few hours, we wandered under the widest blue sky imaginable, exclaiming when we crossed paths with an enormous arctic hare and enjoying the silvery sound of horned lark song.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

The wide blue skies and open spaces of the arctic-alpine habitat on top of Big Level.

But then we started our hike towards the cabin where we’d be staying the next few nights.  And once we were on the move, the evidence that I was way out of my depth accumulated rapidly.

Pausing to take a picture is a great excuse to catch your breath an on strenuous hike…

I’m a fairly active person, and I thought I was in reasonable shape…until I spent a day trailing four people (all with a distinct resemblance to gazelles) across tundra, snow, and bogs.  As the warthog among gazelles, I was also the most likely to plunge without warning through the crust of snow we were walking on, landing with a thump in whatever was below.  With each minute, I lagged farther and farther behind.

My problems were compounded by my short legs and terrible balance, which resulted in me frequently tripping over rocks, trees, and my own feet – not to mention being unable to cross many of the streams my gazelle companions leapt over easily.

Reasons #1 and 2: Warthogs aren’t made for long-distance hikes involving lots of climbs.  Short legs and poor balance don’t help either.

By the time we made it to the cabin – after a solid eight hours of hiking – I was beyond done.  I collapsed on the cabin deck, and I might still be there, if some kind soul hadn’t provided incentive to get up in the form of a cold beer.

I told myself the next morning would be a fresh start.  But when the alarm sounded at 4:30 and I rolled my aching body out of bed, I realized I had overlooked another reason I’m not cut out to be field biologist – or at least an ornithologist.

Reason #3: As documented in previous posts, I’m very much not a morning person.

But birds start the day early, so we had to as well.  Our plan was to conduct 8 to 10 point counts each morning.  A point count involves standing in one place for a set amount of time (in this case, 5 minutes), and documenting every bird seen or heard.  Sounds straightforward, right?  But because birds are more often heard than seen, point counts require sharp ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of bird song.

As we climbed a steep hill to our first point, all I could hear was my own panting.  I managed to catch my breath when we stopped to conduct the count…only to become aware of yet another problem.

Reason #4: I don’t know enough bird songs.

I could recognize some of what we heard, but definitely not all of it.  I especially struggled with the partial songs and quiet ‘chip’ notes that were often all we heard.  Luckily I was with several spectacularly talented birders, who were more than capable of conducting the counts.  But after a few days in the field, I was feeling pretty discouraged.

And then on our last day, we came across a(nother) sound I hadn’t heard before: a single repetitive note, like the alarm on a tiny car.  We tracked the sound to a nearby conifer.  Perched at the very top, staggering as the tree swayed, was a greater yellowlegs.

Shorebird in trees look undeniably ridiculous.  Gawky and awkward, the yellowlegs scrabbled constantly for balance as it fought to stay on its perch.  It was impossible to watch without laughing…and I began to feel better.

A greater yellowlegs perches at the very top of a conifer.

Some birds just aren’t meant to perch in trees. But this greater yellowlegs isn’t letting that bother him.

Shorebirds aren’t built to perch at the top of trees, but the yellowlegs was there anyway.  And now that my first atlassing excursion is over, I’ve reached a conclusion.  Maybe I’m not naturally suited to this job.  It certainly doesn’t always come easily to me.  But the things I don’t know, I can learn; the things I struggle with, I’ll improve at with practice.  What matters is to be out there trying.

It’s true there are many reasons I’m not cut out to be a field biologist…but there’s one reason I am: doing this job makes me feel alive.  And for me, that cancels out everything else.

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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.

 

Dispatch from the jungle

We are very excited to welcome Dr. Alice Boyle back as a guest poster today. In her previous post, Alice shared some of her adventures from her doctoral fieldwork in Central American, and this week she takes us back to the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, check out her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month we would work very hard for 23 days, and then my assistants visited beaches and volcanos, while I prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family during those breaks, and my father urged me to publish them. A while back, I posted excerpts from the April letter. Here, I continue that story with an account of the crazy first week of May as we initiated a nest predation experiment across at 3000 m elevational gradient.

When I last wrote I was just getting ready for the big “nest predation experiment” month. All was going smoothly until the very last minute. Three days before starting to place nests, I went to San Jose to pick up the car*, the last batch of canary eggs, 400 wicker nests, bags of moss, and other weird miscellaneous supplies (for example, tiny decorative ice-cube trays for transport of jelly-bean sized fragile canary eggs). My last stop was to get the baskets that would become “nests”, made to order by a Guatemalan artisan. When I arrived, the store owner started bringing out bundles of NOT the 8-cms diameter cup-shaped baskets I had ordered, but huge pigeon-nest-sized baskets! AGH! Four hundred useless wicker baskets… crisis! The poor owner of the basket store was almost as dismayed as I was.

We tried modifying the baskets, savaging one with an exacto knife. It disintigrated into a sharp mess, and poor Emilia (the store owner… we were on a first-name basis by this point) got badly cut. Eventually, I realized there were three alternatives: 1) somehow find 400 smaller baskets elsewhere, 2) use some other cup-shaped product (…like a cup?), and get really creative with paint and glued-on moss as to make them look as nest-like as possible, or 3) give up. Option 3 wasn’t really an option. I had way too much invested. Aside from hoarding canary eggs for over a month**, I’d found a cheap vehicle to rent, gotten extra permits, and had a friend flying in to fill in a 2-week personnel gap. Option 1 really seemed pretty unlikely too. It had taken 2.5 months to get these baskets, and I had only 3 days left to find replacements. After deciding I had little option but to look for some other cup-shaped object, Emilia appeared with a hopeful look, holding a different style of small basket. Not quite so perfectly nest-shaped as the ones I’d ordered, but small and definitely better than a plastic cup! She only had 149, but the maker lived in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica. He had a phone and answered her call. I only heard one side of the conversation: “you know those little baskets you make me? how many can you make by Monday? ………. and how many more by Thursday? ……….. well, how soon could make an extra 250 for me? ……… look, we have an EMERGENCY here! Can’t you HIRE someone to help you!?……” And so we resolved the problem. They cost twice as much and I had to make 2 extra trips to San Jose to pick them up by installments, but it worked. This little glitch meant that our grueling itinerary now included late-night nest preparation before they could placed out in the forest… at 8 sites over a 3000 m elevational gradient. Unfortunately, the nest glitch wasn’t the only set-back.

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

Three days later we started wiring fake nests into trees in the forest, each containing a real canary egg and matching plasticine egg***. As we left the La Selva lab the first morning, it started raining hard, and it didn’t stop for the next 8 days. During that week, so much rain fell that a car was swept off the road and landslides closed the highway between San Jose and the Atlantic lowlands. All rivers were transformed into roiling muddy torrents and there was massive flooding. At La Selva, dorms were evacuated, access to the station was by boat, and the river reached its highest level since 1970. Meanwhile all the rain was falling on us

 

After the two lowland sites, we headed up to Rara Avis**** for the 650 m and 800 m sites, but our reservations at the station had been forgotten and the tractor (only transport option) wasn’t going to leave until late. That meant we got a day behind schedule, and I was starting to panic, until we took on ‘Crazy Mike’ as the 5th member of our team. Mike was a volunteer guide but didn’t get along with his new boss. When he heard about our nest, weather, and tractor-delay woes, he simply quit his guiding gig and came along for the adventure. Mike was a godsend! He rarely stopped joking and never let the rain get him down. True, he did also drink an incredible amount. But he was tireless in machete-ing his way along a compass bearings through treefalls and vine tangles. So we caught up, doing 2 sites in one brutal 13 hour field day.

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Next day we were back down on the tractor, and around to a different side of the park, back up the mountain to higher elevations. We got behind again because the nests weren’t ready, and now were working in cloud forest where the rain was distinctly chilly. Luckily we were able to spend a night in San Jose where we all got hot showers, ate pizza, and drank copious amounts of beer! Had we not had to prepare more nests after dinner it would have been a fun party. But the schedule was relentless. The next day we went to the highest site—2800 m near the peak of Volcan Barva. The drive was awful. With every bump in the road I thought we were going to destroy the suspension. With five of us, nests, spray paint, wet rain gear, half eaten food containers, muddy rubber boots, gross packs, and canary eggs, the Bronco was the definition of sordid. But we made it up, and comforted ourselves with strong liquor purchased in San José.

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

The next morning there was a slight rain respite. Everyone got to see quetzals and I was feeling optimistic… the end was in sight. Only our last day and our last site remained. Getting there involved looping around Barva volcano on country roads, ending on a red dirt road leading to a little-used park access point. The drive was long, rainy, and very uncomfortable. We were exhausted. The little farmhouses seemed unoccupied near the end of the driveable road, so I continued farther than I should in hopes of finding a safe place to leave the full car.

And then, I drove into a ditch. Yup, right into a deep ditch. The whole right side of the Bronco was SERIOUSLY stuck. I have been stuck enough times to know when it is serious. We had no shovel nor anything other than sticks and rocks to help us. After probably 1.5 hours, many failed strategies, and admirable teamwork, we got the Bronco out! But we had lost a lot of time, and when I made it clear we were still going to try to get into the site and get the last batch of nests placed, there was near mutiny. Obviously, no one wanted to do anything other than shower, do laundry, and collapse into a clean bed. It was now early afternoon and we had to walk over an hour to the forest. Eventually I decided to leave Mike with the car and get as many nests placed at this site as possible. Even if we didn’t get all 50, we wouldn’t lose a whole site. So we did it, and as we hiked out with the last light, the clouds finally parted and rain finally stopped. We had panoramic views of Poas volcano and the whole drenched Atlantic lowlands almost as far as the coast. NOW our woes were over, surely!

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

The Bronco had one last devilish trick in store, however: loss of power brakes and a mysterious stalling problem. Somehow the strain of getting out of the ditch had caused new problems. Whenever I braked or changed gear, we stalled. For two dark, foggy hours on winding mountain roads, I was constantly stalling and roll starting, terrified of losing brakes entirely and peeling off the cliff into the abyss. The headlights pointed unhelpfully into space instead of illuminating the road. And as a last straw, the driver-side windshield wiper stopped working. We limped into Puerto Viejo, completely drained from stress and exhaustion. Fortunately, the pizza joint was open and had an ample supply of cold beer, despite the floods that cut off both water and sewage service. It wasn’t til 9:30 that we finally found our beds at La Selva.

That week was, without doubt, the most stressful and dangerous week of field work in my life. It was crazy and hectic the whole rest of the month, as part of the crew rechecked all the nests in sequence repeatedly over subsequent weeks, while others continued our monthly bird and plant sampling. But thankfully, fieldwork has never been quite that crazy since. It is good to know what you can tolerate. And it is good to remember the hardship, when, during long days in front of my computer, fieldwork seems to become a romantic memory. Yes, being in the field work is amazingly fun and rewarding, but it also stretches you to the max, testing your ingenuity, tolerance for discomfort, ability to remain cheerful, and to make really hard decisions that often seem to pit personal safety against scientific discovery.

* I had an incredibly tight budget! My entire PhD was completed on funding from small grants, so there was no way to get a commercial car rental. Fortunately, I found an old 4×4 Bronco to rent for cheap from a friend who was thinking of getting rid of it.

** Several months before, I had cultivated a relationship with a canary breeder who set aside all the infertile eggs in the refrigerator for me

*** We used plasticine (modeling clay) eggs to determine the types of predators attacking nests

**** Rara Avis was the mid-elevation field site where I did a lot of my PhD research.

aliceAlice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past few years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.

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.

 

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!

 

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