How do you solve a problem like migration?

This post was initially published on the Science Borealis blog on April 27th, 2020. Check out their blog for more great science stories, published every Monday!

An ornithological pedicure: taking a claw clipping from a western bluebird for stable isotope analysis. Photo credit: Catherine Dale.

I can feel the rapid thrumming of the bluebird’s heart against my palm as I carefully manoeuvre its foot into position over a tiny Ziploc bag. I pick up my nail scissors and take a deep breath to steady my hand. I will only get one chance to make sure the miniscule claw clipping lands in the bag. If it doesn’t, I will have no chance of finding it…and no way to discover where this bird spent the winter.

Field biology often requires unusual skills. I have spent the last decade becoming an experienced bird pedicurist, because analyzing the chemical composition of tissues like claws and feathers is one method scientists use to determine the movements of migratory animals.

Unfortunately, this method suffers from the same drawback as many others: a lack of precision. As a result, many aspects of bird migration remain a mystery. But this spring, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany are entering the final testing phase of a new space-based tracking system, which they hope will revolutionize our understanding of animal movement.

The puzzle of migration

For Canadians across the country, the return of our migratory birds marks the beginning of spring. Each year, 2.6 billion birds cross the Canada-U.S. border, heading north to their breeding grounds.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle believed the spring reappearance of barn swallows meant they were emerging from their winter hibernation at the bottom of ponds. Although we now understand more about animal migration, many questions remain – largely because it’s very difficult to track individual animals as they travel vast distances around the globe.

For many years, the only approach was to mark animals with bands or tags in the hopes of re-sighting them somewhere else. But the sheer number of animals that migrate makes seeing a marked individual again extremely unlikely.

A flock of shorebirds takes to the air at Oak/Plum Lake Important Bird Area, a migration stopover site in Manitoba. The mixed-species flock includes Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, stilt sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, white-rumped sandpipers, and semipalmated sandpipers. Photo credit: Christian Artuso.

Putting the pieces together

In the 1990s, migration research took a leap forward when scientists realized the chemical composition of animal tissue reflected the place where it was grown. By analyzing the ratio of various isotopes in tissue (termed stable isotope analysis), researchers can roughly reconstruct an animal’s geographic history…which is why I found myself giving bluebird pedicures.

Scientists can also now track moving animals directly by fitting them with tags that record location. These tags can be divided into two broad categories. Archival tags, such as geolocators, record and store movement information. In order to find out where a tagged animal has been, researchers must recapture it and retrieve the tag.

Recapturing migratory animals often proves difficult, especially as many fail to return from migration. So when possible, researchers prefer to use tags that remotely transmit data to a receiver, eliminating the need to recover them.

But transmitting tags face a fundamental constraint: transmitting takes power, and the more power a tag requires, the larger it needs to be. Tags must weigh less than 5% of an animal’s body weight to avoid affecting its behaviour or survival. Considering that many migratory birds weigh less than 10 grams, making tags small enough for them to carry is a huge challenge.

A sanderling carrying a Motus nanotag. The tag’s long antenna is easily visible. Photo credit: Jessica Howell.

The amount of power required to transmit data depends largely on where the receivers are. Tags for ground-based tracking systems – with receivers located on the Earth’s surface – can be very small. For example, the nanotags used by the Motus Wildlife Tracking System range from 0.2 to 2.6 grams, and can even be carried by some large insects. However, the range over which ground-based systems can track individuals is limited. Animals carrying Motus tags can only be detected within approximately 15 km of a receiver.

In contrast, satellite tags send data to receivers on orbiting satellites. They can track movement at a much larger scale than ground-based systems, and have been used for years on big animals, such as seabirds and caribou. But most satellite tags are too heavy for small migratory birds.

The Icarus Initiative

In 2007, Martin Wikelski, the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour in Germany, proposed a novel space-based system for tracking animals across the globe.

It took more than 10 years, and the cooperation of the Russian Space Agency (Roskosmos) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), for the system to become a reality. In March 2020, the International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space (Icarus) entered its final testing phase. The first Icarus tags are waiting to be shipped to researchers, and the system will be available to the scientific community this fall.

“We wanted to build [a tracking system] specifically for wildlife,” Wikelski says of Icarus. “It’s built by the community, for the community.”

The International Space Station, pictured here in 2009 after a visit by the space shuttle Discovery to add additional solar panels. Photo credit: STS-119 Shuttle Crew and NASA.

Icarus tackles the trade-off between tag size and transmission distance in part by the simple expedient of moving the receiver closer. Conventional satellite tags transmit their data to Argos satellites, which orbit the poles at an altitude of 850 km. Icarus tags will transmit their data to a receiver on the International Space Station (ISS), orbiting at an average altitude of 400 km.

Data collected by Icarus will be stored in Movebank, a free online database accessible by the public.  The system will also incorporate a citizen science initiative: Animal Tracker. While Icarus tags tell scientists where an animal is, citizen scientists can provide information about what it’s doing there. Using the Animal Tracker app, people can follow tagged animals online, and anyone who spots those animals in the wild can submit their observations to the database.

Of course, like any tracking system, Icarus will have some limitations, at least initially. The first tags will weigh five grams, which – while smaller than many satellite tags – is still too heavy for most migratory birds. However, the design of a new generation of tags weighing only one gram is already underway.

Satellite coverage will also be an issue. The receiver on the ISS will be able to pick up signals from most of the Earth’s surface; however, high latitude regions in the north and south will not be covered. Eventually, Wikelski’s goal is to deploy dedicated Icarus satellites strategically to cover the entire globe.

But even with these limitations, scientists are eager to begin harnessing the power of Icarus to tackle some of the unsolved mysteries of migration. Dr. Kevin Fraser, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, is keenly awaiting his first shipment of tags. He and his graduate students plan to put them on saw-whet owls – and they are most interested in the birds that don’t come back in the spring.

Banding a saw-whet owl. Kevin Fraser’s lab hopes to use Icarus tags to track these small owls during migration. Photo credit: Kevin Fraser.

Fraser’s previous research has largely depended on archival tags, meaning tagged birds must be recaptured to determine where they went. Individuals that don’t return to the study sites to breed – those that die along the way, or the young birds that disperse to breed elsewhere – are lost data.

“Most of what we know about migration, we know from birds that have successfully migrated,” Fraser says. “We know much less about where survival might be limited, or what the juveniles are doing. But [with Icarus], for the first time, we will be able to track 100 gram birds (the smallest yet) in near real-time, without the bias of only focusing on survivors and adults.”

Solving the puzzle

With the sliver of claw safely stowed in a bag for later analysis, I’m ready to liberate my captive bluebird. I position its feet over my empty hand and release my hold. For a moment, it perches on my palm, apparently unaware of its freedom…then, in a flutter of wings, it’s gone.

Of the 450 bird species found in Canada, 78% spend at least part of the year outside our borders. This fall, four billion birds will cross our southern border to spend the winter in warmer climes. More than a billion of them will not return, succumbing to the dangers of the journey or the hazards of their wintering grounds.

Icarus offers us a unique window into the world of migratory birds, and a chance to improve their odds. If we know where they go and how they get there, we can begin to understand the perils they face – and perhaps develop solutions.

Battle scars

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the academic world that academics don’t always agree. In fact, they often engage in fierce and lengthy disagreements about topics that never cross the minds of 99% of the world’s population.

These disagreements are the foundation of good science. Good science happens when smart people with different ideas engage with each other and find ways to test those ideas. However, if you’re a field assistant for one of those smart people, those disagreements can also be a pain in the ass.

An argument between two scientists is exactly how I ended up crouching in the middle of a patch of poison oak in the California hills, my fingers stuffed in my ears, tensed in anticipation of a shotgun blast. (But it’s not quite as bad as it sounds – I promise no scientists were harmed in the making of this blog post!)

At the time, I was working in California for a professor who had been studying acorn woodpeckers for many years. Acorn woodpeckers, as their name suggests, depend heavily on acorns. In fact, groups of these birds create ‘granaries’ by drilling holes in trees (or anything else, including people’s houses) and stuffing those holes full of acorns for later consumption.

Given the tight ties between the woodpeckers and their food source, it made sense that the professor I worked for was interested not just in the birds, but also in the oak trees they relied on – in figuring out the details of how and when they produced their acorns. And this was the source of the argument I found myself in the middle of.

My boss had gotten into a disagreement with another scientist about how far oak pollen could travel. The question was whether oak trees could be pollinated only by other oaks within a relatively small radius (roughly a kilometre), or whether the pollen could travel much longer distances. The funny thing is, I honestly can’t remember which side of the disagreement my boss was on; all I know is that he had decided he was going to settle the question once and for all. How, you might ask? Well, that’s where the shotgun came in.

The logical thing to do, he had decided, was pick a focal oak tree and take a leaf sample from every other oak within a 1 km radius. Then he could sample the focal tree’s acorns and try to match them to DNA from the leaves of the putative fathers – a plant paternity test.  If he found that at least some of the acorns did not belong to any of the trees he had sampled, he would have evidence that pollen could travel farther than a kilometre.

However, this plan turned out to be anything but simple in its execution. First of all, the field station was surrounded by oak savannah.  By definition, there were a *lot* of oak trees around. Sampling every oak within a kilometre of the chosen focal tree was not a trivial task.

The landscape around the field station: rolling hills covered with – you guessed it – oaks.

Second, many of those oaks were located in…inconvenient…places, such as at the top of steep hills, the bottom of ravines, and often, the middle of large patches of poison oak. Closely related to poison ivy, poison oak is – as its name suggests – a plant better avoided. Its leaves are covered in urushiol, an oil which causes an allergic reaction in the majority of people who come into contact with it. My boss informed me that he was in the lucky minority that did not react to it. Never having encountered poison oak before this field job, I didn’t know which camp I fell into, but I wasn’t really interested in finding out the hard way.

Third, most of the oaks we wanted to sample were beautiful, stately, tall old trees. Their height was obviously an advantage when it came to spreading pollen – but a substantial disadvantage when it came to getting a DNA sample.  Plucking a leaf from a 25 m tall tree is easier said than done…which brings us back to the shotgun.

If we were unable to reach a tree’s leaves, my boss’ plan was simply to shoot a twig off. Then the twig and its attached leaves would float down to the ground, allowing us to waltz over and pick up the sample with minimal effort.

Presumably several potential flaws in this plan are obvious to many of you.  But for me, the main problem wasn’t my boss’ aim (as you might think) – but rather the noise associated with shooting our samples down. As someone with a phobia of sudden loud noises (it’s a thing, really!), I can’t even be in the same room as a balloon…so shotgun blasts are well outside of my comfort level.

Eventually, my boss and I worked out a routine. After hiking, scrambling, or clawing our way up (or down) to the tree we were trying to sample, we would circle it (often wading through swaths of poison oak) to look for any leaves within reach. If we didn’t find any, he would get out the shotgun and start sizing up targets, while I would retreat, crouch on the ground, stuff my fingers as far as possible into my ears, and wait for the bang.

By the time we wrapped up at the end of the day, my ears were ringing and my fingers hurt from spending a substantial portion of the day crammed into my ears. Shortly after getting home, I discovered that yes, indeed, I did react to poison oak.

And to this day, I still don’t know how far oak pollen can travel.

One of the oak trees that gave us so much trouble...

One of our oak ‘victims’

The power to teach and the right to learn

Last summer, something unbelievable happened to me. While attending the final banquet of an ornithology conference, I won the raffle prize. Now, if you’re like me, winning anything is already a pretty amazing stroke of luck. But this wasn’t just any raffle prize: I won a 3-week cruise to Antarctica. Honestly, it felt like my life’s entire allotment of luck, all in one fell swoop.

It was so phenomenally fortunate, in fact, that I told myself not to believe it was going to happen until I actually set foot on the ship. But when the RCGS Resolute pulled away from dock in Buenos Aires October 2019, I officially gave myself permission to get excited.

Boarding the Resolute by the light of a Buenos Aires sunset.

However, during the first two days on board, I felt faintly perturbed by something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t until I went to an on-board seminar, where one of the staff members told us about her role in a massive conservation initiative to eliminate rats from South Georgia Island, that I realized what was bothering me. It felt very strange to be just another audience member at a wildlife seminar…travelling to a remote, inaccessible place as a tourist, rather than a field biologist.

Of course, as it turned out, I wasn’t going to Antarctica in either capacity. Our cruise made headlines when it was cancelled only a few days into the trip, stranding all 140 of us passengers in Argentina.

I’m not going to lie; it was pretty devastating. Not just the stress and expense of changing travel plans, but also letting go of all that excitement I’d just given myself permission to feel…not to mention the dream of going to Antarctica. I can’t claim that seeing Antarctica had been a long-term goal of mine: in fact, if I hadn’t won the prize, it would never have entered my head, for the simple reason that the trip was far, far beyond my means. But now that it had been dangled in front of me and then snatched away, I wanted desperately to go.

The one faint hope was the replacement cruise the company offered as compensation for our disastrous trip. But given that the cancellation of our voyage was a result of the company’s financial troubles, the chances that this second cruise would ever materialize were…slim at best.

After we returned to Canada, all communication from the company stopped. My e-mails went unreturned; no one picked up the phone at the office. Left completely in the dark, I couldn’t stop myself from obsessively searching the news for stories about the situation. It was like probing a sore tooth with your tongue – painful but strangely addictive. And there were plenty of stories to feed the addiction.

But then I made the mistake of scrolling past the end of a story, all the way down to the infamous ‘Comments’ section of the CBC website. (If you’re not familiar with CBC news stories, my advice is to avoid the comments entirely…unless you feel the need to work up a good rage.) And I came across this comment: “Cancelling the trip works better for the penguins and the environment.”

My first response, I have to admit, was visceral fury at the commenter’s cavalier disregard of what had been a painful experience for everyone onboard the Resolute. But I couldn’t deny that she had a point. Cruises are not particularly environmentally friendly. Antarctic cruises, in fact, are often extremely environmentally unfriendly. They produce high greenhouse gas emissions, may lead to pollution and waste on land and in the water, and bring human disturbance to some of the last remaining undisturbed places on Earth.

To be fair, some cruise operators take steps to minimize their impact on the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. Many of them are members of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, an organization which promotes environmentally responsible travel among its members.  Cruise operators also often try to offset the negative effects of Antarctic travel by claiming that tourists will go on to be “ambassadors” and conservation champions for the places they’ve had the privilege to see. However, evidence doesn’t necessarily support that claim.

So on the face of it, the answer seems simple – maybe no one should be going on cruises to the Antarctic, or other remote, vulnerable places. But that raises an important question: who does get to see these places?

The Dispatches website features a quote from David Quammen: “Landscapes have the power to teach, if you query them carefully. And remote landscapes teach the rarest, quietest lessons.” One of the reasons we started this blog is to share the lessons we’ve learned travelling to these remote landscapes.

But the truth is, nothing can beat a personal experience.  And when it comes to conservation, it’s hard to ask people to care about things they haven’t seen or experienced themselves. No matter how good March of the Penguins is, it can’t compare to seeing emperor penguins in the flesh.  And once you’ve seen one, I have to believe that what happens to the species becomes more important to you.

The Resolute heads for home, trailed by shearwaters and petrels.

Patrolling for pufflings

The prisoner looks up at us from his metal enclosure.  Huddled in a corner, he freezes against the wall, hoping we haven’t seen him.  But as the beam of our flashlight comes to rest on him, he’s gone.  With a flip of his wings, he dives beneath the surface of the shallow pool, disappearing into the shadows of the enclosure.

“Well, crap,” says one of my companions.  “He’s not going to be easy to rescue.”

***

When my friend asked me if I wanted to join her doing Puffin Patrol, it sounded almost too fantastic to be real.  But it is: run by the Newfoundland and Labrador Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Puffin and Petrel Patrol is a program that provides an extra helping hand to newly fledged seabirds which have lost their way.

The program takes place in the communities surrounding the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.  The reserve is home to the largest breeding colony of Atlantic puffins in North America, and the second-largest colony of Leach’s storm petrels in the world.

This is what the word ‘puffling’ conjures for me…

The puffins (and petrels) nest in burrows on islands close to shore.  They lay only one egg, and after it hatches, the puffling remains in the burrow for 6-7 weeks.  (Can we just pause here to enjoy the fact that baby puffins are called pufflings?  Whenever I hear that word, I immediately picture the tribbles from Star Trek…)

The trouble starts when it’s time for the pufflings to leave the burrow.  They fledge at night, giving them protection from predators as they first venture into the outside world.  For centuries, pufflings have emerged from their burrows in the dark and followed the light of the moon and stars out to sea.

But growing development along the coast poses a problem for the fledglings.  An increase in the number of houses and businesses also means an increase in artificial light.  More and more, pufflings are being drawn towards the streetlights, headlights, and house lights that illuminate the shoreline.  Many of these confused travellers land on dark streets, and fall victim to traffic mishaps.  Even those that avoid this fate are unlikely to make it back to sea without help.

This is where the Puffin Patrol comes in.  Every night during the fledging season (mid-August to early September), volunteers armed with butterfly nets patrol the streets of the coastal towns near the ecological reserve.  When they find a stranded puffling, it is scooped up in a net and placed into a plastic bin to await release the next morning.

Releases are sometimes done from a boat, but also frequently occur on the beach – and they gather quite a crowd.  While biologists weigh and measure the birds, and fit them with a band to allow for identification if they’re ever recaptured, CPAWS takes the opportunity to tell the watching group a bit about puffins.

Watching  a freshly released puffling make his way out to sea.

So not only does the Puffin and Petrel Patrol help two species of birds, both designated as vulnerable by the IUCN, it’s also a great outreach tool.  In addition to the public releases, locals and visitors alike can volunteer to be patrollers, providing they sign up in advance.  Since its inception in 2004, the program has attracted hundreds of volunteers, and has captured the imagination of Canadians across the country: to date, it’s been the subject of a picture book and the focus of an episode of The Nature of Things.

***

It’s a foggy, cool night in mid-August, and my first time out on patrol.  As I don a fluorescent safety vest and arm band reading “Puffin Patrol”, it feels a bit surreal that we’re going to spend the next few hours wandering around in the dark looking for stranded pufflings.  Only in Newfoundland.

At first it’s a fairly quiet night, with only a few teams reporting puffling encounters, and I start to think that maybe our services aren’t needed.  But as we make the rounds of a local fish plant, my friend shines her flashlight into the flat-bottomed barge used to take waste offshore for disposal.  There’s a shallow pool of water at the bottom – and there, pressed into a corner, is my first puffling.

As soon as the light hits him, he dives under the surface, eventually reappearing on the far side of the enclosure.  The barge is several feet below us as we stand on the dock, and we realize quickly that to get him out of his prison, we’re going to need a longer net.

As we turn to leave, we come face to face with another puffling, only a few feet away, looking for all the world like he wants to know what we’re up to.  As we stare at him, he begins sidling towards the edge of the dock and the barge – until my friend makes a sudden, heroic lunge with the net.  One puffling trapped on the barge is more than enough to deal with.

Up close and personal: a puffling being banded prior to release.

We stow our captive safely in a plastic bin and take him to Puffin Patrol headquarters, then return to the first puffling to see what we can do.  But even with a longer net, as soon as we come anywhere close, he disappears under the water and pops up at the other end of the barge.  We can only access the end closest to us, so we are forced to wait for him to come back within reach.  At one point, we actually do get him in the net – but as we lift it towards the dock, he jumps right back out.

It’s getting late and we’re all tired and frustrated…but we persevere.  We’re not leaving the puffling to die if we can help it.  It’s well after 1 a.m. when we get him in the net again.  This time we take no chances, holding the open end carefully against the side of the barge as we lift the net, giving the puffling no chance to escape.

And then he’s in our (gloved) hands, looking none too pleased with us as we place him into his plastic bin.  But that’s okay.  We’re pretty pleased with ourselves, because we know that tomorrow morning he’ll be going in the right direction, headed back out to sea.

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.

Tagging along on the Great Trail

One of the reasons Amanda, Sarah, and I started this blog five years ago (!) is because we wanted to use stories to share some of the amazing places field biologists get to work – places that often aren’t accessible to everyone.  And over the years, we’ve highlighted a lot of stories from these places, from Sable Island to Line P in the Pacific Ocean to an uninhabited islet in Cape Verde.

But you don’t necessarily have to be doing field biology to access amazing places.  In many cases, all you need is enthusiasm and possibly a healthy dose of determination.

This spring, hikers Sonya Richmond and Sean Morton sold their house in Simcoe and the majority of their possessions, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.  Over the next three years, Sonya and Sean plan to hike across Canada from coast to coast to coast, along the 24,000 km Great Trail.  Obviously, this will be no small feat – in fact, as Sonya has pointed out, fewer people have finished this trail than have gone to the moon.

So why do it? Sonya and Sean are undertaking this epic journey with one major goal: to inspire people to connect to the natural world.  In collaboration with Bird Studies Canada, they hope to encourage this connection with nature through birding, and will be sharing information about ways to help birds, bird citizen science projects, and Important Bird Areas across Canada with the people they meet on their journey.

On the morning of June 1st, Sonya and Sean set off from Cape Spear – the most easterly point in North America.  To start them on their way, Nature Newfoundland and Labrador (a local naturalist group) had organized a group hike to keep them company for the first few kilometers, and I was lucky enough to tag along on this hike.

It was a cool, overcast morning (as far as I can tell, Newfoundland is several weeks behind the rest of Canada when it comes to spring), but the crisp air turned out to be perfect for cooling down after long scrambles up rocky slopes.  The air was quiet and calm, unusual for these normally windswept coastal barrens, where the trees are bent from bracing against the wind, and the grey-blue water turned the most amazing shade of turquoise where the waves met the rocky coast.  Of course, the highlights for me – as a newcomer to Newfoundland – were the two icebergs we came face to face with along the trail.

I also learned something important about hiking in Newfoundland.  What counts as an ‘easy’ trail here is not the same as an easy trail in Ontario.  When I set out that morning, I couldn’t find my hiking boots or clothes in my pile of suitcases – but I figured it was an easy trail, so I threw on a pair of jeans and some sneakers and assumed that would be good enough.  I quickly came to regret that decision, as I slipped and slid my way up and down the steep ascents and precarious descents.

It took us a couple of hours to reach the end of that first trail segment (only about 3.5 km away from where we’d started – but those 3.5 km involved an awful lot of ups and downs!).  It’s embarrassing to admit just how happy I was to stop and take a break – particularly since I had made the walk completely unencumbered, while Sonya and Sean were loaded down with their huge packs.  It was impossible not to be impressed by their determination and energy as we waved goodbye to them, and they continued on their way to St. John’s, their destination for the day.

As they make their way across the country, Sonya and Sean will be blogging about the places they see and the people they meet, and we will be reposting some of those blogs on Dispatches from the Field.  But to keep up to date with them, learn more about their travels, or find out how you can help, check out their website.

Safe travels and good luck, Sonya and Sean!

 

Cloudy with a chance of data

Anyone who does fieldwork knows how important the weather is.  Regardless of what you study, the weather plays a huge role in shaping the kind of day you have.  It determines if you go home at night thinking you have the best job in the world, or wondering why any sane person would do what you do.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

So much for the rain day: checking tree swallow nest boxes in the rain.

When I started my first field job, my boss told me firmly, “Birds don’t do anything in the rain.”  This is a maxim most of us ornithologists cling to – because it means that there’s no point in us going out in the rain.  And as a field assistant, I deeply resented it when the desperate graduate students I worked for sent me out in the rain anyway.

I always thought I’d be the first to call a rain day and take a well-deserved break from fieldwork – until I became one of those desperate graduate students.  Then I realized what my former bosses had known all along: while you may not be able to catch birds during a rainstorm, losing an entire day of data collection isn’t an option either.

There are a number of strategies to try and wring some data out of a rain day, most of which involve sitting in the car at your field site, hoping for a break in the weather.  The strategy I employed during my PhD fieldwork in British Columbia was based on this approach, but with an added twist.  Because my sites were spread over 100 km of the southern Okanagan Valley, even when it was raining at one site, it might be clear at another – at least in theory.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

Chasing the rare patch of blue sky on a rainy day in the Okanagan Valley.

In practice, this amounted to something very similar to chasing the end of a rainbow.  We spent many days in the field driving back and forth between sites, in the (largely futile) hope of being in the right place at the right time to catch five minutes of blue sky.  It almost never worked…and I’m sure my field assistants felt the same way about me as I had about my former bosses.

Sometimes, of course, there’s just no way to avoid bad weather. This is particularly true if you happen to be doing fieldwork on a small island – like the summer I worked for a friend catching terns on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

On this particular day, I had been glancing nervously at the sky for over an hour, getting increasingly anxious as towering clouds approached from across the lake.  Rather unfortunately for a field biologist, I hate sudden loud noises (like thunder), so I was quite vocal about my desire to get the hell off the island before the storm hit.  But my friend – who was also my boss for those two weeks – was determined to squeeze every possible moment of data collection out of the day.  She repeatedly insisted the storm would probably miss the island entirely.

Needless to say, it did not.  When the downpour started, she was sitting in a nylon blind in the middle of the tern colony.  I, on the other hand, was out on the beach – I’d finished the task she’d sent me to do, but couldn’t return to the blind without disturbing the birds she was trying to catch.  As the rain poured down in buckets and the thunder shook the island, I looked desperately for someplace – any place – to shelter.  But there was nothing except the slate gray water of the lake and the dirty sand of the island.  There was nowhere to go.

Finally, I resigned myself to my fate.  I sat down cross-legged on the beach, stuffed in ear plugs, and covered my ears with my hands for good measure.  For the next hour, I stayed in exactly the same spot on that beach, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable.

By the time the storm finally moved off, every item of clothing I had on was completely soaked. As I stood up, water cascading off my jacket, my radio went off.  It was my (completely dry) friend, asking me to move on to the next task on our to-do list.  (This is a great example of why it’s often a bad idea to work for friends/family/significant others in the field: homicidal rage tends to be bad for any relationship.)

But of all the places I’ve done field work, the site that wins the title for the worst weather is Sable Island.  As anyone who’s lived in eastern Canada knows, the Maritimes are a place you love in spite of – not because of – the weather.  Sable, a thin crescent of sand approximately 150 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, is no exception.  It is frequently shrouded by fog, which has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation as the “graveyard of the Atlantic”: the site of more than 350 shipwrecks over the past 450 years.  In fact, the summer record for fog on Sable is 30 days in June and 31 days in July.

A typical view of one of Sable Island's famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

A typical view of one of Sable Island’s famous wild horses..shrouded by fog.

When I arrived on Sable, I figured the island’s Environment Canada meteorological station – located approximately 50 steps from my front door – would be a major advantage of working there.  Instead of checking the forecast online, I could get my information straight from the source.  So the very first day I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, I headed over to the station.

I ducked inside, shaking water droplets off my coat, to see two people staring intently at computers, the very picture of hard work.  “So,” I asked, trying to sound casual and not thoroughly panicked by the very long to-do list the weather was interfering with, “How long is this rain going to last?”

Both meteorologists looked up from their computers, blinking fuzzily at me.  Clearly I had caught them off guard.  (You don’t tend to see many people working on Sable Island.)  But they weren’t nearly as surprised by my presence as I was by their reply.

“How the hell should we know?”

Life with owls

This week, Dispatches is excited to welcome a good friend of ours, Lauren Meads.  Lauren is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC – and is in the enviable position of working with some of the most charismatic (micro)fauna around.  For more about Lauren and the BOCSBC, check out the bio at the end of the post.

As the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of British Columbia, I’m often asked how I wound up working in this field. I don’t have a simple answer. My path to this career — which I love — has been somewhat meandering. And honestly… birds?! I never thought in a million years that my passion for birds, specifically owls, would be such an important part of my life.

I’ve always loved animals and growing up had dreams of being a zookeeper. This led me to an undergraduate degree in Biology and then an internship working with exotic cats in the US. To further my career, I went back to school for my master’s degree in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Edinburgh. My first job after finishing that program was at a zoo that focused on conservation, which drew me into the world of breeding animals for the purpose of reintroduction into the wild. My expertise in working with mammalian carnivores led me to working with raptors. And from there, I found myself working on the beginnings of the Northern Spotted Owl breeding program in BC.

Remember how I said the route was meandering? Well, after two years working with spotted owls, I decided it was time to move on to another job. During a co-op placement in my undergraduate degree, I had dabbled a bit in lab animal work and I decided to give that a try again. This was a short-lived decision, as I quickly realized that world was not for me. I longed to get back into conservation and working in the wild. Luckily, I had kept in contact with my colleagues from the Northern Spotted Owl project. When I reached out to them, they alerted me to an opportunity to work in the field with burrowing owls. That was ten years ago, in 2008. And ever since then, I have been deeply involved with burrowing owls. First volunteering, and then working in the field monitoring releases, and now overseeing the breeding and reintroduction of a native grassland species throughout British Columbia. As you can tell by the length of time I’ve been working at this job, I finally found my calling working with the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea).

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

4-week-old burrowing owls after banding. (Photo credit: Lauren Meads.)

I fell in love with burrowing owls as soon as I started working with them. I love how unusual they are among owls. While they do fly, like all owls, they also spend a lot of time on the ground hunting and roosting. They nest underground and are active during both day and night.

Unfortunately, burrowing owls are also currently threatened across North America, and endangered in Canada. Populations in Manitoba have been extirpated, while in Alberta and Saskatchewan they continue to decline.  And where I work, in British Columbia, burrowing owls have been extirpated since the 1980s. While the causes of these dramatic population declines are complex, we do know that losses of burrowing mammals, such as badgers, have played a major role in the owls’ decline.  Despite their name, burrowing owls don’t excavate their own burrows, but instead use those abandoned by other animals – so without animals like badgers, they have nowhere to nest.  Other issues facing the owls include pesticides, increases in populations of aerial predators such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, road construction, and climate change.  Conservation efforts are underway in all four Canadian provinces, as well as several places in the States.

In 1990, volunteers in British Columbia initiated a comprehensive re-introduction program, including three captive breeding facilities, artificial burrow networks and field monitoring research. The Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC (formed in 2000) produces over 100 owls each year to release in the Thompson-Nicola and South Okanagan grasslands of BC. In recent years, improved release techniques have resulted in higher adult survival and greater numbers of wild-hatched offspring with the potential to return in following years.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release.

Preparing for release: (left to right) Leanne, Lia, and Lauren banding and assessing owls for release. (Photo credit: Mike Mackintosh.)

What my work looks like varies greatly depending on the season. Right now, in winter, I’m busy with the joys of writing reports and grant applications, as well as fixing the breeding facilities, installing artificial burrows in the field, and providing outreach to the public. Come spring, I and a field assistant (more than one, if funding is good!), plus some dedicated volunteers, will check each of the ~600 active burrows across our field sites. Our task is to check each one for owls returning from migration, and to ensure the burrow is in good working condition. In April, we will take the 100 owls bred in our facilities and release them into our artificial burrows. We have placed these burrows on private ranches, land owned by NGOs, Indigenous band lands, and provincial parks. This work requires a LOT of driving — sometimes up to 3-5 hours per day as we go from site to site.

After the release, we continually monitor the nesting attempts of the released owls, as well as those returning from migration, and provide supplemental food to help them raise their chicks. Along the way, we band the young born in the field. We monitor them until they all leave in September and October to head south.

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Banded and ready to go: Lia, Chelsea, and Lauren getting ready to return a banded clutch of burrowing owl nestlings to the nest. (Photo credit: Dawn Brodie.)

Where exactly the owls go during the winter is still something of a mystery. We sometimes get reports of sightings of our banded owls, and we also get data from groups in the US and elsewhere in Canada that have deployed satellite tags.  (We’d love to use satellite tracking tags ourselves, but they are expensive, and our organization runs on limited funds!) Based on the information we’ve received, we know that BC owls have been seen throughout the western United States, and most likely spend the winter in Mexico.

Recent years have seen an increase in the number of owls that return to BC in the spring; however, currently we still don’t have a self sustaining population.  Our next step is to work on understanding the owls’ migration movements, and determine ways  to increase survivability.  This will involve working across Canada and internationally.

Something else I’m often asked is what the next steps are for burrowing owl conservation. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this question either. While there are many organizations dedicated to conserving these unique owls, they all run on limited funds and resources. BOCSBC uses almost all of its funding breeding and releasing owls, as well as creating and maintaining the artificial burrows they use.  Certainly, this is essential for the species’ recovery, but we also need to tackle the many unanswered questions about the causes of their decline before we can hope to reverse it.  At the moment, there’s still so much information we’re lacking, including where the birds’ winter, issues of migratory connectivity, changes in prey availability and shifts in climate across their range.

The path that brought me to working in burrowing owl conservation was unconventional. But ten years into this career, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be!

Photo credit: Lia McKinnon.

Lauren Meads is the Executive Director of the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC.  She has worked with owls for over 10 years, although she still has a passion cats both big and small.  She lives in the South Okanagan Valley in BC with her husband Tim and their three (small) cats.  To learn more about the ongoing effort to reintroduce burrowing owls in BC, check out this video from Wild Lens.  If you are interested in helping out with this project, you can contact the Burrowing Owl Conservation Society of BC at bocsbc@gmail.com or donate via Canada Helps.

The challenges and joys of being a parent in the field

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Dr. Tara Imlay, a recent PhD graduate, swallow conservation expert, and parent. In her post, Tara shares some of the challenges of this kind of multi-tasking – as well as some of its rewards. For more about Tara, see her bio at the end of the post.

Just call me Dr. Mama… after all, my precocious nearly three-year-old does.

Field work was one of my primary considerations when I chose to have a baby during my doctoral degree.  Specifically, I wanted to avoid being in the third trimester during my second field season, and I wanted the baby to be at least six months old during my third field season.  As you can imagine, that left a very small window in which to get pregnant.

Luckily, for me, that wasn’t a big challenge.

Instead, the challenges during my second field season came in the form of prolonged morning sickness, food aversions, exhaustion, and changes to my centre of gravity.  The latter landed me in the hospital after I fell over a bank one morning while mist-netting Bank Swallows.  Luckily, no one was seriously injured – and one of my field assistants now has an amazing response to any interview questions about dealing with unexpected problems in the field!  After that experience, though, I began delegating a lot more field work to my assistants, especially anything involving heights.

Danny demonstrating the safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

Danny demonstrating safe ways to remove Bank Swallows from mist-nets, and check Cliff Swallow nests.

The challenges in my third field season came in the form of exhaustion from lack of sleep.  At that time, Robin* was still waking up routinely through the night for feedings.  On numerous nights, she was up at 11, again at 2, and my alarm would go off at 3.  Honestly, I don’t remember a lot of the details of that field season, but somehow we managed to get everything done.

But despite the challenges, there were a lot of amazing moments during those field seasons and the field seasons since.

Moments like sitting in the field banding birds, with a very chubby baby propped up beside me.  Or watching how excited she got over seeing all the birds, cows, sheep, dogs, and anything else that moved at my field sites.

This past year, she’s taken on a more helpful bent in the field: carrying equipment, checking swallow nests, and, her favourite task of all… getting to let birds go after they’ve been captured and banded.

The field team, including its smallest member, busy tagging captured Bank Swallows.

This doesn’t mean everything is perfect.  Sometimes, it’s a challenge to manage her short attention spans, and I can’t always bring her with me when I’m in the field.  Luckily, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several great people who don’t mind helping out with an inquisitive child, when needed.

But despite the challenges, having a baby during my PhD didn’t affect my ability to finish my degree, and hasn’t stopped me from pursuing other opportunities, both in and out of the field.  Becoming a parent with a busy field schedule isn’t a common occurrence, but if it’s something you want, then you just have to go for it, deal with the challenges as they come, and enjoy the special moments along the way.

*Her middle name, for anonymity when she’s older.

Tara Imlay is a recent PhD graduate from Dalhousie University.  Her PhD and postdoctoral work focuses on the ecology and conservation of four species of swallows throughout their annual cycle.  Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked on various conservation programs for birds and reptiles in Canada, the USA and Mauritius.

No Exit

“Hell is other people” – or so said French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  Sometimes I can’t help but think Sartre must have been working as a field biologist when he wrote that.

Sartre’s quote is frequently misinterpreted: he wasn’t saying that other people are terrible beings who should be avoided at all costs.  Rather (at least, as I understand it), he meant that hell is always being in the presence of other people – inescapably watched, and therefore inevitably judged, by those other people.

Most people who have worked at remote field sites would recognize that claustrophobic feeling, at least to some extent.  When you’re in the field, you put in 14 hour days with your co-workers – only to go home, have dinner with them, and then hang out together until it’s time for bed.  When you wake up in the morning, you do the whole thing over again.  There’s no escape: you work, live, and sleep with the same people.  No matter how fantastic those people are, it gets wearing.

And of course, when you are always with the same people, it is inevitable that some of their habits will rub you the wrong way.  At first, it might just be a minor annoyance – a bit like the slightly irritating tag in your jeans that you keep meaning to cut off.  But when you’re in the position of wearing those jeans all day, every day, for months on end, that slightly irritating tag eventually becomes almost intolerable.

After many field seasons at many different sites, I can definitely say that I’ve experienced my fair share of interpersonal drama.  For example, one of my field jobs involved working at an isolated field station, which I shared with only five other people.  A group of six people doesn’t provide all that many conversational options under the best of circumstances – but things get a whole lot more awkward when three of those people aren’t speaking to the other three.

You don’t really know someone until you’ve spent hours sitting in a 2 m-squared blind with them, waiting to catch trap-shy birds.

But despite the interpersonal drama that is almost always part and parcel of the experience, I maintain that other people are often the best part of field work.  I’ve heard it said that only your siblings can understand your family’s unique brand of craziness; in the same way, only people you make it through a field season with can really understand the insanity you both survived.  Adversity has a way of creating strong bonds, and most field seasons involve enough adversity to produce some pretty robust adhesive!   Your field colleagues are the ones who bang on your door at 4 am when your alarm doesn’t go off, and the people who share your bouts of hysterical laughter about something (or nothing) when too little sleep and too much stress take their toll.

Too many early mornings are more tolerable when you have someone to complain with!

But it’s more than that.  My blog posts for Dispatches frequently focus on the importance of place – but most of the time, it’s the people who make a place.  My memories of the amazing places I’ve worked are inextricably intertwined with the amazing people that I shared those places with.  And while I’d love the chance to go back to visit some of those field sites, I know they wouldn’t be the same.

Ultimately, the people you share a field season with are the ones who experience in all the frustrations and triumphs of that field season right along with you.  And as we all know, both frustration and triumph are so much better when shared.

And hey – if all else fails, your field colleagues at least provide a measure of protection against bears…as long as you can run faster than them.  🙂