Why I fell in love with #fieldwork?

In my third year of Undergrad I took a population ecology course that involved a weekend long trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station. We were doing a study about patterns in size and abundance with one of my favourite plants, milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca). We had worked in a disturbance or no disturbance component to the study and as such needed to choose the proper habitats. We hiked out down the road leading to QUBS to the edge of the main road and set up some plots along a mowed fence line. We stood there discussing methodology and sampling methods for the first several minutes. From the east corner of the field three beautiful horses started trotting towards us. Of course, the data collection was derailed at that point so everyone could get a chance to pet the horses. While this took time away from our data collection, everyone was enjoying themselves so the TA just rolled with it.

milkweed

Milkweed – A. syriaca

When we got back to work, we needed to set up a random plot and measure the height of each milkweed that was in our plot and record the abundance. I measured the plants and my partner recorded the measurements and counts. I knelt down on the damp September grass and placed the metre stick at the base of the plant. As my eyes followed the numbers up the stick, it went dark…almost as if a giant black cloud rolled over the sky.  My eyes quickly glanced up and there was the head of one of those giant horses staring right down at me.

qubs horse 3

The culprit

Our eyes met and before I realized the horse’s intentions, it was gone. The milkweed was uprooted from the ground and hanging from the horse’s mouth. I stood up and stared amusingly into the horses eyes. She just stared back at me with the milkweed hanging out of her mouth. And then just as quick as she tore it up she bit it in two and then spit it at my feet.

I patted her head and mentioned to the horse that I didn’t think horses liked milkweed and that was a lesson learned. I crouched back down, picked up and measured the two slobbery pieces of the milkweed and moved on to the next tallest milkweed, and before I could even place the ruler at the base of the plant *snap*. This time it wasn’t uprooted but just snapped in half.

She stood there for a split second with that milkweed in her mouth and then “pfft, spat!” spitting it out this time, on her side of the fence.

I stood up and looked her in the eyes with a “so this is how it’s gonna be, eh?” glare. She stared back. Tail swaying in the wind swatting deer flies left and right.

I knelt down by the next plant. And just like the rest…gone. Eventually, we just had to retreat. This horse wanted nothing, and yet absolutely everything to do with our data collection. We moved our experiment to the other side of the road, where it was still a disturbed fence line, but there were no horses to munch on our data.

Of course this experience was frustrating, but it was equally entertaining and was my first fieldwork experience. It remains one of those capstone experiences that likely played a huge role in shaping my interests in ecology and fieldwork today.

I have visited these same horses every year since 2008.

The wonderful & disastrous world of seed collection

A lot of my fieldwork relies on locating populations of local wildflower species that meet a certain set of criteria. Those criteria can include life history, population size, disturbance regime, crowdedness, etc. Whenever we locate a beautiful population, everyone gets excited. The kicker is that we don’t need anything to do with the flowers…we need their seeds so that we can sow them into various experiments. Seed collection from wild plants, however, is not an easy thing. Locating the populations can be challenging in itself, but collecting the seeds, and dealing with them is even harder…and these are my stories.

Plant populations are never really safe

One of the battles we are constantly fighting is the battle with the city/township we are sampling in. We always find beautiful populations of species that fit all of the necessary criteria, we monitor them all summer, and when the seed is ready to collect, boom, they are gone. Cut down… no more… gone. One time, I was monitoring a fairly rare species population for months, and I checked the seeds to make sure they were fully mature. After I looked at them, I decided to wait another couple of days just to be sure. A few days later we were driving down windy old Opinicon Rd and we were just rounding a curve where the population was. There it was, right around the bend, the flashing yield light on the back… the county tractor mowing the roadsides. We pulled the field van over, staring at the remnants of the once perfectly mature seeds now mixed in with gravel and dirt along the side of the road. I’ll be the first to admit that roadside sampling isn’t the best idea, but sometimes you’re limited to that. It’s always a dangerous choice, but when it does work out it is so, so, so worth it.

seed collection

Kim collecting some seed from a population that was lucky enough to survive

Collecting seeds is easier said than done

In the summer of 2013, we were collecting the seeds of houndstongue, a fairly uncommon local species. There was one big population with hundreds of individuals right by the water in the west end of Kingston. We knew they didn’t mow this area, and as such, the safety of these populations was not an issue…phew. However, houndstongue have a thick, burr-like outer coating with little barbs that often stick to, well, anything it comes in contact with. I was walking through the population and didn’t notice that when I walked out, my black pants were covered in seeds. Good thing I had field assistants. After all that is what they are perfect for, helping with things like picking seeds off of your pants. I’ll have to start including that in future job descriptions.

pants

The field help hard at work collecting seeds…off of my pants

We have also collected a lot of seed from species that have a papus on their seed, which is useful in wind dispersal. The problem with wind-dispersed seeds like this is that the second they are ready, they are gone. Too many times we have visited populations that were ready for seed collection and a sudden gust of wind sent all the seeds trickling down the road in the wind. It’s a hard life as a seed collector, I tell you.

Seed processing can be soul-crushing

For various experiments over the years, seeds had to be processed. Processing a seed can mean different things for different species. For example, some seeds require very little processing, like common mullein. You just walk up to the plant, shake it into a bag, and hundreds of thousands of seeds fall nicely into the bag. Other species are more difficult – like cow vetch, which grows in a bean-like pod and requires you to sit at a table for endless hours, popping open the seed pods. The seeds often project outwards, bumping along the table and crashing to the floor. I’m sure we have an entire seed bank under the cupboards in the lab. Another problem when processing seeds is that often material from the seed pods gets stuck in the processed seeds. This can affect the seeds when weighing them and thus this debris has to be removed. I had a particularly annoying species for this: motherwort. I tried using sieves of all different grades to remove the debris, but I just couldn’t make it work. So in a moment of desperation I turned my desk fan towards the sieve filled with seeds and debris and just turned it on. Just like magic, the seeds stayed in place and the debris blew away. Albeit, that could have ended very poorly and of course  there was a lot of clean up after that but it was well worth it.

fan.png

Desperately trying to make seed processing easier

Every now and then I’m sure you walk past a dandelion here and there and pull its seeds off, rolling them between your fingers and maybe even sending them floating away into the sky. Sometimes seed collection can be just that easy but more often than not you’re met with one or many challenges along the way!

Possible impossibilities

Over the last year, I’ve come to realize that one of the major downsides to writing up your thesis is sitting behind a desk for 16 hours a day – especially when you’re used to spending lots of your time outside.  So to remedy the situation, I’ve started taking every possible opportunity to sneak in a little fieldwork.  Early last spring, I decided to get my field fix by heading up to QUBS with a friend who needed to catch a few black-capped chickadees for her own thesis work.

It was a beautiful early March day – frigid, but bright and blustery.  Mounds of snow glittered in the dazzling sunlight, and the lake was still covered in ice.  We arrived at my friend’s study site, and set up the Potter trap (essentially a cage with trap doors over a feeding platform; when birds go for the food they trigger the doors and trap themselves), and backed off to await our first hapless victim.

Then we waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.

The woods, usually alive with movement and calls, had never seemed so silent. Even though I knew better, it seemed to me that there were no chickadees within 5 miles of our trap.  Sitting and waiting for something that seems increasingly unlikely to ever happen tends to cause your mind to wander.  As I sat there that day (getting progressively colder), I found myself thinking about all the time I’ve spent trying to catch birds over the years.

Ornithologists – indeed, all field biologists – frequently have to catch wild animals for research purposes.  However, although this is often the key step on which all subsequent steps depend, it is usually only briefly mentioned in the Methods section of scientific papers, glossing over all the effort, patience, and utter frustration involved in the process.  In reality, catching birds is a study in contradictions: simultaneously extremely stressful and extremely tedious.  This became particularly apparent to me during my first PhD field season in British Columbia.

I arrived in BC in early February, fired up with enthusiasm and determination.  My first goal was to find and catch as many wintering western bluebirds as possible.  On our first morning in the field, I dragged my field assistant out into the cold and snow, and headed for a place where (according to our sources) we’d be sure to see bluebirds.

Sure enough, we had only been walking along the trail for a few minutes when a small flock of the little thrushes appeared and settled into a nearby tree.  I threw down my bag and tugged out our net and poles, flinging supplies every which way in a frenzy to get set up and catch my first bird.

It seemed to take forever to get the net up.  We had to use a rubber mallet to pound the aluminum poles into the frozen ground.  Then we began to string the net between them.  But mist nets are delicate things, made of fine mesh to make them more difficult for birds to see.  They tangle easily and are quite difficult to handle with gloves; the more I hurried, the more complicated the tangles seemed to be.  So off came my gloves, thrown unceremoniously on the ground with the other discarded equipment, and I started untangling the net with my numb fingers.

Finally everything was in place, ready to go…at which point the little flock of bluebirds took off over the hill, leaving us sitting there in silence.

Having spent the effort getting the net up, I thought we might as well stay and see if the birds came back.  So we plopped down into the snow, staring at the empty net, blowing in the fierce wind.  The 6 by 4 foot stretch of mesh looked impossibly small in the big, wide world.  It seemed ludicrous to imagine that a bluebird would ever occupy that particular space – why would it, when there were so many other places it could be?

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan - and one lonely little mist net.

The wide open spaces of the Okanagan – and one lonely little mist net.

I was starting to get quite discouraged when suddenly soft chattering and whistles heralded the return of the bluebird flock.  I held my breath as they approached the general area of the net – and then let it out as they sailed straight over it to perch in a nearby tree.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

Messing with my head: a male bluebird perches on the mist net.

The next thirty minutes felt a bit like being on a rollercoaster.  My hopes would go up, up, up as the flock fluttered their way towards the net…and then drop like a stone as they bypassed it.  (Or, in several extremely irritating cases, actually perched on the net itself.)

But then…it finally happened!  One of the males in the flock misjudged his trajectory, hit the mesh, and got tangled in its strands.  Despite my frozen and creaky muscles, I leapt to my feet, running full out towards the net.  But just as I stretched out my hand to grab him, he managed to free himself and took off into the nearby trees – quite literally slipping through my fingers.  (This happens more often than you might think.  In fact, just a few weeks later, a camera crew from a local station, filming us for a news story, witnessed a similar mishap.  They also recorded my frustrated response, which – if I’m going to be honest – involved a fair amount of profanity.  Luckily they edited the footage before it hit the news!)

We never did catch a bluebird that day…or the next…or the next.  In fact, although we put in roughly ten hours of effort a day, every day, for the next six weeks, we only managed to catch seven bluebirds in total. That works out to approximately 0.017 bluebirds per hour effort – a pretty high ratio of time spent sitting around to time actually spent handling a bird.  There were days when, as I stared at our little net blowing in the breeze, the idea of capturing a bird seemed absurd: a complete impossibility.

But then, every once in awhile, there would be a bird hanging in our net and the impossible would suddenly become possible.  And every time that happened, the feeling of triumph would make all the days of frustration worthwhile.  It’s amazing how good outsmarting a bird can make you feel!

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

The end result of all that work: putting a band on a bluebird.

A fern isn’t just a fern???

This year I am working as a TA for a diversity of life course, which introduces second year Undergraduate students to the diversity plants. The course has a lecture component which covers life cycles and related information about the diversity of everything from bacteria to algae to higher plants. The course also has a lab component where students investigate the diversity of those same organisms in more detail, doing things like collecting algae samples from different lakes and comparing them, creating mushroom spore prints, and learning to ID common deciduous trees. However, a newer component in the course, which is offered on a first come first serve basis, is a field trip up to the Queen’s University Biological Station where students get to explore some of those organisms from lab in their natural environment – and, importantly, they get their first taste of fieldwork.

After a short tour of the station, we hiked across a rather precarious boardwalk and the 30 students that attended were split into smaller groups. The groups were provided with a list of either tree, shrub, fern, or herbaceous plant species. Using keys and guidebooks, they searched Cow Island for these species. Once the students had correctly identified the species, they collected a sample of each species and pressed it, so that a proper herbarium mount could be made.

When the students first set off with their lists, you could tell they were a bit intimidated. The students in the fern group pointed out that they didn’t even realize there were different fern species; they thought a fern was just a fern. I was a little worried at first but in no time, the students were on the move and really getting into the task at hand.

The students were allowed to roam freely around the island as their own working group of scientists. They spent the better part of 3 hours in search of all of the plants on their lists – there is something about checklists that is always engaging, no matter what the age you are working with. Towards the end of the afternoon, the fern group was determined to find the final fern on their list: “marsh fern”. They set out onto the boardwalk to look along the marsh edge and about 20 mins later came back with a sample in hand. They approached the resident plant expert Dale and asked “Marsh fern???” “Yes!” Dale responded enthusiastically. They all cheered.

Now some of you might be reading that and thinking, ok, a bunch of young adults got excited to find a fern. That’s pretty lame. But is it? I kind of think that’s pretty awesome actually! The goal of this course is to showcase the diversity of life for students and this field trip was a great way to do that. The complexity and intricacy of the local flora was certainly helpful to these students and brought meaning to the course. Students arrived there thinking a fern was just a fern, and left being able to identify 7 different fern species, among many other skills they developed that day. Two of the students on that trip enjoyed it so much that they actually asked me about more opportunities to volunteer doing fieldwork, and they’ve since been out helping me wrap up my experiments (more stories to come).

As I have said before, teaching experiences in the field can be the best experiences in the field, and this one ranks really high in my books.

Thinking outside the lab

Shortly after starting my PhD, I was assigned to TA a class called “Diversity of Plants”.  As an ornithologist, I did not feel entirely confident teaching undergraduates about plants.  But what worried me most was the first lab, which focused on how to use a microscope properly.  “This is going to be a disaster,” I lamented to a friend over the phone.  “How am *I* qualified to teach people to use a microscope?”

“Why do you say that?” my friend asked. “I would think you’re actually extremely qualified.  Don’t you use microscopes all the time?”

I stared at the phone in consternation.  “Um…I study bird behaviour, so…not so much, no.”

There was a long silence, and then my friend said uncertainly, “But you’re a scientist!  All scientists use microscopes…don’t they?”

 

My friend is not alone in her misconception.  For most people, the word ‘scientist’ conjures images of serious people wearing white lab coats and safety goggles, ensconced in pristine labs full of Erlenmeyer flasks and microscopes.  Few people immediately picture dirty, windswept individuals wearing an excess of plaid, large floppy hats, and socks with sandals.  Fieldwork isn’t usually the first thing the general public associates with the word ‘science’.

And this misconception often extends to science students as well.  As an undergraduate in Biology, I spent a lot of time gathered around lab benches counting fruit flies or looking at slides – but I didn’t really understand that science doesn’t always take place in a laboratory until I was in third year.  That year, my ecology course went on a mandatory weekend field trip to the Queen’s University Biological Station.  This trip was a long-standing tradition in the course; its purpose was essentially to introduce us to some of the questions, methods, and experiences of field biology.

Years later, that trip is one of the few things that stands out vividly in my memories of undergrad.  I remember dragging myself out of bed obscenely early to catch the bus to QUBS (and getting carsick on the twists and turns of the gravel road).  I remember stepping out of the bus into quiet air that smelled faintly of pine and rain.  I remember tromping through a field wet with dew to check live traps for small mammals, and I definitely remember the large and extremely angry weasel that the lab coordinator very carefully released from one of the traps.  I remember discovering that chickadees, although small, pack a surprisingly powerful bite, and the moment I realized that the chest waders I was wearing to seine for sunfish had a rather large leak.  Most of all, I remember being completely entranced by the whole experience.  That field trip was my first real exposure to the world of field biology – and clearly it made a lasting impression.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

Seining for sunfish in Lake Opinicon.

 

Fast forward a few (okay, many) years, and suddenly I found myself TAing that ecology course.  I was really excited to help organize and teach those field weekends – not least because it would be my first chance as a PhD student to teach something I felt passionate about.   But I was also a bit apprehensive about it.  The field weekend had been one of the most important parts of my undergraduate experience, but this group of students didn’t seem particularly excited about it.  I was frustrated because I wanted them to love it as much as I had.

Throughout the early weeks of September, I spent several long days at QUBS with the lab coordinator, preparing all the weekend activities – from digging holes for pitfall traps to carefully laying out and flagging grids of small mammal traps.  In doing so, I got a firsthand look at just how much work was involved in pulling off the trip each year.  Planning a field weekend for 160 young adults is no small task.  The lab coordinator, who had been organizing these weekends for many years, was a bit like a general in charge of a very intricate military campaign.

On the last Friday of September, she and I headed up to the field station late on Friday evening.  I was driving the (very sketchy) departmental van, which made for a somewhat nerve-wracking drive.  The brakes creaked ominously, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to turn on the high beams.  On top of that, the road was inexplicably covered in frogs – so the drive was a bit like an obstacle course, as I swerved first one way and then the other in an attempt to minimize the carnage.

However, I made it unscathed (although sadly the same could not be said for all the frogs) – and upon arriving, was immediately put to work.  It was late and dark, but there was so much to be done before we got to sleep.  Cabins needed to be assigned, lists and maps needed to be printed and posted, and supplies needed to be distributed to the appropriate places around the station property.

Finally, before falling into bed, we headed out to bait the 40 small mammal traps we’d laid out with seed.  When we put the traps out earlier in the month, we’d flagged them with glow-in-the-dark flagging tape to make them easier to find.  However, I learned a few valuable lessons that night.  First, glow-in-the-dark flagging tape doesn’t really glow in the dark.  Second, forests are tricky places at night, even with a headlamp.  And third, spider eyes glow when light hits them.  The last lesson led to another discovery: there are many, many, many more spiders in the forest than one might think.

With the traps baited, everything was ready for the arrival of the students the next morning and I finally got to crawl into my sleeping bag – for a short time, anyway.  Very early the next morning, we climbed back into the departmental van and headed out to meet the students.

The bus had been scheduled to leave Kingston at 6 a.m., so it was no surprise that the students staggering through the doors into the cool fall morning were sleepy and cranky.  Despite having been told multiple times about appropriate footwear, at least five or six of them were wearing flip flops.  Several others were still in pyjama pants.  They stood shivering in the field beside our grid of mammal traps, leaning against each other, yawning, and complaining about the hour and the cold.

Naturally, the order to split up into pairs and go retrieve the traps was met with some muted resistance.  But eventually, they all grudgingly trooped off into the woods, and then ambled slowly back carrying the metal Sherman traps.  At first it seemed like all the traps were empty…until one last pair of students came running out of the forest, clutching their trap and shouting, “I think there’s something in here!”

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

Who would have thought one little deer mouse could capture the attention of 80 undergrads?

I watched as the coordinator carefully emptied the contents of the trap into a plastic bag.  A surprised deer mouse slid out, which she then held up for everyone to see…and a collective “Ooooohhhhhh” rose from the students around me.  All of a sudden, no one was yawning.  Everyone’s eyes were on the deer mouse, and everyone looked awake and interested.  Suddenly, I was less worried about the weekend.

 

I ended up TAing that course for four years, and helping to run the field trip is still the most fulfilling teaching experience I’ve ever had.  Every year I watched tired, cold, and disinterested students straggle off the bus on Saturday morning – and energized, excited students climb back onto the bus on Sunday afternoon.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I know that the skills and techniques learned in labs are an essential part of a scientific education.  But I think it’s also important that we give students a chance to explore the other side of science.  For most people, the experience may change the way they think of the discipline.  For some people – like me – the experience may change the course of their lives.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

Watching a grad student band birds at QUBS.

A night at the symphony

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Amanda Cicchino, who shares some of her adventures wading through the marshes of QUBS in the dark to record frog songs.  For more about Amanda, check out her bio at the end of this post.

I like to compare the frog chorus to a symphony. The orchestra in this case is composed of many different species, each with the same end goal. The timing and frequencies of the noises they make have been molded over time to allow them to be heard simultaneously, yet they still compete with one another. Over the course of the night, the entire chorus comes together and tells a story.

My last field season was done at QUBS (Queen’s University Biological Station) and focused on frog acoustics. As I learned from presenting a poster at the annual Open House, not many people are aware of the different sounds frogs and toads can make. Though some species sound quite pleasant, others present you with ear-splitting, gurgling screams that result in a pounding headache1. Most frogs and toads call during the breeding season as a way to attract mates. Most calling and breeding is done at night in marshes or swamps. My original aim for that season was to record the mating calls of Spring Peepers to supplement a dataset, but I developed a “small” side-project with a lab-mate that would require recordings from each species found at QUBS2. What a shame.

Single male seeks available, interested female: a male spring peeper adds his voice to the chorus.

Single, lonely spring peeper seeks soulmate…

A typical night of sampling involves organization and proper preparation. Prior to leaving for the site, a few cups of coffee must be ingested, with at least one travel mug packed. The field pack must include digital calipers (to measure the frogs), plastic calipers (in case it rains and the digital ones can’t be used), multiple flashlights and headlamps, a heat gun, my notebook and pencil, recording equipment, back-up batteries (in case the ones in the devices die during the night), and emergency back-up batteries (in case the back-ups die or spontaneously combust3). Everything digital is kept in Ziploc bags in case it rains through the car or through the rain-cover on the pack.

Wearing the right attire is also a necessity for a smooth sampling night2. Fashion has always been a priority in my life, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to maintain that passion while sampling. Since the first frogs (typically Wood Frogs) begin calling when there is still ice floating on the marsh, the temperatures I sample in can be quite low.  I won’t bore you with specifics of how I dress, but I do want to give you an image of how I feel I look.  (But also stuffed into brown neoprene chest-waders). Of course, dressing with that many layers might impede my speed and agility in the marsh, so I tend to invest in good thermal clothes.

Once the sun sets, a few individuals will start to call until the peak is hit and the chorus is in full swing. My sampling begins at the peak and ends either when I have transected the whole marsh, reached my sample size limit for the site, or the chorus goes silent (usually the last one). I record every individual I come across for at least 20 consecutive calls using a Marantz PMD660 recorder and Sennheiser microphone. This can look quite humourous as the microphone is at least 30cm long and some frogs are approximately 2cm in length. I then catch the individuals and take morphometric measurements before releasing them. This can be a slow process as some individuals are “mic shy”. When they stop calling once the microphone is put near them, my general tactic is to turn off all my lights, splash a bit, and wait. Usually after a minute, they start calling again and I can feel good about myself for out-smarting a 2cm long frog. This tactic does not have to be employed too often, as I find that frogs can be quite bold. In fact, on more than one occasion, I have witnessed a frog making mating calls when the lower half of its body was inside a snake’s mouth. Once I have finished my sampling, exhausted and exhilarated, I look forward to reliving the night when I analyze the call recordings the next day.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

A gray treefrog adds his two cents to the chorus.

Perhaps comparing a frog chorus to a symphony seems a bit quixotic, but they do have some similarities. They both require a specific dress code, they both overlay impressive sounds and rhythms, and they both tell an extravagant story. Of course, the frog chorus’s story is one of acoustic niche and evolution, but that is one of the most interesting stories I can think of! This kind of field work isn’t for everyone, but I truly love it. Nothing compares to standing in the middle of a marsh during peak breeding season, with a full chorus of hundreds of frogs desperately calling to attract a mate. The frog chorus is quite literally music to my ears.

  1. Google ‘Bird Voiced Tree Frog call” and “American Toad call” for this comparison. You may want to make sure your speakers are turned a bit low for the latter.
  2. Please beware of extreme sarcasm used ahead.
  3. A pessimistic mindset leads to the best preparation.

AmandaAmanda recently completed her BScH at Queen’s University, researching acoustic divergence in the Spring Peeper for her Honour’s thesis. She is starting her MSc at Queen’s this fall, and will continue to study the role of mating systems on speciation.

The great stadium

This week on Dispatches from the Field, we are excited to welcome back guest blogger Adam Meyer, who is completing his MSc in Biology at Queen’s and who tells us about some of his experiences observing and being observed by nature.

As an aspiring scientist I often fancy myself to be some great observer of nature, and I do this in what I consider to be grand fashion (sometimes with robots!). In the pursuit of knowledge I will rudely send some clunky collection device crashing through the water and haul zooplankton out of their world and into mine. I do this so I can observe them closely for their size, reproduction and, over time, their behaviour. But when you’re so dead-set on observing and understanding nature, picking it apart for its precious details, you can sometimes forget that for all the time you spend in the field, nature also observes you. This isn’t a zoo, after all. There’s no one-way mirror for us to hide behind safely as we observe the outdoors. When you’re in the field, you observe and are observed. I don’t know if the fuzzy and feathery members of the Frontenac community actually “study” us per se, but they certainly observe and they almost certainly form opinions.

I came to feel this way over the course of my field season at QUBS last summer. I had many interactions with this community that made me feel utterly observed. For instance, one bright July day my field assistant Marcus and I were walking back from Round Lake (where I did the majority of my observing) and we happened to see a beautiful Barred Owl fly right across the path before losing it in the trees. We were of course compelled to try to find it again and so began “stealthily” stalking through the woods, our eyes toward the canopy, scanning the branches for the grey-brown lump of the owl. We actually managed to find it again! There it was, perched on a high branch, starring plainly back at us. I was almost embarrassed. I immediately felt silly for “stalking” around as it was obvious the bird had been keenly watching us the whole time, and probably long before it allowed us to catch a glimpse of it.

An interaction like this with an owl was a treat for me last summer, but I also had daily interactions with other busybodies of the animal community. The loons on Round Lake are a good example. Spending the majority of my time on the lake allowed me to observe the loons behaving in all sorts of interesting ways. I looked forward to witnessing their eccentric calling and dancing across the lake, and even their early morning flight from Round Lake to somewhere else (it takes a loon a full aerial lap around Round Lake to get high enough to clear the tree line (cool!) and they did this every morning I was there). Unfortunately, my fondness for the loons was not reciprocated. This was made abundantly clear when they would passive-aggressively relieve themselves 10-15 feet away from the floating dock where we worked. This happened several times a day, every day, and was the only time they would ever come so close. Nice.

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

Centre stage: the dock at Round Lake

But for all of these lovely and personal interactions, I have never felt more observed by nature than during my 12 hour nightly sampling sessions on Round Lake. That’s because on a clear July night, Round Lake becomes a stadium and you’re standing in the centre. The flat lake is like the stadium floor, and the dock is like a stage. The stars in the sky, brightest at the top and fainter near the horizon, form a great dome all around you. Eventually the moon comes out and blasts the stadium with light, casting midnight shadows over the water. On the shore you can see a great blurring of shapes and dark colours that make up the audience with the whooing and hahhing of wind through the trees as their voice. The hundreds of blasts of firefly luminescence on the shore are like the flashes of cameras as the first pitch is thrown at the World Series or the Olympic torch is trotted out in Vancouver. Sometimes we even had hecklers, as the yips and cackles of coyotes echoed across the lake. I spent several long nights working at the centre of the stadium, on the stage, hauling water and sampling zooplankton, fighting with robots and munching on peanut butter sandwiches. Everybody watching. Observing.

The audience, watching from the cliffs.

The audience, watching from the cliffs.

My very first night in the stadium was undoubtedly the hardest. After what was otherwise a gorgeous July day, the clouds rolled in as the sun was setting, creating what must have been one of the darkest nights of the year. Even on cloudy nights it is usually possible to somewhat see what you’re doing, but that night was so dark that I could only see what was directly under the dim red light of my headlamp. I would look over at Marcus from time to time and see only his red light moving about in the dark.

We began the night in fine spirits but I quickly developed a nagging anxiety about a thunderstorm that was brewing on the horizon. If we were forced off of the lake for an extended period this would ruin the time resolution of the 24 hour sample. We would have to start all over another day.

After a few hours of sampling, I moved into a good rhythm with my Schindler trap hauls and my mind began to drift. Somewhere in between worrying about the storm, worrying about the project and daydreaming about breakfast I forgot the importance of stable footing when pulling heavy things out of the water. I proceeded to to slip on the wet edge of the dock and topple head over heels into the water, gracefully hitting the dock on the way down. My first thought was something close to “this is how it ends” but I quickly emerged from the cold darkness into a warmer one I could breathe in. By now, Marcus had rushed over to help and soon I was standing on the dock, peeling off my sopping wet clothes and mourning my now very dead ipod. It was at that moment that the sky opened up (of course), and the downpour began. I threw on my rain gear but there was almost no point. I was already soaked to the bone and would stay that way as it rained steadily for the next ten hours. Yep. Ten hours. We were wet, we were cold, and we were all too aware that an imminent thunderstorm or our soaked and rapidly disintegrating field notes could make all our efforts useless. We managed to keep our spirits high by laughing at just how hard it was still raining, and thankfully the thunder passed us by around 3:30 a.m.

That night was completely exhausting and we never had a night quite like that again. In fact, I almost exclusively had clear nights throughout the rest of the summer. The stadium had approved. When the sun came up at 5 a.m. that morning it was as if we’d been given Caesar’s symbolic thumbs up. I was allowed to continue observing, and so would they.

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After a long, hard night…approval from the stadium!

I will admit to having a wild imagination that can get the best of me from time to time. But after returning to the lab after my field season I’ve kept that sense of being observed. If you’re walking through the woods and you feel like you’re being watched, you are. By nature’s busybodies. Maybe keeping that in mind can help us remember to be better neighbours.

20150603_141040Adam will soon be finishing his MSc at Queen’s University studying aquatic ecology and maintenance of behavioural diversity in zooplankton.  Originally from Keswick, Ontario, Adam completed his BSc at McGill University in Montreal. There he worked on a variety of systems in the museum, in the lab and in the field, including evolutionary rescue in microbial communities, hadrosaurus fossil preparation and plant-insect interactions. He spends most of his conscious hours pondering biological diversity, frowning at R scripts, playing music, and daydreaming.

Oh Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please don’t kill me

As most of you know, I work in abandoned agricultural fields. If you compare old fields to some of the other remote, dangerous areas we’ve featured stories from, this is a relatively safe area to work. The fields I work in are not remote, I usually have cell service, and there are no dangerous predators roaming around. Fieldwork in these old fields can be quite dangerous however.

The sun is my absolute worst enemy. Again, as I have probably mentioned, I am mainly interested in relationships between abundance and body size in plants. This involves a lot, and I mean a lot, of counting. Counting plants isn’t all that bad if it’s early on in the season (before July), but generally when I do abundance counts, I am interested in reproductive abundance, therefore, the plants I count must reproduce (or have been given a chance to) which means I can’t count them until at least part way through July. Conveniently, this overlaps nicely with the time it starts to get really hot and humid in southern Ontario.

Imagine this. You’re in the middle of an old field. You arrive at your field site, where the grass is taller than you are, and the landscape is decorated with little shots of yellow and pink as the wildflowers thrive in the warm summer weather. It’s hot and sticky as you approach your first plot to count abundance in. The sun heats the back of your neck, deer flies buzz around your head and thistles scrape the legs of your pants. You get down on your hands and knees and start carefully sorting through the vegetation below, making note of what you find.

Now, this might not seem all that bad. In fact, to some it might even sound pretty enjoyable. But let’s fast forward1.5 hours (about how long it takes to get through one plot). You count your final few ramets, and feeling accomplished, you lift your neck up, take your hands off the ground and push yourself up off your knees and onto your feet. That feeling of accomplishment quickly turns to confusion.

After staring at the ground for so long, when you lift your head up the bright rays of the sun are so intense you can barely open your eyes. As you squint, your head starts to spin and you actively try to keep your balance. Your stomach feels all kinds of unpleasant things. Your heart beats a little faster and each breath you take is a little closer to the last one as your brain tries to comprehend what is happening to your body. You have two options: collapse back onto your knees or compose yourself enough to get out of the sun and recover.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot better at choosing the latter and retreating to the shade with water. But early on in my time as a field biologist, I would ignore the signs and end up sick, sometimes for days. I’ve (mostly) learned my lesson since then and in fact, this year we even invested in a sun shelter to use while we sample. It might be a pain in the ass to haul around to each plot but boy does it make a difference.

The sun is a real danger for work like this and for many field biologists. It’s so important to take all of the steps necessary to stay safe in the sun, and most importantly, listen to your body’s warning signs because it knows best.

Standing by one of the plots I will count abundance in this summer

Standing by one of the plots I will count abundance in this summer

Who’s the boss?

A few weeks before I started my first field assistant job, my friends all contributed to buy me a full set of rain gear for my birthday.  The rubbery, canary yellow jacket and pants were definitely not a fashion statement (at least, not one I wanted to be making), but I was extremely grateful nonetheless.  I assumed that being a field biologist would mean working in all sorts of unpleasant weather conditions, and I wanted to be prepared.

But shortly after arriving at QUBS, I found out that ornithologists have a reputation for being wimps when it comes to bad weather.  In fact, there’s a longstanding tradition that birders don’t work at all when it’s raining, because birds don’t do anything in the rain.  (How we know this without going out in the rain to check is something that we don’t talk about.)

I was – not surprisingly – very pleased to hear this.  I like the outdoors as much as the next person (actually, at that point, that wasn’t true, but it was growing on me), but I’m not a fan of wandering around in soggy clothes – and it soon became clear that, while my shiny new rain gear did indeed keep out the rain, it also made me sweat so much that I got soaked from the inside out anyway.  I folded the rain suit back into my suitcase with a relieved sigh.

However, less than a week later, I found myself pulling it back out.  What I quickly came to realize is that there’s a giant loophole in the ‘no working in the rain’ rule.  While it is true that ornithologists don’t usually catch and band birds in the rain, there are plenty of other field duties that can easily be performed even if everyone else is contemplating building an ark.  If you happen to study a cavity nesting bird, like the tree swallow, then you can certainly monitor nests in the rain.  And if you’re looking to re-sight colour banded birds, then the rain can actually make your job easier because the birds tend to move less..

The upshot is that I have spent many hours on many different field jobs staring through rain-streaked binocular lenses, trying to see colour bands on soggy birds and ignore the rain dripping down the back of my collar.  And from this experience, I have determined that there’s a strong correlation between the number of clothing layers the rain has soaked through and the frequency and intensity of thoughts of mutiny.

I always thought that when I was in charge, things would be different.  With a whole breeding season to collect data, I reasoned, who cares if you lose a few days to inclement weather conditions?  I swore up and down that no field assistant of mine would ever find themselves courting trench foot as they squelched home at the end of a long, wet, miserable day.

Little did I know.

 

The first year I ran my own field season was an eye opening experience.  Before that, I’d only given fleeting thought to what kind of boss I’d be (except for the no-working-in-the-rain thing; I’d thought about that a lot).  If you’d asked me, I would have probably said I’d be easy to work for – after all, I’m pretty approachable and relaxed, and I hate working in soggy clothes.  I might even have guessed that I’d really enjoy the chance to mentor students just starting out in field biology.

The reality turned out to be totally different.  What I hadn’t considered was the toll that collecting data for my own project would take – not to mention the strain of projecting an air of confidence and authority when I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing.  That first year, I spent most of the field season stressed, frustrated, and running on 4 hours of a sleep a night.  It’s hard to be a mentor to anyone under those conditions.

Being in charge was a totally new experience for me: I’d never been anyone’s boss before, and I had no idea how to go about doing any of the things I needed to do – starting with interviewing prospective candidates.

Even under the best of circumstances, I think interviews are a pretty awkward experience.  But in the case of field assistant jobs, they tend to be even worse, perhaps because what you’re really evaluating is whether the candidate’s personality is compatible with yours.  Because of this, I discovered, it is very easy to forget to ask vital questions – meaning that you can later find yourself stuck on an island, trying to re-sight colour banded birds with a field assistant who is colour blind.

Sometimes, you just need to take a break...

Sometimes, you just need to take a break…

I also didn’t know anything about recognizing someone’s breaking point.  When it’s your own data you’re collecting, your tolerance level increases dramatically – at least, mine did.  It’s easy, when you’re in the thick of fieldwork, to forget that these people who soldier alongside you do not have the same stake in the data as you.   Walking home late one evening with my first field assistant, I realized rather abruptly that there are points beyond which you really should not push people.  As we trudged along the Sable Island beach, an angry gull swooped towards us, buzzed our heads, and then crapped all over my assistant’s hat.  He stopped in his tracks, stood stock still for a second…and then took off after the gull, screaming profanities and hurling our mist net poles in its general direction.  I decided on the spot that he was taking the next day off.

Being in charge, I realized quickly is that the boss-employee relationship becomes a bit blurry when it comes to fieldwork.  When you’re working, eating, and living with someone, you get to know them pretty quickly – and while that makes it easy for friendships to develop, it also makes it inevitable that you’re going to get frustrated sometimes.  And that goes both ways.  I’m sure my disorganization sometimes drove my field assistants up the wall – they learned fast to never, ever ask, “What are we doing tomorrow?”

My father releasing a bluebird in the Okanagan Valley, BC.

That’s right, Dad…I’m in charge now!

And that boss-employee relationship can become significantly more complicated depending on who your employee is.  For example, it can be quite awkward giving orders to your PhD advisor’s daughter.  Or to your parents: I was lucky enough to have my Dad volunteer to help me during all three of my PhD field seasons – and while it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with him, the role reversal involved in me telling him what to do was a bit disconcerting.

After running six of my own field seasons, I’d like to think that I’ve gotten a bit better at being the boss – but mostly I think the credit for these successfully completed field seasons goes to the incredible group of field assistants I’ve been lucky enough to work with.  They’ve rescued me in so many ways over the years – acting as my personal translator when my grasp of Spanish proved inadequate for the Dominican Republic, spending hours staking out a mist net to catch the one bird I really needed, refusing to let me drive when I was really, really sleep deprived, and making me laugh when I most needed it.  Though I’m sure that I’ve given each and every one of them cause to contemplate mutiny, I’ve appreciated their patience, enthusiasm, and sense of humour more than I can say.

But I still make them work in the rain.

Walking home at the end of a long day.

Heading home after a long day in the field.

 

 

Dispatches from the field turns one!

Great stories frequently come out of fieldwork, but all too often, field biologists have nowhere to tell them. So one year ago, the three of us started this blog, Dispatches from the Field, to provide a place to share those stories. We debuted Dispatches at the Queen’s University Biology Station open house last year and we were excited to be a part of this year’s open house – especially since it was the 70th anniversary of QUBS!

Photo of the blog writers at eh open house

From left to right: Founding bloggers Catherine, Sarah & Amanda

Although the year has flown by, we have had quite a few accomplishments:

1. We’ve published 56 posts – some of our own, some from amazing guest bloggers. We’ve heard about massive cane toads in Australia, about getting lost in Patagonia, about the pigeon guillemot mobile nest in Haida Gwaii, and about the rarest and quietest lessons of the Arctic. And we’ve published many posts about fieldwork at QUBS – because sometimes the best stories are from close to home, such a face to face encounter with massive black rat snakes.

2. We’ve attracted readers from all over the world – thank you! We’ve had nearly 8000 views from over 80 countries, which is a lot more than we expected! A year ago we were convinced that only our parents would read our blog.

Map of where our readers are from.

Readers from around the world.

 

3. We were featured on WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” site, which highlights unique and interesting blogs, from editors’ picks to community favourites.

4. We were awarded the 2014 Editor’s Choice award in the Communication, Outreach, and Education category by Science Borealis, a network of Canadian Science bloggers.

5. We’ve organized several evening programs  at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, where we bring in guest bloggers to share their stories as we go for a hike and sit around a campfire. Don’t miss your chance to hear about the highs and lows of fieldwork, and experience the field firsthand.  The next Dispatches from the Field Night at Elbow Lake is happening July 14th at 7pm – you should come check it out! (It’s free; details on the ELEEC website).

We are thrilled with the success of Dispatches from the Field thus far, and are excited to see what the second year of blogging will bring. We hope to bring you new and exciting stories from all over the world, giving everyone a behind the scenes look at what fieldwork is really like, and giving field biologists a place to share the stories that inspire them.