Let’s talk field biology again

When Amanda, Sarah, and I started Dispatches from the Field almost three years ago, we wanted to inspire people to notice and love the nature around them.  Because doing field biology allows you to get to know a place intimately, we thought the best way to achieve our goal was by giving people a behind-the-scenes look at the world of fieldwork: the triumphs and the frustrations of working in nature, and the incredible places and breathtaking sights that field biologists get to experience.

Over the past three years, we’ve posted more than 150 stories about fieldwork in locations as diverse as the Canadian arctic, the wilds of Patagonia, and a deserted island in the middle of the Atlantic.  Our posts have drawn both on our own experiences and on those of our many guest posters, and they’ve been read and shared by thousands of people all around the world.  I think we’ve made great strides towards achieving our goal.

But sometimes, just writing about something isn’t enough, and there’s no better way to share the highs and lows of fieldwork than to give people the opportunity to experience the field for themselves!

A few weeks ago, Amanda wrote a post about an upcoming event that she and I were hosting as coordinators of Let’s Talk Science at Queen’s University: the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House.  When she wrote that post, we were in the final, frantic stages of planning the event.  We were excited, but also a bit apprehensive: it can be difficult to get people to drive half an hour outside the city to attend an event, even if it is free.

When I woke up the morning of April 22nd, the grey skies and cold wind did not inspire my confidence.  But when I sat up in bed and reached for my phone, I saw I a text from Amanda: “Happy event day!!”

That set the tone for the day.  The weather wasn’t ideal, we had no idea whether or not people would come, but we were going ahead anyway!  We packed our cars with piles of field gear and food, gathered our many volunteers, and headed up to the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre.

It took a couple of hours of frenzied preparation to set up for the many activities we had planned, including grad-student led modules on trapping birds, identifying plants, recording frog calls, and studying lake sediments.  We also filled the Elbow Lake Pavilion with a host of activities, ranging from making a smartphone microscope to painting with maggots (yes, you can do that!).


Learning to record frog calls

But finally, we were ready to go.  And just as we put the finishing touches on our activities, the Pavilion door opened: our first visitors had arrived!

Over the course of the day, the clouds blew away, the sun came out to warm us, and we ended up welcoming almost 100 visitors.  Some stayed for only an hour, and some stayed for the entire day.  We showed people how to catch birds using a mist net, how to record frogs using a directional microphone and hip waders, and how to learn about past climates using sediment cores from the bottom of a lake.  Visitors learned to age trees by counting rings (the science of dendrochronology), built their own popsicle stick birdfeeders, and used maggots as paintbrushes to create explosions of colour on paper.


Maggot art created by a group of Beavers & Scouts that visited the open house

As dusk fell, we gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows and tell stories about some of our favourite funny, scary, or inspiring fieldwork experiences.  And we finished the evening standing quietly on a bridge in the dark, listening to a cacophonous duet between two barred owls.

It was a magical day: despite our anxiety beforehand, it couldn’t have unfolded better.  We hope we’re not mistaken in believing that all the visitors who attended had a great time; however, we certainly know that the almost 20 volunteers who helped us plan and execute the event enjoyed it!

“It was a really neat experience to not only tell our stories out loud but to share them around the campfire. I think it is one thing to read about a story, but to actually hear it first-hand from the one who went through it – now that is putting a face to fieldwork!” – Sarah Wallace, field biologist and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field

My favourite experience of the Open House was when we went in search of owls at dusk. The moment where the pure silence and peacefulness of that night was broken by an eruption of hoots and screeches is an unforgettable memory.” – John Serafini, field biologist and volunteer

“Having some children (and adults) really learn something new was inspiring to see. Watching people have that ‘aha’ moment while listening to our talks or going through the workshops really inspired me.” – Alastair Kierulf, Let’s Talk Science Volunteer

“I especially enjoyed both telling and listening to other people tell stories about the other amazing things that happen in the field, that might not necessarily be related to the focus of their research.  It really honed in on the unique experiences that make fieldwork what it is.  It didn’t matter if the stories were funny or frightening…people in attendance were all so interested in what we had to say, and for me that was a special moment!” – Amanda Tracey, Let’s Talk Science Coordinator and co-founder of Dispatches from the Field


Amanda showing off a gray rat snake skin, and telling her story “from damp and dark to light and warm”


By the time we stumbled out into the empty, dark parking lot at the end of the day, we were exhausted in the way that only fresh air and hard work can cause – but also tiredly thrilled to know that we had been able to share the enchantment of fieldwork with so many people, both adults and children.

Maybe some of those children will go on to be field biologists.  (In fact, at least one of our visitors said that was her career plan!)  But we think the experience was important for everyone.  It’s easy for us, as field biologists, to care about the amazing diversity of flora and fauna we get to see up close and personal.  But how can you expect people to care about what they never experience?


A keen high school student holding a bird for the first time…future field biologist? I think so!

Conservation efforts won’t work if only a few have access to what we’re trying to conserve.  If we want people to care about, respect, and preserve the natural world, they need to feel it belongs to them too.  And that, ultimately, was our goal for Let’s Talk Field Biology.  We hope we succeeded.


If you came out to the Let’s Talk Field Biology Open House, we’d love to hear from you!  Send us an e-mail or comment on our blog to let us know what your favourite part of the day was!



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.

Lessons learned through environmental outreach

We are very excited to welcome Carolyn Bonta to the blog this week. Carolyn is the manager of the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC) and finishes off our outreach themed month with some lessons learned through environmental outreach. For more about Carolyn and the ELEEC check out the end of this post.

The outdoors has always been my playground; living components of the natural word, my teachers.  Thus, it was no surprise that I pursued studies in field ecology through university and subsequent contract jobs.

It’s been a long time since I did fieldwork full-time to scrape out a meager living, but while the past decade directed my career along other paths, I continued to return to my passion of field biology in various volunteer roles as a naturalist, educator and outdoor trip leader.  Pointing out interesting species, interactions and behaviours that one might overlook, sharing cool facts about animal and plant life, and helping to foster an appreciation of our environment came naturally to me.

Two years ago, I was hired to manage the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC), the new public outreach arm of the Queen’s University Biological Station.  Being the only dedicated staff for this facility, my duties include everything from financials to maintenance to marketing and – of course – designing and delivering the ELEEC’s public and high school outreach programs.  My audiences range from skilled naturalists to casual observers of nature to indifferent teenagers.  In this role, I’ve learned a few things from watching others teach, absorbing the excitement of those partaking in a new discovery, and seeing the response of others to my teaching.  Here are the top five lessons learned:

Lesson #1:  There is value in shock, surprise and the unexpected.  Make your teaching style stand out.

Immediately prior to my first day of work, I was invited to ELEEC to watch QUBS staff deliver outreach programming to a small class of Grade 12 students from the Environmental Leadership Focus Program at Bayridge High School.  What a great program!  The students set up a birding mist net and captured a hormonally territorial Eastern Towhee using playback calls, seined the waterfront for fish, and explored other means of sampling biodiversity.  Upon cleanup, we enlisted the students’ assistance.  As chest waders were loaded in the back of the truck, shrieks rang out when a dead groundhog was discovered in the box.  My co-worker, Mark, picked it up and began to point out the various physical adaptations that groundhogs have for digging burrows, regulating body temperature, and feeding.  “What do groundhogs eat?” one student asked.  Pulling a knife from his pocket, Mark began to slice open the rodent’s belly in front of a horrified crowd.  “They eat grass” he explained, the slightest hint of exasperation in his voice as he held out the stomach contents: “It’s just digested salad.”  I’m pretty sure those students won’t soon forget what groundhogs eat.

Lesson #2: Everything in nature is worth a closer look, even if you’ve seen it a hundred times.

Many of us take our natural surroundings for granted, not always pausing to take a second glance at the life around us.  I was reminded of this one summer, after having tasked an ELEEC Intern to capture some butterflies.  We were heading off to a community festival and thought it would be nice to have live animals to accompany our displays of pinned specimens.  So, Intern disappeared with an insect net, proudly returning to announce that she had caught a butterfly!  But, peering closely at her catch, “it’s kind of strange-looking”, she added, flipping through Butterflies of the Kingston Area in an effort to identify the species.   “Uhhhhh… use the Bugs of Ontario field guide instead,” I suggested.  Fooled by its resemblance to a Mourning Cloak butterfly, Intern had captured a Road Duster… grasshopper.  Needless to say, we brought the Road Duster, also called Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina), to the festival to teach others about this common – yet often overlooked – butterfly mimic.

photo of a carolina locust, looks like a butterfly

Photo: Barbara Taylor, Muskoka Field Naturalists

Lesson #3:  Nature isn’t always nice.  Get used to it.

The ELEEC offers a Fisheries and Aquatic Ecosystems program that puts visiting high school students in chest waders and sends them into Elbow Lake to seine for fish and macroinvertebrates.   One group was pleased to have caught a diversity of fish, as well as several species of invertebrate.  Upon dropping a particularly large beetle into the aquarium of specimens, students were horrified as the beetle immediately targeted a small perch, injected its proboscis and sent the fish belly-up.  Oh wonderful teachable moment!!  The Giant Water Bug (family Belistomatidae) preys on small fish, amphibians and crustaceans, injecting its catch with digestive enzymes that liquefy the animal’s insides; the Giant Water Bug then re-inserts its proboscis and enjoys a healthy protein shake.  Yum!

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Photo: Peter Galbraith, Leahurst College

Lesson #4:  Seek new knowledge from people of all ages.

While leading a late fall hike for a local outdoors club, we paused to observe a fairly large spider with a brilliant orange abdomen.  Nobody in the group was able to identify this beautiful arachnid, and one member photographed it, asking me to find out what it was.  Well, I knew just the person to ask:  My co-worker’s 8-year-old son, Jesse – entomologist extraordinaire!

Armed with a photo of the mystery spider, Todd went home to his son.  The next day, I inquired “Did you ask Jesse about the spider?”

“Yup”, said Todd, rolling his eyes and mimicking Jesse’s voice, “it’s an orb weaver, dad.  Duh.

I threw my hands up in exasperation.  “Of course!   How did I not know that?”  Certainly this will be the last time that I didn’t recognize a Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneous marmoreus.

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, seabrookeleckie.com

Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, seabrookeleckie.com

Lesson #5:  Nature affects everyone, no matter how diverse their background.

A specimen in the hand adds so much value to learning.  At a recent awards ceremony to accept outreach funding, grant recipients were invited to do a 10-second “Shout Out” to seek non-monetary support from other attendees.  What could ELEEC possibly ask for from a diverse group that included primarily artists, gardeners, and social service organizations?  Since QUBS is always looking to expand our teaching collection, and I figured everyone in the group has encountered at least one of the billions of birds killed annually in North America by road or window collisions, my Shout Out asked for just that: “Bring us dead birds!” I cried, holding up a freeze-dried American Robin to a mixed response of stunned silence, startled gasps and bursts of laughter.  Not only did the surprise factor catch the audience’s attention, but we have already received some specimens, including a juvenile Yellow Warbler and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.  Sometimes all it takes to notice nature is a reminder.

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Photo: Community Foundation for Kingston and Area

Carolyn Bonta completed an M.Sc. in Zoology and spent seven glorious years as an independent biological consultant in the Kingston area, followed by nine years of protected areas planning with Ontario Parks behind a desk.  Sanity, natural history knowledge and field skills were maintained during this time through involvement in numerous volunteer projects, most notably at Frontenac Provincial Park.  She now shares her knowledge of local biodiversity through outreach programming at the Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre, http://elbowlakecentre.ca.

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.

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.



Lessons learned in the field

We are very excited to welcome this week’s guest blogger, Kim Stephens, an Undergraduate student from Queen’s University. Kim was a field assistant in 2013 to one of our resident bloggers, Amanda and today she tells us about some of the lessons she learned during her first summer in the field. 

During the summer of 2013 I worked as a field technician for the Aarssen Lab at Queen’s University – meaning I got to spend my summer working outside almost every day. I was incredibly excited to not be stuck in an office or store, gazing longingly at the sunshine outside. My 4 months were spent digging in the dirt, watering plants, and picking flowers – a dream job! We worked on 4 different projects throughout the summer, which were at varying degrees of completion. That summer, I was continually learning, and by the end I could identify a multitude of flowers and grasses, and knew my way around areas surrounding Kingston. I also learned quite a few lessons about field work… many of them the hard way. Here are some of them!

Science happens, despite the weather. One of the projects that I was helping with involved differing water levels on the study sites (decreased, control, and enriched) which meant that once per week, we pulled the Rhino out of the white house, and watered study plots for an entire day. This made complete sense to me on a scientific basis, but when I was standing out in the rain watering, it didn’t make quite so much sense anymore. That being said, watering in the rain was sometimes a nice break from the +30oC, when you wished you could turn the spray nozzle around, and get cooled off by the pond water.

watering study plots

Adam Sprott watering study plots at Bracken Field.

The Rhino.

The Rhino.








Protect yourself from the elements. Sunscreen is your best friend! I was used to my typical days out in the sun – sitting in the shade, hanging out at the beach – being able to enjoy the weather without being in the direct sun. This was completely different! Bracken field, where we watered, was exactly that – an open field. We had very little reprieve from the high UV, except while filling up the water tank, and after a couple of encounters with lobster-coloured skin, I started applying sunscreen more frequently. On the opposite end of the spectrum – invest in a good rain suit… especially if you’re working in and around Kingston. Field work continues in the rain, so not having to sit in wet clothes all day, or change multiple times, makes the work day much more pleasant.

Plant ecology can be dangerous – watch where you’re walking. Late in the summer, during seed collection for Amanda’s project, I discovered that I was thankfully not allergic to wasps. We were in an area which had very little, if any, cell service and virtually no houses nearby. I was walking along the side of the road, and found some plants that looked like they might have seeds that we needed. The ground camouflaged the wasps’ nest, and unfortunately I stepped right on it. They didn’t take too kindly to my intrusion, and stung me 12 times.

Double check that you’ve packed everything. Early in the field season, just after we started digging trenches around study plots, Amanda and I were taking a break for lunch, when she discovered that she hadn’t packed a fork for her salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have one either, and since we were so far from a town, we had to make do with what we had, which ended up being a garden trowel that we had been using to dig. After rinsing, sanitizing, and rinsing again, it was designated ‘safe’, and she created a new meaning to ‘shoveling food in your mouth’. We didn’t forget cutlery very often after that.

Trenches dug.

Trenches dug.

eating with a garden trowel.

Amanda making do with a garden trowel as a fork.








Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Me measuring Dame’s Rocket in my ‘homemade biohazard suit’.

Offence is the best defense. Poison Ivy, a tricky little plant which causes rashes and other irritation, quite enjoys hiding in the most unsuspecting places. A good portion of the summer was spent collecting samples which were conveniently located in patches of poison ivy. My solution – full yellow PVC-coated rain suit (read: homemade biohazard suit) complete with rain boots and gloves. Armed with this protective layer, I ventured into the area which held the Dame’s Rocket flowers I wanted to collect for my project.




Back up your pictures. You will see many amazing things while working in the field and take pictures of as many as you can– I took over 2000 during my time in the field. Weather happens, equipment breaks, and phones reach the end of their lifespan. While I was putting together this blog post I had a perfect picture in mind of one of the other field technicians watering plots in the rain. I discovered far too late that it had been taken on my cell phone – which gave up a few weeks ago…. before being properly backed up. 

Stop and smell the roses. Fieldwork has its ups and downs, but while you’re out in the field, take the time to appreciate the beautiful nature around you. I took an office job the summer of 2014, and spent most of it inside, appreciating how amazing the previous summer had been.

View of Upper Rock Lake

Rideau Trail overlooking Upper Rock Lake

Butterflies smell the flowers

Ele campane and Swallowtail butterfly.










Kim StephensKim did her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Biology and studied the relationships between metrics of plant body size for her undergraduate thesis. She returned to Queen’s for the 2014-15 school year to finish off her degree in German and is headed to Germany this year to work and attend graduate school.

Invertebrate operation

This week’s guest blogger is Dr. Ann McKellar, whose post details one of her more…interesting… experiences while doing fieldwork at the Queen’s University Biological Station.  For more about Ann, see her bio at the end of the post.

This is the story of how I almost lost my mind after getting an insect stuck in my ear during field work at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). It was one of those life events that was horrible at the time, but makes a decent enough story that maybe it was worth it in the end. Although I might think differently if it hadn’t been for a particularly dexterous field assistant who saved the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is how it all started…

For three summers during my PhD I did field work at QUBS, which I’m sure you are quite familiar with if you read this blog. So I won’t bore you with the details, just mention that it’s a reasonably civilized (some might say “cushy”) field station, certainly not some kind of hardcore, sleeping-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-no-running-water type of place. At QUBS I studied a breeding population of a small songbird, the American redstart.

Face off: staring down an American redstart in the field

Face off: staring down an American redstart in the field

Each year I had a team of undergraduates working with me, and we would spend our days hiking through the woods, trapping birds in mist nets, tracking colour-banded birds, and searching for their nests. Except when trapping, we typically worked alone but within two-way radio contact of each other, at least on our main study plot where most areas had good reception. On this particular day, I had dropped off two field assistants on the main plot and driven to a somewhat further patch of forest (out of radio contact) where I was searching for the nest of a pair of birds that had been part of an experiment.

So there I was, minding my own (and I guess the birds’) business – when out of nowhere, something flew straight into my right ear. Of course I didn’t see it coming, but I have an image of some kind of extra-large nasty insect making a beeline (no pun intended) for the side of my head and ramming itself straight into my ear. In reality, I suppose it might have been crawling on the side of my head and slowly scuttled its way into my ear canal – but that’s certainly not how it felt. In any case, it was definitely a flying insect because as soon as it was in there, I could feel/hear its fluttering wings as it moved about, presumably realising that my ear was not a place it wanted to be and trying to get out.

Now, if any of you have experienced something unfamiliar and mobile inside your ear, you’ll know that this is not a pleasant feeling at all.  It’s a weird combination of pain caused by the loud noise and extreme discomfort caused by having something so large bouncing around in such a sensitive area. I’m normally a very calm and reserved person, but in this case I remember dropping to my knees and having a bit of a panic attack as I shook my head and screamed at it to get out.

(When I told this story to some colleagues a few days later, someone countered with a story they had heard about a man getting an insect stuck in his ear while traveling alone in the desert.  After a few weeks it drove him so mad that he shot himself. After my own experience, I must admit this does not seem like an unreasonable course of action.)

Luckily for me, my insect encounter did not take place in the middle of the desert – at QUBS I was at least reasonably close to civilization and other people who could help preserve my sanity. So after a few minutes of panic, I realized I was getting nowhere: the insect either had no intention of leaving my ear, or was incapable of doing so of its own accord. I decided it was time for action. Unfortunately since I was out of radio range from the others, I needed to drive back to the drop-off location in order to contact my field assistants. I took a few deep breaths and tried to maintain my calm and focus on the road as I headed for help.

Upon arrival, the person I chose to call was my lead field assistant Jess*, because I knew I could trust her to stay calm during a crisis and come up with a sensible plan. Jess is very level-headed, which was exactly what I needed. So I called her over the radio (using my best impression of a calm voice, “I-need-you-to-come-to-the-parking-lot-right-now-please”) and within a few minutes she was there to assess the situation. She got out her headlamp (we started work early enough in the morning that for the first hour or so it was dark out, but by this time it was light) and used it to examine the inside of my ear. Eventually, she came to a conclusion: “Yep, something’s flying around in there all right.”

At this point we had two options. We could either drive the 10 or so minutes back to QUBS and seek help, or we could drive 45 min back to the hospital in Kingston. The thought of anything longer than 2 minutes with this foreign object rattling around in my head was unbearable, and I probably would have opted to jump out of the speeding car on the way to Kingston just to numb the pain (much like our poor friend in the desert). So we decided QUBS was probably the better option. By this time, my other field assistant Sara had also arrived at the scene, having heard the barely-concealed panic in my radio request to Jess. Together we drove back to QUBS, Jess taking the wheel and Sara offering soothing words.

Upon arrival, we found the place virtually empty, it being mid-morning during peak field season. The station’s dinky first-aid kit was also no help, offering no miracle insect-in-the-ear extraction instruments. But it didn’t matter, because Jess had already formulated a plan for the next logical course of action. She would remove the insect herself, she decided, with the help of a pair of tiny forceps we kept in the lab for the purpose of dissecting specimens. (Thinking back on it, I can only hope that she disinfected the forceps thoroughly before performing the procedure, because at the time I was in no state to notice or care either way – I just wanted that thing out of there!)

Operation: invertebrate

Operation: invertebrate

So there I was, sitting at a picnic table with the left side of my head flat against the table, Sara holding my head down and shining a headlamp in my right ear, and Jess poised with her forceps, ready to get started. As she lowered the forceps into my ear canal I had a sudden image of the board game “Operation”, where any contact between the instrument and the patient triggers a harsh buzzer and a flashing red light – presumably indicating extreme pain being felt by the patient.


But to her credit, Jess managed to get the forceps in and the intruder out without any direct contact with my sensitive ear-parts. “Wow. WOW!” Sara said, “I thought it would be like a mosquito or something, but this thing’s BIG!” It had long wings and even longer antennae, and our resident naturalist later identified it as a caddisfly.


Looks are deceiving: an innocent-looking caddisfly minds its own business…

In the end I recovered reasonably well from the trauma, and I think we even went back out to work that afternoon. I must admit I was tempted to wear earplugs for a few days – at least until I regained confidence that the caddisflies of eastern Ontario weren’t out to take over my head. But unfortunately when working with birds that are mostly detected by song, I wouldn’t have been very effective at my job with reduced hearing. I also found out later from a nurse that the recommended method for removing foreign objects from one’s ear is to flush with water using a syringe. So next time I’m planning to camp alone in the desert, I will definitely be packing a syringe!


* Field assistant names have been changed – although maybe unnecessarily because I only say good things!

Ann's Bio picAnn completed her PhD at Queen’s University in 2012, and has since studied woodpeckers in the southeastern US and shorebirds in Canada’s subarctic. She is currently a wildlife biologist with Environment Canada, and lives in Saskatoon with her partner Fallon and their two cats and dog. She loves taking her dog Sparky for long walks in Saskatoon’s many off-leash nature areas.  Sometimes she even brings her binoculars to catch glimpses of birds…until Sparky chases them away.

Julia and Rachael’s excellent Muskoka adventure

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest blogger Julia Colm, a Masters student at Queen’s University with lots of stories to tell about working in Ontario’s beautiful cottage country.  For more about Julia, check out the end of this blog!

My project began as the 2014 Grass Pickerel Survey but soon became the 2014 Grass Pickerel Hunt, as my favourite Species at Risk had proven elusive. As we prepared to travel to the Muskoka region for the next leg of sampling, I felt both excited and discouraged, knowing that this population is difficult to sample because there are few Grass Pickerel and it is found in the heart of cottage country. I thought that shoreline alterations would be our biggest problem with the cottagers. I thought wrong.

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

Grass Pickerel (Esox americanus vermiculatus)

We had spent hours canoeing a shoreline looking for a nice, weedy spot to sample, but were finding few areas that were not directly in front of someone’s cottage and had not been cleared of all aquatic vegetation. We finally found a spot off of an island that had no cottages (though it did bear a ‘No Trespassing’ sign). Since we would not be venturing onto the island itself and had no way of knowing who owned it to offer a courtesy explanation of our work, we figured we were safe to sample.

Just as we got our seine net deployed, a concerned cottager boated over to us and yelled “what are you doing?!”. We politely explained that we were from Queen’s University doing a fisheries survey of the lake. The cottager then informed us that all of the neighbours had been watching us and were ready to call the OPP; they thought we were poachers. I’ve been called many things in my life (including “homeless looking” later that day by a total stranger), but for two people who have devoted the last few years to working with Species at Risk and have been passionate about conservation their entire lives, being called a poacher was truly insulting. We kept our smiles on and apologized for worrying them, offered to show our permits, and suggested that they call the MNR tips line and alert a Conservation Officer if concerned about poachers in the future. The cottager lightened up, and generously offered to let us launch our canoe from her cottage the next day, but suggested we try to look more official and somehow make our net look less like a net. I wasn’t sure what to do with that last bit of advice, but I’m now trying to figure out how we can fly a “Queen’s University Research Vessel” pirate flag from our canoe. We apologized again and said goodbye, and as we paddled away began laughing at the thought of poachers using a canoe as a get-away vehicle. “The OPP are coming! GO! GO! GO!” [Frantic paddling]

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

The bugs were bad, but maybe we did look like poachers.

Although this was our only negative interaction with cottagers, it was certainly not our only difficulty. Finding spots to launch our canoe on lakes praised for their ‘excellent boating’ proved to be an unexpected problem. One lake in particular, Grass Lake, which if the name is any indication, should offer perfect habitat for Grass Pickerel, was particularly difficult to access. The first day, we sampled a tributary of Grass Lake and caught three Grass Pickerel, and I was convinced we would not be disappointed when we got to the main body of the lake… if we got to the main body of the lake. We had driven all around the lake without any success. The closest we got to it was reaching a dead end road, and having the man who lived at the end tell us he has lived one kilometer from Grass Lake for 15 years and has yet to see it. That was upsetting. He then said that horses have gone missing in there. That was disturbing.

We concluded that we would have to access Grass Lake from the Trent-Severn Canal, an option we had been avoiding as canoeing through the canal isn’t exactly safe. We found a road that led very close to the mouth of Grass Lake, and we should only have to cross the canal to get in. Well, it turns out Grass Lake is connected to the canal through a tiny underpass below the CNR train tracks. So we now not only had to cross the canal, but then portage across the tracks with all of our gear.

Not your standard portage.

Not your standard portage.

When we crossed the canal and entered Grass Lake, we realized why it had been so difficult to get to: it was literally a lake of grass, a giant marsh. There were no cottages, and no way for non-motivated people to get to it. It was a totally undisturbed, undiscovered piece of paradise. The banks were lined with trees displaying a range of colours normally reserved for autumn, and the variety of aquatic macrophytes created a breathtaking underwater display. Fish representing almost every family were easily observed from the canoe, and I could not wait to pull up my first seine haul teeming with Grass Pickerel. Then I put my paddle in the substrate to test its firmness and my vision evaporated. My paddle slid through that silt as easily as it had slid through the water above it, and there was no way a person could stand without sinking. No wonder horses got lost. It might have been harder to get over my frustration about expending all that effort to find the lake and then having no way to sample it, except that it was such a beautiful, serene place, and even though we knew we were defeated, we paddled around the entire lake taking in its beauty.

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

Grass Lake, Gravenhurst, Ontario

In the end, we were redeemed at Grass Lake as one of the banks close to the mouth was clay and allowed us to do our three seine hauls. We caught several Grass Pickerel, including the first Young-of-the-Year of the year. So Grass Lake not only provided me with half of the Grass Pickerel captured during our Muskoka visit, it has also inspired me to develop new gear types for sampling fish in remote areas full of weeds and soft substrate. Canoe electrofisher, perhaps?

Julia Colm

Julia Colm completed her B.Sc in Ecology at the University of Guelph in 2010 and is currently working on her M.Sc at Queen’s University. She is interested in management and conservation of freshwater fisheries and her work at Queen’s focuses on the biology of Grass Pickerel across Ontario.

Changes, invasions and transformations

One of the neat things about spending so much time doing field work in the same place is that I’m really in tune with a lot of my sites. For example: Wire Fence field is an old-field site belonging to the Queen’s University Biological Station and I have collected data on different projects there since 2009. When I walk into Wire Fence today, some things have changed since 2009. For example, when I first started in that site, there were two main grasses that dominated there, Poa pratensis or Kentucky blue grass and Phleum pratense or Timothy grass. They were pretty evenly distributed across the field. Most of the perennial wildflowers present were distributed widely across the field as well, but without doubt every year there would be a big patch of Dianthus armeria, or Deptford pink southeast of the trees in the middle of the field, and nowhere else. Lotus corniculata thrived in the most Southern parts of the field and Oxalis corniculata or creeping wood sorrel was always hiding in the far west corner. If you can imagine it’s almost like each species is a neighbourhood within a city, and each year when you visit that city it’s like nothing has changed, you go to the westside, you know what you’ll find. Head up North and it’s the same old thing. But, like any city, while lots of things remain the same, there are often subtle (or not-so-subtle) changes. In 2009 there was a small patch of Bromus Inermis or Smooth Brome grass growing on the east side of the trees in the middle of the field- there was maybe 100 individual plants there.  Since Smooth Brome is a pretty agressive invader, each year the abundance and distribution of Smooth Brome throughout the field increases. Today, while Timothy and Kentucky blue grass are still very dominant, Smooth Brome has taken over almost the entire east side of the field and appears to have displaced the native grasses in the densest patches. Milkweed (Asclepsias syriaca) was always dominant on the North side of the field, and this year it’s the South side. Thistles used to only be found on the North side and in very high abundance and now they’re spread out all over the field, but not as densely as they were before.


Kentucky blue grass flowering

Kentucky blue grass flowering



Timothy grass flowering

Timothy grass flowering



Smooth Brome flowering

Smooth Brome flowering



milkweed flowering

Milkweed flowering

Deptford pink

Deptford pink

Another field site I used to visit was the Bee field, another QUBS property. In 2009 there was one individual of a very invasive plant called Dog strangling vine (Cynanchum rossicum) right in the middle of the field. We told the QUBS manager at the time about this and he came and dug it up and got rid of it. From that day until summer 2012 I never saw that plant again. When I started my field season last year, I noticed a whole bank of dog strangling vine by Clear Lake Rd. along Opinicon Road. It certainly wasn’t there the year before. For those of you familiar with the Opincion Road area, you probably noticed that this year, much of the East side of Opinicon road side is densely covered in this species and it’s probably going to get worse. In fact, even in Kingston the roadsides leading into Lemoine point are littered with this species too! (On a brief side note: I’m really interested in getting the public involved with and aware of this issue so if you’re also concerned about this or just want to get involved shoot me an email at fieldworkblog@gmail.com and we can chat!)

Dog strangling vine flower

Dog strangling vine flower

dog strangling vine field

Dog strangling vine along the roadside

One other neat thing I’ve seen out in the field is old field succession. In 2009 Wire Fence field was entirely dominated by herbaceous species. You’d be hard-pressed to find anything woody in that field. Now it is slowly becoming filled with white ash saplings the occasional birch sapling and tonnes of blackberry and raspberry bushes, all species typical of mid-successional habitats. If the field isn’t bush-hogged soon, it will most certainly end up as a shrubland site and eventually overtime become young woodland and then a mature forest. It’s an amazing transformation and I’m lucky I’ve spent enough time to notice it happening. Changes, invasions, and transformations like these and rarely observable in person unless, like me, you spend countless hours poking around the same site!