Cloudy with a chance of data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impending doom: a storm approaching across Lake Winnipeg.

Impending doom: a storm approaches across Lake Winnipeg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How the hell should we know?”

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.



First star to the right and straight on past morning

The early morning sun is just beginning to appear as a hazy disk through the blanket of fog as we make our way along the beach.  To our right, visible only in eerie glimpses through the tendrils of mist, marches an endless line of dunes.  To our left, the ocean murmurs against the sand of the beach.  Today, for once, the wind is calm and the ocean is lazy – as is everything else on the beach.  No cries come from the terns and gulls I know are somewhere above, circling in the fog.  Even the occasional clumps of seals are silent and still; only a few lift their heads sleepily as we pass.

Life as a field biologist often means redefining common experiences.  For two amazing summers, my morning commute involved motoring along the beaches of Sable Island at 24 km/h, smelling the salt of the ocean and hearing only the cries of nesting gulls and terns.  The only other commuters to worry about were the seals (which are admittedly quite bad-tempered in the morning…and at most other times) and the occasional curious wild horse.

Before moving from Ontario to Nova Scotia to pursue a graduate degree at Dalhousie University, I had never heard of Sable Island.  In fact, when I started at Dal, my intention was to study a box nesting population of Tree Swallows in a nearby rural community.  But shortly after arriving in Halifax, I began to hear stories about a remote and mysterious island of sand, almost impossible to get to but well worth the effort – iconic Sable Island, a source of fascination for many Nova Scotians.

An Ipswich Sparrow surveys his territory.

An Ipswich Sparrow surveys his territory.

So I did the only logical thing: I changed my project (much to my supervisor’s dismay).  I decided that I wanted to study Ipswich Sparrows, a subspecies of the widespread Savannah Sparrow that nests only on the dunes of Sable Island. Luckily for me, their narrow breeding distribution and wide wintering  distribution make Ipswich Sparrows  a perfect species with which to study the connections between migration distance and reproductive success – which gave me an amazing opportunity to get to know a part of Canada that few ever get to experience.  From the moment I set foot on Sable’s isolated beaches, I was enchanted.

Sable is an island of improbabilities.  A thin crescent of sand only 1.5 km wide at its widest point, it is nothing more than a pile of glacial till lying in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, poised at the edge of the continental shelf.  The island is defined by a curving backbone of vegetated dunes, approximately 45 km long, bordered to the north and south by low-lying beaches.

Sable Island from the air.

Sable Island from the air.

Getting there proved extremely difficult – both summers I worked there, we had to wait almost two weeks after our intended departure date for the weather to cooperate.  Each year, when we finally stood on the beach with our gear, watching the departing plane, it was only too easy to remember that we were 200 km from any other land, perched precariously on a sliver of sand clinging to the edge of the continental shelf.  The layer of fog that frequently shrouds the island (one year, Sable was fogged in for 61 days straight, from the beginning of June to the end of July) only emphasized our disconnect with the rest of the world.

This somewhat eerie atmosphere is enhanced by Sable’s reputation as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”.  Over the past 500 years, more than 350 ships, both large and small, have run afoul of the island’s hidden dangers.  Several factors make Sable one of the most perilous places in the Atlantic. Like an iceberg, the majority of the island lies hidden under water, where shallow sandbars stretch for miles.  Even those parts that lie above the water’s surface are difficult to see – the tallest dune rises only 25 m above sea level.  And just to add to the problem, Sable refuses to stay in one place: as ocean currents sweep sand from the west end and add it to the east end, the whole island is actually migrating eastward.

In fact, shipwrecks are often credited for the arrival of the island’s most famous inhabitants: the wild horses.  They roam the island’s dunes, organized into herds of about 50, each under the control of a dominant stallion.  Romantic legend has it that they are descended from the equine survivors of a shipwreck, although the more accepted (and more prosaic) story is that they were intentionally released on the island during the 1700s.  Regardless of their origin, there is undoubtedly something magical about watching them wandering through the dunes and cantering along the edges of the freshwater ponds.  And while it is forbidden for visitors to approach the horses, we quickly found out that they follow no such rules: despite our best efforts, they often approached us!

Sable's famous horses staking out their territory

Sable’s famous horses staking out their territory

"What do those things do?" Sable Island horse checking out my binoculars.

“What do those things do?” This guy was very interested in my binoculars.

As one might expect from a moving island, weird events abound on Sable.  During the long, quiet evenings, lucky (and persistent) visitors may persuade the island’s (few) longtime inhabitants to tell some of their stories.  One particularly lucky evening, I convinced Gerry Forbes, who ran the Environment Canada weather station on the island for many years, to tell me the story of Doris.  Doris was the island’s CPR dummy, a life-sized female mannequin dressed (typically) in a neon-orange survival suit.  The inhabitants of the island, to amuse themselves, got into the habit of setting Doris up in unexpected and startling places for their cohabitants to find.  However, during one fierce storm, Doris went missing.  No one could find her…until the pilots of a Coast Guard plane, flying over the island, radioed Forbes in considerable panic.  From the air, they had spotted a body, dressed in a neon survival suit, lying face down in the gentle swell of waves at the edge of the beach.  The horrified pilots had immediately called Forbes for help – and were slightly taken aback when he responded nonchalantly, “Oh, so that’s where Doris is.”  In response to the horror-stricken silence that greeted his words, Forbes elaborated: “No, it’s okay, don’t worry.  She’s a dummy.”

A yellow-rumped warbler forages over a low-lying bush.

A Myrtle Warbler forages over a low-lying bush.

In fact, all kinds of interesting things wash up on Sable’s beaches – from messages in bottles to hapless migratory birds blown off course by storms.  These disoriented migrants are quite naturally confused to find themselves in a place with no trees, and will often perch on any available substrate.  One afternoon in the field, I was astounded when a Myrtle Warbler, which had been foraging over a nearby bush, decided he needed a rest – and landed on the toe of my boot to take it.

I was lucky enough to spend two field seasons on Sable Island – just enough time to get to know it, but more than enough time to come to love it.  Leaving at the end of my second season was incredibly difficult, particularly because the island’s inaccessibility will makes returning unlikely.  In the years since I worked there, I’ve realized that Sable is the kind of place that sticks with you – both physically (more than a year after leaving the island, I was still finding grains of sand in my hiking boots) and mentally.  Sable Island is a persistent improbability, a geological oddity…and most of all, a place where it is easy to believe in magic.

An enchanted island.

An enchanted island.

To learn more about Sable Island, check out The Sable Island Green Horse Society website.