Close encounters of the bird kind

This week, Dispatches from the Field is thrilled to welcome Dr.  Bob Montgomerie as our guest blogger.  Dr. Montgomerie is a professor at Queen’s University, and his fieldwork has taken him on adventures all over the world.  Below, he shares one of those adventures with us.

I go into the field to do research for three different reasons. The first is, understandably, to collect data to test hypotheses that interest me. The second is to help graduate students and colleagues with their research, to widen my experience and help me better understand their findings. The third is just to get close to species that I have read about and to see them in action, in part so I can write with more authority about the published literature. This is a story about a close encounter of the third kind.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored in red.

Map of Ecuador showing the area explored (red).

I went to Ecuador in February to lecture to some Queen’s alumni on a Galápagos cruise. En route I went to the Andes for a few days before the cruise to work with a colleague, and to see some iconic Andean birds with unusual morphologies: Sword-billed Hummingbirds, Long-wattled Umbrellabirds, and Club-winged Manakins.

My old friend Dave McDonald (Univ Wyoming) was in Ecuador on a year-long Fulbright Fellowship, and he generously offered to show us around. Dave is Dr Manakin, having done his PhD at the University of Arizona on Long-tailed Manakins and continued to study that group for his entire career. We began our trip with the (almost unbelievable) Sword-billed Hummingbird early the first morning at the Yanacocha Natural Reserve (altitude 3500 m) near Quito.  On Charles Darwin’s birthday (12 Feb), we settled into the eponymous Mirador Río Blanco lodge, overlooking the valley of the Río Blanco below. From there, we would have easy access to both the hummingbird and the umbrellabird in the next couple of days.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

Río Blanco from the Mirador lodge.

The next morning, we went to the Milpe Bird Sanctuary (1100 m) for the manakin. Dave and his students have been studying manakins here for years but it is also a great place to watch hummingbirds, which we did for most of the morning. Just as we finished lunch, Dave got a call from a friend to say that he was needed in Nanegalito, so he left for a few hours to deal with that, leaving us to find the manakins on our own. “It’s easy,” he said, “just go about 30 minutes down the trail and take the first side trail to the left, then down to the bottom of the hill and the birds will be somewhere near the first sharp corner.”  Even if we failed he’d be back in time to show us the birds. And how could we possibly fail? My friend Tim and I had been studying birds in the field for more than a century in total.

Our trek down the trail was magical with birds and anticipation. Just as we arrived at the spot that Dave had described, we heard the tell-tale tuk-tuk-zzzzing of the male’s display. This was the courtship display so beautifully described just a few years ago by Kim Boswick. Using high speed video she discovered that the males the zzzzing sound by rubbing their wing feathers together at more than 100 times a second. It is also the species that apparently revealed the secrets of sexual selection to Rick Prum (2017. The Evolution of Beauty. Yale Univ Press).

At last we could witness this display first-hand…but where was the bird? Even though he tuk-tuk-zzzzinged every 30 seconds or so, and seemed to be less than 3 m away, we simply could not find him. Was the bird ventriloqual? Was he hiding in the dense foliage? And then, after 10 tantalizing minutes, he stopped.

We had the same experience further down the trail, with probably another male. Frustrated by this little bird, and by Dave for not giving us better instruction, we decided to head back to the trail head to wait for Dr Manakin’s return.

As we passed that first spot, we again heard a tuk-tuk-zzzzing  on the other side of the trail and higher up—but the bird was still invisible. By triangulating we eventually found him high on a bare branch amidst the dense foliage about 10 metres away. He called a few more times then disappeared, only to return again every few minutes to resume his displays. Such fidelity to display sites is typical of lekking male birds.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

The elusive Club-winged Manakin on his display perch at Milpe.

After taking a few photos, I went back to where we had first heard a male tuk-tuk-zzzzinging. As soon as I stepped off the trail into the dense underbrush, a female landed right in front of me, less than 2 metres away. Almost immediately she was joined by two males who both tuk-tuk-zzzzinged before they saw me and spooked, disappearing into the forest.

tuk-tuk-zzzing

“tuk-tuk-zzzing”

When we returned to the trailhead, Dave was there, smiling when we told him our story. I think he knew that finding elusive species on your own is way more exciting than being shown by experts. Long before daybreak on the last day a local guide showed us the umbrellabird near a town called ’23 de Junio’ (about 1000 m), halfway down the western slope of the Andes. The males of this species also lek, but they were relatively inactive that morning and visible only through a telescope in the dense early morning fog. We had achieved all of our goals, but the manakin was the most memorable, in part because it was the hardest work.

Adventures of a Red Sea diver

This week on Dispatches, we are excited to welcome Alysse Mathalon, who adds a point to a brand new area of our map as she tells us about her adventures doing fieldwork in Israel’s Red Sea!

When I first accepted my Master of Science research project, I had no idea what I would be diving into – literally. I knew that there would be diving involved, that my dive site would be accessible by boat, and that I would be doing a lot of fieldwork. This combined with the location of the project, in Eilat, Israel, on the Red Sea, was enough for me to accept the opportunity and not look back. I got myself to Eilat four days after officially accepting the position.

A view of the Red Sea in Eilat, Israel. A strong wind event resuspended shallow sediments, making the water murky. Mountains in the frame are in Aqaba, Jordan.

Eilat is a spectacular place. Situated at the southern point of Israel’s Negev Desert, it is surrounded by mountains as old as 500 million years. From its short coastline there are 3 countries in view; bordering from the north is Jordan, from the south, Egypt, and just across the narrow sea is Saudi Arabia. To make it even more extraordinary, beneath the sea surface are some of the most northern coral reef ecosystems in the world.

Eilat is located in a desert climate, where the weather is hot and sunny the majority of the time. However, rains can shower unpredictably and cause flashfloods in the otherwise silent and still desert. Dry river beds transform into rushing rivers, flowing seaward. My supervisors were fascinated by this unique phenomenon, which can bring tens of thousands of tonnes of sediment into the Red Sea in hours. Little is known about the frequency and magnitudes of flashfloods in this region, as such events have only been documented in the past 24 years. Flashfloods are important because they supply large amounts of sediment from land directly to the sea. The presence of flood sediments within the seafloor can therefore help paint a picture of past climatic events.

Flashflood flowing into the Red Sea in October 2016.

For our research project, we looked to the sediment layers below the seafloor to tell us stories of flashflood history. We asked whether it was possible to find flashflood deposits in the seabed from the previous 2000 years. First, we had to try and determine if flashflood deposits were actually getting preserved within the seafloor. This is where I came in. I set out to discover what happened to flood sediments after they settled on the shallow seafloor. Were they being removed by water currents, or being redistributed by fish? Were animals in the sediment mixing them up, destroying their pristine layering and making them unrecognizable?

To answer these questions, we conducted underwater experiments at a research station 13 metres below the sea surface, just offshore of the main location where flashfloods entered the sea. Here, instead of the vibrant coral reefs in the shallow waters by the marine institute, the waters were murky and the seafloor was packed with sediment.

On a field dive after a year and a half of experience. Neutral buoyancy? Check!

Upon arriving in Eilat, I immediately got my dive certification, as I had to jump right in and start the experiments. My supervisors now admit that they were slightly concerned about my diving skills; I was not the most graceful. A big part of being a good diver is being able to achieve neutral buoyancy. This means choosing the perfect balance of weight versus air in your diving vest, so you are hovering in the water. Each time I failed to be neutrally buoyant I would crash down onto the seafloor, and plumes of sediment would rise up, driving the visibility to zero. Diving in this challenging environment so frequently pushed me to become a much better diver, quickly.

The PhD Candidate and I about to jump into the water for a dive! We are pretty happy about it .

Throughout the project I brought many fellow researchers and friends along to help out with the experiments. We usually had to carry armloads of supplies on our dives to collect our samples. We became expert silent communicators, and we were highly determined to achieve our dive goals each time.

However, despite our determination, some frightening things happened down there that put me in ‘fight or flight’ mode. Once, we became so disoriented by the murky water that we didn’t know which way was up. We lost countless lab supplies, and had to avoid poisonous animals such as huge lion fish and potentially deathly scorpion fish. We spent hours upon hours under water at that station, and surfacing from those dives was always a glorious feeling. If we were extra lucky, on our way back to the marine institute we would stop by the Dolphin Reef to say hello to the dolphins, who live in a partially enclosed area of the sea.

Poisonous scorpion fish making himself at home in our equipment.

I am so grateful for my exciting fieldwork experiences, and for all of the outstanding people and friends I got to share those adventures with. If you have an opportunity to do fieldwork, even if you aren’t necessarily passionate about the purpose of the fieldwork, I would still recommend doing it. Communicating in a field setting is an incredible way to get to know people. Team work is ample, and being out in the natural world feels so messy, and challenges you to adapt. I learned a lot, and grew through those experiences. I wish you all the best in your field adventures. Happy fieldwork!

Alysse grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and got her first taste of the Atlantic Ocean while visiting her grandparents in Florida throughout her childhood. She decided to study marine biology during her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University, and once she started, she never looked back. She is fascinated by ocean life, and has developed a passion for promoting ocean sustainability. During her undergraduate degree she published a scientific study quantifying microplastic pollution in sediments and mussels in Nova Scotia. This summer, Alysse is working for the Ontario Government as a Stewardship Youth Ranger Team Leader. She will guide high school students in carrying out environmental projects in the field. When it comes to the water, Alysse enjoys surfing, swimming, snorkeling, and going for fun dives!

 

Participating in science: a citizen’s guide

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome back another familiar guest blogger: Kim Stephens, a graduate of Queen’s University who now works for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust.  Kim shares with us the importance of citizen science and some of the many opportunities for citizen scientists to get out in the field!

I’m flipping the blog this week: instead of bringing the field experiences to the community, I’m aiming to bring the community to the field! Since finishing my undergrad, I’ve moved into the environmental not-for-profit world, working at the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust as a ‘BioBlitz Coordinator’.  My job involves planning events which teach the public about species found in their area, while giving them an opportunity to interact with local flora and fauna in the field.

The aptly-named violet coral fungus.

I love BioBlitzes! They’re a great way to get outdoors, explore nature, and learn about the species found in different habitats. Here’s what happens: over a 24 hour period, taxonomic experts and volunteers work in small groups to complete a full biological inventory of a property, identifying all the birds, trees, insects… you get the drift. BioBlitzes have taken Ontario and Canada by storm, with dozens of them taking place across the country last year for Canada’s 150th.  The Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust hosted three BioBlitzes last year, and identified over 700 species in total! It’s a great way for volunteers to contribute to the knowledge that organizations need to direct management activities – and it’s also extremely fun! From exploring the leaf litter to find a violet coral fungus, to trying to spot an Eastern Wood-pewee calling in the forest, or sneaking up on a butterfly or dragonfly to catch and identify it, there’s something for everyone. With an estimated 140,000 species in Canada, only half of which have been identified, there are always new species to learn about and discover. Which will you find at a BioBlitz?

Although BioBlitzes are relatively new, having started in the late 1990s in the United States, ‘citizen science’ initiatives have been around for over 100 years. Simply put, they are ways for the general population to contribute data to scientific projects, and often require little more than a smartphone by way of equipment. There are many initiatives available for you to get involved in, whether you want to attend an event locally, or contribute data to provincial, national, or global projects.

Below are just some of the many other ways to get involved in citizen science.

Join me in the field:

Christmas Bird Count

A male and female downy woodpecker spending a cold winter morning together.

Last December, I participated in my first (and second) CBC. This annual bird census is administered by the National Audubon Society and has been around for over 100 years. For several chilly hours we hiked through conservation areas and drove through the countryside, counting every single bird we saw or heard in a pre-set 24km diameter circle. I was paired with birders who were far more experienced in identification than me. They took me under their wing and taught me tricks for remembering ID features. Once I was more confident in my skills, they encouraged me to try them out, confirming the correct IDs. It’s amazing to think that the species I saw on one winter day – as well as the species I should have seen but didn’t – could contribute to peer-reviewed scientific articles. I can’t wait to participate again next season.

Continue the research at home:

iNaturalist

I love getting out into the field and learning about what’s out there. During my undergraduate research project, in addition to measuring plants, I met a grey rat snake, lots of snapping and painted turtles, spiders, birds, and more. That summer, I snapped endless pictures of critters I either found fascinating or hadn’t encountered before. I was taking pictures because I loved doing it. But now, with smartphone apps like iNaturalist, anyone can take pictures and contribute directly to research, right from their phone! The primary goal of this app is to connect people to nature, and I find it great for those moments when you think: “Look at the cool thing I found… what is it?”. Users can post pictures of the species they see, and other users will add their identification to the picture. So there’s no need to worry: you don’t need to know what you’re taking a photo of. I sure didn’t know what mating adult caddisflies looked like until last summer!

Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas

Northern map turtles basking in the summer sunshine.

Turtles, frogs, snakes, salamanders and a skink: we have several species of reptiles and amphibians in Ontario, and many are at risk. But the full distribution of some species is unknown. This is not because their habitat doesn’t exist, or there aren’t individuals present, but simply because no one has reported seeing that species in that location. To address this issues, Ontario Nature developed a very useful app – the Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas (ORAA)– that allows you to report sightings of these species across the province. If you find individuals, reporting them to the ORAA can provide crucial information to help scientists accurately map the distribution of species.

eBird

I’ve picked up a new hobby since participating in the CBC: birding. As of last summer, I could identify about 20 different birds. Over the winter I became confident about a few dozen more. By the end of the year, I’m hoping that number breaks 3 digits. I’ve recently started logging my sightings into eBird, which allows you to submit ‘checklists’ of birds you’ve identified. Whether you went out birding for 4 hours, or watched your feeder for a few minutes, you can report species that you saw on eBird, adding to population and distribution records.  You can even submit reports from a ‘wild goose chase’ – that is, trying to spot a rare bird that is only around by accident, such as a Barnacle Goose.  Although the species is native to Greenland and Europe, I saw the directionally confused individual in the photo below an hour north of Toronto in Schomberg. If you want, you can even make it competitive, by adding to your personal life list. It’s like real-life Pokemon – gotta find them all!

A single Barnacle Goose among hundreds of Canada Geese in Schomberg, ON

I really hope you can join me this summer at a BioBlitz, on a wild goose chase, or digitally on iNaturalist, ORAA, or eBird!

Kim Stephens is a graduate of Fleming College, and Queen’s University, where she researched the relationship between the different metrics of plant body size. She is now working for the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust, getting people outside to explore and learn about nature. When not in the office or at a BioBlitz, she enjoys directing Quidditch tournaments and trying to photograph every species of butterfly she can find.  Follow her on Twitter at  @kastep15.

Morabeza!

This week, Dispatches is very excited to welcome back guest poster Becky Taylor – who has become Dr. Taylor since we last heard from her.  Becky shares with us a true story of surviving a full-fledged fieldwork catastrophe with nothing more than determination and a lot of kindness from strangers.  For more about Becky, check out her bio at the end of the post.

It’s funny how some moments are forever fixed in your mind’s eye, like a snapshot that you can recall in absolute detail. I am standing on a beach at 4 o’clock in the morning, marooned on an uninhabited desert islet in Cape Verde (off the coast of western Africa), with two other people and no possessions but the clothes on our backs (and a bottle of Cape Verde wine), gazing at the carnage that was our campsite. How, you may ask, did I find myself in this situation?

The isolated beaches of Cape Verde are a beautiful place to work…and a frightening place to be marooned.

I don’t want this post to be in any way negative about Cape Verde itself. Quite the contrary. It is by far one of the most beautiful and incredible countries I have ever been to, and the sheer kindness of the people who live there was not only welcoming from the minute I arrived, but a life saver when things didn’t go to plan. They have a saying in Cape Verde: ‘Morabeza’! From what I understand, it translates as ‘treat guests exactly as family’…and that is exactly what they did.

I travelled to Cape Verde during my Ph.D., for which I was studying genomic variation in band-rumped storm-petrels. These are small, nocturnal seabirds that breed on remote islands, and a population of particular interest to me lives on some of the small islets in Cape Verde. I travelled first to Fogo Island, one of the bigger inhabited islands, to plan for field work and meet up with my wonderful field leader, Herculano, the manager of Parque Natural de Fogo.

Pico do Fogo

While we were planning our work, Herculano took me to Pico do Fogo, the active volcano that gives the island its name. It is an area of stunning beauty, and I had the opportunity to hike on the lava field and go caving through lava flow tunnels. While on Fogo, I also swam in a beautiful lagoon, enjoyed the soft black sand beaches, sampled wine in the local winery, and ate fried eel (which is actually very good)! There are few tourists who visit Fogo island, and it really is one of the world’s best kept secrets!!

Our campsite home on Ilheu de Cima.

After sightseeing and gathering supplies, it was time to start fieldwork! We needed to catch storm-petrels on a small islet called Ilheu de Cima. As Cima is nothing but rock and a string of beaches, we had to bring all of our supplies with us, including food and water. Herculano arranged for some local fisherman to drop the three of us (himself, my field assistant and childhood bestie Freyja, and me) off on Cima with our camping supplies. And for the first few days we enjoyed our own little island paradise.

By day we would explore the small islet, trying to find some shelter from the sun, although shade was very hard to come by. Luckily I like hot weather, so I was thoroughly enjoying the heat and our many private beaches.

All ready for action: Freyja and Herculano with our mist net.

As the storm-petrels are nocturnal, we would hike to the nesting colony before sunset, scramble down a rock face on the far side of the 1km islet, and set up our mist net to catch birds as they flew to and from their rock crevice nests. Usually we would catch birds until around 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning before packing up and hiking back to camp. As it was September we were fortunate enough to be there during the loggerhead sea turtle nesting season, and we (very quietly) would watch females lay their eggs as we wound down from our work!

It all sounds amazing, right? Too good to be true, I suppose. One night, after a really great night of sampling, we hiked back to camp to find….well…no camp.

All that remained of our campsite…

And that brings us to the point at which I started my story. We stood on the beach realizing that our entire camp was gone (aside from that one bottle of wine, which had somehow survived). We can’t be 100% sure what happened, but it looked like a big wave came in and washed everything out to sea. Bits of debris were scattered across the beach, and our tents (which we had anchored with boulders) were gone – along with everything that was inside. And obviously when you are camping on an uninhabited islet, there is no one to steal your possessions, and so you don’t mind leaving everything in your tent. For example, your passport, money, bank cards, and ID’s. Damn.

Can’t complain about the view…

So what do you do in that moment? Well, we sat on top of the islet, watched one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen, and swigged from the wine bottle, feeling defeated. Thankfully we had kept our phones on us and so could call for help.  Eventually, we managed to get hold of the fisherman, who rescued us that afternoon.

Back on Fogo, Freyja and I realised we were now in a foreign country with no way of accessing money or identifying ourselves. We relied on the kindness of Herculano, his family, and the other locals, to provide food and shelter (and some spare clothes). Without their help I don’t know what we would have done. It was a big learning experience for me, accepting so much from people I hardly knew. Morabeza indeed!

Freyja and I are both British citizens, but there is no British consulate in Cape Verde, so the British consulate communicated with the Portuguese consulate to provide us with temporary travel documents. Eventually, with the concerted efforts of a whole host of people, we managed to arrange our way back home. (It took a few days, though, by which point we were looking particularly haggard). At the time I was pretty traumatised, feeling like the whole experience had been a complete disaster. However, looking back I learnt a lot from it. Possessions can be replaced; the fact that we were safe was all that really mattered. And I will never be too proud to accept help when I need it.

I don’t regret my time on Cima: it was a unique experience and a wonderful place to have spent some time (not to mention a great story).

Plus, the samples we had collected that night were still in my bag, and thankfully provided enough material for me to sequence the storm-petrels’ DNA and finish my research project!

Cima has a unique combination of both black and white sand beaches. The wind mixes the two together in some places to create beautiful marbled beaches.

 

I would like to dedicate this story to Herculano, Emily, Bianca, and the rest of their family for their help and kindness, to Freyja for being a great person to go through a disaster with, and to everyone who was involved in helping to find us money and a way home.

Dr. Becky Taylor completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol, after which she spent two years as a researcher for the conservation charity Wildscreen. She then completed her Master’s degree in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter. During her M.Sc. she became passionate about wildlife genetics as a tool to study evolutionary questions but also for conservation purposes. This led her to undertake her Ph.D. at Queen’s University in Ontario, studying genomic variation in the Leach’s and band-rumped storm-petrel species complexes. She completed her Ph.D. in 2017 and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University, undertaking further work with the band-rumped storm-petrels and a few other wildlife genetics projects. You can follow her on Twitter at @BeckySTaylor.

Fieldwork: more than data

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome fellow WordPress blogger Cindy Crosby.  Cindy shares some of the lessons she’s learned from the landscape she loves most – the tallgrass prairie of Illinois.  For more about Cindy, and to read more of her work, check out her bio at the end of the post.

Prescribed burning on the prairie.

After a prescribed burn, the prairie may look a bit desolate.

“Weeds, Cindy. It’s just weeds.”

I heard this from a friend I took out to see the prairie where I serve as steward supervisor, expecting him to feel the same wonder and joy I experienced. Fieldwork—pulling weeds, managing invasives, collecting native prairie seeds, monitoring for dragonflies and damselflies—had brought me into a close relationship with the Illinois tallgrass prairie.

And yet, all my friend saw was “weeds.”

 

This experience was a turning point for me in how I explained my fieldwork and passion for prairies and other natural areas to friends. I realized that without spending time there, family members and acquaintances couldn’t be expected to understand why I invested thousands of hours hiking, sweating, teaching, planning, and collecting data about a place that—on the surface—looks a bit wild and messy to the untrained eye.

An eastern amberwing takes a momentary rest.

Sure, visit the two prairies where I am a steward in the summer months, and it’s all eye candy. Regal fritillary butterflies and amberwing dragonflies jostle for position on butter-yellow prairie coreopsis, pale purple coneflowers, and silver-globed rattlesnake master. The bright green of the grasses stretches from horizon to horizon. But drop in right after we do a prescribed burn in the spring, or in late winter, when the tallgrass is matted and drained of color, and yes… it doesn’t look like much.

People ask me, “Why so much work? Can’t you just let nature do its thing?” Visitors come to the prairie with buckets to pick the “weeds” for their dinner party table arrangements. Others cringe when a dragonfly buzzes by. “Won’t it bite me?”

As someone who came later in life to fieldwork, I remember how it felt to only see “weeds” or “bugs.” I had the same questions.  These questions remind me that I need to find different ways to connect hearts and minds with the places and critters I love.

Our morning fieldwork commute.

Commuting, prairie style…

So—I train new dragonfly monitors each season to collect data. Then, I watch them fall in love with the prairie and its beautiful flying insects through walking a regular route. I work with my Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie volunteer group, and see men and women who have never seen a prairie before become deeply invested in its wellbeing. It’s all about showing up each week to do whatever task needs to be done. Seeing the prairie and its creatures in all sorts of weather, different seasons, and times of day. Reading a book about it. Taking a class. Building a relationship.

Each person has a different connection to my fieldwork. For some, it’s the history of the prairie. For others, it’s the amazing migration of some of our dragonflies. A few bring their cameras, and later write or paint about what they see. Some just like being outdoors and socializing in a natural environment. All good reasons. All points connecting to the restoration and science being done. Time well spent.

The poet Mary Oliver reminds me: “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.”  Fieldwork is all about paying attention, isn’t it? Keeping our sense of wonder. Then, building a relationship with a place or a creature.

A land to love.

And relationships are about spending time with someone or something, then sharing what you love with others. Hoping, of course, that they’ll come to love the places you love too.  Support the science. Change public policy because they care about the place they live.

Building relationships. Taking care of my landscape of home. That’s what keeps me out there. Doing fieldwork.

Cindy Crosby has authored, compiled, or contributed to more than 20 books, including The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press, 2017). A prairie steward and dragonfly monitor, she blogs weekly on Tuesdays in the Tallgrass and speaks and teaches about the prairie and other natural history topics in the Chicago region. Read more at www.cindycrosby.com.

Seeing the land in a different way

This week, we have a change of pace on Dispatches from the Field!  We are very excited to welcome archaeologist Marianna Cervantes, who tells us a bit about her experience doing archaeological field work in British Columbia.  For more about Marianna, check out her bio at the end of the post.

For many, the field of archaeology is tied to the image of Indiana Jones defeating Nazis with whip in hand. Others associate archaeology with trowels, brushes, and meticulous desert excavations done by guys in pith helmets. Cultural Resource Management archaeology, or CRM, is neither…but maybe a bit of both. (No dinosaurs, though!) Dubbed “hit and run” archaeology by one of my undergrad profs, it is rapid assessment and testing of sites ahead of development to ensure nothing of archaeological importance is disturbed or destroyed.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Clearing snow from a test location in the winter before the saw gets started.

Where I worked, in northeastern British Columbia, we would dig year-round, even in the winter (using pick-axes and cement saws). Areas to be assessed are accessed by any means necessary, be it on foot, by ATV, by snowmobile, or by helicopter. I will never say that my time in the field was not an adventure. I have so many stories, but for now I’m going to stick with my very first day working in the field…

In spring 2006, I went out in the field in the wilderness of northeastern British Columbia with an experienced archaeologist. As we drove down the dirt oilfield road, she called our position on the radio for other road users, a common practice on logging and oilfield roads, while I tried to figure out the maps in the passenger seat. In the back, and in the two trucks following us, were First Nations participants. We asked First Nations bands whose traditional lands we were assessing to send members with us, to provide input, represent their bands, and help us find areas that should be reported as important. That day, because of the geographic location we were assessing, there were representatives from eight bands – considerably more than usual. Indigenous representation and investment in the land is something important to consider for anyone working in nature.

We started down the final road to the site and found gigantic dump trucks, in the midst of building a wellsite, at the end. The dirt road had become mud, covered with ruts easily a foot deep caused by all of the traffic to the active construction site. To get down the road, our trucks had to be expertly balanced on the higher areas. When we made it to the end, we parked our trucks in a convenient spot, and struck off into the woods to have a look at the land. We had a large area to cover, with several kilometres to walk, and a lot of gear to carry. I was pretty overwhelmed by the logistics so far, and my boots weren’t even broken in yet. This was neither classroom nor field school, where I had learned about slow, controlled excavations rather than fast and decisive tests of areas that have archaeological potential, or simply ‘potential’.

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

View down a cut-line, with a knoll in the distance. An area of potential to look at!

While some scientists look at habitats, vegetation, water, or wildlife, the archaeologist looks at both nature and the land, trying to determine how it was used in the past and digging where there may be evidence of that. Those areas are areas of ‘potential’.  In the context of northeastern BC, we were looking for artifacts left by the past inhabitants, ancestors of some of the participants who accompanied us. Identifying potential is complicated though, because the use of land in the past is often different than what we would expect, given its present-day form. A dip in the landscape may be all that remains of an old oxbow lake, where someone may have camped because of access to water and fishing, whereas a south facing barren rise may have been a treed elevation over swampy ground, catching sunshine on short winter days.

After some interpretation, as well as input from the participants (if they are present), dig locations are decided upon. That first day, I recall digging tests. Tests are about 30x30cm, reaching down to glacial soils, and are dug on areas of potential.  They act as a representative sample of the topographic feature and hopefully show whether there are artifacts present. Artifacts indicate previous habitation or use, which can require a change in the client’s development plans. (For example, on that first day, we were scoping out a location where an oil and gas company were planning to build a wellsite).

A projectile point found in a test.

A projectile point found in a test.

Artifacts are sometimes obvious, like ‘arrowheads’, scrapers, and other tools; at other times, they can be less obvious. For example, stone tools are shaped using other stones, and their construction may leave behind identifiable (and important) flakes. Sometimes the source of the stones used for tools can even be traced. In the environment we were working in, organic artifacts don’t tend to be preserved well due to soil conditions, so stone flakes and tools are often all that remain. Disappointingly, despite doing several tests on potential areas, we did not find anything that first day in the field… which is often the case when doing archaeological assessments.

We ate our lunch sitting on the ground under the trees, a lunch environment I would eventually take for granted. I remember one of the First Nations Participants chatted cheerfully with me, knowing I was new. He explained to me how to tell the direction from the sun (a skill I used often during the rest of my time in the field), and told me that the direction of the shadow can help you tell time. Then he leaned in, and with the serious air of someone imparting deep, secret knowledge, told me that at night time I could use a flashlight.  I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. We ended up having a good laugh at my bafflement while walking back to the truck.

While we were packing our gear back into the trucks, a big pickup with gigantic tires roared onto site. A man jumped down from the cab and came over.

“What are you guys planning to do?” he asked.

My co-worker replied, “We’re just on our way out; we did the archaeological assessment on the new site.”

“Well dear,” he replied somewhat condescendingly, “I’m thinking you’re not going to make it down that road there; the dump trucks have chewed it up pretty good the past few days”

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

Driving an ATV to get to a project area, #DressedLikeAWoman.

My co-worker just raised an eyebrow.  One of the First Nations men came over and stated the obvious: “She got us down the road fine this morning. ”

“Oh….huh.” At a loss for words, the guy walked away muttering. My co worker drove again, leading back out with the same easy skill she exhibited on the way in.

That first day showed me that if this was just the start, I was going to like this much more than the waitressing I’d done to supplement my university loans.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

Taking some notes before hopping back in the helicopter. A different office every day.

That was one day, and one assessment. Over the next few years, I became a field director and a permit holder, and I was involved in hundreds of site assessments, working in the field almost daily, driving many of the same roads I’d driven that first day. I identified many archaeological sites and had so many incredible moments. Eventually, I made the difficult decision to leave fieldwork,  but I sorely miss it…although it is nice to work indoors in the winter and have regular hours.  However, the lure of fieldwork will always be there. The way I see the environment and my world in general has been changed by the time I spent seeing the land and nature in a different way.

Marianna Cervantes started working in archaeology after completing a BA in Anthropology, and left archaeological fieldwork in 2010, to spend more time with family and have a chance to recuperate. She recently finished her dissertation in forensic anthropology as part of a part time MSc in Forensic Science, while also working full time assisting at autopsies. She is currently getting ready to start working on PhD applications and is looking forward to having some form of fieldwork in her future. She can be found on Twitter at @BoneArky.

 

Confessions of a lab biologist

We are excited to welcome Leslie Holmes to the blog today. Leslie is a PhD Candidate at Queen’s University, and while she may only be a novice field biologist…she “gets it”. For more about Leslie, see the end of this post. 

While I’m no field biologist, I have had short expeditions in field biology. As a novice ‘field biologist’ I can honestly say “I get it”, that is, I get the appeal. Who wouldn’t want to be outside all day? Imagine it’s a warm, sunny day, and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, your body is flooded with sun induced happy hormones and your mood instantly peaks. But it’s days like this, that it’s just as difficult to get your work done outside as it is inside sitting at a microscope, lab bench, or computer; my usual forte. Because, while inside there are birds constantly flying by your window casting animated shadows across your computer screen or field of view, and the idea of being outside trying out your lab’s recent purchase of a slip and slide is far more appealing than lab work, the work to be done outside is just as daunting. Inside, you’re (hopefully) cool and comfortable, struggling only with your mental capacity of getting your work done, while outside, in addition to mental anguish, you’re often overheating, sweating, and physically drained, and while you know these insects won’t collect themselves, all you want to do is lay down in the shade and read a book or go for a swim.

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Trying out the slip and slide

But I think every field biologist out there would agree, not every day is like this. In the spring and summer, you might have rainy days, where it’s coming down so hard you feel like a tin can and a sponge at the same time, rain drops hitting you like golf balls, not to mention the added 20 lbs of water weight you must now carry with you. As temperatures rise, you literally become a buffet for every biting insect in a 1-kilometer radius. Then there are days you’re so exhausted you don’t think you can take a single step more, even if it’s the first step back to the biology station where a nice meal awaits you. However, this utter exhaustion will almost certainly guarantee you a solid night’s sleep, an anomaly for most of us lab biologists.

As I sat down to write this piece, I thought back to my very first field biology experience and the absolute wonder it brought to my life. It was July 10th 2009 in the McFadden National Wildlife Refuge of Sabine Pass, Texas, and our lab was trying to verify the range expansion of an invasive blowfly species Chrysomya megacephala. The landscape chosen to put some carrion out was less than 500 m from the coastal beach and was still recovering from the destruction of hurricane Ike that had passed through in 2008. In addition, the landscape had fallen victim to a large-scale lightning induced fire less than a week prior to our arrival. It was incredible, the flooding from the previous year’s hurricane, left little in the way of plant and wildlife, and what little that was there, had burned from the fire the week before, but to our amazement, the blowflies arrived within minutes of setting out the carrion. Minutes! It was here that I realized just how little we know about ecology and how it appears that the simplest organisms seem to have it all figured out.

I’ve also done some field work in the winter, and I have to say, if you’re a field biologist and you’re about to embark on a day, you know in advance is not going to be good, take someone like me with you! That is, take a novice, someone who is eager and happy to help and get experience, but has never seen a truly bad day in the field! Trust me, they will make light of what you most certainly believe will be an awful situation. The day was December 23rd, 2013, I was working in the lab over the holidays on my own experiments, so when my friend Amanda needed help in the field so that she could go home for Christmas, I didn’t even hesitate to offer my services, as limited and inexperienced as they may have been. Side bar: December of 2013 in Kingston, Ontario has come to be known as the year we got more snow than we’d seen in 5 years, and ice storm, after snow storm, after ice storm, etc.  Over the course of a week, Kingston, Ontario was blanketed with 30-100 cm of snow (depending on presence or absence of snow drifts), and 20-30mm of freezing rain. Specifically, there were layers of snow and ice throughout the landscape, and on December 23rd, the day after a second ice storm, we were headed to Amanda’s field study site. As we were driving to the Opinicon region, it occurred to us that the ATV typically used to haul us and our equipment to the field site might not be a viable option due to the deep drifts of ice and snow. But given the trek into the field site from the road was long and winding, we gave it the good ol’ college try, getting the ATV stuck in the snow/ice the instant we drove it out of the garage. So with 100+ lbs of equipment, Amanda and I started trudging through the deep snow/ice/snow/ice layers in an open field. And while Amanda would probably tell you, this day is probably one her top 5 worst days in the field, I would tell you, I laughed so much that day, that it was a good thing it was a mild -2˚C day, or my tears of laugher would have frozen to my cheeks!

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Amanda crawling across the snow to place boxes containing seeds for overwintering. Distributing our weight across the snowy, icy surface was an effective strategy but drastically delayed our time to completion.

Being a novice field biologist however, is not always ideal. It was late fall (my first time out in the field in any other season but summer), and the lab was bringing the dock in from Round Lake at the Queen’s University Biology Station. I was told that it was going to be a half day job and we were leaving first thing in the morning, so I had my usual late fall hearty breakfast of stone rolled oats and was ready to go, dressed in warm layers with a new waterproof jacket, pants and winter boots. Let’s just say, just like in the lab, things always take longer than your supervisor thinks it will and here we were, 8 hours later, heading back to Kingston after a long, but successful task of taking the dock out of Round Lake. Ignorant to the whole field biology experience, I had not prepared for this task to take longer than half a day, and thus I had not packed a lunch. So, when everyone paused in their tasks for a lunch break, my lack of preparedness was evident for all to see. Too embarrassed to admit my ignorance, I told everyone that I didn’t usually eat lunch, silently willing my many layers of clothing to mask my thunderous hunger rumbles. By the end of the day I was starving, cold, wet and very hangry! Picking up some pizza and a large hot chocolate on my way home, I could not wait to peel my cold wet clothes off and have a scalding hot bath, only to discover my housemate had just used the last drop of hot water!

I’ve learned a lot from my limited experience in field biology, and while I often get envious of all my field biologists friends and the exciting places they get to discover, I certainly don’t regret moving to the dark side and doing most of my research in a lab setting. I think I’ll always gravitate towards laboratory research, where I like to think I’m in control of everything (although my entire PhD thus far would suggest otherwise). However, I do hope to continue to collaborate on field biology research and probably most ideally, pair laboratory studies with field studies.

2016-12-08 11.19.38A bit more about Leslie: “I received my bachelor of forensic science degree from the University of Windsor in 2008. Early in my undergraduate degree, I branched into the field of biology by working in a forensic entomology lab as a work study student. Helping graduate students at the time with their theses, I was engulfed into the world of forensic entomology. From there I was offered a Master’s position in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in Windsor to complete a development study on the black soldier fly for the purposes of maintaining a waste management facility year round in southern Ontario. I enrolled in my Master’s degree in the fall of 2008. Prior to starting my graduate studies, I worked in Dr. VanLaerhoven’s lab in the summer of 2008 on a ‘side’ project. As a result of this project, I travelled with my lab to the North American Forensic Entomology Association conference in Atlantic City to present our findings. It was at this conference that I met Dr. Tomberlin from Texas A&M University, the leading expert on the black soldier fly and landed a visiting research scholar position in his laboratory at Texas A&M. As a result, I spent the last year of my master’s in Dr. Tomberlin’s lab, where I completed 3 out of the 4 experiments of my master’s. An electronic copy of my thesis titled “Role of Abiotic Factors on the Development and LIfe History of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens (L.) (Diptera: Stratiomyidae)” can be download here.

I completed my master’s degree in October of 2010 and was able to land a part-time faculty position at Trent University in January 2011. I was employed in their Forensic Science Department and taught their first year introduction to forensic science and crime scene investigation courses. I also developed a new online course in forensic entomology and taught it in the summer of 2012 online. While teaching online at Trent University in 2012, I also worked as an entomological researcher, raising beneficial insects for the purposes of integrated pest management. It was in September 2012, that I decided to return to school to embark on my PhD at Queen’s University.”

Unweaving the rainbow

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wing

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

Unweave a rainbow

(John Keats, “Lamia”)

When I first came across the Keats poem “Lamia”, I was a defiant science student sitting in a third year English class, fighting to prove to myself and to my somewhat sceptical professor that there was no reason a Biology major shouldn’t also do a minor in English Literature.

The poem immediately got my back up.  In it, Keats laments the rise of science, which he claims has robbed the world of its mysteries and made it predictable and boring.  Science will, he says, “unweave [the] rainbow” in a quest to understand it – and in doing so, destroy its magic.  No leprechauns and pots of gold for scientists; they’re all about wavelengths, prisms, and refraction.

Of course, when I read the poem as an undergraduate, I was full of enthusiasm for my chosen field and leapt to its defence.  It’s true that scientists conquer mysteries (if they’re lucky), I found myself arguing in class, but that doesn’t mean they take the joy out of the world.  Why should knowing how things work make them less interesting?

A bad day for Webster: Western bluebird male attacks Webster, my bluebird decoy.

“This is my box!”: bluebird attacking my decoy.

In fact, I thought – and still think today – that understanding the world, knowing what things are and how they work, makes life more interesting, not less.  For example, over the last decade or so, I’ve spent countless hours trying to catch birds, using a decoy and recorded birdsong to make individuals think their territory is being invaded.  And despite having done this hundreds of times, I still get a thrill when the territory owner reacts as science says he should, and comes in to defend his turf – every single time.

But I have a shameful admission to make: as I’ve continued in science, I’ve occasionally had the guilty thought that maybe Keats had a point.  The thing is, science can sometimes be really, really boring.  You can spend whole days weighing the smallest things (beans, bugs, fragments of bird claw) with a mind-numbing degree of precision.  You can spend so long staring up at the trees, looking for birds – or staring down at the ground, counting plants – that you develop a permanent crick in your neck.  You can enter data until your vision blurs, pipette until your wrist begs for mercy, and label samples until your fingers cramp.  It’s easy, while you’re wrapped up in the small, tedious, and sometimes mindless details, to miss the big picture.

And when you’re out in the field, the single-minded focus necessary to collect your data sometimes feels a bit like having blinkers on.  There may be beauty all around you – the view from your ‘office’ may be the most spectacular one imaginable – but there’s so much that has to get done, and so little time to do it.  Who has time to waste on stopping to smell the roses when it feels like your whole PhD depends on catching this bird or collecting that sample?

For example, people often assume that, because I work with birds, I must be an expert on them – the person to go to if you’re not sure what kind of bird you saw at your feeder last week.  These people are almost always disappointed.  In fact, I probably know less about birds than your average outdoor enthusiast, because when I’m out in the field collecting data, I divide them into only two categories: bluebirds (interesting; keep watching to gather data) and not-bluebirds (not interesting; forget about them or risk being distracted).  While this is kind of a sad way to look at the world, it’s also understandable. When you’re panicking about collecting every scrap of data you can in the little time available to you, it’s all too easy to forget to appreciate the mysteries, the haunted air, and the rainbow.

All this has been on my mind recently because I’m currently in the midst of completing perhaps the most joyless task a scientist can undertake: writing the Methods section of my PhD thesis.  Normally, I love to write – but every time I open this particular document, my heart sinks.  If there’s a way to make the meticulous detail of a scientific Methods section interesting, I haven’t found it yet.  Intellectually, I know that these details are important, because science is all about repeatability – but I can’t help but feel that focusing on them is sucking the magic out of what we do.  As I labour through lists of dates and times, equipment manufacturers and specifications, sample sizes and standard errors, I feel slightly sick that all my blood, sweat, and tears have been reduced to numbers on a page.

But when I sat down to write my blog post this week, I realized that that’s where stories come in.  To me, telling stories – like we do here at Dispatches from the Field – is a way of finding my way back to the magic that sometimes gets lost in the everyday routine of science.  The stories we tell here exist at the intersection of art and science: they provide context, let us focus on the big picture rather than individual elements, and allow us to capture parts of our experience that could never be conveyed in the minute detail of a Methods section.  Writing and sharing stories reminds me of the mystery and wonder in the work we all do.

I still think it’s incredibly satisfying to understand how the rainbow works – but I also see value and joy in using stories to weave it back together again once in a while.

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