Oh the places you can swim

One of my favourite things about fieldwork has nothing to do with the work itself.  For me, one of the best parts of being in the field is the chance to swim in natural water.

I’ve always loved the water, and taken every possible opportunity to swim in every available body of water, from pools to lakes to the ocean.  No matter where I’m swimming, the feeling of moving through water is wonderful; for a klutz like me, feeling graceful and fluid is a welcome change.  But as much as I love pools, they just don’t compare to swimming outside in natural water, surrounded by the green of trees, the pink and grey of rocks, and the blue of the sky.

I’m at my happiest when I’m floating on my back in a lake on a hot summer day, staring up at a blue sky scattered with clouds, and letting the water bob me up and down.  And there’s no better way to end a day in the field than by submerging yourself in water and feeling the stress, frustration, and sweat of a hard day’s work wash away.

Swimming is such an integral part of fieldwork for me that I’ve gone to some rather extreme lengths to get in my field swim.  For example, during some recent fieldwork in Manitoba, I decided that my field experience would not be complete without a swim in Lake Winnipeg.  Never mind that the weather was unseasonably cool, or that we never got back from the field before dinnertime…the lake was there, which meant that I had to swim in it.

I quickly discovered several…interesting…aspects of Lake Winnipeg that make swimming an adventure.  For one thing, the water is an opaque muddy brown, so dark that you can’t see your own feet when submerged.  It’s a bizarre feeling, jumping into water with absolutely no idea what else might be in there, right below your feet.

But for me, the real problem was the horse flies, which turned swimming in the lake into an extreme sport.  Each time I went swimming, no sooner had I ducked my head under, than one of these huge biting flies would come buzzing out of nowhere.  Usually she would bring at least one friend, and the two of them would circle my head in an ecstasy of excitement about having found a warm-blooded creature in the midst of all that water.

Swimming then became a race between me and the demon flies, as they tried their best to get their pound of flesh and I tried my best to thwart them.  As they circled closer to my head, honing in on me, I would duck under the water and swim for as long as I could hold my breath, then pop up and enjoy the blissful silence – which would inevitably be broken within milliseconds by a frantic buzz as the flies noticed me again.  When I got out of breath, I’d flip onto my back, leaving just my face showing above the water.  The flies would counter by landing on my forehead and nose, forcing me to swat wildly at them.  In the end, I managed to avoid getting bitten, but every swim was frantic and punctuated with episodes of ungainly flailing.  I’m sure I gave people on the shore a good laugh – but the swim was still worth it.

The inviting (?) waters of Lake Winnipeg

The inviting (?) waters of Lake Winnipeg

While swimming in Lake Winnipeg was definitely an adventure, the lake itself didn’t feel all that different from the Canadian Shield lakes I’m used to.  But sometimes, in the course of fieldwork, I’ve resorted to swimming in some pretty odd places.  Take, for example, my field season in the Dominican Republic.  You would think the swimming opportunities would be boundless on an island renowned for its beach resorts.  However, when you’re up in the mountains, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest beach, you have to make do with what you have.  In our case, that was the little canal that ran past our camp and down into the nearby village.

Canal or lap pool? Beggers can't be choosers!

Canal or lap pool? Beggers can’t be choosers!

While doing ‘laundry’ (i.e. making a valiant attempt to rinse at least the top layer of dirt out of my field clothes) in this canal one day, I realized that it could, in theory, be used as a lap pool.  The current was strong, the water was cool and clear, and the canal was just wide enough for a comfortable breast stroke.  So as soon as we’d hung the laundry up to dry, I decided to try it.

At first, I thought I’d found the perfect solution to satisfy my swim cravings: the canal was refreshing in the tropical heat, and while the current was challenging (I certainly couldn’t float on my back for any length of time without being pushed downhill towards the village), it was great exercise and lots of fun.

DR 1 039

The after-effects of canal swimming…

It wasn’t until I got out of the water that I noticed my arm was just a bit itchy.  The itch built over the next few hours…until the back of my arm was swollen and covered in welts.  When I mentioned the problem to the family that lived at the camp, they managed to convey to me, using a mixture of Spanish and English, that the canal was a favourite spot for many things – including a very tiny, but very effective, biting bug.

So my first canal swim was also my last canal swim, and I resigned myself to a swim-free field season.  However, the dry days were more than made up for when we took a brief trip to the closest beach (an ~8 hour drive away), and I got my first chance to swim in the Caribbean sea.

Now *that's* more like it... the Caribbean sea near Oviedo.

Now *that’s* more like it… the Caribbean sea near Oviedo.

But no matter how many fantastic (and…er…interesting) places I’ve gone swimming in the field, none of them can top swimming at the very first place I did fieldwork, the Queen’s University Biological Station.  Down a path worn by generations of feet, out of sight from the main station road, is a slightly ramshackle metal diving board hanging over a quiet stretch of Opinicon Lake.  During the day, the water is warm and clear, making it easy to see the group of sunfish that hang out under the diving board, and the shore is bordered by thick trees and the occasional glimpse of grey rock.  At night, you can float on your back, stare up at the stars and count the passing fireflies.  It’s a site of laughter, conversation, and splashes, but also a site for quiet contemplation.  Most of all, it’s a place where you can relax and let the lake water do its quiet work to wash your worries away.IMG_2370

An ode to the boreal forest

This week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes guest poster Julia Shonfield, who shares some of her stories about working in Alberta’s beautiful boreal forest.

Helicopter flight in

Sitting up front with the pilot; can’t complain about our mode of travel from site to site!

I could hardly contain my excitement as I started to feel the ground pull away as we lifted up into the air. I’ll never forget that feeling as we zoomed over the tops of the trees. It was my first time in a helicopter, and I was being flown out to a remote field site somewhere north of Fort Chipewyan in northeastern Alberta. Our map had some small white patches, which it turned out were large patches of white lichen on the ground. The area was rocky with jack pine trees scattered across the landscape. This area is part of the Canadian Shield, which stretches across much of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but only reaches a small corner of Alberta. The pilot brought the helicopter down, and I awkwardly climbed out and felt the dry lichen crunch under my feet. I felt ridiculous wearing a pair of chest waders, but I had been warned that most of the natural open areas where the helicopter could land would be wet.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

An open rocky area covered with lichen amidst a jack pine forest in northeastern Alberta.

That was the summer I did field work by helicopter for the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI) in northeastern Alberta. I got flown in to each site with my field partner and we’d set up our tents in the middle of nowhere, wake up early the next morning and survey birds, plants, and trees, and take soil samples. The next couple sites after that first one had wetter landing areas, but the water was still not very deep. I decided to take a risk and wear my rubber boots instead of my chest waders in the helicopter. The first few days of any field work project can be tricky and stressful as you try to figure out what clothing and equipment works and what doesn’t. A few days in, I thought I had figured it out – and then we landed at one particular site and I watched my field partner, Bryce, get out of the helicopter and sink up to his mid thighs in water. He was at least a foot taller than me, and I groaned as I stepped out of the helicopter, flooded my rubber boots and continued to sink nearly up to my waist. But that’s the thing about doing field work in the boreal forest: you never really know what to expect and what you’ll encounter out there. The boreal forest is incredibly varied and probably a lot more so than many Canadians realize.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

Colourful moss in a particularly wet spot in a bog.

This was not my first time doing field work in the boreal forest. I had previously worked on a forestry project in northern Ontario doing small mammal live-trapping for a couple summers. I also spent a few seasons working on the Kluane Red Squirrel project in the Yukon for my Master’s work on territorial behaviour of red squirrels. But it wasn’t until I worked for ABMI that I fully realized just how varied and truly spectacularly the boreal forest is. That’s not to say that the boreal forest in Ontario and the Yukon is all the same, but those projects specifically targeted certain habitats: in Ontario the project was on the impact of forestry practices on mixedwood forests, and the project in the Yukon targeted preferred red squirrel habitat (white spruce forests). The variation of the boreal forest was likely less apparent to me when I worked in Ontario and the Yukon because there wasn’t the same range of variation across the study sites within each project. The study sites for ABMI were randomly selected, and no two sites that summer were exactly the same.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire is an important and necessary form of disturbance in the boreal forest.

Fire and water play huge roles in shaping the landscape of the boreal forest, and those forces were evident almost everywhere I looked. The sites I surveyed that summer ranged from very dry jack pine forest to wet bogs and very wet fens, and from very recently burned forests with lots of standing dead trees to older burned forests where almost all the trees had fallen down.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Jack pine trees against the backdrop of a smoky sunset. Jack pine are well adapted to forest fires, the cones will open and drop their seeds after a fire.

Some sites were so beautiful I just couldn’t believe they were random dots on a map. My favourite was a sandy site with an open canopy of mature jack pine trees that sloped gently down to a small lake with sandy banks and clear blue water. Others were downright awful; my least favourites tended to be very wet with dense shrubs and patches of burned trees that inevitably would leave me covered in black ash as I tried to navigate around them.

My favourite site, the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

My favourite site: the sandy banks of this pretty little lake were an idyllic spot.

I’m currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta and I’m still just as excited about working in the boreal forest as I was when I started. My project looks at the impacts of industrial noise on several species of owls in northeastern Alberta. The field work involves travelling by snowmobile/ATV and on foot to set up recording units to survey for owls calling over a large area. I continue to be amazed when I get to an area that looks different than any other place I’ve been before. The boreal forest is not that rich in species diversity, but a surprising number of different combinations and configurations can be formed from a limited number of tree and shrub species. The boreal forest is an incredibly fascinating, enjoyable, but tough place to work. It’s not just an endless carpet of coniferous trees, which is often what’s depicted in nature documentaries. Few people dream about working in Canada’s boreal forest and it doesn’t have quite the same allure as exotic and tropical locations, but I wouldn’t trade my experiences in the boreal for anything!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

An open grassy spot surrounded by tall shrubs, evidence that the boreal is not just an endless carpet of trees!

Shonfield_Profile PicJulia Shonfield is currently a PhD candidate in Erin Bayne’s lab in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Her PhD project is on the effects of industrial noise on owls in northeastern Alberta. Follow her on twitter @JuliaShonfield for updates on field work, owls and bioacoustics. The Bayne lab also has a lab blog (http://wild49.biology.ualberta.ca/) and a twitter account (@Wild49Eco).

A different kind of field season

This week, Dispatches from the Field is very excited to welcome Stephanie Kim to the blog.  Steph is a graduate student at Queen’s University, and in her post she shares some her experiences from a very unusual field season.

When you hear the words “field season”, you probably think of forests or swamps or lakes or just the great outdoors. When I hear the words, I think of dark, lonely basements and skeletons…but I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Last summer, I went on a whirlwind museum tour/data collection extravaganza across North America to collect data for my MSc project. I spent the summer perusing some of the best museum collections in North America and taking pictures of bird skulls and legs, all while getting to visit some places I probably would never have seen otherwise! I went on three amazing trips and, while it was lonely at times, I wouldn’t trade my basement skeletons for anything else in the world.

Instead of wild adventures and close encounters with amazing (live) animals, I’ll give you a few highlights from one of the coolest summers I’ve ever had:

TRIP 1: Museum of Comparative Zoology (Boston) – American Museum of Natural History (New York) – Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.) – Carnegie Museum (Pittsburgh) – Field Museum (Chicago) – Michigan University (Ann Arbor)

TRIP 2: Kansa University Museum (Lawrence) – Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge) – Museum of Southwestern Biology (Albuquerque) – University of Colorado (Boulder)

TRIP 3: Yale University (New Haven) – University of California, at LA (Los Angeles) – LA County Museum of Natural History (Los Angeles) – Moore Lab of Zoology (Los Angeles) – Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (San Francisco) – California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco)

The oh-so-fashionable 'airport bag lady' look.

The oh-so-fashionable ‘airport bag lady’ look.

First off, imagine me running through airports, trying to catch my next flight with only 30 minutes of layover time and no idea where I’m going…looking like this. It wasn’t my best look. I was carrying a tripod, a camera, my laptop, a full desktop scanner, and 3-4 weeks worth of clothes. My backpack hardly made it back in one piece and my shoulders have never been so sore.

My first experience during this trip was: a) something I’ll never forget; b) an embarrassing fan-girl situation; and c) not at all science related. I met Viggo Mortensen…aka Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. And because I was so nervous I was going to miss my flight, I was at the airport 4 hours early. So I have a lot of pictures of the back of his head…like this one.

Even from the back...the most exciting part of the trip!

Even from the back…the most exciting part of the trip!

So let’s marry these two pieces of information: the first (and probably only) time I  met a famous person… I looked like an airport bag lady.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

Great company: the MCZ stuffed dodo in Boston.

After leaving Aragorn behind, I started my actual museum tour. The MCZ at Harvard University in Boston was my first stop. It was a gorgeous little museum right in the middle of  campus. The company was scarce, but I did have a lovely stuffed dodo bird to keep me company. To be honest, this was the beginning of my extreme summer of nerding out and instagramming everything with the hashtag “Darwinning”.

Museums are such an amazing source of information and research! There were huge libraries in almost every collection I visited and the staff were founts of knowledge. As part of my data collecting, I was taking images of the three leg bones in birds (femur, tibiotarsus, and tarsometatarsus). Before leaving, I had done lots of research into correctly ID-ing the leg bones, but when I opened my first specimen box, it was just a slurry of bones. Some were broken, while some were still attached together… I had no idea where to start. Thankfully, one of the staff members helped me out and pushed me in the right direction. Needless to say, if you ever need to ID the left leg bones of a bird, I’m now your girl. Seeing the work being done in these collections and the army of people behind the scenes at museums was something I will never forget…and something that has made me admire and appreciate museums even more!

The Darwin bird! The top two tags are even in his handwriting... #darwinning

The Darwin bird!

Working in these museums also meant that on my breaks, I got to walk around and see all the exhibits. Sometimes, I would even get a cool badge that made me look super official. The American Museum of Natural History (in New York) had some of my favourite exhibits, but the coolest thing I saw on my journey was behind lock and key at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: a Hudsonian Godwit that was collected by Charles Darwin himself!! It was collected on the HMS Beagle’s second voyage to the Falkland Islands – the top two tags are the original ones that Darwin wrote when he collected this bird! Pretty cool. …#darwinning.

Happy the Penguin

Happy the Penguin

Other adventures include going to a National Aviary in Pittsburgh, where I met a 6-month old penguin named Happy, spending Canada Day at the Bean in Chicago after a day at the Field Museum, walking through Kansas University campus where I saw real-life Greek row, filled with giant fraternity/sorority houses, visiting the giant collection at LSU, and finishing some amazing hikes in Albuquerque (Sandia Peaks) and Boulder (Iron flats).

It’s worth mentioning that I was given a to-do list for my time in Baton Rouge: eat a shrimp po’boy and see the Mississippi river. Unfortunately, everything is fried in peanut oil in Louisiana…and I happen to be allergic to peanuts.  Instead, I was offered a very sad, blanched, shrimp sandwich… that wasn’t great. As for the Mississippi river, I walked 40 minutes to get a glimpse, but the only place I could get to was guarded by security and I wasn’t allowed to approach the actual shoreline, BUT if you look realllllyy closely at the picture… you can see a tiny sliver of the river (behind the swampy waters). Check.

The Mississippi river. No, really...it's actually there if you look closely!

The Mississippi river. No, really…it’s actually there if you look closely!

My last trip started in New Haven, on Yale’s beautiful campus. (Shout out to any Gilmore Girl fans – I went to all the libraries to channel my inner Rory!) Yale has some of the most stunning libraries I’ve ever seen, gorgeous art museums, and the headquarters of a secret society called “Skull and Bones”, which was formed in 1832! There’s some pretty cool history on that campus.

After New Haven, I headed to the beautiful state of California. While in LA, I stayed at a youth hostel right on Hollywood Blvd. where I quickly became the odd one out. Everyone kept asking me to play beer pong or go bar hopping, but I was constantly in a corner, with bird skeletons plastered on my computer screen After day 3, they stopped asking. On the night of the “biggest club crawl in LA”, I opted out to go see Diana Krall perform at the Hollywood Bowl, which turned out to bean insanely cool concert venue.


The Hollywood Bowl: coolest concert venue ever!

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences.

After visiting three great museum collections in LA, I went on to the last stop of my summer museum tour: San Francisco. The Berkeley campus was gorgeous, but the award for my favourite location of all three trips goes to the California Academy of Sciences. It was basically a science lover’s dream come true. There was an albino alligator, huge aquariums, a four storey rainforest with butterflies and birds flying all around, a museum with amazing displays and exhibits, a planetarium…and everything else sciency and cool you can think of. I only photographed a few specimens in their collection, but I ended up staying two days so I could see everything inside – if you’re ever in San Fran, I would highly recommend this incredible place!

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

No hiding for this guy! Albino alligator at the California Academy of Sciences.

All in all, while I love the great outdoors and traipsing around in swamps, my museum tour field season was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It brought me to incredible museums and collections, and gave me the chance to be independent and explore some awesome cities, meet some cool people (including all the incredible staff at the museums). Most importantly, it brought me to Aragorn.

P.S. As an aside to any arachnologists out there, I came across this beautiful spider in the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge and have no idea what kind it is! I also have a slight fear of spiders so it took a lot of courage to snap this pic…

Mystery spider - any ideas, anyone?

Mystery spider – any ideas, anyone?


Bio picSteph Kim is a MSc candidate in the Biology department at Queen’s University. She completed her BScH in Biology in 2013 and her B.Ed in 2014, both at Queen’s, and is finally gearing up to leave this great school and city. Her MSc project is focused on comparing trait morphologies between closely related species of birds to answer the question: can species interactions influence the evolution of bill morphologies in birds, worldwide? Outside of school, she enjoys music, hiking, playing around with her camera, and being around her awesome friends and family!

Revenge of the ruminants

When I first started doing fieldwork, I must admit that I spent a lot of time worrying about large mammals.  Even when I worked up at QUBS, in the relatively safety of eastern Ontario, I fretted about bears.  When I went to California, I obsessed about mountain lions.  And after working in Hawaii, I added feral pigs to my list of formidable and frightening creatures.

But until I began my PhD fieldwork in the Okanagan Valley, it would never have occurred to me to worry about cows.

I know what you’re thinking: how can cows be in the same league as bears or mountain lions?  After all, they’re vegetarians!  There is no chance that you’re ever going to be eaten by a hungry cow.  They just stare at you with their huge brown eyes and chew their cud meditatively.


As it turns out, you really don’t run into bears or mountain lions that often in the field.  (Not that I’m complaining.)  But what you do see – especially doing fieldwork in an agricultural area like the Okanagan Valley – is cows.  They’re everywhere.

This is especially true if your study species is partial to the type of habitat that often holds grazing cows.  When I was setting up my PhD field sites, I wanted to make sure to cover as many types of bluebird habitat as possible.  So while much of my research took place in vineyards or along walking trails, I also had two sites that were open rangeland.

The wide open spaces of one of my two rangeland sites.

The open spaces and sage brush of one of my two rangeland sites.

When I first set up nest boxes at these sites, I fell in love with the wide, empty spaces and the scent of sagebrush.  My rangeland sites instantly became my favourite.  But on my second visit to one of these sites, I got an inkling that they might be more problematic than I’d thought.  As the car rounded the last corner on the way to the site, I had to hit the brakes hard.  My field of vision was suddenly filled with milling brown and black bodies.  Cows, cows, and more cows…as far as the eye could see.

I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my phone to call the landowner.  He’d mentioned to me that they’d be bringing the cows in, but I had to assume they weren’t supposed to be blocking traffic.  “There must be a break in the fence,” I told him.  “The cows have gotten out and are all over the road.”

“Oh, that’s normal,” he replied.  “I’m sure the fence is fine.”

“But…” I started at the solid wall of bodies on the road in consternation. “…how did they get out, then?”

“Well, fences are more like…suggestions…to cows,” he responded.  “They usually ignore them.  But I’m sure if you honk at them enough, they’ll get out of your way.”

More trouble than they look...

More trouble than they look…   (Photo credit: Manisha Bhardwaj.)

From then on, the two rangeland sites were the bane of my existence.  No matter what was on my agenda when I arrived, the cows always seemed to be between me and where I needed to go.  It was like they had a copy of my schedule.  And it was never just one or two cows – wherever one went, the other 30 animals in the herd joined it, forming a dense, noisy, smelly barrier between me and my destination.

Also, as it turns out, cows and bird boxes are not a good combination.  The cows decided that the boxes were perfect scratching posts, and were irresistibly attracted to them.  Almost every time I arrived at the sites, one or more of the boxes would be hanging at a precarious angle – often with a perplexed bluebird sitting beside it.

And then, of course, there were the cow patties everywhere.

After a month or so, though, the cows and I had settled into an uneasy détente.  I was starting to think the situation was relatively under control – and that’s when the bulls showed up.

The first time I realized the cows had been joined by their male friends, I had just dropped my field assistant off at a site.  I happened to glance in the rearview mirror as I pulled away, only to see my assistant standing completely still about 100m away.  Straight across the field from her, staring her down, was a very large cow.  As it lowered its head and began pawing at the ground, it slowly dawned on me that it was really too big…and muscular…and horned…to be a cow.  As my field assistant ran for the car, I realized we had a problem.  From then on, we spent considerably less time at that site.

My other ranch site, on the other hand, remained blissfully free of bulls for most of the summer.  So while the cows and I continued to wage a cold war, I usually felt pretty safe.  By the time August rolled around, the fieldwork was slowing down and I had pretty much relaxed.

Then one day, I was out in the field with my assistant, banding a nest full of bluebird nestlings.  I had just taken two out of the box and was settling onto the ground with one in each hand, when I felt a malevolent gaze on the back of my neck.

I looked around in surprise…only to find myself making eye contact with a bull.  He was about 50m away, and though he appeared relatively unconcerned, there was no doubt that he was sizing me up.

I scrambled to my feet and started backing away, urging my field assistant to do the same.  We struggled cautiously up the small hill behind the box, turning frequently to watch the bull as he meandered closer to the box we’d abandoned. Every time we stopped moving, he would start towards us again – so we kept climbing.

As we reached the top of the hill, I realized two things simultaneously. One – we were out of hill to climb; if he kept coming, we were going to have to make a run for the car.  And two – I still had the nestlings I’d been intending to band clutched in my hand, peeping faintly.

Luckily, after 20 very tense minutes, the bull lost interest and headed on his way, allowing us to creep back down to the box and finish banding.  It took a little longer than that for my heart rate to come back to normal.

So, after more than a decade of fieldwork, here’s what I’ve learned: if you must worry, focus less on bears and the mountain lions, and more on the things you’re likely to actually run into.  And don’t let those big brown eyes fool you – cows are usually up to no good.


Playing for the other team

Among field biologists, like in any other group of people, there are divisions that may not be apparent from the outside.  There are the animal people and the plant people.  The bird people, the frog people, the snake people, the fish people.  No matter how far down you get, there always seems to be another division: groups within groups within groups, like a stack of Russian nesting dolls.

Ever since my first job, I’ve been a bird person – more specifically, I’ve been a songbird person.  With the exception of one summer spent chasing shorebirds in Alaska, all my work has focused on these small, colourful, perching birds.  And I’ve been quite satisfied with this – I saw no reason to go explore the world of, say, waterfowl, or birds of prey.

But I must admit, I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by seabirds, mostly because seabird people often do field work in the most remote, beautiful, and dramatic places imaginable – from the steep cliffs of Ascension Island to the isolated beaches of the Aleutian Islands.  However, despite a certain jealousy about seabird field sites, I’ve never been that interested in the birds themselves, for one simple reason: the majority of seabirds nest in huge colonies.  These loud, smelly groups of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of birds have never really appealed to me.

One of the things I like best about songbird research is that it usually involves marking birds to allow for individual identification.  As the field season progresses, you get to know the birds within your study population pretty well.  For example, when you check nests, you know ahead of time which birds will launch themselves at your head in a kamikaze attempt at defence, and which birds will only sit and watch, chirping mournfully.  Part of the joy of research, for me, is being able to distinguish those characteristics that make one bird distinct from another.  And I’ve always assumed that this would be much harder, if not impossible, to do in the middle of a chaotic mass of thousands of birds.

But last summer, I got an opportunity I couldn’t refuse.  As I was trudging through long days of data analysis in the office, a former labmate offered me the chance to help her out in the field for a few weeks.  We would be catching and banding Common Terns in a large colony on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.  Colony-nesters or not, there was no way I was turning down an opportunity to get back into the field – so I accepted the job.

From the moment we scrambled out of the boat onto the beach of the island colony, I realized I was in a whole new world.  The first thing I saw was three tern eggs, snuggled into a twig-lined depression in the sand.

My first tern nest!

My first tern nest!

“Ooh!  Nest!  I found a nest!” I cried in excitement.

To put my excitement in context, finding songbird nests usually involves hours or even days of careful detective work.  It requires a lot of patience – a lot of watching, waiting, and hoping for the bird’s behaviour to reveal the slightest clue about the nest’s location.  There are also usually a fair number of wild goose chases, and endless amounts of frustration.  Managing to successfully track a songbird to its nest is always cause for a happy dance.

So after years of working with songbirds, I’m pretty conditioned to be excited when I see a nest.  But no sooner had I gleefully announced my first tern nest sighting when my gaze shifted a few metres up the beach…and there was another one.  And another…and another…and another…

All of a sudden, I started to see the appeal of working with colony-nesting birds.

My second...and third...and fourth...tern nests.

My second…and third…and fourth…and fifth…and sixth…tern nests.

As we picked our way carefully up the beach into the main part of the colony, masses of hysterical terns rose into the air, their grating two-note screams (which, oddly, sounded a lot like the introductory notes of Britney Spears’ “Toxic”) making my ears ring.  The smell of the colony – a mix of fish and decaying organic matter – matched the musical theme.  So far, I decided, being in a seabird colony was pretty much what I’d expected: overwhelmingly loud and smelly.

However, once we’d set up our blind and hidden ourselves from sight, things calmed down a bit.  A few minutes after we disappeared from view, the circling crowd of terns above us began to descend, and the cacophony began to quiet.  I watched as nearby birds returned to their nests, dropping out of the air with their feet stretched towards the ground, then wiggling themselves into position over the eggs.  They all finished with their wings crossed and tails pointing out at a 45 degree angle – fitting onto the nest like the lid on a jar of cookies.

Time to sit on those eggs again...

Time to come on down…

...and wiggle into the right position.

…and sit on those eggs again.

As more and more terns returned to their nests, quiet descended over the colony. I could hear the waves out on the lake and the wind rustling the island’s sparse vegetation.  I was just starting to relax…when suddenly, the colony rose into the air again, hundreds of birds moving as one.  To me, sitting in the blind, the sudden rush of wings felt a bit like being inside a snow globe, or maybe an Escher painting: terns rising up all around me, the sound of endless beating wings almost like the sail of a boat flapping in the wind.

A blizzard of terns.

A blizzard of terns.

For the next two weeks, we spent a lot of time watching the colony, and every day, the pattern was the same: short periods of calm, punctuated with frequent episodes of mass panic.  And the longer I watched, the more I realized that the individual quirks I love so much in songbirds were also evident in the terns.  For example, each time the colony flushed, there would be one or two individuals reluctant to follow the trend.  They’d stay sitting on their nests until long after everyone else was up in the air.  And it always seemed to be the same birds that stuck around while everyone else circled above.  I started to wonder: were those birds braver than the others?  Smarter?  Or maybe just lazier?  I came to the conclusion that, while the sheer number of birds in a colony may make it difficult to observe behaviour on an individual level, it is possible – and those distinctive personality traits are certainly there if you look for them.

I’m not saying I’m giving up on the songbirds: I doubt that will ever happen.  But my brief sojourn in the world of seabirds convinced me that it’s a place I’d like to visit more often.

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Pushing the limits

This week, Dispatches from the Field is pleased to welcome guest blogger Laura Hancock, a Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who tells us why she loves fieldwork.  For more about Laura, see her bio at the end of the post.

Field work can be great. Sometimes field work means being outside in the warm sun, or camping under the stars. I love field work. In fact, as a second year Master’s student, I feel like I’m not doing nearly enough field work. I don’t miss field work because I love being outside (which I do), but I miss pushing myself, discovering how much I can do, and what I’m made of. As cliché as this sounds, I felt like I discovered myself when I had my first field experience during my freshman year in college. A graduate TA of mine invited me out to help him and some other graduate students measuring tree growth in a created wetland. This was the opportunity I had wanted for a year and couldn’t wait to get out there! I even skipped studying for a quiz because I was so excited about the opportunity (as someone who at the time was a perfectionist and had a 4.0 GPA, this meant a lot). As soon as I was out in the field, knee deep in mud and dirt, I knew I was in the right place and had made the right choice of activities at the time and overall in my life. I loved the work, the fresh air, talking with people who loved ecology, and like me, loved being out there. But what I found was the most invigorating was how real and raw everything was. This might seem like a complete “duh” (you’re outside for gosh sakes, how much “realer” does it get than trees, dirt, sun, and bugs?), but everything just clicked for me. I was able to let go of being a perfectionist or thinking about getting everything done. I felt like what I was doing made a tangible difference to someone and the environment.

I continued to do various field work projects through my senior year in undergrad – and then I got the opportunity of a lifetime. One of my favourite professors works with bats (possibly the most interesting group of animals on the planet). He offered me a position after I graduated where I would help monitor and track an endangered species of bat out in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of course I said yes, and patiently waited until I could finally graduate, not because I hated school (which I don’t), but because I wanted to be outside in one of the coolest places on Earth – Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

Not a bad office: the view from one of the monitoring sites in Death Valley National Park.

In June of 2013, two graduate students, a Death Valley park ranger, and I were tasked with the job of going out to monitor a maternal roost site in an abandoned mine. (Bats really love roosting in abandoned mines, especially in areas where humans have destroyed natural caves.) The best part? The mine was a 7 mile hike each way, off any paths accessible to regular park goers. Even better? It was June IN DEATH VALLEY. Hellooo, heat stroke!

Right now some of you might be thinking I’m being sarcastic, I’m 100% serious. I was SO excited for this. I grew up as not the healthiest kid. I was constantly tired and got sick a lot, on top of other issues. However, as I got older most of that stuff went away. As that happened, I realized how important it was to me to have a healthy body. I liked pushing my limits and seeing what I was capable of; when you put yourself in extreme conditions you have to be hyper aware of you, your body, your surroundings, and how you’re feeling. It’s like yoga, but for thrill seekers.

Now back to Death Valley in June. I was really excited to push my limits and hike 14 miles in one of the hottest places on Earth, in the middle of the summer. Turns out there was a “cold wave” the week the crew and I were there, so it was only 112 °F . Just kidding! That’s still PRETTY hot! The crew and I made the trek to the mine early on in the day, hiked to another mine a mile away over sand dunes and headed back. By the time all the work was done, it had been 10 hours and over 16 miles of hiking. I was by far the happiest and most energetic person on the field crew that night. We just hiked 16 miles in 112 °F heat – what couldn’t we do!?

Now that I spend most of my day e-mailing and reading papers as a graduate student, I long for those days when I got to be out in the field. I love the feeling of accomplishment and mental growth, but air conditioning isn’t bad either.

Laura HancockLaura graduated from Christopher Newport University with a B.Sc. in Biology in 2013.  Now she is a second year Master’s student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, researching metapopulation and source-sink dynamics of garlic mustard.  Her background is in plants and plant-insect ecology, but a few years ago, she took a nine month break from plant and insect work to study bats and has missed the work every day since!


What did the bat say? A night of listening in the dark

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Toby J. Thorne, who tells us about some of his adventures wandering the deep dark night in search of bats.

Bats are rather mysterious creatures. Most people I talk to about bats think they are interesting, but don’t know much about them. It’s not all that surprising; unlike more obvious wildlife such as birds, people don’t encounter bats very often. After all, they are active at night, when people like to sleep, and even then it’s hard to spot small and flying creatures in the dark.

A Natterer’s bat taking off from a tree roost in the UK.

A Natterer’s bat taking off from a tree roost in the UK.

Happily, surveying bats is easier than you might think. Most bats (and all the ones found in Canada), find their way around in the dark using echolocation: emitting sounds and listening to the echoes to avoid obstacles and find prey. We don’t hear these sounds because they are at higher frequencies than we are able to hear, but a variety of devices known as ‘bat detectors’ can convert the sound into our hearing range, or record the bats (there are several more affordable bat detectors available if you want to learn more about your own bats!). With a bat detector in hand it is as if the bats are flying around shouting ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ What’s more, different species make different sounds, so it’s sometimes possible to identify the species of a bat based on its echolocation calls – though some species are more difficult than others, and the technologies, although improving, are far from perfect!

A big brown bat – in my experience, the most commonly encountered bat in southern Ontario. If you have bats in your garden or home there’s a good chance it’s one of these! Please note that the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation more than aggression.

A big brown bat – in my experience, the most commonly encountered bat in southern Ontario. If you have bats in your garden or home there’s a good chance it’s one of these! Please note that the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation more than aggression.

I’ve listened to bats for a variety of projects, along with my own enjoyment, including recording several million calls during my master’s research. Last year (2015) I was approached by Thames Talbot Land Trust to survey for bats at Hawk Cliff Woods, a site they are in the process of acquiring. Before heading out to survey, I used maps and satellite images in order to pick a transect route to walk. Hawk Cliff has a mix of forest, meadow and a field that is currently being farmed, and I wanted to cover as much as possible as different bat species have differing habitat preferences.

At Hawk Cliff setting off on my transect.

At Hawk Cliff setting off on my transect.

I arrived a little before sunset, giving myself some time to look around in daylight. I also took the opportunity to record a few waymarks that I thought would be difficult to locate in the dark with my GPS. Then it was time to get my kit together, and wait for the bats to arrive. I had a heterodyne ‘bat detector’, which allows me to listen live to bats’ echolocation and get a constant idea of activity – even when I can’t see anything. I also had an ultrasound sensitive microphone that records onto a tiny laptop in my backpack, I can review these recordings later to confirm species that I missed or couldn’t identify on heterodyne. I also had a smartphone with GPS and maps, to find my way and record it so I can geotag my recordings later. Lastly, I had a notebook and a couple of flashlights – nocturnal biologists love flashlights!

I try and time the beginning of my survey to be when bats start to become active, although this varies depending on how close you are to a roost and how dark it is, cloudy vs. brightly moonlit light for example. Activity at twilight is perhaps the most important. At this time, it’s unlikely that bats have travelled far from their roosts, so hearing them early suggests they are living close by. Also, for a brief time at twilight enough light remains that I can see the bats. This is something anyone can do without any special equipment; just go out in the twilight and look up (obviously this works best in the mid-summer, when bats are most active, and is pointless in winter). Bats’ fluttery flight is quite distinct from the more direct flight of birds. I love watching the aerobatics of bats in the dusk light, and it’s often possible to identify if bats are close to a roost – they sometimes fly around the entrance – or are feeding, characterised by sudden, rapid changes in direction to intercept prey on the wing. On my transect at Hawk Cliff, twilight activity was mostly made up of big brown bats, the species I encounter most in Ontario, with a few eastern red bats bringing variety.

As the darkness draws in it becomes impossible to see bats even when they’re flying over my head. But with my bat detectors in hand I can still tell when they are there. Activity can become less intense as the night goes on. Many species gorge themselves at sunset and then take things easier for the rest of the night. Activity is also diluted as individuals disperse through the landscape.

A closer look at my bat detecting setup. In my hand is my heterodyne detector, with my ultrasound microphone attached to the side with highly technical elastic bands. I usually like to have my laptop running in my backpack so I’m not distracted by the screen, but here I have it out to check the microphone is functioning correctly. It is, as demonstrated by the big brown bat echolocation calls visible in the spectrogram on the screen!

A closer look at my bat detecting setup. In my hand is my heterodyne detector, with my ultrasound microphone attached to the side with highly technical elastic bands. I usually like to have my laptop running in my backpack so I’m not distracted by the screen, but here I have it out to check the microphone is functioning correctly. It is, as demonstrated by the big brown bat echolocation calls visible in the spectrogram on the screen!

Finding my way at night, even at sites I am familiar with, often leads to interesting times. At Hawk Cliff I had planned part of my transect to pass through the forest. For the first half of this section I was able to follow a trail, and things were easy. I then crossed a ravine, luckily without too much difficulty. Finding my way out of the forest was more difficult as there was no trail, but I made it with the minimum of bushwhacking. However, things were more complicated a few weeks later when I returned to repeat my survey. This time the ravine was filled with goldenrod that had grown up above my head, and it took me almost forty minutes to find a safe route to cross. The effort was worthwhile though, as in and around the forest I heard several rarer species, such as the threatened little brown bat.

Another picture of a big brown bat, showing the wing extended and the general size of the bat. This bat can give a painful bite, which is why I am wearing a thick glove.

Another picture of a big brown bat, showing the wing extended and the general size of the bat. This bat can give a painful bite, which is why I am wearing a thick glove.

I usually wrap things up a few hours after sunset. Bat activity is usually lower through the middle of the night, so it’s a case of diminishing returns – and I still need to sleep. After a survey it’s nice to head home to bed – although at Hawk Cliff, that wasn’t to be. To maximise my coverage I had decided to stay the night and repeat the transect at dawn, so I bedded down in a sleeping bag in the back of the car instead…

Even when I did get home, there was still work to do. I have to go through the recordings from my microphone to confirm the identifications of bats I heard and then cross reference them with my GPS file to get a map of bat activity. I like to do this step as soon as I can, while observations are still fresh in my mind, and then write my final report.

A picture of a little brown bat along with a spectrogram of its echolocation call. Spectrograms are visual representations of the frequency, temporal and amplitude characteristics that are used by bat biologists to try and identify species based on echolocation calls. Again, the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation, rather than in aggression.

A picture of a little brown bat along with a spectrogram of its echolocation call. Spectrograms are visual representations of the frequency, temporal and amplitude characteristics that are used by bat biologists to try and identify species based on echolocation calls. Again, the bat’s mouth is open to facilitate echolocation, rather than in aggression.

Learning to listen to bats is a great way to experience wildlife in a rather novel way. Of course there is a limit to what we can learn just by listening and to answer some questions we have to catch bats, and I enjoy doing that too. However, I’ll always love seeing bats in their element – even if sometimes my ears have to do the seeing.

HeadshotToby first encountered bats at an event in his local park in the UK at the age of 11. Two weeks later, with a local enthusiast group, he caught his first bat and got an up-close look. He’s never looked back. Toby spent his adolescence listening to, catching, banding and radio-tracking bats around the south of England. In 2013 he moved to Canada to undertake a master’s studying bats at the University of Western Ontario, as well as for fun! For more information check out Toby’s website: http://www.tobythorne.com/



Mischief in Sparrow-land

This week, we at Dispatches from the Field are very excited to welcome guest blogger Amy Strauss, a fantastic field biologist and a former field assistant for resident Dispatches blogger Catherine Dale.  Amy, who is now pursuing her own graduate work, shares stories of deception and duplicity from her fieldwork studying song sparrows in Massachusetts.

Fieldwork is about beautiful landscapes, vibrant sunrises, and becoming one with the great outdoors. It’s about pursuing scientific exploration in a natural setting, free from the limitations of a superficial laboratory environment.

My fieldwork is also about trickery.

A thick morning fog begins to burn off just as the sun rises over Wentworth Farms Conservation Area in Amherst, MA.

A thick morning fog begins to burn off just as the sun rises over Wentworth Farms Conservation Area in Amherst, MA.

I am a behavioral ecologist, driven by an intense curiosity about what evolutionary and ecological factors have shaped the behaviors exhibited by animals today.  Why do some species hibernate and others don’t? Why do we see such elaborate courtship displays exhibited by some animals and not others? Why is it adaptive for some lizards to squirt blood from their eyes when threatened, and for some female spiders to eat their mates after sex? This is the sphere of biology where my intellectual curiosity peaks.

One way to try to understand the biological function of a particular behavior is to manipulate something in an animal’s environment and see how the animal behaves in response. I study singing in birds, a communication behavior used in social interactions, so I get to manipulate birds’ social environments to figure out how song functions. And that’s where the trickery comes in.

Envision a team of field biologists – clad in full nerd attire, binoculars dangling around their necks, and each toting multiple large bags of equipment. This brigade of researchers woke up at 3:30am, bathed themselves head to toe in DEET, and are all geared up for a day in the field. Their goal? To fool unsuspecting little song sparrows into perceiving the presence of birds that aren’t really there.

Let me explain.

Song sparrows are territorial during the breeding season, which means that in areas of adequate habitat, individual males claim space and resources and then fiercely defend them. Those males then work to attract a female to their territory – and fiercely defend her as well. Land gets divided up amongst song sparrows in more or less the same way we humans divide up land amongst ourselves: ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours’. Neighbors are just fine as long as they don’t cross over the designated property line – or in the case of birds, the designated territory boundary. And just like in humans, anyone who crosses into another’s territory is considered an intruder and an aggressor.

Song sparrows use song in this context to negotiate territory boundaries in the springtime, and to maintain those borders throughout the breeding season. Have you ever taken a stroll through the woods or through a meadow in the spring and summer months? If so, you’ve probably heard the perpetual, beautiful singing of many songbird species. What they’re saying, essentially, is: “This is mine! I’m here! Stay away! Back off!”…a loud chorus of self-promoting, resource-hungry birds all broadcasting their positions outward to a network of listening competitors.

I, a human researcher interested in some of the finer points of birdsong biology, can take advantage of this vocal communication system by posing as a song sparrow and attempting to infiltrate established song sparrow neighborhoods. And this is my mission each day in the field: to manipulate the social environment of these birds by masquerading as a rival male song sparrow and observing the birds’ responses.

How do I pull of such a disguise? Good question. No, I don’t try to pass for a song sparrow by gluing feathers onto my head or taping wings onto my back or rigging up some fancy flying machine, although that sounds like fun. I do it entirely through sound. It’s convenient for me that birds rely so heavily on acoustic communication, though it’s not a coincidence at all; their reliance on song is precisely what got me interested in singing behavior in the first place. So my disguise in the field consists of song sparrow song recordings played through a camouflaged speaker connected to – you guessed it – my iPhone.

Amy and her field assistants raise a net and plot their strategy for capturing their next song sparrow.

Amy and her field assistants raise a net and plot their strategy for capturing their next song sparrow. Can you spot the net?

Using this simple system, there is a whole lot I can do with a population of song sparrows, and a lot of fascinating biological hypotheses that I can test. A favorite trick of field ornithologists everywhere is to catch birds from the air, using song to lure birds into their nets. Remember: a bird that crosses into the territory of a conspecific, when detected, will be challenged by the territory-holder. And an audio speaker playing conspecific song from inside the boundaries of a song sparrow territory, when detected, will be challenged by the territory-holder. And so the poor suckers fly right into our nets! [Side note for the wary: birds are not injured during this process.]

A banded male song sparrow, fashionably clad in hot pink bands!

A banded male song sparrow, fashionably clad in hot pink bands!

Once the bird is in hand, there are many things that researchers can do – take morphological measurements, gather DNA/blood/tissue samples, or attach GPS trackers to the birds. As a behaviorist, what I do next is place small bands around the bird’s legs that will stay on over time so I can identify that individual in the future. One band has a unique identification number on it, and the other bands are a combination of bright colors that allow me, even from afar, to determine the identity of the bird. Once they are banded and released, I can track individual birds as they fly around their territories, allowing me to create very precise maps of territory boundaries and to learn “who’s who” in the song sparrow neighborhood. I’m now further equipped to meddle in the social lives of these song sparrows.

A portable speaker broadcasts recorded song sparrow vocalizations, fooling the (real) sparrows of the neighborhood.

A portable speaker broadcasts recorded song sparrow vocalizations, fooling the (real) sparrows of the neighborhood.

The real meat of my work comes next – when I throw on my audio-disguise again, this time not to catch birds, but to investigate the function and relevance of variations in song sparrow singing behavior. My field assistants and I, in the form of a portable audio speaker, work together to simulate a trespassing song sparrow intruding on another’s territory. From this speaker, we can present a range of vocal recordings and closely monitor how a bird responds to each. Because we can identify individuals by the colored ID bands affixed to their legs, we are able to perform repeated experiments on the same individual song sparrows to compare responses over time or across treatments.  We can vary the song stimuli presented, we can vary the location of the speaker, and we can vary the time of presentation – to see what effect these changes have on the unknowing, outwitted song sparrow. Across these and many more axes of variation, big questions can be asked about the factors that affect avian vocal behavior, territoriality, and aggression. All with just a speaker posing as a song sparrow and some super stealthy field assistants.

Fieldwork is just trickery…in the name of SCIENCE.

Amy&MistNetAmy Strauss is currently working on her PhD in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB) in the Podos Lab at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.  Prior to joining the OEB community, Amy worked as a Scientic Assistant in Vertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, where she did things like inventory elephant skulls and read through curator field notes from the 1920’s.  Amy was inspired to work on birdsong after assisting on a few song-related field projects during and after college — including a summer job in the Dominican Republic working for Dispatches co-creator Catherine Dale!

Not so down time

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Dr. Kathryn Hargan, who fills us in on what field biologists do when they can’t do field biology!  For more about Dr. Hargan, see her bio at the end of this post.

For those of you not acquainted with northern field work, weather will dictate your field season, no matter your discipline. If there is too much fog, there is a real danger of walking straight into a polar bear due to the low visibility. Trying to catch cliff-dwelling seabirds in the wind and fog is similarly treacherous. Wind is terrible for limnologists, yielding white caps on lakes and placing tension on the sampling rope. Often we sample in children’s inflatable boats (they’re light and portable!) and these can take on water fast. Surprisingly, paleolimnologists, like me, can work fairly well in rain. However, most ornithologists, with whom I collaborate, cannot: when the mother birds flees, the eggs get too cold too quickly in the rain. Cumulatively over my last two Arctic field seasons, I have spent more time not in the field than out collecting samples. So, I feel it only appropriate to touch on some of the non-field activities that have been so important in maintaining the sanity of our research teams as we see our full research potential and dollars dwindle day by day. What do you do if you have days, or in the cases of my field seasons, weeks, of bad weather? Here are a few insights and suggestions from my experience:

  1. Hone your photography skills and creative abilities.

How often are you placed in a beautiful setting with infinite time (i.e. days to weeks) to explore? Once you have taken the classic landscape shots, it’s time to take it to the next step. I highly recommend picking a theme for your non-field work photos, for example, rocks, ice, houses, community dogs, etc. In 2014, my field colleague, John, decided it was going to be skulls. Good thing John had a strong knowledge of this macabre subject, because at first my anatomy knowledge failed me – who knew seals and dogs can be confused? But generally speaking, in the Arctic you see lots of different sets of bones that are decaying but not necessary fully rotting, from a whole variety of charismatic animals – caribou, belugas, bowhead whales, seals, and lemmings, to name just a few. If you’re not into slightly weird pictures, you know those iconic jumping and yoga photos that everyone has? This is the time to take ‘em! The field crew jumping on a cliff, or perhaps a 6 ft man in intense hiking shoes and a rain jacket preforming some yoga on the sea ice? And then finally take lots of photos of the culprit that is preventing your field work – weather, fog, or blasted ice pack! If you return to the same field location year-after-year than you can start to line up the photos by date and see how drastically different one year can be from the next. I really find that looking back at all these photos provides me with a lot of entertainment and makes me forget the stress of missing valuable field work opportunities.

Left: photographing skulls in the Arctic. Right: ice yoga.

Fieldwork on pause?  Try taking up a hobby…like skull photography (left) or ice yoga (right).

  1. Learn something new from someone else.

I have been very fortunate to be “stuck” in the north with botanists. Just about anywhere you go, there are plants, and so really, no field season is a complete disappointment to them. When all else fails – ID plants! Can’t find your study animal – ID plants! Can’t get to that lake – ID plants! Though, I apologize if you do winter field work – ID…those clouds?!  My favourite plant from 2015 is the Hairy lousewort (Pedicularis hirsute) and actually may have become my photo theme – it’s not common and quite rewarding when found.  I recently learnt that there is a Woolly lousewort in the western Arctic, and as the name suggests it has more hair than the Hairy lousewort! One day, I will devise a plan to sample lakes in the NWT.  But seriously, if there are not botanists around, most scientists tend to harbor a pool of information on something outside of their field that should be gleaned.

Hairy Lousewort

A close-up of the aptly name hairy lousewort (right), and most rewarding lousewort patch I found in the summer of 2015 (right).

  1. Cook and bake.

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations...

    An abundance of free time can result in some interesting culinary creations…

While maintaining a positive outlook that you will eventually start field work, it is only logical that you gain some extra ‘energy’ stores. Of course, these stores will be burned off later when you are putting in long hours and making up for lost time. Also, when we are cold, we eat. Typically, there is no shortage of flour, sugar and butter in northern communities (ketchup is another story!), and so time can be passed whipping up biscuits, croissants, shortcake, brownies and themed cakes. If you don’t have a stove or microwave, even experimenting with new combinations of food (e.g., nutella and peanut butter pair well with many things!) is an amusing option.

  1. Enjoy the community.

I have to say that although I really enjoy the remoteness of northern field work, we don’t often get to be fully immersed in a community. This changed in 2015 when our team was in Cape Dorset for over two weeks. We got to participate in Nunavut Day –a festive town parade and games for ALL ages – including toddler races – so cute! Daily trips to the grocery stores and evening strolls around town meant that we got to know many members of the community. We made friends with a group of children that would always know where we were and even call the house to ask if we could “play out.” Our extended stay in the community also meant that we could organize an information session on our research, and demonstrate how to use our equipment – believe it or not, the sediment corer caught the eye of some.

Community information session.

Community information session.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

Cape Dorset youth at sunset.

So, those are my main points, but of course I have left out some of the obvious. We do watch TV and bad movies when we can’t work – 2015 is the first year I ever watched Shark Week and I probably saw every show twice. We also unknowingly used up the last of our internet watching origami instructional videos. And yes, we do spend a lot of time talking about the weather and brainstorming wild ways to make it improve. Hopefully you never have to employ any of the above, but if you do, maybe now you will have some new inspirational ideas.

Me, with a rally cap – our field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kat, sporting a rally cap and the belief that field season could still be victorious late in the game (and it was!).

Kathryn Hargan is currently a W. Garfield Weston postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa. She finished her PhD in 2014 in PEARL at Queen’s University looking at environmental changes in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Since then she has shifted her research focus to the eastern Hudson Bay and understanding the importance of seabirds as biovectors in the Arctic.


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.