For most jobs it’s the people you work with can really make or break your experience. This is especially true when working in the field. Thankfully, I’ve always worked with good field crews, and have never been in a situation in the field where I’ve regretted who I’m with.
I landed my first field job during my undergraduate. I was hired to be a field assistant for research being done in the Yukon. I remember in the interview, my supervisor said something along the lines of: “I want someone who can endure the conditions of the field. Learning the knowledge and techniques will come later”. I’m not sure that I fully understood what he meant at the time, but now after having experienced many field seasons and gone through the process of hiring my own field assistants, I couldn’t agree more.
Fieldwork is a unique working environment. It’s challenging in many ways and often unpredictable. The hours are long, flushable toilets are sometimes a luxury, weather may not be in your favour, and the biting insects can be unbearable. It’s the people along side you who will help you laugh with you and get through the tough times. They also bring often bring the fun times!
When we were in the Yukon, we decided to cook beans one night for dinner during a multi-day excursion. We soaked them the night before and the whole day of before cooking them thinking, the longer they soak the better. We ate them and they were a bit hard, but edible. The next day hiking in the alpine doing fieldwork, I think we all found out that over-soaking beans is a real problem as we were all sick. We were banned from bringing dried beans on future excursions. Another time in a remote area with no easy way out, aside from a multi-day hike or a helicopter, we were hiking back to our campsite to find one of our brand new mountaineering tents had blown over in the strong mountain winds! We hurried back and patched up the tent with duct tape. These experiences were embarrassing and stressful at the time, but they are now some of my most memorable stories from that season and ones that bonded us.
It’s not just the eventful situations that bond people together during fieldwork. When you’re in the field with someone, you spend a LOT of time together. It can be pretty intense work, tedious, and mundane. You get into a routine together and can get to know each other pretty well while working. I remember the times of sitting in the car waiting out the rain and finding ways to entertain ourselves. Or running into the lake after long hot field days during my master’s – of which there were many – and driving back to the field station soaking wet. It was worth it! Or simply discovering nature together whether it’s running around like mad people catching butterflies, finding snakes, and helping turtles off the road. I’m grateful to have shared these experiences with the people I worked with.
In the end, it’s not just about the discussions you’re bound to have, good field crews are the people who jump into lakes with you, who share those embarrassing field mishaps, and most of all, who share your enthusiasm for a sometimes difficult, but always rewarding job.
In my experience, daytime is for fieldwork and the evenings are for campfires. However, this past summer I spent more time outside in the evening for fieldwork than I did in previous years, conducting amphibian surveys and helping out with bat surveys. People often associate walking around the woods at night with horror movies. I’m here to tell you this is not the case.
Earlier this month I spent an evening helping out with a bat survey in southern Ontario. I’ve been to this site before during the day, but at night it’s a different place. We arrive about a half hour after sunset. At dusk, it’s just light enough to see the last few birds fly over before settling for the night and the bats are starting to coming out. These animals can easily be missed if we don’t look up. They flit about and sometimes dip low, making their flight distinctive from birds. There’s a short time frame at dusk where you can see them flying above, but once the night sets in they are next to impossible to make out.
Bats find their way with echolocation calls at a higher frequency than what is detectable by human hearing. Sometimes we can hear the chattering of bats if we’re near a roost, and every once in a while I can hear a faint sound of a low frequency echolocation. We were using two kinds of bat detectors: one that strictly records and one that converts high frequency sounds into sounds humans can hear, to give us an idea of the bat activity in real time. We put on our headlamps, test the bat detectors, and we’re off.
As we set off to walk the transect the sky quickly darkens. In the fading light I can’t see more than a meter or two in front of me. The crickets and cicadas fill my ears. Sometimes I miss a low branch and get a reminder to look up from the ground once in a while. I can’t help but feel more vulnerable. It is more difficult to navigate, even on familiar trails. A good headlamp and a compass is a must.
Well into the transect I start to feel more comfortable. It also helps to have a field partner, especially one to lead the way and encounter the spiderwebs first! I recognize the trail and different parts of the property. We walk through the meadow I helped seed and the wetland I helped plant plugs in. The evening is a busy time for wildlife. During certain sections of the property, bat activity is almost continuous. But we also encountered pollinating moths, a katydid, and heard coyotes yipping not too far off.
By the end of the survey the stars are out, the temperature has dropped slightly, and the bats have been recorded. Another successful survey completed and it’s time to turn in for the night.
Of course there are more than bats to see or hear on a given night. Some of the highlights from my previous night time excursions include being deafened by the sound of spring peepers finding a mate in the early spring, fields lit up by fireflies by the end of June, and coming across different eye shines of nocturnal animals throughout the year.
Going outside at night is not as scary as Hollywood would have us believe. In fact it gives a whole new perspective to an area you may be very familiar with during the day. It becomes a whole new place to explore. If you think you know a place, go for a walk there at night to see the difference. Or you can join a night hike, or just sit, listen, and watch, preferably somewhere away from streetlights. You’ll be amazed at what you might find.
This blog post is also posted on Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Land Lines blog here.
I spent many of my formative years as a field biologist in the Carolinian region of southern Ontario. The landscape is highly fragmented. It’s largely agricultural with bits of restored tallgrass prairie and scattered tracts of Carolinian forest. It’s one of the most biodiverse places in Canada and has more endangered and rare species than any other lifezone in this country. I spent time getting to know the area while collecting data for my master’s research, tracking badgers and finding snakes and turtles for work. In many ways it was comfortable place to be; I was familiar with the area, the community and the biodiversity. But a change of scenery can be a good thing too.
Three months ago I moved to work in a new region, Happy Valley Forest, which is located in King Township, just north of the Greater Toronto Area. At more than 1500 acres, it is one of the largest remaining tracts of forest along the Oak Ridges Moraine. It’s only about a two-hour drive from the Long Point area, but the differences are distinct. I was sad to leave that familiarity behind, but I was also excited to start a new adventure. Of course, anything new comes with new challenges.
My past home in Norfolk County is a much more rural area. Farmland is the dominant landcover type intersected by country roads and dotted with roadside vegetable stands – which I miss very much. The atmosphere is just a little bit more relaxed and laid back. In contrast, Happy Valley Forest is surrounded by the growing pressure of urban development. I live outside the big city, but the hustle and bustle of urban sprawl is ever present and it was a bit of a shock moving here! Cars weave in and out of lanes without signalling, drivers honk uncontrollably and they rarely let you into their lane – alright, there might some slight exaggeration. While many people are driving their shinny fancy cars to their offices, I often feel judged for driving my well-worn Matrix that’s obviously seen a few dirt roads!
The terrain is another noticeable difference. There can be some steep ravines in the Carolinian region – I got to know them well while looking for badgers. But overall the landscape is pretty flat and easy walking. Happy Valley Forest, on the other hand, sits on the Oak Ridges Moraine, a prominent geological feature in the Ontario landscape. In the last glaciation, about 13 000 years ago, glaciers deposited sediment as they moved along creating deep valleys and hills – a moraine. By southern Ontario standards, it’s one of the more challenging terrains to hike. Historically, the area was logged. Due to the difficult conditions of the logging camps and the hilly terrain the workers jokingly named the area: Happy Valley Forest or more perhaps accurately, Pinchgut. Hiking here took some getting use to. Nonetheless it makes for a good workout and a beautiful landscape to work in.
One of the more difficult things to overcome was accepting that I would not see all of the same species that I was use to seeing further south. In my mind, the appeal of the Carolinian region is the vast biodiversity. It’s the northern edge of the range for many species that are uncommon or don’t occur in other parts of Ontario. The Carolinian region is also a hub where many conservation organizations focus their efforts on protecting the remaining species and their habitat. I knew when I moved, I would no longer see the species that I got to know well there – spicebush swallowtails (or spicebush the understory shrub), tulip trees, badgers, foxsnakes, hognose snakes and many others. Happy Valley Forest doesn’t have the diversity that the north shore of Lake Erie does. But contrary to popular belief, high biodiversity and rare species isn’t everything.
For me, one of the big draws to Happy Valley has become the expansive forest. Much of southern Ontario would have been covered with deciduous or mixed forests with a few openings for prairie species. The forest in Happy Valley has regenerated in the last few hundred years and is expected to reach ‘old growth’ status in the next 50 years. Once in Happy Valley Forest, you are surrounded by trees as far as the eye can see. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, much of southern Ontario would have looked this way. Having such a large and well connected landscape means that it’s more resistant to natural disturbances and disease; animals that have large habitat area requirements can thrive; and that there is a large interior forest – the deep woods, for those species that depend on that type of habitat. Ecologists say that the deep woods begin 100m in from the forest edge. Therefore, large forests like Happy Valley that have sizeable interior forest are critical places to protect.
Working in each new natural area has its charms. I’m fortunate enough to get to know these places a little more intimately than most. Moving to a new one can often feel like starting from the bottom again. However, I’ve learned that my previous experiences in different areas and ecosystems each contribute to every new experience. As scary as change can be, it’s how we learn and grow. And anyway in a field as complex and difficult as ecology, maybe every year should be called a ‘formative year’.
From my very first field experience in my 3rd year ecology class, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been lucky to travel to some very remote places, and some less so, getting up close and personal with different species. There’s just something about field work that you won’t get from a book or a classroom. It’s taught me to be more observant and think about survival from the organisms’ perspective. I was happy to be invited to write a post about some of my field experiences for Dispatches from the Field, a blog where field biologist can share their stories from the field. This post is also cross posted here.
When I tell people I did my Master’s working with butterflies I get a lot of different reactions. Among fellow biologists or naturalists there is a certain appreciation for a study species even if it may not be their species of choice. However, among the general public it is a different story. Butterflies, are they even animals?
Butterflies are indeed animals and there are a ton of reasons why butterflies make great study organisms. They are relatively easy to catch, handle and mostly easy to observe. Plus, butterflies are relatively short lived, which makes it easy to study them over many generations. Because of this, a number of butterfly populations around the world have been monitored for decades, resulting in work that has made major contributions to our understanding of population dynamics and conservation.
Part of my project was to assess the Eastern Tiger and the Spicebush Swallowtails’ movement relative to forest edges in the fragmented landscape of southern Ontario. Did they move towards the forest edge, avoid it or a bit of both? To learn about this we caught butterflies and released them at different distances from the edge and followed them using a GPS unit to record their movement.
Working on butterflies had a few benefits. They come out when it’s sunny and are active during the day. Swallowtails are some of the largest butterflies in Ontario, so they take longer to warm up. I didn’t expect to see many out before 10 am or after 5 pm. On a typical day, I rolled out of bed around 8:30 am, ate breakfast, and prepared my lunch. Eventually my field assistant would follow, we would pack the car and be on the road at 9:30 am. The main things to pack were butterfly nets, a cooler with ice packs and a towel, many glassine envelopes, a permanent marker, GPS unit, field guides, lots of sunscreen and water.
After arriving at a site, we would walk around with a net, sometimes up and down a road, through fields or along the forest edge looking for swallowtails. People often say to me, ‘I picture you frolicking in the fields catching butterflies’. Clearly, they have never gone butterfly catching before.
Catching butterflies is anything but graceful. In fact, some advice I was given before heading to the field was, ‘if you don’t look silly doing it, you’re not doing it right’. Truer words have never been spoken. Swallowtails are very strong fliers; they can fly high and fast. I couldn’t count the number of times a swallowtail has outflown me or made me run in circles. I have chased after falling leaves, fallen on my face, gotten scrapes and bruises, gone through poison ivy and swarms of deer flies and mosquitos all to get one more sample.
Through many failed attempts, I quickly learned the tricks of the trade. It is much easier to sneak up on swallowtails while they are on a flower feeding on nectar. However if you miss, there is about a 30 second window for you to redeem yourself; otherwise it will likely outfly you. You can also catch them mid-flight or chase after them, but trust me, it is much harder. By mid-field season, my field assistant and I were pro butterfly catchers; sometimes we caught two butterflies in one go and caught well over 600 throughout the season!
Once a butterfly was caught, we would carefully take it out of the net, put it in a glassine envelope and in the cooler. Because butterflies are ectothermic, putting them in a cooler does minimal harm – as long as it’s not too cold!
There are a lot of myths about touching a butterfly’s wings and people always ask how safe it is for the insect. Their wings are covered in a powder-like substance that is actually tiny scales, which gives them their bright colours and patterns. Lepidoptera means ‘scaly wings’. As butterflies age, they lose their scales naturally. Although you don’t want to handle them too much and make them lose their scales faster, holding them by pinching the wings together just behind the head – the strongest part of their wing – is very safe for them.
After a few butterflies were caught, we would bring them to the release site. For each butterfly release, we would take a butterfly from the cooler, sex it and give it a unique ID in case we caught it again.
The most reliable way to sex a butterfly is like any other animal: look at their sex organs. It can be difficult at times, but lucky for me, swallowtails are large enough that it makes it easy to tell. Females have an ovipositor at the end of their abdomen that they use to lay eggs and they tend to be thicker bodied. Males have claspers at the end of their abdomen that they use to hold on to the female and they tend to be more slender. Claspers make the abdomen pointed and if you prod at them they will open and close.
To mark butterflies we simply used a permanent marker to write on their wings. For Eastern Tigers, which are mainly yellow, it was easy to write a number on their underwing. But Spicebush butterflies are mainly black, meaning that any number we wrote would not show up against their wings. However, they have six orange spots on their underwings that we marked in unique patterns.
After recording this information, we would put the butterfly on the ground, wait for it to take off, and follow it using flags and a GPS unit, doing our best not to influence its flight. We did this repeatedly throughout the day. When 5pm rolled around and few butterflies were to be found, we headed back to the field station to make dinner, ending the day with a few beers around the campfire.
I have now completed my Master’s and as it turns out, forest edges are an important landscape feature for these swallowtails. It can be stressful to manage your own research project, but when it’s all said and done, I only have fond memories of spend the hot summer days catching butterflies.