Making Friends in Tough Places

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.

Identifying plants on the tundra
Identifying plants on the tundra

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 snowed the day after our tent blew over!
It snowed the day after our tent blew over!

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.

'Catching' butterflies.
‘Catching’ butterflies.

A Wander in the Dark

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.

Moth on golden rod
Moth on golden rod

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.

Spring peeper
Spring peeper

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.

The Natural Naturalists

This summer I have spent a lot of time both leading guided hikes and attending them. The larger proportion of the demographic at such events tends to be an older and supportive crowd. However, it’s some of the younger hikers who have made the largest impression on me. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have many experiences growing up akin to some of the ones I witnessed in the past few months.

Some of those moments include the look of excitement on kids’ faces when I release a butterfly on their hand and it sticks around for a few extra seconds allowing them to see it up close. Or a young boy proudly showing and telling the other hikers that he caught a European skipper. The “ohhs” and “ahhs” during a night hike when the first bat makes an appearance are rewarding. Or when kids holding a bat detector exclaim to their parents, “I hear one!” These are the kind of interactions with nature that I hope are one of many for these kids.

A quick glimpse of a little brown bat in flight. Photo by Toby Thorne

Another moment was when one family came late to a hike that I was helping to lead and I ended up guiding them on a more private tour. The young boy is eight years old and asked me to show him some of the ferns in the area. We talked about the differences between native and non-native species and how to tell the invasive scots pine from our native white pine. We observed a monarch flying from milkweed to milkweed looking for a spot to lay its eggs. He hypothesized that those plants were too small and it was looking for a larger plant. His curiosity for nature and ability to start problem solving was impressive to say the least.

Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterfly

This kind of introduction to nature and persistent exposure is often a large part of facilitating an appreciation for nature. This appreciation is what influences attitudes towards the natural environment and in turn, influences our actions and behaviours that impact it. The lack of appreciation for nature is, in my opinion, the greatest threat to biodiversity.

It’s never too late to start gaining an appreciation for nature. However in a world that is full of unnecessary distractions, it is becoming all the more important to encourage this at a young age. Like the great Sir David Attenborough once said he, “never met a child who was not interested in natural history.” When we share our knowledge and encourage young people to be inquisitive, observant and interested in the natural world, we are fostering a new generation of future leaders who will make a conserving a healthy environment a priority.

From Prairie to Forest: My Journey to a New Environment

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.

Tall grass prairie
Tallgrass prairie

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.

Red eft, the juvenile stage of the eastern newt, common in Happy Valley Forest
Red eft, the juvenile stage of the eastern newt, common in Happy Valley Forest

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.

Spicebush caterpillar
Spicebush caterpillar

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.

Typical scenery in Happy Valley Forest
Typical scenery in Happy Valley Forest

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’.

Wildlife at Machu Picchu

About a year ago, my partner and I were in Peru finishing up a four-day trek to Machu Picchu. I had always wanted to travel in South America and I finally had a chance, between graduating and starting a career. We were in Peru for about a month traveling all over, but this post will focus on our trek to Machu Picchu and the wildlife we encountered along the way.

We began in Cusco, the launching pad for the Andean treks and visits to the Sacred Valley. Cusco is at an elevation of ~3000m above sea level, compared to the ~70m in southern Ontario. Going from 70m to 3000m in altitude very quickly can take its toll. I felt tired, nauseous and had a pounding headache. It took us a few days to acclimatize before we set off on our trek.

Cusco's Plaza de Armas
Cusco’s Plaza de Armas

There are a few different treks that can be done in the area. We chose to do the Salkantay trek, instead of the classic Inca trek, because this route would take us through a diversity of Peruvian landscapes and also ended at Machu Picchu.

Our tour guide, Antony from Andean Expeditions, was very knowledgeable about the local wildlife. He could say something about almost all the plants and animals I asked about. He quickly learned that I love chasing butterflies and that Toby is obsessed with bats.

The first day consisted of a two-hour drive along windy roads before we got to the starting point, which did not sit well with me as I am prone to motion sickness. We started our hike at ~3000m and ascended to ~3800 the first day. The landscape reminded me of the alpine region of the Yukon; not too many trees, lots of low shrubs, but a lot more biodiversity. As we approached the camp, we could see the mighty Salkantay Mountain.


The one plant I could confidently identify, lupine.
The one plant I could confidently identify, lupine.
The mighty Salkantay in the distance.

The next day was the hardest; we were hiking to the Salkantay Pass at an altitude of 4630m. It was a more rocky and steep up climb. Switch-backs are very common and I suppose it makes it ‘easier’ to hike uphill, but it is very daunting to look at the road ahead. We spent some time at the pass, learned about the Peruvian culture and made an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). Then it was all down hill from there, literally. We descended to 2800m and the landscape quickly changed from a rocky, barren one to a luscious forest.

Day 2 (1)

Switch-back to get to the Salkantay pass.
Day 2 (2)
We finally made it to the pass! We made an offering of coca leaves to Pachamama.
A short while later, we were in the clouded forest.

I find it easy to get distracted by my surroundings on hikes and in a place like the clouded forest it was even more difficult to just focus on getting to the campsite. Oh look a butterfly! Was that rustling in the grass a snake? There was so much to see, and yet most people were keen to just get from one campsite to the next. A few times I found butterflies puddling on the ground and I had to get a better look and take pictures, which apparently seemed odd to other hikers.

Day 3 (2)

Altinote sp.

Day 3 (1)

The next day we hiked mostly along a dirt road continuing through the clouded rainforest. We saw lots more butterflies: owl butterflies, Chorinea species with transparent wings, and some that I thought were Heliconius species, or closely related. We also came across an injured hummingbird and a dead snake on the road. That afternoon, once we arrived at the campsite, we visited a hotsprings nearby. The warm soak was much needed after all that hiking.

Chorinea sylphina
An injured humming bird we found on the road.
Poor snake got hit on the road.
Day 4(1)
I haven’t been able to identify this species…
One of may orchids we saw.
One of may orchids we saw.


The next day, instead of continuing the hike as planned, we opted to go zip-lining in the morning and get dropped off at a later point to continue the hike. It felt a little bit like cheating by not hiking the planned route, but it was difficult to turn down the opportunity. I had gone zip-lining before, but nothing like this! We did a total of six zip-lines that were ~300m high. On some zip-lines we were allowed to try different positions, for example the ‘Spiderman’ where you hang upside down.


A skipper I found while waiting my turn, Urbanus sp.
The spiderman

After zip-lining, we continued hiking along a railway to Aguas Clientas, the town just out side of Machu Picchu. Antony suggested we visit a Casa de Mariposa (Butterfly House), a research facility that is learning about the diversity of butterflies in Machu Picchu. A large portion of butterfly species in Machu Picchu is unknown. Here, they rear butterflies just to find out what they are. The enclosure they have has openings so butterflies are free to escape. There were a few recognizable families.

P1050910 P1050964

The caterpillar of the owl butterfly, Caligo sp.
A swallowtail!
Some kind of sphinx moth.
A little white butterfly, maybe in the Pieridae family.

The next morning, we woke up at 4am to hike nearly 2000 stairs in the pouring rain to reach Machu Picchu. It’s a rush to the bridge where they let you cross to begin this hike up. It seemed like a never-ending staircase with uneven stairs and the added pressure of a crowd of people behind you trying to make it to the top first.

We finally made it and after a guided tour, we sadly parted ways with Antony and we were left to explore on our own. The weather began to clear. Machu Picchu is touristy, even in low-season, but for good reason. This place is a gem, unfinished and untouched by the Spanish invasion.

With our tour guide, Antony.

We wondered around for the whole day exploring the different areas. Along the way we found critters everywhere. On one occasion a snake was spotted on the path by another tourist, I was further back and Toby called to me. I got so excited I immediately caught the little snake, while the tourist gasped and was shocked that I would do so. Toby told her that we were biologists and that it isn’t unusual for me to do such a thing.

I think a rufus collared sparrow
Iguana, I think a spiny whorltail iguana
Adelpha sp.
Llama taking care of the over grown vegetation.
The snake I caught on the path.
The snake I caught on the path.

After exploring we hiked back down the near 2000 steps at a more leisurely pace and encouraging those we encountered making the hike up. The trek was challenging, but well worth it. Visiting Machu Picchu is one of the top wonders of the world and on many people’s bucket list, but along with the amazing ruins there’s plenty of wildlife to see.

The stairs we took compared to the road to get to Machu Picchu.




Where did Winter Go?

It has barely felt like winter here in southern Ontario. There have been times I felt over dressed in a winter coat in last few months. Granted, I am currently further south than I have been in previous winters and I expected it to be more mild, but to still experiences temperatures consistently below zero. Seems like one day it might feel like -20°C and the next is +8°C.

There might be a few things to dislike about winter: it’s cold, shorter days, roads are slippery, salt is everywhere, shovelling etc. I can’t say winter is my favourite season, but what I do love about living in Ontario is the experiencing the change in season, including winter.

It might take a little more motivation and preparation to get outside, but it’s always worth it. I’ve been out a few times visiting some of the treasures in Norfolk County after a snowfall, such as Jackson – Gunn Old Growth Forest and Backus Woods.

Wondering around. Photo by Toby Thorne

The summer might be lush and green, but I love the freshly fallen snow and there’s something about the bare trees in winter that is revealing about a forest. 

This is Jackson – Gunn Old Growth Forest. Forests like this one, which has never been logged, are rare in southern Ontario.

Evidence of animals is everywhere and it’s a good season to really test how well you know your trees, I’m working on mine – feel free comment and correct my IDs.

The work of a sapsucker (I think) on a silver maple.
Beech and SB
Beech (left), they have one of the more distinctive winter buds. Spicebush (right), it flowers in early spring and the leaves smell citrus-y.
Witch hazel, it flowers in the fall and the remains of the flower are left overwinter.

We also came across a few mushrooms.

Old shelf fungus (left) and Dryad’s saddle (right).
jelly fungus
Jelly fungus.

I’m delighted to come across animal tracks and figure what they are, where they came from or where they were going.

Rabbit tracks (left) and small mammal tracks, maybe a mouse (right).
We weren’t sure what happened here. Maybe a chipmunk came up to check things out?

I wonder about where all the insects and frogs might be hiding under the leaf litter or rotting logs.

Rotting logs provides habitat for lots of living things – fungus, insects, frogs and salamanders and a good nesting spot for snakes in the summer.

Winter is an important season, all our native plants and animals have evolved to survive such conditions. Many go into some kind of dormancy over winter, and the warm spurts may disrupt their natural patterns. I’ve heard reports of frogs calling in late December, plants already starting to flower or leaf out and a snake sighting in January! Perhaps a year like this once in awhile will do little harm to these populations in the long run, but unfortunately, I think there will be more to come.

While we enjoy this so-called beautiful weather, mild temperatures and good driving conditions, let’s not forget that we do live in Ontario – cold and snowy winters are an expectation. To me, this wacky weather makes me seriously concerned about what it means for every other living thing and what it means in the long term for all of us. The natural world is already under pressure. Sometimes we forget that we are one in millions and millions of species that exist.

Sugar Maple (?)
Some kind of maple that thought it was spring in February.

I wonder how warm spells might affect flowering plants that might have already started to bud, will they have enough energy to do this again when spring comes around? Will insects wake up and die off from a sudden freeze? How will that affect plants that depend on pollination? Or the aerial insectivores that are already in decline? Will other animals expend more energy than normal and how will it affect them in the upcoming year?