Life in the Research Fields

The Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). (Source: Kellie Heney)

By Kellie Heney

Just like every third-year biology student enrolled in Population and Evolutionary Ecology (BIOL 302), I was brought 50 kilometers north of Kingston to the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) with little knowledge of what I was heading into. The annual field trip consists of a weekend away at QUBS — the biological “station” is actually an impressive 3,750 hectares of different environments, from extensive forests and open fields to large lakes and swamps, and includes 32 buildings and six lakes. QUBS is located at a geographical crossroads between the boreal forest to the north and the Carolinian  forest to the south. The natural corridor helps convey northern and southern species across the landscape is often referred to as the Algonquin to Adirondack (A2A) corridor.  This unique biogeography is one of the many reasons why QUBS is one of the best scientific field stations in North America.

Little did I know how much of an effect that short weekend at the biological station would have on me.  After that great weekend spent at QUBS, and learning that students could spend their summers working as field assistants at the station, I was determined to do just that. I applied for every SWEP (Summer Work Experience Program) field assistant job at QUBS prior to the summer and managed to get a field assistant position in Paul Martin’s lab… I was going to be mapping the territories of song bird species found at the biological station. I could not wait to be a part of this project; this time I would be spending two months (May and June) at the station instead of two days, and to say I was excited would be an understatement. However, I would have never guessed how much of an unforgettable experience my time at QUBS would turn out to be.

As a member of Paul Martin’s lab, I would be responsible for helping to map out the extent and boundaries of the territories of numerous song bird species found at QUBS. The summer’s work would be used in an ongoing project to observe the territory overlap between closely related song bird species to see if any insight could be gained as to their speciation. Our goal was to map the territories of 10 individuals from each of our target species, who this summer were species from the sparrow family, vireo family and flycatcher family. A typical day at QUBS for a member of Paul Martin’s lab would usually comprise of the following steps:

  • Wake up
  • Receive bird coordinates
  • Hike to the study site
  • Find the branded bird
  • Map the bird’s territory
  • Travel back to the lodge
  • Lunch
  • Data entry, etc.
  • Dinner
  • Sleep at 8:30 pm

Now you may think that step one, waking up, would be the most straightforward task in the list… and normally, you would be right — however upon the chiming of my alarm each day at 4 a.m., some days I would have disagreed with you. The birds whose territories we were mapping are most active in the wee-hours of the morning, so a day not started before 4 a.m. was a rarity indeed. However, the initial grogginess was quickly replaced with excitement over what adventures each day would bring us in the pursuit of our birds.

After making our way from our respective cabins to the lodge, the lab group would receive a list of coordinates telling us where Dr. Martin had caught and banded birds the previous day. In the rare situations that there were no new birds to map, we would visit birds who had eluded us or given us trouble in the past.  Over a quick breakfast (dubbed “birder breakfast”) amongst the other teams of early-rising bird researchers, we would enter the list of coordinates into our handheld GPS (global positioning system) and set out to begin our mission to find the birds. Essentially we were geocaching for birds, the bird being the cache and the prize being the gradual unveiling of its territory.

Our traveling would begin by climbing into a 1989 Dodge Caravan, affectionately named Bertha, and heading down the ever-winding Opinicon Road to get to the entrance of any hiking trail that would bring us as close as possible to where the bird was banded. In most cases we would only be able to take a particular trail so far before we would need to bushwhack the rest of the way. A typical hike would be anywhere from two to six kilometers, with the occasional journey exceeding 12 kilometers (which would take about an hour by bike). The farther sites were usually located down the Cataraqui trail, which made biking a great way to travel.  Using the GPS as our guide through the woods, we would navigate our way until the distance between us and the “X” that marked the spot reached zero meters.

Once we reached the banding location it was time to open our ears. What we now had to listen for was the song of our target bird. This was entirely a waiting game, sometimes a bird would be singing the moment we arrived on site, other times it would take upwards of an hour before the bird would alert us of its presence… and sometimes the bird wouldn’t sing at all. The song of our target bird (which we quickly committed to memory) was always a very exciting thing to hear; whether it be the “three-Ay; three-Ay” of the yellow throated vireo, the incessant “pick it up, put it down, pick it up” of the red-eyed vireo, or even the “zit-zit-zit-zeeeee-zaaaay” of the savannah sparrow.

Now it was time for both the hard part and the fun part — mapping the territory of the banded bird. Once we confirmed with our binoculars that the bird we were hearing was the bird that was banded for us, we could begin mapping its territory. We had to pay complete attention to the bird in order to track its movements through the trees; we would mark a point in our G.P.S at every spot the bird stopped to sang at. The reasoning behind this is that a male bird will most likely be moving and singing around the boundaries of his territory in order to defend it from potential male competition. We needed to collect at least 60 points to confidently say we had mapped the bird’s entire territory… more often than not we would need to follow birds into swamps and back and forth across small lakes to accomplish this.  It was quite common that the bird would revisit areas of its territory multiple times, which was a great help if we lost track of the bird since it allowed us to keep an eye on his “favourite” spots until he reappeared at one of them.  Usually it would take about three hours to map a territory, and we would average two territories a day. If we got to a site and had no luck finding the bird, we would revisit the site (sometimes day after day) until the mapping was complete.

One memorable song sparrow was particularly troublesome. First off, it took us upwards of an hour to walk to the site (across many rickety beaver dam bridges and up quite steep terrain), and then the sparrow sang, at most, once every ten minutes. He seemed to make it his personal mission to make us circle the large beaver pond he called home as often as possible (singing at one end of the pond then flying straight across to the other side before singing again where we couldn’t see it. After three hours we seriously contemplated crafting a raft to pass the GPS across the pond just to keep up with how quickly the bird decided to fly from one end of the pond to the other. Miraculously, on our third day at the site we came across an old abandoned canoe and half a paddle that a beaver had taken quite the interest in under a fallen tree.  Luckily the canoe had been left very close to the pond, so it was very easy to place in the water and begin our navigation. One person paddled (being careful not receive any splinters from the frayed end of the paddle) while the other listened and watched for the bird.  This canoe was a miraculous discovery at our site that was 30 minutes off the trail in the middle of the woods, and helped make the collection of the 60 points much easier. By the end of the three days, we had finally recorded Mr. Sparrow’s impressive territory.

The hidden canoe from the song sparrow mission. (Source: Kellie Heney)

But, by far the most fascinating part of the territory mapping process was when a bird would bring us into a swamp. I would have never thought that I would come away from my summer at QUBS with as large of a love for swamps as I do now. Every swamp we climbed through was very different, but always beautiful With cattails as far as the eye can see, towering red maples and old skeletons of trees, countless species of willows and shrubs, and the potential of finding water snakes, snapping turtles, beavers, the occasional faun, or bird nests with every step as well as with the enormous variation from swamp to swamp it is hard not to get caught up in their beauty. They were always full to the brim with life, and very clearly reflect the season’s weather and the surrounding environment.  There is nothing quite like keeping your eyes on a bird while walking through hip-level swamp water, not able to see what kind of difficult footing lies beneath the water and unable to predict whether you will have the misfortune to find a deep spot in the swamp and flood your waders. Every swamp (and every bird for that matter) provided a unique adventure, unique…smells (especially if a swamp was involved) and a unique learning experience that I doubt I would have been able to find anywhere else.

Once we finished mapping the birds assigned to us for the day, it was time to head back to the main lodge for lunch. Lunch is always a highly anticipated event in the life of a bird researcher at QUBS, because often times the last time we had eaten was eight hours ago. But, not only did lunch provide us with fantastic food from the caring cooks at QUBS (we all knew and appreciated the close staff), it also allowed us to talk with other researchers and learn about the different projects they were undertaking. At a place like QUBS, minds from all over the world come to study things from song birds to water mites, turtles to wood thrush, zooplankton to tree swallows, and countless other species.

As our mornings were often filled with eight hours of climbing through prickly ash (a nasty Ontario shrub) and trekking through swamps, and since our target song birds will stop singing in the heat of the day, our afternoons were usually spent back at the station. Here we would enter in the data we collected, help out with other research projects, or just go out and explore the fascinating environments at the Queen’s University Biological Station.

Dinner was from 5:30pm to 6:30pm, and was always just as much of a bonding experience as lunch. It provided us with further opportunity to discuss research, as well as just get to know each other. Most people would spend the evening relaxing, often with the company of a bonfire. Most of the bird researchers left for bed at around 8:30 p.m. — quite a bit earlier than everyone else — since we needed to be ready to get up at 4 a.m. the next day. Because of our early wake-ups and our habit of going to bed before the sun goes down, most birding field assistants will be placed in the same cabin, the furthest cabin from the lodge, to avoid any
non-bird researchers waking us up.

I can safely say that without my unforgettable experience at QUBS, and the friends I made there, I would have a very unclear image of where I wanted to go with a biology degree. It also revealed many kinds of research that a field biologist can become involved in, especially with endangered and invasive species. Essentially my time at QUBS changed my life, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.

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