Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fieldwork Flail -The Ups and Downs of Being Out and About

Hello, Dear Readers!

Well, the thesis is off to the committee (eep!), so now I get to digitally dust off the blog and leave the academic hermitage that is writing thesis chapters! I've been figuratively chained to the office for most of the summer. While this was a self-imposed office banishment, having to stay indoors and write during the summer when every fiber of my being was screaming to be outdoors doing fieldwork wore on me. Needless to say, once the writing was done, I jumped at the opportunity to visit one of my favorite neoichnology sites before all the shorebirds abandoned us to the cold weather (thanks, birds). The site is a couple of hours drive from the museum and great for (long) day trip fieldwork.

What follows is a mixed bag of success and frustration: in short, it's the typical field story. 

I arranged with our summer field tech, Linda, to pick her up at 6am. I went to bed early, as I'd be up before the sun to put the finishing touches on my neoichnology field gear. Thanks to some horrid reaction to something I ate, I did not get to sleep until 2am. As I finally drifted off to sleep I thought "Oh, this trip is starting out well..."

The alarm blares off at 5am. I will be honest with you: I am not a morning person, even when I've had a decent night's sleep. "Good" is not paired with "morning" in my vocabulary. Our museum staff (morning people, the whole lot of them) take great delight in being all chipper around me when I first enter the building. The walking dead have more life in them than I do on waking. Several cups of tea infused me with what passes as life, I picked up Linda, we loaded the last of the gear into the field truck, and left town for a pleasantly uneventful drive to the site.

Oh, sorry. I slipped into telling fiction. Back to reality.

We were driving down the highway, which is pleasantly empty at this time of the morning. This means that I'm not ticking off the drivers who want to do 100-120km/hr by driving the speed limit (90km/hr). Given the driving habits of the region and the fact that we are smack dab in the middle of the BC wilderness, there are a lot of black tire marks on the highway. I didn't think anything of that new black mark on the road...until I was close enough to see that it had thickness. I slowed and swerved around whatever it was...


My foot left the gas immediately. We slowed to a crawl. This let me know that a) my tire(s) were still attached to the truck, and b) the axles (if damaged) would last long enough to get us to a safe shoulder. We crept along the road until we found a turn-off to a gravel road, engaged the hazards, and stepped out to survey the damage.

The flattest of all tires.

Important Field Tip #1: Know how to change the tires on your field vehicle. Don't just assume that you know how to change a tire - actually practice on your field vehicle before you set off on your adventures. Everyone on your field crew needs to practice being the lead on changing a tire. Even though we were right on the highway, we had no cell service and the satellite phone was being twitchy, so there would be no calling BCAA.

Fortunately for me and Linda, while we had not been the leads on changing a tire, we knew enough from several assists how to do it. The most troublesome part of the process was lowering the bloody spare from under the vehicle because we couldn't find the thrice-damned attachment for the jack that fits into the decent mechanism. Which leads me to...

Important Field Tip #2: Keep all of your jack attachments in one area, even if they are small. It took longer than it should have to locate the proper attachment, which was helpfully located in the glove compartment. Once located, we were off to the races, so to speak. During the process we also encountered...

Important Field Tip #3: People are jerks. Don't trust that they will bother to stop, slow down, or even move their vehicle as they roar past you at 110km/hr on a relatively narrow highway. Out of the seven vehicles that drove past, not one even slowed down. This was all well and good - we didn't need help (and we didn't want the hassle of trying to tell someone that the damsels in distress actually could change a tire all by our little selves), but the gravel and dust being whipped at us from speeding trucks got old.

The tire change went smoothly. Once the tire was off...
we could see the extent of the damage. Whatever the tire had hit, it went right through. There would be no patching this tire. That tire wasn't just damaged: it was cancelled.
Linda shows us the extent of the damage.
That was Adventure #1. We decided that we deserved to stop at Tim Horton's before continuing on to the site. We also made a note of our location, because on the way back we planned to find the wretched thing in the road that thrashed the tire.

We made it to the parking area of the field site without any incident. Accessing the neoichnology site requires crossing a river. Usually the river is gentle and shallow enough at this location to cross without too much difficulty. However, recent rains had given the river a bit of vigor and depth. Each of us had a cumbersome load to pack across the river (plaster, mixing buckets, cameras, personal gear), and the local river bed flora add a nice element of slime to the bouldery river bed. Crossing would prove to be tricky.

We found a spot that looked promising, and started across. A combination of bulky gear, slimy boulders, and a slight misstep sent me flailing into the river.


All I remember going in was thinking "S**t, the camera!" and holding that aloft with my right hand while my left hand let go of the bucket (which Linda retrieved before it floated off on its own adventure) and broke my fall. This area was deep enough that I didn't break my fall before going almost completely under the water - I think the top of my head was still dry - but the palm of my left hand took the full force of my fall as it hit boulders and gravel. Needless to say, there was a little bit of damage.
It's only a flesh wound...I hope.
I carry a first aid kit with me, but there was very little I could do at this point that couldn't wait until I reached civilization. Sure, I could have dug around in my hand to remove bits of embedded gravel, but nice cushiony blisters formed around the impact sites, so I knew where the offending material was located. What worried me more was the sharp ache deep in my first metacarpal - did I break or crack it? I could still move it, albeit with some discomfort, so I figured we had come too far to give up on the chance of shorebird traces.

We finally crossed the river, and I changed into more-or-less dry clothes. We had arrived!

This area is dominated by Canada Goose tracks, and the fine-grained sediment captured their trampling nicely.
Canada Goose trample surface.
With the Canada Goose tracks were smaller anseriform (duck) footprints: they have a different overall shape than Canada Goose tracks, so we knew they weren't young geese.

Duck, duck, (not) goose. Do you see the inward curving outer toes?
Did you see the webbing? Webbing is a useful feature when it preserves, but webbing is inconsistently preserved in bird tracks. If the sediment consistency is just right (firm yet damp, like a firm wet beach sand), webbing may not impress. A more reliable feature is the curvature of the lateral toes: members of the duck group (Anseriformes) with palmate webbing (a completely webbed three-toed foot) have digits II and IV (the outer two toes) that curve towards the middle digit (digit III). Sandpipers with semipalmate webbing (webbing that attaches only partly down the length of the toes) do not have inward curving side toes.

Part of neoichnology is hanging out in an area long enough to see the local wildlife. Ideally, you want to see the animal in question make the footprints. If that isn't an option, you need to know who is frequenting the area. If the tracks you are looking at are fresh, there's a better chance that the trackmakers you see are the owners of those footprints. These tracks were relatively fresh, so I knew that there was a good chance the trackmaker was either nearby or would revisit the site. All we had to do was wait.

While we were waiting, we checked out the track surface for more examples of the same type of footprint preserved in different ways. Here is a great example of how there is not one preservational scenario that will preserve all features all the time.
The webbing on these Canada Goose prints is very poorly preserved, but the hallux (digit I) on the left footprint is gorgeous! Digit I is another one of those birdy features that is inconsistently preserved, yet so many rely on the presence of the hallux impression as THE feature for saying with 100% certainty "Yes! We have a bird print!" I have a paper in press that discusses how the fossil and neoichnology data shows it's rarely that simple. Stay tuned!

We also found great samples of skin impressions for Canada Goose footprints. This print doesn't look like much at first glance - no webbing, no hallux, no "heel" pad (which isn't really a heel, but a fleshy pad where the toes and the end of the metatarsals connect)...
...but on closer inspection, it has great skin impressions!
A close-up look at the footprint shows that it preserves the creases, ridges, and pebbly texture on the bottom (plantar surface) of this Canada Goose's foot.

We also found evidence of our mammalian friends on the track surface: guess who?
If you guessed wolf, you would be correct!
Grey Wolf trackway overprinting the multiple trackways of Canada Goose. Bonus question: was this wolf walking or moving faster than a walk?
While we waited for the arrival of our small ducks (we could hear some quacking in the distance) we made a few plaster of Paris replicas of the different preservational variations of the Canada Goose and the as-of-yet unidentified small duck tracks.
Small duck trackway being cast.

The track surface with plaster replicas (white patches) drying.
Making replicas of modern tracks is a really simple process, and it's something that anyone of any age can do. We use a fiberglass-reinforced plaster of Paris (Hydrocal FGR-95). I also add additional fiberglass matting to the backs of the replicas, as many of my track casts are long and thin. Field neoichnology casting is a cumbersome process: you have to haul out plaster, mixing containers, fiberglass mat (or chop, but that's a pain in the butt to work with) and garbage bags. You also have to haul the awkwardly-shaped plaster casts out of the field. However, I think it's worth it for bird tracks. We're getting mixed results with digital photogrammetry on small bird footprints, and one of the reasons is that they are often wet, shiny, and partially underwater. All of this extra reflection confuses the computer program, which "prefers" even, consistent lighting for all of the images used in making the 3D digital replica. Also, plaster replicas are cheap to make, and I'm an ichnologist on a very strict budget.

This brings me to Important Field Tip #4: Pack it in, pack it out. We mix all of the plaster in a container placed inside a garbage bag, and any plaster drips and slops are collected after they harden. We don't want to leave a trace while we collect traces.

While we were waiting for the replicas to dry, we saw that our small ducks had arrived!
This is a horrid picture, but viewing these ducks through my binoculars let me know that they are Green-winged Teals in their non-breeding plumage. They are a small brown dappled duck, but one was kind enough to rearrange its wing feathers long enough to show me the green patch.

This was a good day for ducks, but where were my shorebirds? We scanned every centimeter of this shoreline, crossed over this waste-deep body of water to a second projection of land and scoured that for shorebird prints, and came up with almost nothing. We saw really faint impressions of Spotted Sandpiper footprints, but they were made in such wet mud that they had all but collapsed in on themselves, leaving nothing but faint lines where the toes impressions should be. We were about to call ourselves skunked in the shorebird category when we came across this:
It turns out there were a pair of Spotted Sandpipers at this locality, but they were being extremely sneaky with us. We turned every corner just to see them flying away: none were comfortable with us in their territory, and they were more or less avoiding walking in areas that would keep an impression of a footprint for more than a few minutes. This was a huge change from last year, when two Spotted Sandpipers took a short nap while I was taking photos of them. On our way back to the field truck at the end of the day, we found out the little buggers had doubled back on us and were foraging in the areas we had already prospected. This brings me to my final Important Field Tip: you can't control your wild study taxa. Some days they cooperate, while on other days they flip you the feathery Bird.

This was a typical field excursion, full of wins (great duck and goose tracks) and fails (the Thrashing of the Tire and my new gravel piercings). Regardless of the frustrating parts, it was great to be back in the field!

Until next time,

P.S. - My thumb turned out not to be broken (yay!) but it was swollen and sore for a few days. Here is a picture the day after I landed on it. Luckily the blisters were just impact blisters - there were no embedded gravel chunks to remove.