“Work hard, stay positive, and get up early. It’s the best part of the day.”*


Springtime for those of us that study ecology is typically a busy and exciting time. In the Fedy Lab of Wildlife and Molecular Ecology most of our research focuses on birds. So springtime means ducks are arriving from their southern habitats, song birds are singing, and grouse are displaying and mating. That also means that after months of preparation my students and I are finally back in the field. Our time outside with the animals and systems that fascinate us so much makes all the designing, planning, permitting, purchasing, hiring, and budgeting worth the effort. We have two large, ongoing field-based projects: one in northern Alberta and the other in northeastern Wyoming. Both projects are generally designed to assess the response of animals to oil and gas development. We are using cutting-edge GPS telemetry tags to mark and track animal movements at high resolution (e.g., a location every 30 min.). This requires that we safely and effectively capture animals.

For the duck research in Alberta, we trap ducks using two main approaches. One involves using a cage with a domestically-raised decoy duck inside that lures the birds into the cage. This is an effective, but time consuming, method for capturing ducks. Another approach we use involves piloting an airboat through the marsh at night and catching birds using a hand held net. This approach is effective and exhausting - but also exciting - for both the researchers and the ducks.

The team and an air boat.Our research in Wyoming involves putting transmitters on greater sage-grouse. This species gathers every spring at centralized breeding sites called leks. At these sites males put on a dramatic and busy display in the hopes of convincing females to copulate. Essentially, leks are singles-bars for sage-grouse. In the spring we capture birds to fit them with telemetry transmitters while they are displaying. We have developed a novel approach for capturing birds that involves launching a net off the front our truck (Sutphin et al. 2018). Again, exciting for both bird and researcher, but this novel approach is low risk and results in minimal impact to the animals. Both of these projects are resulting in science that will inform the management and conservation of these species and hopefully help mitigate the impacts of oil and gas development.

Another component of our research is conducting early-morning point counts for songbirds. This process does not involve capturing any animals, but simply standing in the field, listening, observing, and systematically recording all species and individuals that we detect. This type of work provides a calm, and often sublime, juxtaposition to the urgency of handling animals. And the spectacular sunrises make it worth the 3 a.m. wakeup.

It is common for professors, and professional biologists to spend less time in the field as they progress through their careers. It is a natural and necessary progression as we focus on other aspects of research and training. However, while I was doing my PhD (which involved climbing mountains on Vancouver Island throughout the summer) my advisor, Dr. Kathy Martin, told me to “never stop going outside.” She knew how important it was for ecologists to spend time in the systems they study. To get their hands dirty, to watch the animals move and interact. To spend hours hiking, or waiting out inclement weather, and to let your mind wander and consider the many possible explanations for why things are they way they are.

* George Allen Sr.