Coffee and a lap blanket; time to get reading

One struggle I have faced with graduate school revolves around reading; am I reading enough? Am I reading enough about the things I should be reading enough? What are these things I definitely should be reading……and it goes on.

This summer around the dinner table with our research crew on Southampton Island, after a long day of hiking and soaking up the wonders of the Arctic tundra, we got on the topic of “have you read this?”. Books, articles, papers, not to mention the seemingly endless news feeds (apps on your phone) you can have at your fingertips.

Am I reading enough? Am I tapping into these sources sufficiently for what is expected of me? Though this post seems to be introduced more as a “self-doubt” piece, that is not its purpose. After some discussion with the research crew, I took mental note of a few recommended reads and went online several weeks later to buy a few more books. Though most peer-reviewed publications can be read online, there are a number of other ways to get information pertaining to your area of study. I am fond of books that are written about birds but don’t have to be scientific articles or textbooks. For example, 

The Narrow Edge is written by the lovely Deborah Cramer.×441.jpg

Here are some sources, some interesting books and sources to find the kind of information biologists are likely using, or are already using and I’m late to the game:

  • Obvious; Google Scholar. I can find more papers there for free than I can through my own University.
  • Talk to your colleagues. I found out more about books and interesting reads that are applicable to my discipline than I ever got from random searches.
  • Conferences; maximize what you can get from these events. Go to as many talk as possible, write down applicable citations and talk to people about their work. You will learn more in a couple days at a conference than weeks in a library.
  • Quirks and Quarks the Podcast. You don’t even have to read, they tell you cool stuff so you are free to do other things at the same time, like knit.
  • **Google Scholar Alerts, you can create target phrases or words that are of interest to you and when a new publication comes out it sends a notification to your inbox with the link. HINT: If there are important research scientists in your discipline that you want to keep tabs on and they aren’t on your research gate account, add their name as the target word!
  • For those of you with fancy android or iphones, apps are definitely a fun route. Just search podcasts or other apps.
  • Get on those email lists for your target journals! They will let you know when things are fresh off the press and you can quickly scan titles to see if the topics apply to you. I was late getting on this and wished I had started sooner……

Really though, I think I will always be behind and I’m not really fitting enough to provide reading sources but I am a graduate student currently surviving her PhD. When I’m working full time, I seem to spend more time reading and responding to emails than anything else. However, time management means I have to force myself to get a Google Scholar search done every once in a while. I also like to read actual books away from my computer screen, equipped with coffee cup, blanket and warm lap dog during a good reading sesh. In that case, hit up the library or request Amazon or Chapters gift cards and get the books in your hands. Fitting reading time in will be that much easier.

Lastly, if your supervisor gets hard copies of applicable journals in the mail; ask them if you can borrow them.

Happy Reading.


Alive and Living Well

Today is Oct 4th, and I’m sitting at a table in a loft apartment in Healy, Alaska, population 1,021 (est. from 2010 Census).

alaska-mapOne year and 5 months ago I lived in a suburban town in Southern Ontario, Canada with a projected ‘life path’ that was taking me to some cool places for PhD field work, interspersed with long periods at a desk quietly working under a dim light, post-it notes in front of me with reminders saying ‘oil change’ and ‘sale on spinach -Sobey’s’. Life was okay. I was content and in my comfort zone. However, since then my life has been nothing of that. It’s better than I could ever have imagined.

I have discovered Alaska and a life that truly makes me happy. I have visited Alaska by road driving the Alcan, seeing wildlife and mountain views that actually exist outside of postcards at the airport duty-free places, seen most of the road system though still more to see, and spent some of the best times of my life in Cordova.

Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken

How did I get here and how is it that one person’s life can change so much in such a short period of time? I guess the short answer is saying yes. Dive ahead, even if it’s a little precarious; say yes to new things.

The past 48 hours I travelled from Cordova, Alaska to Valdez by ferry, drove (or should I say, a wonderful man drove) 6 hours north to Fairbanks. I was fortunate that people in Alaska are so generous and I was given a car to drive from Fairbanks to Healy on Hwy 3 to Denali National Park to stay with a friend whom technically we met only once, though she stayed at my house a couple nights and we follow each other on Facebook keeping in touch for years before making contact about my visiting Fairbanks and she graciously allowed me to come for a visit…..Give these parameters to a statistician and I would say these circumstances are less than one in a million.

As I sit at my friend’s table and look out on this beautiful fall day….it’s snowing here….and think about this past year and almost a half, I’m struck with the emotional gravity of how happy I am. I’m addicted to saying yes, despite the fact that my stomach churns at the thought of driving on a highway I’ve never been on with someone else’s car full of stuff headed to a place I’ve never been with no cellphone, or getting onto plane after plane to visit someone I desperately want to see with the thought that at some point I’ll have to turn around and get on a plane to leave him. All the pain of leaving that comfort zone is far outweighed by the surges of wonderful experiences and life-long lasting memories.

My mother always says that in life she wants to give my brother and I two things, ‘roots and wings’. I call home often, and I need to because I get home sick and I miss my family terribly, but man am I going to use my wings. The more I travel, whether it’s in Alaska or elsewhere, the more I’m struck by how much I would have missed if I didn’t just take those chances and book those flights. Salmon spawning, bull moose, halibut fishing, watching mountain goats climb, picking wild blueberries and edible mushrooms, hiking through rainforest, watching whales in the ocean and being splashed by a Dall’s porpoise diving and jumping around the boat, only to turn with a huge smile on my face to a thoughtful man ready to capture that moment on camera is something money could never buy.

Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken
Photo credit: Nick Docken

I consider myself blessed at having discovered saying yes early enough in life that I have decades more travel and adventures ahead of me. My flexible lifestyle right now allows for this kind of travel and I’m going to take full advantage of it!


Arctic-breeding shorebird Research, Environment and Climate Change Canada

Back from another eventful and bird-filled summer on the Canadian Arctic tundra, and back with an internet connection, I wanted to feature this newly released video featuring Dr. Paul Smith, my supervisor with Environment and Climate Change Canada. He provides some interesting material in reference to how long distance migrants such as arctic-breeding shorebirds may be responding to climate change.

and also see: Canadian Environment Week



The Importance Of Outreach

Policeman, doctor, lawyer, astronaut, accountant, teacher; while each of these professions are not all equally exciting to a child, there is some understanding about what they entail. By contrast, scientific research and the accompanying community are somewhat shrouded in mystery. Jobs abound in science and some of them, for example Lisa’s doctoral study, are both fascinating and exciting. Which was why I asked Lisa to speak with my class of elementary students; I wanted my students to have an idea of the kinds of work available in science and its impact on the world.

Before the talk, I sent Lisa an email containing the curriculum outcomes that I felt linked with her research and work, from there Lisa structured her presentation to my class accordingly. In preparation for Lisa’s talk, my students and I perused her website, paying close attention to articles which linked with the curriculum. I used the website NorthoftheGrid for class-wide shared reading activities and my students and I carefully picked apart each paragraph; along the way I posing questions to ensure that each of my young pupils understood the content. Although it was challenging, the students were extremely excited for the upcoming talk and consequently focused hard in order to understand some of the blog posts.

Between these couple of readings and a number of lessons to support what we were going to learn, the talk went off without a hitch. Another class who had also been reading Lisa’s blog and that had joined our class for an experiment which I created based on a post on NorthoftheGrid attended as well. It was amazing to see sixty some odd students completely engaged as they sat all gathered around the giant screen we had set up in the room for Lisa’s Skype presentation. (Geographical distance precluded a live presentation.) Some of the students even started frantically taking notes because they found Lisa’s stories so fascinating!

This talk and the preceding lessons before it inspired some of my students to do their own research and reading; I intercepted a note with the URL for one of NorthoftheGrid’s blog posts written on it, as it was being passed to another interested student after the presentation.

Along with increased engagement in learning about science, Lisa provided an opportunity for the students to see available jobs in the field of scientific research. They learned that teams of people are required to do the research; so one could apply to be a leader of such a project or one of the many techs. Lisa talked about the education she acquired to get to this point as well. To add another element to the presentation, she brought along many artifacts from her extensive collection of taxidermy and skeletons. There were even guest appearances from her fellow Arctic researchers! As incredible and fascinating as all these various parts of the presentation were, I think my students’ favourite part was the story about the polar bear who broke into camp and ate a bottle of hot sauce; that earned huge laughs and it just goes to show that one can never predict what will happen in the field.

Although they didn’t get to fly to the Arctic themselves, in talking to an Arctic researcher, and listening to her stories, it brought the concept and the science alive for them. Even though my students are nine years old, this experience could be the first stepping stone along a path that leads them to devote their life to scientific research. As important as shivering in the Arctic for three months while collecting data and presenting findings at conferences across North America is, I feel outreach to the public young and old, is a vital aspect of science, as it leads to greater understanding and helps assists in developing new researchers

-And elementary school teacher


Cholera found in Migrating Snow Geese

Over the past several decades, anthropogenic effects (human activity) are increasingly tipping the balance in favour of some species over others in North America; and heavily one-sided dominant forms of competition between species have the potential to explain global declines in species’ populations and reduced global diversity.  With agricultural intensification, land development, and human waste management, some species flexible to changing landscapes are likely influencing their community structure through disproportional abundance, which allows them to compete more aggressively for space and food resources. Effects of both invasive species and disproportional growth in select species is a global concern and has been for several decades (Garrott et al. 1993).

Invasive European Starling populations out compete other native birds for space and food resources.
Invasive European Starling populations out compete other native birds for space and food resources.

If you are a hunter, or an avian biologist then you definitely have hard or seen first hand the exponential population increases in North American Lesser Snow Geese. Flocks of millions of birds move through the mid-continent twice a year either heading to or away from their arctic tundra breeding grounds. Biologists have been monitoring this growth pattern and implementing game management strategies.

Flock of Snow Geese

Snow geese population numbers cannot increase to infinity obviously. At some point something has to give; habitat space, food resources, disease, or a combination of those things. For the past few years I’ve been interested in seeing how the snow goose populations are changing and projected to change based on research by a number of fantastic goose biologists in both Canada and the USA.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow biologist whom is heavily immersed in the game management and hunting community. An American-based hunting outfitter had contacted him regarding several dead fully intact snow geese found in an open field. Over several days ~50 birds were seen dead, many with a mucous coming from their nostrils. This hunting trip was located in Saskatchewan for the spring hunt. Long story short and a long email thread later, I had contacted one goose biologist, who contacted multiple other biologists and a Curator at the University of Saskatoon was interested in receiving the dead carcasses for inspection and testing.

This outfitter company graciously delivered the birds to the University.

As it turns out, these dead birds were confirmed for Cholera. This is an unusual and rare appearance of this lethal disease in this species and particularly in Canada. As populations grow, densities of colony species or socially aggregate species effectively can transmit disease between each other or get infected through common sources of water or food.

As a biologist, this finding was exciting. And I quickly realized the power of a network within our avian community. Once the formal report for this disease comes out, I will provide the link here.


Being Left – A Guide To Staying Home When Someone You Know Is In The Arctic

When your loved one takes off for the Great White North, there are a lot of emotions, worries and fears. However, as with any difficult situation, there are preparations or reminders which make the entire experience easier.

Before your loved one takes off into the frigid unknown, you can talk with them frequently, but at the same time it is important to remember that the period before the field season is often almost as busy as the field season itself. Every year before Lisa leaves for the Arctic, we are both cognizant of the fact that we won’t be able to visit for months, so I will call her a couple of times a week for a few minutes to check in. It’s nice to hear how she is doing and also to listen to all of the preparations she is making for her long stay in the North. Together we count down the number of days we have to talk to one another before she leaves.

These conversations also serve to remind me just how perfect Lisa is for her job. Regardless of whether your friend or family member is leading a team, researching or acting as a tech, it helps to keep in mind that your loved one has been chosen because they are skilled, well trained and able to take on this adventure. Ask about what your friend or family member is bringing to the Arctic and why. Each year Lisa sends all crew members a link to her blog post which lists the gear necessary for her crew to survive on the tundra for three months. Because of her crew’s careful preparations, despite the unseasonably cold temperatures last year, no one got chilblains on their face last season.

Once your loved one takes off for the North, it’s tempting to use the satellite phone number you’ve been left to call and check in but lots of contact with home actually increases homesickness. Ultimately you want your loved one to prosper and be successful up North, so in lieu of calling repeatedly and attempting to have long static filled conversations about how much you miss one another, take heart and remember that no news is good news. Admittedly some people are better at remembering the truth in this adage. Sometime around July, I tend to crack and call Lisa’s Mom. “I haven’t heard anything!” I’ll wail into the phone. Lisa’s mother will then cheerfully trill at me “Well dear, we haven’t either, you must remember that no news is good news”.

Although contact is infrequent and sometimes unreliable at best, the crew can be medivaced to safety if there is a serious problem. These types of emergencies are rare because of how well the researchers, techs and everyone, takes care of one another up there. It sounds funny but Lisa wants to know tidbits as basic as when each of her crew poops because these very mundane activities are indicators of health and wellness.

Even though phoning every day (or sometimes every month) is out, there are other forms of communication available to both you and your loved one. Writing letters or cards can be a cathartic and effective way to feel connected with your Northern explorer while they are away. In addition, they are a nice surprise when the crew receives a supply drop every other week.

Keeping pictures of your friend or family member or favourite items of theirs around the house or office takes the sting out of missing that person. My favourite thing of Lisa’s to keep is her dog Maddie. The past two field seasons that Lisa has spent up North, I’ve taken care of Maddie for a period of time. Having a furry bundle of joy definitely makes the time apart easier to manage. Although I imagine that albums or beloved objects would do the trick too.

When all else fails, knowing that the season is only three months long, and that they will be back soon, can be a comfort. As can planning a fun activity to do together when they return. Last year Lisa and I went back country camping. The year before that we crafted and wrote. What will you do to celebrate your adventurer’s return? – from The Great Unwashed

(the best friend a girl could ask for)


Camaraderie, leaving home and enjoying life’s adventures

The countdown is on. I have 10 days before I leave home for 2 months, spending time travelling by commercial flights, bush planes, helicopters; seeing polar bears, rare and exciting birds, well, the works. And truly it’s a magical time of year for me. BUT. And there always is a bit of a “but”; being in cool and exotic places, means you are not at home, you are away from family, the familiar, and the comforts that all those things contain.

When I’m away and don’t have convenient means to call my family and let them know how I’m doing, we always say that “no news is good news”. The absence of my contact means that things are likely not just fine I might even be having so much fun that any lingering homesickness, has been suppressed by wonderful daily happenings.

This is one of my favourite pictures from last summer. Victoria is a veteran crew member of mine; this summer will be her third summer working with me and I couldn’t be happier having her come back. She is getting a picture of her holding a male Black-bellied Plover, a bird that is difficult for us to catch. But you can see the rest of us, working together as a team, taking notes, dealing with gear etc. So for every picture of one of us, there is a whole network of people working together.



SHOREBIRD LEG FLAGS; how to make the perfect leg flag.

The North American Banding Council has designated that as scientists capture and tag birds, we do so in a structured way so that everyone can access one database and determine who, what, where, and when that individual bird was tagged. Banding and recapturing is how we first made strides in determining where migratory birds went after they left the breeding grounds or migratory stopover locations when they were headed…well, somewhere. It’s also how we have been able to determine proximate ages for individual birds and for species. How long does a little bird live? Believe it or not, some small songbirds can live over 10 years! And likely that is a conservative number. All that has been possible due to banding efforts where we capture birds, place uniquely coded bands on each one and record all the information about where it was banded, the species, other measurements etc.

Sanderling. Photo by: Nick Docken
Sanderling. Photo by: Nick Docken

In many cases, birds are mostly resighted and not recaptured, meaning that someone was looking through their binoculars and noticed a bird has some kind of marking on it. It’s wonderful, especially if the bird has a marking that is unique to THAT bird. Smaller birds can be given leg flags that have unique colour and code on them to help us identify from afar who they are and where they were tagged. These leg flags are colour coded by country which is even more fun, especially when you are in the Canadian Arctic and you see a red knot with an orange flag….Hello Argentina!!!! That bird has come a long way to breed.

Photo by: Nick Docken
Photo by: Nick Docken

It is however not a right but a privilege to handle birds. Each person is registered and has applied for a permit to capture and handle birds only after weeks to months of mentorship from experienced banders at permitted banding stations in the country. Code of ethics, safety, banding regulations all need to be followed precisely. “The bird comes first” before anything, so it’s safety and proper handling is our number one priority. With this responsibility comes not only the proper care and handling but the proper administering of any item being placed on the bird, such as the bands, flags or markings.

Making the perfect leg flag for smaller birds (band size 1A, 1B, 3 etc)

Things you need:

  1. Darvic plastic or the new Salbex plastic products 1-2 mm thickness cut into strips 1cm x 10 cm

2. Small but hardy clamp that can tolerate some heat

3. An assortment of nails that fit the measured diameter for the bands designated for your target species




Sourced from:

4. Heat gun


Take your flat pre-cut Darvic plastic piece and press around the nail sized to your leg band requirement. Then pinch in place as close to the nail as possible:

Hang your heat gun (I used Mastercraft’s model), and turn the heat setting on low. Place one side of the band with the curved side facing out under the heat for 5 seconds. You will see the plastic mold nicely to the shape of the nail. Then turn and heat the other side for 3-5 seconds until shaped. *Do not heat for too long, after the plastic gets too soft, it will droop and will not return to the right shape, aka the flag is garbage.

Let cool for 5 seconds and remove from clap. If the opening is not flush and forms a V shape this is a no no.

Flip the flag in the claps so the tail end is sticking out and give it a 3 second blast of heat, then pinch with your fingers being careful to not burn yourself. Don’t press too hard or the plastic may bend.

And Voila, the perfect leg band. Now trim and they are safe for use.


Arctic Facts: Bio-luminescent (glow in the dark) zooplankton during the arctic night

The Polar Night. Anywhere North of the polar circle line for a period of the year it’s over 24 hours of darkness. No sun. Culturally, communities living in places where there are periods of total darkness for days, week, months; are usually sleeping, spending a lot of time indoors and in a way, kind of regenerating for the polar day when it becomes 24 hour daylight and people are out ‘making hay while the sun shines’.

Like the communities of people, it was thought that marine productivity slows greatly during these times with no sunlight. My gosh, who wouldn’t get lazy and sleepy with all that darkness and end up watching endless Netflix shows and or knitting baby sweaters. That’s what I would do. Scientists in Norway studied the activity patterns of zooplankton during these polar nights. But not just any zooplankton; GLOW IN THE DARK ZOOPLANKTON.

Check this out!!!!

Photos courtesy of


By monitoring and quantifying their bioluminescent activity throughout a longitudinal study by season and time of day, it was determined that not only are various zooplankton active during these polar nights but their flashes are unique to them by species. As our optic technology continues to improve, use of certain (complicated devices I know nothing about nor could understand) forms of data collection may allow us to determine how these northern communities of zooplankton are changing in response to reductions in arctic ice, climate change etc.

Something I definitely did not know included in this paper noted some species of seabirds (black guillemot, kittiwake, fulmar, little auk and glaucous gull) are overwintering in Arctic fjords (Weslawski et al. 1991) -cited in this paper see below. These birds may use the visual glow of the zooplankton to locate their food, or perhaps as a proxy to finding fish that are attracted to their glowing zooplankton prey. The only thing missing from this paper was a couple good photos! I’m sure people would love to see these glowing zooplankton but none appeared in the manuscript.

2014. Polar Biol. Johnsen et al. Glowing in the dark: discriminating patterns of bioluminescence from different taxa during the Arctic polar night

For other interesting species that bioluminesce, see this new find; glowing sharks! This TED talk has been featured as a late. Click the link to watch the TED talk about glowing sharks.