Field work: a rewarding and challenging endeavor

I have the opportunity to see some pretty neat stuff outdoors with my job. And although I don't have time every week, as it isn't the primary focus of my work to look for neat species, it is one of the most enjoyable activities I get to participate in, and I jump at the chance to participate in outdoor adventures whenever I can.  Last week I was fortunate enough to get to tag along in search of some of the first salamanders moving after the rains from the thunderstorm that passed through the area earlier in the week.  After spending most of the night searching for creepy crawlies, I got nearly an hour’s sleep and then prepared my peepers to shift their focus to searching “on the wing” as part of a waterfowl survey.

So over the course of about 15 hours I was able to see: fifteen spotted salamanders (sadly, only six alive), three marbled  salamanders (two alive), one southern two lined, more than two dozen deer, lots of rabbits, three opossums, one raccoon, two fox squirrels, more than a dozen turkeys, two great blue herons, one northern harrier, over 600 ducks (mallards, wood ducks, black ducks, gadwalls, widgeons, green wing teals, shovelers, and coots), one red tailed hawk, and four bald eagles. It was an amazing experience, and one I wouldn't trade for anything. But to be honest, it was also more than a little exhausting.

Spending time in the field is always better than sitting at a desk. As the old saying goes, a bad day in the field is better than a good day in the office. And it really is true. And although looking for cool plants and animals may sound like the most awesome job ever (and it pretty much is), it's also a lot of hard work and takes experience and skill to be good at it. Wildlife biologists have to know when (time of year, time of day, weather conditions, mating seasons) and habitat requirements to know when and where they might be likely to see priority wildlife species. And they have to be willing to get out and look for them. Salamanders like to move in rain and at night, so biologists turn off their internal clocks and get out there to search. Many birds start calling before the crack of dawn and fall silent by mid-morning.

And even more species inhabit areas we'd really just as soon keep out of - deep swampy recesses, flooded bottomlands and marshes - havens for all that we dislike about the outdoors, such as mosquitoes, ticks, and cottonmouths. There's no wonder we associate these areas with monsters and peril, like the fire swamp of Princess Bride fame, or The Creature from the Black Lagoon. But in actuality, these areas are not really threatening, but instead are critical habitat for a wide variety of species (although heat and bugs and snakes may make them less preferred by humans). Nonetheless, biologists put on waders and bug spray and dive into these areas to explore. And every now and then I get to tag along. I appreciate their dedication to helping us understand the natural world around us and our relationship to it, especially when it's not convenient or easy to do. To know how to preserve species we must first know where they are and what they need. And protecting species preserves diversity, increasing the resiliency of ecosystems, which are then more able to adapt to stressors and bounce back from natural disasters. By helping them, we help ourselves – and as an added bonus we make sure that they will be around for future generations to go out and look for on their own adventures.

-- Crystal Cockman

Photographs by Crystal Cockman