Notes from the Field

Back to Uncovering a Migration Mystery

April 19th, 2017 by Ruthie Oliver, Columbia University/LDEO

We are back on the search for Space Robins to help us solve our migration mystery! Remember, last year we set out to track American robins migrating through Canada and Alaska to understand where they go and why. Check out our first post from last year to learn more about the project in general. With the help of our friends Nicole and Richard Krikun of the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory and Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation and mini-GPS units from Lotek, we successfully followed fifteen robins to their breeding grounds. Check out the map below to see where our Space Robins went!

This year, our team of researchers has changed a bit. I’m Ruthie, a student at Columbia University and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory working on my Ph.D. in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. My friends, and birding experts, Nicole and Richard will be helping me again. But this year my mom Kitty, a bird enthusiast, will be tagging along.

Ruthie Oliver and Nicole Krikun in front of a snowy Boreal Centre.

Kitty Oliver, the newest Space Robin team member.

We are curious to discover what types of environmental conditions might cause robins to change their movements as they search for a place to breed and raise their chicks. Because environmental conditions can change quite bit from year to year, especially in the arctic tundra and boreal forest, we are back in Alberta to find 30 more robins to help us untangle their migration mystery. This year we are hoping that if environmental conditions, like snow cover, are different from last year it will help us understand what types of conditions robins prefer when they travel.

You are what you eat…

If you notice on the map of our robins from last year, we know where they ended their journey, but we don’t know where they started. Because of this we don’t know which robin actually traveled the farthest. Another migration mystery! Do you have any guesses on where the robins might be coming from? Do you have any ideas how we might figure out where our robins spent the winter?

Remember the saying “you are what you eat”? It’s true! Foods that are grown in different places are different when you look at them very closely by studying the atoms that they’re made of. Atoms of the same element can weigh different amounts and are called isotopes. The amount of different isotopes found in a plant depends on the type of plant and where it was grown. The isotopes in plants show up in the feathers and toenails of robins. So this year, we will collect feathers and toenail clippings from our robins. By looking at the carbon and hydrogen isotopes of the feathers and toenail clippings, we will be able to learn about where our robins are coming from. Click here to learn more about isotopes.

Spring and snow in the boreal forest

Robins aren’t the only ones who are affected by the environment. When we landed in Edmonton, Alberta on Friday we were all set to drive 3 hours north the Boreal Centre. But a big snowstorm made the trip too difficult, so we had to wait for the weather to improve before completing our migration. As we waited in Edmonton, we could only imagine that the robins were probably hunkered down waiting out the storm too. The next day as we drove, we got a glimpse of what the boreal forest looks like in the winter.

With snow on the ground and cold temperatures, we weren’t optimistic about catching many robins at the Boreal Centre very soon. While we waited we prepared our GPS backpacks. We wanted make sure they fit the robins, but we needed a robin to a measure on. Usually we don’t want to lure robins in with calls because birds that respond are likely to be breeding in the area and are no longer migrating. But since we just wanted to try out suiting up a Space Robin, we didn’t mind if it was living around here. So we downloaded robin calls to play through a speaker and set out a decoy stuffed bird. We got the attention of our local robin we had seen around, but before we knew it we had attracted quite a crowd! About two-dozen robins took to perching in the tree near our speaker to try to figure out who was singing. Because they were in such a big group, it seemed like they were most likely still migrating, but just taking a break in the snow.



Our decoy robin (actually a Red-winged blackbird stuffed animal) singing.

Waiting behind the nets for robins to come.

Robins coming over to check out what all the singing is about.

And that’s how we met our first two Space Robins—Dream and Lightning Guinea Pig!

Here’s how we suit up a Space Robin:


Check back here for updates as we find our next Space Robins!


As our 2016 field campaign comes to an end, I find myself proud of all the great data we collected. Our primary objective was to sample enough sites of different ages, land use, and species composition to be able to say something meaningful about changing fire regimes and the interactions between wildfire and timber harvest. I’m confident we accomplished this. In a way though, the work has just begun. Now we must conduct laboratory tests on many coolers worth of soil, count hundreds of tree rings, pour over the data, interpret the results, and write it up for publication. But none of this would be possible without collecting the amount of high-quality field data we did.

Catherine Dieleman, preparing to dig a soil core.

Catherine Dieleman, preparing to dig a soil core.

In fact, none of this would be possible without something much more fundamental: an amazing team. We came from Massachusetts, California, Ontario, and Belgium. We are at varying stages of our careers but were all excited to be there, with our hands in the dirt collecting data. We woke up early and got home late. Our bodies were sore. There were any number of cuts, scrapes, and bruises. We were always dirty, especially the days sampling burned forests when everything you touch is covered in soot and char. Bogs and rain made for wet boots and wet socks. Oh and the bugs. When the black flies and mosquitos began to relent they were replaced by deer and horse flies.

Each team member had their personal battles, their moments and days of drudgery. But they all found a way to power through. The only complaining I heard was in jest, to lighten the mood and make for a few laughs. And we had a lot of laughs. We thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Given the situation, having to work hard and spend every minute of the day together, I think that is a rare and wonderful thing.

Liz Wiggins and Jocelyne LaFlamme, packed up and ready to walk to the next field site.

Liz Wiggins and Jocelyne LaFlamme, packed up and ready to walk to the next field site.

Someday soon our plots will be boiled down to points on a map, or included in a model. Some will read and cite our papers, or use a figure in a presentation. Hopefully we will have made a valuable contribution to science, and to NASA’s ABoVE campaign. But only we know what each one of those plots felt like. The young pine forests thick with prickly brush. The old-growth pine and spruce that felt so majestic in comparison. The failed plots that never were. And that one where the ‘forest chicken’ attacked us. Or was it a mini-ostrich? Hard to say. (It was a grouse.)

Someone wise once told me you can teach science and you can teach methods. But you can’t teach attitude. A positive attitude will keep you afloat through the tough times and make you appreciate the good. A bad attitude will make everything difficult. Attitude is the primary quality I look for in team members, and boy did I luck out with this crew.

Thank you to my team for making this field campaign such a great success. Thank you Jill Johnstone and her crew for all their good will and hard work. Thank you Saskatchewan for being such a lovely host. And thank you NASA for giving us this opportunity.

Until next time. Rogers field team – over and out.

Brendan Rogers is a project lead with the ABoVE campaign, and an assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

As part of our field work to measure carbon emissions in burned areas, we often have to hike through an obstacle course of fallen trees to reach our research sites. I took some video with a GoPro to give a sense of what this is like, as well as how we extract soil to take measurements and how we find the perfect sites.


Elizabeth Wiggins is a PhD student in the department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.

ABoVE: Burned boreal forest — Site-seeking struggles

June 14th, 2016 by Jocelyne Laflamme

In the field, collecting the data is a big job – but our work starts long before we start taking measurements, with the task of finding desired sites within the landscape.

Jocelyne coring a tree to determine the age of the forest (Credit: Sander Veraverbeke)

Jocelyne coring a tree to determine the age of the forest (Credit: Sander Veraverbeke)

As our time in Saskatchewan progresses, choosing and finding the right places to collect data becomes progressively more difficult. We are looking for a wide range of forest ages and species composition. This becomes more and more challenging as the time passes, since we now need to find sites with the particular characteristics that we are missing. To find these places, we look at maps that show when and where fires have occurred, and combine this information with maps from logging companies that show location and dates of timber projects.

Every day, we head out to several sites that we identified the night before. We usually drive an hour or so on gravel roads, and hike several hundred meters into the forest. We check for the right species composition at the site, and use a tool called a tree borer to extract a thin cylinder from a nearby tree trunk. From this tree core, we can count the number of rings and determine the approximate age of the forest. If the forest age and species composition meet our expectations, we finally begin our data collection. If not, we return to the car and attempt another location.

It can be challenging when we don’t find what we expected, which can result from inaccuracies in the map layers we use. At times this can be frustrating, but thanks to our team’s stamina, we always eventually manage to find what we need. With only a couple days left in the field, all the gaps in our data will soon be filled.

Jocelyne Laflamme is an undergraduate student in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at the University of Guelph in Canada.

ABoVE: Fires in recently logged forests

June 10th, 2016 by Kylen Solvik

Since our last post, our team has moved an hour south to the small village of Weyakwin, where the Philion fire burned last year. There is a lot of logging Weyakwin, and we are very interested in the interactions between fires and logging. We are comparing burned forests that grew back after people cut trees, to those that grew back after an earlier forest fire.

 Sampling a young harvested site that burned last year. It was harvested only a year or two before it burned. (Credit: Solvik)

Sampling a young harvested site that burned last year. It was harvested only a year or two before it burned. (Credit: Solvik)

We believe there could be differences between the two in burn severity and the amount of carbon released by the fire. When a plot is harvested for lumber, the logs are removed but the soil remains. This is the opposite of burned areas, where fire burns into the soils but a lot of the trees remain standing, albeit charred. To study these differences, we are searching for areas of burn and harvest origin that are about the same age. We have seen some very young burned sites, many were less than 10 years old when they burned. This is surprising since forests in boreal regions typically burn when they are 50 to 100 years old. We were shocked to find a burned plot that had been harvested only a year or two earlier. Even without any significant trees or shrubs to carry the flames, the soil was able to sustain the fire.

At the sample sites, my job is to help characterize and quantify the aboveground biomass. This includes trees, shrubs, and dead trees that have fallen over, called “coarse woody debris.” I work with Brendan Rogers, our team leader, to measure every tree within a 2-by-30 meter sampling area. We identify the tree species, rate the amount of the canopy consumption, and measure the diameter. We will use these numbers to estimate how much carbon was released when that tree burned. Most of these tasks are fairly straightforward — although it can sometimes be tricky to differentiate between similar tree species after they have burned. We can measure individual trees pretty quickly, but it can still take one or even two hours to work through an entire site. At one site, we counted over 350 trees, measuring the diameter and estimating the canopy consumption for each and every one!

Our team and Rita. From left to right: Kylen Solvik, Liz Wiggins, Rita, Brendan Rogers, Sander Veraverbeke, and Jocelyne Laflamme. Missing: Catherine Dieleman, who had to fly home early for a friend’s wedding. (Credit: Solvik)

Our team and Rita. From left to right: Kylen Solvik, Liz Wiggins, Rita, Brendan Rogers, Sander Veraverbeke, and Jocelyne Laflamme. Missing: Catherine Dieleman, who had to fly home early for a friend’s wedding. (Credit: Solvik)

In Weyakwin, we are staying at a small bed & breakfast. Our host, a wonderful lady named Rita, takes great care of us. She cooks us breakfast and dinner, and she even packs us brown bag lunches for us to grab on our way out. After going out for dinner every night at our previous lodging in La Ronge, it has been a great change of pace eating home-cooked meals. We will be staying with Rita for the next week, and then we will be returning to Saskatoon to fly back to our respective homes. One of our team members, Catherine Dieleman, left early for her friend’s wedding. We will miss her and her soil expertise dearly.

But there are a lot more sites to sample before we are done!


Kylen Solvik is a research assistant at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts.