Written by Krista
It’s mid-January in 2018. Snow blankets every surface and the Rideau Canal has opened for its 119th season. Wind howls as it rushes around the building, rattling the windows. I’m sitting at my desk nursing an umpteenth cup of tea while preparing a monthly report summarising recent progress of my experiment.
At the time, I was working on a nanomaterial project investigating the effects of rare earth elements on the reproductive capability of plants, an experiment I had been running off and on for about a year. Clicking away at the keyboard, my attention is suddenly called to the bottom corner of my screen, where an email notification from my boss has popped up. Clicking reveals she has passed on a job posting for a wildlife technician based out of Medicine Hat, Alberta, roughly, oh, 3,230 km away.
The unfortunate reality for many working in science-related fields is that we are hired for short term contracts with little guarantee of our future, thanks to funding that results in hopping between projects, agencies, or in my case, provinces. Each one of us prepares months in advance of our contract end dates, scrambling to find something else.
When my contract finished the year prior, I worked as a park ranger for my fourth season at Presqu’ile Provincial Park before returning to my plants with the autumn chill in Canada’s capital. However, with the official closing of the staff cabin, I knew I would need to look elsewhere for 2018.
Fast forward a few months to Ottawa fully within winter’s grasp. I’m reading about the ongoing monitoring of Horned Lark and Chestnut-collared Longspur in the prairies, followed by the encouraging words, “You would be perfect for this!”
The position was everything I could have dreamed of, but I wasn’t so sure I was the right person for the job. I earned my Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Carleton University, and during that time I fell in love with birds through my ornithology professor Michael Runtz. With his help, I was able to learn each bird of Eastern North America in just under three months, a skill I put to good use during nature walks as a park ranger. Would that be useful halfway across the country? Surely the birds in Alberta were different from Ontario? What were the chances I would be picked from so far away out of all the candidates? I’ve never been there! Should I even bother?
I had been working as a research scientist in a lab for just over a year, could I really make the jump to a field biologist? The hurdle of finding a paid position is huge, with so many scientists competing for the coveted title or, even worse, being told you had all the qualifications but were not worth being paid; surely, you’d accept the experience itself as payment? After all, unpaid internships greatly outnumber their salaried counterparts, and not everyone can get paid.
Despite self-doubt, I applied with the encouragement of my lab-mates, and two months later, was packing my car with everything I would need for a 3 ½ day drive from Ottawa to Medicine Hat. I would be part of a team of wildlife biologists living in a trailer in the middle of the prairies somewhere north-west of the city. Location? “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be given coordinates en-route. They are expecting you.”
The drive itself was a journey. It took two days to get through Ontario. JUST ONTARIO. But somewhere after Vermilion Bay, the trees became sparse and the rugged Canadian Shield quickly disappeared to reveal large swathes of land unadorned with anything except silos and power lines. The sky was huge and overwhelming; I had never seen it so big before. It felt like it would swallow you whole! Suddenly, driving with sunglasses was a must.
I remember crossing the Manitoba border and seeing my first black-billed magpie, a species I’ve always been drawn to for their intelligence, stunning plumage, and slow lilting flight. From that point on, I was so excited to see everything I could as I made my way to Medicine Hat. I had volunteered at banding stations before, but this would be my first opportunity to handle birds myself.
My fascination with birds began only years prior, but I have been drawn to the outdoors since I was small. With what is now the Rouge National Urban Park as my backyard, I could be found splashing in ravines, tumbling around the forest floor and, much to my Mum’s displeasure, bringing snakes home to show her before returning them to their natural habitat – all before the streetlamps flickered on.
Western Canada possessed this alluring quality, an open invitation to explore that I am so happy I chose to embrace. Driving to Alberta was a fantastic way to get to know my home country in a way that simply cannot be appreciated if you don’t see the changing landscape for yourself.
Field days were long and began at about 3:30 in the morning so that we could carry all our gear into the field and be set up before sunrise, an inconvenience that was made 100% worth it by watching our monitored nests hatch and grow to banding age. There is something about those awkward fluffy lumps that is so endearing! Eventually, you learn the behaviours of the parents of each nest too; which are flighty, aggressive or frustratingly nonchalant.
You try not to pick favourites. It doesn’t work.
Beginning work in the middle of the night meant wearing gloves and a toque even through August. The darkness holds both a chill and a layer of fog that disappear with the rise of the sun. By 7am your backpack is bursting with shed clothing layers and an alarm goes off as a reminder to reapply sunscreen for the third time today. Grasses sway with the early morning breeze; in another hour it will be too windy for mist nets. With no trees or geography to navigate, you start using bones, cacti or even oddly shaped cow pats to find your way.
I spent my field season learning how to put up, take down, and repair mist netting. How to band and attach geolocators to birds. Figuring out that horned larks are indeed smarter than you are, and that despite being rather large animals, pronghorn have a knack for sneaking up on unsuspecting birders and snorting down their necks!
If I had listened to all my uncertainties and not applied, I would have never found myself chasing birds around the prairie. Sunrises never seen, skills never learned. I would have missed out on doing something I loved. I wouldn’t know how it feels to watch nestlings grow and join a flock to migrate south for the winter despite all odds being against them. Yes, our contracts are fleeting and sporadic and there are downsides to that, however, there is great opportunity to find yourself in unexpected places.
During my first summer as a wildlife technician, I learned that the people who dedicate their lives working these contracts are incredibly resilient. They endure instability on a personal level so that the work to protect the environment can continue. The passion of these scientists is a powerful catalyst for the necessary change we need to see in conservation.
Personally, my eyes were opened to realise that your entire knowledge base may not be applicable to each job you reach for, science or not! This is the part that makes it easy to underestimate yourself, saying, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.” You feel overwhelmed and you don’t apply for that job. What each of us should be focusing on is what IS transferable. In my case, knowledge of Western bird species was beginner level at best. But every bird has key field markings and I had learned how to take accurate field notes using the correct language in school. I had taught myself how to recognise flight and feeding patterns. I studied and memorised calls versus songs. While the location was entirely new, the basic skill set required was not.
Whether it be personally or contractually, there may always be a degree of uncertainty working in conservation. Now, thanks to the community of Lonely Conservationists, we don’t have to endure those uncertainties alone.
For more of Krista, follow her on Instagram @ilikebirdbutts
This was extremely charming Krista! I’m so glad you embraced adventure out west!
P.s magpies are assholes. Ask anyone from Alberta.