Field Notes: Four Field Perspectives

Field biology is almost always a team endeavor. Field crews often include people with different levels of experience and biological backgrounds—and each member brings something valuable to the team, from budding young scientists to experienced researchers. Going into the Summer of 2022, my second field season researching Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius), I was nervous . . . not just about the challenging logistics of observing the breeding behavior of these shy, cryptic shorebirds, but about being an effective leader for the three very enthusiastic students who would soon arrive and look to me for guidance. It was super important to me that everyone felt engaged and understood the broader goals of the research, so that we could work efficiently as a team. In addition, I wanted each person to gain the knowledge and experiences that were most important to them—and to have fun in the process!

Looking back from today, the 2022 field season was a smashing success and the team gelled almost immediately. We exceeded my expectations in terms of biological discoveries and data collection, but also in the fabulous team dynamic that our sandpiper field crew developed. Instead of speaking for my team, I thought I would interview them and let them tell their own stories of our summer studying spotties in the Mono Basin.

First, some introductions!

Alexandra Juárez is an undergraduate biology major at Loyola University Chicago. She had just finished her sophomore year when she joined the sandpiper field crew and had (in her own words) “absolutely no experience with fieldwork and/or research.” However, she arrived equipped with a keen desire to learn, sharp ears, and a musical sensibility from her background as a singer.

Alexandra with a Spotted Sandpiper chick that she helped capture. Spotted Sandpipers typically lay four eggs per nest; after we band and measure each chick, they are released to continue growing up—hopefully to return next summer. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

Rayven Hernandéz completed her undergraduate degree in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology at UC Davis in 2022 and had experience interning with several avian research projects. Rayven joined the sandpiper team as phase one of her gap year before pursuing a Master’s degree; she was hoping to gain additional bird-handling skills and learn more about the process of developing a research project. “This was my third (and most exciting!) research experience . . . heading into the Spotted Sandpiper field season I was both excited and nervous, this [being] my most in-depth and hands-on project.”

With many pieces of equipment we needed to tote along each day, working together allowed us to divide the load. Here, Rayven models the best way to carry mist net poles (used to support the 6-meter-tall nets we use to capture birds). Photo by Jessica Schaefer

Tessa Patton graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with her bachelor’s degree in biology in Spring 2022. Currently a Master’s student in Loyola University of Chicago’s Bioinformatics program, part of the data and samples we collected in Summer 2022 would go into Tessa’s thesis project on Spotted Sandpiper gene expression and the development of sexual dimorphism (i.e., differences between males and females). Before joining the sandpiper team, Tessa had spent many hours in the field observing shorebirds and monitoring nests at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Assateague Island National Seashore, but she was excited to spend time in the Eastern Sierra Nevada learning about a new species and ecosystem. “I’ve always had a love for the outdoors, but spending so much time in one of my favorite places (sometimes alone in the backcountry for days) gave me trust in myself to do field work.” 

Jessica (left) and Tessa collect a blood sample from an adult Spotted Sandpiper. One small vial of blood will provide information about the sex, identity, hormones, and gene expression of this individual. (This does not harm the birds, and all necessary wildlife research permits were obtained.) Photo by Joe Yu.

I (Jessica Schaefer) am a Ph.D. candidate at UC Davis and the captain of our sandpiper crew. I conceived of this project, developed research questions, and picked out methods—with the help of my adviser and collaborators. I consider myself a generalist field biologist, having done prior research on fish in small freshwater lakes, marine invertebrates and algae in the tropical rocky intertidal zone as a Master’s student, and now shorebirds at high elevation streams. Every species, ecosystem, and field site comes with its own set of challenges; for me, an especially fun part of behavioral research is learning to think like different animals and navigate their environments while gathering data.

Alexandra, Tessa, and Rayven (left to right) pause for a team photo while hiking along Rush Creek, one of the field sites where we studied Spotted Sandpipers. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

The four of us, plus my collaborator Dr. Sara Lipshutz (Assistant Professor at Loyola University Chicago), formed Team Sandpiper. First thing’s first: what was our mission? What drew these scientists from across the country and different stages of their careers to the Mono Basin? I asked each team member to describe the goal of our research in one sentence:

“To find out what makes female and male Spotted Sandpipers different from each other” – Alexandra

“Describing how environmental factors affect mating behaviors and chick rearing of Spotted Sandpipers” – Rayven

“To study sexual dimorphism and individual differences in Spotted Sandpipers . . . to shed light on the ecology and evolution of variation in a previously understudied mating system.” – Tessa

Each of these statements is an accurate description of our research, but they highlight different aspects. Spotted Sandpipers exhibit social polyandry, a mating system in which individual females pair and reproduce with multiple males, parental care is male-biased, and sexual selection is more intense in females than males; this means that females compete with one another to establish territories and attract mates. However, individuals and populations can differ substantially in mating and parental behavior, even within the same species. In my view, our team’s mission was to characterize this variation in reproductive behavior among Spotted Sandpipers and explore what ecological factors may be driving it.

To do this, we needed to meld our unique skills and abilities into a smooth-running field team. Some field tasks required all eyes, ears, and hands on deck—such as searching for the well-hidden nests of Spotted Sandpipers, or herding chicks in order to capture and mark them with metal leg bands (the 10-gram fuzzballs are surprisingly fast, so catching them requires excellent group coordination!). In other cases, we took a divide-and-conquer approach and delegated tasks to different people. For example, one of Rayven’s specific roles was to track the abundance of potential nest predators at each study site. “I learned how to identify different predators by sight, paw/talon/food prints, and even scat . . . I never thought I would get so excited about poop,” reflected Rayven. Alexandra put her musical talents to work recording sandpiper vocalizations with a special microphone and recorder, and Tessa specialized in processing the blood samples we collected each day and dividing them into separate containers for later analysis of DNA, hormones, and RNA (gene expression). I was a “Jess-of-all-trades” and focused on setting the priorities for each day and performing tasks that required more experience like collecting blood samples. Even though I was the boss, I also tried to step back and solicit opinions from the team, rather than relying on my own judgements and observations alone.

Setting up a mist net is much easier with several people helping out. Alexandra (above) and the other team members became experts at setting up and taking down mist nets throughout the summer. Together we figured out the best configurations for capturing Spotted Sandpipers as they flew or foraged along shore. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

I was curious to find out how each student’s preconceptions of field research compared with the reality they experienced that summer, so I asked the team: What surprised you most about the field work? Alexandra, new to field biology, was surprised “that people traveled to amazing places and pursued their own personal scientific inquiries for a living.” Tessa, who had previous experience working with the National Park System, was surprised by “the culture of academic field work . . . it was exciting to learn new protocols and work with such an inquisitive team. Being along in the field is so different from traveling as a group, and I love the dynamic that we had. Within the limits of our research permits we were also able to adapt our methods to the conditions throughout the summer and collect all kinds of data to answer questions that piqued our interest!” Both Alexandra and Tessa reflected on the fact that scientific research is shaped by the personal interests and curiosity of the scientists who do the work, in addition to issues important to human society and conservation.

Apart from the data we collected, what else did we learn from this field experience? Everyone agreed they learned too many things to count, but here are a few highlights:

“I learned the names of so many birds and their calls. I was shocked by the climate diversity of California, especially the fire season. I was shocked by the uniqueness and beauty of Mono Lake.” – Alexandra

“Being out in the field with team members skilled at identifying birds helped me tune my eyes and ears to learn tons of species I had never seen before. I also learned about all the work that goes into molecular research. From capturing birds to taking blood to sample preparation, each step involves more preparation and precision than I knew.” – Tessa

“This experience helped me grow not only within my field and as a scientist, but as a person as well. I think one of the most valuable lessons was how to collaborate with others, the importance of connections and being someone other people want to work with.” – Rayven

By the end of the summer, each of us had a slightly altered perspective on our respective career paths. Rayven was “even more excited to gain a higher education” and is pursuing a research-based Master’s degree in wildlife biology or a related field. Tessa felt “more secure” in deciding to start graduate school the following fall. Alexandra was excited to continue doing more research, and she is currently analyzing acoustic recordings of sandpiper vocalizations she helped collect last summer. As for me, this field season strengthened my confidence as a researcher and field biologist, and solidified my love for mentoring younger scientists.

Lastly, I asked each person to recall the funniest moments from this summer. Their answers reflected how closely bonded our team became: among the many happy and hilarious memories relayed were hair-dying escapades and field-family dinners, hiding a creepy clown figurine in the dark cellar of our field house, and a plethora of inside jokes. As Rayven reflected, “I was shocked I didn’t come home from Lee Vining with abs harder than Yosemite’s granite boulders because I was laughing this whole field season.”

A Team Sandpiper selfie, on a sunny day at Mono Lake. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

Jessica Schaefer is a PhD candidate in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She loves getting her feet wet and observing animals in their natural habitat. Jessica researches the reproductive behavior and mating systems of creatures from limpets to lizards to shorebirds.

[Edited by Josie Hubbard and Maggie Creamer]

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