I leave for the field today, which seems altogether too soon. Technically, I’ll be at training for a week and field work starts on Monday the 12th. Every once in a while, someone asks me what it means to go out in the field. “So…like…what do you do?” In my experience, the basic equation for explaining field work is usually something like this:
field work = your primary task + a geographic area
This year, my short answer is: Count birds and Colorado. There are many other variables that enter the formula, but they are still largely dependent upon what you’re doing and where. For some of us, this simple equation is the most rewarding aspect of our jobs. Every year, I get to leave the office and collect data in some of the most beautiful places in the country. No desk, no chair, and significantly less face-plastered-to-computer-screen time. It’s awesome. I would make a living off of seasonal field work if it paid more and I didn’t have to move around the country to make a sustainable income (I know many people who do).
My first field job was for Michigan Natural Features Inventory, where I collected coarse woody debris data on forest stands in the UP. My crew stayed in motels and ate out at restaurants every night. It was a rad job and as I now realize, a bit on the cushy side. In Yosemite, my field duties varied from year to year. I collected and processed water samples from the Merced and San Joaquin Rivers; collected air quality data; measured and mapped the channel width of the Merced River in Yosemite Valley using total station survey equipment (those yellow laser/computer/tripod things you see surveyors using on roadsides); and mapped vegetation disturbances and social trails in the meadows of the Valley using highly-accurate GPS units. A typical field day consisted of meeting my crew at the office, loading gear into our vehicle, and spending 8-9 hours traipsing around meadows or wading in the river. At the end of the day, however, I still had to make the 45-minute drive home from the office and cook dinner (on the other hand, I got to sleep in my own bed). A few times per summer, I would go on extended overnight trips to survey meadows in Yosemite’s wilderness—I essentially got paid to go backpacking.
2013 marked my first season as an avian field biologist. I counted birds in the grasslands and national parks of Nebraska and South Dakota for 2 months. I lived out of my truck—mostly camping out on public land (USFS & BLM) and, less frequently, in campgrounds. Believe it or not, campgrounds are expensive—especially ones that have bath houses. $25/night adds up pretty quickly when you’re spending 2 months away from home. All I can say is thank you, America; your public land is glorious. I also stayed in motels once or twice every two weeks because it makes me feel more like a functioning member of society. And showers are nice. By that point, the History Channel is like a long-lost friend and you stay up into the late hours of early evening, chatting about what’s going on with Troy Landry down in Louisiana. Motels are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, showers. On the other, that glowing beacon full of long-lost bffs tempting you to stay up past 8:00 (I need my 7 hours).
Conducting breeding bird surveys (we use a point-count method) is like no other field work I’ve done. The basic goal is to write down every bird you see or hear within a specified sampling area called a transect. Our transects are 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer square and have a 4×4 grid of 16 point count stations. You have to be on your first point before sunrise, where you record all birds seen and heard in a 6-minute time period. You then hike 250 meters to the next point and repeat. The goal is to complete as many of the 16 points as you can in the next 5 hours. In the grasslands, I could complete 16 points in a little over 2 hours. In more difficult terrain, you might be lucky to finish 6. Five hours seems arbitrary, but birds are much less active by this point in the morning. Think about when you sleep with your windows open: ever had an American Robin
singing its little heart out wake you up at 5 am? Or a Northern Flicker drumming on your gutter? Yeah. I’ve had Western Meadowlarks wake me up at 3:00. I guess it’s not such a big deal when you have to get up at 3:30 anyway. I guess.
As for food, I try to cook the majority of my meals. On weekends, I’ll usually go out to breakfast because I can’t make Eggs Benedict with a one-burner backpacking stove. I’m convinced that every town in American has at least one decent non-fast food breakfast place. And I can only eat so many fig bars and yogurt. But let’s be honest. I feel like breakfast is the easiest meal to go it alone, especially if you’re one of the early patrons. Everyone there has usually already done something with their day– tilled fields, milked cows, driven their big rig 700 miles, counted birds. It’s like a club where everyone is in their own little world of morning routine and no one talks to anyone except the waitress. And people still drink their coffee black. And the waitress calls me hun. LOVE IT. Going out for dinner by yourself is a really sad affair. I’d prefer to sit alone on the tailgate of my truck watching the sun set in the middle of nowhere than hang out in a restaurant and stare at my phone while groups of people enjoy each others’ company (which ultimately feels much, much lonelier). Long story short, I go out to eat occasionally, but I keep a well-stocked food box, a cooler, and a 6-gallon jug of water with me at all times.
Ultimately, there are many different kinds of field work requiring varying levels of self-reliance. What everything boils down to is personal safety and preparedness. As you can see from the shot below, I never run the risk of going hungry or thirsty in the field. My vehicle is, in essence, a chuck wagon. I also carry a cell phone, a SPOT unit, and this year, pepper spray. A lot of people hear stories from the field and think of what a dangerous/difficult/lonely job it must be. And in truth, it can be all of those things, but if you have a good head on your shoulders, physical fitness, and lots of food in tow, you can avoid the first two. Loneliness certainly takes its toll, but eventually you grow to call it solitude and leave the loneliness miles behind.