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My Reflections on a Summer Field Research Experience as a Developing Wildlife Professional

By Cory Rhinehart

Picture of the author aging an eggDuring the summer of 2017 I worked as a field technician on the STRIPS project. This position provided me with valuable experience that will help with the transition to a professional career as a wildlife biologist. Throughout the course of my employment with the STRIPS project I learned important skills related to field work, data collection and management, data entry techniques, and how to follow a scientific methodology related to a large scale wildlife study. In this blog post, I will discuss a basic overview of processes and protocols of field work, data collection, data management, data entry techniques, and what I learned throughout my summer employment. 

Our study focused on bird nesting success in cooperation with the STRIPS (Science-based Trials of Row crops Integrated with Prairie Strips) project, as well as vegetation analysis and the reptile, mammal, and amphibian communities at the research sites. We conducted our research at nine sites located in central Iowa. These sites consisted of plots that were located in control fields (what the dominant landscape is in Iowa), prairie strips (what the STRIPS project is trying the implement), and large tracts of native plant communities (what the best case scenario would look like). Our particular study focused on: 
“Biodiversity is important in agricultural landscapes because it can contribute to enhanced water quality, the suppression of insect pest and weed populations, and recreational opportunities. For this reason, monitoring the response of plants, insects, and birds to watershed and field treatments is a key component of STRIPS research. We expect the gains in native species and the ecosystem services these species provide to be disproportionately greater than the extent of area converted to diverse, native perennials. We also track plant and insect populations to determine if prairie strips exacerbate weed and pest problems for farmers. Thus far, our research suggests increased beneficial native biodiversity with prairie strips and no increase in weed and pest problems.”

The control areas resemble the agricultural landscape that Iowa is currently dominated by. These fields consist of corn or soybean row crops, which is not the most ideal habitat for successful bird nesting. However, comparing the results from the control against the other sites is an important step in discovering if the prairie strips are beneficial to controlling the movement of soil and nutrient loads, while providing habitat for the plant and animal communities.    
The STRIPS area of the sites consisted of plots of contour strips or terraces planted with prairie plants and grasses that would be seen in a native Iowa ecosystem. The area of these strips accounts for ten percent of the total amount of acres in the field. The strips are beneficial to the ecosystem by decreasing soil and nutrient runoff, while also contributing essential habitat for wildlife.

The large tracts of native habitat represents what the ecosystems in Iowa would have looked like historically. These areas are dominated by native grasses and forbs such as: Canada Wild Rye, Big Bluestem, Foxtail, Side-Oats Grama, Rattlesnake Master, Milkweed, Compass Plant, Black-eyed Susan, Purple Coneflower, and many more. These species are important contributors to maintaining healthy soils by lessening the severity of surface runoff due to the deep root systems that many of the native species have. The rainwater flows across the field, but slows down when it hit the strip, allowing for the water to infiltrate the ground and be absorbed by the root system. Reducing surface runoff is essential in order to keep the soil and nutrients in the fields, instead of in our water systems.          

In my opinion, field work is the most exciting part of the wildlife biology field. Waking up at four a.m. and walking through ten foot tall corn that is soaked is not always how you want to start your day, but being outside collecting data and interacting with the wildlife makes up for it. Many of the tools that we utilized in the field I was already familiar with, such as: Robel measurements, navigating using Global Positioning Systems, ground cover measurements, and plant and animal identification. It was beneficial for me to refresh those skills, and also learn some new ones along the way. Some new skills learned were: aging the eggs and fledglings, data entry, and conducting plot searches.   

One of the most important skills that I further enhanced is my ability to use a GPS (Global Positioning System) efficiently and accurately. I had some previous experience working with GIS (Geographic Information System) technology from a class, but utilizing it every day strengthened my abilities in using that technology. GPS and GIS uses are growing more and more an essential part of the wildlife biology field, so effective use of these technologies is a critical skill to have. Some other useful skills that I utilized on the job were plant ID, VOR (Visual Obstruction Reading) calculations, bird identification and aging, mammal, reptile, and amphibian aging and ID, and using behavioral cues to locate nests.

On a typical field day, we would arrive at the site around 6:00 a.m. and get everything situated for our plot searches. Each team would grab the data sheets that they needed for the day, and we would sort out all of the nest cards that each team needed to check. Everyone would then groggily get out of the van, gathering up the appropriate tools for the day, while one of us would record the weather data.

The plot searches were done in each of the three habitat types. They were a timed walk through a marked out rectangular plot. Each search in the contour strips was three minutes in length, while the search time in the terrace strips was a minute and thirty seconds. The control plots had more area than the other two strip types, so those were searched for six minutes. 

During the searches we would look for any nests in the plot, and turn over any cover boards that we came across. Cover boards are a piece of plywood placed on the ground that some mammals, reptiles, or amphibians use for refuge. Using cover boards is an easy way to gain a species inventory of the site. If anything was found under a cover board we would record data on what we found. If it was a mammal, we would write down the species, how many there were, the sex of the animal, and what age it was. We would record the same data for reptiles and amphibians, but there was also some additional data we would record. For the reptiles we would cut their scales to give them a unique marking to tell if they are recaptured, and we also took length and weight measurements for each specimen. The same was done for amphibians, besides the scale cutting, due to their lack of scales.    

If a bird nest was found during the search, the data for it would be recorded on a nest card, and the location would be logged onto the GPS. The nest card data included: counting and aging the number of eggs and young of both the host species and nest parasites (cowbirds), noting the time and date the nest was checked, whether or not the nest was active, the condition of the nest, and any additional comments that we deemed necessary. An iButton was also placed in the nest to monitor the nest success 24/7, and measurements associated with the vegetation were recorded. This included: nest height, plant ID that the nest was built in, and live and dead vegetation height. 

While we were executing our plot searches for the day, we would check the nests that we had previously found. Checking the nest included: counting and aging the number of eggs and young of both the host species and nest parasites (cowbirds), noting the time and date the nest was checked, whether or not the nest was active, the condition of the nest, and any additional comments that we deemed necessary. When a nest failed we would conduct our closing height and percent cover measurements, and a week after the nest had failed we collected our nest closing data. The nest closing data consisted of VOR measurements from each cardinal direction. We would also ID the plants in 1x1 meter quadrats at 0,120, and 240 degrees from North, and include the percent cover of each of the plant species identified.

Another process that I we completed at the beginning and end of the field season was vegetation data in the plots. The vegetation data included VOR readings at marked GPS points in the search plots and the corresponding vegetation and ID at those points. This gave us data for the diversity of the plant community, as well a horizontal and vertical “image” based on the percent cover and VOR data.    

Data collection and management are key components of wildlife research. The most important thing to remember when collecting data is always be prepared. Take more data sheets than you think you need, because you never know if either team will run out or accidentally take the wrong ones. It is also important to make sure you have all of the tools necessary to conduct your methodology. Double checking that you have everything in your backpack is also a smart thing to do, because it is hard to measure nest height or vegetation heights without a meter stick. An additional tool for data collection is being able to improvise. If you don’t have the correct tools or data sheets with you, finding a way to still get the job done can save you many long trips back to the van.

Another thing to keep in mind when collecting data is the importance of accuracy and precision. It is important to maintain precise and accurate collection of data, because if you don’t, some problems may arise when analyzing the data. In order to insure accuracy and precision when collecting data in the field, we made sure that everyone was comfortable with the methodology before we executed it in the field. If there were any questions about data collection while in the field we would either call the other team, or wait until we grouped back up at the van. All in all, communication is the most important skill to insure the data collected is accurate and precise.      

I didn't deal with the management of data much during my employment, but there were a few general things that I noticed. In order to manage data effectively, the most important skill you should have is being organized. It is easy to lose papers or misplace them, and when there are thousands of them, it is even easier. 

The data that was collected during the day was managed by placing them into labeled folders according to what needed to be done with the data sheet. The nest cards that we filled out during the day were copied onto separate sheets, and the plot search sheets were stapled together so they didn't get separated or lost. The data that was ready to enter into the system was taken to the lab, and the active nest cards were left in the box. Keeping track of the data sheets is an integral part of a study of this magnitude, because losing a week of nest cards or plot searches would mean that a week of your study is completely lost, which could affect the results.   

Data entry is probably not why anybody joined the field of wildlife biology, but it is an integral part of any study. The data that we collected was entered into either Microsoft Access or Microsoft Excel. I was familiar with Excel before this experience, but I had never used Microsoft Access before. 
The Excel sheets were used for our cover board data, while Microsoft Access was used for the vegetation and nest data. Access is a much more efficient way to save a large amount of data, because it is all located in one place and multiple people can be entering data at one time. There are many other things I need to learn about when it comes to data entry, but I am glad I got to get familiar with the basics of Access. At the beginning of the season I could barely enter ten data sheets in a day, but by the end of the field season I could enter about five to ten per hour.   

Image of the STRIPS Summer 2017 vertebrate biodiversity field crewIn conclusion, though I still have much to learn as a young professional, I am thankful for the opportunity given to me this summer. Over the course of my employment I got to exercise my knowledge that I have gained from my education at Iowa State, and I learned a great amount about how a large scale project is conducted. Working on this project gave me valuable experience in many different field techniques. Some of the most important were: plant ID, VOR calculations, Robel measurements, bird ID and aging, mammal, reptile, and amphibian aging and ID, using behavioral cues to locate nests, and using GPS technology to name a few. These skills will likely be utilized in my future jobs, so using them every day for four months was definitely beneficial to increasing my expertise with those practices. I believe the most important skill I learned was how to use a GPS more efficiently. I was familiar with GPS technology before I started working with the STRIPS project, but working with the system every day taught me how to utilize the technology more effectively.

I was nervous going into work on the first day, because everything was new to me, but it was really no different than any other job I have ever worked. The boss shows you how to do everything over the course of the first week, and if you have any questions after that you just have to communicate with them to resolve them. Once we got through a week or two of work, we had a steady routine that was simple to follow. The physical side of the job didn't bother me at all. I enjoy being outside in the sun and staying active, so I thoroughly enjoy field work! The knowledge I gained about the data management and entry techniques was valuable to me personally. I didn't have much previous experience with it, besides learning about the techniques briefly in school, so using Microsoft Access and managing data was a whole new practice for me. I am sure I will make mistakes as I have to manage and enter data in the future, but the lessons learned during my data entering experience will help me as I learn new techniques. 

Cory Rhinehart graduated with a B.S. in Animal Ecology from Iowa State University in December 2017. Congrats, Cory! It was great to have you as a part of our team!