Seven weeks was not enough shrike for me!

In May, 2021, I had the privilege of being the lone Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Biologist based out of eastern Ontario. Excitingly there have been recent observations of this endangered songbird in the area that led to a need for more search effort.

That is where I came in!

I spent all my days in the field, surveying for shrikes in grassland habitat patches, which are imperative for shrikes to survive and reproduce. Although in my short time with the Shrike Recovery Team I observed just one shrike, it was remarkable to observe an endangered bird, and to report back to the team that there was at least one confirmed shrike in eastern Ontario.

Near the end of contract, I wrote a blog titled, ‘Living the dream: top 5 perks to working in the field’ that reflected back on my fieldwork adventures and how much of a dream it was to spend my days in nature pursuing these elusive birds! This job taught me important skills such as navigating unfamiliar areas, increased knowledge on bird identification and most importantly, it taught me that patience and persistence pays off.

A striking photo of a loggerhead shrike pondering its perch of choice. Photo: Phillip Rathner.

Grassland habitat in eastern Ontario. Photo: Alannah Lymburner.

Fast forward five months and I have rejoined the Shrike Recovery Team in a contract position. This time my job will not be spent solely outside as shrikes in Ontario have left the cold winters behind to return to their much warmer wintering grounds down south (as far as North Carolina!).

The off-season has begun!

Entering and analyzing data, writing reports and permits, organizing photos, connecting with partners and preparing for the upcoming breeding season are just a few of the tasks that are taken on by the shrike team in the winter months. So, this has meant off to the (home) office for me! But…even though I have traded my spotting scope and binoculars in for a couple laptops and a Zoom account, I am still living the dream! Not convinced?

Here are 5 perks to working remotely as a shrike recovery biologist.

1. A better work-life balance

In the absence of a 5 AM alarm blaring in my ear followed by a 45-minute commute to the field sites, I have found more time to spend with my favourite orange furry companion. She provides me moral support with a hint of distraction, but of the funniest variety. It also means more time spent at home and less money spent on gas and take-out lunches. Instead of long nights spent at an office these nights can be spent in the comfort of my home. Overall, I have found that as much as I miss being in the field it has been a nice change to work from my home office.

A photo of my cat in her woven bowl tucked right beside my desk. Photo: Alannah Lymburner.

2. Mental body vs. physical body

I am no longer startled by my Fitbit vibrating at 10 AM alerting me that I had already reached my 10,000 steps but I have found a resurgence of excitement in the opportunity to engage my analytical mind. As a biologist field work is paramount but I am also interested in the larger picture. What is done with the data I collected? What does it mean for the shrike and its recovery strategies? These are just a couple of the questions that have slowly begun to be answered in my new role. Being part of the behind-the-scenes work that the Shrike Recovery Team completes in the off-season provides me with a chance to learn and grow as a biologist.

An example of a blank data sheet, left, used to collect data in the field to later be entered into the loggerhead shrike database. Right, a photo of a loggerhead shrike being sexed via their primary feathers.

 3. Being part of a larger and collective research and recovery team

While working in the field, the majority of your energy is focused on collecting as much data as possible. This makes sense as shrikes are only in Ontario from April-early October. The breeding season is the busiest time for field work as the shrikes are defending territories, securing mates, collecting nest materials, incubating eggs, feeding nestlings and then teaching their fledglings how to survive on their own. It is a crucial time for field biologists to note observations, facilitate nest checks, monitor behaviour and much more. In eastern Ontario I was the only field biologist and as I began my work I was aware of only two more teams of biologists/technicians in core shrike areas. I soon realised there were people all over North America concerned with shrike recovery. Networking and collaborating with partners is imperative in conservation. I have been awe-struck at the number of people involved in shrike recovery and their level of expertise on captive breeding, statistics, modelling, field work, research and the list goes on and on. I am very eager to continue to meet new shrike enthusiasts and learn more about their areas of expertise.

The logos of a sampling of the partners involved in the Species Conservation Plan spanning across North America. Photo: Hazel Wheeler.

4. Virtual meetings allow for quick connections across boards and seas

Virtual meetings are now becoming the norm. And although in-person conversation cannot be replaced entirely…platforms like Zoom have made it possible to connect with business partners, family and friends from around the world. The Shrike Team has instrumental partners from across North America. Getting all partners on board and keeping them up to date is crucial in partnerships and Zoom has made that possible. In addition, Zoom allows participants to join meetings from any location: office, library, home, etc. Always look for that silver-lining!

5. Flexibility in many forms

Shrikes don’t care about my style and thankfully, neither do my pets. On days like today, I am writing to you from my plush matching tracksuit. But on days where I am involved in a zoom meeting featuring a wide variety of shrike experts I have the opportunity to dress-up. That’s what I call a balance, right? Working from home has provided me with flexibility in my wardrobe but also in work schedules, lunch breaks, meeting locations and work space set-ups (some of my personal favourites).

What are some of your favourite forms of flexibility when working remotely?

 

Male shrike displaying to female. Who says shrikes don’t enjoy flexible fashion as well?! Photo: Phillip Rathner edited by Alannah Lymburner.

I must admit that making the switch from the field to remote work has not been without its struggles but in the end as long as I am doing work I am passionate about, such as species conservation with an organization that has a mission and vision I am confidently aligned with…I will always be living the dream!

Alannah Lymburner, MSc. (she/they)

Eastern Ontario Contract Biologist, Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program

Alannah completed her M.Sc. at the University of Ottawa, studying the effects of elevation and habitat types on lizard thermoregulation in Arizona, USA. She also has experience studying song sparrows and has volunteered at the Owl Foundation, a rehabilitation centre for owls and other raptors. More recently, she worked at the Ministry of Natural Resources, as a Wildlife Research Technician for the Rabies Research program, vaccinating rabies vector species (racoons, skunks and foxes) to mitigate disease spread in southern Ontario. 

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