Since the beginning of May, I have adopted the “birders’” lifestyle, which includes 4 A.M. mornings, beautiful sunrises and lots of caffeine. For some this may seem like a less than ideal routine, but for me, it is the dream! It signifies another day in the field doing what I love to do: exploring wildlife in their natural habitat.
I have been fortunate enough to join WPC’s Eastern Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Team on a 7-week contract based out of eastern Ontario. While shrike used to be more common in the region, the eastern Ontario population dwindled in the mid 1990s. However, breeding pairs have been spotted in recent years, so my position was reintroduced this season to see if there might be more out there. And I, for one, am thrilled to get to spend my days tracking down the infamous “Butcherbird”!
It wasn’t easy — it took me just shy of four weeks to spot this elusive, predatory songbird — and the “happy dance” that followed… Let’s just say I am glad I work alone. My next task will be to try to track down its (potential) nest. But, in the meantime, I have had ample time to relish and embrace working in the field and “living the dream”, and here are five reasons why.
1. The Outdoor Office
Each day, I get to spend my work hours in the Great Outdoors! No screen time, no phone calls, just my spotting scope, binoculars and me. Fresh air, vitamin D and excellent cardio are just a couple of the health benefits of working in the field. On top of a healthier atmosphere, being outside allows for magnificent views! Grassland habitats – where the shrikes reside – are very versatile and unique habitats that I have definitely overlooked prior to spending everyday surveying them. They are home to many different plant and animal species (but you will have to keep reading for more on this)!
This is an alvar in eastern Ontario. An alvar is based on a limestone plain with thin or no soil and, as a result, sparse grassland vegetation.
A grassland habitat in eastern Ontario. Photos © Alannah Lymburner.
2. You versus the Wild
Field work can be a lot like a treasure hunt! This field work certainly has been a competition between me and the shrikes, and searching for an endangered bird is no easy task. With the ability to fly and small size on its side, it feels like the bird has the upper hand. But, what I lack in wings, I make up for in sheer determination. As silly as it may sound, I try to think like a shrike. This helps me survey thoroughly and effectively. Be one with the bird!
Alannah thinking like a shrike! Photo © Alannah Lymburner.
3. Unexpected Encounters
This has to be my favourite perk to field work! Spending all day in nature, you never know what you may come across. In just 4 weeks, I have checked off quite a few “lifers,” including the scarlet tanager, bobolink, eastern meadowlark and – of course – the shrike! I have also had some up-close and personal experiences with foxes, porcupines and white-tailed deer. I have even gained a new appreciation for plant identification, as I have come across some pretty remarkable plants, such as Viper’s bugloss, yellow lady’s slipper and columbine (A.K.A. Granny’s bonnet)!
Top Left – Viper’s bugloss or blueweed is an introduced species to North America. Top Right – Breeding male bobolink (Species at Risk) singing his heart out. Bottom – North American porcupine munching on some leaves. Photos © Alannah Lymburner.
4. To the Rescue!
Although my focus is on helping with the recovery effort of shrikes, there is often the opportunity to throw on that red cape and be part of multiple species’ protection. This season, I have come across not one but two Blanding’s turtles! This is an exciting find for me, because, unfortunately, I had never seen one alive. All eight of the species of turtles found in Ontario are considered Species at Risk. One of the major risks to turtles’ survival are roads. Nesting females are particularly vulnerable to road mortality, as they lay their eggs on the soft, gravel shoulders of roads and can often be found making a slow crawl across roads to find appropriate nesting sites. I have assisted in safely helping two Blanding’s turtles, one midland painted turtle and one common gartersnake cross the road. Remember: Always move animals in the direction they were headed!
A female Blanding’s turtle (Species at Risk) showing off her smile after she made it safely across the road (with a little help from a friend). Photo © Alannah Lymburner.
5. Never a Dull Moment
Last, but certainly not least, field work is never dull! Surveying habitat for the of shrikes has definitely tested my patience, as it can be a bit disheartening to be out-witted by a bird you aren’t even sure is present in a particular patch. However, each day, I choose to marvel at – and be thankful for – all the amazing perks of working in the field. Whether it is being greeted with a breathtaking sunrise, a new species of bird, an animal rescue, a great photo-op, a new fight against bugs, a few three (or four or five)-point turns, field work never ceases to amaze (and challenge) me!
Sharpening my scope picture taking skills (still have some work to do). Can you decipher the animal? From top to bottom – eastern loggerhead shrike, scarlet tanager, white-tailed deer, midland painted turtle, eastern meadowlark. Photos © Alannah Lymburner.
Being in the field is certainly my dream! Where is your ideal workplace?
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.
Make a Donation
Show your support for endangered animals today. Your gift will go directly to our work on the front line of animal conservation.