by Christian Wormwell
Healthy wetlands in Ontario are home to dozens of species of birds and amphibians that many Ontarians may never get a chance to see. Marsh birds like Yellow Rails are notoriously difficult to spot – the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that “if you're looking at a rail in the open, it's almost certainly not a Yellow Rail.” Even the relatively bolder species of rail like the Virginia Rail or Sora spend most of their time hidden in the reeds, outside of the view of the prying eyes of predators or nature enthusiasts. Wetlands are extremely vulnerable and have been declining in size and quality around the world due to human influence. This makes monitoring these secretive wetland species even more critical.
To do this, we needed to find a way to monitor these wetland species across our vast provinces in a single season each year. To address this, Birds Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of birds and their habitats, created the Marsh Monitoring Program. This program enlists volunteers to survey wetlands around the Great Lakes, Quebec, and the Maritimes for the purposes of tracking populations of wetland birds. It has since expanded to include frogs and toads in some locations.
I volunteered to survey for the first time in 2021. On my very first survey trip at the first point on my route, I had a wonderful encounter with a focal species. When my speaker belted out the pig-like grunting of a Virginia Rail, the same sound emanated from the marsh. A little grayish bird came tumbling over the reeds – a Virginia Rail, presumably looking to find the other rail it heard from the speaker. It was my first time seeing one in person and I was taken aback by how small it was, as the photographs I had seen online gave the impression of a heavy, plump, nearly chicken-sized bird. It certainly appeared a bit portly and had a chicken-like gait, but could have easily fit in my hand. To my surprise, the bird continued right out of the reeds and onto the mud in full view no more than six feet in front of me. It looked around, did a sort of twirl (showing that it actually was not much wider than the reeds when faced head-on), made that unusual pig-like call again, and scampered back into the cover of the marsh. All this happened within a matter of seconds. Of course, the data collection is the focus of the surveys, but the opportunity to spot otherwise-secretive marsh birds keeps it from feeling like work at all.
by Christian Wormwell
iNaturalist is a community science website with over 300,000 active users worldwide. It functions like a social media site for nature lovers, where people share their photos or audio of living organisms from any domain or kingdom of life through submissions called “observations”. Users work together to help each other identify the species depicted. As well, artificial intelligence technology can help determine which organisms may be in the photo.
iNaturalist observations have real implications for science and their data is used worldwide. An unofficial list cultivated by users on the site’s forum keeps track of published scientific papers that incorporate iNaturalist data; the list has 42 entries from 2020 alone, in publication topics ranging from changes in morphology in leopard frogs in California, to a leaf beetle being found in Bulgaria for the first time.
Many of the papers listed are about range expansions for species, which is an area iNaturalist data excels in. It was an iNaturalist user who reported the first instance of the destructive zigzag elm sawfly in Canada, and the Government of Canada’s official website now has a fact sheet for the pest that includes a link to iNaturalist.
iNaturalist is certainly a great place for community scientists. For example, Ontario's Natural History Information Centre (NHIC) runs an iNaturalist project that keeps track of sightings of threatened species across the province, and the Ontario’s Government website contains articles encouraging people to submit sightings of threatened species.
Checking my iNaturalist statistics, I can see that I have recorded nearly 40 species tracked by the NHIC that are considered threatened or otherwise vulnerable in Ontario; some were even in my suburban backyard. I would not have known of their identity or conservation status was it not for iNaturalist!
All one needs to do to get started is create a free iNaturalist account and start uploading photos or audio. The mobile App allows users to photograph species and submit observations right from the field. No expertise is needed – if all one can determine is ‘this is a bird’, the global community including experts in any domain of life, can help identify the species.
Every time I go for a hike, my phone is in my hand – some might like to distance themselves from technology on their hikes, but iNaturalist has become a fundamental part of my trips due to the fun and knowledge I have gained out of it since that fateful day in the Glen. Contributing to science, whether great or slight, makes using iNaturalist a powerful, rewarding incentive and experience.
by Michael Rogers
The COVID-19 pandemic is flavoured with the sour taste of lost opportunities. Field work programs have been set back, employment opportunities have become scarce and outreach campaigns have moved to remote formats. To address these challenges, virtual technology has proven a valuable tool to enhance connections, accessibility, and social progress in the biodiversity conservation industry.
Virtual technology can be used in creative and engaging ways. The SER2021 World Conference will make good use of the virtual format. It offers virtual field trips with new-age technologies like drone footage, 360° viewing towers, and time-lapses of restoration sites from around the world. The Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) offers opportunities to build your professional connections both in attendance at SER 2021 and as a volunteer to help organize the conference. SER is one of many professional associations that offer webinars to maintain your professional standing. SER even granted me permission to fulfill my knowledge requirements with their virtual learning content! Virtual learning is a powerful tool to connect professionals with emerging ideas, other professionals, and with members of the public.
Never has it been easier to bring the outdoors inside. Virtual technology provides outreach programs a cost-effective and logistically practical solution to address accessibility challenges. Live-streams from the field can offer aspiring naturalists opportunities to learn through job shadowing. As an example, the rare Charitable Research Reserve offered regular live-stream updates from their field technicians regarding their snapping turtle rearing program. Virtual presentations also offer free education to those who lack the financial means to travel. Environmental education that is recorded and translated from across the globe is in growing demand to inspire appreciation of the natural world. Virtual technology is truly an awe-inspiring victory for accessibility.
Photo: A screenshot from the rare Charitable Research Reserve's September 1, 2020 YouTube video, "rare Turtle Release".
Increasing accessibility has also led to embracing inclusivity of diverse perspectives. For example, land acknowledgements and prayers at virtual events increase visibility of Indigenous practices and knowledge. Virtual presentations transcribed by artificial intelligence are also becoming the norm to help engage English as a second language (ESL) learners. Demand for virtual technology access has strengthened proposals for affordable and reliable internet to remote areas of Canada. Virtual technology is becoming a part of the toolkit to address challenges of traditional forms of environmental communication.
COVID-19 is a test of human ingenuity in many respects. It is empowering to reflect on the successes we have had despite the pandemic. Embracing virtual technology has helped build robust professional networks, address accessibility needs, and advance social progress of environmental solutions knowledge.
sby Heather Kerrison
Conservation was the flint that sparked my passion. I have always loved animals and nature, which drove me to start a Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology. I love science and its ability to seek out answers and solutions. However, something that began to strike me as I continued on my journey as a young scientist and a young conservationist was the sense that science could provide us so many answers, yet here the world was, still asking the same questions.
Then a phrase started to pop up: “the gap”. This referred to the gap between scientific knowledge and findings and the translation of that material to accessible information that then informs the public, informs policy and becomes a more “common” knowledge. Something else I have also always been overtly passionate about is written word, sharing and shared experiences. This is where conservation becomes action. I think that all conservationists should strive to become educators, to translate, to spread word and cultivate care.
After becoming a species and environmental educator for the first time I realized how important it is to connect what science knows to what other people do not. To use the power of research to create a feeling, a driving force in our human nature. Social media can be an amazing tool to spread educational messages, invoke emotional response and gain traction. All educators are not conservationists, but I truly believe that all conservationists should strive to become educators, so that more people can be in the know. When we know better, we can be better.
By Anne Sheehy
I’ve lived in cities (or, more accurately, suburbia) for the vast majority of my life. When I wasn’t living in a “bustling” suburb, I was living in downtown Ottawa with two roommates. Social, noisy, car-filled life is what I am used to. That’s why, when I moved to Cardiff, Wales to be with my now-husband, I was unsure about our living situation – he had a house on the edge of the city, near rolling farmland and windy country lanes. I was moving directly from the Ottawa city centre, and I was anxious about what living in this quiet little house would mean for me. At first, it was challenging. Making new friends meant long bus rides into the city, and long bus rides back. Going to the movies was a full day event if I was going on my own, and last minute meetups downtown were out of the question. I asked my husband if we could move somewhere - anywhere - in Cardiff that had more...well...life. Stuff. Noise. It was something I thought a lot about. That is, until, COVID-19 hit. When we were told that we could leave our homes for emergencies and one daily form of exercise, everything changed. Gone were my solo trips into town on a Sunday for something to do, gone were afternoon teas by Cardiff Castle with friends. My favourite little pizza restaurant shut its doors indefinitely and our favourite tea room pulled down the shutters. I hadn’t (and still don’t have) a clue as to when I could go back to see my family in Canada. I felt frozen, stuck indefinitely in my house, an ocean away from so many people I love.
What then presented itself to us was an opportunity to discover the world lurking just beyond our doorstep. Instead of the Madeira ultramarathon that my husband had planned to do in May, he started discovering new trails to run in the countryside near our home. Instead of bus trips into the city, I spent hours reading in our back garden (or out front, wherever the sun hit best). The quietness that had bothered me so much initially actually became my solace, my peace, my “new normal”. Hearing about people living in city centres with no greenspace around no longer sounded as appealing. I realized how fortunate we were to have a home so close to nature. It’s a privilege; not a burden. I realized that my neighbourhood is FULL of “life”, of the “stuff” and “noise” that I thought I was missing; they just looked a bit different than I was expecting. The “stuff” is fields, creeks, forests, and trails, and the noise is birds, breeze, and children whizzing by on their scooters and bicycles. It’s a bustling landscape of its own, and I've only just learned how to hear it.
by Meghan Ward
This article is Part 2 of a two-part series about finding and contacting a potential graduate supervisor. If you are interested in reading Part 1, you can find it here.
Alright, so you have compiled a list of potential supervisors and you are now ready to reach out and contact them. Email is the most common form of communication between a prospective student and a future supervisor. It allows you to spend the time you need to form a professional and thoughtful introduction and gives the potential supervisor room to respond on their own schedule.
Here are three key things you should always include when reaching out to a potential supervisor:
In addition to including a strong introduction within the email, I always think it is wise to attach an updated resume and a copy of your most recent transcripts. Including a written cover letter is an option, however it will be dependent upon how detailed your email is. In my own experiences, I wrote an email detailing my experiences, qualifications, and interest and did not include a written cover letter. However, in the conclusion of my email I always offered to send along a written cover letter if the professor would prefer one (in my experience, no professor required this with the first introductory email).
The email you write will be dependent upon the type of position you are applying to. If you have found an advertised graduate project (the professor has planned out a project and is looking for a student to fill that specific project) and believe you are suited to the position, you should include specific details in your email highlighting how your experiences fit the project. For example, I applied to this advertised position: Assessing the Potential of Northern Leopard Frog Recovery in Western Canada. When applying for this M.Sc. position, I detailed my academic and professional experience working with herptiles in Canada. I specified the species I worked with, the goals of the research, and how it related to the project I was applying for.
When reaching out to a professor who does not have an advertised graduate position available, you should detail the experiences you have as it relates to the overall goals and aims of the research lab. For example, if you are applying to work with a professor whose research aims centre around conservation biology, you can speak to your academic and professional experience in that field. While this field is broad, many of the skills you have learned can be transferred across species and projects.
Now that you know how to write, and what to include in an introductory email, it is time to start contacting your potential graduate supervisors - best wishes!
by Jacqueline Weber
When I left university after obtaining my Master’s degree, I had never expected to find myself back in school. I found, however, that no part of the year 2020 went as planned, and in September of 2020 I felt very lucky to join the Ecosystem Management Technology program at Fleming College. Although I treasured my university experience, I needed to build a bridge between my transferrable skills and the specific demands of a career in the environmental sector. I’m sure that many other university graduates have felt the same. I believe a college education can be that bridge.
In the years leading up to my enrolling at Fleming, I studied Biology at Queen’s University.
My Master’s studies helped me develop as a researcher, a project manager, and a technical writer. Alongside my research I pursued the study of biodiversity and natural history, both to feed my curiosity, and to develop skills for a future working in the environmental sector.
The post-graduation job hunt, however, did not go quite as planned. I quickly learned that although I had many transferrable skills, my lack of applied field skills and job-specific training made it hard to break into the environmental sector.
It was a conversation I had with a fellow attendee at an electrofishing course in September of 2020 that changed the trajectory of my year and put me on the path to a college education. I had been seeking out courses to expand my environmental skillset all summer, but COVID-19 had thrown a serious wrench in those plans! In talking to my fellow electrofishing trainee about his college experience, I learned that many Ontario colleges offer 8-month programs for university graduates, and the college experience sounded like just the sort of applied learning that I needed to build my skills for the environmental sector.
Full of questions, I posted on the Emerging Leaders for Biodiversity Facebook group asking about peoples’ college experiences, and responses came pouring in! Many voices chimed in, saying they had travelled a similar academic path as I had; after graduating from university and wanting to expand their job-specific skills, they joined college programs as a way to prepare themselves for a career in the environmental industry. Over and over I heard praise for the programs at Fleming College. Three days after that fateful electrofishing course, I began the application process and soon I was enrolled in the Ecosystem Management Technology program at Fleming College.
I’m hopeful that my remaining four months at Fleming will leave me with valuable technical skills, a widened professional network, and a path to a career where I can put all my skills to use in environmental stewardship, helping to create a better and greener future for the human, plant, and animal residents of Ontario.
by Meghan Ward
Finishing up your undergraduate degree is a feat in and of itself, so congratulations! If you are considering continuing on in academia, the next step might be a Master of Science (MSc). Most MSc. degrees are broken into two broad categories: thesis based, and course based. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on finding a supervisor for a thesis-based MSc, as that is where my experience stems from.
There are a variety of ways to find a potential MSc supervisor. You may have met a potential supervisor while completing your undergraduate degree, while at a conference, or while scrolling on Twitter (I’m not kidding – #ScienceTwitter is a great resource to find like-minded people in your field!).
To begin, you will want to have a general idea of the research you wish to pursue. This will make it much easier to find a supervisor, as you can narrow down your search to faculty who study what you are interested in. For example, you are interested generally in conservation, and specifically on the impact of roads on animal mortality rates. Of course, it is totally normal to have more than one research interest! Keep them all in mind when searching through faculty pages.
Next, you will want to compile a list of potential universities to attend. I knew that I wanted to remain in Canada for the duration of my MSc, so I compiled a list of 10-15 universities in Canada that I would be happy to attend. This step often confuses students because we are taught to value the research above all else and that the research should be the single defining trait that dictates where we attend graduate school. I disagree. While I do think it is important to pursue a topic that is of interest to you, I also believe that there is much more to a graduate degree than your thesis project. You want to ensure that you are living in an area you enjoy and feel safe in. You will also want to consider tuition costs and MSc stipend payments and the cost of living (i.e. rent, transportation, food, etc.) in different cities. Because of these various factors, I recommend putting just as much weight towards where you go to school as you do when choosing who will supervise you.
Now that you have a list of potential universities, you can get to the fun part; finding supervisors! The best way to do this is to find the faculty list within the department of your choosing. For example, if you are interested in conservation you will find the list of Biology professors at your chosen university. Some universities categorize this further by creating distinctions between Evolution and Ecology, Health Science, Environmental Science, etc. Most universities will pair the list of professors with a short biography about their field of research. For example, Laurentian University lists Dr. David Lesbarreres on their faculty and highlights his interest in amphibian conservation, disease ecology, and road ecology. Once you have found a professor of interest, click on their profile! You can now find their personal websites, previous publications, and their contact information. I recommend going through the entire faculty list and keeping track of who you are interested in, what they study, a link to their website, and their contact information. Create something similar to the chart below to keep everything organized:
Once you have completed the chart above, you can begin contacting your potential supervisors!
Stay tuned for the second part in this series! I will be chatting about drafting the first email you send to potential supervisors, and all the details you should be including.
Applications are now open for a variety of ELB Board of Directors positions! You can self-nominate or be nominated.
Joining the Board will allow you to meet interesting people who will add to your sphere of influence and develop skills important for any career, including: project management, strategic planning, networking, and budgeting. The responsibilities of Board membership include participation in the administration and decision-making for the organization, as well as managing working groups that accomplish ELB's various projects.
If you are interested, please submit a maximum 400 word statement of interest that includes a bit about yourself, why you are interested in participating on the Board of Directors, as well as interest and experience in particular responsibilities, and a photo of yourself which may be shared with members for the purposes of voting. Please email a Word document or PDF to email@example.com by March 5, 2021, with the subject line: ELB Board Nomination
by Heather Kerrison
The holidays are my favourite time of year. The holidays fill people with joy, and deep down we all know that we love giving more than getting, and that is a wonderful thing!
Here are four things to consider when planning your holiday celebrations:
1. Buy Local: buying local spreads the seasonal joy to shop owners and helps them also have a happy holiday. Many local businesses source their materials locally, and you are entirely cutting out the process of shipping (and carbon emissions) associated with big brands. Choosing to shop local is a win for everyone, especially in a year that has brought financial hardship to many businesses. Even gift cards to local restaurants (hello, future date night!) is a great way to gift your time and support a local business.
3. Eat Mindfully: again, shopping local is always better. Sourcing as much as you can from local farms and markets greatly reduces the carbon footprint of the food you are buying. You are also supporting local farmers and families! Bring your own bags and grab some veggies that were grown locally. For alcohol, there is no shortage of local breweries and wineries to stock your fridges with! After the meal happens, it is also important to remember to reduce food waste. Food production can be a strain on our environment, and it makes a huge difference to plan appropriately and have all food be consumed or repurposed into leftover dishes. Get creative and make hearty soups that can be frozen and eaten over the winter.
4. Re-purpose your tree: If you typically get a real tree for the season, there are so many ways to re-purpose it after use, so avoid just dragging it out to the curb for pick up! You can easily turn a tree into an animal sanctuary by removing all decorations and placing it outside. You can then even make wildlife-friendly garland out of cranberries, dried cherries and apple slices. Alternatively, you can lay the tree down in the corner of your yard and you’ll notice that wildlife will use it as shelter. There is plenty of opportunity to get creative, such as making wreaths and garland for decorations, or even make a DIY bird feeder out of pinecones.
No one is perfect, but if all of us make an attempt to "green" our holidays, the impact will be grand. And after all, this time of year is about spreading cheer.
Blogs are written by ELB members who want to share their stories about Ontario's biodiversity.