Mammals of Nova Scotia
It's the afternoon of Saturday 11 April 2009, and after two solid days of preparation, I think I'm ready for my trip to Canada - well, almost!
Tuesday, 14 April
First research day
Weather's looking ok this morning - at least no snow storms. We're off to set our first round of mammal traps today at East Port Medway - the first research site. We'll also be starting a 'mouse timidity' experiment led by Chris. Bacon and eggs sizzling away in the background as I type...
Friday, 17 April
Research at East Port Medway
We're now on our third day of research at our first research site at East Port Medway - not far from the location of the project accommodation. As the weather has steadily improved (from snow storms to strong sun and blue skies in the space of a few days), the team has been bonding over a variety of research tasks.
In pairs, we have been setting up small mammal trapping grids - 100 traps between us in a small area of forested land. We are using Longworth traps, designed and produced in Oxfordshire in the UK. They are expensive things, so we need to set them up carefully and make sure that their locations are well marked so that we don't lose them in the understorey. We check the traps once in the morning, and again in the late afternoon. So far we have had 10 catches - consisting of red-backed voles, deer mice and two feisty chipmunks.
Scruffing the captured animals is quite an art - mice are particularly jumpy and energetic and don't want to be held by a human if at all possible. We need to handle them, however, in order to measure, weigh, sex and ID them. They are then released back into their territory - exactly where we originally caught them. Six of the rodents we caught were female - and there has been some evidence of early pregnancies, indicating that the breeding season is now upon us. Chris and Christina, the project scientists, are interested in monitoring species abundance, location and breeding behaviours, with a view to finding linkages between these factors and climatic/seasonal variation.
We have also been spending an almost unhealthy amount of time in the last few days tracking down, studying, identifying and discussing poo! The team has bravely crawled through numerous 10x10m quadrats on hands and knees, collecting every single snowshoe hare dropping in sight. As well as proving a useful way of keeping 10 garrulous teachers entertained, this exercise contributes to an overall assessment of hare population numbers in the area. By counting numbers of droppings per unit area, the scientists are building a stock of data which will ultimately lead to an estimation of hare numbers in the area.
Tuesday, 21 April
Hard work, not in vain...
So we're starting a new week of research work, having concluded our research at the East Port Medway site. In our studies of abundance and distribution, early findings for this team are as follows:
Red-backed vole: average of 10 per 2 hectares
Deer mice: at least 3 in 2 hectares
Chipmunks: 2 found on a 2 hectare plot
Overall density of small mammals = 10.5 per hectare (this is at the low end of the scale but we are early in the year). Dr. Chris Newman (lead scientist) would, however, have expected the numbers to be higher than this at this time of year, but the weather has been harsh and food supplies will be low right now. The next couple of weeks are going to prove critical for these creatures, otherwise we could have a potential population crash in Nova Scotia relatively soon, which could have all sorts of knock-on effects for the food chains within this fragile forest ecosystem.
Surveys of snowshoe hare droppings have so far indicated that population numbers are healthy in the East Port Medway area; and deer dropping sightings have been significantly down on 2008 so far. We laid out new small mammal trapping grids in both forest and meadow locations at another, long-term study site today - Cook's Lake. Let the fun commence once more.
Thursday, 23 April
Two days of rain has culminated in a huge amount of water-logging of the Cook's Lake research area...necessitating a great deal of wading to reach our mammal trapping site this morning. That said, at least the rain had stopped...and no, we didn't end up drowning any rodents thankfully. Unfortunately the whole team were drowned rats at the end of Wednesday!
As the weather cleared today, we checked our Cook's Lake traps for the last time. Sadly because of the rain, we haven't been successful in trapping any rodents in the meadows, but had a little more success in the forested area. Our contribution to Chris and Christina's long term monitoring of the Cook's Lake area yielded the following distribution and abundance results:
Red-backed voles per ha = 6.7
Chipmunks = 1 caught
No mice/meadow voles or shrews caught
Numbers were lower than the scientists would have expected, but the heavy rains will definitely have skewed results. I have also learned to prepare a Longworth trap. To do this correctly, the two sections of the trap should be separated; fresh, dry hay/grass inserted into the main body of the trap until it's at least half full and in order that the rodents are comfortable and warm during their stay; and a small palm-full of bird/mouse-feed put inside. The tunnel should then be attached at a slight angle (creating a 'banana shape') and the trap set carefully (back end higher up), located in an area where one might expect rodents to be lurking - i.e. near obvious mice-holes, feeding areas at the foot of trees, or alongside logs or objects rodents would run along to take cover. There is no point in setting traps in the open as rodents rarely take the risk of running in open ground.
Wednesday, 29 April
Back on home soil...
Wow - finally made it back to the UK after a gruelling (and rather obscenely delayed) flight from Halifax. I am jetlagged and slightly bewildered having rejoined the 'real world', but happy to be back to see friends and family again. What an experience though! I miss the team a lot - all of the jokes and banter, the daily excitement as to what might be lurking in our traps, the crazy, ever-changing Nova Scotian weather, the daily 'tick-count' after wrestling our way through the forest for hours on end...and most of all, scientists Chris and Christina. They were truly superb and made the experience what it was - something never to be forgotten.
Pictured here is of our team on the last day. We are posing by a rock in the seaside adjunct of Kejimikujik National Park, having completed our mammal transects there. It was a beautiful day - bright blue skies, strong sunshine - what an end to the expedition. We saw deer and seals in the park, and the coastal scenery was fabulous. Ah, what I'd give to be back there now...
Report by Caroline Rodgers, April 2009.
Find out how you can follow in Caroline's footsteps on the Earthwatch expedition Mammals of Nova Scotia.