Let me paint a picture and tell me if this sounds familiar to you. You’re sitting at your laptop back home or at your faculty, writing up your experimental protocol in anticipation of the upcoming fieldwork. With great enthusiasm, you start colour-coding your various counter-balanced treatments and writing up a time plan which will comfortably accommodate for some rainy days and equipment break-downs. At this rate, you start thinking you might even have time to squeeze in a little holiday at the end of your field stint. Well, think again.
A few weeks ago, I dug out the first protocol I wrote for my Masters research on territorial behaviour in dwarf mongooses and laughed out loud. Not because the ideas were bad, but because of my naivety – and because of how different my original plan was to how it eventually all panned out. It was clear I had been inspired by a heap of cool experimental work and had hoped to combine all potential explanations for a given phenomenon (in my case “the dear enemy phenomenon” in territorial species) into one mega-experiment. Something I hadn’t considered? I would be running my experiments in a completely different season to when I had first assisted on the project. Dwarf mongooses change their scent-marking behaviour and use their home-ranges very differently depending on time of year. This meant an initial few weeks of tearing my hair out and waiting for these cooperative breeders to stop being uncooperative. Until, eventually, it meant changing the protocol to adjust for what was actually feasible data to collect. It was around this time I was also introduced to “The Fear”: the creeping sensation that you won’t be able to finish all you had set out to do unless you figure out how to split yourself in half. It all worked out in the end, as it turns out “The Fear” is just that extra adrenaline shot you need to round off a successful field season.
Moving onto studying vulturine guineafowl has further highlighted the need for flexibility. What you were taking for granted at one project, becomes a challenge at the next and vice versa. One such example was trapping the guineafowl. They were not easily fooled by our nets (and we tried just about everything, from serving a restaurant-worthy selection of bait to digging trenches to hide the nets in). The sigh of disappointment when the birds saw right through our tactics versus the thrill of finally trapping them. Sometimes you’re just about ready to cook a guineafowl for dinner, then you can’t help but be utterly amazed by how well adapted they are to survive the African bush (and all the other things that are trying to catch them, besides us). One of the relaxing aspects about my first few months with the vulturine guineafowl, was that I was purely observing and describing them. Unlike experiments, where you hope animals will respond a certain way, I was letting the guineafowl do the directing. Now that we are getting a better understanding of their social dynamics, manipulative experiments are around the corner. Though more challenging, I can’t wait to see if our hypotheses hold truth
To round off with a few take-home messages: (1) Always be prepared. Missing your shot at recording that vocalisation or setting up a presentation because your study subjects are unpredictable is frustrating enough. Missing the opportunity because your batteries ran flat = frustrating x 1000. Wild animals will be wild animals. But field researchers will be always prepared to leap at the next available opportunity, even if it is a curve ball. (2) Another fieldwork side-effect is that you become so immersed in what you are trying to achieve, you may lose perspective. It’s hard to explain in sane retrospect why “a dwarf mongoose not sniffing poo” would drive you to tears. But it happened (to me). Taking a day off can do wonders for your sanity and I would definitely recommend doing it. My first supervisor told me that “good research is conducted with a smile on your face” and I try to implement that advice as much as I can. (3) Going out with a plan is very useful, not least because it often mentally cements the bigger picture behind your data collection, which is a big motivator. Moreover, heading back into the field after a few months out can be quite daunting (at least for me) and having some form of plan reassures me that I won’t be left stumped. However, feeling like you should stick to the plan when it screams “unfeasible”, is not recommended. The plan provides a red thread, your ability to think on your feet and adjust according to the situation at hand, is crucial. With time, I have found that my planned experiments and executed experiments resemble one another more and more. However, I don’t think I have shaken the habit of writing plans that err on the ambitious side and I don’t think I would want to – better to keep aiming high, but be ready for plan B.
Does it sound like I have just been complaining for the last four paragraphs? Because, truth be told, I wouldn’t change my current occupation for the world. Not just because I get to wake up to bird song, an African sunrise and the potential of bumping into something curious/beautiful/thrilling every day - but because there is huge value in studying behavioural questions in the wild. Just make sure you read the fine-print at the bottom of the fieldwork contract: May contain unexpected animal antics.
Charlotte Christensen is currently a Field Assistant on the Vulturine Guineafowl Project at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. You can hear more fieldwork stories by following her on twitter @ChristensenChaz