Monday, July 20, 2015

What's the Best Bird You've Seen While on the Toilet?

    For many wildlife biologists, summer break isn’t a break at all. Instead, it’s the busiest time of the year, when they head into the bush for weeks or months at a time to collect data, giving up many modern conveniences—internet access, pants chosen for fit instead of number of pockets, even indoor plumbing—in the name of science.

    It seems like every field biologist has a favorite crazy bathroom story. I recently “eavesdropped” on two biologists on Twitter as they swapped stories about the facilities (or lack thereof) at their research sites in Africa, Siberia, and Alaska. When I emailed David with the idea for this post, he told me that he and his friends regularly toy with the idea of putting together a coffee table book of “bathroom frog” photos, documenting the amphibians they’ve encountered in showers and toilets while doing field work in the tropics. I once spent three months as a field assistant on bird research in the Australian Outback, staying at a sheep station where the bathrooms were all infested with huntsmen, fast-moving spiders the size of your hand. But by far my favorite field station bathroom is at the very tip of Long Point, a long, sandy spit of land jutting out into Lake Erie from Ontario.

    It was my very first summer field season. I’d just finished my sophomore year of college and had found a volunteer position monitoring Tree Swallow nest boxes for the Long Point Bird Observatory in exchange for room and board. Most of my time was spent on the “mainland,” staying at the main field house and going on daily walks around in the Ontario countryside to record the progress of growing swallow chicks. However, everyone had to do a couple week-long rotations at the tip of the Point, which can only be reached by boat. While I was there, I stayed in a cabin with no running water or electricity, overlooking the field where the Tree Swallow boxes were erected in a neat grid. Next to the cabin, a little up the slope, was the outhouse—the birdiest outhouse I have ever encountered.

    In the wooden door of the outhouse were several bird-shaped cutouts so that you could look out over the field, but that wasn’t what made it special. You may be familiar with the fact that bird people like to keep lists of the birds they’ve seen: life lists, year lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists. Well, tacked up on the wall was the outhouse bird list, a running list of species visitors to the cabin had observed while doing their business.

    This was eight years ago, and I don’t really remember anymore what additions I may have made to the list (though I do remember that nights in that cabin were the first time in my life I heard calling Whip-poor-wills). However, trying to confirm I hadn’t just made the whole thing up, I did some Googling and found a rare bird report of a Sage Thrasher sighting at the Tip that describes it as “the best bird on my outhouse list so far”:In any case, there are two points to this story. One, field biologists go to the bathroom in some interesting places, and two, birders are strange.

    Wildlife people: what’s your best bathroom story from your own field work? Everyone else: does this make you more interested in becoming a wildlife biologist… or less?

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