The Fragility of Field Plans

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Sometimes your truck makes it across the frozen river, and sometimes it doesn’t. Photograph courtesy Anton Gabrielson

When our truck broke through the ice of the Funtovka River, it nearly sank the 2012 field season.

The river wasn’t particularly deep, maybe four feet at that spot, but the open water was a sufficient barrier to prevent the rest of our caravan—a pickup truck and a snowmobile—from following suit. The truck, a formidable Kamaz, scraped back to shore among shrieks of metal grinding through ice, leaving a splintered bumper and shattered headlights to float slowly downstream in the slushy water.

It was nearly dark and we’d been on the road all day. Defeated, we doubled back and found a spot out of the wind where we cleared some snow and set camp. We had everything we needed to be here for up to a month of winter fieldwork: sacks of rice, potatoes, pasta, and cans of meat. The river would provide drinking water and fish.

From here to the Ugolnaya River some forty miles west was a selection of transects that we intended to walk daily, counting fresh deer and wild boar tracks in the snow to estimate their abundance. The original plan was to set up camp about twenty miles further down this old logging road—in the middle of the study area—and drive the pickup truck or snowmobile out to our transects each day.

But now, by punching a hole in the Funtovka River, we had blocked our only path forward. Nothing could cross here until the river refroze, and it would be a while—maybe more time than we had—before the ice could bear the significant load of the Kamaz. Packing wood into the Kamaz’s stove, we went to sleep. I’d worry about next steps in the morning.

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An Undesirable Nest

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A remote cabin in the Sikhote-Alin Reserve, Primorye, Russia. Credit: Photograph (c) Jonathan C. Slaght

This post first appeared on Scientific American as part of my East of Siberia series.

Years ago I conducted songbird research at the Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve: summers of sweat, field camouflage, and pulsing masses of biting insects in this humid, temperate rainforest. There were only two of us on the field team, me and a botanist—a bright, friendly woman who described the vegetation at the same study plots where I recorded the vocalizing bird species.

Our goal was to document how songbird communities changed when a forest was selectively logged. We’d sit quietly under enormous pines at designated locations, up to a dozen of them in a morning. Occasionally we’d find bird nests but most of our detections were vocalizations: melodious song from birds unseen in the dense vegetation. I’d scribble down the exotic-sounding names of species like Siberian blue robin, Mugimaki flycatcher, and Asian stubtail.

Our work was based out of remote research cabins in the reserve, and we’d move from one location to the next every week or two when we’d completed all the necessary bird surveys. Late in the season we arrived at Perevalnii, an area of Korean pine forest near the Sikhote-Alin divide, and found a cabin of typical construction for the reserve.

It was a cozy, single room of hewn log walls with an aging iron woodstove and two single-person sleeping platforms separated by a narrow table. The ceiling was low to trap the heat in winter, and the walls were studded with nails to hang bags of rice, salt, and anything else edible—a precaution to keep food safe from the rodents who also called this cabin home. Two futon mattresses, brought inside when needed, hung over a support beam in the covered vestibule to air out between use and to keep rodents from nesting among their soft innards.

We fell into our routine when arriving at a new place. I piled some firewood near the woodstove then hung a mosquito net from the door frame, while the botanist took inventory of supplies left by past visitors.

I rolled out my air mattress onto one of the narrow sleeping platforms, laid my sleeping bag upon it, and got ready for bed. It was only dusk but this was the field season: we had a very early morning ahead of us. But I was not in bed for long.

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Science-Based Decision Making: An Example from the Russian Far East

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An infrared, motion-triggered camera catches poachers spotlighting along an old logging road in Primorye, Russia. Photograph © WCS Russia

This article, written for Earth Day 2017 and in support of the March for Science, first appeared on the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Medium page.

I’m a wildlife conservationist and I work in Russia. Here is a tiny example, from that corner of the world that shows how maintaining a grounding in scientific principles benefits both humans and wildlife.

Ternei County (in the Russian province of Primorye) is remote, forested, and sparsely populated. There are few opportunities for steady employment here, with the logging industry being one of the few exceptions. In fact, a single logging company acts as the primary employer in at least four of the ten villages scattered across this 11,000 square mile area.

Over the past thirty years, more and more of Ternei County have been opened up for timber harvest, driven by global demand, with logging roads reaching further and further into these forests of pine, oak, and birch.

As a wildlife conservationist I was concerned that poachers were using old logging roads to shoot deer, wild boar, and even tigers, but intuition was not enough to guide change in logging management practice. The forests appear vast and limitless to anyone passing through them, so how can I measure the impact of logging roads?

My team designed a study.

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