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The Misadventures of an Ecological Technician

By Sarah DeVries

Image by Crystal Graham

Ever since I was a kid, I remember being outside as a treasured experience. Going for

walks along the river with my mom in the spring, biking along Lake Huron in the summer, apple picking with friends in the fall, and skating on our street with my siblings in the winter; growing up in Ontario provided me with clear seasons filled with rain, snow, sun, and changing leaves.

As I got older, the differences in those seasons changed. The mountains of snow we had always received in the winter turned to drizzles and freezing rain storms. The sun that I had always associated with swimming in the pool and endless days outside turned scorching, and the thought of going outside became unwelcome. Watching the seasons change before my eyes planted a seed within me; I had always loved the outdoors, and I wanted future generations to be able to love the outdoors that I loved, to have the memories that I had. I wanted to save the world.

Realistically, it was a bit of a naive thought. I went into the first year of my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science thinking that I could play some major role in fighting climate change. It became evident after school began that saving the world is a bit of a

lofty goal, and the helplessness of this realization as you watch the world change around you is a feeling I’m sure many are familiar with. Thankfully, soon after this realization came the recognition that helping to restore, conserve, and protect the ecosystems I love was much more attainable, and that these actions, however little they feel, are extremely important.

About halfway through my degree I discovered that, not only do I want to do my part to

conserve nature, but I also want to ask questions and seek out answers (and, in the process, more questions). A project on Black-capped chickadee predator response across an urbanization gradient sparked my love of research, and before I knew it I was seeking out advisors for a graduate thesis. As it was around this time that I also developed a love of rock climbing, a friend pointed me in the direction of Dr. Brian Husband, a plant biologist who did some work in the Rocky Mountains. Although I wasn’t completely familiar with the work that Brian did, his passion for his research left me extremely excited about topics I knew nothing about, and a year later I found myself in the Kananaskis Valley hand pollinating fireweed.

Completing a graduate degree during 2020/2021 resulted in an odd combination of silent laboratories and remote work, the latter of which allowed me to move from Ontario to British Columbia in pursuit of more exciting outdoor adventures. Following my graduation, I continued to live in Victoria, B.C., until being hired as the Ecological Technician with the Pender Islands Conservancy. Over the past four months I have had the pleasure to work on a number of projects and programs.

In collaboration with the Hakai Institute, I have had the opportunity to collect eDNA

from water samples in Hope Bay and monitor the light trap for Dungeness crab larvae. Although I am admittedly not immediately drawn to ocean life, getting to see the various funky organisms that have found their way into the light trap has given me a better appreciation for marine life.

Getting ready foir eDNA water sampling. Image by Elizabeth Miles

This summer has also been filled with invasive species removal, beginning in May with

Scotch Broom at George Hill, KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest, and the cemetery. Getting to work alongside amazing community members throughout the broom bash was a fantastic introduction to just how involved and caring the Pender community is. Over the past few months the invasive species removal has transitioned to thistle and Tansy ragwort at Gardom Pond, throughout Magic Lake, and at KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest. After removing all these invasives, it has been wild to see just how large the piles of removed invasives are and how much space they overtook.

Broom Bash at KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher Forest. A lot less needed to be removed this year, due to the work done previously.

Maintaining some of the sites where previous invasive removal has been conducted and native species planted has allowed me a glimpse at the possibilities when native species are reintroduced and allowed a chance to re-establish.

The plant work hasn’t stopped there. I’ve also been conducting vegetation surveys, and as someone whose background is mainly plant focused, this was a pretty thrilling task for me. The first survey saw me spending quite a bit of time flipping through my ‘Plants of Coastal British Columbia’ guide attempting to identify various grasses, reeds, rushes, and sedges. Surveys were completed every few weeks, and watching as one species was replaced by another as the summer progressed was a fascinating glimpse at the succession of ecosystems.

In addition to these vegetation surveys at Gardom pond, much of my time has been spent around the pond and throughout KELÁ_EKE Kingfisher forest this summer. Earlier in the season, we conducted point count surveys, which involved waking up well before the sun and meeting in the dark woods to hear the dawn chorus. As much as I love birds, I am still learning their songs, and while Erin was sifting through all the songs with ease, I struggled to focus on any song aside from what was closest to me. Regardless, hearing the dawn chorus three weeks in a row and getting to try and see how my bird song identification progressed made up for the lack of sleep that came with those early mornings. In stark contrast to the point count surveys we conducted, the bat surveys in the weeks that followed brought us to the woods at dusk, watching for bats

throughout the forest late into the night. Seeing which areas of the forest were more popular for bats was quite interesting, and observing the preferences and dynamics of the various bats on Pender was a neat look at the night life of the island!

In the past few weeks I have escaped the forest and taken to the water for the annual kelp mapping done in collaboration with the Mayne Island Conservancy; this mapping has been done for the past couple years to track the size of bull kelp populations throughout the Gulf Islands. This task was one of the more challenging for me, not so much in the sense of hitting mark repeatable on a GPS (which truly is not the most difficult task), but in the capacity of navigating a kayak around the curves of kelp beds while fighting wind and currents, as well as in acquiring the data from the GPS’s following the mapping. For something that sounds easy (“retrieving data from a GPS”), it required far more computer programs than one would expect to simply get the option of “download” to appear. The first day of mapping resulted in what Erin has said might be

my quote of the summer: “I only almost cried once”. Due to the frustrations created by wind, currents, and/or technical difficulties, this became a trend for each day of kelp mapping that followed; each day I only almost cried once. As much as I enjoy kayaking, the calm mapping days didn't quite make up for all the other challenges, but thankfully I made it through with a little help from the incredible folks involved.

But for all the tears that were almost shed during kelp mapping, it was made up for in

bird monitoring. The beginning of my time with the Conservancy saw me checking chickadee and swallow boxes for Chestnut-backed chickadee and Violet-green swallow nests. Watching swallow nests progress from a single piece of grass to full nests lined with feathers holding a small number of tiny eggs was one of my favourite tasks this summer. Monitoring chickadee nests, on the other hand, became less monitoring for chickadees and more getting lost and sprinting away from nest boxes that I dropped after a handful of wasps emerged from the hole in the box as soon as I lifted it from its hook. Needless to say, there may still be a chickadee nest box or two lying on the forest floor. As the monitoring of chickadees and Violet-green swallows dwindled, the monitoring of Barn swallows and Purple martins took their place. I monitored four

Purple martin colonies, and watched as they went from bringing grass into the boxes to bringing dragonflies to their nestlings. Now, the colonies have all fledged, another batch of bird monitoring has come to an end as they prepare to fly home for the winter, and I am left feeling a pinch of sadness as I say goodbye to the birds I have watched for the past few months (picture a mother listening to ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’ by ABBA as her children leave home for the first time).

Purple martin monitoring Image by Erin O'Brien

The shift from summer to fall on the West Coast hasn’t been as clear to me as it has been

this year. For the first time I am aware of the shift in birds; the lack of Violet-green swallows swooping over the fields, the absence of bird calls I heard all summer long, and the transition as the purple martins have left their nest boxes behind, preparing for their migration. I once again find myself watching the seasons change. The typical drought of summer felt more dry, wildfires rage throughout Western Canada, and that seed that had once been planted within me aches.

These past few months with the Conservancy have reminded me that the efforts put in to restore, conserve, and protect aren’t useless against the changes that have already begun. Those seemingly small actions are so important, especially when you are facing challenges that may make you feel helpless against change.

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