Establishing New Field Sites

As I mentioned in a previous post, I feel that studies of natural systems are a really important component of ecological research. My research relies heavily on studies of natural populations of Daphnia. As a grad student, finding these populations was easy. With 50 years of aquatic ecology research at the Kellogg Biological Station, there was a lot of background information on the local lakes. Now, after needing to set up my own set of field sites in two places (Atlanta and SE Michigan), I realize just how lucky I was as a grad student. Finding field sites that are safe, accessible, and interesting takes work!

How have I gone about setting up new field sites in the Ann Arbor area? Let’s consider my three criteria (safety, accessibility, interest). Fortunately, the safety one is pretty easy. The biggest safety concern we have is that, in my opinion, it is not safe to sample during deer gun hunting season. That starts November 15th, so our last day of fieldwork is November 14th. That’s pretty easy to deal with. (Actually, it’s kind of welcome. The weather is usually far from ideal in Michigan at this time of year!) There are other hunting seasons that overlap with our field season (e.g., duck season, deer bow season), but those seem like much less of a safety risk. I do have concerns with sampling some of these lakes alone at night, though — more on that below.

I next considered accessibility and interest jointly. I was only interested in lakes that are deep enough to stratify, since the main species I work on require stratification (to avoid fish predation). Fortunately, I am lucky in that the bathymetric maps for most lakes in Michigan have been digitized and are available online. I could use those to make sure the lake was deep enough to stratify. I also was able to find a list of lakes with public boat launches (pdf link). Public launches mean that these lakes are accessible to us without needing to make friends with a landowner. (More on that below, too.) I also wanted lakes that we could sample frequently, so I wanted ones that were a maximum of about a 45 minute drive from campus.  Comparing the lists of lakes that were within ~45 minutes driving distance, deep enough to stratify, and had public access left us with about 20 lakes, which was enough for my needs. (Fortunately, Michigan has lots of lakes to choose from!) If it hadn’t been, I would have gone back to relax one or more of the criteria (most likely, increasing the driving distance).

We then spent last fall (my first field season at the University of Michigan) doing a quick survey of each of these 20 lakes. We wanted to make sure the lakes had enough Daphnia to be worth sampling, and also were hoping to get a sense for what parasites might be in the lakes. A few of the lakes ended up being pretty hard to access (e.g., a locked gate blocking access to the launch) or had essentially no Daphnia, so those lakes were cut from our sampling this year. This left us with 15 lakes that we’re sampling regularly. And, as I’ve said before, some of these sites are beautiful, even if they aren’t typically considered glamorous field locales.

Sullivan c
(Sullivan Lake, one of our study lakes. Photo by Bella Oleksy, used with permission)

While this has been a great start, we still have two major tasks related to establishing field sites. The first is probably the simpler one to deal with: we need to find some non-publicly accessible lakes. We sometimes do field experiments or deploy valuable equipment for extended periods of time. This work is very hard to do in lakes with public access. The odds are much greater that something bad will happen to your experiment/equipment in a publicly accessible lake. As a grad student, there were a set of lakes that we sampled that were only accessible from private property. This included my favorite lake, Warner Lake, which we accessed via a sheep farm that had a llama guarding the sheep. (A guard llama!) These lakes were really valuable, since we could set up experiments in them. I also generally feel safe sampling these lakes alone at night — they have less boat traffic, and it’s much less likely that there will be someone lurking at the launch area.

I knew that we worked hard to maintain these relationships with the homeowners who allowed us access to private lakes (including by giving them maple syrup from the Kellogg Forest), but I didn’t know how the relationships were established in the first place. It turns out that some of them were established by Don Hall and Earl Werner when they first started at KBS. They spent time driving around with a map, looking for farm houses near lakes that looked interesting. Don says that he always made Earl knock on the door to ask if they could use their property to access the lake, since he claims that the homeowners responded better to requests from Earl. I wonder how well this sort of approach would work today – I suspect a lot of people would think we were a little crazy. But, since my efforts to find out who might have a cottage on a lake haven’t been successful so far, we may resort to this approach in the future.

The second thing that remains to be done is to establish all the baseline information we need on our new study populations. This will take much longer. Another common theme of the talks at the KBS Aquatic Ecology Celebration was that there is tremendous value in long-term study sites. If I wanted to know about the nutrient levels, fish predation, food quality, etc. in the lakes I studied as a grad student, I could simply pull a reprint or dissertation (or Wetzel’s textbook!) off the shelf to get that information. My hope is that we will eventually develop this wealth of knowledge on the lakes near Ann Arbor, but, of course, this will take a lot of time and effort.

All of the time and effort that goes into selecting new study sites and getting enough background data on them is one of the reasons why I’m a fan of system-based research. Of course, we’ll add on new field sites as needed, but I very much hope that some of our current lake emerge as workhorses for us, and that we’ll still be working on them 10-20 years from now.

Have you established your own field sites? How did you find them? What criteria did you use when selecting them? Are there things you overlooked that you now wish you had considered?

21 thoughts on “Establishing New Field Sites

  1. I set up my field site in Acadia National Park this summer. Though I just established the transects and common gardens this year, I had already spent two summers working in the park on historical ecology projects. These extra indoor field seasons allowed me to get to know the park and integrate myself into the community up there — this made the actual fieldwork set up so much easier & I got to work with amazing Park volunteers!

  2. “I wonder how well this sort of approach would work today – I suspect a lot of people would think we were a little crazy.”

    I’ve knocked (blind; no prior contact) on doors for site access on streams in the Arkansas/Missouri Ozarks, and lakes in Washington State, and to my surprise never been turned down access. Responses have ranged from a complete lack of interest (remember to close all the gates, and otherwise good luck) to talking my ear off for hours about their stream/river/lake. Sometimes with fantastic local knowledge, sometimes with unreliable local knowledge (“no, we don’t have organism X here” when the lake turns out to be loaded with organism x).

    And I agree: a good private access relationship is great for avoiding tampering with manipulative experiments / enclosures / etc. I did most of my stream work on a large cattle ranch in the Ozarks, and never saw another person within a mile of my experiments. Those property owners didn’t care at all that I was out there as long as I didn’t let the livestock out.

    Conversely: gear theft or sabotage (minnow traps stolen, hoop nets cuts, etc.) wasn’t uncommon in popular, public lakes in the Seattle area. Some friends doing a soundscape ecology project even had the benefit (in retrospect) of hearing someone swim out to their piece of equipment, try to climb on top of it, and then accidentally roll it over:

    • I had very similar experiences to this working in private woodlots in southern Quebec for my MSc.

      Knocked blind on farmhouse doors, and had only one person out of >50 refuse us access (and this was all in my poorly-spoken second language, no less – although I delegated a lot of the talking to field assistants!). Responses were similar to Eric’s, ranging from indifference (as long as we were mindful not to harm the crops), to chatting with us about their extensive knowledge of the local tree species, etc. A few even came into the field with us to check out how we did our work!

      • Was this for continued access to field sites or just one time sampling? My impression is that most people will be okay with asking to access a field/lake/stream/whatever via their yard if it’s just a one-time thing. It seems much trickier (understandably!) to ask people if you can leave a boat at their lake, set up large bag enclosures, and then show up at 1AM to sample them. If any of you have tips on doing that sort of thing, I’d love to hear them!

      • I was sampling repeatedly throughout the course of one summer (with potential for other team members to return the following summer), but we left only small equipment (temp loggers, wooden stakes, etc) on site. I’m afraid I’m not much help for suggestions re: boats and midnight sampling!

        I suspect at least some of the people I worked with would have been happy to be involved even with a more intensive project, but others would have been less willing. Good luck!

    • True – duration of the relationship or study is important. For my stream work in the Ozarks, I had three landowners where I installed summer-long enclosure experiments for two years, and visited these same sites for other related sampling every two weeks to one month for about two and a half years. I had ~10 other land owners where I only visited 3-4 times over a single summer. So they were fairly long-term interactions (a summer to a few years, but obviously not decades). But these were also large properties where what I was doing wasn’t very invasive or noticeable (e.g., in their yard).

      For lake sampling, it was only in and out over two days (deployed sampling gear one afternoon or evening, recovered it the next morning). Of the 100 lakes I sampled in the Puget Sound region, I can really only think of about a half dozen where I would have felt comfortable leaving an installed experiment running long term, and most of those were a combination of 1) on public land, but 2) closed to the public or extremely difficult to access (i.e., lakes in the Seattle water supply watershed and closed to the general public).

      On reporting: as some of the other responses have noted, it’s great if you can disseminate results. Lake associations often have a newsletter, or city/county lake monitoring programs have newsletters where you can report on the research you’re doing. Also related to other responses: I know people who have used tax records to identify landowners (esp. in second or vacation home-like situations), notify them of proposed research well in advance with a letter, and requested permissions to cross through their property (e.g., longitudinally continuous sampling of rivers). So it can definitely be done, can minimize initial awkwardness, and potentially save you from knocking on a door that you don’t want to knock on. Depending on the spatial extent of your work, though, it can also be a huge (but necessary) time investment.

    • I’d be curious to know how other people have approached this. With public, urban lakes, there’s generally a lake society or group you can contact for advance warning and to disseminate information on the work to nearby residents and users. But there’s not much you can do w/respect to general public access – boat launches, parks, etc. and how people will react to finding sampling gear. We always labelled gear with our names, the university name, and a cell number (on big, conspicuous buoys). I would suspect other research groups have taken a different course, and tried to make sampling gear as difficult to detect as possible. It also depends on the gear: losing a minnow trap to theft isn’t the end of the world. More expensive instrumentation, though?

    • A colleague has some camera traps set up in some really urban areas, and has lost plenty of stuff. Now, he has one particular set them up, and they say intact. The student placing them says he knows the area, how people think, and places them so that they’re inconspicuous or not of interest. Apparently, he’s right.

      • A colleague of mine at Calgary is doing a massive camera trap study of angler effort on lakes in British Columbia. Apparently they place the cameras high in trees, both so the camera can see the whole lake, and so people won’t disturb the cameras.

        I should ask my friend Mark Vellend what he did for his work on local adaptation of dandelions to different urban and suburban microhabitats (e.g., lawns vs. pavement cracks). Can’t recall if he had to mark dandelions, and if so, how he did it in a way that people wouldn’t disturb the markers…

      • We mostly have tried to avoid leaving any equipment out on lakes with public access, but sometimes it’s necessary.

        One approach that we’ve used is using subsurface buoys on equipment that we have to leave out in non-private lakes. Of course, there’s a balance between having the buoy deep enough to avoid other people notice it and having it still be accessible to us! This approach has worked pretty well overall, except in one case. Then, we thought we had it deep enough to avoid boat propellers, but someone put an enormous boat in a teeny lake. It had a much larger draft and our float and equipment ended up wrapped around their propeller. That was not a good situation for either of us.

        Someone I was in grad school with was always on a hunt for the perfect hollow log, in which he could hide sensors in streams and wetlands.

    • People I know using camera traps put them in camouflaged pelican cases and then tie the box to trees with steel cords and padlocks. It’s not immediately visible and requires some special equipment to steal. Same premise as bike locks.

  3. I also use the random-knocking-on-doors method when I’m looking for private access to new ponds. I just use Google Earth to find good-looking targets, and then drive out to the place. So far, most landowners that I’ve talked to have been incredibly kind and accommodating. But I still always bring helpers with me when I go knocking, just in case someone is tempted to shoot me. 😛

    My negative experiences are always with home owners’ associations. For some reason, it’s much easier to ask one person for property access than a committee.

    Just knocking doesn’t work if it is hard to catch the landowner at home (e.g., they only use the property at certain times of year). My state has parcel maps online that work with GIS, so I can just look up the parcel and see who owns it, and then find their phone number. Michigan might do that, too.

    Good luck!

    • Looking up the owner and contacting them by phone (or even with a letter) is a good idea. That might decrease some of the awkwardness of a random person showing up at the door!

  4. We’ve been doing just this in privately-owned forest and agricultural field sites and I have to say that I’ve been amazed at how welcoming farmers and other land owners have been. We have a procedure for locating sites that meet our biophysical criteria (size of forest, type of crop, etc.) and then we (ahem. the students.) just cold knock on doors with pretty good success. (Like Eric Larson above, we get some with lots of knowledge, some with less, some with lots of interest, some with less.) Now, we’re working to keep those contacts, as we’d like to continue working in the area for as long as possible. We send newsletters that feature student results (with free passes to a local hiking spot), we give talks at the local Nature Centre, we invite farmers to participate in our workshops. Hopefully, we can develop and maintain really good working relationships with these folks!

    • (My reply to Eric above also applies here.) It sounds like you have long-term relationships with these folks, which is great. Creating a newsletter is a good idea. We did sometimes meet with some of the homeowners near KBS to tell them about what we’d found in their lakes, shared reprints with them, etc.

      What sorts of workshops are you hosting?

  5. Good post Megan. It’s not easy to set up a network of new site like you are doing.

    Like you, I’m a strong believer in the value of long term data, but I approach it primarily retrospectively, rather than prospectively, meaning I try to unearth data from forest sites that were established in the past but not maintained over time, and then re-locate them and re-sample them. This approach has a different set of challenges, but the distinct attraction that once you re-sample them, you’ve at that point got interesting/important results on the dynamics of the system.

    This summer, the 3rd largest wildfire in the CA documentary record (the “Rim Fire”) heavily damaged or destroyed 20 such plots established in Yosemite NP over a century ago, and re-located and sampled by me a few years ago. However, although the on-the-ground plot markers were almost certainly destroyed, I have GPS locations and can still re-sample them (once they let us back in there), and in fact now have a potentially even more interesting study than before. I will probably wait a couple years though because it will be somewhat dangerous in the near future from the dead tree hazard, and in fact its not clear that they will even permit entry because of that.

  6. I am currently a PhD student at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. I am in the process of setting up field sites that hopefully have no background populations of pine bark beetles so we can do release re-capture studies with no interference from established populations. I have spent the last 3 months filling out Department of Conservation (DOC) permits and contacting farm station managers. Honestly, I have had a lot more trouble with DOC then with private farm managers. I worked as a utility forester for a year where the majority of my job was knocking on doors asking for “permission” to cut down trees or spray herbicides for power line right of ways. Therefore, I am very comfortable calling or knocking on doors asking for permission to do research. I have found that the private farms are very interested in the work that I am doing and really appreciate the fact that I am willing to talk to them and explain WHY I am doing my research. I feel that doing research on private land is better than public governmental land. The chance of the public disturbing research equipment is less, the paper work is a LOT less, and the number of invested individuals worrying about how your research affects the public land is a lot less. Granite, when a say a farm station, I am generally talking about > 1,500 hectares…. which may not be available in all areas. Thanks for the nice post:)

  7. Pingback: Scientific ethics discussions in labs | Dynamic Ecology

  8. Pingback: Do field ecologists need field stations to do research? – Ecology is not a dirty word

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