My experiences as a field intern at QUBS

By Kestrel DeMarco

People often say how important it is to get experience working in one’s field. I’m an environmental science major, and last summer I worked retail and at a restaurant, so not exactly what you’d call ‘relevant work experience’. This year I decided to start looking for jobs early. I asked one of my TAs at Queen’s for ideas on where to apply. She had several suggestions, one of them being SWEP: SWEP stands for Summer Work Experience Program. It is a program at Queen’s where Queen’s faculty and staff create job opportunities for undergraduate students to apply for (the process is competitive and adjudicated by a committee of professors who ensure that the jobs have a good learning plan and impart skills that will help students in future endeavors).

I had never heard of SWEP but I took a look, saw 22 jobs that seemed relevant to environmental science, and applied to all of them. Four of the 22 jobs were located at Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). I interviewed for three of them and ended up getting one entitled ‘Conservation Research Intern’. Now, my fourteen weeks at QUBS are coming to an end. Most of my time was spent working on the long-term Tree Swallow monitoring project that Raleigh Robertson started in 1975. It was an amazing experience. I’ve always loved wildlife, and I have a particular soft spot for birds, maybe because I’m named after one. I don’t think that I could have found a better summer job. Not only was the work itself very interesting (especially compared to folding shirts and taking ice cream order which is what I was doing last summer), but life outside of work at QUBS is incredible.

I’m from Toronto, and the highlights of my summers have always been going camping and going to the cottage. QUBS is a bit of both. It’s located on Lake Opinicon, about 50km North of Kingston. For someone who loves to swim, spending three months straight living on the lake was a dream come true. We were in the water our first week here (the first week of May) and have been in most days since. By ‘we’ I mean myself and the awesome people who were also lucky enough to get hired here. When we weren’t working, we spent our time swimming, canoeing, eating (a lot of) ice cream from the local restaurant, The Opinicon, playing cards and having movie nights. Every single one of us hit it off right off the bat. Being in an environment like this, surrounded by people with interests similar to my own was more rewarding than I could have imagined. When I was first offered this job, I was ridiculously excited, but also a bit sad that I wouldn’t have much time at home. I promised to go home at least once a month but I didn’t go home once. My family was a bit disappointed but when they came up for the QUBS Open House, they took one look around and understood immediately why I hadn’t wanted to miss a weekend at QUBS.

Arriving at QUBS:
This being my first field season, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I got to QUBS a full 24 hours before any of the four other SWEPs, which was very intimidating. I spent the day exploring the property and reading. Over the next day, the others arrived and began getting to know each other. There was Jen (or Jan, as we now call her), Grace (‘mom’), ‘snack-sized’ Maddy, and our American Girl Kathleen. Working for Paul Martin were Katie and Jacob, who sadly left after only eight weeks. Matt, a master’s student, became known as the ‘snake guy’. Later on, the ‘plant people’ Claire and Jamie would join our numbers to become part of the QUBS family. It didn’t take long for us all to bond.

Working with Tree Swallows
On my second day at QUBS, Fran Bonier and Amelia Cox took me into the field to show me how to monitor the Tree Swallow boxes. Tree Swallows are a migratory bird found in North America. They are part of a declining group of birds called aerial insectivores; birds that feed almost exclusively on insects in flight. Tree Swallow populations have been declining since the 1990s in North America, and we’re hoping to use the data we collect to figure out why.

Air Strip grid.

In total, there are over 200 nest boxes, and every other day I would go out and record what was in each box. Some boxes were empty, and some already had finished nests. Tree Swallows make their nests out of grass, and then line them with feathers. After a few weeks, the Tree Swallows started laying eggs. At that point, Fran and Amelia went out with me again, this time to show me how to capture the adults in the nest boxes. Once we caught them, we would band them and take measurements such as tarsus length.

One of the first Tree Swallows I banded. I’m holding it using photographer’s grip.

It’s best to catch the females while they’re incubating and the males once the eggs have hatched. Once the nestlings are 12 days old, we band and measure them as well.

12 day old nestling.

In total we banded 550 birds this summer.

In addition to working with Tree Swallows, I also got the chance to do some work with ratsnakes.

Grey ratsnake

Snakes are amazing animals to work with. Sometimes they’re a bit defensive when you first catch them, but they calm down a lot once they realize you aren’t going to hurt them.

All in all, it was the best summer I’ve ever had. Working at QUBS helped me realize that I want to do many more seasons of field work. I’m definitely going to miss QUBS and everyone I’ve worked with a lot.