After my opportunity in South Africa during the summer of 2009 I had wanted to continue my hands-on experience in 2010. What I found was perfect. Anyone in the wildlife field of study should know about The Wildlife Society (http://www.wildlife.org) . Since I was basically on my own at school this is something I found a bit late in the game but I’m glad I did eventually hear about it. The Wildlife Society is an organization for wildlife professionals and students. It is largely a United States based organization but has international members as well, which is easy to do when many wildlife jobs require international travel.
Broken down into sections, the Society has a Northeast section that offers a wonderful opportunity for students: a wildlife field course which is associated with Vermont’s Castleton State College, for 3 credits (http://joomla.wildlife.org/NE//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=191&Itemid=302). It’s a 2 week program that consists of hands-on experiences and professional interactions. I don’t know if other sections offer such a course but it would be worth looking into if you’re interested, but if they don’t, do not be deterred. We had one woman come from Texas to join us.
So, having found this course that sounded great I signed right up. May came along, I packed up, and instead of jumping on a plane for a 22 hour flight I personally just had a 2 hour drive. Unlike my South Africa experience we didn’t move around a whole lot in this experience. That didn’t take away from the trip at all, it was simply unnecessary. We stayed at Kehoe Conservation Camp which actually had simple cabins with bunks. That’s right, no sleeping on the ground for weeks at a time and they had standard bathroom facilities. Always nice. And while in Africa we often had cold meals or meals we prepared ourselves over a grill or small burner with whatever we happen to have in supply at the time, in Vermont the meals were catered, and by catered I mean absolutely delicious! It was almost like being on vacation, but perhaps they wanted our focus to be on the work and not anything else. Works for me!
First off let me say that all of the instructors associated with this course, from those that stayed the entire time to those that only stayed a day or two to discuss their specialty with us, were all professionals that volunteered their time. I cannot express enough how cool that is and I believe I can speak for my fellow students in this case by saying that we were grateful for their time, experience, and willingness to share that with us.
Second I’ll point out that it wasn’t all field work. We needed to be properly instructed on what we were doing, both by lecture and by actually doing it. Our “lecture hall” took on a very lived-in feel as we camped out and learned about the field of wildlife biology.
One of the first things we did after our introduction to the field course was get divided into four groups. These are the groups we would end up spending a large portion of our field time with, although in other cases we were all together as a class. We went over some equipment and the various ways certain professionals choose to carry it into the field. There is no one right way. Some people prefer to use vests to hold their gear while others prefer backpacks and still others use sling packs. This also depends on what you are working on and what equipment you need, of course. An example would be that for my herpetofaunal work I use a large hiking lumbar pack, but I use it as a sling pack to keep it up high enough to stay out of the water. It holds my water, a herpetofaunal field guide, a small net and container for examining tadpoles, a waterproof flashlight, my field notebook and pencil, gloves, a snack, my maps, a waterproof camera, and a knife.
For our work in Vermont most of the time we would use a vest. Certain items had to be carried on occasion, like our small mammal traps, but for this experience it worked. Many of us also choose to carry backpacks but I think that was more of the student mentality. The vest held most of the equipment we needed for our actual work, but other times we were having an outdoor lecture or were observing someone else working, so many of our bags held notebooks, snacks, water, bug spray, sunscreen, rain gear, etc.
One of the next things we did in our groups was to get assigned locations on a local mountain and construct 10-point transect lines. Honestly I’d never even heard of a transect line at this point so I found this very valuable. A lot of work can be done with one. But what is a transect line? It’s basically a line of whatever distance you choose that you work on. I think we had our points every 100 meters, although don’t hold me do that. And since it was supposed to be a straight line, which was aided by our trusty compass, it was interesting to set up. Over streams and small gullies, through tree stands, over boulders, and in one case up a particularly steep incline, we set up our points marked with flagging. These points would be the sites of our data collection on numerous small projects. Essentially, the transect line was one of the foundational building blocks to our field work.