Whilst studying my Masters degree in Manchester I was trying to keep up to date with the goings on at the PTES as I was no longer able to volunteer there, and on their Facebook page I came across and advert for a Mammal Monitoring course located in Nova Scotia, Canada. I immediately thought “that sounds like fun!” while at the same time thinking “AND that would look good on my CV”. I have always wanted to go to Canada as its wilderness and landscape is so magnificent and packed full of some of my favourite wildlife i.e. bears and wolves, and therefore I decided, there on the spot, I was going to make this happen as soon as I finished my Masters. I felt secure that all the accommodation, catering, internal travel, equipment and activity expenses were all included in the price, so all I had to was get a flight there and back. As the flights are obviously a bit expensive compared to going to Europe on holiday, I thought the best option for me was to make the absolute most of travelling so far, and decided to book trips around the east coast of the US and Canada and the Canadian Rockies (see two previous blogs) – so there it was, the plan!
As the weeks drew closer to my departure I became a little concerned that only 5 people were going on the trip with me, when it was meant to accommodate 12. But I didn’t let this get me down and knew I would make friends regardless. Obviously having been travelling around Canada a month before the course I was quite savvy with the airports and was very enthusiastic for the final segment of my 6 week long adventure. It was fantastic meeting the people in my group, 1 male ecological consultant from the UK and then 1 Japanese lecturer and 3 of her masters’ students from Tokyo. The leaders Dr Chris Newman and Dr Christina Buesching were very friendly, particularly their dog Lycos, a husky wolf who fitted in perfectly with the wilderness of Nova Scotia. The masters’ students were all very friendly and spoke excellent English, which was a relief to me, they even taught me some useful Japanese phrases along the way! After a long but very beautiful scenic drive from the airport we arrived at Cherry Hill’s ‘Green House’ – a lovely wooden cottage situated down a small lane and just a short walk from the sea. I shared a room with the girl from Tokyo and we got on very well.
The whole course had been meticulously planned out with a clear and exciting itinerary – that naturally almost immediately had to be altered here and there to suit the needs of everyone – but nonetheless they had really gone out of their way to make sure we really got see Nova Scotia as wildlife watchers, conservationists and tourists! The primary aim of the course was to learn a multitude of mammal monitoring techniques in order to study mammal populations in Nova Scotia – particularly small mammal trapping and handling. The first lesson we had involved a 3hr coastal walk around Le Petit Riviere, learning how to identify species presence by look for field signs, e.g. foot prints, sounds, smells, fur, scat and observations of remains/live creatures. This was really interesting as you underestimate the complexity and usefulness of field signs in determining the presence or absence of different species. During the walk we obviously also enjoyed the view of the coast and even managed to see a garter snake and a porcupine so it was really exciting!
So our initial hands on work was with live mammal trapping involved the 5 of us students laying 20 traps each, 10 in scrub land and 10 in a woodland following a transect down a hill behind the cottage at Cook’s Lake Farm Research Site, owned by Chris and Cristina. The two different habitats should present different results, as they would be comfortable niches for different species due to vegetation, terrain and climate variations. The traps were Longworth small mammal traps, although made of basic metal, are quite expensive and very popular with university and conservationists when it comes to studying small mammal populations. The 100 traps in total were stuffed with dry grass and a nights worth of food and left in their places for 3 days, to be checked once each morning and once each afternoon. In the heat of the day this was hard work, especially with the terrain and lack of paths, but seeing your trap with its door closed, indicating an animal had gone inside for food and tripped the door latch shut, was magnificent. Each trap that was found closed was taken to a midway point where we all learnt handling techniques and recorded every animal seen, and its overall condition on paper, for later statistical analysis. We placed the trap in a large see through plastic bag and took it apart until only the mouse remained in the bag, and then by pinching the scruff of the neck of the animal we picked each specimen up for observation and recording. Unfortunately due to a lack of protein in the food stuff, some shrews did not make it through the night due to having such high metabolisms, this was unfortunate but luckily this didn’t happen too often.
We trapped a vast array of species including mice, shrews, voles and chipmunks. There was also definite evidence of weasels and racoons, with disembodied mice and traps broken in two. After the 3 days of results, we found that nearly equal abundances were found in both scrub and woodland areas. Whereas, more species were found in the woodland area. The data collected was the highest amount of recordings in the history of the EarthWatch project, which was put down to the ecological experience of the participants and the more manageable group size. Unfortunately, evidence of predation (e.g. weasels) and disease (e.g. botfly) was evident in our sample, but not at any concerning levels that would indicate major population threats. Many pregnant individuals were found, which was surprising so late in the season, but this is usually indicative of a productive spring and summer, in terms of food and habitat availability.
Other methods we used were radio tracking, camera trapping, grid pellet sampling, and observational studies. We practiced using radio collars by splitting into two teams and sending 1 team off with the collars with the others remaining stationary with the tracking device. These collars were not only able to communicate to us the presence of the “animals” in the area, but also their level of activity, as intermittent beeps with short gaps in between indicated movement, where as big gaps indicated that the animals were stationary/in a tree/hole in the ground. However the apparatus was unable to give an exact distance/location. We set camera traps up in the garden to see if deer or racoons were around, as they often pass through properties. This proved effective at one site as we got racoons on camera, but at the other site the camera was placed ineffectively and had fallen, perhaps due to weather, showing the need for precision when working with this kind of equipment. Knowing there were raccoons in the area, we set up a spotlight on the garden and then sat back and waited for them to arrive. Suddenly two appeared in the garden, sniffing around the compost heap, it was amazing!
After the mass of investigation, we managed to fit in quite a lot of touristy things as well. We visited the small fishing town of Lunenburg, where lobster was the prime dish of the day…every day! The houses were all painted bright and different colours, and being all made of wood, they resembled doll’s houses as they lined up along the harbour. There were lots of souvenir shops and museums, as well as war memorials and boat trips. And although I didn’t visit all of these things, I did manage to climb to the very top of the extremely steep hill to the great looking wooden church at the top, and then headed back down for a quiet couple of hours of reading next to the sea. Lovely!
On another day we visited Shubenacadie Wildlife Park and the adjacent Wetlands reserve. Here we were lucky enough to see all of the species Nova Scotia and North America are renown for; woodchuck, beaver, moose, grey wolf, artic wolf, artic fox, racoon, skunk, fisher, lynx, bobcat and cougar. It was simply incredible to see all these animals so close up and interact with them so naturally in such large and realistic enclosures. The wolves howled a wonderful chorus when a train passed in the distance, truly remarkable.
Alas, my favourite time has to be this one evening where we went to the lecturers’ own built house in the middle of a dense woodland overlooking a wonder wetland area that filled with the tide. The house itself was fantastic, something out of Grand Designs, a huge 3 storey wooden house. It was a fantastic spot, and after doing some field sign surveys we enjoyed an excellent barbeque prepared for us, and finished off by Lycos. But this wasn’t the end, because after this we headed to the local beaver den that I had identified earlier on our field sign trek, and minutes after settling on the bank, wrapped up from head to toe to avoid the cold and the attack of the millions of mosquitoes, a beaver came out of the den and swam right by my foot. We saw him several times, surveying the area and genuinely checking us out (as we clearly weren’t very camouflaged!). It was an incredible experience, one I will never forget, especially when afterwards we went on a bat walk, using bat detectors to spot the different bat species around us including the little brown bat and the Eastern pipistrelle.
Another great learning experience was our visit to a sustainable woodland run by Kevin Veinotte, a friend of the lecturers. He picked us up in a huge tractor pulled wagon and took us across acres of woodland followed by Christmas tree plantations (his primary income). Five minutes into the journey we passed some white tailed deer, which were lovely, and even while walking around we came across dens, dams and fallen trees all indicative of beavers being in the area. We even came across Kevin’s colleague high up in the woodland who was using two traditional working horses, huge of course, to drag 5-10 cut trees back down the woodland path to the road. This looked like hard and laborious work, but the horses were clearly very strong and chipper to be working. It was really interesting to see his efforts into reducing the amount of short term fast growing spruces (which have now overpopulated the island so that the wood industry could increase profits) and his efforts to introduce the now much rarer oaks and hardwoods in order to replicate the original historical Nova Scotian woodlands.
We didn’t only learn about the species we saw each day, but also about the work that both Chris and Christina do here and back in the UK all year round. They are honorary lecturers at Oxford University and often return for talks and lectures. However the main reason for their return is to manage the Badger Project in Wytham woods, adjacent to the University, as part of the WildCru project. Here they trap, mark, study and release as many badgers as possible over a set period of time each year. These data sets provide a mass of information on the health of badgers as well as their social and behavioural patterns, from which many interesting aspects are still being discovered. It was interesting to see how such long term efforts can prove so fruitful and effective, although personally I would have liked to have seen some efforts toward the badger cull issue, which didn’t seem to be an issue for this particular badger group. Another organisation they are associated with, which is essentially their main job in Nova Scotia is the work they do for Earthwatch; a charity aimed at encouraging people worldwide to get involved hands on in conservation.
On the last day we went to Peggy’s Cove. This place is famous for being the main landmark in Nova Scotia, with it’s white and red light house depicted on almost every postcard. It was packed full of tourists but was such a lovely day so we were able to get lots of great photos and even enjoy some local delicacies such as lobster flavoured crisps and lobster Cornish pasties. Very yummy! After this we headed to the Airport but with our flight not being until midnight, we all decided to check our bags into storage, and get the hour long bus into Halifax, the capital City. This wasn’t very cheap, but worth it compared to staying in the tiny two shop Airport for 9 hours. I grabbed a map from the Information Desk and began planning things for us to do. First we headed to the Citadel with the Army Barracks at the top of the hill of the city. Here we posed with the foot guards, dressed like those at Buckingham palace. We walked all the way round getting excellent views of the city and the harbour, and eventually headed to the Natural History Museum. It was a small museum in an extremely unattractive 1970’s building, but actually had some interesting exhibits; such a shame to see it so empty. We then walked through the Botanical gardens and down the very busy and bustling road of Sackville Street. Eventually we got to the harbour where we walked along looking at all the boats and random street art, which we naturally climbed all over. We even found a Beavertails stall, so I got to have my last one of these amazing chocolate donut-like things. After walking along the front for an hour or so we decided to head back to the bus so that we could grab a cheap dinner at the airport. Unfortunately we missed the bus by 1 minute though so we decided to head to a local student pub to grab a meal there instead, we chose the Foggy Goggle on Argyle Street, which did some cheap and scrumptious food.
When we got back to the airport, we did some last minute souvenir shopping, headed to the gates and napped/read/ate while we waited for our late night flight. The flight was long and uncomfortable, and arriving at Heathrow with only a few hours sleep and then having to manoeuvre my huge backpack across the whole of the London underground wasn’t great, but it was so wonderful to be home again with the knowledge that I could sleep in my own bed again!
Nova Scotia was a brilliant way to end my travels. I met some fantastic people and learnt some really valuable techniques that would be practical for my future in conservation. The scenery was unforgettable and the wildlife was spectacular, I will never forget seeing that beaver swim by my feet. I would definitely come back here in a heartbeat, although maybe not in the summer and winter months which can reach +40oC and -40oC respectively!! Thank you to the PTES for providing such a great experience, and thank you to Earthwatch and the University of Oxford lecturers that inspired me to never stop learning.