Team Shrub – 2017 in Review

It was a big year for Team Shrub in 2017.

Like an Arctic willow in the tundra sunshine, we soaked up the beautiful rays of knowledge and delved further into the active layer of understanding. We grew taller and bushier as new members joined the team, and branched out into new areas of research. We bore fluffy research paper catkins, for our ideas and findings to be spread on the breeze of scientific discovery, and we put down new roots, to support, work with and learn from others in the future. And, of course, we had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing it all.

So as we look forward to all that 2018 brings, we are taking some time to revisit the year gone by, our favourite blog posts, and just how far we came in 2017.

Looking ahead: After a politically turbulent 2016, who could know what 2017 would hold? We spent the start of the year looking ahead with some trepidation, some anticipation and a good dose of excitement.

Decomposition in the cold. We kicked of a busy year as Haydn and Isla headed on a tour of Denmark and Sweden to attend the Oikos symposium on Decomposition in Cold Biomes (https://globalsoilbiodiversity.org/content/oikos-satellite-symposium). It was appropriate as the temperatures had dropped that week and it was quite snowy and chilly in beautiful Lund, Sweden as we chatted about cold-weather decomposition while cosy inside.

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Taking a tea break in Umeä

To Aberdeen. In March, it was our first Team Shrub trip to Aberdeen. We had a beach coding holiday and attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation conference with Gergana, Haydn and Sandra presenting. We teamed up with Francesca Mancini from the Aberdeen Study Group to lead a coding workshop on efficiently analysing and visualising big-ish data in ecology.

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Jumping for joy at the thought of more coding!

Glimpses of our future? By April, we had a wee glimpse into what 2017 might have in store for us through a traditional Bulgarian pastry dish with our fortunes inside!

Tundra Greening and Browning. Also in April, After a lab trip to Durham, Haydn’s home town, to talk permafrost for a day at Durham University. Andy and Isla went to the home of the Crucible, the land of snooker, the (real) region of Robin Hood, and the heartland of the only English football team named after a day of the week. (Also the home of the Arctic Monkeys – who incidentally haven’t spent much time in the Arctic). If you haven’t guessed yet, we went to the town of Sheffield for the ‘Arctic Browning Workshop’. The Arctic is warming and satellites have shown a fair bit of greening, but recent evidence suggests a decrease in the rates of increasing greenness at high latitudes and some browning events. The theme of the workshop was exploring that Arctic browning and what might be causing it.

A trip to the Highlands. Also in April and before the field season, Team Shrub headed to the highlands to show our visiting scholar Jeff Kerby and our summer drone pilot Will Palmer the beautiful countryside in our own backyard.

Traits. In June, Haydn, Anne and Isla headed the deep South of the UK to almost tropical temperatures at the University of Exeter. We were at the New Phytologist 39th Symposium on Trait covariation. Whether in the symposium sessions or out on Dartmoor, we had a great time pondering plant traits from the tropics to the tundra.

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Team Shrub strike out across the Highlands.

The Field Season. Suddenly it was the field season. Team Shrub divided into two teams: Team Drone and Team Kluane to concurrently conduct our data collection on either end of the Yukon. From drones, tea bags, phenology, stories, sounds, smells, feasts, birding, to reunions many adventures were had and a ton of data was collected. We managed to capture over 100,000 images or more than two TB of data with our drones, to dig out over 300 tea bags from the ground, and to fill several field books or iPad spreadsheets with numbers and notes. It was a productive period and we are still working away on processing the data.

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Team Shrub together at last!

New beginnings. This September marked the start of Mariana’s and Gergana’s PhD research. Mariana is modelling how plant species distributions will shift under climate change at two extreme biomes – the tundra and the savannah. Gergana is quantifying the effects of land use change on global and local patterns of species richness, abundance and composition. Sam, Claudia and Matt have joined Team Shrub for their honours dissertations. The data presents will soon be rolling as new student projects come together and our first three Team Shrub PhD students finalise their dissertations over the coming months.

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First day of being a PhD student for Mariana and Gergana!

Coding. Coding Club celebrated its first birthday! Coding is a big part of our work on Team Shrub, we use coding in our research, teaching, our lives in general… where would we be without it. Perhaps a bit less constantly frustrated, but also without those moments of glory when everything runs error free! We even made up a fictional journal for the Conservation Science course that Isla organises and Gergana and Mariana are tutors on. You can find out more about AQMCS (Advanced quantitative methods in conservation science) here – Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

Conservation in the Cairngorms. In early October, members of Team Shrub took our annual pilgrimage up to the highlands of Scotland for the weekend fieldtrip on the Conservation Science course. With all sorts of weather, mountains, drones, delicious cake and an epic music jam, fun was had by all!

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Learning about conservation in a majestic landscape

Biodiversity, the New North and the science/policy interface. Also in the month of October, along with keen undergraduates from the Conservation Science course, we went along to the Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity conference. For the undergraduates involved, it was their first ever conference. It was pretty inspiring to see the next generation of conservation scientists getting the opportunity to talk with the Scottish experts in the field. A few weeks later in November, we headed to the “Scotland and the New North” policy forum, where Isla got to hold the door for Nicola Sturgeon! A new focus looking Northward for Scotland could mean new things for Team Shrub research in future.

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What will Scotland’s new focus northward mean for Team Shrub?

Also in November, Mariana attended two  policy-related events: the EEB Changing Landscapes conference in Edinburgh and the BES “Understanding science policy in Scotland“ workshop in Stirling. The first was a high-level event where major conservation organisations discussed the future of nature in Europe; while the second zoomed into Scotland to understand how science can feed into the policy-making process.

Writing. In November, Team Shrub had our first official writing retreat. We have been talking about having a writing retreat for years and finally things came together with a chance to focus on our writing goals, away from distractions. We were so inspired that we are planning on having a residential writing retreat sometime in the Spring of 2018 – where we can go from one day of super high productivity to hopefully a long weekend.

Dual Conferences. In December, Team Shrub headed to two big conferences happening at the same time! You can read about our parallel conferences experiences here. At Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium, Anne, Mariana and Gergana joined over 1500 ecologists to take in lots of exciting science, go to workshops, meet new people or catch up with old friends. Gergana and Anne gave talks, in sessions happening at the same time!

At Ecology Across Borders, we also led a Coding Club workshop, titled “Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists”. We shared our approach to teaching coding to keen participants from the conference. All of our workshop materials are online: Transferring quantitative skills among scientistsYou can also check out the Coding Club website to find all of our tutorials as well as information on how you can join our team and organise workshops at your home institution.

The other half of Team Shrub, Isla, Sandra, Haydn, Jakob, Andy and Jeff went to Quebec in Canada for the penultimate ArcticNet meeting – Arctic Change 2017. You can check out the daily round-up blog posts about the conference here – day 1day 2, day 3 and days 4 and 5. A pinnacle moment for Team Shrub was Haydn and Jakob winning the top two prizes from the conference elevator pitch contest!

Rejections. When we drafted our goals for 2017, we also set out our rejection goals. The idea behind rejection goals is that if we never get rejected, then maybe we aren’t aiming high enough. We decided to collectively aim for 50 rejections. So how did we do? We counted 23 rejections out of our goal of 50. Now perhaps we didn’t manage to count every single rejection this year, some of them we would rather just forget, but can we count the fact that we didn’t achieve our rejections as one additional fail?  Then technically we are at 24 out of 50?

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Team Drone on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island in the Northern Yukon.
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Team Kluane at Outpost Station in the Southern Yukon.

Outreach. At Our Dynamic Earth, we shared the excitement of using drones for science. At the Edinburgh Science Festival, we explored art as a way to communicate science. We put together the photography exhibit “Arctic from Above” and developed collaborations with Simon SloanArchie Crofton to explore how art and data interface and ASCUS looking at tundra shrubs as time machines. Then at Curiosity forest, part of Explorathon 2017, we used drone simulators and cool dendrochronology samples to learn about how to study Arctic change.

There were also many jolly meals and trips to the pub. Many heated debates as we discussed science in lab meeting or over lunch. There were many moments of coding frustration followed by a sense of achievement as we worked through our scientific goals.

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One of many lab meetings!

So those were some of the Adventures for Team Shrub in 2017.

What will 2018 hold? We already have some exciting things to share with you over the coming months, and many more in the pipeline. Hopefully we will also have some fantastically fluffy catkins this year: keep your eye on the breeze.

So from all on Team Shrub, a very happy new year and we look forward to sharing with you, working with you, and learning from you in the year to come.

By Gergana, Isla and Haydn

Fieldwork Milestones

The icy waters that welcomed us to Qikiqtaruk are long gone – past are the beautiful sunsets with light reflecting off big chunks of ice, and instead we now see dark blue or grey waters and occasionally even beluga whales swimming by. It’s a great time of the summer, with some flowers still in bloom, while others are setting seeds. The sandpiper and plover chicks are growing up, and we have been spending lots of time out in the field – through sunshine, wind and fog, the data are rolling in!

Now that we have already celebrated our two week and three weekiversaries on the island and are approaching a month on the island, we thought we’d reflect on our fieldwork milestones so far!

21st June

We celebrated solstice by arriving on the island, checking out the vast expanse of sea ice in the water and exploring our home for the summer and all the breeding bird species with Park Biologist Cameron Eckert.

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1st July (Happy Canada Day!)

Canada Day dinner with the rangers – for some of us it was our first Canada Day ever and it was the big 150 this year, and we all had a great time sharing stories and enjoying a tasty feast on a day celebrating the confederation of peoples including all the original people of this vast country.

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2nd July

Wildlife sightings – some of our favourites include a herd of 25 caribou with calves, the four majestic muskoxen, a short-eared owl flying over camp, black guillemots riding the waves, waders dashing around on the spit, and belugas and bowheads off the cliffs from Collinson Head (14th July).

4th July (Happy Independence Day!)

Six new phenocams are all set up and hopefully well enough to resist any muskox encounters (none so far)! It will be great to see all the photos stitched together at the end of the season from May to August, thanks to the rangers setting things up for us before we arrived. The ongoing on-the-ground phenology observations have also been no less exciting, though they are a bit more of a pain to collect when the mosquitos are at their most ferocious like yesterday!

6th July

The first twisting of the filaments of the Dryas (mountain avens) in our phenology monitoring! We’ve also been counting how many flowers there are in each of the phenology plots and we are now past peak flower time – now there will be fewer and fewer pretty coloured flowers, but watching the Dryas seed heads develop and twist round and round and the fluffy flowers of the Eriophorum take flight is beautiful too!

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7th July

A Team Shrub record for largest area surveyed with drones in one day – 3,000,000 meters squared. We now have 193,735 images (as of 15th July) and counting for this field season so far. As soon as the winds die down the drones are out – with three pilots in the field, there has been lots of drone action – different drones, different scales of investigation, different spectral bands, which together will hopefully give us a comprehensive view of vegetation change across the tundra.

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8th July

Our first group photo (minus Isla who hasn’t arrived yet)! Team Drone surrounded by tundra flowers and arctic willows.

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10th July

A milestone in the making – surveying all of our sites with GNSS (a type of GPS system) – a super precise way to know exactly where all of our markers and plots are. Around a week ago, we met with representatives of Canada Parks and it was very cool to learn that they also use GNSS technology when mapping historical sites – always interesting to see how people use the same technology in different ways.

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11th July

Perhaps the most exciting milestone of all (at least for Isla): Isla has arrived!!!  I have finally made it to the island after five days of trying.  Finally, on Tuesday the 11th of July my float plane successfully touched down in Pauline Cove as a seal curiously watched on.  Most amazing of all was that the “freshies” the fresh fruit and vegetables that had been sitting in a hot plane for more than two days were actually for the most part fine and still as fresh and delicious as vegetables tend to be in the North.

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14th July (Happy Bastille Day!)

Another Team Shrub record of 50 drone flights in one day! And, the excitement of finding a two-way radio in the tundra, several days after it was last seen.

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15th July

Active layer depth has reached its highest value yet at 68cm this week! Strong winds delayed some of our initial drone flying, but there have been lots of ground observations made. The metal probe we’re using for the active layer depth measurements is also a pretty good walking pole! And when dragged along the ground sounds a bit like that noise from that horror movie “The Shining’.

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Every day

Awe-inspiring sunsets – Qikiqtaruk is beautiful at all times of the day, but the evening light makes it all extra special! There are also many ittle moments of beauty in the field – be it a particularly fluffy patch of cottongrass, backlight lupines, a family of ptarmigans walking by, or just the sheer grandeur of the landscape, it’s been great to stop during data collection for a second to take it all in.

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So at nearly one month in there are many milestones to go.  What will we see or experience next?  Only time will tell…

By Gergana, Isla and Team Drone

Fieldwork pickles

Fieldwork often results in funny situations.

Some of these situations are frustrating as they happen, but they can be funny afterwards. From forgetting and/or loosing things and various pieces of equipment not working to unpredictable weather getting in the way of drone flights, there is no shortage of opportunities for us to find ourselves in a real pickle. A strong smell of vinegar fills up our cabin right now, so it seems like an appropriate time to share stories about our fieldwork pickles so far, both real and metaphorical!

Last year the team put out sets of markers to identify our drone sites. Most of the markers made it through the winter just fine – they are still exactly where they were pinned down… but some now have around 10-15cm of water above them! One of the sites is flooded – we were wading through the water, aiming for the dry grassy areas beyond the wet patches, when we realised we are actually already in the site! After looking through the murky water we eventually managed to find a fair few of the markers. We’ll still need to wait for the site to dry off a bit before we can fly the drones above it, so hopefully all the wind and sunshine will help with that1

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Wading in the willows

This field season we arrived on the island with a serious drone fleet – several multicopters and fixed wings, some of which we are using for the first time. Troubleshooting drone problems on a remote Arctic island has already given us the chance to ponder creative solutions, as we can’t look up things on the internet or send the drones back for repairs. Luckily, this season we have three drone pilots, so hopefully we are in for some smooth flying! Nevertheless, we did still accidentally cut a very important wire 2km away from camp making the drones inoperable – at least it was a beautiful day for a walk back to camp to get a new one!

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“You broke what?!”

And then, of course, there are the real fieldwork pickles! I used to do a lot of canning (and I still have jars of pickles left from when I pickled over 100 jars of gherkins – it was a great year for cucumbers!), so I thought I could whip up a batch of island pickles. After all, Qikiqtaruk is our home for almost two months, and what makes a place feel like home? A lovely community to welcome you… and a few jars of homemade pickles! So with veggies, jars and a recipe from back home in toll, I set out to make “Парена царска туршия”, which translates as “mixed pickled salad for kings”.

Making pickles turned into one pickle of a situation though, when I found brine shrimp swimming around my pickling jars, certainly not the brine I was going for! I have since found more jars and in two weeks’ time the pickles should be ready to eat!

So here’s to a field season where we seldom find ourselves in a pickle and instead, enjoy some nice pickled veggies!

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Mixed pickled salad for kings

By Gergana

Deep in the shrubs – birding the willows on Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk

Team Shrub guest blog – Cameron D. Eckert

It was little more than a flash in the willows, just for an instant and then vanishing, but one that stopped me in my tracks. Could that have been a hummingbird?

Qikiqtaruk is rapidly changing, and nowhere is that more evident than in the vegetation that thinly covers the island. A warming climate has brought earlier green-up, shifts in plant composition, and the expansion of shrubs. Perhaps the question I’m asked most often is how are these changes affecting the bird populations? Many bird species thrive in shrubs, so could more willows be good news? Well, it’s not that simple. Other bird species, such as American Golden-Plover and Ruddy Turnstone, prefer sparse vegetation and bare ground – and these Arctic nesting shorebirds, which face stressors throughout their ranges, have declined sharply in recent decades. Still I’m intrigued by the influence that shrub expansion may be having on Herschel Island’s bird diversity. To explore this question, I now bird the willows along east Ice Creek as part of my regular morning surveys.

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A lush expanse of Salix richardsonii along east Ice Creek on 5 August 2016. Photo C. Eckert.

Ice Creek, on the northeast corner of Herschel Island-Qikiqtaruk Territorial Park off the Yukon’s Arctic coast, flows with melting snow and ice from the surrounding rolling tundra through an alluvial fan at the base of Simpson Point, and into Pauline Cove on the Beaufort Sea. The east tributary of Ice Creek features some of the island’s biggest patches of willow (Salix richardsonii) – mostly below knee height and sparse enough that I can easily walk through the willows along the creek. Green-up in mid-June rapidly transforms this brown tundra valley into a beautiful green world of willows and wildflowers. And there are birds.

The White-crowned Sparrow, an uncommon breeder on the island, is the species expected to be most responsive to willow expansion. Their clear and distinctive song makes them easy to detect, and this past June I observed two pairs nesting along east Ice Creek, with another singing on west Ice Creek, and one more on the alluvial fan. However, it’s not clear if the population here has changed – it was known to be uncommon in the mid-1980s, though long-term breeding bird surveys conducted by Park Rangers on Simpson Point hint at an upward trend.

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A male White-crowned Sparrow in full song on the alluvial fan, 18 June 2016. Photo C. Eckert.

Common and Hoary redpolls are also common in the willows along east Ice Creek. Typical of finches, their numbers are highly variable from year to year. Here they’re not dependent on shrubs for breeding, and I’ve found a few nests in drift logs along the beach at Simpson Point. This past June, a pair of Hoary Redpolls greeted me on almost every hike up east Ice Creek. Their chittering songs and calls, and habit of collecting bits of fluff were signs of pair-bonding and nesting building.

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A male Hoary Redpoll surveys its breeding territory along east Ice Creek on 10 June 2017. Photo C. Eckert.

My forays through the shrubs have yielded surprises. I’ve come across small numbers of Yellow Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers – common breeders on the North Slope mainland, but very rare on Qikiqtaruk. I’ve never heard one singing, and they seem fully occupied with feeding – wanderers to the island, but not breeders. In June I also spotted a female Varied Thrush, just the third island record, feeding along east Ice Creek; as well as an American Robin which is rare but regular on the island.

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Female Yellow Warbler, a rare visitor to Herschel Island, feeding among the willows along east Ice Creek on 17 June 2017. Photo C. Eckert.

It was last year, on 19 June 2016, that I found the bird which would firmly enshrine east Ice Creek in my daily routine. Walking through willows along the creek, I flushed a warbler that flashed bright yellow undersides, an olive-green back, and dark grey hood. This was an Oporonis-type warbler, and the three possible species would all be an extreme rarity here; so when it landed I focused on its face to check for white eye crescents or lack thereof to confirm which species. It perched low in the willows for just a few seconds and I could see bright white crescents above and below the eye. The first MacGillivray’s Warbler for Herschel Island – 1000 km north of its breeding grounds.

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A male MacGillivray’s Warbler, 1000 km north of its range, deep in the willows along east Ice Creek on 19 June 2016. Inset shows close-up of the skulking warbler. Photo C. Eckert.

Exactly a year later, on 19 June 2017, I was again walking through the willows along east Ice Creek. Watching, listening, and totally focused, when a tiny greenish flash caught my eye. It darted low to the ground along the edge of the willows. A hummingbird? Inconceivable! Over the next 15 minutes I saw the bird just three times and only for a few seconds, but it’s extremely small size (even for a hummer) and colouration (green back, pale buffy front) immediately brought to mind Calliope Hummingbird. It flew low to the ground, and was extremely hard to spot in the myriad willows. I decided to run back to camp and get my hummingbird feeder (yes, I brought a hummingbird feeder to the Arctic).

I was back and had the feeder set up in the willows within 35 minutes. I sat quietly and waited. Then by chance I looked over my shoulder and saw the hummer perched about 25 metres away. I got a great view and snapped my first photo. Then miraculously, the hummer did a fly by, circled around, and perched in the open on top of a nearby willow. I got great views in full sunlight, and much better photos. It vanished again into the willows. I carefully scanned the foliage, and there it was, just two metres away, but well hidden. I lined up a view through the branches and took a few more photos. Moments later, it flew again and appeared to be feeding on willow flowers. Then it disappeared. That was my last view of the hummer, and it never went to the feeder. My initial impression was confirmed – this was an adult female Calliope Hummingbird, the first for the Yukon and the Arctic. A staggering 1,800 km north of its breeding range.

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Herschel Island is well-known for rare birds, but still, this adult female Calliope Hummingbird, 1,800 km north of its breeding range, along east Ice Creek on 19 June 2017 was a total shocker. Photo C. Eckert.
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And there she was was – the Calliope Hummingbird perched just two metres away, but well-hidden in the willows along east Ice Creek. 19 June 2017. Photo C. Eckert.

It would be simplistic to dismiss such rarities as inconsequential, as their occurrences may well be early indicators of changing bird populations. Over time these well-documented records can reveal unexpected patterns.  I’ll continue exploring Ice Creek, tallying the familiar birds, and carefully watching for the next surprise visitor to Herschel Island.


Cameron Eckert is an ecologist who has studied the birds, wildlife, and ecosystems of the Yukon’s North Slope and Herschel Island for the past 25 years. As Conservation Biologist with Yukon Parks, he works with Qikiqtaruk Park Rangers to coordinate the island’s ecological monitoring program.

Herschel Island bird observations can be viewed or downloaded at www.ebird.org.