ABS (sort of near) Toronto

First conference of the year, the meeting of the animal behaviour society in Scarborough. Which despite being part of the university of Toronto is still an hour’s drive away from Toronto.

I was going to talk about some techniques I’d been playing with to get dominance hierarchies from RFID data. As seems to be traditional, I was on the last day. Still, there was plenty of talks to see in the meantime. As ever it was nice to bump into some familiar faces I’d met at over conferences. And fellow exiles in Canada!


I did manage to get a chance to go into Toronto proper, the night before my talk. We had ramen (a first for me!) and then went and saw the CN tower lit up at night.

Lost in the mist

Canadian Colours

Then finally it was time for me to present. Once again, no matter how many times I get up and do this, I’m always convinced I might go insane and forget everything I am going to say. The nerves never seem to go away!

Yes, presentation outfit

Post-presentation treat

However, once my talk was done, that was more or less the end of the conference. We went on a lab outing to Toronto zoo, which was very close to where we were staying.

The whole lab

As ever when visiting a zoo, somewhat mixed feelings.. but we did see pandas!

It’s ok pandas, I have days like that too sometimes.


When does Winter end?

I am never entirely sure when Winter properly ends in Canada. I know at some point we enter a time called “Spring”, which means that it might be burning hot on one day, then snow the next. In my book, this makes pinpointing the end of Winter hard.

This means there are melts, that then freeze again. This turns snow (which one can generally trudge through one way or another) into DEADLY SLIPPERY ICE.

It may be hard to tell but the ground is frozen solid

Even when the ice starts to melt, this means that ground that feels somewhat solid can give way, causing you to sink thigh deep in snow again.

We are currently attempting to do recaptures at various sites, so we can do repeat personality trials on individuals to see how consistent they are. I feel sometimes that Chickadees are unwilling to fall for being caught a second time. Still, it gets us out and about. We found this porcupine up a tree at one of our field sites:








Also, Canada has some insane woodpeckers who clearly just hate trees.

Our battle with squirrels continues. I can’t say who has won. I think it’s probably the squirrels. Even solid metal cannot stop them.

I also slightly crazily went tobogganing on the ice. I went back in January, when the snow was fresh and fluffy.

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This was a tobogganing trip back in January It was not as icy then.

This time the ice meant everything felt a little different. Firstly, you went insanely fast. Then if you fell off, there was a high probability of if hurting.

On the plus side, you could just slide down the hill with no sledge required.

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March Madness

The squirrels might be winning.

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Gaze into the cold dead eyes of a killer

I’ve been having a running battle with the squirrels since I started this years fieldwork. They love to chew EVERYTHING. Even if there is no food inside.


They just love to chew electronics. However, they will destroy anything they can get their teeth into. The first week we deployed our feeders, we used rubber lids. Tasty, tasty rubber lids.

So we replaced them with metal lids. Empty chopped tomato cans to be precise. This stopped them eating the lids. But the war was not over. Foiled in their attempts to chew the lids, the squirrels at one of our sites chewed the ropes the feeders hung from instead. So we replaced the ropes with plastic covered wire. Surely this would stop them.

We were wrong. Nothing stops a squirrel.

Hopefully this picture gives some idea of how thick the plastic is that they managed to chew through.

In other news, I’ve tried another quintessential Canadian activity. I went curling!








Curling was harder work than I anticipated! I did manage not to fall over, but I was surprised at how little effort it took to make the stone slide all the way to the target.. and keep going!

I also went and watched Crashed Ice.. which is… which is.. well, somewhat insane:













I think it could be described as downhill skating, I’m not sure the photos convey how fast these guys flung themselves down this course. It was certainly worth the many hours we spent slowly freezing our toes off waiting for the event to begin.

Finally, right at the beginning of March I imported some Welsh culture to Canada. Almost every year since the first year of my PhD I’ve had a St. David’s day party. I make Cawl and picau ar y maen. This year I got the help of some Canadians to make caws pobi too.











Then everyone falls asleep because they have eaten/drunk too much. This is the sign of a successful St. David’s day party.

The snow is getting deeper..

So last time I wrote about fieldwork, the snows had just arrived and we were still catching. Well now, we’ve moved from catching to feeder maintenance. Refilling feeders, moving feeders, changing the batteries and SD cards on feeders.

The snow is starting to make that work a lot harder. Now as we tramp through the woods, we’ll suddenly find ourselves up to our waists in snow. It’s time to bring out the snow shoes.

My first time wearing snow shoes in the office

The snow shoes helped enormously. I’d never worn them before, but was amazed at how much easier it made hiking about the field, even if it did take some getting used to tripping over them.

Did I mention we also do all of this at night?

My field assistant Nicolas removing lid of a feeder

The snow makes it eerily quiet. However it is quite handy, in that we can navigate using our own footprints. More reliable than the GPS unit in these woods!

Fieldwork feels different this week

The SNOWS have arrived. Fieldwork continues. We’re currently catching birds for an experiment I’m going to run over the winter, trying to mark a sufficient number at the various sites to get a good picture of the social interactions between birds.

We’re also experimenting with the new feeder designs still. This one is a selective feeder that only opens for certain birds. We set up a camera to record it working in the field.

The chickadees sometimes seem more interested in the camera though.


SQEBC – Rimouski

Another conference, this one closer to home.

Well it’s in Canada.

It’s still an 8 hour drive.

This conference was Société Québécoise pour l’Étude Biologique du Comportement, a Quebecois behaviour conference, this year held in Rimouski. This was the furthest north I’d been in Canada, on a great big inlet.

We had one day before the conference began properly to have a bit of an explore, so headed to the nearby park. It was nice to be somewhere coastal again.

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As this is a Quebecois conference, you have a choice, either present in French and have your slides in English, or vice versa. I chose the latter.

It was a refined version of the talk I’d given back in the Summer, with extra French. It’s always nice to throw these things at many people as possible.

Apparently next years conference is here, in Ottawa. This is also the wrong side of the river Ottawa for a Quebecois conference, but only by half a kilometre or so.



ISBE 2016

The last ISBE I went to was in New York. Where was this one? Well… back in Exeter. Typical.

Still, Exeter can be nice!

I’ve only been in Canada for about half a year really, so in some ways it felt slightly odd going back quite so soon. I also had to write the abstract for a presentation very early after starting my postdoc. While I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to investigate using the data from that winter, I had no clear idea about the sort of results I might eventually find. It was therefore necessary to write an abstract that sold my research while at the same time being somewhat vague about the conclusions that might be drawn from it. I feel this is a skill many scientists have to develop, as timing of fieldwork seasons and the time it can take to analyse data combined with the requirement to submit abstracts several months before a conference means that many of us have to be guessing what we will eventually be presenting.

While this conference didn’t take me to new places, it did actually lead to me seeing more of the main Exeter campus and the down itself than I ever had when I was officially studying as a student in the University of Exeter. The meeting was also almost entirely organised by people whom I knew, with my PhD supervisor Sasha being in charge of the meeting.

The opening talk on the first night was given by Richard Dawkins who was somewhat fiery about recent political events in the UK.  After which I bounced from group of people to group of people, introducing many of them to Teri and Shannon who had also come to the exotic land of Exeter. I had only been away a few months, but it felt like longer. I also bumped into a few of the people I had done my master’s degree with, now scattered in various locations through-out the world.

It was to be my first time presenting social network stuff, something which I still felt I was feeling my way around. Not to mention the fact that this would be the first time presenting my current ideas to people outside my lab group.

Anyone seeing photos of my talks might have noted a pattern in my outfits by now

The talk felt like it went well enough, though as ever I find it impossible to judge these things due to the tunnel vision I get when I’m actually speaking. I had some tough but fair questions, and some very useful chats afterwards which gave me some ideas for what I want to do in the future.

Talk done, I could relax and enjoy other people’s talks, seeing what other people were working on and turning up to try and provide moral support for other members of my lab

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I plugged Teri’s talk in my talk!

Then it was all done.. then it was off to Cornwall!

Teri and Shannon came down to Cornwall for a few days, to experience all the important Cornish things.


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After they left I stuck around a bit. It was Falmouth week, which means Red Arrows.

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Then it was time for me to get on a plane myself, next stop Washington DC for the North American Orthological Conference.