Wildlife Close to Home

This past Saturday was unusually warm (it got up to 19 or 20 degrees!) and even the threat of rain couldn’t stop me from venturing out into nature as a break from grading lab reports. I’d passed Mark S. Burnham Provincial Park many times while driving Highway 7 to and from Ottawa, and we figured it was time to check it out.

The park is day-use only, and it’s very small, only about 40 hectares. However, it has an interesting history, as I learned from the plaques at the trailhead. The land originally belonged to the Honourable Zacchaeus Burnham, who acquired it in the 1830’s from the Crown. In contrast with most other farmers and settlers of the time, the Burnham family did not clear-cut or remove trees except for what they needed for fuel, resulting in a mature forest that has changed little over the past 185 years. In the 1950’s the descendants of Zacchaeus Burnham donated the land to the province, for the enjoyment of the people of Ontario. The park has a relatively high diversity and abundance of local wildlife species, and is known for its spring and fall bird migrations, spring and summer wildflowers, fall colours, and large tree specimens. For example, one of the oldest sugar maple trees in the world is located in the park, and is over 330 years old. (The biologist quoted in the article believes that it is the oldest, as the age of the Comfort Maple in Pelham, ON- which is believed by many to be over 500 years old- is not based on complete ring counts. It’s a serious tree controversy apparently).

The trails in Mark S. Burnham consist of a long loop and a short loop, although really one could call them the short loop and the shorter loop. On my slow half-hour meander around the 1.5-km long loop, I passed through stands of maple, beech, elm, and hemlock, ascending slightly up a drumlin and then down into a wonderland of golden leaves blowing around in the blustery wind. Some of the inhabitants of the woods made themselves known even in that short amount of time: upon entering the park I saw a pileated woodpecker and a hairy woodpecker, twice I disturbed garter snakes resting on the path,  a huge American toad almost got stepped on, and just at the end of the trail near the parking lot a ruffed grouse sitting on the ground didn’t seem that concerned by my presence.

img_43651Can you spot the pileated woodpecker?


img_4371Garter snakes.

img_43751American toad.

img_43791Ruffed grouse.

While I wish Mark S. Burnham had more to explore, it’s great that this piece of relatively undisturbed land was able to be preserved and that it’s pretty accessible to people in Peterborough (only a 10 minute drive from our place). I’ll definitely come back to check it out in other seasons.





Wild About Wildflowers

I had the realization this summer that for someone who spends a lot of time outside, I don’t know a lot about plants. Mammals, yes. Birds, somewhat. Fish and reptiles, a little. But all things green and leafy? Not so much. I can recognize a berry bush when I see one (can you tell where my priorities lie?), but beyond that, I’ve always been sort of… meh about vegetation. If I’m being completely honest, I’ve tended to find plants fairly boring, and have eschewed studying them in favour of the more exciting two- and four-legged organisms that rely on them.

This started to change a little bit when a good chunk of my job became helping one of my supervisor’s grad students with sampling vegetation associated with flying squirrel captures. While I’m still fairly clueless, terms like DBH and decay class are now part of my vocabulary. I can distinguish between different species of maple, ash, oak, and pine (at least, most of the time), and I know the difference between herbaceous plants, bryophytes, and lichens. And as I am with most things, once I’ve learned a little, I want to know a lot more.

In an effort to increase my knowledge of the things that grow where I live and work, I bought a guide to wildflowers off the Internet (the ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario, to be specific). Why wildflowers? Well, they’re pretty, and probably easier to identify for a beginner than shrubs or mosses, but they also have their more tangible uses for someone interested in herbal remedies and dyeing fibres, like I am. Unfortunately this book doesn’t list the edibility or medicinal uses of the flowers as the authors believe that no plant should be taken from the wild, but the guide’s layout and scientific approach appeal to me, and the information it contains can always be supplemented with the Internet.

So far I’ve taken the guide to Algonquin Park and near to London, ON for work, to a cottage on Silver Lake that my parents were renting, and just around my neighbourhood here in Peterborough. I’ve finally learned the names of many flowers I’ve known by sight since I was young (cow vetch, Philadelphia fleabane, chicory, horned trefoil, bladder campion, to name just a few), discovered some that I’ve heard of but didn’t know grew in the area (eg. St. John’s wort, bearberry, evening-primrose), and stumbled across a few that aren’t so common (eg. wood-poppy, which is endangered in Ontario). Flowers are actually so cool! For example, the Indian-pipe plant, Monotropa uniflora, entirely lacks chlorophyll, and relies on the fungus with which it maintains a mycorrhizal relationship to supply its nutrients.

Taking the field guide with me on a walk in search of flowers forces me to slow down and observe. It’s like a special kind of scavenger hunt with all kinds of surprises along the way that I wouldn’t have seen if I wasn’t kneeling in the dirt with my face at the level of a blossom or leaf. I love the challenge of a particularly tricky identification, the satisfaction of figuring it out, and the awareness that the plants growing around us have so much to offer, physically and aesthetically, if we’d only learn how to recognize and use them (respectfully and sustainably, of course!).

IMG_4045[1]Wood lily near Petroglyphs Provincial Park.

IMG_4137[1]Knapweed in Dutton, near Port Stanley.

IMG_4154[1]Sweet pea at Lac-Notre-Dame, near Wakefield, QC.

IMG_4158[1]Rough-fruited cinquefoil, at Lac-Notre-Dame, near Wakefield, QC.

The flowers in the featured photo are common yarrow, ox-eye daisy, tall buttercup, bladder campion, heal-all, and grass-leaved goldenrod.

Note: It should go without saying, but I thought I should add a disclaimer that I primarily identify plants in situ without disturbing them and take pictures if I don’t have the book on me or need to Google. If I do pick a plant, I make sure that it isn’t rare or at-risk, I only take the part that I’m going to use (i.e. for tea or dye) so that the plant can regenerate itself, I never pick on private property without permission, and I take care not to decimate an area entirely of the plant.

“I’m Not Good Enough to Be Here”: Impostor Syndrome and Me

“I struggle with seeing myself as an impostor a lot of the time – like, who let this girl do science? But you know, I think a lot of us are just faking it until we make it, and that’s okay.”

The first time I heard about impostor syndrome was when a Facebook friend shared this BuzzFeed article entitled “13 Charts That Will Make Total Sense to People with Impostor Syndrome”. After skimming through the figures, my first thought was “But my Facebook friend is so talented and successful and cool! How can she feel like she’s not actually good at anything?”. My second thought: “I totally have this too.”

For those who don’t know, impostor syndrome refers to the inability of high-achieving individuals to internalize their accomplishments along with the persistent feeling of being a fraud. The term was first used by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, clinical psychologists, in their 1978 paper that documented the prevalence of the syndrome among high-achieving women. Since Clance and Imes’ initial work, it has been widely studied and is now believed to to occur equally in men, while young scientists of any gender are particularly prone. Neither a mental disorder nor a distinct personality trait, impostor syndrome is instead a reaction to certain events or stimuli- a response that some people, for whatever reason, exhibit more than others.

Impostor syndrome manifests itself in my mind as a little voice that says, “I don’t know enough about this topic”, “Everyone else is smarter than me”, “I tricked them into thinking I’m qualified”, “Soon they’ll find out the truth”, and “I’m not good enough to be here.” It’s am undermining whisper telling tales of inadequacy and cover-ups. I’m a senior undergraduate student grappling with big ecological ideas for my honours thesis, and this doubting voice is only likely to get worse as I head to grad school in the fall.

Having a name to put to these feelings is somehow freeing, as is knowing that I’m not alone. Maybe it’s lingering shock from realizing when I came to McGill that I am just another special snowflake in a blizzard of special snowflakes, maybe it’s related to my perfectionism, but knowing objectively under this sea of emotions that I am good at what I do is made easier. Throughout my degree I have realized some things about being in science: there will always be someone who is smarter than me, there will always be more to learn, and these are in fact good things. When I really think about it, I don’t want to be the most intelligent person in the room, because then who would push me to be better? The day when science, a field built around the pursuit of knowledge, has nothing more to discover would be a sad day indeed.

In the end, maybe it’s not about getting rid of my impostor syndrome. Maybe it’s about recognizing these feelings for what they are and succeeding anyway- faking it until I make it. As Chris Woolston says in this Nature article about impostor syndrome in science, “In a profession where sporadic failure — in grants, in jobs, in publications — is the norm, the real failure is unnecessarily giving up on a promising career.”


Photo credit: Matteo Zamaria for the McGill Biology Student Union‘s “Humans of Biology” project.

Notes from the Field: Road Ecology of American Martens

Here are a few snippets and photos from the weeks I spent as a field assistant this summer. I was working on a live-trapping/radiotelemetry project on American martens in the Laurentians north of Quebec City, supervised by Dr. Jochen Jaeger from Concordia. We split our time between Parc National des Grands-Jardins and the Reserve Faunique des Laurentides, and we were focusing on removing the collars from the animals since the project was ending. These are the things I’ll remember…

-First of all, the martens!


(I would not be handling this animal if it were not immobilized, and this photo was taken as I was about to remove it from the vehicle where it was being manipulated. The marten was not being unduly stressed by the handling/picture taking).



-It rained for seven days straight at one point. I was pretty much always soggy and cold for that week.

-Beautiful hikes!!!



-Climbing so. many. moose fences in order to get to and from our traps. That’s a real Canadian workout. I was grateful when it was convenient for me to use one of the actual gates.

-Reviving a hypothermic groundhog and getting to see her scurry back to munching on plants.


IMG_9282.JPG(Photo creds to Benjamin Larue for this one)

-Spotting moose every couple of days on one particular back road. The best was when we crested one hill and had to stop for a moose, and then crested another and saw two bear cubs running into the forest.


-About two and a half km along the dirt road behind our house at one of the sites was a ghost town (really just a few abandoned buildings and an old salmon run). It was really pretty, especially just after a storm.



-Finding a thrush with an injured leg in the road and nursing it back to health for the day.


-Pickng wild strawberries while walking to and from traps.


-Driving one night to Chicoutimi to relax and wander through a music festival.

-Spotting all kinds of woodland creatures.


-Exploring the Charlevoix, picking the most incredible blueberries, and visiting the emu farm.






Post CFSIA: Ending Where It Began

I’m writing this from the Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi as I drink a very expensive bottle of water (hopefully the last bottled water I’ll be buying for a long time). I’ve been here for 6 hours and I still have 3 more to go until my flight leaves for Paris, and I admit I’m going a little stir-crazy.

Liam and I got a bus from Lusaka to Kapiri Mposhi no problem on the 21st, and managed to buy American dollars for our visas back into Tanzania before getting on the train. 24 hours to Mbeya felt very short in comparison with the 50 hours we had spent going the other way, and we made friends with a couple of guys from the Peace Corps whom Liam was sharing a compartment with. Once we got to Mbeya we walked into town and found a cheap hotel right across from the bus station, the Millenium Inn. Our plan had been to go to Dodoma and then Arusha and then Nairobi, but we decided to stay an extra day in Mbeya instead and then bus to Moshi all in one shot and go to Nairobi from there.

The extra day in Mbeya was a good idea. We ate pastries for breakfast, went to the bank and the Internet cafe, bought our bus tickets, and stocked up on snacks. As a side note, we had dinner at a pizza place and ordered fruit salad with ice cream for dessert. The ice cream was great, but the “fruit” salad consisted of… carrots and cucumbers. Only in Africa 😛 it was surprisingly not bad. The one thing that marred our time in Mbeya was that I tripped and fell into a drainage ditch in the dark, badly scraping my elbow and knee and wrenching my ankle in the process. Luckily my ankle wasn’t sprained and now I’m just dealing with the slightly troublesome (ie. potentially infected) knee scrape.

We thought that was the end of our misfortunes. But no, there was more to come. The day before yesterday we got on our bus to Moshi at 5:30 am and left Mbeya. At some point in the early hours of that 18 hour bus ride, someone stole Liam’s bag out of the overhead compartment while we were sleeping. Along with books, money, the memory cards the thieves in Dar kindly let him take back, and a few other random things, his passport was in that bag.

We got to Moshi at midnight, exhausted, stressed, angry, and in disbelief. There was nothing we could do that night so we went back to the Golden View hotel we had stayed in before and went to bed. The next day we filed yet another police report and Liam called the American embassy in Dar es Salaam. Today at 6 am when I got on a bus bound for Nairobi, Liam got on one bound for Dar, where we swore we’d never return to, but where he’ll be able to go to the embassy tomorrow and maybe get a new passport in time for his flight to join me in Paris in two days (our flights were always two days apart because my passport expiry date means that I can’t leave Africa after the 27th and so when I changed my original flights this was the closest I could get to match his). There’s a good chance the process might take longer and so I’m not sure how long I’ll be alone in Europe for, but I’m taking it one step at a time.

So here I am in Nairobi once again, where this whole African adventure started. I still have a lot of mental processing to do but this is what I just posted as my Facebook status:

“Over the past three and a half months, I have done zero loads of laundry in a washing machine. I have had zero drinks from Starbucks and have gone to see zero movies in a movie theatre. I got mugged, bashed myself up by falling in a drainage ditch, and had to go to a police station yet again when my travel partner’s passport got stolen. I haven’t been able to walk down a street without getting pointed at or yelled at and probably have had to use the ground just as often as I have had the luxury of using actual toilets (and the highest luxury of toilet paper).

But also during the past three and a half months, I saw four of the Big Five, climbed the world’s highest free-standing mountain, visited one of the seven natural wonders of the world, went to the source of the world’s longest river, milked a cow for the first time, swam with dolphins, watched a goat be slaughtered and ate a piece of it, got used to hyenas calling at night and chickens on public transport, slept on a cowhide bed in a mud hut, put a new language to use, crossed a country by train over two days, studied human-wildlife conflict in its most relevant context, took a course way out of my comfort zone (anthropology), wrote exams on the beach…

But even more importantly, I have learned so much from an incredible culture and have had my perspectives changed on so many things. I have experienced the kindness and generosity of strangers even in the most harsh and desperate of situations, and have met amazing people, some whom I’ll see back at McGill and some whom I’ll likely never see again.

These have been some of the best and hardest times of my life, and this has been by far the most meaningful semester of my university career. Thank you, Africa. Leaving is bittersweet. Now briefly to Europe, then home!”


Post CFSIA: Dar es Salaam to Livingstone by Train and by Bus

The whirlwind adventure continues! Unfortunately some tough things have happened, but mostly really good things. My travel partner Liam and I bid adieu to Lushoto on the 13th and took a bus to Dar, where we got mugged. I think I still need to process the incident a little, but we’re both safe and have learned our lesson. Nevertheless, I was so happy to get on the train the next day and leave Dar behind forever. I know it’s not fair to judge a city by one incident but we’ve heard of so many other people getting robbed or scammed there that I know I would never be able to just relax and have fun while in the city. I think I’m still processing what happened and I’m definitely a lot more wary now.

Our train left Dar around 4 pm. We were in “first class”, which meant four-bed compartments separated by gender and otherwise not much else (I thought wistfully about Via-Rail a lot). I was with an American girl that we had actually seen before briefly at our hostel in Stonetown, and two Israeli girls. We had a lot of fun chatting and also hanging out with some of the guys (Liam, the male friend of the Israeli girls, and two Dutch twin brothers). We spent the night on the train as it drove through Selous National Park (so we couldn’t see any wildlife but the stars were incredible), stopping here and there to let people on and off. I slept surprisingly well in my little bunk. Then the next day not long after noon we got to Mbeya, close to the border, and the American girl and the Israelis got off there. The rest of us had to wait around until another train showed up, which we then switched onto after exchanging Tanzanian shillings for Zambian kwacha. I was now rooming with an older Tanzanian lady and her elderly mother, and a Slovenian girl called Mocja whom Liam had met at his hostel in Arusha and who we found out had taken the train from Dar to Mbeya a few days earlier with three of our friends from the program. It really is a small world.

Mocja and I became friends and spent a lot of time in Liam’s compartment, which now also housed the Dutch brothers and a really cool young Zambian guy who works for an NGO. We all chatted and played cards which was nice, especially because I was getting tired of doing nothing but reading and watching trees (albeit really pretty trees) go by outside. That night we crossed the border into Zambia at around midnight. The immigration officers come right into your compartment to stamp your passport which is pretty great- I got my visa while practically lying in bed. I fell asleep easily after that, and then we spent one more day on the train. We got into Kapiri Mposhi, a tiny little transit town, at around 5 pm. It had been 50 hours on the train. Our new Zambian friend offered to give us (me, Liam, and Mocja) a ride to Lusaka in his car with his mother’s driver so that we wouldn’t have to bus, and we accepted. I was definitely nervous about it but it was totally fine. We drove about two and a half hours, and they dropped us off right at Lusaka Backpackers hostel and wouldn’t accept any money. It was so kind of them and my faith in humanity was restored a little bit.

We pretty much just had dinner and went to bed that night, pleased to not be eating train food and to have not-disgusting bathrooms, then Liam and I found out that our three friends from the program were also staying in Lusaka and we met up with them at the bus station the next morning to head to Livingstone to see the falls. (Mocja was meeting up with her parents at the airport and so had to say goodbye). It was about an eight hour drive, and we arrived around 7 pm and walked a few blocks to the Jollyboys Backpackers hostel. Again, pretty much dinner and then bed. So much travel is exhausting.

The next morning we caught a free ride to Victoria Falls in a bus from the hostel, and spent most of the day walking around the park. There was so much mist and spray and we got pretty soaked and it was awesome. The sheer size and intensity of the falls is awe-inspiring. We walked over the bridge connecting the mainland to the headland and also hiked down to the so-called Boiling Pot, which is like a giant whirlpool and is where you can see people bungee-jumping from the bridge that goes to the Zimbabwe side of the falls. The whole experience was very touristy but also fully enjoyable, and I’m glad we sort of spontaneously decided to make our way there from Tanzania. That night we all went out for dinner to an Italian place and had pizza, wine, and gelato, and it was fantastic.

The following day, yesterday, while the other girls had some adventures, Liam and I just chilled out and relaxed. We had breakfast (real lattes and scones!) at a cafe nearby, swam in the hostel’s pool, and laid around reading on its cushioned sitting area. We also bought our bus tickets for today and some food, got more delicious gelato from a different place, and went out for dinner with the girls to a place with awesome veggie burgers and fries. My conclusions about Livingstone are that it is very touristy, but also just what we needed for a few days.

This morning we said goodbye to our friends, as they’re continuing on to Zimbabwe and then Malawi, and got on a bus back to Lusaka at 8 am. We’re now staying at the Lusaka Backpackers again before we bus to Kapiri Mposhi tomorrow and hopefully get on the train again back to Mbeya. Our plan is to bus from there to Dodoma, then from Dodoma to Arusha, then from Arusha to Nairobi in order to catch my flight on the 26th and Liam’s flight on the 28th. It will be a lot of time spent on buses and sleeping at places for one night before moving on, but we really have no other option. We looked at flights from Livingstone to Nairobi but they’re just too expensive. So by land, slowly, we will go. It should still be an exciting adventure 🙂

Only 6 days left in Africa!


View from the train.


Rainbows to welcome us to Zambia.


Bussing to Livingstone… a very playful little girl sitting behind me.


Victoria Falls.


A little backlit and very misty.


The bridge from the Boiling Pot trail.


Cafe breakfast on our relaxation day.


Christie, Laurie, Liam, me, and Lesley.

Post CFSIA: Back to Lushoto


I wrote this post on the 12th but was unable to publish it at the time due to spotty Internet, so here it is a little bit late.

I thought after Kili that I’d never want to hike again, but I was wrong. The day before yesterday we trekked up to Irente Farm (where we stayed during the program) and had their delicious farm lunch, and then went over to Irente Viewpoint, which we had all to ourselves. Even though we had seen the view before, it was still amazing.

Yesterday we did a day hike with a guide from the Tupande tourism company (actually an NGO that supports the local community through tours and selling handicrafts). It was about six hours up and down the mountain roads, through the rainforest and villages, and we ended up at the Mkuzi waterfall. Swimming at the bottom of the falls was incredibly refreshing and totally worth the trek and the crowded, terrifying dalladalla ride back down to Lushoto in the rain. We had local coffee at the Tupande office followed by a delicious and very cheap dinner at a small restaurant near the market.

Today was much more relaxed. We spent most of it reading, but also did a run into town to buy our bus tickets for tomorrow and pick up some snacks at the market. I really wanted ice cream but had to settle for a chocolate bar instead- I don’t think ice cream exists in this town. Hopefully I can get some tomorrow in Dar, where we plan on spending one night before getting on the train to Zambia. I’ll let you know how it goes!