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July, 2013

Field Trip!

by Valerie

Every elementary school student perks up at the mention of a field trip. When I think back to my single-digit grades, the field trip ranked right alongside movies (remember "Hemo the Magnificent" and "Our Mr. Sun?"), assemblies (I'm sure there was SOMETHING important that we were told) and pep rallies (the perfect noisy cover for a private conversation that had nothing to do with sports) as better uses of time than sitting in a classroom and learning. Any excuse to break up the monotony of lessons, studying, and homework was always greeted with delight, even if the alternative was no more interesting but just, well, different. Of all the possible disruptions to the routine school schedule, field trips were second only to weekends and holidays. They usually took the entire day so ALL classes were missed, they involved bus rides during which we could talk to our friends, and there was a chance that the destination was at least as interesting as a normal day at school.

Because I was also in Girl Scouts, went to the YMCA for recreational classes, attended summer day camps, and enjoyed frequent camping, canoeing, and fishing trips with my family, the particular location of most field trips was not terribly exciting for me. I remember going to Chicago for the Brookfield Zoo, Adler Planetarium, and Field Museum. However, I don't remember any details of those excursions, and I visited the same places in later years when I could actually appreciate them. As a young kid, structured trips to places like gardens, museums, and even zoos were not the highlights of my life that adults probably thought they were. I relished instead the days that I spent playing outside unsupervised, where I could pick the flowers, climb on anything that I wanted, and touch the animals (a salamander in the hand was worth a dozen kangaroos in a distant enclosure).

The meaning of "field trip" has certainly changed! Not for elementary school kids, who, I would guess, feel much the same as I did 50 years ago, but for me now that I am an adult. Actually, the field trip evolved as I got older. By the time I was in high school, field trips started having more purpose. I was taken, along with a small group of classmates, to a baseball game at Wrigley Field as some sort of "reward" for good attendance. My one memory of that day was that it was boring, and the hot dogs didn't taste all that good. The opposite was true, though, of the trip to see my first-ever opera, Chicago Lyric Opera's production of "La Traviata." My high school band director thought that those of us who were serious about music should be familiar with more than just Sousa marches and football halftime shows. He was right; I found the experience enthralling.

A different sort of field trip, more like some of the outings I took on my own, also began during high school. Part of our biology curriculum involved studying a quadrate, a well-delineated patch of ground, and learning about the plants, animals, and ecology of that small habitat sample. We left our classroom, walked for 5 minutes, and were at our destination: the wild edge of the school's property. Here were woods, a small creek, and the sort of environment in which I had been playing for most of my life. It was not much of a stretch to study it more closely, and in a more organized fashion, than I had before. Sure, I'd previously found and identified insects, snails, and birds. However, now I not only observed but also systematically recorded these creatures, as well as learning to recognize more than just the obvious plants and determining the real names of mushrooms. I researched food chains, water cycles, and geology. Now, this kind of trip really deserved the moniker "field."

A selection of drawings from one of my high school biology class quadrate reports

Between high school graduation and retirement from teaching (and yes, that is a good many years!), I thought little about field trips. I continued my education in college, worked, and took vacations. Nothing out of the ordinary there. After retiring to part-time work, though, I had more freedom to pursue interests that had been pushed to the background. I returned to the study of taxonomy, with entomology in particular, and began to observe the natural world with the use of a digital camera. I didn't think of it at the time, but I resumed taking field trips. I literally went out in the field and simply watched all the species around me.

I don't usually think of my solitary outings as field trips, since I do them so often now. My idea of the quintessential expedition is one taken with fellow biology enthusiasts, whether they are entomologists, birders, herpetologists, or amateur nature lovers. To be a true field trip, it should be to some location that, while not necessarily far away, is one that is either new or visited only very occasionally. There also needs to be a leader, somebody who provides the organization necessary for a group to do more than just meander about aimlessly.

While I do lead field trips, I have found that I definitely get more enjoyment out of being a participant. It has to do with both the joy of discovery plus the lack of responsibility. While a trip to Florida to visit my mother can be viewed as a vacation or a family visit, it also includes aspects of a field trip, or sometimes a whole series of them. The group is small (only two or three of us), but the chance to observe wildlife in an "exotic" location like Florida is always a major treat. Those visits aside, a couple of field trips I've taken during the past few years stand out as exceptional.

The Red River, providing the state border between Texas and Oklahoma, might not seem like a striking destination for a special excursion, but that is where Entoblitz 2012 was held, at a biological station run by the University of Oklahoma. Two friends and I drove there on a Friday and returned on Sunday, but that short stay was packed with experiences so much fun that it was difficult to sleep. There were several different groups of people, representing both universities and the general public, ranging from enthusiastic amateurs to grad students to well-known experts in a number of entomological specialties. Some people were interested in obtaining specimens for their university or private collections, while others were more interested in photography. Experts patiently answered questions, teachers gave impromptu workshops, and specialists happily shared their knowledge. At any time during the weekend, somebody was going out someplace to see what could be found and always willing to take along an extra passenger if there were room. At night, there were expeditions with flashlights to the river shore and into the surrounding woods where several light sheets (black lights, mercury vapor, or average lamp bulbs - all used to attract insects) were set up. Between various collecting methods and just plain old searching with keen eyes, we found hundreds of species. Identification of bugs was interspersed with plenty of humor, good food, and intellectually stimulating conversation.

Fish sampling in central Texas
Perhaps the most enjoyable field trip I've ever been on was a fish sampling expedition in the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. For a couple of years, I volunteered with the Fishes Collection of the Texas Natural History Museum, doing odd things like counting fish eggs, identifying specimens, shelving jars, photographing dead fish, and entering computer data. When I was asked if I wanted to go on a two-day collecting trip that was less than an hour from Austin, I couldn't pass up the chance.

I left my car parked near the university campus and rode out to the NWR with a staff member. We stopped at a grocery store to quickly buy some food, as we realized that we would have to eat something during the weekend. By that evening, I was in a mucky pond, up to my neck in the water, along with the only other woman on the trip. We were using a net to catch fish hiding in the weeds along the shoreline then putting them in a bucket. It was difficult to carry the bucket, use the net, AND sometimes swim to the next spot. Spiders and insects rained down on us from the vegetation, but I surprised myself in how little I cared about that. I was much more concerned with grabbing the wiggling fish and getting them into the bucket, while not getting my feet stuck too deeply in the muddy pond bottom. My colleague had some practical suggestions, as she had been on a collecting trip before. The funniest, and yet very efficient, involved putting the fish in a pocket when we were too far from the bucket to easily reach it.

We installed a long gill net in another pond, and also helped in the harvesting of specimens. Since we were working at night, it was necessary to use flashlights and/or headlamps. Much of what we found was by feel. It paid to be able to recognize a madtom by touch since then one could be sure to avoid the effectively defensive fin spines that could be very painful. Between trudging through muddy reed flats and sorting through the catch in five feet of water, it was exhausting work. However, between trips into the water we still found time to watch the insects lured to an improvised light sheet while eating cold watermelon and sandwiches that had resided in the same ice chests that would later be used for the preserved fish specimens.

One last stop to retrieve a gill net produced quite a surprise. As our fearless leader swam out to the far end of the net and started to pull it up, he yelled for more light. A couple of spotlights from the shore illuminated what looked horribly like an alligator foot! However, it was quickly resolved that what had been caught in the net was actually a large beaver. The unfortunate animal had a deformed tail that folded back upon itself and made a hook that got caught in the net, causing it to drown. While we all regretted catching the animal, it was decided that the carcass would not go to waste; all the beer was removed from one of the ice chests to accommodate the hefty rodent, now bound for the museum as a specimen.

Even after returning to a house where we had bunks to sleep on, we still stayed up until 3 AM just enjoying the lively conversation.

After a few hours' sleep, we drove and hiked to a couple of creeks, using nets and even electrical shock equipment to gather samples of the piscine fauna in each place. While I was certainly the most inexperienced person in the group, I still enjoyed being able to contribute in various ways, including photographic documentation of habitat, helping set out and retrieve nets, and even having caught the most unlikely specimen (aside from the beaver) of the whole trip: a tiny darter that was out of its known range and also living in a placid muddy pond instead of a flowing rocky creek.

While I did not follow a career in the biological sciences, I can certainly appreciate working with those who have. Even well-informed hobbyists make for great companionship when out exploring the natural world that surrounds us. Some things that make my present day field trips not so different from those that I went on as a kid are the delightful anticipation of a change of pace, something out of the ordinary, and an eagerness for each new adventure.

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