After months of planning, applying, and training a suite of awesome volunteers, I started field work this week. It felt great just to be outside and not trapped behind my desk all day. I was starting to feel like I wasn’t doing research, just sitting around and planning to do research. This week it all came together and we began. In most scientific studies, it’s important to have a bit of a pilot season. This pilot season helps you work out the kinks before the real data collection starts, which will help provide consistency in the quality of data collected. That consistency is the key to good statistics that don’t make you cry (even though my statistics will probably make me cry anyway… at least it won’t be because the data isn’t good). At the end of the field season, the data you’ve got is what you’re stuck with, even if it’s not good. So taking every possible precaution to make sure your data is awesome will just save you hurt later. A pilot season is one of those precautions.
Piloting the survey
With a visitor survey, a pilot season is important for a few different reasons. First, you want to make sure the survey takes as long to fill out as you thought. I’ve estimated this survey takes 15 minutes to complete and I don’t want it to take any longer. I think 15 minutes is already pushing what people will want to stand around and help with at the start of their hike. The other thing, and probably the most important thing, a pilot season does is test the clarity of the questions. It’s important that everyone interprets each question the same way, so you can compare their answers on even ground. The thing with people is that we are all so different and react differently to different words, phrases, or comments. So ensuring the questions are written simply and leave little room for interpretation is key. If a question makes people stumble or look at your curiously or ask for clarification, it’s not the right question and needs to be reworked. Pilots are key for that.
In the few days we’ve been piloting the survey, one question has really stuck out. The meat of the survey focuses on different management options regarding grizzly bears and people in grizzly bear habitat. People are asked to rank their support for various options. Then I want to know what people would need to increase their support of various options. For example, one of the options being presented is to limit the number of people on a hiking trail to 50 people per day. Most people I’ve chatted with so far are opposed to that option, but what would they need to feel better about it? Publicly shared science that says it’s good for bears? Communication from wildlife managers about why it’s necessary? Signage? To know in advance? To have alternatives presented? But the way the question is phrased right now isn’t giving me the answers I need. So I’ll need to change the question so that it’s less ambiguous and open to interpretation.
After a couple of weeks of piloting the survey, we’ll see what other questions need to be altered to increase clarity while still keeping the survey short and interesting.
Piloting the Remote Cameras
Testing remote cameras is more functional. I wanted to put some cameras up on some busy trails and make sure that the memory cards were big enough, that I had programmed the cameras with the right settings, that we were setting them up at appropriate heights to capture the trail etc. But, yesterday I also learned that it’s good to pilot the cameras just in case you get a little off track and can’t do what you set out to do as originally planned.
We set out yesterday, me and three volunteers. We had a big day ahead and were on the trail by 8:30am. It was a beautiful morning and the forest was welcoming under the morning sun. The first two cameras went according to plan, but then the junction I was expecting to see never came. Strange. After hiking another couple of kilometers, we realized we were on the completely wrong trail and had hiked nearly 6K out of our way.
On our way back to the first junction where we went wrong, we passed 4 mountain bikers on the trail. When we took down one of the misplaced of the cameras to see if they had been photographed, we learned something important. The bikers travel faster than the camera’s shutter. As a bike passes it triggers the camera with its motion, but by the the time shutter goes the biker is out of frame. We learned that it’s important to face the camera down or up the trail (not directly perpendicular to it) so that if something is fast moving, it will still be in the cameras frame when the shutter goes. Very important thing to know!
We’ll go back tomorrow to put up the rest of the cameras, but now we’ve got a little more technique to help us do that.
So the remote camera pilot isn’t just about the cameras, it’s about the maps and the GPS and the plan and paying attention to where we’re going. But I also learned that these things happen and ensuring there is some flexibility in the plan is important.
Working with volunteers
Now we’ve started the pilot season, I’ve had to start to let go. I’ve had to start to put the gear in the hands of my volunteers and trust they know what they are doing. That is hard. With a PhD, you’re in control of every step along the way. It’s my research question, my methodology, my questions in the survey, my… everything. I’m even the one that had to run around and gather all the gear and equipment to make it all happen. And now, I have to turn it over and accept the help that so many people have so graciously offered. And it’s great.
There is no doubt in my mind that I have a strong team of volunteers to help and the reality is that I couldn’t do this project without them. The sampling schedule is literally impossible for one or even two people to do on their own. Having a great team of smart and keen volunteers is making this project successful and I’m so happy that I chose to involve my local community in this research.
We’ve got a fun summer ahead. I know that some of it will be unpredictable and we may get lost in the woods, but at least it’s only temporary and we can be back on track in a few hours.
I’m learning as I go and that’s the best part.