Featured ‘Day in the life of’: Katelyn, masters student researching contaminants (specifically mercury) in arctic breeding shorebirds

Hey there! This is Katelyn here, taking over the guest blog this week. I originally hail from the urban soup of southern Ontario, Canada. But I’m currently completing my Master’s in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

I promise its not that hard to pronounce, say it with me: “sask-catch-e-wan”.


Me, with a Scaup duckling while conducting avian influenza monitoring in Saskatchewan.

Anyways, a little bit about how I got my start. I completed my undergrad in wildlife biology at the University of Guelph (shout out to those Guelphies reading this, once a Gryphon always a Gryphon!).  My first real science gig was as a summer student working on woodland caribou biology in northwestern Ontario with the provincial government – which was awesome!

I was introduced to bird biology while volunteering at a local banding station in northwestern Ontario, and from there I was hooked. I came across a job ad for a master’s student to study contaminants in arctic-breeding shorebirds, I applied, and in the spring of 2016, I packed all my belongings into a 2000 Corolla and drove 1600km to the Canadian Prairies to start my MSc in Biology!

My research focuses on contaminants (specifically mercury) in arctic breeding shorebirds (check out the cute little fuzz balls below). I’m a student at the University of Saskatchewan, but I’m also funded by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), which means I get to work with lots of great people! I’m exploring potential causes of variation in mercury levels at both spatial and temporal scales. This means I get to go to the Canadian arctic for field work! But you guys caught me after my field season concluded, so my average day right now is not quite as adventurous – but still lots of fun!


Semipalmated sandpiper (Calidris pusilla, top) and semipalmated plover (Charadrius semipalmatus, bottom) are two of my study species, they both breed on the Canadian tundra.

Now for a little bit of shameless self-promotion; don’t forget to follow my Instagram (@kateluff) for all sorts of adventures.


11:21 am: I will be the first person to tell you this – I am not a morning person, which also means my mornings are usually chaos. This is also why my first photo is practically at lunch, but I digress… My research is fully funded, which means I don’t have to be a Teaching Assistant while completing my degree. But who says no to teaching experience and extra $$$? Answer: maybe some people, but not me. Anyway, I TA the lab portion of a first year Diversity of Life course. Monday mornings are spent prepping for the lab, which means we work through the same steps the students must complete. This week: Nematodes!


11:37 am:  Post lab-prep caffeine fuel-up with a Stegosaurus for company. I’m currently on the lookout for a good, re-useable coffee mug, if anyone has recommendations HIT ME UP.


1:19 pm: regular work activities are often punctuated with interesting guest lectures. The one today discussed the prevalence of rodenticides in not-target wildlife (like raptorial birds). Spoiler alert: it’s a lot. Although kind of a bummer topic, it was also very interesting, and incredibly eye-opening in terms of the policy associated with the management of pests.


1:28 pm: The guest lecture was held in the Vet Med building on campus, so pictures of creepy-cool animal displays are a must.


5:37 pm: Heading north of Saskatoon to see if we can find ourselves some Whooping Cranes that are migrating through the area. (Yes, it is very flat here).


6:17 pm: No luck finding the Whooping Cranes! Learning to accept failure is a key part of wildlife biology, as is perseverance: we came back later in the week and did end up finding some! Our failure at the time did result with a nice sunset though.


Note: We eventually did find Whooping Cranes! Technically, this didn’t happen on the same day as the rest of this post, but I couldn’t resist sharing a sighting with you. For those that don’t know, Whooping Cranes are the largest bird in North America. They were pushed to the brink of extinctions in the 1940’s due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss, with less than 20 individuals in the wild. Extensive conservation programs have increased their population to more than 500 birds. Whoopers migrate from their remote breeding grounds in northern Alberta, through parts of Saskatchewan, and onwards to their wintering grounds in the southern US yearly.


7:19 pm: Caffeine hit #2, in preparation for nocturnal owl banding. Several bird banders near Saskatoon put on a Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus) banding open house in the fall. Birds are called into the area by playing owl calls (which no joke, they sound like someone playing a recorder), the birds become tangled mist nets, and are then removed by the banders to be measured and affixed with a super stylish leg band with a unique number on it. This process goes assists in understanding owl movements and migratory patterns in North America.


8:43 pm: Our first Northern Saw-whet Owl of the night! A range of measurements are taken when the bird is banded to assess age, sex and health. Right now, the iris colour is being estimated. Iris colour is thought to be an indicator of health, darker iris = healthier bird.


8:44 pm: Aging the owl. Feather patterning and wear can assist in determining whether it’s a hatch year bird, or an adult. Saw-whets also produce compounds called porphyrin in their feathers which is super handy for aging because A) it glows under UV light, and B) it degrades through time. Feathers that glow pink are new, while feathers that do not glow are older. If you’ve got a very glowy owl, its likely it’s a young one who grew all new feathers recently.



8:50 pm: data recording, data recording and more data recording! Also, check out how cute that face is. Normally no one in their right mind would handle a raptor without protective gloves, but these guys are so small they can’t do much damage other than finger pinching. (That being said, there were some feisty owls who wanted to challenge that fact).


9:41 pm: Last owl for the night. Check out his cool new jewellery (on his left leg). The band weight for the owl is the equivalent of wearing a watch on a human; extremely lightweight. Once the owls are banded, they’re taken outside to let their eyes readjust to darkness and then released.


Here’s one last (good quality) photo of a saw-whet owl, because they’re just so cute.


I hope you enjoyed seeing what Kate gets up to !

1 Comment »

Leave a Reply