Sweden : Citizen scientists, a day out in the field

Update from our Sweden bear volunteer project

Once trained up as a bear citizen scientist, this is how your field day goes down:

As I rise before seven in my cabin, the morning chorus is in full swing. The wood creaks a little from the sun shining on it, fairly high in the sky already. The grass outside is a soft green carpet that caresses my feet as I wander over to the shower block. Fellow citizen scientists greet me sleepy-eyed on the way. A young red squirrel sits on the steps, seemingly unperturbed by all of us around. A crane flies in and settles on the meadow for a morning graze. The sky is blue and white, full of promise of a good day ahead.

The smell of coffee greets me as I walk into the main house and kitchen, busy with the team having breakfast and making their lunch packs for the day out. Before eight we gather round the map that ominously fills one entire wall, showing how large the study site is and how many bears it can hold in this landscape of forest and water. Andrea, our scientist, has prepared our maps and tasks, a sheet of lines and numbers that would have meant nothing to me only three days ago. Now it holds the keys to my day ahead. Andrea explains where each group should go and briefs them all individually. We then work out the best route to drive there to get us as close as possible to our target sites. Today we have a bear den and a few bear position clusters on our list. The den positions are know den sites that need to be documented. The clusters show where a bear has spent some time in one place. It is our job to find out why it has spent time there. It could be a good feeding site (for example a carcass the bear can feed on). It could be a day bed for a rest. Or something else.

Andrea briefing team 2: Chris and Evelyn.

Today the drive to our first site is about one hour, mainly along a very smooth gravel road and past pretty lakes, waterfalls and seemingly endless forest.

One of the many lakes on the way
Waterfall on the way

Once at the site, we do two things. First, mark the car position in the GPS so that we can easily find it again. And second – where necessary – check there is no bear at the site. This is done by radio telemetry. If there was a bear nearby, I would hear a clicking beep in the receiver. No sound, so off we go.

Neil checking for bears nearby
Pat checking for bears nearby

It’s only 363 m to the den by the GPS. But that can take a while as the going is usually slow over pathless and broken terrain. Today it’s especially tricky as this site has recently been logged, so there are logs, stones, roots and all sorts of other things strewn over the ground. You have to place every footstep carefully and be patient. Actually, I find this meditative, relaxing and mentally taxing at the same time. Once you hit a slow rhythm it’s not bad at all and we get there after 20 minutes or so.

On the way to a bear den

When the GPS beeps to tell us we have reached our target spot, we need to look around the find the den. Sometimes it’s right there and obvious; other times you have to look for it for a while. This one’s easy today. It’s right there, a nest in the ground, shaded and hidden by two small pines.

Then the work begins: measuring the den, looking for scats, assessing the vegetation around, how well hidden the den is etc. We have a manual to take us through each step – in case we have forgotten bits of our training – and a datasheet to fill in one field at a time. It takes us about 45 minutes to document everything.

Recording data
Measuring the nest den bedding depth
Collecting scat

Then it’s back to the car and the next site. Another 350 m into the forest. This one’s a cluster site, so we search for clues as to why the bear would have spent time here. We find animal remains. Some bones and moose antlers, chewed down by the bear, probably for its minerals, but nobody is quite sure. A scat that is snowy white and full of bone material. Again we document everything and move on.

Documenting site 2

By the time we get to site 3, the day is already well advanced and we have to hurry. We find scat, bag it quickly for Andrea and get back to the car. An hour’s drive back. A beautiful owl encounter on the way. A quick dip in that lake that beckoned in the morning and we’re back at base, tired but happy. Andrea is happy too, looks at our haul, the datasheets, asks questions and lets us off the hook for a quick shower before the group debrief session, where every group talks the others through their day and results. These are marked on the big map and scored. Ulli and Karin: 8 scats, 9 (!) day beds, 3 carcasses. Pat and Neil: 12 (!) scats and 1 den. Chris & Evelyn: 6 scats, 1 den, 3 chewed antlers and 1 carcass. There are tall tales, much laughter and excellent results. Andrea is happy and that is the point.

The big overview map with results and “scores”

Then off to a delicious dinner of chilly sin carne, lovingly prepared by Roland and Pat, and some well-deserved down-time until we start all over again the next day. It’s not easy being a citizen scientist, but someone’s got to do it 😉

Continue reading “Sweden : Citizen scientists, a day out in the field”

Tien Shan: Starting off (with a new scientist)

Update from our snow leopard volunteer project to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

This first diary entry comes earlier than normal, but we wanted to share with you that we now have a new local scientist who will succeed Dr. Volodymy Tytar, who has been there with Biosphere Expeditions since the beginning, leading the science on expeditions to Ukraine, the Altai Republic and most recently the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Close to retirement, he will sadly not be able to come to his final Tien Shan snow leopard expedition this year as planned, because he wants to stay in Kyiv with his family and people. We salute his and his country’s bravery and thank him for all he has done for Biosphere Expeditions over the past 20 years or so. Thank you Volodya! He will train his successor, Taalai Mambetov, a Kyrgyz scientist, remotely and perhaps return next year for a lap of honour (we hope so anyway).

Outgoing scientist Dr. Volodymyr Tytar

Our incoming scientist is Taalai Mambetov. Taalai holds a Master’s degree from the Faculty of Biology, Kyrgyz National University. He began his scientific career as a junior researcher at the National Academy of Sciences. Since 2017, is as a teacher and field biologist at his alma mater. Taalai has articipated in various projects (ICBA, FFI, Kew Botanical Garden project etc.) mainly related to biodiversity. 

He says “I am delighted to be joining the Biosphere Expeditions team to protect the snow leopard and the places where it lives in my beloved Kyrgyzstan. I look forward to learning from Dr. Tytar and to working with the rest of the team, to get up to speed and continue the important work that has already been done. I also look forward to meeting the team of international citizen scientists who have chosen to support conservation, instead of going on a beach holiday somewhere. Thank you for this and for coming to the Tien Shan mountains instead. It will be interesting to talk to all of you about your motivations and to work with you in snow leopard conservation in Kyrgyzstan, my home country.”

Incoming scientist Taalai Mambetov

Together, we will now all crack on to get things ready for you. You won’t hear from us in this diary again until the expedition leaders are on their way as the advance party before the arrival of team 1. May our – and your – preparations and travel go well. See you in Bishkek!

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Starting off (with a new scientist)”

Sweden : Citizen scientists, graduated

On all of our citizen science conservation and volunteer expeditions, we give ourselves 36 hours to transform enthusiastic participants into serious citizen scientists. Our Sweden bear volunteer project is no different.

Take a handful of people from all walks of life and from all over Europe (e.g. Germany, UK, Belgium), transfer them from the assembly point to the expedition base (Mora to a fairly remote cottage in the forest), then throw them in at the deep end (background and methodology lectures, new equipment, datasheets, expedition survival and other rules) and – e voilà – as I type this, they are in the forest happily getting drizzled on, using a GPS to find a bear den in the middle of nowhere (first by car and then walking), crawling into it to measure it, collecting little presents the bear has left outside – and then doing it all over again until the day is done and they return to dinner by an open fire.

Well done all of you. Under the guidance of our scientist Andrea and a very capable new (assistant) leader, you have mastered a multitude of new gadgets and techniques in a day and a half and you have earned your new title as citizen scientists. Pat like a gazelle over rough terrain, Neil on his umpteenth expedition overcoming complications, Karin & Ulli finding their keys and feet in English with a gateau on top, Chris geared up to the nines in Swedish plaits, Evelyn dutifully keeping the compass away from the densiometer, Roland mastering the relascope and expedition leading. And they know what these things are, because they are now citizen scientists, helping Andrea with her bear research, her enthusiasm palpable, with a big, grateful smile welcoming the arrival of her new helpers. She is happy in the field, showing us her trade, and so are we.

Tomorrow, after graduation at dinner, they will venture out on their own in twos and threes – no supervision, no mollycoddling – just qualified citizen scientists going about their business in remote corners of the forest, sent there by Andrea with instructions to go find a den, a bear cluster or whatever else Andrea needs us to do.

And Sweden, oh Sweden, does the rest. The endless forests of orange, green and white, the lakes beckoning intrepid swimmers, the bogs lurking behind the trees and rocks, the picture-perfect red cottages with their white window sashes, the moose ambling through the lichen, the silent solitude, the cool wind, the presence of the bear evident all around us – if you know what to look for, the Scandinavian beauty of it all that will stay with us long after we have gone, just like the data we have collected for Andrea will stay with her. A small legacy for the bears, the project, the planet. And that, in a nutshell, is what it’s all about.

Introductory lecture
Around the open fire
This is where I need to you go today
Study site for today
Getting to a bear den
At the bear den
Moose encounter
Finding and recording a bear den

Sweden : Advance team on site

After a lot of driving, a bit of shopping and a night on the road, the advance team for our bear volunteer expedition to Sweden is now on site. The site is and the last 450 km of the drive were as beautiful as ever. However, the weather for our expedition won’t be able to keep up (overcast, chilly). The good news in this kind of weather is that the mosquitoes will by and large be too chilly to go out to make a living.

Driving (bridge that connects Denmark with Sweden)
Roland and Andrea in discussion whilst setting up
Rainbow over the study site
Expedition base this morning

Unfortunately one person has tested positive at home and can’t come and another one could not get a visa in time, so we are down to a smaller crew, which will have to work twice as hard to make up 😉 More details about how when you get here.

Safe travels & see you soon

Sweden : Off we go with expedition number two since Covid

It is with great pleasure that I am able to tell you that we are setting off on expedition number two since Covid: our bear conservation project in Sweden. I am Matthias, your expedition leader.

Much has happened since we had to postpone Azores 2020 due to Covid. Biosphere Expeditions itself was able to survive due to the generosity of many private donors and help from the governments of Ireland, Germany and the UK. Thank you to all for this.

We also used the pandemic to get rid of our fleet of cars and now only use car share, car hire and private vehicles of expeditioners. The first and the last are relevant to this expedition and I would also like to thank those expeditioners who will make their cars available for the expedition.

I am in a car share in the UK at the moment and will collect rookie expedition leader Roland in a few hours in Harwich, before we take the night ferry to the Continent. Roland will assist me on this expedition and learn the ropes. Tomorrow we will drive through the Netherlands and Germany, where we will also do some food shopping. We should make it to our expedition base in Sweden by Tuesday night or Wednesday morning (it’s about 2000 km) and I will be in touch with more news and a weather update then.

Talking about cars and food, the first honourable mention of the expedition goes to Pat, a dear and true expedition addict, who will also be driving to Sweden in a car full of equipment and food for all of us. Thank you for this Pat!

And now for some expedition admin: We will be using Finnish Tracker App on this expedition (with water resistant phones for each group), for navigation, data entry, tracking etc. If you want to have a look at / play with the app, there is a 10 day trial version you can download via https://tracker.fi/en/frontpage/ .

Enough for now. We’re on our way. You will be soon too. Safe travels. We will see you all in Mora and be in touch via this diary before. Thank you for giving up your time and funds to become bear conservation volunteers with us.

Best wishes

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Expedition leader

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