Outdoor Annoyances and the Perils of Urban Fieldwork

Fieldwork can be wonderful for many reasons. But every field site invariably has something–an organism, a certain confluence of weather conditions, particular people–that make it difficult to do research at that site. And in this context, difficult is different from challenging–there isn’t a sense of accomplishment associated with overcoming these obstacles, only a tired incredulity that such a seemingly minor irritant could so affect your work and mood. In other words, avoiding a close encounter with a venomous snake is quite different from slapping at mosquitoes.

The existence of annoyances is as likely in urban field sites as in more remote, exotic locales. And these annoyances are all the more annoying because it’s an urban field site–in remoter places, the irritants can seem part of the adventure, but urban fieldwork is supposed to be cushy, isn’t it?

A very particular set of irritants came together last week in one of my fieldsites, Northside Park. We first visited this site at 7:30 am on a Sunday, and found no people and plenty of lizards. Moreover, it was very close to my main site, and seemed perfect for a side project I’m working on, which requires visiting it once or maybe twice a week. Unfortunately, I failed to notice this sign: IMG_4473

Yes, this park contains a disc golf course, which means that frisbees whiz past our heads alarmingly often when we’re searching for lizards, that we have to plan our sampling routes to best avoid collisions with groups of players, and that people occasionally peek into our lizard cooler, expecting it to be filled with beer. Had we not already marked almost 50 lizards in the park when I discovered this, I would have abandoned the site, but given our initial effort and the site’s other advantages, I decided we should soldier on in the face of the frisbee onslaught. And for the most part, it’s fine: we don’t work there on weekends, and many of the disc golfers shout out amicable, if bemused, warnings when we’re in their way.

But things came to a head earlier this week. In the wake of Hurricane Arthur, Gainesville had been unusually cloudy for several mornings, so lizard sightings were dropping. Bursts of afternoon and evening rain led to the formation of large puddles all across the park. And these puddles brought into play my number one least favourite outdoor irritant: the fire ant*.

Escaping the wetter patches by moving to higher ground, the fire ants all seemed to have set up camp at the bases of trees on which our lizards perch. And because my sandals had broken a day ago, I was wearing sneakers, so when I stepped into a fire ant nest while measuring the perch height of one of dismally few lizards visible in the park that day, the ants had ample time to position themselves all over my legs without me noticing them, before they stung in unison. My feet aflame, my socks uncomfortably soaked as I stood in a puddle to numb the pain, I stared down at a notebook with a pathetic five data points from two hours of work, when a frisbee flew past, inches from my ear. I couldn’t have felt more silly, more frustrated, or more sorry for myself.

photo 1 (4)Why, five days later, when the pain of the stings has subsided into an occasional itch, am I bringing all this up? To illustrate that fieldwork, even urban fieldwork, is hard, but not for particularly exciting reasons. And to remind myself that, for every day like that one, there are many days like today when the sun is shining and the lizards are everywhere, when the fire ants are chomping down on unfortunate frogs and not my feet, and when Northside Park’s resident Red Shouldered Hawk is perched perfectly against a clear blue sky.


* Leeches are a very close second, if not a joint first.

[UPDATE: an earlier version of this post contained a uncredited photograph of a fire ant, from http://www.alexanderwild.com. Posting this photo without a link to the original website was a copyright infringement, which I didn’t intend and for which I apologize. Check out the link for the very best ant photos you will ever see!]

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