Ever wonder what it takes to study Cape Sable seaside sparrows in the Everglades? I can tell you that it takes passion, energy, adaptability, and perseverance. It also takes a whole lot of gear. Every single item in this post is a necessity. Sure, carrying 20 pounds of gear makes hiking harder, but it also makes us more prepared, safer, more comfortable, and better at collecting data. And better data means a better shot at protecting Cape Sable seaside sparrows.
Let’s dig through all that stuff we lug around and see just how important it all is.
My backpack unpacked
My backpack is where I keep all the essentials: things I need and use every day, as well as a few things I wouldn’t want to be without if there was an emergency. Here’s the breakdown:
- Water! This is the absolute most important item in my backpack. We work in marl prairies in sunny southern Florida, so it’s usually hot, humid, and shade-free. You never know when you might need extra water.
- A clipboard with data sheets.
- I couldn’t do the job without them. Sparrows are small birds, and the leg bands we use to identify them are just a few millimeters wide. I use waterproof binoculars with 10x magnification to read bands, watch sparrow behavior, and sometimes just to check out what my coworkers are up to.
- A headlamp. Sometimes we hike into sparrow habitat before sunrise. I prefer to see where I’m stepping, especially in cottonmouth country.
- A rangefinder. We use these to determine our distance from birds and landmarks.
- A waterproof field notebook and pencils.
- A binder with more data sheets, emergency contact information, and some helpful cheat sheets. The cheat sheet pictured shows all the different leg band colors we use on Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows.
- Bug spray – the heavy-duty kind. The Everglades are no joke when it comes to biting insects!
- A knife. It’s a matter of safety. There are so many reasons to carry a knife in the field. It’s a survival tool if I get lost, a seatbelt-cutter if I’m in a helicopter crash, and a generally handy thing to carry.
- Lip balm with SPF. I wasn’t kidding about the sun out here.
- A waterproof watch.
- These are called iButtons. They go in the bottom of sparrow nests and record the nest temperatures continuously. We use these data to see exactly when each nest fledged or failed.
- A compass. Even with a GPS, we use compasses constantly.
- Extra camera batteries, because we all know that the best photo opportunities happen immediately after your camera dies.
15 & 16. Flagging and more flagging! We use this to mark things like transects and nest locations.
- Extra batteries.
- A handheld field GPS. It’s chock full of logged coordinates for things like nests, transects, point count locations, and sparrow territories.
- A radio. We often end up hiking out a few kilometers in different directions, so we need these to communicate.
- Another good multi-use item: a handkerchief. Good for a little shade, for protecting my face from insects, and for cushioning baby birds while we put iButtons in their nests.
- A snake bag, in case I find an invasive Burmese Python I feel comfortable capturing. Pythons threaten our native wildlife, so the more we remove from ENP, the better.
- A ruler for taking water depths and measuring nests.
Next up: The flight bag
I carry a flight bag on days when our crew travels to study sites by helicopter. These items keep us safe in case of emergency, so we are required to wear them every time we fly.
- A flight suit. These are made of Nomex, a special fire-resistant fabric. They’re designed to protect us if the helicopter crashes and a fire starts.
- A flight helmet. These babies are seriously high-tech. Worth upwards of $800 each, these helmets are rated to protect us from head injuries in the event of a crash.
- Flight gloves. These are leather and Nomex.
- Flight bag. All this flight gear fits in there.
- Leather boots. We can’t wear synthetics when we travel by helicopter, because synthetics melt when exposed to heat.
Optics and miscellaneous
Here are a few more pieces of equipment I carry in the field without a bag:
- A tripod. The spotting scope attaches to this.
- A hat. Remember what I said about the sun here? We can’t wear sunglasses because they interfere with resighting color bands, so I wear a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes.
- A camera. I don’t carry this every day, but it’s a good thing to have. Of course, the best photo opportunities seem to come up on days when I chose not to bring it.
- A spotting scope. This thing is expensive and heavy, but it makes identifying birds a breeze.
Those are all the items I carry for fieldwork. Let’s complete the image with what I wear every day: sunscreen, ripstop nylon pants, a lightweight long-sleeve sports top, knee-high rubber boots, and more sunscreen.