Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Re-inspired! Banff, birds, and bad-ass statistics


Some people are fortunate enough to be passionate about their jobs. They are also probably familiar with the roller-coaster love-hate relationship that comes along with this passion. This is especially true in grad school, where passion for your (often outdoor) research is then traded for long hours at the computer, doing data analysis and statistics. And I’m one of those people that thinks statistics is fun, but after hundreds of hours, I’m often in the “hate” phase of the roller-coaster. The solution? A week-long course explaining the guts of statistical models, held in a spectacular location, that can re-ignite your faith in statistics and even broaden (if possible) your love of nature.

This past week I took a course in mixed effects models, which happened to be located in Banff, Alberta. (I had to convince my advisor that this was not the reason I signed up for the course.) Banff is as spectacular as the hype might lead you to believe – it reminded me of a cross between leafy-green New England and Aspen Colorado (but with more epic-looking mountains). I had, without doubt, the most amazing few days of wildlife viewing of my life. I headed up to Moraine Lake at 5a.m. one morning for some dawn photography with a friend from the modeling course, and in quick succession, we came across a porcupine, 5 Snowshoe hares, 2 pika, and the incredibly elusive wolverine, an animal that I never really expected to see in my lifetime. I saw its dark shaggy back disappearing into the underbrush, and then it was gone.

On the Bow River, north of Banff
A gray dawn at Moraine Lake
We spent daytime hours in a sort of endurance-learning fiesta – like drinking from a fire-hose, as one girl put it – absorbing as much statistical knowledge as possible while it washed over us in voluminous waves. But luckily it was light from 5am-10pm, and we were able to explore before and after class… and sometime during these days in Banff, I re-discovered my interest in birds. I’m not sure why I’ve never really taken to birding – my husband is a birder, as are many of my friends (one of whom is so enthusiastic that he plans to tattoo an image of the 600th bird he sees onto his butt). But the fact is, I’ve had only a passing interest… until this trip. Perhaps it was seeing the Great Gray Owl close-up in a meadow one of the evenings, staring at us with yellow-eyed suspicion, a bird I’ve been obsessed with seeing ever since listening to its incessant evening hoots while living in Yosemite. Or perhaps it was the early morning trip to Moraine Lake, where my birder friend was able to pick out species after species from the dawn cacophony of calls, a language he spoke but I didn’t. Regardless, my interest was piqued.

And really, when you think about it, why isn’t everyone obsessed with birds? They are brightly-colored animals that FLY and are related to dinosaurs. Perhaps it’s a matter of novelty. If birds existed only in Africa, we’d probably all be dying to take a bird-safari to go see the colorful flying mini-dinosaurs. Who cares about lions!

So I spent my 3-days of backpacking in the Banff wilderness with binoculars in hand, re-discovering the joy of stop-and-go hiking as I birded my way along the trails. Incidentally, it helped my birding skills considerably that I didn’t fall into my usual zone-out hiking style, due to the fear of a grizzly round every bend. That’s pretty good incentive to stay alert. (It’s also surprisingly hard to keep up a steady stream of whistling while hiking uphill.) My birding efforts were rewarded by many cool species (see below), among them a Ruffed Grouse that I nearly ran into, perched silently on a branch by the trail. (Thankfully, since my only experience with Grouse has been as a master of camouflage, staying perfectly still until you’re right on top of it, when it explodes from the underbrush with a thunderclap.)

And so, like a meditation retreat, grad school-style, my week of re-inspiration is complete. It’s hard to write engagingly about statistics, but I’ll say that mixed effects models are immensely important for ecological analysis, since they allow you to take into account (rather than ignore) individual variation… which is pretty much a given in ecology. And for my data, which features 200+ fish all behaving slightly differently, this is a definite necessity for teasing apart any patterns. Data analysis, here I come (again).

Banff wildlife bonanza (e.g. all the species I saw during my trip):

Grizzly Bear


Red squirrel
Elk (my photo)

Great Gray Owl

Snowshoe hare
Least chipmunk

Ruffed Grouse (my photo)
Clark's Nutcracker
Northern Goshawk
Black-capped Chickadee
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Dark-eyed Junco
Chipping Sparrow

Canada Geese
Varied Thrush
Common Merganser

Stellar's Jay
Quoth the raven, 'Nevermore'


  1. I still can't believe that you saw a Wolverine! That's amazing. I spent two years in Michigan and only saw the stuffed Wolverine on the U of M campus ;)

  2. Great post. Some of your inspiration rubbed off on me. Tell me, do you think the course you took would be more, equally or less helpful if you took it a) at the beginning of your PhD study, b) in the middle of the PhD ?

    Also, could you see the Wall and Castle Black with your binoculars from there?

    Hope that Porter comes out tasty and calm ;)

    -Jordan Sheffield

    1. Thanks Jordan! This is definitely the kind of course that's good to take once you have some idea of what kind of datasets you're working with.

      And it's definitely direwolf country up there. I was on the lookout.