BIO 332H Biology Field Research 2023

The Department of Biology at University of Toronto Mississauga is excited to announce the new course for the summer of 2023 in Arctic Field Ecology BIO332H (Biology Field Research).
Learn about northern ecosystems at the edge of the Arctic! UTM will be offering a 0.5 credit summer field course at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre ( near Churchill MB, on Hudson Bay. Students will visit and learn about tundra, treeline, boreal forest, and coastal habitats, and will experience arctic and subarctic landscapes, vegetation, and wildlife.
Enrolment begins in March 2023.
Please contact the lead instructor, Prof. P.M. Kotanen ( for further details.


poster for the info session

Info Session Presentation (Nov 9, 2022)


Bio 332 Info Session

Okay, hello, everybody, and welcome to the Arctic Field Ecology Information Session. This is a course that we offered last year. We're going to be offering it again this year, and I want to get the word out early. It's a summer course, it's new, and I'd like to let people know what to expect. Also, if people are interested, they can talk to me, and have some idea for what they're in for. So here are the details: it's going to be offered July 20 to August 3, 2023 in Churchill Manitoba, which I'll say more about in a minute. The official name of the course is Biology Field Research BIO332, but the topic of this course shifts from year to year, And right now we're actually doing it as Arctic Field Ecology. I'm the instructor, Professor Kotanen, Department of Biology. Here's my contact information. We'll make this talk available online somehow, after we're done here, but I'll tell you right now if you need any more information, don't hesitate: just email me or get in touch, and I can tell you what I what I know. We will be doing several other information sessions. This one's very early, but we will be doing another information session next semester, where we have a bit more concrete information, watch for advertising as we get closer to the date.
So this is me. I'll just tell you a little bit about myself. I study invasions and plant-herbivore interactions. One of the places I do this is in Churchill, where we're holding the field course. In fact, I've worked in Churchill periodically since 1984. So it's a place I'm pretty familiar with. I've done a lot of work in the South, but in the North I've done a lot of work elsewhere in the Hudson Bay - James Bay system as well including the Kivalliq region up the west coast of Hudson Bay, Akimiski Island in James Bay, Bylot Island in the High Arctic, and Southampton Island on the Arctic Circle.
So again, Churchill is one of the destinations where I've done arctic research. The site where we will be holding the course is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC). The Study Centre is near the town of Churchill. You can see the red dot on the map there. Northern Manitoba, just south of Nunavut. It's a great place for a field station. It's a very modern comfortable field station. It's only about ten years old. It hosts a lot of field courses. Last year we were one of them.
We will visit the town of Churchill. It's a town you may probably have heard of. The CNSC is about twenty five kilometers east of town, so it's actually out of the edge of the tundra. But it's nice to actually have a town that we can rely on as well. So Churchill is small, it's about nine hundred residents, but for that latitude that makes it a big place. It's the biggest town in in more than one hundred kilometers in any direction.
It's historically interesting. It was a Hudson Bay Company post, starting in 1717, has been a long place of contact between European and North American cultures. It's a grain port. You're looking at the town there with the grain elevators in the background. And again it's pretty well equipped to support a field course. Even though it's very small, It has a grocery store, hardware, store, liquor store, souvenir shops, restaurants. It has a hospital. It's good base of operations for the course.
How do you get there? Well, the first thing about Churchill is there's no road access. In fact, there's no road access anywhere on Hudson Bay. One way you can get to Churchill is to fly. There are a couple of routes. The standard way is you fly up from Winnipeg to Churchill, on Calm Air International. You can fly from Toronto to Winnipeg lots of different ways. Calm Air is a small local airline that runs up from Winnipeg. Be warned - it's not on aggregators like Travelocity or Expedia. You have to book a ticket with them directly. They're still recovering from Covid, they haven't completely restored their pre-covid schedule yet but there are currently flights most days of the week. Some are direct, some go through Rankin Inlet in Nunavut, which actually is a bit of a plus. You get an hour or so in Rankin as well. The other way you can get to Churchill is by train. There is one rail link, from the south to Churchill. They do run passenger trains up several days a week from Winnipeg. It's a great trip, but be warned it's a multi-day experience. It actually takes place over three days coming up from Winnipeg.
So why do we want to go there? Well, here's the reason: this is a great area. It's right at the edge of the tundra. So right at the boreal tundra interface, so within short distances the Study Centre we have excellent quality boreal forest. We also have good quality coastal tundra like you're looking at. It's in the permafrost zone. It's got good coastal habitats. We'll be visiting the Churchill estuary and Hudson Bay itself. The lots of wetlands many lakes. For an Arctic site, it's actually a really diverse place to hold the field course. Just a little more detail.
This is what a lot of the vegetation looks like. There only trees are black spruce, white spruce, tamarack, balsam poplar, and you're done. Tundra is mostly dominated by short vegetation, again, a lot of peatland and fen habitats. You're looking at one of these tundra transitional areas here with a very stunted white spruce in the foreground, a tree that probably is several hundred years of age, set in a matrix of blueberry and bearberry tundra.
We also go up there for the wildlife. There's a lot to see in town. First of all, there's a fairly diverse bird community. It's a good area for arctic and subarctic birds like Snow Geese, Ptarmigan, Parasitic Jaegers. These are all things we saw in the course last year. It's also rather good for wildlife, if you know Churchill it's probably because it's the place that people go to see Polar Bears in North America. I'll warn you right now. This is not a wildlife tour. We don't guarantee wildlife sightings, but on the other hand, we do tend to see a lot of stuff. So this past year we saw hundreds of Beluga Whales. We saw Caribou, a bunch of Arctic Foxes, several Polar Bears, especially later in the summer, when have a good chance of seeing them.
I mentioned before this is also a historic area. For hundreds of years has been a contact point between Cree, Dene, Inuit, and Europeans, and happily there are some good local museums that document this. I'm hoping we'll get a chance to go to Fort Prince of Wales, which you're looking at here - a huge Hudson Bay Company fort. And again, there are also a number of other local museums and displays where you can look at the history of the region, especially at Inuit art.
How does the course work? Well, this is a field course, so it's an intense course. It's a two week course you don't have a lot of spare time during it. We really pack as much as we can into those two weeks. So the way that it works is that we have local trips daily for the first half of the course, usually in the morning, afternoon or both. I do actually give you lectures in the course. So in the evenings you'll get lectures on local biology. We also often get lectures from guest speakers. The Study Center is a major research center, and there are many research groups working there. Last year there was a Polar Bear group, there was a seal group, there was a shorebird group, there were the Dutch climatology people. So what we do is we also hit them up for guest lectures as well, as well as spending a lot of time in the field. You get a lot of lectures from me, and from local experts on the history and biology of the area. It is a course, and you do get a credit for it. So you'll be evaluated by a number of quizzes, presentations, and a project report you submit after the end of the course. That project report will be based on a mini project that you do during the course. The way that we do it is in the first week we show you as much as we can of the local biology. That lets me give you a few days to formulate a project, collect data and actually execute it. So your final mark will be based on a combination of these things, quizzes on the site, and ultimately the project write-up that you hand in after the course is done.
The summer is a good time to be in Churchill. It's usually nice in late July and August, mean daytime temperatures that time of year around twelve degrees, which is actually a pretty comfortable working environment. But it's really variable, like a lot of coastal environments, it can shift rapidly. So even in August it could be close to zero degrees, it could be close to thirty degrees, so we have to be prepared for a wide range of conditions. It won't be really cold, though; we won't get snow. They've never had snow in August. Most days will be cool and fairly pleasant. Expect some rain. It's a rainy environment and lots of coastal fog, which is what you're looking at here. It's also again, a site with a lot of biting insects, mosquitoes, deer flies, black flies. By the end of the summer they're usually starting to disappear, but certainly last year they were going strong right until the end of the course.
One thing I will say about this course that's a little unusual is that we have some unusual safety issues. Here's one of them. Polar Bears are abundant locally, and can show up pretty much any time. It's great to see them. It's less nice to see them like we saw these guys. I was giving a lecture in the field, so these popped up behind me and started lolling around. Your instructors do carry shotguns We have experience. It does to some extent restrict what you can do, so that you can't go out alone, we have to always work in a group, etc. On the positive side, it means that the whole time you're there you're going to be with an experienced instructor pretty much continuously through the course.
There probably will be some other opportunities during the course as well, you'll get at least one free day in Churchill, so we'll declare one day a town day, and you can do whatever you want in in town. We actually do get into town more frequently than that again. It's about twenty-five kilometers from the station but it's not unusual to pass through it, and so if there are any supplies or things you desperately need we probably can pick them up. Churchill is always an also a major tourism center, and there are a number of excellent local tour groups, so I often recommend visiting the fort. They have really good river Kayak Tours, as I'll show you the moment. Excellent whale tours. Most of these activities aren't covered by the course fee, but they're not terribly expensive, and they're easy to arrange.
I do want to say something about costs. Unfortunately, this is an expensive course. That's what happens with field courses, and part of the problem is traveling. The Canadian North is really very costly. Fortunately I can give you some tips and advice and how to actually keep this under control. The basic information is that you do have to pay a standard half course fee. You also have to pay for room and board at the Studies Center, which last year was $1246 for two weeks. So they do feed you, they do house you. All I can say about that is for that latitude that is a dirt cheap price. It's expensive to be out there. If you're going to come, you will have to pay a deposit in advance. Last year it was due sometime in June, and it may be earlier this year. We also let you make your own travel arrangements. So you're responsible for your own air fare. One reason for that is, there often are ways of potentially reducing costs there, depending on your own personal situation. Last year, it cost about 550 bucks to fly from here to Winnipeg, although you can occasionally get much cheaper flights than that. The expensive leg is Winnipeg the Churchill, which is costly, as I'll mention in a minute. There are a couple of ways, and can potentially reduce that as well. I'm pleased to say there will be bursaries from the Experiential Learning Office here for eligible U of T students. The bursary is five hundred bucks, but actually they gave us more than that this year. It's not enough to pay your fees or anything like that, but at least it helps. They've told me they also will consider higher awards in cases where there's real financial need, so it is worth going to them and talking to them.
A few more travel tips I can travel in the north. It's always challenging. You could often get cheap flights to Winnipeg. Actually, at one point this summer you could fly to Winnipeg for one hundred and thirty-five bucks, which sadly, I didn't do Calm Air is more expensive, but there are a couple of ways of cutting costs. Inexplicably Calm Air accepts Air Canada Aeroplan and also Air Miles. They don't give them out, but they accept them, and even more inexplicably they consider Churchill to be a local flight. It's got to be one of the best deals. So if you have any frequent flyer miles or air miles stored up, this is a good thing to use them on. Actually, I flew my entire family up there a couple of years ago like this. They also have student fares if you're under twenty-four. I don't know much about them, but the website says contact them for information. When you book flights it's good to make it as flexible as possible. It's also good to have at least three or four hours to connect in Winnipeg as flights in the north are often delayed. The airlines are pretty good about it, but the more flexibility you can give yourself the better. You can also take the train. If you take the train from Winnipeg you can save about a thousand bucks on travel costs, but there are a couple of issues. One is that it's a major time commitment, again forty-four hours over three days. They leave late one evening and arrive early in the morning two days later. The other cost is that that's the price for a seat; if you actually want to bed it costs you quite a bit more. On the other hand, if you're really short on cash, and don't mind sitting in a seat for a couple of days, it's a way to do it. We had students do this last year. We always do it. Actually, It's a really interesting trip. There are actually other more spectacular ways of cutting costs if you're really adventurous. Again, you can't drive to Churchill, but you drive to Winnipeg and get a flight or train from there again. If you're doing travel planning you might want to talk to me, and I can give you more advice.
Enrollment will be sometime in the Spring semester. They haven't announced the enrollment dates yet, but you won't be able to enroll until the Spring. We keep the prerequisites pretty open. We really want people to be able to take this course, so you can read them for yourself. Basically, you have to be a student biology or some kind of allied discipline, and that's pretty much it. Enrollment won't be directly through Acorn. Instead, what we'll do is set up a web page where you can submit an application. We do ask for your CV and a little bit more information, partly so we get some idea of who you are, and whether you're really prepared for this kind of experience. Again, we aren't especially exacting but it is nice to know if you've had any kind of experience in outdoor areas or that kind of thing.
The best thing to do with questions is contact me directly, we're in the early stages of planning next year's field course, and I can give you more information as time goes on. And for questions waiting to actual registration and enrollment, you should talk to Diane Matias in the Biology Department. She handles the enrollment issues I handle actually delivering the course.
So I hope that some of you who are listening can make it. We're currently reserving spaces for ten students. We likely can bump that up if we need to. It won't be a huge course, but it'll be a very good course and a very intense course.
I'll finish off with a few photos of some of the things we've seen in the last couple of years to give you the idea of what you actually see during the course. This is part of the Study Center, as if the experience wasn't weird enough already. The Study Center is built at the site of an old experimental rocket launch site. So you're surrounded by buildings like this? I didn't know what to say about that other than as you wake up and look out the window in the morning and see what planet on.
I'm actually a plant biologist. So I love plants. This is Eripohorum or cottongrass. It's a typical Arctic wetland plant, and very important food for geese.
We see tons of eagles up there, mostly bald. You see them sitting on the coastal tundra. It's a bit odd to see an eagle sitting on the ground, but they're there.
You've got a high probability of Northern Lights. There are Northern Lights in Churchill basically every night. The two catches are: you have to have a clear night, and you have to go late, because even by the end of the course, skies are still going to be bright until ten thirty at night. But if you do want to go out at midnight, or one in the morning you're really likely to encounter this kind of thing. Actually, one of the reasons people go to Churchill is for Northern Lights viewing people usually go in the middle of winter.
Here's another nice local plant that's actually an orchid - lady's-tresses or Spiranthes romanzoffiana.
These are Snow Geese.This is something I've actually worked with. I spent a big chunk of my career working on interactions between Snow Geese and the plants that they eat. They don't nest around the Study Centre, but they nest not too far to the east of there, and in late summer we start getting family groups like this, wandering in, eating the cotton grass, doing whatever geese do. If you come in the course you're going to get a lecture devoted entirely to these birds like, I say they're one of the things that I've worked on myself.
This is an Arctic Fox. We saw a bunch of them this year. You may know Arctic Foxes in winter are white, but in summer they adopt this brown pelage, and they can be really hard to spot. I think there were a bunch of active dens close to the Study Centre.
It's actually a contact zone between Arctic Foxes and Red Foxes, the fox you get down here. In fact, there's sort of an ongoing war between the two going on. Churchill is a big center for fox research, both Arctic and Red Fox, and I think there's a pretty good chance to get a researcher to talk about this while we're up there. That's on the road just outside the study center.
Not terribly good shot of Pacific Loon. These are arctic nesting loons. You may have encountered Common Loon in northern Ontario. Here, that's a southern bird.
Willow Ptarmigan, the chicken of the North. In spring these are everywhere. They really are about chicken-sized. They have an absolutely hilarious territorial call. I recommend you Google it. Hard to see later in the summer. But again they're there.
These are Beluga Whales in the river. So every white dot is a whale. Typically, in late summer, when we're there they're going to be several hundred whales in the river mouth. Frankly, the one wildlife I think I can guarantee you is Beluga Whales. Barring major disaster, there'll be hundreds of them in the river about what we're there you'll get a chance to see them, and if you want, you potentially can go on a whale tour.
This coastal tundra. This is an example of the really good quality tundra that's around the study center. Again, this site is right on the tree line. There are lots of spruce in the area, but headlands have really typical arctic tundra
So there also are Taiga areas or boreal forest areas like this that are accessible to us; a really different environment. We spend a lot of time talking about the transition from one to another.
This is a permafrost photo. The foreground there, with a sort of blotchy ground surface, that's a palsa. Palsas are permafrost-cored mounds that develop in wetland areas. In fact, most of the landscape through here at the center is permafrost invading wet forest.
That's a Hudsonian Godwit. These are really a shorebird. They nest locally. It's one of the strongholds for them. This is a very rare bird. There are only about fifty thousand of them total in the world. A substantial number of them nest around Churchill. Hopefully, we'll see them. Godwits are also famous because they're long-distance migrants. These guys fly to southern  South America but the really famous one is Bar -tailed Godwit in Alaska. They recently had one fly non-stop to Australia.
And finally these guys again I don't guarantee them but there's a pretty good chance we will encounter them. These two are basically standing on one of our experiments. They popped out to the bushes. There's actually another cub hiding back in there. Again, Churchill is really a stronghold for Polar Bears in the summer.
That's all I want to say!