by Marie Claire Gatt              MSc Bird Conservation 2013-14

Connecting flights, a long coach journey, and a hearty Polish dinner set us – a group of 32 students – at the start of a week-long field trip, with Europe’s last primeval forest as our backdrop. Białowieża is one of the locations offered for the Practical Techniques unit field course for Masters students in behaviour and conservation. With dense forest, rich meadows and a system of streams and ponds, the area boasts a great species variety of birds, mammals and other animals.

Field courses are a golden opportunity for prospective researchers in the field of biology to get a taste of what to expect when carrying out a research project. Fitting this in a week’s trip hammers home lessons in choosing aims and objectives and thoroughly planning data collection and analysis to suit the aim. At some point, a science student will learn (the hard way) that these will keep your research project together, so it’s helpful to have had a taste of what to expect before starting your final year project!

The first full day in Białowieża is dedicated to getting a feel of what kind of project you’d like to do and what is actually feasible. The lecturers (a vast array of them) offer up some suggestions too, but it’s always good to have sorted out your team and agreed on what themes you’d be happy working on together. I teamed up with three of my course mates to plan and execute a playback experiment on corncrake, testing if they reacted differently to Polish and Scottish corncrake recordings played on their territory.  It was hard work to collect as many data points as we could, but we all pulled our weight and made it a very enjoyable experience. Other topics tackled in our year included bat and beaver ecology and invertebrate diversity and abundances. Sharing our project progress and getting feedback from each other and from the lecturers is encouraged; course mates who aren’t in your team might be able to point out things you and your team mates haven’t noticed, or might have come across a good area to spot that animal you’re studying!

At times, the field trip really doesn’t feel like a holiday – and it shouldn’t! Pulling off a decent project in limited time takes a lot of hard work, sometimes on little sleep, but you wouldn’t want to have it any other way. The environment – wild, exciting and restless with spring feelings – is very rewarding in itself, and it feels good to end the week presenting a job well done. Nevertheless, if you organise your time well, it should be possible to have a relaxing wander, and the hard work calls for a few social evenings.

Insider tips

Take wellington boots: Your hiking shoes can only take so much water before transforming into a puddle. If you’re going to be walking through knee-high wet grass all day, wellington boots and waterproof trousers are a blessing (believe me, I know…)!

Learn some basic Polish words: or take a phrase book. No-one really speaks any English, but a few hand gestures and doodles might also do the trick.

Wake up early: That’s probably when you’ll see most wildlife and get that enviable shot of a bison to brag about.