The Biologists and the Artist

Artist and illustrator, Adelaide Tyrol, hesitates for a moment when I ask her about her time in Grand Teton National Park with a group of biologists from the Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI), then she says smiling, “I was thrilled they asked me to go to Yellowstone for a week of observation and drawing." But she added, "I wasn't exactly sure what they expected of me."

Nor did the biologists know what she expected of them. Vin Spagnuolo, a wildlife research biologist and head of the Wyoming loon project, recalls Dave Evers, BRI’s chief scientist and executive director, calling him out of the blue saying that an artist was going to join them. “We said, ‘Oh sure Dave, you’re the boss. If you say jump, we say how high.’” Vin thought to himself, “Oh boy, I have no idea who this person is, whether she’s had any wilderness experience, how old she is, whether she can handle the grueling hikes into the backcountry. But, hey, we’ll give it a go.”

Adelaide’s connection to the biologists began when we asked her to work with RavenMark on materials for BRI that focused on the threats to loons, their decline, and their habitat restoration. Dave Evers and Wildlife Outreach Specialist, Kate Taylor, were impressed with Adelaide’s work and thought a trip into the field would be worthwhile for her and the work the Institute is doing. 

Vin called Adelaide before she left Vermont to talk about what she might expect and to get a feel for what she was looking for and what she was comfortable doing. He reassured her that they would carry all her gear. She told him that while she was pushing 60, she was active outdoors, took hikes, and was in relatively good shape.

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Photo credit: Connor Stefanison Wyoming Loon Project Staff Left-Right: Allie Byrd, Vin Spagnuolo, Carl Brown, Nick Rosenberger, Chris Persico, Michelle Kneeland, Jeff Fair. Loon decoy in hand.

 

That turned out to be a good thing because there were to be 5 to 8 mile hikes into the backcountry to secluded lakes. And Adelaide, according to Vin, “did perfectly.” One measure of how someone does in the field, Vin says, “is if he or she complains. Adelaide never once complained. She just kept exclaiming at how amazing everything was. She was a bit taken aback by what we do, ‘You mean you’re going to go here and jump into that water!’”

Not sure if the biologists expected her to actually paint in the field, Adelaide did bring paints and sketch books. But once actually on a lake in a canoe, sitting under a camouflage netting in the hot sun, and needing to be perfectly still so the biologists could capture the loons, she realized that painting was definitely out.  

In an interesting twist, she realized that there were many gorgeous images of loons, but you don’t often get an opportunity to see biologists in the field at work. “So it was the people and the camaraderie that really moved me and the chance to look closely at nature, at say lodgewood pine and other plants that I was going to have to illustrate.”

There was one very special night Adelaide remembers. “The night they brought me out to the lake, I didn’t know who I was with. It was pitch black, and the biologists wore head lamps so you couldn’t see their faces. I just wanted to be well behaved and quiet.”

When the team was in position on the water, one set of biologists swept the lake with a red light that the loons who had just had their chicks attacked. This gave other members of the team a chance to get the adult bird and then go get the chicks. “I could hear they had caught a bird,” Adelaide recalls, “and were coming back to us."

They had set up a fold-out chair for her to sit in, and then they put a loon in her lap. The bird was furious. She was big, with a beak and feet like weapons. After they put a towel over her head, she quieted down. The biologists took blood samples and measurements very quickly. The goal was to hold the bird for as short a time as possible and then release it. Adelaide was then handed a small, black chick "a life so vulnerable," she thought.

Adelaide knows she’ll never have these experiences again. “I learned a great deal not just about the loons, but about what these young scientists are doing and how respectful they are of nature and her creatures.”  

As for the biologists, Vin says “We’re so focused on data and capturing the birds to study them, we sometimes don’t see another side of our work. Adelaide got us to step back and really look at the amazing place we work in. But perhaps even more important, we can only tell part of the story, as an artist she’ll be able to reach the public in a way we never can.”

See "Conserve the Call" Report.

For more information about BRI's "Restore the Call" research project, watch this interview with Joe Ricketts and David Evers: