Studying Hummingbird Behavior

Last week I wrote about the hummingbirds I’d seen over my holiday break in Arizona, and I talked briefly about their behavior at the feeders – how a single hummingbird would claim a feeder as its own and guard it, chasing away any others that approached. When I unearthed my field notebooks from college, one of the things I found was pages of data on this very subject. On a trip to Costa Rica for our tropical biology class, my friend Meredith and I did a little study of how different hummingbird species interacted at the feeders at our hotel in the cloud forest.

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Let me explain what’s going on in these columns of cryptic notes. The strings of capital letters were our codes for the different hummingbird species – not proper banding codes, just our own abbreviations. For example, “M” is a Magnificent Hummingbird, “FMG” is a female White-throated Mountain-gem, and “VE” is a Green Violet-ear. (Only in some species could we easily tell the sexes apart.) “Back” is just my note that I was watching the back feeder, not the front one. When there was already one hummingbird at the feeder and another one approached, we would record what sort of interaction they had. Was there no reaction, did the new one displace the one that was already there, did the one that was already there chase the new one away? As you can see, there was a lot of action. When we got home we entered all of this into spreadsheets, ran some statistics, and eventually presented the results as a poster at an ornithological conference. (Don’t ask me what the results were, exactly, because this was four years ago and I don’t really remember.)

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An ancient photo from said trip to Costa Rica in January 2009. Yeah, field biology, it’s a tough career.

By the time this post is published on Wednesday I’ll be on a field trip with my graduate program to Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Findland, Minnesota. Look for a post Friday or Saturday on my expedition to the northern (!) shore of Lake Superior!

Inside a Scientist’s Notebook

Well, a science student, anyway. While I was at my parents’ house I went through some old boxes of books and I came across the field notebooks I used for various projects back in college, filled with pages and pages of notes and data. It brought back a lot of memories of all the different things I worked on – interactions between hummingbirds at a feeder in Costa Rica, counts of bird diversity at different sites in the area around campus, plant transects through bogs, my big senior thesis on how garlic mustard affected spring wildflower abundance. (None of this was ever published or anything, just various student projects.) Here’s a page of notes on robin behavior for my ornithology class.

notebookThis is my wimp-out post because it was really cold yesterday afternoon (I’m back in Wisconsin) and I only took a short walk and didn’t take any photos.

Australia Flashback: Echidna Encounter

When I was preparing to go to Australia, I tried to keep realistic expectations when it came to the wildlife I’d see.  Kangaroos and emus?  Probably.  Koalas and platypuses?  No – I wouldn’t be anywhere near the right habitat.  But despite my lack of platypus-viewing opportunities, there was another monotreme that, with just a little luck, I might run into.

The first time I saw an echidna, I had only been there a few days.  I didn’t have my camera with me (yes, I was dumb enough to go for a walk in the Australian Outback without my camera), but if I had seen one that quickly, surely I’d see more, right?  Then weeks passed.  Weeks and weeks.  I started to lose hope.  Had I missed my one opportunity to get some photos of a real live monotreme in its native habitat?  Nearly two months later, I finally saw a second one, and this time I had my camera on me.  Thank heavens.

The great thing about echidnas is that they can’t really move any faster than a waddle, so when they see you they don’t even bother trying to run away.  When you get too close they just curl up into a prickly ball and wait for you to leave.  You can get as close as you want to take photos, and I admit I couldn’t resist reaching out to touch one of its spines!

Near the beginning of this video you may be able to hear me over the wind, softly saying “Echidnaaaaaa!”  I was completely alone at the time.  I was just a little excited.  :)

Updated to add: I showed one of my echidna photos to a coworker, and she said, “What the heck’s an echidna?”  So in case you’re not in the know, an echidna is a monotreme, or egg-laying mammal.  There are actually several species of echidna in Australia and New Zealand, and they’re the only close living relatives of that other, more famous monotreme, the platypus.  This is a short-beaked echidna, Tachyglossus aculeatus.

Australia Flashback: Dust Storm of the Century!

When I started this blog I knew that if I ever ran short of ideas for posts, I had plenty of material saved up from my time in Canada, Costa Rica, Australia, etc.  Well, that time has come.  I’m not so much running short of ideas as I am of time and energy to go out into the woods for inspiration; temperatures this week have climbed into the nineties, which, when combined with the godawful humidity of Ohio summer, feels like living at the bottom of a warm, sticky lake.  Add to that a demanding job, and it’s just been a while since I’ve hit the trails by myself with my camera.  It’s on my to-do list for this weekend.

So.  Let me tell you a story.

I spent last fall in the Australian Outback, working as a field assistant for a PhD student studying bird behavior.  (Little brown birds, not anything exciting like Emus or Wedge-tailed Eagles, though both of those were fairly common at our field site.  One thing I learned was that Emus are not particularly enthusiastic nest builders, as you can see from the Emu “nest” below, with my feet for scale.)

Because it was a desert ecosystem – one that made southern Arizona look almost lush in comparison – it was fairly common on windy days for a certain amount of dust to be whipped up into the air.  The first time I saw the horizon go brown with dust I was deeply impressed.  A real live dust storm!  How exotic!

I had no idea what was in store.

One afternoon it started to get dusty, and then it just kept getting dustier.

And dustier.

I somehow missed getting any photos or video of the absolute blackest part of the storm, but a quick YouTube search for “dust storm in Broken Hill” (Broken Hill being the nearest town) yields endless clips taken around 3:30PM by bamboozled locals.  Yes, that’s right, this video of what appear to be car headlights in the middle of the night was taken at three-thirty in the afternoon.

We put cloths along the bases of all the doors to the outside to keep the dust out of the house, but with limited success; during the worst part of the storm the air was pretty thick with it even inside, and it was just lucky that none of us had respiratory problems.  It was fun to clean up, too.  Here is our partially swept bathroom floor the next day (our bathroom had an outside door for some reason).

This dust storm went on to hit Sydney, which according to my parents actually merited a small mention in the news in America, and even made it all the way across the sea to New Zealand.  People told me afterward that it was the worst dust storm Australia had seen in seventy-some years.  It has its own Wikipedia article.

All I know is it was like the apocalypse, or being suddenly transported to Mars, or something.

Never let it be said that I don’t have an interesting life.

In the Land of Grass

Last summer I spent three months working in Grasslands National Park, a Canadian national park in southern Saskatchewan.  My season as an assistant on the long-term ecological research going on there was originally meant to be the first season of field work for a master’s degree; I ultimately decided not to stay on as a grad student, and I’m still convinced that was the right decision, but I don’t in any way regret the time that I did spend there.

We were seven women sharing a trailer far, far in the middle of nowhere, a forty-five minute drive over gravel roads from the nearest town, which had a population of all of 250 or so.  (To get to Moose Jaw or Swift Current, the nearest cities big enough to have things like movie theaters and department stores, took well over two hours.)  Our field sites were large areas of pasture stocked with different numbers of cattle, and we used ATVs to get around.  The purpose of the study was to examine the effects of grazing intensity on the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem, specifically on songbird, insect, and plant diversity.

It was truly amazing.  Nothing but grassy hills as far as the eye could see.  Pronghorns, mule deer, badgers, sage grouse, golden eagles, real-life cowboys…

When we were doing point counts (a technique for counting the abundance and diversity of songbirds), we would get up at 3:30AM in order to be at our field sites but sunrise.  Speeding across this incredibly remote and beautiful prairie on an ATV as the sky gradually lightened, fingers freezing to the handlebars in the piercing cold wind, cattle reluctantly moving out of the path… it was an adventure.

Once I was doing my first point count of the morning, just as the sun was rising, and I turned around to see a short-eared owl winging silently toward me right at eye-level.  It swooped within two feet of my head, circled around for another pass, and then continued on its way.  Those yellow eyes will always be seared into my memory.

Right now the people I worked with are heading back to Grasslands for another field season, and as content as I am with the path I’ve chosen, part of me wishes I were going with them.  Back to the cowboys and the meadowlarks and the jackrabbits.

Back to the land of grass.