The Life of a Field Biologist

This summer research was full of extremes – waking up at 4:00 AM for field work, spending long hours indoors staring at a screen, rushing to fix broken camera cords, struggling to figure out how to back up and store many terabytes of video and song data. Some of the work was fun, some of it was hard, and some of it was monotonous, but it all added up to working determinedly towards a carefully crafted result: valid, valuable data that will be used in a study that will hopefully spawn more studies and help improve the sonic net.

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Reading the Literature

No study is complete without the foundation of the literature that precedes it. During our weekly literature meetings, we discussed the studies that provided the background for our own research. My two favorite studies:

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Playback Experiments

Once the basic experiments with the sonic net had concluded, we started playback experiments. These involved setting up a speaker with an iPod to play either the alarm call of a tufted titmouse or the main call of an eastern screech owl (an ethereal sound someone likened to the call of a mournful ghost cat). We would then film and record the reactions of the birds at each feeder so that we could later analyze their behavior and vocalizations. It was hard at first to describe the actions of the birds while coordinating the filming, but we all figured it out quickly after a day of practice. The surprising thing was that on the surface, it often seemed like there wasn’t a change in behavior. Perhaps the playback would start and the bird on the feeder wouldn’t leave, or more birds would come and feed. Or we would unknowingly hit the play button just as a bird was leaving the feeder, and no birds would return. Some days were busy days, which meant more work on our transcriptions later. Other days (though this was rare) we wouldn’t get a single bird at one of the feeders.

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Field Observations

Although we were able to set up cameras at two of our field sites, the third site was not close enough to a space that had both a power source and a place for a monitor and backup system. For that reason, we divided up the days so that for about six days out of every week, one of us would arrive just before 7:00 AM armed with a folding chair, binoculars and a guidebook, a stack of data sheets, a stopwatch (or phone), bug deterring clothes, and snacks and caffeine. For two hours we would sit and alternate watching the control feeder and the sonic net feeder for one minute out of every ten, jotting down each bird’s visit on our tally sheets. We’d set up between the two feeders and give the birds time to adjust to our presence. Then we’d sit quietly and just watch. It was always beautiful so early in the morning, with the sun filtering through the leaves and the oppressive summer heat still sleeping. Unlike with the video cameras, we could observe the entire field site during these observations. While our main task was to write down feeder visits exactly like we did when collecting video data, it was a lot easier to comprehend the implications of that data when watching the whole scene. I could easily tell which feeder was more frequented (for example, in the original trials with the sonic net playing, the birds visited the control feeder much more frequently, emptying that feeder at a much faster rate). I could also see when individual birds would fly from one feeder to another. If a northern cardinal were feeding on the control feeder, a tufted titmouse might try to land there, be displaced by the aggressive cardinal, and then fly over to the sonic net feeder instead, in spite of the higher risk from the masking “pink” noise of the net.

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Video data

The best thing about using video data is the pause button. Birds – especially tiny songbirds – are small and speedy, and sometimes collecting a minute’s worth of data from a video clip could take almost five minutes. Too often I would have to back up and rewatch a few seconds – was that a white throated sparrow or a house finch? Carolina chickadee or white-breasted nuthatch? Although the video taken from the field sites offered advantages – we could collect data whenever it was convenient instead of having to do field observations at a set time every day – sometimes it was hard to decide which option was better. In the field, blinking or sneezing might mean missing a chickadee’s stop-and-go visit. On the computer screen, the imperfect resolution might mean misidentifying a bird.

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