Grad School Updates

I didn't forget that I had a blog but I didn't exactly remember that I had one either. I just read my last post about studying Snowy Plovers and shorebirds and memories of Killdeer and blah blah blah. Great Scott are we ever in need of an update. EVERYTHING has changed. Except for the fact that I'm still studying birds and analyzing their vocalizations. I just wrote my first real research proposal. Or well, a draft of it. It was the longest 20-page word assemblage I have ever manifested into being. Because I'm that far along, I think it appropriate for an update of what I'm really doing. I have moved past the broad order of Charadriiformes (shorebirds) and honed in on the family Alcidae. This family includes puffins, auklets, murres, guillemots and other seabirds. There is an abundance of pelagic seabirds here in Newfoundland but I couldn't possibly do the easy thing and study birds here. I am traveling to Protection Island, Washington in that other large ocean across the way this summer to do my field term. I have further focused on two alcid species: the Rhinoceros Auklet and the Pigeon Guillemot (pronounced GILL-UH-MOT).

Here's the distinguished Rhino Auklet:


The skinny on this species:

Rhinoceros Auklets are about a foot long and weigh roughly one pound. Both males and females have the characteristic "horn" on their bills which sheds off its outside covering once a year. They are nocturnal (which makes researching them interesting). Their culinary preferences include fish and crustaceans. They nest in burrows on grassy slopes and cliffs and only incubate one egg per year. The late stages of incubation up until the chick fledges is my time to shine. I will record the chick's vocalizations and take daily mass and length measurements. I have termed the Rhino Auklet chicks "puffles" and here's why:


Nuff said.

The Pigeon Guillemot:


And its chick:


The Pigeon Guillemot is around the same size as the Rhinoceros Auklet. It is diurnal (sleeps at night, awake during the day). It also enjoys fish. It prefers crevices and burrows to nest in and lays 1-2 eggs per year.

I am doing a similar study with these guys. The reason that the two are a good comparison is because of where they occur on their family tree or phylogeny. The Rhinoceros Auklet, which is part of the puffin clade is more ancestral than the Pigeon Guillemot which means that the Pigeon Guillemot is essentially a newer species than the Rhino Auklet. Analyzing and comparing their calls says something about how speciation has affected the vocalizations in this lineage of birds. You see, alcids (or pelagic seabirds) don't learn their calls. They are born with every call they will ever need to know. This doesn't mean they make adult sounds when they are chicks, it just means that they are not learning from mom and dad nor are they learning other sounds such as the way a Northern Mockingbird can mimic other birds or parrots can learn our words. Because both of these species exhibit non-learned calls, we know that they are good indicators of phylogenetic signal, a physical character (the call in this case) that has evolved slowly enough to maintain the same state in closely related species.

So it's like any perfect relationship. The birds are different enough to stay interesting but similar enough to group together and compare.

I want to devote an entire blog to describing Protection Island because it is magnificent enough to deserve its own mention. I feel at least a bit better now that I have updated this blog though. And as usual, these pictures don't belong to me so kudos to the people who were cool enough to take them. Stay tuned, more exciting bird adventures to come...

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Grad School and Shorebirds and Nerdy-ness, Oh My!

Lately I've been re-reading a bunch of my field guide. Just perusing through it, taking note of the Short-eared Owl's wheezy barks which sound like cheef cheef and the dappled sunlight camouflage of the Northern Flicker (my favorite woodpecker). There are certain cues in my life which cause me to pick up my field guide again albeit only exciting ones make me want to flip past the quick-find pictures to pore into the descriptions and literature. In this case, I recently got accepted at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland to study shorebirds for my master's. Of course I knew that I wanted to concentrate on birds for this degree but I'm lucky to have found a project with shorebirds. In general, many species of shorebirds are little understood and their populations ranging all types of climates have perhaps, genetically drifted apart. Or in evolutionary terms, speciated. My project will focus mainly on Snowy Plovers (unless projects arise with some other shorebirds). Snowy Plovers pose questions about whether their populations are still of the same species. Can this Snowy Plover living in British Columbia be of the same genetic makeup as the plover living in southwest Texas? To help determine this, I'll be using bioacoustics to record the birds' songs and compare them to samples from other populations. So that picture you have in your head of the nerdy biologist walking around in the forest with a small satellite dish, beady eyes bouncing off every tree, that'll be me. And here's the little unsub now (not my picture):


I am very excited to get to know the Snowy Plover but I have to admit that I don't have much experience or knowledge of shorebirds. Sure I know of a bunch of them and I have glimpsed a few in Colorado (name dropping commence: Greater Yellowlegs, American Avocet, Common Snipe) but I don't know them like I know upland birds and waterfowl. There's only one shorebird that I have known well for as long as I can remember and that is the Killdeer, or as I have duly named it, The Outdoor Alarm System. I remember adventuring through the adobe landscape of my great-grandparent's property and scaring up Killdeer from around the irrigation ditches and the little pond. In the Killdeer's case, "shorebird" means any little body of water it sees fit to resemble a shore. I think it took me a long time as a kid to find out which bird was making my whereabouts known with its shrill alarm because it's camouflage works very well against the pale clay crust which covers the ground that I grew up on. The bird looks like this (from someone else's camera):


These two Killdeer are doing it, but don't let that distract you from their beautiful black superciliary lines and jail-bird necklaces. If it were possible to study Killdeer using bioacoustics, I would probably try because I love them but here's how it would play out: Steph, excited that she has located a Killdeer in real life, slowly approaches it (very slowly) to attempt to record any song it may provide, any subtle nuances in its mood. Steph stops to refocus her binoculars onto the bird with the idea that she will approach it from this perfect angle or that one. Just as Steph lifts her eyes to the horizon, tenses her body to prepare for undetected movement, THE ALARM SOUNDS. The Killdeer has detected Steph from 30 yards away and through six overlapping groves of Russian Olives.

The problem is, it's very difficult to monitor the Killdeer's natural noise-making because they are so easily perturbed. In fact, I have no clue what they sound like when they aren't alarmed. Very touchy little souls. Cue a video of the Killdeer freaking out. This one is faking an injury called the "broken-wing display" (yes, they fake injuries to collect predators from their nest). Bird martyr go!


Anyway, these are very exciting times and I know I'll have much more to say on the topic of shorebirds as I become more familiar with them. I'll leave you with someone else's picture of a beautiful shorebird I mentioned before called the American Avocet. Happy Tuesday!


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