Sunday, September 12, 2010

Graduate School and Field Work

My whirlwind year has continued as I just completed my third week of graduate school. The last few weeks have been filled with going to school, learning to teach, trying to solidify my thesis proposal, spending time doing field work, and fitting in as many mountain bike rides I can before the end of summer.
School - As a graduate student in Raptor Biology, my course load is somewhat light. The emphasis of the program is on the field work. I am taking two core classes plus one seminar. The core classes include Biometry (Biological Statistics) and Raptor Ecology. The seminar is focused on Animal Behavior. So far the workload of all three has been fairly light. I have one additional class for the first half of the semester focused on teaching. This is required for all students receiving a teaching assistantship.
Teaching - As mentioned above I received a teaching assistantship. This assistantship provides free tuition, health insurance, and a small salary in exchange for teaching biology labs. I currently teach two 3 hour labs per week. The labs are for freshman and sophomore biology majors. It is essentially the second semester of general biology. The lab spans nearly all life forms in a single semester, covering bacteria and archea, protista, fungi, plants and animals. In addition to my teaching time I sit in another teachers lab to better learn the material, attend a weekly coordination meeting, hold office hours for students, and prepare material, quizzes, grading, etc. In all it consumes about 15-16 hours per week. I am really enjoying the assignment. The classes are both good with engaged students who ask lots of questions. There are always a few who aren't paying attention and then require more special assistance, but I have been impressed with most of them. I had my first quiz at the end of last week, so this week promises to include many discussions about how I graded it and if there are extra credit opportunities. The bottom line is that I was generous on the grading and I don't believe in extra credit. I am sure they will call me a hard ass.
Thesis - This is the core of my graduate studies. This semester I need to create a detailed proposal for my graduate research. This includes learning the necessary background material, identifying the unique contribution to science, justifying the work, designing the experiments and field methods, and lining up any necessary funding. Early next semester I must present my proposal to the department for approval. This will be followed by two years of field work carrying out those experiments, then writing and defending my thesis. Right now I am investigating two different topics in parallel. The first is dependent upon funding from a federal agency whose budget is not likely to be solidified any time soon. The second is a continuation of some of my undergraduate research into the migratory timing of raptors and songbirds focused on optimal foraging theory. It will be very nice when I can drop one and just focus on the primary proposal. Any chance congress will pass the budget before January? Not too likely... Wow, I've got a lot of work to do...
Field Work - While I don't have the field work for my thesis yet defined, I am continuing to improve my general avian field experience by continuing my work with the Idaho Bird Observatory. I spend at least 1 day a week in the field working on avian migratory projects. Last year during school I worked on hawk watch, counting migrating raptors as they pass over the monitoring site. This year I am working on banding raptors and learning how to trap them for banding. So far my work has been on extracting them from the nets and banding them while being instructed on trapping. Jesse, another IBO employee, wrote a great blog article explaining the trapping process and sent me a number of pictures that he took.
I'm extracting a Sharp-shinned Hawk from a DG net. Photo by Jesse.

Extracting Sharp-shinned Hawk from DG net. Photo by Jesse.
The general trapping process includes using a number of different types of nets and a number of different types of lure birds. The lure birds have harnesses which allow a string to be attached and also provides them protection from the attacking predators. Pigeons play the rule of the larger lure to bring in raptors from farther away. Eurasian-collared Doves are the final prize for larger raptors while House Sparrows play the role for the smaller raptors. A pull of a string causes the lure bird to fly up in the air and attract the raptors.
On my second day in the blind, Jay lured in a juvenile male Swainson's Hawk! While they are common in the area, this is only the 4th Swainson's banded here in 15 years. The first in 10 years! I had the honor of extracting him from the net and banding him. They are rarely caught during migration as it is believed that they migrate all of the way to southern Argentina without eating. Amazing! Either that's not entirely true or this was a local bird still foraging because he went after the dove in a spectacular dive!
Juvenile male Swainson's Hawk. Photo by Jesse.
This time of year we mostly catch juveniles for most species. The adults generally migrate later. The true reason for this hasn't been completely established, but it is believed that the adults can stay on the breeding grounds longer even though prey populations are declining because their hunting skills are better. In some species the adults also molt their feather before migration where juveniles are still wearing their juvenile feathers during migration. This also explains why some males migrate at different times than females of the same species. The sexes can have different molt strategies as well. Most raptor species show reverse sexual dimorphism (female larger than male). In some cases the size difference with quite substantial (50% bigger). This enables the two sexes to utilize different prey bases which can also lead to different migratory times. It's all interrelated - did dimorphism cause separate food niches which caused different migration timing, which caused different molt strategies, or did different molt strategies cause different migration timing, which required dimorphism? Hmmm. The joy of analyzing causation in ecological studies. My opinion = yes. It's all interrelated.
I'm applying a leg band to juvenile male Sharp-shinned Hawk. Photo by Jesse.
During the banding process we not only attach a leg band to the bird, but measure wing, tail, weight, eye color, crop, and parasites. These measurements must be performed while staying very wary of the bird's main weapons. The talons and bill are very sharp and warrant the utmost respect. The Red-tailed Hawk picture below sunk his talon into my chest as I was repositioning him. Ouch! The species differ in their attack as well. The American Kestrel is a ruthless biter and a master at wiggling his short tarsi free to grab you. The larger hawks seem to just use their talon and grab anything that touches them. Neosporin is my friend!
Juvenile male Red-tailed Hawk.

Juvenile female Cooper's Hawk.
My first experience with actually running the trap came unexpectedly. On a really slow day in the blind, my instructor took a quick break to run back to camp. Just after he left I see two Sharp-shinned Hawks cruising by. This was my chance. I pull the Pigeon. One of the Sharpies (short for Sharp-shinned Hawk) peals off and dives toward the trap. I switch to the sparrow. I grab the string, but the bird doesn't respond as I expect. The sharpie loses interest and flies off. While I had been instructed on the general operation, I had never actually pulled on the strings. It looks easy but requires much more finesse. My first opportunity would go unfullfilled. I am looking forward to next Wednesday for another chance. I will also spend a little more time practicing the pull of the string for each lure.
Songbird banding is still operating at full speed. With school and the above mentioned activities keeping me busy, I am not regularly working with songbirds, but I did spend a few hours up there on Saturday. I was able to band my first Townsend's Warbler of the year, a favorite of mine. They generally come through in September after the start of school so I have had little opportunity to see one up close this year. We had a Townsend's, a Wilson's Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, and a MacGillivray's Warbler all at the same time. Cool.
Juvenile female Townsend's Warbler.
As you can see I have plenty to keep me busy. I am still trying to mountain bike with Karyn 4 days a week and have to resubmit my undergraduate research manuscript for publication. In all, it has been a great 3 weeks and I am looking forward to the next three years in this program.