t's been a long time (been a long time, been a long lonely lonely lonely lonely time), but unfortunately the majority of my post-doc work is grant writing, manuscripts, and computer analysis, none of which is as photogenic or inspiring as fieldwork. The computer time is starting to pay off in the form of publications. In December, we were happy to see two pelican papers hit the digital shelves: the first on how transmitters affect pelicans, and the second on the relationship between stress hormone levels, body condition, and survival in pelican chicks. Both are open-access-- free and available to anyone!
Right now, I'm spending a month as a visiting scholar in the Friesen Lab at Queen's University, in the lovely snow-globe city of Kingston, Ontario.
My work here is focused on looking for genetic differences between pelicans that migrate and pelicans that don't. I'm studying three genes that have known associations with migration, circadian rhythms, and movement:
I will be back-- sooner this time-- with updates on new fieldwork in the Gulf and elsewhere!
About a year ago, we started receiving reports of blue-banded juvenile pelicans making their way South. It is always a pleasure to receive news of birds we banded, whether they stayed around the colony or migrated for the winter. Some avid observers even sent us beautiful pictures of the birds which we want to share with you. Thanks a lot to all the observers and photographers - keep them coming!
I did it! I defended my dissertation!
I am not usually one to abuse exclamation points, but it was a great day and a really nice culmination of four years of hard work. Right now I'm finishing up the final edits on my dissertation and getting ready to graduate (!) in a few weeks. After that, I will transition to a post-doctoral position here at Clemson, focusing on the contaminants samples we collected from the Gulf, as well as recruiting a Master's student to continue some of my pelican research and getting a few new projects off the ground. I'm really excited about getting involved with the Gulf Avian Monitoring Network, which is an ambitious effort to implement standard monitoring of a range of bird species and habitats in the Gulf of Mexico. There are also some other research ideas in the works, as well as papers to finish, and I can guarantee I won't be bored.
In a way, not much will change, but it's the start of a new chapter. In the meantime, if you would like to watch my defense, you can find it here:
I have not forgotten my promise to summarize my dissertation, and will also post the full document (all 235 pages of it, thanks to the required 1.25" margins) once it's available.
Thank you to everyone who has been involved with the project or followed along from a distance. This project wouldn't have been possible without all the great people I've met along the way, and you definitely haven't heard the last of me yet!
Out in the field, our pelicans are settling in for another breeding season. Here in South Carolina, I'm still stuck in my office.
After several months of intense writing, I've finally finished my dissertation. The whole thing is seven chapters: five are manuscripts that I will be submitting to scientific journals, plus an introduction and conclusion to tie everything together. I'll be defending in a week, which involves presenting a research seminar that's open to the university community and the public, followed by a closed-door session with my advisory committee in which they get to ask me tough questions about anything and everything related to my research. After the dust settles I'll post summaries of each chapter to the blog, since they are independently quite cool and represent a ton of work by a ton of people. In the meantime, if you're in the neighborhood of Clemson on April 12th, come by and see it in person!
In other news, I have taken up writing a regular column for JSTOR Daily, an online magazine that showcases scientific papers from the JSTOR online archive. I love writing the column, which gives me a chance to explore the development of different ideas about wildlife, but it takes more work than I had expected to think of an interesting, relevant topic every two weeks! Feel free to e-mail me if there's anything you'd be interested in reading about-- I am not above crowdsourcing inspiration. You can find all of my columns at http://daily.jstor.org/category/re:-wild/.
Also, we'll be contributing to the World Seabird Twitter Conference on Friday, April 13-15th! Check out our twitter account (@project_pelican) or #WSTC2 to see all research being presented by seabirders around the world.
That's all for now. Writing can be exciting, in its own way, but I miss the birds...
I promised an update on actual work. Unfortunately, lab- and office-work is not very photogenic, so it's hard to get inspired to write about it. But over the past week or so, I've been working on a project that reminds me a bit of being in the field, even as I sit in my concrete bunker office.
When I went to California in June, one thing I asked for was video of the pelicans we GPS-tagged. In the field, we don't have the luxury of watching pelicans immediately after we put tags on them, since they usually fly away from the colony and sit on the water to adjust their harnesses and preen off the effects of capture. I was curious to see whether the tag affects their behavior immediately afterward, and if so how this might influence their ability to continue breeding normally after tagging.
Luckily, OWCN has a great photographer on staff, and he set up a video camera to record for several hours before and after we attached the transmitters. Also luckily, the enclosure contained five birds that received transmitters and four that didn't, making this a perfect setup for a before-after-control-impact study. We could compare the behavior of the GPS-tagged birds before and after tagging to the behavior of control birds during both periods, eliminating the influence of underlying differences between the groups of birds and things like time of day that affect the behavior of both groups.
Of course, that also meant that someone (me) had to actually watch the videos. Each video was a little over 33 minutes long and had to be watched nine times (for nine different birds). There were ten videos, five pre- and five post-tagging. You can do the math... or I will. That's about 3000 minutes, a.k.a. 50 hours, of watching a bunch of pelicans move around an enclosure not much bigger than-- well, my bunker office. Luckily, I am starved for pelican viewing in winter, so it wasn't as much of a pain as you might imagine.
For about a week, my world looked something like this:
The screen on the left is the video; the screen on the right is a coding program called EthoLog. Every time a pelican does something different, I enter a time-stamped code, and at the end EthoLog tallies up the statistics for me. I know how many times each pelican stretched, how long (on average) it was in the air each time it flew, when it ate... the list goes on.
I also got to observe some interesting things about pelicans. For one thing, the rehab birds spent more time standing with their wings stretched out than we're used to seeing in the field. For another, they really like to go back to their favorite spots along the edge of the tub. This made my job (following the same pelican around the enclosure for 30 minutes at a time) a lot easier. There were some pelicans that had established dominance, while others were trying not to be noticed.
But what about behaviors? In the end, there wasn't a lot of difference. The tagged birds spent more time preening and less time resting after tagging than the controls, but critical behaviors like perching, swimming, and flying didn't seem to be affected. The preening behavior lines up well with what we saw in the field, and based on observations we made several days afterward, this difference doesn't seem to last. That's good news for the GPS data (means that our tracked birds are behaving like normal birds!) as well as for the pelicans. For the rest of the details, you'll have to wait for the paper :-)
Anyway, if you ever feel like watching some riveting pelican cinema, let me know. I can hook you up.
Just dropping by to let you all know that my review paper on effectiveness of different vegetation management techniques in tern nesting habitat (part of my MS research) just came out in the journal Conservation Evidence! You can find it here: Vegetation management review.
Right now we're deep in the mire of writing, burning fish, analyzing data, etc. We did take a break for a week in October to head over to South Africa for the second World Seabird Conference. It was an excellent conference in a beautiful place, and I got to have lots of awkward, star-struck conversations with "famous" seabird researchers.
I'll write a real research update soon, but in the meantime, here's a huge, cleaned red snapper we found while sorting through pelican chick regurgitates. Don't you just want to eat it? Maybe? Almost?
It's been a while!
I won't try to fill in all of the blanks, but here's a quick recap of the second half of pelican season #3. For a much more exciting look at life in a pelican colony, check out this great report by Caitlin Lawrence of WMBB Television: http://www.mypanhandle.com/news/project-pelican-south-carolina-researchers-studying-seabirds-in-gulf-of-mexico.
In most of the colonies we studied in Florida and Alabama, 2015 was a great year. The grass and shrubs were full of healthy chicks, with many nests producing two or even three young. The key seemed to be plenty of fish, especially smaller fish like sardines and anchovies.
One of the major findings of our work so far has been how much of a difference smaller fish can make. I recently modeled energy delivery rates based on our data from Texas and found that both chick survival and chick condition increased as they were fed more juvenile menhaden (about 2" or less in length). These fish resulted in slightly smaller but more frequent meals, and chicks received more energy over the course of the day. Young menhaden form large schools in shallow water, which may make them easy targets for pelican parents.
In Florida and Alabama, we didn't see many young menhaden, but we did see a lot of other small fish, especially sardines and anchovies. These may be taking the place of small menhaden as an energy-packed, easy-to-catch meal. Not many of these smaller species occur in Texas, so the young pelicans there are much more dependent on menhaden alone as a food source. Lukily, the menhaden fishery is considered one of the most well-managed and sustainable fisheries in the country, so-- unlike a lot of other seabird species-- pelicans may not need to worry about their prey disappearing any time soon.
The story wasn't all rosy, though. The easternmost colony in the Florida Panhandle, Smith Island, dropped from 40-50 nesting pairs to only 10 at the start of the 2015 season. By the time we left, only three chicks were still alive, and they weren't in very good shape. With poor body condition and high stress levels, they seemed to be starving to death. This is especially interesting since the nearest waterbird colony east of Smith Island, Seahorse Key, completely abandoned this year for the first time in recent memory. I can't help wondering if whatever nutritional problems affected the Smith Island birds also affected Seahorse Key. The fact that lots of pelicans seemed to skip breeding this year suggests that the problem was apparent from early in the season. I'll definitely be trying to figure out what local conditions could have caused such a terrible breeding season for these colonies, even while pelicans breeding less than 50 miles to the west had a great year...
Meanwhile, the rehabilitated pelicans in California seem to be thriving, and several have already visited San Francisco and are making their way to Oregon! We also got our first results back from heart rate monitors. Here's a day in the life of a pelican chick, measured in heartbeats:
I've got lots more to say, but will save the rest for future entries and close with some images of Florida life.
As I mentioned in my last post, my advisor and I are collaborating with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network to study the movements of pelicans affected by the Refugio Oil Spill. Twelve cleaned pelicans will be fitted with PTTs and monitored post-release, along with a group of eight non-oiled pelicans captured in the wild whose movements and survival can be compared to those of the rehabilitated birds.
Last Wednesday, I flew out to San Pedro, a district of Los Angeles, where International Bird Rescue is headquartered. Since OWCN is based in Davis (inland northern California), it relies on a network of partner facilities like IBR to remain ready to handle an oil spill anywhere in the state. When the Refugio spill occurred, IBR immediately scaled back its normal rehabilitation work to make room for oiled birds coming in from Santa Barbara, about two hours northwest of the facility. Many of the OWCN staff members arrived thinking the spill was about 500 barrels-- a few days' work at most. More than two weeks later, the total had mounted to 2,500 barrels, and they were still there.
Spill response and preparedness is what OWCN does year-round, and it's easy to see why. Besides readying vets, rehabilitators, volunteers, and facilities to handle the cleaning and medical care of hundreds of birds and mammals at a moment's notice, they also manage the field operations, a whole separate set of trained respondents and volunteers that find, stabilize, and transport oiled wildlife from the spill site to the rehab facility. All of this happens on a high-profile stage, surrounded by a media and public hungry for information
My (tiny) role was to deploy five transmitters and train OWCN's staff to handle the other fifteen. After the staff banded and examined the birds, I took over to demonstrate the basics of harness technique. I've never had such a big audience for a harness attachment! After the first few, I handed over the materials to Kyra (the biologist who will be capturing the control birds) and Chris (the veterinarian who will manage deployments on the rest of the rehab birds), and they each did a harness on their own. Their technique was impeccable. We also managed to get several hours of video of the birds before and after attachment, which we can use to look for behavioral effects of the transmitters-- I never have that luxury in the field!
Just after I left to return to the Gulf, the five transmitter birds were released along with five other pelicans near the site of the spill. Although I could only watch it on my computer, seeing them take off was thrilling, especially knowing that we'll be able to keep an eye on them for months and maybe years to come. Although my research in the Gulf is not a post-spill study, everything we learn here will help contribute to readiness for the next spill. For coastal wildlife, a baseline that doesn't include the influence of oil is a virtual impossibility. It's nice to have a reminder of why this work matters, and what it can achieve.
I am grateful to have met and worked with the staff of OWCN and IBR, whose dedication, humor, and professionalism provide a nice counterpoint to the bleak news of yet another spill. I can't wait to see where these birds go
Somehow we're almost halfway through the field season... how does that happen? Although there's plenty to say about pelicans, I think I'm going to talk about gadgets instead.
It's hard to find any research in the modern natural sciences that doesn't rely on an array of different technologies, from camera traps to GPS units to speedy computers to the satellites that orbit the earth gathering vast quantities of information on the systems we study. We too often underappreciate our gadgets-- or, at least, to take them for granted until they go wrong. When you're back in the lab, it's easy to gripe about wasting a few hours because a data server is down or a piece of equipment needs service. In the field, though, gadgets (trucks, boats, ATVs, telemetry units) are your lifeblood-- if they don't work, you don't work. And we definitely ask a lot of our equipment.
Here are some of the many gadgets that go above and beyond for our project.
1) Ever wonder what a GPS transmitter and harness look like after two years on a pelican?
We recovered this PTT from an adult we had captured in 2013 that recently died of natural causes. GeoTrack has since refurbished it, and I will be bringing this unit (and a few others) out to southern California next week as part of the Refugio Oil Spill Response. I'll be helping the Oiled Wildlife Care Network study the movements of oiled pelicans that have been cleaned and released. I'm really excited to be able to contribute to this important project-- keep an eye out for details!
2) Ever wonder how to get a 250lb inflatable motorboat on a truck? Here's the story of Achilles, in twelve easy steps.
3) Ever wonder what pelicans' heartbeats say about them? We're working on it.
Heart rate is a great surrogate for energy expenditure, and with the current popularity of heart rate monitoring in personal training, it's easy to find a unit small enough to fit on a pelican chick. All we need to do now is adapt it from human to bird use. Easy? Well, maybe, if you have the right tools. And it takes a lot of tools.
4) And, of course, the mega-gadget without whom none of this would have been possible: Mako, our trusty Gulf-trotting boat.
Thanks for everything, gadgets
This winter has involved lots of writing, presenting, and traveling. Here's the highlight reel...
- I recently finished a report covering our first few seasons of data collection, available here.
- In February I presented an oral paper and a poster at the annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group in San Jose, CA.
- Social media guru Yvan created impressive graphics and tweeted a summary of our results as part of the first annual World Seabird Twitter Conference (#WSTC1) last month. (Belatedly, you can now follow us on Twitter: @project_pelican! Nice to meet you, 21st century.)
- In March, I was back West in Portland (OR), running lots of stress hormone assays with Katie O'Reilly at UP. Hopefully all of our chopping, shaking, and titrating will pay off in the form of some neat results.
- In early April, Yvan and I both be presented at the Texas Bays and Estuaries Meeting in Port Aransas, covering results to date of our work along the Texas coast.
We are now braving yet another round of storms in Florida, waiting for the field season to kick off in earnest. The pelicans are a few weeks behind last year's schedule, giving us time to find some new colonies and work out the kinks with our new inflatable motorboat, the latest of which is exploding launch wheels. That sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is.
Meanwhile, we've managed to visit a new site for this year: Gaillard Island, Alabama, set in the reddish-blue waters of Mobile Bay. After a mainland orientation and some cautionary tales from Dr. John Dindo, of Dauphin Island Sea Labs, we were on our own to explore. Even by our Texas standards, the island is HUGE, a pizza slice of dredge material measuring two miles on each of its long sides and one mile along the crust. Not only is it the largest single Brown Pelican nesting site in the Gulf (over 6,000 pairs), but it also boasts an advanced drainage system, miles of wetlands packed with ducks and geese, and dense, fragrant groves of trees.
In any case, should be an exciting summer. A parting Florida shot to continue the sea life theme...