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Birds, Bugs, Battlestar Galactica. by Alex Youre-Moses

June 28, 2018
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    alex doing fieldwork in acadia national park

*Alex is doing summer research in Acadia National Park with Dr. Jackson as part of the Acadia Bug Project (www.acadiabugproject.com). You can follow the team on social media @JacksonEcoLab on facebook, twitter and instagram*

Now that we are almost a month in, with only one month left (sad reacts only please), I feel it is necessary to talk about the research that has been going on. If you have been keeping up with the content that we have all happily posted online, then you know the last month has consisted of bugs and, more recently, birds. The many posts online have been mostly about Dr. Jackson’s own research, but we have yet to include any information about the smaller projects that are occurring throughout the duration of our stay in Maine. I am one of the few students that are actively working on their senior projects as we all work on the broader research at hand.

So now you may be wondering what I am working on, but we will get to that shortly.

Within the last week and a half, we have been splitting our focus between bugs and birds (which is, in my opinion, difficult to do because they require two different mindsets and two different time-slots).

We’ve talked a bit about the daily rituals of bug collection. If you don’t know by now, a typical day in the life here goes like this: go to site, take aquatic samples, take terrestrial samples (via beat sheet and sweep net), collect qualitative aquatic and terrestrial samples (unless we have our citizen scientists to help us), check and reset the emergence traps, sort through the very muddy aquatic samples, drive home, disinfect gear, reset. On the days that we have citizen scientists help us (which happens two times a week), we do all of this in the morning and then we have more data collection between the hours of 1 pm and 5 pm. Upon returning home, or within the immediate days after, we sort and identify all of the bugs that our citizen scientists helped us collect so you, our wonderful and devoted readers, can be informed about the abundance and diversity of the insects that we have collected on that day. 

Bird research, on the other hand, requires very early mornings, which means we have to leave somewhere between 4:30 am and 5:30 am on the days we are collecting bird data. Luckily for us, there is enough student involvement that we can switch out who is doing what each day. Unfortunately for Dr. Jackson, there is only one of her so she has had a never-ending cycle of getting up at 4 am each morning (but, thankfully her friend Evan stayed with us for a few days and helped us out A LOT – here’s a little fun fact: Dr. Jackson and Evan called themselves the Bird Ninjas). These early mornings go like this: wake up, be a zombie, go to site, actually wake up, pick mist-netting location, set up gear, wait for bird to come to the net, successfully get bird out of net, take notes on bird condition, collect fecal samples, collect blood samples, repeat for roughly 5 hours, go home, nap for 12 hours (disclaimer: this last part may just be me).

Now, let’s move on to my own research project.

Let me give you some quick background information. At first, I was going to focus on the foraging behavior of songbirds at two of our four sites (Schoodic Beaver Pond and Gilmore Marsh). I quickly realized how DIFFICULT it would be to find and then follow foraging birds, identify what they’re eating, know exactly which bird I am looking at without the use of color bird bands, and then compare the data. Me, only a student intern, trying to do an in-depth analysis of foraging behavior = not a chance. After looking at several scientific articles, even the professionals had a hard time. So it was back to the drawing board for Dr. Jackson and I. Then something struck. Dr. Jackson proposed territory mapping in the place of foraging behavior. At first I was like, “Why would I want to do that? How does this relate to my overarching research question: Are songbirds in Acadia National Park, Maine eating emergent aquatic insects?”

After some thought: it’s a pretty simple concept. Birds living closer to the water are more likely to be exposed to emergent aquatic insects. How will I study this, you ask? I will be analyzing the fecal samples collected during our early mornings! This allows me to see exactly what the birds have been eating. I will also be comparing blood mercury concentrations to the DNA results to see if higher mercury levels are associated with emergent aquatic insects.

Once I was out in the field, I was hooked. Just close your eyes and imagine me enthusiastically running around trying to find birds and taking their coordinates. It’s a sight for sore eyes, in my opinion.

So far, it’s been really hard to distinguish between individual birds, but I have had the help of Dr. Jackson, Evan, and my wonderful friend Veronica. Here’s another image to imagine: Veronica and I in the forest trying to figure out if there are multiple birds of the same species by standing back to back while I play the individuals call or song. If you didn’t picture a pose straight out of Charlie’s Angels, you’re absolutely wrong. But luckily, I am only focusing on a few bird species at each site: Common Yellowthroats and Song Sparrows at both sites, White-throated Sparrows at Schoodic Beaver Pond, and Swamp Sparrows at Gilmore. This allows me to equally distribute my energy into each bird species.

All in all, I have been having a great time learning how to identify both birds and insects. This is also my first time truly participating in fieldwork and I sure do have a love-hate relationship with it. But the long hours, intense heat, and the many mosquito bites are going to be worth it – or at least I hope so… I have to keep reminding myself – research isn’t linear… research isn’t linear… research is NOT a linear process!! It’s full of hard work, data that doesn’t connect right away, lots of caffeine, countless hours wondering if you’re actually doing this right… maybe even spending some days thinking that you should just walk away from the computer, the site, the microscope and run into the forest never to talk to anyone ever again. That may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. Regardless, I’m having a great time up here in Acadia.

P.S.

We also spend all of our time in the car listening to various episodes from a podcast called Ologies (shameless plug – go take a look). Between conducting research, attending lectures at Schoodic Institute in our free time, and listening to this podcast, I can safely say that we have all learned quite a bit this summer.