Matt Wilkins, my academic brother, has launched a great science communication website - Numbat Media - to help the public access interesting and exciting science! I contributed a story about the night I broke my arm in the field. Everyone should check out the site and follow them on twitter @numbatmedia - lots of great stories, photos, and science; and If you're a scientist, he's looking for more contributors!
More stories about our Israel trip posted through Amanda's website
Amanda and I recently set off on another international adventure in the name of barn swallow research. This time we'll be spending 6 weeks in northern Israel studying a population of barn swallows belonging to the Hirundo rustica transitiva subspecies. We're extremely interested in better understanding the sexual traits in this subspecies. As you may know, if you've been following our blog, or the blog at The Barn Swallow Project, the story for the subspecies in North America really centers on coloration, while in Europe, it's all about tail streamer length. These are the traits that predict reproductive success for males and what females are looking at when they're assessing mates. In Israel, it appears that females get the best of both worlds and males with the longest streamers and darkest color have the highest fitness. Our collaborator, Yoni Vortman, has some really cool work demonstrating these findings experimentally. Our main goal here is to collect data that parallels what we have for North America and Europe. We'll be quantifying and identifying parasites on and in adults and nestlings, collecting nestling feathers for color analysis, and looking at how all these things relate to reproductive success. More on the science soon...
We survived the long flight from Newark to Tel Aviv despite the small dog that yipped the entire time. Luckily, once we got in the air, the engine noise drowned out the barking, but others were not so lucky. After making it through passport control and customs we took a cab to our hotel to drop off our bags full of gear and clothes for the next 6 weeks. The first thing we did was walk up and down the beaches of Tel Aviv. Despite the winter chill in the air, we were able to walk barefoot in the sand and dip our toes in the Mediterranean. While no one was brave enough to be swimming in the cold sea, there were several people kite surfing. Amanda and I watched them amazed at the height they could get and the fact that they never got their lines tangled with each other. We then made our way to Carmel Market - a bustling street market packed with fresh produce, people, and knick-knacks. On our way back up the beach to our hotel, we stopped at a cafe and had our first meal in Israel. I had lamb kebabs with tahini and Amanda had a delicious grilled chicken sandwich with roasted vegetables. We managed to stay up until about 6:30 pm (our goal was 7) which helped us feel somewhat in the correct time zone the next day.
Our hotel served an amazing Israeli breakfast each morning with lots of hot dishes, cold salads, cheeses, breads, and fruit. It was clear from our first morning that the food during this trip was going to be amazing! We spent the day strolling around the old Tel Aviv port and in the evening met up with some graduate students at Tel Aviv University for a tour of Jaffa and dinner. It's always fun to hear about what graduate school is like in other places, and surprising how similar the experiences are. On Sunday (which is the start of the work week here) we went to the University campus with Roi Dor (a former Safran lab postdoc) and toured the zoological gardens, which is a small zoo with several native species of birds and mammals. We also met with Arnon Lotem, another professor in the Zoology department at TAU, and talked about our various projects. Arnon has been an integral part of our Israeli study system - during a sabbatical stay at Cornell he met Becca where they started discussing the possibility of studying the Israeli swallows. After another amazing meal on campus, we headed back to our hotel and back out for a stroll along the beach in the nice weather.
Well this post is beyond overdue...I started it while we were still in the Czech Republic, but it was right near the end of our stay and Amanda and I hit the ground running on another experiment as soon as we were back in Colorado. But these stories and pictures are too good not to post, so I hope you enjoy!
Time Warp back to June of 2013
I'd really like to draw some parallel between the Hund family vacation to the Czech Republic and one of the Griswold vacations, but the Hunds have their own unique version of crazy...and I mean that in the best possible way!
After spending a few days in Prague, the Hund clan - Fred, Kathy, and Sarah (with her new fiance, Ryan, in tow) - headed south for their Bohemian adventure. Due to some unfortunate timing, their stay in nearby Trebon coincided with our second round of adult capturing (the subject of the previous post), but Amanda and I sucked it up and spent a week working hard and playing hard. We met up with them at their penzion after our day of banding. As many places in South Bohemia do, their penzion had an aviary with several exotic birds, a pond with a statue of the waterman, and a garden where the guests can taste the local brew. After giving us the tour of their tiny room, we headed toward the square for dinner. As any college or graduate student knows, the best time to go to the fancy restaurant you've always wanted to try is when mom and dad are in town...so we took them to Šupina. On our first day in Southern Bohemia, Martina (also a graduate student) showed us this restaurant and told us it was very good, but a little pricey and that it would be a good place to go when Amanda's parents came to to town. As we've mentioned before, Trebon and the surrounding areas are known for their fish, specifically trout, and Šupina (and it's little sister Šupinka) is one of the best fish restaurants in town. All the meals were amazing! We found out that our server, who was wearing the required bow tie better than anyone else, was heading to San Francisco for work in a few weeks. Before leaving the restaurant, Fred slipped him an extra 200 crowns (on top of his tip) and told him to go to Fisherman's Wharf when he got to San Francisco - always willing to help a fellow traveller!
We were lucky to have one day off from banding to do touristy things. All 6 of us piled into the Hunds' rental car (Tomas would later inform us of the trouble we could have gotten in for not having enough seat belts) and headed to Hluboká nad Vltavou to visit a Windsor-style castle. After a delicious meal in town where we discovered Sarah did not like Kofola, we trecked up the hill to the main event. Unfortunately, the castle wasn't open for public tours the day we were there, but we were able to walk around the grounds and see the amazing gardens.
In the afternoon, we met Tomas and his family (Jana and baby Adam) at the zoo. All you Americans, forget the image you have in your head of zoos. At this zoo, the fences were low and there were no moats separating us from the animals...you want to stick your finger in the cage and have it bitten off by a monkey, go right ahead, you'll learn your lesson right quick. One of the first exhibits we stopped at was the prairie dogs. Anyone that's been near a prairie dog colony knows that they're pretty active little dudes. But one of these prairie dogs was sprawled out near the mound, and all of us agreed that he looked a little dead as indicated by the flies accumulating on him...luckily, as we walked away, he came back to life and ran into the burrow.
Some of the other highlights included the meerkats, where one attempted to sit on the lap of another, the diverse array of bird exhibits, the insect exhibit, and feeding the carp. Yes, I said feeding the carp...you could buy a handful of what looked like cat kibble and drop it into the pond. Within seconds, a mass of carp would be swimming around, mouths open, waiting for more food to drop. By the end of the day, Amanda and I had discovered a fundamental difference between us (the biologists) and Kathy and Sarah - while Amanda and I were swooning over the wallaby joey, Kathy and Sarah couldn't get enough of baby Adam. Granted Adam has some adorably chubby cheeks, but...baby wallaby!
We concluded the day with dinner at one of the oldest restaurants in the region, Masné Krámy - the first reference of it was as a meat market was in 1336! It had clearly been renovated, but the food and beer selection were quite traditional. Unsurprisingly, our waiter spoke little to no English, but don't worry, Kathy commiserated as her ability to speak English apparently disappears when ordering food at a restaurant in a foreign country. Despite the language barrier, we ordered through a sophisticated method called, 'pointing at the menu'. In an unprecedented move, Amanda was not hungry and was starting to feel a little under the weather. So we ended our fun-filled day on a bit of a downer, but all in all it was a great day.
The next day, Fred helped out with some field work. Amanda and I had a couple swaps to do during another big banding day. The extra car made the process go much quicker and then Fred stuck around to take some pictures. Now all of Amanda's family has assisted with the barn swallow project in some way.
While everything at that time was a bit of a whirlwind, I wouldn't trade the experience for anything...and I know that I'm guaranteed a big hug any time I see a Hund (wink, wink Kathy).
See more pictures of our trip to Hluboká nad Vltavou and the zoo here
With the rain and floods finally drying up it was time for the second round of adult catching. With the troops rallied - from Prague and Bruno and Studenec - the six long days of catching began. Our field house, which consists of a kitchen and two bedrooms (one of which is really the living room), was soon home to ten people and things got a little cozy.
I am used to getting up to band birds at 3:30 in the morning and sneaking around a quiet, dark house. Well, when ten people are up that early with only 15 min to go before heading to the field site, breakfast and bathroom use and just moving through the hallway becomes pretty chaotic, and no one is really awake enough to manage it gracefully. One morning in particular, I was the first one up and went to the kitchen to start the hot water kettle, because we all need our caffeine, and I nearly stepped on two guys in boxers sleeping on the kitchen floor. I had no idea who they were or when they arrived and I think we were all a little startled. The brain has trouble understanding things like this at 3:30 in the morning. I don’t think I actually said anything to them, I just turned around and wandered to the bathroom to brush my teeth instead and processed the event after ingesting my caffeine. Turns out they were potential grad students who had come to check out the field and had arrived after I had gone to bed. Finding no other floor space, they took up residence in the kitchen. I am not sure if they knew we were getting up at 3:30, but they were certainly woken up at that time.
We banded for six days at four field sites and captured 245 adults, a little over 100 of which were new birds that we had not caught the first time around. There was also one female who we caught five times in a row because she seemed to get a thrill out of throwing herself into the net. During this time we also had to keep up with our other fieldwork for the cross-fostering study, so we spent our days actually living and breathing barn swallows, and not sleeping very much. To make things a little more challenging, Tomas brought a cold with him from Prague, and like our own mild version of Typhoid Mary (Typhoid Tomas has a nice ring…) he proceeded to give it to everyone. Within two days 6 of us had it, which given our cramped living conditions it is no mystery how it spread. So with runny noses we banded and counted and measured and collected samples and filled out data sheets…
There were several highlights worth mentioning in that six-day blur of swallows. First Tomas decided that someone needed to learn to count parasites, to continue my legacy after we leave. He volunteered Adella and Romana, who made an effort to try and look excited for my benefit. I guess even the glasses fashion statement is not enough to make someone want to count tiny parasites for hours. Feeling a little bad about making anyone else do this task that I seem to have dedicated my life to, I attempted to teach them the subtle art of parasite counts. It was no easy task. Joey put on the glasses and tried to count feather mites for about two minutes, and then decide that she had absolutely no interest in learning to count parasites. Adella and Romana, not having the luxury of a choice, were forced to soldier on.
Joey and I also got to take part in an exciting sexual trait manipulation experiment. It was a first for me, though Joey took part in a similar experiment that happened in Colorado in 2009. The basic idea is that barn swallows, though they may appear to be monogamous, faithful little birds, actually do a lot of sleeping around - the scientific term being extra-pair copulations (which sounds so much less risque). The number of extra-pair copulations a female participates in depends on how good her mate is. So, the evil scientists come around and determine how much paternity a female allocates to her mate in their first clutch of eggs, and then we manipulate his attractive trait (this is the evil part), and look at how the female adjusts paternity allocation in the second round of chicks. Here in Europe the game is all about how long your tail streamers are, or at least that is what we think is going on. To figure this out, we catch all the males at a site, cut their tail streamers off, and then shuffle them so we reattach them to different birds using tiny pins and super glue. The birds then end up shorter, longer, or the same (control) and we see whether their females step out on them more or less compared to the first brood. You have to admit that is pretty clever. Joey and I were a little heartbroken about our record male. He had the longest tail streamers we had ever measured, 141mm (the longest in CO is 121). He was one studly dude, but unfortunately ended up with the short end of the experimental stick and had his manly streamers swapped with one of the shortest males in the population losing a full 3 cm! Both of those male were in for a bit of a change when we released them.
The other exciting event was that Joey and I learned, and then attempted for ourselves, how to collect avian sperm samples...the delicate art of the cloacal massage. Happy to report that we were both successful at getting the birds to ejaculate and donate some of their swimmers to science. Our mothers would be proud, and Joey can tell her sister that she actually does molest birds for a living. It takes just the right positioning and pressure and it's impossible not to make crude jokes in the process. There is also the reward or watching those little guys zoom around under the microscope.
You will be happy to know that it is now over 90 degrees and humid here.
Over and Out,