I never thought I would say that I miss doing fieldwork in 90-degree summer heat, but after the past few days I can honestly say that I do. The past week has been in the single digits (thats 45ish in Fahrenheit) and rainy here in Southern Bohemia. You might be thinking, “that doesn’t sound too bad”, but when you are working in old, damp, stone barns – particularly sitting as still as you can watching birds with binoculars hoping that they would just show you their tail spots already – it can be down right freezing. Despite all of our layers (I counted 7 on myself today) we end the field day cold and a little grumpy. Joey, being a desert girl from Arizona, is starting to get more than a little angry at the rain and cold, and sometimes starts mumbling to herself about sun, sandals and burritos without warning. At moments like this, I try to find her some chocolate and then keep my distance. I am just glad that I decided to follow my father’s sound travel advice that I have heard my whole life: never travel anywhere without a hat, no matter what the season. It has come in handy, thanks Dad!
Mostly I feel bad for the poor nestlings; not so much that I have to take blood samples from them, but that they end up being my personal hand warmers. And those of you who know me well know just how little of my body heat ever actually makes it to my fingers. Joey often comments that she can tell where my fingers have touched them when I hand them to her while we are taking measurements. To try and make up for this, we “brood” the ones that we are not handling in Tupperware containers that we store in our sports bras. It works quite well.
One problem with this cold weather is that we have to wear most of our clothes everyday. We are working in barns with sheep, cows, horses, goats and by far the worst, pigs. The woman we are renting the field house from has agreed to do laundry for us, but it only happens about every two weeks. I am sure with a little imagination you can conjure up what our two-week-old, worn-everyday field clothes smell like. We have started putting them on the other side of the room so we can sleep at night. Ahhh, the glamorous life of a field biologist.
Despite the cold, fieldwork is going well. We now have 15 swapped nest pairs (30 nests total, but who is counting…) and 7 control nests. This number should hopefully increase in the next week as more nests hatch, though the eggs have all been hatching several days late with this cold. We are also gaining several field skills while working here in the Czech Republic. We have recently mastered taking blood samples from an entire brood of nestlings in under three minutes to measure circulating glucose levels (stress, such as being grabbed by a giant monster out of your warm nest while you are waiting for mommy to bring you some tasty bugs, changes glucose levels and it takes about three minutes for those fear hormones to hit the blood stream). This process resembles something of a NASCAR pit stop, except with needles, capillary tubes, cotton and a bunch of girls holding nestlings around a cooler. Ok, maybe it does not look like a NASCAR pit stop, but as the timer speeds on and you are trying to find that one tiny vein, it sure feels like one.
We have also become experts at collecting swabs for gut microbiome analysis. This may sound glamorous, but it mostly involves lots of bird poop. I never thought I would be so excited to see birds poop. When we pull nestlings from a nest (remember the giant monster thing) their first response is to poop (well, I bet yours would be too given the circumstance), and we have become quite good at catching these little loads in our containers lined with clean paper towels. Bombs Away! Each nestling gets his own little holding cell until his business is done. For those reluctant ones, Joey and I take turns picking them up and seeing who is more effective. It has become quite competitive.
We are also getting along quite well with the people at our field sites. Last week we bought two big carp from the fish farm site and had Czech Christmas in May. The girls made traditional potato salad, fried carp, and carp head soup. It was tasty, though a little different then what comes to mind when I think of Christmas. We have been doing our part of introducing them to American culture by making banana bread, and tomorrow we are attempting chili and corn bread. From our other field-sites we buy homemade goat cheese and soft cow cheese – all unpasteurized of course and delicious. The folks at Obora, the fancy horse barn, have warmed up to us considerably. They were a bit skeptical at first, but now we seem to have become a standing barn joke. Every time one of the trainers or working students pass us, they smile or sometimes even burst out laughing shaking their heads. We are not sure what is so funny, but we figure it is better then having them not like us. It probably does not help that they often find me high up in the rafters, crouching in windows, sitting in horse stalls, or hiding under piles of hay, and starring at nests for hours. The must find us very strange.
Back to entering data (more glamour)!
Joey here - Just one thing to add...despite the cold, wet weather Amanda is still crazy enough to run almost every day. When she gets back, inevitably soaked and shivering, I shake my head and go back to thinking about the burrito I’m going to have when we get back to the states.
We’re about a week shy of the halfway point of our trip and our experiment is well underway. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the project Amanda and I are working on, I’ll give you a brief background. We’re conducting a cross-fostering experiment where we swap chicks between nests; this creates a situation where an individual is being raised in a nest with related and unrelated nest mates, and has siblings being raised in a different nest. This allows us to look at how various traits are affected by genes and environment - moving the chicks around allows to really isolate those influences. I know what you’re thinking: evil scientists! But don’t worry, the foster chicks are readily accepted into their new home and mom and dad are happy to feed them. As far as we can tell, they don’t even notice the switcheroo. We performed the same experiment last summer back in Colorado and I’m happy to report that the nestlings that got a scenic drive across the front range put on weight just as much as those that stayed put in their nests.
My research is focused on color, so you may have already guessed that my goal for this study is to tease apart the effects of shared genes versus shared environment on plumage color. And parts of Amanda’s work are quite complementary to my own work as she is exploring one environmental variable that might be playing a major role in color development. She is interested in how parasites might be mediated various traits and whether an individuals’ response to parasites is developed in response to its environment or as a result of its genotype. Since color varies between populations of barn swallows in Colorado and in the Czech Republic, we’re super excited to compare results from the two studies. Also, we’ve already noticed some differences in parasite patterns!
In Colorado, our field sites are often 15 to 20 miles apart, consequently all the swapping of nestlings was done by car - Amanda would go to one site, I would go to the other, we’d figure out which nestlings to swap, then we’d drive to the other site, passing each other and waving on the way. Here, however, our sites are much closer, and it was far too expensive to rent two cars. So we’ve been doing almost everything by bike. The roads here are a little less than smooth and some of the sites are closest via a muddy bike path, so to protect the nestlings from the jarring of all the bumps, we keep them in a small container with some cushioning, tucked into our sports bras...I think it also helps keep them warm. Other than that, everything is about the same and we still pass each other and wave in the middle. We also feel that the bikes help us fit in a bit more as the area we’re working in is a hot spot for vacationers that come to bike and canoe in the area. However, upon closer examination you’ll find that something about us is a little off - our hiking boots are not as sleek as bike shoes. However, when we end up at the same site as our Czech collaborators (also on bikes) we have the makings of a mean looking bike gang!
I’m also happy to report that the fancy horse breeding barn we found nearby is starting to warm up to us. Today, as I was checking on a nest, one of the staff was giving a tour of the facilities to some vacationers and when he saw me, he was quick to point to me and the nest and I assume tell them that we were studying the swallows. Although, I just heard the word ‘vlaštovky’, so he could have just as easily been saying how annoying the birds are. But they all smiled, so I think it was the former. Our other site owners have also demonstrated a liking for some of the techniques we’ve introduced here. Amanda and I have been observing the birds a lot in order to identify which birds are paired up an using which nests. The other day, Amanda was sitting in a wing of one of our sites and the 5 year old girl that lives there had followed her in. Despite the language barrier, Amanda was able to communicate that she needed to be quiet so that she could watch the birds through her binoculars. The little girl left, came back with her own binoculars, and sat quietly with Amanda watching the birds.
Some other interesting tidbits: 1) The other day I learned something about myself that reaffirmed my choice to not go to med school - I saw a parts of a butchered calf (he’d gotten an infection and wasn’t getting better) laid out at one site and later at another site, I saw a sheep give birth to a lamb (the first of twins). Which do you supposed I found harder to look at? If you guessed the birth of a lamb, you are correct! But after a good cleaning from mom (the part I found the grossest), it was quite cute. 2) Just when you think you’re safe in Southern Bohemia, someone up and steals your turkeys from the yard. Yup, the menagerie at our apartment is now a little quieter and two turkeys smaller.
Biking around Southern Bohemia definitely has it’s perks...check out these photos from our trips to and from our field sites.
As Joey mentioned, the banding regime here is quite different from how we do it in the US. Instead of banding every morning for a few hours for the whole season to cover many smaller sites, here in Bohemia we have just 4 big field sites and spend one crazy week trying to catch all the birds we can - repeated once or twice more later in the summer.
The team consists of Joey and myself, Tomáš (the head of the lab here) and his students Olda, Martina, Romana, Adella, Lucie, Lucie (yes there’s 2 of them), and Natalia...and occasionally a friend from the university who comes along for the fun. Most of the days we started slightly before dawn, like at home, but would then keep banding until late afternoon. This made for some long days as we processed birds nonstop for upwards of ten hours. After the first day, I learned the importance of packing lots of snacks. I can also tell you that it is entirely possible to eat a sandwich while holding a barn swallow.
We quickly figured out an efficient system for getting the birds in and out as soon as possible - which is no small task when you catch over 20 birds at once. Each bird is given a number as it is caught - sort of like when you go down to renew your drivers license and you have to take your little slip from the number machine, only they don’t shove you in a cloth bag and hang you on a coat rack while you wait for your number to be called. Though, it might be more exciting if they did. The birds are then sorted into two piles, males (samec) and females (samička) and ladies get to go first - because we all know who is doing the real work of laying and keeping those eggs warm.
The areas where we processed the birds was also quite different from what we are used to. Joey and I usually lay everything out on a tarp a short distance from the barn and feel pretty classy when we remember to bring our little camp chairs. Here in the Czech Republic we band indoors, in rooms equipped with tables and chairs, lights, and tea kettles. In one location, the fish farm, we use the large office space (aka Mr. Pulec’s man-room to get away from his wife), which even includes calendars of nude women posing with carp (no, this is not a joke). In another location, the guest house, we actually band in the pub - where we can order beer (at 9am) as we work and provide some mild entertainment for visiting guests, who do not think it is strange at all to be eating their breakfast and watching bird blood samples be taken a few tables away.
The birds go through an elaborate assembly line once their number is finally called: they have just about everything measured, sampled, and collect that seems imaginable. They’re banded (or ringed as they say here in Europe), their parasites are counted, their blood is taken, blood smears are made, their various appendages, feathers, and head size (which translates to brain size) are measured, they are photographed and measured with a spectrometer, and finally they are individually marked with unique color combination. The lucky males also get to have their sperm collected; through a little process called “cloacal massage” (I’m sure Joey’s sister is happy that her description of Joey’s job as ‘molesting birds’ is really true now). This has lead to numerous dirty jokes, as you can imagine, but has allowed Joey and I to see lots of little swimming barn swallow sperm with the help of a microscope, possibly making us more excited then it should have. One interesting fact - in some individuals about 20% of the sperm is just the tail section that is swimming furiously, despite the fact that it is fundamentally useless without a head- as Tomáš said, “they seem to be missing their hats.”
Joey and I have also been fully converted to the color bands that we are using here to mark the birds so we can observe which nest they go to. While you can spend lots of money for fancy official ornithology color bands - the bands we’re using here are actually little beads from those kits you buy for kids to make patterns and then melt them solid with an iron (don’t lie, you’ve totally made a flower or a peace sign at some point in your life). Genius! They are much easier to see in the dim light of the barns too. It seems that our strangely colored field pants will soon be bazaar relics of the past.
In just 5 days, we have managed to catch and process about 235 adult barn swallows - and I have counted parasites on every single one of them. I am really, really good at counting by tens now. We have also caught a couple other barnyard birds in our nets here including: house sparrows (who Joey and I are learning not to hate since they are native here) and house martins, who are a close relative of swallows but come in a striking black and white. We were also happy to discover that the house martins have adorable hairy (well, feathery really) feet that can make you smile - even after counting parasites for ten hours straight.
Banding Bonanza Enjoy these pictures from our crazy week!
Hi all! Sorry for our absence but we’ve been up to our elbows in barn swallows!
Soon after our arrival in Southern Bohemia we learned that capturing adults would be quite different than it is back home in Colorado where we capture adults throughout the whole season. Here, however, we would be capturing the adults at our 4 sites in one week full of long, intensive days. With this week coming up, and the impending hatch days of our first chicks, Amanda and I decided to take a day to be tourists. We opted to go to Český Krumlov, a UNESCO heritage site that is a short distance away...however, given that the Czech Republic is the size of South Carolina, everything is relatively close.
We arrived a little before 11 am, just in time to take the Eggenberg brewery tour, a brewery (or pivovar in Czech) that was built in 1560. While the tour itself wasn’t as polished as some of the tours we’ve been on in the states, the size and history was far more impressive. Some of our favorite tidbits of information were that they make a beer that is ~3% intended for the workers (however, they typically opt for something stronger); most of the people drink beer or the soda that is also produced in the brewery while running the machines; and they get 95% of their bottles back to be reused - a policy US breweries should adopt! Our tour included two tasters of beer, and to our surprise, those tasters were the size of a normal beer (0.5 L). While we enjoyed our full liter of beer (each), we chatted with two Australian sisters that were traveling through Europe and by the time we left we were clearly feeling the effects of the tasty beer and the uneven cobblestones.
We headed into historic part of the city and found a place to have lunch. One of our Czech house mates had suggested a vegetarian restaurant with a patio looking over the river. Somehow, we stumbled across the restaurant and had a delicious lunch that was a sampling of their specialties. While we were eating, we enjoyed watching the ducks dabbling at the edge of the Vlatva river (the same river that runs through Prague) which makes several sharp turns through the city. After lunch, we wandered through the city looking in shops for souvenirs and admiring the dazzling glassware. We were drawn to an amazing smell that turned out to be trdelník - a sweet pastry made by rolling dough around a stick, rolling the stick over an open flame, and then rolled in cinnamon and walnut. Imagine a churro, but about 100 times more tasty! I can’t wait to get my hands on another - we were disappointed to find the stand closed later in the day.
We started making our way to the train station to meet one of Amanda’s childhood hood friend, Alyssa, who had been traveling through Europe. Unfortunately it started to rain, and while Amanda had the sense to bring her rain coat, I had left mine in the car. By the time we reached the train station I was completely soaked, as were Amanda’s pants and shoes. Even more unfortunate was the fact that Alyssa had missed the train and the walk in the rain had been unnecessary. We left some notes telling her to meet us at the castle and hoped that she would find them when the next train arrived. We walked back down to the city, stopping to trade my soaked shirt for my rain coat at the car, and headed to the castle. We found that the main gate is protected by a bear moat, yes...a bear moat. The castle has been protected by bears since 1707 and the moat is currently occupied by four bears: Vok, Kateřina, and their cubs Daxi and Hubert. We continued into the castle and enjoyed the sites and the architecture. Alyssa found us in the castle before we started wandering through the expansive gardens. We made it to the end of the garden where the pond is located before turning around to head back into the city for dinner. We ate at another restaurant overlooking the river where we had an entertaining waiter who may have offered us the young bar tender (telling us he was a nice boy) and finished our meal with some strudel - our first since arriving in the Czech Republic.
After dinner we headed back to Lužnice to get a good night’s sleep before our first day of banding...more about this soon!
Český Krumlov Check out the photos from our adventure
As Amanda mentioned if our last post, we’ve been experiencing a lot of Czech culture, including lots of good beer and good food. But my favorite so far has definitely been pálení čarodějnic or ‘burning of the witches’. This is a festival to mark the end of winter, and thus the beginning of spring, celebrated in many countries in central and northern Europe, often called Walpurgis Night. I won’t go too much into the history, but the curious reader can check out the wikipedia page for this holiday found here. We caught the train (barely) to the next village with our Czech house mates, stopping along the way for a beer (of course). We arrived at the festival to find that admission was free to people dressed as witches, unfortunately we’d left our warts and pointy hats in Colorado, however many of the children from the village had donned black dresses and teased their hair for the occasion. The music was playing and we had arrived just in time to see the town witches perform some choreographed dances. Soon after, they were put on trial, found guilty of witchcraft, and sentenced to death by burning at the stake (just as some of Amanda’s ancestors had been).
As is tradition, the village had created a large pile of tree branches to burn to say goodbye to winter. We were thoroughly amazed by the size of the impending bonfire, the small ‘safety’ distance that had been taped off, and the volunteer fireman the tape that had melted soon after the fire was ablaze. Most of our group took several paces back as the flames grew, but Amanda was comfortable a good 10 paces closer than anyone else - I’m sure there’s a joke here somewhere.
After the ceremonious burning of the witches, a local band took the stage and played both popular Czech songs as well as many American classics. We danced and enjoyed the music until the flames had subsided enough that we could get close enough to roast delicious sausages over the flames. Again, Amanda was much more comfortable squatting close to the embers than the rest of us (as demonstrated by how red and sweaty my face is in the picture below). After eating, we continued to dance and drink. We sang along to Sweet Home Alabama, Shook Me All Night Long, and Sweet Child of Mine and pretended to understand what the Czech songs were about.
This festival falls on the eve of May Day, consequently the village had also erected a large Maypole (that Amanda insisted on touching). Apparently the men of the village must stay up all night to protect the Maypole, or Majka, to guard it so that it is not stolen by men from neighboring villages. If the Majka is stolen in the night, it is quite shameful for the village. These Maypoles stand in the villages all year long, and since the festival we’ve been noticing them throughout the town - at the pubs, at the hotels - and we plan on putting one up outside the biology building at CU next May 1st.