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,
Eleven days later and we're still getting daily emergency notification emails from the CU travel system about flooding in central Europe. Luckily the Lužnice river (which is less than 1 km from our apartment) did not flood near us. However, the castle gardens in Třeboň were closed as the stream that runs through them had flooded a large portion of the garden. We have also seen a few fish ponds that overflowed, but it seems that there was little damage in our area.
When we posted our last entry, the worst of the rain had passed, but we still had a few days of finding dead, emaciated nestlings and cold, unhatched eggs in nests. The kitchen in our field house was a depressing place as we debriefed with our collaborators each evening hoping to hear that nestlings were found alive or eggs had hatched. There was even one exciting incident where we were blamed for some dead nestlings someone at one of our sites found on the ground below a nest. But we did have a few survivors...Natural Selection in action! We even had one nest with 8 eggs that turned into 7 hatchlings (most nests have 4-6 eggs)! Once the rain stopped and the sun came out, the birds quickly started building new nests and laying eggs to make up for what was lost...so after discussing plans with our collaborators to continue collecting data for us after our departure, we are feeling much better about the experiment.
With afternoons mostly free due to the lack of nests to observe, Amanda and I were able to explore Southern Bohemia a bit more. We made a successful trip to a mall in České Budějovice where we had to reload our Czech cell phones. The sales person who helped us claimed she didn't speak English, then explained to us exactly how many minutes and texts we would get in perfect English. We also visited the large supermarket where we could get peanut butter, cheddar cheese, and other foods not found in our local Penny Market. That evening, we made chili and corn bread for our Czech roommates, who have made lots of traditional Czech food for us - carp and potato salad (Czech Christmas dinner), goulash and dumplings, and many tasty soups. The first challenge was finding ground beef, we ended up with a 'meat mixture', but I'm pretty sure it was mostly beef, next, with no black beans in sight, we picked out a few cans of beans hoping they would taste good in chili, and we were happy to find the necessary spices. When we got home, I started the chili, trying to remember my mother's recipe, and after I had added the peppers and spices and took my first taste, I realized that chili pepper in the Czech Republic is a bit spicier than it is in America and I was scared that it was going to be too hot to eat, but in the end it turned out quite delicious. With no blue box of Jiffy mix, Amanda made corn bread from scratch and it turned out just as good, if not better, than Jiffy! We also had a slight hiccup when I opened the sour cream to top the chili and my heart sank as the bumpy surface told me I had grabbed cottage cheese instead of sour cream. Amanda, curious to taste Czech cottage cheese, ate a spoonful, and confirmed that it was sour cream after all. Everyone enjoyed the chili, and corn bread was a hit. After all our delicious shared meals, we have decided to put together a recipe book for all of us to share.
On another afternoon, we biked to Třeboň and walked around the square. Our plans included tasting beer at the local brewery, established in 1379, and shopping. We were headed to the brewery first, but as we turned the corner into the square we saw the trdelnik stand (the cinnamon pastries we'd had in Český Krumlov). We were both quite excited to have another and had worried we wouldn't find them again. I asked if we wanted to stop now or after the brewery, thinking we wouldn't want to be full of trdelnik while tasting beer. Amanda's response: "Let's stop now, I might be too full after beer." Clearly, Amanda and I have different priorities when it comes to beer and food. After finishing our trdelnik - yes, Amanda won that one - we headed to the Bohemian Regent brewery. We walked around a bit, but found no obvious place where a tour would start, so we headed to the terrace and each got a type of beer that is only available at the brewery. Having toured the Eggenberg brewery in Český Krumlov, we figured missing out on the tour wasn't too disappointing. Although, we do have plans to take a tour of the original Budweiser brewery in České Budějovice (Budweis in English and German).
With fewer birds to observe, we started making observations about the people at our sites. We quickly realized that the people at the fancy horse barn, Obora, found us quite amusing and always smiled and subtly shook their heads as they walked by us while we were checking nests or watching birds. When we first found the site, Amanda had talked to the owner and another trainer about riding back in the states, and now they were asking her when she was going to ride their horses. A couple weeks ago, we had some time after a nest check and they put Amanda on a horse. As Marketa, one of the working students, helped Amanda tack up, it became obvious that this was the talk of the barn. It was right after lunch and all the working students were standing around watching, waiting to see if the American could live up to her claims of being able to ride a horse. Marketa lead Amanda, on Slash, over to the indoor arena where Amanda proceded to ride dressage. Many of the students and staff had also come over to watch, even the students that had the day off. After a few minutes, when it was obvious that Amanda knew what she was doing, Marketa leaned over to me and said, "She rides real good, I didn't know what horse she could ride, I think she could ride any horse here." And another student called the owner and I heard her say, "Die Amerikana ist sehr gut." They had her ride another horse and the next day when were checking nests we saw that they had put Amanda on the schedule and given her 3 horses to ride that afternoon. Since then, everyone at the barn has been much more friendly and confident that we know how to work around horses. And I think if this whole science thing doesn't work out, Amanda has a spot waiting for her at Obora!
I wanted to give everyone a quick update on our situation here. I am afraid that the news is not good.
The rain continues to fall and after ten days the ground is fully saturated and the rivers are starting to over flow their banks. The Czech government has declared a state of emergency for almost the entire country as the flooding begins. Transportation is at a standstill, trains and buses have been stopped and major highways are underwater. Three people have been killed and 3,000 have been evacuated from low-lying areas and the military as been deployed. Prague’s historical districts are under threat as the Vltava river continues to rise. Charles University, where our collaborators are from, is closed with all final exams canceled. Students are helping to build barriers across the city in attempts to hold back the water.
The river in Lužnice is also rising, and the fields and some of the roads are flooded near us, but the houses seem to be on high enough ground. We are a safe distance from the river and are doing fine.
The barn swallows have been struggling for days against the weather. They can handle a rainy day or two, but after ten days their reserves have been worn down and we are really starting to see the effects. Since barn swallows hunt insects on the wing, it is nearly impossible for them to find food in the rain. We have had several nests full of dead nestlings, where the parents simply could not find enough food or provide the chicks enough warmth for them to survive. We fear many other nests with eggs have been abandoned.
We are trying to keep in good spirits, but it is hard to see the birds struggling like this. We are hoping that the rest of the nestlings and their parents can hold out until the sun returns. It looks like it might be able to break through by Wednesday.
Hopefully we have happier news to report soon,