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!
Amanda here- I figured it was time for me to add to the blog. I have decided to write a brief segment about everyday life in bohemia and what we have been up to.
We have been in the Czech Republic for two weeks now and find ourselves at home in the lovely village of Lužnice: 396 people, one bus stop, one small co-op grocery store, and at least 5 pubs, all run out of people’s houses of course. We are living in the bottom story of a house with four Czech grad students and have turned it into the barn swallow field headquarters. As the gear is stacking up in the hallway and the spectrometer is taking over the kitchen table- the season has truly begun with 25 nests that are already full of eggs. We are getting along quite well with our Czech collaborators- we have introduced them to important American customs like chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter and jelly as well as field innovations like google docs, and checking nests with mirrors (which has streamlined things considerably). They have taught us important Czech customs like drinking beer at 9 am, eating meat paste for breakfast, having lunch be the biggest meal of the day, and are trying to teach us to speak some Czech (which is slow going).
We have five field sites here and they offer a little more variety then our usual Colorado horse farm- we have a carp farm where we work in a barn full of adorable lambs and their noisy mothers, a guest house/farm for vacationers from Prague where we work in a pig barn and milking parlor (we have found that piglets are much cuter then their adult counterparts). The other farms include one that has milking goats (we are working on getting our hands on some goat cheese!), an abandoned, crumbling, but enormous communist factory farm where we seem to discover new rooms every time we do a nest check (for those of you that have been to our Colorado field sites: we have decided it is a hybrid between creepy shack, maya’s, and autumn hill), and one of the premier jumper horse breeding farms in Europe, http://www.obora.com, (the contrast between the last two could not be more extreme).
Working with site owners has been a bit of an adventure- since we don’t speak Czech and they don’t speak English. Usually we just smile and mumble dobrý den (Czech for good day) and they ignore us- but sometimes young Czech men take our ladder and lead us around the farm while we wonder if we are being kidnapped or shown where more swallow nests are located (luckily it was the latter). One thing is the same here though- after spending several days trying to read color bands on males, Joey and I have discovered that the barn swallows here are just as cheeky as they are at home.
In other news, Joey has almost mastered the stick shift of our little green car- meanwhile I am still a bit rough and seem to stall it at least three times whenever I drive it. I much prefer to ride the bike that I have borrowed from one of the students that live near by. It is a gem (her mothers I think from the 80s) and my banding kit fits just perfectly in my little basket...when I ride it Joey likes to sing the wizard of oz song. We also keep discovering new animals at our field house- the chickens and turkeys were apparent the first day, then we discovered the outdoor aviary with parrots and parakeets- but the best surprise was when we found the ostriches. Inside we have discovered many other, not so alive, animals, including a badger that Joey has named Brennan.
I want to end this post with a word about fishponds, yes fishponds and a little bit of history. This area consists of rolling green fields, thick mossy woods, and dozens of small lakes. Our Czech friends were quick to teach us the story behind these many lakes. This area of southern bohemia was ruled by the royal Rožmberkové family from 1250 – 1611 (makes the US seem pretty young), whose rose symbol can still be seen everywhere. The family has a colorful history that still lingers here. It began when the widow of Wenceslas (yes that Wenceslas) married Jindřich Oldřich II of Rožmberk (try saying that 5 times fast). One of their daughters, Perchta, became a ghost and apparently can still be seen wandering around from time to time. Anyway- back to the ponds- it turns out all of these lakes that we have been seeing everywhere are actually all man-made fish ponds. In the late 1400s the Rožmberkové family decided that they wanted more carp- so they designed and built a whole series of huge ponds that were all hand dug, that can be filled and drained by a series of connecting channels that link to the river. It is quite impressive and clever. When you want some fish- you just drain the water and scoop them up. The fishermen today still use them the way they were built and manage to move all the water without electricity. We have sampled some local carp schnitzel and must say that it is delicious. As Tomáš would say, “carp, the pig of fishes.”
And now we’re off to one of the pubs for some delicious pilsner!
Sunday morning we left Prague and headed to Southern Bohemia where our field sites are located. This may sound like a simple task, but it was Amanda’s first time driving any significant distance in a car with a manual transmission. It took a few tries to get out of the parking lot, but once we were on the highway, it was smooth sailing. Our rental car is a Škoda Citigo that gets on average 60 mpg! It’s lime green and awesome. We stopped for lunch at a pub that served pizza; I expecting a taste of something resembling American pizza, but I was pleasantly surprised to find the menu full of pizzas with camembert, corn, cabbage, and bacon. Getting out of the parking lot was a little exciting as it was uphill onto the highway. Thankfully, Martina was there to help Amanda conquer the hill with a manual transmission.
We arrived in Lužnice and went straight to one of our field sites - an adorable farm with pigs, cows, and chickens. Not long after our arrival, the barn swallows were swirling overhead, singing and swooping in and out of the barn. The difference in color and tail streamer length was immediately apparent and we are both excited to get a bird in hand and examine the differences up close. Tomáš, another collaborator of ours, met us there and we had a look at the nests, noting that several pairs have started adding mud to nests and copulating...and we found our first eggs two days later! We went to two other sites for a quick look around before heading to the apartment (marked with an ‘A’) where we’ll be staying for the next two months.
The apartment is on the first floor of a two-story house. The walls are all brightly colored and there are cute decorations in every room. Right now, it’s only Amanda and me, but soon we’ll be joined by several other biologists. The other people that will be working on barn swallows will stay here, and it sounds like we’ll have some other biologists doing work in the area coming and going. It brings me back to my field job days of staying in field houses with lots of people working weird hours. Amanda and I tested all the beds and claimed one of the large beds to share, as it was the most comfortable. Here’s hoping that we can keep from cuddling (or kicking) each other too much throughout our time here.
Later that afternoon, we visited Třeboň, a historic town not too far from Lužnice. As we drove through the town, we had to go through an archway - I think this might have been the high point for Amanda so far! We walked through the square where we stopped for gelato (yum!) and made our way to a large pond called the Svet, which translates to ‘the world’. There is a path that goes all the way around, so people can say they have walked around the world. After dropping Martina off at her house, we braved the grocery store and had a good time trying to figure out what various things were. Most items were obvious, but we weren’t sure if we were getting butter or cream cheese or what we’d find in our bread.
The next morning we went back to the first farm to check all the nests and identify which males had already returned to the site. While the pigs and cows are an exciting change from the horse barns we work at in Colorado, the smell and mess will make us appreciate the conditions when we get back home. While we were there, a group of ornithologists were doing some mist netting for a ringing (aka bird banding) course. We got to watch some of the process and were able to get a close up look at a black bird, several blue tits and great tits, and a few European robins. Amanda and I found the tits to be quite exciting as we’ve read a lot of papers about them, but they are apparently common, unexciting birds for the Europeans. We had an unexciting afternoon/evening of work followed by another day of nest checks. At the site we checked today, we found three nests with eggs - things will pick up quickly and we will soon be quite busy catching and monitoring barn swallows! So far, field work here looks quite similar to field work back home, and Amanda is up to her same antics. However, we have some new helpers over here.
On Thursday, we head to Brno with Tomáš where Amanda and I will give a talk about our research to some biology graduate students. Stay tuned for more!
Favorite things about the Czech Republic so far: butter (it was butter, not cream cheese), yogurt, beer, croquettes, gelato, colorful houses, chickens in every yard, and the lush open country side.