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.