Dispatch from the jungle

We are very excited to welcome Dr. Alice Boyle back as a guest poster today. In her previous post, Alice shared some of her adventures from her doctoral fieldwork in Central American, and this week she takes us back to the Caribbean slopes of Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, check out her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month we would work very hard for 23 days, and then my assistants visited beaches and volcanos, while I prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family during those breaks, and my father urged me to publish them. A while back, I posted excerpts from the April letter. Here, I continue that story with an account of the crazy first week of May as we initiated a nest predation experiment across at 3000 m elevational gradient.

When I last wrote I was just getting ready for the big “nest predation experiment” month. All was going smoothly until the very last minute. Three days before starting to place nests, I went to San Jose to pick up the car*, the last batch of canary eggs, 400 wicker nests, bags of moss, and other weird miscellaneous supplies (for example, tiny decorative ice-cube trays for transport of jelly-bean sized fragile canary eggs). My last stop was to get the baskets that would become “nests”, made to order by a Guatemalan artisan. When I arrived, the store owner started bringing out bundles of NOT the 8-cms diameter cup-shaped baskets I had ordered, but huge pigeon-nest-sized baskets! AGH! Four hundred useless wicker baskets… crisis! The poor owner of the basket store was almost as dismayed as I was.

We tried modifying the baskets, savaging one with an exacto knife. It disintigrated into a sharp mess, and poor Emilia (the store owner… we were on a first-name basis by this point) got badly cut. Eventually, I realized there were three alternatives: 1) somehow find 400 smaller baskets elsewhere, 2) use some other cup-shaped product (…like a cup?), and get really creative with paint and glued-on moss as to make them look as nest-like as possible, or 3) give up. Option 3 wasn’t really an option. I had way too much invested. Aside from hoarding canary eggs for over a month**, I’d found a cheap vehicle to rent, gotten extra permits, and had a friend flying in to fill in a 2-week personnel gap. Option 1 really seemed pretty unlikely too. It had taken 2.5 months to get these baskets, and I had only 3 days left to find replacements. After deciding I had little option but to look for some other cup-shaped object, Emilia appeared with a hopeful look, holding a different style of small basket. Not quite so perfectly nest-shaped as the ones I’d ordered, but small and definitely better than a plastic cup! She only had 149, but the maker lived in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica. He had a phone and answered her call. I only heard one side of the conversation: “you know those little baskets you make me? how many can you make by Monday? ………. and how many more by Thursday? ……….. well, how soon could make an extra 250 for me? ……… look, we have an EMERGENCY here! Can’t you HIRE someone to help you!?……” And so we resolved the problem. They cost twice as much and I had to make 2 extra trips to San Jose to pick them up by installments, but it worked. This little glitch meant that our grueling itinerary now included late-night nest preparation before they could placed out in the forest… at 8 sites over a 3000 m elevational gradient. Unfortunately, the nest glitch wasn’t the only set-back.

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

One of our experimental nests, placed in the forest

Three days later we started wiring fake nests into trees in the forest, each containing a real canary egg and matching plasticine egg***. As we left the La Selva lab the first morning, it started raining hard, and it didn’t stop for the next 8 days. During that week, so much rain fell that a car was swept off the road and landslides closed the highway between San Jose and the Atlantic lowlands. All rivers were transformed into roiling muddy torrents and there was massive flooding. At La Selva, dorms were evacuated, access to the station was by boat, and the river reached its highest level since 1970. Meanwhile all the rain was falling on us

 

After the two lowland sites, we headed up to Rara Avis**** for the 650 m and 800 m sites, but our reservations at the station had been forgotten and the tractor (only transport option) wasn’t going to leave until late. That meant we got a day behind schedule, and I was starting to panic, until we took on ‘Crazy Mike’ as the 5th member of our team. Mike was a volunteer guide but didn’t get along with his new boss. When he heard about our nest, weather, and tractor-delay woes, he simply quit his guiding gig and came along for the adventure. Mike was a godsend! He rarely stopped joking and never let the rain get him down. True, he did also drink an incredible amount. But he was tireless in machete-ing his way along a compass bearings through treefalls and vine tangles. So we caught up, doing 2 sites in one brutal 13 hour field day.

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Jared Wolfe, Mary Burke, and Mike Lord in the backseat of the Bronco

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Mary Burke, Jared Wolfe, me, and Johnny Brokaw, making fake eggs

Next day we were back down on the tractor, and around to a different side of the park, back up the mountain to higher elevations. We got behind again because the nests weren’t ready, and now were working in cloud forest where the rain was distinctly chilly. Luckily we were able to spend a night in San Jose where we all got hot showers, ate pizza, and drank copious amounts of beer! Had we not had to prepare more nests after dinner it would have been a fun party. But the schedule was relentless. The next day we went to the highest site—2800 m near the peak of Volcan Barva. The drive was awful. With every bump in the road I thought we were going to destroy the suspension. With five of us, nests, spray paint, wet rain gear, half eaten food containers, muddy rubber boots, gross packs, and canary eggs, the Bronco was the definition of sordid. But we made it up, and comforted ourselves with strong liquor purchased in San José.

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

Mary Burke and me, drenched after a day of high-elevation field work

The next morning there was a slight rain respite. Everyone got to see quetzals and I was feeling optimistic… the end was in sight. Only our last day and our last site remained. Getting there involved looping around Barva volcano on country roads, ending on a red dirt road leading to a little-used park access point. The drive was long, rainy, and very uncomfortable. We were exhausted. The little farmhouses seemed unoccupied near the end of the driveable road, so I continued farther than I should in hopes of finding a safe place to leave the full car.

And then, I drove into a ditch. Yup, right into a deep ditch. The whole right side of the Bronco was SERIOUSLY stuck. I have been stuck enough times to know when it is serious. We had no shovel nor anything other than sticks and rocks to help us. After probably 1.5 hours, many failed strategies, and admirable teamwork, we got the Bronco out! But we had lost a lot of time, and when I made it clear we were still going to try to get into the site and get the last batch of nests placed, there was near mutiny. Obviously, no one wanted to do anything other than shower, do laundry, and collapse into a clean bed. It was now early afternoon and we had to walk over an hour to the forest. Eventually I decided to leave Mike with the car and get as many nests placed at this site as possible. Even if we didn’t get all 50, we wouldn’t lose a whole site. So we did it, and as we hiked out with the last light, the clouds finally parted and rain finally stopped. We had panoramic views of Poas volcano and the whole drenched Atlantic lowlands almost as far as the coast. NOW our woes were over, surely!

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

Getting the Bronco out of the ditch

The Bronco had one last devilish trick in store, however: loss of power brakes and a mysterious stalling problem. Somehow the strain of getting out of the ditch had caused new problems. Whenever I braked or changed gear, we stalled. For two dark, foggy hours on winding mountain roads, I was constantly stalling and roll starting, terrified of losing brakes entirely and peeling off the cliff into the abyss. The headlights pointed unhelpfully into space instead of illuminating the road. And as a last straw, the driver-side windshield wiper stopped working. We limped into Puerto Viejo, completely drained from stress and exhaustion. Fortunately, the pizza joint was open and had an ample supply of cold beer, despite the floods that cut off both water and sewage service. It wasn’t til 9:30 that we finally found our beds at La Selva.

That week was, without doubt, the most stressful and dangerous week of field work in my life. It was crazy and hectic the whole rest of the month, as part of the crew rechecked all the nests in sequence repeatedly over subsequent weeks, while others continued our monthly bird and plant sampling. But thankfully, fieldwork has never been quite that crazy since. It is good to know what you can tolerate. And it is good to remember the hardship, when, during long days in front of my computer, fieldwork seems to become a romantic memory. Yes, being in the field work is amazingly fun and rewarding, but it also stretches you to the max, testing your ingenuity, tolerance for discomfort, ability to remain cheerful, and to make really hard decisions that often seem to pit personal safety against scientific discovery.

* I had an incredibly tight budget! My entire PhD was completed on funding from small grants, so there was no way to get a commercial car rental. Fortunately, I found an old 4×4 Bronco to rent for cheap from a friend who was thinking of getting rid of it.

** Several months before, I had cultivated a relationship with a canary breeder who set aside all the infertile eggs in the refrigerator for me

*** We used plasticine (modeling clay) eggs to determine the types of predators attacking nests

**** Rara Avis was the mid-elevation field site where I did a lot of my PhD research.

aliceAlice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past few years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.

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The many joys of tropical fieldwork

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Zachary Kahn, who tells us about some of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of his fieldwork in Costa Rica.  For more about Zach, check out his bio at the end of the post.

I was surprised the first time it happened, although I really shouldn’t have been. I had been warned many times. I had been told to wear bug spray and bring tape, but that it was inevitable. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little shocked to see hundreds of tiny poppy seed-like critters crawling all over my body. Indeed, I had been “tick-balled”, a term referring to having an army of tiny ticks latch onto your clothing and spread across your body like a group of crazed protesters. The trick was to make a ring of duct tape, with the sticky surface facing outwards, and peel them off. Sadly, I didn’t have any tape that day. This was the first of many times I would be tick-balled, and my first introduction to one of the many joys of doing tropical fieldwork in Costa Rica.

I am currently a Masters student at the University of Windsor, and my research is focussed on the behavioural ecology of tropical songbirds. Why study birds in the tropics, you ask? Well, unlike in the temperate zone where it is primarily males that sing, often both males and females sing in the tropics, and sometimes combine their songs into cool vocal displays called duets by overlapping or alternating their songs. I became interested in studying the reasons birds in the tropics sing duets, and I have tried to do this this by studying a population of Rufous-and-white Wrens in Santa Rosa National Park, in northwestern Costa Rica. I have spent the past two field seasons in the tropical dry forests of Santa Rosa romping around and chasing birds like a crazy person, all the while getting tick-balled and falling down more times than I’d like to admit.

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My study species: the Rufous-and-white Wren (Thryophilus rufalbus). Isn’t he pretty?

My day in the field is pretty similar to any other field ornithologist. I get up super early to record birds while they are singing, set up mist nets to catch and band birds for identification, and closely monitor their behaviour. I also need to check inside their nests in order to assess what breeding stage (i.e. eggs or nestlings, and how many) each pair is at throughout the field season. For many species, this is fairly straightforward. You find the nest, make a note of its location, look inside, and you’re done! Finding the nest is usually the most difficult part since many species have mastered the art of nest concealment and camouflage.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

A Rufous-and-white Wren nest in a Bullhorn Acacia Tree (Vachellia cornigera). If you look closely, you can see some ants along the main stem, and a wren getting ready to leave the nest.

Luckily for me, I don’t have this problem. Rufous-and-white Wrens nest in Bulhorn Acacia trees over 80% of the time at my study site. Their nests are bulky conspicuous globs, and there are very few acacia trees in the forest, making it relatively easy for me to find their nests. Simple, right? Wrong. The funny thing about acacia trees is that ants like them too. In fact, many species of ants have a symbiosis with the trees: the tree provides the ants with food and shelter in return for defense from predators, other plants, and stupid field biologists. To get inside the wren nests, I have to use a ladder, open a hole in the back of the nest (they are enclosed domed structures instead of open cups), feel inside, then sew the nest back up, all while being bitten by a swarm of angry acacia ants and nearly falling off the ladder. My hands swell up like balloons every time I have to do this, giving me yet another visual reminder of the joys of tropical field work.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

A Black-handed Spider Monkey (Ateles geoffroyi) snacking on a seed pod in Santa Rosa National Park.

I don’t mean to imply that all of my experiences in the tropics have been bad because overall it really has been amazing. I have been fortunate enough to see an incredible assortment of bird species, such as the Elegant Trogan, Blue-crowned Motmot, Keel-billed Toucan, and Long-tailed Manakin. And it’s not just birds. There are monkeys too. Yes, they throw sticks at you and sometimes try to pee on you (one missed me by about a foot last summer), but getting to watch them move through the trees each morning is more than worth it. It’s also really cool seeing different species of snakes (including some that are extremely venomous), frogs, lizards, and mammals like Tamanduas, Coatis, and Agoutis. We even saw a Tapir this summer! Having the opportunity to see so many cool animals on a daily basis is really awesome, and by far my favourite part of doing fieldwork in the tropics.

Perhaps the most incredible thing I have experienced during my time in Costa Rica is what my lab refers to as “Toad Day”. Once a year, for only 1-2 days after the first large rainfall of the year in May, huge numbers of frogs and toads congregate at previously dried-out ponds and rivers in the park as they begin to fill up with water. Hundreds of them come to the water and begin to chorus together in order to attract females to come and breed. Many species do this, including Cane Toads, Mexican Burrowing Toads, and several species of tree frogs, but the most interesting of them all is the Yellow Toad. For most of the year, males and females of this species look like your typical run-of-the mill toads, mostly brown in colour with the occasional splotch of grey or rufous. However, as soon as it starts to rain in early to mid-May, the males turn a spectacular lemon-yellow as they congregate at the breeding pools. This transformation corresponds with intense competition for females, and aggressive fights between 2,3,4 or more toads for a single female are common to see. This sight – hundreds of bright yellow toads and other species chorusing together all in one place – is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and is something I look forward to every time I go back to the field.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

A group of male Yellow Toads (Incilius luetkenii) at a breeding pond in Santa Rosa National Park.

Anyone who has done field work knows  it can be a rollercoaster of highs and lows, an endless series of amazing experiences and unique challenges. This is especially true in the tropics. On one hand, there are tick balls, venomous snakes, valleys of slippery boulders, and hordes of biting ants to deal with. On the other, there are amazing animals to see, scenic beaches to swim at, and daily exposure to unique tropical ecology. I have had a blast over the past two field seasons in Costa Rica, and I would highly recommend that others  go down and do fieldwork in the tropics if they get the chance!

headshotZach Kahn is a 2nd year Masters student in Dan Mennill’s bioacoustics lab at the University of Windsor, studying the behavioural ecology of tropical wrens in Costa Rica. He completed his undergraduate degree in 2015 at Queens University, where he studied interspecific competition in closely-related songbirds for his Honours thesis project under Paul Martin. He is passionate about wildlife ecology, natural history, and conservation, as well as being outdoors and playing softball and football.

 

Studying guppies in Trinidad

For National Fishing Week, Dispatches from the Field welcomes Tim Hain, a biologist at the University of Western Ontario to tell us about his fieldwork studying the not-so-fancy-looking (but very cool for evolutionary studies) guppies in Trinidad. To find out more about Tim and his fieldwork stores, check out the end of this blog for a link to a book he recently published!

Many North Americans have heard of guppies – perhaps because they or a friend had guppies as pets, perhaps because they have watched Bubble Guppies on television. Aquarium hobbyists have an enthusiasm for guppies because these fish have natural variation in colouration and fin size or shape that breeders have exploited to develop many different beautiful strains with descriptive names like tuxedo, sunrise, mosaic, snakeskin, or swordtail. Although “guppies” have name recognition with the public, many people do not realize that these little fish are a favourite among researchers in evolutionary ecology. In fact, guppies are one of the best vertebrate species for studying evolution in the wild, particularly on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. Because guppies have short generation times and waterfall barriers that restrict migration, there is variation in behaviour, life history, physiology, and appearance among populations that can often be attributed to variation in the local predator community.

Image 1

Image 2The classic story is that guppies below waterfalls are subjected to predation by large vision-oriented predators, so male guppies in these populations tend to be cryptic in colour to avoid being eaten.Image 3

 

 

 

 

Above waterfalls, the predators are either smaller and cannot eat adult guppies Image 4or eat using tactile or chemical signals,Image 5

so male guppies from these populations are free to evolve conspicuous bright colours to attract females.Image 6Many evolution students will have heard all about this. But “science-world famous” is very different from “world famous.”

 

 

In fact, most people do not know how important these insignificant-looking fish are. When I first went to Trinidad in 2006 as a Ph.D. student, I had been studying guppies for three years. At its most fanciful, my imagination pictured monuments to guppies at important sites around the country.

Of course, I did not truly expect to find statues of guppies, but I was amazed by how common guppies were in the country. My first ‘wild’ guppy sighting was in a sewer along the major east-west road, and this was not unusual.Image 7 In fact, they are so common that many locals were surprised that someone would travel from Canada to study them. In some locations where I collected guppies, I would attract a small crowd. Because I neither looked or sounded like I was from around there, local people would ask me what I was doing. One middle-aged Trinidadian that I spoke to was confused when I mentioned guppies, but when I described them, he said “Oh, you mean canalfish.” In Trinidad, guppies have this common name because they are frequently found in sewers and ditches alongside roads. Several times I used this name with Trinidadians to refer to guppies, and they knew what I meant.

Because female guppies give birth to live young, a single pregnant female can establish a population. This makes guppies master colonizers, and I saw them in a huge range of environments. Image 8The best-studied guppies are native to the Northern Range of forested mountains, where waterfalls break up narrow streams, but they are also founder in wider, dirtier rivers and some unique geographical features, like Pitch Lake in the southern part of the country.

Image 9a

My mother and a guide.

Pitch Lake was formed when pitch – a resin once used for waterproofing ships – bubbled out of the ground and now covers 40 hectares of area . It resembles a naturally-formed parking lot, but without lines and full of fissures that give the tarmac area structure. Rain filled these fissures, and guppies have found their way to the lake and become established. The unusual water chemistry of Pitch Lake and the black substrate (leading to high water temperatures) means that it is very difficult to rear these guppies in the lab.

One environment where I did not find guppies was in the brackish estuaries along the northern coast. Guppies can tolerate light saline environments, but in one tea-coloured estuary that I visited, I instead found the congenic Poecilia picta fish. Image 10The low visibility in the water of that river might explain two unusual observations I made: low colouration of P. picta males, and transparent bodies of their predator, a prawn.
Image 11

 

Transparent bodies are also found in deep-sea fish, which live in low-light (or no-light) environments: an interesting example of convergent evolution.

Perhaps the reason why guppies are such an appealing textbook example of evolution is in how intuitive and simple the explanation is: the same geographical barriers that restrict predator presence also restrict gene flow, and predation as a selection pressure drives trait differentiation. Guppy researchers know that the story is a little more complex than that, but these wrinkles in the story seldom make it into textbooks. So, I was left to independently discover these things for myself.

One variation on the story is that waterfalls are not the only feature that restrict large predators. For example, I found one ‘low predation’ environment located between two ‘high predation’ environments because the water in one stretch of the river was too shallow for the larger predators to enter. Male guppies in this stretch were more colourful than males I found upstream.Image 13Image 12

A second under-discussed variation on the story is the presence of avian predators. I often saw striated herons or little egrets walking alongside narrow streams, looking for guppies to eat. I also saw or heard kingfishers around my collection sites. Image 14These birds were skittish and difficult to photograph in the act of feeding, but their intention was clear. What is less clear is if they exert a selection pressures on guppies to be more cryptic in colour, or if their feeding habits are random with respect to colour. I do think that avian predators are important to guppy evolution – I suspect that guppies colonize new environments by escaping these flying predators after being given a short trip.

My fieldwork in Trinidad taught me many things about guppy evolution that I could not have learned from a textbook. Who knew that such small and common fish could be so interesting?!

Tim Hain is a biologist at the University of Western Ontario in London. He completed his PhD on kin recognition and multiple mating in guppies and bluegill sunfish, and he did his fieldwork in Trinidad and at the Queen’s University Biological Station. His first trip to Trinidad was for eight months, and he recently published his memoirs (Fieldwork: Stories from Trinidad) of his time living in the country on Amazon. Tim currently teaches at UWO. You can follow him on Twitter (@tjahain).

The right question?

The most important lesson I learned during my MSc came from a seminar given by one of the professors in my department.  “Science,” he said – pausing to emphasize the gravity of the wisdom he was about to impart, “Science…is all about asking the right question.”

Ah!  I thought, feeling a lightbulb go on in my head.  That made so much sense!  But…how would I know what the right question was?  Fortunately, he must have believed in teaching by example, because he went on to tell us the question that had inspired his years of work on marine mammal behaviour. “My question,” he said, “was quite simple: how can I spend as much time as possible sailing in the tropics?”

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

A boat, a blue ocean, and a beautiful day: can you think of a better goal than that?

I took his advice to heart, and immediately developed a question of my own: “Where’s the most amazing place I can do fieldwork, and how do I get myself there?”

This question at least partly guided my MSc research, leading to a project involving fieldwork on Nova Scotia’s iconic Sable Island.  In fact, by the time I finished my MSc, I’d been lucky enough to do fieldwork in some pretty fantastic places, from Sable to Alaska.

However, as I prepared to begin my PhD, I noticed a major gap in my experience: I’d never done tropical fieldwork.  And from everything I’d heard, that was an experience well worth having.  Anyone who’s ever taken a biology class has probably heard the term “biodiversity hotspots” used to describe latitudes around the equator.  Well, after spending a few summers freezing in the fog of Sable Island, I was ready to try something different, and a hotspot of any kind sounded pretty good to me.

Thus, when I started my PhD at Queen’s, I knew where I wanted to go, if not what I wanted to study: I was determined to develop a project that would allow me to do fieldwork somewhere tropical.  However, I’d learned more than one lesson during my MSc degree – and so I was also determined not to repeat some of the more egregious mistakes I’d made.  Unfortunately, it turned out that these two goals were somewhat incompatible.

The second most important lesson I had learned during my MSc is that you can make your life a lot easier by working on a ‘lab’ study system – that is, one that has had the kinks worked out of it by earlier generations of grad students.  Using a lab study system gives you access to well established methods and sites, other people who know and understand your system, and, often, years worth of previously collected data.

However, despite the availability of two amazing study systems in the lab I joined at Queen’s, I was less than a week into my PhD when I decided that I wasn’t interested in either of those systems: instead, I was going to strike out on my own.  How quickly we forget.

In fact, for my PhD study system, I decided to go a step farther: instead of just picking a system that no one in my lab studied, I decided to go for broke and choose a study system that pretty much no one in the world studied.

I knew from the outset that I wanted to study partial migration – that is, the odd (although not uncommon) situation where some birds in a population migrate, while others do not.  I set about finding a study system that would allow me to pursue the questions I wanted to answer…but also finally do some tropical fieldwork.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Female black-whiskered vireo sitting on her nest.

Black-whiskered vireos seemed to fit the bill perfectly: distributed mainly throughout the Caribbean into South America, they display variable migratory behaviour throughout their range.  I started digging through the literature, trying to find out what we already knew about the species and who had figured it out.  It turned out that what we knew was slightly more than nothing – and those few facts had been figured out by a Canadian researcher affiliated with an institution not too far from mine.  Excited, I immediately sat down to send him an e-mail.  I received a response the next day – telling me that the researcher I was trying to get in touch with had passed away the day before I sent my e-mail.

It was hard not to feel that that might be a bad omen.  However, I remained determined.  I knew what I wanted to study – now I just had to figure out where to go.  Through an amazing stroke of luck, I connected with Kate Wallace, who runs an ecotourism company (Tody Tours) in the Dominican Republic.  Kate had a small camp deep in the Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range in the far southwestern end of the country – and she was eager to host scientists wanting to learn more about the Dominican’s chronically understudied avian species.

Now I had one study site – but I also wanted to be able to compare the Dominican partially migratory vireos with fully migratory vireos, so I had to look elsewhere for another.  After some searching, I found a migratory population in the Florida Keys – and thus, unwittingly, set up a Byzantine labyrinth of permitting requirements for myself.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning feather and claw samples in the field.

The joys of completely illogical permit requirements: cleaning samples in the field.

Multiple government agencies in three different countries, using two different languages: all the necessary ingredients for a Kafkaesque disaster.  I spent hours on the phone, mostly on hold but occasionally insisting through clenched teeth that yes, I really did need someone to explain why, despite the fact that I held a U.S. master bird banding permit, I also needed to obtain a Canadian master banding permit to band birds in the Dominican Republic.  Or trying not to yell while explaining for the fifth time that using chloroform to clean feather and claw samples while staying at a remote field camp with no lab facilities would be…challenging, to say the least.

Finally, less than a day before I was scheduled to board a plane, all the permit issues were sorted, all the necessary equipment and various backups had arrived, and I was ready to go.  But, as often happens (to me, at least), once I knew I was going to be able to go, I was suddenly no longer sure I wanted to.  I was on edge for the entire journey, from the first flight (Toronto to Miami), through the second flight (Miami to Santo Domingo), to the long drive from Santo Domingo to the field site.  I had wanted to try something different for my PhD fieldwork, but I was feeling seriously out of my element.  The drive itself only added to my worries: the farther we travelled from the city, the more our surroundings (notably, the road itself) seemed to have fallen into disrepair.

Uh...detour, anyone?

Uh…detour, anyone?

However, when the truck finally slowed to a halt outside the gates of Rabo de Gato, I knew it had been worth the battle to get there.  As we stepped out into the warm, humid air, all I could see was vivid colour, and all I could hear was the calls of unseen birds seemingly everywhere.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

My new favourite bird: the broad billed tody.

The next two months were a blur of new experiences.  The scenery was awe-inspiring, the weather was great (except for the regular afternoon thunderstorm – but at least that was predictable), and the fantastically colourful birds were everything a bird nerd could wish for.  (I quickly acquired a new favourite: the broad billed tody.  These flying neon green and pink pompoms live in tiny ‘tody holes’, little caves that they excavate in clay banks.)

Perhaps the best part of the entire experience was the people I met.  Despite the fact that my abysmal Spanish skills meant we could barely communicate, they nonetheless went out of their way to help me.  For example, one of the biggest challenges we faced at Rabo de Gato was the constantly fluctuating electricity.  Sometimes we had power, sometimes not – and there didn’t seem to be any pattern to it.  Unfortunately, virtually every piece of equipment I’d brought with me, from our digital sound recorder to our emergency cell phone, needed to be charged regularly.  But with no way to predict when the electricity would come on, there was a good chance we’d be out in the field when it did, and miss the rare chance to plug in our myriad electronic devices.  The camp caretaker took it upon himself to solve this problem for us.  No matter where we were, if the electricity came on, he would come chasing after us, panting and calling out, “Luz! Tenemos luz!” – giving us the chance to rush back to camp and plug in everything we owned.

At last...luz!

At last…luz!

At the end of my field season, I found it hard to leave the colour and light of Rabo de Gato – but I told myself that I’d be back.  Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that, while the tropic were everything I’d hoped, the science hadn’t worked out the way I’d imagined.  The birds had proved challenging to work with in a number of ways, but the biggest problem was my inability to tell migrants and residents apart.  And so ultimately, my first field season in the tropics also ended up being my last.

Does this mean I asked the wrong question?  I’ve wondered that a lot over the last few years – but I still don’t think so, and not just because I got the opportunity to explore an amazing new ecosystem.  I also learned one of the hardest lessons of my PhD.  I took a risk on a study system that no one knew much about – and in my case, it didn’t pan out.  But I think that it was worth trying, because taking risks is so often how science advances.  Since so much science is done by students, if we don’t take risks, who will?

Worth the risk...