Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ringing Round Two

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…

Amanda and Adella to count parasites
Yes that's much needed beer!
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.
Olda adding new streamers to a male

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.
Measuring sperm motility and

The other exciting event was that Joey and I learned, and then attempted for ourselves, how to collectavian 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,

Sunday, June 16, 2013

As the floods subside

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.
Rožmberk Pond - it usually starts on the other side of the trees and the next day it was flooded where I was standing to take this photo and several bike paths around the pond were washed out.
12 day old chicks that survived
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 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!

More soon about our latest banding bonanza!

Monday, June 3, 2013


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,


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Joey’s Log: Stardate -309583

  • Day 10 of rain and cold weather (with one day of relief six days ago)
  • More rain and cold temperatures forecast for the next two days
  • The nestlings are starting to die
  • Adults are struggling to find food
  • Beer rations are dwindling and the pub patios are inhospitable
  • Everything feels moist (yes, Sarah, moist)
  • If conditions don’t improve, we expect to see more failed nests
  • Please send sun

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Glamorous Lives of Field Biologists

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. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bohemian Barn Swallow Bike Brigade

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.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Barn Swallow Banding Bonanza

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.

Enjoy these pictures from our crazy week!