Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ramblings of a Field Biologist

Monday, May 26th

In the last week of May, the Northern Rough-winged Swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) finally began nesting. They had been holding me in anxious anticipation all spring, but the cool weather had delayed nesting up until now. I could finally begin the third field season of my research project under David Winkler studying and filming the breeding biology of rough-wings. Unfortunately I was seeing no interest in my artificial nesting sites, so out of desperation to get data I cut them out of the project and set out to find a rough-wing pair nesting in a 'natural' cavity... i.e. a drainpipe in one of the walled creeks in downtown Ithaca.

My adventures began at 7am Monday morning, the day after graduation. I walked from my apartment up on the hill near Cornell down to Stewart Ave, where a small overlook provides one of the better views of the downtown Ithaca Valley, with the gorge of Ithaca Falls directly below:

I planned on just walking past this overlook to get downtown faster as dawn's rays threatened to appear over the hills and fill the valley, but the chirping of rough-wings stopped me fast. In the retaining wall holding up the roadside overlook, a pair of rough-wings was investigating a drainpipe. Wonderful news! It was not yet 8am and I had a pair to film. Except... I didn't. To access the retaining wall I would have to jump a fence, clamber down, and walk across a scree slope. The slope was not overly steep, but only about 30 feet wide before dumping into the gorge. I briefly entertained notions of risking life and limb for my project, then pushed these birds out of my mind and headed downtown.

My first stop was Cascadilla Creek, where it empties out of its gorge and into the walled confines of its downtown channel. Here a week ago, I had found a pair of rough-wings investigating a drainpipe and beginning a nest. This week, those birds were gone to nest in some other lovely drainpipe home. All was not lost, however, as I discovered something fascinating - spawning Sea Lamprey and spawning Northern Watersnakes, both of which I have written about in more detail previously.

After initially observing these events at Cascadilla, I had to move on and find more rough-wing nests. I worked my way down the Cascadilla channel all the way to the Sciencenter without finding another pair of rough-wings despite ample amount of drainpipe nesting locations. From here, I cut across downtown to Six-mile Creek just upstream of Rt 13. In this fairly wide, shallow stretch, I observed the mating lampreys in my previous post, as well as the Great Blue Heron eating the lamprey.

This park on Six-mile Creek also proved to be another failed attempt at relocating a nest - the pipe that held an investigating pair last week was vacant. The trout were still in the deep pools in this area, as well as some bright golden-colored Rudd (see my fish post for photos of the fish mentioned). I used this location to enter into the walled channel of the creek and begin a long trek upstream. I knew that there were rough-wings in the abundant drainpipes in this creek channel, but farther upstream (closer to the Commons) the walls of the channel are much to high to facilitate entry into the creek. I had to walk all the way up from here.

I worked my way up the shallow creek, investigating empty drainpipes and more Lamprey spawning beds. I found one pipe with a rough-wing nest with eggs, but it appeared to be old and abandoned, perhaps a failed attempt from earlier this spring. I began to wonder if I'd find an accessible pair at all.

I reached the S Cayuga St. bridge, where the creek forms some deeper pools and the turns toward the Commons and the highest walls of the channel (see map). I climbed up to the cement ledges that run along the creek on either side under the bridge, which took me right past two more drainpipes. A rough-wing flew out of one, joining its mate and flying around chirping. I looked down the pipe and saw nest material beyond a pile of rocks... success!

I immediately went to work setting up a camera to monitor the interior of the nest. My setup consisted of a miniature black-and-white camera with infrared LEDs for night vision, which is a necessity to observe the dark confines at the back of the pipes. I mounted this camera on the edge of the pipe peering in, trying to minimize the area taken up in front of the entrance to minimize disturbance. I ran the wires back about 30 feet, and set up my 'monitoring station', a small, battery-operated miniDV tape deck on loan from Macaulay Library. I cozied up against the concrete wall with all of my gear, and began a long wait for the disturbed pair of rough-wings to acclimate to my invasion of their privacy.

Everything was in position by 11am, not 15 minutes after I first stumbled across this nest. I sat back with my notebook, binoculars, and camera, ready for the long haul. The birds certainly provided for every opportunity to extend my stay. An hour and a half passed, and the most I could get out of the birds was a flyby. That flyby was a welcome improvement over the birds circling the creek and chirping, or even worse, flying away completely. I began to wonder if my disturbance would simply cause the birds to abandon this early in the season. I began to suspect that my failure to refind last week's nests was also due to my disturbance - a depressing realization for a field biologist. That first flyby enlivened my hope.

It's a good thing I got that boost because shortly thereafter I had to leave for a meeting on campus (to discuss my upcoming job in Venezuela). I had to tear down all of my freshly set-up gear, leaving a glob of duct-tape on the pipe to continue to allow the rough-wings to acclimate to a new addition to their pipe. I made the long trek back up to campus, ate lunch, had my meeting, and hustled back down to the creek by mid-afternoon. I got the camera set up again as soon as I could, and I was thrilled when the rough-wings acclimated to it fairly quickly. By the end of the day, the (presumed - any references to gender are made on behavior, not on any ability of mine to sex them in the field) female was entering the pipe with nest material.

I spent five and a half hours in the late afternoon watching this pair. The excitement of finally being able to observe a pair on nest glossed over the long stretches of boredom as the birds were off collecting nest material or foraging on other portions of the creek. I probably only logged ten minutes or less of in-pipe footage of rough-wings, and maybe half an hour total of the pair perched on the nearby tree whose roots I was nestled in or the wires overhead.

I stayed resting against the concrete wall into the fading light after 8pm. Twilight falls earlier in the walled canyon of the creek, with the pair perched up on the wires in the last soft sun. After the sun had set behind the west hill of Ithaca, but light remained, I thought about packing up. The birds weren't going to roost just yet, though, so I remained a little longer. I somewhat regret that, because it led to my first experience of fear in Ithaca.

My little setup along the wall was visible to people crossing my side of the S Cayuga St bridge, as well as those walking along Spencer St on the south wall of the creek. I could also see people entering and exiting homes along Spencer St, and I half expected to be approach a strange guy sitting with binoculars and cameras facing there homes. In fact no one even questioned my presence over the course of the next week, but two tough guys walking across the bridge at dusk definitely noticed me. They were walking south across the bridge, but immediately halted when one happened to notice me and my gear all spread out along the wall. The two of them started talking to each other, and looking down in the creek but pointedly not at me. Then they split up and disappeared in the direction of the downstream ends of the bridge where I could not see them. That set off all kinds of warning bells - during afternoon lulls in swallow activity I had discovered paths hidden access points to the creek on both downstream sides of the bridge involving beating through the bushes and climbing down a portion of the wall. I suddenly became certain that they either new of those routes and were going to cut me off from downstream, or were looking for them. The re-appearance of one of the toughs who glanced in my direction, then poked through some bushes out of sight on my side of the bridge set off my panic mode. If they came down into the creek with ill intent, I had no option but to run upstream, with no exit from the walled creek known to me until far, far upstream. I had my phone out ready to dial 911 as I rapidly threw my camera gear into my frame pack, buckled it up, and waited. After no sign of either men for several minutes, I began to wonder if I was just over-reacting to suspicious-looking people. On the other hand, what else were they doing after they saw me? I wondered if they weren't waiting out of sight just around the corner under the bridge. I debated calling the police just to sweep the area before I walked out. I decided to keep my phone out, thumb on call 911, and walked up to the bridge. I walked under it, saw no one, carefully approached my access point hidden in the bushes, saw no one, then threw my pack up the wall and shot up the wall and away from that creek as fast as humanly possible. When I was a block away, I tried to settle down and walk at a normal pace the rest of the way back to the commons to catch the bus home.

Tuesday, May 27th

Given that the incident the night before was the first I had ever felt targeted and vulnerable in safe old Ithaca, I wasn't particularly thrilled about returning to my pair of rough-wings in the creek (I recently learned an acquaintance of mine had witnessed a stabbing in Ithaca, further shaking my confidence in this nice, quiet town. The post-graduation world is a scarier place). I decided that I saw enough people walking by during the day that it was still a safe place to be, I could yell for help and people could see me. I just decided to not stay until dusk again. The birds weren't doing much other than sitting around then anyway. Besides, I had finally, after two failed field seasons, got a camera on a rough-wing nest and the pair acclimated to it, and it was late enough in the season that I didn't dare abandon this pair to try to find another.

I left my place at 5am, arriving downtown at 6am. It was already past dawn, although the sun hadn't risen high enough to illuminate the creek, and the swallows were awake and active. I settled in quickly and began my second day of observation. Early in the morning the pair was quiet active, with the female bringing in nest material and staying in the pipe for long periods, while the male remained perched nearby, occasionally fending off interloping rough-wings passing up- or down-stream.

As the morning progress, activity declined, and the pair began appearing only a handful of times per hour, spending most of their time foraging away from the nest site. Frustrated and bored by their lack of on-site time, I began to pay more attention to other denizens of the creek. I spent some time poking around in the shallows and began accumulating a lengthy fish species list, which I have posted in my previous fish post. One of the few other birds down in the creek channel were several Common Grackles foraging among the streamside rocks. If I stayed still enough, they would even come within camera range:

By noon on this second day of observation, boredom and hunger got the best of me, and I packed up, to return the next day after some grocery shopping for a better cache of food and water to last all day.

Wednesday, May 28th

Deciding I needed to be at the nest before dawn, to be sure to capture the full range of swallow behavior as they woke up, I dragged myself downtown before dawn and arrived at the creek. Just as I began crashing through the bushes to get to my climb-down point along the creek wall, I realized there was an occupied sleeping bag across the trail. Still very people-wary from my earlier experiences, I quickly backpedaled and left that side of the bridge to avoid any potential confrontation. The pre-dawn grey was already lightening, and I could here a rough-wing chirping, so I decided not to observe the birds from the bridge until the drifter left, and instead descended into the creek on the south side. I crossed back north upstream of the bridge, and realized my mistake as I set up my camera.

It was quite frigid in the predawn hours (I think around 50 that morning) and I had just soaked myself up to the knee. I sat for three hours, freezing. I only had jeans, a t-shirt, and a loose hoodie for warmth, and it wasn't enough. The birds weren't very active and afforded me no distractions. I paced, shivered, and waited as the sun crept higher in the sky, shielded by the hill to the southeast, the trees and houses on Spencer St. When golden rays began creeping into the creek channel, I was ecstatic and ran over to them to soak it up.

By 8, the sun was warming the channel, and the birds became more active. The female emerged from the pipe and began making frequent forays. At times my pair would engage in frantic chase flights with a second pair of swallows from somewhere downstream. At 9:50am, they rocked my world, copulating on the wire over the creek. This in particular was the observation I was looking for - but I don't really want to go into why as I'm writing a short note on my observations for publication. For those who know, what I was not in support of my hypothesis. Ecstatic to see a copulation, I called Wink up right away and told him the news. He was excited too, but reminded me that I was not done. I should try to observe as many more copulations as possible, as well as ascertain the stage of nesting the birds were at.

To help me reach and view the nest, Wink sent one of his field crew with a fiber-optic cable down to meet me. This is a bizarre instrument that I've never managed to come across before, consisting of a two-foot long cable with a lens on the end and a viewing lens on the grip on the other end. You can bend the cable any which way and get a view, making it useful for viewing the interiors of nest boxes or inside walls as I believe they're used in construction.

Soon after my rendezvous with Wink's field assistant, I had to call him back and gripe. Wink's fiber-optic cable was two feet long. The rough-wing nest started 34 inches down the pipe. There was no way I was getting a view of the cup of the nest to look for eggs.

I spent the rest of the day watching and carefully recording the behavior of my rough-wing pair. I observed several behaviors of the birds while perched on the wire above that may have been attempted copulations, but most of the rest of the day was a fairly boring venture of long absences following by brief bouts of activity. Most frustratingly, sometimes the birds wouldn't announce their re-arrival with chirps, and I would look up and happen to notice them perched and preening. I always wondered if I missed any quiet hanky-panky during those moments. Bastards.

The long, boring stretches of time were really wearing on me, and this was only the third day of observation. I continued to take occasional walks along the creek, adding more fish species to my list. I also made a short list of leps, including:

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Unknown caterpillar

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

My poking around in the shallows of the creek yielded the obligatory crayfish, including this decent-sized individual:

I also discovered masses of these small pink worms. These, along with the rotting live fish already posted, made me regret ever dipping my feet in these waters:

I also buried my nose in some reading material during the long absences of swallow activity. I burned through US Grant's Personal Memoirs, coming within pages of finishing it by the end of the week. I read and re-read this year's issues of The Auk, hand-writing reviews of several interesting papers for posting here (which aren't up yet, but soon...). I studied fish in my Peterson fish guide, and I sat around watching people who barely noticed me. I began to notice patterns of heavier traffic in the morning and evening, the schedule of the local school buses, and the tempo of pedestrian activity. I was occasionally joined in the creek channel by a father and two kids playing in the shallows, a group of teens lurking under the bridge for a smoke, a group of kids devising ways for retrieving a old bike from the deeper pools under the bridge, a man spending the early morning fishing in those same pools. I thankfully never encountered any more people trouble, and remarkeably nobody called the cops on my odd behavior either - sitting day in and day out all week, with binoculars and cameras, in the same spot along the concrete wall. My spot in the dirt became worn smooth, and the area around my place to sit devoid of rocks as I tossed them all in the creek for amusement.

Thursday, May 29th

I arrived on the creek for a fourth day of obervation before 6am rather depressed. It was another cold morning, but I was dressed heavier and there was no squatter on my path to the creek, so I didn't get soaked either. I was depressed because these swallows were keeping me tied down, never showing up for long enough to keep me interested, and not giving me enough behavioral data to complete my project. I was beginning to miss opportunities. Yesterday I missed a herp survey on a friends property that gave Eric and Shawn their lifer Four-toed Salamander (Hemidactylium scutatum) that could've been my lifer as well.

I was totally committed to not giving up on this project prematurely, but the late season meant I was working much later than I ever intended to. The week after graduation had been meant to be my only real vacation of the summer, a chance to get out birding and herping with my friends before they split to the four corners of the globe. We had plans to repeat our amazing herping weekend at Allegany State Park last year, but with even more grander plans... we wanted to top last year's total of 25 and get 30 species of herp in one NY weekend. The Hemidactylium on Wednesday was the start of that weekend (okay it was a long weekend), and we were leaving for Allegany on Thursday morning.

Wednesday evening when I was home, I realized that I did not have the data I needed to be able to walk away from my project. I would need several more days at this rate. I couldn't go to Allegany. This was a double blow to me, because not only did we have grand plans, but this was the 50th annual Allegany Nature Pilgrimmage, many of my old birding friends I had barely seen since my high school years would be there and expect me, and I had even been tapped to lead tours (which I had declined earlier in the season, but was still hoping to help out). Missing this whole opportunity for friends, fun, and herps (and my only vacation of the summer) was a major blow, and Thursday was a very morose day of observation.

By Thursday, I had the routine of my swallow pair down pretty well (that didn't help the boredom!). The early morning hours were somewhat quiet, with the female mostly staying inside the pipe while the male guarded the territory from the wall or tree. He would frequently wing out and chase away interloping individuals, which I discovered by Thursday was actually a second pair of rough-wings nesting in a drainpipe on the south side of the creek, just around the corner. I could sometimes see that male also guarding territory sitting on the wall opposite 'my' male.

Mid morning hours (roughly 8-10) saw peak activity, with the female making frequent foraging and/or nest-material-gathering trips. Whenever the female would exit the pipe, she would rapidly wing up- or down-stream, and the male would chirp, leave his guard spot, and follow after her. They would return, the female carrying nest material. The female would spend a few minutes in the pipe, beyond the edge of the nest and out of sight of my camera, weaving together her humble nest. The male would remain outside, ever vigilant.

By noon, activity would slow substantially. The foraging/collecting trips would extend up to 50 minutes at a time. Activity in the pipe would slow, and many times the birds would only perch on the overhead wires for a few minutes, preen, then take off again. I would sometimes see or hear the rough-wings high overhead, foraging in Chimney Swift territory, but generally for those near-hour-long stretches I would see no rough-wings at all, save for the occasional individual cruising up the creek channel. Every time my pair came into view, announced by chirping that would pull me from my reading, I would quickly aim my camera at the wires, hoping for more copulations. I did observe a bunch more attempts but not a full copulation.

This slow period of behavior would drag on all afternoon. Sometime during a boring stretch of Thursday afternoon, Wink suggested I use the very nest camera I've been monitoring the pipe with to identify the status of the nest. That was a big duh! moment for me (not the first when it comes to using this camera), and I went right to work. I ripped my camera and its duct tape layers off the pipe, and mounted it on the end of a meterstick. I then fed the camera down the pipe while watching the monitor. The nest started a good 34" back, meaning I had to send the meterstick most of the way into the pipe, then feed in the whole arm. I discovered something odd - the nest cup wasn't just right over the first clump of material. The nest material continued way back into the tube for at least another 12 inches! Pretty far back in the nest mass, I located the cup, and identified a single egg, likely laid that very morning during one of the females' long early am stretches inside the pipe.

Now I had could ascertain what stage of nesting my pair was at, and that makes my data that much better. With that settled, I returned to watching the pair when they chose to show their faces, and finding more interesting things to observe along the creek. Just as consistent daily observation allowed me to nail down my rough-wing pair's schedule, so too did sitting in the same spot on the creek clue me in to the details of other animals. I discovered that there was not one, but two mallard families in the immediate vicinity: a lone female with seven chicks, and a female with three chicks often accompanied by one or two males. I wasn't able to figure out whether these families lived primarily upstream or downstream, but I was happy to figure out why the number of chicks I was seeing was changing every day.

I found this critter walking on the roots around my little camps, a stonefly (Plecoptera):

By now my work was routine and boring. Climb down into the creek in the early morning. Watch rough-wings. Get bored, watch fish and other critters. Get frustrated by mid-afternoon at the lack of swallows, and leave. I slowly but surely accumulated data, but nothing new of note happened by Sunday, my last day of observation. The rough-wings continued on their schedule, and also continued egg-laying, with a new egg being present each day until they had a clutch of four on Sunday when I stopped keeping track. At one point a female Common Merganser drifted by, quacked (not something you hear often, look it up, it's not like a Mallard!), then flew away. The only semi-interesting new thing was being interrupted by a brief but heavy thunderstorm on Saturday. This caused me to throw my expensive electronic equipment into my drybag as fast as possible, and run under the bridge.

The storm quickly caused opened up deluges from the many storm-drains in the area, including one that poured over the wires leading to my camera. This made me realize what good choices rough-wings make in selecting nest sites. Neither of the two pairs in the area selected a pipe that was an active storm-drain, and all of the others I had recently encountered had selected pipes that were blocked off somewhere farther back than the nest. Smart birds.

The rains raised and clouded the creek's waters, ending most of my fish-watching fun.

On Sunday, I wrapped up my operation for good, finally deciding I had enough data to have been worth it. The next morning I started my full time summer job, so I didn't really have a choice in the matter anyways. My adventure on the creek for a week ran the full gamut of the trials of field research - success, failure, boredom, danger, discovery, and most interestingly, the chance to get outside and actually observe wildlife for long periods of time. It was only by watching the creek consistently in one spot over the week did I learn the daily activities of my rough-wings and all the other birds in the area, as well as see some fascinating fish and snake behaviors. Even though I was half-crazy from frustration and boredom during the week, I think it was worth it.


  1. as a field biologist myself, i know what you went through. i am surprised no one else commented on your engaging post. i salute you for sticking with it. you have grit.

  2. Thanks for taking us along with you for this expedition. I know how tedious field work can be at times. I added you to my daily read list!

  3. Sweet! That's just more motivation for me to post more often :)

  4. Nice report, Nick. Did you say you were taking a job in Venezuela?

  5. Thanks, Mike. I did mention Venezuela - I'll post about that soon.