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Checking in from Monterey County

Posted by Brian on March 29, 2017 at 1:10 AM Comments comments (1)

Three weeks down! Everything’s gone as planned thus far (that often doesn’t happen working with nature), and I’m currently in Monterey. The ticks out here are ridiculous. I pulled five of them off of me this morning. There are usually at least one of three nuisances present when working outdoors in coastal California: poison oak, mosquitoes, and ticks. Poison oak will ruin your life for weeks, mosquitoes are some of the most annoying organisms on the planet (and can spread disease), and ticks, to me, are the worst of the worst. There’s nothing quite like an animal that tries to burrow inside your body without your knowledge, drink your blood, and have the courtesy to leave you with an infection or disease before departure. Out of frustration, sometimes when one runs into any of the above in the outdoors, it’s reasonable to wonder what good any of these nuisance organisms are, their roles biologically, and whether the environment is better off without them. Many animals, the California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) for example, form a symbiotic relationship with poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), building its nests among the plants and feeding on the white berries, then spreading the seeds through excrement. Ticks are hated by many, including myself, but they (and mosquitoes) serve as an important food source in most ecosystems. However, one biologist says the extinction of mosquitoes might have no effect at all on the environment. Anyways, back to birds.

Monterey is my fourth stop on the trip thus far-I left San Diego, then sampled in Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and now Monterey. If I study hybridization in a contact zone between Allen’s (Selasphorus sasin) and Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), what am I doing sampling far away from the hybrid zone? Well, I’m also doing a phylogeographic study on Allen’s Hummingbird. Some organizations such as Partners in Flight claim this species is declining rapidly. Others are skeptical, especially given the fact that the non-migratory subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin sedentarius) is currently expanding its range. By sampling Allen’s Hummingbird throughout its range, I’ll be able to quantify whether the species is really in decline or not. With limited conservation dollars available, knowing which species are threatened and which are not is extremely important to prioritization and management decisions. Second, in order to accurately describe behavioral differences between Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbird, and to use these differences to classify and sort out hybrid characteristics, I have to actually know how pure Allen’s Hummingbird behaves across its range to provide a meaningful comparison. This is important for all aspects of my dissertation.

You don’t spend most of your time working and living outdoors during the field season without running into some weird experiences. In Santa Barbara, for example, a full campground woke up in the middle of the night to a homeless couple screaming, shouting, and fighting at the top of their lungs, followed immediately by a drunk driver crashing his car into a tree. In San Luis Obispo, somebody seriously asked me to catch a hummingbird for her as a pet, and assumed that’s what I was doing there in the first place. I face-palmed pretty big on that one. Hummingbirds need more than sugar water/nectar to survive…they need protein! Insects make up a huge portion of their diet-hummingbirds are predators too! Finally, some advice: don’t book several nights in a campground built next to a railroad tracks with trains that run all night.

I’ve also added some pictures to the photo gallery. Thanks to Megan and Chris for letting me stay at their place in San Luis Obispo last week, and thanks for checking in!

One week down

Posted by Brian on March 13, 2017 at 12:20 PM Comments comments (1)

My first week was a successful and interesting one. I saw a hungry Cooper's Hawk rip a Northern Mockingbird into pieces, observed a pod of dolphins, and watched a Western Scrub-jay land on the arm of the chair I was sitting in to harass me for some food. Camping in the California State Parks I've stayed at has been $45/night-more expensive than some motels. I find it pretty odd that the powers that be, with it's monopoly on campgrounds, continues to drive prices up on public land and price out those who can't afford it.

As far as research goes, I tend to find Allen's Hummingbird in coastal sage scrub (CSS) habitats, many of which I notice are also degraded areas. Although Allen's Hummingbird populations are likely doing well (my work this field season aims to quantify that), in part due to the presence of ornamental and invasive plants that have popped up due to urbanization, there are a lot of species that rely on CSS to survive, many of which are in decline, such as the coastal Cactus Wren. CSS has been reduced to approximately 10% of it's original range, and a large portion of remaining habitat is degraded, so this spells trouble for such groups. 

Upon release, one of the Allen's Hummingbirds I caught angrily performed courtship displays at a Song Sparrow, a bird about 6.5 times his size. Hummingbirds, especially Allen's and Rufous, often do this to not only each other, but different species of birds (even if they're much larger), small mammals, or anything that might be looking at them the wrong way. The philosophy of a hummingbird is to always be angry at the world-they don't take flak from anybody.

Adventure awaits...

Posted by Brian on March 8, 2017 at 1:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Tomorrow, March 8, I begin my third field season. The goals over the next 2-3 months are to a) complete sampling for a phylogeographic study of Allen's Hummingbird, b) complete sampling of the first transect across the hybrid zone, and c) begin sampling of the second transect. I'll be starting in Southern California, working my way north along the coast until I arrive in Southern Oregon. 

Over the next few months, I'll try to include some information you might not have known about hummingbirds before, noteworthy experiences (such as the Breaking Bad-like motorhome and it's many visitors at a specific field site last year), pictures and descriptions of the places I go, and updates about research progress. 

Here's a quick fact: In general, hummingbird courtship displays are also used to neutralize potential threats. For example, territorial males will often perform dives to intruders not to woo them, but to express dominance. Other expressions of aggression in hummingbirds include louder, more intense chattering, body posturing, chasing, and physical attacks.