I was sitting on my bed, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the sticky heat of the evening while typing away at my laptop. David received a phone call in his room across from mine. I took little note of his conversation, until I heard a dark change in his voice, from friendly and jovial to sharply serious and carefully interrogative. He ended the call and paused in the shadowed hallway outside my doorway, looking at the phone in his hand. I looked up from my computer.
"What's up?" I asked after a beat. I immediately regretted the question. I didn't want to pry about his personal life. He is, after all, my professor.
David blinked and heaved a sigh. "Remember my buddy Jason, from the fundraiser dinner?"
"Jason… I think I talked to him. Just a bit." David has made a point of introducing me to any of his friends or colleagues that we visit, which has been a significant number. I vaguely recalled shaking hands with guy with earrings and listening to his chagrined discussion of San Francisco property a few days prior.
David looked down at the darkened screen of his cell phone again and shrugged. Droning insect noise filled the air between us. "He committed suicide. Yesterday."
Even in a beautiful place like Puerto Rico, there is a darker side. It's not exactly hidden, but sometimes the sight of it shocks me, in contrast to the rest of island life. Puerto Rico, as I mentioned before, is in the grip of a looming economic downturn. Crime has risen significantly in the past few decades. Because it is a territory of the United States, but not officially a state, control over the island's future lies outside of the control of the residents of Puerto Rico. Public services like education and health care have been cut in response to mounting debt, resulting in civil unrest, and the already-high unemployment rate is rising. People are nervous. For more than a month now, the University of Puerto Rico, which David proudly boasted was the "crown jewel of Puerto Rico" has been barricaded by protesting students, halting almost all academic activity. Whether or not these students are doing the right thing is a popular, if not charged, topic of many conversations I've been on the sidelines of. These conversations are tense, full of frustrated head-shakes and derisive laughter. Puerto Rican identity is changing, and that process of change is hard to forecast optimistically. Before coming here, I had no idea that such problems existed. The news of Jason's sudden suicide made me acutely aware that Puerto Rico is in no way immune to humanity's common problems.
Jason's memorial service was held a few days later in Rincón. True to the surf culture of the town, it was held on a beach, and started a full hour and a half late. When conversation finally slowed, there was a "paddle-out" in Jason's honor.
"The paddle-out is a surfer thing," David explained. "Everybody who surfed with Jason all paddled out on their boards at the same time, out beyond the surf. Then we all floated in a circle, each person taking a turn to say something about him."
I wondered what kinds of things were said there, as the ring of family and friends drifted on the easy swell of approaching waves, each person caught in their own memories of the man who made his choice to leave.
There's a saying in Puerto Rico: Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre. "Each hawk has his sparrow". The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most impressive and powerful birds on the island, and easily rests at the top of the food chain here. Notwithstanding, it has earned the ire of none other than the lowly sparrow. Sparrows constantly pester the hawks, darting about them and jabbing them with their beaks, chasing them through the air in tiny unbridled fury. And like the hawk beset by the unlikely sparrow, everyone is plagued with their own problems, even if they're things that appear insignificant to others.
Before coming to Puerto Rico, I could have never guessed at the nature of its problems, but to the people living here, these issues shape their daily lives. Far away in Canada, I assumed that things were fine. I didn't know Jason, but I'm sure that his internal conflict was as unseen to those around him as much as the issues of Puerto Rico were to me. If people were more aware of the 'sparrows' dogging his flight, might have things gone differently? It's impossible to tell. One thing is certain, though; awareness of issues, whether personal, political, or economic, is the necessary precursor to positive change. Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre.
This is why education is so important. Not just school, but the real continued pursuit of awareness and the element of truth. Once there is knowledge, action naturally follows.
Up slick, twisting mountain roads that grow more precarious and disused as they climb, far from the dry forest home of my little yellow birds, is the impossibly wet and supernaturally alive mountain rainforest region of Rio Abajo. After several "DO NOT ENTER" gates, far enough to be beyond bumbling civilians, is nestled a remote green concrete building, its tile roof strewn with leaves and moss. This unlikely building, quietly perched on the side of a mist-blanketed valley as if it has every right to be there, is the location of a central effort dedicated to saving the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot, or iguaca.
This parrot species is endemic to Puerto Rico, and once covered most of the island. Back during Spanish rule in the 1600s, its numbers were in the hundreds of thousands, and could be found in almost anywhere, munching away on a variety of fruit and nesting in old trees. But human expansion exploded, and almost all of the old-growth forest was cleared for development. These birds nest exclusively in the cavities of very, very old trees, and unfortunately, we humans love to make chairs and stuff out of very, very old trees. By the 1800s, the population had noticeably declined. By the 1900s, they only existed in a handful of locations. In the 1950s, there were less than 200 Puerto Rican parrots in the wild, and finally in 1975 it bottomed out at 13 individuals. That's all that was left.
Back at the green aviary hiding in the rainforest, Tanya Martinez calls me back into the building. "Want to see something cool?" she asked, scuffing open a moisture-warped door. The walls of this room were lined with hanging straps, harnesses, and ropes. "Not this - this is just were all the climbing stuff is. We use it when we climb up into the nests to check on things. No, in here, the dry room," Tanya opened another door. The room was dark, warm and pleasantly free of oppressive moisture. It's common in the more humid parts of the island to have a moisture-controlled room where you can count on stuff not getting ruined. Here, there was an array of electronics, screens, and other machinery.
Tanya opened an important-looking plastic cupboard and pulled out a plastic cereal bowl full of cotton balls and… some ungodly aberration of nature nestled inside. It looked like a piece of used gum that rolled under your couch crossed with the fetus of a blind mole rat. It lay limp, as if dead, but when Tanya prodded it the tiny thing raised its head and waved it about wobbily.
Tanya laughed as he continued to head-bang in its cotton ball nest. "Momma Parrot didn't want to feed him for some reason, but luckily we caught it in time and we're feeding him manually for a while. We have to mix formula and feed him with a syringe every two hours! So we all take turns feeding him through the night." She carefully put his bowl back in the warm cupboard. "I'm not sure why he wobbles his head around so much."
I peered into the cupboard at the unlucky (or very lucky) parrot chick, thrashing his pink bulbous head about. Cute he definitely was not, but that tiny, wobbling creature struck me as the most vulnerable thing I've ever seen. "What will happen to him?"
Tanya leaned against the counter and blew a strand of hair out of her face. "We might try to put him back in the nest after a while with his siblings, or we might give him to another female who's a more experienced mother. It depends. We don't want to just hand-rear him, he's far more valuable in the wild."
Tanya Martinez is a former student of David's, who did her Master's on dialects in parrot vocalizations. She has a casually warm, but somewhat sassy demeanor which makes her immediately likeable. But behind her lighthearted attitude runs a hot vein of intelligent dedication; at the center of that passion lies the plight of the Puerto Rican Parrot. When talking about issues, like bees getting into the nesting boxes, avoiding in-breeding in the wild population, or the new mother's hatchling that might not make it, her eyes narrow and her tone turns serious, belying persistent concern and deeply felt responsibility. David's description of her Master's thesis defense to his Canadian students has elevated her presentation to a near-mythical status. "Not a single bullet point! Concise, idea-driven graphics! High-quality relevant photographs!" he would spit at us undergraduates. Despite her easygoing attitude, it's easy to see how that spark of motivated concern could produce a truly excellent thesis presentation.
Tanya took me into the forest the next day to accompany her as she checked on a recently-hatched chick of a wild mated pair. The wet forest chirped and squawked with life all around us as we plodded through fallen leaves and red mud under the canopy.
"You gotta get in the nest box when the parents aren't around, obviously," she said, shifting her backpack. She lowered her voice as we drew closer to the nest site. "Sometimes that's only like five minutes, so we need to watch carefully for the mother to leave. I'm a little worried about one chick. He was having a hard time getting out of his shell last I checked."
A hunter's blind appeared at the base of a tree. Tanya motioned for quiet and busied herself with checking a surveillance screen wired to a camera in the nest above.
Tanya swore quietly and her eyes flashed alarm. "She's already gone. I've - I've got to get up there now - watch for the mother and yell as loud as you can if you see her coming." With that, she strode quickly to the base of the tree and fairly flew up the metal pegs, disappearing into the canopy. I crouched beside the blind and gripped my binoculars weakly, straining at the branches and leaves above for movement. The birds were green, and so was everything else. I seriously doubted my ability to see much of anything, and my glasses kept fogging in the moist air. These endangered birds would die and it would be my fault. We would get kicked out of the refuge and David would lose his job. Before I gave in to despair, Tanya returned, beaming.
"The kids hatched just fine!" She said happily, as we cleared earshot of the nest. "One more little win for the parrots."
One more little win. It's easy to get caught up in the drama of it all. As wild parrots squawked noisily overhead, I thought of the incredible effort invested by humans into endeavors like this one, and of the considerable amount of knowledge that's necessary to make it work.
The state of Puerto Rican identity and governance, Jason's suicide, and the plight of the beautiful Puerto Rican Parrot; all of these things were made tragic to me by how unaware I was of the issues at hand. Knowledge is central to how we perceive the world, and consequently how we treat problems that we are aware of. In the case of the parrots, though, appropriate action followed awareness. There are two aviaries like the one Tanya works at, and the wild population at hers alone is currently around 150 individuals in the wild, with about 30 nestlings. The birds' future, while still precarious, is far more optimistic due to efforts like hers.
Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre. Every hawk has its sparrow. The intricate forces that shape our lives and drive events around us are impossible to fathom completely, but an effort to understand the world is far from futile. We can avoid the tragedy of misunderstanding and ignorance by seeking to understand what's going on on this swirl of earth and water we call home. The more we learn about our reality, the more opportunities we will have to take action and make a positive difference.
And sometimes, it works.
There is absolutely no good reason to be awake at 4am. None. Nothing that keeps you up that late should possess that kind of control on your life, and nothing that wakes you up that early could possibly be worth that kind of pain. 3am? Fine. Maybe you're still up from a crazy party or you're pushing your deadlines. 4am? That is the hour that lies squarely across the line of masochistic insanity.
"Did you sleep well?" David asked one dark morning, across our morning oatmeal. The overhead fan flapped, pointless, while the nighttime coquí frogs chirped quizzically. The question confused my barely-functioning brain.
"... Yes?" I tried, the words as thick as my breakfast, "I mean, I slept well, but - I don't feel good about it." I half-heartedly started shovelling dollops of oatmeal into my mouth, a morning ritual of resignation. I got enough sleep, but my body still hated me for it.
David just sipped his coffee and winked sluggishly. "It doesn't get easier."
He's right. Waking up got harder, actually, but watching the sun rise everyday while my birds start singing has an amnesiatic effect that reduces the memory of the morning to little more than a distantly painful memory . That sounds nice, but it also makes the experience horribly fresh each time my alarm goes off at an ungodly hour and I have to peel the sheets off my body, digging deep for the motivation to function. However, by the time I'm marinating in a mixture of sunblock and DEET in the (relatively) cool pre-dawn air, waiting with bated breath and a hopefully upraised microphone for the dawn chorus to begin, I'm fully awake.
I should point out that recording our birds is a bit more complicated than just standing there with a microphone and waiting for the birds to do their thing. Each day we work in a field crew of 3 or four people, with one specific bird assigned to each of us. The birds we choose have been previously captured and banded with a unique color combination on their little twig-legs. Once they're banded, their territories can be roughly calculated, so we sort of know where to go when we want to find them. Each day, David and I meet up with Eva and sometimes also Orlando to help in the field.
Both Eva and Orlando are Puerto Rican, both former students of the University of Puerto Rico, where David taught. Eva is a short, athletically-built girl who has so far proved to be far more reliable than I would ever expect anyone to be when meeting at 5:00am every day.
"She lifts." David said matter-of-factly when describing her to me, as if that was all I needed to know. David is a powerlifter, body and soul, so when he describes someone as 'strong as hell', that's a ringing endorsement. Eva deserves the praise, though. She's easygoing, reliable, and smart. She's trying to go to medical school, but a part of her heart will always be in biology fieldwork, I'm sure.
Orlando Medina, the bird-whisperer. Orlando was a master's student under David, and he did his research project on these birds. In fact, the data I'm using for my current project are the data he collected and used for his, back in 2012. Orlando is the undisputed bird-master of these lands. He knows this population of Adelaide's Warblers better than anyone. His knowledge and experience is invaluable to this research.
More than that, he's a great guy. It's impossible not to like him. His grin is infectious, his attitude resoundingly positive, and his passion for nature and care for people apparent in everything he does. He invited David and I over to his house with his pregnant wife immediately after we arrived. There, he challenged me to play dominos (a Puerto Rican pastime) with him, growing more aggressively competitive with each beer, laughing and shouting excitedly as I again and again proved my incompetence. This guy loves dominos.
We've got a solid field crew, hand-picked by David for maximum efficiency and minimum personal friction. I'm honestly pretty bewildered that I'm included with them.
We begin recording before dawn, so as to catch the very first song of the morning. The males have this very convenient habit of singing their first song in the morning from a "dawn tree" that stays pretty much the same from day to day. I don't know why they do it, but if we know where the tree is, we can find our assigned bird before they even start singing. They also do this crazy thing called the "dawn chorus", where all the birds start singing (all the birds, mind you, not just the Adelaide's Warblers) at the same time, in a rising crescendo, starting just before dawn. Triggered by some imperceptible change in light, perhaps, or prompted into singing by their neighbors, they begin singing slowly, with a few minutes between each song. By the time the sun begins to breaks above the horizon and light begins to ignite the tops of the trees, the birds are singing as loud and as fast as they can, each male sometimes only leaving as little as 5 or 10 seconds between songs. Put a dozen or more birds in relative proximity to each other, and it's sheer cacophony.
As soon as it's light enough, you have to whip out your binoculars and try to make out the combination of colors banded on its legs, in order to make sure you've been recording the right guy during the dark of the dawn chorus. This is a lot harder than it sounds. Imagine being in a hot, humid, barely-light forest, and trying to see a hamster in a tree with binoculars. Now imagine the hamster is holding a toothpick, and you're trying to pick out colors painted on the toothpick. Imagine the hamster is constantly holding the toothpick behind its back and hopping around. Now imagine that the hamster can fly, you're stumbling through vines and tripping over logs to follow it, and all the while you're trying to record what it says without confusing it for any of the other flying hamsters that live all around it. That's pretty much my job.
Usually we stop recording at 8:00 or 8:30 am, giving us about three hours of recording. After that, we run playback experiments. That's when David sets up a speaker near a male, and plays back different things to it, like a female call, or different kinds of male song, and we record their response and note their behaviour. Hopefully this will allow us to get a better idea of how these birds differentiate between different kinds of song.
So why try and do it? Well, we use these recordings to analyze the fine-scale acoustic differences between the songs, and when we also take other factors into account, like individual song-type preference, how big their territory is, stage of fertility (do they have a mate with eggs or young?), and how song-types are shared between males, we can learn all kinds of things about how Adelaide's Warblers use their songs to communicate. I mean, haven't you ever heard a bird yakking its head off and wondered, "Man, what are you saying?" That's sort of the kind of thing we're trying to get at.
I've been working on a project of my own, that asks the question: "What's the reason for individual song-type preference?" If you'd like to see the presentation that I recently gave on this at a small conference at my university, check out the video of it below (it's only like 10 minutes):
So anyway, there are all kinds of cool things that this data can provide. This year, we've observed a few females with fledglings! We haven't seen this very much before, so I'm looking forward to taking a look at those data. In fact, recently we found a nesting female and her nest! It's been crazy to see how her mate behaves (super aggressively taking over any territory that his mate wants), and how it affects the whole community of birds. The question of mate dynamics is an interesting one to me. Who's the one in control here? The male or the female? Males are the ones that sing and get in territorial squabbles with their neighbors while females are quiet, hard to see, and move around quickly. From what I've seen, though, it looks like the female is the one moving around, gathering nesting materials, and the male just follows her around all day, picking fights with any other male he sees or hears near her.
It's been rewarding, working closely with the birds day after day, learning that each individual has their own distinctive personality and habits. Observing so closely, it's hard not to get sucked into the daily soap-opera that is these birds' lives. Who's fighting who, who is having kids with who, where so-and-so disappeared to, etc. It's addicting. I could write a whole blog about the bird-drama alone.
It's funny, we tend to think of birds as freer than us, I guess because they can fly and we can't. "Free as a bird," right? As I spend time among these birds, though, I see how tied down they really are. Each bird has their own territory, which it maintains from year to year in more or less the same place. They don't migrate, they never leave. Even though there are hundreds of Adelaide's Warblers on the reserve, a single individual could spend their whole life flying between the same half-dozen trees on their territory, and interact only with their immediate neighbors, which might only be 3 or 4 other birds. Just like us, they're also tied down by social obligations like finding a mate, raising young, or maintaining relationships. Their lives are small, and are shaped and reshaped by details that are so small to us. The location of a particular bush, the amount of rain during a month, or whether or not a single chick hatches or not are life-changing events for these birds. Noticing those small details, and then noticing how it changes their behaviour is an intimate experience that is hard to describe.
Earlier in the season, I started recording a male that had his mate and two fledglings on his territory. Initially, the two fat juveniles would stay right by their mother, peeping back and forth at each other and her constantly. She would forage for insects nearby, and return to feed them all day long. If her male got into a fight with a neighbor (which happens constantly), she would shoot off, peeping angrily, to his defense. Her two kids would cry out in alarm at her absence while she and her male would chitter furiously at the invader until whoever it was got the hint and backed off. The kids would quiet down when she returned and dad would sing a victory song that the wife would join in a cheeping duet. It was quite fun to watch. Daily life for them was really a family effort.
I'm really proud of this picture, even though it's horrible. Do you see that shape in the crook of a cactus? That's a female Adelaide's Warbler building her nest. I've been tracking this couple's movements as they've commandeered this nesting site from other males and as she has hunted high and low for nesting materials. Hopefully she'll lay soon, I'll keep you posted!
That was a little over a week ago. Recently, I went back for another round of recording to that same family. To my surprise, the kids were no longer noisy, and much harder to locate. The female still returned to them, but far less frequently, and she no longer brought food to them. They would mostly stay busy by themselves, and their flying had gotten much stronger. When dad got into a fight, didn't yell their alarm and support, even when their mom joined the conflict. They were more independent, and I have a feeling that they aren't too far from striking out on their own.
I was put off-balance and was distantly sad about how quickly their lives had changed. By simply missing a week, I had skipped a huge portion of this family's development. One thing I'm pretty bad at is accepting change and coming to terms with lost opportunity, traits I'm sure that I share with most humans. But these little birds seem to be exceptionally good at living each stage of their lives with gusto. Just watching them eat and fly and sing and fight and sing and eat and fly and sing is exhausting, it's obvious that they're acutely aware of each moment.
The cliché that 'animals are less worried than we are' is a straight-up lie. These little birds are the most high-strung balls of stress around. However, they're worried about the right thing: the present. Not the past, not the distant future. These feathery little products of evolution have one thing on me: they do what they can to take care of their most immediate needs. Higher cognition sure is a burden, isn't it? But I think we can all stand to learn a little from these birds.
Dr. David Logue, my supervisor and professor, lived and worked as a professor in Puerto Rico for four years. He's a friendly guy, so he made many friends and acquaintances. One acquaintance was the Doña Gladys, at whose house we're staying this month. Gladys held some sort of capacity at the university as a lab manager or something. She's since retired, and plans on moving soon to be with her daughter in Florida. But she offered to rent us a space in her quite nice house while David needs it during his field season. As far as I can tell, we could've done a lot worse for a place to kick it while working here. It's pleasantly open, with slatted windows to open at any opportunity to let a breeze pass through. Her décor leans strongly toward the 'grandma' end of things, with antique-looking chairs and tables, glass cabinets full of don't-touch glassware, and a respectable dusting of doilies and lace tablecloths. The image is made complete by her fat cat named "Trueno", who lethargically deposits his bulk in places of varying inconvenience. She has lived alone for a while, and seems happy to have people enjoying her house and chatting with her in the evenings.
She happily received us, ushering us upstairs and giving us a tour of the house. She's from Colombia, so her accent in Spanish is far more intelligible than the Puerto Rican mouthful-of-rocks dialect. That said, she does love to talk, and David and I both realized very quickly that our Spanish game will be stretched to it's limit. Speaking another language for long stretches at a time can get mentally exhausting, even for David and I. I'd say we have pretty good... well, pretty okay Spanish, but it's not just finesse; fluency is about endurance too.
The day we arrived, we ran a few errands around town, getting groceries and such, and then David took me to the wildlife refuge. It was far too late to start working (and way too hot), but we pulled into the refuge, where I will be spending much of my time while I'm here in Puerto Rico. U.S. Fish and Wildlife signage (which felt so conspicuously American it gave me vertigo) marked the entrance to the road up to the main building. The building is neat, modern and maintained, a respectable government building. The land around it is a mix of densely vegetated stands of trees and thick-looking open spaces of chest-high grass and shrubbery. "Ready to hear your first Adelaide's Warbler?" David asked, rolling the windows down. I eagerly swiveled in my seat to lean out the window. A wave of hot air pushed out the sweet coolness of the AC, and with it, I heard distant runs of high trills, emanating from undiscernible locations at the forest's edge. I knew those songs! They were familiar from my research in the lab, exactly the same as the ones I had been listening to for the past year, cut into convenient segments and played out of computer speakers in a university, but now - in context - the trills felt completely different. They were real and alive, a part of the whole landscape along with the sun-baked trees and buzzing insects.
Now, I should point out the sort of climate I'm in. Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean, so it is generally hot and moist in proper tropical fashion, but there are micro-climates scattered across the island. In the southwest corner (See the corner? That's us. Hi, mom), things are generally more arid and sparsely vegetated. I mean, that's what I've been told. I'm pretty sure "arid" and "sparse" are relative terms. I don't think I've stopped sweating once since arriving here, and this:
Is hardly what I consider "sparsely vegetated". I mean, you try bush-whacking through that whilst sweatily squinting through a pair of binoculars for an impossibly small bird. Here, natural selection seems to have a habit of producing an unnaturally diverse range of plants that are perfectly suited to violently pitching you forward onto your face in the moist soil. In the first three days of fieldwork, I had scored innumerable thorns and bristles in my palms, several decent knee-bruises, and one particularly nasty gouge on my hand from what was undisputedly Puerto Rico's worst rock to trip headlong onto.
Don't get the wrong idea - I've been enjoying the experience quite a bit. But: I've been working in the field for over a week now, and I will say this: It's a lot of work. A vacation this is not, by any stretch. Here's what our schedule is mostly like:
As you can see, we have precious little time for anything. A 14- or 16-hour workday isn't unlikely. And it isn't that David isn't a slave-driver (though I won't deny it either), we simply have tons (un montón!) to get done in order to get the data we need for good research. The plan for this field season is twofold: first, to record songs and behaviour of identified and banded males continuously, and to also run a playback experiment on a group of 20 males. This playback experiment is basically using a speaker to play certain sounds to a specific male, and to observe and record his reactions. The sounds David is using are a selection of other species' birdsong, and altered songs taken from that individual bird himself. Each male needs to have 3 different playback experiments run on him, so that gives us 60 playback sessions to conduct over the 30 days we have here.
Well, that's the plan. I've learned that real science, true exploration, is a messy and confusing thing. We read neat little scientific tidbits about the lifespan of squid (or whatever, I just really like squid), and it's always so clear and straightforward. The process behind that information, though, is a dauntingly uncertain undertaking with its share of hair-pulling, confusion, and what-the-hell moments. It's the noble and infuriating process of distinguishing the signal from the noise (whoa like the blog title). Anyway, you can see why we are so rushed each day. Losing even a little ground could land us with an incomplete dataset.
Fieldwork is, well, I won't say "fun". It is, however, immensely enjoyable. It's one thing to get up at 4am to hear the birds sing as the sun comes up for your own enjoyment and think, "Well isn't that nice, the birds are so pretty and they sound so nice." And that's a legitimate response. However, it's quite another to get up at 4am to painstakingly track one specific bird the size of a hamster, and ask from the moment it opens its beak, "How much is this bird singing? Why is it singing? Who is it singing to? Where does it sing?", and a whole myriad of related questions. From such careful observation comes a different kind of satisfaction. Observing things on a finer level can result in finer enjoyment, I believe.
"There's this - this almost magical moment when things come together," David said thoughtfully when he was driving us home from the field. He gestured with one hand while swinging our rental car around curves with his other. "Like… a piece of music where there's dissonance and nothing works until the very end and you're like, 'Ah! There it is!', or a mystery that pulls together right at the end."
I agree with him. There's something profoundly intimate and exciting about watching a little yellow bird and realizing, Oh, his territory extends all the way over here. This bush must have important foraging in it. Or, Oh, that's his female and her fledgling! Maybe that's why he's aggressively defending this part of his territory! Little pieces of these birds' lives and habits start to add up to form a cohesive picture. Well, there's a lot of data to analyze back home, and most likely many of the hunches I have about their behaviour will be bogus, but I can't ignore the tiny feelings of discovery that I feel each day.
It might be overly noble of me to claim any part of scientific progress. I'm little more than an indentured footman to David while we're here. And that's true. But - when we're trudging through the brush to the parking lot, laden with gear, when the sun is too intense for the birds to sing with sweat running down our backs, I can't stop my mind racing about what I learned about those tiny, insignificant birds that day. I didn't notice my bird with a female; is he single? Is that why he sang differently than everybody else? There's always males fighting at that one spot: why are they fighting there? If that one male is as old as we think, maybe that's why everybody else leaves him alone...
Finding meaning in the apparent chaos of these bird's daily lives is addictive and rewarding in unique ways. I might be a nobody, and very few people in the world might actually care about the communication systems of Adelaide's Warblers, but I think that I'm catching the edge of the same thing that drives the progress of our species. The same thing that drove those insane participants of Apollo 11 and early space exploration, the same thing that drove the many ill-fated gentlemen expeditions into the Arctic wastes in the 19th century, and the same thing that drove Fleming to discover antibiotics.
I know I'm guilty of romanticising, but I can't help but be excited by these small but brilliant moments of clarity that stand out in relief from the noise, tiny moments that imperceptibly inch the entire corpus of human understanding forward.
We touched down in San Juan after a long, full flight with a surprising number of families with small children. David proved his child-wrangling experience when he had to basically capture and hogtie a small Puerto Rican boy during takeoff. The four-hour flight was cacophonous, but timely and otherwise comfortable. I sat next to an older lady who stayed stiffly silent, so I suspected she was uncomfortable with English. Several hours into the flight, I asked if she was going home or visiting (in English). She awkwardly avoided eye contact and flapped her hands jerkily in embarrassment.
"I - no... English, no." And she fell silent. I felt bad for putting her on the spot like that. I should have tried Spanish first.
So I stupidly stammered out, "Uh, está bien si, uh, puedo practicar mis, mi Español... un poquito?" Uh, is it okay if, uh, can I practicar mine, my Spanish... a little bit? My Spanish was painfully belaboured. I sounded like a moron. My neighbor, however, was visibly relieved and even chatted with me for a bit. She was on her way home from visiting her two grandkids in Texas. Her language was rich and fast. Mine was more like trying to breathe through a mouthful of pudding. All's well that ends well, though, because I was able to ask her to take a picture of San Juan as we were landing. It's the little victories.
As I walked off of the airplane I was hit by a wave of humidity. It's like walking into a bathroom that someone just took a hot shower in. I immediately felt sticky. David and I thankfully collected our luggage (he had lost bags on these trips before), and climbed into a taxi to take us to Steve Massey's house in Old San Juan. He's a professor (of microbiology?) at the University of Puerto Rico. The taxi blessedly had air conditioning, though the sun had long since fallen and the clouds above where heavy. Soon, though, the taxi ended up in the narrow cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan.
Old San Juan is undisputedly the coolest part of the city. It's a district that was built long ago, with tall colonial-style architecture, and a sort of close, unpredictable nature that is a remnant from when people still built cities for walking, not cars. Hills rose sharply, entrances below and verandas above materialized and vanished unexpectedly. Indeed, streets were too narrow almost for our taxi, he let us out almost a full block away from Steve's place.
We knocked on the a featureless, but very tall narrow door on the side of the street. The man who greeted us was very tall and narrow, just like his door. He was mostly bald, but conversed energetically in a distant english accent. His clothes indicated the kind of transplanted foreigner that was perfectly comfortable in the tropics: everyday shorts and sandals with a dash of acceptable shabbiness. He brought us inside. He lived on the upper floor beside the street, and his residence was a mostly-vertical hodgepodge stacking of open slatted windows, cool tile, and wood-furnished rooms. He lived alone, but good-naturedly offered us his two guest beds.
I took a few shots of Steve's place in the morning before anyone was up and about. There was a spartan quality to his decor, yet the style of the architecture was just... real neat. It was clearly the house of a comfortable bachelor. Everywhere there was evidence of a single person's habits. All kinds of potted herbs lined his rooftop, and the objects left about indicated comfortable, habitual living.
It was clear that Steve and David were good friends, genuinely interested in each other's lives and eager to swap gossip about the goings-on of Puerto Rico. The country (territory? state?) is in the grips of a very serious economic downturn, and its unique in-between political status grants the people very little power over its government. PR's fiscal policies have been seized from the government to a committee of policy-makers, and the extreme cuts to government spending has made quite a few people unhappy. Not least of whom are students of the University of Puerto Rico, who are currently barricading all entrances to campus, Che Guevara-style, preventing classes and any regular happenings of university life. Student strikes are relatively common here, but this one seems more serious, and is lasting much longer than usual. The strike means professors like Steve is currently on an unplanned sabbatical until further notice. He seemed fairly relaxed about the dire situation, laughing, "It gives me more time to write about my research! I prefer to work here anyway. It suits me just fine." I can see why. His flat was comfortable and had an undeniable cool factor that I would be loath to leave if I where him.
"So you're David's new PhD student?" he asked me suddenly, as we were discussing his latest research (which was REALLY cool, about communication networks taken from the Pentateuch). I blushed, giggled, and wormed in my seat like a junior high girl mistaken for a high schooler by her friend's hot older brother. No. I'm David's unpaid undergraduate slave.
After a fitful night's rest under an air-conditioning unit (that had two settings: full arctic gale and off), we awoke to catch a taxi back to the airport to board a small local flight to Mayagüez, which is on the side of the island we will work on. It made me a bit sad to leave Old San Juan, which was a very cool place. I drank in the sights of pastel buildings lining narrow blue-bricked streets as we weaved through them. Steve had said that the iconic blue bricks were laid over a hundred years ago, from the ballast of old ships. I hope to come back again before we leave, though it’s quite far from where we will be working. And after all, I am here to work, not to tour the sights. I had a feeling that I would need to repeat that mantra to myself several more times before the end.
We BARELY caught our flight, again. Though once we arrived, gasping, at the gate, I saw the the tiny two-prop Cessna with her total passengers (two other people) and seriously doubted that it would have left without us. We boarded, and when the captain gave the customary “I will be your pilot today” speech, he literally just swivelled in his chair to face us. I could have rapped him on the back of the head with my knuckles had I wanted to.
The flight was amazing. We took off (the cabin absolutely sweltering, I tried in vain tugging at the little nozzle by my head, but no relief came) to a spectacular view of San Juan by the ocean. We soon cut over land, with lush green jungle hills dipping and rolling under the clouds. Occasionally I would see a glistening brown serpentine ribbon, a river swollen with unceasing rainwater, winding through the green. The aircraft hummed and pulsed aggressively, pulling us westward. My head nodded and eyes felt heavy. I didn’t get much sleep over the last few days, and as spectacular as the flight was, the vibration and muffled roar of the engines lulled me to nod off for a moment or two.
We touched down in Mayagüez. The airport was little more than a strip of asphalt and a small building with air conditioning to wait for your taxi in. It was almost comically small after the mind-numbingly large international airports we left from.
I soon saw firsthand the sometimes-frustrating lackadaisical attitude of Puerto Rican timing. We had arranged for our rental car to pick us up when we arrived. It wasn't there. David was resignedly irritated.
“Of course.” He muttered, our luggage piled behind us on an empty curb in front of the little airport. He pulled out his phone and started to dial. “This doesn’t surprise me at all. We’ll probably be here for at least forty-five minutes until whoever-it-is decides to go have lunch and come back.”
It was two hours before our car showed up. The driver was genial, but David still pushed for a discount on the rental for the wait. He got it.
As we started to drive to Cabo Rojo (where we would stay), heavy clouds moved in alarmingly fast and dumped an incredible amount of rain. Apparently it rains almost everyday at about the same time in the late afternoon. This is nice for us, as we will be working in the field in the morning, and never past noon. Driving in Puerto Rico is a totally different ballgame. Drivers seem to play by a different set of rules, which include ‘get where you want, screw everybody else’, and ‘avoid death’, in that order. We decided it would be best if I only drive if absolutely necessary, which I am very okay with.
We soon arrived at our home, which will be two rented bedrooms in a house of a older Colombian woman named Gladys. We were greeted by her at her gate (which surrounds most homes here). She's clearly a grandma to many, and I’m sure we will be no exception. She ushered us in, warning us not to let her cat Trueno outside. Her house was very nice, and I would love to describe her and the house to you but unfortunately I need to wake up at 4am.
Here are some more pictures. I will post again soon about starting my field work and a few neat experiences I've had very soon.
I sit on a small crowded jet, with barely enough room to perch my laptop on the fold-down plastic tray. The white noise of flight is surprisingly loud. I have to turn up the volume of my music almost all the way in order to hear it through my headphones. We're cruising at some 30,000-odd feet, and when I squint out the window to my right I can see aluminum airfoils of a wing and a distant expanse of blinding white clouds. The cloud seem motionless, like a flat expanse of snow. It seems as if we could be flying over Antarctica, but we're probably closer to the coast of Florida by now. Our flight will take us to San Juan, the capitol of Puerto Rico. We'll stay the night with a friend of Dave's, a professor from the University of Puerto Rico named Steve before we hop on a little prop plane to the other side of the island the next morning.
"Steve is a tall bachelor. That’s the best way to describe him.” He said to me when discussing travel plans over the central table in his lab. He grinned a little. "He's a great guy, but very much a bachelor. I can't guarantee we'll have anything more than a spot on his floor."
Dr. David Logue is my psychology professor from the University of Lethbridge. I’ve been working in his lab for a year now, working on independent studies for credit while completing my degree in Psychology. As far as professors go, he might strike you as atypical. The stereotypical university professor you could picture as a bespectacled intellectual in a suit jacket and slacks, harriedly pacing with some collection of papers to and fro, his disheveled hair flapping about. As laughable as this picture might be, I have met quite a few profs who fill it with uncanny accuracy. David Logue is not that image. His hair is kept from shaved to peppery stubble on his head and his face. He wears only comfortable jeans (“Bootlegger. They’re stretchy.”) and one of maybe three or four t-shirts or a thoroughly loved hoodie, a little faded and a little threadbare. “He’s a professor? Does he always dress so… casual?”, my mom whispered to me when he was sitting across the table from us. Yes, mom, he does.
When you speak to him, though, you will immediately taken aback by the intensity of his conversation. Any conversation with him is be paired with unflinchingly direct eye contact and an intensity of focus that feels unnerving or interrogatory at first, until you realize that’s just how he is. His intelligence is constantly honed to a point, boring into whatever task or hapless undergrad wanders into his path (yup, that hapless undergrad is me). That's most people's first impression, but as you get to know him, you find him to be a gregarious and laid-back person. He's a likeable guy.
The airplane dips and shifts. The clouds are gone, and a patchwork quilt of farmland spreads hazily under the wing now. I know we’re moving at mind-numbing speeds, but at this altitude it feels like we’re just suspended, caught and unmoving, above the earth. David has relocated from seat beside me to a lucky pair of empty seats to catch some sleep, his toque pulled low over his eyes (if you Americans don’t know what a toque is, get yourself some culture and google it). We met at 4:30 am this morning to catch our first flight; I’m pretty tired too, but of course I won’t sleep. I'm trying to make a mental down-shift from the hectic last few weeks of finals and final projects to ... what ever this trip to Puerto Rico is.
Puerto Rico. I should explain what exactly I’m doing there and why.
David asked me to come with him to help with the field-work of his research. His research has focused on these little yellow and grey birds that live in the dry tropical forests of Puerto Rico’s southeast, named Adelaide’s Warblers. He has spent field seasons since 2012 returning to Puerto Rico to catch and band these birds, and particularly to record them singing. David’s research (and what I’ve been helping with for the past year) is all about birdsong. It’s a neat way to study animal communication; what are they singing? Why are they singing it? How do they use their songs? I’ve helped with acoustic analysis of these songs for a year now, and even half-baked a few theories of my own about their usage. Now, though, I will be helping collect the next batch of data. My days will start before dawn, to catch or locate these birds before they start singing. We will also run a few experiments, to see how they react to different stimuli. Hopefully I will be able to explain some of that as we do it, I think it's pretty neat stuff.
One month. April 10 to May 10.
When we think about the past, it's easy to see how A lead us to B, and what line of happenings led us to where we are today. Standing in the present, we see our past as a fairly straight line of events. But, that's not the case. What seems to us to be a direct line of causal events is actually a wildly convoluted one of chance encounters and unlikely occurrences that subtly push us in all different directions. So, sitting in the present, how do we shape our life in direction we want?
In scientific analysis, a signal is meaningful information that emerges from meaningless background. That background can be called noise. The challenge is figuring out how to tell the two apart. What means something and what doesn't? What is important? What isn't?
Outside of science, we can decide what is meaningful, and what isn't. That is what I'm trying to do while I'm in Puerto Rico. I'm trying to figure out how to move my life in the way I want it to by separating the signal from the noise, while at the same time learning to enjoy the combination of the two.
A current undergrad of Psychology at the University of Lethbridge. I'm a budding scientist and... blogger?
My supervisor and professor, the protagonist of this blog. For more information on David Logue's research on Adelaide's Warblers, check out his website: