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.
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: