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.
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: