April 18, 2017

Science writing retreat!

The Landmark Trust's Landmark Futures scheme invited us to a 5 day science retreat in their lovely West Blockhouse in Pembrokeshire.

Antje, Alfredo, Issie, Sophie, Charlie and Julia went and despite the traditional Welsh weather we had an awesome, and also very productive, time. The West Blockhouse is a very sturdy building, with a dry moat, and a draw bridge. We joked that we'd pull it up in case motivation ran low! The thick walls, the brilliant sea views, the remote location, the high cliffs and the sandy cove just north of it made the stay more than worth while. We were inspired, had long discussions about sparrows, statistics, and dominance hierarchies.

Our achievements were listed on our white board!

The dog had a blast running through the fields and getting muddy (and being showered by Issie after the walk) every day. Clearly, he was the "King of the castle" and he wasn't shy to show it!

We even spotted Lundy island (nearly) beyond the horizon on a clear day! It is not visible from the Blockhouse itself (Julia claims only the tip of the light house is), one has to go up to the radar towers and from there, about 10 meters higher up, one can see Lundy in all it's glory!

Here is a summary of our very productive mid-week break!

April 4, 2017

Lundy field course 2016

An early start on a Monday, - 3am. That was painful, but most people slept on the bus. Arriving on the heliport, the weather was brilliant, - blue skies and the views of Lundy on the horizon inviting. 

24 students and Julia spend five sunny days on Lundy island, learning the ropes of ornithological fieldwork including mark-recapture, mist netting, watching sparrows (and other birds), reading color rings and spotting individuals, observing dominance behaviour, analysing parental care and trying to estimate sparrow population size. Prizes were won for "Lundy eagle eyes" - for the most correctly resighted individuals, for "Stamina and endurance" for collecting most behavioural data, for the "Top Twitcher", "ticking" most bird species, and of course, the "Field Biologist Award".

Days were spend catching and ringing birds from before sunrise, to behavioural observations and data analysis in front of the fire place. On the last evening, students gave presentations on their findings. These talks were open to the public and they went very well. 

We had a great week, and it was a bit sad to fly back on on Friday with the helicopter, to a mainland under grey clouds. Looking forward to the next trip!

June 6, 2016

Communicating science in the field and beyond

 Lundy is a beautiful island in the Bristol Channel of the British coast – no wonder is it very popular among tourists. On so called ‘boat days’, well over a hundred day visitor embark at the jetty and have a couple of hours to explore the place. When doing fieldwork on Lundy, one does therefore encounter a lot of interested folk asking questions about numbered nest-boxes, ladders at odd places and House Sparrows with colourful legs. And indeed it must be weird for the general public to see that we study House Sparrows on an island: People expect biologists to study Puffins, Shearwaters or Cabbage on Lundy but not Sparrows.

When we are not climbing around five meters above the ground checking a particularly inaccessibly placed nest-box we take the time to answer those questions. We explain that all the broods are monitored, that we know every chick, that we know every bird individually and that we can identify them thanks to the colourful rings. And we clarify that for our kind of studies, it is important to have a closed population, so that we can know all the individuals and can be sure whether they are alive or not. Most visitors are very interested in the work – they ask back, tell us about their Sparrow observations on Lundy and back home and often leave on a not mentioning how interesting that all is.

Telling people about science is, however, far more than having casual chats in the field. To engage with the general public, researchers should aim to communicate their findings not only to their peers but also beyond. Obviously, one cannot talk about mixed models, random effects and power analysis in a newspaper but then breaking down the complex findings to some simple arguments should be possible – and that is what makes the news.

The most recent sparrow study from Lundy (Schroeder et al. (2016) “Predictably philandering females prompt poor paternal provisioning”, The American Naturalist) is a great example for this. On the very day when the paper was published , Imperial College communicated the findings of the study via a press release: “Sparrows withunfaithful ‘wives’ care less for their young”. Additionally, a video starring some of our study objects was made available on the Imperial College website and was shared via Social Media. The effort paid off; Newspapers from the ‘Washington Post’ to the ‘Daily Mail’ picked up on the catchy story. Cheating, intrigue and sex just sells very well!

Seeing our research appearing in such a wide range of media is great. And it is also very important as research is often funded by public money. If people don’t know what scientist are doing all day long, they are not willing to pay for it. Hence, scientists should make sure to communicate their research well – both in the field and beyond.

Dominic Martin, MSc student on the Lundy Sparrows 2016

February 25, 2015

My first time on Lundy Island

A cloudy and a cold morning had no influence on our persistence to visit the island that I was hoping to visit for a long time. The five minute walk in Hartland led us to the place where we had to board our helicopter. This being my first time, had me getting on my toes. I could see the Island over a distance on the horizon. Once in the helicopter, the astounding view from the helicopter window got me grabbing for my tissues. The flight lasted for a full 10 minutes, later landing on a rainy Lundy Island.

Fig1. My first time using a mist nest. Photo taken in Hartland.
After a day’s preparation for the coming busy days with our sparrows, Alfredo, Antje and I started catching birds using mist nets, ringing them if they weren’t previously ringed or had lost some of their colour rings, and measuring them. For both the sexes, we measuredthe tarsus, wing, beak length, beak width and the tail length . Additionally we measured the badge and the mask of the males. For a long time the Island has been a residence for the house sparrows. Various scientists made frequent visits, setting up nest boxes as homes for the birds. Mist nets were built at various places in the Island, where the possibility of catching sparrows was high. Like for them, each day’s routine would consisted of us waking up early in the morning, setting up our mist net and wait for some sparrows to fly into our traps during dawn. Occasionally, we also caught different birds such as wrens, robins and starlings. The number of individuals that we caught varied each day. There were some busy days, capturing birds way past dawn. We also caught some individuals in nest boxes which were mounted in certain places in the Island. In total we caught 122 birds, of which 84 individuals were unique which I think is a great feat accomplished within the 7 days of our stay in the Island. 

Fig 2. A beautiful day in Lundy Island

This trip has made a strong impact on my perspective on field work with birds, which is not only fun, but also challenging. Research in the island would not have been possible without its residents, who are very kind and generous. I hope to visit Lundy back in summer.

I thank Julia, Alfredo and Antje for giving me this opportunity to work with this project and for their patience.
 - Sukanya Ramani