December 3, 2017

Lundy Field course 2017

On the 27th of November, twenty one Master’s students embarked upon a journey of endless self-discovery. It didn’t start well.

A chilly 4am start, some greatly resented Christmas songs, two seemingly unnecessary forty-five minute comfort breaks and a flight briefing filmed before we were born saw us dispensed onto an Island that is three miles long and half a mile wide. Phone signal triumphantly discovered, we spent the first day sleeping. A few (adventurous/keen/delirious) groups decided to actually explore the island, which proved to be steep. Seals, however, were spotted and enthusiasm for the week grew in direct correlation with 3G coverage. 

Group One, aptly named after an Island bird, began their second day with another pre-sunrise start. The Lundy Sparrow project was the real reason we were here. The main event. The big cheese. Lucy and Alfredo (PhD students/Sparrow Whisperers) met us at 7.15 (ok, 7.20) and we began with vigour and determination to learn the mysterious ways of the bird ringer. Buoyant that I knew what a tarsus was, it was brilliant to finally see where the data we had been using had come from. Statistics with Sparrows had come full circle.

Lucy told us about the project – data sets that began in the 80s (probably around the same time as the flight briefing) and now formed a complete census of the wild population of Lundy Sparrows. Each individual is identifiable by a colour-specific leg ring. This code is linked to their DNA (achieved through blood-sampling) and to a micro-chip under the skin. What is more, their isolation means that there is no emigration or immigration into the population – an entire pedigree has been constructed. This means every sparrow can be related to its ancestors and the relationships amongst that population are well known. The accuracy and volume of data available for research is extremely rare for a wild population, making the Lundy Sparrows unique.
We learnt how measurements are taken to minimise error, how birds were caught with mist netting and how much it hurt when a sparrow decides it doesn’t like you or your fingers. Each individual, upon capture, had its micro-chip scanned and its rings checked in order to confirm its identity. Next, wing, tarsus, bill and bib measurements were taken and mass was recorded. Sparrow mass fluctuates as energy reserves are used, so even birds caught recently were re-weighed. As they worked, Lucy and Alfredo explained how the measurements were supporting their current research. Male birds have a collection of black breast feathers, known as a bib, which grows with age. As this part of the bird is on display to others, Alfredo is looking into whether this increase in size (and age) is related to male dominance and social status. They also pointed to limitations with the measurements. A similar black band of feathers around the eye in males, for example, is measured in length but not in width or area. It is only recently that Lucy has realised that the width of this band grows with age, as well as length. The dataset, therefore, is still developing as more researchers become involved with the project.
The following days hid a lot of surprises in term of exploration, field work and science! As the project was going on, we were asked to collect data on parental care and social dominance in the house sparrow population of Lundy. Thanks to all this previous knowledge and videos we were able to draw overall conclusions. We went on to test three trade-offs. The first hypothesis suggests that the more you care about your children the less chance you have to survive. We were provided with videos of nest boxes of summer 2016 7 and 11 days after hatching. Based on observations about where the bird is landing and how many time it stays at the nest-boxes, we collected data for parental care analysis.
The second hypothesis focused on the social dominance of the sparrow father. It predicts that good father are bad fighters. To investigate the hierarchy of the Lundy house sparrow population we recorded all interactions at a feeder, including threats or fight amongst birds and identify the winner and the loser. Then we compared our results with those of the parental care videos. Unfortunately, none of the father recorded in parental care videos seem to appear on those of social dominance rank, which led to lack of data for our analysis. This could be explain by 3 different points:
-        fathers who take care of the children are too bad and don’t compete for food,
-        fathers died in between the record of those different videos
-        our methodology was not the best and we should have watched more videos
Also, we observed that apparently females win more fights than males do. Which is surprising and make us think twice about the initial question.
Another interesting part of the week was to asses the effective population size of the house sparrow on the island thanks to resighting. We had to go on the field with binoculars and chase sparrows and identify them in their wild habitat thanks to the coloured rings. Resighting combined with the previous mark-recapture method can give us good insights on how big is our population, and the average estimate was approximately 330 individuals, which is pretty large for Lundy.

After all the hard work and amazing explorations our trip came to an end. Lundy showed us its beauty but also the rain and foggy days. Apart from science, Lundy has a bunch of heavy and mad historical stories!

Blogpost written by Elena Pearce & Floriane Coulmance Gayrard

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