Tess and I are currently on a week-long holiday after two months of hard work with the red-backed fairy-wrens. We just spent two days seeing the sights in Sydney, and tomorrow we are headed off to Auckland, New Zealand to explore the city and see volcanoes! It has been an amazing experience so far. And the warm showers and comfortable beds have been a definite plus! A full report on the rest of our field work and our holiday travels to come soon.


Just a Quick Flight Around the Property

Yesterday, Tess and I got the chance to fly in a plane around the field site! One of the property owner’s friends had graciously offered to take us for a quick trip around the property, and of course we said yes. We took off at our very own airstrip – central to our RBFW field site – and ascended to a fairly low altitude to get a good view of the landscape below. At times it felt as if the plane was going to shave off the tree canopy from the Eucalypts! We spun around in a tight circle so that we could see the tents, Malay House, and Miner’s Hut – our humble abode. We then continued to skirt the rolling hills, passing the far-off Telstra Tower and eventually reaching the rice patties at the far end of the property. The beautiful landscape along with the thrilling ride made the trip one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It also made me more aware of how breathtakingly beautiful it is here. It’s still unbelievable that we’ve been here almost two months, with only ten more days left.



Attack of the Predators

I was walking down the Lil’ Dam Road when out-of-the-blue, I heard several contact calls from RBFWs to the east. Thinking it was a good chance to practice behavioral observations, I pulled my binoculars from over my shoulder and got ready to watch some wrens. I saw some wren activity for sure – at least four dull individuals with a bright male were hopping from blade to blade in the grass. Normal. What I didn’t expect to happen was seeing two Torresian crows and two Butcherbirds fly into the RBFW habitat. Knowing that these two species are natural predators of the RBFW, I knew something interesting was going to go down. At first, all of the RBFWs were contact calling like crazy and were flying around even faster than before. Then, suddenly, all was silent. As the two crows flew away, a Butcherbird dove down towards where the wrens were originally. I lost sight of the Butcherbirds until I saw one bill-wiping, which is what birds do sometimes after they eat. Maybe it had eaten a wren…? Probably not – there were some pretty good-looking berries on some trees nearby. But it was still exciting all the same!


Transects, Transects, and More Transects!

If you’re a regular visitor of our blog, you may recall the project proposals that Tess and I posted a few months ago for our research this summer. If you’re not (or if you don’t remember), that’s ok! Here’s a little snippet of my proposal as a quick refresher:

        During the Australian winter of 2012, I will investigate how the severity of previous fire regimes (i.e. more burnt vs. less burnt) is associated with pairing behavior along with sex ratio and kin relationships during the non-breeding season…Based on past studies conducted on RBFWs and other passerines, I predict that more heavily-burned sites will exhibit lower pair fidelities within non-breeding flocks during the non-mating season while less heavily-burned sites will have more consistent male-female relationships. This will be tested by observing the frequency and types of behaviors exhibited between males and females, the quantity of consistent relationships with each individual, and the comparability between the non-breeding system I am currently studying and the following breeding system. If the previous prediction holds true, it may be suggested that sexual promiscuity has a strong correlation with fitness in offsetting the negative effects of fire disturbance.

Did you get all of that? Well, due to the fact that the appropriately-sized nets just came in yesterday with only about two weeks of research left for the Australian winter, I was not able to collect an adequate amount of behavioral observation data to analyze pairing behavior. So that meant back to square one for me.

But with all of the vegetation data we’ve been collecting, we thought it would be interesting to look at RBFW habitat usage more in depth with the little time that we have left here. A fellow student (Kathryn Grabenstein) and I have spear-headed a project that can at its core be broken down to a single question: How does RBFW habitat usage vary? (i.e. Where da Wrens at?)

Our Questions:

  • How does RBFW habitat usage vary? (i.e. Where da Wrens at?)
    • How does this correlate with presence/diversity of vegetation?
    • How much does insect presence/diversity affect RBFW habitat usage?
    • How do both of the previous questions relate to burned vs. unburned habitat?
    • How do the first two questions relate to the nonbreeding season versus breeding season?

As far as methodology is concerned, we have already done a lot of the work with our random vegetation points (see my previous blog post). Now we are trying to collect an even more unbiased and thorough sample by running transects through a large chunk of the property (a 2 by 3 km box to be exact). There are sixteen transects running 2 km each laterally which have been randomized in order as well as cardinal direction (i.e. walking west to east vs. east to west). So imagine a rectangular box with two parallel sides that are a bit longer than the other two parallel sides. Then envision someone walking the equivalent of 2 km from one of the longer sides to the other longer side. That’s basically what we’re doing.

Every morning for the past few days, Kathryn and I have gotten up before the rooster crows (or, in our case, before the cockatoos screech) to go to a point for our pre-selected transect to walk either west or east to an endpoint using our compasses. We stop every 200 meters along the way for five minutes to listen for RBFWs, giving us 10 chances to stop and listen for birds. If we hear birds along the transect, we put our backpacks down along the imaginary transect line and flag the spot where we heard/saw them. Then in the afternoons we visit these spots (programed into our GPS) to conduct vegetation surveys. We’re planning on using this information to answer the questions I’ve stated above.

So that’s what I’ve been up to for the last three days. The first two days I had to climb lots of mountains, and today I walked through about 400 meters of 4.5 meter gamba grass. It’s been a lot of work, but our frequent RBFW findings and the beautiful views from the mountain tops have made the tedious transects extremely rewarding. More updates on our new project to come soon.


The Ins and Outs of Veg Surveys

During the long interval of non-blogging, Tess and I have been busy with the rest of the group as we conduct vegetation (veg) surveys around our field site.

Each of us have been pairing off and randomly surveying the vegetation at different randomized points. This has allowed us to get a feel of the different types of habitats here, as well as figure out the ins and outs of the vegetation and structures favored by our beloved red-backed fairy-wrens. Here you’ll find a rough description of what we’ve been up to for the past few days.

  • Step 1: Find Random Point

We are each provided with GPS coordinates that will take us to a random computer-generated point. This point could be on a road or a nice plot of short grass…or it could be in 4.5 meter gamba grass on top of a mountain. I guess that’s what makes these surveys exciting and suspenseful…? Sure, we’ll go with that. But seriously, it’s great to go into places we’ve never been and sometimes hear the faint call of a RBFW nearby

  • Step 2: Two Minute RBFW Survey and Trek to Actual Veg Point

Once at the point, we stay for two minutes to look and listen for red-backed fairy-wrens. If we hear or see them, we go right to the place we heard/saw them and conduct a vegetation survey there. If not, we walk 100 meters in the bearing that is also randomly generated by a computer next to the GPS point. For instance, if we don’t get a peep from a RBFW at a point near the Lil’ Dam, we might head 100 meters at 270 degrees from the initial point. We determine where 270 degrees is from our fancy compasses, which I always have handy when I do veg points.

  • Step 3: Two Minute RBFW Survey and Predator Survey

When we get to our actual veg point, we conduct another two minute RBFW survey. If we hear/see RBFWs from there, we go straight from there to where we saw/heard them (same deal as before). Either way, we follow the two minutes with a one-minute predator survey and look for butcherbirds, Torresian crows, and kookaburras – all potential predators of the RBFW.

  • Step 4: Record GPS Point and Set Up Quadrants

At the veg point, we mark the point in our GPS for future reference. We also record the UTMs and elevation that we read from our GPS. We have two 10-meter strings that we lay out in alternating cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west) using our handy-dandy compass. I have my clipboard and mechanical pencil out and ready to record data, while my partner finishes laying out the second string. Both lie at a 90 degree angle and can encompass the northwest, northeast, southeast, or southwest quadrant depending on the compass reading.

  • Step 5: Record Data for the First Quadrant (The Nitty-Gritty Stuff)

Once we determine what is inside and outside of the quadrant (particularly focusing on trees), my partner and I both agree on the approximate grass height percentages for the quadrant. For example, a quadrant may have 40% 1.5 meter grass, 20% 1 meter grass, 15% 0.2 meter grass, and 25% bare ground. Then we look for saplings (a.k.a. trees that represent new growth, or baby trees), which can be pretty tricky. Sometimes quadrants have one or two…and other times they have over 100 saplings. After the saplings are accounted for, we focus on the big trees in our quadrant. We qualify trees as woody plants that reach standard breast height, which is about 1.2ish meters. We record diameter at breast height (DBH) for each tree in a quadrant, followed by estimated height. I am almost exactly 1.5 meters, so oftentimes I’m used as a measuring gauge for my partner to estimate height. It’s not uncommon to hear something like, “Yep, that’ll be four Kellys!” I guess being short does have its advantages.

Then we record other structures in our plot, such as log piles or large pieces of old WWII artifacts (after all, our field site used to be an airstrip with acres of surrounding land occupied by Australian military during the war). Log piles are particularly important because RBFWs seem to love them!

  • Step 6: Repeat Step 5 for the Other Three Quadrants and Record Densiometer Readings

All the nitty-gritty information is obtained from all four quadrants as we switch strings from north to south and east to west using our compasses. During the string switches, we take a “densiometer” reading at the end of the 10 meter string at each cardinal direction to record tree canopy cover. We either walk five meters out from the center or two meters in from the very end of the ten meter string to use our fancy expensive densitometer (just kidding – they’re actually toilet paper rolls wrapped in duct tape and fluorescent pink flagging tape). We hold it up to the sky straight over our heads and look up through the densitometer and estimate the percentage of tree cover through the roll.

  • Step 7: Check the Data

Before finishing, we make sure that we mark if the area was unburned or previously burned, as well as the time and initials of those who conducted the veg survey. We also put pink flagging on a sturdy tree or snag and write on it with sharpie the veg point number, date, and our initials.

  • So why is this all important?

We’ll be getting lots of valuable information for habitat availability and variation from all of the work we are doing with these surveys. Also, we’ve recently been taking a purposely biased sample of veg points that are taken where we know we have seen RBFWs previously and right after we spot a RBFW and identify where we first saw him or where he perched the longest. Both types of veg surveys together will give us an idea of habitat usage with the RBFWs on our field site.

Practice Makes Perfect

We’ve caught lots of cool birds in the past two days alongside the billabong near our living quarters. The list includes bar-shouldered doves, peaceful doves, double-barred finches, crimson finches, sacred kingfishers, brown honey-eaters, and four red-backed fairy-wrens! I got to practice measurements on a crimson finch today. They are absolutely beautiful. I also served as the “runner” for the team during our mist-netting adventures today. This meant that I crouched down next to the net and waited for a bird to fly into the net before I secured him with both hands, ensuring that he couldn’t get out. This has been necessary due to our current large-gauge mist-net issue. Hopefully the new nets will come in soon! In the meantime, we’re getting some great practice with measurements, bleeding, and herding birds, and we’re catching a few wrens while we’re at it!


John’s Arrival

The past few days since our trip Kakadu National Park have been kind of low key. We have worked on our Vegetation Protocol and mapping out unburned vs. burned plots within the site. John arrived Thursday night, making him the first professor to join us at Coomalie! Sam and I took him on a tour of Darwin before heading out to Coomalie to meet the rest of the group. After dinner, we had our first movie night – Spirit, an animated horse movie. Most of us went to bed before the end, but some lasted the entire movie.

Friday, as a welcoming gift for John of course, we caught 3 RBFWs! We named them FEE, GAY, and GWB. They all had dull plumage and were caught near the Billabong which is behind our house. We also caught a Sacred Kingfisher and 2 Brown Honeyeaters. It is nice to handle by catch and practice measurements on other birds.

Today, Saturday, we caught another RBFW! We named this one YYYm. Through out the morning we also recaptured GWBm and YYYm after he was already banded. For by catch we caught 3 Peaceful Doves, a Brown Honeyeater, 2 Double Barred Finches, and a Crimson Finch.

This afternoon we are going to watch some people release adopted Possums onto the property! Things are going great here and everyone is having a blast!


Awaiting John’s Arrival

We’re all excited to include John into our family at Coomalie! We’re planning on picking him up from the Darwin airport tomorrow (Thursday). Wishing him save travels on his long journey from the states!



Kakadu Culture

For three nights, the crew camped out at Kakadu National Park as we awaited the delivery of our new mist nets to Coomalie. I think I can say on behalf of everyone that the park was one of the most amazing places we had ever been to, at least while in Australia. The park had fantastic views, tons of wildlife, and a few new birds to identify such as Rainbow Pittas and Rufus Fantails. I would also have to say that one of my favorite parts of the trip was learning about Australian aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory and seeing the seemingly endless amounts of ancient aboriginal cave art that covered the caves and filled the rock overhangs at Kakadu. This was where my interest in anthropology would come in handy.

There have been several different tribes with their own languages that have lived on the land now called Kakadu National Park, providing a rich diversity of culture that reflect ancient practices which go back thousands of years. Many aboriginal traditions and customs are still carried out today. For instance, their kinship system serves as a generational record of “skin names” which are assigned based on the moiety and comparative generation. There are two moieties, and people partner with those not from their own moiety. There are also four generations, each designated with a different name, that circulate in each moiety. The kinship system defines who is considered family and who should be avoided in order to keep the skin names (and obviously blood lines) pure. For example, in this system, great-grandmothers and their great-grandchildren have a close relationship because of their skin names. On the other hand, people must avoid their mother-in-laws because their skin names forbid any close interaction, even normal conversations, with that person. I also thought it was interesting how even the animals with which they co-exist and depend on to survive are given similar skin names. It was a confusing yet fascinating system to learn about that was very different from our idea of the typical nuclear family.

The aborigines had various ways to successfully live off of the land and water. Yams were plentiful and were prepared either by boiling them for hours to be eaten whole or ground with sticks in holes created in the rock floors of caves to make flour. For protein, they hunted animals such as wallabies, long-necked turtles, and Tasmanian tigers (they lived on the mainland thousands of years ago before becoming exclusively Tasmanian) and fished barramundi. These practices are recorded in their cave art (or gunbim, as it is called in several aboriginal languages) that were proudly displayed amongst the rock enclosures in which they lived. We saw many examples of this art, most notably at two sites: Ubirr and Nourlangie.

Painting of Barrimundi

There are sites that have been dated using thermo-luminescence methods as over 50,000 years old. Some of the art at these sites are estimated to be nearly 20,000 years old, providing a remarkable record of the way ancient aboriginal tribes lived and constituting one of the longest historical records of any group of people. In fact, this art is what made Kakadu a United Nations World Heritage sites to be preserved and treasured by future generations by both aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.

The diverse and detailed rock art at both Ubirr and Nourlangie was absolutely breath-taking. While frozen in time, the cave walls served as a storyboard, and various ochres provided the means to create the stories important to the lives of these peoples. Stories of evil, deceiving spirits, creation, and figures on the hunt with boomerang in hand can be seen throughout multiple sites. Art from different time periods also allow people to see how the changing environment affected aboriginal culture and their perspective on life. This included effects from global climate change during which water levels waxed and waned and the effects from outsiders such as the Macassans from Indonesia and later the white European settlers.

A painting of a ship from some of the first European settlers

Depictions of the animals constituted many of the paintings and served as a record of fish and animal kills that served as “prizes” for the aborigines. If one caught a barramundi bigger than what he or another had caught, he was able to draw over the previous rock art. Layers upon layers of rock art can be seen throughout the park, covering up thousands of years of history. There is some artwork that without a doubt has been untouched for centuries – Mimi art. This art, as told by aboriginal elders, was created by the spirits themselves. One of the most famous ones is the Rainbow serpent, as seen below. Many are in places that seem unreachable to people, such as on the ceilings of overhangs that are stories high.

Painting left by the Rainbow Serpent

Painting of a ship from some of the first European settlers

While the culture of the aboriginal peoples prospered in the past, today entire tribes along with their way of life are disappearing rapidly. The settlement of Europeans marked the start of a clash of cultures riddled with racism and an obsession with making money off of the land through mining and cultural exploitation. Unfortunately, this continues today – especially as aboriginal peoples try to adapt to modern lifestyles. Despite this lack of cultural relativism, there have been efforts to respect and preserve aboriginal culture. Kakadu is an example of this effort though a collaboration of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to conserve the habitat, wildlife, and important spiritual sites that allowed their culture to thrive. Anthropology and biology, unite!


Places to Go, Red-Backed Fairy-Wrens to See!

Today, I walked six miles on our field site by myself, and I had a great time doing it. Sam told us to go out and finish tracking routes on our GPS devices while listening for RBFWs and other birds. I passed the usual sites – the bee hives, the Lil’ Dam, and the Bowerbird nest next to the road. I went about a half a mile further down than usual, and I found a great short cut to another major site – the Big Dam. I also got a sense of the best places to look for RBFW groups. The Lil’ Dam, the main road about 150 meters from the air strip, the power line road, and the area around the airstrip are the most active RBFW sites we’ve seen so far. I’ve created a very rough sketch (not drawn to scale) of all of these places including the RBFW sites (outlined in green).

*Not drawn to scale

The house is where we live, which is about a mile out from the site. There are also many other spots where RBFWs live, but the green outlines are the best places to find them. I hope this helps out spatially!

Also, we’re all going to Kakadu National Park bright and early tomorrow! We’ll be camping there for three nights. There will be lots of trails to hike, and hopefully there will be a few spots to take a swim when it gets hot. I’m really excited about seeing the famous aboriginal cave art at Kakadu. It’s my inner anthropologist coming out! Pictures of our adventures to come soon.

Also, here’s a picture of a Bowerbird nest if you’re curious. They’re really cool!

Most Bowerbird nests consist of white objects such as land snail shells that have been bleached white in the sun, but some Bowerbirds like to add a little dazzle with pieces of broken green glass or shiny metal objects.