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Camera traps, sometimes called trail cams, are (mostly) weather-proof, motion sensitive cameras that can be placed outdoors for long periods of time. They are incredibly useful tools for scientists. First, they decrease the amount of effort expended to get results. If I were to spend as much time in the field as my cameras do, I would spend months at a time in a single location or have an army of field assistants doing so. With camera traps, I can have a life and my family gets to see me on a fairly regular basis. Second, camera traps reduce my impact on the #wildlife I study. Most animals do not even realize the cameras are there and go about their regular lives without being disturbed. We can achieve a similar effect by sitting it blinds but see about about effort-to-results ratio. Additionally, we always worry that we can change the subjects behavior even when we are well hidden. Next, camera traps allow me to cover more ground than I could if I had to sit in a blind for weeks at a time to get the same data (kinda a repeat of a?). I have seven field sites that span approximately 400 miles it would take me years to manually gather as much data as I do in a single season with camera traps. Finally, camera traps are considered non-invasive method of sampling wold animals, which is similar to the second point but with an important difference. We not only want our subjects to act naturally, we also care deeply for their well-being. Adding stress can endanger animals if they are just subsisting. I'm sure I'm forgetting some benefits on camera traps though. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below!
Our migratory bird collection permits are in, but the vultures are migrating! We'll soon start the race to collect as many feathers as we can before the weather turns. Unfortunately, a lot of the roosts we identified previously have been abandoned for the winter. I'm hopeful that we'll find a few feathers yet. Even though the feather collection has been sparse, I've had the chance to see some really fun birds like the Northern Harrier Hawk to the right. It's been a great excuse to practice my wildlife photography skills. I think I'm seeing some improvement in my on-the-wing shots, which I've really struggled with in the past. I've uploaded some new pictures to my photography page, which are better quality than those in the blog section. Feel free to check them out.
This week, we had the opportunity to attend the Raptor Research Conference in Cape May, NJ. The conference is put on by the Raptor Research Foundation, the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory, and the Cape May Raptor Banding Project. We had amazing opportunities to meet many big names in the field of raptor research, discuss the latest techniques in raptor research, participate in a day of raptor banding, and hear true greats such as Ian Newton and Yossi Lesham speak. Overall, I felt excited to get our project up and running so that we can contribute next year! Who knows maybe there is a stable isotope raptor talk in my future!
As we patiently wait for our permits that will allow us to collect migratory bird feathers, our group has been searching hard for active roosts in the New York and New Jersey area. These roosts are often a treasure trove of feathers left behind from vultures as the molt throughout the summer. Turkey vultures and black vultures are communal roosters, and 60 or more birds can be found at any given nest (Buckley, 1996). We hope to use feathers collected from these roosts to determine the diets of the birds through stable isotopic analysis (Bearhop, Waldron, Votier, & Furness, 2002). We will also employ DNA barcoding techniques to identify species when a visual inspection alone is insufficient (Bello, Francino, & Sánchez, 2001; Dove, Rotzel, Heacker, & Weigt, 2008). We’re hoping to identify the portion of anthropogenic food subsidies that may be used by these birds. Vultures stabilize ecosystems by quickly redistributing nutrients back into the ecosystem and limit the spread of diseases through their consumption of dead animals (Moleón et al., 2014).
This week, I had the good fortune of having a car and a copilot willing to indulge my roost search. We stopped at several locations previously identified as potential hotspots for roosts through the use of eBird.com. We’ve also worked with local birders to identify roosts for future sampling as soon as our permits come through. I also had some amazing opportunities to snap a few pictures of vultures while visiting these locations. All in all, it’s a pretty perfect day when I identify new roosts and have the opportunity to work on my wildlife photography skills! Have you heard of or seen vultures roosting near you? ~ALB
This summer I had the amazing opportunity to work with a high school student on her first field work adventure. She learned a lot, realized that field work can be grueling, and created an awesome poster to present to her classmates, mentors, and judges. She tackled hiking in the mountains, setting up new field sites, several dead chickens, and analyzing camera traps. I couldn’t be with her during her poster presentation, but by all reports it went really well! She, not only explained the project, but ins-and-outs of some seriously complicated statistical analyses. I couldn’t be more proud of all her hard work and contributions to the Anadón lab! We’re happy to hear she’ll be visiting our lab over the fall and continuing her research. For those interested in participating in field research in the New York area, contact me! ~ALB
This summer, our lab has taken on a high school student and an undergraduate student. The goal is to expose them to field work, statistical analyses, and the inner workings of an active ecology research laboratory. We’re even trying to get them on a publication by the end of the year. Each week, we pack up our field vehicle and drive out to one of our local field sites.
We’ve taken them to study terrapins at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and the scavenger community at Black Rock Forest. Not so bad—a little hiking, a little sun, some fun outdoors, and a lot of data collection. While I admit I miss trudging through the rain forests of Costa Rica and hiking the Andes, this is a cushy gig. We can conduct field work year around and never worry about missing a class or our families. We also keep our research costs low because we don’t have to worry about the costs of flights or the very real struggle of working with foreign governments (not that our own is a picnic). Best of all, we can do a hard day’s work, collect massive amounts of data, and still sleep in our own beds at night.
As lucky as I feel to have a local field project in additional to those abroad, a 16 year old with no outdoors experience has a slightly different take on the experience. The new normal for each trip include comments like:
“Are there going to be many more hills where we’re going?” (When we’re in a mountain range)
“It’s super sunny and hot. Are we going inside soon?” (When we’re on a beach)
The best part is when we explain a hard truth about studying scavengers: we need to understand how, where, when, and what they eat. The size of her eyes would make a dinner plate envious.
This week, we visited a solid waste facility to observe scavenger’s utilization of the anthropogenic resources there and develop new partnerships with the local waste management facilities. This is an important part of our research as scavengers often preferentially use human trash instead of fulfilling their role within the natural ecosystem (Lonsdorf, 2013), which can lead to destabilization of the surrounding ecosystems via the spread of diseases and a decreased level of decomposition and nutrient cycling (Moleón et al., 2014; Montoya, Rodríguez, & Hawkins, 2003; Whelan, Wenny, & Marquis, 2008). For the individual scavenger consuming human waste products, the results can be dire. Anthropogenic food sources may be nutritionally incomplete or hazardous to their health. Vultures, in particular, are known to eat non-food items such as plastic, glass, and ceramics (Houston, Mee, McGrady, & Warkentin, 2007; Torres-Mura, Lemus, & Hertel, 2015). Our study has a dual-arm approach to the study of anthropogenic contribution to the diet of vultures, which you can find out more under my research page.
Despite our interns’ usual comments about the weather and energy output of most of our projects, I was proud of their stalwart attitude as not a one of them made a peep about the smell or the other undesirables that come with solid waste management. It makes me hopeful. I’m not sure, but maybe we’ve actually managed to make an impression. Field work is not always pretty, it’s not always easy, it’s almost never clean, but, still, it’s the best place on earth for a science-loving-nature-geek like us.
That’s all for now ~ALB
Our lab had the great fortune of tagging along with another research lab conducing urban ecology. The Jamaica Bay Terrapin Research Group has been working in the area for a long time, measuring females that come to shore to lay eggs and the subsequent hatchlings. We had the opportunity to catch some gravid female today, like the beauty shown to the left. Jose has a lot of experience with turtles in Spain and Morocco, but this was my first experience with Testudines. Well, I should say my first formal research experience with these gorgeous animals. As a child, my brothers and I loved finding box turtles in the woods behind our house. I was really amazed at the color variation within the diamondback terrapin population at Jamaica Bay. They live in the brackish water and are the only turtle known to do so. As with most turtles, the sex of their young is temperature dependent. The temperature of the nests is not only dependent on the yearly variation, but the depth of the nest, which covaries with the size of the female. In hot years, larger females that dig deeper nests tend to have more success, but in cold years, the smaller females with shallower nests tend to survive. Nests also face predation pressures from animals such as raccoons, which we deal with at our own field site as well. Overall the experience was amazing and we were exposed to a whole new line of research. Our interns experienced an entirely different ecosystem than the forested mountain tops at which we usually work. It was such an amazing day and our lab is so grateful to the Burke lab for hosting us for the day. This type of inter-lab collaboration is a truly special thing! ~ALB
Alexis L. Brewer
Doctoral student at The City University of New York studying Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior.