Field Blog

2018 Field season finale

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As we boarded our tiny, 7-passenger plane to leave Obo Village, we wave goodbye to a truly unique field season in Papua New Guinea. We’ve laughed and had a great time. We struggled with sickness and the fall out from being held-up. We captured over 200 birds, implanted 30 or so fairywrens for one project, performed 217 behavioural assays for another, and tested out some very early pilot work for any future PNG endeavors. We got a few life birds (my favorite was the Chinese Sparrowhawk which shouldn’t have been in Obo Village!). We sent Doka to Australia where he learned the ways of the red-backed fairywren field crew. We made new friends and new allies and we also enjoyed the company of our two families we’ve come to know and love on opposite ends of the country.

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And now comes the fun part. I’ll have my hands busy with data preparation and analysis for the foreseeable future. Doka will return home to Milne Bay to his family as well as to scope out a new village that has expressed a lot of interest in our involvement with their local fairywrens. And Ian continues to be an awesome field technician while he works in South Australia with Allison Johnson. But first, Ian and I will spend a week with the red-backed fairywren crew ourselves in Brisbane for a little time ‘off’ before we move on to teaching (me) and field work (Ian). I need 7 more life birds to reach 500… maybe it’s time for a trip to see white-winged fairywrens afterall.

I don’t have much else to say in terms of updating this blog other than to say thanks for tuning in throughout the field season. Hopefully we’ll be back soon here in Papua New Guinea – and hopefully I’ll have a better photo to provide more bird photographs. For now, these will have to do.

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This family group (the same group in our group selfie) included the 200th bird to hit our mist-nets this field season. I named them after my MSc university’s (Appalachian State) with YYK (Yellow, Yellow and Black; school colors) and ROK (‘rock’; the name of our football stadium – not that I watched much football or am a fan, mind you, but it seemed appropriate as this bird was near the tallest hill on the field site (elevation of 40m above sea level) that we refer to as ‘Everest.’).

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The bower of a Fawn-breasted Bowerbird.

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Ok maybe this isn’t the greatest photo in the world, considering we were seated on the edge of the field, but I always enjoy watching rugby gameplay, particularly in PNG. It’s a unique brand of Rugby League.

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Never enough love for jumping spiders

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And finally, Doka’s goodbye message we left on our white board in the guest house. Last year our theme for the year was ‘No Let Down.’ 2018 was the year of ‘No Brakes,’ as we worked nonstop to let little stand between us and finishing our research goals. For all it’s faults, 2018 was a good year for fairywren research. I look forward to my return.

If you’re still keen on anything fairywren between now and our return to PNG, and want to participate in some citizen science, the Fairywren Project has officially launched over at fairywrenproject.org. They also can be found on twitter at @FairywrenProj. And again, I am myself on twitter at @JonesJA91. Until next time,

~John

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Home stretch 2018 – Live, from Obo!

10 hours by dinghy south of Kiunga (or 1 hour by MAF (Mission Avian Fellowship) flight), we arrived in Obo Village last week after stranded in Kiunga for 8 Days. We planned on being here quite sooner, but the entire town (and neighboring Tabubil) ran out of the fuel for the boat motors. Because of course it did. With over 100 kgs of cargo, we needed that dinghy. Luckily, our friends arranged for 300 liters of fuel to come to Kiunga from Obo Village (but unfortunately still twice the cost of what it would cost in Kiunga). Nonetheless, with the arrival of Doka from his Australia trip (huge thanks to the red-backed fairywren crew in Samsonvale for making his trip incredibly meaningful for him), we departed after only a little bit of engine problems.

Terrible selfies

Obo’s airstrip can be found on Google Earth – just north of where the Fly River meets the Strickland in Western Province PNG. Follow the winey river south of Kiunga (along the Papuan border with Indonesia). Fun fact, we got off the dinghy on the Indonesian side of the river. Doka was excited to step foot in another country. Lacking cameras (thanks to an earlier post about Garuahi…), we were unable to take pictures of all the birds we saw on our trip. But Sea Eagles, Brahminy kites, and Magpie Geese were a plenty.

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Here in Obo, the swamps are dried up (as it is currently the dry season), mosquitos are prevalent (but only during the dawn chorus), fires sweep through my field site (I’ve had to put out a few already since arriving last week), and fairywren females are brown (pictured above). Unlike Milne Bay Province, female ornamentation out here is all but absent. Likewise, immature birds (sub 1 year of life) are also brown in appearance, which leads to some pretty neat looking males when they start finally molting in their ornamented state (below).

Young male trying his best

Obo, for me, is home when I’m in PNG. The village is quite welcoming and happy to watch us while we wonder throughout their grasslands. The family that owns the majority of the land (and our guest house) provides great company and logistical support for when things break down (like our generator which has gone down twice since we arrived). Not to mention the ground is soft enough that I can run barefoot and its totally normal around here (well, except for a white man running around and through the village, that is). This place, although a challenge to arrive too, is where I feel the best when in PNG.

Not to mention that my favorite fairywren species is very abundant at the forest edge – Emperor fairywrens.

Emperor!

With only two weeks and change left to go this field season, we are hard at work with conducting the Western Province half of my behaviour experiment I mentioned previously. We are about 1/3 of the way done with our 90 behavioural assays after catching nearly 50 birds since our arrival. This year has been an interesting one, to say the least. I’m excited to see what comes out of the results of this experiment.

BOO!

This female is BOO. She is 5 years old (at least, we’ve only been based out of this site for 5 years) and is the first white-shouldered fairywren I ever held – 2 years ago. I’m glad she’s still alive and doing well. Her offspring have set up their own territories in nearby areas too! Oh, fairywrens.

-John

 

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It takes a village

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Welcome to another exciting and sad update. Not sad like last time. Sad in that Ian and I are leaving Milne Bay Province to continue on our research objectives over in Western Province in Obo Village. Sad because after two months split between Porotona and Garuahi, we’ll miss our Milne Bay families. In particular, the sheer amount of support, logistically and emotionally, that has been offered to us since the Garuahi incident has been quite encouraging and reiterates how much I love the people of PNG.

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We managed to capture nearly all of the fairywrens to wrap up the Garuahi experiment. What was striking is that we found that many adult birds, prior to implantation had (what I am calling) dirty feathers, or bronze tipped scapular feathers like the bird I’ve highlighted previously. In response to treatment, nearly all females (and only one male) produced these dirty feathers. However, one male and one female (of separate groups) in the control treatment also had a dirty feather or two, suggesting other factors are also at play other than hormonal control. Now one may ask why would only a spot or two of bronze plumage on a mostly white ornament matter in the grand scheme of things. That’s a legitimate question and I don’t have a great answer as of yet – however, nearly all (>95%) males and females I’ve caught have full white ornaments and (importantly) dirty tips is characteristic of immature plumage. Oh, to the importance of Controls! Soon (ish) we’ll have data on which genes are being turned on and off during this critical period of feather growth – stay tuned.

Back in Porotona, Ian and I wrapped things up to make way for Western Province. During this time, we laughed, we told stories, and we packed gear. On 1 July, we were scheduled to head to Alotau to spend the night in town to catch an early flight. Well…

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Landslide. On the side of a mountain, the only road to and from Alotau. It had been raining nonstop the past few days and, naturally, the night before we were to travel to town, a landslide occurs. With 102 kg (later confirmed at the airport, spoiler warning) of equipment spread among multiple bags to get to Alotau, we were in a bit of a pickle. Originally, the thought was to hand carry (or wheel-barrel) the bags to the site of the landslide and simply transverse through the jungle to the other side. The hillside was stable enough that we felt comfortable enough that we cut our way through to see the extent of the landslide – maybe 50 m in length along the road. Luckily, as we returned from our expedition, we passed a local who just so happened to have a truck – I cannot understand how fortunate this is due to how few people own vehicles out in the villages. We return to Chez Serena and wait a bit, tell some more stories, drink some instant coffee as we wait on the truck to take us to the site of the landslide.

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During this time, we were trying to plan out how we were going to travel from the other side to Alotau. Our original plan was to find a bike (another rare item) and bike until we find someone with a car and then hire them to come up our mountain and pick up our items. But, for the first time in PNG this year, luck was a bit on our side. One of the local men just happened to be traveling to Porotona today to see his family (he lives on the outskirts of Alotau) and he left his car on the other side of the slide. So after confirming with him that he’d give us a ride, we were set. Now we just needed to get through with all of our gear.

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This part was pretty simple. Axes and bushknives helped clear a nice lane that enabled us to travel through. On the other side, a bulldozer was hard at work trying to clear the road – I imagine it’ll take a solid week before the road is up and running again for PMV travel.

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From Alotau, we got some last minute errands done and then said our tearful goodbyes to Serena. I’m excited to be back in Western. But I very much so will miss Milne Bay and I will miss the family I’ve come to know and love the past two months in PNG.

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Meanwhile, in Australia, Doka has arrived! Finally, after two months of struggling on our end in PNG, he made it and is now learning about Aussie fairywrens with my colleagues over at the Samsonvale bird project, specifically with red-backed fairywrens (link in previous blog post). I’m excited to share that he was able to hold a fully ornamented male of each of the three species found at our field site.

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Doka will join Ian and I in Kiunga at the end of the week. From there, a long boat ride to our next stop, Obo Village. There, birds are brown, food has no coconut to better the taste, and swamps are a plenty. It’s a fantastic village and I look forward to seeing my Western Province family.

-John

Trial by fire

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My apologies for how long it has taken me to update the blog. The last few weeks have been a little eventful and I’ve struggled with how to best present what has happened in the past few weeks. When we read published articles, often is absent the amount of tireless effort, sweat, and hardship that went into science. Our scientific field is just as much failure, if not more, than success. And I have since decided that it is important to share that angle of research. Because we all, as scientists, go through ups and downs both in our personal and academic lives. What is important is that can move past it and salvage what we can. So, from the beginning since the last update:

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Since April, we’ve had ~150 captures (a few repeats mixed in there), 111 behavioural assays done (since the last update) for experiment one, 30+ implants out for experiment two, and a cage built to pilot year three. On paper, these details point to a good year. And indeed, the efforts of Doka, Ian, and I have laid the foundation for potentially two really exciting articles to come out of this season.

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Our fairywren army was deployed this past month to complete half of my behavioural experiment. The goal here was to explore the adaptive significance of divergent female coloration. To do this, female mounts were coupled with a female song (rather than a duet as had been used in the past) in order to determine how males and females independently and jointly respond. More often then not, what we found was high coordination by males and females in response to treatment. Oddly enough, however, when we were over halfway done, males started to display some signs of courtship to our treatments. During these rare occurrences, males would either puff up their shoulders to show up their ornaments or carry flowers towards our paper birds. Some male went the sneaky route during this time. Others carried a petal and sang while seated right next to their mate. Ah, fairywren love.

This experiment did not go without it’s hiccups though. Halfway through the repeated assays (around when each bird had 3 or so repeated trials), a series of fires started to be set off in Garuahi village. It had, until that point, been two weeks without rain and the winds felt like they were near tropical storm strength. This isn’t unique to Garuahi though – all throughout Milne Bay Province, people (mostly young men in their 20s) set fires during these times. No one really knows why – perhaps they’re bored? These fires initially stress me out due to the fact that it undoubtedly influences fairywren behaviour. However, I can comfort in the fact that my grasslands will remain grasslands due to the numerous fires. So ultimately, these fires had minimal impact on our study and were only a brief, momentary stressor. But they say things occur in thirds – and I still got two more in me.

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When the grass is taller than you are, but you still have behaviours to observe.

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With the completion of the Milne Bay half of this experiment, team PNG headed back to Porotona Village to have a few days rest before continuing on with experiment two. Well, rest is potentially slightly misleading – I have been (along with Jordan Boersma) attempting to get Doka a passport and a visa for the entire time that I’ve been in PNG this past year in order to visit my colleagues working with the red-backed fairywren (Blog found here; https://redbackedwren.wordpress.com/), the sister species to our white-shouldered. Doka has been an integral part of my field research as well as Jordan and Erik, and as such, it was important to me to facilitate his opportunity to experience a brand new world outside of PNG. Even if it is, unfortunately, in the middle of my field season. Anyway, he was set to fly out six days after arriving in Porotona. This was the primary reason we had gone back to the home village. Unfortunately, the day I arrived back in Porotona, I got an email stated that he was declined a visa. A major let down to be sure throwing a wrench in all of our plans (Don’t worry though, I’ve since replied and had his Visa approved). In the meantime, We (well, mostly Doka and Ian) built a cage to pilot the next field season. During this time, we experienced PNG in true fashion with a cell phone being taken by a small child. But luckily, we recovered it the next with help of Ian’s father tracking its position from the US. A close call to be sure.

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Back in Garuahi. With Doka – his flight for Australia booked in one weeks time. The entire field site smells of smoke. But now our goal is to catch birds and implant them with a drug that should influence the expression of their white ornament. Above is a pilot female – her left scapular has bronze-tipped, ‘dirty feathers’ that inspired this research. This color expression is typical in juveniles, but nearly all adults have pure white scapulars. Early results done so far this year point to an experimental inhibition of a proper molt in an adult female, but I only have these results for two females. We’re here in Garuahi to implant 8 more males and females and see if these results hold true.

This is the part that I’ve struggled with (1) if I should publicly share and, if so, (2) how to do it. Things were going well – we had 2 more pairs of birds to implant before taking a bit of time to let the implant do it’s thing as well as try out our cage. Unfortunately, that night, a group of six individuals cut the wire to the fence leading to our house, hopped over it, and caught us off guard by shining a torch in our backs. I’ll save the details, because it’s really not worth rehashing, but you can use your imagination for how things went down. In any case, most things were stolen, including nearly all of our most important field equipment as well as Doka’s passport. Why am I sharing these details? I suppose it’s different from earlier blog post. Well, to me, it’s because this is PNG. It is an ever-pressing concern here, but it could happen anywhere. But I’d like to be clear – PNG is hard but I love this country just as much today as I did two weeks ago. Everything, from the scenery to the birds to the plant life to the support from villagers throughout this difficult moment highlight it every day.

Everyone is safe. This is most important, and I want to stress that no physical harm was inflicted. The stress of the situation nearly had me call it quits for the entire season, though. But in the hours after the event, I had quite a lot of time to reflect without a phone or anything to get second opinions. But ultimately, I’m writing this from Port Moresby and I fly back to Alotau tomorrow. So, there is your answer. This ordeal, about 10 days ago now, is a massive setback. Setbacks are expected though, but they often prompt us to reassess whether or not the goal is worth achieving anymore. But science, as I opened up with, is full of setbacks. The challenge is getting back on tract after something beyond your control brings you down. And on that note, I will travel back to Milne Bay tomorrow, Garuahi the day after and I will spend two days to recover my implants, and more importantly, feathers for gene expression data. Because I’m stubborn, as a dear friend likes to remind me. But fret not, I have recruited a small army of people who I trust to help us and to watch over the field site for the two days we are there.

Oh, and the reason I’m in Port Moresby is because I’ve just come back from Australia – I went there for four days to repurchase field equipment. Fully stocked and good to go, Ian and I will complete this second experiment before we pack up and head to Western Province to conduct the Western Province half of experiment one. As for Doka, he’s flying to Port Moresby tomorrow. And Australia on Thursday. I’m excited for him because, baring anything else going wrong, our Papuan friend will experience a world that he’s only seen in movies and magazines. I only wish I were there with him to experience it. But he will be with my red-backed fairywren colleagues and in good hands.

On a final note, my apologies for not having more photos to share. Since the incident, I haven’t taken a single photo. But here are a few to hold us over.

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John

Live, from Garuahi!

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Greetings, from Garuahi Village, Papua New Guinea. Just in time for another brief update from the ground. Currently, I’m writing this from the beach of Garuahi (the only place with consistent internet service), but we’ll start our update in Porotona.

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The rain season is officially upon us here in Milne Bay. It’d be tranquil, under most circumstances, to sit on a porch to work under the rain to work on your prospectus while in the tropics. Too bad I had birds to catch that day (that had to be caught). It rained hard enough to make the river impassible, which is unfortunate because my wrens were on the other side. Luckily, river levels have since returned back to normal, although the river bed itself is quite a different shape than it was pre-flood.

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My field technician, Ian Hoppe, has officially arrive to PNG (above: he’s on a roof with Tobudi. For fun, I think?). Ian is returning for his second trip to PNG to aid in completing both of my projects this year – we’re lucky to have him. The locals have surely missed him just as much as he missed them in return. Maybe he’ll join us for year three? Well, in any case, with his arrival, we’ve set off for Garuahi Village. Here, we have our work cut out for us as we try to complete a behavioural experiment, more implantation sampling (below), and pilot some other fun things out to attempt next year.

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Did you know that backwards binos make a nice magnifying glass? I needed one to really see the details of the pin feathers of the wren’s scapular feather patch. Speaking of which, the preliminary results of my first chapter are in and they’re not too terribly conclusive, but they are quite exciting. Like many things during field work, it only has me more excited to keep collecting samples. I’ll share more when I obtain a greater sample size from Garuahi. Also, during sampling efforts in Porotona, I’ve realized that if you play a female song of a divergent population of unornamented females (recorded in Obo, Western Province), the females here in Milne Bay province will ‘switch’ their songs and start to sing a song that closely resembles that of the other population. I should note that, structurally speaking, these birds normally sing songs so differently, if I didn’t know better, I’d assume they’re separate species. So, the fact that a Milne Bay bird sounded like a Western Province bird is exciting – but I’ve yet to see this effect in Garuahi. Strange.

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Doka (our local Papuan assistant; pictured above), Ian, and I have been in Garuahi for a little over a week now. Above is a snapshot of the gear/food we brought for our stay as well as a lovely mountain view from the grass below (mountain photo being the first photo in this update). In this time, we’ve managed to catch individuals from 22 groups (totaling near 50 birds captured). We’re well underway with my behavioural experiment and somehow ahead of schedule. It’s an exciting time. We’re using a playback design like Erik’s before me, where we present a mount and a song pair to elicit a behavioural response. However, unlike Erik, here we are broadcasting only a female song and only a female mount. And we’re given them mounts of differing phenotypes to investigate the signaling function of the white scapular patch in this species. Just like with the first experiment of the summer, the results are still ongoing but I’ll keep you posted when there are updates to share. In the meantime, bird pictures.

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Until next time,

~John