Friday, June 27, 2014

Goodbye, Panama

Summers are busy times for me.  In the brief window from mid-May to mid-August I try to squeeze in a field season or two, unfinished lab work, conferences and family.  All this on top of the ever present need (looming dread?) to write and publish.

This year’s schedule has been particularly troubling.  I’ve finished my first two challenges of the summer—the Purple Martin experiment and sorting the Rupununi ants—and I got a manuscript accepted for publication.  Even with those out of the way my to do list is still overflowing.

I’m to give a talk at a conference in Australia (which I haven’t prepared), visit the Smithsonian in D.C. to finish the Guyana project for WWF, submit another manuscript, and make a couple trips to visit family.   I’ll return to Oklahoma in mid-August to start my first semester of teaching.  And of course I found time for a side trip to Panama.

With these things in mind, I’ve done some juggling and left Panama a little early.  For readers looking forward to more Panamanian posts, I hope you’re not too disappointed.  I’m now on my way to visit family in Ohio before my Australia trip.

Resisting the temptations of Panama’s forests, like the common green and black poison dart frog (Dendrobates auratus), I’ve concluded my second trip there and returned to the States

Hanging out in the Canal Zone was a good time.  Though not pristine, and always in earshot of passing tankers, there’s a lot to discover in the area’s remaining forests.

Our small research boats share the Canal with commercial ships

Perhaps there will be a third trip in the future…

Friday, June 20, 2014

Return to the Canal

My first summer adventure has ended.

Early this week we finished the Purple Martin project and left the Biostation.  Aaron and Tayna have returned to Ohio and I’ve gone on to my next destination.

I enjoyed working with friends in Southeast Oklahoma.  Almost everything about the project—handling baby birds, playing with electronics and using data loggers—was new to me and forced me outside my comfort zone.  I welcomed the challenge and the new experiences.  Most importantly, we learned some new things about life in our skies.

While working close to home has its advantages, the rest of my summer will be a little less familiar.  Immediately after finishing with the Purple Martins I flew to Panama to join some of my labmates and fellow explorers on Barro Colorado Island (BCI).

A hilltop that became an island when the Panama Canal was created, BCI has been used for nearly a century as a biological research station.  Researchers from around the world congregate here to learn how this rainforest—and, by proxy, other rainforests—works.

I’ve traveled from Oklahoma to Panama to spend time in the forests in and around the Panama Canal

It’s not my first time on the island.  I visited for a couple weeks in 2012 to work on some experiments with the rest of my lab.  To be honest, I didn’t have the greatest time.  It was rushed, there was a lot of work to do, and I was distracted by personal issues.

But I’m excited to return, partly because I can take it a little easier this time through.  I’m not here to work on a project of my own.  Rather, I’m here to write, help my labmates, hobnob with other researchers and perhaps sniff out my next big investigation.  And of course I’ll enjoy the forest.

Given the unfocused nature of my visit, I’m not sure what the next few posts will look like.  I guess it all depends on what I learn from the people around me and what the forest throws my way.

It’s going to be a good time.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Frenzy in the sky

Two days after my last entry it finally rained.  Violent storms soaked the ground.  The ants responded.  Over the past few days we’ve seen mating flights of five species, three of which were eaten by our Purple Martins.

People forget that ants are flying animals.  When we think of ants we think about what they do on the ground.  Even when we recognize them as flyers, we don’t think of the roles they play in our skies.  We don’t imagine ant queens and males interacting with other species—eating or being eaten.

Worker ants aren’t appealing food and few animals eat them.  They’re small, lean, crunchy, filled with chemicals, and they bite and sting.  Queens and males, on the other hand, are perhaps the most nutritious flying insects available.  Their thoraces are packed with flight muscle, they carry glycogen as flight fuel, and a queen’s abdomen is filled with enough fat and protein to last her for weeks as she starts a new colony.  Compared to wingless workers, queens and males are big, soft and juicy.

So when a big mating flight happens aerial predators go into a feeding frenzy.

Today Aaron and I witnessed one of these frenzies.  Dozens of Purple Martins swirled overhead in a tight cluster, looping back and forth across a small section of sky, feasting in a sea of prey.  Other hunters joined in—Western Kingbirds, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, and even Great-tailed Grackles which don’t normally hunt on the wing.  A pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers sallied from a dead tree to catch the passing insects.

An ant mating flight triggers a feeding frenzy among Purple Martins and other birds

Even Red-headed Woodpeckers join the chase, flying from their perches to catch passing ants
The frenzy played out at higher levels too.  A Northern Harrier noticed the hubbub and came by looking for a smaller bird to eat.  Dozens of birds mobbed it and chased it off before it caught anything.

Eventually the hunters dispersed, the prey depleted or no longer flying.

Like most things that happen at high altitudes, the insect prey was invisible to us on the ground.  What were the birds eating?  What animal caused such a fuss in the skies?   Questions like these are normally unanswerable, but today Aaron and I, thanks to luck and Eli’s barologgers, knew the answer.

Every day we collect any mating ants we find on the ground.  This way we know what ants, if any, are available to the Purple Martins to choose from.  At the same time we retrieve all the food adult Purple Martins bring back to their nests so we can see what they’re actually eating.  Finally, Eli’s barologgers tell us what altitude they’re hunting at.  Putting the pieces together builds a picture of what’s really going on above our heads.

Today the culprits were probably fire ants (Solenopsis invicta).  We caught them on the ground, we collected them from the chicks’ mouths, and after we check the barologgers we’ll even know how high the frenzy took place.

Our atmosphere is a busy place and ants are some of its important players.  We’re just beginning to see what really goes on up there.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Crossed storylines

It’s been another week of Purple Martin wrangling.  Most days we wake up at dawn and work till evening.  The weather is hot.  Mites crawl onto us when we work with chicks and nests.  We handle and sort through regurgitated insects.  We’ve had technology failures, broken gear, lost data, and a mouse almost made off with some of our barologgers.  And we get shit on…over and over.  But by now we have our methods down and are in our groove.  Things are working.  Except for the weather…

One of our goals is to study ant mating flights.  Purple Martins gorge themselves on queens and males that swarm in the atmosphere to mate and disperse.  By collecting the ants the adult birds bring their young and examining the altitudes at which they hunt them, we hope to learn a bit about where, when and how high ants fly.

Many ant species mate after rains, when the weather isn’t so harsh and the soil is soft.  Last week the weather was cool and rainy.  On those days our Purple Martins fed mostly on ants.

But the weather has worsened.  We’ve had nearly a week of hot, dry windy days.  The high temperatures and dry soil make it hard for an ant queen to survive long in the open or excavate a new nest.  And strong winds make it difficult to fly.  And so the ants wait in their nests, biding their time for the next rainstorm to cool the air and soak the soil.

Bad news for us.  On Saturday we collected hundreds of queens and males, each one captured in the skies by adult Purple Martins, brought back to earth and fed to a chick, and regurgitated to us.  In the six days since we’ve caught one.

Hot dry weather has been getting in the way of our fieldwork in Southeast Oklahoma

But I’ve got time…and lots of help.

This has got to be my most social research project so far.  My work is usually cheap and uncomplicated—just me in the field or lab, maybe with an assistant.  But this summer is different.  In addition to having two assistants—Aaron and Tayna—and working with Eli, my old friend Durant has stopped by to help.

In addition to Eli, Aaron and Tayna, my travel companion and fellow Marine, Durant, has been helping out

All this is great, but also odd.  It’s a crossing of storylines.  Threads of my life that were separate for years are coming together.  Aaron and Tayna are from my hometown of Elyria, Ohio.  Durant is a Marine and traveled around the world with me.  Eli is a professor at my university.  Doors between the compartments of my fragmented life are blowing open.

All from the same town in Ohio, Aaron, Tayna and I have met up in Southeast Oklahoma to study ants in the atmosphere

In a strange mixture of my past and present lives, friends from my hometown and the Marines have come together to help me in my research

Ohio and Oklahoma, adolescence and adulthood, Marine Corps and science, high school and grad school—for the past two weeks these things have been swirling in a (mostly pleasant) blend of new experiences.  Characters from old adventures meet in the same place and time.  And I still can’t get over hearing Cleveland accents in Southeast Oklahoma.

Who says you can’t mix friends and fieldwork?