Monday, November 30, 2009
Friday, November 20, 2009
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Thursday, October 1, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Friday, August 14, 2009
Australian bird (orange flag) eating berries in Alaska.
- feeding is determined by tide cycles in New Zealand, birds getting to feed on low tides, yet in Alaska feeding depended, at least for breeding pairs while we were there, on being able to get off the nest. We went with assumption of 12hr shifts, though we had no strong evidence of this. Other failed breeders of course could eat as they wanted.
Monday, July 27, 2009
We were also fortunate enough to still be around as the chicks hatched. It was always a delightful sight seeing a chick bumbling its way across the tundra, in the company of the adult or hunkered down on a nest.
Of particular interest was the fact that due to the abundance of voles and lemmings the clutches of some birds, such as Rough-legged hawks, was unusually large. In the photo below you can see a picture of a Rough-legged hawk chick, one of 6 in the nest. According to Ted Swem, a biologist who has been studying rough-legged hawks for 25 years, the typical clutch is 2-3. He had seen only two clutches of 6 in the past 25 years.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Reindeer were a common site in the area and we were told by a local Inupiat how they would round them up using helicoptors and remove their antlers for sale to overseas markets, a valuable source of income for the indigenous communities. The Red Fox we saw were few and far between, but we did encounter depredated nests (why not predated one asks?) which could have fallen victim to a fox visit.
The Arctic ground squirrels were great little companions, popping up in all sorts of places as if to say Hi. I love New Zealand and I love our birds, but I sometimes wish the country had evolved with a few mammals present so we could have our own encounters in the bush, as they really add to the whole experience out there. I'm not sure our introduced possums, deer & pigs cut it I'm afraid. That said, we probably wouldn't have such iconic birds like kiwi, kakapo and takahe had that been the case. I suppose it means I just have to keep travelling!
However, of the ones we did catch we recorded typical data such as mass, bill length, wing length, and plumage details. We also collected feather samples to analyse for melanin content and to score the degree of wear.
Friday, June 26, 2009
The weather is warmer than anticipated, so the mosquitos are out in force on still days, never before have I been happy for the wind.
The wildlife as we travel around is stunning - musk ox are seen daily, bears, squirrels, Artic hares, moose and caribou have all benn seen. It's great.
Friday, June 12, 2009
Last night, just four days before I am due to travel 36 hours sardine-like in an aeroplane and associated congested airports, the World Health Organisation announce the world is officially experiencing a flu pandemic. Does this really make any difference? Honestly, I don't know, it will depend on how others react and what officials decide to do about it. No recommended changes to international travel are recommended at this stage, so I am feeling comfortable about it all. That said, I have taken advice and armed myself with Tamiflu and facial masks for my travel. My only concern really, is getting some small cold or sniffle and being quarantined as a "suspected case" because I exhibit "flu-like symptoms". Here's hoping all goes smoothly and come mid-next week I find myself comfortably enjoying the view from my cabin in Nome - better still, from my wanderings across the Alaskan tundra!
One of my highlights of this week was getting back into the classroom again, admittedly with students much younger than I am used to. I was able to visit a bunch of great kids at Aokautere School who are studying Antarctica. I was able to take down some of the museum resources from the Ecology Department, such as a King Penguin and Polar Bear skull & leg. I was able to link in their studies with some of my work on Godwit migration, comparing some the geology and fauna of the Arctic with Antarctica. It was great fun.
Next time I write will hopefully be next week from Alaska!
Monday, June 8, 2009
Innocuous looking stuff, caused us enough grief though. Anyway, positive outcome in the end.
So, Saturday was a great day because I got to pick up my Sibley Field Guide to North American Birds. I've always travelled with a field guide for each country and have a great stash of them in my book shelf. This one though will be very special as the birds we see in Alaska are going to be just amazing. I will of course, gleefully scribble each sighting in my book as a wonderful record of my time up there. I love being a bird geek!
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Diagram - polartrec
A Nome Godwit - Ralph Poanessa
They have fanastic cryptic plumage and sit tight on their nests, apparently you can get 1-2m away before they fly off! So the trick will be finding them. A current expedition in Alaska, finding Bristle-thighed curlews, is taking about 40 person-hours per nest. Here's a great photo to give a sense of what the challenge will be...
Nome is also the ending point of the the famous Iditarod, the trail dog sled race. Not quite the season for it when we are there, given we will have 22 or so hours of daylight, but I'm sure we'll find some of the history of the race around the streets of Nome. Bring it on!
Monday, May 11, 2009
Red Knots are monomorphic, they show no significantly different features that would allow them to be sexed in the field. So, over the last week or so, my focus up here at Massey has been on methods to extract DNA from Red Knots and to use this DNA to determine their sex. Of importance is developing a method that allows me to extract and amplify DNA from feathers. We usually pluck only about 3-5 breast feathers and 2 scapulas from the birds. I therefore have trialled just using one feather as a DNA source and this has been hugely successful. I was able to extract DNA using a couple of methods, amplify it using PCR and primers that were specific to our lovely Knots, then run then DNA through a gel to get our results. Here's me looking all geeked up in the Farside Lab, part of the Alan Wilson Centre at Massey (I think the blue gloves will take off on the catwalk this winter).
An interesting thing about bird sex is that unlike humans, where the male is XY and the female XX, in birds the male is ZZ and the female ZW. Therefore, when doing electrophoresis the female gives two bands, at 400bp and 600bp, and the male a single band at 400bp. Here's a photo of my first gel, which shows a bit of messiness in the first column, beyond the ladder, but a clear male in the second column and some clear females out to the right. It works! Yay.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
The birds have flown, so the feild work takes a pause for a bit. Now it's time to get into some lab work. My attention is being divided across three main areas: Genetic sexing, feather reflectance measurements and microscope work to examine feather wear. I will get into genetic sexing of red knots soon, they are monomorphic and we need to be able to determine sex from feather samples using PCR. Feather reflectance is a major part of our study, yet we have had all sorts of problems getting our incredibly expensive equipment to work effectively, that's frustrating! So, the most recent work has been on looking at feather wear. Birds moult and replace worn feathers and we are interested in how melanin investment affects the wear and reflectance of the feathers. You can see in this photo below, a relatively new feather and a worn feather.
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
So, where are they now? Well, birds are heading north west from NZ towards their first stop-over, the staging grounds of the Yellow Sea. Here they will feed up for a few weeks before heading off again to the breeding grounds in Russia or Alaska. This photo below shows some of the tracked godwits and their movements around the Yellow Sea.
Yellow Sea - photo from USGS site
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
I spent the past weekend up at Miranda, doing some mist-netting. We were targeting Godwits in particular, trying to get plumage samples, but had a good catch of Red Knots, so we took advantage of that as well. The evening’s catching was very successful, with 70 birds flying into the mist nets we had set up at two locations in the stilt ponds. I worked with a great team of keen birders, extracting the birds from the nets and processing them - carrying out measurements and putting on metal bands and alpha flags.
Miranda is a great spot, if you've never been there it is well worth it. This time of year there are thousands of birds including about 2,000 wrybills. They are such endearing birds, with spectacular aerial displays, see below.
Over the weekend I was based at the Miranda Shorebird Centre, a great little place with education programs and resources about the area. While staying at Miranda I was able to witness four Godwit departures. These were amazing to witness as the birds called to each other, flew up and formed the characteristic V-shaped flying pattern and headed north up the bay. To see them fading as small dots, then disappearing from the view through my scope was awe-inspiring. These tiny things won’t stop for about six days, until the reach the shores of the Yellow Sea, likely an inter-tidal flat of