Monday, February 16, 2009

Fellowship Reflections (week 3)

A few fascinating facts about Godwits

  • The Godwits' breeding grounds are in Alaska
  • They migrate from their breeding grounds to other areas around the world, including Australia and New Zealand, after the breeding season
  • The migration from Alaska to New Zealand is non-stop, is about 11,500km and lasts approximately 8 days (See the famous story on E7 here).
  • Birds can double their mass before departure and have about 55% body fat
  • They burn their body fat during migration (they don’t eat during the migration south) and break down muscle proteins to supplement water loss through respiration
  • It is thought that birds can switch off part of their brain while flying, effectively having a partial-sleep while they fly.
  • Northward migration from New Zealand is via Korea or China, but these regions’ tidal flats are being seriously threatened through land reclamation

This week we tried to catch some birds again with mist nets at Foxton. It was my third night at it and previously we had caught only two terns and no godwits. The conditions were perfect, an overcast evening (making it nice and dark), relatively still and a super high tide set for 11.38pm - this was hopefully going to force the birds up towards our nets. Unfortunately, by 2am we had only caught one unbanded juvenile godwit. While I always enjoy the night’s activities the hit-and-miss nature of the mist netting at Foxton Estuary (putting up the nets in strategic positions and hoping the birds fly into them) is a strange beast – it comes with no guarantees. A further attempt on Friday led to a similar lack of captures. Patience and persistence are two virtues that biologists working in the field obviously need in great measure!

Phil doing measurements on a godwit

This Wednesday I head off the famous Broome Bird Observatory, Roebuck Bay in Broome, NW Australia. We will be part of a team of researchers working on shorebirds before the birds migrate north for the breeding season. Expect a lengthy blog post on my return!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Fellowship Reflections (week 2)

So what are you actually doing this year?

I am getting asked this lots at the moment, so here's my attempt to summarise it as briefly as possible.

This year I will be working with Dr Phil Battley at Ecology Group at Massey, investigating aspects of plumage in migratory shorebirds, particularly Godwits. F
or birds plumages serve crucial physiological and social roles. In addition to enabling flight, feathers aid thermoregulation and act as an important signalling agent. The signal that a bird’s plumage provides can tell another bird about its sex, condition, social status or identity, but a problem with feathers is that they wear out, becoming degraded over time. This is particularly the case for birds that have long-haul migratory flights to their breeding grounds.

This year I will be working with Phil to investigate the role melanins play in plumages of migratory shorebirds. I
will study how globally-migrating shorebirds cope with the limitations of their multi-purpose coat, by investigating the roles of melanin levels (which colour and strengthen feathers) and feather wear in shaping the visual signals of the breeding plumage. Here’s some of my first photos of these amazing birds.

This week I have had a couple of days out at Foxton Estuary carrying out core sampling of the inter-tidal flat, collecting samples of invertebrates that are possible parts of the Godwits diets. The work is part Jesse Conklin’s PhD research (the chemist in me always wants to write pHD!). Phil is Jesse's supervisor, hence my link. It’s great being out in the field, surrounded by amazing birds. I’m loving it.