Kota Kinabalu is a fairly new and modern city and things are just too shiny and fast paced to attract many pacific swallows. Liz and I have learned enough in our search for swallows thus far to not waste our time tracking down the few pairs that we would find in KK. So we rented a car and headed north towards to the tip of Borneo (sounds so adventurous right?). Time for a road trip! Liz is now a pro at driving on the left side of the road and maneuvering around cows.
On our route we stopped in a few small towns and found some nests near the open-air markets, but not at the densities we had seen at Bako or the longhouse. Some daytime netting in a bridge with two nests over a river offered no success. With limited prospects, we kept heading north until we were in the town of Koto Marudu. I am guessing that you have not heard of it- probably because there is not much there and even less to draw tourists. In the concrete buildings around the central market we found 12 nests, only some of which appeared active. It seemed the best we could do, so we booked a tiny windowless room in one of the local hotels and waited for night to fall. If we had some luck, we could maybe catch 10 birds here, which was the minimum number we were hoping for. As we sipped our iced milo after dinner, we discussed how we might have to just take our time and hope for a few birds a night in each of the towns to get close to 15. With only a few days before we had to meet our collaborators on the other side of Sabah, it was going to take some work.
The night started off dismally. To begin with, three birds escaped the nets- their nests were in hard to reach corners or near pipes and putting the nets up was tricky. Other nests had only big chicks waiting for us and no parents, several were just empty. With three birds in hand and one more nest to check, it was not looking good. It was nearing 11pm and both of us were pretty grumpy. We were about a block away from our hotel when some movement caught my eye, two swallows flew through the light cast by a street light. Had we missed a nest? I thought we had checked this block. Then I took in the side of the building where they had come from. There were birds everywhere. For a minute, I was just confused, and then I realized that they were all swallows! There were hundreds of swallows roosting on windows and ledges, on balconies. The powerlines that crossed the street drooped because they held swallows like beads on a necklace, sitting wing to wing.
For several minutes Liz and I alternated between a series of questions that no one answered- “What?! Why are they here? Why are there so many? When did they get here? Why did we not see them on our way to dinner? What!? This is crazy!” and giggling. The whole thing seemed slightly ridiculous and very dreamlike. They were not all pacific swallows, a large part of the roosting flock were barn swallows, migrating up from their wintering grounds to northern Asia where they will breed. Both Liz and I have studied barn swallows for years so we recognized them right away. They looked huge next to the tiny pacific swallows. It was like running into an old friend in an unexpected place. But in all my years of research, I have never seen so many barn swallows in one place. It was incredible.
On the edges of the roosting flock were pacific swallows, dozens and dozens of them. All we had to do was lift up a short net and we could catch ten birds at once. Having earned every bird we have caught so far on the trip with hard work, it felt a little like cheating.
We alternated between catching birds and taking them back to the hotel room to band, measure, and release them. With the help of some chocolate, we caught and measured all 20 birds, which is the maximum number we can catch in each location. It was 5am when everything was finished and we still could not quite believe it. Does this happen often, or was it just luck that we went to the right town on the right night and stayed in the right hotel to stumble upon a flock of hundreds of swallows? When we woke up the next morning after 4 hours of sleep, all of them were gone. Other than the samples we had in our packs, it was as if they had never been there.
After finishing up our sampling in the state of Sarawak, we are moving onto Sabah in the north of Borneo. We flew into the city of Koto Kinabalu (which most people shorten to just KK) in the late afternoon and headed out to find some dinner. Evan scientists have to eat!
Sabah is famous for its seafood, so we went to check out the fish markets. Fisherman return each evening with their days catch and at dusk, the selling begins in an open air market on the coast. The air is pungent with the smell of ocean and fresh fish, the floor is wet, and the market is filled with the sounds of people haggling and sellers calling and singing out their prices. I have never seen so many different kinds of fish and life from the sea. All of it was so fresh, it was fascinating and beautiful to look at.
The rest of the market is divided into sections that sell dry goods, fruit and vegetables, and meat. One section of the market is made up of food stalls selling all manner of satay, drinks, cut fruit, grilled meat, roti, pancakes, noodles, curries, and a wide variety of fried things. We headed for the seafood stalls. Displayed in front of each was their pick from the days catch. You pick out what you want, decide on a price, and they cook it for you. We had grilled fish and squid and curried prawns. It was some of the best seafood I have ever had.
In Bintulu, we once again found ourselves nest searching with little success. With the swarms of swifts, we had so little luck in the city, we decided to rent a car and head out to the small villages nearby. We spent the next two days driving down the winding roads of Borneo, bordered by green jungle and palm plantations. We stopped at every bridge we came too- often accompanied by horn honks from truck drives and shouts of “where are you going?!” we would climb down under the bridges looking for swallows. More than one person thought we were looking for a bathroom.
We did find some swallow nests, but often the bridges were too high, or the nests were located right over the fast flowing muddy rivers of questionable depths. Catching in bridges is logistically difficult and time consuming, and our success rate is usually low. We needed something better if we were going to pull off our 15 swallows. And then we saw them- a whole flock of swallows wheeling overhead, so we followed them onto a narrow gravel road and they led us to a longhouse.
Dayak is a loose term for the native peoples of Borneo that encompasses over 200 groups, many with their own dialects, culture, and customs. For hundreds of years they have lived in longhouses. Jungle people all over the world have converged on longhouse like structures as the ideal way to live in wet, hot rainforests and Liz and I have to agree. Raised on stilts above the often flooded ground it catches the breezes and circulates cool air from below. Livestock can shelter underneath and large airy public spaces are pleasant even on a hot day. The longhouse is home many related family groups, each with their own living spaces often composed of several rooms. As the extended family grows, more “units” can be added on to make the longhouse even longer. The longhouses were traditionally built of wood and woven grass and bark and are beautiful, but as with most structures built with what amounts to tinder, many have burned down. These are often replaced with modern longhouses, built with the same design, but with modern materials. This was the case for the longhouse that the swallows had brought us to.
As we approached it was clear that the swallows circling back and forth under the house. This was the first time we had seen them nesting directly on buildings instead of docks or bridges, so we were surprised. As we pulled in, we were immediately greeted by a man waving to us from the porch. We showed him the pictures of the swallows and explained that we were scientists and wanted to look under the longhouse and possibly catch the birds. If he found this an unusual request, he did not let on for more than a short pause, before smiling and telling us essentially, of course, do whatever you want- go find the birds.
And so we donned our handy yellow rubber boots and off we went, into the cool shadows under the stilts. It was the domain of chickens, spiders, and sleepy cats. It was a world of luminous green mosses and dark earth that upon disturbance, revealed itself to be a sucking calf deep mud. An old man in a low slung hammock observed the goings on with half closed eyes. And there were swallows. They had built their nests on the underside of the longhouse floor and were busy doing circuits, zooming up and down the corridors between the stilts. Liz and I were itching to put up some nets.
When we emerged, we began undoing poles and pulling out nets, but were called back up to the longhouse porch for drinks and talk. The parts of us that had been shaped into western, busy, productive scientists checked our watches and worried about time and daylight. But working in places like Malaysia teaches you to slow down and listen. To recognize and be respectful of different ways of knowing and doing. We were guests in this longhouse, strangers who showing up uninvited and wanted to spend the day under their house turning up the mud and catching their birds. Sitting still, listening, talking, and forming a small connection before this work was the least we could do. Fieldwork, particularly abroad, shapes you in different ways as a scientist. The ever present concern of “time management” which fills our academic lives is replaced by quieter lessons of patience, flexibility, and reflection.
So we left our shoes on the stairs leading up to the longhouse and sat crossed legged on the floor of the long open common space. It was delightful. Our host was James Ambu, the leader of this longhouse. A position he had taken over from his father who had replaced his grandfather before him and so on. James’ own son would likely replace him someday. His mother served us fruit juice and homemade fermented rice wine. We talked about where we were from and where we had been in Malaysia to study the swallows. We listened and learned that the longhouse was 30 years old and had replaced the traditional wooden longhouse that burned down. Before the fire, it had been home to more than 100 families. After, the people divided into four different long house; the one we were in was now home to 27 families. It must have been a great loss.
When the juice and sweet rice wine were drunk, refilled, and drunk again, and a small connection had been made, we went back down and slipped into our rubber boots. The cats and the man in the hammock watched us with quiet amusement as we set up the mist nets amid the chickens. At several points we almost lost our boots in the mud.
The day will remain as one of my favorite fieldwork memories. We spent the rest of the day catching birds at a slow, but steady pace. We set up our banding station on the porch and the residents of the longhouse emerged to sit and watch us as we measured and photographed birds. They took turns releasing the birds when we were finished. Each time cheering and laughing as the birds launched off their open hands. On the insistence of our host, we paused and joined him for lunch. He served us tiny fried fish he had caught in the river that morning, fresh prawns and squid. It was wonderful. As the afternoon waned our hosts brought us fresh coconuts they had cut open and we drank the sweet water with straws and then scraped out the meat with spoons. More rice wine, stronger this time and a variety of green oranges they had picked from their trees. We discussed how the land had changed over the years, how cutting down the forests had made the animals go away, but had also given jobs and money to the people. Money for children to go to college and to live a nice life. Like many things, issues like palm oil are never simple or easy.
We caught the birds we needed and as dusk fell they urged us to stay the night, but we had to get back to the city. We packed the car, and took some final photos together. At this point, Liz and I were not sure what to do. Should we offer to pay for all the food and drinks? We had spent close to 7 hours at these people’s house. We had shown up unannounced and they had spent the whole day with us. In the end we did offer, in an awkward apologetic way. They looked at us slightly offended, insisting that they were happy to be our hosts and that we were welcome at their longhouse anytime. We left feeling humble and grateful. It was a good day.
After several days of nest searching, Liz and I manage to catch all 15 swallows that we needed in one long and crazy night in the small fishing village of Bako. It involved significant amounts of mud. This meant that we were finished with Kuching and have since moved on to the city of Bintulu, about half way up the northern coast of Borneo.
Bintulu is a town rarely frequented by tourists its main draw is a large palm oil mill and offshore drilling. People seem surprised to see us here. One of the first things you hear when you step into the town of Bintulu is birds. Loud trills, cries, and calls. The sky is filled with black shapes with pointed wings that are circling, whirling, and darting. These are not swallows, they are swifts. Swifts and swallows look a lot alike, but they are actually not closely related. Swifts and swallows are a great example of convergent evolution. Both eat flying insects on the wing and evolution has thus provided each of them with pointed wings, long flat bills, similar body shapes, short legs, and good eye sight. In fact, the closest evolutionary relatives to swifts are actually hummingbirds.
We think these birds might be close competitors with swallows. They eat similar types of foods and sometimes nest in similar locations. We have also noticed, anecdotally, that where there are lots of swifts there seem to be fewer swallows. This means that finding all these swifts in Bintulu is not the best news for us, though it is pretty cool to see and hear so many at once. We will have to head out of the city if we are going to find many pacific swallows.
But why are there so many swifts in Bintulu? Liz and I identified several different species of swifts here. Some of these build mud cup nests, similar to swallows, and like to nest under the balconies of the tall buildings and in parking garages and bridges near the river. Bintulu just happens to be a good place for them. But some of the swifts are here because people have made a huge effort to lure and keep them here. They are farming the wild swifts, not for meat, eggs, or feathers, but for their nests.
These small swifts, which are called swiftlets, build their nests not from mud, but from saliva. Male swiftlets produce long threads of stringy spit that hardens when it dries and they use it to build a small translucent cup nest. These nests are prized as a deliciously in many parts of Asia, but particularly in China and are used to make the famed bird-nest soup. These nests are cleaned, soaked, and then made into a soup that is referred to as the caviar of the East. They dissolve and give the soup a gelatinous texture that can be made either savory or sweet. Descriptions of the taste vary from bland to heavenly and exquisite. The nests are supposedly very nutritious and eating them is said to promote good health, particularly of the skin. As with many things, it is also said to be an aphrodisiac. Swiftlet nests are big business for Malaysia. It currently produces 380 tons of swiftlet nests a year, and the price is around $2000 US dollars for 1kg of nests.
Edible nest swiftlets would normally nest in caves, of which there are many in Malaysia. A large cave complex not far from Bintulu was historically home to a population in the millions of swiftlets. This has dropped significantly in recent years and heavy nest harvesting has led to sharp declines. Malaysia now lists all swifts as protected because of this. Harvesting swiftlet nests from caves can no longer meet demands and is quite dangerous. It requires people to climb up and balance on narrow bamboo platforms and many have fallen to their deaths. Instead, people use all sorts of tricks to get the swiftlets to nest in buildings. They convert top floor apartments into swift farms and build special swift houses by the river. Dark with small openings they resemble caves. In new houses, they even cart in buckets of bird guano to get the smell just right. Speakers, called “tweeters” blast the sounds of a swift colony at high volume to lure birds in. In parts of Bintulu it is so loud it hurts our ears to walk past. Can’t imagine the neighbors are very happy.
Liz and I have yet to try any birds nest soup, but we probably should before we leave Malaysia. I will report back on what it tastes like.
Swift farming on the top of an apartment building in Bintulu. The speakers are blasting the sound of a swift colony.
The food in Malaysia has been wonderful (and so cheap). Spicy noodle dishes, fried rice with meat and sambal, satay, fresh sea food, river prawns, jungle ferns, curries, hot stir fries with rice, roti dipped in dahl, fried bananas, and wild vegetable pickles. Depending on what quarter of a city you go to, you can get Chinese, Indian, Malay, or even Dayak food (one of the indigenous tribes), or interesting fusions and combinations of these different cuisines. Liz and I happen to both love food, so this works out well for everyone.
Given its strategic location for both land and sea, Malaysia has been a center for trade and a crossroads for many different cultures throughout history. Immigration of Chinese and Indian traders and later workers during the time of colonization and mining helped to establish communities and most large towns/cities have a Chinese and Indian quarter as well as Malaysian parts of town. Walking through the city you can find mosques, churches, and Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, and folk temples. While the official language of the country is Bahasa Malaysia, you can hear a variety of languages and dialects. The statistics are impressive, as a country, Malaysia contains speakers of 137 different living languages, with over 10 different dialects of the Malay language itself. There are 30 different indigenous groups, each with their own language.
All of this results in a wonderful variety of food, flavors, styles, and spices. Food from street stalls, stands, markets, or cafes is affordable, fresh, and extremely fast. A few of my favorites include:
Laksa: a spicy noodle soup that is very popular. Each region has its own version and they like to argue with each other over which one is better. Here in Sarawak, the broth is made of coconut milk, shrimp paste, and chilies. It is rich and spicy and the soup includes shrimp, chicken, or fish, or all three and of course noodles.
Roti cani: an Indian influenced flat bread often served with dahl or curry. Fillings come in a variety of flavors from sweet to savory. My favorite breakfast.
Nasi Lamak: considered the national dish of Malaysia and a typical breakfast. Rice cooking in fresh coconut water served with chicken, beef, or fish, with spicy sambal on the side and topped with roasted peanuts and dried anchovies. Often wrapped up in a pandan leaf for easy transport.
Noodles (Mee Gorang): stir fried noodles in a spicy chili sauce with eggs, greens, and chicken. These come in many different flavors and styles.
Midin: wild jungle ferns, fresh and green, sautéed with garlic, or lightly pickled and served as a salad.
TomYum: Spicy sea food soup full of chilies and ginger. Will make you sweat if you are not already.
Fresh Sea Food: So fresh and so good. Often you pick out your fish before they grill it for you.
Morning Glory Greens: lightly stir fried, delicious and fresh.
The ingredients for all this delicious food can be found in colorful market. Liz and I have enjoyed just walking through them to savor the sights and smells. The fish markets are our favorites.
Flying into Borneo was like waking up in some childhood dream. Having spent so many hours as a kid watching nature documentaries about this jungle island filled with strange endemic creatures, it was hard to believe I was actually going there. What better place to be as a biologist? Looking over the winding rivers and dense forest on our flight into Kuching was surreal. Seeing the torn up edges and many oil palm plantations also made me sad.
The primary goal of this project is to sample pacific swallows at many different places across their geographic range. In Borneo we plan to sample birds at four to five location spread out over the two states of Sarawak and Sabah. Upon arriving to a new research location, we first need to find the swallows before we can catch them. Sometimes this is a challenge. As I mentioned earlier, swallows are almost impossible to catch unless you know where their nests are, and to find their nests, we have to be able to think like a swallow. Similar to barn swallows, pacific swallows build mud cup nests that they attach to human structures like bridges, culverts, jetties, overhangs, or porches. Liz and I have both studied barn swallows for years, and are pretty good at figuring out where they like to nest, but it has taken us a bit to dial in the exact preferences of the pacific swallow. The structure can’t be too high, too low, too much cover, not enough cover, too enclosed, too open, too hot, too far from water, too new, too anything. I love these little birds, but I must say, I do not always agree with their taste for housing. Liz and I have found so many beautiful places where it would be lovely to build a nest, with absolutely no swallows. Instead, these birds seem to gravitate towards trash, mud, broken glass, rats, spiders, crumbling walls, loose chickens, and stray dogs. They like the rundown, forgotten or even abandoned parts of town.
Nest searching is not easy work. Liz and I spend hours scrutinizing google maps trying to figure out where to look. We find rivers, the old parts of town, fishing villages, bridges. Even when we have narrowed it down to certain areas we put in long days, often walking 10 and even 15 miles in a day searching. It is near 90° with high humidity, the tropical sun intense. We walk with our binoculars looking for swallows swooping. We crawl and climb under bridges, and into culverts, we put on big rubber boots and wade through the mud along river banks to look under jetties and docks, we climb up old stair wells with open windows, and casually check under people’s porches and in parking garages. We joke that we are going to release a book entitled, the definitive guide to the bridges of Borneo.
Working in Borneo comes with its own set of hazards. We have had close encounters with scorpions, sudden downpours, mosquitos, and angry guard dogs. But don't worry, so far we are both safe and healthy!
Eventually we do find them. Usually just when we have gotten sufficiently worried and frustrated, convinced that we are in the wrong place, dirty, tired, and with cobwebs in our hair- there they are. Our goal is to catch 15-20 swallows per research location, which means we need at least 8 active nests that we can reach with the nets, and it is certainly not a guarantee that we are going to successfully catch swallows at these nests- so more is better. It is best if we find an area with several nests where we can catch multiple swallows at the same place, but we can also string together single nests here and there. This means long nights catching birds one nest at a time. When we finally catch our first swallow, usually after days of searching, we both breathe a sigh of relief. Being a field biologist is certainly not always glamorous, and it has its ups and downs, but I still feel so lucky that I get to do this as my job.
I must do a short post about one of the strangest fruits I have ever met. Durian is beloved by Malaysians and is referred to as the king of fruit. On the outside the fruit is hard, round, and slightly smaller than a volleyball, covered with sharp spikes. Inside there are several compartments where soft cream to yellow colored fruit covers several large seeds.
The first thing you experience with durian is its unique smell. Wikipedia describes it well: “The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust, and has been described variously as rotten onions, turpentine, and raw sewage. Or as described by travel and food writer Richard Sterling: “its odor is best described as pig excrement, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” Ripe fruit can be detected by animals in the forest over a mile away and the smell is so strong that the fruit is banned in many hotels and public buses and trains across Asia. The smell has caused evacuations in office buildings, hospitals, and shopping malls. I will confirm that you can pick up the sweet animal smell of durian rounding a street corner, or entering a market or a house.
The flavor of Durian is also like no other fruit I have encountered. In the US, our fruits are simple, with flavors that are little bit sour with a straightforward sweetness and a consistent juicy or crunchy texture. Durian is complex and hits so many taste buds at once, it can be confusing. The texture is stringy and at the same time, soft and mushy. It has a strong flavor that is sweet and sour and creamy that also tastes a bit like a strong overripe soft cheese with some raw garlic. The taste is certainly lingering. It has been described as: subtle hints of chives mixed with powdered sugar. It’s supposed to taste like diced garlic and caramel poured into whipped cream. There are also hundreds of varieties of durian (like our varieties of apples) with flavors that are said to range from peanut butter pound cake to chocolate liquor to caramelized onion omelets to vanilla frosting.
Our collaborator, Dr. Farah brought some fresh durian from her parent's village and I got to try it when she had us over to her house for dinner. It was an interesting experience, and I can confirm that I like the fruit more than Liz, though I can’t say I am quite as crazy about it as most Malaysians. Given the smell, I will not be bringing any home for you to try.
I have been in Malaysia for three days and have jumped in with both feet. It is a beautiful country with wonderful people. Truly tropical, it never gets much below 85 degrees and is very humid. It seems that the people are just barely holding back the jungle from creeping over the city. Everything is vividly green and alive, so very different from the snowstorm that was raging when I left from the Minneapolis airport.
Liz arrived in Kuala Lumpur a few days before I did and had already met up with our collaborator in western Malaysia, Dr. Farah Mohd-Taib from the biology department at the National University of Malaysia. We had the pleasure of working with three of her students Wardah, Asmalia, Nabila to find and catch pacific swallows. It was so fun to get to know these students and work with them in the field. They were amazing and we could not have done it without them. With their help, Liz had successfully found an area with several pacific swallow nests about an hours drive from the city. My first day in Malaysia we went to try and catch them.
Catching swallows is a bit different from catching other birds. Because swallows eat only flying insects (aerial insectivores), they have excellent eyesight and incredible maneuverability in the air. They are the trick pilots of the bird world. This means that we can’t just put out a mist net during the day and hope they fly into it, like we can with other birds. We have to be sneaky. Nearly invincible during the day, the swallows weakness is their nest. Swallows sleep on their nests at night and while their eyesight is superb when it is light, it is lacking in the dark.
Once we locate active swallow nests, we can return under the cover of darkness and catch them by surprise (think bird ninja). Rather unglamorous compared to the long tidy lines of mist nets most ornithologists set up in the early morning in a forest or wetland and wait patiently for the birds to fly in. Instead, we use short nets that we can position in front of swallow nests built on buildings, under bridges, and in culverts. Even less dignified, we use a long stick to poke the birds awake so they fly into the net. All of this is done with red lights, which are harder for the birds to see and don't affect our night vision. This is often accompanied by much hand waving and flailing with a short butterfly net to make sure the birds actually end up in the net. Don’t worry- the birds are not harmed because mist nets are specially designed to have rows of folded pockets or bails to gently hold small birds.
This is exactly what we were doing for my first night of fieldwork in Malaysia. Except this time, instead of catching birds in barns, as I have down with barn swallows all over the world, I was on the banks of a jungle river. The river was brown and mysterious, its banks crowded with jungle plants and over hanging vines. Fisherman were catching prawns and fish from small boats and there were signs warning of crocodiles. The night was alive with the sounds of frogs, insects, and swifts and we saw at least one snake slither past our feet. The swallows had nested under bridges and docks and on near by buildings. Once, we nearly slide into the river because of the mud.
Besides our muddy shoes and clothes, the night was a great success! We caught 15 swallows (our goal for this location). And established a rhythm for how to take all the measurements, samples, and photos that we need from each bird and release them in a short time. We finished around 2 am and did not get to sleep till after 3. We finally woke up at 1pm the next day and ate one large meal around 4, not sure if it counted as breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Liz termed our state as reverse jetlag- adjusting to a new time zone and then ruining it by staying up all night catching birds.
I hope our good luck continues and that we are successful catching swallows as we move across Malaysia. Tomorrow we are off to the town of Kuching in the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
After a several year hiatus from international fieldwork, it is time once again to pack my bags and I could not be more excited! I will be joining one of my favorite field biologists and adventure buddies – Dr. Liz Scordato (you may remember her from my work in Egypt). We will see how many of our clothes match this time around. It is important to note here that Liz needs to get all the credit for dreaming up this project, planning it, and funding it. I am just happy that I get the opportunity to go along and add some of my own parasite research into the mix. We are off to South East Asia to study the Pacific Swallow. A charismatic little bird that is related to the Barn Swallows I studied during my PhD. I think they look very different from Barn Swallows, but my family and friends seem to think otherwise.
So what is so interesting about the Pacific Swallows (other than the fact that it lives in a beautiful part of the world with incredible food)? Like Barn Swallows, Pacific Swallows are human commensals, meaning they prefer to nest on man-made structures and live close to people. These birds are found across the South East Asia, but populations look quite different depending on where they are found. The Pacific Swallow is sometimes referred to as 1 species, 3 species, or divided into as many as 14 subspecies based on visual differences. We have very little understanding of how closely these different types of pacific swallows are related to each other, when they became separate, why they look different, or if they are still interbreeding today.
Because of their close association with humans, Pacific Swallows offer an interesting window into how human-mediated ecological change impacts animals on both short term and long term scales. By looking at the physical characteristics of different populations of Pacific Swallows and analyzing their DNA to piece together detailed information about their genomes, we can reconstruct both their recent and past history.
My particular part of this research will be to add information about parasites. I will be counting, collecting, and identifying parasites from adults and nests. I also plan to analyze DNA from these parasite to look into their genomes and reconstruct their past, like we are doing with the swallows. This will allow me to ask if parasites share a similar or different history compared to their hosts. I am excited to see what we can find.
To make these big field projects happen requires months of planning and logistics. The success of international fieldwork really depends on establish good contacts with local collaborators. Working with and getting to know these collaborators is one of my favorite parts of doing this work. While there can be interesting experiencing translating culture and language, these relationships can often result in long-term collaborations, projects, and friendships. We have worked to establish contacts in all the different states we will be working in with scientists and people from the forestry service. After contacting collaborators and securing permits, which we usually do up to a year in advance of the project, we next have to think about equipment and packing. The goal is to travel as light as possible while also having everything we need. This means we never skimp on the research equipment that we need to bring, but often limit our personal items to make everything fit.
Fieldwork is one of the main reasons that I became a scientist, and I think this is true for many biologists. There is the allure of adventure and travel, seeing and trying new things, and the thrill of uncertainty and unplanned turns and bumps in the road that contrasts nicely with my life typically filled with to-do lists and carefully planned calendars. A good field biologist needs to be adaptable, creative, and ready for anything. But it is also the chance to be outside, in nature, closely observing animals and asking interesting questions. More than anything, it is my curiosity and love of discovery, and the opportunity to figure out a little piece of how nature works that kindles my love of fieldwork. It is privilege to be able to do this work and in particular to have the opportunity to be part of this project. I look forward to sharing my experiences with you along the way.
Liz will also be blogging during our trip, and you can follow us on twitter at #pacswallowproject