A trip to Egypt is not complete without a visit to the Pyramids. They are so iconic and growing up we have all seen them in pictures and movies. Well-known things like this can often disappoint when you see them in person for the first time. We have a tendency to make things bigger and better with our imagination. I was ready for this to happen, but found the complete opposite when I finally visited the pyramids myself. They truly are incredible an absolutely enormous. There are nine pyramids in total, larger ones for the pharaohs, and smaller ones for their queens. There are still remains of the villages that were built for the workers and architects. One side of the pyramids is closely bordered by the city of Cairo. You can imagine all the tacky shops selling plastic pyramids, pharos, and sphinxes and plenty of hotels and restaurants with a “pyramid view", if the smog is not too thick. But the other side of the pyramids face the emptiness of the Sahara desert. Hot and desolate, the sand and dunes stretch into the distance. You get the feeling that this is how the pyramids were supposed to be viewed, awe-inspiring monuments stretching out of the monotony of the hot sand. No wonder people thought they were built by aliens.
We were able to buy tickets and go inside one of the pyramids. Everyone kept assuring us that it was very boring, small shaft and room, no colors or hieroglyphics (the pyramids were built before there were hieroglyphics), but we decided to do it any. We disagreed with them, there were no paintings and hieroglyphics, but it was pretty cool anyway. We felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie. It is still pretty amazing that ancient Egyptians built these massive structures with perfectly made rooms inside of them when they did.
The sphinx and the 9 pyramids are not very close together, so to get between them is quite a long walk. This has opened up a strong market for iconic local forms of transportation, and the area around the pyramids is swarming with camels, horses, donkeys, and carriages. They all add to the view and sense of timelessness, even if they will cheat you on the price. Liz and I decided to take a camel into the desert to the point where all 9 pyramids can be seen in a line. I always forget how much bigger camels are then horses. These camels make Pilot look short. Liz was put on a camel called Daisy who was not in the mood for a ride and kept trying to stop being led by a very moody 13 year old boy who kept playing music on his cell phone and making it very clear that he did not want to be there. I was slightly better off, riding a 3 year old Camel named Bambi being led by a rather cheery man. My camel was about to start her training for the racing season that would happen in June, apparently she was very fast. Riding these camels through the sand I really understood how they were beasts of the desert, with their weird padded feet and lilting gait. Part of me wanted to just keep going to see what it would be like to ride a camel for days in the emptiness and heat of the Sahara.
We ended our camel ride at the Sphinx, which is probably one of my favorite monuments in Egypt. Carved out of a huge chunk of low quality stone in the quarry that was used when building the great pyramid. It is the guard of the second pyramid. In Arabic it is not called the Sphinx but the Abū al-Haul, or father of dread. It lays crouched in front of the pyramid, the massive body of a lion for strength and the head of the pharaoh for cunning. Its nose and beard as gone, cut off by invaders, and now in the Louvre, and they refuse to give it back (like most of the antiquities in foreign countries). Though worn and crumbling, the sphinx stares resolutely ahead with a determined look, on guard for over 4,000 years.
This year Liz and I had two Easters, the western Christian Easter on April 5, and the orthodox/ Muslim Easter on April 12. The first Easter we realized because we had a chance to get on the Internet and saw lots of pictures of dyed eggs and people wearing dresses on facebook. We celebrated by turning to each other and saying “Oh its Easter... Happy Easter”. The second Easter we celebrated by eating dinner on a roof top restaurant over looking the Nile, which was beautiful, and having a traditional breakfast the next morning of eggs died with hibiscus petals and flaky fateer festival bread and soft white cheese. We tried to explain to Basma what the easter bunny was, which she had never heard of and thought was very strange.
We had to take a break from catching birds over the weekend, because no one works on the weekend, including our contacts in the villages around Damietta. For those of you in the States who are not familiar with the middle-eastern weekend, Thursday is the last day of the workweek with Friday and Saturday being days off and work starting again on Sunday. On Sunday evening we headed back to the village of Rekabia, where Badran had found some more nests for us, hopefully with fewer ghosts and bats this time. We tried to negotiate with the owner of the haunted Rice Mill to let us catch when it was light out and safe from the ghost, but the owner refused, convinced that if we caught the swallows they would get angry and tell the ghost who would reek havoc. Hard to argue with that one, so we went in search of other nests.
The night started with the usual mob of children. We are certainly the most exciting thing that has happened in the village in a long time. The first nest we caught was in a little room, which was locked, but we could see the birds through a small high open window. The villagers wheeled over a wagon for us to stand on so we set the net and Liz crawled in. We were quite surprised when we pulled the birds out of the net that the male already had a band on. Is someone else catching swallows here? Turns out that he was from the bat room, what he was doing there, sleeping away from home, we are not sure. It seemed fated that we would happen to catch the one nest in the village with a bird we had already caught. We still had one new bird in hand and were feeling confident that it would be a successful night. There were so many barn swallows in this village after all.
Badran told us that he had another place where we could catch with at least four more nests in it. As we were about to head off Basma informed us that we had a flat tire on the car and needed to get it fixed right away. I will take a moment to describe Egypt roads and driving. There are no set lanes on roads here, it ranges from one to four depending on traffic. There are random obstacles set up to divert traffic from certain parts in the road, concrete barriers, gates, metal pipes, buckets, logs, or whatever is handy. You also share the road with donkey and horse carts, bicycles, rickshaws, semi trucks, pedestrians and motorbikes, all weaving around each other. The rule of Egyptian driving is to drive as fast as you can and then quickly hit the brakes if you are about to run into a barrier or another car. You changes lanes and weave around vehicles and obstacles as necessary to avoid changing speed. I really mean speed here, on our recent drive back to Cairo the car hit 115 mph at several points. Lets just say its a little nerve racking. The thing that the Egyptian road builders love the most is speed bumps. There are giant speed bumps everywhere, in neighborhoods, on highways. They can be anywhere at anytime, and they are not marked or painted, so you often don’t know that it is there till you hit it. I am sure it was one of these speed bumps that did in our tire on the way to the village.
Next thing we knew we were sitting in the car (while it was on jacks) as people worked on our tire. Several of the village children had followed us to the tire place and three boys on a donkey would do ride bys past the car, waving and tapping on the windows. We started measuring the birds in the car, because why not, and soon the tire was patched. We planned on heading back to catch more swallows but all of a sudden Badran and his friend came up to the car, the friend was holding 4 barn swallows in his hand and shoved them at me. One flew away, but I managed to grab the other three (a female and two fledglings). We had no idea what was going on, but next thing we knew we were headed back to Damietta. Basma informed us that there were two men in the village who had recently been in the prisons. They were standing around our car and were too interested in us so we had to leave for our own safety. We would not be allowed to come back to Rakabia again. We measured the two females and two fledglings from the night in the stairwell of Basma and Mamdough’s apartment in New Damietta.
We were unsure how we were going to get the last of our barn swallows, we were so close to our goal for the project, but if we could not go back to the Rakabia we would have to find more nests some place else. As luck would have it the next evening we got a call- Badran had 5 barn swallows in a box. He should really be considered a member of the field crew at this point. The box of barn swallows brought us up to 36.
As we packed our gear to go banding last night I noticed the thick leather bat gloves sitting on the shelf. We had not brought them with on any of our other excursions so far in Egypt, but something made me ask Liz if we should bring them along tonight. Fate perhaps? Maybe it was some good spirit looking out for us in the land of the Nile? Liz said we probably did not need them, but I decided to throw them in my backpack anyway. Last night we returned to the village of Rekabia, where we walked through the market, to catch the swallows at the rice mill and duck house. We went first to the mill where we had spotted 3-4 nests the day before. It was closed up and dark and filled, we hoped, with peacefully sleeping barn swallows. Our guide, the friendly fish farmer who we finally determined is named Badran met us. He told us that we could not catch the birds in the rice mill at night. This was a surprise as we had talked to him the day before and everything seemed arranged. He told us no, we could not catch the swallows at night because there was a ghost that lived in the mill and that it was too dangerous. The owner himself never goes in after sunset. I suggested that perhaps this was maybe a friendly ghost, to which I received some very skeptical looks. Basma confirmed that she felt a cold ominous feeling from the place. We planned to try and catch there some morning when the sun was out and the ghost was less active.
The man who owned the duck shed refused to give permission for us to catch his birds. Not because of supernatural forces, but for fear of disturbing his young fowl. We understood. Badran said he could lead us to another place and after walking through some narrow streets we realized that he had brought us back to the place of the bucket birds. We explained that we had already caught them and needed new swallows. It was not looking like it was going to be a very successful night. He eventually lead us to a small chicken coop with about 20 baby chicks blocked off in the corner and a nest and a pair of barn swallows in the center of the ceiling. The only entrance for the swallows into the coop was a tiny hold the size of a baseball in the wall. They must have been very determined. As we were setting up the nets the power went out and the whole village went dark. Maybe it was the ghost? Luckily we had our headlamps.
After catching the chicken coop swallows Badran lead us to what looked like a large storage shed with high ceilings. First glance up with our headlamps revealed many barn swallows roosting on wires hanging right above the door. Further inside we found several nests with birds roosting on them- barn swallow jackpot! Maybe this would be a successful night after all. What followed was a new level of chaos. I will describe it in no particular order, as that is how it was experienced. There were somehow about 6 men who appeared in the shed to help us. People were holding nets for us and, eventually, chasing barn swallows around the ceiling with nets. Understand that these nets are on poles and are several meters long. Liz and I, who try very hard to be polite were shouting orders and can only be described as very bossy (leadership skills be dammed). There were bright flashlight shining this way and that. At one point I was climbing on huge piles of grain sacks gabbing barn swallows. Some man was trying to get in the door where we had a net set up and we were just holding it closed and ignoring him. Someone else caught a barn swallow in their hands that almost hit Liz in the face. Things were falling, people were waving boards in the air, everyone was shouting and people’s cell phones were ringing. This was so very different from the quiet, calculated night banding that Joey and I have always done.
But the real problem was the bats. This place was filled with bats. We set our nests to catch the barn swallows roosting near the door and we flushed them. Lots of them were flying and when we shined our light on our nets, a horrified Liz exclaimed- Holy Shit they are all bats! This was not entirely true, 6 of them were barn swallows, and 8 of them were bats. Don’t get me wrong, bats are cool, I love bats, but they are terrifying to get out of mist nets. They squeak and squirm and wiggle and bite everything they can with their sharp white teeth trying to chew their way out of the mist nets. They also carry all sorts of unpleasant diseases like Rabies and Ebola to name a few. Luckily we had the bat gloves, and our rabies vaccines. We then had to get them out of the nets, release them out the door (probably in the face of the man who wanted to get in) and keep everyone else from touching them.
Despite ghosts and bats we managed to catch 13 birds last night. We banded them in the floor of the village grocery store. As if there were not enough chaos that night, half way through banding I let a bird out of hand, something I have not done for years. It was a little embarrassing, maybe I can blame the bats and ghosts for shaky hands. After an interesting 10 min of putting up nets in the little store and waving brooms around and having Mamdouh climb up on some shelves we managed to catch him again. The amazingly helpful villagers brought us tea and kunafa, a cheese pastry that is soaked in sweet syrup and flavored with coconut that is traditionally served at Ramdan. We got back to our hotel at 12:30am but were too wired to sleep for at least an hour.
This morning Mamdouh, Liz, and I went nest searching in the helpful fish farmer’s village. He took us to the building where he had caught the bucket swallows (which I am happy to report are back at their nests taking care of their nestlings and are doing just fine) and we looked at a few more places, including a small barn filled with ducks, and a place where they mill rice, where we hope to catch tomorrow night. There were so many barn swallows in this village; the sky was filled with them. This place clearly fit the requirements: old, muddy, and crowded with animals and people. Barn swallow heaven. In the narrow streets I saw many donkey and horse carts hauling all sorts of heavy loads through the rutted streets and I realized once again just how utterly spoiled Pilot is. Mamdouh told us that the women walking down the streets with brightly colored and intricately patterned clothes were Bedouins that were camping near by with their herds. Tuesday is market day in this village and after nest hunting we were invited to walk through the market, which Liz and I thoroughly enjoyed. It was filled with stalls selling live fish, fresh meat, spices, grains, vegetables, and fruit, most of which is grown near by on small farms. Everything was so colorful and the market was alive with people buying their weekly groceries and sellers yelling out prices. Many tourists come to Egypt and see the pyramids and take a cruse on the Nile, they see the Valley of the Kings, the tombs and temples, Luxor and Aswan. While all of these things are fascinating and I am sure, amazing and fun to see. This is ancient Egypt. The modern Egypt can be found in places like this village, in this market, in Tahrir square. This is the Egypt that very few tourists see, but I am very glad that we found it.
We have been in Egypt for only 4 days now it has been quite a trip so far. Six Barn swallows in a bucket, no sleep, mobs of children, military check-points, delicious food, Bedouins, and a close encounter with a pretty terrified cow. We are doing fieldwork in the city of Damietta on the Nile delta. We are staying in new Damietta, but we are catching most of our swallows in old Damietta, and by old we mean pharaohs, and in the surrounding villages. There is an amazing level of construction here in new Damietta- miles and miles of new apartment buildings going up. The architecture is colorful and almost whimsical with lots of curves and arches. It is impressive to see.
Basma and her husband Mamdouh have been wonderful hosts. They are eager to help us find the swallows and we could not possibly do this without them. This is not an easy place to work as a foreigner not knowing the language or customs, so they are invaluable. The last few days have been filled with searching and some trail and error as we have honed in on where the swallows are and how best to catch them. Swallows tend to be in old parts of the city, particularly where there is mud and animals because this means building material for nests and insects to eat. It takes them a while to settle in newly constructed areas in high density, meaning our nest searching in new Damietta did not turn up anything. Our walk through some of the residential areas did result in us being followed by 8 or so very curious 10-12 year old boys for several blocks. There were kissing sounds, giggling, and one brave one attempted to subtly throw a kickball at us. We tried very hard to ignore them and not encourage them, and eventually an elderly woman sharply told them off and they scattered. We were grateful and she smiled and spoke to us in french.
For her avian flu work, Basma often bands birds in reed beds and has caught barn swallows there in the past. We decided to give it a try and set up our mist nets by reed beds near a fish farm. The man who owned the place let us set up shop in a little house near the reeds and we spent the day there. We did not catch any barn swallows, but the whole thing was very pleasant. We did catch a graceful prinia and a reed warbler despite it being pretty windy.
With our lack of barn swallows in new Damietta and the reed beds, Basma started asking around to see if people knew of nests. Liz and I were awoken early the next morning by a frantic call from Basma saying someone had 10 barn swallows for us. We knew nothing about who or why or how they had caught the swallows, if they were actually barn swallows (or martins that kind of look like barn swallows), and if they were alive, but we grabbed our gear and went. Turns out the friendly fish farmer had heard Basma worrying about finding barn swallows the day before so went back to his village that night and grabbed 6 barn swallows off of their nests while they were roosting at night and put them in a bucket with a lid (and even thoughtfully punched holes in it). The birds were alive when we got there, but wet, covered with poop, and clearly not happy about being stuck in a bucket with each other (barn swallows are very territorial). We also had some with several missing tail feathers- I imagine they were lost in the process of the man grabbing them. It was so nice of him though and we were very grateful. He clearly wanted to help us. We measured the 6 soggy swallows and sent them on their way. Bucket o’ barn swallows anyone?
That night Basma was on board with finding nests and we went to a village outside of the city where a friend of hers had a nest in his shop. As soon as we arrived the place turned into commotion and chaos. This is a place the basically never sees foreigners, and lets face it- even with Liz and I are wearing loose, covering clothes, there is simply no way we are ever going to blend in, at all. We soon were surrounded by a mob of children. A man passing by asked what we were doing and when he found out we were looking for swallows led us to his barn down the street, which had 5 active nests in it. It was a cramped space filled with sheep and two cows. While we set up nets the kids were outside- held back by some flimsy doors. They were all shouting and banging on the door and building – it was so loud, and every time we caught a swallow they all cheered. Several came in and we had to stop them from touching the birds in the nets. At one point Mamdouh and I carefully set up a net basically on top of a terrified cow that was tied right under a nest with two birds in it. We eventually captured 5 of the birds and were shepherded through the streets with Basma and Mamdouh acting like bodyguards. We caught one more pair that night in a stairwell of an apartment building in old Damietta near the Nile. We had gone from no birds to 15 and were off and running. Sorry I don’t have more pictures- it was not exactly the time or place to stop and pull out a camera.
A few more comments about Egypt in general. People do not believe in sleep here. They are up late at night and early in the morning. This must be made possible by all the tea and strong coffee that they drink. In order to survive I think they must also take naps, it is the only explanation. Between jet lag and fieldwork, Liz and I are exhausted. It feels a bit like we are under water.
We have been able to try some great Egyptian food. Basma had us over for dinner the other night and cooked lots of amazing traditional food for us. Meat soup with orzo (which they call sparrow tongue macaroni here), an amazing eggplant, tomato and pepper dish (my favorite), meat and vegetable tagine, salad, rice, and Egyptian flat bread. After our barn swallow in a bucket adventure we also went to their house for breakfast and had homemade falafel, broad bean dip, eggs, and fresh cheese. The Egyptian way is to offer (often forcibly) lots of food to your guests and I think, basically, try and get them to eat as much as possible. There seems to be a number of similarities with food pushing practices in rural Minnesota. Basma spent several years in America and goes easy on us when it comes to pushing food, but described what it would usually be like. The other day Liz and I ventured out for lunch by ourselves and with lots of pointing and gesturing managed to communicate “small chicken”, we were very proud of ourselves when they presented us with grilled chicken on a bed of rice and salad, hummus, bread and pickles! When we went to pay, the men seemed quite flustered and ended up charging us only $6 for everything, which must have been wrong.
I am off on more adventures (it has been a very busy spring) and just finished my first day in Egypt and what a day it was. First off- what exactly am I doing in Egypt you may ask? Well- if you want to know about evolution and speciation in Barn Swallows you have to go to Egypt. We think that barn swallows were originally from Africa and dispersed through Egypt to the rest of the world. In this sense all the barn swallow subspecies that we are studying should all be related to the Egyptian subspecies (Hirundo rustica savignii). The Egyptian swallows are the “oldest”, or most ancestral subspecies and are therefore fascinating to study. We have planned this project for years, but things have finally reached a level of stability in Egypt for this project to finally happen (hopefully). This is also possible because us finally having a collaborator on the ground.
We have planned this project for years, but things have finally reached a level of stability in Egypt for this project to finally happen (hopefully). This is also possible because we finally having a collaborator on the ground. Bazma Sheta is a native Egyptian who did her PhD studying the transmission of bird flu as a graduate student at UCLA. She is now back living in Egypt and is a professor at the University in Damietta. She is helping make this swallow work happen and is in charge of the Egypt logistics. My comrade on this adventure is Liz Scordato, a postdoc in the Safran lab and the person really leading this research. I am along for the ride, and to count and collect parasites of course. Liz is also writing a great blog about this project and our trip. You can find it here at: the barn swallow project. She has done amazing field work around the world and has some great stories to share.
We had a long flight here (Denver -> Minneapolis -> Paris -> Cairo) and finally made it to the airport hotel to fall into bed many many hours after we left Boulder, CO. It was quite a fancy hotel and I think we may have been the only people to ever show up with dirty backpacks for luggage. The next morning we managed to pull ourselves out of bed in time to meet Basma. Our first real day in Egypt start with a trip to Tahrir square in the middle of Cairo. After several security checks, we walked around the square and talked about the revolution, which Basma had decided to join for a few days while she was in Cairo getting paper work signed. Apparently different collaborators from her grad student lab had shown up for fieldwork the day the revolution began and she had to rush them to the American Embassy and they had immediately been flown home. I am glad our arrival into the country went more smoothly. After hearing about this square so much in the news, it was crazy and a little surreal to actually be there in person. It was smaller then I had thought, but I guess a place that has played such a central role in changing the entire structure and leadership of a country is easily enlarged and made grander by the imagination. It is rather plain, with red and tan stones and fake grass. No statues, no monuments or fountains, but it had the two main ingredients to be the birthplace of a revolution- it was a large place where people could gather and it was near the government buildings in the center of the city. While walking through the square we did see a pair of barn swallows swooping above us. So they are here, and they apparently live in the middle of Cairo! Near the square is the burnt out shell of a building that served as the party headquarters of the Mubarak regime. Revolutionaries set it on fire and the blackened building remains today as a monument to the Revolution. It stands right next to the national museum and Basma told us that the revolutionaries protected the museum from looters and from catching on fire itself during the revolution.
We next went to the Egypt National Museum, which was jaw dropping. This museum has the most amazing Egyptian artifacts, rooms and rooms of the most incredible things and the building represented more of a storage room then a museum. Unfortunately I was not allowed to take any pictures. We could have spent a week there and still not had time to look at everything. All of the things found in Tutankhamun's tomb, including his mummy, sarcophagus, and of course his gold mask (which has 17kg of pure gold). We saw the mummy of Ramses and many others, chariots, animal mummies, papyrus scrolls, jewelry, huge marble sculptures that reached the ceiling, and so much more. One of the highlights was finding a barn swallow painted on one of the papyrus scrolls, it was so accurate and it even had a dark breast and short tail streamers (hallmarks of the Egyptian subspecies). Clearly they have been around for a long time. The incredible craftsmanship and clear wealth and sophistication of ancient Egypt culture were so apparent. They invented writing, they were one of the top civilizations on earth and here is a fun fact, they were around and thriving longer then they have been gone as of today.
After the museum we went for a classic Egyptian lunch at Tom and Basals (which means garlic and onion in Arabic), for charcoteri, a traditional dish with layers of rice, lentils, pasta, and caramelized onions with tomatoes sauce. It tasted like very delicious and interesting Spaghetti Os. You can also add some homemade chili sauce if you want more zip. Liz and I were delighted at the chance to spend the day in Ciaro and see the square and the museum. This was an unexpected given the current level of unrest, but we felt totally safe with Basma and her husband Momdouh as our guides.
It was a long drive from Cairo to Damietta, where we will be staying and catching swallows. We drove for hours past huge expanses of sand and desert, past men on donkeys, herds of goats, piles of trash, date farms, and lots of new construction. The road was fine in some stretches and filled with speed bumps and giant holes in other sections. We got stuck in a few traffic jams with lots of honking. Egypt definitely has the distinct feel of a developing country. Finally we got our first glimpse of the green Nile delta, such a difference from the desert surrounding it with water, birds, boats and tall papyrus plants. In another hour we saw larger boats and a huge expanse of water, which Basma informed us was the Mediterranean sea.
Before settling down for the night in our hotel, we stopped by a market to pick up some food. One story to share from this is when the man behind the cheese counter offered me a taste of some soft white cheese we were thinking of buying. It was so incredibly salty I almost could not eat it, which is really saying something because I love salt. It tasted like a mouthful of sea water. We opted for the cheese that was suppose to be less salty, which I can assure you it is still very salty by our taste. The dates, however, are excellent.
Tomorrow Liz and I are planning to spend the morning walking around the city of Damietta looking for barn swallow nests. Let the fieldwork begin.
This is an old post that was half finished when I was in Israel. I decided to post it before I forget.
Joey and I had the amazing opportunity to band birds and spend some time in the Hula valley. The Hula is an incredible place and has the reputation of being a birder’s paradise and rightly so. It is a wet, green valley between two mountain ranges, the Golan Heights to the east and the upper Galilee’s Naftali mountains to the west, and is a major stop over point for the bird migrations from Europe and Asia to the Middle East and Africa. The Hula used to a marshy wetland but most of it was drained and converted to farmland in the 50s and 60s. Eventually the value and uniqueness of this habitat was recognized and several areas were re-flooded and made into a protected area and a reserve in the 1990s. Yoni does most of his research on nutria (a large invasive rodent that looks a little like a beaver) in the reserve. Today over 500 million migrating birds pass through here each year.
One of the most amazing things in the Hula is definitely the cranes. The European gray cranes over winter in the Hula valley from their northern breeding grounds across Europe. The Hula is thought to be one of the main wintering habitats for them in the world. When most of the Hula was farmland, a couple thousand cranes could be found over wintering there each year, they did significant damage to crops as they flocked and fed in farmers fields. A solution had to be found for the farmers and cranes to coexist. They decided to flood several fields near lake Hula and to feed the cranes (peanuts and chickpeas) in this designated area. They also use loud booming sounds to scare the cranes from farmer’s fields into this crane area. It works marvelously. Today the population of cranes has grown from a few thousand to over 30,000 cranes each year. They can make quite a racket and it is truly incredible to witness. They are also a huge tourist attraction in Egypt.
The people managing the Hula reserve do lots of bird monitoring and one of the ways they do this is with a passive bird banding station, which means they set up lines of nets at dawn in a corridor they have cleared out in the reeds and catch, band, and measure whatever flies into them. By doing this year after year, it gives them some sense of populations and species that are using the Hula, as well as lots of other cool data. We were invited to help one morning with the banding, the majority of which is run by a man named Francis. Let me take a second to describe Francis. He is a retired British pensioner who has traveled around the world looking for and catching birds. He has a life list like you would not believe. He is a serious British birder and spends all of his retirement running banding stations. He informed me over the phone when I called to let him know that we were joining him that we were not going “banding” we were going “ringing”, as this is the European term. I stand corrected. We met him at the gates of the reserve at 5:15am the next morning. He picked us up in a tiny rental fiat and was concerned that it was already getting late. He preceded to drive like a crazy person to the ringing station. As he was careening down the road, he informed Joey and I that if you hit the speed bumps at an angle, it is much better. The road to the ringing station itself was dirt tire tracks through tall grass. As he whipped onto it he informed us that he must go very fast or he would get stuck in the mud. And fast he went, bouncing and splashing though giant mud holes. We may have hit our heads on the ceiling a few times, but we arrived in one piece, miraculously and opened the many nets that had been set up and closed the night before.
It was a beautiful morning and it was wonderful to get to hold and see up close so many different bird species. Our work with the swallows only brings us in contact with 2-3 different types of birds that typically live around humans. Francis was a quiet and very serious birder and I am afraid Joey and I were a bit of a disappointment to him. We may be bird scientists, but we are not birders of any caliber. He would hold up a tiny European warbler and ask us what species it was. When we did not know, he would offer us a hint by telling us the Latin family name. This was not helpful to us in the least. After doing this three or four times he finally gave up and just told us their names. The early morning was totally worth it. I guess there are some perks to being an ornithologist abroad.
Our fieldwork in Israel has brought some great opportunities to share our research with the public. I thought it would be worth writing a short blog post about them. While we were living at Amiad, Joey, and I were invited to teach a kindergarten class (in Israel, kindergarten actually means any were from 1-6 before the kids start school) about barn swallows. The kids were all about 4-5 years old and none of them spoke any English, which mean that we had to teach through a translator, as if it were not already hard enough to keep the attention of a group of about 20 4-5 year olds. The lesson was a bit chaotic, but I think the kids really liked it. We taught them about what barn swallows eat, how many eggs they lay, how long they live, and to top it off- Joey measured all of their right pointer fingers with the calipers and told them that all their fingers were longer then a barn swallows legs. A very important biological fact.
We showed the kids what the inside of a nest looks like using the mirror, and then took them to see one with eggs. It was very exciting because the eggs had hatched that morning and they could see the little pink chicks squirming around. There were lots of happy shrieks. We ended the lesson by telling them that in lots of other countries barn swallows are considered very lucky, that they are good birds that eat lots of bad bugs like sandflies and mosquitos that give people diseases, and that in many parts of the world they are declining. We ended this by encouraging all of the kids to love and protect barn swallows and to tell all their families and friends not to knock barn swallow nests down. Why not do a little conservation why we are at it? We sent all the kids off as newly christened barn swallow protectors.
Last week I had another great opportunity to share my research and I was not even in Israel. This semester Yoni is teaching a behavior ecology course. He decided to teach a lesson about sexual selection and parental care. He had his class generate hypotheses about whether attractive males would feed offspring more or less and they had to explain the biology behind each of these predictions. They then took a field trip to Amiad and spent several hours watching and collecting data on parental care behavior at several of our nests. This week the class will be comparing the feeding rate data they collected to the length of the male’s tail streamers. We hope to be able to use some of this data in our larger study and it sounds like the students really enjoyed it. Hopefully we will soon be able to answer the question- are sexy barn swallows better dads?
We also had great fun hanging out with Yoni's kids, Alon and Jordan, and having them help us with fieldwork. Future scientists to be sure!
Nestlings!! What more needs to be said? After ten days of cold and rain we have finally had some sunshine here in the north of Israel. The barn swallows have decided that it is time to start breeding after all. As of today, we have 6 nests with nestlings and the rest of the swallows who were sitting around in the rain have decided to get busy. We were quite amazed to see several new nests built in under 3 days. When these birds make up their mind they can really get to work! The rain has left them lots of mud to build with. We have also seen a whole new crop of eggs in the past few days. With all this activity Joey and I have a busy week in front of us. This seems to always be the way of field work, especially when you are abroad- you are either bored and looking for things to do, or everything is happening at once and you don't have time to sleep. Silly swallows.
At this point, the swallows are two to three weeks late from where they usually are. We are going to just have enough nestlings to train our assistants and make it home on time, but it will be a crazy last four days. We were originally planning to spend a few days in Tel Aviv at the end of our trip and were scheduled to give a talk at the University, but the swallows had other plans and we have had to cancel our talk. Joey and I were both bummed about this, but field work comes first and this just means we will have to come back to Israel soon. I have made lots of great friends that I would like to come back and visit anyway.
To make things more hectic we have had some last minute drama with our field assistants. To remind you- we are working at three field sites (small villages), Kahal, Hoquq, and Amiad. We have an excellent field assistant at Hoquq named Inbal. The original plan was to have our field assistant who lives at Amiad cover both Amiad and Kahal (which is only 10min away), but he decided he could only do Amiad. We have spent the last week searching for a third field assistant at Kahal and finally found a good one (I hope) who lives there. I will begin training him tomorrow and I hope he is a fast learner. Just when I was about to breath a sigh of relief and feel like everything was finally set, our field assistant at Amiad unexpectedly quit yesterday because he has decided to move to Tel Aviv. Yoni summarized this news the best with a single word: Scheiße. We have spent weeks training this assistant and now have 6 days to find a replacement for our largest field site. My new plan is to have Inbal and our new assistant at Kahal (who does not yet know what he has gotten himself into) cover Amiad together as well as their own sites. Fingers crossed that this will work...
In other news the avocados are still abundant and the cats are as vocal as ever. We also have a male sunbird who has claimed our window as part of his territory. Almost every morning he lands on our screen and sings to us.