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!
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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.