Hummingbirds, grasses, and snakes
What a first week of field work! I am currently at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Southeast Arizona (near Elgin, AZ) studying black-chinned hummingbirds. While things definitely did not start off well, we’ve bounced back and things have been going really well since then, plus we’ve been having some fun while we are out here.
First, when I say we, I am talking about myself and my two undergraduate assistants: Jess and Aly. This is the first year I’ve had field assistants, and they have been just wonderful! They have been great help in the field, and I will definitely miss their help once this leg of fieldwork is over.
Second, the reason things did not start out well was entirely behind our control. For first several days, we were plagued by crazy winds; 20-35 mph winds from dawn to dusk. I was able to find a few black-chinned hummingbird territories before the winds got bad, but after that, it became very hard to find territories. However, once the winds died down, things really got rolling. We caught two females for captivity in the same day, which was nice. For those unfamiliar with my work, I present females in cages to males on their territories in order to film male courtship displays. Often, when male hummingbirds see a female, they will display to it (see my youtube channel for example shuttle displays). Thanks to Jess and Aly, these females also have names: Ginny and Lavender. Yes, they are named after Harry Potter characters, and the names were specifically chosen for a reason. Ginny has been a great female in captivity, while Lavender…. well she stressed me out quite a bit the first day we had her.
Anyways, after capturing the two females, we spent the next three days filming males. We managed to successfully film three males shuttling as of today, which combined with the two male shuttle displays I filmed last year, brings me up to my sample size of five, which I am happy with. A sample size of five might not seem that impressive, but black-chinned hummingbirds, in my experience, have been very difficult to work with. Before I left, I had been telling people that this was a tough field site because there just are not many black-chinned hummingbirds here. After thinking about it more, it is not that there are not many hummingbirds here; it is that they tend to be very spread out and are not very dense. This means we have to drive or hike fair distances between male territories. The other reason black-chinned hummingbirds are difficult to work with is that it is hard to film their shuttle displays. First, a good portion of the males I found will not even display to a female in a cage – they just ignore her. Second, black-chinned hummingbird displays are very wide and are often not captured entirely within the view of my camera. So even if I get a male that displays, I have to make sure he displays directly over the camera for me to be able to use that display. But I now have displays filmed from 5 males that I can use!
That is the update on fieldwork, but we have been doing more than just working on black-chinned hummingbirds this week. The past two afternoons, we have gone out with the two people who run this research ranch – Dr. Linda Kennedy and Roger Cogan. They are both very knowledgeable about the natural history of this place, and specifically they know a ton about the grasses (Linda) and reptiles/amphibians (Roger).
Yesterday we went out with Linda to learn more about the grasses on the property and grasslands in general. Amazingly, there are around 100 species of grass found on this ranch. Another interesting thing is that these grasses are very susceptible to overgrazing from cattle, which can greatly hurt these grasslands, because these grasses did not evolve with large grazing animals, unlike the grasses in the great plains, which co-evovled with bison. We also learned several unique properties about some of the different grass species on the ranch, and I have to say, grasses are actually very interesting! For example, the tangle-head grass has a self planting seed, because the seed coils and then when it gets wet it elongates and drills into the soil. Here are a few of the other species we learned about:
Then today, we went out with Roger to go herping, meaning we were going out to find reptiles and amphibians. This involved checking out many of the rocky outcrops found along the canyons and washes on the ranch. We also walked along riparian areas to look for different species of snakes and turtles. We managed to find several black-tailed rattlesnakes, which were grouped in twos as they were most likely breeding. We also found two mountain kingsnakes, a few Clark’s spiny lizards, an ornate tree lizard, a lesser earless lizard, and four mud turtles. Here are a few pictures from this afternoon:
I would really like to thank Linda and Roger for taking time out of their busy days to share their knowledge of grasses and herps and take us out into the field. For all those who do research at field stations, I would highly encourage you to go out into the field with the managers/naturalists of those stations, because if they are anything like Roger and Linda, they are founts of knowledge and you can learn many interesting things.
All-in-all things have been going really well here. We only have five more days, and still a lot to do, but hopefully everything goes well!