As a kid, I loved playing outside. Since I’ve grown up (or at least gotten older), one would think that opportunities to splash in mud puddles and roll down hills might have diminished. On the contrary, I have carefully selected my career to maximize the time I spend out of doors, rain or shine. I study White-ruffed Manakins (Corapipo altera), an adorable bird that lives in the tropical forests of Central America (learn more about these birds from the recent post on Dr. Alice Boyle’s Science on Tap). To study the effect rain has on the breeding behavior and social hierarchies of male manakins, I spend four months of the year in gorgeous Parque Nacional Volcán Tenorio in northern Costa Rica. I spend my days catching manakins, finding the areas where males perform elaborate courtship displays for females, and observing their displays and interactions. This is what I tell people when they ask what I do all day in the forest, but it really feels like I’m just playing outside and if I were to elaborate a bit on each of those activities, the real story of what happens in the field starts to emerge…
We catch birds using “mist nets” that are made of fine black nylon netting and look like oversized tennis nets. We hike out before dawn to open them so that birds flying about at first light will be unlikely to see them before becoming entangled. When we catch manakins, we put a combination of colorful plastic bands on their legs to identify individuals, as well as a silver band with a unique number. The forest contains an incredible diversity of birds, so we frequently catch species other than White-ruffed Manakins; getting to play with other amazing birds is an added perk of the job! I love returning from a net with a crazy awesome bird to surprise my technicians.
To monitor the behavior of our color-banded manakins we need to find the sites where they display. Manakin males typically use large logs as a display site, carefully clearing mossy areas of debris to set the stage for showing off their snappy dance moves for female visitors. Finding these logs in the dense forest usually requires quite a bit of patience. Fortunately, the males make some distinctive sounds during part of their display that tells us there may be a display log nearby. Unfortunately, males don’t make these sounds very often! Poor weather, the wrong time of the season, or a male that just doesn’t feel like performing can all slow down the process of finding a log. Sneaking up on a male that is busily practicing his moves is quite exciting, but caution is also advised. It is important to actually see the place where the male is landing during his display (if anyone knows where I can find X-ray binoculars to peer through several layers of vegetation, please get in touch), but we also don’t want to scare him off! I generally end up skulking through ferns and palms, inching closer and closer while getting progressively muddier and looking out for poke-y plants and any snakes/ants/stinging insects I might disturb. If I’m lucky, the male is so busy doing delightfully earnest butterfly flights and throat flags that he doesn’t notice, and I can spend my walk back to the station at the end of the day thinking up clever names for our new log.
When we have banded the birds in the area and found the log where they are displaying, we do two-hour long observations every few days to monitor which birds are around and what they spend their time doing. We set up blinds (artfully constructed of PVC pipe and shade cloth) that prevent us from looking like people but occasionally collapse unexpectedly. This is most likely to happen when we are watching logs that are picturesquely situated in steep, rocky, gullies with nothing remotely resembling level ground for a hundred meters. In these instances, we get creative, using vines, trees, and our beloved bastónes (walking sticks) to prop us up and (usually) keep us from falling out of the blind and down the hill. From the blind, we have an uninterrupted view of the log where the males perform their displays for visiting females, and sometimes practicing alone or with other males. Observations might be very slow, with no manakins or just one male showing up and not doing much, or there could be seven males all doing things simultaneously which makes two hours go by very quickly, but also makes you feel like you don’t have time to breathe! But seeing the birds do their displays and cheering them on as they perfect their approach to the log and clean the area of fallen leaves in preparation for their performance is a wonderful part of my data collection.
Fieldwork is one of my favorite parts of the research process. I love being in the environment where my study species thrives and observing how a change in the weather or season influences their behavior. Long stretches of time waiting for a bird to fly into a net or show up at a display log gives me time to think about my questions, develop new hypotheses and consider how I can improve my research plan and make the most of the opportunity to live and work in a place that is breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring. If you want to come find me, just wander down the trail… I’ll be the one covered in mud.
This post was written by Elsie Shogren. Elsie is a PhD student studying how environment and sexual selection can interact to shape the behavior and morphology of birds in the Manakin family.