Out of the lab and into the field

Hello from Glasgow!

The past few months have been hectic (when are they not?!) coming back from Switzerland in April to a national conference on urban birds, training for necessary licences and then being launched into the first (of 3) field seasons of my PhD!

I am lucky to be studying at Glasgow, where we have an established system of around 500 nestboxes which I can make use of during my project on the biological rhythms of birds. Most of these nestboxes are within a lush oak forest near the university field station right next to Loch Lomond (the Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Natural Environment, or SCENE). For three months, I was based at the SCENE field station and therefore got to live right next to Loch Lomond and the West Highland Way, with Ben Lomond in the front garden!

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Ben Lomond!

This year was a trial/bonus field season for me, having just started my official PhD project in April (most people have 2 field seasons). Although it was tough at first, it is sometimes good to jump into the deep end… this is often the fastest way to learn. This time around I was trying different techniques and equipment, getting to know the field sites, collecting some preliminary data and of course learning about the animals I will be working with for the next three years.

A typical field day would involve helping out our amazing field technician Darren with checking nestboxes for hatchlings, setting up infrared cameras in boxes to record chick feeding behaviour, placing and removing temperature sensors in nests to measure activity patterns during incubation, weighing chicks and also taking some samples for genetic analyses. The ladder needed to access the nestboxes became almost part of my shoulder, and to be honest I felt a bit lost without it…

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One of our beautiful forest field sites

And what about the weather? Well, Scotland has famously changeable weather conditions, but for the most part, the field season was gloriously sunny! We only had a couple of truly awful days – my very first day for instance involved torrential rain, wind, hail and a bit of snow! And then there were the midges… I must admit at first I laughed at the suggestion of buying a mesh midge jacket but I am very very glad that I did… Honestly, you can’t ever know what it’s like to be in the midst of clouds of midges until you’ve experienced it. Hugely unnerving. Having said that, I’m still not sure which I prefer: ticks or midges?

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Midge jackets and ladders were in this field season…

This field season highlights for me included falling knee deep into muddy bogs, being eaten alive by midges, ticks and mosquitos (I had bites everywhere you could imagine…), and my personal favourite, walking 20 minutes to a faraway nestbox to realise I left some crucial piece of equipment behind. But it was worth it going for a chilled out walk, run, swim or kayak afterwards…and for the precious data of course!!

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One of this year’s fledglings. I was totally unprepared for the feeling of watching these guys grow from egg to hatchling to fledgling within the space of just 2-3 weeks! Magical.

Now that this field season is over, I’m packing for a summer school in Sleep and Chronobiology at the University of Oxford starting next week. It will be great to meet other early career researchers and learn from the experts in the field. I’m also presenting my first poster about my project, which is very exciting!

Until next time!

– Robyn

Psst, you can read more about the University of Glasgow field station on our Institute blog here!

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