Learning Field Techniques – September 2nd and 3rd

Day Eight: Field Research Methods

This morning started with yet another trip onto the lake. At 5:30AM, we took off to the other side of the lake to continue our practice with bird identification. We identified a red-capped cardinal, large-billed tern, hoatzin, blue and yellow macaw, cormorant, muscovy ducks, jacana, and black-tailed hawk, which was particularly exciting (I love birds of prey).

When we returned to shore, it was time to switch groups. My group went with Ursula to check the mist nets for birds. We had caught one white-capped flycatcher. Ursula showed us what to look for on the birds and how to take the data. This included leg diameter, fat content, wing length, gender, and molting. I was lucky enough to get to let the bird go. I took him in my right hand and could immediately feel the poor thing’s heart racing. What must that be like for the bird? I was relieved to see it fly off unharmed.

Everyone came in around 11:30AM, so we all just waited for lunch. Once we had our fill of the delicious stuffed squash with rice, we got ready for our insect identification class. My group was able to bring back a shed cicada exoskeleton, some termites, a large ant (with a severed dragonfly head in its jaws), a butterfly, and a damsel fly. During class, we learned how to examine insects and how to determine their order.

After the entomology class, we had our first group presentation. Before we left for the trip, we had all been assigned to groups to present in Peru on different subjects surrounding biodiversity. This day was the Functions of Biodiversity group. They held their discussion/activities out on the lawn. The presentation covered fundamental ecosystem functions and services, such as succession, pollination, disturbances and reactions, nutrient recycling, and top-down control. The rest of the evening was spent talking about our research projects. Overall, this was a long, hard day. Just one of many. But so worth it.

Day Nine: Project Refinement

Today was primarily spent refining our research projects. Nick, Sara, and myself have decided to do a behavioral study on Hoatzins, a particularly awkward and hilarious bird. I completely fell in love with these blundering fools when I first saw them balancing poorly in the trees. I found them oddly beautiful, and comically evolved. I wanted to learn as much as I could about them, mostly because I thought they were mysterious. They look totally unique, and their behavior intrigued me. My group spent quite some time talking with each other as well as a bird researcher there, who offered some excellent advice. We were told that we’d start our projects the next day with a two hour survey of the lake, where we would plot all observed groups and count individual birds. Next steps would include defining behaviors and randomly selecting groups to study.

At this point, I was really excited to start the project. I thought the Hoatzin was the most oddly fascinating thing out on the lake, and they aren’t very heavily researched. I liked (and still do!) my group members, and I loved being out on the lake.

Laker that day, we had a photography workshop from Dano, who was there on a video assignment from the San Francisco Zoo. We messed around with our cameras for a while and I was able to find some really neat setting on the camera I’d brought. I was able to get some great shots of butterflies after that.

We also heard from Lisa, who was doing research on the giant river otters and the Orinoco Geese. I thought it was particularly interesting when she said that a goose traveling alone would take a straight shot route to Bolivia for the migratory season, whereas geese with families will wind along the river.

It was another long, hard day. Not Not quite as physically intense as other days, but it was bloody hot and everyone was exhausted. I think the constant schedule and rough sleep was catching up with us. not to mention a lot of frustration with the project proposals – I was so glad to hear that our was going to work out.

Forest, meet the group…group, meet the forest – August 31st and September 1st

Day Six: Introductory Hikes

Our first couple of days at Cocha Cashu were spent getting our bearings, and for good reason. Cocha Cashu is so remote and the forest is so untouched that it comes as a bit of a shock. The 31st of August was an easy hiking day.

We woke up nice and early for our first hike (though much later than we were used to, at that point – we nearly fell over when they told us that we weren’t meeting until 7:00AM). We were all required to wear rubber boots while out in the wilderness, so I donned my absolutely ridiculous-looking white boots that I bought in Cusco. Pretty much everyone bought there’s in Cusco, but theirs were black and yellow. Me, being my father’s daughter and therefore an incredible cheap individual, decided to go for the white boots that were two or three soles cheaper. Suffice it to say, I got teased a bit – but all in good fun, of course!

We split up into groups after breakfast. One group went with Ursula to explore the area north of the station, and my group went south with Tim. We worked our way beyond the tents, into the thicker vegetation, and eventually into swampland. Along the way, we were introduced to dozens of plants, insects, and spiders. At one point, Tim caught a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly and held it up for us to see clearly. They’re simply enormous! He also caught the much smaller Glass-Winged Butterfly. Throughout the hike, we were focusing on plant adaptations, particularly in the swampy areas. We discussed why all leaves in the rainforest had “drip tips”, why only some trees have buttresses, and how plants compare to others. For me, it was a new academic experience; I’m not a science major, after all. I struggled to keep up with the Latin names of plants, but I was determined to learn more!

Later in the day, our group went with Ursula and did the same thing in a new area. We talked a lot about termites, the Solanaceae family (tomato, eggplant, bell pepper, etc.), and plant predation. We also got to see some incredible monkey activity right above our heads! We all went to our tents completely exhausted that night, and fell asleep to the itching of bug bites and the lullaby of the jungle.


Day Seven: Introduction to Bird Watching

And on the seventh day, Ursula said….let us watch birds.


Anyway, the first of September was devoted to the birds! We got up very early and split into three groups, who all went in different directions. My group started in the canoes with our TA, David. The canoes are these shaky, hard-seated cedar canoes – I’ll talk a whole lot more about those once we get to our research projects. For today, we took these canoes out for nearly two and a half hours before breakfast and enjoyed watching the sun come up over the lake. 


During our time out there, we got to finally see the Giant River Otters up close. They were too quick to get good pictures of, but they popped up around us a few times before becoming bored with us and heading north. We also observed Jacanas, Hoatzins, Donacobius, Green Ibis, Scarlett Macaws, Blue and Gold Macaws, a Red Capped Hawk, Tiger Heron, and many other bird species. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I was getting really into birds at this point. I think the fact that I struggled so much with the plant names but understood the bird names made them that much more exciting to observe. Not to mention that they were all beautiful and so different than the birds at home.

After breakfast, we went with the next group. For us, that was mist netting with Ursula. She taught us how to handle, take out, clean, put away, transport, and set up the nets. Once we had been educated, we headed out into the field to put our new knowledge to the test. We found our spot in the woods, set up our nets, and left them overnight. It wouldn’t be until the next day that we actually got to try catching birds and studying them.

The day wasn’t long enough for a three-part rotation, so my group would be bird-watching with Tim the following day. The rest of this day was spent taking a botany class in which we learned how to inquire about and identify plant characteristics. Again, I really struggled, but I’ve come home with a bunch of new knowledge about plants and I want to learn even more.