PhDone – The Viva

Well, June 13th, what can I say, I have never experienced stress like it. Which is saying a lot because as my husband put it the day after: “You worry unnecessarily about everything”. However, I think that this time, I was justified.

I had spent the two weeks prior either attempting to read my thesis, or gathering questions that I could force myself to answer in the hopes that it would somehow open my mind in preparation for a good grilling.

I scoured the internet for blog posts about vivas and how to survive them, what to do to prepare and what to expect. The most I got from my supervisor was “Don’t prepare too much, just make sure you know your thesis inside and out”. Which at the time, I thought was completely useless advice. But he was correct, any general questions I had managed to find online did not come up and what helped me most was knowing my work and therefore being able to defend it (or knowing when to concede defeat).

People recommend doing something to take your mind off it, which is such an easy thing to say when you’re the person giving the advice and not about to go into the most stressful meeting of your life. That morning I attempted to distract myself with exercise, take my mind off things and hopefully go into my viva feeling refreshed, with happy hormones and feeling confident. It worked for the duration of my workout, but then my nerves prevented me from eating anything after and about 30 minutes before I was supposed to go in thought I might collapse because I had no sugar left in my body.

I arrived at my supervisor’s office, I could barely speak I was so nervous. Luckily this was the first time I had seen him since his episode of Springwatch aired, so after a bit we managed to distract me sufficiently by laughing at how stupid he looked on the tele. Twenty minutes later I had to go up to face my destiny.

Vivas in general are supposed to last between 1 and 4 hours, it is quite common for scientific vivas to last 2-4 hours. Mine was 3 hours 50 minutes, but it genuinely did not feel that long. The only inkling I had that my perception of time was skewed, was when I asked to go to the toilet at what I thought was 20 minutes in, checked my watch, and AN HOUR AND A HALF HAD PASSED.

There were lots of questions about my work that I found it easy to answer, reasons for decisions I had made and elaborating on methods to make it clearer what I had done. But what I really struggled with, were questions further afield from my research. I felt like I had said the phrase “I honestly don’t know” about 30 times, so by the time they sent me out to make a decision I felt I had done terribly. I rang my supervisor and convinced him that I had failed miserably; I felt battered and beaten and that they had successfully managed to pull out all of the flaws within my thesis, plus some extra ones that I hadn’t even considered.

I was called back in, and after what followed the longest corridor and widest table I finally sat down to my verdict. Long pause. I got awarded a pass with corrections. AMAZING. I still cannot believe it.

I have spent most of my PhD with imposter syndrome. From what I have read from other students (mostly on twitter, #phdchat and #phdlife are useful handles to check up on every so often), this is a perfectly normal feeling to have. It basically runs along the lines of thinking you’ve gotten to where you are purely by chance, or somehow hoodwinking some poor supervisor into thinking that you’re the perfect match for their PhD.

When they told me I had passed I felt a sense of pride in my achievements, that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel before. That perhaps I am intelligent, I have worked hard, I do deserve it and I can do this. My viva was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and for that I am grateful, it really shook me from how I felt about it before I went in – it was so important to me, during and after that I just can’t believe I made it through to the other side.

Wow this is a long post. Thank you if you made it this far and without any photos, I didn’t take any that day because I was so preoccupied and then busy celebrating with my amazing team. So here is a picture of a grumpy dipper chick as a reward.

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PhDone – In Limbo

 

So, I handed in my thesis… what did I do next?

Well, here is a list of things I am beyond over people asking me:

  • Are you looking for a job?
  • Is it over?
  • What do you mean an exam?
  • What are you going to do now?
  • What is it you even do?

For those not in the know, once you’ve submitted your thesis, you have a couple of weeks or months before the final stage of assessment – the viva (more on this in a future post). This is essentially an aural examination of your knowledge and to make sure it was you who wrote your thesis. My viva was set for June 13th, and on the advice of my supervisor I chilled out and enjoyed my freedom until the start of June. Hence feeling as though I were in limbo, because I was free but with impending doom on the horizon.

 

It was a strange feeling, because had I spent so much time training myself into having a good work ethic; not to be distracted by things and not really taking much time off at weekends. To be suddenly faced with nothing to do is quite daunting. The first few days were inevitably spent, with me in my dressing gown, on the sofa watching RuPaul’s drag race (amazing), doing jigsaws and eating. After a few days of slothing and indulging in all of the things I had forbidden myself from doing whilst writing up, I was pretty much over it.

I currently have no income, so leaving the house to do anything is basically a bad idea because you can’t really get anywhere without spending a few pounds. Everyone I know works 9-5 Monday-Friday, so there actually isn’t anyone to spend time with during the week. However, staying indoors 24/7 isn’t great for ones mental health.

Things I have found to occupy my time include:

  • Baking – people who know me know I LOVE baking, it’s so good to have the time to make monstrosities (like the baked Alaska below) for my friends and family.

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    Baked Alaska.

  • Spending time with family – much neglected over the last few months it’s been really nice to catch up and spend quality time, especially with my sisters.

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    That’s right, we’re not above a day at the bingo.

  • More baking

     

  • Gardening – this is not something I have ever really been into, but my husband is attempting to transform our home into something sellable one day. I had run out of excuses, so we spent a day tidying up the garden and doing a bit of planting. I have since done a lot of painting and added a splash of colour to the doors and planters (much to his dismay). It’s nice to be outside and there is something quite fulfilling about seeing things you have planted flourish.

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    Jazzy.

  • Fieldwork – back to my old stomping grounds in Sedbergh. Somehow, without me the dipper project has survived another year but there are still bits of work to help out with. I went out in November for a day, but except for that I haven’t really done any proper fieldwork since June last year. It felt great to be out again, and even better to be attempting to catch birds and to record data with no internal stress because its not my project! Don’t get me wrong, the work is hard and the days are long, but if you’re only participating once a week it seems like a lovely getaway into the dales for a spot of bird watching. Very good for the soul.

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    Sedbergh in the sunshine.

  • Babysitting – my older sister has a daughter and because the prices of childcare are extortionate and my mother who usually takes the Monday shift is perma-on holiday, I was asked if I could step up and look after my niece for the day every-so-often. I had zero prior experience with small children, but she’s trained me up to be able to manage for a few hours. I was terrified at first, but so long as she doesn’t look like she’s choking on something its very enjoyable!
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Me and Mad-dog

  • Crafting! In particular painting and knitting this adorable cardigan for aforementioned niece.DSC_0007_88
  • More fieldwork – they can’t keep me away! Except this week I have come away completely mauled by midges. So… might have to wait till the itching subsides.

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    More fair-weather fieldwork.

  • More baking – now featuring the food dye I got for my birthday for psychedelic creations.

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    Rainbow cupcakes I made in honour of Lancaster Pride.

  • Spending quality time with my husband. Having neglected him (he did not notice, he plays golf now) for the duration of March and most of April, it feels good to set aside some time for us both. We had a great day sampling the delights at the food festival, and he has also managed to convince me to come to the driving range, which was not as terrible as I thought it would be after I started managing to actually hit balls in a reasonable direction.
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    Delicious day of merriment.

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    Action shot.

  • Cleaning – it is safe to say that my house hasn’t has a proper clean in months, again the joys of writing up… I’ve given it a bit more love recently and the difference is astounding.
  • Visiting friends – so good to see my Liverpool uni gals (love you guys) before Claire gave up her life to baby Angus, and get in a spot of crafting at the same time!

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    A baby grow that speaks the truth

  • Spreading the word! I gave a seminar on my work at the BTO HQ in Norfolk and also managed to fit in a visit to Cranwich to see my fellow PhD student Chris and his study species: Reed warblers
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    Beautiful day in Norfolk

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    Amongst the reed beds.

  • Appearing on Springwatch (well… my research). The episode was shown on June 5th, a very exciting Monday night watching my supervisor on a 5 minute segment with Michaela talk about what we’ve spent the last few years working hard on. Pretty cool.

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    Minute claim to fame.

What these activities have in common, are they occupy time, are cheap and are good my mental health. It is important to stay optimistic about looking for a postdoc, but at the same time it could take a while (or may never happen). So for now I am following the advice my younger (and obviously much wiser) sister and taking each day as it comes.

This blog post is dedicated to my main gal, Pepper pig, for all her assistance in babysitting duties (oink).

 

PhDone – The Hand In

I had originally planned on writing this as soon as I had handed in my thesis…. but, time got away from me and I was busy enjoying my freedom. Then came the crippling reality that I had not left enough time to prep for my viva (in my mind anyway) and I began mass cramming. Once again, blog writing was pushed to one side for the greater good.

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Such a thing of beauty

 

Our story begins just prior to handing in my thesis. The long hard slog that was October – April was difficult. A lot of people warned me about it being hard, I cannot admit that I loved every moment and it was extremely difficult; but there were moments of revelation and I certainly enjoyed some of the process.

I have learnt a lot about my own writing style as well as work ethic. I was particularly worried that I would never kick into gear, but when the fear arrives it becomes hard to switch your brain off at times. Which can be helpful when you need a bit of time to mull something over in the shower… however when your every waking moment is about your thesis you do turn slightly mad. Cue this Queen song playing in my head over and over…

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Likely face when asked “Why haven’t you handed in yet?”

 

Plan A was to hand in on March 31st, because we had assumed that was my deadline. However, complications arose with my supervisor having to balance my thesis feedback, full-time dipper fieldwork and life (still not sure how he managed everything); so when we found out my deadline was actually September, we decided a few extra weeks to get everything polished would be a good idea.

Those last three weeks where the hardest, when you have spent so long looking at something you just go blind to mistakes. It was getting harder and harder to reread anything because it all started to look FINE to me. Although it was annoying at times, I completely value the opinion of my supervisor and the last minute changes he asked me to make were on reflection, invaluable. What I will say, is if you are using R , a tidy worksheet is a useful worksheet. I am so glad that I kept all my analyses clear and labelled and all it took were a few tiny modifications and I was ready to go again, well done past Lucy.

On April 21st I went into the office in the morning after a couple of hours sleep, I had a few amendments left to do from my supervisor, some formatting and a cover page to create. Luckily, I had done my acknowledgements page in my tear fuelled delirious state the night before, to save the office from any extra unnecessary crazy.

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Apologies to the rainforest… but it had to be double spaced and one sided.

 

Deciding to press print was very strange, a moment in time where I had to decide whether I was going to draw a line under three and a half years of work, or give it a little more time (it was Friday and the binders was closing till the following Tuesday). But I had given it everything I could and I don’t think a couple more days would have made any difference.

Printed, I took it to the binders and an hour later I had my baby ready to deliver to the ladies at the Base. They displayed the appropriate amount of pride and celebration for people I had never met before, it must be a nice job collecting completed theses from half dead postgrads.

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Nervously carrying my baby to the Base

 

Because I had no idea when the whole ordeal was going to be over having pushed it back three weeks on the trot, and  #TeamBird are all away on fieldwork, I had no plans for that weekend. Big shout out to my main gal Ashleigh, for stepping up and making herself available for last minute subdued celebrations of Chinese and champagne. Don’t know what I’d do without you!

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One well deserved bottle of Champagne.

From Scribbles to Science

Missing fieldwork already.

This always happens, usually a week of freedom after a field season I remember that being inside 24/7 isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Such is life. Office work is not my favourite part of my PhD, but it still beats waitressing (must keep remembering this).

The last two days I have spent doing something that I particularly enjoy, turning field notes into data! I picture myself mid-January: fighting with my mittens (yes I wear mittens, it makes operating sound equipment much easier), scrambling to note down everything I have just observed, which birds were involved, who did what and at what time. And then go home, thinking ‘what am I doing with my life?’, having just spent 7 hours in sub-zero temperatures alone in the middle of nowhere.

Turns out, I was doing science all along!

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I  have a nice pile of field notebooks now, sufficiently ruffled from wind, rain and covered in bird poop. Each of these volumes contains countless hours worth of work and any one of them could contain the next big bird breakthrough!

 

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Actual chick poop covered pages.

Going through my observations of individuals. Making notes of who sang when I saw them and who didn’t…

 

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I can create a graph from my sampling effort and give a better idea of seasonal singing patterns, rather than just me saying “I have an idea that…this is happening”. Amazing!

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Missing my wellies and my birds but thesis writing calls. And it isn’t all that terrible really (remember this three months down the line).

 

Vienna, Yorkshire & Exeter

July has passed in a whirl wind, it was a month I had been looking forward to and dreading in equal measure. Two conferences, one European and one International, interspersed with two weddings of good friends is more than enough excitement for me.

Naturally I was looking forward to the adventure, but as is hereditary in my family, also a bit stressed about the prospect of travelling almost constantly for the month. Anyone who relies on public transport in this country will understand the idea of getting a bus or a train to an airport is a bit dicey.

I begin at ECBB – the European Conference for Behavioural Biology, based at the University of Vienna. Here I presented a poster on my current findings on dipper song.

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ECBB 2016 Poster

Sharing my work with the scientific community is the nice thing about conferences, people are genuinely interested and want to know what your work is on and have useful insites and questions about the research. What had me most on edge was walking into a conference filled with people and not making a single friend, standing lonely at lunchtimes… having no one to discuss the days events with. The registration did not disappoint my feelings of terror, everyone I saw seemed to know someone already and were deep in conversation. I sloped out after the first plenary, avoiding the evenings drinks reception with the promise I would try harder tomorrow and that I had been up since 4am and maybe I should just go to bed…

Thankfully the next day I met a fellow loan traveller from University of Sheffield. We bonded over fieldwork with birds and some sort of PhD family tree (my supervisors supervisor is her supervisor..) and from then I began to enjoy what was a lovely accumulation of behavioural plenaries, talks and posters. The highlight of which was the gala dinner in the Rathaus (town hall), such a gorgeous venue.

My husband joined me for the weekend and we had a wonderful time in Vienna visiting the zoo (best I have ever been to), and sampling every local brew and Dobos torte we could get our hands on.

Vienna is a beautiful city with many strange and wonderful things going on, like the surfing we found in a random square.

One wonderful (Yorkshire) wedding later…

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… I was ready to attend my next conference this time at the University of Exeter, ISBE – International Society for Behavioural Ecology.

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 Exeter University Clock tower

My newly formatted poster (50% of words removed – nobody reads them anyway), kept me busy during my poster session. I think I was only stood attempting to make eye contact with passers-by for about 10 minutes of the two hours, which is nice.

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ISBE 2016 Poster

 People generally can’t resist a dipper, the newly renamed “James Bond of birds” by Nick Baker in the opening ceremony. I even managed to fit another cheeky Yorkshire wedding in the middle of the conference…

Now I am home and happy after a challenging month, looking forward to knuckling down and getting my first chapter finished. Having met so many PhD students in that time I feel really lucky to be where I am and to have such an amazing supervisor guiding me through.

Things I have learnt from a month of conferences:

  • People never read posters, the bigger the graph/photo the better
  • A room full of academics can be terrifying – but it shouldn’t be, everyone has to start somewhere
  • An opening ceremony should probably begin with the naturalist… and end with Richard Dawkins (regardless of whether he bigs up dippers or not)
  • Free wine ALWAYS runs out
  • The guy who asks the aggressive question after a talk is usually a knob head
  • If there are a lot of people asking aggressive questions after a talk, it is possible the speaker has made a huge error (and probably shouldn’t be talking)
  • It is impossible not to look cool whilst wearing a lanyard
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Wondering how much of my current body mass is made up of tiny packets of biscuits…

Sibling Rivalry

A subject I am extremely familiar with.

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Me and my sisters

Being one of four I can relate to the struggles of chicks within a nest – fighting for your parents attention, trying to get the best resources, being the better person…. the usual stuff.

As my thesis looks at the effects of stress on development in dippers one of the easiest things to compare between nests is brood size – number of chicks per nest. The greater the number of chicks within a nest the more stress each chick faces in regards to competing for food in order to succeed.

Whereas I would like to think my sisters wouldn’t stand on top of me in order to be fed first, chicks on the other hand have very little regard for one another in the nest. It is a dog eat dog world and every meal counts, and when one of them is ready to fledge the rest of them also have to go. Usually parents stop feeding at the nest once the first chick is out and so chances of survival start to drop.

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Three faces peeking out but there are actually four chicks in this nest. I found the last one underneath all the others – they really don’t care!

Some of the nests I have visited over the last few weeks have had chicks with very similar weights and body measurements, however occasionally you can see a stark difference in sizes. Usually the chicks that hatch first are given the advantage, they get fed first, they can grow stronger quicker and in turn they grow bigger and more able to physically push their siblings out of the way.

It is true that in some species parents will be choosy or coordinate feeds to make sure all chicks are fed equally. But this can mean hanging round the nest for longer and the chances of predation start to increase. 

In the photo below are two eleven day old chicks from the same nest. It is hard to tell but the one of the right is the smallest out of the brood (of 4) weighing in at 42.9g and the one on the right weighing 49.4g. You might think, 6.5g isn’t that much of a difference, but the small chick is 15% smaller than it’s sibling. This could have a huge impact on the rest of this chicks life. Whilst this bird was physically smaller, it had a very similar wing size which could be due to the aforementioned readiness to fledge, investing what little resources you are getting into wing length is a wise choice. This enables quicker getaways when a predator is about, which is crucial for fledglings.

 

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Siblings from the same nest, the right hand side chick is 6.5g smaller.

I measured a nest of chicks that were five days old on Saturday and the difference in mass of the smallest to the largest was 7g to 13.5g – which is almost double in size! ( I was hoping to get a photo but the little chick was getting a bit too cold to keep it out of the nest any longer). Sometimes as the nestling stage progresses the sizes of chicks can even out, but in large broods of five or six individuals it’s these birds that are the ones who don’t even make it into the second week.

I am hoping to be able to relate the stressors of early life to their adult phenotype aka song complexity, body size, reproductive success  etc. So we are currently measuring growth rates in the nest, which can be quite fiddly but mostly adorable.

Next time you think your sibling is getting special treatment at least it’s not a matter of life and death. And you can crush them next time.

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Us dressed as birds.

 

Pomodoro 101

I am terrible with procrastination, just the worst. But what I find harder to do is actually get work done in my office. There are too many distractions like people eating apples (I have real bad Misophonia), people bringing in cake and insisting we eat it… you know usual PhD office stuff. If I have menial tasks to do such as typing up data, or I need to do a lot of printing then being in the office is great (socially and for £).

But if I have actual work to do it is usually a waste of time. I have to listen to music to drown out the distractions, which usually means my brain is slightly distracted anyway, and then you get into a steady stream of thought and someone asks you something and it’s all gone to pot again. This means I do much better at home. Except that at home there is washing to do, tidying (“I simply can’t work in this room with all this mess”) and lets not forget these guys:

I love my cats, and they love being fed and having somewhere warm to sit so generally everyone is happy when I work at home.

I was finding it hard to get work done the last few weeks because I am currently supposed to be in the field. I usually am out collecting data 24/7, but because my current work revolves around song collection and playback experiments I need to have relatively low noise levels. This means any time the wind picks up over 10mph I can’t hear birds, they can’t hear what I’m playing out to them and any Dictaphone notes I make to myself  are drowned out by noise.

This means that I have the occasional day off for office work. This is hard because fieldwork is exhausting, physically and mentally so to have a whole day of office work in the middle of a week collecting data is not ideal. Any time I make some headway with data analysis it is put on hold for a few days whilst I go back out and do more fieldwork.

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(photo stolen from google image search)

Thus brings me to the Pomodoro Technique. It has revolutionised the way I work. No more getting distracted by cats, and washing and faffing in many other ways I usually manage. According to Wikipedia the Pomodoro Technique is:

“a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.”

Basically work for 25, take a 5 minute break and repeat. After you have completed 4 sets you can take a longer break!

It sounds stupid but if I start my day making a list of things I need to get done, I actually get them done using Pomodoro. I think it is me accepting I have a very short attention span and if I bargain with myself that it won’t last forever then I can get myself to concentrate and get work done.

Plus my cats get an allotted 5 minute play time, so everyone is happy.

 

Dippers and Desmond

We’ve probably all heard too much about #StormDesmond #Flooding and #Cumbria, and it’s not that we don’t care but in my case – there are only so many times I can listen to my husband’s “Don’t buy a house on a floodplain” rant. He is right though – building/buying a house on a floodplain, no matter the probability of the flood event actually happening, seems like an unnecessary risk.

As devastating as it was, and still is for some people I don’t really feel like much was said on behalf of the environment and the impact flooding has on flora and fauna. Being a dipper enthusiast the whole time the flooding was being reported I was stuck at home, watching DVDs by candlelight thinking about my poor babies and hoping that a few of my recruits (chicks born in 2015) were going to make it through the terrible winter and out the other side into January.

My fieldwork this year started about two weeks ago, and as I venture further into our field site I discover more and more damage done to the area by Storm Desmond. There is a huge amount of bank erosion, bridges disappearing and a massive amount of debris deposited along rivers and becks that were not there previously.

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Above: One of my favourite places to get a photo of the river in the summer because it always looks a beautiful emerald colour (standing on Fisherman’s Bridge).

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Above: The same bridge… except it’s gone.

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Above: Looking down the river where Fisherman’s Bridge should be.

Bank erosion is bad news for dippers that have been building nests on river banks in the same place for years. Occasionally dippers also build nests on man-made structures such as bridges and walls. Even a couple of our dipper nest boxes have been bashed off walls.

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Above: The culvert at the Railway Bridge on the Lune has crumbled and red bricks are all the way down the beck.

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Above: The culvert used to be a small dark tunnel, and you can see the remnants of a dipper nest box on the wall to the left hand side of the culvert opening.

On the plus side the amount of debris washed up has probably given some dippers more places to forage within their habitats. They prefer to wade in shallow patches of pebbles picking insects and fish from between the stones.

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Above: Chapelbeck has burst its banks and dissolved half of a field. You can just about see the now useless footbridge.

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Above: Where the beck should be (under the bridge).

Despite the storms, as far as I can tell our dipper population in Sedbergh is doing OK. There are parts of the river that seem quieter than usual but it is still early January and they have a good month to be getting on with things before settling down to build nests. I have also seen quite a few recruits from last year, so hopefully these hardy little birds have made it through the worst of it.

 

Dipping Mad

I’ll be honest, I got pretty angry last night about something to do with my work. The kind of anger that causes you to immediately boil up out of pure rage. It caught me by surprise but it was a reminder to me that I am passionate about my project and believe what I do is important.

It was brought to my attention that there is a YouTube video about dipper ringing. I will ABSOLUTELY not link to the video, and I FORBID any of you for looking it up because the content is utter tripe and I don’t think giving the owner more views is a productive thing to do. Basically the jist of the video is that one man in America, saw a dipper with a coloured ring stuck to the upper part of its leg which had swollen – obviously due to the ring getting caught.

That part of the video is correct and factual, however the guy then goes on to blame all dipper deaths on coloured rings. As though nothing else could be attributed to dippers dying; I can think of many reasons:

  • the fact that they live in an ever changing environment with a less than stable food source
  • the breeding season is very energetically demanding for a dipper and the cost of rearing chicks could depreciate the health of an individual
  • visiting a nest with food multiple times a day makes tracking dippers very easy for predators so they could just get caught unawares when delivering food

He also says that dippers are really tame and friendly, and then as soon as they get caught for ringing they hate humans and won’t let you anywhere near, this is incorrect. All dippers or at the very least the ones I have encountered (probably in the hundreds), are very skittish birds that will flee at the slightest sound or movement. Whilst this is annoying for observational purposes, it is reassuring that the birds are vigilant and stay away from danger. The fact that this man thought that getting within a meter of dipper as a good thing is ludicrous, habituation to humans is bad news for any species.

The link to this video was on a Facebook page of some self-righteous twitcher (whose job was something to do with the aviation industry – BECAUSE NO BIRD HAS EVEN BEEN KILLED BY A PLANE). This twitcher in question was adamant there was no need for birds to be ringed and that everyone who was inflicting this “torture” on dippers was, in fact a monster. To top it off, he had used photos from my blog to illustrate the fact that it was happening all over the UK under our very eyes! He also commented on the way I was holding the bird in the photo as basically strangling it. I was in fact holding the bird the way I was taught during training, with no actual pressure around the birds throat or body just careful positioning of the fingers to prevent the bird from being able to fly away. Holding down a birds wings also prevents them from flapping and becoming increasingly stressed whilst being handled.

I was going to weigh in and give my opinion, but after reading various comments from a few ringers I could see that he was not to be reasoned with and putting a face to the name on my blog just seemed like I would be putting myself under unnecessary fire.

So for someone whose main part of her job is to observe dippers all day I need a way to tell one from another, all dippers look alike because they do not exhibit sexual dimorphism. My project aims to make scientific inferences about their song, this I collect myself and it can take days, weeks or even months. If I can’t go back to an individual and know:

  • who it is
  • the sex of the individual
  • who their partner is
  • who their parents are
  • which are their offspring

How am I ever going to be able to work out why they sing, what affects their ability to develop song and there they learn it from?

Putting coloured rings on dippers helps us to identify a bird without having to disturb the bird more than once in its life. We use a metal ring because this is the bird’s identifier for the BTO, and three coloured rings because our study population is large. We need that number of combinations to be able to identify to individual level not just by what year they were born.

If putting rings on birds was harmful, it would not even be a considered practice. Bird ringers are trained extensively, and then even after you receive your first license you are still heavily supervised by your trainer. I cannot speak for every single person trained under the BTO’s licensing system but that’s how it is for me, two years in and I am still not independently ringing – but that is fine by me, I would rather no bird is injured under my watch.

I felt as though this video was painting ringers as people who are trophy hunters, wanting photo after photo with their latest “catch”. This again, may be true of some people who ring as a hobby, but there was no discussion about the possible scientific reasons for putting rings on birds. The fact that one of my images was used without my consent made me feel sick. The irony is that if anyone looking at that photo followed it to my blog, they would know exactly why we ring birds and how much insight we have gained into their lives.

All ringing in the UK is only allowed under appropriate licensing, colour ringing for specific projects has to be approved by the BTO before starting, see this page on colour ringing.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that I felt so uncomfortable with my images being used in such a way that I have removed all photos of birds in the hand off my pages. It made me sad to do it but I didn’t feel happy and did not sleep very well last night out of stress of people thinking the work I do is evil. The only reason I put them up was with the hope to educate and inform, not to be taken out of context and used as a bad example.

In the next few days I will do a proper write up of ringing dippers and what we do for what reasons but till then any questions about the subject are welcome.

Anyone still wondering about why we disrupt these birds’ lives, just think – any scientific fact you have learnt and shared with someone about an animal had to be discovered and rigorously tested. Any time you learn about a bird species, these have been tagged and observed throughout their lives in order to gain information about their life cycles and behaviours. You can’t just announce something as fact after seeing it happen in once instance, that’s not how science works. The study we are currently conducting on this group of dippers has not impacted their lives, if it was something that would affect the survival of the birds we wouldn’t be doing it! Use some common sense, people conducting surveys are usually those that care enough about the animals in question that they devote their lives to it, or give up their free time for the greater good.

I feel like if these same people pointing the finger actually knew what went into building and maintaining a population study like this they would be humbled at the amount of care that goes into the minimal handling of the birds that we do. Also, what we do is the tip of the ice berg compared to lab studies on birds…. But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

 

Lab Time

I have abandoned my blog of late for a few reasons, getting back into the office and processing song and kick samples is not the most exciting of tasks and therefore doesn’t inspire me to tell you all about it. I also took a month off to get married and go on honeymoon, a triumphant and glorious month where nothing existed but me and my husband – no PhD in sight! Unfortunately that had to end at some point and here we are, back to the daily grind (actually I’ve been back a month already, but am in a massive funk that I no longer spend my days travelling along the Californian coast drinking and eating everything in sight).

I have spent the last month contemplating statistics, finishing the last remaining kick samples and the last few songs that needed analysis. This time of the year is generally used for “house keeping”, making sure all the data I collected is accounted for and processed properly so that when I return to fieldwork for the final time I have a virtual clean slate. Also so that when I finish my fieldwork and turn to properly interpret my data and begin to write up, its not in a massive dung heap.

I finished processing my kick samples and realised I had not gone into much detail about what I do in the lab, so here is a rough summary. The point of taking kick samples is that you get an instant idea of what sort of species are in the river or stream you are sampling. This data can then be used to work out the health of the body of water in question, and it is generally accepted as a more reliable method than chemical analysis because communities of species give more of a long term idea of what the water quality is like.

So I get my bags of samples that I collected in the field:

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Sieve out the contents and pour them into a tray:

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When you tip them out you hope for the latter, but generally they mostly look like the former and that sample will take about 6 hours to process.

So then I sort through the tray pulling out anything that is an aquatic invertebrate, sorting them into piles of their various families, or as far as I can distinguish by eye.

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The photo on the left shows a plate of stonefly nymphs, and photo on the right is the different groups of invertebrates I might find in a sample.

Then I have to go through each individual and identify to family – which in terms of macro-invertebrate identification is not such a scary thing, but it does take time. Here is some of what I see through my microscope:

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These are freshwater shrimp-like crustacea – Gammarus.

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These are assorted species of Stonefly nymphs.

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And these last two are Caddisfly larvae in their cases.

Once all individuals are counted and identified I can use this data to put into indices to work out various measures of water quality. The biomass of the sample and number of different families found can also tell us a lot about the biodiversity and quality of the sample.

I can also compare this against different chemical and geographical measurements taken. The idea is that for each sample taken from a territory gives us an idea of quality and the prey available to the individuals living in it.

That my friends, is the exciting world of kick sample processing! Most field biologists despise lab work, I think of it as a happy medium between office work and fieldwork when it rains – it’s sort of alright being somewhere warm and dry for a day. It also gives me a legitimate excuse to be holding onto my 1st year undergraduate lab coat – other than for Halloween costumes.

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