Field Notes: Diary from a First Field Season

Hi there! Jessica here. I’m starting this diary to log the tribulations and triumphs of my PhD research on shorebirds in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Always exciting, grueling, and full of surprises, field season is my favorite part of the year . . . however, the first field season of a new project can be especially difficult and unpredictable.

I study the reproductive behavior of wild birds. This means that every summer, I embark on a three-month field season to spend my days following birds, observing what they do, searching for their nests to gather information about reproduction, and occasionally capturing birds. To address my own research questions and flex my independence, I’m establishing new study sites and working with a species that no one in my lab has studied before. There are bound to be some twists and turns along the way—here I go!

Day 1: May 2, 2021

Today I arrived in Lee Vining, a small town situated at 2,067 meters (6,781 feet) above sea level in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. The town sits on the shore of Mono Lake, an expansive alkaline lake fed by mountain streams that supports a vibrant community of waterbirds. My lab mate, Carly, and I completed the 5-hour drive from Davis to Lee Vining in two separate cars, each chock-full of research equipment, boots, clothes, and food. After unpacking all the gear, we paused to survey the field house that would be our home for the next three months. It is a rustic two-bedroom cabin complete with wood-burning stove; the place definitely has character! Tired from the drive and excited to dive into fieldwork the next day, Carly and I settled in to bed early this evening.

A view of Mono Lake in spring surrounded by sage brush (Artemisia tridentata) ecosystem. Desert peach (Prunus andersonii), rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), and other drought-tolerant plants bloom throughout the spring and summer, adding pops of color to the dusty landscape and providing habitat for many birds and other animals. Photo taken on May 6, 2021 by Jessica Schaefer.

Carly studies songbirds called Mountain White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha) that breed at high elevation meadows, while I study shorebirds called Spotted Sandpipers (Actitis macularius) that breed along freshwater lakes and streams across a range of elevations. I chose to study this species for a number of reasons. One is simply that they are fun to watch! Nicknamed “spotties,” Spotted Sandpipers have an amusing habit of bobbing their tails while walking or standing. But the main reason is their distinctive mating behavior: Spotted Sandpipers are sex role reversed. (Yep, that’s right—gender is a fluid construct in animals too!) In contrast to many birds, females of this species are larger, spottier, and tend to be more aggressive than males. Females can mate with several males and produce multiple nests in a single summer, and males incubate the eggs and take care of the chicks when they hatch.

My goal: to find out how fixed or flexible Spotted Sandpiper sex roles are and how they vary across different environments. If parenting and mating behaviors are flexible across individuals and sexes, which aspects of their environment might explain this variation? The broad range of shorebird habitats in the Eastern Sierra—lakes, streams, rivers of various sizes, different biological communities, and across an elevation gradient—makes this a great place for me to explore ideas about environmental variation.

That’s the plan . . . but since this is my first field season working with Spotted Sandpipers, I don’t know quite what to expect. It will be an adventure.

Day 2: May 3, 2021. A visit to Carly’s field site.

As soon as the sun rose, Carly and I headed up Tioga Pass to visit her field site for the first time this spring. Unlike my field site, Tioga Meadow has been a research site for over 50 years, so much is known about the bird community there. We made the 10-mile drive up the pass, flanked on either side by magnificent walls of rock and stands of pine trees dusted in snow, and I felt a combination of thrill and zen induced by the wild natural beauty.

The month of May is typically still snowy at Tioga Pass, and temperatures drop below freezing overnight at this elevation (~3,000 m, or 10,000 ft), so we were bundled up in winter jackets, hats, snow pants, and gloves. Hard to believe that tiny songbirds can survive a climate this cold! But they are definitely here—many White-Crowned Sparrows and other migrating songbirds have already arrived to start staking out their breeding territories.

The day after a late spring snowstorm at Tioga Meadow. Photo taken on May 16, 2021 by Jessica Malisch.

As soon as we stepped onto the meadow, we could hear the birds. Ahhhh the familiar morning chorus of sparrows, Mountain Chickadees (Poecile gambeli), Juncos (Junco hyemalis), and Wilson’s Warblers (Cardellina pusilla). It’s still a somewhat subdued chorus; in several weeks, as the snow melts and birds begin building nests on the newly exposed ground, the dawn chorus will swell to a symphony of tweets and trills and syncopated song.

Tomorrow I will start searching for Spotted Sandpipers! But today, I will simply revel in the glory of being back in the field.

Week 2: May 10, 2021. Tweet-tweet, is anyone there?

The good news: there are some Spotted Sandpipers here. The bad news: I’m not sure there are enough for my research.

I found a handful of spotties around Mono Lake the other day, so I set up the spotting scope and watched them for a while as they foraged on aquatic invertebrates (i.e., little insects and other bugs that live on/near the water). These birds had spotted chests, indicating they are already in breeding plumage. However, I’m not sure if the ones I saw will stay and breed in this region or continue flying north to breed in Canada or Alaska. If more sandpipers don’t come and start breeding, my project is toast.

I am feeling anxious. Low population numbers don’t bode well for my planned research; at minimum, I would need to find several dozen Spotted Sandpipers and locate all their nests in order to collect enough data to detect any sort of meaningful biological pattern. If the spotties don’t show up, I would need to either switch species or find a different field site. At this point, changing my project would potentially delay my PhD by a whole year, since I may need to wait until next summer to start collecting data—less than ideal!

Breathe, Jess. Be patient. My adviser seems hopeful, and it’s true that all sorts of birds are arriving by the day as the snow thaws and spring fully arrives . . . fingers crossed; come on spotties!

The delta where Rush Creek joins Mono Lake. I saw Spotted Sandpipers foraging here along the lake early in the spring, and a host of other birds including gulls, ducks, waders, swallows, and black birds congregate in this productive area. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

Week 4: May 24, 2021. Finally, they are here!

I’m happy to report that there are definitely Spotted Sandpipers breeding here!! (Major sigh of relief.) There are even more than I expected might turn up, which is great news for my research.

I’ve been visiting a variety of locations daily with my binoculars and notebook; I hike until I find Spotted Sandpipers, locating them either by their sounds or by catching a glimpse as they glide up or downstream. Then I wait and watch them do their sandpiper thing: bobbing their tails, flying over the water as though the creek is a runway, giving their unique weet-weet-weet songs, picking their way along shore and jabbing their beaks forward to nab little insects to eat, and the rare sight of two birds courting or copulating. I am gradually learning to tell apart their different vocalizations and distinguish the slightly spottier females from slightly smaller males. I collect observations and anecdotes that may pivotally inform my questions and strengthen my research. I write down questions and notes. I wonder a lot.

A Spotted Sandpiper peers at me from a tree. The birds are usually found poking along the shoreline, but sometimes they perch on branches such as this one. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

Week 6: June 16, 2021. An egg-citing day!

Today I found my first Spotted Sandpiper nest!  In fact, I found THREE nests!! What a difference one day can make. Finding nests is critical to my ability to gather data about reproductive success and parental behavior, and I’m jazzed that I finally had some success.

A Spotted Sandpiper nest. Many shorebirds build nests on the ground; spotties make small indentations, sometimes lined with twigs or grass, often hidden behind small grasses or shrubs. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

One of the nests I found had two eggs, meaning the mother is still laying eggs in it (Spotted Sandpipers lay a clutch of four eggs, one egg per day). This is a good sign, since if this bird was still completing its clutch, there’s a good chance that other birds will be starting up nests and laying eggs too.  Several weeks from now, when the chicks hatch, I should start to see little grey fuzz-balls scurrying around.

I’m sure I will continue experiencing emotional ups and downs as I hit new roadblocks. But for now, I am back to feeling energized, optimistic, and psyched about my research. The sight of that beautiful, delicate nest is still glowing in my mind: smooth speckled eggs arranged in a perfect cloverleaf pattern, nest location carefully selected by two Spotted Sandpiper parents. Will the eggs survive and hatch, or will a predator find the eggs before they finish developing (perhaps one of the Black-Crowned Night Herons I’ve seen (Nycticorax nycticorax), looking fierce with their dark brows and reddish eyes)? How might offspring requirements and challenges to survival—staying warm, finding food, avoiding predators—compare to those of a sandpiper family at higher or lower elevation? How will the story of these little birds influence the story I tell years later when I give talks about my research on Spotted Sandpipers in the Eastern Sierra?

My field season is half way over, but I finally feel that my research is under way. I’ve forgotten (for now) the distressing, unknown, and uncontrollable aspects of studying wild animals in nature . . . and I already can’t wait for the next field season. Stay tuned for future field notes, where the story will continue!

The gravelly, shallow banks of Rush Creek are home to numerous Spotted Sandpipers during breeding season. These birds sure have a great view. Photo by Jessica Schaefer.

Jessica Schaefer is a PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She studies the behavior and mating systems of creatures from limpets to lizards to birds. Jessica loves poking around tidepools and looking at coastal animals and algae.

[Edited by Josie Hubbard & Maggie Creamer]

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