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 Brian Myers



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In Mendocino County now; Humboldt is up next

Posted by Brian on April 6, 2017 at 10:15 PM Comments comments (553)

When it rains in southern California, it usually stops after a short while. When it rains in Mendocino, it doesn’t seem to have an end. At least there’s time for an update! I’ve traveled from San Diego, to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and now Mendocino. Next up (hopefully by the end of the weekend!) will be Humboldt County. It’s beautiful out here. Freezing, but beautiful. Tons of pine trees, dense forest, and riparian areas to aid the transition from forest to ocean. Also, I can’t forget the invasive Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) and it’s painful thorns. However, the hummingbirds love it. The campground I’ve been staying in at MacKerricher State Park, is my favorite of the trip. Towering pine trees, lots of separation between campsites, the sound of the ocean, peace and quiet after dark, and rain pattering the tent throughout the night. Nothing better than that.

I'm pretty excited to get into Humboldt County, because earlier in the year I made a model based on rainfall and temperature data predicting the hybrid zone would begin there. It has consistently aligned with the localities and divisions of the hybrid zone I've sampled thus far (divisions include pure Rufous Hummingbird populations, Rufous-like hybrids, 50/50, Allen's-like hybrids, and pure Allen's Hummingbird populations), so I am hopeful. Humboldt County would comprise the beginning of the Allen's-like part of the hybrid zone. If so, it might highlight the relationship between the climate and these two species, the types of habitats they are able to hybridize in, and the habitats and conditions they are dependent upon. Basically, Rufous Hummingbird requires wetter, colder, habitat than Allen's Hummingbird.

Rufous Hummingbird are still migrating, and they often make things very confusing when I’m trying to track and capture breeding Allen’s Hummingbird. Outside of courtship behavior, it’s very difficult to tell the two species apart. Often (but not always), the back of Rufous Hummingbird males is relatively close to being 100% orange in color, while the back color of Allen’s Hummingbird males is usually 60-100% green. Other than that, unless you have a bird in your hand, or they are performing courtship displays, good luck telling them apart. Females are even more difficult to differentiate, and have to be “in the hand”. There are a lot of Rufous passing through here, and several of them are displaying, which might seem strange considering they haven’t yet arrived at their breeding grounds. They just have a little trouble holding in their…excitement. This morning I watched a male Rufous Hummingbird perform a really long shuttle display (which is a close quarters courtship display that can also be used as a form of aggression) to a White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) who was probably a little puzzled.

How often do you think a hummingbird beats it’s wings per second? Some can beat their wings well beyond 50 times in a second! Everyone knows they’re exceptional performers in flight with the ability to hover, but they can also fly backwards with ease (watch a video here). Did you know the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), found in the eastern United States, has a metabolic rate nearly 100 times that of an elephant? If you have a feeder up at home, you might notice the same hummingbird visit several times a day, and probably even more often than you think. This is because of their high metabolic rates and the fact that they burn so many calories so quickly. Some hummingbirds consume up to three times their bodyweight in nectar and insects per day!

That's all I've got for now. See you all soon!

Checking in from Monterey County

Posted by Brian on March 29, 2017 at 1:10 AM Comments comments (125)

Three weeks down! Everything’s gone as planned thus far (that often doesn’t happen working with nature), and I’m currently in Monterey. The ticks out here are ridiculous. I pulled five of them off of me this morning. There are usually at least one of three nuisances present when working outdoors in coastal California: poison oak, mosquitoes, and ticks. Poison oak will ruin your life for weeks, mosquitoes are some of the most annoying organisms on the planet (and can spread disease), and ticks, to me, are the worst of the worst. There’s nothing quite like an animal that tries to burrow inside your body without your knowledge, drink your blood, and have the courtesy to leave you with an infection or disease before departure. Out of frustration, sometimes when one runs into any of the above in the outdoors, it’s reasonable to wonder what good any of these nuisance organisms are, their roles biologically, and whether the environment is better off without them. Many animals, the California Towhee (Melozone crissalis) for example, form a symbiotic relationship with poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), building its nests among the plants and feeding on the white berries, then spreading the seeds through excrement. Ticks are hated by many, including myself, but they (and mosquitoes) serve as an important food source in most ecosystems. However, one biologist says the extinction of mosquitoes might have no effect at all on the environment. Anyways, back to birds.

Monterey is my fourth stop on the trip thus far-I left San Diego, then sampled in Malibu, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and now Monterey. If I study hybridization in a contact zone between Allen’s (Selasphorus sasin) and Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), what am I doing sampling far away from the hybrid zone? Well, I’m also doing a phylogeographic study on Allen’s Hummingbird. Some organizations such as Partners in Flight claim this species is declining rapidly. Others are skeptical, especially given the fact that the non-migratory subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin sedentarius) is currently expanding its range. By sampling Allen’s Hummingbird throughout its range, I’ll be able to quantify whether the species is really in decline or not. With limited conservation dollars available, knowing which species are threatened and which are not is extremely important to prioritization and management decisions. Second, in order to accurately describe behavioral differences between Allen’s and Rufous Hummingbird, and to use these differences to classify and sort out hybrid characteristics, I have to actually know how pure Allen’s Hummingbird behaves across its range to provide a meaningful comparison. This is important for all aspects of my dissertation.

You don’t spend most of your time working and living outdoors during the field season without running into some weird experiences. In Santa Barbara, for example, a full campground woke up in the middle of the night to a homeless couple screaming, shouting, and fighting at the top of their lungs, followed immediately by a drunk driver crashing his car into a tree. In San Luis Obispo, somebody seriously asked me to catch a hummingbird for her as a pet, and assumed that’s what I was doing there in the first place. I face-palmed pretty big on that one. Hummingbirds need more than sugar water/nectar to survive…they need protein! Insects make up a huge portion of their diet-hummingbirds are predators too! Finally, some advice: don’t book several nights in a campground built next to a railroad tracks with trains that run all night.

I’ve also added some pictures to the photo gallery. Thanks to Megan and Chris for letting me stay at their place in San Luis Obispo last week, and thanks for checking in!

One week down

Posted by Brian on March 13, 2017 at 12:20 PM Comments comments (888)

My first week was a successful and interesting one. I saw a hungry Cooper's Hawk rip a Northern Mockingbird into pieces, observed a pod of dolphins, and watched a Western Scrub-jay land on the arm of the chair I was sitting in to harass me for some food. Camping in the California State Parks I've stayed at has been $45/night-more expensive than some motels. I find it pretty odd that the powers that be, with it's monopoly on campgrounds, continues to drive prices up on public land and price out those who can't afford it.

As far as research goes, I tend to find Allen's Hummingbird in coastal sage scrub (CSS) habitats, many of which I notice are also degraded areas. Although Allen's Hummingbird populations are likely doing well (my work this field season aims to quantify that), in part due to the presence of ornamental and invasive plants that have popped up due to urbanization, there are a lot of species that rely on CSS to survive, many of which are in decline, such as the coastal Cactus Wren. CSS has been reduced to approximately 10% of it's original range, and a large portion of remaining habitat is degraded, so this spells trouble for such groups. 

Upon release, one of the Allen's Hummingbirds I caught angrily performed courtship displays at a Song Sparrow, a bird about 6.5 times his size. Hummingbirds, especially Allen's and Rufous, often do this to not only each other, but different species of birds (even if they're much larger), small mammals, or anything that might be looking at them the wrong way. The philosophy of a hummingbird is to always be angry at the world-they don't take flak from anybody.

Adventure awaits...

Posted by Brian on March 8, 2017 at 1:15 AM Comments comments (211)

Tomorrow, March 8, I begin my third field season. The goals over the next 2-3 months are to a) complete sampling for a phylogeographic study of Allen's Hummingbird, b) complete sampling of the first transect across the hybrid zone, and c) begin sampling of the second transect. I'll be starting in Southern California, working my way north along the coast until I arrive in Southern Oregon. 

Over the next few months, I'll try to include some information you might not have known about hummingbirds before, noteworthy experiences (such as the Breaking Bad-like motorhome and it's many visitors at a specific field site last year), pictures and descriptions of the places I go, and updates about research progress. 

Here's a quick fact: In general, hummingbird courtship displays are also used to neutralize potential threats. For example, territorial males will often perform dives to intruders not to woo them, but to express dominance. Other expressions of aggression in hummingbirds include louder, more intense chattering, body posturing, chasing, and physical attacks.