Celebrating the 4th of July in Oz

This post is by Phoebe Honscheid, a junior at Cornell University.

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Back home, we normally celebrate the Fourth of July with parades, a picnic with heaps of traditional American food, some games, maybe some sparklers, and always a huge fireworks display to wrap up the evening. In Australia, the IRES crew did things a little differently this year. After a week of searching for and collecting observations for our red-backed fairy-wrens in the field, it was time for our off-day at Springbrook National Park. We started the day with a two and a half hour car ride while listening to any song that even briefly mentioned America, which is why I had Miley Cyrus singing “Party in the USA” stuck in my head the whole rest of the day.

Instead of the usual games like frisbee or cornhole, we decided to spice it up with a “friendly” game of Assassins. For those who don’t know how to play Assassins, each player is assigned somebody else to eliminate by clipping a clothespin onto their clothes when they’re distracted. The targets are passed on until only one person is left surviving. Our group doesn’t mess around when it comes to organized competition so as soon as the doors to Gertie (our minivan) and the Ute (Australian for truck) opened, we were sure to maintain at least a one-meter radius around ourselves. Throughout the day alliances were formed, bribes of chocolate were exchanged for information, and people were ambushed by others waiting in trees in the dark.

This off-day was special because we got to share it with Dhoka, a native Papuan who has been working on white-shouldered fairy-wrens. Dhoka spent his first experience outside of Papua New Guinea with us and stayed for one week. He helped us in the field with finding and catching birds as well as telling us a little about his life back at home. We, in turn, introduced him to the Australian rainforest, Shrek, and Assassins. I think he particularly enjoyed Assassins considering he was the one that ambushed somebody by waiting in a tree in the dark.

I have yet to adequately prepare myself for walking into a rainforest. Every single time I become caught in my own disbelief at the intricate network of all the different plant species, vines that look like cinnamon twists, and the unique yet unmistakable feeling of entering a hidden world far removed from our own. I become mindful of every footfall and try not to disturb the forest too much. On this day, I picked up a leaf and when I let it slip through my fingers, it returned to the exact same spot as if the entire forest was carefully arranged. The pale morning sun spilled through patches in the feathery leaves so that light was suspended in shimmering beams right in front of me. I couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and touch it. Also, the rainforests are really green. Like really, really green. Imagine taking a picture of a normal forest and then setting the saturation to the max and then dipping the whole picture into bright green paint.

Because setting off fireworks in Australia would surely culminate in a life in prison, we ended the day with a different display of light. Instead of lightning bugs, the signature light-producing insects of Australia are called glow worms, which like to live together in small caves. Their bioluminescent sticky threads are used to lure prey and are only found in the larval stage of this small fly. I walked into the Springbrook glow worm cave and was immediately in awe. The cave interior was speckled with constellations of bright blue jewels and looked just like a blanket of stars. I started subconsciously identifying Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, and Cancer. It was incredible to see another one of the ways how biology can be insanely beautiful.

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The benefits of waking up early in Australia

Our next post is by Kai Victor, a sophomore at Cornell University:

It’s 5am when my alarm goes off. Even though I’ve been somehow awake since 1am, my body shrinks at the thought of crawling out of my warm sleeping bag and into the frigid, dark, moist Australian winter air. When I finally achieve the semi-impossible and manage to worm myself down my bunk bed ladder in the dark, it takes all my remaining energy to go through the motions of brushing my teeth and collapse at the table for breakfast. My stomach still hasn’t woken up after dinner last night, so eating a big meal is out of the question. I force a banana down, hoping I won’t be starving to death in an hour or so. 

The car ride to the field site takes about 30 minutes, but we’re delayed by first a Red-necked and than a Swamp wallaby bouncing along the road. They’re like the deer back home, except way cooler and more Australia-y. When we eventually pull into the parking lot, an avalanche of guinea fowl, roosters, and brush turkeys mob us. Two of the roosters have gotten tame enough to eat out of our hands, and they scramble to be the first one in line for breakfast. It’s nice to have such a reliable fan base.

My targets today are a group of fairywrens living near the edge of the lake, so I take the freezing plunge, stepping off the nicely mown cemetery path and into the wet grass. 

Now, before we get further, let me go into a brief tangent on wet grass. First of all, there is good grass. This is short, anything from golf-course short to knee high. In tame terrain like this, your waterproof (I mean…it did say waterproof on the shoebox right?…or was it water-resistant?) hiking boots and snake gaiters will keep your toes semi-warm and dry. Usually, good grass at the field site is in short supply. Enough to make you think you’ll be fine taking off your rain pants when they get really hot around 10am, but little enough so that you immediately regret the loss of said pants when you feel very wet water dripping down grass stems into your boots. The other type of grass is bad grass. There are two types: first, we have wet furry grass. These have cattail-like heads of seed, each tipped with fine hairs. Beautiful, huh? Now imagine endless fields of this grass, each stem about six feet high, and each containing what seems like a gallon of water in each seed head. No matter how carefully you push the stems back as you pass through them, they somehow manage to sneak under your arms, lovingly daubing your face with the contents of a small reservoir. Drenched in water, tripping over the vines that happily try and snag you with every step, you stumble into the second kind of bad grass. This is the velvet grass. Sure, they look soft, but their stems are super sticky, their heads covered in dust-like seeds that come off at the slightest touch. A brush against one of these stems leaves you coated in seeds that adhere amazingly well to the rain-gear that the furry grass has pre-moistened.

As the sun rises above the lake, however, the coldness and wetness all become worth it. You forget all the seeds and burrs stuck to your clothing. Each head of seed turns into a torch of fire, each drop of water into a shining pearl. The early morning heat makes waves of fog rise off the water and grass. The horizon disappears, and sound becomes lost. The birds have trouble navigating in the fog, too, and often water birds suddenly appear feet away in the mist to your mutual surprise. This early in the morning, the birds are still active, and every step you take is a chance to flush a covey of Brown quail, or a single King quail (if you’re lucky), or a button quail (if you’re really really lucky). Today I get no quail, but instead, see an enormous White-bellied sea-eagle soar overhead. Next to me in the water swims an Australian pelican with a posse of three Little black cormorants. They seem to be hunting together, the cormorants driving the fish to the pelican and the pelican confusing the school with wild stabs of its bill. Another thing someone should study. As I walk by a little dirt hummock, I pause to say hello to Spotty and Dotty, a breeding pair of Spotted Pardalotes. They’re one of the friendliest wild birds on our field site, always willing to pose for a nice photo or twenty.

Aside from us field researchers, there are almost never any other visitors to this area. I feel like I’ve traveled back in time when I wake up this early. The eucalyptus trees and tall grass make me feel like I’m in my own little Jurassic Park. And in a way, I am. What are birds but living dinosaurs? Each Red-backed Fairywren a living remnant of a long-ago world.

 

Critters and cramps: musings from a newbie field biologist

This is our first post from the 2018 IRES field season! This year, we’ll be peppering our blog with posts from each of our 6 wonderful undergraduate students as they navigate their journey in Australia. Our first up is from Nathalie Clarke, a junior from Tulane University:

I’ve dreamed about doing field work for what seems like an eternity. Like all idealistic young biologists, I imagined life in the field as a walk in the park, complete with magical creatures and fun-filled research. Fieldwork IS a walk in the park—if you remember to watch out for spiders as you traipse through prickly lantana bushes towering over your mere 5’3” stature until your legs cramp up. When I first learned about orb-weavers in EBio 1010 at Tulane University, I never imagined that I’d get used to seeing them (yes, friends and family, the huge spiders that I’ve been sending you pictures of 24/7). The first time I saw one in the field, I almost jumped with excitement.

“OH MY GOD! Sexual cannibalism at our field site! THIS IS AMAZING!” I thought to myself.

By day 5, I’d probably swallowed a whole pond of spider web while attempting to follow the elusive red-backed fairywrens, which oddly made the “magical” spiders lose some of their appeal. On day 9, the fateful day I will remember all my life, a group of three tiny birds led me through what seemed like an endless stretch of lantana until suddenly I found myself surrounded: in front, behind, to the right, to the left. The beautiful, lovely, dazzling orb-weavers were on every side of me. Not wanting to plow through their beautiful webs, I decided to edge around them carefully, climbing over the lantana. BAM! I landed on my butt, with 3 enormous spiders falling onto my rain jacket.

I’m rather ashamed to say that I screamed and ran away as fast as I could. My point: there are many, many, many things about the field you can’t imagine from the lab. But, luckily, the best parts of field work are also a surprise. I never realized I’d make amazing friends in the field, Tim-Tam slam (an Australian delicacy that involves turning a mere biscuit into a gooey, delicious straw), laugh until I cried about limes and lemons, become a part of weird, wacky inside jokes, and fall in love with chasing elusive birds.

-Nathalie Clarke


Another Season Been and Gone!

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Time flies in the research world, another IRES season has come and gone! Due to a transfer of leadership this blog didn’t get looked after much during the field season, but here are a few photos that shows some of the fun experiences we have. Students for the 2018 season have been selected and we’re looking forward to next year!

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9 weeks goes by fast

It seems like only yesterday that the students were arriving in Brisbane, but yesterday I dropped them at the airport for post-IRES travel.

We finally remembered to take a group photo on our last day at the field site, and also went out with a bang by winning trivia at the Samford Hotel! Here we are with trivia master Mark Shiels–all of the hats were won at trivia throughout the last 9 weeks.

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Christmas in July!

Since it’s winter here, we decided to celebrate Christmas in July! The festivities started on July 23 (Festivus in July; shown here are Sarah D. and Taylor participating in feats of strength while Joe holds the festivus pole), followed by Christmas cooking making on Christmas eve and a Christmas dinner and a secret santa gift exchange on the 25th.

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