A climatologist dropped in the bush

 May 23, 2016    by Adrienne Wootten

As a climatologist, it’s not often when I get out of the office and away from working with climate data and projections.  The closest I normally get to working in the bush are the occasional times I get out to give a tour at a weather station, or do station maintenance.  So when I had the opportunity to join some ecologists in Puerto Rico for a day out during their field season, it was quite a treat.

Wet Forest outside of Utuado, PR. Photo: Adrienne Wootten

The day started at 5:30AM with a drive toward a wet forest outside Utuado, which is about an hour and a half west of the city of San Juan.  For this first part of the trip, it was all about the Puerto Rican Bullfinch.  This little bird is endemic to Puerto Rico, and the work here was connected to assessing the response of these birds to the coffee plantations affected by the shade restoration program which is started in 2001.  What did this part of the day consist of?  First we set up some mist-netting, but there was a whole lot of waiting, waiting for a bullfinch or two to fly into the netting.  Once they did, they would place a band on their leg so they could identify them in the future, and put little transmitters on their backs to track their flight behavior in the coffee plantations.  Our patience paid off with one bullfinch caught in the nets that day, which was banded and released, ready to be tracked for the rest of the field season.  Patience is needed in more ways than one way too, given that these little guys bite a bit when caught (I had the marks on my fingers to prove it).  The second half of the trip that day took us to the Tallonal Reserve in the karst region.  We made a switch here to a totally different animal too.  The focus on the second half of the trip was the coqui.  These are tiny, adorable tree frogs and an icon of Puerto Rico.  Similar to many who have visited Puerto Rico, I heard many, but never saw one.  Coqui are named for the sound they make, and from dusk till dawn in Puerto Rico you can hear them calling almost anywhere there is forest cover.  It’s a chorus of nature’s best music and I love hearing it  every time I go to Puerto Rico.  In this case, the work is much more connected to my own field.  The coqui were being tracked, but there are also plans to put a set of weather sensors in their habitats to connect coqui behavior to the local climate.  Connecting coqui choral “music” to local climate?  Works for me!      

Students working to band a bullfinch caught that day.. Photo: Adrienne Wootten

Whether it was bullfinches or coqui, there were a few common themes that became clear to me as someone who has not spent time in the field with an ecologist.  First, there is a lot of patience involved in field work.  Patience and time, perhaps more so than what is involved for climate modeling.  After all, I can leave a climate model running and work on other projects while I wait, but that’s not necessarily feasible in a field study.  You end up waiting and searching for one animal so you can band it, track it, or just observe its behavior.  However, I could feel the excitement in the group when an animal was finally captured - even if it was the only one that they ended up finding that day, week, or even month.  Joy in knowing they’d found one frog or bird to learn more about each species as a whole, and better conserve and protect them in the future.  Second, and more importantly for me, I didn’t realize just how localized an ecologist’s work in conservation truly is.  I knew from reading about field seasons, watching videos, or talking with fellow students, that what they do is highly localized, but it didn’t really hit me until I joined this research group for the day.  In both locations we headed up and down rocky slopes, into wet forests, and visited ponds.  The microclimates going up and down the slopes of the interior of Puerto Rico influence the placement of a species, particularly those like the coqui.  Yet all these microclimates are contained in a space smaller than one (maybe two) cells of the climate model projections I’ve produced for Puerto Rico.  For me, local in a climate model typically means an area of a few square kilometers (mile), not an area less than a square kilometer (mile).  For a climate model it is hard to scale down, but equally as challenging is scaling up the results from field studies like this one.  Therein lies an incredible challenge, taking the behavior we learn from studies in the bush about different species and translating that to what it means for the survival of a species in the face of a changing climate.  

For the ecologist’s out there, all I can say is that I have gained much appreciation for what you do after this experience.  You provide great knowledge that goes to inform other scientists and  educate the next generation (through your own work and knowledge given to other public and private organizations).  As a climatologist who has always been an animal lover, bravo, and keep doing what you do!

My thanks to Jaime Collazo (NC Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit) for taking me along to visit with his students during their field season in Puerto Rico.  Many thanks to the students, Amarilys Irizarry [bullfinches] and Jess Stocking [coqui], and the tech, Aileen Cole [coqui], who were willing to give a crash course in their work to me.  All pictures are here are taken by Adrienne Wootten, April 2016 in Puerto Rico.

Adrienne Wootten is a PhD Candidate at North Carolina State University.

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The Puerto Rican BullFinch. Photo: Adrienne Wootten