Las mariquitas y yo, part 2

It was the best field season ever. I smashed my personal record for sample size and came home with new friends and connections. And, my samples made it safely back!

Right now I’m hustling with the analyses so I’ll have a cohesive presentation ready for a major bird conference in three weeks. I can’t wait to find out their mating patterns—we know so little about the genetics of these guys that any new info will be interesting.

You’re looking at a complete data point: Mom, Dad, and the kids in the nest. I scored thirty data points and was able to take off a few days toward the end.

Two major reasons the season was so much more stress-free: no nest-searching (all I had to do was peek into the PVC pipes), and both parents fed the chicks. That means both the male and female reliably visited the nest, unlike in the redwings, where only the females fed and I scrambled around trying to catch the males.

I started off with my trusty mist nets. They worked great, but whenever the wind picked up, they ballooned outward and let the birds escape. My coworker suggested something more targeted (and stationary) that could catch the parents as they entered the nest to feed.

Meet La Trampita. She’s made from a foot of PVC pipe ($1.25), a bendy straw ($1 for 100), and some cardboard from a box that once contained delicious pizza ($5 for two slices). And she caught fifty birds for me.

Secured with duct and electrical tape, Ms. Trampita was definitely not foolproof. So after I saw a bird go in, I ran into the water like a maniac to make sure it didn’t escape.

Then I stuck my entire arm in and fished around until I caught the parent. The trick was to lift my forearm and create a little light at the entrance, so that the bird would rush toward the opening. Once it was trapped at the mouth, I shimmied my hand back and wrapped it around the bird’s body. Into the bag it went.

Begin the usual processing: banding and bleeding.

My coworker Edwin took this photo. He was working on a separate study using radio telemetry to track the movements of fledglings wearing little backpack transmitters. We were two lost souls, wandering the mangroves and occasionally bumping into each other.

Also unlike the redwings, males and female yellow-shoulders look alike. Once they’re in hand, you can feel the difference in their size, but just to make sure, I measured the lengths of their tarsus and wing. The females were consistently a centimeter smaller for both.

Finally, I weighed them and let them go. That’s a bird inverted into the toe part of a pair of tights.

Hi, babies! Thanks for letting me catch your parents (“parents”? We’ll find out) so quickly.

I know, I know. Don’t worry, you’ll get your arthropods soon.

We’re going to analyze 169 of you!

A sad-clown-faced bananaquit that flew into a mist net. Bananaquits are the Caribbean equivalents of chickadees, hopping everywhere and buzzing nonstop. This one ejected berry poop all over my sleeve.

Acanthocereus tetragonus. Common name: Spanish dildo cactus, looking very majestic indeed.

I kind of feel like the “Spanish” is superfluous.

Good heavens, they’re everywhere.

These two photos were from my mile-long walk into the mangrove. My dinky rental car couldn’t handle the unpaved road, so I parked on a beach and marched in with my gear. Here you can see an enormous gumbo-limbo tree, nicknamed the tourist tree for its red and peeling bark.

The melon cactus. Who named all these plants, 15-year-old taxonomy interns?

The nipple part is called a cephalium, and the bristles are flowers, which give way to hot pink fruit that dangles seductively off the top.

Now it is time to leave the field and stop by the piraguas truck for some fruit syrup and shaved ice.

The ice is literally scraped off a huge frozen block with an old-timey tool.

Edwin, of PR and New Jersey, makes these syrups from home every day. There were all the usual flavors, plus soursop, tamarind, passionfruit, sesame, and some others I’d never heard of.

Speaking of which, here is biograd Alex with corn-flavored ice cream. There were actual kernels embedded like cookie dough. It was surprisingly good. And it was a lot of fun to spend a day with him and Dave; I’ve never gotten to hang out with other biograds  during the field season.

Did I mention near the end I had time for partial weekends? My friend from the Department of Natural Resources took me snorkeling, and we stuffed ourselves with deep-fried food afterward. Clockwise from left: chapín (trunkfish) empanada; corn fritters; yucca sticks; fried plantains; squid and conch salad; cheese balls; and fried yam slices. And a piña colada! So worth it.

The restaurant posted this sign in its outdoor seating area. Those Greater Antillean grackles were definitely not afraid of humans.

Thanks, PBJs. You’re a food group unto yourselves.

I showed this photo to my mom and she couldn’t speak, she was so proud.

Goodbye, mangroves and blackbirds! Thank you for a wonderful summer, and I’ll see you soon.

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