Terns, Razorbills, and UMMZ

By natcatcher September 26, 2014
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Aspen Ellis

Living on the island of Anglesey in North Wales as a kid, one of my favorite things to do was to go to a local art gallery in Llangefni to view the work of Charles Tunnicliffe,  a local field sketcher and naturalist. I would sit for hours trying to copy his work and staring at his paintings of Snowy Owls and Oystercatchers. Whenever a bird hit our window or we found a dead bee in our yard I would try to draw it and learn its features. I think that was when I really fell in love with birds and the coast, but I didn’t consider that studying birds as a living was an option until much later.

Today, I’m involved in a number of different ornithology research projects in an attempt to learn more about birds and ornithology and to help conserve them and their environments. For the past four years, I’ve been working at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology as an avian specimen preparator. My job consists primarily of preparing round skins and skeletons of birds for the museum collection, but I also help train new students, give occasional tours to the public, and help organize birds in the “Range” or collection cabinets. People tend not to realize that there’s so much more to museums than what is out front for the public to see. There’s a huge amount to be learned from spending time behind the scenes at a museum, I’ve found: while of course you learn useful ornithology techniques such as (depending on the museum) specimen preparation, DNA sequencing, etc., you also have access to an incredible resource — the specimen collections themselves. This is a great way to start considering potential research projects. If there’s a professor on your campus to work with it’s definitely worth talking to them and trying to figure out if there might be a question to ask that could be examined using the specimen collections at your local natural history museum. Museums are becoming a vastly underappreciated resource as more and more gets digitized. Don’t be fooled, however: museums are not antiquated. With increases in technology, museum collections are honestly increasing in value as more studies can be done regarding phylogeny, diet, range, and so much more. Bring them back in fashion and get involved, my friends.

Magnolia Warbler study skin prepared at the UMMZ. This specimen could be useful to scientists for centuries to come

Magnolia Warbler study skin prepared at the UMMZ. This specimen could be useful to scientists for centuries to come

Another great option for young birders and aspiring ornithologists is to do field jobs over the summers. Over the past two summers I’ve worked for Project Puffin (or the Seabird Restoration Project) in the Gulf of Maine to help conserve and study the breeding seabird colonies on the islands in the Gulf. I first worked in 2013 as a volunteer intern, and came back this year as a resident research assistant on Matinicus Rock. Jobs like these can be difficult to make work as a high school student, but definitely don’t rule them out as options. Project Puffin has been a great way for me to learn a wide variety of field techniques, learn about the life histories of incredibly cool birds, and start to get a good idea of what good research is and how to do it. On a busy day at the height of breeding season, we’d get up at 0300 to do a Razorbill feeding study from a bird blind until 0800, then do a Razorbill/Puffin productivity/growth check, get back to the cabin for some tern trapping or tern feeding studies, and finish up the day with a tern productivity check and some data entry. Living on an island 22 miles offshore means you get pretty cozy with your crewmates and forget what a shower is… but while the work can be hard, it doesn’t feel like work most of the time.  I’ve learned a lot from Project Puffin, and I think one of the most important things that I’ve learned is not be afraid to apply to jobs, even if you don’t exactly meet the qualifications. Don’t expect anything, but apply to a lot and hope for a little.  It’s a great way to meet people in the field and get involved with research.

I collected specimens this summer on Matinicus Rock for the collection back in Michigan at UMMZ. This became the first Razorbill fledgling in the UMMZ bird collections.

I collected specimens this summer on Matinicus Rock for the collection back in Michigan at UMMZ. This became the first Razorbill fledgling in the UMMZ bird collections.

This fall I’m learning how to band songbirds at a local banding station (puffins are one thing… chickadees are a different thing entirely), and will be working with a few grad students at the University of Michigan under the supervision of Pierre-Paul Bitton, a Ph.D candidate at University of Windsor to examine potential correlations between foraging strategy and mate attraction strategy in oscines. There’s always something to do with birds somewhere, I’ve found; you really just have to hunt it down and ask to help. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and get involved with whatever you can. Even if it feels like there’s nothing in your area, it’s worth looking into things and finding out what’s around or what can be started. If there really is nothing, try elsewhere. Summer jobs exist, and there’s a huge amount to be gained from them. Birding is fantastic, and it often gives you a head start in a number of different field jobs. However, the deeper you go with birds, the more fascinating they become. Don’t limit yourself to birding  – explore, get involved with things, and use your talents for birding to investigate the bird world and contribute to science. It’s pretty fab.

Banding an adult Arctic Tern with SJ Kwiatkowska to contribute to the Gulf of Maine's Arctic Tern metapopulation study.

Banding an adult Arctic Tern with SJ Kwiatkowska to contribute to the Gulf of Maine’s Arctic Tern metapopulation study.

Taking a row at sunset with Taylor Hale and SJ Kwiatkowska after a long day of tern feeding studies and puffin productivity.

Taking a row at sunset with Taylor Hale and SJ Kwiatkowska after a long day of tern feeding studies and puffin productivity.