A Farewell to Highland County


IMG_0065Last week, I wrapped up my third and final field season working in Highland County, Virginia. The temptation to be grandiloquent and maudlin is overwhelming; I want nothing more than to wax nostalgic for umpteen paragraphs about all the wonderful times, incredible people, beautiful birds, and gorgeous vistas. As I realize that such an essay would be obnoxious, I’ve attempted to refrain from writing one.

Yet letting this chapter close with my mundane final act in Highland County (emptying the dish rack, hopping into the Lesbaru) seems too anticlimactic. Thus, I feel obliged to take a moment to give my heartfelt thanks to all the people who shared this place with me, and to type a fond farewell to the project. I will keep it brief, in hopes that you will forgive my sentiments, however trite.


First, to all of the landowners that allowed us to tromp around and play bird songs at the crack of dawn: thank you. Thank you so much for your hospitality.  I can think very few places where people would welcome complete strangers onto their land, and fewer that would offer them coffee and watermelon. I am so grateful for your warmth you showed us and the interest you showed in our research.

Second, I need to acknowledge the three field crew cohorts. I use the word “acknowledge”, because their is no single verb that conveys the praise, gratitude, warmth, friendship, and camaraderie I want to express. Everyone worked so darn hard and complained so dang little. You all knock my socks off, and each one of you is destined for awesome things. And to all those who showed up to lend a hand without asking for a dime–Ryan Weaver, Anna Tucker, Emily Johnson, Wyatt Carpenter, Alice Besterman, and so many others–I am forever grateful for the help and the fun you brought to the field.

Sarah Bastarache, Laurel Schablein, and Alison Sloop

2012: Sarah Bastarache, Laurel Schablein, and Alison Sloop

Catie Porro, Ben Duke, and Jason Kitting

2013: Catie Porro, Ben Duke, and Jason Kitting

Jessie Reese and Alessandro Molina

2014: Jessie Reese and Alessandro Molina

Third, I would like to proclaim my undying love for Patti Reum: teacher, landowner liaison, artist, musician, birder, activist, conservationist, and our surrogate mother in the mountains. None of our work would have been possible without her tireless efforts in making introductions and getting the word out about the project. Her friendship has been a huge support for me–and not just during the field season.

The incomparable Patti Reum (a.k.a. Eagle Annie)

The incomparable Patti Reum (a.k.a. Eagle Annie)

Lastly, the nature…the environment…or…something. I’m not sure what I want to say here. Is it weird to thank a collection of ridges and valleys? Or bizarre to extoll that funny mix of pasture and forest, the smell mint-choked streams and cow dung, the frosty mornings, the windy afternoons, the woodland paths crawling with red efts, or all the cacophonous animal choruses–birds in the morning, insects in the afternoon, frogs at night?

Probably. Instead of gushing further, I’ll end with this: I will always remember how perfect it felt to witness a tiny, yellow-capped bird singing brashly atop a bramble as the sun broke over a foggy valley. Everything seemed miraculous and fascinating and impossibly beautiful.

So long, Highland County.




illust 4 copy

A little while ago, the webcomic Piled Higher and Deeper–a source of consolation for all of us in the low/middling ranks of academia–posted a comic titled “The Spiral“, in which one of the recurring grad students cannot separate her self-worth from her data. When the latter is proving difficult, she transfers confusion about analysis to inner turmoil and self-loathing.

That simple story arc, succinct in its four frames, describes my lowest moments as a scientist.

I think it stems from my deep-seated fear of numbers. My father is a mathematician by training; my sister is a math teacher and Euclid aficionado; I’ve attended schools that emphasize quantitative skills; and I’m pursuing a profession path where progress hinges on the empirical testing of hypotheses. You’d think by now immersion/exposure therapy would have run its course, that I’d begrudgingly love numbers…but no. I’m still petrified.

Words, I love. I feel safe around words. Words allow prevarication. With words, you can dance around reality, or enhance it without strictly violating truth. Numbers? With numbers, there is a correct answer. In mathematics (and in statistics, ±95% confidence), you are either right, or you are wrong.

I hate being wrong.

What does this mean for me as a scientist? I go through a field season. The data is entered and proofed. I sit down in front of my laptop, thinking about my a priori hypotheses. These hypotheses are quantitative at their core, but are carefully cushioned with words, “…the presence of study species is correlated with x and y, with a potential for interaction of x*y, is tested against the null hypothesis that…” or the appropriate model-selection version of such verbiage. I type in the code for the test, and, heart full of hope and hit Enter to run my script.


Or I don’t.

Instead, I scroll through csv files, update my R packages, open a stats manual, or go make a snack. Usually the snack. Something chocolate. Because I know in my heart of hearts that the moment I hit enter, something will go horribly, terribly wrong.


Usually, it is something in my code; comma I forgot to delete, an open parenthesis. Something that I will spend hours looking for, only to have a colleague glance over my shoulder to point out what my dyslexic brain didn’t see.

But my bigger fear is that I’ll discover that I am simply wrong. When I hit enter, not only will I discover the data contains no publishable results, but that I’ve misunderstood mixed effects models, or that my experimental design was crap, or that my hypotheses were inane, tautological, and just plain bunk.


Sure, null results are important. Certainly, I’ve performed similar tests before. And my awesome advisor made sure our experimental design was solid. None of that matters: I know that my career will be over when I hit enter.

My fears are not unique. Countless academics report signs of impostor syndrome, convinced none of their past successes are genuine, and that it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered to be frauds (more on that here and here). Moreover, ecology departments are peopled with graduate students that blanche at the site of an integral and blame their love for REI for leading them into the sciences. Most people with similar phobias deal with their demons with more courage than I do, and are productive in spite of them.

Ultimately, I can’t procrastinate on analysis forever. Advisors and reviewers and funders require timely results, and my lovely words–so handy at crafting excuses–cannot postpone deadlines indefinitely. So I do hit Enter.

The results that arrive (after I fix my cruddy code for the umpteenth time) are unsurprising. There are no trends, there are weak trends, and there are stronger trends. Some models perform better than others–one or two significantly better, if I’m lucky. Scrolling through results summaries and unformatted data plots, I can see how some methodologies could have be improved, or how a particular variable was confounded by another.

And you know what? Being wrong isn’t that bad. Yes, inconclusive results and weakly significant correlations are pains in the a**. They might mean Science Claus won’t bring me a fat impact factor by Christmas. But science is all about proving yourself wrong a hundred times for the sake of figuring out what is correct…and it’s about living at poverty line until you do produce something publishable, in which case you might receive a postdoc at 35 and realize you won’t be able to send your kids to college unless you marry into money.

Moral of the story: Any wealthy suitors out there? I cook, I clean, and I’m great at parties.



Why Band Birds?


IMG_1144 copyMy profession is usually pretty easy to summarize. When introducing myself, I simply state, “I’m a wildlife biologist.” Most people either smile politely or proceed to tell me about the goldfinches on their feeder (“So beautiful!”), or the albino this-or-that they saw a picture of (“Never seen a squirrel like it!”).

Unfortunately, some folk are more inquisitive than others. Extended family and neoconservatives (the Venn diagram of those two groups do not overlap) inevitably ask follow-up questions regarding what being a wildlife biologist actually entails. This doesn’t have to be so bad, except I rather enjoy rambling on ad nauseam about the ecological theory and goals of conservation biology. A brusque “I count animals and s**t” would suffice to shut down the conversation.

One red eft!

One red eft! A-ha-ha!

Instead, I natter away about dispersal distances, signal attenuation, detection probabilities, and migratory pathways. When my audience’s eyes glaze over, I panic and try to rope them back in with a topic I assume everyone will like: bird banding!

A handsome guy with a handsome bird

A handsome guy with a handsome bird

Isn’t it neat? Isn’t it grand? Are you not fascinated by the possibility of touching a creature as perfect, as marvelous as a bird? If I am fortunate, my audience will agree, and politely change the topic. All too often, they are mystified and demand justification.*

“What the hell is the point? Someone pays you to do that?” a crisp-collared young professional will declare over a glass of wine. The latter question is easy to answer (“Um…sometimes…not often enough…damn you and your 401k!”). I have tried to do justice to the former, but the role of mark-and-recapture studies for long-term population trends usually falls on deaf ears. Likewise with examples of how life-history data can combine with estimates of raw abundance to inform conservation strategies, or how banded birds can link scientists across species’ migratory pathways, fostering global research and environmentalism.

Look, I done international collaboration. Now give me a Fulbright.

International collaboration. I done it! Now give me a Fulbright.

At a party last Halloween, I was in the middle of one such pedantic diatribes when a sloshed hipster put down her Solo cup, glared over her fashionably thick-rimmed glasses and slurred that “Well, nature is always f***ing changing, why should anyone care?” and then proceeded to read us the Gospel of Libertarianism according to Rand Paul.

Rather than dealing with such differences in perspective with maturity and grace, I have resolved to cease providing real explanations. Instead, I’m going to offer an anecdote from the field back in May. This story will elucidate why we should band birds.

We had just captured a male Golden-winged Warbler. Once we had its basic measurements, we lined it up on grid paper to take a series of standardized photographs of its head patterns. One of my pet projects is checking out plumage symmetry, variation, and extent of acquired vs. intrinsic pigments. But right when I got the camera focused, I noticed something. Slide1 Do you see it? No? Look closer. Slide2No. I mean, closer. Slide3Now do you see? Once I noticed, I couldn’t look away. It was like some paranormal force was drawing me in… Slide4 …and I was falling… Slide5 …deeper…Slide6 …and deeper… Slide7 Slide8 That’s right. That bird–and every other bird I’ve handled since–is secretly plotting the demise of all humanity. They’re Lucifer’s agents on Earth, here to drag us kicking and screaming into Hell.  Don’t believe me? Then check out this Grey Catbird.

Slide1Slide2 Or this Indigo Bunting:

Slide3   Or this Wood Thrush:

Slide4So that’s why I band birds: I am going to save us all from these wicked feathered demons by studying their ecology.


*Some people are genuinely concerned for the well-being of the birds, a sentiment I appreciate and am happy to address.