Sunday, June 24, 2012

tweet, tweet

Oh yes, my project. I know it is more fun to read about (and for me to write about!) my quirky collisions with the culture, but my birds are in need of a post as well. I promise I did actually do work. So in case everybody forgot what I was actually doing over here, let me remind you briefly.

I set out to investigate past and present bird species distributions of the Timaliidae (AKA babblers--think songbirds if you can't picture anything else) family in South Central Vietnam. I chose babblers because there are some species widespread throughout SE Asia, but some that are very special to Vietnam, and some even more special to just a very small area in Vietnam. Therefore, I thought they would be a rather good representation of the general status of biodiversity of the country.

Vietnam was chosen as my subject of interest because of the ENORMOUS gap in studying the biodiversity here. Due to the political turmoil, no one gave a damn about what was in the jungle for the longest time. In the past decade they've discovered  a ridiculous amount of new species. Just yesterday, the institute where I worked at publicly announced the rediscovery of a rare pitcher plant that hasn't been seen in over 100 years!

Dr. Truong (on the right!) is one of my advisers.
Read the press release in English or Vietnamese

The idea was for the assessment of past babbler distributions to be done in museum collections throughout the country, hoping to learn about where this bird specimen was collected from and when. A refresher of my first encounter with specimen collections can be found here.  I would like to remind you that the word "museum" needs to be used lightly. In the states, the word Natural History Museum brings about images of colossal buildings adorned with dorsal columns or ornate architecture--think Smithsonian or the Field. Now, just forget all of these preconceptions. These are hardly museums, but rather collections of birds accumulated by various institutes and universities over the years. I went in with an open mind, not really expecting to get a large amount of data. After visiting about 5 collections (4 in Hanoi, 1 in Da Lat) here are some general conclusions:
  • Most of the collections had far more birds in their collections than otherwise predicted. In total, I collected useful data from about 300 specimens. Also, most of these birds (~85%) had enough information on the tag to georeference (a.k.a. locate where the bird was found in order to map it). 
  • Most of the bird specimens, although high in quality, were terrible in quality. It is clear there is a need for 
  • Most of the birds in the collection (~90%) were sampled from the North. I had expected a skew, but not this bad. ATTENTION ALL FIELD BIOLOGISTS: we have some work to do. And as much as I want to encourage Vietnamese scientists to take upon themselves to collect, I honestly do not think the institutions that house the specimens are prepared, trained, or capable at this time to carry out expeditions or prepare the specimens appropriately for long-term use. 
What is to be done here? Well, I think the first thing I am going to do is write a little brochure thing in Vietnamese for basic specimen care--(e.g. Please do not smoke while handling specimens, etc.). What I think really needs to be done is some formal training. I am obviously not qualified to give that, but I am hoping to publish on this topic to bring awareness of the status of specimens in Vietnam. Somebody's got to get the ball rolling.

Now the second half of my project involved doing a "current assessment" of babblers. I guess what I had in mind was a bunch of field surveys, but considering I have never once done a field survey, especially in Vietnam, I had no idea what to expect. My first trip into the jungles was described here, in which I went to Binh Chau Nature Reserve. It really got me hooked to working outside. Despite setbacks and schedule changes, I was finally able to schedule a few more field trips. I went to one more at Binh Chau, which is a lowland sandy forest near the beach and two other ones to Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, which is high up in the mountains near Da Lat. 

I had described in my previous post that the trips to Binh Chau were somewhat of practice field trip because I wasn't literally stranded in the middle of nowhere. We had little rooms to sleep in and adequate food and water within walking distance. However, at Bidoup Nui Ba, when I say we were in the mountains, we were IN the mountains.

When you think of adventuring out into the jungle, slicing the thick flora with you machete and always looking behind you for any signs of the elusive "yellow fly" (which you apparently need a skin graft if you are stung by this thing), that is exactly what we did. It was at least an hour drive from civilization on this dangerous, rut-covered dirt road 2000m above sea level. Believe me when I say you did not want to make any bad decisions when driving the motorbike. At the camp site, there was no food or water supply, no cell phone service, no electricity, no bathroom, no shower, no beds. We slept in covered hammocks every night. For water, there was a large basin that collected rain water. Luckily it rains almost every day so there is usually enough water to boil and ration among people, but definitely none to clean yourself with. For food (I kid you not), we bought several live chickens that wandered around the campsite until they slowly met their demise, being killed off one-by-one. It is safe to say that after eating boiled chicken morning, noon, and night for 8 days straight, I'm good on chicken for a while.

our adorable camp site shelter with the adorable park ranger!

After living the grungy life for several days, it was absolutely essential to take a bath for everyone's sake. This required yet another dangerous motor bike descent, followed by a 30 minute hike down a steep gorge, to an immaculate waterfall pouring with fresh (but freezing!) water. And although I was trying to protect my naked body from the plethora of leeches swimming around, it was truly an unforgettable experience--it doesn't get anymore "Amazonian Princess" than that.

my bathtub
I have to say that all of my field trips were pretty successful, especially considering I had no idea what to expect. I was able to catch a number of babblers and in large quantities to hopefully allow for reliable genetic analysis in the future. I could ramble on about field surveying techniques and what not, but I am sure you just want to see some pics. Note: not all are babblers, but some are just too beautiful not to share!

Mountain Fulvetta--the species we caught the most of


snowy-browed flycatcher...gorgeous!

blue-winged of my favs

silver-eared mesia

so happy to finally catch a laughingthrush...although not so sure how happy he was to see me.

that's all folks!


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