9. Urban Ecology and Citizen Science

Hi my name is Victoria and I am a first year PhD researcher in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham. For want of a better description I am an urban ecologist, with a love for citizen science, conservation and environmental education. These are all areas of science I have been passionate about for some time and what my career previously has been based on.

Vicki 1

I am still in the throes of the myriad of emotions that I am coming to know and love as an early careers researcher just starting out on this long trek to the land of thesis write up and Viva! This rollercoaster of emotions has also been accompanied by the added stresses and unique experiences of having moved my family (American husband, who is very much an Anglophile!, my Golden Retrievers and hopefully sometime soon also all of my worldly goods (which are just about to embark on their voyage across the pond from Massachusetts where I have lived for the past few years) lock stock and barrel to a city I had previously only ever glanced at from the M42.

The past few months have been a wonderful whirlwind of meeting new people, falling in love with my project, the university, the city, stressing about moving, and learning everything about what it is to be a PhD researcher. Yes at times it is stressful but as it should be – its not meant to be an easy ride and I love every aspect and nuance of it and I am truly so excited to be here. All of the usual emotions and thoughts that I think accompany the first few months have zipped through my head ranging from the “I still cannot believe I am here”, to the myriad of questions and self-doubt that go with the territory of what it actually takes to be an early careers researcher. “Everyone seems so in control and knows what they are doing… What the hell are all of those numbers on my neighbours computer – is that statistics? I am never going to understand that!. ..Do I actually know what I am doing? …what if my field work goes horribly wrong or I can’t do something?…Oh my God I have now realized what I need to do and how much work is involved and how quickly the time is going…was that Christmas?… the field season starts next week! I love this and I cannot believe I am here….Did I just understand something in R and it worked?…How can it be Easter soon?…Can someone stop the clock….I love this…I am understanding my project yes!!..I am sure you know these thoughts and feelings well and that you understand! And of course this encapsulates just a small number of the multitude of thoughts and feelings encountered on a daily basis. So far it has been really exciting and among the best decisions I have ever made! I still often find myself pinching my arm to check this is actually real and happening as I climb the stairs in my building to get to my desk with a big grin on my face.

My research for this year at least carries on the work of a fellow PhD researcher who is just writing up. I am incredibly lucky I know to have a very knowledgeable and helpful person at the end of the phone/email and a good solid foundation from which my own project work will develop over the next few years. The protocol and sites are all set up. This year will involve observing and recording breeding and demographic data of urban bird species across 30 sites (each with 10 nest boxes) positioned along an “urban gradient” in Birmingham. The target species are the well-known and loved British favourites – the Great and Blue tit. The sites have been chosen purposefully to investigate these urban bird populations in the context of what we term this “urban gradient” (think sites that cover the completely grey and built up to the leafy and rural) and also in terms of the connectivity of the spaces where they are breeding (i.e. looking at aspects of habitat fragmentation and isolation/connected space).

The beginning of the field season involves visiting the sites to acquaint myself with where the nest boxes are, checking the boxes are still up and have withstood the winter and are free from any nasties that may prevent new tenants from wanting to move in this spring (slug infestations, maggots, old mouldy nesting materials and the like).

So basically this is the preparation for the core field work which starts mid-March when the birds start to prospect for good nesting sites and pair up and goes through the summer when the young fledge the nest. May I first of all just say a very quick but big Hurrah for GPS apps!! So the last week or two should essentially have involved delightful walks through the many vast and lovely green spaces that Birmingham has to offer (I strongly recommend going to visit them), along the canals and of course in the more built up areas – a rather straightforward, relaxed and gentle introduction to my field work. Well I knew this romantic vision was not exactly realistic but it turns out the start of my field work has not gone at all according to plan! But that would make life and this blog quite dull if it had! And after all, the vagaries of fieldwork are indeed its essence whether you are in the middle of the Amazon or a concrete jungle! Always plan for the unexpected, something may and at some point is likely to go wrong or not work how you had it figured in your head (I like to think the sooner this happens the better because then it gets the painful oh crap element out the way!), you definitely cannot rely on the British weather and something will at some point get in the way of the core work that you have planned. So plan and plan and then have a contingency plan! Oh and be prepared…for anything and everything!

Vicki 3

In what can only be described as an “entertaining” turn of events I discovered last week that I am significantly shorter than my predecessor and that even with the ladder I was given I am not able to look into the tops of the nest boxes (which is somewhat key to my research as I need to see what is going on and later in the season I will need to be able to carefully and safely remove the small feathery proprietors and their young to take critical biometric measurements). So I found myself whilst teetering near to the top of the ladder coming to the rather stressful realization that rather than my quick buzzing around the sites, this job just got bigger. I was going to need an extra pair of hands, a longer ladder and every..single..nestbox ..all three hundred of them will have to be lowered within the next couple of weeks. Eek!! BUT One plea for help email later with bribes of chocolate, biscuits and lunch and my wonderful new friends from my bird ringing group have rallied around my cry for help. I have a lovely new long ladder, new twine, tools and many willing and able hands and critically… longer legs for when they are really needed (and the addition of two fabulous field assistants who arrived from Italy just yesterday)! The going is slow and steady. The boxes thankfully are in good condition. I have only had to evict one rather smelly family of slugs. I have never seen a “nest of slugs” (loads of them all lovingly entwined with each other) although honestly this is possibly one of the worst things I have ever smelled! It turns out lowering the boxes is not a quick job and I am being constantly beset by the weather. Today for example in the sleet and snow and high winds, accompanied by my two wonderful new field assistants fresh off the plane from Italy I decided to abandon field work on the realization that the tree I was up was beginning to sway a little more forcefully and I was feeling something akin to sea sickness from this motion. Probably not safe I realized quickly either!! I felt so bad for the Italian students – I had to pull us from our field work early on the first day due to the atrocious weather – not the idyllic start to our field season skipping through fields of daffodils in the bright spring sunshine I had envisioned! Tonight they are probably wondering why they chose to come to England and not found someone working on some lovely warm Mediterranean island for their field work experience! Today I also learned that had I lived in another world as a sailor I probably… no definitely would not make a good job of going up the crow’s nest! I am against the clock but I am out in the field and I love what I do. Would I have it any other way? Absolutely not!! I will be ready for nesting season and hope you will follow me on twitter to see what happens as the season progresses!
Vicki 2

Follow me on Twitter: @BlueTitEcology