Meet the 2019 ‘GettysBirb’ crew!
Andy is the principal investigator of a now five year project which aims to develop new techniques for counting birds–using drones. Andy is basically the British big bird and he is often found outside snapping pictures for iNaturalist or keeping track of birds for eBird. Andy is a huge advocate for citizen science and has been arrested for birding on three continents.
Fun fact: He used to knit sweaters for his G.I. Joes.
Often the architect of late night bird memes in the crew’s group chat, McKenzie is a rising senior ES major and biology minor with a biology teaching certification from Littlestown, PA. She’s usually seen at Quarry Pond, camera in hand, snapping pictures of the endlessly growing goslings or snuggling with her adorable French bulldog puppy, Levi. McKenzie also runs a nature instagram account called @birds4enviro.
Fun Fact: She’ll happily pull over while driving to take pictures of birds (with no fear!)
An avid soccer player and sports enthusiast, Precious is a rising senior ES major and business minor from Plymouth, New Hampshire. When not in the lab, he is often playing video games with friends at OME, practicing for the upcoming soccer season or eating at Subway during lunch breaks. He also really likes Root Beer!
Fun Fact: He’s fluent in two languages and seven dialects!
Nicknamed the ‘Alamo’ due to her shortened tenure with the birb lab, Marisa is a rising senior ES major and biology minor from Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Her passion for nature and the environment is just as strong as her ridiculous expertise of Pokémon, often seen around campus capturing creatures and conquering gyms. She is also the curator of the bird crew’s Spotify playlist, Bird Lab Bops, found here!
Fun fact: She has a twin brother who is four minutes younger than her!
The youngest member of the lab, Lauren is a rising junior ES major from Erie, PA. Her knowledge and enthusiasm for birds is unmatched by (almost) everyone in the birb crew. Besides her love for our feathered friends, Lauren’s other passions include making timely ‘Dad’ jokes out in the field and partaking in sometimes hours-long napping escapades once our work is finished.
Fun Fact: She can’t straighten her right arm!
Timmy ‘The Drone’ Turner
While not technically a living member of the crew, Timmy, also known as ‘Prodigal Son’, ‘Problematic Child’ and ‘Rebel’, is a DJI Mavic Pro drone and the crew’s primary research instrument out in the field. With the help of Cosmo and Wanda, our two recorders, he surveys the study site from high above, collecting important data during missions.
Fun fact: He has a tendency to not listen to orders and instead, fly towards the ground!
A Day in the Life
The Bird Crew is currently working on revolutionizing the way that scientists survey birds. How are we doing that exactly? We are taking one of the most popular new technologies, drones, and turning them into our ‘ears’ in the sky. One of the most common bird survey techniques is called point transects. This involves an expert going to a specific spot in a study site, listening for 3-5 minutes, and recording all of the birds that are seen or heard within a certain radius. We are replicating these point counts using a drone and recorders, which increases accessibility of difficult terrain and bias reduced. Currently, surveys are often conducted in areas that are easily accessible and don’t cause much disturbance to access. For example, the Breeding Bird Survey involves thousands of citizen scientists conducting point counts. This method is very efficient and it gathers a lot of data, however, it is highly biased towards roadsides. Using drones can allow scientists access to habitat that has rarely been traversed before. This means that rare species could be surveyed and monitored much more accurately. This technique also has the potential to have a substantial influence on future environmental policy.
Our research is based in State Game Lands 249, approximately 10 miles north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In order for the Bird Crew to get prime data, we often arrive at the study site at approximately 6:30am which is peak time for bird activity. We are usually in Andy’s gray Mazda for a luxury drive to the site. When we get to the site, the Bird Crew gets Timmy set up with the fishing line that holds the recorders while Andy treks into the wilderness to get his expert point counts. When he comes back, we are ready to fly the drone for our point counts. We can’t fly the drone ourselves because we haven’t gotten our pilot’s licenses yet, but the Bird Crew is currently hard at work studying for their FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot’s exam. The missions last about 15 minutes and if all goes well, then we will fly another mission. There was one occasion where Timmy decided to fall from the sky (about 20 meters) instead of landing smoothly. After that he went rogue a few times, including trying to fly away from us. Luckily, Andy was there to catch Timmy by his fishing line and reel him back in before he could get too far.
Once we complete our mission(s), we break off into pairs (McKenzie and Precious, Marisa and Lauren) and trek into the wilderness to spot map. We decided to focus on 10 different bird species that can be found around the field site, including the Robin, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, Yellow Warbler, Willow Flycatcher and House Wren. In preparation for our studies, we were tasked with memorizing the songs and calls of these species in order to identify them out in the field. Spot mapping is where we look and listen for birds and plot where they are on a map. Each study species is given a unique symbol to help us determine where their territories are. Spot mapping mainly involves walking through environments that are both rough in terrain and difficult to navigate in due to tall and thick vegetation. The crew has managed to battle countless insect attacks, fight through what seemed like layers of thorny bushes as well as conquer the heat … all for the sake of science!
When field work is complete, the crew returns to the lab to analyze the data. The spot mapping data is placed on larger species maps that correspond to each bird species by Precious. Meanwhile, recorder data from the drone flights is analyzed by McKenzie and Marisa in Audacity and Raven in order to determine the distance of the recorded bird calls from the device.
Additionally, Lauren compiles point count data recorded by Andy in the field into an excel document. Eventually, we will have enough data to compare bird abundance estimates from the drone surveys with the two ground-based techniques (spot mapping, and point counts) Even when research data is finished, the lab is still hard at work! For the last five weeks, we have been studying for our Drone Pilot exam and researching similar studies of other prominent researchers. We will spend the next few months working on a scientific journal article in which we will outline our radically new approach for count birds.