About two weeks ago, after an early-morning train ride to Madrid and hasty shopping trip for  a reasonable jacket (something I had considered largely unnecessary for winter in Andalucia, and about which I was only sort of wrong), I stepped out of a tidy airport into cool, Autumnal air, listening to passers-by chattering on in fluent American English and watching golden-yellow leaves drop lazily from increasingly bare trees. I could see my breath. I hadn’t returned to New England, though; I was in Berlin, and the climatic resemblance was eerie at first.

Berlin was certainly not where I had expected to spend almost a week of my Fulbright in Spain, but a string of coincidences and opportunities had me hastily booking flights only a couple weeks before. I had been invited to the second meeting of the Alliance for Freshwater Life, a brand-new initiative centered around organizing and promoting research, outreach, and conservation action in freshwater ecosystems and the species that support them.

I had heard about the organization via Twitter only months after finishing my Ph.D., and, having a strong interest in how human societies’ water management affects biodiversity, I was very keen to get involved however possible. Unfortunately, AFL was such a recent, cutting-edge initiative (their official launch was with a paper published just this past August in Aquatic Conservation) that it was still in the process of formalizing its structure, so meetings were not yet open and opportunities for participation were not yet available.

The meeting had come up repeatedly in my ongoing conversations with aquatic conservation experts and potential future research hosts. Representatives from the World Wildlife Fund, IUCN Freshwater Biodiversity Unit, and professors at universities from around Europe had all been mentioning that I “…really should find a way to get out to Berlin,” but none had the authority to get me an invite.

Later, during an already rewarding Skype conversation with a potential collaborator at the Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), I was cheerfully informed that she was, in fact, one of the organizers for the event, and that I’d be welcome to join.

Autumn foliage from my hotel room window.

The event was held at the Berlin-Dahlem botanical garden and museum, a stunning, huge compound in an upscale and attractive neighborhood Southwest of the city. After a pleasant and efficient time navigating the city’s tidy public transportation system, I settled in a hotel room near the gardens (it was Sunday, so they were closed) and reviewed the meeting’s program.


The primary emphasis of the meeting was on determining organizational structure and investigating options for raising awareness and financial support for protecting freshwater species. While I will leave a more in-depth account of the importance of freshwater life for a later blog post, it will suffice here to say that freshwater biodiversity, despite contributing disproportionately to human well-being and water security, is also being lost at rates far exceeding terrestrial or marine systems. The urgency and broad importance of the freshwater biodiversity crisis are two of many factors that draw me to this fascinating line of work in conservation.

Although the meeting plan was exciting enough, I was more struck by the list of participants. Featuring founders of water conservation non-profits, expert fish biologists, water conservation experts, communications gurus, and top scientists from international conservation groups, it was an intimidating who’s-who of the top professionals working across the field of freshwater biodiversity conservation.

The program for the AFL meeting in Berlin, with its NASCAR-like list of supporters and great roster of speakers.

The following few days were a whirlwind of informative talks, inspiring conversations, insightful brainstorming, and a caliber of professional networking I have never before experienced. Between all the workshop sessions, roundtables, and presentations, I enjoyed coffee break dialogues between brilliant and talented minds thinking creatively and seriously about conservation issues of global importance. It was an invigorating and refreshing environment. I introduced myself to dozens of professionals who were working in the types of positions where I would love to see myself in a few years, and got invaluable career advice, guidance, and contacts. I felt like an over-filled sponge every evening, and spent hours scribbling frantically in my notebook to record as much as possible of the multifarious knowledge in which I was being steeped.

As the meeting moved on into planning stages and breakout groups, I had the opportunity to participate, sharing my views and helping organize, highlight, or modify the contributions of others. I even ended up presenting one focus groups’ results to the rest of the meeting attendants.

Sharing the highlights of a focus group discussion during the AFL’s meeting on raising awareness and funds for freshwater biodiversity conservation.

As the meeting drew to a close, we gathered for a photograph outside, and had a tour of the grounds of the botanical garden. Although the sun was setting at this point, I managed to snap a few photos outside and one of their impressive greenhouses (of course, they took us through the aquatic plants section first!).

In lieu of the actual group photograph, which I have yet to acquire, here’s a quick one I took of the group right as they began to disperse.

After a final morning discussing future directions and delegating important tasks, we said our varied goodbyes and dispersed again. I returned to Sevilla with my head absolutely buzzing with new ideas, questions, and most importantly aspirations. I would resume my work in Spain armed with new knowledge and context as to the larger importance of my work there and its relevance to global conservation issues. ¡Adelante!












Los Arrozales

Several weeks into my time in Sevilla, I was keeping busy reviewing literature and learning new analytical techniques for my research project and bumbling my way through a long apartment search. In all that frenetic activity I still hadn’t spent any time in the field, and I was getting anxious to get out  into Doñana. To my great fortune, a key advantage of working in a bustling research center like EBD is that someone is almost always doing field work. An invitation to tag along is typically only a coffee-conversation away.

My coveted invitation came through Victor, a Ph.D student in Andy Green’s lab whose research, like mine, focused on the mosaic landscape of human-modified wetland environments surrounding the park’s core area. Victor’s Ph.D dissertation explores important questions about how the movement of waterbirds between natural and artificial wetlands connects them chemically and biologically. While connectivity is typically viewed as a great thing in conservation (my prior work at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation is a good example), in some cases it can be detrimental. For example, it is suspected that the flow of waterbirds (especially gulls) between landfills and the Doñana marshes may be introducing heavy metals and other harmful compounds to the waters there. In the reverse direction, waterbirds coming from natural wetlands may be dispersing the seeds of common weeds into the highly productive arrozales or rice fields that dominate the landscape just north of the park. Our field trip was to collect seeds from these weeds in the arrozales for laboratory experiments on their viability for germination.

Part of EBD’s admirable armada of seasoned field vehicles.

I awoke well before sunrise and hurried to the office, where I joined Victor and Rob–a visiting Erasmus student from the U.K.–in loading up one of EBD’s impressive fleet of field vehicles. We were quickly on our way, and drove to the southwest for nearly an hour, passing through many of Sevilla’s smaller suburbs and satellite communities, and no small amount of agricultural land. Speeding through the streets of Isla Mayor, the pueblo set amidst the rice fields, we emerged at last into the flat, surreal landscape. Huge fields of swaying green rice extended far into the horizon, checkered with roads and canals.

It was immediately obvious that the rice fields were positively seething with bird life. With Rob’s help, I was able to identify and count a staggering diversity of avian loiterers contentedly trespassing within. The tall, prehistoric forms of White (Ciconia ciconia) and Black (Ciconia nigra) storks towered lazily over mixed flocks of gulls, lapwings, and other dozing waders, assembled nonchalantly along the field’s edges or raised roads between. As we drove, we were constantly flushing Common greenshanks (Tringa nebularia) and Common snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Herons and egrets would reluctantly take wing as we approached, and heave themselves off to some quieter location to resume their work. Common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), handsome, vigilant falcons, hovered and perched from adjacent powerlines, and Marsh harriers (Circus aeruginosus) cruised low and fast just over the swaying heads of rice.

My love for birdwatching aside, it was this diverse and impressive community of birds, and their heavy use of the arrozales that brought me to Spain.  Wetland ecosystems, upon which so many waterbirds rely, are among the most threatened habitats in the world, and have been lost at absolutely alarming rates. The vast majority of waterbirds must now rely on anthropogenic (human-made) wetland habitats to complete their life cycle, lacking sufficient habitat at certain points in space or time. As wetand loss due to development, and degradation due to water diversions, pollution, and climate change continue, waterbirds will become increasingly reliant on these artificial habitats. The story is no different at Doñana. The potent mix of water diversion for commercial agriculture and increased drought from a shifting climate have decreased the hydroperiod of Doñana’s marshes. This means that the period during which the marshes are inundated is decreasing rapidly, shrinking the window in which the natural wetlands can be useful to waterbirds. As a result, the waterbirds will be increasingly reliant upon alternative habitats like the arrozales, but it’s not clear what aspects of these fields are used most by the birds. This is my primary research question, and one which I’ll touch upon again as my research continues.


Victor and Rob examine seed heads from a sedge, a common weed in the rice fields.

Turning onto a narrow dike dividing two fields, Victor slowed the car and pointed casually with his index finger as we watched a startled flock of Lesser black-backed gulls (Larus fuscus) bounce into the air. Breeding at higher latitudes (including the Netherlands and the U.K.), many of these birds spend their winter season in Andalucia. They are accordingly among the most abundant waterbirds in the arrozales, and a focal species of my research. After admiring the birds and letting Rob borrow my phone to snap a few blurry shots, Victor pulled the car over and we set to gathering seed samples.


As I scanned the neat rows of rice stalks for emergent weeds, movement caught my eye. Squatting down to investigate, I found a blood-red, armored mini-monster brandishing its claws in my direction as it backpedaled furiously toward the nearby water. “Ah, un cangrejo!” said Victor over my shoulder. It was an American red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), a notorious ecological invader brought in from the U.S. in the hopes of providing a profitable shellfish market. Delicious as they are, these belligerent decapods alter the structure and dynamics of the wetlands they inhabit, and aggressively outcompete threatened, endemic species of crayfish found throughout Europe. They are a massive problem in Doñana. Staring at the cangrejo‘s beady black eyes as it made its hasty retreat, I was struck by the irony of one American visitor meeting another. We were both here as part of ongoing intercultural exchange. Hopefully, during my time in Spain, I can find ways–through research and otherwise–to make a more positive impact on one of the world’s most famous wetlands.

La Estación Biológica de Doñana

I awoke early on my first Monday in Sevilla to prepare my things and head to the offices of la Estación Biológica de Doñana (Doñana biological station, or EBD), my host institution for my time in Spain. More than a temporary research host, EBD is actually a place that I have dreamed of working since the very start of my PhD. When I began combing the scientific literature for research on my topics of interest (things like conservation biology, wetland ecology, waterbirds, and remote sensing), I found dozens of fascinating papers spanning these topics, all with authors from some mysterious research center in Spain. After a quick internet search and some hasty Wikipedia use, I found that EBD had a designated department of research group for each one of my major interests (I mean that literally; for example there are separate departments specifically for wetland ecology and conservation biology!), and was based around a famous national park, the Doñana wetlands.


EBD was founded in 1965 to research the ecology and conservation of Doñana, two years after the latter, an internationally-important, complex and historic landscape was purchased for protection by the World Wildlife Fund and the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas or CSIC (pronounced “say-seek“; the Spanish National Council of Scientific Research). Fully dedicated to studying and protecting one of the most beautiful and unique ecosystems in Europe (more on Doñana later, I promise!), EBD has churned out impressive and important wetland- and endangered species-related research for decades and is one of CSIC’s flagship locations for the ecological sciences.


I am based in el Departamento de la Ecologia de Humedales (the department of wetland ecology), which hosts a variety of research labs studying topics ranging from the global evolution of amphibians to the effect of parasites on the survival of invasive diving beetles. EBD has a rich community of research scientists, interns, technicians, graduate students from local universities, and postdoctoral researchers like myself. In my own department, these include people from Colombia, the Netherlands, Germany, and the U.K., and another American.

The sign for for my home department on our office floor.

My two collaborators and research hosts are Dr. Andy Green and Dr. Javier Bustamante, both principal investigators in the wetland ecology department. Dr. Bustamante’s work involves broad application of remote sensing (typically satellite-based images) to key ecological questions, including the spread of invasive species, environmental changes in Doñana, and monitoring of endangered Lesser kestrels (Falco naumanni) in Andalucia. Dr. Green studies a variety of topics in the ecology and conservation of Mediterranean waterbirds, including recent work on the role of waterbirds as key dispersers of seeds, living organisms, and even pollutants between wetland ecosystems.


A group shot of many of the current members of Dr. Andy Green’s lab, including Andy himself, several Ph.D students, myself, and a post-doc visiting from the Netherlands

So what will I be doing at EBD? What cool project is combining the interests of these experts with my own experience? Check out my forthcoming post, where I’ll take an in-depth look at my research theme and early work here in Sevilla.

Until next time!


Sevilla, ¡Por Fin!

After a flurry of farewells and last-minute WhatsApp exchanges, I was on a Cercanias train back to Madrid with all of my enormous luggage–a burdensome state that I had certainly not missed.

At the Puerta de Atocha train station in Madrid, a large and bustling transportation hub, I enjoyed a quick lunch and then boarded a high-speed train to Sevilla. Having requested a seat with a quiet car, I was soon settled in a comfortable seat hearing only the muffled rush of air outside and the occasional open and closing of the car’s doors. The exhaustion of the last few days–and hours–began to catch up with me. I stared out the window at a parched summer landscape and watched olive and citrus orchards whiz by, occasionally feeling my ears pop from the pressure change as the train soared through a tunnel. I was unconscious after not-too-long, and awoke with a start to a clambering of suitcases as we came to a stop in Sevilla’s Santa Justa station.

A high-speed train or AVE awaits passengers at Santa Justa on the day of my arrival.

I stepped off the train and hurried outside into brutal summer heat (for most of the week, and the next week, it was above 100F/37C), then caught a bus to the neighborhood of my temporary home for the next two weeks, an AirBnB in the Northern part of the city. My host, Nayma, met me at the bus stop and helped me with my preposterous equipaje as we made out way to her apartment building. The cozy apartment was perched on the top floor of its building and had a gorgeous view.

The gulo that accompanied me on my journey enjoys a birds-eye view of Sevilla


Despite the urban setting, I was nonetheless  welcomed by the natural history of Sevilla. Just like back home in New England, cicadas buzzed in the oppressive heat of the late afternoon from the trees lining the streets. Unlike the ones to which I was accustomed, however, they had a higher-pitched, more electronic sound, which had me wondering at times whether I was actually listening to an alarm of some kind. I noticed the sounds of these fascinating insects emanating only from a few tree species–notably, never the palms, conifers, or omnipresent lemon trees–but never managed to spot or capture one.

A Pallid swift (Left, photo credit to David Shallcross) and Chimney swift (Right, photo credit to the National Audubon Society)

Vencejos (Pallid swifts, Apus pallidus) swooped, shrieked, and cavorted in stunning aerobatics throughout the day, sometimes not more than 6 or 7 meters above the street. Preparing for their fall migration, they were in larger, more boisterous groups than usual. I was impressed at how much lower they tended to fly than the much smaller Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica) native to my home.

Sevilla’s arid environment is suitable for plants that thrive in drier climates, like palms and citrus trees, which are found throughout, making a very novel botanical landscape. This picture is from Parque Alamillo, near the office where I work.

I spent the following weekend exploring the city, its buildings and parks, and trying to begin tackling the many logistics ahead, among them opening a bank account, getting a new cell phone plan, and finding an apartment. For the moment, though, I admired Sevilla’s distinctive, elegant, and powerfully baroque architecture. It’s impressive. It’s different. And as many Spaniards had told me in Madrid, Sevilla is in many ways as España as it gets. The pictures below are as good a sampling as my hurried walkabouts and phone camera could muster, but needless to say there will be much more of Sevilla’s beauty in posts to come.


The following week, I would at last begin work at my host institution, Estación Biológica de Doñana. Between errands and sightseeing walks, I was sure to take my afternoon siesta when the heat was at its worst, to catch up for the start of my academic tenure in Sevilla.




























Fulbright Orientation

After trudging across town with my laughable burden of luggage, I arrived at a gorgeous hotel on the Western side of Alcalá de Henares just as the heat of a mid-morning sun was beginning to exert its scorching influence on the late-summer cityscape. Greeted first by triumphant signage outside of an elegant and well-groomed building, I was already beside myself with excitement as I made my way through a set of revolving doors with my armada of suitcases.


I found myself in an enormous lobby overflowing with a diverse and impressively boisterous crowd of young people socializing energetically in Spanish, English and just about everything in between. The enthusiasm, positivity, and excitement in the air were palpable, and would have been somewhat intimidating, if two people hadn’t immediately rushed over to introduce themselves, help me with my things, and orient me to the situation.  From there, I was passed seamlessly with great tact and care from conversation to conversation, hardly aware that I had been essentially conveyed from the hotel’s entrance to a registration counter, all while being amiably introduced to at least seven people. Finally reaching the registration desk, I was given a stylish nametag and the keys to my room upstairs, to which I retreated to finally dispose of my burdensome luggage.

I wrestled my suitcases up the 2nd floor and took a moment in the solitude and relative silence to clear my head. I’m here, I thought, staring perplexedly into a nearby mirror. I made it. Still shaking my head in disbelief, I donned my nametag and returned to the stentorian roar of my hyper-talented colleagues on the first floor.

Unlike the intimidating, awkward difficulty of socializing at scientific meetings (let’s face it, stereotypes of brilliant scientists having poor communication skills are not entirely unfounded), I was spared even a moment’s standing alone outside of the gathered mass of Fulbrighters. Instead, before I had even finished descending the stairs, I was beckoned to join a group of smartly-dressed people happily conversing by the elevator doors. Never have I played part in such smoothly-handled, equitably-shared, interesting, polite, or engaging conversation. With the utmost respect and politeness, opinions and stories were exchanges with great enthusiasm, questions posed, curiosities mused upon, and diverse experiences related and compared. All this, and everyone’s voice seemed supported and encouraged, while topics ranged from the logistics of life in Spain to favorites from classical literature and poorly understood oncogenic gene complexes.

We were soon corralled into a large ballroom for a rather impressive and elegant almuerzo, complete with our option of red or white wine (when in Spain…). As before, the fascinating conversations rolled on, always expertly conducted; I was reminded of a colleague’s analogy, likening such discussions to dancing with highly experienced partners.

A rather swanky welcome luncheon, packed with excited Fulbrighters 

To say that I was impressed with my Fulbright colleagues would be a massive understatement. I met people from diverse ethnic, cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds, who differed hugely in disciplinary expertise and perspective, but who shared a combination of self-actualization, passionate dedication to scholarship, and genuine interest in others.

After welcoming words and continuous uproarious conversation, we were herded across the beautiful streets of Alcalá de Henares to the city’s University, which had a stunning campus of elegant old buildings hearkening back to its establishment in 1499 by a cardinal, and as a distinctly religious institution. One room, in which we attended a panel featuring the U.S. ambassador to Spain, featured some tremendously ornate craftsmanship and impressive decor. In an attached building nearby, a saint or some other religious figure of import was in an impressive sarcophagus.


A beautiful tomb of some religious figure at the University of Alcalá de Henares. I wish I had written down the name! The University is one of the oldest in Spain.

Over the next four days, through dozens of presentations and workshops, I was repeatedly, happily surprised by the careful attention that the Fulbright commission in Spain had taken to prepare its students, but also by the import and prestige of our mission here in Spain. The notion that Fulbright Students and Scholars were real, functional ambassadors for the United States was not just some loose idea tied to an academic grant, but instead the underlying structure of the fellowships. We had been chosen, among other things, to represent our country; the notion shocked me at first, and I reflected purposefully on it in rare moments outside of riveting conversation and new introductions.

It will suffice to say that the orientation passed in an absolute blur of learning, socializing, shaking hands, laughing, networking, ad so on. I felt privileged and deeply grateful to be part of the Fulbright community. The 2018-2019 cohort consists of nearly 200 Fulbrighters, of whom 26 are researchers like myself (though only two postdocs!). Interestingly, by my reckoning there was only one other Fulbrighter in the province of Andalucia, where I would be headed shortly. I met several other biologists, one of which was a fellow ecologist, and added a completely unrealistic number of trips to my planned itinerary for exploring the rest of the country. At least I’ll have places to stay wherever I do make it!

An interesting presentation slide from the Fulbright Commission, showing the distribution of Fulbright students in this year’s cohort throughout the country.


Between highly informative workshops, we enjoyed ample time to get to know one another, and the volume (in intensity and duration) of conversation shared was so immense that I managed to completely lose my voice within the first two days. By the end of the orientation, I felt as though I had made dozens of new friends, and was looking forward to opportunities to explore the many parts of this rich country to which they were being sent.


An after-lunch picture with a group of this year’s Fulbright researchers, including the only other postdoctoral scholar (to my right), who will be studying classical guitar in Madrid.
A photograph showing almost all of this year’s Fulbright Spain Researchers

Despite the exhaustion of four straight days of excitement, socializing, and non-stop intellectual conversation, as the orientation drew to a close, I found myself absolutely supercharged to start my Fulbright experience in Sevilla. Taking advantage of photo opportunities with the much-coveted Fulbright España sign, I felt that my colleagues and I were finally beginning to understand just how much of a life-changing experience was about to commence. There was a tacit, shared feeling of disbelief, overwhelming gratitude and relief. Beyond this, I sensed in many–including myself–an anxiousness to be underway. In a flurry of activity as chaotic as it all had begun, we dispersed the next day, catching trains and buses to all corners of the country. And so began what is sure to be a monumental and unforgettable experience for all of us.


Paying homage to the six years of research in Hawai’i that forged my path to the Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship in Spain. Mahalo to all of my colleagues, mentors, and friends for their support and guidance!





Arrival – Alcalá de Henares

Despite my best efforts, I arrived in Madrid absolutely exhausted, having lost a night of sleep to my inability to doze effectively on airplanes. Feeling depleted and lightheaded enough that a meal was necessary before I attempted to take public transportation to my first destination, Acalá de Henares, I shuffled blindly toward the scent of food, and found myself face-to-face with a digital kiosk for ordering at Burger King. Although I don’t remember what transpired next, in moments I was seated at a spotless table eating a chicken sandwich, a wonderful salad of tomatoes, assorted greens, and balsamic vinaigrette, and, as if it couldn’t get any more strange, a beer. This was definitely not what I had expected, and so the culture shock had already begun.

The streets of  Alcalá de Henares

More importantly, with the fortification of these victuals, I bumbled my way onto a Renfe Cercanías (like a metro or subway, or for us Bostonians, the T) train that whisked me westward to Acalá de Henares with surprising alacrity and in the welcome comfort of stiff air conditioning. I emerged into charmingly narrow streets, got directions from a group of teens preparing for a rap-battle around a park bench, and found my way to my temporary dwelling, an AirBnb apartment owned by a charming Venezuelan family. I found their Spanish much easier to understand than the castellano on the streets, and enjoyed a good chat with them as I settled in. Just as I was planning out how many hours of sleep I could get if I was in bed before 9pm, I was informed that a craft beer festival was happening not far away, and that I simply couldn’t miss it.

Live music – as if the throngs of delighted beer fans weren’t energetic enough

Well, I thought, perhaps a bit of a walk will do me some good. So I headed out and followed the garbled echoing of concert loudspeakers to a nearby plaza, where I found crowds of people happily imbibing an assortment of fine looking beers amidst dozens of tents and kiosks. These, in turn, were plastered with the logos of local craft breweries, and filled with yet happier people loudly explaining the particulars of their specific creations while doling out generous glassfuls for a coin or two. At the northern end of the plaza, a rather peppy rock band played on a grandstand, complete with lights and smoke machines. I found an information booth, and there was able to purchase a small souvenir glass, with which I could sample any number of the dazzling array of brews stretched out before me. I bought a witbier for a Euro, and sat down on a bench to admire the nearby architecture, write in my journal, and enjoy the show.




The following day, once I had won my battle against jetlag and dragged myself out of bed, I enjoyed a stroll around the town, hoping to get a sense of the place before Fulbright orientation, which would begin the the day after. Wandering contentedly through beautiful, cobbled streets and admiring old churches and statues of antiquity, I learned two fantastic pieces of the Acalá de Henares’ history. The first: the town had formerly been the site of both a Roman and Moorish settlement many years ago, and the second: Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote among other great works, was born there (in 1547, no less).

Don Quixote de la Mancha and his creator were a combined motif in the city, featured prominently in graffiti, statuary, and murals alike. The baffling name of a major road in the city “Via Complutense” turned out to be a derivation of the latin name for the old Roman city, Complutum.



The entrance to the local archaeological museum

As if walking through a town steeped in history wasn’t enough, I followed my host’s recommendation and visited an archaeological museum near their apartment. This was utterly fantastic, and went into deep history; we’re talking back when this portion of the continent had a wet, tropical climate, and when most of Acalá de Henares was a massive wetland crawling with prehistoric megafauna like Gomphotherium, Mastodon, and sabre-toothed tigers. The historical lessons carried on through the arrival of hominids, development of hunting technologies, advent of agriculture, Roman rule, Muslim and Gothic rule, and medieval times. The information was staggering, and the exhibits beautiful and well organized. I managed to stumble my way into a group tour, which was as good a chance to practice my Spanish as it was to learn fascinating historical facts, for example the way that early iron tools were smithed.



A local band with, of all fantastic instruments, a lead ukulele.

I left the museum with my head spinning, and my handy notebook of Spanish phrases and vocabulary overflowing with new words and terminology I’d need to look up. It was quite a haul. I got a late almuerzo from the food trucks set up around the (still ongoing) beer festival, enjoyed more live music (this time including a band that featured ukulele!), and headed home to prepare for orientation the following morning. At long last, my  Fulbright experience was about to begin.

The sun setting over Alcalá de Henares on my last evening before Fulbright orientation.


Departure – A Hui Hou, New England

Travelling to a new country, let alone a new continent, is an exciting and terrific undertaking. Your senses are bombarded with exhilarating novelty, and every waking moment is permeated with “otherness”. You abide in the different, and in the process broaden your horizons, become a more worldly and educated person, and likely gain some better-defined image of yourself through the sheer contrast of your surroundings. Speaking and hearing another language, eating different foods, meeting a different set of people, walking through different streets, existing in a different culture, your everyday life is saturated with a new human worldview. For the travelling naturalist, this great feeling of change is doubled. Trained eyes that read tree bark, lizard tails and butterfly wings the way that most people would read a street sign are struck with raw new type of unfamiliarity that for other travelers might be muted in its newness. The natural phenomena of a new continent are no less thrilling, unexpected, and enriching to a student of natural history, and so greatly enhance the sense of contrast. This unstructured immersion in Difference (with a capital D!) is an invaluable part (though only a part) of the process of cultural exchange envisioned for a Fulbright scholarship.

The George Washington statue at the Boston public gardens, a beautiful place to rest during pensive walks around the city.

Being no stranger to international travel, I planned accordingly, and made efforts throughout the summer to enjoy some of the people, places, and things I connect most with New England prior to my departure.

During my time in Hawai’i, the world’s most isolated archipelago, I learned the importance of goodbyes. Living in such a remote place, my Hawaiian friends and colleagues are accustomed to saying big goodbyes, and the uncertainty of when if ever they will see a friend again. With a depth of meaning characteristically well beyond the literal, the saying in Hawai’i is not “goodbye” but A hui hou, until we meet again. These are the thoughts and images I bring with me on this journey, the parts of my “from“, at the start of a story that will otherwise mostly focus on the “to”.

An old friend and I made a familiar pilgrimage to Fenway Park for our fix of Boston accents and overpriced beverages.

During various trips into Boston to visit the Spanish consulate, I took frequent detours to revisit historical sites around the city with a renewed appreciation. The following week, I treasured the taste of pure Americana blended with tepid beer and a bratwurst at a Red Sox game. Watching the setting sun paint fantastic colors over Fenway, hearing the roar of the crowds, rejoicing over home runs with random strangers, I was more aware than usual of what made these things at once unique, beautiful, meaningful, and hilarious.

Training in the martial arts has always been for me a refuge from the stress and pressures of my studies, and as the summer progressed I tried to squeeze in as much practice as possible at the schools where I did most of my practice in Boston. Training in Aikido (a modernization of traditional Japanese Bushido or warrior arts) was an especially welcome change of pace from my frenetic travel preparations, providing a sense of calm focus combined with vigorous physical exercise. As both an outlet and agent for psychological ablution, keiko (practice) at my home dojo (school) was a tremendous resource. Just as in other aspects of my life, though I always find a new school at which to train and new disciplines from which to learn, I always bring my Aikido training with me. Beyond this, the friends, mentors, and community of the school remain an ever-present and supportive community for me throughout my travels.

My Aikido sensei (teacher), a mentor of mine since I was about 15, poses for a picture with me a few days before my departure for Spain.

Of equal importance to me were those aspects of New England’s nature that I knew I would sorely miss abroad. Many nature writers and naturalists, of both colonial and indigenous origins, in many geographical contexts, refer often to certain species of plants and animals as “old friends”. Once you get to know them, their behaviors, distributions, and tendencies, they become something familiar, something fixed and reliable, no matter how biologically inaccurate this may be. Just as with a person, repeated encounters bring increasing familiarity, and over time a form of emotional attachment arises. This is why I’ve heard dozens of suburban New Englanders talk with great excitement about a pair of Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) breeding in their back yard every Spring, but who might otherwise be hard pressed to describe any other species or ecosystem of greater fame or importance elsewhere on the planet, or even in the county.

So with great seriousness I set out to bid farewell to many natural “old friends” as well, visiting my favorite woods, ponds, swamps, grasslands, and beaches as my flight check-in date closed in.

The brackish ponds at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in Kingstown, RI house a fantastic diversity of aquatic and terrestrial life, including (in summer) many waterbirds and migratory warblers dear to my heart.

I first made stops at a number of New England’s fantastic National Wildlife Refuges, including Trustom Pond, where I went birdwatching with my undergraduate mentor Dr. Bob Askins, and Assabet River, where a good friend and I spent hours catching up on life and photographing birds, flowers and insects in an extensive network of streams, swamps, and forestland. At Trustom Pond, I had joked with my mentor about the possibility of seeing an American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) a rare and highly secretive waterbird in the heron family that has managed to elude me for years and remains a major stain on my waterbird-researcher pride. Miraculously, we saw not only this species during our brief outing, but the other North American bittern species, the Least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis) an elfin marshdweller that had taken on almost mythical rarity in my mind. Needless to say, the jokes about possibly spotting the even rarer Eurasian bittern (B. stellaris) during my time across the Atlantic were quick to follow, and I’ll keep you apprised of any developments in that department.

A blooming Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is an ideal resting spot for a Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) between hunting flights at Assabet National Wildlife Refuge, Sudbury, MA.

At Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, the lateness of the season was painfully evident. Many of my “old friends” are migratory birds, those that breed in New England during the warmer seasons, and head back South for the winter, or else insects whose entire lives, or at least their active periods, are restricted to Summer. There was a palpable tiredness in the air as the summer wore to a warm, dreary close, as frazzled bird parents struggled to wean their screaming, but now perfectly capable fledglings, and dragonflies lay their eggs on the stalks of reeds, to wait patiently through the spring thaw in months to come.

The larger prints of American Herring gulls (Larus argentatus smithsonianus), year-round denizens of Crane beach plod through the tracks of migrating Semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), now starting their own journeys to warmer climes thousands of miles to the South.
Top: A female Piping plover and chick. (c) Jim Fenton. Bottom: A Semipalmated sandpiper in winter plumage (c) Ken Billington

I next made for the coast, where, too, signs of change were myriad to the knowing eye. At Crane Beach, a beautiful expanse of sandy coastline of great cultural and ecological value, I was already too late to see an old friend. Before starting graduate school, I had worked as a conservation technician there monitoring and protecting populations of Piping plovers (Charadrius melodus), a delicate, endangered shorebird that nests there each spring. This late in the season, they had already packed their bags and gone, and were nowhere to be seen. Instead, they were replaced by migratory sandpipers stopping there to rest and refuel, on their own journeys down from far higher latitudes. As the sun started getting low over the dunes, I enjoyed a late-summer staple of the New England coast, wild beach plums, which were growing in abundance just in from the beach. Their sweet-tartness, accented by the salt-laden evening breeze, was yet another familiar experience to tuck into my suitcase beside a carefully-folded suitcoat and a battered pair of binoculars.

A handful of wild beach plums (Prunus maritima) in the dune swales at Crane beach are a welcome seasonal treat and literal taste of coastal New England nature.

Nowhere was the coming end of summer more strongly apparent than at a small reservoir pond in my home town of Needham, Massachusetts. I walked there most evenings during the early spring and mid-summer when I found myself back home. There, I had relished spring’s arrival and the bloom of summer, recovering from a long and stressful winter writing and defending my Ph.D dissertation. One evening, up late because I couldn’t sleep, I walked there during a midnight thunderstorm and watched Green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) emerge in droves from the flooding swamp. In fairer weather, admired Chimney swifts (Chaetura pelagica), bizarre, sleek-feathered aeronauts, chattering and hawking for insects over the water and roosting in the air ducts of the nearby public works buildings as night fell. Now, the leaves of red maples (Acer rubrum) which thrived in the pond’s swampy outskirts were already beginning to turn, and Common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor), rarely seen there during the breeding season, were flying overhead one after another on their southward migrations.

On my last night in New England, the setting sun cast a warm glow over a pond where I frequently sought solitude and clarity. The cattails (Typha spp.) and other plants were already hinting at Fall’s imminent approach.

I paused a long while on a bench overlooking the reservoir, and drank in the sights, sounds, and smells of the hazy summer evening. The following day I would set out for Spain, clutching a passport and struggling along with an unrealistic amount of luggage for my nine months of research and learning, both professional and personal. “So you’ll be there for about a gestation,” a friend’s mother had joked with me. Indeed, the time ahead is pregnant with possibility, and I am excited for all that is to come. Onward, into the different!




The First Post – Enter the Gulo

Welcome to my blog! Here I will be recording my experiences and travels as a 2018-19 Fulbright Scholar working in Sevilla, Spain, not to mention whatever other thoughts and reflections come bubbling to the surface as I lay a pen to paper (and later fingertip to keyboard). For my first post, I’d like to clear the air by addressing a rather persistent and baffling question that has surrounded much of my professional outreach: What is all this Gulo business?

The front of my current business card. To quote almost everyone who receives it, “Charles, why is there a badger on your card?”)

The naturalists among my readers will be quick to notice that Gulo is the genus and specific epithet of the wolverine (Gulo gulo), a stocky, hyper-aggressive, and somewhat mysterious member of the weasel family found in arctic and alpine wildernesses in Eurasia and North America. This bizarre animal, with nicknames in a number of languages translating to “rotten bear”, “nasty cat”, “quick hatch”, and “skunk bear”, is a motif in my life, from my Twitter handle (@Gulothoughts) to my business cards and my office décor.

A wolverine traversing heavy snow in Haines, Alaska. Photo (c) 2009 Kory Pettman

The prominence of this animal’s image in my professional and personal branding has led to no small amount of confusion and frustration among colleagues and acquaintances in ecology and beyond. I cannot say the number of mammalogists and carnivore-specialists I’ve disappointed after they’ve instinctively followed me on Twitter, or how many UMichigan grads (whose mascot is the wolverine) wrinkled their noses to see no sign of their school on my CV. “But Charles, you study birds,” protest my fellow ornithologists and naturalists, “Why can’t you just put a nice moorhen or scissor-tailed flycatcher on there?” It’s true, most of my work has focused on birds, but the Gulo is there for very different reasons. Namely, to symbolize certain characteristics of my approach to conservation, ecology, and knowledge in general.

A long time denizen of my workspace, this stone is from the Flathead River in Northwest Montana. It was painted by a local artist with a wolverine image based on First Nations pictographs.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s that boring. Close friends have gotten much more creative, attributing the connection to various personal traits, including my short stature (thanks guys), my readiness to fight people bigger than me (I swear that one just isn’t true), my love of hiking mountains and open, undeveloped spaces, and my dietary habits (Gulo translates to “huge eater”). Two close friends from a First Nations tribe made reference to legends that depict the wolverine as a trickster and shapeshifting spirit, drawing parallels with my love of practical jokes and animated style of storytelling.

Despite the creativity of these, they certainly weren’t the idea that started all of this. As a conservation biologist, I am committed to applied science; using knowledge to achieve results. In this case, like a medical doctor applies knowledge from chemistry, physiology, and molecular biology to help patients, conservation biologists apply knowledge from ecology, geography, economics, and other fields to protect species and ecosystems. This requires a wide range of knowledge and a continual commitment to taking in new information from any source that would be helpful or effective, a disciplinary omnivory and gluttony. Wolverines eat a ravenously, and consume a wide variety of foods, eating with a ferocious opportunism to satisfy their voracious appetites. As such, they are an excellent symbol for the voracious study habits I am cultivating as part of my approach to conservation biology; I am equally interested in scientific publications from 2018 as I am in accounts from 18th-century naturalists. Wolverines also occupy huge areas of land (with home ranges in excess of 65,000 acres!), and in those wanderings represent the ability to range over a diversity of topics and disciplines, and a mind that roams widely over available knowledge to find solutions. For me, then, the wolverine is a symbol of my professional attitude toward my field and the way I choose to approach it.

Comparison of a real wolverine (left) sitting on a boulder, and a fake wolverine (right) sitting on my bookbag. The latter is much easier to get through customs. Real wolverine picture (c) The Canadian Wildlife Federation.

               Needless to say, I will make reference to the Gulo with some frequency over the course of this blog; it is part of the reason, for example, that I have chosen to pursue a Fulbright grant in the first place. I am keenly interested in learning about how other, very different nations approach and treat the conservation of earth’s ecosystems and wildlife, a topic which is often deeply steeped in their culture, history, and philosophy. As an American, I have my own experiences and opinions on the topic, and know that I have much to learn from the European approach, and many others across the globe. Symbolizing this, I have brought a Gulo of my own on the trip (fortunately not a living one), and it will be tagging along with me on my travels and adventures in España. Expect to see more of both of us!


Hasta pronto,