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La Feria

My return from Hungary marked the beginning of May and the approach of La Feria de Abril, the second part of Sevilla’s enormous and ostentatious religious celebrations occuring every spring. This spring festival, though it is named for April, happens 2 weeks after La Semana Santa, the big holy week, and since the latter happened very late this year, the feria actually occurred in early May.  The two aforementioned celebrations are among the largest continuous contributors to Sevilla’s cultural fame and aesthetic, and are a tremendous tourist draw. Regrettably, due to my poor planning, bad luck with weather, confusing procession schedules, and a demanding work schedule, I missed most of the beauty of semana santa and accordingly didn’t have sufficient material to give the celebration a blog post of its own. Instead, I’m opting here to go a tope on a major post about la Feria.


Having missed the first of the two major cultural events in Sevilla, I was not about to miss the second, and my preparation began early. During Semana Santa itself, I had already begun taking lessons in baila Sevillana, the traditional dance performed (or perhaps better put, enjoyed) by attendees of the Feria. Aesthetically, it’s a lively mix of flamenco and squaredance, and is done with a partner to it’s own energetic and syncopated style of traditional music. There are (at least) four letras or versions of the basic Sevillana, which can be learned in sequence, and which, though differing in difficulty (at least for me!), recycle enough basic movements that they can all be learned (with passable mediocrity) somewhat quickly. Fortunately for me, a fellow postdoc at EBD was both an incredible dancer and a generous, helpful person, and she volunteered to teach other interested biologists the letras if we could pool cash to rent a practice space. This we did, in a beautiful studio in the old quarter of Sevilla, and between traveling to Hungary and a hectic work schedule I managed to bumble my way through enough classes to grasp the basics.

Before I get too much into my experiences at the Feria, a bit more about what kind of party it actually is. In many ways, the Feria is analogous to large state and county fairs in the United States: a big, temporary event where everyone goes to have a great time and enjoy great weather outside in a large public space. There is even a large section of the Feria itself that has the same sort of carnival rides, rip-off games, opportunities to win giant stuffed Minions, and so on. But it’s much, much more than the typical U.S. county fair. For one, it’s enormous. In 2010, as many as 5 million people passed through the Feria over its 1-week duration. Held on the Real de la Feria, a huge (~110 acre) park space south of the neighborhood of Los Remedios, the majority of the actual Feria is composed of long marquee tents, lined up shoulder to shoulder, in a veritable pop-up village. In recent years, there are often over 1,000 of these on the grounds of the Feria. These brightly-colored tents are primarily private, an idiosyncrasy that makes the Feria distinctly different to what Americans are used to.

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The casetas are ornate and apparently extremely expensive (many feature a bathroom, kitchen, bar, dancefloor, and often live music, as well as private security). They are typically run by social clubs, colleagues at companies, or other large associations that can pool funds to cover their fees and expenses. The key to enjoying a proper Feria is having the social connections to get into a few casetas; these are of course where most of the real action happens. There are larger, public casetas which can often be a real blast, but they don’t have the same intimacy and special feeling as in the private ones. Especially at the beginning of the Feria week, casetas are typically filled to the brim with elegantly dressed people, men in crisp suits and women in spectacular dresses, fanning themselves continually to combat the intense heat. Dancing, standing around, or sitting with some tapas, everyone seems to be continually refreshing themselves from pitchers of rebujito, the popular drink of the Feria which is a mixture of 7-up or sprite, some herbs (occasionally mint), and manzanilla (a form of fino sherry), and copious amounts of ice. This rebujito, while it absolutely hits the spot and goes down very easy, results quickly in intense inebriation well before one expects, and can be a bit dangerous in that regard.

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Beyond the tapas, Sevillana, and rebujito, people also take the opportunity to show off by riding decorated horses and carriages around the Feria grounds. Such people are typically dressed traje campero or traje Cordobés, a snappy traditional style well-adjusted for equestrian travel. Although you can still find popcorn stands, people dressed as giant cartoon characters, and even a ferris wheel, la Feria is a very, very different kind of celebration to that which I knew back home.

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My first Feria experience was with other personnel from la Estación Biológica de Doñana; a giant gang of postdocs and PhD students who were piggybacking on the availability of an easy invite to a few casetas to which other members of EBD belonged. Deciding it was best to arrive at the Feria in style, we also took advantage of a promotional offer from a local rum company to get a free ferry ride down the Guadalquivir to the site of the feria. After a quick, loud ride down the river, we arrived at the fairgrounds, and made our way to our caseta of choice. It was small and unbelievably crowded, and for the most part we ended up drinking our rebujito outside, and doing some improved Sevillana in the streets, for lack of space.

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Eventually, we made our way to a very cool, hippy-ish public caseta, where there was an eclectic mix of music that had us alternating between salsa, sevillana, swing, hip-hop, reggaeton, and other music styles. The walls of the caseta were painted with creative murals pertaining to social and environmental justice, my personal favorite being the rather blunt “No hay feria sin planeta.” (“There’s no feria without a planet”). We hopped between some other public casetas for the rest of the evening, getting some more dancing in, before turning in at something like 3 in the morning. I dragged myself back up north to Triana and slept like the dead.

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The following day, I somehow managed to get myself up and out the door in time to return to the Feria for my second day, which was scheduled to start at the ungodly hour of 2pm. I met with my martial arts familia from the Yawara Jitsu class, and we enjoyed a classy lunch at the Sevilla sailing club, right beside the fairgrounds themselves. Having wanted to dress a bit more festively, I was lucky to have a brand new, and intensely bright shirt that they had given me as a birthday present the month before, and which fit perfectly. I nursed my hangover and politely declined repeated offers for rebujito while guzzling water, and then we made our way about the feria.

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My martial arts teacher and good friend Alvaro seemed to know everyone at the sailing club and in the feria as a whole. He humbly explained this was because his father was a social butterfly, but I had a strong feeling his own friendly nature and respectable character had a lot to do with it. Due to Alvaro’s extensive local connections, we hopped between a huge number of casetas as the afternoon wore on, hugging an aunt here, shaking a cousin’s hand there, and always with a continual flow of snacks and rebujito. For me it was a much more authentic look at the smaller private casetas and the festive environment within. Things were a bit less hectic than the day before, and we even (thankfully) had space to sit down for a good proportion of the time. There was less dancing this time around, but I was alright with that. I focused instead on taking in the sights and sounds of a very authentic feria experience, and enjoying some great conversation with some of my best friends in Sevilla.

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This more restful Feria adventure concluded mercifully with iced cream and tea by a much more reasonable 11pm, and I was home in time to fall face-first on my bed and catch up thoroughly on precious sleep. Up until that point, it had been my general impression that my feria experience had ended; I had no other invitations to enter private casetas, and figured two intense days would be enough; after all I had loads of work to do on my research project at eBD, and several jobs to apply for. So I spent that day, and the next hard at work in the office, coming home just to sleep, and trying to get my routine back in order. Then, out of the blue, I received an unexpected text from fellow Fulbrighter Danielle Porter. She had just arrived in town with several other Asturias Fulbrighters, who were going to be visiting the Feria for its last couple of days. As the only Fulbrighter in Sevilla, and one of only two in Andalucia this year, I was thrilled at the opportunity to spend more time with my cohort-mates, and rushed out to meet the on Saturday afternoon for the last night of the Feria.

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And what a night it was! We managed to  meet up with another friend from EBD who had the “in” at a great little caseta, where we did quite a bit of Sevillana, and I finally got the chance to really put all of my Sevillana classes to use. From there, we managed to find our way into some other casetas (this late in the Feria, people had stopped really checking at the door) and got in loads more dancing. It was a delightful time, and the managed to tire ourselves out dance enough to stay quite sober despite all of the rebujito coming our way. A great combination! Finally, at around midnight, the Feria officially ended with a massive fireworks display over the river.

With the feria week having officially come to a close, we ate a (very) late dinner and parted ways to get some much-needed shuteye. The next morning, I was blown away at the silence and stillness of Sevilla. The whole city, including a metropolitan area of several million, seemed hung over. From the vantage point of my terraza, where I can typically watch the ceaseless activity of the city and continuous flow of traffic toward the city center, I saw nor heard hardly a soul. It wasn’t until at least 6pm that I started to see signs in my beloved home city, and even that was just a handful of stray cars and pedestrians, the odd bus, and nothing like the normal pace and rhythm of activity. This was, evidently, the effect of about 156 hours of partying on a populace: the most peaceful Sunday I’ve ever seen in an urban area.

With a tremendous sleep debt, I prepared for the week ahead, satisfied that I’d properly experienced Sevilla’s biggest cultural event, and thinking about what I’d like to wear next year.

Hungría (part 2)

I spent my last few days in Hungary visiting my friend and colleague Sándor Zsebők, an ornithologist and behavioral ecologist at  Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. We had met a couple months earlier, while he was visiting EBD to meet with colleagues in a network of ecologists studying the breeding biology and behavior of Collared flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis). He had been another one of the ornitólogos extranjeros on my first bird banding trip with GOSUR. In the midst of excitedly nerding out about bird science, we had decided that I should come visit and join him for a day of field work after the freshwater conference in Tihany, so that I could see some Hungarian temperate forest birds and get some time out in the woods. Given the scarcity of forest in Spain in general, and the dryness of the Andalucian landscape, I was excited for the ecological breath of fresh air involved with a different type of countryside.

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Sandor gets an angry look from a Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica) during our banding excursion at Brazo del Este

I arrived in Budapest in the late afternoon, in time to take advantage of the city’s excellent public transportation and meet Sandor near his apartment, drop off my things, and have a quick dinner. We actually began our Budapest adventure with an awesome techno concert at a club near the city center, which was a deep contrast and change of pace from the past week in Tihany. Given that we were due to get up at around 5:15am the next morning to leave for the field, this was perhaps an overambitious decision, but we had plenty of fun and enjoyed a solid 3.5 hours sleep.

 

 

After our generous slumber, we were up before the sun and hustling into town to rendezvous with Sandor’s teammates, with whom we carpooled out into the countryside. Their study site, a managed timber forest in the foothills of the Pilis mountains, had been home to their long-term research on the territorial and nesting behavior of Collared flycatchers for decades. It was a handsome landscape in early spring, with the intense greens of new leaves matching the verdant growth of flowers pushing through the leaf litter on the forest floor.

 

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We met up with the rest of the team and shared pleasant introductions, then headed off to the field site, which was a large tract of forest peppered with next boxes (artificial wood cavities for birds that typically nest in holes in trees, like the flycatcher). At its center was a field cabin, where most of the materials were kept, and where we laid out our plans for the day.

 

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The weather was overcast and surprisingly cool, with a light but persistent breeze rustling the leaves in the trees and on the forest floor. It made for a quiet, beautiful morning, but unfortunately did not make good conditions for behavioral study; Collared flycatchers tend to be less territorial and active in cooler, cloudier weather. This meant no behavioral research today; instead our work would be to check all of the hundreds of nest boxes around the study site to keep track of occupied territories and their degree of progress in reproduction. The team discussed all this while the research head and principal investigator (“the big boss” as he was introduced to me) kindly offered around a flask of Pálinka, a Hungarian fruit-brandy of considerable potency, to help everyone wake up for the day ahead. It certainly did much to combat the morning chill, and having not had breakfast, I could feel the ‘heat’ of it in the entirety of my throat and stomach. As the Spanish say, “Donde fueres, haz lo que vieres“. Having divvied up the nest-checking among the crew, we went on our separate ways tramping through the forest and checking the contents of dozens of nestboxes.

 

Sandor and I made our rounds with surprising alacrity given our sleepless state (and several swigs of Pálinka), and he showed me how the nest boxes were suspended on pulley systems, so that they could be kept higher in the trees where they were safer from predators but could be lowered when needed for research purposes. I learned how to lower the boxes and identify the different types of nests we might find inside; these included the flycatchers, which had small clutches of attractive blue eggs, and at least two species of tit, which had small, white eggs which were sometimes in the dozens.

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A Collared flycatcher’s nest, with the typical 5 eggs.
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A Great tit (Parus major) nest; look at all those eggs!

Once we finished our nest-checks, Sandor and I returned to the field station for a late picnic breakfast of spicy sausage, bread, and some kind of hot pepper that was absolutely refreshing and delicious. A male Collared flycatcher, the first I had ever seen up close, appeared to be setting up a territory right around the field station, and he scolded us incessantly throughout our meal. It was a great way for me to get excellent looks at that charming, dapper bird, even as he glared wrathfully down at me from his perch atop a large mushroom. Due to the frustrating weather, we had to head back to the city after entering our data and planning the next day’s work, but I had the chance to see some lovely meadows and vernal pools inside the forest, as well as my first Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes), which was another huge treat.

We returned to Budapest and spent the rest of the day catching up on emails and manuscript edits in a cafe near Sandor’s apartment. Just like the rest of the food I had experienced in Hungary, the coffee and baked goods were also exquisite. We opted to avoid techno concerts that evening and went instead for an early night’s sleep, the following day being my main opportunity to explore Budapest. We set out together early in the morning and had breakfast at another excellent cafe, and then parted ways, Sandor heading to his office and myself to see one of Europe’s most raved-about cities.

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I passed a splendid day walking for hours around the Buda side (the Western part) of the city, ascending to the elevated castle district and braving crowds of tourists to view some of the city’s historical churches, statues, and fortresses. I was beautiful and impressive and exotic, and so very different than Sevilla.

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The architecture and stonework were absolutely breathtaking, and the scale of the structures was vastly enlarged by their strategic positioning on a high ridge overlooking the river and city. The many beautiful medieval statues and carvings gave the strong impression that Hungary’s history was filled with powerfully-mustachioed individuals, whose whiskers held much greater authority than the ironic manifestations that I typically see today. Then again, having an axe and a shield as well doesn’t hurt the image. The castle district’s commanding views had me pausing at length to simply stare and get lost in thought, although on three separate occasions I was prodded out of the way by a tourist who, mumbling grumpily at me in Russian, thought that I had spent enough time in the place where they wanted to take a selfie.

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From there, I descended the ridge along the river, stopping at the Garden of Philosophy for a moment’s calm meditation and pondering after the rush of the tourist attractions. I wandered the many paths and admired various flowering trees, quickly discovering that many of them were frequented by migrating Wood warblers (Phylloscopus sibilatrix), a sunny-yellow European warbler and perhaps the closest aesthetic and ecological equivalent to the dazzling array of warblers that breed in North America. From the gardens, I continued down to the Gellert Hill Cave, a gorgeous church built inside caverns nestled in the cliff overlooking the river. Inside were a number of shrines and chambers with separate chapels, statues, and a small museum. There was a delightful hush to the place despite dozens of tourists shuffling about, and its low ceiling and organic interior made for an impressive contrast to the vaulted ceilings and ornateness of churches in Sevilla.

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I concluded my day with a long soak in one of the city’s many thermal pools (at around 13 Euro, it was a great deal!), and grabbed a great local dinner at a pub with Sandor. There isn’t enough room in a single blog post to describe all of the sights I enjoyed in Budapest, but suffice to say I highly recommend the city, and will hopefully be back in the near future. With my last day well-spent, I returned to Sevilla the following day feeling overjoyed at my experience and mentally preparing for the spring festivals ahead. More on that soon. Until next time!

Hungría (part 1)

At the end of April, I embarked on my second adventure outside of Spain to present my ongoing research at a cleverly (if not also creepily?) named early-career freshwater biology conference, Fresh Blood for Fresh Water, in Tihany, Hungary.

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The logo for the independently organized Fresh blood for Fresh Water conferences

Freshwater ecosystems have been a major focus of my research interest for much of my career, and my interdisciplinary background in water resources management gives me a unique skillset for tackling biodiversity issues in freshwater. Nonetheless, rather than a freshwater biologists per se, I have always really been a conservation biologist and ornithologist studying species that live in freshwater systems. In addition to that, my experience with freshwater systems has been limited primarily to palustrine (marsh and swamp) systems, whether they are in Hawaii or Huelva (Spain). Because of this, I’ve been working to improve my general knowledge in freshwater biology and ecology, and really “wet” my research background and professional network. Attending a purely freshwater or limnological conference was accordingly a great opportunity for me to simultaneously get a rapid survey of current research in the field of freshwater biology and make a suite of new connections.

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Large oligotrophic lakes like Lake Annecy in Eastern France are a good example of what other beautiful freshwater systems are out there. I took this picture during a visit to Tufts University’s Tailloires campus a couple months before coming to Spain.

The conference was the 6th in a growing series of freshwater meetings organized independently of any formal society and designed explicitly to provide networking and learning opportunities for early-career scientists. It was organized and hosted by graduate students from the Balaton Limnological Institute, a freshwater research center and part of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The institute is based in the town of Tihany, a gorgeous peninsula jutting into the center of Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake. The conference venue was the fantastic Hotel Panorama, perched right across the road from the water’s edge, and with delightful views of the lake, as well as a private dock and shore area (which, to my delight, included a considerable reedbed).

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The conference venue. From any floor, one had a beautiful view of the lake, and could sleep to the sounds of frogs and waterbirds in the evening.

The conference itself was amazing. Despite having no professional organizers, it was seamlessly run, on time, and excellently coordinated. It was a manageable size (perhaps on the order of 50 people), with a high-quality research talks and posters, excellent plenaries and fun networking activities in between. The plenary speakers, especially, were fabulous, both because of their professional accomplishments and expertise but also because of their career stage. Each of them were middle-career (rather than late-career) scientists, who could better relate and give advice to the early career attendees at the conference. With the free time we had and the smaller size of the conference, I had the indispensable opportunity to talk with and seek guidance from several of them.

 

 

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The student presentations, which made up the bulk of the conference, were extremely high-quality, and covered a broad swath of the field of freshwater biology, including a variety of taxonomic groups and ecosystem types. For me, it was a tremendously useful run-through of the main research topics of the discipline. Over 20 countries were represented among the attendees, who came from throughout Europe as well as Asia and South America. I was surprised to be the only one from the United States, although I had to continually clarify “Well, I came from Spain but I’m from the U.S.” whenever I caught people staring perplexedly at my name badge.

 

 

 

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My own presentation ended up being the “token bird talk”. At least it was a change of pace, I suppose!

In time between talks and networking events, we enjoyed strolls along the edge of the lake and in the nearby countryside, which were beautiful and radiant in early-spring weather. At the end of the conference, we enjoyed a delightful picnic of traditional Hungarian stew with Austrian beer brought by one of the plenary speakers. With wetland-specialist warblers and frogs singing in the marsh, chironomid midges hovering in dancing swarms above the water, and aquatic snakes darting between the cobblestones, we were surrounded by freshwater nature and it was magnificent.

 

 

I left Tihany to spend a couple days visiting a friend and colleague in Budapest, and slept off my conference-exhaustion on a comfortable bus ride from the hotel to city center. FBFW2019 had been an inspiring and energizing experience, and I came away with vastly improved knowledge of my field and a bus-full of new friends and professional connections. In addition, I had the refreshing experience of being exposed to a new culture and new part of the world with strikingly different food, landscapes, and language than Spain, and further enriched my Fulbright journey.

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Anillamiento

Bird banding (or as the British call it, ringing) is one of the fundamental research tools in ornithology, and as such is dear to my heart as both a naturalist and ecologist. In brief, it a manner in which scientists mark individual birds by placing a metal or plastic band around a bird’s leg. The band then stays with the bird as a rather innocuous anklet, enabling the bird to be identified if it is captured again, found dead, or ideally spotted alive in the future. Banding has a long history, with evidence of its practice as early as 200 B.C., and continues to be an essential tool for ornithologists, ecologists, and conservation biologists today. Long-term bird banding operations have yielded incredible insights into bird migration behavior, population declines and community changes over time, survival rates, and much, much more. A major component of my Ph.D dissertation in Hawaii, for instance, involved banding and re-sighting birds, and this information has continued to contribute to our understanding of how best to manage and protect endangered waterbirds on Oahu.

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A pair of Northern cardinals after being banded at Manomet
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A male `Alae `ula (Hawaiian gallinule) about a year after I banded him on Oahu. Photo (c) Sam Camp

Among my many goals in coming to Spain, one of my most ambitious was to connect with and volunteer for a local bird banding operation. Such operations are common in many parts of the world, where often amateur ornithologists with great natural history skills conduct citizen science banding operations, collecting valuable data on species diversity, abundance, survival, and migration while enabling select members of the public to learn the “bread and butter” of field ornithology. Myself and other members of the Reed lab volunteered frequently for the banding operations at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences during my Ph.D; it was a great way to keep my field skills sharp when spending endless hours in front of a computer.

To my great fortune, a good friend at EBD had already connected with GOSUR (Grupo Ornitológico del Sur), the local chapter of Spain’s SEO (Sociedad Española de ornitologia) dedicated to banding wild birds in the Sevilla area. She has graciously brought me along with her on several before-dawn mornings to help with banding operations at a small nature reserve in the greater Doñana landscape, Brazo del Este.

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A typical day proceeds as follows:

I wake up pre-dawn and try to force myself to eat, hastily brush my teeth and then dash out the door with a backpack loaded with snacks, binoculars, sunscreen and a spare jacket. Around this time I typically realize that I’m wearing my street shoes rather than my hiking boots, and have to run back to my apartment to change them. Once all that is arranged, I meet with my friends in Sevilla’s ghost-town-empty streets (it’s typically not long after 6am at this point) and we drive out into the countryside. There, we meet other GOSUR volunteers and the two main banders, at a coffee shop and favorite rendezvous point. After a quick coffee or tea, we’re out into the marshes, setting up mistnets and playbacks and excitedly speculating on what birds we’ll come across today.

 

 

Mist-netting is a common practice for capturing passerines (small perching birds), which are otherwise obviously pretty difficult to get a hold of alive and unharmed. They are thin nets of delicate fiber which are difficult to see (especially when set up against a backdrop of dense vegetation, which is often done), and in which birds become entangled when they accidentally fly into them. To increase the likelihood of capture, groups like GOSUR will also use a playback; a speaker broadcasting the recording of songs of various species, which may attract birds to the net.

 

 

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Once the birds are caught, they are carefully extracted; a skill that can take weeks or months to learn. I was fortunate to have training after I finished my undergraduate degree, but notice that I need constant refreshing. Untangling a bird from a mist-net is in my experience the hardest part of banding, and requires patience, nimble fingers, and a cool attitude; it’s easy to panic or despair when a bird is badly tangled, fighting excessively, or (in the case of birds with impressive beaks) tearing your fingers to shreds. Inevitably, both you and the bird are rewarded by its liberation, and it is detained in a cloth bag where it can be kept safely until it’s ready to be measured and banded.

 

 

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Once the birds have been safely removed from the net, they are banded first thing in case of escape. GOSUR outfits the birds with numbered aluminum bands which have information on the organization and location of banding. Each organization that produces such bands maintains databases on their use and deployment, so any captured bird with a band can be recorded and its location added to the database. After banding, the birds are identified to species, sex, and age if possible, and morphological measurements are taken (things like wing length, bill height and depth, etc.). Data are fastidiously logged to the greatest detail possible, and kept in a long-term database; these simple data can be immensely powerful for insightful analyses if kept consistent over years or decades.

 

 

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Once the technical work is finished, typically a couple birds, particularly the more interesting or exciting species, or individuals with particularly nice plumage, are detained for a minute or two of glorified photoshoot. These models are held in a photographer’s grip, which safely secures their legs to prevent injury while also allowing the bird to be viewed more freely than the types of holds used during banding. After a few photos are snapped away and there has been much “ooh” and “ahh” of admiration, the birds are set off on their way.

 

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Bird activity is typically starting to slow by mid to late afternoon, at which case the group packs up the mist-nets with great care, gathers up all of the research materials and heads home. One of my favorite Spanish twists on closing up for the day is stopping by a local bar to recount the day’s most exciting birds over a celebratory beer.

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The global fraternity of birdwatchers is no joke. Sometimes with the latin (scientific) names of individual species as the only language they share, I’ve seen people establish lasting friendships exchanging pantomimed bird stories interspersed with Linnaean nomenclature. At one of our recent trips, I watched a Hungarian colleague who spoke little Spanish excitedly exchange adventure stories and iPhone pictures of particularly rare sightings with one of our Spanish group leaders, and the great joy they took out of the exchange was obvious. I’m grateful to be part of this energetic, if eccentric, community, and the privilege of volunteering and banding in Spain has been yet another gem of my Fulbright experience.

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This photo from GOSUR’s website boasted that our volunteer group for the day represented four countries: Spain, Hungary, France, and USA.

The Commute

A major part of my experience in any place that I lived and worked during my professional journey as a conservation biologist has always been the commute. Early on, I often found myself living in the field, so my trip to work involved little more than rolling out of bed and marching out the door with a backpack full of snacks, water, and research equipment. During graduate school, my commute was typically a pensive morning walk through the hustle and bustle of downtown Somerville or Medford, Massachusetts, or more often than not a snowy trudge in heavy boots, avoiding the salt-laden sludge splashed up by cars from the side of the road. During my winter in Bozeman, Montana, I remember snowshoeing to the office on one occasion, and walking half a foot above the actual sidewalk on solid ice. Needless to say, the experience in Sevilla has been a far cry from those days. Perhaps one of the things I love most about the city is how eminently car-free one can be if they’d like to. In my own case, the route to work is a bit too long (about 2 miles) for an efficient daily walk, but its perfect for a bike ride.  Situated where I am, in the Northern part of the old barrio of Triana, getting to work is a (relatively) straight shot northward on any of several established bike lanes.

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A fleet of Sevici’s just down the street from my apartment, with a green bike path heading toward La Cartuja in the background.

Not wanting to bother shopping for a bike or trying to get rid of one once my time in Sevilla is up, I found a workable temporary solution – Sevilla, like some other Spanish cities, has a great bike rental system, Sevici. For around 30 Euro, I had unlimited use of these rather cumbersome machines so long as I could anchor them at one of at least a hundred stations around the city once every half hour. To my great fortune, there is a station right outside my apartment, and two more just outside EBD, so the commute is a simple and pleasant one. Sevilla’s ever-nice climate makes these even more feasible. Even in the dead of winter, I was typically riding in the sun, and did fine with a jacket and gloves.

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A googlemaps screenshot showing La Cartuja (left) and the rest of Sevilla on the right. (c) Google Maps

Biking to work is all well and good, but that’s hardly the interesting point of this post or of my morning commute. What is distinctly Sevilla about the whole thing is the landscape I pass through on the way. Principally, the area known as La Isla de la CartujaLa Cartuja is the northern part of a body of land wedged between the Rio Guadalquivir (which feeds Doñana) and a rather tame canal that runs through Sevilla, and is the “river” everyone always talks about when visiting the city. From what I have gathered from conversations with older locals, much of the area used to be (mostly disused) farmlands and open areas around a large monastery, where monks artisans made beautiful tilework that was used throughout the city.

 

 

The monastery of La Cartuja includes a chapel, several courtyards, many large kilns and smokestacks, a grant entrance at either side, extensive gardens and orchards, and a huge complex of buildings that were likely dormitories, studies, libraries and the like. It remains a beautiful compound, although the gardens are bit  neglected and overgrown (though to my delight, this has meant that a diversity of native insects and bird species abound), and it has since been converted into a modern art museum. I have walked through several of their rotating exhibits on various visits with friends, and have always been impressed by the work, although occasionally feeling that it was a bit beyond me. But the place is impressive enough on its own, with its old architecture, gorgeous tilework, and tranquil (albeit crumbling) greenspace.

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The front gate of the monasterio de la cartuja

 

North of La Cartuja, I am told, was primarily fallow fields and neglected open lands until the early 90’s, when it became the focal point of the 1992 World Expo, held in Sevilla. This massive undertaking involved a total makeover of the entire landscape of la cartuja, from the northernmost point of El Alamillo and down to where I live in Northern Triana. I can hardly imagine the expense involved; Sevilla owes much of its most gloriously ugly and impressive architecture to the Expo, which was responsible for no less than three bridges, an astonishing array of huge office buildings, pavilions, parks, gardens, roads, bike paths, parking lots, sculptures, fountains, and so on.

 

While that sounds like the type of development that might do wonders for an economy and contribute an efficient, highly modernized, and stylish zone to a beautifully historic city, that is not exactly how things went. The first unfortunate circumstance was that the expo took place in the 1990’s, and as such all of the architecture and infrastructure involved was designed with the sort of garish post-modern hubris that also led to the overuse of neon colors, high top sneakers, curly shoelaces, fanny packs, and any other assorted cultural phenomena from the 90’s that the world collectively regrets. This led to some over-ambitious building designs, some of which are impressive at first but most of which are a terrible eyesore.

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As if this weren’t bad enough, some sort of financially irresponsible foul play led most of the buildings to go unsold (and a large fraction unfinished!) after the Expo. This was followed by years of neglect, with many of the pavilions and much of the local infrastructure going into eyebrow-raising states of disrepair. In a fantastically ironic twist, the Pabellon del Futuro or Future-Pavilion is one of the most extreme cases, an absolutely massive tribute to 1990’s-era space-age technology with gardens, fountains, more mind-bending architecture, and even an active canal by which boats could pass in and through it, became the most neglected and abandoned of them all. It is currently closed to the public, and in a disturbing state of disuse, its canal filled in by a shallow layer of mud and whatever ragged Phragmites reeds can survive there. Peeking past the “PASO PROHIBIDO” sign one early morning I noticed a large pile of rotting dog food that someone had left some time ago, presumably for the pavilion’s current tenants. The Pabellon del Futuro and many other less-fortunate pavilions add an entertainingly spooky-post-apocalyptic effect to the entirety of la cartuja.

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“For sale” signs and rusted “Expo 92” logos abound throughout my ride to work, and I can’t help but envision Mad Max-esque characters chasing me down on my clunky Sevici to sacrifice me on an altar to the great Curro, the Expo’s eerie sort-of-bird mascot. Like some ghost still haunting Sevilla, Curro is never really mentioned, but his imagery shows up around town; I’ve seen graffiti of Curro, faded T-shirts with his likeness, stickers on particularly old motorbikes and cars, and even a remarkably intact mini-ride on Calle Sierpes.

 

Bizarrely, Curro was designed by the same artist who created the aesthetics for the Beatles’ trippy animated film “Yellow Submarine”. As if this story wasn’t strange enough.

Despite its creepiness and dilapidation, La Cartuja has its moments. On weekday evenings, when the fountains are still running and what’s left of the once dramatic night-lighting is turned on around the various pavilions, my commute really reaches peak beauty. When there’s just enough darkness to hide the weeds (well, now mostly small trees) growing from old cracks in building foundations or the faded color of once vibrant plastic framing on nearby sculptures, one can see a hint of its former glory.

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For all of its flaws and absurdity, La Isla de la Cartuja is a unique and undeniably (but perhaps morbidly) interesting part of Sevilla’s very long history and endless architectural interest. The contrast it makes with the historic beauty and elegance of structures like La Giralda is laughable and yet oddly illustrative of the cultural contradictions in Spain’s past and present. Either way, it makes for a pretty entertaining ride to work.

 

Mid-Year

There are many fantastic benefits to a Fulbright scholarship, and my gratitude for the opportunity is great. Travelling to, and studying in, a foreign country to learn both as a professional and a human being is enough, but the advantages stretch far beyond these. Among my favorite lesser-recognized perks are Fulbright Spain’s orientation and mid-year seminars.

These are (have been) a huge treat: several action-packed days of Fulbright-oriented programming and social events, surrounded by a diverse crowd of motivated, interesting, talented, friendly, and intellectual people. It’s a stunning atmosphere and a chance to savor great company and inspiring energy. It’s impossible to spend time in a group of Fulbright grantees and not quickly feel rejuvenated and charged with wide-eyed wonder and excitement about the world around you.

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A group of 2019 Fulbright Spain researchers, a brilliant and impressive group, of which I’m honored to be a part.

To cut to the chase, I was treated to yet another such experience earlier this month, when I flew to Valencia for Fulbright Spain’s mid-year seminar, a chance for students and scholars alike to share their experiences from all over Spain. It’s a brilliant idea, really; between workshops, student presentations, coffee breaks, and cocktail hours, we all learned from over a hundred other experiences in Spain, from all different parts of the country. My own narrow experience from one city in one state was multiplied hugely as I shared my adventures with others, and soon I felt as though I had been from Murcia to Asturias during my first few months (needless to say, there’s no substitute for experience, and I’ve still got to see it for myself!).

 

With introductions and orientation logistics out of the way from our meeting in September, the mid-year seminar was a different experience entirely. It focused more on exchange of knowledge and experience, reflection, goal-setting, and forging new connections. The diversity and quality of the presentations was staggering, and subject matter ranged from enlightening personal experiences and reflections to research presentations of scholarly merit and TED-esque lectures on exciting topics in innovation and thinking. I was fortunate enough to share some details on my work in Sevilla, and also (taking advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of talking to a roomful of future American leaders) made my soap-box pitch for biodiversity conservation and its inseparable connection to human well-being.

 

 

The first evening concluded with a dazzling talent show, which combined impressive and long-practiced abilities, new skills, and clever humor in an intoxicating mix. There were delightful musical pieces, hilarious and educational skits, jaw-dropping dance performances, and a stand-up comedy bit.

 

 

In addition to the planned portions of the seminar, we also enjoyed unstructured time for a less formal exchange of knowledge and experience, and of course to kick back, enjoy ourselves, and see more of Valencia. Having never been before, I was eager to get out and have a stroll; I was not alone in this and repeatedly found myself among other Fulbrighters on long and satisfying rambles.

 

 

The seminar concluded with several inspiring talks by students and officials alike (including staff from the U.S. Embassy) and was for me a powerful reminder of the importance of what we’re doing and the degree of privilege and behind the opportunity granted in our fellowships. I was grateful and lucky to contribute my own soppy reflections to our concluding remarks, which allowed time for humble contemplation of the past five months and what they have meant to myself and my fellow Fulbrighters.

We were treated next to a delicious Valencian paella at a seaside restaurant, followed by (for me, the biggest treat of all!) a tour of la Albufera, a beautiful, brackish inland lake south of the city. A storied place with a name of Arabic origins (from al-buhayra, for “a small sea”), this lagoon is an ecological treasure like Doñana, sharing its designation as a Ramsar site (a wetland ecosystem of international importance). We toured the extensive marshes in a pole-propelled boat, then explored a traditional home of the type used for centuries by fishermen that survived on Albufera’s bounty.

 

 

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I spent the rest of my time in Valencia exploring the city and getting to know various other Fulbrighters. One particular pursuit of mine was to sample as much Horchata (or Orxata) as possible. This sweetened, vegetable-based drink is an acquired taste for many, and may be familiar to some Americans from the Latin-American (Guatemalan or Mexican), rice-based version that is becoming popular at many restaurants in the U.S. The Spanish (chufa– or Tiger-nut-based) version was yet another cultural import of the Moors to the Iberian peninsula more than a thousand years ago. I was on an absolute war path to consume as much horchata as possible, and managed to get a few glasses down at several local horchaterias before I left.

 

 

My meanderings around the city revealed it to be a vibrant and bustling community, that–depending on the neighborhood–combined striking street art with crumbling old Franco-era brick buildings and spotless shopping plazas and main streets. There were beautiful old churches, stylishly modern parks, and just about everything in between.

 

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One thing I particularly enjoyed was visiting the seashore, which is where I made sure to spend my last few hours in Valencia prior to my departure. Although Sevilla is not very far from the ocean, it’s certainly not coastal, and so I hadn’t seen the ocean since my arrival in Spain. So on my last morning in Valencia, I trekked out to the beach and sat for a couple hours, staring out at the water, keeping an eye out for interesting gulls (I saw no new species, but saw the first House martins of the year, already migrating back from a winter season in North Africa), rescuing scores of Seven-spotted ladybird beetles (Coccinella septempunctata) that were getting blown out to see by the heavy wind, and reflecting on the first half of my time in Spain. It is redundant to explain my gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity that this fellowship has been so far. Suffice it to say I had more valuable experiences to ponder from a short amount of time than nearly any other period of my life. I can only imagine what great experiences and worthy challenges are in store for the second half.

 

Keiko

The decision to pursue a career as a conservation biologist following my undergraduate degree led to a long, difficult, and rewarding path punctuated by frequent changes in scenery. In fact, I have not lived in a single location longer than about 7 months for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve lived in six different states and visited eight countries. A key pattern in my (now well-developed) travel habits has always been to find and join a local martial arts school for regular practice. This was originally a bit of a coping mechanism, because I trained intensely, perhaps even obsessively, during my adolescence and throughout college, and had been deeply frustrated to be separated from my favorite teachers, schools, and training partners while travelling for my career. I soon found, however, that it inevitably led to invaluable travel experiences; I quickly made new friends (in almost every place I have lived and worked, I have often made twice as many friends through martial arts than through work, for example) from different walks of life, and often got a direct “in” to local culture to which I would never have had access otherwise. This was certainly true during my Ph.D research in Hawaii, where I found myself invited to birthday parties and barbecues with people I would never have known if I hadn’t spent hours exchanging kicks and joint locks with them. My old and currently defunct blog, which was strangled by the rigorous demands of my Ph.D., recounts colorfully some of the great friendships and experiences that rewarded my rather daring pursuit of training in Hanoi, Vietnam (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

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The gym insignia on the back of my team hoodie.

I had this in mind from my first minutes in Sevilla, and consequently spent a lot of my exploratory time early in my stay keeping an eye out for schools and gyms. I will also guiltily admit to having done a lot of internet searching even months before my arrival, and a list of places worth investigating. Naturally, where I would train would also depend enormously on where I ended up living, a matter which wasn’t quite settled until the middle of October. I ended up (very fortunately) moving into a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment in Triana, one of the most “typical” neighborhoods of Sevilla (and with so much local pride that many folks in the barrio specify that they are from Triana, and not necessarily Sevilla), and thus ended up within 15-minutes walking distance of my gym of choice after many visits, Gymnasio Crossfight.

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The emblem on my Yawara-Jitsu club t-shirt.
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Our Yawara-Jitsu group after a Monday-night practice

I was attracted to this gym in particular because it offered classes in three martial arts: kickboxing, Brazilian Jiujitsu, and Yawara-jitsu. I have at least some experience in the first two, which together make up much of the basis for modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), but had never heard of the latter. Yawara-jitsu, as it turns out, is a fusion of techniques from many different disciplines, invented in Spain by a kempo practitioner in the 1970’s. The idea of adding some “local flavor” to my training in the striking and grappling styles integral to MMA was thus a great appeal.

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Our Brazilian Jiu-jitsu class, with a number of visiting students from a nearby academy.

But the school and the style are not the important parts of this story. Abroad or not, the point of my training has always been the process of study itself, the profound and concentrated practice involved with the discipline of martial arts. What comes across only through verbose description in English is succinctly summarized by a useful Japanese word, keiko. For me, keiko has always carried the deeper meaning of a study or regular practice that transcends physical or mental learning, becoming a continual process of self-refinement. My Aikido teacher often likened it to polishing a rough stone until it gleams; the intense and rough road of training is a continual process of refining and polishing ones self. Old masters often wrote about “forging the spirit”, and the words resonate deeply with me.

 


Thus, keiko has been for me not just getting a bit of practice in now and then, but a state of being, a process that is achieved when training can be approached with the right mindset and the right frequency and intensity. Everything in my mind feels clearer, more real and authentic, every aspect of my life more balanced, when keiko becomes part of my regular routine.

 

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Rolling (free sparring) in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a teammate; here I’m attempting a guard pass.

To my great fortune, that is exactly what I’ve experienced in Sevilla. I’ve met great practitioners in all three of the arts practiced at Crossfight, made new friends, and enjoyed hours of great and intense training. All at once, I am learning new techniques, making links between old ones, feeling like I’m getting back into shape for the first time since early on in my Ph.D., and being challenged in a field outside my profession. It’s an invigorating and empowering experience that has defined much of my free time in Sevilla.

 

 

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Achieving keiko is not so much about training every day,  or not feeling winded when you have to climb a flight of stairs, but finding a feeling in training that then pervades the rest of your life. Cultivating mindful practice on the mat, and spending a few hours of solidly focused time every day, leads to a more reflective and level-headed approach to other aspects of life. Particularly in activities like full contact martial arts, when you overcome a bit of personal fear with every practice, it makes it that much easier to face other challenges outside of the gym. These multifarious benefits have been a tremendous help at those times when living in a foreign country has become intimidating or frustrating. Feeling the impact of keiko on my everyday life in Sevilla, I am reminded of one teacher’s response to my asking why he practiced martial arts. “To live well.”

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Of course, beyond the internal benefits of keiko, I have treasured the usual perks of finding a school on my travels, as much if not more than at any other destination. It’s been a privilege to get to know scores of people I might never have met through my professional and social network in Spain, to get invited out for the occasional caña, and to get much-needed chat with people who have Andalucian accents (reputedly the most difficult accent in Spain!). My time at Crossfight is an indispensable piece of my time in Sevilla, and another reason for me to feel deeply grateful to the opportunity to work in this beautiful city.

Until next time!

La Estación de Fiestas

After a lightning visit to the US to visit family for the Winter holidays, I hurried back to Spain on December 30, eager to get underway with work and return to a normal schedule after frantic days spent trying to see as many friends and family as possible. I would have a quick New Years celebration with an old friend who was visiting Spain, grab a caña with my labmates, and get right to it. Right?

No. To start with, massive delays in customs once I arrived in Portugal led to me missing the last flight from Libson to Sevilla for over 18 hours, and when I eventually found my way back by rail from Madrid, it was 10pm on la Nochevieja (New Year’s Eve). I had managed to catch my friend in Madrid, however, and we passed a pleasant, if rushed evening grabbing dinner at a local Chinese restaurant and then watching the fireworks over the river Guadalquivir. Dessert included small packages of 12 grapes, something that baffled me initially, but my friend explained that this Spanish tradition was meant to bring good luck for the coming 12 months. A single grape is eaten for each stroke of midnight. We chewed pensively at our grapes and spat seeds while watching the colorful explosions across the river.

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Satisfied that I had celebrated a good año nuevo in at least something like local style, I resigned myself to the return of a breakneck work pace and the hustle-bustle of Andalucian city life. But I was sorely mistaken. The next day, and the next, and the next after that, the city remained dead quiet, most shops were closed, and the institute where my office was located was a ghost town. “The vacation should go at least until three kings day,” my friend mused, and it dawned on me that the winter celebrations would continue for at least another week. Three kings day, or Dia de los Reyes is the celebration of the arrival of the three kings who delivered gifts to baby Jesus some time after he was born. Accordingly, the fiestas continue well beyond Christmas and New Year. I should have expected the celebrations to persist, given just how much preparation I observed even before my departure to the U.S., with lights being strung up on nearly every street in Sevilla.

Taking advantage of the days off, I focused on recovering from my exhausting return to Sevilla, and exploring the city with my friend; we were joined by another friend of mine shortly thereafter and passed several delightful days exploring Sevilla. We managed a quick trip to Córdoba, but I’ll leave that adventure for a separate post. Before long, the cabalgatas, the parades held to symbolize the arrival of the mounted kings, started popping up around the city. These ended up being my most entertaining exposure to Spanish holiday culture.

 

The first of these we encountered by accident; an enormous crowd had gathered on Calle San Jacinto, a majorly popular strip in my neighborhood of Triana, and people in apparently “royal” outfits pitched toys and candy into the streets. The surging crowd cheered, screamed, and called for the king’s attention as gifts rained down. We had no luck in procuring anything, but were invited by some of my friends from a local martial arts school (more on that later) to a much bigger cabalgata in the nearby suburb of Tomares.

 

We met up with my martial arts buddies and snagged a ride out to Tomares, where we had a quick coffee and snack while we waited for the festivities to begin. Before long, crowds had gathered all along a nearby main road, and we began to hear distant music. We hurried outside and, with the help of my local friends, positioned ourselves strategically to be within tossing range of the passing parade. Marching bands and performers marched with a cacophony of festive song and well-wishing, somehow overcoming the screaming of the crowd to either side. Gaudy floats passed by, thoroughly staffed with costumed children who threw candy down at us in a constant barrage. I nearly took a caramelo to the eye several times.

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It was a festive, infectiously joyous, and loud event, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with the amount of people wearing blackface. That seemed to be a major part of the associated costume, and although I’m definitely one for respecting tradition, I don’t think that sort of costuming is acceptable in today’s society. Ignoring the face paint to busy ourselves with candy-gathering, we passed a splendid afternoon, then stopped at a restaurant for a beer and my next lesson in Spanish holiday culture. We all ordered slices of roscón de reyes, a light, fluffy, and extraordinarily sugary cake traditionally eaten on three-kings day. We watched the cabalgata move past, and were even joined by thirsty parade participants refueling from their all-too-athletic candy throwing.

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Above: Exhausted parade participants take a break from the action to rehydrate.
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 A hearty slice of roscón de reyes and accompanying beer.

Dog-tired from the excitement of it all, I thanked my friends and we parted ways back in Sevilla, where I geared up to return to work again the following Monday. I must say, a Spanish holiday season is an intense and wonderful thing. It’s long, family-focused, extravagantly decorated, kid friendly, and comes with a huge assortment of seasonal festive foods and other treats. A major highlight of my time in Spain thus far, and there are still months to go.

Trabajo de Campo

In the already hectic time leading up to the winter holidays (las fiestas), I also found myself in urgent need of a plan for the field work portion of my research here. Whether you call it field work or trabajo de campo, it is one of the most glamorous and often ridiculous parts of being a field biologist anywhere in the world. Field work is the reason many ecologists get into the sciences in the first place; most of just love to be outside. Many an exuberant graduate student or tenured professor with whom I had been speaking has gone starry-eyed at the mention of the field, and promptly launched into the inevitable stories of wildlife encounters, brushes with death, and to what great lengths they have gone for precious data.

Of course, I’m not one to judge. When asked to tell an entertaining story about making sacrifices for science, I ended up telling a field story, which became this Podcast. My own time in Spain, up until the pre-holiday season, had featured time in el campo only when I had managed to convince someone to let me tag along on their own work, and I was excited to have the ability to do some of my own. By that time I had already spent two months learning the theory, software, and statistics involved in analyzing tracking data of Lesser black-backed gulls, the primary study species of my project. Most days were spent frowning at code and pecking at a keyboard in an attempt to create increasingly informative maps and analyses.

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The Rstudio Console, where I less-than-gloriously spent much of my time as a conservation biologist

Fancy GPS tags and powerful analytical software can only get you so far. At a certain point, you have to get out and see what’s really going on on the ground, and validate the findings of your analyses with first-hand observations. And this is precisely what I set out to do: observe the behaviors of wild gulls in Andalucian rice fields. Naturally, the idea was to do this in a quantitative and scientifically rigorous fashion, but it mandated trabajo de campo.

Studying behavior in the field involves classical techniques from the old science of ethology, the study of animals and their behavior, especially in their natural environment. This was my first love as a biologist, and I was excited to return to it, given that my Ph.D dissertation, initially planned to involve much behavioral study, took some interesting and unexpected turns that had me trading in my binoculars and notepad for a labcoat and micropipet. The task was ostensibly quite simple: get into the field, and collect two types of behavioral data. 1) Instantaneous scans, in which one counts the number of gulls in a rice field and records how many of them are engaged in what type of behavior (for example foraging, flying around, sleeping), and 2) focal follows, in which a single gull is followed for some amount of time, and the amount of time it spends doing different behaviors is recorded.

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Performing an instantaneous scan of some gulls foraging between furrows in a harvested rice field.

With the amount of watching and recording that needed doing, it was not a one-person job. Accordingly, I convinced as many colleagues as I could to come with me on different days and engage in some gullwatching. The rice fields had a bleak, redundant beauty all their own, and quite distinct from wilder places like Doñana, but they had their own charm, and certainly no shortage of waterbirds taking advantage of the artificial wetland habitat. Although it sounds exhilarating when compared to picking through R scripts, behavioral observation can get tedious. For example, quite a few of our focal follow sessions involved keeping out binoculars steadily trained on a single gull while it snoozed peacefully for a half hour. Bearing in mind that we can’t take our eyes off that individual for a second without compromising the quality of the data (if another gull walked over and sat down, would you be able to tell the difference?), this meant stiff necks and a lot of time sighing and mumbling “…still resting…” to the data recorder. Fortunately, on more than one occasion, excitement found us. For example, when two of my colleagues and I watched a farmer pull over on a dike to adjust the water levels in his field and then have some trouble starting his car.

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Helping a local rice farming jump-start his car.

We gave him a jump, but unfortunately to no avail, and so we ended up giving him a ride to the nearest mechanic. As the only Spanish speaker in our group, I chatted with him as best as I could (rural Andalucian Spanish deserves its reputation for being nearly indecipherable) and heard stories of the impacts of climate change and overhunting on the bird populations in the fields. That was the sort of inside information I wasn’t going to get just staring at gulls, and it was more than payment enough for a quick ride into the nearby pueblo. I also noticed that buildings in several of the towns embedded in los arrozales, including Isla Mayor and Poblado del Alfonso, had gorgeous murals of native waterbirds painted on them. Awesome!

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A gorgeous Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) mural in Poblado del Alfonso

When the field work wasn’t slow, it was positively overwhelming. One the major outcomes of our exclusion is learning just how intensely concentrated the gulls get in those fields that are being tilled, or fangueado, after the rice has already been harvested. Farmers drive huge tractors through the fields, turning over all of the soil to bury most of the remaining rice plants. This process exposes tremendous numbers of underground invertebrates like the invasive American crayfish (see my previous post on Los Arrozales), upon which the gulls and other waterbirds descend with enthusiasm. The fields essentially become enormous buffets, where literally thousands of waterbirds congregate, stuff themselves, and then spend hours digesting, yawning, and napping. Not a bad life.

 

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A pond under active tilling; we counted well over 500 Lesser black-backed gulls at this site.

I managed to snap a quick video of one ongoing harvest, in which you can easily see the foraging gulls’ particular attention to the areas freshly turned over by the tractor. There’s a mad grab for any newly exposed critter, and then those who won spoils make off with their catch to eat in peace.

After being tilled, the ponds are typically flooded, becoming a huge, flat plane of motionless water. These spots are normally favored napping spots for those gulls that have eaten their fill, and we would find them snoozing or lazily bobbing in the water by the hundreds. Safety is what attracts them to these places; the deep mud, inconveniently-high water, and wide, open spaces with no hiding spots mean that predators will have a difficult time reaching them.

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Flooded, post-till fields like these make excellent and scenic postprandial napping spots for gulls and other waterbirds.

Interestingly, some farmers do not till and flood their fields, but instead burn them. While on one side of the Guadalquivir river we almost exclusively saw tilling-flooding management, on one of our last days of field work we found several fields being set ablaze, another way of letting the nutrients from the rice plants return to the soil. Needless to say, this is not nearly as beneficial for waterbirds, but it does make quite a spectacle, and honestly smells quite nice.

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A rice field being burned after harvest.

Our GPS data tell us that the gulls’ behavior differs dramatically after December, when all of the rice has been harvested and the fields are done being tilled and burning. At this time, their spatial signature shifts, such that they are no longer spending all of their time in the rice fields. From the tracking data, it appears as though they still spend a lot of static (resting) time in the fields, but head outside of the rice fields regularly for food. With the buffet gone, they have to turn elsewhere; GPS data showed at least one gull making a daily commute to a nearby garbage dump! Entering into the second half of January, I’m now preparing to repeat my field data collection, this time during this second behavioral “phase”. I look forward to seeing the difference!

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Until next time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berlin

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!).

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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!