Below are a few details of some major field sites. Our lab's researchers have also performed field research in several other places. For example, Aaron Owen studied his mongooses in Hawaii and India; Jackie Song and Andrew Richards performed a survey of house finch song throughout southern to central California; and Wendy Perez recorded house finches in Hawaii.
Although not exactly field sites, Natural History Museums are also important places for our research, and are generally close to our hearts regardless of our research activities. Egg color research in particular has brought me multiple times to the British Museum's egg annex up in Tring, U.K., whose bird egg collection is curated expertly by Douglas Russell and managed by Robert Prys-Jones. Our favorite repository for bird eggs in the United States is unquestionably the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, California. Here Johanna Navarro did her Master's research on ratite egg color. The place is worth a trip for anyone interested in birds, and actually we look forward to going just as much just to be able to interact with the wonderful René Corado and Linnea Hall who run the place.
Awash National Park, Ethiopia (since 2010)
Ethiopia-- particularly the Awash Valley-- is a hotspot for weaverbirds, so it is not surprising that our lab would end up working in this amazing land, which I consider to be a "best kept secret" among East African ecological destinations. While in the Awash National Park it is difficult not just to safari and wander all the time, but we have managed to get some work done: we catalogued the plant life there in preparation for a field guide; and studied the nesting habits and response to brood parasitism of a couple of weaver species-- the lesser masked weaver Ploceus intermedius, and the Rüppell's weaver Ploceus galbula that is endemic to the Horn of Africa and a smidgeon of the Arabian Peninsula. The publications from this work continue to trickle forth, thanks to Khaleda Khan and Bobby Habig-- see our Project Page for details.
At the edge of Awash National Park is the beautifully placed Awash Falls Lodge, perched literally above the Awash River, in which people have been taking dips for even longer than they have been people. It is owned by Yirmed Demeke, a thoughtful man who is equally at home in business, wildlife research, and environmental policy. He is the Executive Director of Wildlife for Sustainable Development, an Ethiopian NGO devoted to preserving the country's wildlife and valuable natural heritage. He and the staff at Awash Falls Lodge are very welcoming to field researchers, and will provide a comfortable and central location from which to make forays into the bush in all directions.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to garner major funding for a project that would involve Ethiopia after our initial adventures in 2010; so this wonderful field site is currently on hiatus for us.
Suburban areas of New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County (since 2010)
New York City and its surrounding suburbs are home to the descendants of a small house finch population introduced to Long Island in 1940, which has since grown enormously and dispersed in all directions. Our hope is that this population proves ideal for tracing the development of a song culture from its bottleneck origins to a fully realized new repertoire. With this in mind, our recording team scours the widely diverse urban and suburban neighborhoods of our home town, microphones in hand, listening for the telltale terminal buzz of a house finch song.
Whether we're cruising slowly with the car windows rolled down or roaming the streets on foot, the sparse distribution of these birds compared with their California counterparts makes them somewhat difficult to locate. Add to that the insistent noise of urban traffic and booming stereos, and it becomes a real test of patience. But long days of searching are often rewarded with the discovery of a pocket of house finches in some unexpected corner of the city, and conversations with the colorful local fauna make welcome distractions in the meantime.
On the left is one of Queens College's own resident house finches. He has claimed a perch right outside the classrooms at Remsen Hall and regularly greets students with song as they emerge from lecture. In the middle, Franny is taking a break from urban field work to record a house finch singing on a farm in Ithaca. On the right, a less cooperative bird is fleeing the scene.
-contributed by Franny Geller, 8/2012
Prescott Peninsula, Quabbin Reservoir (since 2004)
The beautiful Quabbin Reservoir with its Prescott Peninsula is the perfect place to do field research-- on a great number of things, I suppose, but for me it has been perfect for swamp sparrows-- a well-defined population in a large wild area with restricted public access, about three hours northeast of Queens College. The folks at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation have treated us very well for five years and counting.
We are regularly rewarded for getting up early to balance on tussocks, with sightings of moose, bear, mink, coyote, and fox (yes even we hardcore biologists never lose our fascination with animals that are big or kill things). The greenery here is vibrant and interesting as well. Our site fell squarely in the town of Prescott before it and four other towns were flooded for the Reservoir in 1937; so we see a combination of reclusive wild plants, long established introduced species, and even the occasional cultivar such as lilac or forsythia that has persisted all these decades. I have begun a list of the wildflowers of the site (posted here), both those in the flooded forest and marsh and those on the roadsides and fields. I encourage our students and visitors to use and augment it.
On the left Dana Moseley, who is midway through her graduate work based on these Quabbin swamp sparrows, is attempting to engage a fledgling field assistant in the joys of nature.
On the right with me are valuable veteran field and lab managers from the first three years of the project: Cosmo Laviola and Stephanie Wallace, both of whom were intelligent and reliable helps to us and our young birds. The marsh in the background of this picture has been the most productive part of our site at the "Forest Products Swamp" as we have mischievously named it (because of a sign that indicated that "Forest Products" were going to be removed from its boundary just during our first field season). Unfortunately, however, because of the actions of beavers, the marsh has been drying up, allowing snakes, chipmunks, and shrews better access to the swamp sparrow nests, causing a precipitous drop in sparrow reproductive success in this area: an interesting ecological cascade!