bird field work research graduate life day in the life

A Day In the Life of a Bird Nerd

Have you ever wondered what graduate students actually do? While every day is a new adventure, here’s a sample of one of my Wednesdays…

5:00 AM Wake up, shower, feed cats, get breakfast.


Figure 1. Felix (back) and Milo (front) don’t want me to leave. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

5:40 AM Drive in to campus, rocking out to The Killers to wake up.

6:15 AM Meet up with friends for a fall migration mistnetting project. While many animals migrate (move from one location to another), few migrations are as spectacular as the seasonal migrations of birds. As weather seasonally changes, many bird species have evolved a complex set of physiological changes and behaviors that help them move to areas with better habitat for the season. Here in the northeastern United States, many of our favorite bird species from the summer will actually spend the winter in places like Panama and Columbia. Before they make the trip, biologists studying migration can temporarily capture them and add a small metal bracelet with a unique number (called a band, hence bird banding), and sometimes even add additional tags that can help track their migration route. For songbirds, the best way to capture them is by using a mistnet. Properly trained and permitted biologists will set up what is essentially a vertical wall of fine net between trees and shrubs. Up close, the nest is visible, but from a distant it quickly disappears. Birds moving through vegetation fail to see the net and accidentally fly or hop in. We then carefully remove the bird from the net so we can measure its health and give it a band.

6:30-8:45 AM Bird banding! My friend and fellow graduate student Mariamar is banding fall migrants as they move through campus. I volunteer to get more experience handling a variety of bird species. Normally, I would not consider myself a “morning person,” but if there’s a bird to be held, I am there!


Figure 2. A) Mariamar looking up info on this Chestnut-sided Warbler; B) A newly banded White-eyed Vireo waiting to be measured; C) Measuring the wing length of a male Black-throated Blue Warbler; D) The setup of the banding table with all of our tools. While those pliers may look daunting, we use them to open up the metal bands for the birds. The process of banding a bird does not actually harm them. We measure the length of their wings and legs and measure their weight, and then release them unharmed. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

9:00 AM Lab meeting - paper discussion and brainstorming for undergraduate thesis project on nest ectoparasites (a parasite, like a tick, that lives on the outside of its host). Many puns about mites and ticks.


Figure 3. Lab-mate Evan takes control of the white board, and the puns. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

10:00 AM Meet with first research student of the day, supervise bird nest dissection and identification of building materials. Stare at twigs and grasses really hard to ensure they are indeed twigs and grasses, and not other materials like the stems of non-woody plants. This sounds simple, but is surprisingly difficult when you’ve been agonizing over a pile of dead plant material for some time.


Figure 4. A) A full nest of the Gray Catbird, viewed from above; B) Plastic material taken out of the nest, including a rye bread bag (we know it was rye because the ingredients list was still legible); C) shredded stems taken from the nest during dissection; D) pieces of bark from the nest, each item carefully selected by the female catbird. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

10:30 AM-1:30 PM Two new students come in, sorting leaf litter invertebrates and prepping samples that have already been sorted to be dried and weighed. Help identify cool critters, make hundreds of tiny labels for individual vials. At 12:30, realize we’ve been sorting inverts and labeling vials for 2 whole hours without music. Scoff, and pick a Pandora station.


Figure 5. A) Sorting inverts into groups and then vialing them; B) A view of a Diptera (fly) under the microscope, identified via the “nubbin” halteres; C) A spider under the microscope; D) Trays and trays of tiny vials full of inverts. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

1:30 PM Eat a quick lunch in the campus center, grab a giant iced coffee pick me up.

2:00 PM Meet with student about ectoparasite project. Help her ID and count mites that were found in nests over the summer and preserved in ethanol to be sorted during the semester.

2:30 PM Check two different email addresses. Respond to inquiries from my advisor about research, my fellow graduate students about a meeting for this blog (TLS), and undergrads about research hours.


Figure 6. Obligatory photo of a computer, because we use computers a lot. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

3:00 PM Accidentally check facebook during the work day out of habit, because it’s really hard not to do that when you’re checking email, let’s be honest.

3:30 PM Drag myself out of the facebook hole – I love watching videos of otters! And greet the final student of the day.


Figure 7. Screen grab of the otter video to tempt you to watch it. Otters are awesome. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

3:30-4:30 PM Work with student intermittently as she dissects nests. When she doesn’t have questions, I figure out which nest videos my students are going to watch tomorrow.


Figure 8. Screen grab of a Wood Thrush nest video, showing a big chick (right) next to its parent (left). The chick is distinguishable because it has not grown its tail yet! Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

4:30 PM Find nest videos on giant hard drive and upload them to lab computers for students to watch.

5:00 PM Finally sit down to read a paper in my field that a friend emailed to me. Am impressed that it is so relevant to my research, then quickly jump into anxiety as to how I hadn’t seen it sooner. It’s a year old, why didn’t it come up during any of my lit searches?!

5:30 PM Frantically lit search and download tons of new papers (that I still haven’t read) until my student cleans up and leaves at 6:00. Google Scholar is my friend.

6:00-6:15 PM Help my student finish up her nest dissection work by labeling tons of plastic bags for each material for her. We always go over time.


Figure 9. Bags and bags of separated nest materials. Photo Credit: Kit Straley.

6:30 PM Hit the road to go home, call the hubby to see what we’re eating for dinner. Realize we don’t have any groceries, and we both don’t feel like picking any up tonight.

7:05 PM Get home, greet the kitties, do a tick check and shower (recall – I was in the field this morning!).

7:20 PM Order food, decide to watch a TV episode (Stranger Things) on Netflix while we wait to pick it up.

7:50 PM Dinner, shove cat off table because he is too interested in my food.

8:20 PM Check emails again and check banding schedule for the next day. Realize I don’t have any clean clothes. Put laundry into the washer.

8:40 PM Read a paper while waiting for laundry to be switched over. Find that I am tired and reading the same sentence over and over. Switch to watching TV (finish Stranger Things!).

9:30 PM Try to fall asleep, struggle to turn off my brain which is constantly running through its most updated to-do list.

10:20 PM Fall asleep.

10:30 PM - 5:00 AM zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

5:00 AM Wake up, shower, feed cats, get breakfast.

5:40 AM Drive in to campus, rocking out to The Killers to wake up.

6:15 AM Meet up with friends for a fall migration mistnetting project…

As a graduate student, I wear many different hats during my day. I am a volunteer for my friend’s research, a mentor for my research undergraduates, a student who needs to keep up with her reading, and a human being who loves cats, needs food, and gets distracted by TV and the internet. Each day I make a little bit more progress towards finishing my project and my degree, all the while tackling small problems as they arise. It can be exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, and fun.

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