This is likely my last blog post as an undergraduate. With just 13 days until graduation, I’m beginning to feel both extremely proud and slightly panicked at the thought that for the first time in my memory, I will no longer be in school. The process of growing and becoming an adult is a slow one; I thought I was an adult when I turned 18, I thought I was an adult when I moved away to college, I thought I was an adult when I went abroad on my own, but in truth I realize how in many ways I am often still a child and how sheltered I have been my whole life. Transitioning to “the real world” after college seems so daunting and also so exciting. I have accepted a job as a research assistant for Kay Holekamp’s hyena research in Maasai Mara, Kenya, and in a little more than I month I will go off to start my first “real world” job. One thing I hadn’t realized about how appropriate the term “dream job” is, is how surreal it feels when you get it. I don’t think it will really hit me until I get off the plane in Kenya.
Even though I know I’m headed off to amazing possibilities, I’m still incredibly nervous. Big changes are stressful and always make me a little fearful of what is to come. Goodness knows there are a lot of big changes coming my way: not only am I about to graduate college, but I am moving to the other side of the world, and I have a beautiful baby nephew that I am still aching to hold for the very first time. I know this is perhaps digging too deep into the human psyche, but I think that transitions are so hard because they remind us of how so many things in life are transitory or ephemeral—nothing lasts, not even our bodies or our minds. But transitions are also a time to recognize that not all change is bad—we can reevaluate our lives, look to the future, and hope, dream, and strive like we never have before. I’m soaking up my last moments at Colorado College each day, and dreaming of East African savannahs each night.
Here are some notes from my last two blocks at CC. Enjoy.
(Written on the first day of my second-to-last class, which happened to fall on the Jewish holiday of Passover)
It’s hard not to draw parallels between Passover and the written works I am diving into with Intro to Feminist and Gender studies—from the messages of fighting against oppression and how we can never be truly free while others are enslaved, to simply the importance of telling and retelling an important story and empathizing with its message. In comparing the CC Seder with my one from back home, and the readings from my class, I’m also starting to notice how many different voices and retellings there are in the Passover story, and where certain similarities lie.
I couldn’t help but think during the Seder that, “of course, this is why I’m starting this class today. This is why it’s now and this is why it’s important.” I’ve grown up with a consciousness that slavery, injustice, and oppression have been and still are a part of this world. I have grown up being told at each Passover, “you are part of a group of people descendant not from kings but from slaves, and it is that experience of oppression that should inform your worldview.” No matter how sweet life seems, we must remind ourselves of the bitterness and that many in the world still suffer. At my Seder back home we also remind ourselves of how we are slaves in our own lives. It is not enough to look at global conflicts like Israel and Palestine—we must also look at how injustices are perpetrated closer to home. At how we are slaves and how we are enslavers. How we have an obligation to fight the complex, intertwined forces of oppression around us.
It’s by far the most feminist holiday I celebrate on a yearly basis. Of course religion hasn’t always championed women’s rights, but the message behind Passover I think is actually quite radical and I can see many connections to the feminist theory in my class.
I do consider myself a feminist, but I’ve spent far more time analyzing the messages of Passover than I have reading about the origins of the feminist movement. I think I’ve been having similar conversations to those I’m reading about in class for a long time in so many different contexts that it feels like suddenly they relate so easily and all fit together so well. Yet while we shared quotes by Audre Lorde and Holocaust stories and placed an orange on the Seder plate, I never really “did the knowledge.” I never delved into the history or the narratives. I never really learned about what was ultimately so fundamental to my upbringing and independence and my current belief system. This is why now is the perfect time for me to take this course.
I had a wonderful time in my Introduction to Feminist Thought class, which was a break from the sciences I’d been getting into before. I enjoyed my Population Genetics course block 6 so much that it was hard to transition out of the sciences, but I’m glad I did. You can read our group final project online at:
For my final block at CC, I’m taking Ornithology. I struggled over whether or not to take the class because it centers on an eight-day field trip to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona, which meant that I would miss a lot of important school events, including an awards ceremony where I was supposed to receive stoles for graduation. I finally decided to take it anyways, because I’ve wanted to take the class since freshman year, I like birds, and the field trip sounded incredible. Now, after returning from the trip, I think it was a wise decision after all.
The Chiricahua Mountains are a birding hotspot in the sky islands of southeast Arizona near the Mexican border. I was a bit dubious about our prospects when we were driving through miles and miles of desert to get to them, but that’s exactly why they’re so amazing—the mountains are an oasis amid an arid landscape. There are underground streams running intermittently through the area which draw in both local and migrating species, and the higher elevation and vegetation provides some relief from the heat. You can find a rich diversity of species portioned between the desert scrub, canyon riparian, oak woodland, and pine forest habitats.
We spent our time learning birdcalls and the main bird families, presenting on different families (I chose nuthatches, the Sittidae family), reading scientific articles, working on field projects, mist-netting and banding birds, and mainly walking around with binoculars looking and listening for the amazing variety of feathered creatures everywhere around us. We went owling multiple different nights. First we tried unsuccessfully to catch elf owls, although we found one nest and could hear them calling to each other in the trees. Elf owls are the world’s lightest owl (although flams do come close) and their call is one of my favorites. They sound as though they’re laughing uncontrollably, as if someone was tickling them.
We also went owling for whiskered screech owls multiple times and did finally catch one. Even though we spent several nights without a bird in hand, we visited a lot of beautiful places on our nigh hikes. We found one tall pine stand next to a creek that was stunningly beautiful even at night. Another night we tried to find owls in an empty creek bed next to a turkey vulture roost where maybe 50 birds were packed into one tree. Accidentally spooked them and they all took off at once, circling in the dark blue-black sky.
One of the day trips we took was to San Pedro, which was a creek on the floor of the desert a few hours away from the Chiricahuas. It deserves the title “oasis” even more than the Chiricahua Mountains. To walk to the creek we crossed through mesquite and tall dead grasses. The world turned from gray, yellow, and brown, to bright green as soon as we got to the river, and the temperature change was more than a little noticeable. We saw some colorful new birds and even tracked down a great horned owl nest that was almost impossible to see.
One of our last mornings we were very lucky that we got to assist Susan Wethington with hummingbird banding at the nearby Southwest Research Station. We worked with a group of researchers that Susan is training to go out to different stations, from Idaho to L.A., to Ecuador. Susan has set up an amazing system of hummingbird banding stations across North America to collect valuable information on the migration patterns and abundances of hummingbird species. Her engineer husband helped design a much better system for catching the birds in traps when they come to drink at feeders, and we got to help run the traps, as well as data record and feed the birds. When researchers catch hummingbirds at feeders, it’s important to feed them while the birds are in hand because they’re unlikely to come back and get the nectar that they needed in the first place, and it’s important that research not affect the survival of the birds. So my favorite job of the morning was holding the birds after the banders were done taking measurements and flying them into feeders by hand before releasing them.
However, one of the biggest foci of the trip was our group research proposal projects. We split up into groups and collected preliminary data that each group will use to write up a research proposal. The project I worked on with two other students, Patrick and Joe, was a high stakes-rewards kind of a project that was nerve-wracking but ultimately fruitful. In 2011, a wildfire spread through the mountains, a result of drought and fire suppression regimes that accumulated leaf litter on the forest floor, sparked by a few illegal immigrants who got caught in the cold after crossing the border from Mexico. The fire created a patchwork of burn severities across different ecosystems. We wanted to look at how bird territory size and density changed in different areas of different burn intensities. To do this, we would have to select a species to focus on, conduct transects using territorial song playbacks to locate them on the landscape and determine their density, and then spot map each individual (follow a singing bird around as it makes territorial calls) to determine the boundaries and size of each territory. Once we got to our campsite, we decided to focus on the dusky-capped flycatcher since we saw a few on our very first day and figured they must be at least somewhat abundant. We couldn’t find existing information on territory size so we decided transects with points spaced at 100 meters would be sufficient for a relatively small bird so that points wouldn’t be within the same territory; this meant that we would walk in a set direction into the Oak woodland, stop every 100 m to play a territorial call and record the burn severity, listen for a response, and keep going. One day we thought we could hear two birds singing simultaneously between the area where the trailers were parked and where our tents were pitched, and since there is usually only one vocal bird per territory, we assumed the 100 m was probably a good guess. We only realized later how faulty that assumption can be.
We only had three days to collect data after our initial scouting for potential field sites, but on the very first day of data collection, we were unable to locate a single territorial bird besides the one we already knew of in the campsite area. We found one bird that flew in low over the playback but didn’t call, which implied that it wasn’t an actual territory-holder and would be unusable for spot mapping. We were starting to worry whether after all of our work, we might end up without any data whatsoever, so on the second day we split up to increase our odds. I walked a transect from the east towards camp, and Patrick and Joe took a path in the other direction. Three points in, I finally thought I heard a bird. I paused the playback and listened, then started it again. A few moments later, a small gray and yellow bird zoomed in from the small valley below and perched on a tree above the playback, jerking its head from side to side and calling out its mournful-sounding peeer and its angrier chatter. When we all met back at camp, the guys had found two, potentially three other birds along the path. Suddenly, everything was reversed and we were back in action.
Our last day of fieldwork when we did spot mapping was illuminating. We quickly discovered that our previous assumptions about how big the dusky-capped flycatchers’ territories would be were completely off, and that 100 m didn’t even come close to being far enough; some of them appeared to be more than 200 m wide. Not only that, but we also found two vocalizing bird at every single site. Since they did not act aggressively towards each other, and it would be extremely unusual to encounter territorial fights that many times in one morning, we were forced to conclude that both the male and the female in a breeding pair will sing to defend their territory. This helped explain our confusion about the two birds we heard singing near each other at camp, and it also shed light on why the territories are so large—if both males and females defend the territory, then it can be larger than normal (or vice versa, if the territory is too large to hear confrontations at either end, then the birds need to have both members of the mating pair defending it). This also may explain why we didn’t find any other birds our first day; it’s entirely possible that we spent most of the morning in just one bird’s territory, or that the territories are large enough that the bird was too far away to hear the callback.
It was exhilarating to chase after the birds through the oak woodland, up and down rocky hills and talus slopes, over barbed wire fences, and across creeks. It was so satisfying to finally catch sight of the bird after narrowing down the tree by its call. We also quickly agreed that dusky-capped flycatchers are adorable birds. I wish we could actually do the study we’re proposing.
By the end of the trip I was pretty sad to leave the Chiricahuas. On the way back, we stopped at Bosque del Apache for a night to break up the drive and look at waterfowl, which was a great way to round off the trip.
This has been a really good class for me to take now. At first I was sad about being gone so long during my final class, but this really is what I love. When it comes down to it, there’s not much of anything I’d rather be doing than getting outside, learning about cool animals, and then helping to add to that knowledge. It is so clear to me that field research is what I need to do with my life.