It’s been a few years since I last wrote in this blog, and I figured it’s time to start updating it again. Much has changed since I first started writing on this site, and my life and career trajectories have shifted in ways I never would have predicted.


When I wrote my first post, if I had looked to the future, I think I would have envisioned myself as the next great tropical ecologist—traveling to distant countries, unraveling mysteries of biogeography, ecological evolution, and complex species interactions in pristine, remote wilderness. While those scientific questions still motivate my curiosity, the experiences I have chronicled on this blog made me realize that if I achieved that goal, it would not be enough, and it would come at a cost. I have shifted my priorities towards applied conservation, along with the ways that I view people and ecosystems; I am focusing on solving real world problems in my own communities, where I have the greatest capacity to make positive change.


It’s taken a year and a half, but Berkeley is finally starting to feel like home, and I have forged a stimulating and supportive community here. The students are brilliant but not destructively competitive, I have friends and mentors, and I am balancing work and fun in ways I never could have a few years ago.


This semester is likely going to be the most stressful in my career, since it’s the time when I will hopefully be taking my qualifying exams, or “quals” as we call them. In grad school for a PhD, each program is a little different, but most include some sort of test when you advance from a PhD student to a PhD candidate to indicate that you are prepared to carry out your own research. In our program, this consists of an oral exam in which a panel of four professors (you get to choose, but they can’t include your advisor) asks you questions about your focal topics and at the end, tell you whether your answers were sufficiently impressive enough to allow you to continue with the program. The sheer intimidation of an exam where one possible outcome is “thank you for your two years of study, now pack up and go home” drowns out any reasonable assurance that very few people ever fail. That being said, I am also fairly excited to read in-depth about an array of topics that I care deeply about, with a group of insanely smart, talented professors.


With any luck, I’ll be able to find time to do my readings without going insane from stress, still spend some time outside, and even write an occasional blog post now and then. So stay tuned!


Now that I’m back in the U.S., I’ve been spending my time applying for graduate schools. I always expected that I would have a light bulb moment when in an instant I would know exactly where and in what I should do my doctorate, but instead it’s been a slow build that has drawn me to a place where I feel confident and excited to embark on this next step, wherever it may lead me.


I’ve been thinking a lot about what I learned in Trinidad, and as I’m sitting down to write this multiple months after the fact, I’m grateful for how that internship clarified my research interests. Going from other internships where I’ve had more managerial responsibilities to this one in which I had none, it gave me a chance to relax and observe how the project is run. I could compare this to what I might do in similar situations, without the stress of actually making those decisions. I realized that while I will always gravitate towards people who can teach me something new or challenge my ways of thinking scientifically, I want to be more than a field tech. Even though playing around in the jungle is exciting, I care a lot about the theory and science behind what I do and ultimately feel more fulfilled when I have a role in shaping the questions and methodology rather than just carrying out the fieldwork.


Most of all, I felt as though I pushed my boundaries and sense of comfort while I was in Trinidad. I remember one time when we were finishing up Elena’s project and we discovered another waterfall slide. This one was much, much shorter than the Taylor slide, but for some reason, once I got to the top I was petrified. I guess the fear of drowning that had spawned after the plunge at Taylor was too fresh in my mind, but I knew that there was very little possibility of getting injured on this much shorter drop. I was shocked at my body turned traitor and the way it refused to let me jump. Our manager John was absolutely wonderful, and sat at the top and waited for me to get over my fears, while we talked through my stumbling block. He’s had a lot to overcome in his own life and is fearless to the point of becoming an adrenaline junky, but it was so refreshing to have his carpe diem perspective at that moment of indecision. Finally, after far longer than it should have taken, I took a deep breath, plugged my nose, and pushed off. This time, when I hit the water, I didn’t inhale, and it was shallow enough that I quickly found the bottom and stood up. Moreover, it was fun. There were so many moments like that on this trip where I was scared (rationally or not) and worked through it. That’s what I love about this line of work—there’s always something unexpected, and I’m constantly learning not just about the natural world, but about myself as well.




My final month in Trinidad was the highlight of my time there. Because the recap team members are on staggered three-month shifts, it was an almost entirely new group my final month and it was fun to help train the two new interns. Every group of people has a different dynamic, and different personalities that mesh well or clash with each other; while I got along with every single person in my first two months, the combination of personalities was far more harmonious my final month. I was so busy that I didn’t take any notes while I was there, so here are a few highlights.

Before the recaps started, we took a boat tour through the Coroni Swamp. It’s a famous park in Trinidad where you can find their national bird, the Scarlet Ibis. We saw flounders peering at us from their froglike eyes above the water, tree snakes coiled above our heads, silky anteaters dozing in the bushes, and finally, yes, the impossibly colored ibises. They were brilliantly bright, and the flocks of them set a striking image against the dusky sky.

coroni swamp, scarlet ibiscoroni swamp, scarlet ibiscoroni swamp, scarlet ibis

One of our managers for the final month was named Jack. He was not an entirely unfamiliar presence since he had been Josh’s intern working with the rivs. He had been working in Trinidad for multiple years with the guppies and on other projects, and seemed utterly at home there. In my mind I started nicknaming him “Jungle Jack” because he would frequently disappear into the forest and reappear with bananas, mangoes, nutmeg spice, or heartwood for making machete handles. He was unpredictable and highly knowledgeable; if you could keep up with him, you were always assured an adventure and probably some insights (but if you couldn’t, you were liable to wind up lost off-trail). Between him and his girlfriend Robyn, who had worked at Asa Wright and was an incredible birder and a very thoughtful person, I soaked up as much information as I could about the jungle in that final month. Chris, Robyn, Seba (one of the new interns, from Italy), and I often went on birding excursions and found a wonderful array of species, from trogons and tanagers to parrots and antshrikes.

During that final month, David Reznick, the researcher who runs the guppy project, came out to visit. He only had a little over a week in the country, but he took us out collecting guppies in parts of the country I’d never been to. One collection site we visited was at a colonial-style mansion that had been taken over by the jungle. Its white-washed walls were covered with vines, plants poked through its broken windows, and its columns sunk into the mossy ground, all bathed in shafts of sunlight through a break in the rains. While he was around, David gave us guppy talks on some of the various aspects of the project and explained a lot of the background concepts and history of the research.



For my final break, we traveled to Petite Taka Rib, an isolated section of coast along the northern part of the island. We got there on an incredible motor-boat journey, speeding between rocky spires and the shoreline, while pelicans wheeled overhead. We stayed with an old friend of Jack’s who lived in a shack overlooking the waves and rented out simple rooms to beachgoers. We relaxed on the beach and played in the rough waves, while Jack and Robyn maneuvered their paddleboard like a surfboard.

petite taka rib

Our kitchen at petite taka rib

A short hike through the jungle brought us to another beach, this one with a small cove for snorkeling. I spent hours paddling around exploring the new underwater landscape. This area required much more attention to my surroundings, with strong waves and large underwater boulders, and an aggressive current near the mouth of the cove. I had to circle a large tower of rock in the middle, giving it enough leeway that a strong push wouldn’t crash me into it; and on either side the rocks were sharp and shallow. But the challenge gave me something to work against, and I watched the schools of colorful grunts hiding on the leeside of the coral clumps, pumping their own fins against the tide. There were aggressive damselfish and colorful wrasses that darted between protective clumps of coral. The bottom was full of coarse pebbles and shells, a beautiful mosaic background for the colorful fish that moved above it.


Finally, Robyn came to get me and announced it was time for the much-anticipated football game. Ashley, one of the interns, had arranged an Americans-versus-Europeans flag football game on the beach at dusk. We played until we ran out of light, explaining some of the more obscure rules to the dubious Brits, and I even scored a few touchdowns, but the Europeans got the final point and immediately declared it too dark to continue. We hiked our way back and dried off while drinking rum and watching the stars come out.


That night, we took a walk along the beach and were incredibly lucky to see a sea turtle coming to shore to look for places to lay her eggs. She was impossibly large, even though I knew she was rather small for a sea turtle, and looked ancient and prehistoric. She labored slowly along the beach, leaving strange marks in the sand from her flippers, and ignored us all as she maintained her line back into the waves.



In the final days before I left, we took a last trip to see the oilbirds. Oilbirds are wholly unique creatures and are one of the big birding draws for Trinidad (although they also live in South America). They are the only bird in the world that is both nocturnal and frugivorous (eats fruit), while still retains the ability to fly. They’re colonial nesters and can pack into caves by the thousands. They are able to find their way in the darkness with a combination of stellar eyesight, and echolocation. Yes, that’s right, echolocation. They are the only birds known to science that have that ability. Asa Wright, the island’s famous nature center, owns the most well-known cave, but heavily controls access to it out of concern for disrupting nesting behavior. It’s an important step to mitigate peoples’ impact on the birds, but their requirement that you spend two nights at their resort before you can be guided to the cave seemed ridiculous to us when we lived just down the road (not to mention that it means the local people don’t have access to viewing these unique animals). Instead, Jack took us to a different oilbird cave outside of our little valley.


The first time I embarked on the oilbird trek was actually the end of my first month in Trinidad, when Jack took a group of us to the cave as a send-off for the grad student Josh. We parked along an unremarkable stretch of winding jungle road and started off as the sun was setting and unseen dogs howled from nearby homes. Already dark beneath the canopy, we hiked up a small rocky stream before turning off to a muddy trail. At first, I gloried in hiking without a heavy pack full of fish, but the slippery, steep, rocky, dark trail soon exhausted me nonetheless. We struggled up the twisty path, through dense thickets of heliconia and banana that overhung the path and gave it a distinctly adventurous feel. The second time I hiked it, the trail somehow seemed even longer than the first time. We were rewarded my final time with a brief glimpse of the elusive brocket deer, now almost hunted to extinction. On the first trip, however, the heliconias and bananas disguised a large leafy plant that was covered with spikes growing directly out of the leaf face that immediately stabbed through my pants and left thistle-like welts that soon stung with sweat. Despite that and the frequent muddy slipping, it was a rewarding hike, with plenty of large colorful spiders, long centipedes, and even the occasional bird before it got too dark. A few times, Jack characteristically disappeared into the darkness and left us to intuit the way, returning with large, hard nutmeg seeds, covered by red rubbery strings of mace. We stopped for a rest at a small creek to watch the rivulus fish and Josh showed us the (mostly unsuccessful) technique for catching them by hand.


Finally, we crested the ridge and felt the blast of cool breeze that flowed up to the spine of the mountain. Tall, amorphous and twisting ficus trees ringed the small clearing. On the second hike, a nearly full moon greeted us from a clear sky. Maybe it was just how tired I was by that time in the hike, but on both trips that spot felt magical. Then came the deep rocky descent to the cave. As we began to climb down, we started to hear something below. Jack had gone ahead and was lost in the darkness, so we could only whisper to ourselves about what it might be. Holly mentioned hearing that oilbirds have pretty crazy calls, so we tried to discern the strange noises as we descended the mountainside. The calls got louder, and considerably more disturbing—something of a mix between barks and screams that reminded me of howler monkeys. By the time we got down to the mostly dried-out creek bed we figured that the sound could only be one of two things: oilbirds, or a horde of monstrous nightmare beasts.

As we approached the giant black gap in the mountainside, framed by jagged dark rock smoothed and pitted by seasonal water flow, its looming darkness stretching above us and dropping down like a tunnel to the center of the earth, I was immensely thankful that I knew that the source of the noise was actually a colony of birds, and not a swarm of ghouls that was about to burst forth and attack. The scene was decidedly eerie. From the cave, there was a cacophony of sound: hisses, screams, rattles, throaty croaks, and caws all echoing over on each other and amplified by the cave entrance. It reminded me of the sounds I heard at carcasses in the Mara—hyenas whooping and giggling, vultures hissing, and maybe the moan of a wounded wildebeest—but all layered together, and much, much louder. I cannot imagine being the first person to walk into that cave, not knowing what lay inside; if I had found the place on my own before I’d heard about oilbirds, I don’t know that I would have the guts to go in.


The joke of all of this is that the animals making these horrific noises are mottled brown, dumpy birds with overly wide mouths and whiskered faces, who are busy regurgitating fruit pulp into their incredibly fat babies that are twice the size of the parents and sit in a “nest” made of bird shit. Not exactly a threatening animal. That description (and the smell) aside, they can be quite beautiful animals. They look almost hawk-like in flight, and they flutter like a pigeon while they navigate using echolocation, spreading their wings and showing off the striking white spots on their flight feathers. They blend in with the rock face, but every sweep of the flashlight reveals more fluttering activity, more large eyes staring back from ever deeper in the winding tunnel of a cave.

We didn’t want to impact the birds too much, so we tried to use red lights or just turn off the headlamps every few minutes and sit in darkness, listening to the waves of noise and occasionally feeling the brush of an air current as one flew over our heads. The second trip was no less impressive, and it was a childish sort of fun to watch the others’ react to the menacing sounds for the first time. It’s by no means an easy hike, but well worth the trip, and remains one of my favorite moments from my time in Trinidad.

After the second recap, most of the crew that I’d been working with was leaving, so we decided to get one last trip in as a group and headed to Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago are one country, but the two islands that comprise it are different in many ways. Trinidad is actually closer to the coast of Venezuela than it is to Tobago, and the cultures and wildlife have developed with 19 miles of ocean between them. We were all pretty burned out after an accelerated recap and were looking for a change of pace and especially a beautiful beach getaway.


Procuring the tickets for the trip was stressful to say the least. We had actually planned to go to Tobago the previous break, but were unable to get tickets. This time we thought we’d be fine getting them a month in advance, but even then the ferry tickets were sold out. Holly was especially devastated since she’d come out to this internship many times before and had never made it to Tobago. We tried to come up with an alternative plan, but it started to look like everything would fall through in the end. Finally, two days before we were supposed to leave and I was starting to figure we would have to come up with something very last minute to get us there, Andy’s trini girlfriend managed to find us six tickets for the ferry.


That was not the end of our troubles, however, as we found out the next morning, blearily navigating the long predawn check-in “lines” at the ferry terminal. It turns out that there was a misprint on the tickets and the date was wrong, so we had to go to a different line and get the date officially changed before then going back to the original queue and rechecking in. Ordinarily this extra hour of standing in lines wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that ferries in Trinidad are notorious for being the one thing in the country that actually leaves on time. Thanks to some very helpful ferry employees who got us to the right queue and rushed us to the front, we made it onto the boat mere minutes before it set off. It was a beautiful day and although I watched the scenery for a short while, there wasn’t really a viewing deck and I was worried about getting seasick so I just slept through most of the journey. Once we arrived in Tobago we wandered around hungrily and grumpily for a couple of hours before we found food and arranged a car to Charlottesville where we were renting a house from someone in Pat’s family (our local grocer).


The drive was beautiful. There is one main road in Tobago that runs around the island’s coast, so we watched the palm trees and beachside towns roll by as we drove up and down coastal mountains. Along the beaches near Scarborough, the Capitol of Tobago, there were massive mats of red kelp that covered the shores. Our driver said it had started washing up about six months ago, and there was tons of it everywhere. Every once in a while we would drive past small landfills of oozing kelp mounds that people had piled on the sides of the road with backhoes in order to clear the beach. We were worried that our destination might have been inflicted too, but the northern side of the island soon cleared to sparkling white sandy beaches.


It was clear even on the drive how different Trinidad and Tobago are. The roads were the first thing we noticed, which were newly paved and clearly painted, not at all like the confusingly signed, potholed, narrow roads we were used to in Trinidad. The island life on Tobago seems entirely more laid back, a bit more orderly or clean, and much more oriented around the ocean. Even the dogs are less aggressive and considerably friendlier.




At last we arrived in Charlottesville and drove up the steep narrow road to Dr. P’s Resort that became our home for the next few days. “Resort” may be a bit of a stretch, but the price was more than reasonable, and it was at least as comfortable as the guppy house.


A short walk down the hill from where our rental house perched was a small inlet called Pirate’s Bay. We wasted little time getting down to the beach and swimming around. There was a rock out at the mouth of the Bay that the others wanted to go check out. I was a little nervous since it was a ways out, and the waves were a little stronger farther from shore (recall my previous reference to my lack of swimming prowess), but I decided there were enough competent swimmers around that I wasn’t going to drown. I dog paddled out to the rock and we perched together on the sharp, pocked edges of the rock, watching pelicans and small fishing boats, before swimming back to shore.


The next day I brought along my snorkeling gear. With a wetsuit, mask, and fins on, my whole ability and comfort in the water changes. Suddenly, I know I could (and do) spend hours floating in the water without a care, safe in the security of added buoyancy and distracted by a magical tumult under the waves. Pirate’s Bay was suddenly transformed: the very rock I had struggled to paddle out to the other day was an effortless swim, and the rock itself was revealed as the exposed tip of a coral reef. I was both horrified (for the damage I might have unknowingly done) and thrilled to discover that the crunchy bottom of the beach I had stubbed my toe on was actually covered with small polyps, with fish darting everywhere between my fins. Damselfish flashed by, parrotfish munched on coral, hundreds of anchovies swirled around with scales so shiny they seemed electric, and even a miniature octopus slunk behind a rock below me. I proceeded to spend every possible moment of the trip paddling around the Bay, watching the fish and letting the gentle bobbing of the ocean take me through incredible new worlds. Even after my waterproof camera decided it was finished with all of its undersea glory (which explains the lack of photos I have from the trip) I had a hard time pulling myself back onto the beach to play football with the others or relax on the sand.




When I wasn’t snorkeling (which wasn’t often), I went with the others into the town. There was a laidback little shop in town by the beach where we would sit and watch the sunset, drink cool beers, and nibble on snacks. The owner, Javed, looked like a Rastafarian Treebeard from Lord of the Rings, and gave us access to the fridge as long as we kept track of what we took and paid him at the end of the day.


It was there, drying off on Javed’s wooden benches, that Andy introduced us to some of his friends he’d met from his previous trips to the island. Bash was a young man who volunteered with sea turtle protection on the beaches farther south, guarding the baby turtles from poachers as they make their way across the beach to the ocean. He invited me to go with him one night, but I decided it probably wasn’t so safe to head off in the middle of the night on a boat to somewhere I didn’t know, alone with a guy I’d just met. But my goodness I wish I could’ve seen some baby turtles. Instead, I stayed with the others as we got drunk on puncheon (the high proof rum that is a higher concentration of alcohol than the ethanol we used to clean the lab) and wandered around town.


The next day dawned blearily and hung-over. I was probably in a better position than many of the others, but when I headed down to the Bay that morning, the waves were something I knew I would have to contend with rather than enjoy. The taste of salt water on my snorkel mouthpiece made me feel nauseous, but the siren’s call of the reef was too strong, and the teeming life on the reef provided the distraction I needed to ignore my pounding headache.

Soon a few of the others stumbled their way down to the beach, and after a while one of Andy’s friends pulled up in his motorboat. I don’t remember his name any more, but he was broad and toughened by the sea, impossibly muscular, with long dreads, huge hands, a giant smile and an easy laugh. He pulled me on board and Andy and Chris joined. We headed out to help him with his day job: fishing. It felt as though our captain purposely steered out to the choppiest possible water, and with every swell I cursed puncheon and tried not to hurl. Andy’s friend brought out spools of fishing line with multiple hooks on the end. He baited them with chunks of smaller fish, and let it spool out behind us, running the line through his fingers. Soon enough we started bringing in fish. Impossibly red Snappers, eyes bulging and spiky fins flapping, were pulled up and unceremoniously tossed in a cooler. Eventually a long grey kingfish almost too big to hold followed, and towards the end we caught some kind of dark, speckled grouper. I figured the smell of fish and watching them gasp and wriggle at my feet, combined with the bobbing of the boat was just about the worst possible thing I could do on a hangover, but it was too interesting to pass up. Our captain told about how the fishing had changed, and we stared at the bleached reefs farther off the island. Overall, he didn’t seem too worried about the future, but then again, no one in Tobago seems too worried about anything. After we got back, Andy helped him clean the fish at the large fish cleaning hut on the beach where the fishermen congregated to chop and bag their hauls and laugh at the American deboning snappers. We watched while red, grey, and green scales scattered across the concrete sinks and stray cats and gulls waited on the periphery to steal scraps.


That evening, we invited a bunch of Andy’s fishermen friends over and they cooked us a meal. Ordinarily, I’m a vegetarian, but after seeing the whole process through from start to finish, I decided to make an exception. Our captain is also in incredible chef, and he made a coconut fish stew, orzo, and fried fish. He laughed when I ate the fish heads with the other local men, saying that the tourists didn’t usually have the guts to eat that part. It was the best meal of my entire time in Trinidad and Tobago, and a wonderful cap to our island getaway trip.


I’m sitting on the porch watching hummingbirds drink from our newly-restored feeder, keeping an eye on the Ani’s nest in the mango tree as they defend it from wandering tegu lizards, and generally relaxing and enjoying being on break.

Between our monthly guppy captures, we get a week or so off to recuperate, relax, explore the area, and help out grad students with their other projects. We were originally going to go to Tobago this break, but there’s only one ferry this month and tickets sold out too quickly. Instead, we’ve been taking short trips and other day-by-day adventures (including a trip to the dump with our mechanic Albert to see black vultures).

One of the de facto interns, Elena, is in undergrad at Oxford and is here to work on her own guppy experiment, so we kicked off the break by helping her catch her guppies from a stream near a reservoir farther south in an area where you need a permit to get into the gate. It was fun to fish in a totally different area, and I noticed how much easier it was to catch these naive little fish compared to our guppies who definitely seem to remember our dip nets. The coloration on the males was also noticeably different. I’ve been reading Beak of the Finch, which is a book about researchers in the Galapagos, but it also mentions guppy research that was going on before this specific project started. That previous research also looked at evolution with guppies, but it focused on coloration, and I could see what they mentioned in the book playing out in real life. The book describes how males in high and low predation regions have different coloration: brighter colors and more blues in low predation, more subtle colors and reds in higher predation areas. The males we caught in this natural low predation area were definitely more colorful than our focal guppies, which originally came from high predation streams and have been evolving in a low predation environment since their transfer. Catching Elena’s guppies gives an insight into what our focal guppies might one day look like if they evolve long enough.



The recap itself was a lot of work. I’m definitely still learning the ropes of fishing even though I’m supposed to be a pro now that I’ve finished my first round of captures. The final fishing day was also a particularly bizarre experience. It had be pouring for several days, and when we were processing the last batch of fish we had noticed a lot more insects than usual had come out after the rains. But nothing prepared us for the swarms that day when we went out to fish Upper Lalaja. As we started fishing, the rains let up and the termites came out in full force. The air was soon thick with flying brown bodies, careening into each other and us, getting caught in our collection buckets, our hair, and even down our shirts. Termites swarm after rains in coordinated masses called “nuptial flights” when special winged males and females leave their colonies in droves big enough to overwhelm potential predators. They mate en mass, and start digging out new colonies in the now-damp ground. Because the termites will shortly be heading underground, their wings are only temporary and will shed off easily, which means that their discarded wings soon coat every surface during and after these frenetic sandstorms of insects. Fishing through this maelstrom, so thick it actually impeded our vision at times, was distracting to say the least, especially on the last day of a long recap. However, the termites did seem to scare off the mosquitoes for once, so as far as I was concerned, they were welcomed guests.




Coming back from one of the last fishing days, I discovered that one of my boots had fallen off the back of the truck. Since proper wading boots are critical gear for our work, John helpfully offered to drive with me back to look for it. By the time we found the boot, it had grown dark. In the light of the headlights, we saw something move on the side of the road. At first, I thought it was a rat or a possum, but it was waving something in the air over its head. We got closer, and we realized that it was a gigantic tarantula, making itself appear even larger by putting its arms over its head, apparently trying to convince the truck to back down.




One morning during the break, Robyn, a friend of the guppy project who does a lot of different research work in the area, invited Chris and me to come birding with her and Darshan, a researcher who lives in another town closer to the capital, Port of Spain. We headed out at 5am and eventually made our way to the Coroni rice fields west of the airport. We met up with a naturalist group and started our birding adventure.


The area was fairly flat, wet, and agricultural, and reminded me of some of the channels and fields around Klamath Falls. Even though we were mostly looking at water birds, the mix was different from what I was expecting. Usually in that sort of habitat with ponds and canals, I see a lot of ducks, but on this trip small wading birds predominated. The birding in Trinidad is very interesting. As a tropical island, it has a strange feeling of being both incredibly bursting with colorful birds but also comparatively constrained in species, since the tropics increases diversity, but being an island decreases it at the same time, so it ends up feeling like a sample platter of what South America has to offer.


Some of my favorite sightings of the day were a long-winged harrier, masked yellowthroat warblers, and introduced common waxbills. After the rice fields we stopped briefly at the Coroni marshes, a mangrove swamp, where the highlight was a common black hawk hunting on the ground.

It was fun to bird with the group, since it was mostly Trinis and a surprising number of them were my age or younger. They were all very welcoming and not at all competitive like some birding groups can be in the US. It was really neat to get to participate in the local naturalist and conservation scene.




On another night of the break, we all went to a Cricket match in Port of Spain. I didn’t know anything about the sport beforehand, but it sounded fun so I went along. It ended up being delayed for two hours due to rain, and they cut the game short so it wouldn’t get out too late, but we had fun watching the crowd, chatting, eating, and waiting for the game to start. Once the match was really underway, the energy of the crowd was intoxicating. Everybody cheered and screamed and groaned together. I learned more about the rules as the match went on and in the end I quite enjoyed it. It was a very close match, and it came down to the final ball, but Trinidad ended up losing by a single point.




One morning of break we decided to go for a spontaneous beach trip. We grabbed towels and bathing suits and quickly hustled out the door. We took our time driving down to the coast, stopping for beers and snacks along the way. Finally, when we got to the beach, it started pouring, so we killed time by looking for lunch. We got some kind of orzo fried rice and the others had fried meat at a roadside bar/restaurant/convenience store that sold everything from behind a metal grate. After that, we drove down to Blanchassures beach and waited for the rain to stop at an overpriced German restaurant where we met an engineer who was building a bridge to the president’s guesthouse.


At long last, the final drizzles petered out, and we made our way to the water. The sand was bright and beautiful, but the beach got rocky and quickly dropped off into choppy waves. Luckily, this spot was at the confluence where a river met the ocean, so when I’d had enough of the crashing sea, there was a calm lagoon with warm water just a few feet away. We splashed around for a while looking at tadpoles and luxuriating in the water before we had to head back home again.



Throughout this break, we’ve all been helping out Josh, the only grad student currently out here. He’s continuing work on the Rivulus project. Rivulus hartii, or killifish, are the only other fish in the streams with our focal guppies, and before guppies were introduced in these stretches, were the only fish in these higher elevation streams. Rivulus will eat smaller guppies, but in general it seems like their biggest impact is more in sharing space and resources. So by comparing Rivulus (rivs for short) in control regions upstream with our focal areas of introduced guppies, we can monitor how guppies impact their closest competitor, and vice versa. This helps us better understand all the links in the web of interactions going on in these freshwater streams.


And it turns out that rivs are pretty cool fish. I thought guppies seemed quite tough to be able to handle us hiking them out of the river in bottles and sticking them with needles full of elastomer to mark them, but the rivs are even tougher. We can collect them in plastic Ziploc bags, grab them with bare hands, and generally not worry as much while processing them. These fish seem to have made their living by being hardier than other fish and living where others can’t access. For instance, how did rivs even get to these higher elevation stretches? After all, part of the reason the project chose these streams for guppy introductions in the first place was because they are frequently punctuated by waterfalls and are rocky enough that fish supposedly cannot move up or down stream. Rivs, of course, are the exception to this exclusionary rule. This is because they actually move from one section of stream to another on land. They can flip themselves out of a river and flop their way to a new one. As long as their skin is moist, they can still breathe, and can survive for hours out of water. Josh told me a bit of scientific folklore about someone who once tried to euthanize unwanted Rivulus by putting them in the freezer overnight, only to find them still alive when they pulled the fish out again the next day. Overall, a very impressive fish.


The only catch is that while guppies are active during the day, rivs are mostly nocturnal. This means that when Josh goes to survey his fish, he has to go night fishing. I’ve gone out three times so far and I actually quite enjoy it, but I think I may be the only one of the guppy fishers who finds the jungle at night to be more intriguing than frightening. I like how the chaos of the forest gets condensed into one point of light in front of me; I can focus more on the details of what little I can see, and I hear the noises of the jungle more acutely.


Luckily, we don’t have to take as much gear for the riv fishing, and we fish based on effort (timed depending on number of fishers, usually an hour and a half) rather than trying to catch every single riv in the stream like we do for guppies. For me, this makes riv fishing a fun chance to try something new.


Some of my favorite moments from riv fishing have been seeing some of the animals that we encounter during the day suddenly become more active at night. Crabs are everywhere, moving their funny mouthparts and scuttling around. Fishing spiders take over at night, and we even saw a fishing scorpion, dipping its claws in the water. A small orange rat joined me one night, climbing the long overhanging vegetation beside the river. Snakes are more active at night and Josh is one of the few to see a bushmaster. As we hike in along the Guanapo river I’ve been surprised at how much I can pick up below the water as I walk by with my headlamp. My favorites are the large catfish with their long beards and eyes that glow in the light of my flashlight beam. Plus, how can I not love fireflies all around at night?


A fishing spider. They really come alive at night.

A guppy introduction

Note: Thanks for being patient while my blog has been on hiatus this year. I was in the process of applying to graduate schools and so writing for this has taken a back seat. I took some notes while I was in Trinidad, however, so I’ve been piecing a few posts together from that. Unfortunately, it’s now been a long time and I’ve forgotten a lot already so I won’t be able to cover my time there in as much detail as usual. More posts to come from my time in Oregon.




My first week in Trinidad has been a tropical rush of activity. After a week I’m already covered in bug bites and heat rash, one toenail is about to fall off, I’ve twisted my ankle, and I’m having a wonderful time. I got here after the captures were already underway and just sort of jumped in. Since then it’s been constant activity and the chaos has been intensely exciting.


I arrived at night and after exchanging money and discovering that my cell phone wouldn’t work with the local SIM cards, I met up with John, one of the managers, and Eliza, an intern from the Guppy project. They led me out to the beat up old blue Hilux truck and then we loaded up and drove into the humid night. John asked me what my first expectations about Trinidad were, and I wasn’t quite sure but somehow the country fit perfectly with what I had expected—a mix of all the other tropical places I’ve traveled with its own Caribbean take on island life. As we sped along the dark streets, Eliza pumped up the local Soca music (a mix of soul and Calypso popularized by the Trini Carnival) and I let the warmth of the night wash over me. There’s a certain smell to the tropics—a damp, sweet, living-yet-decaying stench that I associate with jungles and didn’t even realize that I missed until it came wafting through the car windows.


The guppy house is a large cement building on the side of a hill that the project rents from a local chicken farmer. It’s a chaotic assortment of rooms, things, people, and fish tanks. Seven researchers share the house at a time, and there’s also another building next door where other people who aren’t working on the main guppy mark recapture study stay. When I got in that first night most people were in bed (an occurrence I have now realized is relatively rare; most of the interns are night owls) so I met a few of the others and then unpacked a little and went to bed.


The next day I met the other manager Andy, and the other interns Holly, Chris, and Elena, as we jumped right into collections. The basic idea of the guppy project is an elegantly simple study design that’s intended to look at how guppies (a small tropical fish) evolve in response to predators and the density of other guppies. The guppy project has an extensive website (http://cnas.ucr.edu/guppy/) with a lot more details, but the basic design is an introduction experiment. The project took guppies from a downstream section of river that has a high predation and low guppy density environment (with lots of bigger fish that eat the guppies and keep the population levels low). They reared these fish in a controlled lab environment for a generation or two, and then introduced them to a new, low predation upstream segment with only one other fish species. Now they’re watching how subsequent generations evolve to see whether they will develop characteristics of low predation guppies over time. For instance, one of the concepts that the project is testing is Life History Theory, which essentially posits that fish in low predation environments (areas with few predators) should be most successful if they produce fewer offspring but invest more energy in each one, so that they will be good competitors; conversely, fish in high predation environments (ones with lots of predators) should invest much less energy in each offspring and should instead produce as many as possible, to maximize the possibility that some of their offspring will make it past the predators. One alternative hypotheses is that population density, not predators, is the major control of life history traits.


The main process by which researchers test these various hypotheses relies on a monthly census of each individually marked guppy to measure their physical dimensions and take scales for genetic analyses. However this first means that someone has to catch each guppy each month, which is where the interns (of which I am now one) come in. We have four different study streams: Caigual, Taylor, Upper Lalaja, and Lower Lalaja. I came in after the others had already fished Caigual, so my first day on the job was fishing Taylor.

The basic process on fishing days goes like this: the first person up in the morning cranks up the stereo to wake everyone else up, then we munch on breakfast as we get our personal field gear ready, put tape on bottles so that we can mark them later, and then load them into packs along with buckets, nets, chemicals for “med water,” funnels, measuring tape, and a first aid kit. My assigned item to keep track of is “guppy glass” which are clear plastic rectangles that when held against the surface of the water help you see between ripples. After we’re all packed we load into vehicles and drive for 45 minutes to the study sites, and hike in from there, 40 minutes more or less farther in (depending on the site). We hike down to the riverbed and the hike along and in the river from there, climbing up waterfalls and wading deep pools where needed.

Once at the sites, we run a measuring tape along the length of the stream and split up and catch fish. We have to catch 95% of the guppies in the stream, and we keep track of which guppies come from which pool or riffle along the tape, so the whole processes takes many, many hours. We separate male and female guppies into separate buckets as we fish and then put them into bottles marked with the specific section of the river where we caught them. We use a variety of different methods to catch in the various water features of the streams: everything from fast shallow riffles to waist-high pools. Once we’ve covered the whole stream and swapped places to double check each others’ work (and especially to give those fishing the never-ending pools a break), we pack the fish up and head back out. Of course, when we’re each carrying 40-plus pounds of water, fish, and supplies in a pack and hiking up waterfalls, that can be easier said than done.


Some of the many bottles of fish to pack out after a day of fishing

The next day or two after we catch fish is processing. This is when we fish each guppy out of its tank, put it to sleep using a chemical bath, read the marks if it’s a recaptured fish or mark it if it’s new, weigh it, and photograph it with a ruler for measurements. I’m mostly still just doing photographs, but occasionally I’ll work data recording. With over 1000 fish per site, this takes about two days.

guppy house lab

The guppy house lab where we process fish

One of the most common questions I get about the guppy project is how we mark the fish. We’re talking about guppies that are generally about as long as a US quarter (we often use our thumb fingernail to judge whether a fish meets the minimum length requirement to catch, so that gives a sense of the smaller size end), so their miniature size prohibits the use of something like tags. Instead, we essentially give the guppies tattoos. We have multiple different colors and numbered locations on a fish that allow us to create a unique identity for each fish (for example 1W6V would be a fish with a white mark on the 1 position and a violet mark on the 6 position). The managers use colored elastomers in needles to inject a small mark in each new fish and read the ones of marked fish under a microscope while the fish are sedated.


Finally, after processing we pack all the fish back into their bottles, hike them back out to their stream, and release them in the same spot we collected them. Then we get ready to start the whole process all over again.




After we released at Taylor stream, we hiked down river until we got to a natural slide where the water ran swiftly between the narrow rocky sides, slick with red algae, and then plunged out of sight down a twisting smooth channel of rock. Andy, one of the managers, hiked below and gave the all-clear, his voice echoing slightly from the pool out of sight below. Then Holly and John started clearing debris from the water and explained the system: One person sits at the entrance of the top pool a step above the slide, using their body as a plug to let the water fill behind them, while two people sit at the entrance to the slide and let the water build in the bottom pool. Finally, when the water is high enough that it begins flowing over their laps, the person at the back pool stands up, and once that rush of water hits the two in front, first one then the other ride the wave down the slide.


Earlier, when John had been describing this “slide” I had pictured something with an angle akin to the sorts of slides I’m used to seeing on children’s playgrounds. I was much mistaken. I would describe the Taylor slide as more of an assisted vertical fall of 5m or so into a giant pool of water. Also as a note of clarification, I never really completed swim lessons as a child, having quit at the point of learning how to jump into the water rather than inching in while complaining every step, so I failed to progress much beyond a half-hearted dog paddle. As I sat down at the top of the slide as it twisted down into the darkness, and felt the water building at my back, I had to heartily ignore the reasonable voice in my head that insisted this was a very bad idea. As John gave helpful advice like “keep your arms in and your head back so you don’t crack it on the rocks as you go down” I took a deep breath and let the river carry me down. The river twisted me around and shot me into the air, I saw a blur of green and brown and then I hit the water far sooner than expected, with too much exhilaration to properly take a deep breath and hold it before I hit the surface. The fall itself was fun, if far too brief, but my struggles really only started when I hit the water and it took slightly too long to get back up the surface. My adrenaline was pumping and I think I breathed in before my head was totally up, because I came up sputtering, disoriented, and with the sudden realization that my wading boots and snake gators were really, really heavy. Showing my inexperience in the water, rather than relying on my arms to compensate for my leaden legs, I just tried to kick harder and started to panic slightly. I couldn’t clear the water out of my lungs and I couldn’t get to the side. I finally struggled my way over and crawled ungracefully out, coughing and feeling like a fool. I stayed below to let my legs stop shaking and to watch the others go down. When they came shooting out and plunged into the water, I couldn’t believe I’d actually done the same a moment before. It was a nice adrenaline rush and I was proud that I did it, but I certainly wasn’t tempted to have a second go.





We just got back from a day hike on our day off between stream collections. We drove out to a place they called Rasta Falls in the Cumaca Valley. We hiked up the river with a grill, coleslaw, burgers (I even made myself mashed pigeon pea veggie burgers), fixings, and beer. After a half our or so, we set up at the base of a waterfall and a serene looking-glass pool.


The rock formations were beautiful. They alternated between smooth concrete-looking walls and bubbly lobes of rock. I wasn’t sure what the rocks were made of—possibly a porous limestone. Some of the others jumped off the sides into the pool below, but after the slide at Taylor I decided I would be fine hanging back. It was gorgeous and very relaxing.

There’s a certain pace to life out here that’s very laid-back and liberating. Sometimes it can become too much so, but it’s easy to see why so many local “Trinis” opt for lower intensity jobs or ones with flexible schedules so that they can take the time to really enjoy the world around them. As stressful as my life can become at times, I hope I can hold on to this sense of calm, and relinquish the need to constantly rush onward even when I return to the states.

Wyoming wilds

After France, I returned to my home country and proceeded to visit the two places that, taken together, may encapsulate America better than any others I can think of: New York City and rural Wyoming. After a few bustling, hot days spent visiting my brother and wandering below sky-scrapers, people-watching in awe at how many humans, pigeons, and small dogs can fit together in one city, I loaded my suitcase up and headed back west.


A family friend from Takilma, Matt Kauffman, invited me out to visit Wyoming University where he teachers to get a sense of what graduate student life is like out there. It’s been two years since I graduated from CC, and even though I’m more convinced than ever that I want to go back to school to get a degree in some field related to wildlife and ecology, I still have very little idea what specific questions I want to look at or where I want to go. This trip didn’t necessarily answer those questions, but it brought me many steps closer than where I was before.


After a couple days talking to professors at the University, I headed out to the field sites. I essentially toured a bunch of different graduate student projects, spending a few days with each one, volunteering my time and learning about their research, their advisors, and what sort of big questions they think about.


I went from the Wind River mountains looking at Mule Deer migration patterns and how they follow the “green wave” of vegetation as Spring hits at different latitudes and elevations. Then moved onto an ambitious project looking at deer fawn survival and maternal health. Then a sagebrush songbird project looking at nest predation by small mammals near oil and gas development. Then onto the Tetons and an Elk migration project using camera traps to assess sex and age ratios. And finally, a couple days with a Dark-eyed Junco project looking at immunology and metabolic rates at different altitudes.

Measuring a fawn

Measuring a fawn

On songbird nest surveys

On songbird nest surveys

sagebrush sparrow nest (one egg and two nestlings)

sagebrush sparrow nest (one egg and two nestlings)

sagebrush sparrow nestlings trying to make their mouths an easy target for food

sagebrush sparrow nestlings trying to make their mouths an easy target for food

measuring a mouse

measuring a mouse


Wyoming was amazing, and going there made me realize how much I missed the type of landscapes I grew familiar with in Colorado. There are so few people out there that the natural landscapes are vast and breathtaking. The mountains, especially the Tetons, are so impossibly big it’s easy to get the urge to climb them just to know they’re real. I thoroughly fell in love with the landscapes, from sagebrush to thick bear country, but I also noted the desperate springtime joy of the students coming out of winter hibernation that served as a warning for just how long the snow and cold stays there.

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Along my many visits, some of the highlights (beyond the incredible scenery and beautiful high-elevation hikes) were getting to hold a baby deer fawn, take a ride across the lake at the foot of the Tetons, catch and hold mice, see most of the ungulate diversity Wyoming has to offer, watch a Flicker feeding its young, interact with habituated marmots, observe several badgers, and a stumble across a ruffed grouse in mating display. The grouses were all over the place, but far more often heard than seen. They make a deep, throbbing call that sounds like someone starting a chainsaw in the distance. Even when I finally saw one up close, the sound was more felt than heard, registering at a level almost below what I could actually hear. The mating display was somewhere between ridiculous and elegant. The bird motored smoothly along the grass, seeming to swim rather than walk, like a chubby little tugboat on the water. Then it made that call again, inflating giant red patches on the sides of its neck and sticking its gravely-dark tail into the air. It was a treat.

Horned Lizard

Horned Lizard

A marmot all together too close

A marmot all together too close

Interestingly enough, one of the reasons Wyoming felt so intuitively familiar to me was that it reminded me a lot of the Mara. When I talked to a fish and game biologist who used to be a student of Matt’s, she said she had the same feeling after being in Kenya. The shape and openness of the landscape, the large herds of ungulates that work on a migration cycle, the emphasis on herding cattle, and even the mindset of the people in some ways (independent, politically on the conservative side, proud of their lifestyles and wary of change, happy to live alongside nature but always in a constant battle against the whims of weather or predators).

View of the Tetons on Jackson Lake

View of the Tetons on Jackson Lake

All in all, the trip was thought-provoking, fun, and helpful. I think it’s put me in a good mindset as I prepare for my next adventure. In a few days after my sister’s wedding, I head out for the island of Trinidad as an intern with a guppy evolution project. Hopefully it will bring more exciting work and more thoughtful questions.

I’m sitting in a café in East Village, NYC, sipping a latté, people-watching to the barista’s screaming rock music and trying to process all of the whirling changes I’ve been on lately. I just got back from a family trip to southern France, and I keep catching myself right before I say “merci” to everyone here.


After the GGRO and Michigan, I kept heading east and didn’t stop until I was across the ocean. It’s been a long time since my parents, my twin, and I all traveled together, so it was nice to have a family friend’s wedding as an excuse to get out to a place I wouldn’t have thought to travel to on my own. After a rocky start (it’s hard to travel for the first time all of us as adults), it was nice to explore a new place together as a family. We started the trip in Sarlat, which was a beautiful old stone town that was small enough to be cozy but big enough to offer a lot to look at and do and was great place to help us get our bearings.

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I didn’t do very much research before the trip (except for desperately trying to learn some French) and was pleasantly surprised at how beautiful Southern France was. I had imagined that after thousands of years of human settlement, the natural environment would have been pretty much destroyed, but there were still plenty of beautiful rivers, forested areas, and a diversity of birdlife. I very quickly began torturing myself for not bringing my binoculars.

european robin

european robin

barn swallow

barn swallow

common house martin?

common house martin?

One of m favorite days of the trip was when we canoed down the Dordogne river from Vitrac to Beynac. The river had a steady but calm flow, and the only real difficulties had to do with coordination and inexperience. As we drifted along between tree-covered banks, stone castles with twisting spires and trebuchets silhouetted on their battlements would appear between the foliage, suddenly looming up beside short, bright cliff-faces. As we passed different riverside villages, we could pull the canoes out and explore the cobblestoned streets. Congregations of raptors (Black Kites and Red Kites) wheeled overhead, while the occasional swan floated beside us. One trio of geese (I think they were Graylag Geese) even swam up to our boat and followed us, the male hissing softly in our direction.


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red kites

red kites

After a few days we made our way to Cregols for Molly and Veronique’s wedding. Vero spent her childhood summers in this area, and so they held the ceremony in the small town hall in the middle of the village. It was a simple affair that was mostly signing the marriage certificate and making a few speeches, but their messages for each other were very moving. It certainly wasn’t a marriage of impulse or sudden passion—the brides have been together for 18 years—but of love, steady and strong. France only legalized gay marriage in 2013, so it was finally a chance for the two of them to make their commitment official in the eyes of the law (very important since they have a child together). They didn’t emphasize the political impact of what their marriage meant, and they’ve been together for most of my life so I had mostly forgotten that as an aspect of their relationship, but it was nonetheless an undercurrent of importance in the ceremony.


After the ceremony itself we made our way to an even more remote location for the reception and another couple days of celebration out in the woods. It was hard to believe, but the scenery just kept getting prettier the farther we went.

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A bee-imitating orchid at the reception

A bee-imitating orchid at the reception

It was interesting to see the ways in which Molly and Vero managed to merge two very different cultures at the reception. There were a lot of aspects in the planning that felt so familiar to me from our “hippie” community in southern Oregon but other aspects that were uniquely French. And somehow the two merged very comfortably.


It was nice to catch up with family friends I hadn’t seen in many, many years and finally connect with them as adults; I also met some really wonderful French friends of Molly and Vero, and we all spent a lot of time with Veronique’s family after the wedding.


One day, back in the Cregols area, we took a hike into the woods above the village. It was beautiful to weave through the oak woods with dappled sunlight, occasionally cut through by ancient-looking stone walls. At the top we found the giant sink hole that Molly had told us about. It was big enough to swallow the tiny village, and a mini forest had sprung up in the crater below. Molly said sometimes people rappel down into it and I wished I could have gone exploring in there.


Finally, we had to pack up and head home. We spent a day in Bordeaux before we flew out, and it was a bit jarring to be back in city life. The architecture of the city was interesting, and I saw some giant rats down by the riverfront (no one else was nearly as excited about that as I was) but in general I didn’t like it as much as the countryside.


Overall, it was a surprisingly sweet trip, and makes me interested in exploring France some more.