Thursday, March 25, 2004

My undergrad university required its seniors to complete a senior project as a graduation requirement. Biology majors could choose to write a review on a current science topic or do an experiment and write that up. I opted for the latter knowing that I'd be going on to grad school and doing field research. I had no idea what to do for a project, so I applied to some programs that sounded interesting. I was accepted into one on avian research that was run by a foundation in Massachusetts. So I spent the second semester of my senior year at the foundation and in Belize doing the project.

Scientists are a quirky bunch. Some groups are strange and some are fun. Botanists and mycologists (those who study fungi) are generally a pretty fun bunch. I discovered that ornithologists (those who study birds) are very interesting.

I had no bird experience other than waching birds at the feeder. I was in for quite a surprise when I arrived in Mass.

The cast of main characters:

Mark - the faculty member in charge of the student program. He was the best teacher there and an all around great guy. He knew his birds by sight and sound - in some species he could even differentiate males and females by song (something I never could do). He loved to joke around and make learning fun. He informed us that if anyone saw a jaguar and he didn't, that person would automatically fail.

Hans - the TA. Nice guy, knew his stuff, got involved with one of the female students.

Beth - the student who got involved with Hans. Had lots of research experience. At first appeared friendly. Had a cute lisp and a diminuative way. This was all a sham. She actually was nasty, and seemed to enjoy being mean directly to people and talking about them behind their backs. I don't know if she had something personal against me or was just an all-around miserable person, but we did not get along.

Kathy - Also had lots of research experience, including studies abroad. Was in a serious, exclusive relationship, but developed the hots for Hans. Interesting love triangle ensued.

Peter & Mary - Both had tons of research experience abroad and loved to brag about it. Turns out they were a couple who lived together. They were stereotypical old married couple - always bickering. He decided not to bathe during the 6 weeks we were in the field. He ended up with greasy, nasty hair and stank and bragged about how long he could go without a shower. Mark finally stepped in and threatened him. He began bathing infrequently even though we had easy access to showers, etc.

Brian - Also had no birding research. Kept to himself and enjoyed watching the antics of our dysfunctional group. Liked to occasionally throw a wrench into things to see what would happen. I got along the best with him and we had some good talks while out collecting data. He was completely in love with his girlfriend back home. It was so cute to see him talk about her - he would just glow.

English Chap - one of the faculty. Liked to shirk his camp chores. Which I had to then do.

Husband & Wife - Wife was the statistician and anal. Husband was the botanist and absent-minded. Kathy house sat for them at one point and found books on adoption at their house. We all speculated that them having children was a not-so-hot idea. The kid would probably wander off and they wouldn't notice for several days.

Mr. English Bigwig - A higher-up in the forestry service in Belize. He loved to call us "The Boy Scouts" (I guess we all were male?) and loved to ask the girls if they were losing weight while doing all the rough work out in the field. A real great equal-opportunity kind of guy.

The Belizean Couple - they lived at the field station where we camped and did all the caretaking. They both were total sweethearts and seemed to hate Mr. Bigwig. We overheard the husband a few times when Mr. Bigwig would radio in. He'd be pleasant on the radio, but would mumble all sorts of stuff while Bigwig would blabber on. He cracked us up.

My first day in Mass, the other student immediately asked what previous experience I had and went on and on about theirs. Uh oh. Things settled down and I started to really enjoy the program although I didn't get too social with the other students. Many weekends I drove down to CT to see family since I was only a couple hours away from them.

Once we got to Belize for our 6 weeks of research there, things got really interesting. We'd fight over food - "Who ate the last of the chips/chocolate/whatever?" We had to pack in all our food, so munchies were limited and some bastard pigged out and ate them all. I had my secret stash of M&M's which kept me going. I began to get horrible cravings for meat. One of the students was vegetarian, so we all ate veggie meals for practicality. Mark teased me horribly about this. Mealy parrots sound like they're saying "PORKCHOP PORKCHOP PORK PORK CHOP CHOP CHOP" when they call which would drive me to fits. So Mark would say stuff like "Mmmmmm pork chops and gravy....roast chicken....mmmmmm. Yeah, it's too bad I'm going back home in a week and you have 4 more weeks here. Haha."

When the faculty would switch off (each stayed for about 2 weeks), the newly arrived person would bring meat or eggs for a fresh meal. One of them brought chocolate. The students decided to split a bar. Brian declined any because that would have divided the bar up evenly and he wanted to watch us all beg and cajole for the extra piece of chocolate. Finally Hans said he'd secretly give it to someone. We all knew who was going to get it then. We had a stash of rice crispies treats. Kathy and I snuck some to Caretaker Wife and traded for pizza with Spam. I fear Spam, but was jonesing so bad for a meat product that it actually tasted delicious. The entomologist who lived there busted us but promised not to tell. A few nights later he had dinner with our crew and ooohed and aaaaahed over the rice crispy treats claiming he had never eaten one before which sent Kate and me into hysterical fits. He totally hammed it up.

Bill ended up seeing a jaguar on one of our field plots. Peter and Mary saw an ocelot, and somebody else saw a puma.

When we got back to Mass, Mark had left a note on the dorm door, listing our grades:

Bill: F You know why
Peter and Mary: D Since you only saw an ocelot
Everybody Else: C's Just because

Dude had a great sense of humor.

I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I learned so much about birds, tropical ecology, and the realities of field research. I saw keel-billed toucans, scarlet macaws, oropendulas, white whiskered puffbirds, ocellated turkeys, various hummingbirds, trogons, parrots, green jays, acorn woodpeckers, tinamous, black and white owls and many other birds in the wild and even held many in my hand when we did censusing and banding. I also saw tapir, coatis, kinkajous, peccaries, and howler monkeys.

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