Hot off the presses...

posted Oct 13, 2017, 8:04 AM by Juliet Lamb

Hello, internet! With no fieldwork to do, it's hard to come up with the kinds of photos and stories that motivate good blog entries, but the subterranean work of analysis and writing continues apace.

I recently started a new position at the University of Rhode Island working with tracking data from sea ducks, so I'm only a part-time pelican hobbyist now. Fortunately, there are several new and continuing research projects focusing on pelicans in the Gulf and South Atlantic Bight, so I'm confident that the pelicans won't be neglected in my absence. In the meantime, I'm figuring out some exciting new modeling approaches for the sea duck data, which I'll talk about as soon as I can pull together some results.

I'm mostly poking my head up to highlight three recent papers that have come out of our pelican research (making five total, which is exactly half of what I'm expecting to publish... oof). The cast, in order of appearance:
  • Influence of density-dependent competition on foraging and migratory behavior of a subtropical colonial seabird (Ecology and Evolution). Chapter 3 of my dissertation. You may have seen this paper in graphic novel form at this year's World Seabird Twitter Conference. It's also the reason that a photo of Philip Ashmole was hanging over my desk for several years (I may or may not have had conversations with the photo while writing the article). Ashmole originated the idea that seabirds compete for resources around colony sites, resulting in localized prey depletion, and that this process helps limit seabird breeding populations and total population numbers. Anyway, the main take-home message here is that the number of pelicans at a breeding colony influences not only how far individuals travel to feed themselves and their nestlings (showing that localized prey depletion likely exists), but also whether and how far they migrate during non-breeding. Birds from larger colonies travel farther to forage, and migrate farther as well. In fact, the size of the breeding colony is one of the strongest predictors of movement and migration, and individuals that are smaller (and thus less dominant) are the most strongly affected by colony size.
The relationship of colony size to the proportion of migrants at a colony (a) and distance migrated (b)
  • Diet composition and provisioning rates of nestlings determine reproductive success in a subtropical seabird (Marine Ecology Progress Series). This is Chapter 5 of my dissertation, and it's a big one, summarizing all the work we did collecting and drying fish. You may have heard this story before (during the World Seabird Twitter Conference, for example!), but the short version is that for pelicans it's not prey quality, but quantity, that matters. The frequency and mass of meals fed to chicks determined nestling survival fledging success, whereas energy content of the meals didn't make much of a difference. Some of the poorest-quality foods-- small forage fish like juvenile Gulf menhaden-- were associated with high fledging rates because they could be delivered frequently and in large amounts. We affectionately nicknamed this pattern the "whale-ican theory." Whales, which capture large volumes of prey at a time, also tend to choose less energy-rich prey than other marine mammals that pursue and capture single prey items. In both their foraging strategies and indifference toward prey energy content, pelicans seem to be the whales of the seabird world. Just wait... it'll catch on.
Rather than selecting Gulf mehaden, pelicans foraged on menhaden in relation to their availability. Dark pies are adult and juvenile menhaden; light pies are other prey; and the solid yellow area is the core range of Gulf menhaden.
  • A bridge between oceans: Overland migration of marine birds in a wind energy corridor (Journal of Avian Biology). [Abstract only-- let me know if you want the full text!] This paper has been a long time coming. It developed from some conversations at past Waterbird Society meetings, in which several of us working in the Gulf of Mexico described similar patterns of marine-associated waterbirds migrating over land, from the Atlantic to Pacific ocean basins, across Mexico's narrowest point at the Tehuantepec Isthmus. Our work is descriptive and involves a small number of birds, but it's also important because this part of Mexico is undergoing rapid development for wind energy. Understanding what migrants are passing through the area, and when, is important to insuring that the effects of wind turbines are accounted for. Plus, it's a pretty cool new migratory route for species that are typically thought not to travel long distances over land! Since we put the paper together, David Newstead at Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program has also documented Black Skimmers using the same route, so I'm sure this isn't the last we'll hear of this story.
Migration routes of reddish egrets (top), brown pelicans (middle), and red knots (bottom) across the Tehuantepec Isthmus, Mexico. Fall routes are orange; spring routes are green.

Other recent pelican-adventures have included serving on a panel helping to select a new waterbird colony site in Matagorda Bay, Texas, and presenting at the Waterbirds conference in beautiful Reykjavik, Iceland. 
Gratuitous Reykjavik photos...

Next week I'll be traveling to Oilapalooza in Monterey, CA, to discuss the results of our tracking work after the Refugio oil spill. That manuscript should be the next to come out, so stay tuned!

Of molecules and manuscripts

posted Jan 20, 2017, 8:24 AM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Jan 20, 2017, 8:25 AM ]

It's been a long time (been a long time, been a long lonely lonely lonely lonely time), but unfortunately the majority of my post-doc work is grant writing, manuscripts, and computer analysis, none of which is as photogenic or inspiring as fieldwork. The computer time is starting to pay off in the form of publications. In December, we were happy to see two pelican papers hit the digital shelves: the first on how transmitters affect pelicans, and the second on the relationship between stress hormone levels, body condition, and survival in pelican chicks. Both are open-access-- free and available to anyone!

Right now, I'm spending a month as a visiting scholar in the Friesen Lab at Queen's University, in the lovely snow-globe city of Kingston, Ontario. 

Skaters outside the town hall (see what I mean?)

My work here is focused on looking for genetic differences between pelicans that migrate and pelicans that don't. I'm studying three genes that have known associations with migration, circadian rhythms, and movement:
  • CLOCK (circadian locomotor output cycle kaput), a gene that controls diurnal and annual cycles in response to light conditions. The number of repeating segments on the end of the CLOCK gene has been associated with migratory activity in butterflies, and with timing and distance of songbird migrations.
  • ADCYAP1(adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide 1) is also involved in circadian rhythms, and has been shown to have a relationship with migratory activity of raptors and captive songbirds. 
  • DRD4 (dopamine receptor D4), which is linked to aggression and risk-taking behavior in both humans and birds. These traits can be associated with how far an animal is willing to move away from the location where it is born, and a student in the Friesen Lab has found associations between DRD4 sequence and migration in bluebirds. 

I'm hoping that one or more of these genes will offer some clues to why some pelicans migrate long distances, while others stay put throughout the year. These differences can have a big impact on mortality risk during the non-breeding season, not to mention being incredibly interesting from a purely scientific point of view, since genetic associations with migration haven't yet been found in seabirds. Meanwhile, thanks to the brilliant and welcoming people of the Friesen Lab, I'm having a great time posing as a geneticist and learning a lot of new analysis techniques.

Setting up gel electrophoresis 

Bands of amplified DNA

My first invited seminar! It was fun to meet the faculty and talk about my work.

I will be back-- sooner this time-- with updates on new fieldwork in the Gulf and elsewhere. In the meantime, please consider voicing support for scientifically-minded protection of wildlife and their habitats, with a donation to one of the many wonderful organizations representing wildlife and the environment. 

Some personal favorites: 

Dr. Pelican

posted Apr 19, 2016, 8:06 AM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Apr 19, 2016, 8:09 AM ]

I did it! I defended my dissertation!

I am not usually one to abuse exclamation points, but it was a great day and a really nice culmination of four years of hard work. Right now I'm finishing up the final edits on my dissertation and getting ready to graduate (!) in a few weeks. After that, I will transition to a post-doctoral position here at Clemson, focusing on the contaminants samples we collected from the Gulf, as well as recruiting a Master's student to continue some of my pelican research and getting a few new projects off the ground. I'm really excited about getting involved with the Gulf Avian Monitoring Network, which is an ambitious effort to implement standard monitoring of a range of bird species and habitats in the Gulf of Mexico. There are also some other research ideas in the works, as well as papers to finish, and I can guarantee I won't be bored.

In a way, not much will change, but it's the start of a new chapter. In the meantime, if you would like to watch my defense, you can find it here: I have not forgotten my promise to summarize my dissertation, and will also post the full document (all 235 pages of it, thanks to the required 1.25" margins) once it's available.

Thank you to everyone who has been involved with the project or followed along from a distance. This project wouldn't have been possible without all the great people I've met along the way, and you definitely haven't heard the last of me yet!

The bird is the word

posted Apr 4, 2016, 3:11 PM by Juliet Lamb

Out in the field, our pelicans are settling in for another breeding season. Here in South Carolina, I'm still stuck in my office.

After several months of intense writing, I've finally finished my dissertation. The whole thing is seven chapters: five are manuscripts that I will be submitting to scientific journals, plus an introduction and conclusion to tie everything together. A week from tomorrow, I'll be defending, which involved presenting a research seminar that's open to the university community and the public, followed by a closed-door session with my advisory committee in which they get to ask me tough questions about anything and everything related to my research. After the dust settles I'll post summaries of each chapter to the blog, since they are independently quite cool and represent a ton of work by a ton of people. In the meantime, if you're in the neighborhood of Clemson on April 12th, come by and see it in person!

In other news, I have taken up writing a regular column for JSTOR Daily, an online magazine that showcases scientific papers from the JSTOR online archive. I love writing the column, which gives me a chance to explore the development of different ideas about wildlife, but it takes more work than I had expected to think of an interesting, relevant topic every two weeks! Feel free to e-mail me if there's anything you'd be interested in reading about-- I am not above crowdsourcing inspiration. You can find all of my columns at

Also, we'll be contributing to the World Seabird Twitter Conference on Friday, April 15th! Check out our twitter account or #WSTC2 to see all research being presented by seabirders around the world.

That's all for now. Writing can be exciting, in its own way, but I miss the birds...

Florida last summer. Writing and pelicans at the same time!

Watching pelicans (sort of)

posted Dec 18, 2015, 8:09 AM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Dec 18, 2015, 8:10 AM ]

I promised an update on actual work. Unfortunately, lab- and office-work is not very photogenic, so it's hard to get inspired to write about it. But over the past week or so, I've been working on a project that reminds me a bit of being in the field, even as I sit in my concrete bunker office.

When I went to California in June, one thing I asked for was video of the pelicans we GPS-tagged. In the field, we don't have the luxury of watching pelicans immediately after we put tags on them, since they usually fly away from the colony and sit on the water to adjust their harnesses and preen off the effects of capture. I was curious to see whether the tag affects their behavior immediately afterward, and if so how this might influence their ability to continue breeding normally after tagging. 

Luckily, OWCN has a great photographer on staff, and he set up a video camera to record for several hours before and after we attached the transmitters. Also luckily, the enclosure contained five birds that received transmitters and four that didn't, making this a perfect setup for a before-after-control-impact study. We could compare the behavior of the GPS-tagged birds before and after tagging to the behavior of control birds during both periods, eliminating the influence of underlying differences between the groups of birds and things like time of day that affect the behavior of both groups.

Of course, that also meant that someone (me) had to actually watch the videos. Each video was a little over 33 minutes long and had to be watched nine times (for nine different birds). There were ten videos, five pre- and five post-tagging. You can do the math... or I will. That's about 3000 minutes, a.k.a. 50 hours, of watching a bunch of pelicans move around an enclosure not much bigger than-- well, my bunker office. Luckily, I am starved for pelican viewing in winter, so it wasn't as much of a pain as you might imagine. 

For about a week, my world looked something like this:

The screen on the left is the video; the screen on the right is a coding program called EthoLog. Every time a pelican does something different, I enter a time-stamped code, and at the end EthoLog tallies up the statistics for me. I know how many times each pelican stretched, how long (on average) it was in the air each time it flew, when it ate... the list goes on.

I also got to observe some interesting things about pelicans. For one thing, the rehab birds spent more time standing with their wings stretched out than we're used to seeing in the field. For another, they really like to go back to their favorite spots along the edge of the tub. This made my job (following the same pelican around the enclosure for 30 minutes at a time) a lot easier. There were some pelicans that had established dominance, while others were trying not to be noticed.

But what about behaviors? In the end, there wasn't a lot of difference. The tagged birds spent more time preening and less time resting after tagging than the controls, but critical behaviors like perching, swimming, and flying didn't seem to be affected. The preening behavior lines up well with what we saw in the field, and based on observations we made several days afterward, this difference doesn't seem to last. That's good news for the GPS data (means that our tracked birds are behaving like normal birds!) as well as for the pelicans. For the rest of the details, you'll have to wait for the paper :-)

Anyway, if you ever feel like watching some riveting pelican cinema, let me know. I can hook you up.

New tern paper!

posted Dec 2, 2015, 8:25 AM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Dec 6, 2015, 9:02 AM ]

Just dropping by to let you all know that my review paper on effectiveness of different vegetation management techniques in tern nesting habitat (part of my MS research) just came out in the journal Conservation Evidence! You can find it here: Vegetation management review.

Right now we're deep in the mire of writing, burning fish, analyzing data, etc. We did take a break for a week in October to head over to South Africa for the second World Seabird Conference. It was an excellent conference in a beautiful place, and I got to have lots of awkward, star-struck conversations with "famous" seabird researchers.

Boulder beach in Simon's Town, south of Cape Town

Not a pelican-- African penguin and an artificial burrow

Gulf/Caribbean makes an appearance on the big screen! 
In the foreground: Pat Jodice, newly-elected chair of the World Seabird Union and adviser to the stars (me).

I'll write a real research update soon, but in the meantime, here's a huge, cleaned red snapper we found while sorting through pelican chick regurgitates. Don't you just want to eat it? Maybe? Almost?

Either pelicans have learned to fillet fish, or this one had outside help

Bigger isn't always better

posted Sep 3, 2015, 12:28 PM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Sep 3, 2015, 4:41 PM ]

It's been a while! I won't try to fill in all of the blanks, but here's a quick recap of the second half of pelican season #3. For a much more exciting look at life in a pelican colony, check out this  excellent report by Caitlin Lawrence of WMBB Television:

In most of the colonies we studied in Florida and Alabama, 2015 was a great year. The grass and shrubs were full of healthy chicks, with many nests producing two or even three young. The key seemed to be plenty of fish... especially small ones. 

Pelican adults and fledglings on Audubon Island, with the port of Panama City in the background

Tent full of young pelicans ready to be banded on Gaillard Island, AL

One of the major findings of our work so far has been how much of a difference smaller fish can make. I recently modeled energy delivery rates based on our data from Texas and found that both chick survival and chick condition increased as they were fed more juvenile menhaden (about 2" or less in length). These fish resulted in slightly smaller but more frequent meals, and chicks received more energy over the course of the day. Young menhaden form large schools in shallow water, which may make them easy targets for pelican parents.

In Florida and Alabama, we didn't see many young menhaden, but we did see a lot of other small fish, especially sardines and anchovies. These may be taking the place of small menhaden as an energy-packed, easy-to-catch meal. Not many of these smaller species occur in Texas, so the young pelicans there are much more dependent on menhaden alone as a food source. Luckily, the menhaden fishery is considered one of the most well-managed and sustainable fisheries in the country, so-- unlike a lot of other seabird species-- pelicans may not need to worry about their prey disappearing any time soon. 

Gaillard Island fledgling, contemplating its future...

The story wasn't all rosy, though. The easternmost colony in the Florida Panhandle, Smith Island, dropped from its usual 40-50 nesting pairs to only 10 at the start of the 2015 season. By the time we left, only three chicks were still alive, and they weren't in very good shape. With poor body condition and high stress levels, they seemed to be starving to death. This is especially interesting since the nearest waterbird colony east of Smith Island, Seahorse Key, completely abandoned this year for the first time in recent memory. I can't help wondering if whatever nutritional problems affected the Smith Island birds also affected Seahorse Key. The fact that lots of pelicans seemed to skip breeding there this year suggests that the problem was apparent from early in the season. I'll definitely be trying to figure out what local conditions could have caused such a terrible breeding season for these colonies, even while pelicans breeding less than 50 miles to the west had a great year...

Meanwhile, the rehabilitated pelicans in California seem to be thriving, and several have already visited San Francisco are making their way to Oregon! We also got our first results back from heart rate monitors. Here's a day in the life of a pelican chick, measured in heartbeats:

I've got lots more to say, but will save the rest for future entries and close with some images of Florida life.

Smith Island panorama

Yvan watching AU44, one of the pelican adults we tagged in 2013

This chick's band code is also a suggestion...

Great Blue Heron at sunset

Post-spill tracking in California

posted Jun 19, 2015, 10:48 AM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Jun 19, 2015, 11:42 AM ]

As I mentioned in my last post, my advisor and I are collaborating with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network to study the movements of pelicans affected by the Refugio Oil Spill. Twelve cleaned pelicans will be fitted with PTTs and monitored post-release, along with a group of eight non-oiled pelicans captured in the wild whose movements and survival can be compared to those of the rehabilitated birds.

Last Wednesday, I flew out to San Pedro, a district of Los Angeles, where International Bird Rescue is headquartered. Since OWCN is based in Davis (inland northern California), it relies on a network of partner facilities like IBR to remain ready to handle an oil spill anywhere in the state. When the Refugio spill occurred, IBR immediately scaled back its normal rehabilitation work to make room for oiled birds coming in from Santa Barbara, about two hours northwest of the facility. Many of the OWCN staff members arrived thinking the spill was about 500 barrels-- a few days' work at most. More than two weeks later, the total had mounted to 2,500 barrels, and they were still there.

Treatment board for some of the 50-plus birds found oiled after the Refugio spill

Spill response and preparedness is what OWCN does year-round, and it's easy to see why. Besides readying vets, rehabilitators, volunteers, and facilities to handle the cleaning and medical care of hundreds of birds and mammals at a moment's notice, they also manage the field operations, a whole separate set of trained respondents and volunteers that find, stabilize, and transport oiled wildlife from the spill site to the rehab facility. All of this happens on a high-profile stage, surrounded by a media and public hungry for information.

Bloodwork and pre-release exam forms for some of the cleaned pelicans

Outdoor holding areas for rehabilitated seabirds

My (tiny) role was to deploy five transmitters and train OWCN's staff to handle the other fifteen. After the staff banded and examined the birds, I took over to demonstrate the basics of harness technique. I've never had such a big audience for a harness attachment! After the first few, I handed over the materials to Kyra (the biologist who will be capturing the control birds) and Chris (the veterinarian who will manage deployments on the rest of the rehab birds), and they each did a harness on their own. Their technique was impeccable. We also managed to get several hours of video of the birds before and after attachment, which we can use to look for behavioral effects of the transmitters-- I never have that luxury in the field!

Harness lessons (Photo by Justin Cox, from the Ventura County Star)

Two transmitter birds relaxing by the pool

Just after I left to return to the Gulf, the five transmitter birds were released along with five other pelicans near the site of the spill. Although I could only watch it on my computer, seeing them take off  was thrilling, especially knowing that we'll be able to keep an eye on them for months and maybe years to come. Although my research in the Gulf is not a post-spill study, everything we learn here will help contribute to readiness for the next spill. For coastal wildlife, a baseline that doesn't include the influence of oil is a virtual impossibility. It's nice to have a reminder of why this work matters, and what it can achieve. 

Rehabilitator Kelly captures a pelican for release

Carriers full of pelicans on their way to Santa Barbara

I am grateful to have met and worked with the staff of OWCN and IBR, whose dedication, humor, and professionalism provide a nice counterpoint to the bleak news of yet another spill. I can't wait to see where these birds go!


posted Jun 6, 2015, 2:29 PM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated Jun 7, 2015, 10:34 AM ]

Somehow we're almost halfway through the field season... how does that happen? Although there's plenty to say about pelicans, I think I'm going to talk about gadgets instead. 

It's hard to find any research in the modern natural sciences that doesn't rely on an array of different technologies, from camera traps to GPS units to speedy computers to the satellites that orbit the earth gathering vast quantities of information on the systems we study. We too often underappreciate our gadgets-- or, at least, to take them for granted until they go wrong.  When you're back in the lab, it's easy to gripe about wasting a few hours because a data server is down or a piece of equipment needs service. In the field, though, gadgets (trucks, boats, ATVs, telemetry units) are your lifeblood-- if they don't work, you don't work. And we definitely ask a lot of our equipment.

Here are some of the many gadgets that go above and beyond for our project.

1) Ever wonder what a GPS transmitter and harness look like after two years on a pelican?

We recovered this PTT from an adult we had captured in 2013 that recently died of natural causes. NorthStar has since refurbished it, and I will be bringing this unit (and a few others) out to southern California next week as part of the Refugio Oil Spill Response. I'll be helping the Oiled Wildlife Care Network study the movements of oiled pelicans that have been cleaned and released. I'm really excited to be able to contribute to this important project-- keep an eye out for details!

2) Ever wonder how to get an inflatable motorboat on a truck? Here's the story of Achilles, in twelve easy steps.

Step 1: Remove the gate

Step 2: Get some anchor points

Step 3: Insert anchor points 

Step 4: Fit wide metal pipe between braces
Step 5: Insert narrower pipe; screw in place
Step 6: Place ramp (2x6 boards)
Step 7: Roll boat up ramp on launch wheels
Step 8: Raise launch wheels
Step 9: Replace gate; attach ratchet straps
Step 10: Attach padded straps in front
Step 11: Drive
 Step 12: Profit (and then repeat 1-11)

3) Ever wonder what pelicans' heartbeats say about them? We're working on it.

Heart rate is a great surrogate for energy expenditure, and with the current popularity of heart rate monitoring in personal training, it's easy to find a unit small enough to fit on a pelican chick. All we need to do now is adapt it from human to bird use. Easy? Well, maybe, if you have the right tools. And it takes a lot of tools. 

A smorgasboard of gadgets

4) And, of course, the mega-gadget without whom none of this would have been possible: Mako, our trusty Gulf-trotting boat.
Out on Mobile Bay on a calm day

Thanks for everything, gadgets!

New season, new colony

posted Apr 29, 2015, 4:32 PM by Juliet Lamb   [ updated May 2, 2015, 3:37 PM ]

This winter has involved lots of writing, presenting, and traveling. Here's the highlight reel...

- I recently finished a report covering our first few seasons of data collection, available here
- In February I presented an oral paper and a poster at the annual meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group in San Jose, CA. 
- Social media guru Yvan created impressive graphics and tweeted a summary of our results as part of the first annual World Seabird Twitter Conference (#WSTC1) last month. (Belatedly, you can now follow us on Twitter: @project_pelican! Nice to meet you, 21st century.)
- In March, I was back West in Portland (OR), running lots of stress hormone assays with Katie O'Reilly at UP. Hopefully all of our chopping, shaking, and titrating will pay off in the form of some neat results.
- In early April, Yvan and I both presented at the Texas Bays and Estuaries Meeting in Port Aransas, covering results to date of our work along the Texas coast.

We are now braving yet another round of storms in Florida, waiting for the field season to kick off in earnest. The pelicans are a few weeks behind last year's schedule, giving us time to find some new colonies and work out the kinks with our new inflatable motorboat, the latest of which is exploding launch wheels. That sounds a lot more exciting than it actually is.

There are pelicans nesting on that tiny island the arrow is pointing to. There may also be shrimp.

At least they're attractive storms...

Meanwhile, we've managed to visit a new site for this year: Gaillard Island, Alabama, set in the reddish-blue waters of Mobile Bay. After a mainland orientation and some cautionary tales from Dr. John Dindo, of Dauphin Island Sea Labs, we were on our own to explore. Even by our Texas standards, the island is HUGE, a pizza slice of dredge material measuring two miles on each of its long sides and one mile along the crust. Not only is it the largest single Brown Pelican nesting site in the Gulf (over 6,000 pairs), but it also boasts an advanced drainage system, miles of wetlands packed with ducks and geese, and dense, fragrant groves of trees. 

The interior of Gaillard island


Before you start thinking about planning your next vacation there, I should also mention its high densities of mosquitoes, hog skulls, giant dead fish, and duck decoys, all of which we discovered while walking the island's perimeter. 

The only one of those things I took a photo of was the fish. (Red snapper?). Yvan's shoes at the top for scale.

In any case, should be an exciting summer. A parting Florida shot to continue the sea life theme...

Man o'war jelly, and a sunset

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