What do scientists take into the field? A visual breakdown. | Miles O'Brien Productions

What do scientists take into the field? A visual breakdown.

Right now, I am conducting fieldwork in Malaysia on the Pacific swallow. For the next two months, I will travel to several countries in southeast Asia and the Pacific and keep you updated on my progress. Here’s what’s I’m bringing with me to ensure a successful field season:

Mist Nets: Mist nets are the number one most important item in my field kit because they are how we actually catch our birds. The nets are made of fine mesh pockets that are nearly invisible. When a bird flies into a net, it falls into one of the pockets, and we can then remove it unharmed. Pacific swallows nest in all kinds of structures and under bridges, so I custom-ordered mist nets in a variety of sizes, from 1.5m to 15m in length. We’ll be able to catch birds no matter how large or small the space.

Bird Banding Kits: Once we’ve caught birds, we need to collect data. These kits have everything we need: rulers for measuring wing and tail length, calipers for measuring leg length and bill dimensions, scales to measure weight, special pliers to attach uniquely numbered bands to the bird’s legs, envelopes in which we can store feather samples, and needles and capillary tubes for collecting blood samples.

Poles: Yes, those are regular poles sold at hardware stores and typically used to dust high ceilings. They’re also lightweight and great for setting up mist nets. I’ve previously been unable to find lightweight, telescoping poles overseas, so I always bring my own on field expeditions. However, when I arrived in Malaysia our local collaborator looked at my poles and said: “You know you can buy these here, right? They are very cheap.”

Blood Storage: These white boxes contain tubes filled with buffers that preserve genetic samples. After we collect a small blood sample from the birds, we put the blood in buffer. This keeps the DNA stable at room temperature, and we can carry the samples in our backpacks until we get back to our labs and extract the DNA.

Camera: We always take standardized photos of every bird. These photos allow us to analyze feather color and patterning back in the lab.

iPad: This is a 21st century field season! For the first time ever, I’m going to attempt to collect data in an app rather than with pen and paper (we’re obviously bringing pen and paper backups).

Headlamp: We often catch birds at night and find ourselves working until 1am, so a good headlamp is crucial. I’ve used up the bulbs on about five of these, so this is a brand new one.

Backpacks: We are moving around a lot on this trip, spending no more than a few days catching birds in a particular location before moving on. This means we need to travel as light as possible, and are only bringing what we can easily carry. Everything needs to fit in these two backpacks.

Not pictured: clothes. You’ll notice that clothing doesn’t make the cut for “important stuff.” We have so much critical gear to carry that we have to bring the bare minimum of clothes: a few pairs of quick-drying pants, some t-shirts and light layers, and one nice outfit for when we give seminars and meet with collaborators. Everything gets scrunched up in compression sacks and wedged in amongst the scientific gear.

Ed. Note: Elizabeth Scordato is an evolutionary biologist at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, studying how environmental variation influences the evolution of bird signaling and the formation of new species. She is currently conducting fieldwork on the Pacific swallow in Malaysia, Fiji, and Japan, and will be making a special exception to her “no email during field seasons” rule to update this space on how her fieldwork is going. Please follow along!

Banner image credit: Liz Scordato, edited by Fedor Kossakovski.

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