Actually, four (so far)! When I left you guys last time, I had finally found some decent male group display (“lek”) sites. I decided that, since confirming the birds are actually here, to switch gears and focus on figuring out how to capture them. Since I am interested in discovering how the males’ social behavior relates to their tendency to interfere with female mating decisions, I need to know who’s who on the lek. Not being a Manakin myself, I can’t reliably tell the difference between individuals, so I have to mark them in some way. For me, this meant coaxing them into finely-woven “mistnets,” carefully disentangling them, and placing little colored bands on their ankles. Red-capped Manakins display at about 5 meters or more above the ground, and the standard mistnet is about 3 meters high, so this task was another potentially significant hurdle in terms of the success of the project.
It turns out the way around this difficulty involved lots of patience and careful attention, which I am quickly learning is apparently the way with most things in this kind of work. When I first found the leks, the behavior of the birds was completely overwhelming. Based on what I had read and heard about, I was expecting males to have well-defined territories that would be easy to spot and map out. What I got was lots of confusing flitting around, with multiple males all up in each other’s business, displaying on numerous perches, then disappearing for long stretches of time. Sometimes a male would favor one area for a bit, then fly off and hang around a tree 50 meters away instead.
When I was younger, my parents got me one of those awesome photomosaic jigsaw puzzles. The final composite image was of a space-shuttle launch, made up of tiny space-related thumbnails. I was so excited to put it together, and then I opened the box and dumped out the pieces. Uh-oh. My first day on the lek felt a lot like that.
After a little freak-out and some encouragement from my extremely wise and level-headed girlfriend (check out her amazing fieldwork blog here where she most recently had audience with Prince William!), I went back to the same site every day for four days straight, and simply watched. I spent most daylight hours (minus those spent sitting and being forcefully reminded why it’s called a “rain”-forest) just following the guys around, watching where they go, where they like to sit. While they jump around a lot, Red-capped Manakins are actually a fairly conservative bunch, and definitely have favorite spots and ways of getting to them. These spots include display branches, but also little melastome berry bushes, their favorite food. Additionally, the system seems to be more fluid among the males, but becomes a bit more rigid when a female arrives on the scene. Suddenly all the males being displaying in earnest, revealing which branch is particularly theirs, and calling, attempting to convince her to come check out what he’s got going on in terms of dance moves. Lastly (and really luckily), it seems that while the males like to perch rather high up, they often swoop down low when they travel between areas.
All this intelligence-gathering led me to make relatively educated decisions about where to place my nets, and it has really paid off so far! While it sometimes takes a long time to get a net set up in the right place (I’m not allowed to cut or damage any plants inside the reserve, so I’ve been tediously peppering the forest with little bits of string, tying leaves and branches out of the way), up to now I haven’t had to wait more than about 15 minutes for my target bird to fly in.
The process of banding the birds has been a little bit stressful; while I have lots of previous experience, I’ve never felt like I knew the individuals so well before. Of course the bird is always a little unhappy about being caught and handled, even though I’m quite gentle and get it over with quickly. It’s silly, but I guess it’s a bummer that my little friends so clearly don’t like me as much as I like them!
As of now I have four birds banded and released, three adult males and one immature comprising all the residents of my current focal lek, which I have affectionately named Pink-Blue, Orange-Green, Blue-Orange, and Green-Green. I can’t quite rest easy yet though, since I have yet to have a confirmed re-sighting of BO or GG. It would mean a big change in tack for the project if it turns out that capturing birds at the lek potentially causes them to abandon their territories at high rates. I can’t worry too much yet though, since the weather has been pretty bad for the last couple days and they could easily just be hunkered down. All I can do is keep going out and looking for them!
Now that I have a whole lek banded, our next goal is to test out some cool methods that I hope will really improve my ability to draw comparisons and get a sizable amount of data. The thing is, I want to gather reliable data on rates of disrupted courtships as well as the aggression of males towards other males and compare across species. Female visits in Manakins generally are pretty sporadic and copulations are pretty rare (as I said in an earlier installment, most males NEVER mate!). It is also difficult to account for the differences in temperament between individuals. For males, depending on the species, they rarely disturb the social order (whatever that may be or however it actually works), so it is difficult to understand what the “punishment” might be for a male who doesn’t follow the rules and respect other males’ space. Therefore, we are attempting to use model birds to try to elicit displays to fake females and aggressive reactions to fake males. This would give us the chance to control for timing and numbers of interactions and the opportunity to gather an unprecedented kind of data for this group of birds.
I use the words “our” and “we” in this case because I have just been joined yesterday by my friend and labmate Frank Stabile! He’s going to be here in Costa Rica with me helping out on the project for the next two weeks, about which I am super excited and for which I am extremely grateful.
I learned to hand-make the models we will be testing out the old-school way with significant pedagogy and guidance from Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History Preparator, artist, and amazingly cool guy Michael Anderson. I had a really fantastic time hanging out in the Peabody workshop learning these techniques, and while this would be dipping a bit into the past (as opposed to “real-time”), I thought it would be fun to use this platform to share the process and final product:
Sadly so far the models haven’t been working super well, but we’re still figuring stuff out and trying some new things. These include super-gluing on a few actual feathers and climbing up to place the model directly on the display branch (easier said than done):
Ok, this is probably quite enough for one post. Oh, right: