by Ashraf Hutchcraft
Learning that I was selected for one of EUC's Undergraduate Research Awards (EUCURA) to work with Professor Gail Fraser on research of cormorants was a welcome surprise! I went into this project with no previous experience in field work, and an expectation of what it would be like. Throughout the summer months that we were researching and analyzing data, I have learned a lot about what goes into planning, executing, and reporting a field project. The opportunity also enabled me to contribute some of my previous experience in birdwatching involving the use of binoculars, spotting scope, and other equipment with which I was already familiar with.
Our first forays into Tommy Thompson Park (TTP) were essentially sighting trips to refine our research methods. During these trips, I got to understand the history of the TTP and understand the challenges that go into undertaking observations of wild animals. Dr. Fraser taught me more about research – how to define and implement research methods as well as how to evaluate results – to answer a question raised by prior work.
Do cormorants source anthropogenic material away from the colony site or locally source it? Some examples of anthropogenic material observed in cormorant nests: sunglasses, straws, toothbrushes, plastic bags, baseball hats, rope, insulated wire etc.
From pilot sampling, we concluded that the locally sourced part of the question could not be answered at this time. Thus, the focus of my work was on collecting observations of cormorants flying into the colony four locations. This is where my experience with binoculars came in handy. I was able to quickly see, identify, and assess the materials that the birds were carrying while they were flying into the colony.
Over the next few months, TTP and the four sites were my weekly destination. What was interesting was the variation in the number of cormorants observed at different sites. In some weeks one site would have most of the cormorant observations and in others very few cormorants were observed. Overall, I recorded 1,494 cormorants and of those 26% were observed carrying nest material but only 0.1% was anthropogenic material. While cormorant nests are full of anthropogenic debris, we did not see any striking images of garbage being carried.
Based on these results, the garbage in cormorant nests is likely being sourced locally (on land or in nearby waters), however more work is needed in sampling different times of day. The results of this work will help future students in the design in collecting this kind data.
Overall, the field research at TTP was a great learning experience and the skills are extremely useful in the academia and in the workplace! Finally, it was a privilege to work with Dr. Fraser this summer as she shared her knowledge and experience on researching cormorants. The ease with which she taught and trained undergraduate students with no previous research experience is beyond admirable!