Our spokesperson Professor Ilse Storch is currently representing ConFoBi at the conference “Wildlife under human influence – What can we do?” in Montpellier, France which is the regular meeting of the International Union of Game Biologists (IUGB).
Studying nocturnal flying creatures requires some special tools. Instead of wandering around the forest in the middle of the night, Marlot makes use of ultrasonic sound recorders, so called ‘bat-loggers’. Certain sound characteristics like frequency, call duration and distribution of energy, are used to identify bat species and even behavior. In the end, Confobi project B5 hopes to give some insight on how bat diversity is related to forest structural element and the surrounding landscape.
Doing fieldwork can be quite tricky, and there can be many obstacles out there once you leave the safety of the lab. Follow Marlot on one of her “ordinary day” in the field:
Its Monday and my week starts great. It’s little past 9 when I step out the door and find 3 garbage men discussing around my newly-acquired 20 years old VW-bus. Apparently, the combination of this street, my parking and passing garbage trucks didn’t work well this morning. The police is alerted and on the way.
‘Let the day begin…’
It’s almost noon when I’m finally off to work. I decide to change plans by not going to the University first but straight into the field instead. The pressure is on, the weather is still nice and in a few days, it could be raining again. Like most humans, bats don’t like it when it’s too cold, wet or windy. Therefore we need calm nights to make useful ultrasonic sound recordings.
What do we actually record? In order to ‘see’ in the dark bats have evolved echolocation. With their voice, bats emit sounds and based on the reflection (echoes) of their surroundings they are able to navigate and hunt at night. These calls can be recorded and analyzed afterwards to determine the species. My field work consists of driving around the research area, setting up bat loggers, leave them there for a few days and pick them up again. I have a great team that helps me out, because doing this on 135 different plots can be quite a logistic challenge.
I reach my first plot after approximately one hour of driving. I meet the forester on location, whom I (due to my spontaneous change of plans and slightly chaotic character) did not inform properly in advance. He is very friendly as he offers me some mushrooms (pfifferlinge) and we talk about the ConFoBi-project, the materials I use and the bats I’m after.
At a certain point the forester expresses the notion that bats are not so vulnerable, because like mice there are many and they are really common. I’m noticeably shocked and even though ‘bats’ are called ‘winged-mice’ in German (and Dutch) they are a totally different group of animals. Most notably in this regard, they differ hugely in reproduction strategy: mice get a lot of babies per year (easy over 50) whereas bats have only one young per year. During the early summer groups of females get together to give birth and raise their young, so called ‘maternity colonies’. Depending on the species these can be in buildings or in trees. Because of these colonies, taking down a single tree could potentially have a huge impact on the local population.
After my musings on bat reproduction with the forester we both get to work. I install the loggers and continue my journey to the next plot, a few kilometers down the forest road. But today I don’t get very far. At some point the road is blocked by 3 cars. On a wooden bench, five men are enjoying the sun. On the table in front of them are flowers, grapes and some salty snacks. It seems like they are enjoying the little pleasures of life. The gentlemen collectively insist that I should join them for a while before they let me pass. They offer me some ‘medicine’ and it tastes great. Their main topic of discussion is ‘hunting’ and how nowadays there are too many hunting events, but people don’t shoot enough at one event. Everyone seems to agree and I wonder if I should open up the discussion with the returning wolf… but I decide against it. I enjoy these spontaneous encounters and social interactions with these frequent visitors of the forest, and would love to listen longer to the stories. Unfortunately, I have to continue my work. And after continuously politely rejecting the refill of the ‘medicine’ they happily move the cars so I can pass, and can continue my path to the next plot.
‘135 plots, 135 adventures…’
I park the car on the middle of the road. On my hands and feet, I start to crawl up the hill and search for the poles I have left on this plot last time: To set up the bat-loggers in the field I attach the microphone to a wooden pole at approximately 1,8m height. I take the loggers out of my bag, switch them on, check if the settings are okay and screw my microphones on the poles. Done. Next plot.
On my way to the last plot I find out that my charger doesn’t work and my smartphone is going to die soon. I use it for navigation, and of course today I didn’t bring my GPS or printed maps as a backup. I stare at my phone in full concentration and try to memorize the route to the next plot as good as I can. 7,2 km… first left, second right…. Take the 3 turn to the… It’s hot, but I repeat the steps in my head and start driving. A few seconds later the screen turns black. I try hard to picture the map and memorize the steps. It should be here somewhere… wait.. is it..? yes! There it is! I am relieved when I find the pink border marking.
Around six o’clock, three plots are done. I laugh at myself, realizing that I’m an idiot but proud that I found my way. I step in the car, open the window, feel the sun on my face and smell the freshly mown grass. At this moment, I’m quite convinced that I have the best job ever.
The ConFoBi-project offers nice opportunities for students to work on their Bachelor’s or Master’s theses. I have already had the pleasure to supervise two ambitious Bachelor and Master candidates. One of their Bachelor theses studied how insect diversity is associated with coarse woody debris.
Of the approximately 11.000 species that occur in Central European forests, 20-50 % depend on dying or dead wood, for at least one stage within their life cycle. Half of these saproxylic species are currently endangered, as managed forests usually lack these habitat structures. Recently, forestry management practices have tried to increase the amount of dead wood of different dimensions and decay stages again (this is called retention forestry).
One of my tasks within ConFoBi is to investigate how the success of forest retentions measures is related to the landscape. Therefore, we set up two flight-intercept traps (see the previous blog entry on FIT) in each of our 135 forest plots in different landscapes with varying amounts of dead wood, and this to analyze diversity patterns of insects across the landscape. When planning this, I was curious whether two traps on each plot of 1 ha size would actually deliver a good measure of the insect diversity of that plot. Thus, we addressed this question (among others) in a Bachelor thesis.
One student distributed ten traps on one plot and then identified the captured Hymenoptera. She found 44 (morpho-) species of 16 families with 109 individuals. We found out that species assemblages differed strongly between each trap as most species were found in just one of the traps. Moreover, two traps represented on average only about 30% of the species that were captured by all ten traps.
Thanks to the students’ research we could conclude that the two traps that we set up on each forest plot are not sufficient to depict the complete species richness that we may find in our research area. Nevertheless, even only two traps should capture more insects in forests with high insect activity than in forests with lower levels of insect activity. So, I am already quite excited whether differences in numbers of caught insect species correspond with dead wood amount and quality in forests and how this is also linked to the surrounding landscape. Let’s see what happens!
I can’t believe it’s already one year ago when I walked into the Wildlife Ecology Department meeting room of Uni Freiburg. In the morning of that day, after making (and losing) our way through the castle-like Herderbau which hosts the Faculty, all twelve new PhD students and supervisors met for the first time. Being very excited, I couldn’t even remember the correct subproject number and title when I was introducing myself. But some glasses of welcoming Champaign later, I sat at the Dreisam river and had the first Pizza with some of my new colleagues, making new friends. Many pizzas (and Flammkuchen) followed after that. Some people say that having a lot of running water around facilitates fluent thought. Luckily, the Black Forest has many little streams and there are little canals, or ‘Bächle,’ spread all over Freiburg. Since there is even one next to our faculty building and ConFoBi needs a lot of thinking and coordinating effort, I hope what is being said is true!
Right now it is summer again and I am sitting in the now nicely furnished ConFoBi office, which I share with seven of my colleagues, HiWis and interns, flying in and out at the most random times. Most of my natural sciences fellow PhD students are busy running up and down the Black Forest hills doing field work, while the socio-economic project people are spending more time at their desks, reading and writing. I am looking back at one year full of experiences, some of them amazing and others more difficult. Being on this forest path on my PhD journey feels both challenging and liberating at the same time.
Since I never dealt with forestry or forest ecology as a sociologist before, a whole new world began to open up for me one year ago. I had to quickly learn a lot of fascinating new vocabulary, such as “Z-Baum” (a word especially important when doing interviews with foresters) or “edge-effect” (I still don’t know how to explain that) or “saproxylic” (dead-wood dependent organisms). But also my colleagues from natural sciences backgrounds took some time to understand that I am not very much interested in crunching numbers (“quantifying and correlations”), but in meanings, understandings and different perspectives, since I am doing qualitative research on professional cultures related to forest biodiversity conservation. This means that I do interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in order to find out how local foresters and forest ecology scientists work, what they find important, and how they interact with each other – in other words, how knowledge is being produced and translated. During the last months, I especially enjoyed participating in a variety of meetings and conferences of foresters and ecologists. In my daily work, I experience for myself what my research subject is about: professional epistemologies (or “cultures”) of foresters and scientists from different fields. All are seeing different things when looking at a bunch of trees. While all of ConFoBi is about habitat trees, Marlot, the bat researcher, looks for tree holes serving as bat dwellings. Julian takes the perspective from above and looks over a whole plot with a camera on a drone. Thomas thinks of a variety of microhabitat structures, different BHDs and tree species, and so it continues…
By now, we have established some structures for exchanging perspectives. Our weekly Journal Club meetings serve as occasions for exchange and to shine a light on specific disciplinary and interdisciplinary questions and approaches. Every week one of us suggests an article to discuss with the fellow PhDs. These meetings also serve as a means to keep track of each other’s challenges and identify possibilities for cooperation. In round table meetings we deal with organizational matters, together with all PIs. Sometimes we do courses together in order to acquire specific knowledge, and invite experts for cooperation.
In March of 2017, we held our first annual symposium to present the progress of the individual projects and exchange expertise, especially with our Mercator fellows from different European countries.
My personal highlight this year was the outdoor first aid course in the faculty’s hut in the Black Forest, and I am very much looking forward to our project excursion to Białowieża in October this year.
The main focus of my project for the past few months has been concentrating on my 30 sub-plots, and climbing Habitat Trees – often to the dizzy heights of 30 m in search of microhabitats (photograph below), but more importantly, epiphytes (lichens and bryophytes)!
The tree climbing element of my work is integral to my project in understanding the diversity of epiphytes found on different microhabitats. Climbing the tree allows me to access the whole tree and sample microhabitats that are normally inaccessible. Although the project has been my main focus, I have also experienced action-packed days of swinging around in the tree canopy! Overall my sampling approach takes a lot of time and energy, but it´s a whole different world within the canopy, with an exciting collection of epiphytes stretched across the long branches of the tree.
It has taken many weeks to organise and to get into a rhythm of epiphyte sampling. The climbing technique involves using a ´Big Shot´ (similar to a catapult) to get our ropes into the canopy, ascending the tree using prussiks and an ascender (with a bit of power and technique), and a lanyard to move around the canopy. Whilst advancing up the tree, epiphytes are sampled by collecting specimens in packets and recording abundance values within each compartment, and microhabitat.
One lesson that I have learnt from my tree climbing experience, so far, is never to climb on a very windy day! The Habitat Trees are generally very high and it can make you feel very queasy when the tree is moving around, especially when you are at the top!
Whilst sampling the trees, and especially once sampling has been completed, I will be concentrating my efforts on identifying epiphyte samples. This will include the use of a microscope and a chemical kit (to observe colour reactions and assist with identifying lichen species).
There are still many Habitat Trees to complete, but with increased familiarity with the technique (and stamina) we are advancing the trees at an increasingly faster pace!
Getting first impressions of UAV/Drone forest images
Starting an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) survey is a shot into the dark. You have to buy the drone and equipment such as cameras , fill out a hundred of forms to get flight permission, spend another hundred hours in front of the flight simulator to learn how to fly the thing. The drone also requires assembly and, on top of that, establishment of a work flow for the image processing before you even get your first sight on the data. In the end, the first drive to the research area can end in an unexpected, but very solid, barrier.
The first flight is a big adventure with plenty of technical issues, but after a while you become familiar with the routine and the most obvious mistakes, like forgotten cables and empty camera batteries, appear less often. This is when things start to become fun.
[image: Drone, OC Julian Frey]
[image: Drone Detailed Images, OC Julian Frey]
Taking a look to the first images is overwhelming. All the investment and work in using a high-performance copter with a great full size-sensor camera, instead of a ready to fly consumer device, was worth it. The images have an astonishing quality.
However, beautiful images in nice quality is only the start. If we want to say something about forest structures, we need to compile these images to a 3D model using a structure from motion (SfM) work flow. We used Agisoft Photoscan to generate a 3D point cloud and a 2.5D digital surface model. To be honest, I was really impressed by the amount of details we get, even below the canopy cover.
[image: Points Drone Detail, OC Julian Frey]
[image: Points Drone Detail, OC Julian Frey]
[image: QGIS UAV dsm, OC Julian Frey]
[image: QGIS UAV ortho, OC Julian Frey]
Now the real work can start, flying above more than a hundred additional research plots and analyzing the data for forest structures.
FIT? – Yes, Flight Interception Traps for fieldwork!
In this first round of PhDs we have many different taxa to study: plants, epiphytes, parasitic wasps, dead wood beetles, bats and birds. One of the great task we have within ConFoBi is to assess species diversity on 135 plots. The two PhD students, working on insects, have the great pleasure to work closely together and reduce the workload by sharing traps.
Two Flight Interception Traps (FITs) need to be installed in each hectare plot. As always, this sounds easier than it is. In fact, this simple sounding task requires a lot of planning and hard work. From designing the traps, ordering material, building and installing the traps in the field, we have been keeping busy. Without many assistants, we would still be sitting in the dark cellar, building traps. Fortunately, all except of a few are now hanging in the plots.
The traps hang on a clothes line between two trees. Yet in order to get to this step, picture this scenario: you’re looking at the tree. Yes, of course you can pass the line from one hand to the other around the tree, without walking around…. until you realize your arms are not long enough. You try a little harder, hopping that your arms grow a few centimeters, and are able to pass the line around. You try and try and then you realize: you’re just hugging a tree… and that you’ll never going to pass the line around. Finally we understand, where the stereotype that field biologist are tree huggers comes from.
Now that most traps are set, we have the exciting task of collecting the trapped insects each month. This is where our job gets even more time-consuming. Every four weeks we exchange the sampling solution , bringing the collected insects to the lab to sort them into the order of Hymenoptera or Coleoptera.
The first round of exchanging sampling solution is nearly done. Every time we administer the traps we check what kind of insect are in the bottles. We don’t usually have a lot of time to study the collected insects, but for us entomologists, it is always a highlight before running to tend to the the next trap…
Material, stacked in the cellar
The highlight before running to a new trap: check the collected insects
Flight interception traps hanging on a plot
News from the Coordination Team, Setting Up the Plots
The project is well under way and everyone is more than busy. An ambitious time schedule and work programme leave little time to relax. The 12 PhD students are fully immersed in their tasks and the coordination team is kept on their toes managing many projects. One of the most important tasks for the last months, besides an internal symposium, was to discuss our study plots with the forest authorities who are responsible for their respective districts. In our case, this means communicating about our 135 planned, 1ha plots, with seven forest state agencies (“Untere Forstbehörden”) totaling around 60 local foresters plus their supervisors.
Last year the first set of plots were identified, using a range of criteria in GIS (geographical information system) and with the collaboration of the FVA (forest research institute Baden-Württemberg). Through field visits with the foresters, we identified some plots as critical, i.e. cannot be used as they are, meaning new plots had to be selected, amounting to more than 180 potential study areas. Besides the existing criteria, new challenges appeared such as respecting resting areas of red deer and nesting black storks.
By now the majority of plots are decided on and a team of two field assistants has deployed to mark the centre points and borders of each plot. As if this alone, in sometimes steep and undulating terrain with a capricious differential GPS, is not challenging enough, they have other important tasks to complete. Along a transect inside the plots they gather data about lying and standing dead wood, distribute data loggers to measure temperature, and help exchanging the specimen jars on the flight interception traps.
Meanwhile, the coordination team advances in planning the year and its many upcoming events. In the ever evolving projects and connections in the science as in the community, we aim to keep you informed. So stay tuned and check out our blog, webpage and Facebook, as we continue to improve it.