29 Mar 2019

Fieldwork fails: 7 times birds made a fool of our staff

Sometimes, to study and help birds, we need to get up close and personal. But it doesn’t always go as planned. We asked BirdLife staff for their most hilarious mishaps while working out in the field. Prepare to be shocked, amused and downright disgusted…

Fieldwork isn't always fun and games © Jono Handley
Fieldwork isn't always fun and games © Jono Handley
By Jessica Law & Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

1. Cowlick

Ashton Berry, Global Climate Change Programme Coordinator, BirdLife International

Back when I lived in Australia, I was working on a research project with the University of Queensland on the sexual selection pressures facing female Satin Bowerbirds. The birds were very shy, so I had to sit in camouflaged in the forests of the Bunya Mountains to observe them. One day, I was sitting camouflaged under a large Bunya Pine observing the courtship display of the male Satin Bowerbird. A group of cows decided to shelter under the tree as well, but they couldn’t see me beneath the camouflage netting. Two cows preceded to lick my face through the netting with their very slimy and surprisingly rough tongues. This went on for several minutes while I sat frozen observing the Bowerbirds’ mating ritual. I have to admit, it wasn’t the best exfoliation I’ve ever had.


2. Oh Crap

Dr. Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB

In January 2019, I was working at a garbage dump in eastern Ethiopia trying to (humanely!) trap Egyptian Vultures to tag them. These birds are very shy, so we made sure to carefully cover the traps on the ground so they couldn’t be seen. We sat for hours in the garbage dump, waiting for vultures. Unfortunately, no birds showed up, but eventually three donkey carts arrived at the dump, each loaded down with three 50-gallon drums of sewage. We watched, in horror, as the carts stopped right next to our traps, and men poured all of the 450 gallons of raw sewage over the area. The worst part was we needed the traps back, so we then had to dig them out.


3. Lost in Translation

Vicky Jones, Flyways Science Coordinator, BirdLife International

In 1996, I was working for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation alongside a Scotsman and a New Zealander. We were staking out an Echo Parakeet nest, trying to capture a female to ring her. This particular bird had eluded us a number of times before, but this time we had a fool-proof plan. We had fashioned a net to fit the exact shape of the trunk around the nest hole. Mike the New Zealander was holding onto the string, ready to pull the net closed when the female finally returned to her nest, and Graeme the Scotsman was on look-out, to tell Mike when to pull. We sat for hours motionless on the ground, waiting for the parakeet to return, getting unbelievably sore. All of a sudden, after about 6 hours, the female flew back and popped into the nest hole. Graeme shouted ‘Noooow!’ to Mike, but with his Scottish accent, Mike thought he was saying ‘Noooo’. “Why not?” shouted Mike, as the female flew out of the hole unimpeded. I must admit it took us all a few years to find the humour in the situation.


4. Waiting at the altar

Dr. Steffen Oppel, Senior Conservation Scientist, RSPB

In some cultures, it’s traditional for the bride to be a little bit late to her wedding… but maybe not a whole week late. My colleague Jenn and I were on an RSPB expedition tracking Murphy’s Petrels on Henderson Island in the South Pacific, a remote, uninhabited island thousands of miles in every direction from the nearest continent. We had planned to stay on the island for 90 days, but a few days from the end of our stay we heard the news that the ship that was supposed to pick us up had broken down in the Pacific and had to return to New Zealand. This meant that we would get picked up two weeks after schedule. Not a huge disaster, perhaps, except that Jenn had organised her wedding in French Polynesia for a week after our planned return – meaning that she would be missing her wedding by a whole week. On what would have been the day of the wedding, me and the rest of the research team decided to cheer Jenn up by holding a dressing up competition. We gave ourselves five minutes to collect rubbish from the beach, and we could only wear what we had found.

The team made an alternative wedding dress for the stranded bride © Steffen Oppel

When we finally got to French Polynesia, Jenn’s extremely patient husband was keen to proceed with the very belated wedding. However, all the other guests had had to go home. Who would make up the wedding party? Me and the research team rallied round, attending the wedding in our torn, dirty field clothes, as we had no other garments. At least they’ll have an interesting story to tell their grandchildren...


5. Vulture Vomit

Ben Jobson, Science Research Assistant, BirdLife International

As part of my masters thesis, I was tagging White-backed Vultures in South Africa. I was really excited about this, because I was working with the CEO of a conservation organization, and a South African ornithologist I really admired. The way to tag vultures is essentially to capture them while they are eating carrion, and then hold them while you put a tag on. We had just come on some carrion with vultures feeding, so I went forward, and grabbed one of the vultures for tagging. An interesting fact about vultures is that when they are stressed they have a tendency to vomit to make themselves lighter so they can fly away. Next thing I knew I was standing vulture-less, covered in regurgitated carrion, in front of two people I very much wanted to impress. Well, at least I can say they’ll never forget me.


6. The Birds and the Bees

Margaret Sessa-Hawkins, Digital Communications Officer, BirdLife International

In 2011 I was working with the Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi at a week-long nature camp for students in Malawi. One of the goals of the camp was to teach students about environmentally sustainable methods for earning money. The middle of the week was dedicated to learning bee-keeping, which I was a bit nervous about because I am ridiculously terrified of bees. Luckily, the whole day went off without a hitch. We taught the campers how to build and hang bee hives, how to make bee suits out of local materials, and how to remove honey from hives, all without any issues. I went to sleep feeling so proud of myself. The next morning I woke up, and the first thing I heard was a strange humming sound. I looked out the window of my dorm, and saw literally hundreds of thousands of bees buzzing around the cafeteria. It turns out that at night, after showing the students how to remove honey from the hives, we had left the buckets of honey uncovered...


7. Bottoms Up

Submitted anonymously

My colleague was working on Bird Island in the South Atlantic, the current home of Albatross Stories. She spotted a giant petrel with a leg tag that needed to be read. Luckily, the bird was distracted, feeding on the contents of a dead seal’s digestive tract. My colleague crept up on the petrel, but just as she reached it, it took off over her head. She looked up and cried out in frustration, which made the startled creature vomit rotting seal dung… right into her open mouth.