Hello ORCAA enthusiasts!

This is going to be a different blog post than what you usually read, and it’s also the first one I’ve ever written. I hope you enjoy it!

My name is Ciera Edison and I am currently an undergraduate in the department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. But I’m going to rewind a bit. From a very young age I was obsessed with marine mammals. At eight years old my parents took me to SeaWorld where my future was decided. I knew from the moment I walked into that facility that I wanted a job with marine mammals. When I came back to Washington after that trip, I was a changed kid. I started doing research to see what my impact on the environment was, and wanted to do everything in my power to help minimize it. Over the next ten years, before heading off to college, I spent time volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium, PAWS wildlife rehabilitation center, beach naturalist programs, and multiple beach clean ups. I did anything to get closer to my favorite animals and help spread the word about human impacts. The Fisheries and Wildlife department was the perfect fit for me. The past three years have only solidified my dream, my passion, my desire to become a marine mammal biologist.

Simply taking classes was not enough for me. I became a volunteer mammologist at the Oregon Coast Aquarium and even president of The Fisheries and Wildlife Club. But going into my senior year (WOO!) I wanted to do more. The department offers a Mentor-Mentee program that allows students to work with grad students on their research. Obviously, I have no problem with volunteering my time which is why I contacted ORCAA Lab Ph.D. student Selene Fregosi. I was thrilled to hear back from her that she not only welcomed my help with her data, but was willing to act as my supervisor for research credits.

To assist in her research, I spend about 9 hours a week (usually more) running programs and recording any noises that I hear. Through this data processing my goal is to identify not only the species present in the Catalina Basin, but how often they are there (looking at it hour by hour). My inner child came out when I heard my first blue whale, then humpbacks, and even more when I heard sea lions barking (SEA LIONS, something we were not expecting at all)! Every day when I get done with my work the first thing my friends and family ask is “What did you hear today?!” Since January, I have been like a sponge soaking up everything I can. I have gone through ups and downs this term (my computer loves to crash on me while I’m in the middle of logging data), but overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my time. What more could I ask for!

I am continuing this research through spring term where I will be presenting at RAFWE and writing my first research paper (maybe I can even get it published)! I hope to post again during spring term to share with you guys what I found.

For now, here is a spectrogram of the sea lion vocalizations! When you listen to this, it really sounds like they are barking. Pretty neat stuff!

My broken heart limped off of Strawberry Island a few weeks ago on a day when the fog was too thick to permit my sentimental heart watch the island fade into the distance. But while our field season on the island had come to an end, my field work for the summer was not quite complete.

My work in Glacier Bay studying humpback whale acoustics is partially based on my previous work conducted from the Five Finger Lighthouse. I’m interested in comparing the two regions (both the soundscapes and the behaviors of the whales themselves), as we have historic population and acoustics information from both regions dating back to the late 1980’s (Thank you Malme and Miles! Thank you Scott Baker!). To get the ball rolling on this comparison I made my way to the Five Finger Lighthouse for a short 10 day foray into “late season acoustic behavior”.

I don’t have anything definitive to report, except that the team of volunteers who have been working on maintaining my favorite historic structure have been hard at work, and that the whales were abundant beyond my wildest dreams. If Glacier Bay is indicative of high quality interactions with individual humpback whales (remember Cervantes), than Frederick Sound is a strong argument for quantity over quality. In this, my tenth summer spent with Alaskan humpbacks, I finally broke the record for highest concentration of animals in a single area. Don’t believe me? Watch the short clip below and see a glimpse of the 40+animals milling around the region. Once you’re done watching, listen to the sound file to get an idea of what these animals were saying when this video was filmed. In my humble opinion, it is in this pairing of sight and sound that we begin to understand.

Watch

 

Listen

(These videos and recordings  were collected  under a research permit and with zoom lenses. Endangered or not it is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, to alter the behavior of an animal, or to recklessly operate a vessel — even a kayak– in the presence of humpback whales). 

Most of my time with bioacoustics, thus far, has been with playing sounds – my master’s work with an active acoustic tag – or with identifying odontocete, or toothed whale species, in glider data (typically known as high- or mid-frequency vocalizations).

For my PhD, I’ll be expanding what I know about whale acoustics and looking at baleen whales from glider and float data as well. I started into this the last few weeks and it has been fun, but definitely feels like a step back in time trying to look up literature and see what exactly I am hearing in the data – I’m not used to working with low-frequency sounds.

Low-frequency sounds

What do I mean with low- vs high-frequency sounds? These labels are based on human hearing (of course). Humans (babies!) can typically hear from 20 Hz (hertz) to 20 kHz (kilohertz…hertz*1000; 20 kHz = 20,000 Hz). As we get older we start to lose hearing on the higher end. But marine mammals vocalize both below and above our hearing range. The low/high delineation is “generally” accepted at 1 kHz, and typically baleen whales vocalize below this, and toothed whales vocalized above this. But remember, this is just USUALLY. There are always special cases that don’t follow the trend, and its all relative terms when calling things low and high.

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This figure from Mellinger et al. 2007 is a great way of see where certain species typically vocalize. (Click he figure to link to the PDF of the paper and zoom in)

Looking at sounds

So since some whales make sounds below my hearing range, and some make sounds above, how do I hear them for analysis? Well first of usually I am identifying sounds by looking at them, at a spectrogram (we’ve posted those before right?).

Then sometimes I need to listen AND look to identify what the sound is, or gather more info about it. Wonderfully there is a work around. For really LOW sounds, you can play  them faster, and then that increases the perceived frequency, so you can hear it. Vice versa, for really HIGH sounds, you can play them at half speed, which changes the perceived frequency, and then you can hear them. Does anyone remember Yakbaks? Speeding up your voice makes you sound like a chipmunk, slowing it down makes you sound like…a whale?

 

If you are interested in hearing some baleen whale sounds, sped up so you can hear them, look here: http://cetus.ucsd.edu/voicesinthesea_org/species/baleenWhales/blue.html

You’ll see that on the spectrogram it says *recording plays at 6 times normal speed for better listening.

But this one (http://cetus.ucsd.edu/voicesinthesea_org/species/beakedWhales/cuviersBeaked.html) is played at 1/10th the speed so you can hear it!

How high can you hear? I lose the signal at about 17 kHz 🙁

The marine forecast is calling for 25-knot winds and 5-foot seas in Glacier Bay National Park today. Yesterday, when we were tightening the last nylocks on our hydrophone landers, and working out the last details of our array deployment, folks were pretty keen to remind us that the weather was going to kick up. I decided not to be nervous, what’s the point.

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Clockwise from upper right: Snacks, Kenya, Bumblebee, and Bruiser.  The hydrophones that listen where we cannot.

Today in the rain and the fog we put four instruments, that our team has literally pour blood sweat and tears into, into the ocean for a second year. Aside from one overactive buoy on the final drop (I turned to Chris and said, “My only concern is about that buoy.” I should have listened to my gut sooner), our day went smoothly and quickly – despite the persistent drizzle and fog dancing on deck. Our efficient little team completed the deployment by 10:45am. Plenty of time for a quick visit to Strawberry Island, and a boat ride home, all before the weather hit. Unlike last year, where we hooted and hollered our victory, this year the boat ride back was subdued. I didn’t dance a victory dance, I sighed a blissful sigh of relief.

Want to know something though? The best part of today wasn’t getting the hydrophones in the water (though long term, I’m certain that’s what I’ll be most grateful for), the best part was seeing the harbor porpoise sipping air off the port side of our deployment vessel, watching the bull sea lion growl with his huge mouth agape, and spotting the seals and birds diving after the same schools of small fish. I love our hydrophones – don’t get me wrong. I’ve slept with them next to my bed at night, kissed their housings, and whispered sweet nothings to them. I love them most, however, because they give me the motivation, the inspiration, and the permission to be outside here in Glacier Bay.

The National Park Service is having its centennial anniversary this year. It has been one hundred years since the intrinsic value of our wild places was recognized, and protected for no other reason than to ensure its persistence. Being a part of this legacy is something that I can’t quite put words too. Joining the ranks of my mentors, past and present, and contributing to what we know about and how we interact with the natural world with forever be one of my greatest achievements. I’m fortunate enough to stand in the footsteps of giants; for me, however, those footsteps were carved out by the journey of glaciers moving through this landscape well before I was born. Footsteps that have become the ocean home to the animals that I love, and the backdrop to the science that I create.

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Staged and almost ready to go on the dock in Bartlett Cove. Our equipment prep was completed in the company of otters, eagle, and Bonaparte gulls happily cackling

Technology enables me to listen to a world I otherwise cannot hear, but it is the sound of the ocean butting up against the islands that brought me to acoustics in the first place. We human tool users are ingenious in finding ways to solve problems and answer questions. Places like Glacier Bay, however, are essential for inspiring the questions in the first place.

One hundred years. That’s not a trivial tenure. How many times over the past 100 years have you visited a National Park? If you’ve never been, let this be the year that you find your park. I’ve certainly found mine.

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The view from Strawberry Island, overlooking our hydrophone array: Glacier Bay National Park

 

 

 

 

So….Guess what? I figured out my dissertation!

Well, not really. Not the whole thing. But I finally feel like I have sort of the start of an idea of a plan. Yesterday I gave a talk at the Marine Mammal Institute Brownbag series at Hatfield Marine Science Center. I took this opportunity to try and sketch out what I will be focusing on the next few years.

OutlineSlide

I got some great feedback that will really help me going forward. For example:

The problems you discuss seem similar to problems that were worked out for visual surveys in the past. That would be a great place to start in your literature search.

Great point! That’s kind of what I was trying to convey…so yay!

Well. If I’ve got one thing to say. It’s a lot. 

Again…I agree. I hadn’t realized how big it all seemed until I got it all out there. But it’s a highly collaborative project, so I think it will be doable? And I’m sure things will get tweaked. But I do need to be reasonable here.

You really nerded out up there. 

Heck yes I did! Gliders! Woo!

**I paraphrased all of these so I won’t put the names of who they were from 🙂 I think I got the gist of what they meant?

 

 

Wow! Summer winded down quickly. It felt like a lot of time spent writing, some exciting and stressful glider piloting, and I wrapped it up with 2 weeks on the water in Southern California working on the SOCAL BRS project. (You can read a public summary of the project here).

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Pretty morning at Santa Catalina Island

I’ve talked about this project before, and this was my 4th summer on the R/V Truth. This leg ended up a bit frustrating in the fact that the animals were more difficult to find and work with than past years. We didn’t observe the distribution of whales we typically do, and we suspect this has something to do with the abnormally warm waters off Southern California this summer.

For example we barely saw any Risso’s dolphins, where typically there are tons around Santa Catalina Island. And the blue and fin whales typically found feeding right in the LA shipping channel weren’t where we expected them. Instead we found them quite a bit further offshore near Santa Barbara Island. AND we saw schools on schools on schools of yellowfin!! (I think……I may edit this in a day or two…anyway I’d never seen so many leaping fish!) EDIT: Yellowfin tun and maybe some small bonitos and maybe some bluefin.

Always Learning

For me the trip was still a great learning experience. I got to use some new tools and learn some new skills, including running the sound propagation software we use in setting up a CEE (Controlled Exposure Experiment), running the sound source that projects the sound playback, and deploying and recording from sonobuoys, little one-time use floating recorders designed to listen for subs, but also work for whales.

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Mapping how sound likely propagates through the Southern California Bight in August.
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My acoustic set up. Sonobuoy detector, sonobuoy recorder, and directions of course.

 

 

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People started to refer to me as Jonesy. I embraced it whole-heartedly.

 

 

links to other blogs!!  Like this one: LADC-GEMM

Lately I’ve been doing some “field work” although that is not nearly as glamorous as my labmates Michelle and Samara are doing right now. I am piloting a glider in the Gulf of Mexico for a monitoring project around the area of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This is an awesome project because it is using three types of passive acoustic monitoring systems: gliders, autonomous surface vehicles (that look AWESOME) and bottom moored hydrophones. However, me piloting means staying in Oregon with a strong internet connection and doing all of that from my laptop, so I don’t have any cool pictures, or fun field stories. This deployment has been going very smoothly, compared to the test flight, knock on wood.

Anyway, Sara Heimlich, of the OSU/CIMRS Bioacoustics Lab, has been maintaining a great project website and I encourage you all to check that out for more detailed info…and cool field photos.

Enjoy!!

First, let me apologize for being a little late with this post. I generally post the second Friday of every month; It’s Tuesday. One of the reasons I’m late is because I flew back to my hometown in Birmingham, Alabama as an invited teacher at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School. I had the privilege of running three lessons on whale communication for students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. Admittedly they kept me on my toes! Spending time with children is exciting and inspiring.

We did a number of activities to demonstrate how marine mammals use sound to communicate. Students were given a small shaker containing one of four materials (hazelnuts, tacks, aduki beans, or rice) and they had to use their ears alone to find their “pods”. We had fin whales, humpback whales, killer whales, and beluga whales. Each pod was then given a ribbon the length of their whale to stretch out across the activity room. Even I was impressed with how big a fin whale really is.

For the older groups we talked about the relationship between size and pitch (frequency), learned how to read spectrograms, and I introduced the concept of masking and noise pollution by playing a series of whale calls and adding vessel noise. For the kindergartners and first graders, however, it seemed more appropriate to introduce the concept of sound in the ocean with a story. I re-purposed a true story about a killer whale from Puget Sound named Springer who was separated from, and later reunited with her pod. In real life recordings were made of Springer’s vocalizations to help identify which pod she belonged to. In the story below, Springer uses her family whistle to try and re-connect, and she meets a number of other whales along the way. On each page I was able to play recordings of the animals in the pictures, so my young students could hear the actual voices of the animals. Enjoy!

 

 

Well… it’s that time of year again. I see little flashes of red out of the corner of my eye  when I’m out walking; everyone in my Ecological Stats class is talking about it, some with dread, some with stars in their eyes.  The air is abuzz with courtship, pretty little love songs, and dare I say it… hormones?

That’s right.  The red-winged blackbirds are back.

What?  You thought I was talking about some silly holiday?! Tsk tsk.

Let’s be serious.  Spring seems to be coming early this year in Oregon (see Danielle’s post about the heavy rain, warm weather, and early frog calls) and the blackbirds are no exception.  Red-winged blackbird males sing for a multitude of reasons, but most are  directly related to securing and maintaining a mate (and the territory to defend her, house her, and raise lovely red-winged blackbird babies).  The part of this whole ordeal that I love most however is the song. Red winged blackbirds produce one of my favorite bird songs, while not as complex as say a Pacific Wren or a Song Sparrow, it might be one of the loveliest sounds on earth. Go on, have a listen.

 

Admittedly, I am not a bird song (or bird call) aficionado.  I’m not even a novice birder, but I do love the morning chorus when I walk by the river, and the evening chorus when I ride my bike home.  It is one of the perks of living in the Willamette Valley. As you likely know, however, I am a marine acoustic ecologist by training (see my earlier post on SeaBASS), and I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that blackbirds aren’t the only boys singing right now.

It’s breeding season for northern hemisphere humpback whales, and males in the tropics and sub-tropics can be heard singing in nearly any hour of the day.  Thanks to the Jupiter Project anyone with a broadband connection can listen to the live feed of a hydrophone in the Hawaiian Islands here. By contrast in the high Arctic male bearded seals are singing in and around the sea ice- presumably to establish and defend breeding territories… and impress lady-seals too. Listen to their strange love-song below.

 

While I eschew Valentine’s Day in general, it does bring me great joy that some of our most genuine expressions of human love, love songs, are something that we share with many animal species.  So while I’m unlikely to set aside my Saturday bonfire plans in favor of candy hearts, when I head out this weekend to walk my wild pups by the river and I hear the blackbird singing, I might for a moment imagine he is singing for me.

Have a wonderful weekend friends.

 

 

***Follow my monthly blog posts here, or check out my personal blog mfournet.wordpress.com for a comprehensive look at my research world***

Classes have started again here at OSU.  I know this is old news for those east coast universities that start classes in late August or early September, but here in Ye Olde Oregon fall starts late… so school starts late.  As a PhD student I’m no longer required to take classes at the university, and having just pushed the paperwork through on our National Park Service Grant I will soon be exclusively a GRA (graduate research assistant) and will no longer be required to teach courses either.  For now, however, I am both student and teacher — taking classes and teaching them.

FW255 student James tests out the directional microphone during a playback study at Finley Wildlife Refuge.

I love teaching.  Rare for many researchers I know, but for me – true.  I find it helps me to synthesize my thoughts, to approach science creatively and simply, and to consistently reference back to the basics.  In my tenure as a graduate student at OSU I’ve been privileged to both TA and instruct classes in basic biology, ecology, intro to anatomy, physiology and the disease, marine biology, marine mammal science, marine habitats, and (my all time favorite) field sampling.  FW255 — field sampling — is a required course for all of our Fisheries and Wildlife undergraduate students; I’ve been a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) under the brilliant and compassionate guidance of biological oceanographer and community ecologist Dr. Doug Reese for four quarters.  The course gives students the opportunity (under the instructors’ guidance) to design and execute field studies at the Finley Wildlife Refuge.  Courses range from comparing predator habitat use, to investigating the impacts of beaver dams on water clarity, to chronicling avian community structure.  I know. Our students are impressive, creative, young minds.

When your classroom looks like this teaching is heavenly.
When your classroom looks like this… teaching is heavenly

For my part I see participating in this course as an opportunity to introduce undergraduate students to acoustic ecology.  In my tenure I’ve guided students through studies that seek to aquatically detect amphibian species, investigate the impact of diel vs. nocturnal raptors on songbird communities, and studies that use acoustics (playbacks and recordings in this case) to test for territorial responses of red-winged blackbirds to encroaching yellow-headed blackbirds. Currently we’re starting up two playback studies; one study uses acoustic playbacks to investigate the impact of raptors on waterfowl, the other which will asses behavioral responses of elk to breeding calls (assuming we can find the elk — backup plan includes tracking elk and using trail cams.  No student left behind here).

While there’s a lot to love about teaching this class (I spend two days a week hiking through a wildlife refuge looking for animals, I can pay my rent each month), there are a few things that really strike me as I start up my fourth quarter interacting with out students in the field.  First, I have a lot to learn.  Whenever I start to feel like I understand something in its entirety, be it about ecology or about bioacoustics, a student asks me a question I don’t know the answer to.  I then go home, look it up, and learn something for the both of us.  It is simultaneously refreshing, inspiring, and humbling.  Good qualities for any PhD student to embody.

Second, teaching is valuable.  While I believe that my research has, and will continue to have an impact of the world around me, when I teach I can see the impact.  My students start the quarter not knowing how to do something (“What is a quadrat?”), perhaps lacking direction (a.k.a. don’t know how to operate a GPS), and are sometimes a little short in the inspiration department (“What study do you think I should do, Michelle?”), but when then leave?  By the time my students hand in their final papers — a full scale research paper, intro, methods, results, & discussions, stats and all — I can see that they have changed (“We used a one square meter quadrat to investigate insect biodiversity between the upland forest and the agricultural lowland riparian zone”). Further, the relationships that I see unfolding in our class between the students and their groups, and the students and Doug and myself, are proof to me that doing science is a powerful tonic for a healthy life.  Not everyone loves teaching, not everyone gets it, but for me (at least for now) it’s nourishing to put big picture impacts into real world perspective.

So yes, I am a teacher.  Yes, I am a student. The teacher is a student & the students are the teachers.

But enough with philosophy (Niki’s really much better at that than I am).  While 99% of the time I love teaching… no one can deny that this is also true.  Cross your fingers and I may just graduate some day.

-Michelle-