By guest author Célina Leuba, Master’s student from the University of Vienna.
I have always been enthusiastic about nature and animals; when I began my studies in biology, my interest in ecology and conservation was confirmed. I have visited Galapagos twice before as a volunteer and discovered its fascinating and at the same time vulnerable ecosystems — thus, my enthusiasm at being able to contribute to its conservation. I greatly enjoy fieldwork and observing animals in their natural environment.
This year, I began data collection for my master’s thesis on the Vermilion Flycatcher, an endemic bird of the Galapagos Islands, which has gone extinct on Floreana and San Cristóbal Islands and is rapidly declining on Santa Cruz. I spent most of my field time in the highlands of Isabela Island, within the Galapagos National Park, directly in the middle of nature — one of the reasons why I loved this experience.
From late January through mid-April — with generous support from Galapagos Conservancy — the Charles Darwin Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Vienna and the Galapagos National Park Directorate, monitored the breeding success of the Vermilion Flycatcher (VF) in three different study areas:
- The highlands of Santa Cruz, where less than 40 VF territories remain;
- The slopes of Sierra Negra Volcano on Isabela, an agricultural area with about 60 VF territories, and
- The pristine Alcedo Volcano, with a dense VF population.
Comparing breeding success at these different sites will help us to understand how habitat quality, predation pressure, and parasitism by the introduced blood-sucking fly Philornis downsi are linked to the rapid decline of the Vermilion Flycatcher, and to determine what is needed to stop the decline.
For three months, I worked together with Eileen Heyer, another student from Vienna, on Sierra Negra Volcano. We lived at the entrance of the National Park, at a place named “El Cura.” Although our accommodation was basic, we had all the necessities for cooking and sleeping. We shared the kitchen with two park rangers who were controlling the entrance into the National Park.
We rose each morning with the birds, beginning our fieldwork at about 6 am. Our main activities included searching for new nests by walking through the study area and observing the behavior of the birds, checking the status of nests already located, and collecting nests once they were empty. We treated some of the nests with an insecticide to kill the larvae of the parasitic fly (the larvae suck the blood of the nestlings and cause high mortality), and observed the birds foraging to determine their main food items. We also put artificial nests with plastiline eggs in trees and checked them for teeth or beak marks of predators. These artificial eggs mostly showed rat teeth marks.
At the end of each day, back at our home base, we took apart the collected nests and counted the larvae of the Philornis fly hidden in the nesting material. This data helps to determine the impact of Philornis on the survival of the chicks. Most nests found with dead chicks had a high number of larvae. The daily work ended with entering the data into the computer and preparing the equipment for the next day.
During my Galapagos experience, I learned a lot about the behavior and ecology of the Vermilion Flycatcher. I had known little about this species when I left Austria, but with many hours of observation I began to identify specific behaviors that I did not notice at first. This is what makes fieldwork exciting. Now that I have returned to Vienna, I’m analyzing the data we collected and hope that my contribution to the Vermilion Flycatcher work will help conserve this species.
Célina Leuba is from Switzerland. She is currently doing her master’s degree in “Conservation and Biodiversity Management” at the University of Vienna, under the direction of Dr. Sabine Tebbich.
Photo credits, from top: Vermilion Flycatcher male © Paul Patterson; VF female and chick © Quentin Jost; author in field © Quentin Jost; Philornis-infested nests © the author.