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The King of Dinosaurs

Summer Sessions: Part 4

A summer spent in search of song

Each summer, the Museum hosts a number of post-graduate, graduate students and interns from colleges as well as students from area high schools. These students work in different areas of the Museum, learning about careers in science or doing research on a specific topic. This is the fourth post about what some of the students did at the Museum this summer. In this post, Cleveland State University graduate student Courtney Brennan, who worked as a preparator in the Museum's Ornithology department during the summer, relates her field experience.

This past May I set out with two field assistants—fellow Cleveland State grad student Max Koran and Cleveland State undergrad (and my sister) Katelyn Brennan—to the Appalachian Mountains. We were in pursuit of recording the songs of a small, shy and skittish bird: the Veery.

A longtime bird lover, I became involved with the Museum two years ago as an intern in the ornithology lab where I met Dr. Andy Jones, Curator of Ornithology. This summer I worked for Dr. Jones at the Museum. I am an Environmental Science graduate student at Cleveland State, and Dr. Jones is my major advisor.

My research focuses on the Veery, a Neotropical migrant whose breeding distribution is interesting in that it spans much of southern Canada and the northeastern United States, continuing south through the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains.

Photo by Bill Lynch

My team and I set out to record the songs of Veeries in mountains of North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Vermont to find out if Veery songs vary from region to region in this somewhat isolated and unique portion of their breeding range.

I was so excited to have the Veery as my focal bird for this project, because Veeries have the most enchanting song of all the woodland thrushes. (Click here to listen.) As ethereal and interesting as this song is, it has not been studied for geographic variation like some of the Veery’s relatives like the Hermit Thrush and Wood Thrush. So our plan was to record the songs of as many Veeries as possible, for as long as they would allow.

This sounds like a fairly straightforward graduate thesis project, and I pride myself on being an experienced camper. However, nothing could have prepared my team for an entire month of camping in the Appalachian Mountains and living out of a cooler and a rental car.

After a rough start in North Carolina (where we initially failed to even find Veeries), including equipment malfunctions, navigating steep dirt roads and finally coming to terms with living and sleeping in bear country every day, we began to see the Appalachians as our home. I got used to the mosquitos buzzing around my face and biting me while I stood completely still, recording Veeries for 30 minutes at a time in the thick, mixed, brushy woods. We became experts in scouting appropriate habitats and recording the elusive Veery song quickly, as well as becoming expert campfire chefs and camping gurus embracing our rustic lifestyle.

Living in the Appalachian Mountains chasing Veeries with Max and Katie was the experience of a lifetime. After we finished recording in Vermont it was a bittersweet drive home. I was happy to have successfully recorded enough Veeries for my thesis without any major injuries, losses, or dangerous bear encounters (though we did see three black bears) and excited to go home and sleep in my bed after a month of sleeping on the ground, I will truly miss waking up before dawn with the birds and my best friends, watching the sunrise over the mountains and experiencing the breathtaking sights and beautiful sounds of the Appalachian Mountains. It was an absolutely amazing first experience doing fieldwork.

Courtney Brennan

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