A Day in the Field

Working in the field might conjure up grand images of discovery and adventure: scenic, untouched forests stretching for miles, watching your study group as they act out dramatic scenes of courtship and political discord, even eventually welcoming you into their fold, showing you things no human has ever been able to witness. My idea of fieldwork may not have been quite this fantastic, but from a young age I said to myself You will not work at some carbon-copy desk job. Well since I have been in the field for the past two months, I wanted to give you an idea of what that looks like.

My alarm for the morning is set for 6:40 am, but I never sleep until then. The black and white colobus groups deliver their territorial calls at about 6 every morning, and I’ll usually wake up to their low, throaty voices calling in unison. The field day doesn’t start for me until 8 am, so even though I stay in bed until 7, it leaves me enough time to get ready before meeting my two field assistants outside my little one-story duplex. I say little, but I would bet it’s bigger than my apartment in New York City (and literally 10x less expensive).

Today we will be watching the mangabeys, a group we have been observing for five days and will continue to watch until the end of the week. We are watching 4 species overall, two family groups of each, but a deeper explanation of each one will have to wait for another post.

The Kanyawara Field Station is right on the edge of Kibale National Park in Uganda. Within five minutes of walking from my house in Middle Camp, we are surrounded by forest, the red dirt road disappearing behind the thick foliage. Observation obviously starts with finding the group, although the time this takes can vary. We have spent anywhere from 20 minutes to more than two whole days trying to find a group. It’s mostly done by listening. The mangabeys in particular are a highly vocal species, uttering low contact calls to keep in touch, high pitched screams during fights, and booming “whoop gobbles” (WHOOP…………..gobblegobblegobblegobblegobblegobble) from the males. But even with this frequent calling, my two field assistants almost always spot them first. At first I don’t see anything, I’ll crane my neck up to gaze into the trees, wondering what could have possibly made them stop walking at this particular stop. Then, some leaves will shake unnaturally out of the corner of my eye, a branch will break a few yards from that, and suddenly the forest is alive with monkeys emerging from the shadows.

The mangabeys, gray-cheeked mangabeys to be precise, are rather easier to distinguish from the other monkeys. The other monkeys in the forest usually have very sleek, graceful-looking tails, but the fur on mangabey tails sticks out as though they poked it into an electrical socket.

My project involves watching and recording behaviors for a focal individual, either a juvenile or an infant. My two field assistants take turns on this data, one calling out the behaviors and the other writing them down, while I write who is nearby the focal individual and could potentially interact with them. The outcomes of this data collection can also vary wildly. Sometimes the focal is tired and full from eating and just sleeps (relatable), other times, especially with the infants, are running around and changing behaviors so quickly we can barely keep up with them. I thought I was pretty good at watching animal behavior. In undergrad, I wrote my thesis on the activities of a group of silver-leaf langurs at the Columbus Zoo, which I watched for about 6 months. However, trying to keep up with a small primate in a huge group of other primates that look exactly like it in a giant tree in a giant forest is just a bit more difficult. It’s like being a figure in 2D trying to follow another figure that has access to 3D. You will not work at some carbon-copy desk job. I think as I blunder through the undergrowth following my field assistants, desperately trying not to trip over a tree root or step on a snake while watching the focal individual. When we stop I usually have to pry a tick off of my belly that managed to crawl in between the buttons of my shirt, or an ant off of my leg that has bitten through my pants.

Today this is especially true, because this morning the mangabeys have settled in an enormous Blaghia tree. Not only is the tree itself tall, but there are other, smaller trees with thick branches underneath it. This makes watching the mangabeys more like a game of trying to find exactly the right tiny window of leaves through which to watch them as they move. The Blaghia tree is also flowering, and those billions of flowers have attracted millions of bees, whose constant low buzzing we can hear from the ground. By the time we take a break at 11:30 for lunch, I’ve picked more than a dozen tiny yellow flowers out of my hair that rained down from the tree as monkeys climbed through it. However, I could tell that the mangabeys had the same issue, as they left the tree we could see them grooming each other, the yellow flowers sprinkled liberally over their charcoal fur. We find a clear, sunny spot on the path, where no monkeys could potentially sit above us and pee on our lunches (getting peed on is a right of passage in the field, but you still want to avoid it when possible). In my little Tupperware container I have a hard boiled egg, some popcorn, roasted g-nuts (basically peanuts), a chopati (flatbread), some cookies, and 2 small “donuts,” basically sweetened chunks of fried bread, for my field assistants. In exchange, one of them will bring a large avocado that we will split between the three of us.

Twenty minutes later, we finish eating and go back to the mangabey group. The monkeys we watch can move very far in a day or hardly at all, depending on the species and the day. The mangabeys tend to move further than the others to find their favorite foods, namely fruits, seeds, and insects. This afternoon they take us to the swamp part of Kibale. Here, the trees are a bit shorter, which helps in observations. But you need to be careful because the mud can be deceptively deep, even in the dry season. You will not work at some carbon-copy desk job. I think as I take one wrong step and land in a good ten inches of mud, well past the tops of my rain boots.  My field assistants can usually navigate the swamp without much trouble. They tell me to “step lightly” which I can only manage by also flapping my arms up and down like a deranged bird, which of course they find quite amusing (if only my professors could see me, they’d be so proud). This group of mangabeys has been specially interesting to watch, not only do they travel to the shorter trees in the swamp, they even go on the ground, sometimes to forage, other times to drink from puddles. That last one I can sympathize with, the sun blazes down from a cloudless sky today, and spending even a few minutes out of the shade can leave you light-headed. You will not work at some carbon-copy desk job I think, but god does a job inside with air conditioning sound nice. The thick undergrowth beneath the trees has been drooping in the heat all week. But by 4 pm, we have collected data for 15 individuals, both infants and juveniles, male and female, a good day’s work. Which we will begin again the next day at 8 am.

You will not work at some carbon-copy desk job. This has run through my mind almost every day the past two months, sometimes frantically, since I’m not really sure if I’d be any good at anything else, sometimes stubbornly, willing myself past the discomfort of shitting in a hole I dug myself in the middle of the forest. But sometimes I’ll also say it with excitement as we watch a juvenile female mangabey carrying an infant, a type of “parental” play I was only expecting to see in black and white colobus, or in reverence, when the power is out and I can look up into the night sky at billions of stars that are never visible in New York. It is tiring and exhilarating, stressful and beautiful, arduous and deeply gratifying. It is a day in the field I hope to experience for many more years.


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