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From the Field: Dr. Alex Glass in the Peruvian Amazon

13 February, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

The team (minus Josue and Julio) at Allpahuayo-Mishana. Photo courtesy of Alex Glass.

Assistant Professor of Wildlife Biology at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina, Dr. Alex Glass conducted fieldwork on birds in white-sand forests in Peru in 2023, as part of a postdoc with IBCP prior to starting his faculty position. Locally known as varillales, white-sand forests are a rare tropical forest type found only in a few scattered locations in South America, including Guayana and Peru. The Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve hosts the largest most extensive protected area of white-sand forest in Peru. IBCP Outreach Fellow and Lees-McRae graduate Alexander Trifunovic sat down with Prof. Glass to learn more about his experience studying birds in Amazonia.

1. What did a typical day/week look like for you while in Peru?

AG: A typical week included three types of days: prep days, netting days, and veg days. On prep days, we headed to a site location with Julio, he cleared out net lanes with a machete, and then we set up the nets but left them closed. On netting days, we got to the site around 6:00 am and netted for eight hours. If we were interrupted by rain, we would come back the next day. It was the rainy season, so it would sometimes take three to four days to finish a site. On veg days, we did standardized vegetation structure surveys at three different points at each netting site. Variables measured included canopy cover, tree density, average tree diameter, liana density, liana diameter, and percent cover of understory and herbaceous vegetation. We did twelve sites total: three undisturbed varillal (sandy soil) sites, three undisturbed arcilla (clay soil) sites, three low disturbance sites, and three high disturbance sites. When we started, we would do prep days and veg days on different days, but once we got rolling with the project, we would often do prep and vegetation surveys on the same day. 

2. What were some challenges you had to overcome while working on the project? 

AG: We had to deal with ants. So many ants. I think the Amazon is low in salt, so they are attracted to sweat. We would set down a bag and it would just get covered in sweat bees and ants. The ants also loved the rope we used to secure the nets. They would often be all over the nets and ropes. I think I sweat more than the others on the team because my bag always had way more ants on it. We also had to deal with rain. Because I had a limited window before going to Lees-McRae for my teaching position, our field season coincided with the rainy season. This made netting challenging since we had to close the nets when it rained. Then it was a matter of deciding if the rain was done and we could reopen the nets or if it would continue. Everything was damp all the time. I had to handwash clothes and let them dry for several days before they would be dry enough to wear. Another challenge was mental fatigue. It was hard fieldwork in a super challenging environment. I was talking to Nico, and she said this was some of the hardest fieldwork she had ever done in her career. We also had limited control over the study sites since all the agriculture was on arcilla and logging was on varillal, and this made the study design challenging. Ideally, we would have a controlled experiment, but working in a natural system we had to make the best of what we had. And lastly, we had a small team, so if one person was down it made the fieldwork that much more challenging. Near the end of the field season, Julio got dengue so that made that part of the season difficult. We had a huge help from some local university students and volunteers like Scarlet and Josué. Josué had experience with bats, which was super helpful in the early morning when we would inevitably capture a few bats in the nets.  

Garly and Karen hard at work. Photo by Alex Glass. 

3. Was there anything unexpected that you had to address?

AG: It was my first time going to the tropics, so nothing really surprised me. I had no idea what to expect at all. It’s hard to have something unexpected when you have no expectations. 

4. What were the most memorable moments while out in the field?

AG: Probably handling the Royal Flycatcher and Ivory-billed Aracari. We just didn’t expect canopy birds, so it was super cool. Also, the pygmy kingfisher. You know they are small, but then you get them in the hand and it’s so bizarre to have a kingfisher almost as small as some hummingbirds. And just being so far outside my comfort zone of what I’m used to in a completely different environment was really memorable. The culture is so different, especially around work. We would take time to sit together and eat lunch, and then we would return to work when and if we felt like it. If we got everything done that we had to do for the day, it didn’t really matter how long we took for lunch. It was just a lot more relaxed in terms of time and schedules, but when we were working, the field work was very physically demanding and strenuous. Just very different from the work I do here as a professor. 

Collared Puffbird (Bucco capensis) being very puffy. Photo by Alex Glass. 

5. What was your favorite part of working on this project?


AG: It’s hard not to say the birds. They are just so different from the birds we have in North Carolina; we don’t have anything like manakins, toucans or woodcreepers here. The people I got to work with were great and very memorable as well. Julio is a true Peruvian jungle man. He lives at the reserve and will probably stay there forever.

6. Did you have a favorite bird or group of birds from Peru?

AG: Manakins. Especially the Blue-capped Manakins. They are beautiful with that bright blue on the head, and they have a lot of personality. And yes, I did end up getting one tattooed on my arm. Also, the Royal Flycatcher; they gave the biggest impression.

Royal Flycatcher in the hand at Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve. Photo by Alex Glass.

7. What kept you motivated on days when the weather or conditions were bad?

AG: There is this sense of wonder in the Amazon. It’s just such an amazing place. Sometimes I would just take a step back and realize where I was and what I was doing, and that was enough. I was in awe of being in the position I was in, leading my own project in such an amazing place. I was always excited to be there. I’m part of a collective of people doing some really serious field work, so it’s easy to draw inspiration. 

8. Were you able to get conclusive results? If so, what did they indicate?

AG: Yeah we were! It appears selectively logged forests bounce back within about twenty years. We were looking specifically at how bird communities in the Amazon are affected by prior land use. Our study found similar bird communities in primary and selectively logged forests, which is exciting! Replanted forests were very different with lower diversity too. We looked at guilds and forest vegetation structure, and it appears nectarivores prefer the secondary forests. Insectivores, frugivores, and ant-followers seem to be hit the hardest by disturbances. Ant-followers in particular responded negatively to increasing ground cover in the high disturbance areas. So, either the ants aren’t there, or they are just harder to find.   

Female Black-faced Antbird (Myrmoborus myotherinus) in the hand at Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve. Photo by Alex Glass.

9. Is there potential for continuation of research at Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve?

AG: For sure, we couldn’t look at all the research questions. Long term studies are rare, so this study is an opportunity to make a recovery timeline following disturbances. There are also endemic birds here like the Iquitos Gnatcatcher and the Allpahuayo Antbird. Ornithologists still need to understand the fine-scale habitat preferences of rare endemics. We also don’t know if these endemics used to be or are more widespread, since a lot of the area around Allpahuayo-Mishana was degraded for agriculture. There is definitely a need to look at white sand forests more closely. It’s a really unique environment with thin, straight trees, less branching, less lianas, and a lot of open space under the canopy. They regrow slower since the soil is nutrient-poor and sandy, so researchers need to better understand the effects of logging on these forests. We also didn’t band birds, since most of the birds there are nonmigratory and we were only at each site for a few days. We don’t know how long it will take the high disturbance sites to recover, if it’s thirty years, fifty years, or a hundred years. So, there is definitely an opportunity to continue this work at Allpahuayo-Mishana. 

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