Into the Field We Go

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here!

This week we met Ms. Colleen Wisinski, who works in the Applied Animal Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research as a Senior Research Technician. Ms. Wisinski explained to us what she does in this field and took us into the literal field as well. She spends a lot of her time working outside and we were able to experience this side of her job in the 800-acre biodiversity preserve adjacent to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

The San Diego climate is considered a Mediterranean climate and because of this is able to support costal sage scrub habitat, which is highly endangered, posing a problem for the plants and animals that live there.

There are many animal and plant species that live in the coastal sage scrub habitat. We learned about the coastal cactus wren and how endangered it is because it only lives in this specific habitat and that habitat is slowly decreasing. Ms. Wisinski is working on a project that is helping to restore the prickly pear cactus for the birds so they have more places to nest.

Ms. Wisinski is holding up a mist net, which is very fine so that birds have trouble seeing it. These nets are used to catch the wrens so researchers can attatch bands to them, allowing them to collect valuable data. Some of the data includes where they nest and sometimes whether they have the same mate or not.

When a cactus wren is pulled out of a mist net, a genetic sample is also taken. The date from the genetic samples is shared with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) so that both groups can learn more about the cactus wren. If you look closely at the leg you can see red and yellow bands, which are used to visually identify the birds.

Intern Thalia looks at a box, which contains the bands used on the birds. The bands come in a variety colors and different combinations of the colors are used on each bird. Researchers do this to identify and track the birds. One element researches want to track is if they are banding a hatchling, how far away from the parent’s nest will the hatchling choose to make its own nest.

Just outside the Beckman Center is a shade house. Here they grow prickly pear cactus so that they can plant it in the wild areas adjacent to the Safari Park. They grow them both to help the cactus wrens that nest in the cactus (the adult birds require the cactus be at least three feet tall in order to nest) and to help the habitat itself.

The lighter green spots on the landscape in the photo are the prickly pear cactus stands in which the wrens potentially nest. In 2007 the area pictured was subject to a massive wild fire so they are trying to restore the coastal sage scrub habitat.

Notice the flags in the picture? They are different markers and explain how the cactus are grown differently. Some of the cactus stands grow naturally, where the pad falls off and begin growing on their own. Others are helped along the way, meaning that researchers actually harvest the pads and then plant them. The pads are then either protected by some fencing or left alone.

Here you can see a cactus wren’s nest nestled in between the prickly pear cactus’s pads. These nests take one to three days to build and are used year-round. The nests are almost football shaped/sized and are mainly for breeding and roosting. The nest pictured even has a little something extra; it looks like they may have found something like cotton to decorate their nest with.

The interns wait patiently for a response to a bird call that Ms. Wisinski played off of her phone. Sadly since it is not mating season the wrens did not feel like responding to the call. Ms. Wisinski likes to say that the call sounds similar to a sewing machine.

Morgan, Photo Journalist Team
Fall 2012, week three