Friday, July 25, 2014

Learning to find your own bugs

Last week my wife and I traveled to Rocky Mountain National Park. One of my favorite features of the rockies (besides the in-your-face geology) is a particular bird called the American Dipper, which is known for walking along stream bottoms searching for insects and its eponymous up-and-down bobbing.

The American Dipper (Cinclus mexicanus)

The dipper used to be known by another, much more poetic name of "ouzel." This year, we saw several, including a trio of fledgling chicks and their parents. The first day we saw them the chicks were huddled under the ledge of a waterfall. This is probably where they had the nest - they prefer the protection that living in amongst the steep rocky cliffs and rushing water provides. The parents would fly off, crawl around the rocks in the water and, with beak full of food, return to the squawking trio of babies. Then it was out to fly down the stream again, looking for more bugs again. Over. And. Over.

We returned to the site the next day, but instead of huddled under the ledge, the chicks were hopping around the rocks, pecking at things that kind of looked like food. Lichen: peck. Pebbles: peck. Leaves and twigs: peck. Occasionally they'd find an insect and gobble it down. But when the parents returned, it was on with the show. 

But the chicks were obviously willing to venture out further on their own and were capable of finding some food on their own. And the time between parental visits was a little longer. Although it was only two short visits in as many days, I suspect the parents were taking their time - both to find some food for themselves, but also to give the chicks opportunities to find things on their own. Eventually, the chicks will be on their own, perhaps raising their own broods next year.

In some ways, I see this as a mentorship metaphor. The students that I've worked with this summer and summers past have often been new to the demands of summer field research. I would have to spend a lot of time at the beginning running around setting up equipment, getting supplies and guiding the students in the field. Eventually, they would get the hang of things and be able to start taking on more of the responsibility for the project themselves, finding their own bugs.

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