ABS (sort of near) Toronto

First conference of the year, the meeting of the animal behaviour society in Scarborough. Which despite being part of the university of Toronto is still an hour’s drive away from Toronto.

I was going to talk about some techniques I’d been playing with to get dominance hierarchies from RFID data. As seems to be traditional, I was on the last day. Still, there was plenty of talks to see in the meantime. As ever it was nice to bump into some familiar faces I’d met at over conferences. And fellow exiles in Canada!


I did manage to get a chance to go into Toronto proper, the night before my talk. We had ramen (a first for me!) and then went and saw the CN tower lit up at night.

Lost in the mist

Canadian Colours

Then finally it was time for me to present. Once again, no matter how many times I get up and do this, I’m always convinced I might go insane and forget everything I am going to say. The nerves never seem to go away!

Yes, presentation outfit

Post-presentation treat

However, once my talk was done, that was more or less the end of the conference. We went on a lab outing to Toronto zoo, which was very close to where we were staying.

The whole lab

As ever when visiting a zoo, somewhat mixed feelings.. but we did see pandas!

It’s ok pandas, I have days like that too sometimes.


NAOC Washington

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Passing the last ISBE location on the way

After a stint in the UK I was off to a different conference, this time closer to my (current) home in Washington DC. The North American Ornithological Conference 2016. My boss had been invited to speak in a social network symposium, and sent me along instead.

I was staying in the same hotel that the conference was in. It was somewhat fancier than the previous conference’s accommodation, which had been university halls.

I had a day before I started, so I did some sightseeing. Most of Washington’s tourist hot spots are conveniently within walking distance of each other.

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.. and so forth.

Before the conference officially began I attended a workshop on social networks, which was incredibly helpful in term of introducing me to new ways that social networks could be used and plotted. As I’ve said, I still feel I’m very new to social network analysis, and had been very focused on my own system. Both this workshop and the symposium I spoke in had so many different ways of applying network techniques, that would not have occurred to me otherwise.

The conference proper began the next day with a plenary from a NASA astronaut candidate

There were an enormous number of simultaneous talks, not to mention the hundreds of posters. It was a very well organised conference.

I wasn’t the only chickadee talk

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The banquet was in the zoo!


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The day after the conference finished I managed to get around a few more of the Smithsonian museums (I’d done the air and space on the day before the conferences starts). Then it was time to head back to Ottawa. I’d been away for about a month.

I found both of these summer conference extremely valuable, in terms of thinking about future work and in generally being inspiring. Now however, back to work..

ISBE 2016

The last ISBE I went to was in New York. Where was this one? Well… back in Exeter. Typical.

Still, Exeter can be nice!

I’ve only been in Canada for about half a year really, so in some ways it felt slightly odd going back quite so soon. I also had to write the abstract for a presentation very early after starting my postdoc. While I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to investigate using the data from that winter, I had no clear idea about the sort of results I might eventually find. It was therefore necessary to write an abstract that sold my research while at the same time being somewhat vague about the conclusions that might be drawn from it. I feel this is a skill many scientists have to develop, as timing of fieldwork seasons and the time it can take to analyse data combined with the requirement to submit abstracts several months before a conference means that many of us have to be guessing what we will eventually be presenting.

While this conference didn’t take me to new places, it did actually lead to me seeing more of the main Exeter campus and the down itself than I ever had when I was officially studying as a student in the University of Exeter. The meeting was also almost entirely organised by people whom I knew, with my PhD supervisor Sasha being in charge of the meeting.

The opening talk on the first night was given by Richard Dawkins who was somewhat fiery about recent political events in the UK.  After which I bounced from group of people to group of people, introducing many of them to Teri and Shannon who had also come to the exotic land of Exeter. I had only been away a few months, but it felt like longer. I also bumped into a few of the people I had done my master’s degree with, now scattered in various locations through-out the world.

It was to be my first time presenting social network stuff, something which I still felt I was feeling my way around. Not to mention the fact that this would be the first time presenting my current ideas to people outside my lab group.

Anyone seeing photos of my talks might have noted a pattern in my outfits by now

The talk felt like it went well enough, though as ever I find it impossible to judge these things due to the tunnel vision I get when I’m actually speaking. I had some tough but fair questions, and some very useful chats afterwards which gave me some ideas for what I want to do in the future.

Talk done, I could relax and enjoy other people’s talks, seeing what other people were working on and turning up to try and provide moral support for other members of my lab

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I plugged Teri’s talk in my talk!

Then it was all done.. then it was off to Cornwall!

Teri and Shannon came down to Cornwall for a few days, to experience all the important Cornish things.


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After they left I stuck around a bit. It was Falmouth week, which means Red Arrows.

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Then it was time for me to get on a plane myself, next stop Washington DC for the North American Orthological Conference.

Chickadees are hard to take photos of



I think I’ve been in Canada almost two months now. It’s hard to say as the initial turmoil of moving to a new country slowly changes into everyday routine. This generally involves getting up, trying to do some science until some time in the evening and drinking far too much tea.

I’ve met my study species properly now. A few weekends ago we went for a walk at a place called Muddy Lake (currently frozen and definitely not muddy). When walking along the paths you will generally be followed by a cloud of chickadees, who live in hope that you will be one of the many people that feed them. They whiz around your head, dancing from branch to branch, waiting for the food to be provided. If you DO have food, they will quite cheerfully eat out of your hand.


Despite their tameness taking a photo of them in a more natural setting is challenging, due to their dislike of sitting still for more than a second.


As well as having met my study species properly, I’ve also been working to get to grips with both social network analysis and the study of personality in animals. I had a passing interest in both of these topics before, but now I’m having to rapidly learn about how these analyses are done.


Chickadees are highly social and tend to move about in small flocks. We have information about which birds were with which other birds at feeders.This is generated by special feeders which can identify individual birds fitted with RFID readers.

Picture1An RFID feeder, photo by Teri Jones

We also have information about how certain birds reacted to personality tests as well as which birds are dominant and which are subordinate. There are quite a few interesting questions we could answer by bringing these datasets together. Wrangling the various files together is and working out how to analyse them is the main thing I’m currently dealing with. This involves spending a lot of time shuffling data about in R. I’m also trying to automate and improve some of the workflow for generating this type of data.

We’ve  had a few quite heavy snowfalls. This was my building the day after a particularly severe one:


and this was the window to our office on the same day as the sun was steadily blotted out:


A few weeks ago I gave a departmental seminar on my ENTIRE PHD. This involved talking for longer than I ever had before, which made it very easy to lose track of time. I was extremely afraid of speaking for too long and boring everyone to death.

Picture2So many slides!

I felt it went quite well. My main mistake was towards the end. I glanced at a clock (the WRONG clock) as it turned out and was convinced I’d gone overtime. I sped up for the last few slides (which is unfortunate as they are the most interesting) and then apologised at the end for speaking for so long. As it turned out, I’d looked at the wrong clock and came in under time. At least it left lots of time for the many questions, which hopefully indicate that people are interested in what I spent about four years of life doing.

I have been finding time to try and do some more CANADIAN things. For example, I’ve now tried Poutine which according to Wikipedia is Canada’s national food. It’s basically chips, cheese and gravy. I think that undersells it, it’s warm, tasty, cheesy, potatoey goo.


I also ambled up to Winterlude (a winter festival thing held in Ottawa), where the international ice sculpture championship:IMG_0759OWL


This included a demonstration of ice carving, which is apparently mostly done with powertools now!


I clearly need to find some more CANADIAN things to do. Someone mentioned something called Nanaimo bars..


Gemeinsame Nahrungssuche bei Krähenscharben

headerOr, my new paper:

Social foraging European shags: GPS tracking reveals birds from neighbouring colonies have shared foraging grounds

has been published.

From the German translation of my title and abstract I have learnt that the German for shag is Krähenscharben. This paper based on my first year of fieldwork and data from the FAME project is now available from Journal of Ornithology! The paper looks at the movement and behaviour of shags foraging in the Isles of Scilly using high resolution GPS data, showing that most individuals forage in the same areas within the islands.

After the tale of woe that was my first year of fieldwork, it’s nice to see the data collected finally producing something tangible. The paper also uses some of my rafting dataset , which I hope to release a more detailed study of at some point in the future.

There is a full text version on Researchgate at some point in the future.

As stated at the bottom of the article, many people helped with this: A big thankyou to Richard Bufton, David Evans, Liz Mackley and the volunteers who assisted with data collection. Thanks to Vicky Heaney for population data and advice! Finally thanks to everyone at the Isles of Scilly wildlife trust for their invaluable assistance and for permission to work on the islands!

EDIT: Link to journal now fixed and full text now available on researchgate.

Then and now


So I have had something published! It’s a literature review discussing how information can contribute to the formation and maintenance of animal colonies. For comparison, on the left is a literature review I wrote in my third year of my undergraduate degree, about four years ago. As was the case with me doing a project on shags in the isles of Scilly in my second year, this piece of work now seems strangely prescient.

You can find my review here on Biological Reviews.

This actually appeared on the internet last Thursday, but I had no idea of this until someone I’d cited contacted me about it. This work was first submitted for publication in June last year (though it was one of the first things I started writing back when I initially began my PhD). A couple of iterations later (and not at the dates given on the website!) here we are.

I think their presentation is definitely better than my attempt at doing columns.

So I wrote a thesis..

Many of my friends have told me that I have been spectacularly bad at letting people know I have finished and handed in my thesis. It’s true, aside from some cryptic Welsh on Facebook I haven’t really made much noise. So here is my official announcement:

I have finished my thesis. I have even handed it in.


I actually handed in on April the second, the day before Easter bank holiday. This involved quite a lot of faff.

Firstly I spent the morning attempting to tidy up little things. Things like making sure the margins were right, that figures were in sort of logical places, that the table of contents was correct and that there were pretty pictures on the title page of each chapter.

Then I exported the word file to PDF. 202 pages and 44,613 words produce a PDF of 4.41 mb. This is what my three and a half years has produced.

theendDocument name courtesy of Matt Silk

I shrugged, copied the document to an external hard drive and headed to the printers.

Upon reaching the printers I was informed that there was a policy of not allowing external hard drives to be plugged into their computers. I am uncertain why this is the case, possibly something to do with the machines taking over. In any case, this was not particularly what I wanted to hear. It was extremely anti-climatic.

I was also convinced that fate would not allow me to hand in. The very idea of finishing was a mad mad dream, which surely could never come to pass. I would walk away from the printers now and they would be destroyed by a plague of sentient external hard drives, ripping the building to shreds to create an effigy of their machine gods.

The month of March was interesting. Back in February, I may have seemed somewhat mad. March was worse. I had a target of finishing the thesis by the end of March. To do this, I  chained myself to my desk (metaphorically I hasten to add) until words moved from brain to page. Every day (except one day off in the middle of the month). This is usual I am told and I knew it was the only way I was going to get the thesis written. I’d say I had a routine, except I most definitely did not. I worked when my mind would allow me to. Sometimes this involved something approaching 9 till 5, other times it involved staying in the office till around midnight on a Sunday.

As I said, I am told this is usual. It was certainly entirely my own doing.

The upshot of this long month was that, as I mentioned, I was unwilling to believe that I could actually finish. I would certainly try though.

A map will be useful for this next bit.


I decided the easiest thing to do was to go to the library IT suite, and e-mail the document from there as it was much closer than my office. However, upon reaching the IT suite and looking at my PDF one last time (did I mention I was paranoid about it? I’m still paranoid about it) I decided I wanted to have an extra blank page between the cover and the abstract, so that the abstract wouldn’t be printed on the back of the cover.

“Fine” I thought “I bought the word document too, I’ll just reexport the PDF”

I then realised that the computer I was using didn’t have the correct fonts on it for my equations. I knew this would happen! The thesis would never get handed in!

Back to my office (which is quite a distance away from the main buildings), re-export the PDF and send it to the printers. Then off to my supervisors office (in the main building) so he could sign off some forms. I vaguely waved the forms under his nose and he signed some of the dotted lines, while gently chiding me for having asked so many questions (“IS THIS RIGHT? IF I GET IT WRONG I WILL SURELY GO TO PRISON”) in the last few days.

I returned to my office to twiddle my thumbs while waiting for the printers. Then it struck me that it was around 4 in the afternoon, and I hadn’t had lunch yet. I walked to the shop, to find the shelved mostly bare. Not a pasty left in the place. The shop however was in close proximity to the printers. I could just go and check on things..

When I arrived, there were three copies of my thesis sitting on the counter. It existed! Physically!

I hadn’t thought this through at all. I needed to get money out to pay the printers (card machines are high-technology in Cornwall). I needed the forms that I’d left on my desk. Oh no!

I phoned my friend Jenni and asked if she could bring the forms over. I dashed up to the cash machine and returned to pay the printers. I picked up my thesis (and the pack of pitta breads I’d got from the shop). I was READY. Ready to hand in!

I met Jenni outside the printers and we walked down to the Academic Services Unit (ASU). I handed over two copies of my thesis, and the appropriate forms.

The lady at the desk looked at the forms. She pointed a dotted line my supervisor ALSO needed to sign. Horror! What if he had gone home!? I knew something like this would happen.

Leaving Jenni behind to guard the thesis (and the pitta breads, I was quite hungry by this stage) I dashed up to my supervisors office. The word “up” is extremely important here, I was going more or less from the bottom of campus to the top.

I jogged along the bioscience corridor and got one final signature from my bemused supervisor. Then back down to ASU. Finally it would happen! I would hand in!

The lady behind the desk checked the signature.

“Actually” she said “Would you like to hold on to this till Tuesday? It won’t get delivered until then”

“No. Please, please, please take it away.”

And so, after 2.2 miles of running around campus I finally handed in. I must confess I’m still confused as to how I feel about that.

Here is what a GPS track of my movements would look like: