July and August of this year saw members of the Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology research group embark on another field season studying the birds of tropical south-east Sulawesi, Indonesia. Principal investigators Dr. Nicola Marples and Dr. Dave Kelly were joined this year by PhD student Seán Kelly, as well as a number of undergraduates from the university. This year’s expedition, carried out in collaboration with Operation Wallacea, consisted of two teams: the mist netting team, led by Dr. Marples and Dr. Kelly, and the behavioural team led by Seán Kelly.
The netting team trapped birds using mist nets at various locations on Buton island, mainland south-east Sulawesi and Wangi-wangi island (of the Wakatobi archipelago). While small passerines such as white-eyes, sunbirds and flowerpeckers were the target species, individuals from a total of 35 species were caught. The season proved to be a great success with over 300 birds trapped and processed. Data on plumage, morphology, age, sex and breeding condition were collected from each bird, which was colour-ringed and released unharmed. A small number of body feathers were also plucked from each bird for later genetic and stable isotope analyses.
The behavioural team spent the season on various islands of the Wakatobi archipelago collecting detailed behavioural ecology data on the white-eye, sunbird and flowerpecker species present. This included information on their diets, competitors, preferred habitats, social habits, courtship and breeding, as well as their foraging and flocking behaviours. Data collection took place in the early morning and evening, walking 1 km transects through scrub, farmland or forest edge habitats. This resulted in some fantastic insights into the behaviour and ecology of these poorly studied species.
From analysis of the plumage, morphometric and genetic data we have found a number of significant differences between bird populations on the Wakatobi archipelago and mainland Sulawesi, as well as between populations within the Wakatobi. It is hoped that the behavioural data gathered this season will help us to understand the selective pressures driving this divergence, giving us further insight into the evolution of this region’s fascinating avifauna.
Seán Kelly: kellys17[at]tcd.ie