Give me a wheelbarrow and I will move the world

By Davide Gaglio

Who would I be today without traveling? Well… I cannot imagine it! I’ve always been willing to discover new places, people, and the wilderness. I’ve loved experiencing new challenges and through them, learn more about myself. In the last 10 years, I’ve been lucky enough to join several research projects as field assistant, which has allowed me to visit parts of the world that otherwise I would never have seen. I have worked in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa…what great experiences!! While traveling, I’ve met awesome people, learned several life lessons, found out what I really like about research and last but not least, I met my girlfriend, who will become my wife in four months’ time!
Field assistants are crucial for the collection of data of a research project, especially for a research like mine, where my focal species only breeds for a very short period of time during which I need to gather as much data as possible. If I don’t grab all the data that I can get, I can’t just re-run an experiment like lab scientists do – in fieldwork, you can never turn back time to the start of a breeding season, and the animals can disappear, never to be seen again. So, I really want to thank all the field assistants that have helped with my project over the last 3 years.
I would like to share with you the experience of Maël, who was my assistant for a few months in the last field season:

maelMy name is Maël Leroux, I’m a 21-year-old French student in zoology. I came to South Africa last September in order to add some practical experience to my theoretical skills. After few months around South Africa trying to find an internship, I was spotted by Davide, who offered me a position as field assistant for his PhD project. He told me I was supposed to work on Robben Island (Cool!) studying the behaviour of Swift Terns (what tern??? I have never heard about them before!!) Well… I was very curious and intrigued so I accepted immediately!
Davide explained to me a bit about the project by email and I knew from the beginning that it would be a fantastic experience. I meet him a few days after I arrived in Cape Town, and not even a week later, I was on a boat, direction …Robben Island…wow!boat to Robben island

As soon as the boat left the waterfront, I was fully into this adventure, and as a good start I saw a whale for the first time in my life…(wow again!)!

Spot the whale!
Spot the whale!

I arrived to Robben Island in the evening, and Davide decided to take me immediately to the colony. There I met those wonderful terns in the light of a stunning sunset. From this very moment, my journey in South Africa became magical!

terns at sunset

After I met my study species, I met the team living at research house. I enjoyed my time sharing the house with the “penguin people” … especially for dinner, when everybody would come back from their long day and always have some funny penguin story to tell (in front a nice glass of wine, of course). I have to say, between Italians, Frenchies, Brits and South Africans, the dinners were diverse every day and I loved it! Braai, pasta, frogs (no, I’m kidding!), cakes and pureed, sooooo good! Food for the belly, not just for the soul.
Obviously, it wasn’t only beautiful landscapes, nice dinners, or discovering the wild side of Robben Island. I had to work, a lot, and hard. During the first month, I had to analyze the data we collected using video cameras, which was interesting, but long and tough. To bring the video equipment in the field was a long wheelbarrow to workjourney every day as the bakkie was not working, so we had to use a wheelbarrow…


But luckily after we banded the chicks, I started to work in the field all day long. It was so interesting that I didn’t even realize time was passing! (Ok, perhaps this wasn’t true every day…) Studying their behaviour, observing some unusual interactions, which often Davide had to explain to me, combined to form a very unique working experience. My work in the field was intense and really stimulating, with plenty of surprises. Like the first time I saw a hartlaub’s gull brutally steal a fish from a baby tern! Well, I didn’t know those neighbours could be so nasty ☹.

After this experience I am now thinking to continue my studies and start a PhD myself. Thanks, Davide!”

I respond to Maël in French “de rien!” I really enjoyed my time with him in Robben Island.
In the last few years I have grown as researcher, switching from working as a field assistant myself to having my own project with my own field assistants. It gave me the opportunity to receive help from other people and in return help fuel their skills and passion for research. It’s not only for the data collection or for the PhD project itself. It’s sharing time with interesting people, it’s learning something new every day, it’s sharing dreams and fears, it’s the life of a biologist!

If you like it, put a ring on it…


By Davide Gaglio

Here we are again… I’m happy to let you know that I’ve survived my 3rd and final field season and I have plenty of photos to show you!

So, did you find it difficult to identify the prey in my last entry? The prey species were (2) Sole, (3) Pipefish (4) Anchovy (5) Squid and (6) Atlantic Saury If you have free time and feel like contributing to ecological research, I have tons of photographs that need identifying, and would love to use your help. Just email me (swift.terns ‘at’ gmail dot com) and we can chat about the possibilities. I believe that “Citizen Science” is an exciting way to bring people and wildlife together for conservation. Citizen-scientists can create the world’s largest research teams, gathering data on a scale that would be impossible to achieve otherwise, as these scientists are ordinary people all across the world, who are simply interested in helping researchers out. Trained scientists then analyse these data to understand how animals are affected by environmental change, including climate change, urbanization, pollution, and land use. Participants learn about their environment and have the opportunity to see their own data on maps along with those of thousands of other participants. Here’s an interesting example:

From my point of view, getting involved in swift tern citizen science is a brilliant way of spending your free time 😉 Taking photos of the adult terns can lead you to great surprises…and discoveries. For example look at this image… can you see anything special about it?

tern in flight

Well, look closely at his legs….

tern leg close-up

Yes! This swift tern has a metal ring on the right and a red colour ring on the left. As you may know, the ringing of wild birds for scientific purposes has provided a wealth of information, revealing the life histories and movements of many different species. Read more about it here.

The ringing of swift tern chicks started in South Africa in the late 1970s already. This individual was banded on Marcus Island in 1979. At age 34, this is a new record for this species, confirming that like most seabirds, swift terns have great longevity! What a coincidence… the oldest swift tern ever known was the same age as me 😀 Now, imagine discovering a tern of even greater age than that. You can be the one!

Ringing birds is a great way to study their survival and movement. It is crucial to ring birds to understand their population dynamics. As mentioned before, the difference between the terns and other local seabirds is that their population is increasing; another interesting dissimilarity is that they have extensive post-fledging care. Parents feed their chicks for several weeks after leaving the colony, during which time they can disperse long distances. So where are they going?? Here it’s my tu(e)rn again!!!…To better understand their dispersal; more than 1 500 chicks have been marked in Robben Island with engraved colour rings over the last three breeding seasons. Which means each individual has a unique code that can be seen from distance…and they look so cute! tern chick

I really had a lot of fun and great assistants over the last years during the ringing sessions. Thanks to all of you guys and girls!!

tern helpersHere some of my assistant’s projects:

So far there have been records of banded juvenile swift terns from Namibia to the Eastern Cape. Gathering dispersal records relies on the assistance from volunteers across southern Africa. And so here I need your help again… There are many immature/juvenile birds out there ready to be re-sighted by you! You can be the first to re-sight one of our banded birds in a new locality, just enjoy a walk on the beach and don’t forget your binoculars! Rings are orange, white or yellow (with black text) and green or blue (with white text). If you see any banded birds please record their location as accurately as possible (ideally GPS), the date and time of sighting, ring colour, letters on the ring (if legible) and age class (juvenile, immature or adults). tern teenagerIf a bird is found dead, please also record the number of the metal ring. Please send the information to me (swift.terns ‘at’ gmail dot com), and to SAFRING.

Your help is much appreciated!!!

Get inspired from this video.

I really hope to receive some exiting news from all over southern Africa…and I will be sure to update you soon 😉