Hiring my first field assistants
Luckily, we can always afford to hire around four field assistants to help us with mist-netting and experiments. That’s great! But, how do we find the right people?! I was looking for assistants with good experience in mist-netting and bird handling, available to work with me for six months. So, I started advertising online on “EvolDir” and “Ornithology Exchange” around June, and two months later I had received 80(!!) applications. But how could I select the right people? Some of the applications were easy to reject as they were sloppily written or the applicant didn’t fulfill the requirements. But, I still ended up with around 30 people all fitting the job description. I really struggled with deciding who to choose as they all seemed suitable. Choosing those that had the most experience with birds, I decided on 15 candidates that I invited for a skype interview. This was a great opportunity for me to get a first impression of the people behind the CV’s, and I can’t recommend this enough to everyone! I was looking for four people that would be working together every day, so the interviews helped me a lot to decide who’d work best as part of a team! For my final decision, I mainly followed my gut feeling and luckily I ended up with four amazing field assistants!
Learning to teach
When we catch blue tits they all get equipped with leg rings, we take different body measurements (e.g. tarsus length) and we weigh them. Additionally, we take a blood sample for paternity analysis and implant a passive transponder (so we can detect birds visiting nest boxes and feeders equipped with RFID antennas). Particularly while teaching field assistants the bleeding and implanting, I had to learn to stay calm and patient. For those with less experience, it takes a long time to handle the birds, and if you see more and more birds coming to get processed you easily get impatient. I was often tempted to just take the bird and process it by myself, but this is not how people learn. I mostly tried to let them develop their own skills as early as possible. I think “learning by doing” is one of the most efficient ways for people to learn new things (even though this can be annoying for the teacher) but the sooner everyone felt confident in processing birds the better for me!
Learning to instruct and delegate
One of the first things I learned: To lead a field team you should have a plan! When everyone arrives in the morning for work, one of the first questions will be: ”What do you want us to do?” If you have no plan this will often end in chaos and loss of time. Before the field assistants arrived I had already made myself a rough plan of the daily duties, backup plans for bad weather etc. This really helped me at the beginning to not get overwhelmed by all the different tasks I needed to accomplish. I also made myself a list of the equipment I had to check frequently – such as food for the feeders, or bird rings (if you arrive in the field and suddenly realize that you’ve run out of rings, you have to pack up again and go back).
We set up new bird feeders during this field season to collect data for my PhD. From time to time we needed to check if they still worked fine and we exchanged the SD cards to get the data. At the beginning I always felt the urge of doing any data related tasks on my own. “What if one of the field assistants loses the SD cards? What if they don’t notice a technical problem?” You know already everything about it, you know how to do it properly, so, why not simply do everything yourself? Delegating was very tough for me at the beginning, as I was scared something would go wrong when I wasn’t in the field, and even worse: I felt lazy staying in the office and letting others work for me! But, this is why we hired field assistants and they were really happy to go out on their own and to help me with anything. Thus, delegating certain tasks to people can be very useful and a win-win for both sides!
Fieldwork is great! Every day you can discover many new and exciting things! Having four field assistants with me in the field is not only a huge help but also a valuable enrichment and it is great to share all the experiences with other people!☺
Kristina is PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen