Of Birds, Food, and Biostatistics

By Dana Ripper
Ethan and I returned yesterday from two weeks in Scotland and Sweden.  Since this is a blog, I’m going to try to keep it as short as possible – but it was one of the best trips, both professionally and personally, that we’ve ever been fortunate enough to take and I could go on & on & on…but I won’t.  🙂
Part I: Scotland for Biostatistics
Dr. David Borchars explains basic concepts of
spatially explicit capture-recapture statistics.
Trust me, it’s cool.
A Rook claims our favorite
St. Andrews deli as his own. 
In 2012, we had attended the Introduction to Distance Sampling course at the University of St. Andrews.  We returned to this delightful town for the Advanced Distance course – and had our brains absolutely bent for 9 hours a day by some of the finest minds in biostatistics. Most notably, the Advanced course taught us how to use Distance to create density maps for our grassland study species – thus allowing us to conform our bird survey data to the habitats and management actions that occur on MDC Areas across Missouri.  We will use this method to develop maps for managers showing exactly how vegetation types and management regimes affect density of species like Henslow’s Sparrow, Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, and Grasshopper Sparrow.   We were also able to re-hone our fundamental Distance skills and pick the professors’ brains about the best ways to organize and analyze the huge datasets MRBO is amassing on grassland and wetland birds. 

We had little time for birding or any other extracurricular activities in St. Andrews, but nonetheless is was not only stimulating but humbling to take a class at a University that is 350 years older than our country!
Part II: Sweden for the International Bird Observatory Conference (IBOC)
Birds at the Falsterbo point, a staging
area for migrants about to take the leap
out of Scandanavia. 
As luck had it, while we were planning the trip to St. Andrews  early in the year, we found out about IBOC – the first ever international meeting of bird observatories.  The IBOC meeting just happened to begin the day after the Distance training ended – and how often could we say, “well, as long as we’re in the area….” to a conference in Europe?!  As it turned out, attending IBOC was one of the best things we’ve ever done for MRBO.  The presentations by people from all over the world were beyond inspiring – as well as humbling, as many bird observatories are now drawing on 50 or even 70 years of data on bird populations.  MRBO was the newest and one of the smallest bird observatories represented. We heard from ornithologists working in all parts of Europe, Iceland, Australia, China, North America, and Africa.  One of the most moving presentations was the keynote address by Dr. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University who has spent more than 40 years working for bird conservation and education in the war-torn Middle East.  We came away with a thousand ideas for improving MRBO, our projects, and our education efforts!
Stu MacKenzie of Long Point Bird Observatory
presented exiting migration research! 
The conference was hosted by the staff and volunteers of Falsterbo Bird Observatory – an absolute class act.  I would not want to be the guy that hosts the 2ndIBOC – Falsterbo is an almost impossible act to follow.  The presentation schedule was perfect, the venue and meals outstanding, and the field trips top-notch.  (It was also the most reasonably priced professional meeting I’ve seen in ages).  Additionally, though we were around people we considered idols and heroes, and the institutions they represent are the finest in the world, everyone was incredibly warm and friendly!!
Part III: Scotland for Touring
One view of the Scottish Highlands and the wetlands below.
No pictures (at least not mine) can express the vastness of this landscape. 
Ethan at the most famous Scot battle site.
I was about to title this part “Scotland for Pleasure”, but the other parts of the trip were just as pleasurable even though they involved work.  For two days at the end of the trip, we rented a car out of Edinburgh and set off for the Scottish Highlands and the coast.  This region is exactly as awe-inspiring and beautiful as it is depicted in movies.  We were able to visit three National Heritage for Scotland sites and learn about local habitat, wildlife, and geology as well as culture and history.  Aside from the scenery, there are two things that stand out about Scotland – the people, whose warmth and joviality can not be overstated, and the cuisine and wine selections, which I would give five stars!  Here’s an example: in the town of Ullapool, a fishing town on the northwest coast, the smallest local hole-in-the-wall bar had elaborate beef, lamb, and game dishes as well as gourmet fishes of the day and an extensive wine list.  
A piece of shot from the wood pigeon I ate.
The menu did warn of this possibility! 
The inns and restaurants we visited all served local meat and 
Local meats and cheeses. 
produce, and we learned that the food system in the UK bears essentially no resemblance to that of the US.  When asked where typical beef came from and how it was raised, people looked at us as though we were crazy and said it came from down the road and was raised on grass and hay (this is a big contrast to the US system, where one has to search for local and/or non-feedlot produced meats).  Also unlike Missouri, restaurants are able to serve wild-harvested game – and we partook of this with gusto, eating duck, quail, wood pigeon, and venison.  I would also like to note that despite its reputation, haggis is GOOD!! 
The visitor center and viewing blind outside of Tollie where the once very
scarce Red Kite is likely observed.  We viewed four as they were riding
the thermals far above. 
All in all, the whole trip left us emotionally and intellectually motivated and ready to get back to work at MRBO – for conservation in all its many forms. 

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