Sunday, 13 December 2009

Much more statistical analysis and a seminar talk later, I found myself back in Cyprus for Winter fieldwork

I can’t say that my stats results so far are particularly groundbreaking. My supervisor and I basically came to the conclusion that the multivariate methods I’ve been using so far are too coarse to pick up the subtle differences in the habitat requirements of the various bird species. So the next steps are to look at individual species, instead of the big amalgam I was using up to this point.

This is where Distance Sampling analysis comes in... Let’s just say that I am two books and a week-long workshop at The University of St. Andrews away from getting anywhere closer to analysing my data in a species-specific way.

My final week at the university was taken up by my seminar talk. It was an interesting experience. My supervisor decided to give me completely last minute suggestions for the presentation on the evening before the talk was to take place. The result, of course, was inadequate preparation. The PowerPoint slides were fine and I’m actually quite proud of them (you can see a version of my presentation here). It was just the actual spoken part that I had no confidence in. Although I received some very positive post-talk feedback, and I was very glad to hear everything was clear and understandable, I felt that I let myself down a bit. Next time, I will practice my talks properly! In front of a mirror if necessary.

So, after this, I returned to my beloved island, this time to repeat what I did last field-season and count birds at the same sites as last Spring/Summer, but this time, in Winter. The original plan was to have a good idea of what my Spring/Summer 2010 fieldwork is going to be about before setting off for Winter 2009/2010 fieldwork... That didn’t go as planned at all. After a very short brainstorm with my supervisor, we sort of decided that Spring/Summer was going to be about vines. A month later and I have yet to make any progress on gaining some background knowledge of viticulture and vine management in Cyprus and locating extra vine sites for springtime fieldwork. So, for next Spring/Summer, I am F-U-K-T  f*cked.

I wish I didn’t have to do another field-season after this one, to be honest.  I’m only going to have 4-6 weeks back at university in between this field-season and the next one. It’s hardly enough time to do anything! The idea is to bust my ass doing more stats to better direct my next fieldwork, but it’s just not enough time. I mean, last time, it took me more than a month to conclude that cereal and forests host significantly different bird communities. An additional month of stats might lead me to the more detailed conclusion that Larks like cereal and Cyprus and Sardinian Warblers like scrub. No sh*t, Sherlock! Anyway, I’m sure I’ll somehow pull myself out of yet another tight spot.

The tight spot I have to deal with now, however, is completely beyond my control and the only thing that can help me is prayer... i.e. nothing. I'm referring to the weather. Euch. So far, it had been fine, so I’ve managed to work up a head-start. But the last few days have been dreadful. Torrential rain, gale-force winds, hailstones, thunder and lightning, the works! Proper Cyprus storms that last days. I’ve lost 2 full days of fieldwork so far. But I guess that’s what the head-start was for. And rain is good for my parched island. Except for the idiots who think one wet winter is license to build golf courses *sigh*

More on fieldwork and also my exciting encounters with Cypriot hunters later.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Data entry and preliminary stats

Over the last three weeks or so I've been working pretty hard with my data. All the data on bird registrations have been entered in my database and I've been analysing them a bit. It's pretty crude still because the only habitat data I've entered so far are overall habitat types. This is a gross over-simplification, because in Cyprus we still have this wonderful landscape where there will be lots of different crop types in a small area.

For example, cereal fields often have olive and carob trees growing in or near them, vineyards are often bordered by almond tree-lines, and there are field margins with natural vegetation. This kind of habitat diversity is widely accepted to be fantastic in supporting high biodiversity, including farmland birds. My overall aim is to figure out where on the island these different habitat characteristics are most valuable, and for which birds, so that they can be protected as agricultural practices change.

At the moment, I've done some ordination analyses of my data, which basically compare the different bird communities across all the sites I sampled. Even with my crude habitat classification, I can already tell you that the bird communities do change across habitat types. Forests, in particular, stand out. This is important, because, not only are the birds in forests different, there aren't that many species that are found there. So farmland is really very important for most  species of conservation concern.

Cereal-dominated habitats have the fewest species. Although cereal is also quite distinct, on the opposite side of the spectrum to forests, there is a huge variety in the bird assemblages that are found in cereal fields. Vineyards have the most species, and then it's citrus groves. The bird communities in these types of agriculture, along with olive, carob and almond groves, and semi-natural scrub habitat, aren't actually that distinct though.

This is where I will be going into more detail next. I want to tease out the differences between scrub, vines, groves and cereal. But to do that I first have to get back to data entry.

It's quite boring entering data. But I suppose it's calming in a sense. You need to concentrate enough to get the right information in the right place, but that's about the only thinking that you're doing! After a few days of entering data, statistical analysis is a welcome change. And it's really satisfying to see the data I collected during months of fieldwork actually show some results that will eventually be publishable.

There's still some way to go, but hopefully by the time I leave for my winter field-season.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Depression must stop!

My mood swings have been phenomenal recently. From the highest highs when I'm with my boyfriend away from the office, to the lowest lows when I come home after a day of doing so much less than I know I should have. Over the course of a few days I went back to the mindset I had before starting the fieldwork: why am I doing this, I'm not cut out to do a PhD, I've wasted my entire life fighting for something I'm going to fail at.

I'm not over this. I probably won't ever get over it completely. I don't know what I want to do with my life, so the doctorate is the default. If I don't just get on with it, I'll be wasting an opportunity and will probably regret it for the rest of my life. So I'm just carrying on.

It's so easy to lose all motivation, though. This is why I really appreciate it when I can meet with my supervisors. They give me direction. After a long time being very focused on getting the fieldwork done, having to come back to the University and step back into the big picture of this research has made everything feel so daunting. Everything is freaking me out so much that I don't know where to begin and I'm scared to touch anything.

I need to break things down and focus on one thing at a time, otherwise I feel overwhelmed. But at the same time, I mustn't focus so much that I get lost in the details. It's so easy for me to get hung up on little details and get stressed and frustrated and bogged down by them. How can I strike a balance?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

I'm not the only one

1 Minute Log: Four Pillars of a PhD

Note the comments under that post. They span more than three years. And prove that I'm not the only person who googles "phd depression."

Less than a week ago everything seemed pretty optimistic. I don't know what happened, but it's all bleak again and the guilt is eating away at me.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Brain in gear

It has taken me a while, and I still feel a bit on the slow end of the productivity scale, but I'm feeling like I'm making progress! My database is all set up and is gradually being filled up with information, the first steps at making use of GIS have been taken, and practically all the housekeeping has been taken care of. What these things effectively mean is that data analysis, and hence the reaping of the rewards of my "gruelling" field season, is about to begin, my disabling inability to ask for help is being tackled, and, most importantly, I now work in an office with people, natural light, and easy access to tea and coffee, and toilets.

As it is the last few weeks of the academic year, the university is very quiet. There are no Undergrads or Masters students, many staff are still on leave, and a large proportion of PhD students are either away working in the field or are taking a well-deserved break. But my thoughts are on those PhDs who are writing up and preparing to submit their theses in about a month's time. For most of them it's a very stressful time. I say most of them, because one guy is just too chilled out about it , it's not normal - apparently he's only got the introduction and conclusion to write... I can see myself behaving in the exact opposite way when my turn comes in three years' time.

One interesting thing I've found out is that quite a number of people get a job in their final PhD year. This seems to be the case with the person whose desk I inherited, and one of the girls in my office (they are both due to hand in next month). Occasionally, this happens because a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity appears. This happened to one of my supervisor's old students: she gave up the PhD in favour of a position in her country's government. In Cyprus, government scientific positions often only open up when someone retires, in this limiting one-out-one-in system, so I understand that this person took a now-or-never approach to it. However, the more general picture is that of people needing the money.

The government Research Councils here in the UK fund large numbers of PhD students. They pay their university fees and also give them a stipend, or living allowance. The problem is that the funding lasts for only three years, and the thesis must be submitted within four years. It seems that most PhDs are finished in four years, rather than three, particularly in disciplines like mine that require periods of time to be spent collecting data in the field, so a PhD student will be faced with living on no income for that final year. Plus, the submission deadline is incredibly strict. The university gets penalised when students don't finish in four years: the funding they receive for research is reduced.

Fortunately, some positive changes are being made by some Research Councils, especially where fieldwork is involved in PhDs. So there is some recognition of how work in the field most often means longer duration of study.

Of course, all this doesn't actually affect me in any way, since I am not funded by a Research Council. Also, as a colleague pointed out, worrying about this sort of thing is pointless at this stage. What's important now is to just get on with it and work as best we can. Many people have completed their PhDs within the deadlines, so it is possible.

I just can't wait to finish.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Gathering brainwaves

When I first began my fieldwork I was faced with making some pretty major adjustments to my life. For one thing, I was going to spend the largest continuous period of time in Cyprus since I left for university five years ago. I was also faced with spending a huge amount of time driving around unfamiliar places, often off road, and living a bit like a nomad. My circadian rhythm also had to be shifted, to allow work to begin soon after dawn every day. I was about to experience what it's like to work in the countryside, outdoors, on my own.

There are much worse conditions to do fieldwork in and people find themselves in much lonelier circumstances than in my case. But it was really tough.

I sound like a wuss. I am a wuss. Can you imagine I'd gone off to somewhere like SE Asia instead?! I'd be dead meat in a matter of hours. Transportation would be incredibly difficult, no-one would speak English, and communication with the outside world would probably be limited to one e-mail every month when I'd manage to go to the nearest major city. And my childhood dreams of being a researcher in the tropics were shattered. I just wouldn't be able to deal with it. Ever. Wuss.

Anyway, I ended up loving the moving around and the driving and the working outdoors (the fact that it was early summertime helped), and now I'm back at the office. Small, confined, dark, and to make matters worse, everyone in it has left. They've been moved to a brighter office (next to the coffee room!), where I will be joining them next week (I hope). Still. Four walls and computer screens. My whole body is feeling it.

And I'm telling you, a month and a half of not walking 3km a day, and sitting on my rear eating deserts, has had a huge impact. And so begins another endeavour to look good naked. I wonder if I'll ever be able to keep my abs for longer than a few months at a time.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Fieldwork Roundup

I'm back!

I have been missing in action doing fieldwork since March and now I am back at my office in Norwich. It's pretty claustrophobic and quite a transition. I've been starting slow and steady trying to focus again.

Fieldwork was not so hard in the end. It was long and repetitive, but I now have 202 sites' worth of data on birds and habitat. I ended up being pretty good at bird identification, both by sight and by call. Surprisingly, but thankfully, it turned out to be very easy to pick up. I had two field assistants during the course of the season. As I predicted, it was interesting. But without them I wouldn't have been able to complete so many sites, so it was excellent to have them with me.

The best thing about the fieldwork was the opportunity to see so much of my country. I've been to so many places and seen so much of the Cyprus countryside, and I would never have done anything like this had it not been for the PhD. Cyprus is a gorgeous place to explore and I love it. I will be going back for more of the same fieldwork in winter, and will face a whole new set of challenges. It scares me, but it's happening, so I won't worry about it quite yet.

I've got other things to freak out about now: data analysis.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Apologies yet again

I must apologise for disappearing for weeks!

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or by other means will know that I've had a major PhD crisis, nearly quit, but was brought back to my senses by my supervisor who came to visit me for a few days. Initially I was so distressed I couldn't sleep or eat, let alone write a blog entry. And then when my supervisor arrived, it was five 12 - 14hr days of work and birding. I've also been far away from civilisation, with a really bad internet connection (that is costing me dear, but I can't bring myself to terminate).

Okay, excuses over. I am now back home for a couple of days as my trusty BirdLife Cyprus car requires a service, so I have full speed internet and am able to blog at ease. Even without the internet, microblogging on Twitter has been possible and am really enjoying it, and i hope my tweets aren't a nuisance to those of you who follow them!! With immense patience, I've also been able to upload photos on Facebook. I have been using a new camera, which I love, but haven't really figured out yet, so essentially I'm showing off the auto setting! I have developed an interest in flowers now. I think it's because they're bright and in my face.

The Cyprus countryside is just so beautiful right now! I haven't seen Cyprus this green in years! I am really enjoying being out. But not so much at dawn when it's freezing or when it's raining and windy. The weather is just bipolar. And it means that all the birds are hiding.

The other exciting thing is that I am looking for a volunteer field assistant. I already have lots of applicants, but very few of them know anything about birds. I'm also worried about being able to find someone who I can get along with 24hrs a day for extended periods of time. It's going to be interesting.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Smells of Spring

The weather has been improving, which is lovely news. The swallows have properly settled in and are bringing their friends and family along. I saw lots of kestrels hunting in cereal fields, and also a Crested Lark (pic). Lovely stuff.

The project proposal has been completed. At least, this latest draft is. So far the comments have been encouraging. I had a good chat with one of my supervisors over the phone, and he said that he's very pleased with the document. We talked about the one major question that remains to be sorted out: how to delimit the "landscape". The problem is that when you stand in the countryside and look around, the topography determines how far you can see. As well as making a qualitative description of the landscape (e.g. cereal fields with scattered olive groves and remnants of scrub), I want to quantify landscape, in terms of heterogeneity (some sort of measure of how diverse the mosaic is), and this means that I need to have an estimate of the area that I am quantifying over. This is tricky, because my maps are at too low a resolution to be able to make meaningful intrapolations from them about what's on the ground. Anyway, I'm still waiting for thoughts from my main supervisor, who is the methodological genius, on this matter, as well as on the proposal in general. So far he said that the new structure is great, but hasn't read it properly yet.

Re-writing this proposal so that it is clear enough and detailed enough to be understood by someone who is not involved in the project at all has been an experience. And all experiences are useful, and hence good, whether they were pleasant or not. Looking at this proposal now, it is nearly at the stage where it permits me to stop thinking, and just go ahead and collect the data. It was the same when I was deciding on the methods for my MSc research project. It was horribly stressful and hard going, until the methods were settled and then I just went out and got on with things without having to do too much thinking (especially after the first few sites are surveyed and I got the hang of it). Of course, this stage is immediately followed by further stress and frustration in the statistical analysis. I don't mind the stats as much as some people seem to, but it still involves wracking nerves.

But that comes later on. For now, I can say that I have learnt two main lessons from this experience: 1. The "why" before the "how". Actions must fit into the context and not the other way around. 2. Precision in uncertainty. There is no room for vague statements; everything must be explicit, including the gaps.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Slow going

Just a quick one this morning as I need to get back to work and finish my project proposal today. This document has brought me so much grief, but I have little hope of putting it behind me any time soon, as every time I think I'm done it turns out my supervisors are not happy with it. It's horrible to hear someone tell you they thought your last draft was excellent but now that they read it properly "it doesn't say much, does it", especially when you put in your best efforts for that last draft. I'm never going to believe anything he tells me about my work now. New best efforts are being put into this draft, after avoiding facing it for two weeks.

Because of my avoidance tactics I have done very little in the way of practicing my field methods and looking for sites. This is particularly tragic because my main supervisor is coming to spend five days with me in the field, and I'm going to have to have something to show him. My main worries at the moment (apart from bird identification - the only thing that can help me in that department is practice) are getting to know Cyprus (I will get lost repeatedly. And I wish I didn't have to.) and being able to look at landscapes and see the processes behind them.

P.S. My neighbourhood is crawling with blackcaps.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Kritou Terra

On Wednesday I went in the field with a friend from BirdLife Cyprus, to look at birds and landscapes on the way to Kritou Terra, where I have permission to use a visiting researcher's flat. Kritou Terra is a small village in the Paphos District on the West of the island (map), with 90 permanent residents and two shops. The place is quiet and cosy. But the flat has no heating. Hopefully I should have access to the internet though, so at least I won't be entirely cut off.

View Larger Map

On the way to Kritou Terra we did some birding. I can verify that many of my educated guesses at bird species turned out to be correct. Meadow pipits have thinner beaks than larks. The woodlark sounds like a flute and has a "headband" (a white eyebrow, or supercilium, that joins at the back of the head; pic), and perhaps that's the lark I saw last weekend. My little warbler was definitely a chiffchaff. It also has a pale supercilium, and it moves about busily, flicking its tail downwards all the time. I learnt how to tell Cyprus from Sardinian warblers apart: the Cyprus warbler has black speckles on its chest and also under the tail, while the Sardinian warbler doesn't. Apparently, Sardinian warblers' calls are more staccato as well. The further West on the island you go, the more likely you are to see Sardinian instead of Cyprus warblers. Sardinians seem to be spreading eastwards, displacing Cypriots. The reasons behind this are still unclear, but probably have to do with both climate change (that allows Sardinians to breed on the island) and land use change (which neatly falls into my doctoral remit). In any case, competition seems unlikely to be direct.

In some vineyards near Polis we saw a huge flock of serins. It was very impressive. And very loud. There were greenfinches and goldfinches and linnets (τσακροσγάρτιλο) in the flock as well, but mostly little yellow things (not a very good pic). They seemed to really like the weeds growing around the vines!

I learnt a new species as well: the fan tailed warbler, or zitting cisticola, which has a cute little rhythmic tzit-tzit-tzit song given in an undulating flight. So every time it reaches the top of one of its undulations, it tzits. Apparently it's the only cisticola in Europe - the rest live mostly in Africa. We also saw a couple of black redstarts, which was lovely. They're quite rare in Western Europe. Also, I actually recognised a Cetti's warbler call!

Monday, 23 February 2009


While in the fields on Sunday I actually caught a glimpse of a blackcap (αμπελοπούλλι). I could hear it clicking nearby but they tend to be so elusive that I didn't really expect to see it, and I just trusted my uncle's experience of its call. I saw a bird-shaped shadow among some reeds, but when you're looking for birds you see bird-shaped shadows everywhere that turn out to be leaves or clumps of vegetation, so I wasn't really expecting it to be a bird, but I focused my bins on it anyway. And it was the blackcap! I could hardly believe my luck!

Blackcaps are special in Cyprus. They cost €4 each in tavernas, pickled or boiled. A tasty delicacy. An illegal, unsustainable and horribly damaging delicacy.

As migrating birds pass through Cyprus in the Autumn on their way to Africa from Europe, they are "funnelled" through valleys in specific regions of the island because of the topography of the landscape. This makes these high density areas ideal for trapping the migrants. Traditionally, lime sticks (βερκά) are set up. These are metre-long twigs covered in a sticky resin. Birds that perch on lime sticks become more and more stuck as they struggle to free themselves, and are killed by the trapper when he arrives to collect his catch. Lets not get into the welfare aspect of this method of killing, which is clearly anything but humane.

Trapping birds with lime sticks used to be a way of supplementing a poor diet in the past. Now, with the high standard of living that we Cypriots take pride in, lime sticks are unnecessary. However, their use is lucrative, and mist nets are also being used now. The demand in restaurants is high, and trappers are now active year-round.

The major problem with trapping birds in this way is that it is completely indiscriminate. This means that many different species of birds are caught, not just blackcaps, and in large numbers as well. BirdLife Cyprus has so far listed 58 species that are of European conservation concern (SPEC) which have been found to be caught on lime sticks, including birds of prey caught in their attempts to get some easy pickings. European legislation, and by extension Cypriot legislation, bans lime sticks and mist nets and all activity related to these.

Bird trapping has been illegal in Cyprus for the last 30 years. Despite this, it is estimated that more than 1 million birds are trapped every year. In the 1990s, the estimate was 10 million. Even if there has been such a significant decline in the last decade due to better enforcement of the ban, one million birds is scary to say the least. And, according to BirdLife Cyprus (who monitor trapping under cover), it's on the rise.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Πέρτικα Κακκαριστή

I was supposed to be working on my project proposal today, but my uncle turned up in the morning looking for company to go to his fields at Lefkara to do some work. Weekend farming is very popular in Cyprus. It's usually people who originate from villages and move to the city and keep the family land and tend it over the weekends. I quite like the system. It keeps people close to the land and the traditions.

While my uncle was sorting out his fertiliser, I went out looking for birds. I enjoyed myself. There were many finches, mostly chaffinches (σπίνος) and goldfinches (σγαρτίλι), as well as song thrushes (τζίκλα). There were quite a few chukars (pic; πέρδικα), paired up ready for breeding. We heard a black francolin (φραγκολίνα) calling and I actually got quite close to it at one point, but it must've skulked away before I could've seen it. There were many stonechats (παπαθκιά) as well, also paired up. I also got to see a Cyprus warbler (τρυπομάζης). I couldn't tell you for sure it wasn't Sardinian warbler, though. We saw quite a few birds that may have been meadow pipits - I still need to verify this. My uncle said they weren't larks , and he was sure there were also larks around. I saw one bird that could've been a lark, but I can't tell you what sort of lark it was (my best guess is greater short-toed lark (τρασιηλούδα)). I also managed to watch a little warbler, after looking for it for ages. I suppose the best bet as to what it was would be chiffchaff (μουγιαννούδι), but again I wouldn't swear by it. If I ever find out what these birds actually were, I'll let you know. I also saw a great tit (τσαγκαρούδι). I'm sure of that!

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Shopping therapy?

It's colder here than I expected. I guess I'm too used to coming to Cyprus when it's hot. When I came in November it was t-shirt weather! Well, I've had to invest in a couple of new turtle neck jumpers, especially because I've managed to get a chest infection. I imported it from London.

I've been making a few contacts here and there, and so far it's all been quite positive. The only reason I have hope for the civil service in Cyprus is the fact that young educated people are coming into it, and some of them won't be drowned by the system. Also, I'd like to flaunt the fact that Cyprus has one of the best land registers in the world.

I went birding for a bit yesterday afternoon at Athalassa Park. There's water in the lake now, thanks to the rain, so there were plenty of coots (καραπαττάς) arguing and setting up territories. There were a few moorhens, little grebes (νεροβούττης), a cormorant, mallards and teal, and also ferruginous ducks (ασπρομμάτα). Ferruginous ducks (pic) apparently are quite rare in the rest of Europe and only started coming to Cyprus in the last few years.

Also got to see a Cetti's warbler (pic; ψευταηδόνι), although if I wasn't with company that could recognise the species, I'd have no idea what sort of warbler it was. It's call is very distinctive. At least, it will be once I can recognise it. I could hear chaffinches (σπίνος), chiffchaffs (μουγιαννούδι), goldfinches (σγαρτίλι), a serin (μπασταρτοκανάρινο), a greenfinch (φλώρος) and a robin. A blackbird (μαυρόπουλλος) flew over my head. There were lots of woodpigeons (φάσσα) and hooded crows (κοράζινος), of course. Also learnt how to distinguish swallows from house martins and swifts. Swifts are bigger and have a very short forked tail and fly high looking like a half-moon. House martins are all white underneath and have a slighty longer forked tail. Swallows have the longest forked tail and a red chin. It's easy, until other Hirundinidae turn up and confuse the situation.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

It's raining in Cyprus

I am now back in Cyprus; here to stay for the longest continuous period of time since before moving to London for university. I haven't seen Cyprus in early Spring in years. It's actually a bit green. And it's raining, which is wonderful!

What's not wonderful is my mindset. I had a big meeting with both my supervisors on Friday afternoon, which went on for twice as long as it should have, and during which I completely broke down. It was bad. It was very bad. All these negative feelings just took over. The project proposal that my main supervisor told me was pretty good turned out to be useless, after consultation with my other supervisor. They decided I basically have to re-write it. Also, the fact that I can't for the life of me think like an ecologist, despite having practically studied the subject at uni, has been rubbed into my face. It was horrible. I must've just cried continuously for hours after that. And I missed my train to London.

And on that note I begin my first field season.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happy 200th Birthday, Charles R. Darwin

I had a long meeting with my supervisor yesterday evening and left from it feeling a good deal better about this whole fieldwork thing. And about other things as well.

We spoke about the two people in the research group who thought my PhD was about re-inventing the wheel. My supervisor thinks that they just didn't get it. It's a problem with these "lab-chats", because there's not enough time to explain things properly, so questions are posed pre-supposing knowledge of the project detail. This basically results in feedback and suggestions that aren't particularly useful. So, basically, what the two sceptics pointed out was not related to shortcomings of the concept for the project, but rather to the deficiency in my explanation. So, I guess I need to learn to explain my PhD succinctly - I'll try that on this blog a bit later.

I owned up to essentially wasting my time with GIS. Needless to say, he wasn't particularly impressed. We put that down to stubborness, perfectionism, and a touch of pride. Most of the time, these character traits of mine do result in something positive, as I tend to get obsessed with things and in the end come out of it with a better understanding and a good piece of work. But they also make me stressed out and getting things done takes five times as long as it should. In this case, the output was minimal as well. So effort was wasted. I won't be doing that again... Actually I probably will, but I'll try to learn not to!

Because I got pre-occupied with GIS, that document of bird survey methods wasn't done. Again, he was not impressed. But I tried to make it better by offering to tell him everything there and then. He seemed very happy with the information I gave him and he was satisfied that I've done a sh*tload of reading. I still have to write it up though.

Finally, about site selection. He gave me a few ideas to think about, and we'll be meeting again, along with my second supervisor, on Friday afternoon to talk about this in much more detail.

So I guess it's not all bad. Tonight I'm going for drinks with a few friends to celebrate the start of my fieldwork and Darwin's 200th. And tomorrow, I pack and head to London for the weekend, before flying back home on Monday morning.

P.S. I saw my first jay a couple of days ago.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Still playing with maps

I'm not feeling very good about myself at the moment. Haven't really been feeling pleased with myself and my progress at all since my supervisor left for Cambodia three weeks ago. He's back now and bumping into him on Friday afternoon has triggerred some self-guilt-tripping. I probably deserve it.

As you may have realised, my struggles with GIS eventually led to abandonment of effort. While talking with my mum last night on the phone, I realised that essentially, I've wasted a ridiculous amount of time. What I've always needed is someone to come sit next to me in front of the computer and show me how things are done. Instead of investing some effort in finding someone to do this for me, I've been trying on my own in vain and finally gave up. This is mainly because I don't like asking people for help. It's not like I suffered in silence: I told others in my research group that I was having problems, but no one offered to help. And now I find myself with three days left at the office and no chance of getting anywhere with this.

This realisation made me go back to the program and try a few new things out. But all I have at the moment are some new numbers that don't add up, and a simplistic - and probably all wrong - map of land use diversity in Cyprus (yellow is low and blue is high).

The other thing I realised over the weekend was that I've completely ignored the question of site selection. I've spent a huge amount of time reading about bird survey methods (and completely failed to write any of it up), but I didn't even think of where I ought to carry out the surveys! What sort of sample will I use? Will it be stratified random? How will I stratify? According to habitat or landscape type or crop type or what? I will be working on multiple spatial scales. How does that affect my sampling design?

I feel like an idiot. I've been doing so little these last two weeks and left so many unanswered questions at a point when I should be ready to go out and start working. What's my excuse?

Thursday, 5 February 2009

My strangle

I have just returned from that lab-chat I mentioned yesterday and have taken a moment to gather my thoughts but they are all over the place.

We call these meetings "strangles" because of an inside joke that I'm too new to understand, but I am told it has more to do with figs that with imposed asphyxiation. Whatever. I felt out of breath and panicky the whole time!

Normally the topics of these meetings centre around a question, usually data-driven and with associated hypotheses: basically there's a problem and several potential solutions are discussed. In my case there was no data. I haven't even started yet. My issues don't lend themselves particularly well to group discussion. They'd be better dealt with in a one-to-one "explain to me what this button does" sessions. So, I decided to take a more general approach and talk the group through a certain aspect of my project, and ask them their opinions about how I would go about locating my survey sites.

I got a couple of very useful suggestions about things to consider, people to approach and thoughts to explore. At the end I was approached by two people, a post-doctoral researcher and a lecturer/supervisor, who wanted a few clarifications of what exactly I was trying to achieve. They basically wanted to know what's so original about what I'm trying to do. All this has been done before. The only original thing about it is that it's in Cyprus. What's your big question?

I wish my supervisor was with me. How do you answer that?

And you know the worst bit about this: I feel disappointed in myself more for letting my supervisor down than for letting myself down.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009


As I mentioned in my previous post, the university requires all new (and continuing) PhD students to take a range of training courses, aimed at our development as well-rounded researchers with many transferable skills.

The concept sounds lovely, but as you can imagine, they're all a bit naff once you get down to it. You spend about 3 hours listening to someone tell you things that you are already aware of and are made to do silly group exercises that you'd rather not have to. Whether or not these courses are enjoyable largely depends on the person directing them. A lot of them end up being a waste of time, except for the free coffee and biscuits.

I suppose though that they do bring up views that you hadn't considered before, and give you ideas for where to look for more information, and you get to meet and interact with other people with different backgrounds. It can be a stimulating experience.

Today's courses weren't that exciting. I don't feel I've learnt how to manage my time or how to plan my project effectively. But I guess I was given ways of looking at things differently. Like, for example, dividing up tasks according to their urgency and importance, so that you have enough time to deal with important tasks without getting swamped by less important urgent tasks (such as preparing for a lab-chat only a few hours before having to present it). Also, I have confirmed that in terms of what drives my work I am a perfectionist, and also a bit too emotional for my own good.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a course on "kick-starting your career". One of the interesting things that came out of that one was making a life plan. I'm too scared to actually make a plan for the future, but it is informative to look at what has led up to this PhD and where I am now. I produced the following timeline. It was a good exercise. The next step is to find the courage to project this into the future, but there are so many possibilities that could arise as well as limitations and constraints that I wouldn't know where to start. Perhaps I'll make a few different scenarios at some point.

Snow and ice

The last few days we've been having freak weather. Sadly, the snow didn't last. Nevertheless, I walked into uni at -4 degrees C this morning and everything was iced over.

It doesn't seem to stop the birds from singing though - encouraging signs that Spring is near. I can hear dunnocks, goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches and tits (great and blue - I'm not at all confident that I can tell their songs apart but at least I can tell the genus, Parus). There are lots of pied wagtails (pic) around as well. Many more than before - it probably has something to do with the weather. Have been seeing house sparrows about as well actually. And of course the ever-present robins and starlings and blackbirds.

At the office it has been very slow going with my bird survey methods review. My supervisor is coming back on Friday so I am hoping to produce a completed document by then. I've managed to put myself in a position where I'm stressing out again because of a self-imposed deadline. But this time it's entirely my fault, because, really, I've had three weeks to do this, which would've been more than enough time.

Today I have a full day of courses on time management and project planning. These training and skills courses that they make us take are a bit hit and miss, so I'm hoping that today isn't a total waste of time. I also have a "lab-chat" to prepare for tomorrow afternoon. These are weekly informal discussion meetings that the spatial and conservation ecologists attend. Each week someone is nominated to present for discussion a topic relevant to their research, and it's my turn now. A little bit intimidating, but they're a friendly enough bunch, so perhaps it won't be too bad.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Stranger - part three

To wrap up these catch-up posts I have more good news, this time involving interactions not with computer programs but with people! Shocking, I know, right?!

Last Friday I actually stayed at uni for our departmental Happy Hour in the evening. It's a fun concept involving suggested contributions to a drinks money fund, much imbibing of alcoholic and other beverages, and extensive merrymaking. I got to spend a fun few hours with my fellow PhD students, learnt the names of a few more people, and shook a bit of the rust off my sociable side. The next evening I met up with them again, outside of uni. A major development!

I am a hermit. I admit it. My closest friends have been the same bunch of (wonderful) people since I was 16. I don't remember it being particularly difficult to make friends with these individuals. It just sort of happened - very naturally. I do remember putting in quite a bit of time when I first went to university, trying to meet people. This resulted in a handful of (equally wonderful) people that I became close to. It is these two waves of friends that I feel most comfortable around - they laugh at my jokes, you know.

From my second year at university, through my MSc and so far during my PhD, making new friends has just not been on the agenda. I have become set in my reclusive ways. Getting old also probably has something to do with it.

I'm quite happy being a hermit. Sometimes it gets lonely though. Especially when going through hard times adjusting to this post-graduate research environment. It's been very reassuring to have people like my office-mates and fellow supervisees and other PhD students. It is comforting to surround myself with these people, at least every once in a while. I will be leaving for Cyprus in a couple of weeks and will be away from this environment for several months. I think I will miss this new group of people.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Stranger - part two

I am happy to report that my GIS installation issues have been resolved. Of course, this doesn't mean that I'm not having issues with using the program. I realise that not everyone knows what a GIS is, although the fact that the Cyprus authorities have just begun using it widely basically means that it has been in worldwide use for at least two decades.

GIS stands for Geographical Information System, and can be defined in many many ways. The way it has been pitched to me is as "a system for capturing, storing, checking, integrating, manipulating, analyzing and displaying data which are spatially referenced to the Earth." Basically, we're talking about a computer system and software that uses spatial (that is, geographical) information to carry out data management, analyses, and stuff. It's an extremely powerful tool that can be used in all sorts of ways by all sorts of people for all sorts of things that have to do with space: location of particular features, geographical patterns, where and how things change, where do certain conditions apply, and the consequences of all the above.

To do anything like that, of course, you need to know how to use the software. And I am such a newbie. I have gone through tutorials and am currently attending lectures to introduce myself to GIS, but I am still lost in this program. So much is possible! But so little of it is accessible to me. It feels like only experts can work with GIS. It's a Catch 22: you can't work with it unless you're an expert, but to become an expert you need to work with it. Fortunately, a GIS For Dummies book is soon to be published.

Actually, what I really need is a For Dummies guide to the particular software I'm using. Until this materialises, I am forced to keep trudging. At the moment I'm having to deal with numbers that don't add up, as well as a bird dataset that is full of zeros. A zero is non-data. A zero does not mean that there was nothing to record. A zero means that nothing was recorded. The zero is about the worst thing to have to deal with statistically. Curse the zero!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Stranger - part one

I must apologise for taking so long to post since my last entry. Quite a few things have happened in the last couple of weeks: both work and play. I think the most sensible strategy to catch up is to break the news up into easily digestible chunks. Enjoy

On the work side, I have to admit that I never did finish that document on bird survey methods. It was actually impossible for me to do it in time for my supervisor to take a look at it before leaving for Cambodia, and after clearing it with him, it took a back seat on my to-do list.

I should get it done soon though! Writing up my project proposal properly was actually very rewarding. It had been a long time since I'd done any writing and it felt good to have a reason for reading papers. So far, my reading has been undirected and I would feel as though I achieved nothing from reading - the information would just go in through my eyes and out through some back door. But having to produce a document with a specific aim, based on that information, meant that what I was reading was being processed.

And, success! My supervisor called me before leaving for Cambodia to tell me that through my writing I show signs of intelligence. Again, I'm not sure exactly how I'm supposed to take this. It doesn't take much to impress this man. I still haven't decided if this is because he has very low expectations of me or because he's making an active effort to boost my (recently non-existent) confidence.

Anyway, he seems to have newfound hope that I am the right candidate for this PhD. However, the biggest test of all will be the field. I am still very scared about this. But there's nothing left to it now. I just have to go ahead and do my best.

In the meantime, the coal tits are here =)

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Lunch break

My ambition to be more sociable is being pushed more and more to the background. Yesterday I walked past a couple of fellow PhDs who tried to lure me to the coffee room for a spot of lunch, but I declined on account of work. Today I am eating my sandwich at my desk. I predict my keyboard will become its own crumb-fed ecosystem very soon, if it hasn't already.

I am currently working on a review of bird survey methods to go in my project proposal. The whole thing needs to be done by tomorrow so that my supervisor can have a look at it before he goes to Cambodia to visit another one of his PhDs.

As I must get back to it now, I leave you with a picture of a long-tailed tit, a species I realise I haven't referred to yet. They're adorable! Like little fluffy popsicles.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Slow day - Slow week

There's only one day left in my first week "back at work" and I feel like it's been going painfully slowly, on purpose. I didn't decide to keep a slow pace, it just happened, but as a result of pretty conscious decisions. I don't actually feel like I've procrastinated much - I've been quite productive overall, but it's mostly things that, really, I could've taken care of in the evenings after work (eg. filling in forms and jumping through admin hoops, investigating ways of dealing with my annoyingly partitioned laptop hard-drive, organising my USB-stick and ultimately deciding to buy a portable external hard-drive to make things easier and as an extra safety net).

Is it a bit strange that I'm referring to my PhD as "work"? It should really be "research," but I honestly don't really feel like I'm doing much of that yet. It's like I have this idea in my head that the real research will happen in the field. That's where research happens after all, right? From a more rational point of view, that's a load of bull. I should be planning so hard for my field season! What are you thinking, Christina?! You've got data to analyse, bird songs to learn, and survey methods to try out! What are you doing faffing around?!

I wish I could answer myself... Well, it'll be a new week soon - I'll make up for it.
Okay, I just set myself up for wasting more time tomorrow. Doh!

Right, enough of things I'm down about! What am I happy about?

Well, the first thing is that I managed to get myself out into the cold last night to go to the gym. It took me a while to get going (my subconscious inertia is really quite remarkable) - which basically meant the gym instructor with the key to lock up was waiting for me to finish my stretching at 10:30 last night - but I did it! And it was goooood. I only did half an hour of intervals on the recumbent bike and then 3 sets of my favourite core exercises with only half the weight I was used to last summer, but I figure I'll get my form back before I get properly back into strength training - the last thing I want is to injure myself a few weeks before field work season!

Another thing that makes me smile at the moment is reading Stephen Fry's autobiography (Moab Is My Washpot). As a person who's only been living in the UK for a few years without a television (except the last 3 months), I only recently began discovering who Fry was through a few random episodes of Q.I. I've also watched a bit of Jeeves and Wooster on TV recently, but I am unfamiliar with the joys of Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Then I got on Twitter (I'm still not sure why, although I blame it entirely on a certain geneticist) and subscribed to Fry's tweets. And now I'm getting to know him - indirectly. It's great fun, although sometimes it can get a bit much - he writes how he speaks so reading this book it's a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Finally, it was good to see my fellow supervisee and office-mate today. We had a good rant about our supervisor, and about "work" and field work and our significant others (in a good way of course!... not that I have any hope that he's reading this) and stuff. It was good. Maybe at lunchtime tomorrow I should make en effort to see my second supervisee and my other fellow Environmental Sciences PhDs. After all, come mid-February, it'll be at least 4 months before I see them again.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Monday blues

The first day back at work in 2009.

It was snowy outside when I woke up. The whole day was pretty leisurely. Didn't even go to the office - had to wait around for a man to come fix my cooker, and then had a meeting with supervisor at his house.

The meeting went alright. He seemed pleased at my progress, limited as it was. He's either underestimating me, or is trying really hard to give me a confidence boost. I suppose either is better than disappointment.

Learnt a new bird today: the Redwing. It's a type of thrush. Typical winter visitor apparently.
Over the last couple of days I've also been learning that Goldfinches sound a bit like tiny machine guns when they sing... Okay, it's a weird association in my head but if it makes the sound stick then I'm keeping it!

Other than that I've been wrestling with this GIS program I'm trying to install on my laptop so I can take it Cyprus with me. This is the second day I've been struggling with it thanks to Vista. I think it's now time to ask for some expert help.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Back to reality

A New Year has begun - at least according to the Gregorian calendar - and it's an excuse to pretend to start afresh. I'm not going to make any formal resolutions, because I'm more likely to become depressed than a better person according to these people, but I know what they are in my head.

I had a lovely break for the holidays - it was good to slow down and not think about the things that make me anxious for a while. I'm not sure if going away was such a good idea though. I have six weeks before I go back to Cyprus for my field work. I'm dreading it. But there's not much more I can do from here: it's just a case of going out there and practicing my methods for real.

I am so glad that I didn't take a more exotic PhD topic! On the one hand, tracking tigers with camera traps in Sumatra would be unbelievably cool and an incredible experience, but on the other, I'd now be facing the prospect of at least six months in a jungle, with no running water or the possibility to communicate with the civilised world! And I'm terrified as it is about doing field work on my own in Cyprus!
I'm such a coward.

PS.: If anyone has any bright ideas about learning to identify bird songs please let me know.