Sharing Expertise for a Greater Impact

by Laurel Symes, Mike Pitzrick, and Sara Keen
Travel accommodations come in all shapes and sizes.

The Center for Conservation Bioacoustics (CCB) recently taught a Sound Analysis Workshop in Colombia in partnership with Hector Rivera and his colleagues at the Universidad de Antioquia. The goal of the workshop was to teach graduate students and other researchers how to visualize and analyze sound recordings and how to use the analysis tools that we have recently developed at CCB. These tools include things like template detection and band-limited energy detection (for finding specific sounds in long soundscape recordings), spectrogram cross-correlation (for quantifying sound similarity), and measurement of sounds (for all sorts of scientific research questions).

The trip to Colombia started with a drive to New York City and an overnight in an AirBNB so that we could catch an early morning flight. The AirBNB had all of the advertised amenities, but the ceilings were a little lower than expected. Fortunately, our night in the basement cave passed smoothly and quietly and we were off!

We were able to catch a direct flight from New York City to Medellin, Colombia, which made the trip fast and smooth. Even though the hard-sided case of equipment attracted lots of attention at immigration, the customs officials were friendly and helpful and we were soon on our way.

Medellin cityscape by day.
Medellin cityscape by night.

Medellin is a beautiful city! It sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. One unexpected aspect of the city is that most of the buildings are built from a combination of red, white, and pink brick, so from a distance, everything from the skyscrapers to the single family homes has a reddish pink tint. Our host, Hector Rivera Guiterrez, made sure that we made it to our hotel (Hotel Casa Laureles) and later gave us a tour of the city, including a trip up to the city overlook and an excellent Colombian dinner.

Heading out to the field site in the mountains.
Setting off for the field site.

Sunday morning it was time to head to the field and really get to work! We met the students at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin and took a bus to a small town below the field station. Then we started the hike up to Reserva Alto San Miguel. If you look closely, you can see that the student in the middle is holding a few dozen eggs that also survived the 5 km trek to the field station!

Loading the audio equipment on the mules for our trip to the field site.
En route to the field site.
Recording equipment demoRecording equipment demo.

From Medellin, we traveled into the mountains, where we started the hike to Reserva Alto San Miguel. This is a beautiful high-elevation field station that is off the grid and away from roads. We carried much of our own gear, but some of it went on mules, including the recording equipment!

We started lecturing almost right away and taught through much of the afternoon with breaks for lunch and dinner. The students in the course are a mix of masters and PhD students, post-docs, and people who work in conservation at the field station.

Once it got dark, it also got cold, but there were still a few species of katydids calling around the station, which made Laurel very happy. The spiny one that is sitting on Laurel’s boot is still a juvenile, but it is already about an inch (2 cm long) and will be several inches long by the time it is full grown. The one on the right is an adult male. It gave us about an hour of nice recording that we will use later in the week to practice template detection and band-limited energy detection.

Katydids were around at the field site..
A male katydid.

The next morning, we rolled out of our bunk beds and were in the field by 6 AM. The students are doing projects using long-duration recordings made with Swift recorders, focal recordings of Red-bellied Grackle, and playbacks to Azara Spinetail. There are lots of birds at the station, including some that we recognize (North American migrants including Canada Warbler,  Black-and-white Warbler, and Blackburnian Warbler), and some that are very different from our North American species (Andean Motmot and Collared Trogon!).

We lectured again in the afternoon and evening, but the start of the afternoon lecture was accompanied by a truly spectacular thunderstorm. The station is in a valley and the thunder came as surround-sound cracks and booms. The storm took out the solar electricity system, so for the rest of the afternoon and evening, we lectured from one computer while the students gathered in groups around other computers to follow the slides, rotating computers over the course of the day to save battery.

We were recording again on Tuesday morning…

Collecting acoustic data.
Applying the recording skills learned at the workshop.

We spent the final days of the course in the city of Medellin, teaching on the campus of Universidad de Antioquia. Both the city and the university were impressive, with widespread public transportation (including buses, metros, and cable cars) and modern lab and classroom facilities.

Inspiration can be found in many different places.
An inspired SAW team.

This is a slight digression, but check out the incredibly cool painted lockers at the university!

One-on-one instruction is a key element of the workshop.
Small group discussions and project development enhance learning.

The last few days of the course were spent working with students on the analysis of their data. Students studied which song elements were required to elicit territorial response in Azara Spinetails (locally known as a pisquis, an onomatopoetic name that sound resembles a squeaking swing), the correlation between group size and acoustic characteristics of male Red-Bellied Grackles, and how ecoacoustic metrics captured habitat differences (interestingly, not very well). These projects provided lots of hands-on experience with acoustic measurements, template detectors, and spectrogram settings.

SAW team at a food court.
Sampling local food options.

We also had a chance to visit a Colombian food court, which was objectively much cooler than a US food court.

The course ended with the student research presentations, goodbyes, and invitations to email, visit, ask questions, and share ideas. A huge thanks to the students for their engagement and effort and especially to our host Hector Rivera, for making this such a seamless, motivating, and engaging experience!