Diana Humple Interview (2006)

Diana Humple

Diana Humple

Name: Diana Humple
Hometown: Bolinas, CA, assuming you mean current hometown; if past, it’s a number of places (Virginia and Bangkok primary ones)
Profession: Wildlife biologist
Previous Field Projects: The first was a School For Field Studies project on Northern Goshawks in Montana. Also spent 3 years working in shrubsteppe of Oregon, a year in California shrubsteppe in NE part of state, a winter season plus a couple of partial seasons on the Farallon Islands (mostly for elephant seals), a fair amount of time working in riparian habitat of the Central Valley of California as well as Point Reyes National Seashore.
Associations: Western Bird Banding Association, North American Banding Council
First Year Birded: 1994
Countries Birded: USA, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, South Africa, Thailand, Spain
Birding Lists Kept: Life list, total and by country, and birds observed while swimming
Life List Total: 1294
Favorite Bird(s): Loggerhead Shrike, Silver-breasted Broadbill, Black-throated Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, sparrows & nightjars in general

Chad Witko (CW): Welcome! Before we get started with the questions, I want to thank you on behalf of all of us at Chat Happens for setting some of your busy time aside to spend a few moments with us here today.

Diana Humple (DH): No problem! Glad to be here.

CW: To start things off, I was hoping you could tell us a little bit about yourself, particularly who you work for, and what connection this gives you to birds?

DH: I work for PRBO Conservation Science, which as you know is a private non-profit organization dedicated to bird conservation, research and outreach. I work almost exclusively with birds or with data or other items related to birds.

CW: To continue with that thought, how did you first get interested in birds and birding, and do you recall the event(s) that helped to spark your interest in working with them?

DH: Yes. I had always wished I could grow up and be like Dian Fossey or Farley Mowat or someone like that, working with wildlife, but had no connection to birds, and also didn’t think it was a real career option to work as a wildlife biologist. When I learned it was, I wanted to taste what it was like, and so applied to be a student in a School for Field Studies field course between my 3rd and 4th years of college (when I was 20). I thought I’d do something with primates or other mammals or herps, but the summer I applied, the project that seemed like it held the most interesting opportunities (in terms of type of work not taxa) was a project looking at goshawks and the ecology and conservation of birds of prey. I knew nothing about birds, I called Turkey Vultures hawks, but I signed up. One of my professors was not just crazy about raptors but way into songbirds as well, and I immediately caught the infection and was hooked, on both birds and field work. I came back from that summer with an entirely different perspective on the world around me and what I wanted to do with my life.

CW: From that first interest in working with birds until now with your employment at PRBO Conservation Science, you have worked on a number of field projects. Of these projects, which one was the most rewarding and why?

DH: That’s a hard one, as I’ve worked on at on of extremely rewarding projects. I’m not good at answering questions that ask for the “most” anything, immediately many come to mind (see my “favorite bird” above, for instance). Two projects were the most rewarding for the actual pleasure of the field work itself: working with elephant seals on the Farallon Islands, and the three summers I spent working on the Boardman Bombing Range in Oregon with shrubsteppe birds. Both were truly wild and remote in their own ways, and the encounters with wildlife of all sorts (seals, sharks, seabirds; badgers, Ferruginous Hawks, coyotes…you get the picture) were spectacular, and the time spent alone and in the field as an observer, losing myself in the moment of watching birds or seals, was incredible, experiences that are alike no other for me. I also love training new interns – that has been one of the most rewarding aspects of all the positions I’ve had as supervisor, especially at Palomarin. But I have to bring up another rewarding project, which is oil spill response. That is rewarding because I feel as though what we are doing during a spill response is absolutely critical, and wouldn’t necessarily be done – or done to the extent and meticulousness that it should – if we were not there. It feels directly important, as the data we collect at a spill helps determine how bird populations are impacted by the spill which can then lead to restoration of appropriate areas, and it also feels rewarding to be part of the entire process and team responding to something as big as an oil spill.

CW: As the late Roger Tory Peterson once said “Birds are indicators of the environment. If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.” As biologists working for PRBO Conservation Science you and I are very familiar with this concept. Could you explain briefly how PRBO Conservation Science goes about using birds as indicators of ecosystem health, and why you feel (if you do) it is important for an organization like PRBO to continue- and to even expand-its work with birds?

DH: Yes, I absolutely agree. It’s possible – maybe even likely – that I and many of us would still be wanting to study birds even if they didn’t serve a utilitarian function as environmental indicators, just because they’re amazing and we enjoy watching them and we want to protect and conserve them. But, they do serve that function as well, and so we are studying them not only for their own conservation but also for that of their habitats and the other wildlife that depend on those habitats. Many bird species respond relatively quickly to changes in their environment and their habitat, positive or negative, and so they can be studied to understand the state of their environment, as well as if management activities are having positive or negative affects. But they’re also, for the most part, relatively easy to study, which is an added benefit. And they provide opportunities for studying an entire community of organisms. Often responses to environmental changes or management activities are quite complex, so choosing to study a single organism really only gives you one perspective on the big picture, but you can study an entire community of songbirds, for instance, and have a much better chance of understanding the dynamics taking place and the need for more complex management actions.

CW: While paying a visit to the Palomarin Field Station (Palo) for the first time in March 2005 with some friends, I entered the banding lab to find you helping one of your interns in aging a Hermit Thrush captured in one of the station’s mist-nets. The overall sense of watching you and your understanding of birds for the first time was that you had a significant knowledge of birds in the hand, particularly in looking at fine details useful in aging. How long have you been banding birds and what were the largest hurdles for you in developing those skills that impressed me so much even to this day?

DH: That’s so funny to hear you describe that incident, and your impression! I do appreciate that though. Well, I have been banding birds for almost 10 years. Or rather, I started banding birds in August of 1996 (!) during my second internship with PRBO which was as a fall bander at Palomarin. But I haven’t been banding continuously during that time period, having worked on a number of projects where banding was a small component of the study (and some where it was not a component at all). I think my first hurdle, which is common and which I got over very quickly, as most people do, was fear about hurting the birds. Also associated was some fear about handling difficult situations or injuries that do occasionally arise during banding, which really just takes experience. That lends you confidence that you will be able to respond as is appropriate to a given situation, with a clear head, no panic, and good ideas about what to do. Another hurdle was avoiding plateauing – not letting myself get to a point where I stopped learning from banding. You could band for decades and accumulate new knowledge all the time, always improving and discovering new things, or you could let yourself reach a point where you forget to notice how much more there is to learn and you’re just banding, rote, competent and efficient and enjoying yourself, but not looking for new patterns in each of the birds you have in your hand.

CW: Having banded birds for about 1 year now including the last 4 months with you as my supervisor, I have found that working with birds in the hand while difficult at times, has expedited my overall knowledge of them. This includes everything from their biology and behavior to how to more accurately depict them in illustrations. For you what has been the biggest benefit of working with birds on such an intimate level?

DH: You’re totally right. For me, I think the biggest benefit has been how it allows you to connect with more intimacy and detailed knowledge to their life history.

CW: The Palomarin Field Station since its inception in 1966 has developed many of the standardized bird science approaches being used across the country and internationally from long-term, multi-decadal studies of land birds. What has been the purpose of its mist-netting efforts and what are some of the results that have been found?

Diana banding a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Diana banding a Sharp-shinned Hawk

DH: This is a big question, one that I won’t be able to answer here given the amount of time I have to do so. Basically the purpose of the program is to monitor the populations of birds using the site – including residents, Neotropical migrants, and wintering long- and short-distance migrants – and in doing so to evaluate trends in populations, in particular declines, to learn more about life history details, to compare methodologies, to examine factors that affect population or species index, to compare to trends at other locales or larger-scales, to provide a key opportunity for public outreach and education, and to provide an opportunity for training new field biologists. For results, I must pass any readers of this interview on to some of the pertinent papers that have come out of this program – Ballard et al. 2003 (Long-term declines and decadal patterns in population trends of songbirds in western North America, 1979-1999), Gardali et al. 2003 (Juvenile and adult survival of Swainson’s Thrush in coastal California: annual estimates using capture-recapture analyses), Geupel and Ballard 2002 (The Birds of North America Wrentit account), Ballard et al. 2001 (Influence of mist-netting intensity on demographic investigations of avian populations), Gardali et al. 2000 (Demography of a declining population of Warbling Vireos in coastal California), Silkey et al. 1999 (The use of mist-net capture rates to monitor annual variation in abundance: a validation study), to name just a select few.

CW: Through living at Palo and working around its staff on a daily basis I have come to realize that there is always room to better one’s education in the field of bird conservation. Despite having several years of field experience and already being PRBO’s banding coordinator and co-leader of their Oil Response Team, what made you decide to look into attending a graduate program?

DH: Some of it certainly involves wanting to increase my education, to learn more about statistics, alternate methodologies, even other taxa. Some of it was simply a desire to make some changes in my life. And some simply involved stumbling upon a question that I wanted to see answered, and that I didn’t see anyone else necessarily answering, that seemed exactly appropriate to pursue within a graduate program.

CW: With all of your past experience with songbirds and bird banding, will you be using these skills for your studies at Sonoma State, or will you be departing from passerines to look into other unanswered questions with other types of birds?


Palomarin Field Station. Bolinas, CA.

DH: I will actually be departing from songbirds and working with Western and Clark’s Grebes. Actually the work I’ll be doing loosely relates to the work I’ve done for PRBO on oil spill response, as these are two of the more commonly oiled species in coastal California. But, even though I will be working with an entirely different kind of bird and a very different question (population connectivity using genetics), I’ll definitely still be applying the skills I’ve developed with bird banding, field work, and other elements of my job towards this. I’m interested to see the ways in which I will be able to apply my pre-existing skills in this new direction, actually.

CW: Like most field biologists who spend countless hours outside while working, I find it hard at times to make it back out into the field to simply go birding. However, when I do there is something refreshing about observing birds for the sake of observing them, and this actually gets me back out into the field quite a lot. Regardless of your answer I will still post this interview, but how often do you get out into the field to bird nowadays?

DH: During the spring and summer, when I am doing a lot of field work, it’s true: I actually rarely get out into the field during my time or days off specifically to go birding. Or, even hiking. Unless I’m somewhere new, visiting a friend in an area where the habitat and/or birds are different, then I’ll definitely go birding. During the “off-season” I go out a lot more, partly because fall and winter involve more species that I am less familiar with, so I am more inspired to get out, but very much because I’m getting out into the field and birding much less for work that time of year, so I am missing it and wanting to do so. I just had an interesting conversation with Steve Howell yesterday and he brought up how when you are “a birder” it is a state of being, not a state of doing. For instance, you don’t just bird when you “go birding”, as instead you’re birding all the time, when I’m walking my dog down my street, driving home from work or to the grocery store, picnicking on the beach with friends. Generally I have binoculars with me for all of those times as well! So even during the breeding season when I’m not doing as much focused birding outside of field work (when, since I’m primarily point counting, I’m birding a ton), I’m birding incidentally every day. That being said, and because it’s true that I haven’t gone out a ton specifically to recreationally bird this summer, just yesterday I was saying I was going to go birding this weekend! Of course, that urge coincides with the fact that I finished my point count season 2 weeks ago…

CW: Knowing a little bit about your past, I know that you have lived in many places across the globe. If you could go back to any of these locations to revisit its birds, which place would it be?

DH: Well, I’ve already gone back to Thailand to bird, which was incredible, and I’d go back again in a heartbeat (and intend to). Of the places I’ve lived and haven’t been back to, I’d say Chile would be on the top of the list.

CW: Now if you were to choose to go to a new location simply to explore its natural beauty and the birds found therein, where would you go?

DH: Peru, Namibia, Indonesia, Australia…to name a very few of the places I hope to get to for those purposes at some point.

CW: Luckily you don’t need to go far to look for amazing birding opportunities. Living in the Point Reyes area of CA you not only live in one of the best locations for birding in North America, but you are surrounded by some of the most skilled and brilliant observers today in birding with the likes of Rich Stallcup, Steve N.G. Howell, and Keith Hansen who are often around on a frequent basis. How do these factors affect you, your birding, and most importantly your work with birds?

DH: It’s definitely been great for me to have opportunities to bird with them and talk to them about birds, especially Steve who is a good friend of mine so I’ve birded with him more. I can’t really say how they have affected my work with birds, though, except that they are inspiring in terms of causing me to aspire to be better at bird identification.

CW: OK, time for one last question. While talking to one of your colleagues (whose name I can not divulge), I was told that besides knowing a lot about birds you also have an ‘unnatural knowledge of dog breeds’. Would you care to explain such a unique awareness (laughs)?

DH: I attribute my childhood obsession with dog breeds to my later obsession with birds! Maybe it’s just the same trait in my brain that made me flip through dog breed books as an 8 year old, holding my hand over the name of the breed and forcing myself to guess what I thought it was, studying them really, that later worked for me when I was learning bird species! Yet somehow despite this dog breed “gift” (sarcastic), I ended up with a dog whose breed I never heard of – Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Hound (top image). My friends found that to be ironic.

CW: Diana, once again, thanks for your time! There are a 1000 more questions about bird conservation that I would love to ask, but I’ll have to save them for a future interview.

DH: Or maybe we’ll save them for a future beer social…Thanks Chad for selecting me as one of the people you wanted to interview! It was an interesting process.