From Loons to Cocoons

Fifteen years ago, Earthwatch volunteer Tim Bonebrake went on an expedition to study loons in Maine. Today, Tim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong and teaches his students about the importance of field research. 

Volunteers study loons on our current Loons of the Gulf Oil Spill expedition

Volunteers study loons on our current Loons of the Gulf Oil Spill expedition.

First Time Researcher: Listening to Loons When Tim was a sophomore in high school, his biology teacher, and Earthwatch Expedition alum, guided him to his first opportunity as a citizen scientist. “I applied for an Earthwatch fellowship to go on an expedition and thankfully, they accepted me,” Tim recalled. “Loons in Maine examined the effects of mercury contamination on loon behavior.” This was Tim’s first research experience. “This highly educational and awe-inspiring expedition sparked my interest that would later flourish into a love for environmental sciences,” Tom conveyed.

Volunteers collecting data on Gulf loons

Volunteers collecting data on Gulf loons

While Tim was on the expedition, he and his group jumped onto their boat and set out to catch up with loons in their natural habitat. “We made distress calls of baby loons and waited for adult loons to approach the boat.” One person was tasked to hold the spotlight on the boat, “when the light shone on the loons, they froze like deer in headlights. It was a miraculous sight to see,” said Tim. Tim was tasked with holding the loon for data collection and observation. But his job was no easy mission. “The loons in Maine are the heaviest in all of North America, so holding one of these birds while taking wingspan measurements, feather and blood samples was by no means easy,” Tim said. Some loons in this area can weigh over 16 pounds, and their bodies are so heavy relative to their wing span that they need about 100 to 600 foot “runway” in order to take off.

Volunteers measure the wingspan of a loon in the Gulf of Mexico

Volunteers measure the wingspan of a loon in the Gulf of Mexico.

Loons are most known for their unusual calls, which vary from wails to tremolos to yodels. You can listen to a loon here! “Now that is a noise I will never forget,” said Tim. Growing Into A Scientist: Onto Butterflies It wasn’t long before Tim earned his B.S. in Environmental Sciences from the University of California, Berkeley and then my PhD in Biology at Stanford University.” By then, Tim’s curiosity of species had cocooned into a passion. Tim studied numerous butterfly populations throughout North and Central America before completing his dissertation: Global change implications of adaptation to climatic variability. His understanding of butterflies and their role did not stop there. “My colleague and collaborator, Vu Van Lien, ran the Earthwatch expedition Butterflies of Vietnam for six years.”

Eathwatch volunteers identify more than 200 different butterfly species in Vietnam

Eathwatch volunteers identify more than 200 different butterfly species in Vietnam.

By the expedition’s conclusion, the data enabled Tim and Dr. Lien Vu to understanding of the relationship between climate and butterfly populations. Teaching the Scientists of the Future Today, as a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, Tim is trying to create a new wave of citizen scientists. “I encourage my students to do field work because, as tedious as it is, it is an integral part of science. I try to get my students involved in my research because ecology is not something you can do alone, especially when we need large, long term data sets. That’s why Earthwatch is such a great organization because it has citizen scientists who are willing to volunteer their time and do that necessary work.”

Tim conducting his own research in California.

Tim working at one of his research sites in California.

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