Mentors

The summer of 2018 marked my 15th anniversary at Oklahoma State, my 30th field season, and the retirement of my PhD advisor, Rob Brooks at Penn State. To mark these milestones, I prepared a document for my students and O’Connell Lab alumni chronicling some things about me they might not have known and attempting to provide some context for them about Rob’s mentoring influence on me. I included some lovely remembrances of the late Ruth Beck as well; she was my master’s degree mentor at William and Mary. For archival purposes, here is a minimally edited version of that essay.

June 2018

Dear Team Timmy Alumni,

It’s almost July and what we normally consider the field season will soon draw to a close. Although I don’t spend nearly as much time afield as I used to (or would prefer to), this is technically my 30th consecutive field season and as good a time as any for a bit of reflection.

You might know that I grew up on a small horse farm in the New York’s Mohawk Valley. We weren’t a working farm of course, but there was plenty to do and I spent a good bit of my childhood cleaning stalls, stacking hay, lugging water, etc. My love of nature began there with birding, fossil-collecting, snake-catching, tracking, climbing trees, and trudging for hours through the deep snow. While my mom headed operations on the farm, my dad was running O’Connell’s Drug Store in nearby Utica, NY. O’Connell’s was a fixture in North Utica since my grandfather founded it on his return from WWI in 1918. Our whole family worked at the store that had grown to a small shopping center with other offices, usually some kind of sandwich shop, a florist’s, etc. My jobs included trash removal, bathroom scrubbing, and once I got a bit older, delivering hospital beds.

At 15, I started a volunteer position at the Utica Zoo. (By this time my dad had lost the drug store because he couldn’t compete with the big chain stores moving in.) I did all kinds of stuff at the Zoo because I was a volunteer: I scooped a lot of poop, of course, but I also prepared diets, helped out on some necropsies, assisted with live animal shows, etc. At 16 they hired me to work in the Children’s Zoo as pooper-scooper and guy who let kids in through the gate to torture the goats. At 17 and 18 I was still working summers at the Zoo with a group affectionately known as the “Doom Squad.” We were mowing, general landscaping, construction, destruction, etc. During those first two years of college at Cornell, I worked in the dining halls stocking shelves, removing trash, running the dish machine, etc.

Other than my earlier zoo work, my first chance to do something related to my passions for wildlife came in 1987, when Milo Richmond – then the leader of the NYS Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit – hired me to work for one of his grad students. My main job was to mash up fecal pellets stored in jars of alcohol to see if there was anything in them that wasn’t plant material.  This was to help determine if the colugos of the Philippine rain forests were obligate or facultative folivores. Gripping stuff!  My side gig at the time was to help breed Allegheny Woodrats (the last 3 from New York) in captivity. I was basically a woodrat wingman. At some point, I was the only person on Earth to have observed their mating behavior (it was about what you’d expect), and I was successful in helping increase the population by three new babies before I left the project.

That summer of 1988 I started working for the Coop Unit on a reclaimed fly ash landfill site. My job was to survey small mammals and birds on the site, and to collect some of them and harvest their livers for ecotoxicology work. So that’s how my career in the field really began – trapping meadow voles and Savannah Sparrows so I could harvest their livers. I did some other odd jobs for the Coop Unit, too. I banded baby Common Terns. I climbed trees with a bucket over my head to collect cormorant vomit. I trapped meadow voles out of an apple orchard. I seined fish out of test ponds. I chauffeured a trash can full of raccoon carcasses in Formalin.

By 1990 I was working on my master’s research on The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve. My advisor was the late Ruth Beck at the College of William and Mary. Ruth was the coordinator of labs and TAs for the big service courses in Biology. On paper she could not be my advisor because she only had a master’s herself, and it was in Education. Mitchell Byrd – Bald Eagle and Osprey guy extraordinaire in the Chesapeake Bay – was my on-paper advisor. But it was Ruth who mentored me. She was a tireless advocate for conservation and is remembered as a giant of Virginia ornithology. Her main summer job was to survey all the shorebirds and wading birds along the VA Coast each year, including nest monitoring for terns, skimmers, Piping Plovers, herons, etc. She worked with her husband Sherwin who had his pilot’s license and his own Cessna. They surveyed from the air and then a crew of us surveyed the same islands from the ground.

I ultimately developed a project with Ruth that examined nest success of terns and skimmers as a function of proximity to nesting gulls. This was cool because I had enjoyed my limited prior work with banding terns and my first undergrad research project (one of three I would ultimately undertake) focused on the thieving habits of wintering gulls. Although my master’s work completed in the field in 1991, I kept participating in Ruth’s surveys on the coast in 1992 and 1993 (so four summers of coastal bird stuff).

August of 1991 found me working for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage (similar to the Oklahoma Biological Survey). My ostensible job there was the mind-numbing and demoralizing task of writing business letters to consultants and government agencies to indicate if our databases showed any rare species in the vicinity of whatever activity had been proposed. Wetlands permitting, environmental impact assessments, timber sales on National Forests – I did it all. When we did have something rare or even the likely habitat for something rare show up nearby, I then worked with our biologists to craft a site-specific recommendation. I also used the leverage of my field chops to do some inventories of my own for rare birds. That got me back to the Coast, but also to isolated wetlands to survey for rails, to grasslands for shrikes and Upland Sandpipers, and to military bases and other burned areas where pine savannas might support Bachman’s Sparrow. It was May of 1993 when I also started regular surveys for window-killed birds.

In the summer of 1994 I began field research at Penn State to develop the Bird Community Index. I surveyed birds from random points in the Appalachians through the mid-1990s, did likewise along the Piedmont and Coastal Plain in the early 2000s, and started with waterthrushes in 1997. Since 2003, I’ve been here working with you on your projects.

It’s the Penn State connection that has prompted this odd retrospective from me: my PhD advisor Rob Brooks is retiring this summer, and I’ve been asked to write a bit about him for the formal press release. It occurred to me that these people – Rob and Ruth – are your GRANDvisors, and that you should know at least something about them because they were such an influence on me. Then as I was getting started I realized that you might not even know much about me outside our specific relationship during your time in my lab, and that I should remedy that, pronto. I mean, someday someone might ask you to write something about me when I finally retire, so we need to preserve a bit of Team Timmy history.

Anyway, Rob has mentored at least 46 (!) master’s and PhD students (plus post-docs and innumerable undergrads) in his career spanning a solid 30 years at Penn State. He is a wetlands and wildlife guy, with most of his work devoted to understanding the function of various freshwater wetland types in the Mid-Atlantic States. He works tirelessly for their conservation – I remember him always on the go to another site demonstration with landowners, to collect more data on some new wetlands for which we had we had just gained access, to meetings with administrators and regulators from the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, Pennsylvania Game Commission, etc. My BCI is just one class of ecological indicator that owes its existence to Rob: he also worked with students and post-docs to develop indicators for wetland plants, benthic macroinvertebrates, amphibians, etc. Biotic and abiotic classification of wetlands is vital to the EPA’s mission to administer the Clean Water Act, and Rob’s career in providing the basic science necessary for the EPA to carry out that mission is a beautiful example of a Land Grant university upholding its mission.

Rob knows a bit about birds: In addition to my stuff, he studied Belted Kingfishers for his master’s degree and with more recent students he worked on modeling 3D passage routes for migrating Golden Eagles in the Appalachians. On the wildlife side he’s really a mammal guy, though. He’s done a bit of work on beavers, and he was instrumental in the reintroduction and subsequent study of otters and fishers in the Mid-Atlantic Region. He is known globally for his work on otter conservation.

There’s a lot of Ruth and Rob in me. It was Ruth who took me aside when I was about to head off into the field with a boat and trailer heavier than my truck, looked up to make eye contact (for she was tiny!), and said “I’m not going to call your mother if you have an accident.” The point was “Don’t give me the task of having to call your mother and tell her about your tragic death while you were working for me!” Thus was born my commitment to safety in the field – for me and for all of you. Ruth was also the one who taught me what to do when you’re out in the field in mixed company and have to urinate without any cover nearby: “Just close YOUR eyes” she said “and then you won’t know that anyone saw you!” She was lovely and funny and brilliant, and she embraced the role of surrogate mom for countless students while her efforts supported the return of birds to the Coast that we very nearly lost by the mid-20th Century.

I spent 9 years with Rob, often as a real right-hand man to him. By now he’s raised >$30 million in grants and contracts and published >125 papers, but back then at mid-career he was passed over at least once for promotion to full professor. He hadn’t published as well as some would have liked at the time and in his case it was because he was so wrapped up doing all this extra work for conservation. He served on planning committees and helped craft zoning policies – all of which took a lot of time away from writing, but Rob realized that he could have a much bigger impact on conservation by talking to people making decisions on the ground as opposed to publishing an extra paper or so per year. He was right, and he still is.

And he is fun. Rob hosted the “Wetland Olympics” at his home every year. He had me sing Elton John’s Benny and the Jets to his son (Ben) at his high school graduation. I was with Rob at a bar in Annapolis, MD when I had my first bucket of steamed mussels and pint of Beamish stout. With Rob I explored Chesapeake Bay marshes, West Virginia high peaks, a Chicago blues bar, a bit of the Mojave Desert, and so many other adventures too numerous to recall before I ever had an inkling of settling in Oklahoma.

Neither Ruth nor Rob were much use to me in the mentoring of what we too-often consider the hallmark of a great scientist: statistical analysis and cranking out papers. But they were dedicated to the cause of conservation, and created a palpable sense of family in their labs. I hope you look back on your time with me and remember feeling supported, empowered, and loved – because you were. If you enjoyed your time on Team Timmy, then a good bit of that came from the mentoring modeled for me from Rob Brooks and Ruth Beck.

Screen shot 2015-09-07 at 11.36.47 AM

From left, Ruth Beck (master’s advisor at William and Mary), me, Rob Brooks (PhD advisor at Penn State), and Milo Richmond (hired me for my first field job at Cornell) at the 2000 meeting of The Waterbird Society, Plymouth, MA.

Now it’s time for you – like in any other big family – to make sure you’ve got at least a rudimentary understanding of each other. Here is the most up-to-date contact information I have for Team Timmy alumni. (Note that the thesis or dissertation title I’ve listed for you might not be the final one you published.)

Please consider each other part of your extended network of professional contacts and never be too shy to contact a fellow alumnus if you think they might be able to help with something you’re working on. If you are active in research, please check out each others’ publications and cite them! I have our publications listed on the Team Timmy website; you can also search Google Scholar or ResearchGate to find subsequent works from our alumni. Also, please consider collaborating with each other on new research projects! Remember, you’re family.

Team Timmy Alumni!

  1. Caitlin Laughlin (May 2018): Avian responses to fire frequency the Oklahoma cross timbers. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Caitlin will be an adjunct instructor in NREM beginning 2018. laughlin@okstate.edu  @LaughlinCaitlin
  2. Samantha Cady (May 2018): Ecological assessment of Ozark watersheds using breeding birds: a blueprint for riparian restoration. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Sam begins a PhD here at NREM in 2018, this time working with Craig Davis and Sam Fuhlendorf on modeling distributions and populations of Northern Bobwhite. smcady@okstate.edu @Sam_Cady1
  3. Fidelis Atuo (May 2017): Spatial distribution of aerial predators: influences on usable space for quail. PhD dissertation, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Fidel is now on a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he’s working on spatial distribution of Northern Spotted Owl. atuo@wisc.edu  @Fidelatuo
  4. Nicolas Jaffe (May 2017): Predictive mapping of priority birds in the Oaks and Prairies. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Nick is now working on a PhD at Michigan State University where he is studying Gray Wolves. jaffenic@msu.edu
  5. Jonathan Harris (Apr. 2015): Estimating mesopredator predation risk for Northern Bobwhite. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Jonathan is fast-developing into the world’s foremost authority on Gray Vireo for his PhD research in the dept of Integrative Biology here at OSU. hjonatp@ostatemail.okstate.edu  @JonP_Harris
  6. Emily Sinnott (Nov. 2014): Riparian influence on eastern songbirds in semi-arid transitional forest. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Emily is now working on a PhD at the University of Missouri where she is studying movements and survivorship of juvenile Northern Bobwhite. easinnott@gmail.com
  7. Leah Dale (Jul. 2014): Supplemental feeding of Northern Bobwhites: potential for aflatoxicosis. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Leah is a wildlife ecologist with the USGS National Wetlands Research Center­­‑Biological Objectives for Gulf Coast Restoration. ldale@usgs.gov
  1. Adrian Monroe (Aug. 2010): Winter bird habitat use at multiple scales in heterogeneous tallgrass prairie. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Adrian went on for a PhD at Mississippi State University and is currently a Research Scientist in the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University. apmonr@gmail.com @apmonr
  1. Jason Heinen (Dec. 2009): Songbird community structure in cross timbers forest: influence of juniper invasion and urbanization. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Jason has continued his craft of extraordinary wildlife photography, especially with birds and Odonates. He is currently living in Minnesota where he raises goats and chickens and has fashioned himself as an itinerant biology teacher, rather like a way cooler, modern Ichabod Crane. jasonheinen21@gmail.com
  1. Paul van Els (July 2009): Effects of Juniperus virginiana encroachment on plant and avian diversity in Oklahoma cross timbers forests. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Technically Paul was a student of Rod Will’s, but I like to claim him because we had so many great adventures during his time in Stillwater! Paul studied phylogeography of birds after he left OSU, culminating in a successful dissertation defense in 2018 from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Dr. van Els is currently working as a consultant and senior bird count coordinator for Sovon Vogelonderzoek, the Dutch Centre for Field Ornithology in The Netherlands. paul.vanels@sovon.nl
  2. Andrew George (July 2009): Avian response to Old World bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum) monocultures in mixed-grass prairie. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Andy left OSU to pursue a PhD at the University of Missouri where he established himself as an authority on the fine scale distribution of rat snakes through landscapes. Andy is now an Assistant Professor in Biology at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. adgeorge@pittstate.edu
  1. Vince Cavalieri (December 2008): Status and habitat affinity for Cerulean Warbler and other forest birds in Oklahoma. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Vince is currently working as a Fish and Wildlife Biologist in the Michigan Ecological Services Field Office of the USFWS where he coordinates the Great Lakes Piping Plover Program. Vincent_Cavalieri@fws.gov    @Antbedparrot
  1. Cosmas Lungu (May 2007): Using GIS to model post-CRP land use in Texas County, Oklahoma. PhD dissertation, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Upon completing his PhD here at OSU, Cosmas returned to Zambia to resume his position as a Senior Lecturer at Copperbelt University. Now retired (congratulations!) he can still be reached at lungucos@yahoo.co.uk.
  2. Scott McConnell (May 2006): Habitat associations, ranges, and population estimates of selected bird species in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Following his important work on Mountain Plovers, Long-billed Curlews, and other birds of the Oklahoma Panhandle, Scott paid the bills with some consulting work before eventually returning to his passion: the definitive biography of Witmer Stone. stone@gmail.com       witmerstone.com
  3. Martin Piorkowski (May 2006) Breeding bird habitat use and turbine collisions of birds and bats located at a wind farm in Oklahoma mixed-grass prairie. MS thesis, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK. Following posts with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Arizona Department of Game and Fish, Martin is now working as a Biologist for WEST Environmental and Statistical Consultants. mpiorkowski@west-inc.com