Episode 160- Soaring Birds with Hannah Jane Williams

Hannah Jane Williams is a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany. For eight years she’s been studying soaring birds across the spectrum to figure out why birds do what they do and when they do it in the air. For birds, soaring is a delicate game of balancing energy and reward. Flapping takes energy. Energy requires food and getting food has risk. Do birds practice? Do they ever soar just to play? How often do birds make mistakes? How do they map the sky? Do they use other birds to evaluate climbs, find lift bands, and take better lines, or is it all instinct? These are the questions Hannah has been trying to solve- and because free-flight pilots are as well, Hannah and a team of fellow researchers who all work with soaring birds around the world are also now studying what we all do in the air. We are all in fact trying to be birds, and we can talk so studying what we do is helping connect the dots with Hannah’s research. If you’re like me and dream of doing what we do as efficiently as our winged brethren, you’re going to like this show.

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Show Notes:

  • Hannah discusses her project and how she got into studying soaring birds through movement ecology
  • What do the birds see?
  • Tracking migratory birds and getting the data
  • Connecting through data and getting to know the birds
  • The albatross and energy use with the large birds
  • Thermal soaring and strategies
  • Land and sea birds
  • Do birds play? It’s controversial
  • Every decision an animal makes balances trade offs
  • Making expensive decisions
  • What bird is the king of soaring?
  • Decision making in the sky

Mentioned in this episode:

Cross Country Magazine, Max Planck Institute, Malin Lobb, Emily Shepard, Olivier Duriez, Sergio Lambertucci

Hannah Jane Williams gets into the simulator. Hannah works with Emily Sheperd and Olivier Duriez on the Soaring Birds research.

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Speaker 1 (0s): Hi there everybody. Welcome to another episode of the Cloudbase Mayhem, giving you an extra little bonus show this week, we're filling it right back in. We had some gaps back earlier this fall, but now I'm just recording shows like crazy, and I want to get them out to you. So it had a great show for you today. That's in a totally different realm, still flying, but it's with Hannah, Jane Williams. She's not a pilot, but she studies Soaring Birds. She's in her post-doctoral research project at the max Planck Institute in Southern Germany.

Her backdoor is the Northern Alps and she started looking at paragliders going. I wonder if these pilots can answer questions. We've been trying to study for years with Soaring Birds, and they put all kinds of, you'll learn about this in the show, but they put all kinds of trackers and little gizmos on the burrs that send back all the data. And they're trying to figure out how birds make decisions in the skies and Adrian, who I had on the show who you heard about flying off all the volcanoes. Mexico said, you gotta talk to these folks.

This research they're doing is fascinating and birds fly a lot better than we do, and I'm sure we can learn something. And I really did. We had a great talk and that you're going to love it before we get to it. A couple of things of housekeeping. The first is the talk I had with Kirsty Cameron and I talked about the Xeno and how it has proven itself to be a pretty safe wing and a good entry-level two line glider. And quite a few people reached out to me after that and said great podcast. But I think that was maybe not the best way to say that there have been a lot of accidents on Xeno.

And probably, I don't think that has anything to do with the wing. It has proven itself to be a very solid two liner. Like I said, in the show, and this isn't a knock on that wing whatsoever. It's probably just a lot. It's just one of their selling wings. A lot of people are on it and we have accidents in a sport. So probably just numbers and statistics are very difficult in our sport because every country models differently takes any information differently and chalks it up differently. And most accidents probably just go unreported.

So the several people did reach out and say, man, I've seen a lot of accidents on the Xeno. I don't know about that. And again, I don't think that's a knock on the wing, but we probably should have just been more clear that it's still a two liner. It still can bite. They're much harder to recover. You know, recovering a high aspect wing and two liner wing is way different and it doesn't have nearly the passive safety of the lower level wings. So keep that in mind. Now you all know that anyway, but just wanted to make that clarification.

The other thing is until Friday the 10th, if you buy advanced paragliding, if you don't have it yet. So between the first and the 10th, anybody that buys it in that realm in that period of time will be in to win a private days with me here in sun valley, Idaho, sometime in the next year, whenever it works for you, or if that doesn't work logistically for you, then we'll do three, one hour zoom calls. So if you don't have the book yet, get it, get all tuned up for the season. There's lots of great advice and information in there. And cross-country magazine did a wonderful job putting it together.

It's really quite beautiful. I love how it came out. It's their selling book apparently of a year and yeah, little shameless plug for the book. So go to ECC, mag.com for slash shop to get the book and be in this raffle to win a days coaching. Or if you're in the states and get free shipping on a book directly for me, just go to Cloudbase, Mayhem dot com for slash shop. Okay, let's get into this show with Hannah, Jane Williams. I really enjoyed this and just fun to talk about different aspects of our sport and in this time in a completely different way.

So we all have of passionate love of birds. We're trying to be birds ourselves and Anna studies birds. So enjoy this show. Cheers And I think you've been trying to do this for, I don't know, over a year, but I appreciate Adrian given me the shout out and introducing me to you and your group. And thanks for sticking with me through all this crazy lifestyle stuff that we've both been having.

And I appreciate you being on the man.

Speaker 2 (4m 33s): Thank you. I'm glad to be.

Speaker 1 (4m 38s): Yeah. I mean your project, let's just, let's get into it. Tell me about your project because I don't often have non pilots on the show, but this is you're definitely somebody I want to talk to. And I think the audience is going to really enjoy this.

Speaker 2 (4m 55s): So I I'm a movement ecologist. That's normally looking at the Soaring flight of birds and recently started thinking about are the things that are in the air and that's gone over to paragliders. And my project right now is I'm interested in how PowerGlide is maybe looking at each other to find the air and think about how bits might be doing the same thing. If they're watching each other to find air flows. And I'm interested in how you guys managed to find the air, but specifically what you're looking at when you're flying.

Speaker 1 (5m 29s): Hmm. Fascinating. Because you know, the air is a famously quite invisible. Yeah. It's kind of the magic of, of what we do is, is trying to see, what's not often really clear. So, and do you study any particular types, all, all types of Soaring Birds, or is there a kind of a one species focus

Speaker 2 (5m 54s): It's going through different species, different places? I did my PhD and that was different vulture species in South Africa and Europe. And then you move through and I did a postdoc that was on the Andean condor in Swansea university with Emily Shepherd, carrying on with some researcher purse. And then now I've moved to Germany and looking at different the same species, but we also work on stalks here as well.

And every, all of them are Soaring Birds. They're still using the air, but they have different morphometrics that change how they could be using there. The rules are the same, so I can jump between species and now jump to people.

Speaker 1 (6m 40s): So, I mean, take me through how a study works well for firstly, where are you right now? And we're looking at this office building, I saw you when you were walking around earlier, it's it's big. Is this, is this, or is everybody they're working on what you're doing? Or is everybody working on different animals in different projects?

Speaker 2 (6m 58s): So I'm at the max Planck Institute for animal behavior in the south of Germany on lake Constance. And here we have it's it used to be an Institute for ornithology that was specifically interested in birds and migration, really, but it's grown. And now I'm in sharing a building with a load of primatologists that are interested in how different groups of primates operate. There's people working on stalks around me on Eagles.

And then we have a group that's interested in how the dynamics of a group work and people fish. So there's some collective behavior stuff and some movement stuff. Mine kind of does a little bit of both of those things, interest in how you move together.

Speaker 1 (7m 46s): How did you get interested in birds?

Speaker 2 (7m 50s): But I wish I had a beautiful answer for you, but you go down the path and you end up where you end up because you just enjoy each step along the way. So I started with studying killer whales and humpback whales and Scotland, and was looking at how they operate as a group and then went in and did some work with some gamuts and seabirds. And it just took me further down this route. All of those things have had in common that we use technology to see how an animal moves without having to observe it and both the water and the air lend themselves to those, to those for different reasons.

And so whales and birds is kind of, it's a, it's a good place to be. If you're interested in movement and have this technology,

Speaker 1 (8m 41s): You mentioned, you worked with, you worked on vultures down in South Africa. I had this real privilege of being able to go through a kind of a rescue center when we were doing a project in Malawi a few years ago in South Africa. And I learned a about vultures and just how endangered they are as it is, is what you're doing depressing.

Speaker 2 (9m 5s): Yeah. Sometimes no. When you're thinking about how an animal's moving in the air, it, I find it very exciting. So it's not directly depressing. When you think about the pressures, the acting on them, then it can become a bit depressing. So the vulture problem being that there's a lot of poisoning events. And as soon as one vulture lands a poisoned caucus, then hundreds of them land and they're all dead ready and affected by it.

And when I was in South Africa, there was one event like that and it just, it wipes out a group, a local group. And so that is the depressing. Yeah. But recently been moving into the areas of research that it's exciting. So you, that gets forgotten about a little bit and you have to bring yourself back to the general picture

Speaker 1 (10m 1s): Just because I'm so clueless on how these things, how these kind of studies get funded is the max Planck. Is that all? Is that all grants? Is it government? How does it do you apply? And then you get kind of free reign to go with it for a bunch of years.

Speaker 2 (10m 15s): Yeah. That's exactly that. So every three years, every five years you would apply for another big general project that will have some link to what you did previously. And then you would get funding for research, for salaries, for students to join that. And that's how I, you ended up going down the path because it's a balance of the money available and what's your drive. So together, the two things influenced where you ended up,

Speaker 1 (10m 45s): How do you study birds? How do you, how do you gather the data on I'm assuming lift and drag and all the things that affect Soaring that how does, how do you do it?

Speaker 2 (10m 58s): So the I use biolog is biolog is, are like your phone and they have different senses in them and you attach them. It'd be awesome. If your people could see that I have learned, they have stuff around me. They're like a little box that's full of technology inside of different sentences.

Speaker 1 (11m 19s): But

Speaker 2 (11m 20s): This is for a paraglider.

Speaker 1 (11m 22s): Those of you who are listening. Yeah. I was going to say that it looks just like a little,

Speaker 2 (11m 26s): It doesn't do the beeping quite as much, but it's usually I'm collecting different types of movement data, and you attach it to your animal, let it fly off. And then either different schedules, different recording schedules. You might collect it a week later, two weeks or a couple of years later, or even it's on the animal for a lifetime, but they will have very different designs. And obviously we don't want to tag anything with heavy for a long period of time. So you balance what you're asking of attack and the questions that you want to answer.

Yeah. So this is a tack that I would actually put on a paraglider, but the technology is actually exactly the same as what I would put on a condo.

Speaker 1 (12m 10s): Are you able to kind of cross reference, okay, you put it on a condor in a, in a place that Condors fly and put it on a paraglider and a place that paragliders fly. I would think a hang glider or something might be more, you know, a little more matching and ability in terms of speed and stuff, but they are you able to go, wow, this pair letter sucks compared to that contract in terms of finding lines and, and just using currents of air.

Speaker 2 (12m 40s): It's interesting. I haven't. So I've just started working with a group of paragliders. You've actually had one of them on your show, Marlin lob, and I haven't yet looked at their data, but we're in a collaboration where he's helping me. The team's helping me figure out how birds could be moving together. But in return, I want to give him some stuff back that could help them figure out how to fly better. Or if there's some, Let's see, I'll take commissions, different orders.

I mean, I can't really tell you how to fly better, but I can say, I can give you averages in the same way that we compare. We look at light performance in birds, and maybe that could influence your decisions in flight, but also your decisions of how you operate together. I hope there's some feedback between the two that would help me understand bids and help paragliders understand their flight as well

Speaker 1 (13m 40s): In your research. What's the biggest driver of where a bird goes. Is it their own unique feel of the sky or is it how they're operating in a group dynamic? Can you tell us stuff like that?

Speaker 2 (13m 55s): And we don't know. So that's the, the thing that we're most interested in is predicting where animals go and to do that. We have to understand the decisions at each point of movement. If you decide to turn left or right, if you decide to fly for a great distance in one direction, right. And where you're going, why you're moving. There's a lot of unanswered questions. So space use is a big topic within animal ecology and movement decisions.

Now, obviously every day, they're going to be moving between the rest sites and the foraging sites. So food is a big driver of movement, but then on a longer term, it might be migration. And that you're moving from one hemisphere to another, probably for food and for safety or the warmth. So there's these different drivers at different scales and trying to find out what's happening at each decision point is what we're interested in.

Speaker 1 (15m 0s): I have to get inside the mind of a bird. What bird have you studied has the longest migration pattern. And is that, is that therefore the hardest one to study because they're not around as much.

Speaker 2 (15m 14s): The longest migrations are often of shorebirds that are going from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern hemisphere, but then you also get round trip migrations with less of a migration, but long distance trips where you're circumnavigating the, the Antarctic for an albatross, for example. So they're long distances that doesn't make them harder to study because these tags should always follow them and work over that time. But what it does mean is that you have to have batteries that are going to last a long time bill, that whole migration period.

So you probably look for simpler data if you're tugging an animal for a long time. So it's, the whole package is smaller and the story's a bit simpler.

Speaker 1 (16m 3s): Is this a, is this the tag you put on that little device? You just show me, obviously that's for the pair of letter, but the tags you use for the birds is this something, do you need to retrieve it at some point to be able to get the data or it, can it send it back as it's going? You know, isn't it, is it a capsule for an astronaut capsule or, well, what am I trying to say? You know, they're, they're getting the feedback all the time as it's going through space, are you doing the same thing or you got to get it back

Speaker 2 (16m 29s): A bit of both. And again, it all depends on your animal, in the question that you're interested in. So at the condos so-and-so university, they build their own texts that you need called daily diaries. And that's what they're doing. They're making a record of daily movements and daily patterns and those tags you have to retrieve. So they devised some really awesome ways of getting tags back from animals. The condos have automatic release systems.

And for some people out in the Andes that go and bind those tags, once they've dropped off an animal, they have this automatic release, but then the things you managed to get them to send the data back to you via mobile phone networks or satellites. And usually that's simpler data because of the amount of power that's required to send data. So if you're interested in very fine scale movements, you have to collect the tack and the daily diaries are recording it like 40 times a second to want to know the, the physics of movement.

Whereas if you want to know migration routes and get GPS trucks through going from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere, then you could send the data back to you, but get simpler data back.

Speaker 1 (17m 54s): W what is your loss or destruction rate? Imagine the, not many of you sent 10 out how many to get back.

Speaker 2 (18m 2s): So with the condos, the Lewis, a learning curve on how you got them back. And so they've dropped off, how do you then find them once they have dropped off and every tag back is a win completely and odd. One, those quite a small percentage, given the, the effort involved with going to find a tug and then with other animals that return to a nest site, for example, a nest site, faithful, the percentage of the likelihood of getting your attack back is very high.

But that's another thing that we factor into. How long do you want it to be on the animal? If when I was working with whales, for example, we'd have a tag on for a few hours to try and get basic, not basic it's complex movement and behavior, but a nice, basic understanding of what they're doing during the day. So their tax, pop-off automatically a few hours later, and that's because we don't want the animal to start swimming off to a place where we could never find it and get the tag back.

So it's, it's this balance thinking about what the animals going to do, how predictable is its movement, to be able to get the talk back, if we need to retrieve it,

Speaker 1 (19m 18s): Do you have a favorite bird? Can I ask that you liked them all, but

Speaker 2 (19m 28s): I'm very interested in how birds move and their ecology. And so every bit, every bird has a different strategy to deal with that. So they're all equally interesting. From my point of view, I have some that I have like memories and connections with that, put them higher up that list that my drive is the biological question. So the favorite bird kind of disappears. Whereas you go, you go walk in with a Northern father just, and they're late tick, they've got list and they need all of those birds on that list.

And I haven't quite got to that point yet.

Speaker 1 (20m 5s): I would imagine to be a successful study, you have to be quite you're you're, you're trying to be as low profile with the birds as possible. Right. You're trying to have as little interaction I would imagine as possible, but do you get to know these birds of bids? Do you get to spend any kind of any time it mostly just tagging and letting them go? It was that

Speaker 2 (20m 26s): Exactly. You get to know them afterwards. So once the data's come back, you start to feel like you've got a connection through the bird because of the data. Yeah. That's the, the unfortunate thing, but it's what we have to do. You don't want to be invasive. That's the thing we're trying to avoid them. You don't want to disturb them. So afterwards you get more of a, I get a connection with the data anyway. And I think most of us do, especially if it's long-term data and you can follow it over years and you start, you have a personality associated with that data.

I have to be careful if that word in science personality is a controversial word, but you do, you get an attachment.

Speaker 1 (21m 14s): I spent a long time at sea. And so I have this incredible affinity for the albatross is watching them at sea. And I, you know, I didn't spend a ton of time in the Southern ocean, but enough to that's where you usually see them, Molly Hawks, more around Southern New Zealand stuff, but just unbelievably impressive. You know, they can go from what I understand, you know, when I was on a sailboat, we don't fall very far, but they're there, they're in gone, but they never flap their wings lift right off the swell.

That's just,

Speaker 2 (21m 50s): It looks so peaceful and calm and easy.

Speaker 1 (21m 54s): Ah, just, they just own it. If you study, have you studied the albatross?

Speaker 2 (21m 60s): Yes. So there's people is the movement ecologists or behavioral ecologists that are using the same devices. Biolog is on albatross and looking at their movements and how often they flap and where and how they move and the energetics of that. Yeah, there's, there's a few different groups working on albatross, different species, very similar to the way that we think about the Soaring thermal Soaring.

Yes. It's a different type of Soaring that an albatross is using, but there's still the same trade-offs that they have in their flight and the strategies for movement. So there's comparisons that we can make between London. Sieberts

Speaker 1 (22m 48s): Something I would imagine most especially predators I would think engage in is play. And it, you know, when we, when we fly, we see birds, most definitely playing. They're not just hunting or, I mean, I certainly seems like it in any way, you know, that some seem a lot more fixated on hunting, but others just, you know, they're just doing loops and cruising. And I guess, you know, maybe they're catching bugs too, but they're, they certainly seem like they're having a really good time.

Have you been able to document that as something you see regularly in birds?

Speaker 2 (23m 24s): I would go towards the side of no, because we're trying to make sense that every decision an animal makes should balance different trade-offs now play could be interesting if that helps you practice flight. If it's something like that, then it, then it has a benefit. It shouldn't be wasteful of energy, especially if you're a Soaring Birds. And then all of a sudden you're kind of screwed and you've got no energy reserves left in or potential energy.

We say, so you're playing so much that you lose height and now you're stuck. Yeah. There should be a trade-off between a benefit and the cost, but I'm interested in that, what you think. So what different, what do you think is play play? Do you play as a paraglider in that? Can you afford to mess around?

Speaker 1 (24m 19s): Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there's, there's the whole acro side of, of flying bow in hang gliders and, and, and paragliders, and that would definitely be defined as play because you know, what we're usually concerned about is our glide and acro just destroys it. You go down very, very fast, so you're not worried about your glide anymore, and you're just having fun over. But I, you know, certainly if you're, if you're trying to go somewhere, then playing is destroying that the trade-off is steep, but if you're just, you know, the mountain right behind my house here, you're most, you know, 99 times out of a hundred, when I fly off that I'm just flying to go play just to, you know, just to have fun.

And that could be, you know, doing maneuvers that are, you know, in opposition of staying in the sky. So, you know, when I watch Falcons and not, not as much with Eagles, they usually seem pretty intent. You know, they're more serious bird, but when I watch, you know, Falcons and they, the smaller kind of predators, they sure seem to spend a lot of time horsing around.

And, and again, I, I, I, I, you know, we can't see the tiny bugs, you know, we see them all the time when they're clearly hunting bugs, when, you know, cause bugs get caught up in a thermal and that's often a real good marker. And when you start seeing all the little starlings and in smaller birds, you know, gathering them up, but they're, you know, kind of like you see manta rays do when they get in really thick plankton they'll, you know, instead of just flying along, like they normally do, they start barrel rolling because it's just a more efficient way to, to feed.

So maybe that's what the birds are doing. They're just barely alive. The buds

Speaker 2 (26m 18s): Say that it speeding. It would, could be practice. It could be testing the air. It could be there's different pressures that are relaxed at a certain time. But play is a, it's an interesting word. It's a, again, a controversial what I would say. Cause there should be a reason for it with, it's interesting that you say like when you're messing around compared to when you're in the race and this is why I'm interested in paragliding racing, I could look at comparing different aeronautical relationships between birds and paragliders.

But if I want to look at the decisions, then your behavior has to be similar. And so the race of a paraglider is what's most interesting to me because then you have a goal, which is what we predict animals have for everyday, like feeding is that goal. So the strategies should be similar then to make some comparisons.

Speaker 1 (27m 17s): But when you see, you know, appear in the Northwest, if you very much like where you're from in the UK, when, you know, the S the, the shorebirds that are soaring, you know, just your standard Segal, certainly they're not feeding or doing anything except just enjoying it. Aren't they, they just seem like they're just cruising, you know, just back and forth it up and down and, you know, yelling at one another. And yeah,

Speaker 2 (27m 45s): It could be something at a larger scale that we can't see, which is why I buy a look and go, I like it so much because you can relate a specific moment in time to an overall movement path that a scale we cannot follow them over. So you're seeing one little part of their day when you're on the ground with the seaside, watching them and who knows what information they could be gaining with their playing or whatever you want to define it as

Speaker 1 (28m 14s): Interesting. I still think they're playing. So what, what have you learned? Maybe it's still too Nason I don't know, but, you know, I know you've been at this project, you were saying earlier that at least eight years, but what are we missing as pilots? What do birds? Because, you know, that's always, the goal is to, and we can sometimes maybe I don't know how hard they're trying, but we can outline birds. You know, you get in the same thermal and you know, that's always the goal, but they will never, you know, they are best pilot, pretty unarguably as a guy named Kriegel Mauer.

And you've probably heard of him. He's called the Eagle and he's won seven XL ups in a row. And, you know, they call him the Eagle because he's so good at flying and picking lines. But what I, anyway, my question is what are, what do they know that we don't,

Speaker 2 (29m 12s): I don't know. That's the question as to why are they so good at it that, I mean, evolution has taken them down that route of needing to be good at it. If this is a strategy they're going to exploit, then they should optimize that. Especially for such a heavy bird, where if you get it wrong, it's incredibly costly. So evolution has got something to act on the pressure, how they find these thermals of drafts.

We don't know. And the perception of that, that different air, we still don't know either. And so every we're trying to get there to understand how they're able to do it so well. And we're starting to get there with this technology, but

Speaker 1 (29m 60s): That's why in their

Speaker 2 (30m 2s): Brain, well, they might say they should be able to sense the app once they're in it, for sure. And whether that's something to do with angles or pressure changes, we're still exploring that, but then how they see the world or what, what is it that actually looking for as cues of different air flows, we're really interested in that. And they could be static use. It could be, it was the animals that are like, what I'm interested in.

If there's another bird ahead, moving in a certain way, is this some way of understanding what the air is from that movement? And I was listening to one of your other podcasts and you use the word instinct to be able to thermal and find the most, or do it really well. And that's what we're trying to get at. How, how is it so automatic, seemingly automatic to fly? So

Speaker 1 (30m 59s): They seem to just go to the right place. They seem to have just much more, their feelers are much more sensitive than ours are. Part of that may just be that we start relying more and more as we get better and better on our instruments. And that sounds opposite how it should be, but you typically learn, you don't have a very, oh, you're just, you know, just worried about launching and get into the ground safely. And then you start thermally and you start using instruments and Varios, and you know, we're always told and talk about it on the show a lot.

You should fly a lot without one to just develop that natural instinct and watch the horizon and try to feel the better part of a core of a thermal then than just hearing the different tone in the, in the Verio. But birds just have all of that ingrained, or certain seems like

Speaker 2 (31m 51s): It's the evolution of fencing movement. I mean, we do it in all movements, but where used to walking on the ground and we can sense what we're interacting with in that environment, the floor, or the substrate, if you're walking on sand or on something hard, but the birds should be doing the same as their environment and where if we're going into it with technology, we need to learn from them how to do it. And that's what all of your senses are providing you with the same information that they have evolved to since

Speaker 1 (32m 24s): Paragliding really risky because we're human and we're dumb and we make mistakes and mistakes in aviation are pretty costly. The ground is hard. You said something there. I wasn't, I was kind of surprised to hear that, you know, what, if a bird makes a mistake, you know, especially if they're a big bird, it could be quite costly. Do they make mistakes? I've never seen a bird make a mistake. They crash, or they get in badly, or Do they, they hit the deck.

Speaker 2 (32m 49s): Yes. There are different, definitely different mistakes with the condos in Argentina. There's a group there that have been working with them by a circular lumber Tootie. And he, as they've been looking at different anecdotes as well of what's happened, and you'll often get birds that walking around and it's as if they've landed and now they've lost the lift and they've got to go find it. And even anecdotes of condos, walking up mountains to go and find lift.

They have amazing legs. And yeah, if you can't take off from the ground where, where you ended up landing, then you've got to get yourself out of that situation to go find lift. And you see it in different ways. If you make a mistake by landing at a caucus that's full of other birds, and it's very competitive, then you've made a costly decision. And then also if you make a mistake and you miss a thermal, or you arrive at a place where there's no longer a thermal for some that it's an intermittent you're between the thermal bubbles, then you're going to have to pay the cost of Flapping and expensive flight to get you to stay airborne and avoid that London.

Whereas you guys for the paraglide do you have to land, and then some, some guy's going to come and pick you up. As I learned this summer, that there's a lot of picking up,

Speaker 1 (34m 15s): Or if you're in the race, you just keep walking. Every time I bought him out, it just means I have to walk.

Speaker 2 (34m 24s): So that's a conduct that could be doing, but it's anecdotal because we can't watch them all the time. Maybe with these tax, we can try and understand when there's mistakes made. But so far, we're still trying to understand what's the difference between right and wrong or a decision that was made purposefully or something that they was unavoidable. That there's a long way to go yet. Understand that,

Speaker 1 (34m 47s): Which bird in your opinion is kind of the king of flight. Who does it much bird does it most efficiently?

Speaker 2 (34m 54s): It's impossible to answer it's possible because they all are very different. They've all got different strategies that they will have evolve to be the best at their strategy column door is the heaviest Soaring Birds. So it's incredibly efficient at its type of movement, but then it needs to fly in the Andes and it's restricted. It can't go fly anywhere because the air to support them, isn't everywhere.

So then maybe a all round a bit is a bit better that could do both the permalink and Flapping like a stock, but then it's evolved a different way of life and can migrate. So everything's, everything's awesome. But we'll evolve to be good at what they do. Yeah. It's hard question.

Speaker 1 (35m 49s): Yeah. I had an experience with an Eagle in Alaska. I did this Alaska traverse few years back, who I was struggling to figure out how to get across a glacier in front of me. It was really, really late in the day. And I knew I didn't have the height to make it across the glacier. And you don't really want to land on a glacier. The crevasses it was getting was pretty late. So I would've landed, had to walk across in the dark, which wouldn't have been good. And so I was just trying to stress kind of struggling with, should I go or not? Should I go or not? Should I try it or not?

There's a long glide and there wasn't going to be thermals over the glacier. You know, and this Eagle came out of a tree and took me across it. It was like, he'd read my mind. And he knew where I needed to go. And he just came out and got right on my wing tip and kind of looked over at me. And, and then he started flying towards the glacier and I thought, well, hell, why not? I'll give it a try. And he did. He brought me across the glacier. As soon as I got across the other side, he took off his bank left and went somewhere else. So in my mind, he's the best,

Speaker 2 (36m 52s): But then he watching them often, he must be watching them all the time and thinking about it, they're going to show you,

Speaker 1 (36m 60s): They're our greatest marker. They really are. I mean, birds are, are really what you're trying to observe. And there are places in the world where there's tons and they're incredibly helpful. And there's places where you don't get much burden help. And it just really depends. Even around here, we have lots of birds, but it depends on the day. It's, it's a funny thing. And then of course it depends on how high you are. You know, here, we're a very often way up over 15,000 feet. And you know, you don't see a ton of birds at there, but you do they're out there.

So, but yes, I mean, there, you know, if they're turning, like you said, I think birds try to fly pretty efficiently. So if they're turning, that's telling us that that's a thermal going to, you know, we very rarely don't go to climb that a bird is in now, again, it's most of the time it's invisible, unless you've got smoke or something else that's helping you out, or a big defined cloud. That's clearly growing and marking a thermal that, you know, the air is invisible and they see it better than we do.

Speaker 2 (38m 5s): Sure. It's interesting though, that you wouldn't say no to a thermal, if there's a bit in it, if there's a bid in it, does that mean that it's big enough? It's still strong enough for you to, as a massive paraglider to use it?

Speaker 1 (38m 21s): Almost always. I mean, there, there are exceptions to that, you know, they they're clearly, you know, there's so much lighter and there's so much more efficient that, you know, they can suck you to a thermal that is working for them, you know, a very low rate for them too, but it wouldn't be enough for us, but most of the time they don't fool with those either. You know, they they're, they're messing around with the better thermals as well. And they don't, they don't, they won't use that unless they really need to, I guess I can't say that for sure.

But usually it's very rare to go to a climb that a bird is in. It's not useful to us. It definitely happens. You know, often we're just too late, you know, we'll see them climbing by the time we get there that thermals either we call it, pull the rope on banya or pull the ladder up on you. It's above your head, you've missed it. Or it's just dying, you know, the thermals really cycle with the day. So it's you, you can miss it. But most of the time, a bird's a pretty good bet.

Speaker 2 (39m 27s): So much you've said there that I'm interested in, I could turn this interview round. And so now

Speaker 1 (39m 33s): It's a conversation

Speaker 2 (39m 36s): I want to know, like say, if you, if you see another paraglider, then will you always follow it? Or because for me it's prediction, it'd be, you only follow those that are in stonking thermals and ones that you see are experienced and more experienced than the new or better at that. Those that location know that location well or something

Speaker 1 (39m 59s): Great observation. So the answer is no, definitely. If you see another paraglider, that's not an automatic that you're going to them. I'm sorry, another paraglider that's turning there. That's when the horizon really matters. So if you're in a two meter climb, for example, and someone in another part of the sky is in a four meter climb, that's pretty obvious that they're in a better climb and you should leave unless you can't, if there's any risk of you leaving your climb and not making it to that climb, you know, in other words, you're not very high or that thermal is dying and you, you know, that it is, which is harder to tell, but then you wouldn't leave.

But most of the time, you know, we're taught observation is everything in our sport. And if someone's in a better climb, you need to go to them. But if I'm in a climb and in somebody else's in a climate, I can't tell, you know, if it looks the same, then no, I'm going to stay where I am because my climb might get better. But if it's obvious they're in a better climb, I'm going. So you're exactly right. Birds are the same. Again, I wouldn't leave if I'm in a really good climb, especially over the average of the day, you know, there's, you start to kind of map the day with, you know, early on the climbs.

Aren't very strong later in the day, the climbs are very strong. If it's in the middle of the day and climbs are really strong, you know, historically for the last hour, say for example, you know, you've been in three, four meter climbs, then I'm not going to waste time climbing into two. And so you wouldn't move if I'm in a stalking climb and there's a bird over there. And I can't tell if he's out climbing me or not, then I'm going to stick where I am

Speaker 2 (41m 43s): Most

Speaker 1 (41m 43s): Of the time, they don't

Speaker 2 (41m 46s): Same, exactly what I want to hear, because this is, they make so much sense. But trying to say that that's happening for a bird too, that's really difficult to grasp, like just how much they should be paying attention to this and whether they should say yes to every other thermal or balance it with what they're doing themselves and make informed decisions. And that's what trying to look for.

Speaker 1 (42m 12s): It's interesting. The more I think about it too, you know, it was very surprising to me early on when I started realizing that you can actually out climb birds and I've always assumed. That's just because they're not trying very hard, you know, it, it does, you know, they're clearly better climbers. And so, you know, I often wonder if that's just really on that scale of what you're talking about, the cost, you know, maybe they don't need the height and they're just really more observing and looking around. Cause there's, I've often also been in really strong climbs that they've brought me too, but they leave and it's still a very good part of the climb.

I ended up gaining another two or 3000 feet or something in that same client and they just keep going, but maybe they got scared of me. Maybe they don't like being in a climb with me either big. So, you know, who knows.

Speaker 2 (43m 0s): And then if it depends, if there's another thermal coming up, if they, if there's an expectation that you've got enough height to reach the next thermal, then go for it with your speed, go, go get some distance and do that quickly rather than waste time in a thermal. If you don't need that height to, to keep traveling again, different strategies.

Speaker 1 (43m 24s): Totally. And, and that's super important for us when we're trying to cover distance is maximizing all of that. And you know, you don't want to waste time climbing in something. That's, you know, if it's, if it's been a four and it drops to two, you have to leave immediately. There's no reason to keep climbing. You're just wasting time. You know, every time we turn as Stephen smoker said, his very famous pilot in our community that, and Kriegel talks about all the time. You know, every time we turn or half the time we're going the wrong way.

So you want to turn as little as you possibly can. And I imagine birds of the same that the penalty point seemed, you know, again, historic, not always, but historically the percentages of winning, following a birder really high typically, you know, their lines are almost always better. In other words, between thermals from one thermal to the next, or just when there aren't even thermals, when they're just cruising through the sky, it's a pretty safe bet to follow their line and take their line.

They just seem much more sensitive to boat, ear left ear line than we can ever feel. So

Speaker 2 (44m 36s): A lot of practice as well, not only if they got the census and different cues that they can use, they could have, that could be their territory for an Eagle. For example, they have a territory and they could be flying that same route every day or every so often that means that they've got good practice and they should have an expectation of where that next to them or is.

Speaker 1 (44m 60s): That's fascinating. So back to your original purpose of the study, you're looking for, you're trying to decipher what they see and using other birds to impact their decisions. Corrective I've worded that correctly. Have you learned anything specifically from that in terms of how other birds work around one another, that could be useful for us or vice versa? We learn anything from paragliding that goes the other way,

Speaker 2 (45m 32s): Because it's the very start of this project. And as we are talking about funding as well, and we're still halfway through that process. So hopefully the next few years we'll go really into this project with the cow groups move to find thermals, but we have, there are some things out there already about information that you can gain by watching another bird information that birds can gain from each other. So we did some stuff on risk taking that.

If you have another bird ahead of you, you can take more risks in the glide and increase your flight speed. So you increasing your SP then you're going to hit the ground quicker. So you have to guarantee that there's a thermal coming up and that's what information is doing. Whereas if you don't know, when you're completely unsure of where that next thermal is, then you should conserve your height and to play slowly and cautiously. And that we've shown that

Speaker 1 (46m 30s): We're on a summit and you, you you've seen that in birds. You've seen that. That's how they operate.

Speaker 2 (46m 35s): Part of my PhD was on risk flight with social. When you've got a bit ahead of you, and that could say that you should fly together. And there's the other side of that with some of my colleagues here, max plank, that we're doing with work with stocks that says, if you want to keep together as a group, because you want to maintain that information source. But then that means that the ones that the front of flying, how they want to fly and the ones at the back have to keep up. So they might have to fly more. They might have to flap more, sorry to keep up, which is costly, but then otherwise you lose your information.

So you have to keep up with the group and it has different trade-offs. So it we're getting there. We're starting to see different aspects of moving in a group, how that's a benefit. But the reason I want to paraglide is to understand what you'll actually looking at, which we can't do with a bit,

Speaker 1 (47m 30s): Every single word you just said is competition paragliding. That's in a nutshell, that's, that's exactly everything we're thinking about is exactly what you just said. You know, in a typical, you know, Free flight, race, paraglider, hang-gliding, there's 130 pilots and they're called race to goal. You know? So this is where you get driven up the mountain and you fly a course in the sky and everybody's trying to race it as fast as they possibly can. But you know, it's very risky to go out on your own and get out ahead and not have the information.

So it's this constant juggle of, of using everybody else. We call it pimping. You're using all the data from all the other pilots and still trying to win the race. So when do you break, you know, when do you, when do you take some risk when you hold back, when you try to stay on top, when you go out in front. So the, I mean, this is exactly what we do. That

Speaker 2 (48m 27s): It's the same thing that, well, they have a race every day to get to the food quicker. Cause they, they all learned usually at one big caucus and they're using information both to find thermals and to find the food. Most of these Soaring Birds are scavenging. They're not hunting. Eagles are still using Soaring and hunting, but they can flap as well. So there's this again? Another trade-off that means you really need to stay together with the group.

If you're reliant on thermals and the food is also something that it's sparse. So yeah, they have to keep together and that race every day is to get to that caucus first. But again, a balance. You don't want to go it alone because then you could, you could risk falling out of the air before you get to the food.

Speaker 1 (49m 18s): Is your world in, in terms of the studying birds, is it very tight knit or their max Planck Institute type places all over the world? You mentioned the Condors in south America and the vultures in South Africa. Do you all know each other? You'll get to spend time on zoom and compare notes. How's that all work,

Speaker 2 (49m 42s): I guess I kind of meet. So the conferences with you, you've got your races and different and you would go, I guess, collaborate or network and maybe fly with somebody else that you want to learn from or something. But we're doing exactly the same and we'll meet each other at conferences present what we've got. And also the technology brings us together. A lot of the time that we are trying to make advances in how we capture animal movement. So even if you work on a completely different animal and you're not working with birds, you're working with whales or with them, the primates here you come together.

When you want to share that technology to, to look at the question you're interested in. So yeah, the people in Argentina, for example, they're looking at different parts of the ecosystem from condos to mountain lions. There, they have different aspects that they're interested in. And then we come together to collaborate on the specifics that we, we share an interest in.

Speaker 1 (50m 43s): You have the coolest job. I'm very impressed. It's just so it seems so it's so great to be able to kind of follow your passion and find this pretty unique little niche. And I could see on your face, how excited you are about it. It's been a fascinating project. Thanks for sharing it with, with me and the listeners. And gosh, good luck. I reach out if I can ever help. I'd love to be involved in this somehow. I'm the opposite of scientists, but thank God for science.

Speaker 2 (51m 14s): I need paragliders. Now I'm very interested in the races. So I hope next year I'll be working with them. Some of the British team, hopefully through Mullen. And then I hope to keep looking at different teams through these, these races. Yeah. See how you will move together. And my hope is to take all of you for once. So in your, in your fly out and all of you are like my like birds, there's something that's very difficult with bits is to be able to tack them all you can't.

But if you can tag all of the paragliders in a race, you know exactly who's looking at you. So outcomes.

Speaker 1 (51m 54s): Yeah. Do please do Hannah. Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for your time and good luck. And thanks for sharing this knowledge. We'll, we'll, we'll tap back in and a couple of years and find out what you've learned.

Speaker 2 (52m 6s): Yeah. Awesome. Thanks.

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4 thoughts on “Episode 160- Soaring Birds with Hannah Jane Williams

  1. Thanks for the great show! For those interested in the original research, her most recent papers are listed on her personal page at https://www.ab.mpg.de. The Max Planck Society is quite open to publish as open access, which means you can read a lot of her papers for free (most easily found via scholar.google.com). Have fun!

  2. I was just in Colombia and every day I flew with birds and was thinking of this podcast. I wonder if video of birds or sensors on a whole flock could help the research?

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