Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Over the last several days we have been very busy. Shawn climbed a tree about 1,500 meters from camp down the Guacamayo trail, which we call the Guacamole trail for its muddiness when it rains heavily. The climb was successful with just some slight rain and a few bag tears. The walk back with the five bagged bromeliads and gear is always a bit taxing, but rewarding once we find what's inside. FROGS! Yes this time there was one Eleutherodactylus aureolineatus and six Eleutherodactylus waoranii. All the male frogs were calling in the bags that night and we were so excited to hear E. waoranii calling in the bag. Shawn got an amazing recording, most likely the only one in existence.

I had a botfly grow within the middle of my forehead. A botfly is this insect that develops under the skin of mammals by dissolving their flesh as it develops. Once it pupates it burst out as a fly. It has tiny spiricules to hold itself in place that poke into your flesh and irate the hell out of you. Then he pops out this breathing tube above the skin so he can get a breath of fresh air. When he does this puss spews out of the hole. It’s just absolutely disgusting and annoying. At least he keeps the area from getting infected by producing an antibiotic that protects, not only him, but the area of the host’s body that he’s living in. However, the rest of the host’s body is fair game and usually has a reaction when it is in sensitive areas like the face, as was mine.

I had the right side of my face and lymph nodes swell and become infected. It was rough because I had to allow the little bastard to develop. When puss was running down my forehead and dripping off my nose, I knew it was time for him to die. I felt like a science experiment, everyone wanted to get a good look with their eyepieces at the little critter throwing out his minuscule breathing tube every so often. Like the stars on Broadway he was flooded with lights so he could even be seen. So, after several weeks we covered him with duct tape for about 12 hours to suffocate him. The next morning Charne gave him a good squeeze, just like popping an enormous zit, and out he came, breathing tube and all. My little bastard child was 1 cm long and I've named him Bastard I. He now resides in 70% alcohol, preserved for all eternity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Posted by Charne

A couple of days ago, Noah and I were off work and went for a walk along the Lago trail to get to one of the towers for the sunrise. On the way, we noticed a call that Shawn had pointed out a few days previously, a distinctive knock-knock belonging to Nyctimantis rugiceps (see photo below), one of the Elusive Eleven (early on we made a list of all the frogs that are most rare and, for Shawn, totally desirable). It got louder and louder as we walked on, and we soon came across the cavity, in a tree leaning right across the trail, where the frog had made its home. It was an ideal spot, and last night, even after a long and tiring day in the field, Noah and Shawn could not resist going to take a look. Just to scope it out, they said, innocently.

They were back within an hour and with an irrepressible gleam in their eyes, rounding up a ladder, planks, Kelly’s butterfly nets, me, Bejat, and Maricela, a turtle researcher who was up for the hunt. We waited quietly in our rooms until the generator switched off and Shawn had managed to get a good recording of the call, and then trudged to the site, as stealthily as possible in our heavy rubber boots. The plan was for Noah (the tallest) to climb the precarious ladder, Bejat to film in night vision, and for the rest of us to assume positions strategic for catching a terrified frog escaping in the dark.

Noah wobbled up the ladder, and gingerly placed the net over the hole, and jerked the tree around a bit, hoping this would scare him out. Nothing happened. I kicked the bottom of the tree, and still nothing happened. So, after a whispered conference, Noah tried to squeeze his hand into the hole, but could barely reach past his knuckles. It was clear the frog wasn’t going anywhere, so Shawn climbed up to try his hand, so to speak. It was also too big, no matter how much he squeezed and squirmed. I was next in order of hand size, and so climbed up, feeling more than a little pressure, surrounded by a circle of eager eyes.

Luckily, my little hand (not useful for much else out here) fit in the hole easily, and I quickly found him hiding in the muddy bottom of the cavity. I had him out before the others had finished speculating and adjusting the ladder, and at first no one believed it. It was a successful hunt, and we were all a little giddy on our return to the lab, staying up just to look at the little treasure in the light. He’s a chocolate and caramel coloured beauty.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Guess what? It’s raining in the rain forest. Imagine that? The soft pitter-patter of rain soaking the vegetation, saturating the canopy until it reaches the ground, enhancing the myriad of colors. After it rains, I become that more infatuated with it and find myself taking photos endlessly. Water droplets on spider webs, leaves and every living thing are breathtaking sights. I cannot take my eyes, nor lens off of it, and before I know it I have shot 500 photos in a matter of hours and have only made it maybe 50 meters down the trail. I must admit I am hell to hike with because I am constantly checking out the minutest objects and documenting every little thing. I can’t help it because I am a macro-specialist.

Yesterday Shawn, Charne and Noah shot a line into a new tree to climb off the Chichico trail. It is a liana tangle mess out there and a little swampy in places. The tree is massive, possibly the tallest yet, we shall see when we measure it. When we were shooting the line we saw Tropiduras flaviceps (large dark colored lizards with fat tails). Hopefully, while Shawn is up in the tree, he will be able to catch one with a butterfly net, Dr. Dixon’s big rubber band or maybe just by hand. We shall see. Shooting the line was a little hectic since the fishing reel broke. We have this huge, and I mean monstrous, sling shot (called a “Big Shot”) that we use to shoot these shot bags full of metal pellets. The shot bags are connected to fishing line that is feed out through the fishing reel that we then reel in once the bag has descended. Fortunately, Shawn brought the fishing reel back to camp and was able to repair it, whew! He is amazing with everything he does. I just can’t get over what all he is capable of, and I feel so fortunate to be his wife.

I spent the morning in the lab photographing specimens and releasing them afterwards. That is my favorite part, letting them go free. We will only keep them for 2 days, at the most, in bags or tanks with leaf-litter or fresh leaves depending on the species of frog, lizard, gecko or skink. The snakes reside in cloth bags and hang in the room comfortably. Everyone gets a mist of fresh rainwater and fresh air every so often. We monitor them regularly and release them in the exact same location. Shawn takes blood or tissue and I take high-resolution photographs of each specimen’s dorsal, lateral and ventral (back, belly and side). I also prepare a forest setting in the lab to take what we call glamour shots. In the upper left hand corner you can see an example of these photographs. The treefrog you see is Hyla marmorata. The only time we take a specimen is when we are uncertain as to whether it is a new species. This is the only time it is necessary to take a specimen in order to describe the species and prove that it is a new species.

The afternoon was my time to paint and record frogs in the Harpia plot. It was a beautiful day and I was able to capture the most amazing lighting in my photographs as well as my painting. The frogs, however were a bit more difficult. I sat by a stream for hours waiting for Colostethus bocagei to call. They would call and I would get close enough and they would instantly stop. I would wait and they would not call, so I would leave and begin painting again. Sure enough, they would begin calling again. Finally, I decided to set the recorder above them. They never did call again. Tricky little frogs. That just gives me an excuse to go back and this little stream is heavenly. I was even witness to an Amazon Land Tortoise, at this location, walking down about and 70 degree incline to the muddy bank of the stream to eat mud, drink and then float down the stream for 20 meters or so before getting out and then walking up another steep incline. I was fascinated. I could have watched him or her for hours.

Yesterday afternoon Charne and Noah surveyed the Harpia plot after a quick dip in the Tiputini River. It was a hot day and the river is nice and cool. It’s a great way to cool off come mid-day. Shawn processed more specimens and released them later that afternoon. We all had a wonderfully productive day.

Today Shawn and I are catching up on our lab work while it rains. Charne and Noah are resting, it is their day off. They have the day off so they plan to go to the Harpia clay lick when the rain lets up. It should be a good day to do so if continues to be overcast. The animals will feel more confident to visit these sites because they can see better due to even light distribution. Therefore, it is less threatening because they are more likely to see predators, like a jaguar. There is some great film footage out there of animals visiting clay licks by the BBC, Andes to the Amazon. It was filmed here at TBS and within Yasuni National Park. I would highly recommend it to anyone who has not seen it. Not only does it give you wonderful insight to the workings of the rain forest and spectacular footage, but it also is delightfully hilarious at times. It has been re-released by the BBC and you can get it for about $20 US on Amazon.com. It comes in a box set that contains the depiction of all the various ecosystems of Ecuador.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Posted by Bejat

The rainy season has begun. The afternoons are consistently rainy and the duration of the rain is becoming that much longer with each passing day. Shawn and I celebrated our 8th anniversary and it could not have been better. Everyday is a celebration of life. The other night I took one of the students, John, out to the Maquisapa swamp to record frogs calling and then we captured them for processing back at the lab. I managed to get one fossorial (burrowing) species, however, I was unable to capture the frog because he got away thru one of his many underground tunnels. It was quit an event. We were out until around midnight and hiked back on the Lago trail, which was flooded. I almost stepped on a Fer-de-Lance (a poisonous pit viper snake) that John had already stepped over. The trail weaves thru Varzea rainforest and at night in this flooded forest one can get quite disoriented. It was so exciting. We topped our boots about midway home and we had to hike the rest of the way in our wet boots, not exactly my favorite thing to do. We had hiked several miles that evening and heard all sorts of mammals and birds, like owls and night monkeys, but did not manage to see them. When I am recording I will sit in the middle of the swamp with my light off and listen. When I hear a frog calling that I have not heard before or do not have a recording on record, I will track him down and get about 3 feet away and begin to record. After I have about 20-30 minutes of him calling, I will then slowly move closer and closer tracking him with my ears and once I get on top of him I will turn my light up brightly and pounce on him like a cat. It is soooo much fun! I love the swamps because they are full of surprises. They are inundated with frogs, eggs and tadpoles. Large mammals will come to drink and wallow around in the mud and snakes will hunt the frogs and rodents. Excitement abounds.

One of these evenings coming up, I am going to sit out at the clay lick to get my Tapir photograph, I cannot wait. The students have seen one several nights in a row. I would like to go an evening alone when no one is around so I am the only flash going off. I will get my Tapir photo. Their curious nose, unusual feet, smooth skin and behavior fascinate me. My goal is to get a photo to paint from so that I may honor them properly. I have had so many close encounters where I could actually touch them if I wanted too and I really wanted to touch what appeared to be very smooth skin. I have even been extremely close to a mother and babe as the mom walked forward sniffing me as I walked backwards speaking to here softly. The males are quite territorial and as Shawn and I were doing quadrats in the evenings they would stand off to the side and snort and stomp their feet as if to say “hey, this is my territory, get on outta here!” Amazing creatures. I would have to say they are my favorite mammals.

Shawn climbed a tree Wednesday and retrieved his 5 bromeliads in 4 1/2 hours, which was impressive for our first bromeliad climb. It was a bit scary because we could not see Shawn because of all the lianas around the tree and lowering the bromeliads was a nightmare. Shawn got out of the tree right before the downpour. It began to rain on bromeliad #4, but it was light enough that he was able to finish. The tree was infested with Conga Ants, but he managed to escape being stung. He only had to kill one and luckily did not fling any down on top of us. Noah and Charne were phenomenal; we are so very fortunate to have such wonderful assistance. Yesterday they processed 3 bromeliads and found an Eleutherodactylus waoranii, one of the two species Shawn has described. There are so many insects in these tanks bromeliads it is quite amazing. The spiders are completely out of this world, pictured to the right you will see the standard tarantula we are finding in the bromeliads. Aechmea zebrina bromeliads can hold up to 3 liters of water providing an oasis in the upper canopy for a myriad of species. Mammals will drink from them as if they were cups. Birds will also drink from them, but to see them bathe is what is truly fantastic.

Noah and Charne both have excellent reflexes. Noah is incredible at catching frogs. Shawn gave him one of Dr. Dixon’s rubber bands to stun the lizards with so they can be caught. Last night after their day in the tent he stuns a gecko and excitedly runs back to the lab and tells us the story. While Charne was in the shower he felt like he had to keep active, so he began the hunt. After shooting a few geckos right on target one fell and ran up the wall. He grabbed it and it bit him, so he dropped it. The gecko ran under the bed. Charne came out of the shower in her towel and raced for a Ziploc bag. Noah proceeded to protect his hands with socks and crawl under the bed. Now it should be know that Noah is 6’4”, so you can imagine the visual is hilarious. He caught the gecko and bagged it with Charne’s assistance. Now Noah and Shawn are talking about catching these large Tegu (lizards) that live in holes and like to come out and bask in the sun. They are thinking about rigging up some sort of noose. This should be interesting.

Yesterday, on my break from photographing specimens, I went out to the orchid garden to photograph some orchids in bloom. One of which amazingly mimics a preying mantis. As I was capturing this beautiful image a Conga Ant drops from the tree above onto my hand and I shake it off. It lands on my pants and runs up my leg and I manage to flick it off before it is able to sting me. They bite and sting, but it is the sting that gets you and its like 20 wasps have stung you at once and the pain pulsates for a good 5-6 hours. Then you are left with this dull pain and a sore spot. I had a terrible reaction in the past with a migraine headache and vomiting, but I am uncertain as to whether it was just the Conga Ant or the 20 or so wasps that stung me at precisely the same time. That was a terrible night out in the jungle. That damn ant even managed to sting me in the jugular. My neck was so sore I was unable to move if for days and that evening the pain was so great I had to sleep sitting upright.

We have caught so many beautiful snakes this time. Many are new to our list and even new to the station. Pictured above you will notice a very large Coral Snake, Micrurus spixii, about 4 feet long. Upon release he slithered off to the nearest stilt palm for refuge, leaving me to wonder as to whether all stilt palms house a snake.

We only have 2 more bromeliads to process and this afternoon we will be moving the rope bag and shooting a line in the next tree. The river is rising and the forest is flooding, so hopefully we are able to get to our next tree. I do not think it will be a problem, but one never knows. That is just one more reason why this place is so very exciting; one cannot predict a single moment. You can make plans, but be ready to change them at any moment. It is best to always have a backup plan.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Well, it’s the dawn of a new day and it’s been raining all night long. It appears as if it may rain all day too. It’s a great day to get our lab work done and for me to paint. Yesterday I attempted to paint Disocactus sp. to no avail. It did not get sunny enough in the morning, which was my opportunity to work. So, I suppose I will be painting from my photograph since this rain will surely destroy the bloom.

Shawn, Charne and Noah surveyed the rest of the trails for bromeliads so Shawn can do his random number thing and then we get to climb for bromeliads. I finished up processing the frogs in the lab by photographing their dorsal, ventral and lateral for identification purposes.

At 4 pm I left with Jaime, Maricela and his student group from BU to net for bats along the river at the clay lick. I took some amazing photos of many different species of bats. I even got to untangle 3 bats out of the net, wow, what an experience. I do have my rabies shot and was wearing gloves for protection. Their teeth are razor sharp and they just gnaw at whatever they can get their mouths on either out of fear, frustration, protection or all of the above. We did not catch the fishing bats like I had hoped, but we caught somewhere around 42 bats and I believe 5-7 different species. So, that more than made up for it! The photograph you see at the right is one of the leaf-nosed bats we caught.

The nets were set up in an open clay lick and the mud was thick and heavy, almost like sinking in quicksand. I did manage to fall on my butt and even got mud down in my underwear, now that was fun for the rest of the evening (about 3 hours). I did save my camera and the bat. We caught two little birds early on and I got to see Jaime untangle them from the net. He is so fast. I was kinda hoping we would net a Tapir, but the students were way too loud for us to see, hear or net any large mammal. Upon arrival to the clay lick, which was upstream from the station on the North side of the river, I found some Waorani bare footprints in the mud that appeared to be tracking a large Tapir into the jungle. The indigenous hunting continues to get closer and closer to TBS.

In the past I’ve heard shotguns go off near the black water tributary on the edge of the property and other researchers have found bullets, footprints and markings on trees. Since they and the Quichua have over hunted their land all around the Via Maxxis road, the Waorani are taking boats further up and down the Tiputini to hunt. Shawn caught 3 snakes today. One of them, a little vine snake we found on the way to our cabin after I said “you better bring those snake tongs with you snake boy.” He didn’t, so of course we found a snake. He is non-venomous so Shawn scooped him up and took him back to the lab.

Today we will process all the snakes by taking specimen shots (scientific photos), glamour shots (pretty photos with natural backgrounds), measurements, weight, blood, and key them out (identification). The photograph you see in the upper left right corner is a Parrot snake, Leptophis ahaetella nigromarginatus in defensive gaping position. Noah and Charne will be doing some of my dirty work today like washing bags, labeling specimen tubes, assisting with processing snakes and collecting rainwater. I think Shawn will also have them study amphibian identification and calls, as well as enter data.

Well, the day has just begun and I am need to go through my photos and label them, label my videos and complete some painting before lunch. It may be one of those 24 hour rains where I am able to get caught up on everything.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Shawn installed his data loggers up in the canopy of another tree today. It rained last night so maybe it was not quite as hot for Shawn; I know it felt better for us on the ground. He was still surrounded by all his little friends, the sweat bees. Installing the data loggers went well, he was up and down in no time flat. He has this new spider rigging for hooking into the tree and it’s pretty amazing how he can maneuver around the tree, all around the Achemea zebrina bromeliads. Shawn’s assistants are so helpful and nice. We are so fortunate.

In the afternoon we split up into pairs and went to survey the rest of the trails. I got sidetracked and Shawn dismissed me because the cactus that I had been checking on for two weeks now was finally blooming. I did not have my camera because I was not supposed to get distracted, but it was one of those moments when the lighting was perfect and I had to run back to camp to get my camera. I raced back out to catch the afternoon light. It’s so beautiful. It’s in the family Cactaceae and I’ve narrowed it down to Disocactus sp. So, tomorrow I will paint it! I’ve already photographed the progression of the bloom and have one drawing of the unopened bloom. I was just waiting anxiously for it to open. My patience provided the ultimate pleasure. These cacti are epiphytes that grow in the upper canopy, so it is very rare to see them low enough to the ground to paint or even photograph (see photo at upper right). It’s in the perfect spot, right at eye level. I have it marked with flagging tape in hopes that no one will accidentally knock it down.

Noah is catching everything he can get his hands on. It makes us so happy to see people taking such great interest in herptofauna, especially amphibians. I want it to rain so badly so I can go out at night and record our froggy friends. Shawn may climb a tree in camp at night so we can determine the species of Hyla that sounds like it is laughing when it calls. This little side project depends on our schedule.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Noah and his girlfriend, Charne, made it to the station yesterday. Noah has been to the station as a research assistant in the past. He worked for Dennis Guillot on a project researching Spider monkeys for her PhD. I am very excited for Shawn to have assistants consistently throughout his project. This will also allow me to do more recordings, find new species we are missing that should occur here and video amphibian behavior. As usual I will be painting and photographing this amazing forest, unlike any other in the world for its biodiversity. We are also working on a documentary based on field research within Yasuni National Park. Every day, even every step, delivers a new discovery.

As the new day dawns we are awoken by the Orapendulas and their water drop like call. The Dusky Titis will sometimes grace us with their duet, which is incredibly loud and unique. Today was a spectacular day. I caught a boat to the lake and walked out the Maquisapa trail to paint in the morning and spent the afternoon in a little canoe painting and observing the Pygmy Kingfisher, Oscars with babies, Arowana, Arapaima, Hoatzins, and much more. It was so unbelievably hot, but the sun and heat on the lake was beneficial for drying my paper. I got some awesome footage of an Amazon Land Tortoise digging in the dirt while a huge Morpho butterfly flitted around and joined him to get what appeared to be some sort of succulent something from the soil.

I went up into tower 2, one of the canopy towers with a 360 degree view, but it was so damn hot I just got a good look and came back down. It was lunchtime and I thought I might eat lunch up there, but I was wrong, very wrong. It hasn’t rained in a few days, so it is exceptionally hot, but I can handle it, I’m a Texas girl. I don’t know how Shawn can handle being up in those trees for hours on end in all that heat surrounded and covered with insects, especially sweat bees. He seems to love it, maybe more for the challenge than anything else. He has incredible patience. He puts himself into this meditative state and gets the job done.

The lighting in the forest has been amazing for landscape photographs. My favorite bridge on these trails is the Numa bridge (pictured above). It hangs over a stream which feeds into the Tiputini River. Made from an immense fallen tree, it has become covered with lichen and many species of fern, coating it with various hues of green. Beautiful!