Monday, March 31, 2008

Posted by Bejat

Shawn has climbed the same tree twice, one we call the Bob tree, in honor of our friend Bob Winters who assisted us not too long ago and climbed this very tree. Shawn installed his data loggers and checked them to see if they were working. We enjoyed our time with our dear friends, the sweat bees; it has been a long time since we have all gotten together like that. Sweat bees are truly annoying little creatures that are attracted to sweat and just smoother you by licking the sweat out of your pores. It’s been awfully hot with very little rain. We have had some wonderful sightings like the Amazon Land Tortoise, Saki monkeys, Woolly monkeys, Golden Mantled Tamarin Monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, Squirrel Monkeys, Dusky Titi Monkeys, Pygmy Squirrels, Amazon Red Squirrel, Fishing Bats, Harlequin beetle, Tapir butt, amazing orchids in bloom and lots of beautiful snakes. We have caught the arboreal fer-de-lance, Bothriopsis billineatus, twice now (photographed above). I even caught my first snake, a 5 foot Chironius fuscus. We could not find Shawn, so since I knew he was not poisonous and I even knew his genus, I caught him. What an adrenaline rush. I was so excited I even forgot I left my camera on the trail. It wasn’t until Dr. Kelly Swing, the co- director and founder of TBS, reminded me about it that I retrieved it.

We had the most amazing opportunity to meet Dr. Terry Erwin. For those of you who do not know, he is an entomologist famous for his research here at Yasuni National Park. He is a chair at the Smithsonian and continues his research both here at TBS and also at the Catolica Research Station. (Flag-legged bug pictured at left caught by his wife, Grace.) He gave the most amazing presentation about the operation/repair manual for the planet. His numbers on insects are absolutely phenomenal. I love the fact that Kelly Swing and Terry Erwin are here because we are learning so much about insects! Kelly is a professor at Boston University (BU) and Universidad de San Francisco de Quito. He teaches the Environmental Ecology class for the students studying abroad from BU.

The station has internet now, wow, not like we are using it that often, but it sure is helpful for Shawn contacting his assistants, professors, etc. and even applying for more grants. So, send us emails and let us know how ya’ll are doing out there. If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I must admit that we may not respond immediately, but we will respond in time.

I have been using our new video camera, learning how all its buttons function. At some point we should be uploading some footage. Just the other day I was fortunate enough to capture footage of the Golden Mantled Tamarins. They have so much character, definitely my favorite monkey here in the forest. They are so inquisitive and give you these looks like “what do you want?” They go up and down the trunks of the trees bobbing their heads around to peek at you chirping all the way. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch them, especially when they captured an enormous cricket and bit it’s head off. Since they are so very small, a large insect looks enormous in their little hands.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Posted by Bejat

We headed into the station with immense relief. The excitement had been building for so long that it was relaxing to get on the river for the days journey into the station. The day was amazingly beautiful. It started off a bit overcast and turned into a stellar sunny blue-sky day with just a touch of rain at the end. Once we had traveled for about 2 hours on the Napo we entered the oil road and crossed thru their checkpoint where our bags were scanned and checked for alcohol and contra-ban. Then we proceeded to get the ranchero loaded with supplies and gear and students, since we entered with a student group from the University of San Francisco de Quito. We proceeded our travels on the gravel/dirt oil road, called the Via Maxxis for 2 hours.

The destruction along this road is progressively worse with each passing day. The indigenous in the area are the Quichua and Waorani and they have settled along the road, tearing up the forest for crops and over-hunting all species. The oil companies rounded them all up with missionary assistance and placed them alongside the road to keep an eye on them while they ravish the land. The oil companies keep them happy by providing them with rides along the road to hunt, boat motors for their dugout canoes, apples, coke, etc. It is even rumored that they provided them with guns and bullets for hunting.

Now they’ve had a taste of the Western world, there is no stopping the constant gorging. It is unfortunate, however, that they honestly don’t know what to do with all these changes. Their lives have changed and they are now malnourished, developing diseases that they never had before and losing their culture.
Once we have passed on the road we take another boat for 2 hours down the Rio Tiputini.

Here’s where the absolute beauty begins. The river was neither high nor low and the birding was fantastic. We maybe saw countless species of birds on the Tiputini. We even got a brief bit of rain to cool it down towards the end, how fantastic is that? Que bestia! We entered the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station (TBS) to see all our old friends who work at the station and even some new ones, like Lucha, the pet Trumpeter. The new lab is complete, it is two stories tall and it’s made out of metal and cement board. It should last for a VERY long time. It is quite impressive and we even have our own office, it’s huge! I feel like a princess in a palace. Plenty of room for the frogs, lizards and snakes to hop, scamper and slither about the place. It also allows us privacy for processing these critters, which is excellent. We unpacked, showered, ate and slept so perfectly well; it all feels like a dream.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Posted by Bejat

The Adventure Begins
We arrived in Quito with no problems getting out of the States, what a miracle! As many of you know from our horror stories of the past we have been plagued with all sorts of issues. I could go on for days about the subject, but there is no need. We stayed in a wonderful Hostal in Quito called Alcala, but it had been some time since our last visit. We enjoyed their garden full of blooming vines and orchids alive with hummingbirds. Centered in the Mariscal District we walked around to all our old jaunts and got all our errands taken care of before we were off to the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station (TBS). Located within the buffer zone of Yasuni National Park and known for it’s extreme biodiversity. Proving to be the most biodiverse place on Earth through the research of scientists from around the world.

Our journey began at 4 am, Wednesday, March 20th, with Shawn and I utilizing private transportation. Once we got all 400+ lbs of gear loaded into the vehicle, there was not enough room for one of us, oops. So, Shawn took the bus and I road with our driver, Walter. It was so nice to not take the bus and not have all our precious equipment on our laps with my knees locked up somewhere around my ears. Pobrecito Shawn. At least he is shorter and he didn’t have to deal with all the gear. The drive takes about ten hours to get to Coca, a growing oil town on the Napo River, traveling through the Andes Mountains down into the lowland rainforest. It is an amazing journey and along the way there is the constant reminder of oil as the pipeline runs along the side of the road above ground directly in front of homes and villages. People use the pipeline to dry their clothes on, to cross over rivers and gorges, and hang out on as if it were their front porch. Sometimes it is their front porch and it is quite disturbing to be witness to such a sight coming from our Western world society.

Excerpt from the journal of Bejat McCracken:
“Like a boa constricting the terrain, the oil pipeline spans across the mountains of Ecuador down into the heart of the lowlands, deep into the heart of Yasuni National Park. Along the way oil spills are evident and the cleanup efforts seem to consist of digging up the oil saturated earth into large plastic bags. Where it goes, I am uncertain, however, in the past it has been found that they were burying these bags. Of course in time they leak and the problem just reoccurs. It is quite sad, but a fact of this day and age due to our dependence on oil. One day, I hope in my lifetime, we will become dependant on renewable clean burning resources. Until that day comes we will continue to see such destruction. With so much invested in the oil industry and the Western world’s idea that it is somehow infinite. I fear for the future of our natural wonders.”

I must say that it is said that they do dispose of their oil properly now; however, corruption exists, therefore anything is possible. Time will verify the truth of the matter. Strangely enough Ecuador has extremely strict environmental laws. These laws are even stricter than that of the United States, however, the funding does not exist to enforce these laws. Without such funding there is no one to act as a watchdog. The companies and people just do as they wish, polluting the land because that seems to be the easy thing to do for the short term.

Once I arrived in Coca, I ran some errands and noticed how the town ha
s grown and cleaned itself up, considering it is an oil town. Our first few visits to Coca we experienced the dirt roads saturated with oil, leftovers from the oil companies. The town was just filthy and the air thick with the smell of carcinogens, sewage and rotting meat. I would not say this was a beautiful place by any means; the stench was enough to knock you to your knees, so one can only imagine the rest. Now it seems to have a different life. The roads are paved and no longer is the oil used to keep the dust down on the dirt roads. There is still the smell of sewage and rotting meat, but it seems to be contained to the market area. Buildings have been completed and there seems to be fewer beggars. I was impressed. It is still not a place I would like to live or even stay for more than one day. We stay at La Mision with all the petroleros (oil workers) and tourists. It is a little out of our price range, but it is safe and located where we need to be with all our gear to board the boat in the morning. One of the richest men in Ecuador owns this Hotel located on the Napo. His money also comes from renting barges to the oil companies at the price of $10,000-$15,000 per month.

This gentleman's mother tends the animals at La Mision and this time it was like a zoo. They had 2 coatis, 1 Saki monkey (photo at upper left), 1 kinkajou, 6 Squirrel monkeys, 10 Amazon land tortoises, 2 peacocks, 1 piping guan and 5 parakeets that had arrived from (what I believe) the black market in Pompeya Sur. This is where the indigenous sell bush meat and the babies of what they hunt. It is sad to say that most likely one third of these animals will be dead, if not more when we return to La Mision in 6 months. What is sadder is to watch them look longingly across the river into the jungle. Something so interesting occurred, however, we observed the 2 coatis grooming the Saki monkey (photo at right) and then they all fell asleep together, against one another, very strange. The poor Saki monkey seemed so lonely, and they probably got it as a baby, so it seems to have adopted the coati. The Saki never came down from the only decent tree the entire time we were there, not even to eat. So, from the second floor I reached out and placed a banana on the branches of the tree. This is not exactly what they eat, but it was all I had. The Saki monkey ate it as if it were starved. I was so happy to get on the boat and get the hell out of there.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Proyecto de Anfibios del Docel

This is the adventurous beginning of the Canopy Amphibian Project in the lowland rain forests of Amazonian Ecuador. A Ph.D. project being conducted by Shawn F. McCracken in the Department of Biology at Texas State University with much assistance from his wife Bejat McCracken, who is a painter, photographer and videographer. Many other assistants will be joining them along the way and they will be introduced to you.