Friday, May 30, 2014

Arkansan Adventures

I am presently working as a bat survey research technician— I am part of a crew hired by a local university which was hired by the Forest Service to look for federally and locally endangered bats. The Forest Service, in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act, is obligated to (and probably wants to) find out whether there are any endangered species in a region before they do any controlled burns, logging, or other sorts of disruptions that could hurt any endangered populations.

That’s where we come in—as a crew of bat biologists and ecologists, we root around designated areas of the national forests to try to find the federally endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis). Because we are trying to find any M. sodalist that might be roosting in the area, we aren’t netting in a grid or other system with predetermined locations, as one might if looking for an unbiased sample of species in the area. Instead, we rely on our understanding of bat ecology, behavior, known populations, topography, and local weather conditions to get inside the bats’ heads and try to find sites where they will be. Bats love partly-covered “flyways” through the forest along trails or roads, and sometimes have to fly long distances to the nearest source of water to drink, for example.

Most of our surveys are two nights per site, so our work day can start as early as 3pm if we are out scouting for sites to set up, or as late as 7pm if we are continuing netting at a nearby site. We net for five hours after sunset, so we close our nets between 1 and 2am as the summer progresses. Quite a lifestyle shift from getting up at 5am to catch rodents in Chiapas!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Catching up

Hello readers! I have a bit of catching you up to do:

- After concluding our mammal / coffee work, we research techs traveled together to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a beautiful and cosmopolitan little hippy city in the mountains of the Sierra Madre. We hung around there for a week, bumming around youth hostels and seeing the sites with lots of new friends from around the world. Week done, my travel buddies flew out; I popped up to see the ruins of Palenque, down to see the regionally famous zoo in Tuxtla Guiterrez, back to San Cristobal, and then to the airport to fly home!

- I had almost four weeks to fit in some serious R&R, visits to friends and family, and then cleaning and packing up for my next adventure project! The weeks flew by, and as is usual for these short visits home, I was left in a hurry to see as many people as I could and to get everything on my to-do list done.

- I spent three days to drive the twenty-four hours from my family's home to the Arkansas Ozarks, a beautiful and hilly/mountainous region that greeted me with deluges of rain and a very chilly first night. I managed to set up my roomy living-out-of-my-car tent before sunset, had dinner with my colleagues who had arrived at the public campsite before I, and snuggled into my sleeping bag under several layers of clothing for a very, very early night.

More on what I'll be doing here in AR soon!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Fieldwork Blog: Seafood Wars, The Papaya Incident, and On Being Digested By A Jungle

We are well into our final session of mammal diversity surveys! It is a bittersweet but bustling period: everyone is rushing about, securing post-project employment and planning flights home and for travel within Mexico after we wrap things up at our home base.
For our past "weekend" between sessions, we headed to the beach! It was our first time heading east of Tapachula, the largest nearby city and our source of groceries and other supplies. After a half-hour's drive past the familiar neighborhoods, in which we passed scrubby fields full of construction projects, scorched grass, and one with an assortment of brown Shetland ponies, we ended up in lovely Playa Linda. It was the off-season, and our vehicle was immediately surrounded by waiters, trying to get the lone beach visitors on a winter Tuesday to visit their seafood restaurant. After promising to return and make a selection in a few hours, we headed to the beach. The sand was scorching and the water warm and heavenly. It was fantastic to get out into the open air and smell the ocean after so much time in the mountains; growing up in New England has spoiled me for prolonged inland living. After swimming, sunning, reading, and (in my case) getting moderately sunburnt despite sitting in the shade wearing sunscreen, we headed back to the main road for lunch. Fortunately a few tourists had rolled in, and a lot of the pressure from the eager waiters had abated. We lunched on refried beans, guac, tortillas, real-sugar coke, and a variety of very fresh seafoods; all very good! After lunch, stuffed to the gills with gilled creatures, we staggered to the nearest superstore to load up on the next week's groceries before heading home for naps.
The day after, we visited a nearby farm to scout for contiguous forest to serve as our control sites. The manager there greeted us warmly as we explained our project and what type of sites we were searching for. He sent for a truck to convey our team, our guide, the manager, and his assistants and guides from the farm up the mountain. A shaggy white dog napped under our car. Several nearly-identical shaggy white sheep grazed nearby. While we waited, the manager broke out a giant papaya. Our guide informed us, conversationally, that for a guest to refuse a gift was bad luck and would mean they might not return again. Our group exchanged glances. Several members had previously discussed their hatred of fresh papaya; I had only once tried a slice and wasn't impressed; none of us liked them. Of course, we enthusiastically accepted the heaping, dripping slices of papaya and each of us began to scarf down bites of segments larger than a liter water bottle and containing about as much liquid. The flesh was sweet, and as someone inconveniently pointed out, tasted strongly of cheddar cheese. Juice rolled down my arms and dripped off my elbows. Tim's beard was full of the orange pulp. Mandi looked sick.  Looking over at our guide Philippe, I saw that he and the other locals were eating the papaya as neatly as one would an apple. I studied them as they ate. No trick was apparent. I resigned to be a papaya slob. I am proud to say we all finished our massive slices; by the end, the taste was actually growing on me.
Our search at that farm for sites within contiguous forest was not successful; apparently all of the forests in the nearby area have been thoroughly fragmented by farms and development. We fell back to our original plan, sites in forest fragments relatively near our home base. The day after was spent hiking around, reestablishing our site selection within the forest fragments. It was slow and adventurous work, bushwhacking along invisible trails we originally bushwhacked two months ago. Burrs and thorns were abundant, as were well-camouflaged ditches and mysterious drop-offs. I was in my element, and had a lot of fun navigating the highly challenging terrain.
By the next day, we had ironed out a plan and placed and baited our traps in the forest. This, too, took some bushwhacking and adventurous vine avoidance. There is a particularly spiny vine shaped a lot like a churro that has become my nemesis. I love navigating through the forests, which involves a lot of ducking, dodging, backing up to unwrap branches from ankles, and getting hit in the face with branches that definitely weren't there a moment ago. It's a challenge that keeps each moment interesting. I compare all the getting ripped up, poked, prodded; climbing, sweating, squeezing, slipping, and getting very dirty in the oppressive heat to being digested by the jungle. I also maintain that by that the end of this session I will have passed these trials of the jungle, be at one with the forest, and be able to phase through its matter like a nymph and summon the small mammals to our traps with a song. I will report back on such developments, of course, for science.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Mefloquine Dreams

Dream one:
I succeed in catching a chicken. Just as I remember, chickens are very warm and feathery and deceptively light. I am able to show coworker Stephen the amazing ability of chickens to keep their heads still, independent of their bodies' movements. All the chickens of the area hear that I am holding chickens. They crowd around and wait patiently at my feet for their turns to be held. We are all delighted.

Dream two:
I am eating an ice cream sunday at an airport bar. Anthony Bourdain slides onto the seat next to me. He orders a $3000 bacon-based cocktail. He says that it is fantastic and that I should order one, too. Unwilling to disclose my vegetarianism to such an outspoken stranger/celebrity, I instead disclose that I cannot possibly afford such a beverage. He laughs, downs his drink. "Tough cookies, kid," he says.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Updates from the Smithsonian Mammal Survey Field Crew: Waterfalls, mean geese, and broken boots

Our team wrapped up our last sampling sites on coffee farms yesterday. To date, we have completed our combination of study sites in sun, shade, and bird-friendly shade coffee farms; our final session will complete our surveys of forest sites, which will serve as a control to the coffee agroforesty systems we have been investigating.

After we spent a sweaty and very stinky morning clearing moldy bait from traps, our team took a break with our shade-coffee farm guide Adaberto. He led us on a side trip to see some beautiful waterfalls, which were quite a steep and sweaty hike away! The 50m falls we sent up huge plumes of spray; between the wet and the gusty valley winds, I was colder than I've been since leaving home to begin this trip! We lunched on bean salad, rice, tortillas, and hard-boiled eggs at the foot of the falls, and then spent a few hours scrambling on the slick rocks and watching white falcons circle the sky.

My poor boots have been separating from their soles for about a week; at the peak of our hike, they ripped free of their improvised wire stitches and started flapping free. Not good, when scrambling up and down mountains through thick vegetation! I wrapped them in gorilla tape and stepped carefully for the rest of the day. This morning, I ministered to them with more aggressive wire stitches, more tape, and melted paracord as glue. They have only two and a half critical weeks of fieldwork left to make it! I'm rooting for them.

After our waterfall adventure, we descended the mountain and spoke briefly with a solemn-faced old man who was curious about our car (a rental, labeled with a coffee-tourism slogan) and purpose in his village. A very fuzzy white dog was napping under our car, and a small flock of chickens refused to move out of the way. They reminded me of the angry geese at our sun coffee farm-- two large, aggressive characters that like to bite our tires as we drive past. Sometimes we hear the sounds of them tormenting passersby drifting up on the breezes to our study sites.

After returning home, we had a brief coffee break before delving into possibly the grossest (though very satisfying) task involved in mammal surveys-- trap cleaning. The 300 Sherman traps, after 11 trap nights, are full of rat stink, moldy bait, mud, and feces. We blast music and make it a party, everyone scrubbing away with toothbrushes or running traps around the house to dry in the sun. All of the traps laid out on the concrete look like a futuristic glistening solar array, in miniature.

The day after tomorrow, we begin site scouting for our last session! We are hoping to find forest sites less fragmented than those we surveyed in our first session. Wish us luck, and many mammal captures!