Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Puerto Rico Bat Cave

Our last stop in our study tour of the beautiful Puerto Rico takes us to an unknown research camping in the North West portion of the island. Here, we plan to experience the Karst Forest region, a bat cave, and the Puerto Rican Boa. Our vans pull up to a gate that looks suspiciously like a gate from Jurassic Park, slightly rusted and covered in vines. Since I am riding shotgun in the lead van, I hop out with the key to unlock the gateway to the jungle. Our vans press and push through the over grown trails and down an incline so steep, I began to wonder about the condition on our break pads. Yet, after a short but exciting drive, we arrive at the research quarters. Men on the first level, ladies on the second. I plop my bag on the top bunk near a window, grab my camera and note book, and head out with the group to the bat cave as the day begins to wan.

I wish I could be such a famous individual as this Puerto
Rican Boa!

After about a mile of hiking we arrive at the mouth of the cave, our professor, Dennis, takes off at a run towards the side of the cave, and I can see why in seconds. He returns with a beautiful Puerto Rican boa, about five feet in length, in his hands. Dennis is a herpetologist, which means he studies reptiles, and he has been to this location several times before. I'm glad he knew exactly where to look to find and catch the boa. It is awesome to see these creatures up close.

The Puerto Rican Boa was once very abundant, but when the Spanish colonization occurred, oil from the snake's fat became a big export. This along with deforestation has led to a big decline in the snake's population. The female Puerto Rican Boa will usually only give birth to 23-26 live baby boas. And like most reptiles, the survival rate of those babies making it past their first year is not good. The Puerto Rican Boa can grow up to eight feet long, and they feed on small mammals and lizards. In these parts, bats are the main staple in their diet.

I reckon this is a type of flower bat
but I am not sure.
This is the Antillean Ghost-faced bat.
It has a wicked ugly face.

I think this is another type of flower bat
possibly the brown flower bat.

As darkness creeps up on the cave, bats come flying up and out to forage to insects. A Puerto Rican research student is along with us and he set up a harp net in the mouth of the cave. This net is a tangle-free trap that bats fly into, then slide down into a holding pouch where the researcher can safely pick them up for study. We catch several species of bats tonight including the Sooty Mustache bat, the Antillean Ghost-faced bat, and a few different flower bats. The research student is very knowledgeable and does an excellent job of teaching us about each species of bat we come across.

This fella is the sooty mustache bat.

Now that we have caught a sufficient number of bats, we take a few extra minutes at the cave to try to get a few pictures. It is incredibly hard to take pictures of flying bats, but the night is young and the students with cameras are very eager (myself included). I flick my flash on and adjust my focus to the cave wall, then back off a bit. After a few pictures, I notice the boas dangling from the cave wall. They are patiently waiting for a bat to fly within striking distance. Then, I review one of my pictures and notice a boa has wrapped up on something. It has caught a bat! And now it is eating the bat! Super cool!

The Puerto Rican Boa eating a bat it captured.

The Puerto Rican Tody was sleeping before we noisy bunch
walked by.
Myself and three other students are reluctant leave as everyone else heads back up the trail to camp. We love watching the  bats and boas some much that the crew has to come back and make us leave this beautiful cave location. I know, I'm just a stubborn trouble maker, hey? But on our hike back up to the sleeping quarters, we spot two super awesome animals.

 First, we find a Tody sleeping in a low tree and I only snap one quick photo and walk on to minimize my disturbance. Farther up the trail, the Puerto Rican research student is frantically motioning up into the tree branches and loudly whispering cuvieri! Cuvieri! It is a Puerto Rican giant anole, Anolis cuvieri, this is an absolute jewel! A very large and colorful anole, we wouldn't have found on this trip if it were not for our Puerto Rican friend. What an awesome find to end the night!

This Puerto Rican giant anole was sleeping on a branch about 20 feet above the ground. A good way to stay safe at night.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Puerto Rico Coral Reefs and Igaunas

The next leg of our tropical journey takes us clear across the island, to the coastal city of La Parguera. We stay at this hotel called La Jamaca (pronounced la hamaka; which means "the hammock" in Spanish). This hotel is far out! Let me just rave about all the fruit trees around the hotel ground, which attract various exotic birds and bats. I run around day and night with my DSLR like a three year old after nine Christmas cookies on Christmas morning! And several balconies and catwalk-bridges around the pool and trees make it great for wildlife viewing as well as hanging out after dark with friends; which is exactly what we did our last night. The hotel owner and bar tender are great people and serve excellent drinks and conversation as the colorful pool lights and tiki torches flicker all around our group in the night air. Half of our group has their beer goggles on, and all of us are wearing smiles! :)
This Venezuelan Tropial is having a go at a papaya.
This Puerto Rican Spindalis was making
nest in the rustic lamp fixture above
my hammock

This Emerald humming bird decided to
join me for breakfast by the pool.

The city of La Parguera is a tourist trap, and we do spend a little time in the souvenir shops. However, our main stops here are the research island and the coral reefs.

Puerto Rican college student teaching us about coral.
 The university students shuttle us out close to the reef and give us a briefing about what we might find. They even take it a step farther and show us samples of the creatures we will encounter. Though this tutorial was very informative, I did not have my preferred note taking device, and my back was growing a nice sunburn. Needless to say, I was ready to get below the water and show off how long I could hold my breath.

After they released us to explore the reef, I went to work with my water proof Nikon Coolpix trying to find as many different fish as I could. The reef depth ranged from 4-13ft, so pretty darn shallow, but that was good because water clarity was just a tad bit murky today. It was a good snorkel sesh, but nothing compared to when I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef.

Possibly a squirrelfish?
A pretty little sea urchin.

Later that afternoon, we take a ferry out to a research island to spend some quality time with the Cuban Rock Iguanas. The Cuban Rock Iguanas are a member of the Cyclura genus, which is one of the most endangered lizard groups in the Caribbean. These iguanas are naturally found on the rocky coasts of Cuba and her surrounding islets, but a feral population was started on this little Puerto Rican isle in the 60s and has been thriving ever since. Fun fact, these iguanas prefer to make their burrows near or in patches of cacti and thistles. One would think this is to protect against predators, but with no natural predators on this isle, the iguanas are pretty chill, which allows us to observe and learn from them at close distances.
The Cuban Rock Iguana
This is actually a green iguana, different

In the late evening, we board the ferry back to the main land, which is the regular island of Puerto Rico, and I realize there is not enough room on the boat for all of us. (initiate sarcasm mode) Oh darn, guess I will just have to wait here at the dock, and watch the pretty sunset around the mangroves with the iguanas. :)
Just chillin'

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Paluma Conservation

My favorite part about studying wildlife is being out in the bush! This can also be the most dreary, and downright unbearable part too. But the right field camp makes a big difference. Let me share with you a time when I volunteered with the biologists of the CSIRO to do some fauna surveys in Australia's Paluma mountain range.

We arrive at base camp just after dark. Myself and three other Uni students are given a quick welcome brief and then we begin to setup our tents. Being a minimalist, I only brought my one-person tent, a bed sheet, my friend's jacket and my backpack full of fun field gear. And as the night wore on I become more and more thankful for my buddy Cory giving me his jacket for the week. After five grueling hours of on and off sleep, I roll over and rummage through my bag to find the temp/humidity gauge. My fingers had memorized the power and light buttons and I cringe when I see a whopping 3 degrees C 40% humidity. I think to myself, "well, that certainly explains a why this sucks so much at the moment!" and I thought back four months to a coyote hunting trip where my brother and I nearly froze to death under a cedar tree one night in Western Nebraska when it was -10 degrees C. These sucky nights happen every now and then. This part of field research has got to be one of my least favorite, but it is still much better than winter in Nebraska.
The next morning, we are scraping frost from the windshields, before we set out to check drift fences, pit falls, camera traps and cage traps. We are blessed to have a hot breakfast in the quarters, which had a partial kitchen, and that luxury is awesome for a field camp!

Unfortunately, we are not happing much luck catching any critters. . . Probably because it froze last night and these warm weather animals are hunkered down. So yes, it is a pretty common to strike out when you are looking for wildlife, and that's no fun.

However, there is hope! Wildlife can hide, but plants and landscapes cannot. So when in a location where you will never see another person or glimpse of civilization, you will inevitably see something beautiful. You will probably see many beautiful vistas, gorges, plants, and rocks, and that is a win any day of the week!
In this trip, we commonly ate lunch far from base camp to maximize our time in the field. Today, finds us eating lunch on a large flat rock in the middle of a grassy savannah, dotted with eucalyptus trees. Now, the simple bliss of this situation satisfies me plenty. Eating flat bread sandwiches, with fresh fruit, in the fresh Australian breeze. Then, a family group of emus show up! It appears to be one larger adult and three adolescents. They are so inquisitive! And though my picture do little justice to the situation, it was an absolute thrill to sit on that rock, as those emus pocked around checking us out from maybe 50 meters away. This was an awesome moment, and it's moments like these that keep you going when the times get tough out here.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Puerto Rico - The Jungle

If I may brag about my university for a sentence, I would tote this Puerto Rico study trip is the best university study trip for the price and for any tropical climate loving person like myself. Puerto Rico is also a great place to visit because they accept the US dollar currency, so no need to mess with exchange rates. The people of Puerto Rico are generally fun-loving and patriotic as well.

El Yunque National Forest from the top of a mountain.

As we arrive in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, the wet tropical air immediately condenses on our skin, and it's hard to contain the excitement of the coming days of hiking in the jungle, tropical vistas, crystal clear snorkeling, and most of all Puerto Rican wildlife!


We arrive in El Yunque National Forest later that night, and settled into our apartment style rooms. After a quick food run the next day, we set to work exploring the jungle and cataloging various wildlife. The jungle is so alive with various tropical birds calling to each other, while the insects heat up their mating calls for the night. And a pleasant, humid aura fills the rain forest as we launch into another evening here, I swear you can see these plants growing!
Kip showed me how to take this cool picture of a sleeping anole
on top of a banana leaf.

One of the other members to our trip, who is a much more knowledgeable photographer is also getting some sweet pics with his Sony DSLR camera, and we buddy up for a night of wildlife photography. In twenty minutes of field experience, I learn more about wildlife photography with my new friend, Kip, than I would ever learn in an afternoon of reading articles and instructions.
The Puerto Rican Tree Snail is said to be the most numerous
herbivore of the island of Puerto Rico.

In El Yunque, we find heaps and heaps of Puerto Rican Tree Snails, which are the most numerous herbivore on the island. We also come across several species of coqui frogs, and what I believe to be the Puerto Rican Rocket Frog. I was able to video the rocket frog calling under a small water fall in the creek.

The Puerto Rican Rocket Frog calling in a nearby creek.

Kruger's Anoles are a bit harder to find.
Crested Aonles are also very common in these parts. Other anoles are present but will take a bit more work to find. In my relentless search for wildlife, I manage to find more crested anoles, a few green anoles, and two Kruger's anoles, here is El Yunque.

Green Anoles are fairly common in this area.
Crested Anoles are easily found in this area and in most
other parts of the island.

An awesome swimming hole in El Yunque!
And to finish off a sweet couple days in the jungle, we hop into a rock pool and explore the water fall that feeds it.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Vietnam Day 4 - Ta Lai Village

I finally caught that dragon that I spotted yesterday!
So apparently, the park just burns their trash, and the monkeys come
to search for some food scraps. This monkey didn't see me, but they
do appear much bigger in person.
After last night's success with the frogs. I've decided on another late day in the park. I take the ferry across the river and into the park around 10:00, my pack loaded with bananas for the day and a few water bottles. I intend to explore the South end on the park today, and again I rent a bike. Hoping to climb Elephant hill for a sporty morning hike but again, I found that this trail doesn't exist. I'm starting to wonder how many trails on this map actually exist.

I take the main road South, bumping along the red mud and lava rock track, and pass a few lookout towers. These rickety old things, are quite rusted and missing plenty of boards, but they are meant to be used to gaze over the grasslands in hopes of spotting large ungulates grazing.
Eh, who needs steps on a watch tower anyway?
Whilst I continue my ride, I spot a familiar black figure slither onto the road in the unmistakable fluid motion only a snake. Booyah!!! That's a cobra! That's a full 1.4m adult cobra. Probably a monocled cobra. I drop the bike a race forward to get a better look and as I do so the cobra spots me. I can see that reaction I really dislike, because it means the animal is about to make a run for it, and snakes are notoriously hard to follow in quick pursuit, through a ditch full of vines and veg. My goodness this cobra is the fastest snake I've ever encountered, and I was only afforded a few chance glances at olive-grey scales as they disappeared into the trees. Man, I was pumped up, angry, and sad all at the same time. As I continue my ride, a large monitor lizard in the ditch sees me before I can even stop my bike. And again, this 1.5 meter long lizard is much faster than I ever thought possible and a few rare glimpses are all I get.
These seemed to be some of the nicer houses in the village.

Closer to the village I view several farm fields and small houses and shacks with chickens, ducks, dogs, pigs, and cows places hap-hazardously throughout. It becomes a bit more clear to me just how these people live. I've never seen such an isolated village, in which the people live so modestly, yet so happily. Children play in large groups, in whatever front yard they please, while mothers cook in the backs of open front houses that are no more than 300 square feet of floor space. The men seem to be all out working, repairing, or cleaning whatever needs to be done. Nobody has fences, front doors, or large automobiles, and I can't help but wonder, who is really happier?
And when I got back to my cabin, I saw this MASSIVE sider on my wall.
Good to know that something is here to eat those pesky moths!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Vietnam Day 3 - Crocodile Lake

Today's the big one folks! The adventure to Crocodile Lake! The lair of the endangered Siamese crocodile. Oh what a blessing it would be to catch a glimpse of this rare and elusive animal! But I'll be honest with ya, my chances are slim, because I've got one boat dock and maybe a tall hill to look from, over the vastness of an entire lake full of lillies and chest high grasses, but I'll make the intrepid effort anyways because I like nature.

So I rent a bike from the national park HQ and cruise the 12km up to the trail head. Though I did see a mother Douc (a type of monkey) and her two babies fairly close on my ride, I didn't see much else. I attempted to add variety to the day by visiting the "batt caves" and the "thousand trunk tree" on my way. But to my dismay, these places don't exist, or better yet, maybe the trails to these places having been marked yet.

But the trail to crocodile lake is indeed marked and looks nice with the concrete and boulder path they are making for it. I take my time to walk the length of the trial. It's another 5km, so I take a lot of time. More so because I have nothing else to do and I believe there is a better chance to see crocs closer to sun down.

Along the trail I see plenty of skinks, and even a few forest dragons. I can hear monkeys crashing through the trees around me, but I rarely see them because of the dense foliage. Then, on a rock right next to the trail I see what I first think is just another skink, no, this has no legs! Yes!!!! My first Vietnam snake! It seems to be a lance head viper of some sort (I would later find that it was just a mock viper, which is a harmless natricid snake) But for the moment this little gem is the most exciting thing is the forest! After a few choice pictures I begin down the trail again, only to find another mock viper! What awesome luck today!

At Crocodile Lake, my time is sent resting and scouring the land and lake-scape for the elusive croc. Would it surprise you if I said I didn't see any crocs? But I did see . . . more skinks! I knew, that's not a huge surprise either because they are everywhere. But as I head back, darkness doesn't seem to come as I think it should. I get back to my bike excepting full darkness, yet it is still light. But, after a few km through the bike ride, the switch is cut, and darkness covers the jungle like the thick amount of peanut butter that covers my morning toast.

This makes the frogs start calling, and golly they are out tonight! In no short time, I begin to worry when the ferry to get back across the river stops. So as I ride back, I struggle with the urge to take pictures and find new frogs against the prospect of missing the last ferry, and in the last 10 minutes of my bike ride, I believe I cataloged 6 new frogs into my personal frog list! Plus, I made it to the ferry with plenty of time.