Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Vietnam Day 2


I awake at sun rise the the craziest jungle bird calls I've ever heard, and for a moment, I'm scared out of my mind! "Where the heck am I. Holy crap! I'm in Vietnam!" Have you ever waken up freaked out, not knowing where you are? Then after a moment you realize it's all good.
Every Morning I took this ferry across the river to the National
Park.


After a breakfast of some "opal eggs" and bread, I head off into the park. I take the tour of the endangered primate center. Which sounds much more impressive than it actually is, but it is still a valiant cause and a decent centre for rescued endangered primates. Apparently, the bush hunters and trappers are a really big problem here because of the illegal pet trade.
The Dao Tien primate center is one of the key features of Cat
Tien National Park.
In the late morning, I decide to do a little recon on some close trails. I grab a park map and plan my routes. On my first trail though, I realize there is a problem. I've got an urgent "code brown" here and I'm gonna needs some leaves pronto. These will do... Some of these too... I hope they're not some Asian poison Ivy of some sort. Tree? tree? Tree! Ah that one there, plenty of privacy. At least there's plenty of cover here in the jungle, even though it's the slow season for the park. Ah, that was close. . . Well, I don't think I'll be having the Opal eggs for breakie anymore.
No that is not the tree I "went" behind. This is just one really cool big tree.

I hike the "Botanical" trails, but honestly, I can't tell ya if there's anything "botanical" about them because they look just the same as the rest of the jungle. I must need to brush up on my botanical acuteness.


The insect fauna was absolutely stunning!

I buy a load of bananas on my way back to the lodge. The bananas here are about half the size as the ones in the States but these are also twice as sweet. After a luke warm first day out I retire to the lodge deck and plan tomorrow's big day.
The bird fauna, though diverse and abundant, is very hard to photograph through the
thick jungle foliage.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Vietnam Day 1

As I cleared the customs counter with my freshly stamped passport, I quickly grabbed my bags and emerged into the great metropolis which is Saigon. I felt like a fish out of water. One lone American amongst a hot humid babble in Vietnamese crowds. What do I do?!? Okay, the game plan? Bus. I take bus 152 to the bus station, then the Cat Tien bus up to the park. There! Bus 152! Okay, I hike luggage up onto the bus pay the driver and away we go. Alright, making some good time today.


It started to down-pour about ten minute after I got off the bus and into this cafe.

But as the bus troops on through the city exchanging passengers, I start to wonder, what does the central bus station look like? Does this route even go there? Of course it does, the google map told me so. Google maps have never told me wrong in the past. But it's been a while now, and my failed attempts to ask the passengers where the central station is are making me doubt. So I resolve to just ride it around to the airport again and catch a Taxi to Cat Tien. Well, to cut a long confusing language exchange short, I couldn't just take this same bus around back to the airport. . . Soooo off I go out into to urban chaos again. In the middle of Saigon. No clue where to go.
Maybe 40,000VDN for locals... But 100,000VND for the American.

That's okay, it's still only about $5.00.




Lucky, after an over priced meal (they charge foreigners 2-3 times more than locals here) I hailed a taxi, showed him my map, and got him to say "Cat Tien, okay!" (I'm drastically reducing the drama and stress of the previous three hours of searching for directions, buses, tours companies, lugging my luggage of the last 5 months through the bowels of Saigon. But if you want to hear more details, just give me a holler! ) and we were off across the countryside, which is mostly full of small connected towns and villages where the houses look like tin sheds and everyone is trying to sell someone something.
The entire 160 km trip to the national park was lined with
villages and towns much like this. The open country side was
almost nonexistent.

After an hour or so, my driver gets out to take a piss behind one of the houses, have a smoke and even buys himself and I Red Bulls. At this time I start to get a bit worried because I'm just sitting here in a taxi, whilst locals walk by a stare at me, mostly not welcoming looks. But as we head up the road, through a down pour of rain which fills the road some much our cab can barely swim through it, my cab driver has to get out 5 more times to ask for directions, and all I can do is helplessly watch the meter tick up 1,700,000 dong, 1,800,000 dong, and I try to ask how much further, or if he even knows how to get there, but all I can get from him "Cat Tien, okay"
Do these mossie nets make my bed look
like a pretty princess bed?

After we arrive at Cat Tien, I come to find that the hardest part of taxi rides in foreign countries is actually getting to the correct address. Apparently, addresses here are poorly created, and mean relatively nothing. Thanks for nothing google maps. What you need to know are what the names of the neighboring buildings are or the families that live near by, and stuff like this. But we ask another hotel owner and he points us just up the street. At The Green Bamboo lodge one friendly hostess girl greets me with a pretty good english vocabulary! Praise God!!! Someone here speaks English!!! But before the cab driver lets me go he tries to charge me 4,180,000 dong instead of 2,180,000 dong because we went through a toll road which only costs 100,000 extra. But I had heard of stories such as these and since this was a metered cab (very important) I new what my fee was. I did the math right in front of his face, and I paid my 2,180,000 no more no less.
My lodge had a sweet deck!

Yes! I like this view.

After fending off the crazy cab driver and running my budget $100 deep from a stupid cab ride. I'm here! Cat Tien National Park. Monkeys, snakes, frogs, lizards of all sorts and wonderful fig rainforests await me! But right now I'm so shaken up. I sat on my bad for about 15 minutes trying not to pass out. I never thought I'd be in such shock. I think I'll just sleep it off and let the rain on my thatch roof wash away the stresses of travels.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Islanders

I can remember the feeling of my first fall break. The teacher of my first grade class had announced we would be having a four day weekend! And to my little six year old ears, this sounded like the most beautiful creation since chicken-fried steak. My gut was full of anticipation as I rode the bus home like I was returning to the homeland from my academic prisoner of war camp which was first grade school. I sprinted down our drive way hailing the good news to the world, proclaiming my freedom at the tops of my lungs.
Well, I haven't changed much in 15 years and I still relish every extended break from school. Here is Australia, they call it lecture recess, and during lecture recess, my mate Harrison and I planned to explore the wonder land of Magnetic Island.
As we meet in the dinning hall this morning, we stuff our bags with extra food rations and then hop the bus over to the ferry terminal. A 20 minute ferry ride, and a 15 minute bus ride landed us right smack on Horse Shoe bay. I walk up to the beach life guard and ask him where the best hiking on the island is, and he replies, "Yeah, the trails on the East side get a fair bit of hiking, but the west side is pretty narly. Not many people hike there." And at those words, Harrison and I undoubtedly agreed to head West. It's not that we didn't want to seek the other friendly hikers. It's more the matter that we want to see things other people have never seen.
So we advance across the "narly" shore line, which consisted of gigantic boulders covered in barnacles near the water. And after a few hours of our rock scrambling travels, I am struck with the brilliant idea to bush wack. "Hey, let's bush wack just over this ridge, mate."
To which, Harrison replies, "Okay, I'm keen for a bit of that"
So with our 10 kg (that's 22lb) backpacks, we climb the cliffs which separate the boulder shore line from the up land of spinifex grass and small Eucalypt saplings and scrub bushes. It really looked quite easy and agreeable to hike from down below, but this territory was quite possibly the fourth most diabolical places I've ever have to hike through.
If you don't know spinifex grass personally, just think of a chilla pet which is made of needles. This grass  blankets the landscape of large jagged rocks with a quilt of leaves and stems build to puncture the epidermis of your legs on contact, which is inevitable whilst wearing shorts. Every step was a gamble, because the spinifex hid every rock crevice, and I even fell chest deep into a hidden rock crack. Surprisingly, the spinifex feels soft, in a twisted suffering sorta way, when you fall on your back into a hidden rock crack. But despite the fun we were having frolicking through the rock and spinifex wonderland, whilst the green ants invaded our entire presence, we decided to head back to the shore line. Rock hopping was a cake walk compared to scaling the 60 degree incline of Mordor.
We decided to wash our battle scars in the ocean on a quick snorkel through the boulders, which actually produce a fair few micro reefs around the island.
We saunter on over to the East side of the island to join the normal hikers, and to my pleasant surprise, the trails over here are beautiful, and well maintained through a fantastic landscape with excellent views and enjoyable hiking. My inner, childish, fall break excitement has been satiated for another break.    

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Town Common

    Every once in a blue moon I get all G'd up on these hair brain ideas to getting up early and strike out on an adventure. Most of the time the buck stops at the alarm clock the next day, but for some reason this morning I am able to vault myself out of bed at 6:00am. I shove an orange down my throat and snag my bag on the way out of my dorm room. This morning I had planned to cycle up to the Town Common, which is a local nature park on the North side of town. From a quick look at the Google maps, I guessed about a 12k bike one way, so maybe after I returned I would've put around 27k under my tires, and a few more under my own two feet.
    As I ride out of campus on the thick morning air, the beams of sunshine start to cook away the night's humid air. I cross the Ross River, and as I glance at the water I spot a huge freshie! What a site! A 2.3m fresh water croc just floating in the open water right below me. This is a fully grown adult size as far as freshies go. I snap a few quick pics and ride on.
    This bike ride took much longer than I had expected. Given the flat landscape of Townsville, I had reckoned it wouldn't take but 35-40 minutes. I entered the park around 45 minutes and the dirt roads here are worse then back home. The wash boards and pot holes are short and deep and my deep fried quads are struggling to keep my body lifted and the pedals moving.

    I finally bail off my bike a few k's before the trail head I'm heading to so I can refuel and hydrate a bit. The scenery here is gorgeous!
    Once I make it to the trail head, I shackle my bike to a tree and hobble up the stone trail. Gosh, I feel like an old man or a new born baby colt trying to work these tired legs. But as my land legs return, I find more and more breath taking views a top the ridge. And I see more and more trails I'm going to have to try next time I make it up here.
     After a few k's of hiking I spot a small snake. A whipsnake by the looks of him and his speed! Whipsnakes are lean slender Elapid snakes. This could be any of the three species that occur here; my ID isn't perfect. But unfortunately there are many rocks and ground cover all over this steep hills side and he is gone before I can catch him or snap a picture.
    At the midpoint of my hike, I take a seat on a rock with a commanding view to eat an apple. This sounds like a glamorous, charlatan idea until I notice that my skin feels like it's on fire and I find that I'm under siege by a hoard of green ants.
    As I head back to my bike, disheartened by the lack of reptiles for the morning and exhausted from my adventures, I spot a chunky body form with scales on it right smack in the middle of my path. My initial delirious reaction was "Yes! a death adder (beautiful snake, highly venomous)" Then I saw the legs "Oh, blue tongue skink! Well that's cool too!"
    Blue tongue skinks are sort of a hallmark species for Australia as far as herps go. They have  a marvelous wide blue tongue they use to mop up enormous amounts of ants and other insects, and they also use these tongue as a formidable defensive posture. These lizards aren't fast at all, and their only defense in camo or acting really scary.


    This guy afforded me plenty of excellent pictures and I bid him good bye so he could continue his fest of ants on the trail.
    As I rode home, I relished to sense of success in seeing some breath taking views and one very unique skink. After I arrived back at my dorm, I plugged in the GPS coordinates of my rides and hikes for the day, and was incredulous at the fact that I had rode just shy of 33km and hiked 10km. So I decided to retire the rest of the day to my room.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pre-Party Herping . . . Python!

Addictions. That is the theme of our floor party tonight. Most of the students on my dorm floor will probably just tape empty Goon bags all over themselves, because let's face it, many of my dorm neighbors find enjoyment in alcohol. I'm the odd ball, even though my costume is simply a mask with "Poker Face" written on it, and a playing card neck piece, my real addiction is wildlife.

I love spending my time in the bush. It doesn't matter what I'm doing before or after, or even more tired I am, I'm always keen for a walk through the bush. On this particular night, the night of my floor party, I fancied going for a walk on my way back to my dormitory. Yes, the floor party started an hour ago, but who even shows up on time to these things?

After a significant detour, only seeing a gecko Gehyra dubia, I decide to follow the creek back through campus to my Hall.

I notice a set of bright white eyes, reflecting my light beam back, and my heart starts to pick up the tempo. Upon closer inspection, I find it's a common bushtailed possum Trichosurus vulpecula. Gosh these guys are adorable! I  approach this one so closely I can even see his breathing increase with nervousness as I near. As a car passes on the road behind us, he decides this chance is a great excuse to bound away up a tree.

My creek walk turns to go under a building, and right before the building, I see a whopper of a python, thermo-regulating to digest a small meal on the bare bank of the creek. What a beautiful creature! She has no concern of my presence here, so I snap a few up close photos and take a few measurements before heading off to my dormitory.

Encounters with a these 2.3m long pythons, or sneaking in close to possums are what I particularly relish. Times like these give me a feeling of natural belonging and a connection to fundamental instincts that are so scarce in this day and age. And as I sit with my "poker face" on, sipping on my water, I watch the games of beer pong at the floor party; I am utterly confused about the whole ecology of the "college party ecosystem."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Good Morning Monotreme

The faint sound of my iphone chiming some tune drifts in and out of my dreams and I dismiss the mumble as rubbish. Then, the next thing I know, my friend Vidhu is knocking on my door and I spring out of bed, in my boxers. I open the door and greet him with an "I'm up. See ya in the DTR"

Today is mountain day. Us 18 Uni Hall students have woken up at 4:00am to climb Castle Hill in hopes of watching the sun rise over the majestic coast of Townsville.

So I put some clothes on, grabbed my bag, and shot a cup of tea in the microwave for a pre-hike pump. As I round the last stair case to the DTR (the hall lobby) I'm greeted by 8 of my good friends, Some running off 5-6 hours of sleep others running off 1 or 0 hours of sleep. Tiredness does weird things to people. Some of them were bouncing off the walls with energy, others couldn't keep their eye's open, and the people like me drowsily amble abut but with the focus and reflex of a tiger.

Only a short drive stood between us and the base of the hill. But my group got side tracked. . .
"What's that?" Said someone.
 I said, "It's an Echidna! Right on!"
Vidhu said, "Quick, pull the car over! Dylan catch it."
As I bailed out of the car, I muster the very basic knowledge I knew of the Echidna from mammalogy class and random videos I'd watched. As I approached the Echidna realized the threat and started digging. Echidna's are very similar to the porcupines we have in the USA because they are covered with spikes. I'd like to think the Echidna's spikes are more numerous and uniform than our porcupine. So when the Echidna feels threaten, it started to dig and wedge it's vulnerable belly side to the ground, holding itself in place with it's massive digging claws, while its formidable spikes do the defense bidding against potential predators. Catching Echidna is simple if you have tough hands, just flip them over onto one hand, and they curl up into a ball of spikes.

I was pleased to successfully catch my first Echidna. These special mammals are monotremes. They are egg laying mammals, and they are the oldest surviving mammals on earth. I'm nerding out holding this spike ball in my hand because I realize the years of ecological significance this species has been through.

After a few pictures, I set my Echidna friend down and bid him farewell. As we drove on up the hill, he ambled off to eat some more ants.

What a Wonderful Wallaman

My father and step-mother came to visit me for a week in my tropical place of study. I was very happy to see them. And to celebrate the occasion, we decided to do a little sight seeing.
Wallaman Falls is the largest single drop water fall in Australia, and I had wanted to go see it even before I arrived here in Oz. So I figured this would be a perfect stop on our way up to Cairns from Townsville.
So after my Friday morning lecture we started up Bruce HWY and arrived at the Falls around noon. Breath taking views of the gorge were plentiful and so was the blistering sun. So we decided to head off down the trail to cool off at the pool of the falls.
 On this walk through the semi-wet tropics I became over frustrated because there were skinks everywhere, but abundant habitat everywhere as well. Thus, I was unable to catch any skinks :( but I did see two new species: the Flecked Monitor (Varanis tristis) and the Major Skink (Egernia Frerei) 
Once at the bottom of the gorge, we were greeted with a small sign that said something about danger and slipper rocks, or something, but I didn't really read it. I was focused on making my way to the water. After negociating many large and slipper boulders I was able to swim in the very cool water where I was met by a large eel. I know nothing about eels, but I'm pretty sure this guy wasn't afraid of me and thought I might be worth a sniff. The water clarity was not great. So after a short swim, I scrambled back over the rocks to head back. The walk down to the gorge where the pool is located isn't bad, but coming back up will whip your bums into shape.

A Case of Misidentificaiton

One fine night, I was wandering through the back woods of campus catching Cane Toads for a masters student's research project. Bats zoomed in and out of the road culverts, catching the mossies our DEET repellent feebly fended off. As we walked through the bush, we waved a stick aimlessly up and down in front of us to hopefully avoid a face full of spider web. I also enjoy bringing a choice stick, just in case I find a snake I'd like to catch or take pictures of.

 Our mission was to catch female toads for a dissection study; also in hopes of removing pregnant females from the wild. As I walk up the dry creek bed of smoothed over river stones, I spotted a pair of large bright eyes, and as I approached the toad I noticed it was even a female. Excellent! Success after small effort, and the search continues.

 As I stumble up the stony creek bed, toad in one hand and stick in the other, I notice a movement to my left. As my head swivels toward the movement, I noticed it was a snake! What luck! But I didn't have my tongs or tubes and this looked convincingly like a King Brown snake. After I cautiously rounded the snake to under a rock, I sprinted back to my dorm, grabbed my tongs and tubes, and returned to the rock. My Safe Handling of Venomous Snakes training served me well as I confidently tubed the snake for identification. And to my chagrin, it was only a harmless Keelback Snake. Though not the glamorous King Brown Snake I had originally thought, it was still a new species for me :)

Biggest Snake Yet!

As you know, I'm a reptiles guy. So I'm that odd ball you may have seen walking around campus at night catching geckos and frogs in the creek; This is called "herping". If you hear your mate is going out herping one night, it means he's going to go look for snakes and lizards, and any other reptiles or amphibians he can find.
 Back in the states, I have two good friends that like to go herping with me, but here in Oz everyone seems keen for herping. This is really great to see so much enthusiasm for wildlife, so my mate Harrison and I usually try to assemble a good consortium of hikers for the nights when we go herping.
 This particular night, we were headed out to the Ross River, which is a short 15 minute walk from campus. With our head lamps a lite we searched the grass and scrub-scape for eyeshine. Spider eyes were everywhere, so it takes a trained herper to differ between spiders, toads, frogs, and geckos. Snake eyes generally don't shine as much as other herps, but occasionally they may stick out amongst the habitat.
 It wasn't long until Harrison spotted our first snake. A Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularius). This is the species that is wrecking the bird populations on Gaum. They are a pretty hardy and quite common invasive species. I think they are very interesting and pretty. This Colubrid is mildly venomous, but basically harmless. To my surprise he bit me, whilst I was fiddling with my camera and not watching him. First snake bite here in the Southern Hemisphere! Not surprisingly, I had no reaction to the bite, and we carried on to explore the river.
 We noticed several Asian House geckos (H. frenatus), some White Lipped and Green Tree Frogs, Cane Toads everywhere (R. marina) and even a Tawny Frogmouth, which made my bird expert Paul super happy. Then as I swept my light across the trees for gecko eyes I noticed a dull mark, which looked like a Cane Toad in a tree. It was just interesting enough for me to take a closer look.
 "Snake guys! I've got a snake here!" I hollered to the group. "Looks like a carpet Python" I said as I looked at it's head and a foot of its body on the branch.

 "Holy crap, man, come look at the rest of this thing" I heard from the other side of the tree. And as I round the tree trunk I noticed a huge body and tail hanging just low enough to grab. Immediately after I grabbed the snake, it tried to pull away! Even so much that it was lifting me off the ground. As it did so, his head came lower on the other side of the branch. So I reached around and grabbed his head, and we were able to tickle him off his branch for a safe capture. After some measurements and pictures, we bid this 2.3m (7'6") female carpet python farewell, and went back to campus.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Summarizing Natural Science

It's exciting to discover knowledge about our beautiful world, but sometimes reading the latest in science can be very taxing on the mind. So I've summed two publications about invasive reptile species for your reading pleasure.

Invasive species have a knack for dominating native species like a Hulk on steroids, and the first species I'd like to mention even reminds me of the Hulk. The Cane Toad (Rhinella marina) is 'smashing and bashing' its way right across Australia. Cane Toads eat many native animals but almost nothing eats the Cane Toad because it's toxic to eat. The Cane Toad produces a toxin, called bufadienolides, as a defense against predators.

 This research project http://classic.rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/06/11/rspb.2012.0821.full
shows how we can dish the colossal Cane Toad a taste of it's own toxin. . . Literally.

Cane Toad tadpoles will eat other Cane Toad eggs. How crazy is that. When mother Cane Toads hop in the water and lays her eggs, the other baby Cane Toad tadpoles smell her bufadienolide toxins and swim over to gobble up all those eggs. So the researchers tried trapping Cane Toad tadpoles with bufadienolide as lure, and it worked! It may be possible to trap all Cane Toad tadpoles from a body of water in a few days' time.

The next invasive reptile is Boiga irregularis aka the Brown Tree Snake. The researchers http://www.jstor.org/stable/3892747?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
wanted to determine if the snake used venom or constriction to kill its prey.

To find the answer, the researchers looked at two groups of Brown Tree Snakes while they were feeding. One group had their venom glands seal, and the other group was left untouched. Since both groups killed their prey in the same amount of time, the researchers concluded that the venom does not play a role in killing the prey.