Here is an album of pictures of the recent expedition. Thank you to all of you who have contributed. If you have not shared yours yet, remember you can do so via our Pictureshare site.
‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ (so went that infamous song), and when they begin under the cold clear skies of northern Scotland at 4.15 a.m., I’m inclined to agree.
However, this Monday is different, as I begin my migration to South Africa. By means of introduction, I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your expedition leader of the South Africa expedition this year. It is fantastic to be going back to this part of the world to work on this great project in a wonderful location. Below are some pictures of the location I took last year.
I am already on route, having packed my gear and left our croft in the sunny Highlands of northern Scotland. The serious travel continues on Wednesday. It will be great to be working with our project scientist, Dr. Alan Lee, again and it sounds like he has some exciting field work planned.
The signs are already good, as Alan has noticed scratch marks on a tree on the Baboon trail (not far from the guest house). At the end of August he decided to place a camera trap to try and identify the culprit. He presumed a bushpig or porcupine, but just a few days ago two incidents were captured on camera of a young male leopard, which we hope to catch and collar during this expedition!
We arrive a few days before you volunteers in order to set up the expedition. I say ‘we’, since I am also travelling from George with Melda and Gurli – our cooks. Melda was part of the team last year, so I know we will be well nourished. I’ll send around another message once I get on the ground in South Africa.
This reminds me to mention communications on the expedition. There’s very limited cellphone reception on the project base (a 10 min walk up a hill) via Vodacom, and equally limited internet connectivity. Hopefully you can resist the need for frequent international comms, and why not go off the grid for the expedition, and soak up the remote field experience.
I know you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing and good boots! The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, possibly wet and hopefully dry. Just like the weather in Scotland!
So with the local team in place, and other staff en route, all we are missing is you. It will be great to meet you all and soon we’ll be humming a very different tune, ‘Under African Skies’.
11 Sep – With the first team safely on their way home, and team two experiencing a smooth passage to the research station, all seemed to be going without a hitch, but when we arrived, we were shocked to hear the news that there had been a shooting!
The target had escaped unharmed, but the macaw colpa team were outraged!. A ‘peke peke’ (local boat) with four men on board, (later identified as being members of a semi-indigenous community one hour upstream), seeing a bountiful display of macaws on the colpa (claylick), took a shot at one of them. Alan and Dana stepped out of the hide and screamed at them to leave, and surprised by the unexpected audience, the boat made haste. What is unclear is whether they were hunting, or merely shooting for ‘sport’.
So Sunday saw the new team, Sandra, Jurgen and Etienne (all from Germany), complete their safety, navigation and transect training, whilst Rick, Pauline, Dana and Anh continued to monitor the macaw colpa and transects. With sightings of spider monkeys, howler monkeys, guans and red squirrels, plus a textbook morning at the colpa and some humming bird magic in the afternoon, it was a very satisfying day for all.
Monday (12 Sep) started at dawn with full colpa emersion for Jurgen, Etienne and Sandra with a seven-hour shift watching and recording the behaviour of the macaws. With multiple boats passing downriver and disturbing the already agitated birds, macaw numbers fluctuated from 70 to 0 and back again, and they did not regain the confidence to actually come onto the exposed colpa and feed on the mineral rich clay that makes up an essential part of their diet.
The other teams fared well, with sightings of collared peccary, a family of saddleback tamarin monkeys, black spider monkeys, and a troop of red howler monkeys with two babies on their backs.
The night transect for Jurgen and Etienne was most dramatic with the territorial call of a nearby jaguar echoing through the forest around them, not 100 m away! They scanned the area with high beam torches as the hairs on the backs of their necks bristled, but although it was most certainly watching them, they could see only darkness.
Tuesday (13 Sep) held another spectacular display at the macaw colpa, this time with over 50 birds feeding, perhaps because they had been deprived the day before. There were over 80 birds at the site, and trying to record the squawking, flapping melee in scientific terms, was not an easy task for Sandra and Catherine. With the friaje (cold front), definitely over, temperatures are now rocketing up into the high thirties. Despite this, there were many sightings on the transects, but the most interesting was spotted by Anh and Aldo on the B transect, with juveniles of two different species of monkey (red howler and black spider monkey) playing together in the same tree whilst the adults sat and observed. With it being so hot, we decided to conduct our night survey on the river. In 2005 our scientist Alan Lee and the team had conducted caiman population surveys from the boat, so we thought it would be interesting to see how the data compared to current populations. We calculated that on average they had seen 10-14 caiman on a nightly basis, and were hoping, (though doubting), to see as many. As it turned out, we surpassed it four-fold, seeing over 40 caiman on the same stretch of river. Admittedly about 25 of them were juveniles, but we were delighted to see the population faring so well.
On Wednesday (14 Sep) the teams began to bring in some of the camera traps, and we all enjoyed the sneak preview into the colpa, watching macaws and parrots eating copious amounts of mineral rich clay. It was a sweltering day in the jungle, but this only slowed down the humans, the animals were still very much in play – even the night monkeys were still out! Rick and Pauline took a wander off B transect onto the intersecting logging track and spotted two fresh cat prints in the mud. One was small, possibly an ocelot, but one bore all the hallmarks of a large jaguar!
At last the rains came and with it the frogs, so Etienne, Anh and Harry went out to the swamps on C transect to see what they could find, and came back with tales of seven different species of frog, three lizards, one green vine snake and a mouse opossum.
Thurs (15th Sept) The early morning colpa shift witnessed over 100 macaws, though they were kept from their feast of clay by a cheeky red howler monkey. This was fortuitous for the second colpa team as it meant they also got to watch a spectacular feeding event (something that is often done and dusted by the time they get there), and took some excellent photos. The weather had turned cold again, and apparently the mammals, like us, sought warmth, so there was not much action on the transects, although, as Alan said, “If you walk for long enough, you will always see monkeys and a red squirrel,” which they did!
On Friday (16 Sep) the sun came out again on our last day at Las Piedras. With the last transects completed, it was now time to collect the camera traps and process the data. With 74 km walked on transect (and many more on trail clearing and camera trap setting missions), there were 153 target species sighted, and again many more off transect including 16 groups of spider monkey, 11 groups of brown capuchin, 21 registered howler monkey events, 4 sightings of white-fronted capuchin monkey, 5 troops of squirrel monkey, 8 collared peccary, 1 puma on transect, but 11 tracks registered including ocelot, tapir, and of course, our jaguar tracks and calls. The data from the colpa show that in comparison with past expeditions, the macaw population is thriving, despite the worrying signs of extensive logging of their nesting trees occurring on the north side of the river. The reality may be somewhat masked though by the fact that macaws can live for up to 70 years, and the breeding stage does not begin until the birds have reached at least five years old, so continued monitoring is imperative to watch for any unusual patterns.
It has been an amazing week, and everyone has worked extremely hard, but if there were medals to give out (which there aren’t), Pauline and Rick would win an award for the most dedicated data enterers ever!
On Saturday (17 Sep), with the kit and equipment packed and ready to go and all the transport links planned and agreed in advance, what could possibly go wrong? The station has a boat, but due to our extensive luggage we needed another one, but it didn’t arrive. Chito did a sterling job ferrying us in two groups, avoiding sandbanks and rocking us off the ones we almost ran aground on, and we only left Lucerna an hour and a half late! Thank you all for a fantastic expedition, for working so well as a team and for your willingness to tackle any task. Thanks also to our fantastic chef Roy with his wonderful jungle recipies, for Brandy’s attention to detail, and Chito’s smiling face and excellent boat skills. Also to Pico and all the other staff who came and went doing their bit. And of course a big thank you to Juan Julio (JJ), the owner of Las Piedras. Until next time! Hasta luego!