Isla de la Plata…

[Tamara]

Hola,

during the Christmas period I decided to tour some of the delightful places that Ecuador has to offer. I steamed in the thermal baths at Baños after a hard days white water rafting, and perused the stunning cathedrals and churches of colonial Cuenca. Having already spent some time in a glorious cloud forest reserve last summer (Bellavista), I then made a beeline for the coast, eager for my first ever glimpse of the Pacific. It did not disappoint.

117Just off the picturesque coastal fishing village of Puerto López, stands Isla de la Plata, which gringos have aptly christened ‘The Poor Man’s Galapagos’. You can sail to it (which takes about one and a half hours), and then walk around the island taking in the nesting seabirds. Afterwards you get lunch on the boat, and go snorkelling before returning to terra firma. All for $35!

The main attraction, from June to September are nursing Humpback Whales and their calves, which are reported to swim right up to the boats, along with dolphins. On the island, you can spot Pelicans, Blue-footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Waved Albatrosses. Though I visited out of season, it was an excellent experience.

My favourites were undoubtedly the Blue-footed Boobies. Nesting on the ground, you walk amongst them as you traverse the island, and apart from a few squawks and suspicious glares, they remain unperturbed. We even saw the illusive red-footed boobies, hiding in trees amongst thousands of nesting Frigatebirds. Sadly I didn’t not see any albatrosses. There was only one couple nesting on the island at the time, and so the guides understandably wanted to ensure they were left in peace.

You can just about make out the red feet and blue bill of this Red-footed Booby

You can just about make out the red feet and blue bill of this Red-footed Booby

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The female on the left has slightly larger pupils than the male on the right

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Blue-footed Booby and it’s baby booby!

I will definitely return come whale season, and I would recommend the trip to anyone, at any time of year.

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Excavations

Firstly, let me apologise for my complete absence from the blogging world.  An anchor just outside Tanzania ripped through a deep sea cable and took away any the only connection we had to life outside for a few too many weeks.  But I’ve got loads to fill you in on to make up for it!

We reburied the eggs just outside the tortoise nursery.  Now we play the waiting game...

We reburied the eggs just outside the tortoise nursery. Now we play the waiting game…

While searching for new babies in the Giant Tortoise breeding centre, I found a nest that had just hatched.  The average clutch size for the Aldabra tortoise is around 18

The intact eggs we found in the hatched nest, and the two babies we found that day.

The intact eggs we found in the hatched nest, and the two babies we found that day.

eggs, although this can vary between around 10-25.  The incubation time for the hatchlings varies greatly between 70 and 160 days, and largely depends on temperature.  We started to dig the nest up to try and estimate exactly how many babies we might have roaming around.  After about ten minutes of digging we found 4 intact eggs (which we later re-buried) and a hell of a lot of egg shells.  Using the intact eggs as a guide for size, we estimated that around 8 babies had hatched!  Now all we needed to do was find them.  Well, after some very vigilant strolls around the breeding centre (which just so happens to be the largest Giant Tortoise breeding centre in the world) we’re now the proud surrogate parents of 10 miniature Giant Aldabra Tortoises.  They live in a large box in my house and I take them for walks most days.  Another surreal, yet delightful perk of the job.

 As well as digging up nests in the breeding centre, ICS have been busy recovering a juvenile Hawksbill skeleton that was buried earlier this summer.  The turtle was very ill when it was found in July and unfortunately died soon after it was discovered struggling on the reef.  Tony, the conservation officer here on Desroches, buried the turtle just outside our office, so that he could recover the skeleton in a few months.  The carapace is largely intact and has been put on display just outside our office.

This is me and the turtle I tagged (ignore the pink face - it was a very hot day!)

This is me and the turtle I tagged (ignore the pink face – it was a very hot day!)

Probably the most exciting news I have is that I’ve finally tagged my first Hawksbill turtle! Hawksbills are the world’s most Critically Endangered species of sea turtle, so it’s been a complete honour to be able to work so closely with them.  The Seychelles population of Hawksbills are completely unique because, unlike elsewhere in the world, they actually nest in the day time – making them even more special.  We’re right in the middle of the Hawksbill nesting season, which runs from September through til April, so hopefully with a bit of luck I’ll be able to tag a few more of them before I leave.

Hope you’re all enjoying the festive season!

Kat.

Dynamite Fishing…

[Tamara]

Today’s article is about the activities of the indigenous community that live in the near camp, in San Jose de Payamino. They live relatively simple lives, most are farmers. They are quite westernised, the older children go to school in town every morning on the back of a ranchera, which is a truck with a bus attachment on the back, which has open sides and a relentless cooling breeze as it soars through the jungle roads. About 30% of the community (and it is the same in the other smaller towns I have visited in Ecuador) wear Monster Energy Drink t-shirts, which I believe are advertisory gifts, though I have yet to see anybody here actually drink one of their energising beverages. I would suggest Monster reconsider their demographic, but I digress.

What I really want to talk about is a controversial fishing technique deployed here, known as blast fishing. It involves hurling a stick of dynamite into the water, creating an almighty splash and rupturing the swim bladders of any fish in the vicinity, then collecting up the fallout as it floats to the surface of the water (though it is more likely to sink to the depths). This method is indiscriminate and destroys everything in the area, including the physical environment. So why do they do it? Well dynamite is cheap here, $10 (US) will buy you three sticks of dynamite, that’s about £2 a blast. This technique is fast too, not much waiting around, you blast, you sweep up, you move on. What’s not to love?

Our station (Timburi Cocha) and the community have an agreement, entailing what both parties should deliver, on which the members of the community have agreed not to do this, but there is no mistaking those distant booms we habitually hear. Occasionally people do this in the river directly in front of camp, so there is no denying that it occurs. Since the river bed is pebble based, could it be argued that this small localised destruction might allow for succession to occur and thus an increase in biodiversity, like that seen when a tree falls in a forest? Or is it just lazy inefficient destruction?

[Tamara]

I am writing my response to ichbinkatze here, so that I can accompany it with photographs.

Is there any chance we can see the aerial photos you stitched together? xx   (ichbinkatze: Nov 06, 2012 @ 08:23:29)

Firstly, apologies for the delay, we are running on solar powered internet here, and it is temperamental to say the least. Here are two images, the first I did using the pre-preliminary images, in which the camera was unfortunately positioned so that some of the view is obscured, resulting in those strange black markings. I put the map together by eye, rescaling so each picture fit together like a jigsaw. I would add that both are reduced images of the originals, and so do not allow the same scope for zoom and tree identification. The second image was put together by the engineers afterwards using GIS software and the later unobscured images, but it also features images where the plane was banking (I had discarded these), which is the reason you see the swirly fluid effect at the bottom. You can also see where the software has gotten a little confused, and tried to duplicate the river. However from the portion above the river where the plane was not banking, you can see the excellent map quality and potential of this technology.

With the introduction of autopilot, it would be possible to have the camera flying in long straight lines and thus not banking, and to link the camera with the autopilot, so that it only takes photographs when the UAV is on a horizontal plane (no pun intened). This would allow the GIS software to function more efficiently as the flight path would be known, and would produce a lovely 2D map. If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask,

Tamara x

A Pilot Study…

[Tamara]

Firstly, a quick update on the eternally adolescent luminous tadpole. After finally succumbing to the delights of tuna, in a matter of days it has metamorphosed into a teeny tiny Phyllomedusa vaillanti.

Now for this weeks blog… When I first arrived at Timburi Cocha Research Station, a group of engineers from the University of Manchester were also here, offering a unique opportunity for me to become an intern. They wanted to strap cameras to their large polystyrene remote control plane (or UAV- unmanned aerial vehicle), taking photos of the area, in order to create a detailed aerial map. Why not just use Google Earth? Well, we were in a very remote location, and so the quality of the Google Earth image is poor to say the least (sorry Google).

We rebuilt the planes from pieces, and after various checks and rechecks, we were ready to go! Take off was simple, take the plane and hurl it into the air. After this initial boost, the remote pilot would take charge, and the UAV would soar with as much agility and finesse as the vultures that invariably came when they saw the plane from afar, presumably to check out the excellent thermals the plane was surely gliding on.

When the plane was airborne, the camera took a photos every 2 seconds. After trying different heights, speeds, and camera settings we knew the ideal conditions. Then I painstakingly stitched the photos together. After what felt like a millennia, I had a jigsaw of the area, about 1 km square. Though this is a very small area, understanding the ideal conditions and method required, this could be repeated for huge areas with an auto pilot programme, which would be much cheaper (and greener) than using an actual plane, with much a better image quality than a satellite.

Why did we want to do this? High resolution aerial photography can be very useful to biologists working in the field. Here in Payamino, I set out to use the photos to look at tree species visible in the canopy, but it could be used to select sample sights, to map deforestation, or even to track large animals, such as elephants in the savannah…

We also used some other types of aircraft, such as a quadcopter and hexacopter (four and six rotating blades respectively) which can both be controlled very accurately on all axis, and so can be used to survey epiphytes or trees, or anywhere difficult for a biologist to reach. I never expected to be learning about aerodynamics in the rainforest, but it was an entertaining and informative experience.

Helicopter

Quadcopter

Hexacopter

p.s. apologies, that was quite a lengthy post!

Wardrobe Malfunction

(Written 29.10.2012)

[Rachel]

Greetings Again from Silhouette Island, Seychelles.

It’s been a busy month, but the work’s been great. We’re monitoring for turtle tracks every day. The season is starting, so green turtles and hawksbills will come to our beaches and dig their nests. We’re maintaining the giant tortoise pen, and trying to visualise improvements for a new one. I’ve sketched out some blueprints that I think might be quite helpful. We’re visiting the bat caves, and setting rat traps, to protect their population. The task of disposing of these rats normally falls to me, since my boss is squeamish, and therefore has a strong aversion to anything that remotely resembles blood (which bizarrely extends to any kind of sauce).

The last few weeks have been pretty exciting  – we’ve been accompanying a group of scientists around the island, on a search for new species, through unexplored areas. This was an amazing experience, and allowed us to see large parts of pristine jungle, away from manmade trails. I had so much fun, in fact, that it wasn’t even ruined by the fact that I had a rather serious clothing crisis, in the form of my trousers deciding to ENTIRELY FALL TO PIECES. I had so much fun, that I didn’t even mind when it started to pelt it down with rain. I had SO MUCH FUN, that it didn’t even matter that we had to navigate our way through a field of wet, slippery rocks, which generally involves you sliding down on your backside, which, when you pretty much aren’t wearing trousers, isn’t very comfortable.

Well, the last part was fairly unpleasant, but it was still amazing. Lots to look forward to now, including turtle tagging training, visiting the other side of the island (which has a beautiful beach called Grand Barbe) and the island’s talent show – ‘Silhouette’s Got Talent’, in which I will be participating!

Peace Out from Paradise.

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Arrested Development. Or is it?

[Tamara…]

While conducting my placement in picturesque Ecuadorian rainforest, and writing an identification guide to the frogs of the area, I decided that knowledge of the local tadpoles would add new insight. Tadpoles are notoriously difficult to identify (even more so than frogs), and so, when faced with a container teeming with mystery youngsters, I decided to raise them, and then identify the adults.

The container appeared to hold one larger tadpole, darker than the rest, that preferred to lurk hidden amongst the thick sediment, and several luminous yellow ones that took to open water in a frenzy.

After a few days, there seemed to be fewer luminous ones. Had they grown to love the sediment? Was the larger one picking them off, one by one? Perhaps an ominous jungle menace was entering the lab by night to prey on these innocent tiddlers!?

What I needed was to take stock, I required an inventory of exactly what I had. As I began to fish them out and replace them in less murky water, I saw something scuttle. Hmmm, too big to be a tadpole. Then I saw it again, did I see legs? After a few more sweeps, I had it, a murderous freshwater crab.

I put the crab in the river, and continued to rehouse the tadpoles. There were actually two of the larger sediment dwellers, but alas, only one brightly coloured one remained! I separated them, should the larger ones become cannibalistic (could the crab have been framed?), and waited. After numerous feasts of algae, stewed cabbage and tuna, the larger ones sprouted back legs. You know the story, their tails shortened and they became altogether more frog like, until, I had frogs!

However, my wait was not over, as they were, and still are, juveniles. Juveniles tend to not have adult markings, making identification difficult. So, the waiting game continues; I currently have them in a little froggy home, complete with pool, plant life, and leaf litter to hide amongst, where it rains several times a day.

The luminous tadpole however, is taking much longer to develop. For a long time it barely changed. A fussy tadpole, it is fond of algae and algae only. Last night, as I refreshed it’s water and added a little more of that delicious algae, I spotted tiny blobs under the tail, the beginnings of limbs! Tense times ahead.

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