Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Of rattlesnakes and tents

Sores from chiggers and biting flies covered my ankles and calves.  My right middle finger was swollen and purple from a palm spine that broke off under my skin.  I had been stung, bitten, stabbed and scratched.  I was happy.  But it was time to leave.

It rained heavily two days before we left camp, with thunder and strong wind.  It rained a little the next day as well.  Through it all, my rain fly kept the ground around my tent dry, shaded it during the day, and retained warmth at night.  The nearest natural cover was a few dozen meters away under a clump of moriche palms.  The space around my tent, in other words, was prime real estate.

I often find spiders, caterpillars, moths and other things on the outside of my tent, either trapped by the rain fly or taking advantage of the protected space.  Entering my tent at night in the Parabara savanna, I’d sometimes encounter frogs hopping out of my way.

I woke before 0500 the morning we left and started packing in the darkness.  I was away from camp and enjoyed the cool temperature, and so didn’t bother putting on my clothes.  I circled the tent half-naked, unhooking and removing the rain fly.  I circled a second time, pulling up the stakes.  I picked up the tent, shook it out and placed it back on the ground.  I pulled out the tent poles and put them away.  Then I folded the tent.  I started at the front end where the door is, and then walked to fold the other side.

I was suddenly aware of a rattling sound and looked down.  A small neotropical rattlesnake lay coiled 6 to 8 inches from my bare right foot.  The tail shook and the snake writhed within its coils, its head alert and pointed at me.  It was practically screaming, begging for attention to keep me from stepping on it.

I don’t know how the long the terrified snake had been rattling, but I have the impression it went on for a while before I noticed.  It had taken refuge under my rain fly, pressed against my tent, and I had disturbed it.  I had walked by the snake at least twice, passing within inches, and had fortunately not stepped on it.  I had reached down next to it to pull up a stake.  The cool temperature and the snake’s unwillingness to waste venom had kept it from biting.

I leapt back and danced around, then sat on my pack a couple meters away.  I shook a little and thought deep thoughts.  There was probably some cursing in there somewhere.  The rattling continued.  I put my clothes and boots on to calm myself.  I grabbed my unfolded tent, pulled it away from the rattlesnake and finished packing.

I remembered how, lying in bed the last two nights, I had heard a rattling sound.  I wrote it off as an insect because, after all, why would a snake rattle during the night for no reason?  It didn’t occur to me that there might be a snake pressed against my tent and that I disturbed it by shaking the tent when I entered.

After I gathered my wits I took some photos.  Then I went to camp and told the others.

Can you spot the snake in the grass?

A small neotropical rattlesnake (Crotalus durissus) sheltered under my tent, a choice which almost ended in disaster for us both

Matt and Meshach came to photograph it.  Andrew caught it and took a tissue sample.  That lone rattlesnake, discovered by chance on the morning of our departure, was our only record of the species from the Parabara savanna.  So it was a good find.  All in the name of discovery…

I thought about its rattle and its bite.  I encounter venomous snakes fairly often.  I’ve never been afraid of snakes, and I’m still not.

But shit, that was close.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Savanna wandering

I learn from the people around me.  But the best moments are when I’m alone in a natural place.  I wander according to my curiosity.  I listen and isolate the sounds around me.  Rather than search for specific answers, I process whatever information’s available.  I’m aware.

Much of our work required specific routines and schedules, often in places far from camp.  But there was also unorganized collecting close to home.  I would wander alone in the forests and grasslands near camp, collecting species as I encountered them.  This sort of work—the least useful for experimental purposes—is my favorite.  It’s an excuse to experience nature without an agenda.   I can devote time to all the organisms and processes around me, not just those of immediate importance.  I can watch birds, feel the leaves of trees, smell and taste things, and ask questions about the landscape.

Periods of shallow broad inquisitiveness are as important as deep focused investigations.  They hone my skills as a naturalist and suggest new questions.  They allow me to re-examine old questions in a new light.  With my mind open and senses alert, these are prime times for experiencing the unexpected.

So while I enjoyed the company, I made sure to spend time wandering alone.  Sometimes I’d tag along with someone else.

Southeast of camp rose a rocky hill capped by a small bush island.  Sandpaper trees (Curatella americana) grew on its slopes.  I climbed one and listened.  Crickets buzzed and a screaming piha (Lipaugus vociferans) called from a gallery forest.  Red-shouldered macaws (Diopsittaca nobilis) squawked in moriche palms.  A breeze blew.  I followed some tapir (Tapirus terrestris) footprints down the hill until they disappeared in a gallery forest.  Over a dozen parallel trails, some fresher than others, connected the hilltop and the wet areas below.

Tapir trails led downhill to the moriche palms

Some species, like this eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), were the same as those back home

The edge between forest and grassland could be sharp and sudden

Burton and the small mammal team often set up their bat nets at edges like these

The shoulder high tallgrass of wet morichal was difficult to navigate

Don and Leanna seined for pencilfish (Nannostomus sp.) and small characids in a hidden pool

From hilltops alternating bands of grassland, morichal and forest extended into the distance

Wandering is productive.  But it’s easy to brush aside for more urgent things.  I have to remind myself to wander every now and again, or risk going stale.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Afternoon with the Waiwai

The Rupununi’s edge marks a cultural boundary as well as an ecological one.  The Wapichan range south with the grasslands but are replaced in rainforest by the Waiwai.  A few miles from camp, after the forest swallows the last savanna, the Kuyuwini River forms a rough border between the two.

Flowing through lowland rainforest a few miles from the savanna edge, the Kuyuwini marks a rough boundary between the Wapichan and Waiwai

A mixed Waiwai-Wapichan village, Parabara Landing, is situated on a high bank of the river.  Most of us would visit or sleep here at some point, to interact with the community and sample the surrounding lowland rainforest.

We drove most of the way in our pickups, along the route we had scouted before, until the road disappeared under the Kuyuwini’s waters.  Fourteen of us packed into a motorized canoe, carved from a single tree trunk, and headed downstream.  A few minutes later we pulled up at the bare clay banks of the village landing.

The road continues on the other side of the Kuyuwini

The village was a half mile downstream by canoe

It took around two hours to travel the 10 miles to Parabara Landing, including a half mile canoe trip
There was a cluster of houses, a church, and a central meeting place, surrounded by farms and plantations.  We brought a generator, a laptop and a projector and hung a sheet from one wall of the central hut.  Families gathered for a photo slideshow of our work and the creatures we’d seen.  The Toshao (chief) introduced us and summarized our presentation in Waiwai.

Local families gathered in the central hut for our slideshow

Evi, Ed and Andrew talked about our work to the people of Parabara Landing

The Toshao introduced us and translated into Waiwai

After the talk we hired guides and set off for the forest.  A man named Bernard led us through town and past the surrounding farms and young successional forest.  We wanted oldgrowth forest undisturbed by farming.  We continued south and broke off onto a smaller trail to the southwest until we found old dark forest with large trees.  Leeanne and Samson and I left the trail to collect leaf litter.

Standardized transects force you to sample in a straight line, uninfluenced by outside factors like trails and roads.  They randomize your choice of habitat and minimize the effects of subconscious collecting biases.  There is a downside, however, when working in unknown places with poor visibility—when you start you don’t know where you’ll end up.  Our leaf litter transects were 200 meters long—20 litter samples spaced 10 meters apart.  In rainforest that’s far too long to see end to end.  We just picked a place to start and set off on a compass bearing through the brush.

Toward the end of the transect we heard metal banging and the roar of a generator and water pump.  There was a gold mining operation ahead.  Miners were clearing forest, washing away the ground beneath and pumping the sediment through a sluice.  A crude hut was constructed nearby.  Our patch of oldgrowth was not as undisturbed as we had hoped.  We managed to avoid the clearings and ended just short of the main operation.

Tired and saddened from the mine, we took a break before returning to the village.

We rested before beginning the long trip home

We walked to the village, went to the landing and headed back upstream to our truck.  We left the forest behind and raced home through the savanna.

The forest disappeared and we crossed the open savanna at dusk

We ate dinner and hung our traps.  I bathed and stretched and went to my tent.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Dyurizu Wa'o

When we left Kusad for Parabara we exchanged an island of forest in a sea of grassland for one of grassland in forest.

In some ways the Parabara savanna is the reverse of Kusad—an island of grassland in a sea of forest

These southern forests, however, differed from those of Kusad.  This was rainforest, part of the Amazonian rainforest that extends over the Guiana Shield and the Amazon Basin.  Following rivers and creeks, strips of gallery forest penetrated the dry Parabara savanna.  Viewed from above, the green bands section the savanna into smaller chunks.  It was along one of these longitudinal oases that we set up camp.

We camped next to gallery forest along the Dyurizu Wa’o

Our gallery forest was several miles long but less than a fifth of a mile wide.  Like a tunnel under a mountain, the road passed through the dark forest to connect the savanna on either side.

Vegetation closed in around the road across the narrow gallery forest

I collected in this forest several times during our stay, and bathed daily in the creek.  After returning from the bush island, Angel helped us collect here as well.  We collected litter and split up to hand collect.

I found this longhorn beetle (Cerambycidae) on a heliconia leaf in the forest

Rainforests are perhaps the darkest aboveground habitats on Earth.  Seeing animals or people can be difficult and sound is often the best way to observe the world around you.  In the absence of trails, machetes or cutlasses are helpful.  On this day we cut a short trail of our own.  Then we followed a trail Burton’s team had cut to lay mammal traps.

Even a cut trail can be difficult in dense vegetation

Litter in hand, we returned to camp after a couple hours and set up our traps.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bush island

A bush island lay a few hundred meters east of camp.  It was small, only 120 to 130 yards in diameter.  Isolated forest patches like these differ from nearby large forests.  A bush island is essentially a ring of forest edge wrapped up on itself, with little or no dark still interior.  They have lower canopies and smaller trees of fewer species, and are brighter, hotter, drier and more exposed to winds.  Such islands contain a small subset of the species found in nearby forest.  Species likely to thrive here are good dispersers—they can cross intervening habitats to reach the island—and those that can tolerate the harsh conditions of the exposed forest edge.

Bush islands are a common feature of savannas around the world.  To truly represent the Rupununi we needed to sample these communities.  Angelbert (“Angel”) joined us.  Normally part of the large mammal team, Angel was the camp’s Wapichan scholar and an experienced jaguar hunter.  Today he wanted to learn about ants.  After a breakfast of roti, potatoes and sardines we left for the island.

Angel, Samson, Leeanne and I set off in the morning to sample a nearby bush island

To access the bush island we cut through an outer wall of dense, fast-growing plants.  Although people often misuse it to refer to rainforest in general, the word “jungle” appropriately refers to such dense scrubby vegetation at a forest edge.

The interior was well lit with few large trees.  A spiny palm dominated the island, mostly short young individuals, but a few tall ones.  There were some woody trees as well, occasionally draped in epiphytic aroids, and heliconias dotted the understory.  A couple melastomes grew at the forest edge, one of which (Tococa sp.) was an ant-plant.  Its leaf petioles were swollen and hollow, allowing ants to nest inside and defend the plant from predators.

We collected leaf litter and split up to hand collect.  Biting Azteca species filled the island, especially along the edges.  One species built large hanging nests from tall trees.  We learned that the Wapichan use nests like these as medicine.  They boil the nest, strain out the ants and bathe in the scented water to treat sickness.

Azteca nests like these are sometimes boiled and used in traditional medicine

In addition to the Azteca, we collected Gigantiops destructor, Pachycondyla apicalis, Ectatomma tuberculatum, jumping trap-jaw ants (Odontomachus), fire ants (Solenopsis), Camponotus, Pseudomyrmex, Dolichoderus and others.   Small Pheidole lived alongside termites, fungus gardening Apterostigma nested in rotting logs, and Crematogaster nested inside the Tococa ant-plants.  And, true to form, a metallic green orchid bee stung me on the eyebrow.

Well defended caterpillars aggregated on a tree trunk and waved to warn us away

Camp, with all its noise and activity, was a short walk away.  Looking out from the edge across the grassland, we could see it and the gallery forest beyond.  But for the morning at least, we were in a world of palms and ants and things that creep in the litter.

A short walk through the grass separated the bush island from camp

Angel taught me a phrase.  “Ngor mat san”—I am an ant man.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Rupununi's edge

We were on the southeastern fringes of the Rupununi, in a pocket of savanna separated from the grasslands to the north by a strip of rainforest.  A dirt road linked us to the rest of Guyana, crossed our savanna and continued on into continuous rainforest.  Gone were the open flat plains and dry forests of Kusad.  Our new world was one of rocky hills of grass surrounded by dark rainforest.  Strips of gallery forest reached northward across the savanna like green fingers, and patches of forest—bush islands—dotted hilltops.

This was the Parabara savanna.  There was a Wapichan village here by that name but a few years ago it disbanded and most people migrated north, leaving just a few scattered farms.  Now we were free to explore it.  Our camp straddled the road near a muddy creek—a tributary of the Bototo Wa’o.  Lone vehicles sometimes passed through but we mostly had it to ourselves.

Our new camp straddled the road near where it crossed a gallery forest

I woke before sunrise.  In the confusion and dark the night before I set up my tent in the communal hammock area.  When the sun rose I scouted for a better place.  I found a spot a hundred meters or so north of camp, just before the bunchgrasses gave way to damp morichal.  I tied a cord from some moriche palms and hung my clothes.  I had washed them in the Mokoro Wa’o three days ago but the rain kept them from drying.

I pitched my tent along nearby damp morichal

I joined the others for breakfast.  The Wapichan team members had brought their bows and arrows and people practiced shooting behind camp.

A few people sharpened their bow skills before breakfast

Today we would scout the road ahead until it left grassland and entered continuous forest.  The route had just become passable after the wet season mud and was still flooded in low places.  We wound east and south around grassy hills and across creeks.  Scarlet macaws (Ara macao) and savanna hawks (Buteogallus meridionalis) flew overhead and swallow-winged puffbirds (Chelidoptera tenebrosa) perched on open snags.  A red brocket deer browsed at a forest edge.  In rainforest the road narrowed into a muddy alley overshadowed by tall trees.  We kept our balance and ducked under branches as the truck lurched over bumps and ruts.

We passed the fish team as they collected in one of the riparian forests crossing the savanna

A red brocket deer (Mazama americana) browsed near dense cover at the forest edge

The road narrowed as it passed through rainforest

After entering continuous forest we stopped to explore.  Evi found a jaguar footprint in the muddy road.  Looking south, I pictured the forest extending for hundreds of miles nearly to the banks of the Amazon, broken only by rivers, villages and scattered gold mines.

We stopped to explore the continuous rainforest along the road at the savanna’s edge

Evi used a paw print in the road to teach us a little about jaguar tracking

We left the confines of the rainforest and returned to our grassland camp.  Samson and I collected in the nearby gallery forest.  I bathed in the creek.  My clothes had finally dried in the open air among the moriches and I took them off the line.  I sorted ants and prepared for next day’s collecting.  In the evening we drank sorrel wine and I went to sleep.

Our new bathing hole was a small creek

I was satisfied with our new home.  We were in the sun and it was hot but there was a lot to discover.