House Geckos!

I'm taking a little break to catch up on writing my journal (I've been a month behind), but its impossible to resist taking videos like this one:

I lived in India when I was nine, and one of my favorite things about the country was having house geckos that eat all your bugs, look awesome, and regenerate limbs!


Camp Condor

We left Ezequiel to monitor the King Vultures (Mayan Condors) in Veinte de Noviembre and headed out to Nuevo Becal, an Ejido with some of the highest jungle in the area. Mauro says that even though the Calakmul region gets the most rainfall of any other place in the Yucatan Peninsula, it is also the driest because the water just runs downhill and away from the highest part of the state.

We picked up Nico, a local guide who has begun to specialize in guiding biologists through his ejido. He worked with Rafael on white-lipped peccaries, and has worked with Mauro on several past projects. We decided to pre-rot our cow guts* this time, so we drove through town emanating terrible smells from the bucket strapped to the back of our Suburban.

We spent the afternoon and the next morning making a new trap with an even bigger net from scratch, so we got pretty good at tying tiny nooses. Nico hated this nit picky work whereas Mauro and I only greatly disliked it. He told us that he would rather be macheteing any day.

The common vultures and Mayan Condors began circling even before we were finished and had an opportunity to finish the trap and set the bait, so we hurriedly finished the last few knots and began the waiting and the checking.

We never did catch anything that weekend. We spent Saturday and Sunday checking the trap every hour or so, usually scaring the birds away upon our arrival. While we waited, we had plenty of time to build a sweet campsite, dismantle a rotting chiclero field house for firewood, and enjoy Nico's amazing jungle cooking.

Oooo, and photograph spiders!


*Wow, how often do you hear someone say that??? Condors will only come to rotting food, so in our last run we spent the first two days essentially just waiting for the cow guts we're using as bait to rot. FUN!

Ancient Mayan Secret

Now that Emil's gone back to the US, I'm the only native English speaker around for Brett to talk to, so all of his stories come through me first. One of these proved particularly helpful today. A few weeks ago, Emil started itching all over from chechen, a local tree with much the same properties as poison oak or ivy. Somewhere, he had heard that chaka, another local tree, had a bark and leaves that absorbed toxins on contact with the skin.

It worked, and Brett later used the same trick on an "especially painful sting" from an unidentified insect. As we were heading out to the field to track the King Vulture in ejido Veinte de Noviembre today, I told Mauro about chaka as I collected some of its peely, translucent red bark just in case. It was a wet, rainy day, which made getting and following a radio signal just that much harder. King Vultures preferentially hang out on big, branching trees next to water, so the signal we were following was a straight line along an undulating stream. After two and a half hours of crossing streams and jungle, we found the radio-collared condor perched in its favorite habitat.

We figured we were closer to the bridge we crossed on the way in than we were to base camp, but it turns out we were very, very wrong. We never did find the bridge, but I did try my hand at Macheteing for the first time.

After some coaching from Mauro I was doing pretty good. That is, until I hacked a wasp's nest hiding under a palm leaf. I gor stung on the eyebrow and it hurt like hell, but luckily I still had chaka in my pocket.

The thin wet bark stuck to my brow for a while and provided almost instant relief-relief that instantly ended when it dried and fell off. I think chaka works by absorbing water (and everything else) from your skin. As we found our way out and I replaced my chaka patch over and over, I could feel my eyebrow skin getting drier and drier. Its strange learning an ancient Mayan secret from a fellow Gringo, but thanks Brett!



We've gotten to know the two leopard researchers, Emil and Brett, a little better over the last few days. Emil runs a U.S. based group called the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, which I'm guessing is a project to detect jaguars along the U.S.-Mexico border. He brought along Brett, a junior in wildlife management at the University of Arizona, as a volunteer in charge of tracking the recently released jaguar, Carmen.

After Brett had stayed with us a couple of days, Mauro said something along the lines of "Brett's an American, but he seems like a good person."

The look of surprise on Mauro's face was the best part.


The Forests aren't like This

Mauro and I went tracking again today, and we brought friends! Rafael, on the left, has a lot of experience with radio telemetry from his studies of white lipped pecarie movements in this area. Ezequiel, center, is a guide from Veinte de Noviembre who is begining to specialize in ecotourism, especially with birdwatchers. He's a bit of a birdwatcher himself, and would spot birds and explain them to me throughout the day. We're hoping Ezequiel will track the vulture while Mauro is gone, so we're teaching him radio telemetry today.

    As we hacked through a particularly thick part of what I thought was called a forest, Ezequiel turned to me and said:

"The forests aren't like this, huh?"*
"But, this is a forest." I replied.
"No, no no, this is a jungle."
"How do you understand the word 'forest'?"
"Forests are all pine trees."
 You see, in Mexico, all of the forestry literature uses Pine forests, common in central and northern Mexico,  when it means to say forests. Its totally understandable that the word would take on a different meaning here, but I think it has an inferioritizing effect. Just like in English the word "Jungle" has bad connotations (which is why we use Rainforest) in Spanish "Selva" has similar problems. It sounds like semantics, but semantics matter!


* Obviously, this conversation took place in Spanish, but the words in question correspond quite nicely in English. "Bosque" is used much like forest in most of America, and "Selva" is used like jungle.

Tracking the King Vulture

After a prolonged release, the first radio collared King Vulture in Mexico is on its dandy way. In order to make sure the bird was doing alright and to test out the radio tracking, we followed the metronomic beep, beep, BEEP, beep until the louder beeps led us towards the "Mayan Condor".

My little bit of radio tracking experience with horned lizards in Oklahoma served me well, because we are using the exact same equipment!

Mauro tracked for a bit, then gave me the receiver and headed down the trail to check on the trap. I wandered around for a bit, following the signal around. By the time Mauro came back, I had all but given up. "I think maybe its in the air?" I said, not believing it myself.

He looked up and immediately spotted it. I was standing right under the bird! Turns out, I do know how to radio track, but I'm a terrible wildlife spotter! I think its because I love looking at plants and get distracted.

Here's the image that Mauro and I saw. Mauro was able to figure out that the dark blob in the center is the King Vulture. It was raining on and off, so the bird looked rather cold, but Mauro says it was looking around and seemed very active. 

We headed over to the Calakmul preserve office in Xpujil afterwards to try and use the Internet. I only took this picture because of the sponsors depicted on the door, which include the Nature Conservancy and the US Department of the Interior. More like Department of the Exterior!


Breaking: King Vulture Captured

I'm breaking chronosequence today* to bring you this important report from the jungles of Campeche. I've been working with Mauro Sanvicente, a veterinarian turned burocrat turned wildlife vet, to capture and place a radio transmitter on a King Vulture in the area around the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. Mauro's been at this for three months, but he hasn't captured any of these elusive beasts. In fact, no one has ever captured a healthy adult specimen in Mexico. Until today.

We've been at the Ejido "Veinte de Noviembre," just north of the Reserve, for three days with no luck. Mauro says it takes a couple of days for the roadkill & cowguts to get stinky, so the third day is usually when they take interest in the bait.

Our trap consisted of a net laced with tiny nooses meant to snag a foot or a claw, placed on the ground and with the meat in the middle. We had almost given up and were talking about what to do tomorrow when I mentioned, in passing, a sound I had heard last time I went over to check the trap. It was kind of a low roar, a sound I thought was associated with a wild boar or a howler monkey.

Mauro asked me to describe the sound, and as I did he got excited and headed to the little tent from where we check the trap. He came back with images of a juvenile checking out our bait, but decided to give them some time (they're extremely cautious) to explore the trap and get their
talons caught in it.

After lunch, we headed back with Mauro in the lead, practically tiptoeing through the forest. Mauro went to the tent, looked out the screen, and immediately signaled me to stop. An adult King Vulture was snared in the trap. Mauro has reached this point twice (one of those times was yesterday) but both times the vulture broke the fishing line noose and got away. We ran over, quickly putting our gloves on to avoid being slashed by a beak designed to cut flesh.

Mauro grabbed the bird, which immediately became completely limp as it began to play dead. I put a tiny hood over its head and Mauro picked it up. The rain began an instant later. We ran to the little space Mauro had set up to work with the bird, and he sent me to get the boxes of stuff we would need out of the car. When I came back, Mauro told me to grab the bird's head and talons so that he could place the radio backpack on it. Feeling the limp bird in my hands, I alternated between worrying that it was actually dying and worrying that it would suddenly come to life and bite my hand off.

It was still raining on us, so Mauro quickly threw a tarp over the stick frame he had built beforehand and made us a tent. He came inside, and we suddenly realized we had done it! For the first time in Mexico, Mauro and I had captured and were about to place a radio collar on a specimen of the King Vulture. We were at the cutting edge of science, and it felt good.

A minute later, I felt the bird begin to heave its chest. It had been holding its breath the whole time! We had not been expecting the bird to play dead like this. In fact, we had been expecting it to fight us viciously and without remorse.

We tied on the little radio tracker backpack, being careful to allow the bird full mobility of its wings. Then began the samples. I held the bird and moved it around for Mauro while he took samples of its parasites, pulled out a few feathers, and measured its wings. Luckly it was very serious about playing dead, because the sampling only got more invasive. As I looked on with a mix of fascination and pity, Mauro took an anal swab, then a mouth swab, and proceeded to extract two vials of vulture blood from the animal's legs. If we were into that, we could cast a really mean spell on someone right about now.

Once the sampling was done, we weighed the bird in a towel and then released it. Well, releasing might be too strong a word, because it continued to play dead even as we walked away:

Once we were far enough away, I filmed this whispered interview... you better turn the volume up, and I hope you speak Spanish!

Over and out



An Insignificant Ruin

There are so many ruins in the area that this one has been slash and burnt for agriculture!

Epic Mayan Lanscapes

Between the Vulture Campsite and the town of Veinte de Noviembre is what Mauro calls a "small" Mayan ruin. I couldn't give up the opportunity to photograph these "insignificant" ruins at sunset today. If a ruin like this one was found in the US, there would be archaeologists, reporters, and tourists before long. Here, its a good place to plant corn and raise cattle. The fact is, there's so many of these ruins around us (hundreds in this ejido alone) that unless they're truly impressive, they're just a landscape feature, like a hill or a dune. In fact, I've met Mayas who weren't even sure they were made by people!

Its a strange, sad fact that many people in the US know more about ancient Maya history than the people descended from the pyramid builders.


Howler Monkeys!

Another day of waiting for a Mayan Condor to smell our bait, but luckily we found some howler monkeys to entertain us while waiting to check the trap.

I'm getting quite a bit better at this binocular photography thing, and have figured out how to line up the camera lens with the binoculars without making it obvious in the picture what I'm doing. Some of these monkeys are practically posing for us!

We also growled at them a little, which brought upon this reaction:

Notice how the main male shuts the other monkeys up whenever they try to growl with him.


* This isn't the first time I've hung out with howler monkeys. Check out this video I took a few years ago in Costa Rica, and turn up the volume so you can hear the good parts:

Condor Watch

Mauro and I headed out to the field today, driving past an epic ridgeline before arriving at out little basecamp. We spent the next 2 hours (or was it three?) tying tons of tiny little nooses to the net that formed the trap. Which was fine at first but got worse and worse as the heat rose. The idea is that the King Vultures will walk around on the net when they go for the bait and get their feet stuck in the nooses. Once we were done, we set the bait, a pile of cow guts that had been cooking in the sun. Then the waiting got started.

While we waited, we (quietly) headed over to the King Vulture Rookery, where Mauro counted about 15 birds and collected feathers (from the ground) while I tried my hand at using binoculars as a zoom lens. After about half an hour and upteen tries, I finally got a decent shot. I woke up out of my photography trance and joined Mauro by the stream. Watching him work, I realized field biology is often very much like a World of Warcraft quest:
"Follow the trail south to the river where the King Vultures sleep. Collect as many of their feathers as you can (drop rate - 15%) and bring them back that we may learn about their kind." EXP 5000 (low level).

We checked the trap on the way back, and ate lunch on a table mauro made while he was bored on another outing. There's a lot of waiting in this job.

But that's alright, because the waiting takes place in a beautiful forest, and gives you time to do things like go down to the river and bathe. Mauro told me the bridge over the stream I bathed in used to connect Veinte de Noviembre (the ejido we're working in, named after the date of the Mexican Revolution of 1910) to a neighboring ejido. The other community had started stealing timber out of Veinte's land so in response Veinte cut them off by blowing the bridge. Nowadays, it is only passable on foot or on a bike, and makes a great place to sit and enjoy a cool breeze.

We didn't catch anything, no surprise since Mauro has yet to catch one of these creatures, even though he's been at it for months! But it was a beautiful day nonetheless.

On the way back, Mauro and I started talking about how unfortunate the King Vulture's name is. Think about the words 'Condor' and 'Vulture' for a second.* If you're like me, 'Condor' brings up images of a majestic bird soaring off of a cliff, of Californian and Andean efforts to bring a natural wonder back from the brink of extinction. 'Vulture,' on the other hand, brings up images of a roadkill and garbage eating scavenger that circles overhead as you die of thirst in the desert.

The difference is pure perception, but hey, so is the stock market. Since the "King Vulture" is a sister species to the California Condor and a distant cousin to the Common Vulture, why not call it a condor? I had been thinking of "Mexican Condor" as a better name, but Mauro suggested something better - the Mayan Condor.

Let the name switching battle begin!


* We had this conversation in Spanish, but the words 'Condor' and 'Zopilote' have similar connotations to their counterparts in English.
** Some more pictures that didn't make it into the text:

Another binocular-zoomed shot of the Mayan Condor.

The bridge no longer supports cars or trucks, but that's the idea.

The creek where I took a bath. 
Sometimes this place looks just like Virginia in the Spring.