Thieves in the Night

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Canivet’s Emerald Hummingbird showing off her beautiful feathers

Kanahau has four resident hummingbirds that I have been putting out feeders for. I started putting the feeders out so that I would be able to get a better photo of these amazing little birds, however they have worked much better than I could have expected. It turns out that sugar water isn’t only popular with intergalactic giant cockroaches dressed as farmers (got to love Men In Black!). The birds have taken to venturing into our rooftop office to check us out as they appear to be particularly curious and I like to think grateful for the treat. Not only is the humming sound (after which the birds are named) very relaxing whilst I work, I’ve managed to get a fair few decent pictures, not easy with a bird who’s wings flap around 50 times per second.

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Waiting in line

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Resting her wings for a moment

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Almost reaching the perfect treat

We wanted to encourage the birds to hang out on the front porch area, so that we could get a cheesy, Snow White inspired welcome upon arrival. This feeder however, seemed to be getting drunk a lot quicker than the other despite there being no new Hummingbirds (it needed refilling once a day as opposed to twice a week like the other). This was quickly depleting our sugar stockpiles!

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Full extension of the wings

So one night I went out to play investigator and caught the thieves in the act…

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The thieves!

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Having a quick taste

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Enjoying the sugar water

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The Hummingbirds are happy, the Bats are happy, my coffee taste rather unsweetened!

Turns out everybody loves sugar water!

For more information on Kanahau and their projects, please visit their website:

http://www.kanahau.com

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A Turtley Awesome Blog…Dude!

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We were walking the dogs along the beach one evening when Andrea frantically ran towards us bringing news from Glenn. Glenn is a friend on the island who acts as a guardian to the Hawksbill turtle nests on Pumpkin Hill beach and had discovered one was soon to hatch! When we arrived at the nest site we were greeted by Glenn’s dog. This dog has been trained to act as a turtle body guard and patiently sits with the hatching turtles, keeping away other dogs and even the occasional crab that might make a meal of the hatchlings. It’s very cute to see how protective she is of the nests.

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Judy watching and waiting for the turtles to emerge

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Just as eager as the dog to see the turtles

Our initial hurry to get to the nest seemed somewhat ridiculous after we spent the first hour staring at a nondescript patch of sand, waiting for action. It was after this time that we saw the first bit of movement, half an hour later the first turtle struggled its way to the surface of the nest, followed by swarms and swarms of the beautiful creatures, all frantically and gracelessly crawling to the water’s edge.

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An hour later and we were still waiting… now with extra layers because of the cold!

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Finally they began to emerge!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The lucky turtle who saw the world before the others!

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Not long after the rest followed

Our job was basically to herd them towards the sea. We created a runway using driftwood and palms to make sure they took a direct route and didn’t extend the already 20 meters run to the water. A few of the weaker turtles needed some encouragement and a few unlucky ones fell over onto their backs during the struggle. Fortunately we were on hand to help them out.

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The runway we created to guide the turtles to their new home

The turtles are clearly poor planners as they picked a day with a particularly rough tide on which to hatch. This meant that most of them had quite a hard time breaking out into the surf without being dumped right back on the beach. One in particular found the trip pretty tough as it had a little stumpy flipper. After a good while watching him run around in circles I gave in and helped him into the ocean. As a general rule it’s best not to interfere too much with nature and it can sometimes be best to let it take its course, however with the Hawksbill Turtle being endangered I thought saving the weaker ones and giving them even the tiniest of chances was worth depriving one of the many crabs a meal they didn’t particularly need!

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The turtle I helped out

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Making their way to the sea together

I have been here such a short time and to be able to witness something this incredible makes me feel unfathomably lucky. I only have a few weeks left on the island and to have my part in escorting 177 endangered turtles safely to the sea is an honour I did not expect. This island has such an amazing range of wildlife and its awesome to be able to play a part in preserving that.

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I hope I gave my new friend a good start to life. Good luck little one!

 

Hanging Out With Bats

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Aside from Iguana research Kanahau are carrying out research into some of the other animals on the island. I’ve been working on a population study of the island’s bats. With the study coming to an end we have so far recorded 12 different species on the island and the results are likely going to be published next year.

Catching bats is a much easier affair than catching iguanas and makes bat days a welcome rest from the days spent in the mangroves. We assemble ‘mist nets’ in the flight paths of the bats. We set up the fine mesh nets before sun down and then all there is left to do is wait for the bats to emerge. As the light gradually deserts the land and leaves us in darkness the first few bats start to venture out in search of food. When the bats inevitably begin to tangle themselves up in our nets we begin to ‘process’ them. This involves identifying the species, weighing, measuring and marking the bat before releasing it off to go about its business as if undisturbed. When handling the bats it’s very important to do so carefully, their limbs seem particularly fragile and damaging them is the last thing we’d want to do. It’s also imperative to avoid getting bitten. Bats are susceptible to becoming carriers of rabies. None of the bats seem to be in any way aggressive and I have all of the necessary jabs, so I am basically safe, but its best to be careful!

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Andrea carefully retrieving a bat from the net

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Checking out the bat before taking measurements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I currently live in Kanahau ‘mission control’, which is located next to the bat caves of Pumpkin hill. In the caves it becomes quite obvious that these animals have no understanding of the concept of personal space, each one flying as close to you as possible for closer inspection of the alien creature changing the usual landscape of their homes. At the start it felt a lot like I was Christian Bale discovering the Bat Cave in Batman Begins, it can be quite nerve racking, especially when you first begin to move around and before you learn that the bats probably aren’t going to crash into you any time soon.

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A bat just pushing off from the roof of the cave

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Lots of flying bats!!

The caves are a fantastic resource for us to use as they have an extensive network of tunnels and chambers in which house many different species of bats. One of which we believe to be the impressive False Vampire Bat. This is a huge bat that feeds on mammals, birds, reptiles and even other bat species (unlike the true vampire bat which consumes only the blood). As of yet I haven’t seen one of these fascinating bats, but we are encouraged by the amount of guano (bat poo) that they’re leaving behind in the caves. False Vampire Bat guano is distinguishable as within the stool is often remains of undigested animal, feathers or some fur for example, lovely! Despite this one remaining ever illusive, I’ve still managed to get a few decent photos from the caves.

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Greater False Vampire Bat seen in March 2014 (photo taken by Steve Clayson)

The work being done here with the bats however, is sadly being stifled by the lack of software for a piece of equipment (Wildlife acoustics SM2) that was recently donated to the project. The software allows them to identify bat species by the noise of their calls, with this they would be able to improve their population study and be certain that there aren’t any sneaky species avoiding capture. We also lack and are wanting to building a harp trap, this is significant as certain bats are able to avoid our mist nets and this trap may allow us to catch the bats we have been unable to before. Because of this it is quite possible that our 12 species might actually be 13 or 14 species.

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Me and Kathy about to climb down from the bat caves

This is both terribly frustrating and genuinely exciting. It is frustrating to see important research being slowed down by a lack of equipment and with so much research to be done on this island it seems budgeting for each project and acquiring funds is a very difficult task. It is however encouraging that with the eventual acquisition of these resources, there may be more secrets to be uncovered from this island. An island this bio-diverse and an organization with such a vast scope of research means there are so many opportunities for incredibly exciting projects here.

Bats are responsible for the pollination of many plants on the island and are responsible for the distribution of the seeds from the forests, which are constantly under threat of being chopped down by short sighted developers and locals who are unaware to their importance in balancing the island’s ecology. Therefore, Kanahau envisages that future conservation efforts need to be focused on education.

 

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Waiting for the perfect shot

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Capturing these beautiful animals in flight

 

 

Me, Myself and I

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Originally I starting writing this blog as a way of letting my family and friends know what I’ve been up to while away in the Caribbean. After my last blog received over 1500 likes and with only having a modest amount of friends on Facebook, I’m starting to think that there are a lot of people reading this who don’t know who I am. I think it’s about time I formally introduced myself. My name is Rebecca Ruscoe (most people just call me Becky), I am 23 years old and I’m from England. I’m currently carrying out research into Antibiotics as part of my PhD at the University of Manchester, which is funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council). They give PhD students the opportunity to carry out a three months placement, that is unrelated to their current research and this is why I am here.

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My lab. The environment I’m used to working in as part of my PhD.

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Me working in Utila. An environment which is very different to what I am used to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No stranger to long days and hard work, (being a PhD student and all) I have learned to make the most of my time off as a means to keep my sanity. In England that means savoring a day spending time with my boys (my boyfriend and 2 dogs), going on a white water kayaking adventure or some other pastime to help me forget the world of synthetic chemistry. Now on my days off I find myself in a tropical paradise without my boys and without any white water looking for new ways to escape from the week’s work and refresh for another week’s trekking and tagging and bat catching.

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My dogs that I left behind

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My boyfriend Jack and me hiking back in the UK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jack and me kayaking in Scotland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a big fan of coffee (at home we have two Nespresso machines as one just isn’t enough to satisfy my wonderful addiction!) my first port of call was to sniff out a local coffee shop on the island. Sure enough I found one, Rio Coco is my very own answer to everything that’s wrong with the world. A self-professed coffee lover I may be, but admittedly I don’t quite have what it takes to hack 7 days a week on Black Americanos alone, so this fine establishment is where I can spend time, juggling a coffee, a bagel and a book, I recommend the Hazy Crazy!

 

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Rio Coco

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My Hazy Crazy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was the quest for home comforts that brought me to Rio Coco and Rio Coco that introduced me to the community. It’s here that I have met members of the community with whom I’ve become friendly and introduced me to some of the things I could be doing on the island in my down time. One example of this is bumping into Emma the Yoga instructor here on the island, who told me about the opportunity to go stand up paddleboarding with her. We even did Yoga on the boards, it was an amazing experience! And has made me try Yoga on solid ground at Yoga Utila.

 

 

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Stand Up Paddleboarding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Me trying out some Yoga

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Utila’s tourism industry is based almost solely around its AWESOME coral reef and is apparently the most affordable place in the world to do a PADI diving qualification. I’ve ventured into the reef, but armed only with a snorkel and mask. This is the first reef I’ve seen in person and it didn’t disappoint, the incredible biodiversity of the coral itself and the fish that call it home was beautiful. As I dove down into the water, holding my breath, I found myself amongst long rays of light that pierced the surface of the water, iridescent fish swimming between them whilst they played off the coral, I was transported back into my imaginary wildlife documentary. So enchanted by the beauty of my surroundings, I found that when I finally broke free of its allure it was to the sudden and stark realization that I hadn’t breathed in quite some time. Treading water at the surface, coughing, spluttering and desperately trying to re-catch my breath I was suddenly very jealous of all the divers on the island. I’ve had a very small taste of the reef, but heard tales of old pirate ships sunken and ready for exploration and whale sharks and sea caves. My conclusion, diving is a must on this island!

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Snorkelling with Lindsey and Jordyn

It’s All About Iguanas!

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Some Background to the Project

So my work here varies slightly from day to day, but the main themes are the conservation of Bats and Iguanas, I’ll be talking about my work with the latter briefly in this blog. On the island of Utila there are 4 endemic species, one of which is the Swamper (Ctenosaura bakeri) or Baker’s spiny tail iguana.

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Swamper Iguana

This Iguana is classified as critically endangered, there are two main factors contributing to this; hunting affects Iguanas all over the developing world, presumably they’re rather tasty as over hunting is driving this particular Iguana to the edge of extinction and the lack of education and job opportunties amongst the locals means that many of the hunters are unaware of the damage they’re doing to this species or they have no other way of making money. The other problem is the destruction of their habitat. Mangrove swamps aren’t the most stunning places in the world at first glance and they can be perceived as offering little in land value. This is perhaps the reason that they are so readily destroyed to further development of beach homes and holiday resorts that add to Utila’s successful tourism industry. This is tragic however, as mangrove swamps are a beautiful, unique and important ecosystem; they protect the island from coastal erosion and are incredibly biodiverse. I’ve witnessed some of the destruction first hand and it really is awful to see how shortsighted people can be and how they treat an environment, which they ultimately depend on. The irony is that a tourism industry based on the beauty of the island’s coral reefs is damaging the mangrove swamps, which act as a nursery for many of the reef’s species of fish.

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In the thick of the mangroves

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An area of mangroves that has been destroyed

The day-to-day work

I largely assist on the population studies of the species (Ctenosaura bakeri). The Utilian Iguana is only found in the mangroves of Utila. This means I get the pleasure of spending most of my time wading through the warm salty waters of the mangroves on the ‘hunt’ for Iguanas. When I first arrived in the mangroves the Iguana’s seemed like some kind of mythical beings or reptilian ninjas, invisible to the naked eye! Even when my other teammates would point one out, I could rarely actually see them until we were right by the tree it was sat in. Like any good hunter though I’ve adapted and learnt how to think like an Iguana, now despite their best efforts to hide, I’m spotting almost half of the Iguanas we tag on an average day in the field, which feels pretty good! Especially when I am ‘hunting’ them to protect them and not for any other reason. Locating the Iguanas is only the first half of the battle, catching them is the next art that had to be mastered. We use a long pole with a noose on the end.

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Jordyn Mulder catching an Iguana

This is the most effective method of catching them and doesn’t cause them too much stress, which is a good job really as an angry Iguana can have a mean whippy tail and will try it’s best to take a bite out of your thumb in order to get away! From 12ft below underneath the Caribbean sun, an Iguana’s head is quite a tricky target to loop a noose over. A personal highlight of mine is climbing the trees to get closer to my catch. This also provides an amazing view of the rest of the mangroves and helps me to scope out other potential areas they might be hiding out in.

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Me climbing to catch my next Iguana

Each Iguana gets a unique number and the tree it was caught in is labeled and marked on a GPS. This part is very important as each Iguana ‘owns’ maybe a handful of trees in its territory and needs to be released onto its own tree to avoid any neighbourhood disputes. I know I wouldn’t be too thrilled if when I got home after a long day at work and my neighbour was sat on my sofa, so we try to pay them the courtesy of always returning them home. Tagging an Iguana consists first of a visual tag made of beads, these are essentially jazzy piercings that make the Iguana look stylish, without impeding its everyday life and allow us to instantly see if it’s a recapture or a new Iguana. Once we’ve done this we give them a PIT tag sub-dermally around its mid region. This allows us to scan and identify the Iguana and get information by looking at our past records, such as its home territories, an estimation of age etc. These tags also allow us to monitor the growth of juveniles. It’s always encouraging to re-capture an adult that was released as a juvenile several years previously and managed to survive! Once we’ve done the relevant tagging and taken a photo of their perdy little faces we put them back on their tree to carry on sunbathing and hopefully avoiding the other Iguana hunters on the island.

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Taking an Iguana’s measurements

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Inserting a bead tag

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Each individual is returned to the tree from which they were caught

My Journey to Kanahau

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Undergoing a BBSRC funded PhD allows me and my fellow colleagues the opportunity to carry out a placement that, by rule, must be unrelated to my current field of research.

My Current research sees me working 9 – 6 (minimum) daily in an almost windowless laboratory, battling with the huge task of creating new antibiotics to replace the current ones that bacteria are quickly becoming resistant to, as you can imagine it’s rather draining.

After a year of my PhD the time to start organizing my placement grew ever nearer until I could put it off no longer. I started searching through potential placement options between experiments (missing out on valuable tea breaks as I went, you can only imagine my frustration at this new chore eating into my already limited downtime!).

After reluctantly lining up a few uninspiring ways to see out my prescribed 3 months, in another lab, doing someone else’s research I happened across an email that I would usually have discarded as spam, intended for the Biologists working under the BBSRC. It contained a link to the website of Kanahau, an organization situated on an island called Utilla (near Honduras). This was the first time I allowed my imagination to run wild and view my placement as an opportunity to get away from the monotony of life in a Synthetic Chemisty lab and have some fun!

I spent a little time on Kanahau’s website and talking to a previous volunteer that was also from my university and (spurred on by my boyfriend’s impending 3 month trip to the Philippines) decided to run away and become a conservation researcher in Central America for 9 weeks!

I first saw Utilla from the window of my flight from San Salvador on the way to Roatan (getting here from the UK took a series of flights on increasingly smaller planes, culminating in a private flight from Roatan to Utila). The view was simply spectacular; as someone who has never been any further from the UK than Europe the scenery was shocking, the vividness of the colours and the thick warm taste of the air were something I hadn’t expected. The feeling that I was being flown through the panoramic landscape shot at the start of a David Attenborough documentary was only strengthened when the pilot of my tiny plane pointed out the Whale Shark swimming just below us, visible through the LITERALLY crystal clear water. Had I not have been completely aghast by the beauty of my current surroundings I might have had the forethought to take some pictures, however I feel ultimately lucky to have experienced that moment fully, without the distraction of a camera lens.

I got off our plane, thanked the pilot and waited in the small café at the end of the runway for Andrea to arrive, Andrea is part of the team here at Kanahau and the lead researcher, she showed me to my accommodation for the first 3 weeks right by the botanical gardens. Already I was starting to draw comparisons with my routine at home. I certainly prefer walking through the gardens in the morning casually picking fruits for my breakfast smoothie to the unpleasantness of the number 86 bus, overcrowded with sweaty Mancunians jostling for seats.

So as I adjust to the novelties of island life, after the 6 month road to Kanahau, plotting and planning my way to the hammock from which I’m currently typing, I’ll be writing small blogs about my experiences. Before coming here I would have welcomed the insights of a previous volunteer to help me make my decision, so hopefully I can help to give outsiders a window to the amazing work that is being done here and is being planned for the future, by such a small and passionate team.

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My private flight from Roatan to Utila

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The view from Pumpkin Hill

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The view as approaching Utila

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My home for three weeks at the Botanical Gardens