So, now I’m going to try my hand at some travel writing, and explain just what I was doing in Guatemala at the turn of the new year. This was to help out with Project Chicchan (http://project-chicchan.co.uk/), “a wildlife monitoring organisation working in Guatemala to promote the conservation of biodiversity, with a particular emphasis on the reptiles and amphibians of the region”. Based at Las Guacamayas Research Station, on the southern border of Laguna Del Tigre National Park in the north of Guatemala, the work consists of surveying reptiles and amphibians in the surrounding humid forest habitat. A previous study of the surrounding area, published in 2000, found 31 reptile and amphibian species. Project Chicchan’s first expedition, in the summer of 2013, brought the known total for the area up to 17 amphibian species and 55 reptiles – one of these was a snake, Tropidodipsas fasciatus, that had never even been recorded in Guatemala before! Perhaps better than anything, this shows how much there is still to learn about these habitats, and why projects like this are so necessary for conservation.
After hearing about the planned December expedition, I spent a while thinking about it, while exchanging a few emails with Rowland Griffin, the founder of Project Chicchan. Ultimately I decided that while it did seem a little daunting, it would give me some valuable experience and probably be good fun too – so I took the plunge and signed up!
The next four months were spent in preparation: first the flights, hotels, etc; then reading through a guide to reptiles and amphibians of the Yucatan Peninsula; learning some Spanish; trying to decide what the best field clothes would be; and wondering whether to get Guatemalan quetzals in Houston or Guatemala City.
Finally, on 15th December, I began the long journey to my destination, which consisted of four flights: Manchester to Heathrow, Heathrow to Houston (where I spent the night – I will go back to Houston one day, as I need to see the space centre!), Houston to Guatemala City, and Guatemala City to Flores. Interestingly, the last flight – which had the smallest plane – was the one I was worried would be the most bumpy, but actually turned out to be very smooth. This was in spite of the fact that it was raining heavily when we touched down in Flores’s airport; the staff actually provided us with umbrellas to walk to the main building! A taxi took me to the island of Flores itself – though I could barely appreciate it in the dark and the wet – and my hotel, the Hotel Casona de la Isla. Clinging to the door of my hotel room was a little house gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus, which is very common around human habitations; I took it as a good omen.
I had hoped to meet up with Rowland and the others for dinner, but I didn’t manage to get Rowland over the phone and I was feeling pretty jet-lagged anyway, so I just had a sandwich in the hotel’s restaurant. (I found out later that Rowland and co were at a restaurant just next door!) There were a few British people sitting close to me – upon speaking with them, I discovered they were the family of the British ambassador to Guatemala!
I also discovered, quite quickly, that the bit of Spanish I had learned in preparation for this trip was less than sufficient.
But, whatever. It was off to bed, ready for whatever the first proper day of Project Chicchan might bring.
Day 1 – 17th December
I still wasn’t over my jet-lag, as I woke up at 4am – this wasn’t all bad, however, as even in a town, there was one heck of a dawn chorus. Once it was daylight, I headed outside to find the weather was still pretty miserable – not raining heavily, but drizzling and cloudy.
We’d all arranged to meet at the Cool Beans Café, so at the right time, I headed there. Luckily, it’s not that difficult to find your way around in Flores – it’s a very small town with only so many roads, though that does make driving difficult. At the Cool Beans Café, a little way north, I was happy to find Rowland, and another volunteer, Sheri. Sitting down and getting to know each other, we were eventually joined by the American volunteers Bruce and Futha – and after rather more time had passed, we were given our breakfast.
The menu had said ‘beans’, yet what was on my plate was like nothing out of a tin of Heinz – what were presumably black beans, but turned into sauce (for lack of a better word). Still very tasty, though. On the other hand, the plantains had a strange sweet taste that I didn’t like very much – over the course of the trip, I tended to give my plantains to Rowland, which made him very happy.
After breakfast, it was time to get going. We met our drivers; our bags were loaded into the trailers and given waterproof covers; we crammed into the cars, and we were on our way!
It took us a while to get out of Santa Elena – the larger town that Flores is connected to – and we had quite a way to go before we reached our destination out in the wilds. Most of our journey to the borders of Laguna Del Tigre took place on a dirt track, which after the recent rains, was not in good condition. We were shaken so violently that I was amazed the vehicle could survive it. There were plenty of small villages along the whole route; the further we got, the more surprised I was to keep seeing people. The whole drive took about three hours, and bear in mind that I was in the back with two other people and minimal leg room. I felt those three hours, alright. When we arrived at the banks of the Rio San Pedro, I stumbled out of the car and jumped up and down a few times until I felt normal again.
We were in fact at another village, Paso Caballos, and it was here that we made the last phase of our journey: a twenty-minute boat trip down the river to Las Guacamayas. Compared to the car journey, this was heaven: the river was smooth, there was a refreshing breeze in our faces, and spectacular scenery. On our right was the forest; on the left was grassier swampland; and there was already plenty of wildlife. There were strange structures on the tree branches that Rowland identified as termite nests, and a heron that actually looked very similar to the British grey heron, only much bigger.
At long last, we arrived. Las Guacamayas was hidden behind the trees; all we could see was the dock, which was partially underwater due to the heavy rains. Clambering ashore, we made our way to what was going to be home for the next two weeks.
Most of the different buildings – the dining hall and kitchen, the lab, the guest and staff quarters – were low down on the slope, but the volunteer quarters were up at the top of the hill. I was sharing a room with Sheri: it was a simple room, with sockets and a light, though we only had electricity when the generator was switched on for a few hours each evening. There was however, no way to heat the shower; I wouldn’t actually use it until a few days later as a result. Mosquito nets were provided; we would need them. Food was also kindly provided for us by the on-site staff; our first meal consisted of a whole fresh fish.
Following lunch, and an explanation of everything we would be doing from Rowland, we set out on our first walk. The site was surrounded by existing trails into the forest, which would be used for most of our surveys; on previous expeditions, Rowland had used transects but found that the trails yielded more wildlife.
It didn’t take long for us to find herps: specifically, Sceloporus teapensis, small rough-scaled lizards that could be found all over the station.
Our first walk took us east of the site through an area classed as the ‘natural edge’. It was about 5pm and getting dusky, so I was able to try out my new head torch; it worked fine, though I needed to learn to adjust the brightness. This really was like no walk I had done before, particularly as the light faded and the sounds of insects began. I could constantly see eyeshine in my torch, but it was always spiders rather than lizards.
When we reached an open square of grass which the station used as a helipad, it was Bruce who found our first amphibian: a small frog, Leptodactylus melanonotus. And there was something else in the area too: a long trail of leafcutter ants. I think I first saw these in Chester Zoo, and then in a couple of other zoos: they make for a great exhibit, and all of them marching along with those big chunks of leaf look very cool. Here, I saw them pretty much every day, so the novelty did wear off after a while.
Carrying on further into the forest, we then found a mud turtle, Kinosternon leucostomum. It was hiding away inside a flooded vehicle track – pretty cute, but as Rowland told us, you don’t want to put your finger too close to the head!
After that, it was back to the station, and dinner – but we weren’t done yet! There was still time for another walk, this time up a path right next to the volunteer lodgings. This was technically part of the Jaguar Trail, a circular trail about 3.5km long, but we only did a smaller loop on this occasion. There were still new species waiting for us: first, a couple of Gulf Coast toads, Incilius valliceps. These were common, and generally quite easy to recognise, being much wartier than other frogs of similar size.
Then we came across a Norops. These little lizards belong to a group called anoles, known for having dewlaps on their throats that the males use for displaying. The red dewlap indicated that this was a Norops lemurinus – but it wasn’t that easy for all of them. There are a lot of species of Norops in Guatemala; many of them look very much alike, and individuals within species are variable. Even using keys in books, it proved to be a challenge.
Almost at the end of the walk, just a short distance from the station, came the most exciting find of all: our first snake! It was a cat-eyed snake, Leptodeira septentrionalis. Most of the other animals would be examined where we found them (when we were doing proper surveying instead of just getting our bearings) but any snakes were to be put in bags, measured at leisure later, and then released back where we found them. It’s much easier to measure a snake in the lab – but more on that later.