Hunting for wasps and chickens – The ever present threat.

Scriber asked if I wanted to go on and see if we could see more. I was aware of the time (it was past midnight now) and how these guys had gone out of their way to drive me to the other side of the island to see our quarry.  So I thanked them and said no, we should return to our beds.  The visit a success we descended back to the vehicles and I was dropped off at the gate to our villa.  I quietly stole in and went to bed a happy man.

My work time in Montserrat was nearly done – I had a bit of training to complete the next week on one day before flying home, and I was continually making tweaks to all the databases I had created, but Matt and I decided we had to have a little downtime over the weekend.  Geoff had gone back to the UK on the Friday evening so Matt and I decided we would take a drive down to the exclusion zone.

I had noticed a network of poles around the island on which were sirens.  They were used to alert the residents of any harmful volcanic eruption – of course the chance of evacuation when there was a really large discharge from the volcano, but there were also other hazards.  There is a continuous stream of ash and smoke coming from several vents in the Soufriere mountain and small ash falls were regular.  It might settle out as a fine dust, sometimes as a pseudo-snowfall, and had a habit of covering everything.  If that were the end of it people might be OK to cope – get out the brooms and the switches and push it off into the bush or ghut.  But the ash had been belched up from deep below the earth’s crust and was full of noxious chemicals; most abundant of which was sulphur.  The smallest amount of water and the dust turned into acid that ate into everything.  It is particularly fond of tin roofs, and cars.  Left without cleaning, and maybe with a dose of warm Caribbean rain, a car can rot away in just a few weeks.

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The early warning system

I woke up a couple of times in our villa and found a film of ash across the veranda.  But more often than not there was a curious smell of bad eggs in the air.  The volcano would fart toxic gases that would blow over the villages.  My lips would capture these molecules and more acid would be created as it mixed with my saliva, leaving me with a tinny slightly painful taste in the mouth.

Hunting for wasps and chickens – the prize.

Then, ahead of us, the other guide darted forward and shone his light on a large amphibian nestled in amongst some leaf litter on the forest floor.  It had a white underbelly and green and brown mottled back and legs but it had a knobbly head.  We realised it was no mountain chicken.  This was the dread cane toad.  It is unclear just why the cane toad came to Montserrat.  On other islands; Antigua and Jamaica, for example, they were brought in to the sugar cane plantations to control pests, but of course became a pest themselves.  Maybe a few cane toads made it on shipments to Montserrat, or somebody decided to bring them in to control pests on another crop.  Whatever, they have found a good niche here on the island.

The cane toad was duly noted in the field sheet (although it was an unscheduled transect, Scriber wanted to record his data) and we moved on up the ghut.  Soon afterwards the guides’ torches focused once more on the forest floor and I saw what appeared to be a garden ornament.  Standing stock still was a large amphibian again; but this time it has strong dark and light colourations – stripes on the legs and blotches across the back.  It had a black streak running from its shoulders to its eye sockets, and, in the torch light, the most amazingly deep amber eyes.  It perched, yes perched is the right word, on the ground; its front legs angled inwards and the toes pointing towards each other.  The massive back legs were curled tightly on themselves.  This was our elusive mountain chicken, coiled up in readiness to fly if needed.

But instead of escaping us, it stayed motionless in the full glare of our torches.  Scriber said it was a common behaviour against predators.  It looked a darn stupid one to me.  Scriber grabbed hold of it  – it more than covered his fist but still made little struggle.  Maybe a reason it was not doing so well…..

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The elusive mountain chicken

It was weighed and measured and they took a look at its health and features.  They photographed it and then Scriber placed it carefully back on the ground.  I looked down at it and then realised both why the marking were so good and why a behaviour of freezing on encountering danger could work.  I could hardly make out the frog from all the leaf litter, twigs and other detritus down there.  If it moved it would be immediately noticed and possibly eaten.

Hunting for wasps and chicken – Scriber

One other noise occasionally broke the tree frogs’ chorus; a loud caterwauling, indeed like a cat having an argument with a neighbour.  Scriber pointed a finger skyward “the mountain chicken”.  He had a slot on his field datasheet to record this, positive contact but without a sighting.  Although we could get some idea of the direction of the call – the terrain and the complexity of the forest meant we could not find the actual callers themselves.

We heard several mountain chicken calling across the valley to each other, but we did not see any amphibians save these tree frogs.  I was rather disappointed.  My time on Montserrat was limited and there was no chance of another evening transect while I was on island.  Scriber was also disappointed for me and said “We’ll go over to another transect where I know we shall find one”.  We carefully picked out return route to the vehicle and headed along the main road past the top of Brades and the airport and over to the east coast.  Although the road zigzags in much the same fashion as on the leeward side of the island, there is little habitation.  The road used to head all the way down to Plymouth past several villages and the old airport, but this northern section, being on the more exposed windward side of the island, had barely been developed save for the odd quarry.  We parked up and headed up into the Centre Hills for the second time that evening.

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Not a Mountain Chicken – but what is it?

While I was walking I asked Scriber how he got his name.  It turned out that he had a second job.  He was a poet and a writer as well as a conservation officer and tour guide.  He’d been told at school that he seemed to have a talent for making complicated things simple and he was a “Describer” which became in this modified form, his nickname.  He’d got into the habit of writing some of his descriptions down and was quite a legend amongst the local community.  Over the course of the time I was in Montserrat he told me a few about the turtles and the national bird, the Oriole.  But it was still mountain chickens I was hunting here.

Hunting for wasps and chickens – The chicken hunt begins

To this end the Conservation Department had a monitoring programme which I was there to support.  I talked extensively to the guys who did the work.  They could point to the areas they surveyed around the Centre Hills but had never mapped them.  In fact they were not points, they were transects, walks they did generally up one of the many ghut valleys and when they spotted a chicken they would take its measurements and check its health.   I’d worked on a database that allowed them to log sightings of individual mountain chickens along these transects and with the help of Matt, had worked out various ways to number crunch the information to make graphs showing both spatial comparisons between different valleys and trends in observations – whether the numbers spotted were increasing or decreasing.

With these kinds of databases, it is all very well coming up with complex ways to log and analyse the information; the reality of field data collection is it is often hard work, difficult to be consistent and often a long time spent for relatively few results.  I thought it would be a useful exercise for me to join the field workers on one of their expeditions into a ghut.

As with most amphibians in the tropics, the mountain chicken is most active at night.  So it was about 9 pm when the guys from conservation popped over to our villa and picked me up.  We didn’t go very far; they were looking at one of the western ghuts that night.  We parked the vehicle near some houses in a small road off the main route from north to south.  One of the guys, called Scriber, carefully extracted a sheet from envelope and fixed it securely to a clipboard.  he hauled a small backpack onto his shoulders and then said to me – ” you ready”.  I was wearing a head torch; the field  guys  were carrying large torches in their hands,  but we kept them off until we started walking on the transect itself.

I was ready – I had been fiddling with a GPS to establish our location exactly but now walked behind the guys recording our track out into the field.  The transect itself was marked by a ghut – a dry stream bed which only fills up after rain.  Many Caribbean islands are so volcanic that their rocks are porous and the slopes so steep that rain either soaks away into the soil immediately or rushes off to the sea very fast.  Few of the smaller islands have any permanent streams, but these channels are well marked and often the best way to make progress through the otherwise densely packed forest.  As we walked up the steep gradient, the forest was alive with noise – the chirruping of so many tree frogs.  I had visions of these being like the central American treefrogs – about 30cm long and brightly coloured.  Scriber kept flashing his light over a tree and saying – see all those tree frogs.  I could see nothing.  Eventually I had to ask him to show me one up close.  He went over to a tree and pulled down on a small branch, exposing the top part of a large floppy green leaf.  Nestled in the central rib was the tiniest frog I had ever seen – less than a centimetre across.  But it was perfectly formed with a pointed nose and a prominent backbone that held tight skin in place over its fleshy flanks and, for its size, powerful legs.  To imagine so much of the chirruping that I could hear was made from these miniscule bodies was beyond belief.  And although there were potentially many in the forest,  it still did not seem to account for all the noise.

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Scriber scribing

Hunting for wasps and chicken – The killer fungus

The other animal of interest was the mountain chicken.  And this was not a chicken – what was it about giving Montserrat animals the wrong name?  The mountain chicken is in fact an amphibian.  It is a rather large frog that is so rare it is only found on two islands.  Dominica and Montserrat.

I have a confession to make.  I once ate a Mountain Chicken in Dominica.  At a restaurant at one of the best hotels in Roseau, I was served a pair of frogs legs sautéed in lemon sauce.  It did indeed taste like chicken.  At the time the Dominica mountain chicken was quite common and it was a local delicacy but by the time I had got to Montserrat,  a fungal disease called Chytrid had decimated the population on Dominica.  Montserrat had a smaller population to start with, but had remained chytrid free.  Like many other species though, its range had been curtailed by the eruption in the south of the island.  For the conservation team this was the jewel in their crown and a heavy responsibility.  They were attempting to make sure that the chytrid fungus would not enter the island but this was no small matter.  Fungi are notorious spreaders – their reproduction vessels are tiny spores which blow through the air, or get attached to other matter.  Small islands rely on imported goods so much and the spores can be transmitted in cargoes the world over.  Montserrat had set up a checking routine at the customs house at the dock but it was impossible to check everything.

So far the Montserrat mountain chicken had been lucky to avoid fungal infections but many other threats still existed.  Their numbers were already quite low before the eruption and now the Centre Hills were their last stronghold.  At the fringes of the forest they were vulnerable to predators, mostly domestic dogs and cats.  Another interloper, the cane toad, was thought to be muscling in on the mountain chickens’ habitats as well.

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Starting the hunt

Hunting for wasps and chickens – Bats, Birds and the elusive Galliwasp

My week on Montserrat was busy – I had to meet the various teams of environment department workers who were responsible for the different biodiversity programmes.  I was to meet an old friend of mine, Laverne, who almost single handedly had introduced and fostered use of GIS on Montserrat.  And I wanted to get a grip on the species I was looking at.

The biodiversity action plan was to focus on endemic species in the Central Hills.  My colleagues from Kew Gardens were getting a good handle on the plant species – had conducted transects across the hills and were finding new species almost all the time.  I had a quick job to manipulate their existing data into a format that could be transferred to their master database in London.  There was a guy called Steve who I started referring to as the batman; he was crazy about bats and had a complicated way of recording all his information.  The island conservation team more or less let him get on with it.  Bats are one of the few land mammals in the Caribbean that are endemic – given the chain reaches out in the ocean there are not many other ways to extend your species’ range unless you fly.  The result is that there are several endemic species and subspecies of bats in all the islands and Montserrat is no exception. I chatted with the batman a couple of times by email  but there did not seem much point in changing the way he did things for the sake of local conditions.

Then there were the birds.  I worked with Geoff from RSPB to decide how we would best tackle this.  I showed him the seabird databases I had developed in the South Atlantic, but we agreed this was a different case.  Here they were not trying to count every bird on a rocky outcrop, but to try and sample some shy species in forest undergrowth; most notably the Montserrat Oriole whose numbers had declined sharply after the eruptions.

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The Centre Hills from our village

The two other species of interest were different.  The first was an enigma.  It was like hunting the snark, like the blind man in the dark room looking for the black cat …. that isn’t there.  It was the Montserrat galliwasp.  A galliwasp is not, as you might imagine, a kind of insect, but a lizard.  For a smooth lizard it is slightly flattened, wide bodied even.  My description is all from books.  I didn’t see a galliwasp in the week I was there.  In fact it had been several years since anyone had seen a galliwasp.  The last time had been about five years ago and the poor creature in questions was in the jaws of a small dog so was not going to do anything to relieve its critically endangered species status.

So I designed a database that was to do a couple of things; one was allow anyone to log reports of people seeing a galliwasp – whether being eaten or not at the time.  The second was that a series of remarkably complex study sites were being set up to see if they could attract galliwasps in to be studied.  I never saw one of these sites themselves but it was described to me in great detail.  They sliced up the site into segments of long grass and short grass, corrugated iron they could hide under, scrubby vegetation.  I was to create a complex database that would describe all the habitats and the number of galliwasps of what sex, age, length and height.  All this for something which had not been seen alive for a generation.

Hunting for wasps and chickens- Battles in the garden

Matt had procured a fantastic villa for the project.  Although not far as the crow flies from Brades, it was round a circuitous road that hugged the contours.  Just beyond the sprawling village of St Peter’s you dropped off the main road and round a small estate of widely spaced houses and our compound was right on the waterfront.  It was made up of a large house with an enormous open plan living room and kitchen area, and two bedrooms, and a separate smaller house which Matt took.  In between them was a huge swimming pool and below all this a large grassy lawn spattered with shrubs and trees leading to a low stone wall.  On the far side the land dropped steeply as a huge boulder scree into the gently lapping Caribbean Sea.  It was, …yep… idyllic.

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Postures in our garden

We shared the garden with a whole host of iguanas.  The green iguana , as in many islands, is a common sight in Montserrat.  Here they acted out a veritable soap opera on the lawn.  In the early mornings they would start to emerge and find the best basking spots to heat up their blood.  Once alert they would look around for food – insects mainly it seemed – but the prime activity for the day would be posturing.  They would work on a series of intricate rituals with their cohabitants; standing in a particular position at a particular distance from a rival or potential lover and going through a sequence of stare offs, bobbing movements or tail twitching till one got bored or decided not to chance their arm.  I say rival or potential lover – it was impossible for a layman like me to know what the true meaning was, and although I watched mesmerized day after day when I should have been typing up notes of designing databases, it was hard to distinguish between the sexes and even the ages.  There were obviously some alpha males around; much larger with craggier head gear and muscular legs and tails, but pursuit of females looked almost the same as fighting off interlopers.

There were battles for high spots in the garden, or just for a scrappy piece of worn out sand on the lawn; there seemed little rhyme nor reason to it.  And in fact the actual drama was usually short lived and the rest of the time they just sat on the grass, heads pointing skyward, like tropical garden ornaments.  I never knew temperature regulation could be so complicated.

Hunting for wasps and chickens – How to lose a bag on a 10 minute flight

The island was visible almost as soon as we took off and crossed the old canefields of Antigua.  We approached Montserrat from the east and I was able to see out the window the great massive of the volcano, and the flows down each side, including where the flow had caused a new bulge in the coastline on the eastern side, and the remains of the old airport runway.  We circled the northern side of the island and I could see the new runway, precariously perched on top of the hill, and the clusters of houses old and new that made up the main settlement.  We landed and my colleagues, Matt from Durrell and Geoff from RSPB, were in the small arrivals hall.  But my luggage was not.  Due to the large number of passengers they had been unable to get all the bags in the plane, but no worries, I was told, they were going to pick up the remaining passengers and it would be on that one.  They will be back in under an hour.

So in the mean time I was offered a beer down by the harbour at Little Bay, where the ferry now came in; it being the only point known by Geoff to have adequate wifi.  We drove down the hill and pulled up by this old beach hut.  We checked email and started to chat about my task.  Geoff had been around for a week or so teaching staff to tag birds, and was going to overlap with my visit for a couple of days.  Matt was staying for a longer period, over a month.  Although he was full time on the project, he was based out of Micoud in St Lucia, and so was in an out of Montserrat from time to time.

We headed back up to the airport to collect my bag and just as we arrived the planed swept in to land.  We waited patiently for a few passengers to come off and saw a pile of bags being manhandled off the plane onto a small hand trolley…. but I could not see my distinctive hard red case.  I was told it would be on the next plane, which was tomorrow morning.  So with the clothes I stood up in, a passport and a laptop, I got back in the car.  We stopped off at a small grocers in Brades so I could at least get a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bar of soap.

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Taking advantage of limited internet

Hunting for wasps and chickens – Pioneers in conservation

Now at last I was able to visit, but I was to work for another incredible conservation organisation, the Durrell Foundation.  As a teenager I had read all the Gerald Durrell books; my favourites being of the expeditions, and of his philosophy of how to build a zoo (the Stationary Ark).  I had long wanted to visit Jersey Zoo as one of the places that specialised in the less well known animals.  In Africa I had tired very quickly of hunting for the big five for that photo that everyone else already had – and was more keen to see the wider spread of other animals.  When I started working in small islands, the rate of speciation from isolated populations had formed myriad biodiversities, fragile and unique on these plots, and it only endeared me to that pioneering attitude of the Durrells.  Montserrat was a perfect  example of that fragility, especially since the volcanic eruptions had begun.

Alas I was still not to get to Jersey Zoo.  My first encounter with Durrell occurred in Bath on a frozen winter’s day; I met with one of the project coordinators who was resident at Bath University.  We discussed the project and agreed to establish a visit in the summer, between my two trips to Mauritius.  I actually prefaced my time in Montserrat with a couple of weeks touring the northern islands, visiting friends in Antigua, Culebra off Puerto Rico, and St John in the US Virgin Islands.  After a further night in Antigua, it was a leisurely drive to the airport on a Saturday afternoon, a simple check in  (mixing with the lobster red tourists gathering for the transatlantic services back to London) and then boarding a small prop plane for the barely twenty minute hop to Montserrat.  The service is an odd one as they only had a few seats =, and if there were more passengers they did a second shuttle.  Fortunately I was on the first out (I’ve never been keen to spend too much time in Antigua’s old departure lounge with the overcrowding and the interminable announcements calling out the destinations more like a bus route than a flight  – “calling at St Kitts, St Maarten and Beef Island, Tortola”….. “Calling at Melville Hall, Dominica, Vigie St Lucia, Barbados with onward connections to Grenada, Tobago and Georgetown Guyana”).

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Day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico

Hunting for wasps and chickens – The volcano and the environment.

Alongside the stress on the people, the volcano obviously did untold damage to the environment.  As well as being an intensively farmed area on its lower slopes, its upper reaches and several valleys were rich in fauna and flora.  Before the eruptions, several studies had looked at the ecology of the southern hills around Soufriere.  The significant hills of the central region had been less studied and more or less dismissed as an area of less interest.

With the eruption both turning much of the southern part of the island into at best a fresh landscape ready to start again with lower order plants, at worst an arid moonscape poisoned for centuries, the unscathed Centre Hills became more of a focus for environmentalists.  And what they saw surprised them greatly.  There was both more biodiversity here than expected, and it was home to some of the more bizarre plants and animals that Montserrat contained.

With the national level of resources in government at an all time low, and focused on rehousing, rehabilitating and rebuilding the infrastructure and life on the island, there were few resources to look at this biodiversity.  As with other islands I had worked with, especially the Overseas Territories, some big names from the UK were trying to assist.  In 2008 I was asked to assist with a particular project that the UK Government’s “DARWIN” initiative had funded,  that was to write action plans for all the key species in this region.  My role was to look at the monitoring of these creatures and plants and see how it integrated with the government’s GIS.

I’d wanted to go to Montserrat for many years but so far had only seen it smouldering in the distance the many times I came into land in Antigua Airport.  Montserrat had come and seen me once.  When I was living on Tortola, I had gone to California for a conference and when I returned to my apartment high above the sea, I found a thin layer of red dust covering the whole terrace, including the tables and chairs.  Montserrat had had another eruption and the particles had been blown on the wind over 200km to the Virgin Islands.  I’d also met a few people from there and had tried a couple of times to formulate projects.

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The north end of Montserrat and the Centre Hills in the distance