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 – 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