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…..
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”).
Day trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico
On the edge of the village we were taken on a diversion to see some curious white boxes on legs under big trees. One of STEWARD’s older activities had been to establish beekeeping. The rich honey of the African wild bee has been always prized by people in this part of the world, but the difficulty in obtaining it from caves high up in cliffs or up in the canopies of trees was a risky business. Not only could the forager fall a long way and injure themselves badly, but if the bees decided to fight while you were up there it could be fatal.
By encouraging the establishment of hives near the village, of course, these safety features were taken into consideration; the bees might still sting as badly but at least you could stand a chance by running away. The high value honey was also easier to collect from hives and the bees could be important pollinators in the small holdings, fields and fruit trees around the village.
We were shown these hives and then as we headed back into the village, one of the farmers dived into his house and came out with his beekeepers kit. We watched him do a quick change into his top to toe white coveralls, his wellingtons, his red rubber gloves , and his smoker. The result was a space age alien living amongst a bunch of Susu farmers.
They wanted to show us more and to stay with them, but we had to thank them for their hospitality and get back in our vehicles. We had another meeting at the village of Sanya on the border, then cross into Guinea before they closed the border post for the night.
There was no time for more as we had to set off for the fields. The children, now enchanted by the visitors with their high tech gizmos followed like the children of Hamlin. We saw the plant nursery, the community forest and the watershed catchment; to be honest it was very similar to the other two villages, but the villagers were so proud of their achievements that we had to afford them the same time to explain their activities. As we went round the children started by following a few paces behind us, then we found them walking along side us, usually in silence. If one of them made a silly remark or laughed too loud they were scolded by their peers. They wanted to be around us and see what we would do. I started to feel like a zoo exhibit. Then the most remarkable thing happened. Anne and Stephanie put out their hands to a couple of the children and they in turn reached out and walked alongside. The other children were immediately jealous, but still slightly nervous. I put out my hand to one quiet boy, he must have been barely three feet high. His cold fingers touched mine, gingerly at first but then with a tight and what felt like a content grip. Someone else took my other hand without me even gesturing. At one time I actually had three on one side and two on the other, reaching for any part of my arm that was not already taken. This way we walked back to the village. The conversation was very stilted- we could all manage Bonjour and Hello, but if I said more than Ca va, they went quiet on me. But they just enjoyed the experience.
The Scientist and Children crocodile
Surrounded by the village’s kids
As we walked back through the village, some of the kids broke off naturally, bored of this game. Others were bawled at by their family to get on with the work they were supposed to have done hours ago. I got a couple of garbled “goodbye’s” from them but that was all.