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.
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.
Starting the hunt