Surrounded on all sides
I resisted the temptation to put exclamation points at the end of the title for this post after looking through the past couple posts and realizing that I may be abusing this particular punctuation mark. Though the seed of my soul believes this title deserved them, my blog was starting to look like the insane shrieks of a 14-year-old girl at summer camp, so I decided to dial it back. I used no such restraint in the body of this post, however.
So, we collected cameras from our second tree, and it was a rather challenging tree to climb. I actually don’t even know how I got the cameras up there in the first place. For all our efforts in this difficult climb we were rewarded with a pretty amazing experience. When you walk around the forest you can always hear howler monkeys in the general vicinity, but as I made my way into the crown of this particular tree, I found myself surrounded by monkeys on all sides! Throwing the goal of the climb to the wayside momentarily, I whipped out my camera and immediately started snapping photos and recording video…for about 12 seconds. I forgot to change the battery, and my heart sank when I saw the flashing red light of death on the screen. Yet another photography fail on my part. Ever the hero, Owen was able to swiftly pass his camera up to me, so I managed to get capture a bit of the scene. Please ignore the sound of my panting, but I don't know how to cut it out of the video. Plus, I was basically holding a reverse plank while dangling from a rope, so I would argue the panting was, while embarrassing, reasonably excusable.
As I sat in the tree, with howler monkeys all around and some capuchin monkeys a bit further off, I started thinking about what I was seeing. It’s hard to read animals’ expressions, even when they are fixedly staring at you from the neighboring tree. The difference between “What’s this guy doing up here?” and “Get out of the way, I need to get home!” is probably pretty subtle. Monkeys are all over the island, and maybe my presence was confusing enough to attract their attention long enough for me to notice them. But, I couldn’t help thinking that if such a thing as a canopy highway (a path that gets used over and over again by different animals, even different species) does exist, was I sitting right in the middle of it?
The rational, scientific skepticism that has been hammered into my head over the past few years tells me that I am projecting, that this is all just wishful thinking because deep down I hope that canopy highways do exist. Long gone are the days of lengthy, descriptive accounts of what researchers observed and “felt” they were seeing – at least in scientific journals, that is. Testable hypotheses, empirical evidence, and repeatable results are (as they should be) the name of the game these days. I realize that my hopeful speculation clouds some of my ability to scientifically reason in a situation like this, but the urge to explain my surroundings is sometimes stronger than my ability to remain completely objective.
I had nothing to go off of beyond my hunch that I was perched in some sort of ecologically significant location in the trees, and the story the cameras seemed to tell did nothing to contradict these feelings:
OH. MY. GOODNESS. Right?!
Look at everything going on there! I could hardly contain my excitement when we looked through all these photos. Just to break things down, the species you see include the following:
If you’re not familiar, kinkajous are related to raccoons and are reasonably common here, though because they are nocturnal (active at night) and arboreal (live in the trees), they can be hard to spot. They also make horrible pets, as Paris Hilton can attest. These ones seemed to be a little concerned about getting past the camera, but they eventually mustered the courage and jumped over.
Here’s a better photo of this guy from the front. I say “guy” because, well, if you look closely in the video…yeah, it’s a boy. Jackie Willis, the Barro Colorado Island mammal expert, said that people sometimes find them when they are looking in tree hollows and that she’s found their remains in owl pellets! I can’t imagine those quills would feel any better on the way back up as they do on the way down. Apparently they are reasonably common, but rarely seen. If Wikipedia is any judge of things (which I blindly believe it is), there doesn’t seem to be all that much known about them - the page is practically empty!
I know I’ve already gone on about sloths so I won’t get into it too much here, but doesn’t it look massive compared to everything else?! Once again, I never thought I would be startled by a sloth, but his appearance was definitely alarming.
White (and angry)-Faced Capuchin Monkey
This one was clearly not impressed with Big Brother watching over him. His angry crusade against my camera actually ruined the remainder of the deployment, but I feel like it was worth it. For all the people who have asked me whether the monkeys mess with the cameras – yes, they do.
Alright, that's all for now. We're heading out to collect more cameras tomorrow, so hopefully there will be more to share. I don't want to jinx anything, but I'm so happy with our success thus far, I really hope we can keep that going!
Much to my surprise, the first collection day was actually schedule for today, not tomorrow. We grabbed the first three cameras and, as the title indicates, SUCCESS! I’ll cut together an actual video showing the entire process of a climb at some point, but for now, here is what I captured of the first collection. Also, be warned that the camera work might make you a bit queasy. Even though I have a Go-Pro that I should be able to strap to my helmet, I have yet to install it. So, all the climbing shots are from my regular camera, which I held in my mouth.
Here are a few of the photos. I was SO excited to see that we actually got some animals. Also, all three are species I’ve never managed to get on my cameras before! It’s just the first of many, but I’m so glad that I’ve got at least something to show for all our effort so far. The sloth isn't super easy to find, but see if you can spot it!
36 Cameras Up and Running!
We finished placing cameras in our 12th tree yesterday, which means all the cameras we have available to deploy are out in the forest. Collections begin on Monday and I’m feeling a bit anxious about what they will show (if anything!). Keeping fingers, toes, legs, and arms crossed – enjoy your weekend!
The past few days have been a bit blustery in the trees! As I was setting up a few of the cameras I watched the neighboring tree crowns sway back and forth in the wind and thought how glad I was to not be in those trees…only to realize, that I myself was swaying just as much. It’s pretty disorienting when your immediate surroundings (i.e. the tree to which you’re tied) appear still, but everything else – outer branches, neighboring trees, the ground 80 feet below – is rocking side to side and up and down, all out of sync with you and one another.
I felt fine while I was in the tree and once I got down to the ground, but when I got back to my office I had the that distinct residual “just got off a boat” feeling as I stared at my computer.
This got me thinking about motion sickness, what causes it, and whether or not animals that live in particularly motion-heavy environments ever experience it. I’ll admit my research into the topic didn’t take me all that far. I found this brief post, but then dinner happened and it was Taco-French Fry Night so I really had to go. If any physiology, animal biology, or brain people (or anyone else, for that matter) want to weigh in, be my guest!
Surprise is not usually a word associated with sloths, but that is exactly how I felt today when I spotted this guy in the tree next to me. I apologize - it’s a little shaky, the clicking of the camera is insanely annoying, and it cuts out right before the big “jump” happens. But, it was still a pretty special experience to not only spot a sloth, but to see it moving around up in the canopy. Also, I was operating the camera one-handed while swinging from a rope, so cut me some slack.
It also occurred to me that even though we generally think of these animals as being the slowest in the animal kingdom, it certainly moves through the tree much faster than I ever have. Sure, they’re anatomically adapted to do so, but it still doesn’t make you feel all that great about yourself.
This reminds me of an internship I had in college at an animal rescue center in Ecuador, where the only animal that ever consistently escaped from its enclosure was the three-toed sloth. It had a knack for pushing open the window and crawling toward the posts that held up the power lines, a behavior that eventually led to its unfortunate demise, but we don’t need to get into that.
Anyway, another animal sighting to put on the list! I’ll do my best to improve my filming skills, but so far things don’t look promising – I spent about 90 seconds thinking I was filming a peccary (wild pig) the other day only to realize I had hit the “off” button instead of the “record” button. Oh well…
Help has arrived!
Owen Routt, a friend from California, joined me this week on the island! After chatting at a wedding last summer I discovered that he had a unique skill set (camera trapping and tree climbing) that would be quite an asset to the project. He’ll be here for the next six weeks to deploy cameras double time! I’m also grooming him to be a top-notch slingshotter…and by that I mean I make him use the slingshot while I brush my hair.
Here are a couple photos he snapped of me up in the tree the other day. In addition to his technical and photojournalistic skills, he also has a notable talent for collecting ticks – more than 20 on his first day in the forest! We’ve got 18 cameras set up in 6 trees so far, and there are many many more to go.
Lots of excitement in the past few days, particularly in the cat department. You may recall that during my best day ever I encountered an ocelot kitten trying to Simba-roar at me. Shortly thereafter, Jackie and Greg Willis, the researchers in charge of the Barro Colorado Island Mammal Census, placed a camera near the site and check out what they found!
These are photos of the mother, who has shown up on the cameras before. Ocelots all have distinctive spot patterns so you can identify each one individually. All the ones that show up on the census cameras have names, though at the moment I can’t remember hers.
There also happens to be a film crew here planning to get footage of ocelots hunting for a new series airing on BBC in 2015 entitled “The Hunt.” They also decided to set up some cameras at the site in hopes of catching the cats hunting spiny rats. Quite a popular spot!
Finally, over the weekend there was a jaguar sighting on the island! There are not typically resident jaguars on the island, though on occasion they swim across from the mainland. The first one ever spotted on the island showed up in the census around 30 years ago, and it took 25 years for the for them to show up on the cameras. The one that was seen over the weekend was melanistic (appears all black), which is rare but known to occur in jaguars on the mainland.
Shortly after my rant about a particularly frustrating tree, in which I attempted to blame my shortcomings in the field on how I was raised, I received the following message (message in bold italics, my comments in-line):
To: Kevin McLean
Subject: BLAME THE PARENTS?!
I just read and saw your latest posting. Hmmmmm.....how convenient to blame the parents when we cannot defend ourselves!!!!
I am sorry, Mom, it is all my fault. Nothing is ever your fault, you made every decision perfectly.
I do recall yelling to you in the outfield, "Kevin, quit doing cartwheels in the outfield and pay attention to the game!"
This is true, though in my defense nothing EVER happens in the outfield when you are 6 years old and cartwheels get you more applause from the audience.
You were also allowed Nerf balls and Super Soakers. I think maybe you might want to try archery or crossbow or frisbee golf or softball or javelin to help hone your skills out in the field.
Thank you for your suggestions, I will look into all of these.
Take care and be CAREFUL!
I always do because that is what my parents taught me in their all-knowing way.
P.S. Where did you learn all that "bleeped" language?
I retract my earlier statement. I have certainly never used any questionable language because it is bad…I don’t even know any bad words!
Three more cameras up!
New tree, new day – success! After almost five hours in the tree I finally managed to deploy my second set of cameras. It got a bit breezy later in the climb and I was suddenly reminded of the fact that even the largest of trees sway in the wind, as do the people in them. It wasn’t too bad, but I could definitely see how people might get a little tree-sick if they stayed up there too long!
Managed to snap a couple photos along the way.
So, I had my first frustrating day in the field.
I went to one of the trees I picked out last week to start what I thought would be a relatively simple climb and was sorely mistaken. The tree itself was huge – a double trunk, massive branches at the top, plenty of options for camera placements. The only problem was that there were quite a few smaller trees, shrubs, lianas (really big vines, basically) that made it difficult for me to see the top of the tree, which is particularly problematic for the beginning of my climb.
In order to first get into the tree, I use an 8-foot slingshot to shoot a little beanbag attached to a string over whichever branch I can hit. As projectile-flinging weapons and Bart Simpson were strictly prohibited in my household as a child, I now have a great affinity non-violent conflict resolution and Muppet Babies, but no aptitude for slingshotting. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
No, I did not make this shot.
Video by Joe Maher
I essentially had a 4-foot by 4-foot window 20 feet above my head through which I could shoot in order to get my beanbag over the lowest branch 80 feet up in the air. Needless to say, this process took a while (2 hours, in fact) but eventually I got it! I should have just called it a day right then.
Pouring sweat, I hauled myself up the rope for about 15 minutes only to discover that there was a large, freshly broken branch precariously perched in the lower branches of the tree. These broken branches are sometimes called “widowmakers” because if they slide off their perch and fall on you…well, it’s not good. I always look for this sort danger in my pre-climb inspection, but because the vegetation was so dense above me at this tree, I couldn’t tell that the branch had broken off. It was hanging right over where I had been walking around on the ground scouting out my slingshotting location, but from my position in the tree (I was well to the side of it), it wasn’t much of a danger anymore, so I kept going. I should have just called it a day right then.
Once I reached the top of my rope, I started looking around for my next branch. To move around in the tree I have to throw my beanbag to the next branch while dangling and spinning (not fast enough to make you sick, but fast enough to be annoying) from my rope, then catch it as it swings back to me. I am also not good at this part, which I will blame on my own decision to quit baseball in 6th grade in favor of gymnastics and then diving. While both of my chosen sports probably helped me deal with heights, neither helped me with my hand-eye coordination which is still sub-par to this day. Why are there no community Beanbag-on-a-String leagues?!
Anyway, as started my first throw I reached over to the neighboring branch to stabilize myself only to see…
Don’t worry, they are NOT killer bees…they are wasps, which is only slightly better. I pulled my hand back immediately and sat there for a while staring at them (and, clearly, taking photos of them). They didn’t seem to bothered by me and I wasn’t actually touching them. Never mind the fact that I would be wildly throwing a beanbag in all directions, missing my target, then attempting (poorly) to catch it as I yank it back to me. After a solid 45 minutes of toss, miss, retrieve, dodge, toss, miss, curse, retrieve, dodge, curse, toss, etc., I decided to just call it a day right then…
…after one more throw.
Of course this was one of my worst and I got the beanbag stuck around a branch that was a little too far away to reach. I sat there pulling over and over again [I was trying to figure out a way to describe all the strengths, patterns, and speeds with which I was pulling the string here, but ever iteration sounded a little NC-17, so just trust me that I tried everything]. After roughly an hour, panting and raining sweat onto my bag below, I finally dislodged it from the branch. I will admit that I sat there for a short moment considering another throw – after all, I had spent so much time already – but gathering my wits and taking the previous hours as a sign, I decided to just cut my losses and give up.
Leaving the tree for another day - or possibly for good - was a tough decision to make, particularly after investing all that time and energy. My refusal to quit in the face of setbacks in my research has been a big part of what afforded me this opportunity in the first place. Now that I’m here, I’m not going to let poor judgment get in the way of my ability to do it.
…or at least that’s what I told myself as Mission:Impossible’d my way out of the tree.
Oh well, tomorrow is another day.
Yale Grad Student.