Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Wildlife news and Costa Rican adventures.

Hello and welcome to my latest wildlife publication and it has been a while. Life really has been busy over the last few months, particularly recently as I have just returned from a month volunteering in the Costa Rican rainforest. It was a truly incredible experience and the memories will certainly last a lifetime. I will go into a little more detail on that later however I would prefer to start off this piece with some eye catching wildlife related headlines from the past couple of months.  As always I hope you enjoy reading and feel free to give feedback.

A miracle in Guatemala.

The finca chiblac salamander and the long limed salamander have been offered a major lifeline having been lost to science for four decades and seeming doomed to extinction thanks primarily to alarming habitat loss. The change in fortune for the amphibians comes as a result of a land purchase by the World Land Trust and funders Fundación Para el Ecodesarrollo y la Conservación (FUNDAECO). The importance of Finca San Isidro was recognised back in 2009 while the finalisations of the transaction concluded in September of this year. The 800 acres secured will no doubt benefit many other species with FUNDAECO responsible for overseeing the conservation management of the area.

Kelp gull harassment could contribute to increased mortality in southern right whale calves.

Between 2003 and 2014, 600 southern right whale deaths were recorded at the Peninsula Valdes calving grounds, Argentina. This is an abnormally large number in comparison to calve fatalities recorded in other calving grounds over the same time frame. Kelp gulls feed on the blubber and skin of living whales and this form of harassment has also increased over time. This rise in recorded wounds on mother and young could prove to be an influencing factor in the increased mortality rate in young whales. Pairs attacked more frequently seem to spend depleted time nursing and resting and consequently may suffer from dehydration, poor thermoregulation and energy loss.

A new species of the highly venomous Australian death adder has been discovered in the Kimberley region of Australia.

Another highly venomous snake has been discovered in Australia in the form of the Kimberly death adder. The reptilian predator has the trademark diamond shaped head and stout body associated with snakes of the Acanthophis genus, while its identifying trait is the larger number of scales on its underbelly, which are unpigmented. With a sit and wait predatory lifestyle, unsuspecting prey such as lizards and frogs it seems would be well advised to be extra vigilant with this lethal predator poised ready to strike.

Burrowing lizards may provide the link to the emergence of snakes.

A 110 million year old fossil has been discovered in Brazil and would appear to suggest that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards. The skeleton was found to have long grasping toes which ruled out the possibility of snakes evolving from marine lizards.

BBC Wildlife Magazine, October 2015.

Cowbirds – A repeated menace.

Brown headed cowbirds are a brood parasite however research has found they still keep a watchful eye on their young. The study which lasted 21 years in Illinois observed prothonotary warblers raising cowbird chicks. Researchers discovered the probability of cowbirds returning to warbler nests increases if they successfully raised a cowbird chick previously. This provides the first documentation of brood parasites using experience to improve reproductive success.

BBC Wildlife Magazine, November, 2015.

One predator extinction can cause the extinction of other carnivores.

A study conducted by Exeter University has found the extinction of one predator can have disastrous knock on effects for other carnivore species. Forty square metre field cages were used to contain numerous aphid species and parasitoid wasps making up detailed food webs. Observations took place throughout spring and summer. When one species of wasp was removed, the direct consequence was a greater rate of extinction in other wasp species. The aphids targeted by the removed wasp species increased in number. Eventually this lead to other aphid species being crowded out making it harder for wasps specifically targeting them to find them thus leading to their eventual extinction.
This outcome led Dr Sanders an associate research fellow at Exeter University to say “Knowing how such extinction cascades can happen gives us a better understanding and helps us to predict when they might happen. If we want to protect an endangered carnivore species, for example, we might need to protect other predators around it, which is quite an important message”.

Costa Rican Adventures.

As I mentioned previously, I have recently returned from a month in the Costa Rican rainforest assisting on a range of scientific surveys. The last thing I want to do in this section is sound like a “travel bore” I would rather focus on the incredible wildlife I was lucky enough to see whilst on survey. At the bottom of this piece I have attached a link for more information on the project and the organisation themselves Global Vision International. I would thoroughly recommend taking a look, the wildlife is amazing however so are the people involved with this project, staff and fellow volunteers all of them are now my friends and thanks to them I have memories that will last a lifetime.

Thank goodness for flies.

Being grateful for flies may seem like a strange sentiment in the rainforest. The sheer numbers of them mean they have an uncanny ability to irritate anything unfortunate enough to cross their path. On one early morning however en route to conduct an incidentals survey the sheer annoyance they caused led us to experience a mind blowing sighting. Our survey leader made the decision to change route to the survey start point to try and avoid them seemingly unrelenting hordes of flies. A decision gratefully received as we left the coastal rainforest and headed out onto the beach from there we aimed to reconnect with the survey start point. As we walked we saw jaguar tracks and I remembered that I was still without a photo of them and so out came the camera. Barely had I finished when our survey leader instructed us not to move. He had immediately seen something we hadn’t well camouflaged even in the intensifying sunlight crouching behind a large group of vultures. In front of us, approximately 200 metres away was a jaguar, a male and a big one at that. My heart pounded this was an experience I never dared think possible. There he was however relaxed, feeding on a freshly killed turtle with the vultures around him acting as a mere inconvenience. Despite being visible with the naked eye, it was binoculars that really did him justice, not just in his beauty but also his power and authority that oozed out of him with every step he took. We watched for ten minutes with brown pelicans flying overhead while he fed, stopping only occasionally to chase away vultures and to check us out. Even at the distance we were away, a stare like his certainly can make you feel small and powerless very quickly. Eventually he retreated into the undergrowth, presumably to sleep off his meal while we were left awestruck and pinching ourselves as to whether or not what we just saw really happened. 
To even hope to see another jaguar would have been ambitious at best seemingly hopeless at worst. Less than 24 hours had passed however when, whilst on a jag walk where signs of jaguar predation, activity and turtle tracks are recorded, did lightening strike twice. Once more our survey leader spotted the stunning predator. This time a young jaguar again on a kill and on this occasion the sight of people was enough to alarm it into breaking into cover within seconds, a brief glimpse but something truly special.

A long way away, the picture looks better in larger format he is there I promise !

Jaguar footprints, little did we know what was in store for us.
                                          A great river sighting.

Going out on bird surveys out on the water was certainly a prospect that excited me as particularly growing up I had been an avid bird watcher. As part of our training and preparation for the surveys we were taken out on a boat to see first hand the species we would be recording. We saw a range of species from northern jacanas to the magnificent bare throated tiger heron however it was a different heron species that proved to be the highlight of the day. Thanks to an incredible piece of spotting from another volunteer, our attention was drawn to a stunning boat billed heron, cautious at first using the vegetation before appearing out in the open allowing us a sighting in all its glory especially the trademark boat bill. It was a day to remember and certainly my favourite bird sighting.

Boat billed heron, stunning.

                                                 Amazing amphibians.

Think of Costa Rica and a few species immediately come to mind, macaws, various turtles, jaguars, sloths and the red eyed tree frog the latter of which was most definitely on my list of species to see. Night surveys never failed to capture the imagination and opened up a whole new world of weird and wonderful species and amongst many memorable moments included a sighting of a beautiful but very venomous coral snake. It was on a night survey where myself, the survey leader and my fellow volunteers were treated to an encounter with one of Costa Rica’s most iconic species. The shine of our torches showed off the red eyed tree frogs stunning colouration and having observed the amphibian resting on a leaf, we left it to continue with its night of hunting delighted at our good fortune.  

An icon of Costa Rican wildlife and a wonderful animal. 

The scarlet webbed tree frog was a frequent encounter on surveys. 

                                        A highly venomous encounter.

I have always had a fascination with snakes I’m not sure exactly why but even at primary school age I could rattle off numerous highly venomous snakes and key facts about them. Needless to say the prospect of seeing the most venomous snake in Central America – the fer der lance was most certainly a prospect that intrigued me. It was again an incidentals survey which provided the stage for an unforgettable encounter.
The survey itself had been relatively quiet and with only a few metres remaining this looked unlikely to change. Around the nest corner however things most certainly did, our survey leaders arm shot out in front of us stopping us from walking any further. Just as well he did for lying coiled in the path in front of us resting, hard to spot with its superb camouflage was a juvenile fer der lance. It took a few seconds for what we were looking at to sink in. This was one of the most venomous snakes in the world seemingly undisturbed by our presence which was needless to say a healthy distance away. We stood, we watched, we took pictures and we admired its beauty. The snake was not all bothered by us, it is important to remember venom is a precious resource to snakes in nearly all cases they don’t want to use it unless they have to. We were never in danger of taking a “hit” and when we left the snake was as relaxed as when we arrived, a perfect encounter.

The most venomous snake in Central America.
Eyelash palm pit viper, highly venomous and not adverse to coming into camp, one was found in the shower!
                   A turtle experience.

Prior to this trip my only experiences with green turtles had come through television and literature. Nothing can you prepare you for their size and certainly not for the humbling effort it takes for them to lay their eggs. So graceful in water, their size works against them on land as they haul themselves up the beach leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to predation from jaguars lurking in the shadows. The numerous carcasses of those who didn’t make it are testament to that.
On my first night walk my I had a real mix of nervous excitement, mainly excitement I knew seeing a turtle for the first time was going to be amazing. I was not wrong myself and the other volunteers were able to see the entire nesting process it was incredible, truly incredible. We assisted with the recording off the scientific data and for as long as I live I will never forget giving a turtle a body check searching for any abnormalities it was thoroughly worth getting a mouthful of sand having failed to dodge the spay ! Neither will I forget the intimate moments of counting the eggs being laid having an experience like that, that’s a privilege. Watching a turtle returning to sea having done all she can for the next generation is a reminder as if I needed one of why I love this truly incredible natural world.

We stood over this green turtle  hatchling along with its siblings while  vultures circled above.  

A critically endangered hawksbill makes his way to sea, fingers crossed for him.
I have so many memories I could write seemingly forever, but then I would become what I feared a travel bore and no one wants that! I will leave it on this note however, if you feel like you would enjoy a howler monkey alarm clock, love wildlife, love hard work, want to meet amazing people from all over the world and can live without home comforts then this may well an adventure for you too.
I really hope you’ve enjoyed reading and thank you for doing so, all the best,

Twitter @Reallywildwykes

Email –grwykes@gmail.com

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