The Chan Chich Trails

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View from the top of one of the knolls (i.e., former Mayan structure) surrounding the compound

Day by day I’ve been exploring the trails around Chan Chich Lodge, and during each excursion I find some kind of surprise. I tend to tag along Seth’s bird outings not only to learn about the birds fluttering about, but also to increase the chances of spotting some type of wildlife mammal.  Certain trails are better for finding the animals that I hope to see (such as a Margay or a White-nosed Coati), but I have diversified my search in order to avoid discriminating against all the other stunning wildlife at Chan Chich and to take into consideration my birder companion’s interests.

Climbing to the top of the grassy mounds (concealing Mayan structures) that surround the central hotel area is one option that offers an elevated perspective of the lodge and allows for a less constricted view of the trees that attract Brown-hooded Parrots, White-collared Seedeaters, and Tropical Kingbirds. Most of the knolls have a bench at the top, which I believe serve more as a scenic embellishment than a respite from the twenty stair-step “hike.” At one of the mounds there is a wooden platform on the edge of the hill that provides a private outlook towards the forest canopy. I found this outlook at sunset, which made the discovery all the more memorable, and I will not reveal its precise location to encourage visitors to find it on their own. Continue reading

A Jersey Girl’s Introduction to Camping

Guest Author: Siobhan Powers

Photo Courtesy of Milo Inman

Before my journey to India, I’d never camped. Sure, I had slept in a tent in my friend’s backyard and gone to Girl Scout camp with my Scooby Doo sleeping bag, but I was feet from indoor plumbing and a roof every time. Where’s the fun in that? When I was belatedly asked to join a few interns on the Tiger Trail overnight trip into the Periyar Tiger Reserve, I was skeptical. My summer nights are usually spent running seafood to a hungry customer or chasing a high-maintenance boy across the beaches of the Jersey shore-therefore my presence in the jungles of Asia is quite ectopic, but I am an adventurous person (sometimes to my detriment). I took the opportunity for what it was- a once-in-a-lifetime chance to snuggle up to some tigers. Continue reading

A Well-Rounded Adventure

“Mists, ah, very problem!”

I glanced sideways at the boisterous Mallu man driving the jeep along the winding mountain road. Like his passengers, he was peering out of the vehicle at the steep slopes around us, scanning them for wildlife, abetted by the pre-dawn lighting and the heavy mists.

If any elephants or bison were grazing upon the high hills we drove through, they were impossible to see thanks to the cotton-thick mists blanketing the tall grass and trees that covered the terrain. As the vehicle banged and clunked over potholes at high speeds, I held determinedly onto the railing for dear life, occasionally risking freeing my hands for a photograph of the scenery speeding past.

Some ways down the road, once the sun had risen above the horizon, the jeep rolled to a stop under a densely canopied corridor. My eyes began to search the trees for the reason of our stop to no avail – the driver pointed to what I had previously taken for a pile of rocks, proclaiming it to be a tribal temple. Upon a second look, I realized that the blocks of granite were hewn into rough rectangles, and while in no particular order, they were indeed surrounding a small garlanded icon. Continue reading

Periyar Trek and Bamboo Rafting

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.  -John Muir, 1913

A trek into a tiger reserve might most readily evoke ideas of adventure and intrepid exploration. Bamboo rafting suggests a similar air of gallant expedition in an untamed wilderness. But when asked about my experience on the bamboo rafting and trekking tour through the Periyar Tiger Reserve, ‘peaceful’ was the word that came to mind. While all those notions of rough and rugged adventure are accurate, ‘peaceful’ is the expression that best describes that day, as well as the feeling I get when reflecting upon it.

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Territorial Tensions

Every day since my arrival at Cardamom County, I’ve either seen or woken up to the sounds of monkeys scurrying across my roof, launching themselves from their tree branches onto my tiled terrace, and looking curiously into my room as if there were giant bananas inside. As it turns out, they can’t really see inside unless the lights are on, so it might have been their own fuzzy reflections they were so intrigued by – the narcissists. Whatever the case may be, something is different in the woods these days, Continue reading

Omens of Fortune

I am not superstitious. But I am also not exactly non-superstitious. I love black cats (my grandmother has two, named Helios and Selini after the sun and moon, in Greek). Sometimes I have to pass under a ladder to get something done. No problem. And in the spirit of declaring my semi-agnosticism in that domain, I also think insects have had a bad rap for way too long. With all due respect to arachnophobes (and I really mean that), I always find encounters with spiders fascinating. Today, it went beyond empirically verifiable fascination; I found myself feeling positively superstitious, if I may say so with the dual meaning of the adverb.

In the morning when I exited my room in the little house not too far from the Morgan’s Rock lobby, this spider was waiting for me outside. After I showered and got ready to leave, I passed a frantic walking stick attempting to find a tree, perhaps having fallen from the ceiling earlier. As I walked to the restaurant for breakfast, I considered these two arthropods good omens of the sightings I would have on my forest walk later in the day.

When I departed on the trail to find wildlife to photograph, I passed near some weeds on the side of the path that had been ravaged by some insect. I crouched and looked closely at all the leaves to detect the culprit, but found no obvious caterpillar or beetle munching on the foliage. Bending closer, I scanned the plants with a patient eye and finally noticed something that stood out. Continue reading

Post-Estuarial Paddling +

In “Kayak Surfing with a Friend,” I described the surfing in words and included a short video. Here is some longer and better footage of the experience, this time including Pierre (brown hair), me (black hair), and Bismar (green shirt). We have concluded, after experimentation with the paddles and waves, that this activity would be a great post-estuary kayak experience if the tide is right. Since I had mentioned this to Bismar (a Morgan’s Rock guide) he decided to join Pierre and me after completing his estuary tour with some guests, so that he could see for himself.

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Anteating Howler Butterflies

While walking to Morgan’s Rock’s lobby yesterday morning, Pierre heard some rustling in the bushes on our right. We looked for the source and were stunned to see an anteater standing on its hind legs, spreading its arms and swaying about like a drunkard but in fact trying to dissuade us from attacking it by trying to appear larger (it was bigger than a very fat house cat, but not by much). I immediately pulled my video camera from my pocket and started filming, and although the anteater had ceased his humorous movements and started climbing a very thin sapling, the footage was incredibly fortunate and very entertaining.

 

Since the tree he decided to grasp was so young, it started to bend as he climbed higher, reminding me of cartoons where characters are catapulted out of the branches after a certain point. The anteater was less than a meter away and at times looked like a teddy bear, but as a wild animal—and one with claws in full display at that—we refrained from touching him and were satisfied with a video. Eventually, the formicary raider descended the sapling and chose a better escape tree (in a pose reminiscent of the boa’s in a previous post), and we left happy with the sighting of what I thought I’d only be able to see in the summer when foliage was less dense. Continue reading

Mombo Jombo

Early this morning Pierre and I set out from Morgan’s Rock towards Granada, which is maybe two and a half hours away. Before reaching the city, we turned onto a road that led to Mombacho Volcano, an inactive peak with several extinct (and some fully collapsed) craters. The volcano is protected by the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve, created in 1996 by the several local fincas on the volcano’s foothills that comprise the NGO Cocibolca Foundation. Our time at Mombacho, described in the rest of this post, is part of the exploratory trip that Pierre and I are taking over the next three days, assessing the possibility of connecting Morgan’s Rock’s tour offerings with other operators in the area.

The day’s activities started at the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve (MVNR), where we met our guide Jennifer. We decided to take the longest trek, called the Puma Trail, so named because there are some big rocks and even caves that pumas are said to live in, although none have been sighted in a decade. Prior to starting this four-hour hike we stopped by an area called Los Fumalores where Jennifer had fun by daring us to put our hands in a small hole next to the trail, reassuring us that no snakes would be inside. As we placed our hands near the opening in the ground, we could immediately feel a stunning temperature difference. The place is called Los Fumaroles because sulfuric gases rise from volcanic holes and crevasses in hot gushes, heating the surrounding stone to a surprising degree. This area also provides a nice view of Las Isletas, which are known as children of Mombacho because they are islands initially created from a volcanic eruption. I mentioned Las Isletas very briefly here.

The Puma Trail’s path is very well maintained, Continue reading

Defensive Insects

My younger brother Milo has posted about Entomotography, sharing his excellent “macro” pictures of dragonflies in India. Yesterday I was walking in the woods at Morgan’s Rock when I remembered that I had promised to describe in more detail the cornizuelo tree, which fronts fierce fire ants and sports sharp spines on its branches. Since these trees are all over the place, I set my camera to macro mode and looked for a good specimen. Below is a video that shows just how diligently the ants patrol their home, both when no imminent danger is present and also when a threat is detected. At the end of the video I’ve included footage of a caterpillar.

 

When I first saw the little balls on the caterpillar’s back, I wasn’t all that surprised. Many insect species (and other animals like fish and crustaceans, for that matter) cover themselves with debris to disguise themselves from predators. What struck me as odd, however, was that this caterpillar, clearly a poisonous species (or at the very least an example of Batesian mimicry), felt the need to cover itself with crap (which, as the video shows, I discovered to literally be true) and thereby potentially avoid predation. Of course, it may be Continue reading

What They Do Not Teach You At Cornell Hotel School

A couple of days ago, Michael wrote the post “Monkey Business…”.  The post illustrated my surprise seeing 20-ish monkeys, which to Michael was not an unusual event. Over the last week I too realized that a sudden appearance of the Macaque was just a part of daily life here.  However, I definitely enjoyed my first encounter of a Macaque family outing. I hope you enjoyed as well.

As I was enjoying the post by Michael, something in the second picture caught my attention after a while. In case like me you did not notice it in Michael’s post, it seems like the Macaques are observing something on the lower right.  If you click the picture you will see a larger view.

Did you see the dark ribbon (or it may look to you like a leather belt, if you read Seth’s post on a similar topic)?   Continue reading

La Cumplida’s Private Reserve

Author’s Note 19/7/11: The lizard pictured at the beginning of the post has been identified as a pug-nosed anole. The first group of stinkhorn pictures (paragraph 2) are of the species Phallus duplicatus, and the second group of pictures (last paragraph) are of Phallus indusiatus. The green mushroom linked to by the word “others” (paragraph 4) is Hygrocybe sp. and the grey/white ones are Psathyrella candolleana. Credit and thanks for mushroom identification goes to Milo Inman.

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The untouched forest of the reserve at La Cumplida is a hilly cloud forest with few trails and many streams that served as much of our path through the trees. My guide, a local named Santos, and I started in the foothills outside of the reserve and entered the forest by climbing up some steep, muddy inclines.

The protected area amounts to 600 hectares, or 1,482 acres. Santos and I had walked for only about twenty minutes when I spotted the first attraction of the day: some stinkhorn mushrooms. Two were just a white line of pulp, but one was still not fully decomposed and looked as phallic as ever, having lost its veil.

Only around half an hour of hills later, Santos stopped me and pointed out a sapling in front of us. He said some words that I didn’t understand, so I tried looking more closely to decipher his meaning. At last I saw the outline of a faint figure sticking out of the tree’s trunk. I slowly approached and saw that a lizard, perhaps the length of my hand, was grasping the sapling and facing downwards, its scales a mottled variety of wood colors, like a camouflaged chameleon but clearly not of that species based on its head shape. The poor lighting in the forest didn’t allow for the best pictures, but I was glad to get a couple, especially these ones of the lizard curiously raising its head at the closely approaching camera lens.

 

We advanced further into the forest and saw only the dense and variegated foliage around us

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Unexpected Visitors

This afternoon, just after lunchtime, the staff and guests of Cardamom County were greeted with a thrilling surprise: the unannounced arrival of three Nilgiri Langur,  the haunting, strong and motile black monkey endemic to the Western Ghats. I ran into Gourvjit and the resort’s driver, Baburaj, watching from the parking lot as they jumped from tree to tree, and as we lingered they took the bold step of running and leaping from roof to roof through the resort– over the lobby, over the open-air bar, past porches and rooms and into the back of the property, where they perched in a jack fruit tree. I followed after them, was hissed at by one, and managed to catch this video of another from an appropriate distance.

The thick, shiny black of its fur and the shock of bronze colored hair that haloes its head lend the Nilgiri langur a mysterious and dramatic appearance, especially when bounding through the otherwise calm resort grounds (though I couldn’t help but, at times, think that they looked as if they were each wearing Donald Trump’s tupee). It is by habit a shy, tree-dwelling monkey (in stark comparison to the brazen macaque) and markedly wary of human interaction. Nilgiri langur have been hunted in this area for their flesh, which is considered to have medicinal properties, and for their fur, which is used to cover drums. Baburaj said they have not been on property for two years and that this threesome was likely a reconnaissance team of sorts, so it seems we’re likely not to run into them again outside of the Reserve. But to get so close to them, to watch them interact and find their way in this environment, which is wholly different from their usual station 60m up in the thick of the Periyar, was a truly rare experience. (And they scare the macaque away to boot!)

Spider Monkey Threats

On one of our walks through the forest, Pierre and I found another green-backed spider (see my previous post) that spewed some white droplets at us. Unless we had an unusual double coincidence of interrupting arachnid bowel movements, I now believe that the spiders meant to deter us with the liquid. Whether it was excrement, poison, or liquid silk material remains to be seen.

Later on the trail we reached the main road and were about to pass under a group of huge mango trees when several mangoes thumped loudly onto the ground in front of us after the branches crashed around a bit. We looked warily into the trees to see a group of fleeing spider monkeys, which are very timid and don’t enjoy being anywhere near humans. Through the camera’s zoom, I was able to spot a mother with her baby hanging on her back. She was bouncing up and down, shaking a branch to startle us away. Once her mate arrived next to her, she left, and about half a dozen other monkeys followed her, causing a further bombardment of unripe (hard and dangerous) mangoes to hit the road at our feet.

The hazardous fruit attracts all three Morgan’s Rock species of monkey (howler, white-faced, spider), so it is a good place to watch them enjoy the mangoes while making sure to not stand too close to the trees. With the addition of the muñeco trees that I wrote about in another post, the roads should be great places to spot the tree-bound mammals.

Entomotography

We had been on bamboo rafts in the Periyar Lake most of the morning, and had gone on shore briefly to visit the night ranger’s encampment.  I had been there several times previously, but today was different. We witnessed one of the greatest wonders of the natural world—a mother elephant and her calf (because of a mother’s aggressively defensive instincts, it is rare for humans to see this combo in the forest).  It was too spectacular for words, and even photos are worth just a few thousand words—not nearly as much as it felt worth while there.

By midday we were back on the water, and the rush of seeing such a huge and intelligent creature bonding with its offspring was lingering, but passing. We landed for a bit of respite. As the rest of the group ate lunch and talked, I decided to renew that rush with a change of perspective: from charismatic megafauna to wily winged minifauna. I crouched on the parched rocks, squatted and staring at my camera’s viewfinder. I had been stalking my tiny target along the shore for almost 30 minutes, and had enough mud, pebbles, grass and dung on my knees to open eyes at a detergent expo.

My eyes strained to focus on the strangely camouflaged creatures I was hunting. Scanning the motionless terrain of the shoreline, I saw no movement except for the gentlest rippling of grass and the lake’s surface with the breeze. I got impatient and decided to draw them out of hiding. It wouldn’t take much – I lifted my foot and took a step forward, and there!

A bright blue-green dragonfly that had been surreptitiously clinging to a twig alighted, and began to zoom around. Continue reading

Scuba Fishing

This morning Pierre and I got up early to go on a scuba fishing expedition with Jacinto and Juan. Using a kayak to cross the wide and deep channel the sea was cutting into the estuary, we headed to a spot where the waves were a bit calmer, and the fishermen came in a small motorboat to take us over to the Eco I. Unfortunately, it turned out that the smaller boat was to be our vessel for the morning, since the Eco I was out of fuel. A green air compressor machine sat in the middle of the boat, and the long air hose sat coiled at the bow with a couple pairs of flippers and snorkel sets.

Pierre and I installed ourselves at the stern and started putting on sunscreen. “The water visibility is a bit low today, but we will try to find some lobsters,” said Jacinto in Spanish. Juan drove the boat past Morgan’s Rock and close to the rocks on the next cove over. Then he handed the tiller to Jacinto and started pulling on some flippers, signaling for me to do the same. The two fishermen showed me how to operate the air regulator, which was the same sort found on a tank scuba set, and they helped tie the hose so that it fell over my shoulder and across my back.

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Arthropods and Sunsets

While walking on a trail today, Pierre and I came across a spider with a lime green back. As we approached it, it bared its behind at in our direction and dripped forth some dangerous-looking white liquid. They were very small droplets that didn’t spray towards us, but merely fell down to the dirt below the web. We paused to photograph this spider, keeping our distance in case what we had witnessed was just the priming of a more serious discharge mechanism, and then went on our way.

As I thought back on this spider I realize that we may have simply walked in on its moment of defecation, and incorrectly interpreted the droplets of excrement as an attack. A quick Ecosia search showed me that spiders’ poo is often white liquid that leaves a chalky residue, so I am starting to believe that what Pierre and I saw was not a direct assault but perhaps still a method of self-defense in some cases.

What we watched later in the day, however, was a clear attack. A millipede (which I incorrectly identify as a centipede in the short video I took) was beset upon by a fast-moving bug that darted at its writhing, myriapodous prey without mercy. Unfortunately, Pierre and I had were on the way to Sunset Hill (see my previous post) so we had to leave at the risk of missing what we hoped would be a great view of the sunset.

When we got to the top of the hill, we were rewarded with the best sunset I’ve seen from the point so far out of the three times I’ve been up there. I think the better sunsets must be during the dry season, when there aren’t quite as many clouds covering the sun as it descends over the ocean horizon.

Central American Pygmy Owl

Today Harvey and I went on a nature walk with a couple guests from California. Interested in seeing birds, they had brought a pair of binoculars along, which we soon had an opportunity to use. We were walking along what seemed a deserted trail when Harvey suddenly motioned for us to stop and pointed up into the trees on our left. We saw nothing, and Harvey had to lead us along the branches with his finger to show the little fist-sized lump of white and light brown that was a pygmy owl. With the help of the binoculars and Harvey’s guidebook, we were able to identify it as a Central American pygmy owl. Without the binoculars it would have been impossible to distinguish between the three or four species of owl, since they are all roughly the same color and only differ in markings and patterns on their chest, head, and tail feathers. Although I couldn’t get a picture since it was too far away (still no zoom on the camera), here are some photos that Bismar took last summer, the season when trees’ foliage is much less dense and in some cases nonexistent.

It is winter (the rainy season) here now, and therefore very impressive that Harvey was able to spot the tiny bird through all the leaves without the help of a flashlight at night, which is when one usually sees the owls.

A Kipling Character at Morgan’s Rock?

It happened today.

I was on the Campesino Breakfast Tour with guests. We drove through the finca till we got to the Aguacate Farm, where the chickens, ducks, and cows are kept. Don Juan taught us how to milk a cow; the lactating mother was mooing with discomfort, eager to be relieved of her burden. Sitting on a one-legged stool that was tied to his waist, Don Juan expertly sent streams of white into a gray pail, and the guests crouched to do the same with early morning alacrity.

We filled up the pail, thanked Don Juan, and made our way to the chicken barn. Through the dim light and faintly unpleasant smell, about 180 chickens skittered about, clucking indignantly at the disturbance. A rake and shovel leaned against the wall, a wooden stick with little rawhide strings hung from a column, and a leather belt was wound around a rafter in the corner. The man who takes care of the chickens took Harvey aside and whispered something in his ear, then proceeded to lead the guests through the barn to show them the coops and water-troughs. While the guests were distracted, Harvey approached me.

And then it happened.

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