Saturday, 13 October 2007

Have you ever tried counting the flowers on a Eucalyptus tree?

So, I promised you details about work...*sigh*...ok then – I’ll give you the brief run down

The Juan Fernandez Archipelago is the pointy top part of a volcanic mountain chain – on the cliffs from a boat you can see the stratifications as layers of lava were layed down and numerous conduits/pipes that cut straight up through the hills. Since the islands have always been completely isolated numerous unique species have evolved here that are found nowhere else in the world – including the Juan Fernandez Firecrown, the hummingbird which is the focus of the study. Since people have discovered the island they have introduced numerous species which compete with native vegetation (such as Maqui and bramble), contribute to soil erosion (grazing animals including wild goats and rabbits) and animals that directly harm native birds (cats, rats and coatis). People have also driven a native tree, the Sophora, nearly to extinction due to logging. The trees that now survive are those that were to twisted or innaccessible to be useful, and it takes several hours walking from town to find them. When they are in bloom the hummingbirds flock to the multitude of yellow flowers for nectar so that standing by the tree trunk is like being in a golden aviary. The only nearly terrestrial vertebrates native to the islands other than birds are an endemic species of fur seal – these were hunted for their meat and at one point considered extinct before an isolated population was discovered. The seals are now thriving and a few of them can usually be seen with their flippers raised out of the water, messing about near the shore in front of the town.

The other species of hummingbird on the island – the continental species which is probably the sister-species of the endemic – appears to have made it to the archipelago alone in the last couple of hundred years. Much of our work also applies to these birds and part of the aim of the study is to examine possible competative interactions and to determine whether the vegetation changes caused by humans may be of benefit to the continental species over the endemic. Behavioural observations of birds that enter specified areas during half hour periods will help determine possible differences in feeding strategy, energy budgets, and preffered food sources between the larger endemic and smaller contintal firecrowns. Aggressive interactions between birds are also noted. Ok, so now I sound like a journal article – jeez. Maybe it’s better to say: we sit around in the cold, someimtes in mud, and watch the pretty birdies. :-) Mud problems are solved by the use of waterproof trousers which are an awesome invention – like clothes you can get as dirty if you want and don’t have to wash! The cold is countered by numerous layers – although after hiking up a steep hill, the bottom layer usually stays horribly damp which doesn’t help. The birdies really are very pretty though. The endemic males are the biggest – completely brick red with darker almost-black on the edges of their wings, and when they face you head on a flash of irridescent gold or red on their forehead which gives them their name. The Green-Backed Firecrown males also posses this red crest but apart from this they are small and inconspicuous – dull green fading to grey underneath – much better camouflaged from a history of having to cope with predators. The endemic females are my favourite though –they are irridescent emerald green on top, and bright white underneath and on the edges of their tails when they fan them out. When sitting in a forest clearing you often hear the buzz of the female’s wings before spotting them doing crazy acrobatics in the air while feeidng on insects.

These humminbirds feed on both nectar and insects – and so we research both of these food sources. We count flowers on trees, determine nectar production, and trap and sort insects from various locations. Other work includes measuring trees and finding, measuring and regularly checking nests of both species.

There we go then – blah blah blah. I think next post I’ll go back to how pretty everything is.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

1st October - and not a fresher in sight.

When I heard Kelly get up this morning it was already light and the cockrels were making their usual racket, however since I knew that Kelly and Libby were going off earlier to do behavioural observations I managed to ignore it all. I dreamt about whether I should be getting up interspersed with ‘cock-a-doodle-doos’ and the need to itch my flea bites. As people who have ever lived in a room next to me will know, I have a very loud cockerel alarm clock that was a present when I went to Uni to ‘remind me of home’. I now have a super-sensitivity to crowing noises in the early morning leading me to jerk awake in a panic several times before sunrise each day. Why can’t somone tell those bloody birds that they’re only supposed to crow when it’s time to get up, and while you’re at it how about persuading them not to do it right outside my window. Grrr.

Eventually Erin stuck her head in the door – “Erm, I didn’t know if you...” – I sat up and looked at my watch: It was 07:55 – five minutes before we were supposed to be leaving. I half stood trying to leap out of my sleeping bag and crashed into the celiling. Bunk-beds. I sat down again and wriggled. I have always prided myself on the fact that I once woke up at 8.55am in my first year and still made it to a 9 o’clock lecutre before it had started (this is where living really really close to your department comes in handy). So I launched into my usual super-speed get-ready which involves eliminating all unnecessary hygeine and tidiness. Erin told me that it was ok, I had time for breakfast so I grabbed the instant oats, sugar, milk, the coffee and the thermos of hot water. In a moment of inspiration I decided to combine all of these in a bowl. I mean, you know porridge? And you know coffee? Is there really any need for two separate items? Turns out yeah, there is.

When Chupa arrived I managed to say “Sorry – I to sleep” in beautiful Spanish which seemed to confuse him. He and Erin left and I grabbed my things and followed them out the door around ten minutes later. Due to the fact that they both walk ridiculously fast this meant I would not reach Plazoleta until at least 20 minutes after them, but luckily this didn’t matter so much for the nest-measuring we were doing. I located them in the forest just in time to help pull Chupa up a tree so all was well. I want to describe to you what it’s like here so I think I’ll start with the walk up to Plazoleta – it’s not the most beautiful one we do but we do it a hell of a lot. I’m proud to say though that it now takes me less time than when I started (or at least it seems shorter to me)!

So, let’s start out on our porch: raised wooden slats for kicking dirty boots against – and from there hard reddish mud in every direction (including under the porch and under the house where we hang our washing). So I go out the door and climb up onto the wider smoother area of earth that constitutes a lane, past numerous chickens (grrrr), a dog, and a couple more raised wooden houses on either side until I run out of road. I pick my way up and down between abandonded planks and small pine trees through a sort of in-between town area of nothingness until I come out onto another path. This one has stones and everything! On my left is a loud but invisible narrow mountain stream and beyond that a Eucalyptus-covered hill. Occasionally I may have to step over a rope tethering a horse or mule grazing on the verges. The path passes the last isolated house (home of ‘handsome man’ who we like to spy on from our window sometimes) and enters the park proper – marked by a wooden arch which reads:


Parque Nacional Arch Juan Fdez

That’s the Juan Fernandez Nacional Park in case I haven’t mentioned this which is a UNESCO world biosphere reserve or something due to the high numbers of endemic species found here. It includes most of all three island of the archipelago – Crusoe, Selkirk and Sant Clara.

Anyway – having come out of the trees in town I now have a clear view of the mountains again. The slope that the path is climbing comes up from the sea, past our house, and merges into the base of the mountains where it finally loses the cover of Eucalytus, Conifer and Pines planted around the town. The native woodland has been pushed out of the valley so it sits in pockets at the bottom of the mountains, creeping up the slopes until not even the smallest plants can cling to the sheer rock faces. One great castle of rock sits directly above the town – wiry looking bushes clinging on where they can find a hold on its near vertical sides. On the narrow plateau on top, which is often hidden by low clouds, larger plants are able to live. On the crests of many of the ridges around the valley, one can see the sillhouetes of isolated palm trees sticking out into the wind looking completely out of place. I can’t think how a large palm seed would get to such a precarious position – and until relatively recently there was not much on the island big enough to transport them there.

As the path heads downhill slightly again it finds a park campsite, set surrounded by pines. Apparently there are enough visitors here in the summer months for many islanders to earn money from tourism; this time of year though, tourists are very rare. Past the campsite is a suddenly jungle-like swamp of enormous Gunneras, their giant leaves looking like a suitable backdrop for dinosaurs or Carboniferous insects. My imagination doesn’t take into account that angiosperms hadn’t evolved at that point. Past the jungle is a tiny idyllic meadow filled with forget-me-knots; the carpet of small blue flowers may be another introduced species but they smell heavenly. Finally I reach the narrow path, lined with stones, that winds in an arc through the forest. The most abundant tree here is the luma, which is the only species in which the native hummingbirds will nest. For this reason we spend a lot of time training our binoculars on clumps of leaves and scanning for the small green and brown bowls. I say small, but the Juan Fernandez firecrown is actually one of the largest species of hummingbirds and so their nests are noticibly larger than those of the continental Green-backed Firecrown. The nests are woven with moss, and those of the endemic species are speckled with dots of white spider’s web – though why they go to all that trouble I cannot figure out.

There you have muchos description - it's not so exciting but hopefully it gives you more of a feel for where the hell I am. The next topic shall be about the work to cover the 'what the hell am I doing' side of things. Oh the excitement - can you even wait?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Antimini is...

...either cold, tired, hungry or all three, all the time. need of an Angie. After two months she’s taken to hugging a post.
...really really glad that she’s absolutely 100% sure that there is definitely. nothing on this island big enough to eat her. Definitely. (before sunrise in a very dark forest) the top of a mountain at least ten minutes before everyone else! This is amazing despite the fact that she left about 20 minutes before them. She thinks she may actually be getting high on those endorphin things people are always claiming make exercise enjoyable. She stands on top of a rock in a cocky pose – “You’re late!”; “I arrive” says Gandalf in her head, “Precisely when I mean to.” (sunrise, 25th Sept)
...making arrangements in case she gets blown, or pushed by a goat, off a cliff. Please read ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke at her funeral. She doesn’t care whether it’s appropriate, she likes it. sucks to be me.
...making her standard meal – dahl and rice!
...eating her standard meal alone with three empty places set around her. *sigh* internet deprived that she’s even missing the complusory ‘is’ in facebook statuses and the way you have to talk about yourself in the third person.

Home (where there are no mountains)

Where I come from there are no mountains.
Just soft rolling hills
which aren’t so hard to climb.

Where I’m from the clouds stay in the sky
and the animals out of sight
and the people all work inside.

Where I come from there are parties
and I wear fancy clothes and impractical shoes
and my friends wait for me if I can’t keep up.

Where I’m from I can understand people,
we all speak the same language
so I can participate.

Where I come from I am capable and intelligent,
I know what I’m supposed to be doing,
and I’m not bad at it.

Where I’m from my friends laugh at my jokes
and I’m not miserable
or always moaning.

Where I come from I know who I am.

This isn’t me.

24th Sept


is full of new faces and friendships,
new places,
adventures to find;
It’s full of new skies.

But life
constantly heaving and changing
means leaving an old life behind;
It’s full of goodbyes.

If life
means living without you then all that I want
is to be left behind,
let me turn back time
‘till I find you again and hold on to then,
but if my life
won’t let me be with you then let me know
that I am there in your mind.
There, as always in mine.

19th Sept...five weeks in.

Man, it’s been ages since I last wrote – not that you’ll notice since it’ll be instantaneous for you but still. In fact , my current motivation for writing is the apparent disappearance of the ‘sin connexion’ sign from the library door – this seems like a good sign (the lack of the sign that is, not the sign itself, that was a bad sign). So anyway, I’m keeping my fingers crossed and feeling a duty for further explanations etc.

*An important note I am adding while typing this up – you’ll need to read the previous post first or much of this one will make no sense. Just scroll down, it’s not that hard - even for the old fogeys! Go! Go!*

So, I’m sitting at our dining room table. Surrounding me on four sides are large windows with lace curtains so that the neighbours can see what the crazy foreign people (‘gringas’) are doing. The floor is all wet coz Kelly and I (grammar corrected for my grandmother), having gotten back early from work, have been cleaning. My chore for this week is ‘family room’, which usually involves repeatedly sweeping out of the door all the mud that people bring in; today it also involves mopping. Erin and Libby have just come home from checking nests – they (probably meaning Chupa) climbed up to get a look into nest 5 today and saw (via a mirror) a tiny chick, which is surprising since we’ve never seen a female visiting that nest; Erin is thinking maybe it’s dead. And at nest 47 apparently they found egg shell on the ground – it doesn’t sound like a good day. Usually it’s just ‘ooh look eggs!’ and ‘ooh chicks, they’re so cute!’ and more recently, as the spring arrives, ‘aw, the chicks have fledged!’. I’m talking about hummingbirds by the way in case there are still any really slow people out there. :P Ooh there’s a page in September’s ‘national geographic’ about it btw, though I’m not sure if you’d be able to find it on the internet. It has an illustration and all. :-)

Erin and Libby seem to have been banished from coming inside. Erin has given up waiting and has asked Kelly to pass a can of beer out; the party atmosphere still remains (despite our having worked this afternoon) since we’re at the end of a five day holiday in honour of Chilean independence (Viva Chile!). Yesterday we all went down to the beach (think stones and wind, as opposed to sand and palms) and made chicken soup over a fire (the chicken was brought alive, Kelly killed and managed to get blood all over her face – fun!). In the evening we had a BBQ and it was delicious and I have now had my full of yummy yummy meat. On other evenings we went down to one of the party sheds rapidly knocked together around town – they have delicious meat-based foodstuffs also, and sweet sweet goodies, and people doing the Chilean national dance with handkerchiefs all night. We studiously declined repeated invitations by crazy and/or old men. Last night I gave up and went to bed though – these things never seem to start until after midnight which I just can’t get used to.

Today I got up at around 11 (god, I love lie-ins), had breakfast, then immediately had lunch, and then we left. While everyone else went round all the known nests with a mirror on a pole, I started off checking the status of tiny Maqui flowers. Maqui is an invasive species but the hummingbirds do feed off the nectar – we’re going to try and find out about the nectar production of Maqui flowers as opposed to other native and introduced species. Then I did behaviour with Kelly – which involves three half an hour blocks at different clearings within one site, doing behavioural observations on focal individuals. Today was cold and we got pretty much nothing – an hour’s watching and all I got was a ‘Hover, fly...not visible. Drop.’ which basically means that it left pretty much as soon as I spotted it. “H, F, NV” was noted down by Kelly with stopwatch times.

There are dogs fighting outside, well playing really. Have I told you about the dogs? They’re everywhere – all shapes and sizes – mostly just wandering about as they please, looking like they have no owners (though I think they all do). Sometimes early in the morning this place looks like a dog town – you pass them on the street and they seem to have their own doggy business to attend to. Lots of them are very cute but we generally resist stroking even the adorably friendly ones. As Chupa told us “A dog without fleas isn’t a dog”. My bites itch every time I get warm.

Erin and Libby (still outside, now joined by Kelly, Chupa and Roak) are discussing what to cook tonight. The Navy boat came in time for the holiday so we have all these beautiful new vegetables – we were down to our last onions and had only one carrot left. The shop ran out of manjar too so I’m afraid I’m back on chocolate. I have however reconsidered my Milo addiction after translating a slogan on the side of the tin as meaning “Makes You Grow Big!”. It’s supposed to be for children. Possibly starving ones. I have replaced it with coffee (less calories = good!) which unfortunately I don’t really like so I have to dilute it with lots of sugar and powdered milk (=more calories, damn). As I said though, hot drinks are vital. The last time the Navy boat came they decided not to bring a whole bunch of stuff, including ‘superocho’ chocolate wafer bars. We were very sad when the shops ran out of them. Anyway, a few weeks ago when we went to get our gas cannister refilled we discovered that there wasn’t any. All the gas was apparently sitting at the dock back on the continent along with our superochos. Horror of horrors – we had no gas! Nothing to boil our kettle with, or make dinner or have a delicious shower! There was much worrying and desperation before we were finally able to borrow some. Phew! In the end we only had to go without for one morning (meaning no instant oats and no thermos to take into the field) but it felt like an age longer!

Ah food talk again – but it’s very important! Did I mention that I learnt to cook? I’m gonna come cook for you all! Anyway, I think I’ll go wait for dinner now. :D

6th Sept...Explanations and food!

On Saturday I read a book...In Spanish. Get in! OK so it wasn’t exactly a novel, more a children’s book with large friendly pictures. In fact it was Winnie the Witch (‘La Bruha Winnie’) which I was very excited about finding in a bookshop in Santiago. It turned out to be written in some crazy form of past tense that I don’t ever need to learn, but, armed with a dictionary, Libby and I were none-the-less able to decipher the thrilling tale. I now know how to say ‘magic wand’ in Spanish (always useful). I then forced Erin and Chupa to listen as I attempted to relate the details of the intricate plot, converted into the present tense. By which time I suppose you think you deserve an explanation of who all these people are and I have finally reached the point where I’m forced to tell you what’s going on around here.

I am currently living in a wooden house (with a corrugated iron roof that looks like it’s all been screwed together and which shakes when the wind blows), on a hill of mud at the top of a mud road with a concrete path up the side on the Eastern side of a small town (500-600 people) in a valley on a volcanic island some however many hundred miles off the coast of Chile. I can’t seem to find that handy little tourist pamphlet thingy or I’d be able to give you more exiting and specific historical and geographic details but I think this’ll do for now. I think you’d be unlikely to come here as a tourist anyway – but hey if you wanna come visit me feel free! (NB further research gives a figure of >400 miles)

So anyway, I am living in aforementioned wooden box with three other people. I shall now do you some brief biographies in order to assist your comprehension of my ramblings...
Erin: La Boss. In that it’s her project – the beginning of a long American PhD. She’s been coming to the island for about six years having previously been involved in a study on some endemic and endangered sea-birds. Vegetarian.
Libby: From Washington State (apparently no-where near DC; am learning lots of American geography!). Has just finished her Masters. Did two years of Spanish in ‘high school’. Vegetarian. Likes opera, birds and getting up early.
Kelly: Graduated from APU two years ago. Often works as a vet nurse while in England. Likes working, cookies, walking very fast and her Argentinian boyfriend. Speaks Spanish.
Other important people...
Chupa: Islander who works as a guide during the summer. Likes conservation and being only man and hence the most manly. Knows only swear words and the word ‘lesbian’ in English.
Pau: Lives down the road. Works with us three days a week. Is possibly housewife the rest of the time.
Sari: Islander, helps out on her weekends, incredibly good at spotting nests, seems to like my dancing.
Roak: Chupa’s dog, a golden retriever who comes along with us most places.
There are also various friends of Erin’s and Chupa’s who often come visit in the evenings such as Peri who has a cute three-year-old son, and Franco who has four horses.

OK, are you satisfied yet? Look how much I told you! I think it’s very generous of me. :P

The weekend before last there was a disco on Saturday and a bar open on Friday (I think rare events). There are numerous things I didn’t expect to find on Robinson Crusoe’s ‘desert island’ including: Street lamps, A disco, A circus, and also Bailey’s. I can complain only about the street lamps which are everywhere, since they confuse nocturnal sea birds looking for the sea and nocturnal foreigners looking for the stars. I should also admit that when I say circus I mean two circus people who do classes and shows with the children – but it was still cool – they juggled fire! Well the 18 year old did. Not sure what their health and safety regulations are like around here. :S

Last weekend was a turning point on the graph of ‘mood’ against ‘time’. I got bogged down in a lot of maths trying to work out whether it was the bottom of a y = x2 curve, or if I should shift it to y = (x + 10)2 – 100, or if the change point was actually going from –ve to +ve; anyway I think there’s going to be lots of going up from now on, possibly even at an accelerating rate. I studied lots of Spanish which made me feel all knowledgeable and motivated and capable of learning. I also like waking up warm and in the daylight and not having to hike up hills, which may be why the weekend was accompanied by unexpected cheerfulness. However work this week is also going well – the end of the third week seems to have finally brought a reasonable degree of proficiency at most of the multitude of tasks we spend our days doing. It feels good to go off with Kelly and Libby and get some things done in the necessary time without forgetting things or having to follow other people. I’ll tell you about all the work another time.
Which probably doesn’t actually matter since I’m pretty sure you’ll be getting a load at once. The normal problem with the internet is getting a slot; this was made impossible when normal Don-Internet left on the navy boat and there is now only someone in the library during working hours (when we are, unsurprisingly, working). The ultimate problem is a sign saying ‘sin connexion’ on the door of the biblioteque. Apparently last year the internet worked for about two weeks out of 3 or 4 months. However I remain optimistic, in complete denial about the possibility that I might actually have to live *without* the internet (you know like people in the olden days).

Erin has a laptop and Kelly brought some music. Whenever ‘Mr Brightside’ comes on I remember the graduation party – crazy dancing Sonya (which Ravi has an awesome picture of), running off with Fiona, attempting to forcibly prevent Adam from leaving, boogey-ing with Raviji, hugging Rob, talking to Angie, and going to find Dunni in a big circle of M people. I’ve been thinking lots about all the good times I’ve had with so many people and wonder what some of you are up to (damn facebook deprivation!). I miss you guys. I also miss my music, DC++, a digital camera, freely available fruit and vegetables (man Adam would love it here if it wasn’t for the complete absence of grapes), meat and chocolate.

Fresh fruit and veg come on the Navy boat once a month so you have to make it last – apart from Chard which we go and pick from a patch of green along the sea-shore in front of the town. Erin and Libby are vegetarian (mostly) so I’ve had to learn to cook meals not based on meat. Saying that, in the past week we did get delivered to our door an entire leg of a goat which ended up sitting in a bucket in our kitchen. Chupa cooked it for us – it was tasty but impossibly chewy. I have also cooked crab all by myself. Yes I am now a gourmet chef! Except that it turns out it’s really easy – you just dump them in boiling water for five minutes and they go all red. Cooking them was certainly a damn site easier than eating them – though they were yummy! As for chocolate – I have successfully broken my addiction. Yes, that’s right – I do not *need* chocolate! Unfortunately I have found a replacement in the form of Dulche de Leche (sweet of milk) – which seems to be common in South America, and is known here as ‘manjar’. Correct pronunciation: man-haar. Our pronunciation: man-jar.

The first rule of manjar is: there is nothing that cannot be improved by the addition of manjar. The second and third rules are also the same. You are allowed to talk about it though.

It is like a thick sticky caramel, dark brown and sweet and syrupy and horrendously calorific. We usually have it on biscuits for pudding – though it can also be added to apples, porridge and even Milo. For porridge I have finally discovered that wonders of good old fashioned jam – yummy. Although, now I mention it, Milo is pretty much hot chocolate though it doesn’t say so on the packet – I’m drinking some now as I write this on the dining room table and I couldn’t tell the difference. Milo or coffee or just plain hot water are vital for being warm around here – in the evenings in our completely un-insulated house, or at lunchtime in the cold forest from a thermos lid.

OK I think that was a bit much information about food there. I’ll stop now – it’s almost 10pm – past my bedtime. Heck, I don’t need the internet to communicate with you – good night guys!