Setting a positive mantra

The thought of waking up before dawn on any morning is never very appealing, however, if you get the opportunity to wake up with the jungle, listen to the new activity, the birds the insects the monkeys, the myriad of sounds that echo all around you in the jungle, grab it.
During my 6 months interning for the Crees Foundation in The Manu Biosphere, Peru I was lucky enough to have this opportunity on a regular basis. I was involved in research being carried out to monitor the numbers of bird species feeding on the clay lick near to the camp. Although this research began as a monitoring program for Blue-headed Macaws (Primolius coloni) which are classed as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist, it has been extended to include all Macaws, Parrots and Parakeets. These birds are an excellent flagship species due to their large size, their charismatic nature and vivd colouration.
The birds rely on the clay lick as a vital part of their diet (eating the salt on the lick reduces acidity, neutralizing the toxins that build up from eating acidic rotting fruit,). As well as this feeding at the lick a big plays an important role in the birds’ social interactions.
This survey is referred to as Colpa and it allowed me to wake up with the jungle.
Doing Colpa required several hours of intense concentration. First, you must only record birds flying over the hide towards the lick, no getting carried away watching anything else. Then you must identify the species by knowing the 33 different calls they make and their flight patterns. Third you count the numbers of each species feeding on the lick and length of time they feed. Finally, you note the number of tourists – specifically the sounds from the boat as they arrive and then when they leave as the birds are very sensitive to disturbance especially from the engine of boats.
The meditative nature of this work only served to intensify the experience for me. The colours around you at sunrise are incredible, the change so fast from pitch black at 4am to the most magical sky minutes later.  And when the sun rose fully the clay lick became a mass of flaming oranges and reds. The sun warms your back as it gets higher, and then, suddenly, the birds start calling and you know this is the start an amazing experience as the of birds call to each other, search for food or perching near the lick socialising loudly with each other. The clarity of the early morning light enhances the colours of the birds as they fly above you saturating the scene with warm #nofilterneeded.
The experience of finishing a Colpa survey, is for me very similar completing my yoga practise, a calm peacefulness that is the best start to any day.

Float like a butterfly

So since my last post I have made progress towards my personal goals, passing my ID and Emergency First Response tests and completing my first two assignments. On the down side, cockroaches ate through the mouth piece of my camel water pack (a 3 litre bag that I use to carry drinking water when out for the day in the jungle), making it unusable and contributing to me getting slight sunstroke one day last week. Also the weather has been unseasonably wet. The rainy season should only start in November but we have had storms everyday since October 1st. This massive amount of water washed the MLCs boat right away one night. Could this be due to the very strong El Nino earlier this year and a sign of climate change?

It has also been rather quiet here at the MLC, there are only 3 staff members, one intern (myself) two passentirers (Peruvian Interns) and 5 volunteers. This being said the week has been filled with butterflies! Which is good because butterfly trapping is my favourite piece of research going on at the moment. For one week I went out almost everyday on butterfly surveys and had the time to take photos of them.

Butterflies are being looked at because they are a good indicator group. An indicator group is one which has a certain set of requirements to live and if these change the species reacts positively or negatively. In most cases its a negative response resulting in a decline in that species. Butterflies are also very good bio-indicators which means they show changes in the environment, because they have a very thin surface layer which can be affected by the slightest change. As well as this they are essential pollinators within the forest ecosystem. Without these species there would be a decline in the number of flowering plants in the rainforest.


Butterfly trapping works on a weekly cycle, one week on, one week off – so that there isn’t a massive impact on the species that visit the traps. Traps are set up at the beginning of the week in two survey areas, Aguanos and the MLC. Each survey area has several sites where the traps are set, and each site has 3 traps at differing heights; high canopy, mid canopy and low. This allows for data over a distinct gradient in the forest, giving a larger sample size as well as collecting data at a variety of points within the forest structure. The sites also have different bait types, either fermented fish or banana, allowing for a range of butterflies to be surveyed.

The last two weeks have seen a myriad of different people coming and going; Kat the Volunteer Coordinator is leaving and her replacement arrived; the volunteers I arrived with left last week, and although I was sad to see them go, we have had a new hit of excited volunteers who are keen to learn; interns who had been in Cusco for three weeks also arrived back in camp. As the saying goes “out with the old in with the new.”

This week I have been working towards new objectives, one of which is conduct a survey. This objective is to help me learn more about the different pieces of research as well as helping me learn how to carry out each survey and give briefings. The research I’ve picked is of course butterfly trapping. I have had to plan how I will conduct the survey as well as read around the subject area and plan in advance what I want to say. When I do my conduct a survey I will have a staff member assessing how I do, making sure I include everything needed. If I do well I will be signed off on the work and from then on can lead the survey on my own. Here’s hoping that by my next post i will have led some surveys solo!



Descending through the Cloud Forest to the most biodiverse place on the planet #the first 2 weeks

The journey down through the cloud forest was exciting, starting early, it took 5 hours to get to our hotel, if you could call it that. The mini bus stopped in the middle of the track and we all got out. b3bda786-2b07-4909-bb35-ae75bfd60e91From the road it didn’t look like there was anything there, however there was a small sign which seemed to lead off the cliff, pointing the way down to the hotel. So we followed, with luggage in hand… we walked for about half an hour winding down through the forest until we reached an incredibly fast flowing river. We thought there was no way across until I noticed a wire stretching across the width of the river with a table like cart on which there were two seats where we were expected to sit at. This contraption didn’t look very inviting, it looked very old and very rickety, however Emma,a staff member, and I climbed aboard and the winch system took us to the other side.

After having some down time and dinner we went for our first night walk, although we didn’t finding much spending time in the jungle again was very settling. After an early night we got up at 5am, which I wasn’t too impressed with as it was my 21st birthday, the flip side of this was that we went to see a bird called the Cock of the Rock, which are very rare and very special sight. Watching the sunrise and seeing these birds was an amazing experience to have they are an impressive red colour and make a very cool sound. After seeing the birds we carried on the rest of our journey to the port of Atalya, where we got the boat to the MLC.

df7b7185-fdb4-4667-836b-5bb1f363708eThe boat ride to the MLC took 45 minutes and gave us plenty of opportunity to see the wildlife that inhabits the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios River. Walking up the steps to the camp, I was overcome by emotions of how my next 6 months would pan out, and whether my experience would be the same as last year. Seeing all the old interns and some other staff members was such a good feeling to have. The rest of the day was spent talking to the volunteers about life at the MLC and what was install for us in the weeks ahead, be it 2 weeks, 4 weeks or, like me, 6 months. The evening was spent getting to know people and catching up with old faces, and eating cake. After dinner everyone sung happy birthday and brought out a beautifully decorated cake, which they proceeded to shove in my face – apparently this is Peruvian tradition, I am not so sure, however it was my 21st, so I embraced the experience.

The next week was spent getting back into the swing of working in the jungle and learning about intern life. I surveyed butterflies and herptiles and had a meetings with Chris Beirne

(Head of Research at Crees) and my mentorMark, and was set goals for the week. One of my first goals was to get 100% in my first identification test. I am sitting here writing this after having done the test and am gutted to say I got 55 out of 56, one mark off! Very frustrated. Hopefully next week I will get them all! My next task is first aid training, which I will be tested on next week.

So the daily work of the MLC is research into the impact of human disturbance to the rainforest. Specifically for me this last week this has meant working on pitfall traps. One days was a half day where we only had to check 6 traps because there was two groups going out, the other time however, there was only one group, and we had to check 16 traps, which took most of the day. Pitfall traps are buckets dug down into the soil at ground level. There are 4 buckets per transect that have a blue tarp pulled tight in-between each bucket, when reptiles reach the tarp they are encouraged into the bucket. Every bucket has a lid that is raised above the bucket at about hand distance. Pitfall traps are a good method for observing reptiles as it allows terrestrial species to be identified that may not otherwise be noticed. Reptiles are useful for research as they are important indicator species having a very permeable skin, which will be affected if factors change in their environment, such as weather or disturbance of the rainforest. Reptiles show how that ecosystem is doing and show changes in the environment quickly; for example, if an area of forest is disturbed by logging or agriculture, the reptiles in that area will decrease or die out. So surveying reptiles can be a very important method of seeing how the rainforest is doing.

Orchid Bees

Another creature surveyed is orchid bees. The day I spent surveying them last week we weren’t technically in the rainforest – we went to Aguanos, which is across the river in the banana plots. Orchid bees again are an indicator species, the research is focused around collecting orchid bees in order to find out more about the different pollinators that are in the rainforest, in a disturbed area and completely cleared such as Auganos. Orchid bees pollinate specific plants, which are hard to find in the jungle. The research is looking at what scents the bees are attracted to, so the day is spent hanging pieces of cotton wool from string in a designated area each 2 meters apart, each with different scents that have the same chemical compounds as some of the orchids found in the jungle. The cotton wool is hung and scents are added, 3 drops of scent on each bait; eucalyptus oil, eugenol, benzyl acetate to name a few. Then it’s a waiting game to see if any orchids bees come to the bait. If they do they are caught with a net and put in alcohol to be preserved. There are several sites at which the research takes place both on the rainforest side and the at the banana plots and each site is surveyed in the morning and afternoon, ensuring there is a large enough area to give representative data. The reason to contrast the banana with the rainforest plots is to understand how the distribution of orchid bees is effected by varying levels of disturbance.

My day at Aguanos was very hot, as it’s an area of completely cleared rainforest, which is now used as banana plots and there is little shade; that day the temperature rose to 39 degrees. This however didn’t dampen our spirits, as Laura (the researcher who set it up) and I, were optimistic about catching lots of orchid bees and having a good day catching up. Although in we caught about maybe 8 bees, a typical number for the banana plots, in the afternoon we caught 1 bee. Sitting in full sun all day it was very difficult to stay focused but it did demonstrate that disturbance has had a big impact on the bees, exactly what Laura is trying to prove.

We have had a busy week with lots of things going on at the MLC including a project called Tree Top Manu, led by Andy Whitworth. The main focus of the project is to get a better understanding of how important the canopy is to a rainforest structure and how the different levels of destruction in this rainforest have affected the mammals. The main way they do this is to set up camera traps that can capture the life in the canopy. This will lead to a new level of understanding about how the vast number of species that we have here act in the canopy, and has the potential to shed light on new species or show behaviours of other species that may not have been witnessed from the ground.

As well as this team of researchers, the founder of the Crees Foundation (which means ‘believe’ in Spanish) Quinn, came to the MLC. Quinn being here was an amazing experience, I hadn’t ever thought that I would have the opportunity to meet someone so influential and hear him talk about the creation of Crees.

On the Tuesday of my first week I walked the two and a half hour jungle path to Salvacion, our nearest settlement. While there I helped with the community bio-gardens but was also lucky enough to go punting Machuwatsi Lake which is known for its diverse water birds  a trip that enabled me to cross off two of my bucket list species; a capybara (basically large guinea pig) and hoatzin birds.

I had wanted to see hoatzin ever since I heard about them last year so was amazed when we saw four chilling by the lake. Hoatzin birds are living proof of  the evolutionary relationship between reptiles and birds having claws on their wings when young. They are also strangely related to cows in the way they digest their food leading them to have the nickname ‘stink bird’ as like other grazing animals the by product of their digestion is a foul smell. It is thought that the disgusting nature of their flesh has kept them alive as nothing wants to eat it!

I’ll end this blog with some of my other photos from my amazing first two weeks in the most biodiverse place in the world.


First steps of a rather large adventure

So I have finally made it to Cusco without  disasters of any kind (which I am very grateful for). My flight from Gatwick to Lima was long and tiring as so many journeys are, especially when you are made to watch all the latest films in a record time, I achieved 4, which I count as very good in a 12 hour flight. Who can complain when you get free food  throughout your journey and can sit and watch endless amounts of films and pig out on free snacks? My second flight however was not so comfortable, I literally thought the plane was going to fall apart, luckily it was all good, with major brownie points going to the captain who manage to avoid the massive hills and looming city, that I assumed we would hit. After a rather rickety landing, I was finally at my destination of Cusco… which has been home for the last two days.

Meeting other volunteers and the familiar faces of staff members reassured me that this was what I have wanted to do for my placement, I would say since forever but actually its been more like just over a year when I last visited. I have always liked revisiting place mainly due to the fact that I know my way around and have some kind of a clue on how things going to play out, unlike the volunteers who I have met who aren’t so aware. After two days of getting to know everyone and acclimatizing to the area all the new volunteers seem to be getting their heads around the next stage of the trip, which is to go down into the cloud forest. Our decent will take two days then we finally arrive at the MLC basecamp for the next 6 months, well for me at least. Other volunteers stay for either a month or just 2 short weeks having a whistle-stop tour of jungle life. I have found leaving the UK and coming back out very daunting, as an intern I have a lot more responsibility, as well as having the concern of ruining my last experience I had when I was here as a volunteer. However, being in Cusco and finding my bearings already has settled me. Also I feel I have been useful in terms of me answering other people questions of whats going to happen when and how. It has made me appreciate how much I know about Cusco as well as facts about life at the MLC.

Tomorrow we start our journey down into the cloud forests, stopping off at a few villages that specialise in different local delicacies, such as bread. Weird I know, however this bread is very delicious and its incredible to think that one whole village just makes bread, of all types. They vary between having animal fat or vegetable fat in, so veggies have to watch out! The bread however is very dense almost cake like, but tastes so good. Other villages specialise in guinea-pig – and not the selling of guinea-pigs either, more the eating side. But before you thing OMG cruel, these guinea-pigs are generally raised to be eaten, and therefore have a different look and shape to our cute little pets we have at home. After visiting these towns we will spend the rest of the day driving through cloud forest and down to the Madre de Dios river, where we will end up at the MLC which is in the buffer zone of the Manu national park.

While out in the jungle I am also raising money for my mum charity FCRS, in order to help provide solar lights to a school out in Conakry. I have done other blogs about this matter, but I’m hopefully going to be helping people understand a little more about how important both the rainforest is and the increasing necessity of solar lights are to children in Conakry, alongside the importance of school and education. The charity will provide a sustainable future to these kids, as well as my role which is to bring the research and knowledge of the rainforest to people around the world through the use of my blog. I am aiming to be writing a blog most weeks on what I have been up to and the amount of money I have raised. And hopefuly some cool footage off my camera trap, so what this space, lots of creature out there to capture on camera, and to show to you guys.

Float like a butterfly… sting like a bee

The research at the MLC based on Orchid bees (Euglossa) was by far the most interesting piece of research… in my opinion. For me these little bees were fascinating, as was the research. The reasoning behind this project was to explore more into the world of orchids and the bees that pollinate them as they have a symbiotic relationship – the orchids depend on the bees to pollination and reproduction, in return, the bees get fragrance compounds they use during courtship displays. Continue reading “Float like a butterfly… sting like a bee”

Growing the future

As part of my time in the Manu Learning Centre (MLC), I was lucky enough to get the chance to go to Salvacion, the closest settlement to the MLC. it wasn’t exactly an easy journey, across the river on a boat and then a two hour climb up into the mountains. The reason for the visit was to spend two days creating a biogarden for a family who lived on the outskirts of the village. One element of the work that Crees carry out is to help local people become more sustainable and more efficient in every day life. One of the ways this is achieved is to build families biogardens which provide income for the household, as well as home grown food that is beneficial to their health. This is also beneficial to Crees who can start to trade directly from Salvacion rather than getting in produce from Cusco. Continue reading “Growing the future”

Into the Wild

The time I spent in the remote wilderness of the Manu reserve in the Madre de Dios made me realise how important the rainforest is. The everyday things people take for granted have an impact that is detrimental to the rainforest and local people who live there. Our addiction to electricity dependant devices pushes carbon emissions to such a level that the whole ecosystem of the Amazon is being effected. The increasing use of Palm oil in food products results in destruction of the rainforest for palm plantations, while a diet centred around meat protein leads to thousands of acres of rainforest being cut down for pasture land.  Continue reading “Into the Wild”