A day in the field – Colombia

21 Oct, 2017

The past two months I spent in the field finalizing research sites and setting transects for my PhD work in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Although we traverse across properties and elevations every few days, below is what an “average” day looks like.

5:45 am: I rise with the sun, whether I like it or not.

7 am: After pretending to sleep in my tent or bed (depending on the site) I, finally, meander out of my hidey hole, where I am often presented with my first cup of tinto – black, sugar, coffee water.

8 am: Breakfast. If we are staying with a family this consists of an Arepa, cheese and maybe eggs or rice, plus another cup of tinto or hot chocolate (my favorite).

8:30 am – 2 pm: Depart for the field to search for sites and set transects. This consists of hiking around the properties – whether it’s coffee fields or forests. This is the most difficult part of the day. Trying to find parts of habitat where we can set a 30 m transect without falling off a mountain has been surprisingly difficult. Using the machete to carve our way through dense forest, slipping and sliding on mud and tree roots while avoiding falling rocks, we grasp to tiny tree branches while walking our 30-m line. Usually, Jeff my field assistant, goes first as he thoroughly enjoys using a machete (or so it seems). Finally, once we have placed a transect we collect all the environmental variables, that may be relevant to amphibians, at six spots along the transect line – every 5 m; information includes canopy cover (the coverage of the trees in the forest), leaf litter (dead foliage on the ground), elevation, temperature, humidity amongst other variables. Most importantly, I mark the transects with my hot pink tape with white checkers (which I spent way too long selecting online, because I wanted the perfect flagging tape that represented “me”).

When setting the transects I often talk with Jeff, my assistant, about the ability and safety of accessing the site at night. Sometimes I feel overly cautious but when Jeff confirms, yes this would be a death trap at night, I usually heed to his warnings. He is, after all, the expert...side note: sometimes I wonder if it is indolence not difficulty that keeps him from telling me if a site is a good one or not, because I swear some didn’t seem that bad, or did they?

2 – 5:30 PM: Hopefully we make it back before the afternoon rains aka the aguaceros.

LUNCH (around 2 pm): We eat a huge lunch – the biggest meal in Colombia (I think eating a big lunch is actually a great idea, although I am pretty sure I’ve gained 20 lbs here, I even had a dream about it). This usually consists of rice, beans, and some sort of meat. Sometimes it’s rice, potatoes, beans, and for me an egg (since I don’t eat red meat or pork).

AFTER LUNCH: We immediately retreat to our tents or beds. I usually pass the time reading or take a nap, depending on how exhausted I am. I have a habitat of re-reading Harry Potter in the field. I already re-read all 7 books, and I’ve read about another 5 books since beginning field work. One of my favorites was Hillary Clinton’s newest book “What Happened”. Although difficult to read at times, I found it inspiring, thought-provoking, and overall cathartic. I would highly recommend it, even for Hillary haters and especially for those who get stomach aches or feel deep sadness while watching or reading the news… like I do.

5:30 PM: Reluctantly, I get out of bed. I organize the datasheets and equipment, and make sure we have enough batteries to last us approximately 5 hours during the night. I actually did not forget any equipment the first round of surveys – a huge feat for me! (Don’t ask me about coffee focus groups though...).

6:30 PM: We trace our steps back to survey the transects we placed earlier in the day. As night falls the forest transforms from difficult terrain to an almost unrecognizable death trap. We slip and slide our way through dense coffee plants – grabbing ahold to branches so we don’t fall down the 45-degree slope – or I go down a hill, almost on my butt, and hop rocks within the streams to get to the first flag we placed “close by” earlier in the day. Ants, scorpions, mosquitoes, snakes, and huge spiders all appear along our transects. Can I just take a minute to say how much I HATE biting insects? Seriously, it is the F***ing worst thing, especially at night – batting off ants while trying to stay on your 4 inch-wide path you have. Anyway, back to the story line.

During the night, we search the 30 m (and 1.5 m to each side) transects for frogs, picking up each frog we find and measuring the body length from snout to butt or more appropriately called – snout vent length, it’s mass (g), six thermal measurements using a laser thermometer, air temperature and relative humidity, and snap a photo (my awful photography skills have proved to be a hindrance in this part of the process). On a good night, Jeff and I are yelling “rana, rana, rana” (Spanish word for frog) over and over to each other…sometimes processing multiple frogs and species at once. Jeff handles and measures the frogs, I take all the temperature readings, and record all the data. When I was a blossoming field biologists, I used to be the one who always wanted to handle the animals, however, one of Jeff’s main skills is his ability to handle and identify frogs (it is also the most fun part), so I figure the least I can do (since I make him journey these treacherous transects with me) is let him do the best job! I already take all the super fun environmental variable data anyway…

Some nights we find up to 12 species, while others we are lucky to find one frog period.  

10 – 2 am: We usually roll into our campsites around 10 – 12 am…If we have a really busy night or our sites are very far away (furthest is about 1.5 hour walk) surveys will go later. Once in bed I usually read again because I am wide awake after all that exciting frog searching! I often fall asleep around 2 and wake up at 5:44 am…as the light begins to hit the sides of my tent.

As I wake up, if I am lucky, I am greeted with a hot tinto.

Did I mention all of this happens in Spanish?

Also to note: I bathe minimally, because it is already cold on the mountain and there is no warm water, this means maybe 1-3 showers every 10 days or so AND 1 only 1 time washing my hair. I also rarely change my clothes and wear the same fit basically everyday. Pretty much I think I probably smell and look awesome.

With the one salamander species in this region - Bolitoglossa savagei 

At one of my sites with a 30 m waterfall daaayuuummmm

Not so bad for day 10....washed hair 1x, carrying a 30 lb pack up mountains for 3 hours, also way ahead of rest of team! 

One of our first exploratory field sites - we bathed here.

With some of my favorite kids, my friend Daniela's cousins Joan (sp?) and Dianni, oh and a double rainbow.
ALA INSPO (*always seek hair and fashion inspo from your undergrads, they're the hip ones remember?)

One of our bunk houses up at 2500 m- we set up 2 tents in here

Field stove

The Figueroa family we stayed with in Plan de Ollas - the coffee growing region (ps I bought this beaded tree the young boy made and I love it!)

Same family (above) home

Another field kitchen

Rio Gaira

Yaya and Ennessy - another finca we stayed at in Siberia

Our 14 year old field guide (pronounced Yo-Ahn)

My big face next to a tiny glass frog (Ikakogi Tayrona)

I mean how precious!! Dianni frogging with us (Jeff on right)

Atelopus laetissimus - mean muggin

Jeff was way more pumped - 1st sighting for him!
These mulas once tried to eat me, not kidding.

With Hernan (our guide) and Jeff up at 2500 m (5 hour hike up about 5 mountains - exhaustion) 

View from finca at 2500 m

Another one of our night homes, you can see our tents in the patio

Always eating and always selfie-ing

One of my faves: Ikakogi tayrona

My hair and face after a 10-day trip. It takes about 30 min to untangle that beast. 


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