Today is my birthday. It is also Linda Trueb’s birthday. I don’t know if she knows that we are birthday buddies.
So, I celebrated my birthday out in the field on Mt. Palali. It was a wonderful birthday. I always think that the food at camp is delicious, but I think the food was extra good today with chicken and rice for breakfast, beef stew for lunch and the grand finale of the biggest batch of spaghetti I’ve ever seen! And the cake! How can I forget the cake? Arvin and Rafe hiked down into town yesterday to replenish our food supply and they came back with a birthday cake for me! How lucky I was to actually have a birthday cake out in the middle of the rainforest on an isolated mountain in the middle of Luzon!
One of the town officials hiked up to join us for the spaghetti and cake. He smiled at me and said “This year you celebrate your birthday with Philippinos!...And one Mexican!”
I also want to mention I had quite an adventure last night. We went to a new stream to look for different species we haven’t collected yet. This stream was full of murky, dark waters and was surrounded by fields of tall grass that stirred up feelings of claustrophobia. When I had fallen behind the boys and the local guide and I was navigating this hellish stream all by myself, my knees actually started shaking I was so scared. Fears of pit vipers and God knows what else I could come across in the murky waters filled my mind (Enteng and JB brought back a good-size eel from one the streams around the camp less than a week ago). Did I mention this was nighttime and all I had for light was my headlamp? Anyway, I continued forward and finally managed to catch up with the boys and the guide. To my relief, the stream opened up to more forest-like the surroundings. We were still following the narrow stream in a single-file. Herping in a single-file wasn’t working out very well for me, being that the guide in the front was catching all the frogs, the boys in the middle collecting the few herps that the guide missed, and me in the back desperately trying to spy anything else that was missed by both the guide and the boys. And at one point, I noticed a fern-like plant hanging over the stream. I remember noticing Enteng the other night checking big leafs on plants for frogs and lizards so I decided to try the same thing. On the second leaf I pulled down, I found a skink from the genus Eutropis. I was so surprised I yelled to the boys “I found a skink!” The boys yelled back “Don’t just tell us! Catch it!” And I did! First reptile on the trip for me. Later, we proceeded to scale a waterfall that was also very exciting. We returned to camp that night with a good amount of specimens and an adrenaline rush.
I’ve discovered on this trip that one of the most satisfying things for a herpetologist is for them to spot and catch a herp. I was a bit mopey yesterday because I failed to spot AND catch a single thing the night before. The boys, trying to help out, would point out a frog or gecko to me and let me catch it. But it is much more satisfying if I actually spot it myself and make the capture on my own.
Last night I had my best night yet, spying and catching four Rana similis by myself. This was my biggest contribution yet. I also learned last night that although I can be utterly giddy with the successful capture of four Rana, nothing can satisfy the boys more than catching a snake. Definitely the “trophies” from last night’s collecting would be the two snakes. And the skinks come in on a close second on this trip for most satisfying to capture. Man, those skinks are hard to find!
Today we moved down to the lower elevation camp on the mountain (721m). The hike down was steep and slick with mud; it involved a lot of tripping and sliding. I call it “strategically falling down the mountain.”
We were all happy to move down to the lower elevation. We were all cold on the top of the mountain and aside from a handful of skinks and a single crotchety, old, one-eyed snake, we were only collecting frogs at the top elevation. I was totally content with just catching frogs, but here at the lower elevation we might catch Varanus, Draco, more skinks, different frogs and snakes — including possibly pit vipers (eep).
Right now I’m relaxing in my warm, yellow tent. We’re still on the high elevation camp. On the second night of herping I caught my first Philippine frog — an unlucky Platymantis montanus perched on a palm-like plant over the stream. I also caught some frogs from the genus Rana. Luke pointed them out to me. That was two days ago on the sixth. Yesterday was a bit dreary. My tropical field clothes are definitely not warm enough for the chilly, foggy weather we’re experiencing up at the high elevation camp. Herping wasn’t as successful as previous nights. I learned how to record frog calls that night — or at least learned the idea behind it and what’s usually involved. We had problems finding calling frogs! Oh well. I’m sure sometime in the next two weeks I’ll have more opportunities to learn to record.
Here’s what a typical day on Mt. Palali is like for me:
Breakfast of white rice + meat/veggie dish cooked on wok over campfire
Drink instant coffee
Preserve/prepare specimens collected previous night and/or
Attempt daytime herping
Lunch of white rice + meat/veggie dish cooked on wok over campfire
Drink instant coffee
Preserve/prepare specimens collected previous night while listening to boys quote Will Ferrell
Dinner of white rice + meat/veggie dish cooked on wok over campfire
Drink instant coffee or piece of candy
Go out collecting amphibians and reptiles
Return to camp and listen to boys quote Will Ferrell while we wait for others to return to camp with the rest of the catch of the night.
Snack of crackers, cheesewhiz, peanut butter, and Tanduay.
I just got back from hiking up to the peak of Mt. Palali, which is just under 1700 meters elevation. For some absurd reason I thought it would be more of a gentle, nature walk to the peak – just a little ways up from our camp. It ended up being pretty challenging and I got covered in mud and sweat in no time! We went up to rake for skinks. Skinks usually can be found by breaking up decaying logs and raking around leaf litter. We came back with one juvenile skink. Too bad we didn’t find more.
I should mention that last night we went herping (herping” = “looking for amphibians and reptiles). It was great; my first nighttime herping session! I followed Rafe and Anthony up the stream just below our camp. It was pitch black and our only source of light was our headlamps. After a few brief moments of hesitation I followed Rafe into the stream (which averaged about knee deep). I tried really hard to find frogs, but Rafe and Anthony spotted and caught all the frogs. Hopefully tonight I shall return victorious!
I'm currently enjoying a breakfast sandwich and a tall Americano at the Starbucks near our hotel in Manila. Luke has just called Rafe from the town of Solano (about seven hours north of Manila). The boys were supposed to head up to the first site and establish camp at Mt. Palai, but only seven of the 30 porters that they hired yesterday have shown up.
The boys had left ahead of me as part of the advance team yesterday. At the market in Solano, they bought our food supply, hired porters, and a local guide. Today, Rafe, Arvin, Aloy, and I are driving up to Solano. Tomorrow we were planning on making a courtesy call to the mayor of the region and then hike up to join up with the boys. Plans might change now due to the porter shortage. The decision has been made to have the boys and the 7 porters take what they can and head up the mountain. Perry, an entomology student from the Philippines, will stay behind in Solano with the rest of the gear. Rafe and Arvin will hopefully straighten out the porter situation when we arrive later today. We also have a request to bring rum, cigarettes, sharpening stones, and rubber boots. And the blowpipes that they left at the bus stop yesterday.
At the museum
Today we took a walk through old Manila and visited the National Museum. I've included a photo, below, of Jeepney. They're one of the most interesting things I see around Manila. They are a converted jeep that's heavily decorated and used for public transportation.
Now that you are caught up on my Liquid F emergencies, I can fill you in on what happened just a few days into our trip to the central islands. After a brief visit to Cebu Island, we made our way to Dumaguete City on Negros Island. In my opinion, it is one of the best places to visit in the Philippines. Dumaguete is quiet college town with plenty to see, great restaurants, and less traffic than most cities surrounding it. Of all of the great restaurants in the town, my favorite is Jo’s Chicken Inato. The restaurant serves very simple, cheap meals consisting of a cup of rice and a skewered chunk of rotisserie chicken. However, the meal also comes with a small dipping container that you can mix fish sauce, soy sauce, and spicy sili peppers to dip your chicken and rice into.
I am a bit of a spice junky, and on every visit I ask for extra peppers. This particular visit I had five small peppers I began to crush in the tiny, plastic sauce container. You are not served silverware, and so I began to hastily crush the peppers and liquid with the end of my wooden skewer. As I am sure you already guessed, the cup flipped and the contents sprayed directly into my left eye. As the sensation of liquid hot magma hit my eye my eyelids closed, and I could actually feel a seed stuck under my eyelid. I explained to you what formalin feels like so that you would be able to understand that this pain felt as close to formalin in your eyes as you could possibly get. Being in the middle of the restaurant, I didn’t want to make a huge scene. Somehow I managed to stumble blindly to the hand-washing sink and dunked my head under the small faucet, trying to hold my left eye open. After a few minutes I realized I needed a bigger sink. I left money for my friend Jason to pay the bill and I somehow stumbled back to our pension house and sat under the sink for 20 minutes. Now I wear goggles while prepping specimens, and while eating at Jo’s Chicken Inato.
We were in Hinoba-an, a municipality in the southwestern half of Negros Island. The mission was to try to collect the first genetic samples in the world of a burrowing species of lizard first described from the western half of Negros. To survey the habitat in the municipality during our visit, we hired a local tricycle driver to take us around during the day. Tricycles or pedicabs are dirt bikes that have had small carriages attached to their bodies. So the driver is able to carry 4–6 people inside the carriage and 1–2 people behind him on the actual bike. Of course, if you happen to be a slightly overweight KU graduate student in Hinoba-an, you are the only person that can fit inside one of these carriages. Jason rode on the back of the bike behind the driver.
Just to describe these carriages, they almost fully surround the passengers. There is a small window with access to the driver, a small opening to enter the carriage, and in the front, there is a one-foot square opening through which passengers can see the road. As we were driving on our first day in town at what I assume was the bikes top speed, I noticed that up ahead, the wind had blown several leaves off of a tree. I watched as the leaves slowly fell in Brownian (random) motion to the ground. As we got closer, one of the leaves seemed to be falling right in front of my side of the carriage. Then, out of nowhere, the leaf flew right through my small front window and slammed right into the left side of my face, scratching me under my left eye. Jason and the driver thought it was so funny that they pulled over to laugh at me for quite some time. Seriously, what are the chances of that happening? The good news is we were able to find the species we were hoping to encounter. The bad news is that I seemed to have some interesting luck accompanying me throughout the trip.
I wouldn’t necessarily call myself clumsy, but at times I wonder if I should. My recent trip to the central Philippine islands had its first disaster a mere 3 days into the trip. However, before I can get into the details of the saga, I need to quickly recap a few of the most painful experiences I have had while doing fieldwork. Formalin is one of the most painful substances to squirt into your eye—that I know of, anyway. Formalin is the fluid used by many researchers in the field to harden and preserve specimens. It comes in 37% solution, which is entirely too strong if you ask me. So what must be done is a simple dilution to 10% for preservation purposes. Formalin is a known carcinogen in the long term, and in the short term seriously dries out any tissue it comes into contact with, be it fingers or eyes. The danger in my work comes from the method in which specimens are preserved. We use syringes filled with Liquid F, as some people like to call it (mainly just me). Over the past five years I have managed to spray formalin into my eyes.
Yeah, it hurt like fire. Two of the three incidents occurred on the same two-week trip in the field. I happened to be with the one of our close friends and field assistants, Vicente Yngente, or Enteng the Terminator. His nickname comes from being recognized as one of the best hunters and wildlife specialist. The first incident occurred at night right after the Terminator had just entered the bathroom to shower off. Of course he was a little surprised when I busted down the door screaming in pain to get my eyes under the only water faucet in the pension house. Even though I knew he was embarrassed trying to hide behind the shower curtain, I think deep down he felt good about helping to make sure I would be able to see the next day. The second pain fest occurred three days later on the island of Semirara. This was one of the most painful experiences I have ever been through.
At the time, typhoon Mimi had hit the island complex where we were camping, and the wind and torrential rain had gotten very dangerous. The large syringe needle I was using had not been completely secured onto the syringe container. And while re-injecting a large monitor lizard with purified formalin (not diluted), the needle popped off and a large amount of formalin sprayed off the animal and into both of my eyes. My eyes instantly shut with pain and I fell to the ground yelling for help. Enteng and his son ran and picked me up by my arms. The three of us stumbled outside in the storm to a nearby well with a manual pumping system. There we stayed for close to 45 minutes while SOTT (Son of the Terminator), or Mark, helped hold my face under the water being pumped out of the ground by Enteng. For the next three days my vision remained slightly blurred. I looked as though I had barely survived a run-in with Manny Pacquiao, the national boxing hero and icon here in the Philippines. So for all of you future Liquid F junkies, or field biologists, remember to where protective eye gear when using formalin. Although your field companions might snicker at how silly you look, you will thank me when they save your little vision-makers from a syringe full of liquid lightening.