Seeing the Positives Among the Challenges of Field Work

As anyone who has previously done field work knows, nothing ever goes as planned. I don’t define success as “nothing going wrong,” but more along the lines of adapting to issues as they arise, still collecting the data we need for a successful project and taking time to enjoy the environment. I constantly remind myself to take in the beauty of my surroundings, despite the daily challenges of field work. I am completely immersed in a sea of biodiversity and I don’t want to miss any of it. I made sure to take pictures of anything and everything that interested me. On a daily basis, I come across a plethora of interesting plants, flowers, mushrooms, berries and wildlife.

A compilation of the seeds, berries, and peppers I come across daily in the field.
Some cute little mushrooms.
One of the many colorful plants that I come across
Another forest plant
A slug with blue-marble like coloration
Side photo in case you weren’t convinced it was really a slug
A black and white ruffed lemur climbing down the tree outside my tent

Some days are easier than others to appreciate. As would be expected from a rain forest, we had a torrential, never-ending downpour of rain for four days straight. My first day of rainy field work, I didn’t wear my rain pants. This was a rather foolish mistake. Even with a waterproof hat and rain jacket, I was soaked to the core. Rain also brings out the leaches by the hundreds. They look like teeny-tiny inch worms. They crawl up your boots and into your socks, they fall from the trees onto your face and neck, they get onto your hands every time you grab a tree to steady your balance – they are truly unavoidable. At the end of the day, I usually have a dozen itchy leach bites.

As previously mentioned, nothing ever goes as planned. One of my guides, Pela August, was hospitalized for health reasons. Then shortly after that, his brother passed away. It was a hard time for the entire Centre ValBio (CVB) crew, both losing a long-term employee and having another employee in the same family fall ill. While our guide was resting, we were given another guide temporarily for our 12-day expedition to Valohoaka, a three-hour hike away. We adapted, trained the new guide and continued with the project. However, on the second day of our 12-day trip, my student twisted her ankle and was unable to hike. Again, we adapted and continued the project with a team of three. Then of course, I lost my densitometer for measuring canopy cover. Luckily, Ram Oren had pestered me about painting it a bright color and we could easily find the neon-yellow painted, reflector-covered densitometer among the foliage the next day.

Posing with my guide Donné

I probably trip 20 times a day, slip 5 times a day and completely wipe-out at least twice a day. If it rained the night before, then I would double all those numbers. If it is currently raining, then I would triple those numbers. Needless to say, I am constantly covered in bruises. For weeks, my guides always walked rather quickly in front as I tried to keep up. After my student’s twisted ankle, and my gangly stumbling through the forest, my guides started what I call the “protection formation.” Nothing was ever said, but one guide started hiking in front and one started hiking very slowly behind me. Even if I was going at snail speed, they very patiently hiked behind me, ready to check on me when I fall. By some miracle, we only had rain at night. The lack of rain made us much more efficient with our data collection and we could do vegetation plots twice as fast. It was also a lot easier to find lemurs on a sunny day when they’re calling, foraging and tail-swinging, unlike on a rainy day when it is hard to spot a cuddled-up ball of wet fur in the trees. On this expedition, I discovered that my guide Donné can communicate with lemurs. Specifically, we captured on video his lemur conversation with a bamboo lemur where the lemur responds to his call.

Valohoaka was flourishing with wildlife. We had troops of black and white ruffed lemurs visit our campsite at least three times. You could often hear their call carried throughout the forest throughout the night. We had multiple visits from three cute fat rats, two bright red ring-tailed mongooses and one fosa fossana (Malagasy civet). On my daily hikes, I came across a handful of frog species, moths and a chameleon. In a tree hole, we even found a rat that was screeching and slightly perturbed that we came too close to his tree. I could tell I was getting better at spotting the wildlife when I started to see lemurs, frogs, chameleons and leaf tailed geckos before my guides could point them out to me.

A rat angrily defending his tree hole home
A ring tailed mongoose that visited our camp regularly
A leaf tailed gecko that I spotted
A chameleon that I spotted while trying to measure tree canopy cover
Proudly smiling with the tiny chameleon I found on my own
Fosa fossana or the Malagasy civet
Cute little fat rat friend
A moth that I stumbled across while collecting data
A frog that looks like a leaf

I frequently pestered our cooks Hary and Tolotra to go on night hikes to look for chameleons. We were lucky enough to come across a nocturnal woolly lemur among other wildlife (Avahi laniger, IUCN red list status: Vulnerable). Hiking around at night with a headlamp attracts a lot of insects towards the general region of your forehead. Somehow this resulted in a bat flying directly into my left cheek and I erupted in laughter. Neither Hary nor Tolotra spoke English or French and I couldn’t speak Malagasy, so I couldn’t exactly describe what had happened. The beauty of it was we often communicated through laughter and jokes that none of us understood.

A millipede making its way up a tree
A chameleon spotted on our night walk
Another chameleon spotted on our night walk
Another chameleon looking like he was annoyed that we disturbed his sleep
A frog found on our night hike
Avahi laniger, the nocturnal woolly lemur
A very photogenic frog posed for us on our night hike

I greatly enjoyed camp life as I always have in the states. The view from my tent was exactly what you would expect – completely immersed in nature. Every day I woke up to an incredible view. At night, I had ample time to read and draw. I was able to create two new Madagascar-inspired designs – a ring-tailed mongoose and the giraffe-necked weevil (which I have yet to see). We passed the time playing cards with our cooks and guides and somehow Tolotra always lost. We even celebrated Tolotra’s 24th birthday and managed to make cakes over a fire. Eventually, our campsite had acquired three separate groups of researchers which resulted in a ton of food being prepared in a very small kitchen space over two small fires. One night we had spaghetti for 15 people, which resulted in a literal bucket full of noodles. I often enjoyed watching the cooks work together to prepare our meals because it was always a laugh. Everyone was always joking, chatting and goofing around in the kitchen space. Not to mention, Tolotra and Hary would burst out in song at all hours of the day.

The jungle views from my tent
A ring tailed mongoose that I designed in my free time while in the tent
A giraffe-necked weevil designed from my tent
Tolotra shows off his two hands full of cards, proof that he was losing at the game of BS (the goal was to get rid of all of your cards).
Tolotra and Hary bask in the glory that is a huge giant tub full of spaghetti noodles
Tolotra serves spaghetti noodles from a giant pale
Celebrating Tolotra’s birthday in style
Tolotra is all smiles once he sees his cakes and candles. Little did he know they were the trick candles that don’t blow out
Our made-over-the-camp-fire birthday cake for Tolotra

Finally, the time came to pack up and return to CVB. I ended up hiking back with Tolotra and Hary at the front of the pack. Since we weren’t carrying much weight and the route was downhill, we were able to hike slightly faster. Tolotra and Hary made for great company. Similar to my guides, I often caught them stopping and waiting to check on me every time I slipped, fell or tripped. On the hike back, it was interesting to see the landscape change from dense forest to rice patties and patches of banana trees. It seemed like the agriculture went right up to the forest edge.

Hiking from Valohoaka to Ranomofana with Tolotra and Hary
Some beautiful views on our hike back to Ranomafana
Hiking back with Tolotra and Hary

When we returned from our expedition, our stroke of luck had left us. We returned to cold weather and constant rain. I was back to a full notebook page of vegetation plot observations that said “no lemurs.” We were also back to the bamboo with cacti-like hairs that leave dozens of little splinters in your hand if you mistakenly touch it.

A close-up of the cacti-like hairs on bamboo that feel like a million splinters

However, the good news was my botanist guide Pela August was healthy again and I was elated to have him back. I gave him a big hug and asked in my best French if he was feeling better. Now we are planning our next 12-day expedition to Vatoharanana!

One thought on “Seeing the Positives Among the Challenges of Field Work

  1. Great details shared! But I have to say the view out of your tent door was my favorite.

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