Learning Field Techniques – September 2nd and 3rd

Day Eight: Field Research Methods

This morning started with yet another trip onto the lake. At 5:30AM, we took off to the other side of the lake to continue our practice with bird identification. We identified a red-capped cardinal, large-billed tern, hoatzin, blue and yellow macaw, cormorant, muscovy ducks, jacana, and black-tailed hawk, which was particularly exciting (I love birds of prey).

When we returned to shore, it was time to switch groups. My group went with Ursula to check the mist nets for birds. We had caught one white-capped flycatcher. Ursula showed us what to look for on the birds and how to take the data. This included leg diameter, fat content, wing length, gender, and molting. I was lucky enough to get to let the bird go. I took him in my right hand and could immediately feel the poor thing’s heart racing. What must that be like for the bird? I was relieved to see it fly off unharmed.

Everyone came in around 11:30AM, so we all just waited for lunch. Once we had our fill of the delicious stuffed squash with rice, we got ready for our insect identification class. My group was able to bring back a shed cicada exoskeleton, some termites, a large ant (with a severed dragonfly head in its jaws), a butterfly, and a damsel fly. During class, we learned how to examine insects and how to determine their order.

After the entomology class, we had our first group presentation. Before we left for the trip, we had all been assigned to groups to present in Peru on different subjects surrounding biodiversity. This day was the Functions of Biodiversity group. They held their discussion/activities out on the lawn. The presentation covered fundamental ecosystem functions and services, such as succession, pollination, disturbances and reactions, nutrient recycling, and top-down control. The rest of the evening was spent talking about our research projects. Overall, this was a long, hard day. Just one of many. But so worth it.

Day Nine: Project Refinement

Today was primarily spent refining our research projects. Nick, Sara, and myself have decided to do a behavioral study on Hoatzins, a particularly awkward and hilarious bird. I completely fell in love with these blundering fools when I first saw them balancing poorly in the trees. I found them oddly beautiful, and comically evolved. I wanted to learn as much as I could about them, mostly because I thought they were mysterious. They look totally unique, and their behavior intrigued me. My group spent quite some time talking with each other as well as a bird researcher there, who offered some excellent advice. We were told that we’d start our projects the next day with a two hour survey of the lake, where we would plot all observed groups and count individual birds. Next steps would include defining behaviors and randomly selecting groups to study.

At this point, I was really excited to start the project. I thought the Hoatzin was the most oddly fascinating thing out on the lake, and they aren’t very heavily researched. I liked (and still do!) my group members, and I loved being out on the lake.

Laker that day, we had a photography workshop from Dano, who was there on a video assignment from the San Francisco Zoo. We messed around with our cameras for a while and I was able to find some really neat setting on the camera I’d brought. I was able to get some great shots of butterflies after that.

We also heard from Lisa, who was doing research on the giant river otters and the Orinoco Geese. I thought it was particularly interesting when she said that a goose traveling alone would take a straight shot route to Bolivia for the migratory season, whereas geese with families will wind along the river.

It was another long, hard day. Not Not quite as physically intense as other days, but it was bloody hot and everyone was exhausted. I think the constant schedule and rough sleep was catching up with us. not to mention a lot of frustration with the project proposals – I was so glad to hear that our was going to work out.

Forest, meet the group…group, meet the forest – August 31st and September 1st

Day Six: Introductory Hikes

Our first couple of days at Cocha Cashu were spent getting our bearings, and for good reason. Cocha Cashu is so remote and the forest is so untouched that it comes as a bit of a shock. The 31st of August was an easy hiking day.

We woke up nice and early for our first hike (though much later than we were used to, at that point – we nearly fell over when they told us that we weren’t meeting until 7:00AM). We were all required to wear rubber boots while out in the wilderness, so I donned my absolutely ridiculous-looking white boots that I bought in Cusco. Pretty much everyone bought there’s in Cusco, but theirs were black and yellow. Me, being my father’s daughter and therefore an incredible cheap individual, decided to go for the white boots that were two or three soles cheaper. Suffice it to say, I got teased a bit – but all in good fun, of course!

We split up into groups after breakfast. One group went with Ursula to explore the area north of the station, and my group went south with Tim. We worked our way beyond the tents, into the thicker vegetation, and eventually into swampland. Along the way, we were introduced to dozens of plants, insects, and spiders. At one point, Tim caught a beautiful Blue Morpho butterfly and held it up for us to see clearly. They’re simply enormous! He also caught the much smaller Glass-Winged Butterfly. Throughout the hike, we were focusing on plant adaptations, particularly in the swampy areas. We discussed why all leaves in the rainforest had “drip tips”, why only some trees have buttresses, and how plants compare to others. For me, it was a new academic experience; I’m not a science major, after all. I struggled to keep up with the Latin names of plants, but I was determined to learn more!

Later in the day, our group went with Ursula and did the same thing in a new area. We talked a lot about termites, the Solanaceae family (tomato, eggplant, bell pepper, etc.), and plant predation. We also got to see some incredible monkey activity right above our heads! We all went to our tents completely exhausted that night, and fell asleep to the itching of bug bites and the lullaby of the jungle.


Day Seven: Introduction to Bird Watching

And on the seventh day, Ursula said….let us watch birds.


Anyway, the first of September was devoted to the birds! We got up very early and split into three groups, who all went in different directions. My group started in the canoes with our TA, David. The canoes are these shaky, hard-seated cedar canoes – I’ll talk a whole lot more about those once we get to our research projects. For today, we took these canoes out for nearly two and a half hours before breakfast and enjoyed watching the sun come up over the lake. 


During our time out there, we got to finally see the Giant River Otters up close. They were too quick to get good pictures of, but they popped up around us a few times before becoming bored with us and heading north. We also observed Jacanas, Hoatzins, Donacobius, Green Ibis, Scarlett Macaws, Blue and Gold Macaws, a Red Capped Hawk, Tiger Heron, and many other bird species. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I was getting really into birds at this point. I think the fact that I struggled so much with the plant names but understood the bird names made them that much more exciting to observe. Not to mention that they were all beautiful and so different than the birds at home.

After breakfast, we went with the next group. For us, that was mist netting with Ursula. She taught us how to handle, take out, clean, put away, transport, and set up the nets. Once we had been educated, we headed out into the field to put our new knowledge to the test. We found our spot in the woods, set up our nets, and left them overnight. It wouldn’t be until the next day that we actually got to try catching birds and studying them.

The day wasn’t long enough for a three-part rotation, so my group would be bird-watching with Tim the following day. The rest of this day was spent taking a botany class in which we learned how to inquire about and identify plant characteristics. Again, I really struggled, but I’ve come home with a bunch of new knowledge about plants and I want to learn even more.


Leaving for Cocha Cashu – August 29th and 30th

Day Three: Travel by Boat

Me and my tent-mate were woken up around 4:00AM by the sound of biblical rain. And I mean BIBLICAL. I’ve heard stories about heavy rain, but this exceeded even those. It sounded as if the Blue Angels were somehow hovering over our heads for an hour and a half. At one point, I thought the world might be ending. At another, I was sure that we were in danger. But everything turned out fine – in fact, you might say things turned out better than they otherwise would have, since the height of the river rose nearly a meter! When we all (officially) got up, we boarded a boat on this river and were thankful that our chances of having to push the boat over shallows was decreased.

The boats, which were large, covered canoes with motors, carried all of us in two groups deep into Manu National Park. As we pushed on, civilization became sparser and vegetation denser. Eventually, no other boats or houses were able to be seen – only thick, dark forest. We made a few bathroom stops on beaches (not much privacy throughout this trip…) and looked for animal tracks in the sand and mud. At one point, we found fresh ocelot tracks.

One of our stops was at a very remote town called Boca Manu. Here, we were supposed to present our vaccination cards to a doctor and get approved to go deeper into the park. We waited for hours for the doctor to show. During these hours, we became well-acquainted with the gnats of Peru, which are not at all like the ones here at home. These ones bite…and itch. They’re also everywhere; nearly impossible to escape. When they bite you, they take out of a visible chunk of skin and leave behind a congealed spot of blood. The group impatiently waited for the doctor, swatting and grunting at the gnats the whole time. Once the doctor finally came, we were disappointed to find out that he had no interest in seeing proof of the vaccinations we paid a lot to get. He was much more concerned about us wearing sunscreen. To be clear, though, DO make sure that you get your vaccines when traveling to Peru and other surrounding countries! Not only for your own safety, but for the sake of the indigenous people that you have very real chances of running into.

We left Boca Manu and practically cheered to have the gnats gone from the surrounding air. We did, however, take dozens of bites with us. My feet and ankles had somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty bites.

After a full day of travel, we stopped at our lodging for the night. This place, called Limonal, was a station off the bank of the river. Unfortunately for the group – which was composed of new adventurers, at this point – we arrived after nightfall. We started setting up our tents by the light of our headlamps and quickly realized that the long grass we were setting up in was swarming with insects. And I mean SWARMING. You could shine your light at any given spots and see a blur of hopping, flying, and sprinting creatures. We got our tents up quickly, ate our dinner with an air of paranoia, and dove into our tents for sleep. My tent-mate and I spent a number of minutes checking the nooks and crannies of the tent for any critters. Alas, there were a handful of grasshoppers, but we let them stay, since they were the least of our concern. We slept pretty hard that night, though we practically fell asleep itching gnat bites.


Day Four: Travel by Boat…again!

We got up at the break of dawn and set out for our final destination: Cocha Cashu Biological Research Station. We ate our breakfast of eggs and rice, packed up our tents, and were on the boat once more. This time around on the boat, we were to take a wildlife survey for the whole ride. Over the course of the eight or nine hours we spent on that ride, I learned how to identify a large number of bird species, even from a distance. Horned Screamers, Yellow-billed Terns, Large-billed Terns, Roadside Hawks, Black Vultures, Greater Yellow-headed Vultures, Turkey Vultures, Muscovy Ducks, four kinds of parrot, five kinds of macaw, Orinoco Geese, and many more. That was my absolute favorite part of this section of the trip: learning that I had a knack for bird identification. I can see myself getting into bird-watching later in life.

Along the way, we also got to spot a White Caiman, Wooly Monkeys, and Spider Monkeys. It was a beautiful day. You hardly notice that you’ve been sitting for nine hours on those boats. There’s so much to look at, and you’re acutely aware that you could spot something amazing at any given moment.

In the early evening, we made it to Cocha Cashu. We had to hike our things about half a kilometer from the beach to the station. It’s a beautiful area – the

kitchen is spacious and clean, the bathhouse has plenty of room

for storage, the showers are clean and modern, and the library makes for a nice quiet area. After everything was brought in, we were assigned to tent platforms. K

ellen, Haley and I set up our stuff on our platform quickly and made it back to the common area with time to spare. The light was amazing – you would look up through the trees and see shimmering leaves, puffy clouds, and a Squirrel Monkey or two. The lake was calm and quiet.

We all went on a short hike to get introduced to the vegetation surrounding the station. We talked about plant species and the history of the land. The floodplains used to be under water a little over 100 years ago, but once the river broke off and formed the lake, the floodplains burst to life with tons of interesting species. We talked for hours about the plants’ adaptations to the environment. Tim, the other professor, caught a couple butterflies and let us look at them closely. The hike was an adventure in and of itself.

That night, we were welcomed by a few researchers at the station. They told us that we were incredibly privileged to be there – a statement that I know understand the weight of. In the 40 years that Cocha Cashu has existed, fewer than 5,000 people have been there. It is truly one of the most remote and untouched places on the planet.

We went to bed feeling blessed…and acutely aware of how isolated we all were.


Arriving in Peru – August 27th and 28th

Day One: Arrival

I arrived in Lima around 12:45AM. De-planing and customs were relatively painless. My next flight was at 6:45AM, and I was told Star Peru (my airline) didn’t open registration until 3:00AM. Well, as it turned out, Star Peru didn’t open until 4:30AM, so I sat in the frigid terminal for over three hours. Fortunately, I was able to call my boyfriend from a pay phone – that helped immensely. Once I got my boarding pass, I made the long trek to gate 36, which actually opens up to the street. We waited a little over an hour there. At about 6:50AM, we boarded a bus, which took us maybe 500 yards to our plane. The plane, which was quite small and old, was remarkably spacious and comfortable. I was in an aisle seat in a row of only two. The flight was very easy, save for the nausea I felt from being awake for so long.

Once I arrived in Cusco, I got my bag, found a taxi, and got to Hostal Alfonso II (though the taxi driver scammed me in the process – I ended up paying about five times the amount I should have). When I got to my room, I sat on my bed and got a bit emotional; mostly over the fact that I could now sleep. I was so glad that the travel was over. I put on more layers, curled up under two alpaca blankets, and passed out for two and a half hours. Those hours were the longest of my life. I woke up feeling like I’d been out for seven hours.

We had a brief meeting with lunch, then some time to settle in before we went shopping for last-minute supplies. Later, we had a more official meeting to go over rules, expectations, and itinerary. Everyone seems really sweet – I think this group will be very successful together. We had a wonderful dinner and a quirky, fairy-tale-like restaurant, got to explore the main plaza a bit, and now…here we are. My brain revolts when I remind myself that I got in just this morning. It feels like I’ve been here for days.

Tomorrow will be an interesting one, I’m sure. I am eager to see what ends up presenting itself out there in the wilderness. I feel like I’ve already become a much better traveler; I can’t imagine how I’ll feel at the end of this trip.

Day Two: Travel by Bus

On this day, we spent our time on a bus, which took us over the Andes. I had a great conversation with Ursula (one of our professors) regarding political climate – of course, I found that fascinating. Apparently, it’s a very mixed political spectrum here. There are many parties, and the country can’t really be divided into political regions like the U.S. can. Religion and affluence seem to be bigger indicators of political leanings. It also sounds like environmental sentiment is very similar to Ecuador (where I studied abroad last year), meaning that most people are in favor of development over conservation – it’s that same predicament of humans rights in theory versus in practice that we see all over the world.

After a few hours, we stopped at Ninamarka, which is a recently excavated area with pre-Inca tombs. That was a fascinating bit of history. The tombs looked like small, one-room houses, and were made up of rough stone and mortar. About forty minutes away from Ninamarka, we stopped in a pre-colonial town for a snack. They served us egg sandwiches with tea and coffee. After we left the town, we descended into a narrow valley where there was clearly more moisture. The green cover was much denser, and there was less agriculture.

We later stopped at the entrance to Manu National Park, which would be home for the next twelve days. At this stop, we took some time to walk along a trail and look at plant species. We talked about the endangered Polylepis tree, bromeliads, epiphytes, etc. We ate our lunches of fruit with simple cheese sandwiches, and we were on our way. Our bus bottomed out a nubmer of times, but it provided us with wonderful opportunities to walk around and stretch our legs again. On one stop, we got to see six Cock of the Rocks doing their mating songs and dances. They were simply stunning birds, and their behavior was so peculiar! The males moved to new locations together, trying to lure in the females.

After a total of about 12.5 hours of travel by bus, we’re made it to Atalaya. Some people stayed in dorms while the rest of us camped in our tents on a big wooden platform. Everyone seemed in high spirits, and we were feeling ready for the next two days of travel.

Returning from The Imperial City…

I just returned this morning from a month in Peru and, boy, what a month it was.

My time in Peru was nothing short of life-changing. I feel so privileged to have spent a month with brilliant, passionate people who cared so much for learning and so much for the health of the environment and its residents. Everything was educational: the places, the locals, the group members, the professors, and the activities. Despite having only slept about 8 hours in the last three days, my heart feels so full and my mind feels so enriched by this experience.

Over the next week, I’ll be posting about my trip in chunks of two days. It was impossible to blog while in Peru; we rarely had a strong connection, and we were quite busy nearly every day. But now that I’m home, I’m so excited to share my travel stories with you readers! I hope that my stories – the good and the bad, the beautiful and the stressful, the hilarious and the emotional – will inspire others to explore this amazing blue and green gem we call home.

Stay tuned!

Departure Day is creeping up on me…

Peru is coming up so fast! I’m less than two days from leaving, and there’s still so much to do! Take my advice on this one: don’t work full days the two days before you leave. It’s a bad idea. My to-do list is as long as my torso, and I have a cumulative sum of about 6 hours between now and when I leave to do them all, all while family and friends are trying to visit me before I leave.

So…don’t do that. Not smart.

All that aside, I’m so excited. Stressed, but excited. I’ve got my new tent, my new sleeping bag, a suit made of mosquito netting (no joke), and I’m ready for an adventure. I’m looking forward to smelling tropical air once more and tasting those incredible fruits they have in that area of the world. South and Central America really do have some of the most incredible flavors. I’m hoping to find my beloved granadilla, which is an orange fruit I fell in love with in Ecuador. Granadillas are shaped similarly to passion fruits – you crack it open with a spoon, rip it open, and eat the delicious seeds on the inside. I will say, though…they look very unappetizing. They’re gray and look something like snot. But I promise that they are simply delicious!

I’m very much looking forward to removing myself from my comfort zone once more and returning home with a renewed understanding of my place in the world. I just want to cultivate my garden.

Hello All!

7/30/2014 Blog by Sara Brannman, Environmental Studies and LEPP, Andes to Amazon: Biodiversity, Conservation, and Sustainability

I’m so excited to be preparing for my second exploration seminar! This year, I’ll be going to Peru to study sustainability and conservation in a global biodiversity hotspot.

Last year, I took part in the early Fall exploration seminar in Ecuador and the Galapagos, which focused on issues of conservation with relation to diverse economic classes and situations. When I first saw the seminar on the UWB website, the first thought that flashed through my mind was, “Oh, I could never do that.” But once I became aware that I was saying this to myself, I though, “Wait…but why not? Why couldn’t I do this?” So I forced myself to apply.

The experiences I had in Ecuador changed my life and the way I perceive my place in the world. After it was all over, I couldn’t wait to go somewhere again. I was thrilled when I found a program in Peru that was even more closely aligned with my career interest in sustainable agriculture. As a double major in Environmental Studies and Law, Economics, and Public Policy, I’m very interested in the way the economy and the environment interact with and influence each other. At this point in time, I’m primarily concerned with the environmental and economic implications of the modern food system. The Peru program will provide me with opportunities to look closely at food production systems – both current and retired – and learn more about sustainable food production. I hope to return with an even more intimate understanding of the potential of sustainable food systems to help me in my desired future career.

While in Peru, I won’t have many opportunities to contact family and friends. Last year, I had plenty of opportunities to email and Skype with loved ones, so I’m a bit nervous about this change. However, I feel confident in trusting that I am safe with my professors, my peers, and my host country. Hopefully my family and friends will feel the same! Last year, before I left for Ecuador, I made my boyfriend a packet for while I was away. At the time, it was the longest span of time that we would be apart, so I made a packet with an activity for him to do every day. One day, he’d do a homemade crossword based on inside jokes, the next day he would have a coloring sheet of a picture of us, and another day he would have a quiz. I just wanted him to feel like he was talking to me every day, even though he wouldn’t be able to. So, if you’re in a similar situation, feel free to use this idea!

Despite my nervousness regarding communication, I couldn’t be more excited to be going on another adventure. Before Ecuador last year, I was not an adventurer. I lived in a box, I was afraid of change, and I didn’t like not knowing what to expect. However, after throwing myself out of my comfort zone, I feel like a wiser, smarter, and more open person. I will always encourage others to study abroad. Go have an adventure!