In the last month I have been lucky to participate in two amphibian monitoring trips. We have 37 known species of amphibian in Belize so it was intriguing to see what species TIDE has on its lands. Amphibian monitoring is also important as they are sensitive to changes in the environment and therefore a good indicator of whether a habitat is healthy or not.
The first trip was at the end of the dry season in Payne's Creek National Park (PCNP) and the second was at the beginning of the wet season at the TIDE Private Protected Lands (TPPL). Both times, Elmar Requena, our terrestrial biologist, was leading the trips and made them exciting and informative.
Payne's Creek National Park
Going by boat to PCNP takes you through the extensive Punta Y'cacos lagoon system on the edge of the park - home to manatees. I've been wanting to see a manatee the entire time I've been here, but as I have very little time left, I'd more or less given up hope. Maybe that was the key because it was my lucky day!
Anyway, onto amphibians. The one monitoring trip that I really wanted to be involved in was this one, so I was excited to finally be trekking across the savannah at night with my very weak torch, stumbling over grassy tussocks and sweating profusely due to the long-sleeved top and trousers I was wearing to ward off insects. Being the dry season, we weren't sure whether there would be many amphibians about but we were greeted by our first frog down an old seismic testing hole. After a lot of deliberation using a herpetological guide, we identified it as a white-lipped frog.
We then headed off to the 'wetlands' which involved walking down a dried up creek, where we found a Gulf Coast toad, to a small waterhole where there was still quite a lot of mud. Here we found several white-lipped frogs and the guys reckoned they could also hear Stauffer's tree frogs but we didn't find any.
The next evening, we headed to the broadleaf forest area of PCNP. I thought hiking through the savannah was hard work but I'd never hiked through a jungle at night. I tripped over tree roots, fell down a hole and got countless bruises from bits of tree. After about 20 minutes we reached our first creek - it was dry. So the rangers and Elmar decided to head to Payne's Creek itself.
The fact that we passed a crocodile nest should've given me pause for thought but it wasn't until I saw four pairs of eyes glinting back at us from Payne's Creek that I realised that this was a Morelet crocodile hang-out. The guys debated whether it would be safe to look for amphibians here. While they stood there talking, another two crocodiles joined the fray. Thankfully the decision was made to try elsewhere and the long trek back to the truck ensued.
By this time, I'll admit, I was fed up. We hadn't seen any amphibians, I was hot and tired and it was already 8:30. But I'm glad we persevered because the next creek we tried not only had water, it had frogs and toads galore! We found six species in total - the two from the night before as well as Stauffer's tree frog, common Mexican tree frog, cane toad and Rio Grande leopard frog. Times like that make the hard part of field work worthwhile!
The next day, we headed back to Punta Gorda by boat again. Just when I thought my trip couldn't have gotten any better, we saw two bottlenose dolphins on our way out of the lagoon.
TIDE Private Protected Lands
I went on another amphibian monitoring trip last week in TIDE's Private Protected Lands. It is now definitely the wet season and as much as we didn't really want it to rain, it does mean that the tree frogs are more likely to descend from the canopy - early in the rainy season is when they breed. So the fact that it started pouring with rain just as we went out had its pros and cons.
We followed the botanical trail near the rangers station and within about 5 minutes, one of the rangers spotted a red-eyed tree frog. I was immediately in heaven - they are one of those frogs that you see in photos around the world, but it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that I would actually see one!
We found a few more red-eyed tree frogs, a Stauffer's and a yellow tree frog. We're sure there were other species as well, from the different calls we heard, but it's hard to catch frogs when they're in the tree canopy! There was a lull, however, where we only saw blue crabs, large spiders and scorpions. Oh, and a large fer-de-lance, a highly venomous snake. Thankfully this one headed away from us and off into the swamp.
Then Elmar made the decision to also head into the swamp as we could hear plenty of frogs in there. The water wasn't too deep - just below the tops of our wellies. It wasn't very easy to walk through though - imagine a thick jungle setting - trees and lianas everywhere, fallen trees to climb over - and then add the fact that you can't see where you're stepping due to the water - debris, unseen holes, etc. But being surrounded by so many tree frogs calling (it was deafening!) made it all worthwhile. We headed back out of the swamp after about 45 minutes, passing the fer-de-lance again.
We wandered along the path a little longer but it was getting late and the only other place we were likely to see amphibians was closer to the coast which was about an hour's round-trip. So we headed back to the rangers station for freshly cooked crab and tortillas. And, as a bonus, we saw a Vaillant's frog on the way back to the truck.