Tag Archives: blue morpho

Day 4: Into the Belly of the Earth

So I know the title is pretty dramatic, but then again, it was a pretty dramatic sort of day. It started off uneventfully. I woke up a little later than usual but made it to breakfast on time, just before we had another meeting about today’s project: pee traps! As in, we peed in test tubes and used the urine samples to set pitfall traps for insects. Our urine has a lot of nitrogen in it, so the basic idea is that the nitrogen will attract insects that we will then fish out of our pee pee in a couple of days, all in the name of science.

DeLiciOUs!!

The hike this morning was mostly uneventful. There were the standard blue morphos that flew by, close enough for me to see but not to touch. It’s fine, I’m very much used to those butterflies flying circles around me by now. BUT I AM DETERMINED. I WILL CATCH ONE BY THE TIME WE LEAVE THIS FOREST!! I did, however, manage to catch 3 more butterflies and two moths today, so I’m  sharpening my skills. One of the moths was beautiful yellow and black, and it was a rare diurnal moth! Again, I found all the Lepidopterans flitting near the road on low foliage.


Unidentified diurnal moth.

By far the coolest spot of the morning was a coral snake that Sam found under a rotten log – one of the most venomous snakes of Central America. It was smaller than I expected, and very shy. It slithered away almost as soon as we could spot it.

After lunch, we went to hell.

Not really, but it sure did look like it. We entered a cave near Las Cuevas that is not only home to all sorts of creepy cave fauna, but also remnants of the ancient Maya civilization. The black maw of the cave loomed up suddenly over the forest path. Its entrance was filled with hanging stalactites that looked like fangs and cave swallows that nest between them. The Mayans believed this cave to be the entrance to the underworld, and it sure looked the part. We entered via ancient steps carved by the Maya and slowly made our way through the bat poop (guano)-covered cave. I thought the squelchy brown substance spread all over the cave floor was mud, but it was not long before I noticed that it was actually guano. Delicious. Not a single one of us made it out without being covered in the stuff, except maybe our incredible guide, Pedro.

View from the inside of the cave.

There were definitely some scary moments in the cave involving uncomfortably narrow passages and slippery footing. In some of the most claustrophobic recesses of the cave, I became supremely aware of just how deep I was in the Earth: only alien creatures that are adapted to life in utter darkness can exist here, and I am nothing but an intruder who would stand no chance if my headlamp goes out. It was a humbling and freakish experience that I am glad to have had, but that I am not sure I would repeat. Emerging from the cave was like being reborn.

Goodnight for now! I’ll be up again in too few hours.

Day 7: In Which I Do Not Catch a Blue Morpho

Our last sunset from Las Cuevas

Our last day in the Chiquibul Forest started with a 5 am hike over some extremely steep paths that were still wet from yesterday’s rain. The leaves, tree roots, and mossy rocks were so slick, and I took two nasty spills – I landed on a tree root with my left butt cheek. Despite my searing leg muscles and the blossoming bruises on my butt, the view from the top of Bird Tower was worth the strenuous uphill hike. The sun was still low in the sky, and the forest still seemed to be waking up. Mist rolled in across lush montane forests as far as the eye could see. It was  breathtaking – both literally and figuratively.

View from the top of Bird Tower.

After breakfast, we set out for another long trek to retrieve our camera traps that we set on our first day at Las Cuevas. The hike was long, but the forest here is so inherently beautiful that I didn’t mind the sweat, sore muscles, and countless bug bites. I caught this strange goldenrod-colored butterfly that was bobbing along San Pastor road:

As per usual, every single blue morpho butterfly that we saw flew out of my reach. I’m very, very sad that I haven’t managed to catch Belize’s most iconic butterfly on this trip, but I guess it just means that I have to come back someday to finish my mission!

In the afternoon, we dug up a couple of leaf cutter nests to examine them from the inside. Scott, our resident ant expert, located the queen of a smallish nest for us, as well as the ants’ fungus garden in which they grow their food. The excavation was great exercise, but the ants that we uncovered were definitely not happy with us.

I got bitten by a mosquito right in the middle of my forehead as I was excavating the nest. Here’s Elena helping me put Cortisone on the largest bump in the history of ever.

Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for – the checking of the camera traps. I don’t think any of us expected to actually find anything. Maybe a peccary or two if we were lucky. See, as loud, clunky humans that make huge amounts of noise as we travel along the trails, any mammals in the area were aware of our presence before we could even come close to spotting them. By this point in the trip, spotting large mammals in the Chiquibul seemed equivalent to seeing a unicorn.

But.

In the very first trap! A tapir! And a magnificent jaguar, in perfect profile! Right there in the first trap, we captured two of the mammals that we most wanted to see. It only got better and better as we opened the rest of the traps. Of course, not all yielded anything, but most captured at least one or two animals. We saw so many peccaries – nine total.

We also saw a few curassows, two pumas, a coatimundi (kind of like a mix between a raccoon and a red panda), a coral snake, and a 9-banded armadillo. It was truly wild. When the first jaguar appeared on screen, all of us started screaming our heads off – spotting a jaguar is like the mother of all animal sightings in the Chiquibul.

But that wasn’t all! We saw not one, but TWO jaguars in our traps. Practically unheard of!! The big cats were of stocky, muscular build, and had intricate rosette patterning on their hide. I’m still in awe of them and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of looking at these pictures.

What a satisfying end to our stay at Las Cuevas and the Chiquibul Forest. It’s been an amazing, eye-opening experience. I can truly say that I’ve fallen in love with this place – chiggers, ticks, and all. I’m sad to leave tomorrow morning, but look forward to experiencing the reef.

Day 3: Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

I honestly don’t know how I hauled my bug bite-riddled butt out of bed to go bird watching this morning at 4:45am, but it happened. We spotted so many parrots and kites perching in the tops of trees. Breakfast was at 6am, and then we headed to the classroom for a meeting to discuss out first project of the trip: camera traps! After a long and intense discussion detailing the methodology of our first experiment, we headed out into the jungle recesses for the second time.

Our goal of the day was to set up our camera traps at strategic locations to hopefully catch some cool shots of rainforest mammals. We tramped through the dense foliage on a path covered with leaf litter and all forms of creepy crawlies that make the forest floor their home.

I was torn between keeping my eyes on the ground so I wouldn’t take even more spills, scanning the area for cool terrestrial animals like snakes or frogs, or watching the skies for butterflies flitting by. I failed miserably on the “not taking a spill” front – I pretty much have a map of bruises.

Today was my first day with the butterfly net! (Peep Elena smoldering in the back.)

I was just a “little* too excited about the butterfly net. The impulse to swing my new toy stick at every flying insect won out over the survival instinct telling me to keep my eyes to the ground. Blue morphos kept flitting tantalizingly near but flying away before I could even get within swinging distance. I’m determined, however! I’m sure that with the amount of shouting I get from the group every time someone spots a blue morpho, I’ll manage to snag one. Maybe. Hopefully.

Despite my lack of success with the blue morphos, I did catch seven butterflies, a pink katydid, and a moth today in my net. I spent a solid half hour in the hot sun of a forest pathway swinging at passing butterflies, perfecting my technique and sweating profusely.

Wouldn’t say I perfected it – not by a long shot – but I did make some pretty neat catches, some of which I’ve inserted here! The brown striped one is a Many-banded Daggerwing, and the other I believe is a species of Swallowtail. They were both zooming down the sides of an open forest path, which is where butterflies tend to be found.

Swallowtail butterfly Many-banded daggerwing

But the star of today’s show was not a Lepidopteran. As we were hacking through the brush to place a camera trap, we came across a magnificent iridescent boa constrictor!! It was coiled in the leaf litter, regarding us with clear annoyance and suspicion. It was a truly beautiful creature. Its scales were brown with darker brown and black splotches, and its entire body gave off an iridescent sheen that reminded me of the surface of soap bubbles. It was probably 5 or 6 feet long. Here it is:

!!!!!!

Dinner tasted so, so good after a long day of meetings, lectures, and hiking. Tomorrow, there will be more. My body is protesting and my brain hurts a little from the sleep deprivation, but I’m ready to tackle the Chiquibul Forest once again.

But first, some sleep.

 

 

 

 

Day 2: Welcome to the Jungle

To say that today has been eventful would be the understatement of understatements. It’s now 11pm as I write this, and I’ve been up since 4:50 am. Places we visited this morning seem like days ago, and I barely even remember what we ate for breakfast. (That’s a lie – we had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs and cheese and watermelon etc. and I do remember it.) But my tiredness and the humidity in the air are quickly emptying memories out from my head, so I’m going to jot them down and pass out until 4:30am!! yEET

The goal for today was to travel from the very edge of the Maya Forest to Las Cuevas Research Station in Chiquibul National Park. We left bright and early (like, 7am early. Who even am I?). Along the way, we stopped at some absolutely beautiful pools that were part of a river and aptly named Rio On Pools.

Rio On Pools!

The water was cool and refreshing, a welcome respite from the oppressive humidity. It would have been perfect if not for the 10495783 LEECHES THAT ATTACHED THEMSELVES TO MY BUTT AS I WAS BUTT-SCOOTING THROUGH THE RAPIDS. UM, EXCUSE ME??! They were small and painless though, so they were more gross than harmful.

After picking off the leeches, we dried off and headed along the exceedingly bumpy road to Caracol, a magnificent ancient Mayan city that was deserted by 1000 AD. Our tour guide, Leo, was extremely knowledgeable and seemed to have an answer to every question. We climbed over dilapidated gray remnants of homes and temples as we listened to Leo’s insight, although I was pretty distracted by the many butterflies flitting about. I think I spotted a red postman butterfly hovering near some white flowers and countless swallowtails dipsy-doodling in the fields of Caracol. #TFB.

We even managed to haul ourselves to the top of a temple, the tallest building in Belize, for an incredible view of the rainforests of both Belize and Guatemala. Unfortunately, a haze of smoke from Guatemala’s deforestation projects shrouded the area.

View from the top of the highest building in Belize. 

As someone who lives in suburban Plano, TX and goes to school in a large city, seeing anything other than manicured lawns, squirrels, and rabbits counts as exciting.But today we hiked through some wild jungle, witnessed howler monkeys, scarlet macaws, tree frogs, parrots, and more. And at least 15 Blue Morphos, Belize’s most famous butterfly, flitted by the path in their characteristically erractic flight. I tried swiping at the them with my net but failed miserably. NEXT TIME I SHALL SUCCEED.

It didn’t end there – after dinner and the student lectures, I saw upwards of 20 species of moths hanging around the lamps at the station at around 9 pm. They were inexplicably drawn to the light sources and sat docilely on the walls as if hypnotized. Naturally, I ran around like a woman possessed snapping pictures and jotting descriptions. Here first is an imperial moth, but the second I couldn’t identify. They both had at least a 9 cm wingspan.

Good night, friends!

Day 11: Trade-offs (5/26/2017)

Today we set up camera traps throughout the forest neighboring Las Cuevas. The entire process took all day, from 10 am until 1:30 and then 2:30 to 7:30. Needless to say, the process exhausted me. Hiking on and off trail in a humid tropical environment for hours on end is certainly different from the comparatively cushy lifestyle of an American college student.

About a third of the way through the endeavor, another student proposed that we shorten the distance between camera traps so that we can set up more in a given amount of time and head back earlier. I supported the motion but the class did not. So we marched onward.

By the time we were halfway through, my boots felt so heavy that I wasn’t even walking, I was just swinging them over the ground with each step, hoping that I did not hit anything. I was panting and completely drenched in sweat. “Damn, I am out of shape,” I thought as my classmates marched onward. Despite my desperation to stop, I marched onward too. I didn’t really have a choice.

Hours later, we made it back to the station. Although I stayed well hydrated in the field, I had a splitting headache and could barely stabilize myself when I was standing upright. I had reached my limit.

As an economics major, every moment I had to think on the trail, I spent trying to calculate the expected value of moving onward. I tried to compare the benefit and probability of seeing an interesting animal with the benefit of calling it quits. I never thought it all the way through, though. I was too damn exhausted.

Despite causing me so much physical despair, the hike granted me many gifts – yellow prickly trees (Zanthozylum spp.), monstrously large strangling figs (Ficus aurea), Mexican porcupine, green tree anole, tommygoff snake, a Mexican tree frog, abundant lianas reaching up to the canopy. The yellow prickly were numerous and had sharp spines, an adaptation to keep away herbivorous arboreal megafauna. The largest strangling fig I saw completely overtook its host tree and was hollow on the inside. The Mexican porcupine I saw was climbing the tree through this hollow interior. The most vivid encounters were with blue morpho butterflies (Morpho spp.), whose radiant sapphire blue wings contrasted greatly with the browns and greens of the understory.

Lianas often stretch from the forest floor to the canopy.

Today pushed me to my limits, but it also awarded me with many of the rainforest’s treasures.

The first principle of economics is that there are trade-offs. Despite my incomparable exhaustion, I am satisfied with trading off comfort for adventure. That’s why I came to Belize.