Walking around Redonda

One of our first goals on Redonda was to get a good sense for the density of lizards on the island. This is one of the key metrics that has changed following rat eradications elsewhere in the Lesser Antilles. To do that we used a few different methods, we’re hoping that each will give us a slightly different sense for densities that we can compare one year to the next.

The first was a mark-recapture study in two different locations. We’d survey a fixed area (one of the big fig trees at the north of the island and a boulder field at the south) and catch all the lizards we could find. Every time we caught a lizard we’d write a number on its belly and put a little white dot on its backside (see below). The paint spot will help us see the lizard from a distance without spending lots of time trying to catch a lizard that’d already been caught that day.

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Lizard number 22 getting a number on its belly. Photo credit: Geoffrey Giller

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An anole hanging out on a branch after getting a white spot. Photo credit: Geoffrey Giller

We spent two long days marking all of the lizards we could find in the tree and the rocks. After each site had had a day to rest, we returned. By figuring out which lizards we’d previously caught and how many new lizards had shown up we can get an estimate of just how many lizards are using that area. The lizards in the tree were particularly plentiful – we’re estimating a population of around 50! with unlimited time we’d continue marking, revisiting, and recapturing a few more days but our island time was short so we compromised with a single recapture day at each site. We’ll repeat the survey next year in the same places to see if there are changes in density.

Our next survey method was the tried-and-true walk around, look on both sides of your path, and count ’em up. For this Anthony did a big hike around the perimeter of the island counting all of the lizards he saw. He did this twice and found a lot of lizards! Here’s a page from my notebook showing the track. Unfortunately the map only really makes sense to us, but as you can see, he saw 61 anoles and 65 ameiva that day. The next day he ended up seeing 73 anoles and 118 ameiva! Those are pretty wide margins, but they’ll provide a baseline for next year’s repeat transects.

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Now, I decided to strap a GoPro to Anthony’s head for the second survey. It’s two hours long though so I had to speed the video up. Grab your dramamine, you’re going to need it!

This video is just a short segment of the hike in the vicinity of the “Hanging Gardens.” It’s one of the prettiest parts of the island I think. You can tell too how tricky some of the traversing is. On this section Anthony saw 10 ameiva and 24 anoles. Can you find them? I slowed down the first ameiva so you can get a good look. You’ll also notice a few other surprises along the way.

 

Reporting on the Reptiles of Redonda

This post is reposted from www.anoleannals.com and so might be a little familiar in its start to readers here.

IMG_4616I’m back from Redonda and the expedition was a great success! I’m happy to report there were many Anolis nubilus boulder-hopping out of the way of the black rats and even blacker ground lizards on the island. In many ways the trip was even more challenging than expected but we came out with quite a lot of data so we have a great sense of the current status of the reptiles on the island and a baseline for comparisons into the future.

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To refresh your memories, Redonda is an island of Antigua and Barbuda and was completely denuded by rats and goats over the last century. Despite the dearth of vegetation, three endemic reptiles had been hanging on: Anolis nubilusAmeiva (Pholidoscelis) atrata, and an as-yet unnamed Sphaerodactylus dwarf gecko. The government of Antigua and Barbuda, in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International and local NGO the Environmental Awareness Group, has decided to undertake a massive restoration effort by eradicating the rats and relocating the goats. My job was to get some baseline data on the current lizard populations so we can figure out how they change into the future.

Helicopter inside

Helicoptering to the island was every bit as exciting as I’d hoped. The Jurassic Park theme was playing through my head the whole way down. See that grassy patch with slightly fewer large rocks – that was the little tiny helipad, but our pilot was a pro and set us down perfectly. Almost as soon as we were out of the helicopter, we deposited our bags by our tents and set about catching Anoles.

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Anolis nubilus is at first blush a relatively innocuous member of the genus. They’re perfectly camouflaged in this environment, which is to say they’re drab gray and brown. Their dewlaps are cream-colored (which is really just my nice way to say drab gray-yellow) and the most elaborate of the females sport faint dorsal stripes. Males did fairly regularly display impressive crests behind their heads, but nonetheless, the species at first and second glance is considerably less flashy than many of their cousins on nearby islands.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

All that said, there’s still a lot of cool stuff going on with nubilus. As Skip mentioned in his article 45 years ago, there’s a casuarina tree right next to the remains of the mine manager’s house that hosts an abundance of the few Redonda tree lizards living up to their name. The tree is still there and the lizards are still eagerly defending their precious few branches (see above).

There are actually quite a few trees still on Redonda, some of which are native Ficus trees. For the most part they’re in fairly inaccessible areas, but that really just means you need to bring a longer noose pole and don’t look down. I caught a lizard on this tree below with a perch height of approximately 350 meters (that’s really going to mess with the averages). Truth be told, after catching the lizard my knees were so wobbly I had to go find a nice big boulder and just had Geoff and Anthony shout me data for a while.

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After a week on the island and many many Anoles, we got morphometric and performance data, diet data, extended focal-animal behavior videos, two mark-recapture density studies and two permanent transects established, thermal ecology data, habitat use data, and flight behavior data. We even exhaustively determined whether nubilus likes Chuckles! (But that’s a story for another post).

I know this is an Anole blog, but there were some pretty cool things going on with the other reptiles on the island, too. The ground lizards were jet black and really big. Here’s a picture of Anthony Herrel trying to get a tail measurement:

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

The atrata spent their days cruising around scavenging. We saw one eating a hermit crab, and we heard rumor of another that managed to get a sardine away from one of the crew working on the eradication effort! Analyzing the stomach contents of these guys is going to take quite a lot of detective work.

We also were able to gather the first natural history data on this unnamed dwarf gecko species. They’re strangely beautiful with an unlovely shovel-face and semi-transparent, too-squishy, gelatinous body. You wouldn’t guess it but they’re quick! 1D4_1226editlarge

In all, the reptiles of Redonda were fascinating and getting to explore the island was a unique privilege. I can hardly wait to return next year, and many years after, to see how the lizards change with the island.

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“What about us?” Technically these guys are reptiles too, but c’mon, the lizards are so much cooler. Photo: Geoffrey Giller

Flying on Redonda

(For email readers: make sure you come to the website so you can see the video. Also, for full screen – which I highly recommend – you might have to click the vimeo button in the lower right to watch it there.)

 

One of the pieces of equipment I was most eager to try on Redonda was the Mavic Pro drone that we’d brought along to survey vegetation and record a glimpse of just how it looked and felt to be on the island. That goal was very nearly foiled by the knock-you-over wind that never let up over much of the island, but luckily, the western cliff faces (picture below) were fairly protected from the prevailing easterly tradewinds.

Redonda from the air

But, I struggled to find a spot for taking off and landing. As you might guess there weren’t a whole lot of flat areas on this side of the island, and absolutely none of them were rock-free. By digging out rocks and wiping away loose dirt I was able to make this landing site below. Be sure to note, landing about 3 inches to the left, right, or front and those propellers are grinding on stone. Time to start sweating.

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Flyers among you might just have said, why not catch it in air? Well, the Mavic is “too smart” for that. With an array of sensors on its underside to avoid crashes, an extended hand and a projecting stone are avoided with equal enthusiasm. The first (and last) time I caught the little Mavic in the air the propellers did an emergency escape maneuver that was absolutely terrifying to behold. More sweating.

Then, there was the height. I’ll be honest, I’m a little squeamish about cliffs (Anthony and Geoff are going to chuckle at that understatement). Looking up while flying the drone wasn’t a problem. Even looking up at the drone and watching its view of me from a great height doesn’t make me woozy. But looking down at a drone and seeing its birds-eye view of a complete lack of immediately proximate terra firma had me quaking in my boots.  Buckets of sweat at this point.

But, it was worth it. I did two long evening flights and got 50 short clips of life on the western face of Redonda. I never flew quite close enough to the boulders to actually count lizards but hopefully by flying in similar areas year-to-year we’ll get a look at how this part of the island is changing. I hope you enjoy the video. Flying here does give a pretty remarkable view of just how rugged and beautiful Redonda is.

Living on Redonda

Initially I thought getting to Redonda was going to be a challenge, but the helicopter made that aspect of the trip a delightful adventure. Living on Redonda for a week, though—that was tough. In retrospect, I’d say the challenge was simultaneously harder than anticipated but more comfortable than I’d feared.

Here’s a panorama of our camp:

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There were a total of 10 team members on the island while we were there – the three of us lizard catchers, plus the seven rat eradication team members in charge of deploying and monitoring hundreds of bait stations across the island. As soon as our helicopter landed, heads started popping out from behind boulders, and generous helpers (who, fortunately for me, were in a lot better shape than I was!) helped us haul all of our gear up the hill to basecamp. I’m going to keep emphasizing all of the gear because it was a point of consistent teasing over the week. We kind of had a lot of stuff…

After huffing and puffing our way up the hill, we found the famous casuarina tree (which Geoff is sitting below in the panorama) and two tents already set up for us. (Best helpers ever!) Geoff and I started off sharing the second to last tent on the left. Geoff moved out after only a few days, though, when another tent became available. (And in case you were worried, no, nobody got eaten by rats; one of the people rotating off the island was from the Ministry of the Environment, just doing a one-week stint to help out and see the operation.) I prefer to think Geoff just wanted more room to stretch out and not that my three days (and counting) without a shower was polluting our tent air supply.

Home base wasn’t really our tents, though—it was way too hot for that. The real gathering place, which you can see in the center of the panorama, was “The Manager’s House.” As I mentioned in a previous post, Redonda used to be the site of a large guano mining operation. The manager had a nice, concrete bunker house with a terrific view of Montserrat that has mostly withstood the intervening century. I heard a rumor that it took some very enthusiastic scrubbing to make it livable again, but luckily by the time we arrived it was perfectly habitable. That was where we collected all of our lizard measurements and ate all our meals. It was very much the hub for all things on Redonda.

Speaking of which… here’s a time-lapse video of a typical night in the manager’s house. You may want to watch it on full screen a couple of times, since each time there’s more to notice!

So what was going on? As we did every day, we were entering data, preparing dinner, and sitting around talking and eating. Yes, that’s a projector showing off some of our lizard behavior video from the day. Did you notice the bags on the walls flying up and down in the wind? Or the people scurrying away from the door to avoid the huge rain spot that appears in the foreground?

Wind and rain were two of the less-welcome aspects of life on Redonda. (I know, I know, most of you are laughing by now, wondering what the “welcome” aspects were. Warm weather, fantastic views, some awesome lizard species, and super interesting people, to start.) The wind was ferocious for almost our entire stay. It knocked me off balance repeatedly throughout the day. I would crawl into my tent at night, exhausted, and have to sleep with the nylon walls crashing into me. It was never quiet on Redonda. The wind was almost always howling.

And the rain! Before leaving Boston, I checked the weather for Antigua and saw that it was supposed to be sunny and 80 degrees F plus or minus 1 degree every single day. Great, I thought, no need to pack a raincoat. It turned out that the weather on Redonda was pretty different, despite being only a few miles from Antigua. It rained at least once a day, and some of those rainstorms were torrential. The worst, I think, was the day the rain came out of nowhere, and Anthony, who had climbed into a tree to search for lizards, didn’t even have time to climb back down. The downpour was so blindingly strong that he couldn’t do anything other than cling to a branch to wait out the storm. Geoff and I couldn’t stop laughing on the ground as the rain lashed us and we could just barely make out a stream of curses coming from up in the tree.

Every day, when it finally quit raining, it was HOT. We dried off quickly, and the lizards emerged, and we continued on with business as usual. And then we’d make our way to the manager’s house to get out of the sun, and we’d share some impressively delicious rehydrated meals, and then we’d collapse into our wind-buffeted tents to catch up on sleep before doing it all again the next day.

Helicoptering to Redonda

I’ve decided to break up the Redonda posts thematically. There’s a bit of a beginning, middle, and end to the trip, but the experience day-by-day makes less sense than talking about big things that we were working on in Redonda that often spanned several days. First up, getting to Redonda!

Helicopter

As I’d mentioned previously, the best way to get to Redonda, and really the only way to get quite a lot of gear to Redonda, is via helicopter. And we had a lot of gear.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

This was my first helicopter ride and I was so excited. Caribbean Helicopters did the flying and they were terrific. After a safety briefing and some very stylish waist belt life jackets, we were waiting on the veranda for our ride! The anticipation was tremendous, particularly watching the group before us head out for a tour to see Montserrat and come back wide-eyed with huge smiles on their faces.

Finally, it was our turn. Lifting off straight up from a standstill was such a surprising and awesome feeling. Our pilot was really fun and did a great job showing us around. For some reason he wouldn’t let me push any buttons up front or help with the foot pedals though…

Here’s one of our first views as we left the ground. This is beautiful sunny Antigua. Antigua from the air

It was a short ride to Redonda – about 20 minutes – so it wasn’t long after we left the Antiguan coast behind us that we got our first good look at our destination. While Geoff and I had managed to get a glimpse from the airplane on our flight in, seeing the massive cliffs rising out of the ocean, getting ever larger, really set the stage for our next week.

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This is the “pleasant” side for hiking on Redonda.

Here’s the other side, somewhat less pleasant for walking around. Those steep cliffs dropped over 1000 feet down to the ocean.

Redonda from the air

By far one of my favorite parts of the ride, and probably the best thing about helicoptering, was being able to look straight down through the glass bubble in the nose and watch the ground go by beneath your feet. Here’s a view of the approach to the helipad on Redonda (see that grassy area with slightly fewer rocks – yeah, that’s the helipad).

Helicopter inside

The landing was perfect and we all scurried out to unload the helicopter pronto so the pilot could get back to Antigua.

Taking off

Our ride home was every bit as exciting. Here’s a selfie from the back seat with Anthony.

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Next up, what happened to get us from clean and neat in picture two to so outrageously scruffy looking by the trip home.

Heading out!

Alright, this is a little passé now that I’m back, but I think I’d be remiss talking about all of our adventures on Redonda, Antigua, and Great Bird Island without at least mentioning some of the preparations.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

Preparing for the Redonda expedition was some of the most challenging fieldwork prep I’ve ever done. Geoff, a science write and nature photographer friend from Yale was joining the team from NYC to help with data collection, Anthony (a longtime cast member on the blog) was flying to Antigua from Paris (despite mistakenly thinking he was heading to Anguilla). We were going to be camping completely off the grid for a week and had only one shot to get this dataset. Somehow we needed to be sheltered, fed, watered, and in lizard catching shape for the whole thing, and we had to bring just about everything needed to do that from our respective home bases.

That made for a lot of careful packing, lists of lists, and so much gear. That box I’m packing below ended up weighing 85 pounds at the airport. Sigh.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

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So much camera gear! Also, FYI carrying multiple pelican cases through public places is pretty fun. With the tripod on his back, Geoff got a lot of excited questions about what kind of nature documentary he was making.

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One of the big question marks of the trip was food on Redonda. We opted for these Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated meals and boy was it a good choice! They’re delicious and so easy! You can see Pesto Salmon with Pasta there at the top – that was one of the best! We highly recommend them!

One of the big challenges of the trip was power. We knew we’d have lots of camera batteries to charge, a drone, and a spectrophotometer that needed an outlet and a computer to run. Plus myriad conveniences like walkie-talkies, headlamps, and lanterns. Whew the list went on and on. We ended up investing in this massive Goal Zero setup with multiple solar panels. Spoiler: it was amazing! We made it to the end with just enough power. Again, we really lucked out with good gear.

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Finally, preparations were made and Geoff and I made it to the airport just before 6 am. We were so excited, got on the plane, got our seats, and all of a sudden, fog rolled into JFK. The first leg of our flight, BOS to JFK got delayed. We deplaned. We were very sad:

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We had a tight connection in JFK so we were pretty worried at this point, but amazingly, after a total of about 3 minutes in the terminal and just after taking the photo, we heard an announcement that we all should re-board. They were going to try to get us in after all.

And we made our connection! We were very happy:

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller. (The medical emergency seemed to be well-resolved after a check-in with some paramedics)

From the plane we also managed to spot Redonda, our next destination.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

Yup, that little bump on the ocean is Redonda. Just you wait, the next pictures are from a lot closer.

 

Back from Redonda

Hi Everyone! I’m back from the Redonda trip safe and sound. I’m not so thrilled to be greeted by the biggest snowstorm of the year in Boston though. Antigua and Barbuda gave me a taste of summer we’re not going to see here until July.

Anyway, Redonda was a glorious adventure and I’m spending the storm queueing up videos, pictures and stories to share right here.

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Stay tuned and I’ll have more updates up as quick as I can write them.