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A Day in the Field – Colombia

By Nikki Roach, GWC associate conservation scientists (re-purposed from Nikki’s blog)

The past two months I spent in the field finalizing research sites and setting transects for my Ph.D. work in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Although we traverse across properties and elevations every few days, below is what an “average” day looks like.

View from finca at 2500 meters. (Photo by Nikki Roach)

5:45 am: I rise with the sun, whether I like it or not.

7 am: After pretending to sleep in my tent or bed (depending on the site) I, finally, meander out and am often presented with my first cup of tinto – black, sugar, coffee water.

8 am: Breakfast. If we are staying with a family, this consists of an Arepa, cheese and maybe eggs or rice, plus another cup of tinto or hot chocolate (my favorite).

Field stove. (Photo by Nikki Roach)

8:30 am – 2 pm: Depart for the field to search for sites and set transects. This consists of hiking around the properties, whether it’s coffee fields or forests. This is the most difficult part of the day. Trying to find parts of habitat where we can set a 30-meter transect without falling off a mountain has been surprisingly difficult. Using the machete to carve our way through dense forest, slipping and sliding on mud and tree roots while avoiding falling rocks, we grasp to tiny tree branches while walking our 30-meter line. Usually, Jeff my field assistant, goes first as, it seems, he thoroughly enjoys using a machete. Finally, once we have placed a transect, we collect all the environmental variables that may be relevant to amphibians at six spots along the transect line–every 5 meters; information includes canopy cover (the coverage of the trees in the forest), leaf litter (dead foliage on the ground), elevation, temperature, and humidity, among other variables. Most importantly, I mark the transects with my hot pink tape with white checkers (which I spent way too long selecting online, because I wanted the perfect flagging tape that represented “me”).

When setting the transects, I often talk with Jeff, my assistant, about the ability and safety of accessing the site at night. Sometimes I feel overly cautious, but when Jeff confirms that an area would be dangerous at night, I usually heed to his warnings. He is, after all, the expert.

Field assistant Jeff with snake. (Photo by Nikki Roach)

2 – 5:30 PM: Hopefully we make it back before the afternoon rains, aka the aguaceros.

LUNCH (around 2 pm): We eat a huge lunch–the biggest meal in Colombia. This usually consists of rice, beans, and some sort of meat. Sometimes it’s rice, potatoes, beans, and for me an egg (since I don’t eat red meat or pork).

AFTER LUNCH: We immediately retreat to our tents or beds. I usually pass the time reading or taking a nap, depending on how exhausted I am. I have a habitat of re-reading Harry Potter in the field. I already re-read all seven books, and I’ve read about another five books since beginning field work.

Nikki with a tiny glass frog (Ikakogi Tayrona). (Photo by Nikki Roach)

5:30 PM: Reluctantly, I get out of bed. I organize the datasheets and equipment, and make sure we have enough batteries to last us approximately five hours during the night. I actually did not forget any equipment the first round of surveys–a huge feat for me!

6:30 PM: We trace our steps back to survey the transects we placed earlier in the day. As night falls the forest transforms from difficult terrain to an almost unrecognizable seeming death trap. We slip and slide our way through dense coffee plants–grabbing ahold of branches so we don’t fall down the 45-degree slope–or I go down a hill and hop rocks within the streams to get to the first flag we placed “close by” earlier in the day. Ants, scorpions, mosquitoes, snakes, and huge spiders all appear along our transects.

During the night, we search the 30 meter (and 1.5 meter to each side) transects for frogs, picking up each frog we find and measuring the body length, or snout vent length, its mass in grams, six thermal measurements using a laser thermometer, air temperature and relative humidity, and snap a photo (my awful photography skills have proved to be a hindrance in this part of the process). On a good night, Jeff and I are yelling “rana, rana, rana” (Spanish word for “frog”) over and over to each other…sometimes processing multiple frogs and species at once. Jeff handles and measures the frogs, I take all the temperature readings, and record all the data. When I was a blossoming field biologists, I used to be the one who always wanted to handle the animals, however, one of Jeff’s main skills is his ability to handle and identify frogs (it is also the most fun part), so I figure the least I can do (since I make him journey these treacherous transects with me) is let him do the best job!

Some nights we find up to 12 species, while others we are lucky to find one frog period.

Rio Gaira. (Photo by Nikki Roach)

10 pm – 2 am: We usually roll into our campsites around 10 p.m. – 12 a.m.…If we have a really busy night or our sites are very far away (furthest is about a 1.5-hour walk), surveys will go later. Once in bed I usually read again because I am wide awake after all that exciting frog searching! I often fall asleep around 2 and wake up at 5:44 am…as the light begins to hit the sides of my tent.

As I wake up, if I am lucky, I am greeted with a hot tinto.

About the Author

Nikki Roach

Nikki Roach

Nikki Roach is a GWC associate conservation scientist and a conservation biologist. She is a Ph.D. student at Texas A&M University, where her research focuses on conservation planning for threatened species through assessments of species distribution, abundance and vulnerability to land use and climate change impacts, using a mixture of modeling and field-based data. For the next year she will be collecting her dissertation data in Colombia on a Fulbright Fellowship.