Hiking through this forest during daylight is difficult. My poor balance is constantly tested as I slide over rocks and trip on slick tree roots, all while ducking under vines and between thorny stems.
But if hiking during daylight is difficult, hiking at night is treacherous, an exercise in complete concentration. My flashlight seems ineffective in this total absence of ambient light, barely illuminating each next step. To make matters worse, my glasses are permanently fogged due to the
|A bat caught in a mist net awaits rescue by Rose and Freddy. © Debbie Gowensmith|
humidity and the heat radiating from my face. I can't see a thing!
Night hiking is required, though, for field biologists studying mammals and herps. I'm playing a mammalogist today, so I'm awake at the dark hour of 4 AM, stumbling through the forest to check the mist nets for bats with Freddy and Rose.
Squish, slurp. Squish, slurp. My rubber boots sink ankle-deep into mud with each step. Rose, a highlander from Papua New Guinea, is wearing only hiking sandals on her feet, and our local guide is barefoot. I slip and slide every which way, and they fight biting ants and blood-sucking leeches.
As we near the mist nets, we hear high-pitched chattering. There are bats in the nets.
||"Oh, silly girl," Rose says. "You've really got yourself tangled."|
Mist nets are like tennis nets made with fine, but resilient, black thread that is difficult to see when stretched along the shadowy forest. Extra material hangs in baggy, pocketlike rows. Mammalogists and ornithologists use the nets to catch birds and bats, which fly into the nets and then drop into the pockets. Without the nets, we wouldn't know which bat species and some bird species that live in this forest.
We reach the first bat that's tangled in the net. Rose coos at the bat while she and Freddy work together to free it. "Nyctimene. Female," she says to me as the bat tries to bite her fingers. To Freddy, she softly says, "First figure out how it came in, then free the legs."
As the mosquitoes hover around them and sweat streams into their eyes, Rose and Freddy each use both hands to untangle the bat. I'm amazed at their patience. While the bat writhes and chirps and tries to chew their fingers, they gently unwrap string after string from the bat's feet, wings, head. "Oh, silly girl," Rose says. "You've really got yourself tangled. That's all right. You'll be out soon."
Within eight minutes, the bat is free from the net.
|One of the bat species, Nyctimene draconilla, found in the mist nets near our camp. © Debbie Gowensmith|
I've never seen a bat this closely before. The wings look flimsy as paper but feel like soft leather. Some of the bats have yellow or brown spots along their wings or down their fuzzy backs. Their faces remind me of a Chihuahua's. They don't look ferocious at all, except maybe when they bare their sharp little teeth to bite.
Rose and Freddy move down the nets. Five bats this morning. After they remove the bats, they have to work along the nets again, this time to clear leaves and beetles the size of walnuts. This is tedious work, and there's no room to be squeamish about bugs. The bats and birds will see the nets if they're clogged with debris.
When the nets are clean, we hike back through the mud to camp. The sun is starting to brighten the sky just a bit. I still use my flashlight, though my fogged glasses frustrate my attempts to see where to place my feet.
Back at camp, Rose and Freddy begin recording data about each bat. When they're stumped by a species, they turn to a field guide for help. They compare the data recorded about the bat with the field guide's data.
Just as I'm starting to feel overwhelmingly sleepy, Freddy rises and announces that it's time to check the live traps. This is when I cave as a mammalogist. Freddy slips his feet into rubber boots and heads into the forest, Rose continues recording data for the bats, and I...I crawl into my tent and fall fast asleep.
- Reported by Debbie Gowensmith
<< Day 3 Dispatch | Day 5 Dispatch >>