RSS

Author Archives: Asian Herp Blogs

Chiang Mai’s herps from top to bottom

When you pay attention to the herps in an area, you might notice that elevation plays a big role in what you find.  While some herps can live just about anywhere, there are species in the hills that you will never find in the lowlands, and species in the lowlands that you will never find in the hills.  Even minor differences in elevation can make a big difference.  For example, there are snakes that you will only find below 1200 meters elevation, and snakes you will only find above 1200 meters elevation.  Little differences in the temperature, air, plant growth, rain patterns, rock formations, etc. all determine which species will live at which elevations.

To demonstrate, let’s take a tour of the herp life from the lowlands of Chiang Mai up to the top of Doi Suthep.  I’ve gotten to herp the area during two stretches, once 5-6 times in the span of two months in October/November and once 5-6 times over three weeks in March.   Those travels up and down the mountain, along with some information I’ve learned from herpers local to the area, have given me a pretty good idea of what can be found and where.

You’ll notice that a LOT of the snakes in the photos I will be sharing are dead.  Cataloging dead snakes on the road is an effective way to determine where different species of snakes live (and die).  Many species of snake are tough to find, and even an experienced herper might only see half the species of snakes in his area in a given year.   Certain species are only active during brief periods before/after rains, during certain temperature ranges in certain seasons, or other very specific conditions.  And even if you are out during the perfect conditions, you still might not get lucky.  But there are thousands of cars passing through that area….and if one of those thousands of cars hits a snake crossing the road during its perfect activity time, that dead snake will be there for you to find at any point the next day.   Sjon Hauser, who helped with many of these IDs, refers to the investigation of dead snakes as “forensic herpetology”.  So apologies for the many dead snake photos, but it’s an important part of the cataloging of species.

So let’s begin.

 

The flatlands of the city (300m)

Chiang Mai proper is a flat city situated at 300 meters elevation (about 1000 feet).   As far as elevation goes, that’s not high enough to exclude anything other than the species that like to hug the coastlines.  There are plenty of rice paddies, marshes, canals, fish ponds, etc. that attract a lot of semi-aquatic species, especially those that prefer still/stagnant water which is tough to get on a mountain slope.

Chiang Mai floor1

  1. Chinese Edible Frog
  2. Asian Painted Frog
  3. Round-tongued Floating Frog
  4. Chinese Edible Frog/Bullfrog
  1. Asian Grass Frog
  2. Inornate Froglet
  3. Four-lined Treefrog
  4. Common Indian Toad
  1. Yellow-striped Caecilian
  2. Ornate Narrowmouth Frog

Thus, you end up with a lot of the “marshy” species.  Asian Painted Frogs, Round-tongued Floating Frogs, Chinese Edible Frogs, and the odd Chinese Edible Frog/American Bullfrog hybrid are all marsh-and-pond-loving frog species which I’ve only seen in the lowlands.  Inornate Froglets, Ornate Narrowmouth Frogs, Darkside Narrowmouth Frogs, Asian Grass Frogs, Four-lined Treefrogs, and Common Indian Toads are a bit more versatile and can be found higher up, but they definitely love these lowlands too.   And the awesome Yellow-striped Caecilian can be found in large quantities anywhere around the city with enough moisture.

Chiang Mai floor

  1. IndoChinese Forest Lizard
  2. Flat-tailed House Gecko
  3. Oriental Garden Lizard
  4. Bowring’s Supple Skink
  1. Stump-toed Gecko
  2. Golden Tree Snake
  3. Spiny-tailed House Gecko
  1. Siamese Leaf-toed Gecko
  2. Yellow-spotted Keelback
  3. Banded Kukri Snake
  4. Checkered Keelback
  1. Sunbeam Snake
  2. Tokay Gecko
  3. Unknown snake
  4. Yellow-bellied Water Snake

There are a lot of snakes that love those marshy lowlands.  Sunbeam Snakes, Yellow-bellied Water Snakes, Checkered Keelbacks, Yellow-spotted Keelbacks, and Red-tailed Pipe Snakes are all semi-aquatic species which will almost always be found near these lower water bodies.  Buff-striped Keelbacks and Red-necked Keelbacks prefer to hunt their frog prey around open marshy/grassy areas and those also are found down low.  Banded Kukri Snakes can be seen all over the mountain, but they are also common in these wetlands.

Other snakes can be seen in the terrestrial city habitats.  I’ve only seen Golden Tree Snakes around human habitats in the lowlands, but I don’t know if that’s because they prefer low elevation, because they prefer human-disturbed habitats, or if I just haven’t been lucky to see them on the mountain yet.  Long-nosed Whip Snakes, Indo-Chinese Rat Snakes, Common Wolf Snakes, Laotian Wolf Snakes, Monocled Cobras, and the Blue Krait are a few other species which can tolerate these city habitats in the right places.  I’ve also seen one Green Keelback and one Assam Mountain Snake down in the lowlands, both species which are more common when you get up the hill.  I know one person on the city outskirts who has seen a couple Indo-Chinese Sand Snakes, a neat open-habitat specialist that is unlikely to be seen in the most forested regions on Doi Suthep itself.

The lizards of the lowlands are primarily those which get along well in human habitation.  Bowring’s Supple Skinks and Siamese Leaf-toed Geckos can be found underneath cover.  Oriental Garden Lizards and Indo-Chinese Forest Lizards run around ornamental vegetation.  And Flat-tailed House Geckos, Spiny-tailed House Geckos, Stump-toed Geckos, and Tokay Geckos are found running on the outside of buildings at night.

There may be turtles down here – Southeast Asian Box Turtles and Malayan Snail-eating Turtles especially – but I have not seen them myself yet.

 

The lower hills (300m-600m)

If you ride your bike towards Doi Suthep, about the time you reach the zoo the road begins to turn noticeably upwards.   These lower hills aren’t as steep as the upper reaches though, and aren’t too much cooler than the flatlands of the city.  The slope and forestation still creates different habitats than the city holds, though, so the species noticeably change.

lowest levels (2)

  1. Ornate Narrowmouth Frog
  2. Dark-sided Frog?
  3. Asian Grass Frog
  4. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  1. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog?
  2. Dark-sided Frog?
  3. Darkside Narrowmouth Frog
  4. Common Indian Toad
  1. Inornate Froglet
  2. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog?

In various more “flat” areas you can still find puddle-frogs which can breed almost anywhere that will hold rainwater.  I’ve seen Ornate Narrowmouth Frogs, Darkside Narrowmouth Frogs, Inornate Froglets, Asian Grass Frogs, and Common Indian Toads here.  However, you also begin to see the “stream frogs” of the mountain, inhabiting rocky, nice-flowing streams that you just don’t see down low.  Thus, these lowest slopes of the mountain are the first places you’ll see Dark-sided Frogs, Green Cascade Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, and Gyldenstolpe’s Frogs.
lowest levels

  1. Oriental Whip Snake
  2. Copperhead Trinket Snake
  3. Mountain Bronzeback
  4. IndoChinese Forest Lizard
  1. Oriental Rat Snake
  2. Streamside Skink
  3. Siamese Leaf-toed Gecko
  4. Many-spotted Cat Snake
  1. Malayan Pit Viper
  2. White-spotted Slug Snake
  3. Banded Kukri Snake
  1. Thai Cat Snake
  2. Striped Litter Skink

As far as snakes go, there are plenty of snakes here which would happily be found in lowland environments, but might be easier to find here simply because of the wilder habitat.  I’ve seen Oriental Whip Snakes, Banded Kukri Snakes, Oriental Rat Snakes, and Copperhead Trinket Snakes here, certainly species you can find in the city as well.  But I’ve also found White-spotted Slug Snakes, Keeled Slug Snakes, Many-spotted Cat Snakes, Thai Cat Snakes, Mountain Bronzeback Snakes, and Malayan Pit Vipers – species which rarely wander into the city limits.  The issue is not so much that the minor elevation difference is keeping them above 300m, but simply that the mountain is the only place where the best forested habitats for them still exist.

I’ve only seen a few common species of lizards here, mainly those which prefer somewhat more forested areas than the city provides – Streamside Skinks, Indian Forest Skinks, Striped Litter Skinks, Siamese Leaf-toed Geckos, and Indo-Chinese Forest Lizards.

 

The steep middle section (600m-900m)

When you get above 600m (about 2000 feet) is when you first get high enough to begin excluding a few species based on elevation and not simply flatness.  Also, most of the areas I’ve herped at these elevations on Doi Suthep are quite steep, which changes the nature of the stream, soil, and vegetation.  So sometimes it’s hard to tell what is being affected by elevation and what (more likely) is simply being affected by other changes in habitat.

waterfall up to 900 meters or so

  1. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  2. Dark-sided Frog?
  3. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  4. unidentified Limnonectus
  1. unidentified Limnonectus
  2. Inthanon Stream Toad
  3. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  4. Marbled Sucker Frog
  1. Green Cascade Frog
  2. Gyldenstolpe’s Frog?
  3. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  4. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  1. Limborg’s Frog
  2. Dark-sided Frog?
  3. Big-headed Frog?

At these elevations most of the pond-breeding frogs are no longer around, though I did see a Four-lined Treefrog up this high once.  Dark-sided Frogs, Green Cascade Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Gyldenstolpe’s Frogs, and Big-headed Frogs are all found here.  A couple species that like the really high-torrent waters, like the Marbled Sucker Frog and the rare Inthanon Stream Toad, are first found in these steep reaches.

waterfall up to 900 meters or so1

  1. Forest Crested Lizard
  2. Doi Suthep Bent-toed Gecko
  1. Khasi Hills Keelback
  1. Indian Forest Skink?
  2. Berdmore’s Water Skink
  3. Speckled Forest Skink

I haven’t been as fortunate at finding snakes at this elevation, though both Green Keelbacks and the rarely-seen Khasi Hills Keelbacks can be found alongside the streams.  I’ve also seen Banded Kukri Snakes and Oriental Whip Snakes on the road.   A couple lizards appear to like these steep streams just like the frogs do – specifically Berdmore’s Water Skinks and the Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos.   The unique Big-headed Turtle used to be found in the mountain streams here, though it has not been seen in some time and may now be extinct on Doi Suthep.  In the forest, these are the elevations where the Indian Forest Skink, Forest Crested Lizard, Common Sun Skink, and Speckled Forest Skink appear in good numbers.  Those species can be found at lower elevations in other areas, but perhaps don’t find the appropriate habitat as often lower down on Doi Suthep.

 

Towards the upper reaches (900m to 1200m)

If you’re making your way on your bike, this is when you’re probably getting a bit tired and really starting to feel the elevation.  This is also where some of the forest can get a bit moister and denser, and the species get interesting as a result.

upper waterfalls to 1200 meters

  1. Unidentified Limnonectus
  2. Taylor’s Stream Frog
  1. Dwarf Bush Frog
  2. Unidentified Limnonectus
  1. Limborg’s Frog

These high elevations (over 3000 feet) are where you first begin to see one of Doi Suthep’s more famous species – the Crocodile Newt.  Thailand’s only salamander, the Crocodile Newt is only found on the higher elevations of northern Thailand’s highest mountains.  Another unique amphibian up here is the Doi Suthep Caecilian, found in only one valley.  I’ve seen a number of the typical frog species around here – Dwarf Bush Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Common Indian Toads, Dark-sided Frogs, etc.

upper waterfalls to 1200 meters1

  1. Assam Mountain Snake
  2. Thai Water Skink
  3. Doi Suthep Gecko
  4. Reeve’s Smooth Skink?
  1. Black-spotted Smooth Skink?
  2. Doria’s Smooth Skink
  3. Common Sun Skink
  4. Rough-bellied Mountain Dragon
  1. Green Keelback
  2. Burmese False Bloodsucker

For some reason I haven’t seen many dead snakes on this section of road (possibly because I’ve traversed it less often and there is less car traffic up here), but I have seen Green Keelbacks and Assam Mountain Snakes on the trails.  The lizard life becomes really fascinating at these elevations – this is where I first see Rough-bellied Mountain Dragons and Burmese False Bloodsuckers in the forest.  There’s also a wide range of mountain-loving Scinella skink species here – I’ve found Reeve’s Smooth Skinks, Doria’s Smooth Skinks and possibly Black-spotted Smooth Skinks here.  Common Sun Skinks and Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos continue to be found up here, but at about the 800m elevation mark the water skink species changes, with only Thai Water Skinks being found up this high while the Berdmore’s Water Skinks are restricted to the lower elevations.   I’ve also seen a dead Tokay Gecko at this height.

 

The mountaintop (1200m-1676m)

Doi Suthep is rather small as mountains go, peaking out at 1676 meters (5,500 feet), though they don’t come much bigger in Thailand.  Thus, there are a few high-elevation species which are only found on the very tippy-top of the mountain.

I’ve been up to the top of the mountain twice, both times in poor conditions for herping, so I’ve seen very little up here.  I’m aware that the famous Crocodile Newts can be found here, and I’ve seen a dead Common Indian Toad, but that’s it for amphibians (though more could possibly be revealed with better work).

top reaches above 1200 meters

  1. Collared Black-headed Snake
  2. Reeve’s Smooth Skink?
  1. Hampton’s Slug Snake
  1. Mountain Pit Viper
  2. Black-spotted Slug Snake
  3. Assam Mountain Snake

It’s the snakes that are interesting.  Near the highest reaches of the road I’ve found dead Black-spotted Slug Snakes, Hampton’s Slug Snakes, Collared Black-headed Snakes, and Mountain Pit Vipers – all species which you will find only in these high elevations above 1000-1200 meters.  I’ve also seen Assam Mountain Snakes and Reeve’s Smooth Skinks up here, and the interesting McClelland’s Coral Snakes are found at these upper elevations.  Like I said, my limited time up at these elevations means that more could likely be found with additional searches.

 

You should know that there are many other species on Doi Suthep which I have not found myself yet.  These include Smith’s Litter Frog, Lesser Stream Horned Frog, Burmese Horned Frog, Mud Slender Frog, Twin-spotted Tree Frog, Large-warted Tree Frog, Doria’s Treefrog, Butler’s Narrowmouth Frog, Yunnan Dwarf Gecko, Common Flying Gecko, Blanford’s Flying Dragon, Orange-winged Flying Dragon, Banded Slender Skink, Bengal Monitor, Slender Worm Snake, Collared Reed Snake, Triangle Black-headed Snake, Common Bronzeback, Hill Wolf Snake, Indian Banded Wolf Snake, Red Mountain Racer, Red-tailed Racer, Big-eyed Mountain Keelback, Chinese Keelback, Mock Viper, White-lipped Pit Viper and dozens of other species.  Each of those species have their own habitat requirements and their own little niches on the mountain within which they can be found.

I hope that tour gives you a bit of the sense of the kinds of things you can notice with a lot of systematic herping in the same area.  It also might give you an appreciation for the need to preserve every little habitat.

  • If the lowlands get completely developed or poisoned with pesticides and fertilizers, we’ll have trouble seeing Asian Painted Frogs, Round-tongued Floating Frogs, Chinese Edible Frogs,  Sunbeam Snakes, Yellow-bellied Water Snakes, and Red-tailed Pipe Snakes.
  • If we lose the lowest-elevation forests, we might lose White-spotted Slug Snakes, Keeled Slug Snakes, Many-spotted Cat Snakes, Thai Cat Snakes, Mountain Bronzebacks, and Malayan Pit Vipers.
  • If something harms the habitat of those steep streams in the mid-elevations, then Dark-sided Frogs, Green Cascade Frogs, Limborg’s Frogs, Taylor’s Stream Frogs, Gyldenstolpe’s Frogs, Big-headed Frogs, Marbled Sucker Frogs, Inthanon Stream Toads, Khasi Hills Keelbacks, Berdmore’s Water Skinks and Doi Suthep Bent-toed Geckos might disappear.
  • If we encroach too much on the mid-elevation forests, we might not see Dwarf Bush Frogs, Doi Suthep Caecilians, Forest Crested Lizards, Rough-bellied Mountain Dragons, Burmese False Bloodsuckers, Specked Forest Skinks, Reeve’s Smooth Skinks, Doria’s Smooth Skinks, or Black-spotted Smooth Skinks anymore.
  • Those few water bodies up above 800m are the only habitat where the Crocodile Newts and the Thai Water Skinks are holding on, and without that habitat, they may become extinct from Doi Suthep just like the Big-headed Turtle apparently has.
  • Finally, it is only by preserving the forests at the very top, above 1200m, that we’ll preserve Black-spotted Slug Snakes, Hampton’s Slug Snakes, Collared Black-headed Snakes, Mountain Pit Vipers, and McClelland’s Coral Snakes.

Every habitat is important.  Doi Suthep has an incredible array of habitats and an incredible array of herps to fill them, and I hope this treasure can be preserved for generations to come.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 12, 2016 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , ,

A night on Doi Suthep

The mountain looms over the city, dominating my thoughts. In this hot, dry March it is a place of elevation and humidity, streams and undergrowth, magic ingredients that lead to herps when the lowlands are 100 degrees and baked to a crisp.

But even if herps were everywhere, I would still look to the mountain. The mountain is wild, and I need to go into the wild.

I began pedaling towards the mountain in the early afternoon. There are other options for getting there, but the bicycle gives me the feeling of relative freedom of movement, and it places me here. 11 kilometers to get to the mountain, another 7km of panting to climb the first part of it. I’m out of practice and know that as far as today goes, this is as much as my legs want to handle. I’m only up to 2,000 feet elevation, but the habitat has started to feel good.

In the early afternoon the joyful noise of Thais and foreigners playing in the waterfall reaches my ears. I load up my water bottles and hit the trail. Fifty paces later, the tell-tale black-on-green banding of a Green Keelback hits my eye. A juvenile. In disbelief I watch the snake with the noise of tourists coming around the corner. In this over-trafficked place, snakes are out? My t-shirt proclaims a simple slogan, “Life is Good”. Today looks like it will be a good day.

Green Keelback Rhabdophis nigrocinctus juvenile

I pass bikini-ed tourists playing in the waterfall’s spray.

It cannot go unnoticed that just a week earlier, in my first hike of this trip, I had rushed down to this spot in a failed attempt to render assistance to a man who died falling from the heights above this same waterfall. I wonder if the tourists in front of me know. All of them are staying low, where it is safe. I head up.

I pass the heights of the upper waterfall without looking and head up into the jungle. Now begins a three kilometer stretch that I have taken a dozen times in the last 3 years. In those dozen trips, I have never once seen another soul on this particular trail.

Tonight will be the first time that I do the return trip in the dark.

At these lower elevations bamboo and trees intermingle and there are breaks in the canopy. The lizards enjoy these breaks, and both skinks and agamids are present in numbers.

Forest Crested Lizard Calotes emma juvenile

I follow the stream up, the canopy takes over, a hint of coolness enters the air. Just past the waterfall, the enormous white feather of a Silver Pheasant lays across the trail. My legs are still tired from the bike and the route is steep enough that I am climbing more than hiking. New waterfalls appear at regular intervals.

As I navigate a log to make a stream crossing, a second juvenile Green Keelback moves away and disappears into the rocks. I don’t get a picture, though I have been so blessed with Green Keelbacks (4 sightings now in the last 3 hikes) that it doesn’t bother me in the least. This keelback is only 3 meters from where I had seen my lifer Khasi Hills Keelback crossing the stream last week, a rarely seen species that I felt fortunate to have found in the midst of hot season.

Khasi Hills Keelback amphiesma khasiense

The last major waterfall of the route comes and goes, and I give it only a cursory search for snakes. Usually I would spend time here inspecting the area for stream frogs. But today is special, and their time is yet to come.

The rest of the climb is nondescript. I try a trail I’ve never done before, see some pretty plants, cross a few streams, but the early snake success isn’t replicated. Most notable is a cave/rock complex near the top of my hike, with Buddhist shrines of all sorts and 15m trees with 20m root systems clinging to the sides of the cliff.

I flip a few rocks, and am surprised by a large adult water skink under one of them.

Thai Water Skink Tropidophorus thai

Thai Stream Skink Tropidophorus thai

This incredible semi-aquatic species is usually found in waterfall spray zones, taking on the ecological role of an American torrent salamander, though they are occasionally found away from the water. Earlier in the week I had seen juveniles of a closely-related species in remarkable (but difficult to photograph) hidden spray zones.

Berdmore’s Water Skink Tropidophorus berdmore

A birder hoping for sightings in the coming twilight is the first person I’ve spoken to in 2.5 hours. I throw out, “Evening”. He doesn’t reply. He’ll be the last person I speak to tonight. I reach the road. It’s almost 6pm, and I am still a shade under 4,000 feet high, but this is as far as I go today. The coolness at this height, in the midst of hot season, surprises me. Aren’t there nocturnal snakes at this elevation? It feels that it will quickly become too cold. I sit down for a spell, drink a little water, let the sun drop. Then I head down the road.

The last half hour of daylight is uneventful. No snakes come to take in the road’s heat. I move off onto a trail and head a couple kilometers to a favorite spot where a tiny creek keeps the surrounding depression humid. In daylight hours the previous week, keelbacks, agamids, smooth skinks, and tiny frogs gathered here, including my first Pseudocaleotes.

Green Keelback Rhabdophis nigrocinctus

Mountain Horned Dragon Acanthosaura lepidogaster

Rough-bellied Mountain Dragon Acanthosaura lepidogaster

Burmese False Bloodsucker Pseudocalotes microlepis

Burmese False Bloodsucker Pseudocalotes microlepis

Taylor's Frog Taylorana limborgi

This time around night has fallen and I put on my head lamp. Being my first time on the mountain in the dark, the internal clock which exaggerates how little battery life my headlamp and backup flashlight have on them begins to tick away. But the trickle of a creek provides a distraction – for if I thought it was adequate for frogs in the daylight, it is hopping with them at night.

Invigorated by the frog life, I start down the mountain in the dark. My headlight plays on the ground, lighting up the eyes of large beetles hanging with unknown intentions on the edge of dead leaves. I am hoping for snakes while also cautious for the many species – kraits, corals, mountain pit vipers, Malayan pit vipers – which would be unwise to step on in the dark. Leaf litter is thick, and I give myself little chance of catching any arboreal snakes as I keep my headlight to the path.

Smooth skinks, not snakes, rustle in the litter. Three species of Scinella are officially recorded from the mountain, though I am not certain how well that has been verified. Right away I appear to find representatives of two different species, though I fail to remember the ID keys needed to distinguish the 3rd species from them.

I move from this slightly open route into the steeper, canopied hill forest. The trail narrows and its impact on the ground is light. Though it has been some time since I have seen a soul, this is where I feel like I drop from the world and am truly alone. In the light of my headlamp, every tree is beautiful, every vine special. The trail takes on a new intimacy as I only see the next few meters at any time. In the dark, under the canopy, I am surprised to find a smooth skink far from any openings. It is strikingly spotted, unique for the smooth skinks I have seen. Is this my third species?

The sounds of the highest waterfall begin to reach my ears. I cross the first small trickles of water, hoping they bring life, but nothing shows up. It takes time to make the descent, and in the dark every minute stretches out for me as if it were five. I clamber over roots and down rock faces, taking every precaution.

I reach the waterfall. And it is alive.

All the work that I’d done hunting stream frogs in the daylight feels meaningless and naïve as my eyes lay upon this sight. Sprinkled across the stream, on exposed rocks, in quiet pools, the reflecting eyes of frogs look at me from all around. Marbled Sucker Frogs sit in and above the torrent sprays. Taylor’s Stream Frogs float quietly in the shallows of the pools. Dark-sided Frogs call meekly from within submerged litter and underneath overhangs. I am blessed to be here, in this night.

marbled sucker frog Amolops marmoratus

marbled cascade frog Amolops marmoratus

Black-striped Frog Sylvirana nigrovittata

Marbled Sucker Frog Amolops marmoratus

I cross the stream on a log, climb some rocks, make my way up to gaze at the 30-meter heights of the main falls. I could already tell that frogs were sitting at the base. But I don’t expect the sight I get when I turn up my head lamp and play it across the falls themselves. Frog eyes sparkle like stars in the night. They are at the bottom, the top, the middle, everywhere in between. I try to count 20, 30, but lose count past there. Cascade frogs have always been a special and beautiful species to me, the kind of frog I might find once here, once there. Yet right now, those beautiful green Muppet-like creatures are everywhere, from 100 feet above my head to right in front of my face. In the night, photos cannot do justice to the sight before me. I play my headlamp across the frogs and take it in.

I force myself to turn around and carefully scoot down the rocks back to the bottom. As I pass a large rock, a large and gorgeous gecko scurries across. A lifer – both the first Cyrtodactylus I’ve ever seen in northern Thailand and the largest and prettiest one I’ve seen, anywhere.

Varigated Bow-fingered Gecko Cyrtodactylus variegatus

Varigated Bow-fingered Gecko Cyrtodactylus variegatus

That moment, the gecko, the frogs on the waterfall, I realized that it was a magical night.

As I worked my way down the stream, the magic continued. Every pool, every riffle, every waterfall was the same. There were frogs everywhere.

Marbled Cascade Frog Amolops marmoratus

Pegu Torrent Frog Amolops marmoratus

At the next waterfall I played my light around the dry cliffs and found a bird nest.

I swept my light from there to the top to catch an inexplicable sight. 25 feet above the water, on a perfectly dry spot on a perfectly dry cliff, an enormous Green Cascade Frog sat like Simba surveying all that was below him. The first one I’d ever seen! I couldn’t tell which excited me more – seeing a big and beautiful frog for the first time, or marveling at the inexplicable situation he had chosen to rest in.

Frogs, frogs, frogs continued as I went down. Before I knew it I was at the top of the main lower falls. In the dark, alone, I stood in the same spot where a crying Spanish-speaking women had rushed to me a week before and told me that her boyfriend had fallen off the cliff.

I stood there, thinking about the life that had been lost, thinking about his soul, praying to my God.

From the viewpoint at the top of the waterfall, a gap in the trees showed a thriving city below. I was reminded of my contact with civilization, both the regret and the safety that entailed. I took a photo.

Then I looked up, and saw the moon. Eclipsing. It had slipped my mind that tonight was the night of a lunar eclipse, but events had come to frame the moon right there in the middle of another gap in the trees, a bite taken out of it by our collective shadow. I watched as the shadow slowly passed off into the darkness of space.

After taking in the scene, I again explored the stream, and again was met by frogs everywhere. In this low-gradient bend right before the waterfall’s drop, a clownishly fat species sat in the water’s edges, the male version of several female frogs I had seen earlier.

I approached the frog, staying on safe and stable ground but concerning myself with how close to the waterfall’s edge I was straying. The frog took two, three hops, and jumped over the edge.

It’s a frog. It lives on top of the waterfall. It does this thing. I could not see where it landed, and it could well be just fine. But the parallel thumped on my mind and my conscious, and I was shook. I moved back away from the edge and thought again about a man I never met.

More of the frogs were in the stream behind me, along with others.

Another five minutes and I had reached the bottom of the major waterfall. I looked to the waterfall and almost expected him to be there. Lights appeared on the cliff face, different colors, some big and some small. I turned my head lamp away…and the lights remained. I turn off the light…and their light is still there.

A moment’s disquiet is calmed when I realize that there must be glowworms and fireflies on the cliff. It is an interesting array – I see colors of bio-luminescence that I’ve never seen before. At least three different species are plying their trade on the cliff. Down at the ground floor I find one variety.

Like all the waterfalls before, the abundance of frogs in this last pool was amazing.

Green Cascade Frog Odorrana chloronota

Limborg's Frog Limnonectes limborgi

chloronate huia frog rana chloronota

As I moved away from the falls my eyes caught a reptile pattern. At first I thought I had spied a wolf snake in the dark, but I was not disappointed to see that it was actually the tail of another Cyrtodactylus gecko.

Varigated Bow-fingered Gecko Cyrtodactylus variegatus

That would be my last herp of the night. I hiked the last stretch back to the bicycle uneventfully. Reaching the bike (still there!), finding my key in my bag’s pocket (still there!), I sighed relief at being out of the “lonely zone” of the mountain. It was difficult to adjust my headlamp to work with my helmet, then I was on my way, nearly silently floating down the mountain road as fast as I wanted to go. The road was smooth, and snakes were not out. Soon I reached the main road, my headlamp lighting up the incredibly bright and frequent road reflectors. Not for the first time, I was struck by the beauty of pinpoints of light sprinkled through the darkness.

Just as I turned onto the main road, I heard a crashing in the forest besides me. Deer! I parallel their movements with my bike. I have never seen deer on Doi Suthep before. I still have never seen deer on Doi Suthep. They move unseen through the trees, I coast, and silently we go alongside each other in the night, their forms made out in my imagination. I felt an intimacy with them, moving together there in the dark. The sounds stopped, and I float the rest of the way down the mountain, again alone in the night.

An hour later I was home, happy to see my wife. I am safe and in one piece.

In two hours it will be Easter.

He is risen.

Life is good, says the tee-shirt.

There is more to life than herping…but herping too is life. I enjoy the night I have been given, the nature that still exists around me, and am happy for what I have.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 4, 2016 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , , ,

Pythons and Birds at Keoladeo National Park

My wife and I have only taken one first real vacation in an Indian national park. It was Keoladeo National Park, a bird sanctuary known for its amazingly diverse bird representation and a healthy python population.

The central area of the park is dominated by wetlands like this:

But these dry parts of the park hold a quite different array of wildlife:

…and most of the lizard life reflects that.

Brooke’s House Geckos (Hemidactylus brookii)

Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor)

Striped Grass Skinks (Mabuya dissimilus)

The park is famous for its pythons and I made finding one my primary herping goal of the trip. I was not disappointed. On the first day, this young juvenile was hiding in an old log in a wetlands area right next to the main thoroughfare:

Indian Python (Python molurus)

On the morning of the second day, I was riding a bike through a more remote area of the park when I spotted this welcome sight in the distance:

Turned out to be an adolescent just under 3 meters:

Sadly, early morning on the third day turned up half of a DOR of a very small juvenile…method of death uncertain.

After finding my pythons, my second goal was turtles. Once again I was not disappointed at all. These two giants were sunning on a small island out in the marsh. The larger one of the left must have ran at least 60cm long.

Indian Softshells (Aspideretes gangeticus)

While riding the bike alongside the marsh, I somehow looked through this stuff on the side:

And managed to spot this turtle on a small log

Indian Roofed Turtle? (Pangshura tecta)

There were two more on another log next to him.

Finally, I was quite surprised to see this one running over the main road from one side of the marsh to the other. I wasn’t able to get too close before it made it across, but it was by far the largest adult example I’ve seen of the common but wonderfully unique flapshell turtle

Indian Flapshell (Lissemys punctata)

While looking for turtles, I came across more than a few monitors.

Bengal Monitors (Varanus bengalensis)

Finally for the herps, despite the unfavorable weather I came across a few common species of frogs. The first were found under cover on the edge of small water bodies.

Cricket Frogs (Limnonectus sp.)

And these two were spotted trapped in an old well:

Indian Bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus)

Skittering Frog (Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis)

On to the non-herps. The mammals on the trip were great – I saw dozens of deer (both spotted deer and sambars), over 20 jackals, and lots of beautiful nilgai. At one moment I may have seen my first Asian otter out of the corner of my eye, but it disappeared before I could be sure that it wasn’t just a very large mongoose lifting its hips too high.

Spotted Deer

Sambar Deer

Nilgai

Jackal

Other mammals included House Mouse, Three-striped Palm Squirrel, Asian House Shrew, a second much smaller shrew species, Little Grey Mongoose, Wild Boar, and Hanuman Macaque.

Though the reptiles and mammals are nice, the real reason people go to this place is the birds. I easily saw over 100 species in 4 days despite not focusing on birds and not knowing anything about bird watching.

The wading birds are the most obvious representatives of the park – I don’t know how many places you can see 4 species of heron and 4 species of stork in a single day, not to mention the egrets, ibises, spoonbills, etc.

Painted Storks

Eurasian Spoonbill

Black Bittern

Other species seen (not all photographed) included Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Great Egret, Grey Heron, Purple Heron, Indian Pond Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Wooly-necked Stork, Black-necked Stork, and Black-headed Ibis.

Of course, there were lots of other birds in the water too. Other species included Little Grebe, Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Darter, Lesser Whistling Duck, Spotbill, Knob-billed Duck, White-breasted Waterhen, Common Moorhen, Purple Moorhen, Common Sandpiper, Black-winged Stilt, Red-wattled Lapwing, Common Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, and a lot of sandpipers and ducks that I couldn’t identify.

Personally for me, though, what was even more amazing than the water birds were the raptors. I have never seen such an incredible array of hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, and vultures in one place. Over 50 species of raptor, including 9 species of eagle, have been sighted within the park boundaries, and I was able to see quite a few of them in our trip.

White-shouldered Kite

Crested Serpent Eagle

Collared Scopes Owls

large eagle species….perhaps a Steppe Eagle?

I also saw Spotted Owlets, Laggar Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Shikra, Oriental Honey Buzzards, possibly a Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Indian Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, an enormous vulture species that I wasn’t able to photograph, and a lot of hawks and eagles that I wasn’t able to identify

A few other interesting birds showed up as well

Yellow-legged Green Pigeons

Rufous Treepie

Common Hawk Cuckoo

Hoopee

Also saw Eurasian Collared Dove, Laughing Dove, Rock Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Pied Cuckoo, Greater Coucal, Gray Francolin, Indian Peafowl, Indian Grey Hornbill, Ashy Drongo, Jungle Babbler, House Crow, and Large-billed Crow, along with several more doves and groundbirds that I didn’t ID. Let me know if you see anything in the photos that I didn’t already name.

I mostly ignored the drab little birds and didn’t bother to ID or photograph them. But by my last morning I had seen so many bird species that I thought I might try to photograph more. I couldn’t photograph most of what I saw or ID most of what I photographed, but at the least I saw Blue-throat, Pied Bush Chat, Brown-headed Barbet, White Wagtail, Southern Grey Shrike, Bay-backed Shrike, Red-whiskered Bulbul, White-eared Bulbul, Red-vented Bulbul, Oriental Magpie-Robin, Chestnut-shouldered Petronia, Ashy Prinia, Red Avadavat, Black Redstart, Indian Silverbill, Brahming Starling, Asian Pied Starling, Common Myna, Common House Sparrow, and bunch of other little birds. Again interested if there’s anything in the photos I didn’t name.

For those who are interested, a few invertebrates to round out the trip.

I had a great time, and will probably go back on at different times of year to observe the seasonal migrations at the park. Hopefully I’ll get a lot more diversity on the snake species next time (I found sheds of 3 different non-python species, so they’re definitely in there!). Thanks for reading all the way through!

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 24, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Hiking for Herps in the Mountains of Mussoorie

Nearly all my herping in Asia has focused on the lowlands in and around megacities (with an occasional Doi Suthep or Khao Yai to get a little higher up). But Asia also has some real elevation in the Himalayan range, and a whole new set of wildlife occupies those heights. I’ve had a couple chances to get up over 2,000 meters high in the mountains near Mussoorie, India. Here are a few pictures from those trips.

The first time I went to Uttarkhand, the first thunderstorm of the monsoon hit on my first day there. That boded well for snake activity, and sure enough, the next morning my friend and I found this beautiful rat snake crawling up a rat-infested wall on our walk to the school:

Hodgson’s Ratsnake (Orthriophis hodgsoni)

Habitat shot, with the crowd that gathered afterwards

The most abundant herp in these mountains are a type of ground skink, which were usually sunning near rock piles. I probably saw over 100 of them.

Himalayan Rock Skink (Asymblepharus himalayanus)

In more forested areas, often camouflaged into the undergrowth, were these rarely photographed agamids.

juvenile Large Mountain Lizard (Japalura major)

I tried to flip (and carefully replace) everything I could find. Usually this only landed me scorpions:

But one morning I flipped this little Brook’s Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii).

On the second day after the rain, I found this beautiful cat snake under a rock right next to school. This is a slight elevation extension, being found about a hundred meters or so higher than any previous record.

Many-banded Cat Snake (Boiga multifasciata)

The other time I went to that location, it was a colder time of year and the clouds/fog rarely lifted. However, on one brief sunny moment I went searching and found this Collared Black-headed Snake (Sibynophis collaris) taking advantage of the warmth:

I like to do a 25km hike from the language school. After paralleling a ridge I dropped into a lush forested mountain valley. The villagers who farm this valley have to walk anywhere from 3 to 10 kilometers to get to the nearest road.

The birds on this route are gorgeous and numerous. Herps, however, were surprisingly rare. Other than a skink, in three trips into the valley the only reptiles I’ve seen were agamas:

Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor) – at nearly 2000 meters, very high elevation for this species:

While descending down the jungle path in a rainstorm, I found this Large Mountain Lizard (Japalura major) nearly drowning in the runoff coming down the trail:

These beautiful Kashmiri Rock Agamas (Laudakia tuberculata) would sun out on rocky outcroppings:

I saw a small lizard disappearing in-between two rocks at a distance. I peeked in and saw four cute little juveniles looking up at me! Unfortunately, they dispersed before I could get a picture of them together.

Habitat shot

I worked really hard in this same area to try to find any species of stream frog, especially a torrent frog. In some man-made puddles coming off of a mountain stream, I found these tadpoles eating a dead fish.

I looked up in the water catchbasin up above it, and found this frog – the mountain stream frog Nanorana minica:

habitat shot

Here are a few of the birds from that area. I’m not great on bird identifications, so any corrections would be appreciated.

Himalayan Griffons, White-rumped or Himalayan Vultures, and other soaring birds of prey

Grey-headed Canary Flycatcher (Culicicapa ceylonensis)

Pale Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis unicolor) – one was perched together with several yellow minivets, but I didn’t get a picture of the lovely color combination in time

Female Long-tailed Minivet (Pericrocotus ethologus)

The male of the species

This Chestnut-bellied Rock Thrush (Monticola rufiventris) was one of at least 6-7 beautiful bird species in one spot.

Black-throated Tit (Aegithalos concinnus)

Himalayan Black-lored Tit (Parus xanthogenys)

Green-backed Tit (Parus monticolus)

Grey-hooded Warbler (Seicercus xanthoschistos)

Yet another little grey-and-yellow one – not sure on the ID:

Perhaps Piculet, maybe Speckled Piculet (Picumnus innominatus)

Rufous Sibia (Heterophasia capistrata)

I think this is a Streaked Laughingthrush (Trochalopteron lineatum) but could be confused:

Striated Laughingthrush (Garrulax striatus)

White-throated Laughingthrush (Garrulax albogularis)

Black-headed Jay (Garrulus lanceolatus)

Himalayan Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys)

Possibly Black Bulbul (Hypsipetes leucocephalus)?

Oriental Turtle Dove (Streptopelia orientalis)

Red-billed Blue Magpies (Urocissa erythrorhyncha)

Large-billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos)

Perhaps Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)? It was a foggy early morning on the ridge so I didn’t get the best idea of color:

Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis)

Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)

Himalayan Woodpecker (Dendrocopos himalayensis)

Brown-fronted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos auriceps)

Rufous-bellied Woodpecker (Dendrocopos hyperythrus)

Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus)

Lesser Yellownape (Picus chlorolophus)

Slaty-headed Parakeet (Psittacula himalayana)

Great Barbet (Megalaima virens)

The most interesting birds I saw but failed to photograph were Blue Whistling Thrush, Spot-winged Tit, Ultramarine Flycatcher, and especially Kalij Pheasants. And an incredible long-tailed black bird came flying out of a cave that a stream was emanating from – I narrowed that ID down to two species and then lost my note.

And some invertebrates

Amazing Stag Beetle (2-2.5” long) that was trying to traverse a 500’ long power line

He’s got a long ways to go….

 
4 Comments

Posted by on March 25, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: ,

City Herping in Kolkata

Not all of my adventures outside of Thailand are in the jungle. In India I’ve been able to do some of the same “city herping” that I got so good at in Bangkok. In fact, next to Bangkok, Kolkata has become my favorite city in Asia for city herping.

Of course, like any city, the geckos and frogs can manage to survive in any niche they find. Huge house geckos were on the walls everywhere.

Yellow-Green House Gecko (Hemidactylus flaviviridis)

On occasion I also found a smaller house gecko species on the walls, as well as under rocks and artificial cover in the parks:

Brook’s House Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii)

Some alleyways had moister stone piles that revealed toads:

Common Indian Toad (Duttaphrynus melanostictus)

I don’t post too many birds, but these were beautiful:

One night I wandered around the city a little in the dark, and found a few frogs out and about:

Common Indian Toad

Indian Bullfrog (Hoplobatrachus tigerinus)

Indian Cricket Frog (Fejervaya syhadrensis?):

The cooler stuff came when I visited the Maidan, the huge open space in the middle of Kolkata.

First I found an above-ground outlet with bullfrogs on the surface

Early in the morning a resident was basking beautifully in a decorative pond.

Checkered Keelback (Xenochrophis piscator)

A gardened area of the park had a young juvenile of the same species that I found under a board:

One less-frequented edge of the park had a basking lizard:

Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor)

My favorite find came as I was looking under rocks in front of a goat herder when I lucked upon a wolf snake!

Indian Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus)

Habitat shot

In another part of the city I found a few more lizard species:

Bark Gecko? (Hemidactulus leschenaulti)

Spiny-tail House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus)

Many-lined Sun Skink? (Mabuya multifasciata)

The hotel had a little garden about 40’ by 6’. The garden was the most butterfly-filled place I’d ever seen. I took way too many pictures to show, so I picked about a quarter of them and made a collage:

The next two times I went to Kolkata, I stayed in a little ashram on the outskirts of the city. The landscape of the ashram was nothing special – just some large fishponds with a few trees and flower/vegetable plantings on less than 10 total acres of land – but the snake diversity there was incredible. A lot of it looked like this:

I’ve talked too much already, so here are a few pictures of the herps I saw there:

Oriental Garden Lizards (Calotes versicolor)

Keeled Indian Mabuyas? (Eutropis carinata)

These were seen by the dozens. Common Indian Supple Skink? (Lygosoma punctata?)

Brooke’s House Gecko (Hemidactylus brookii)

Juvenile Bengal Monitor (Varanus bengalensis)

A big Water Monitor (Varanus salvator) running away from me:

Skittering Frogs (Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis)

probably Terai Cricket Frogs Fejervaya teraiensis

Common Indian Toads

Ornate Chorus Frog (Microhyla ornata)

Indian Treefrog – Polypedates maculatus (unless its Polypedates leucomystax?)

This was a beauty – and he hid in the same place all week, so I could watch him without moving any of his cover.

Common Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis tristis)

Checkered Keelbacks (Xenochrophis piscator)

Buff-striped Keelbacks (Amphiesma stolata)

Brahminy Blind Snakes (Ramphotyphlops braminus)

Indian Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus)

Oriental Rat Snakes (Ptyas mucosa)

Sadly, I only found these dead. Rainbow Water Snakes (Enhydris enhydris)

Okay, just one more story. On the third day I was poking around this area:

when I heard the sound of a snake moving about in the vegetation on the bamboo lattice structure. Knowing that cobras could be about, I was a little bit careful trying to poke around and find it. I eventually saw the end of a tail disappear, and that was it.

The rest of that day I checked back multiple times, stomping around the cauliflowers, but I didn’t find it. The next day I checked again. As I peaked my head under the structure, a snake halfway dropped down, hanging with its belly facing me. I was confused. It wasn’t a cobra…wasn’t a rat snake….I thought about grabbing it as it was only 3 feet in front of my face, but I was still confused about what it was. Then it dropped into the water and I saw. Russell’s Viper!

After recovering from the shock of almost having grabbed a viper, I went looking for it. Here’s a photo in this location:

Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelli)

The viper decided to take off across the pond. I removed my sandals and ran around to the other side to meet him. This is him cruising over to the other side:

When he saw me on the other side and got startled, he kind of freaked out and looked for a place to hide, but ended up stopping on the surface of the water and waiting to catch his breath.

After another five minutes it recovered and slowly crossed the pond and returned to its original spot. I left it alone except to check it out a week later, and found that it was still hanging out in the bamboo lattice. I told the priest who ran the ashram about it (he’s knowledgeable about some of the different species on the property and knows the good they do), and we warned the brothers to be careful around the cauliflowers.

Okay, so many birds at the ashram that I have to post just a few of them:

Thanks for taking a look!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 7, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , ,

The 2015 Bangladesh Python Project trip is still open to more participants

Anyone who is interested on going on the Bangladesh Python Project’s herpetology research and wildlife photography trips to Bangladesh in June and July of this year (just like the trip I went on last year, only better), can contact Scott Trageser. Information is on the following graphic from the Bangladesh Python Project’s facebook page.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 22, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Bangladesh Python Project: The Bangladesh Sundarbans

For the final 3.5 days of our team’s visit to Bangladesh, we went to the Sundarbans for a boating expedition. The Sundarbans are an epic group of salty-fresh marsh-islands at the mouth of the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and other rivers in India and Bangladesh. Basically you have 10,000 square kilometers of tidal mangrove forest/saline swamp that’s split piecemeal into hundreds of islands, unconnected by any roads, often flooded, and quite difficult to develop. Among other wildlife, the Sundarbans supports approximately 300 tigers, the largest tiger population left in the world, as well as a couple hundred or so saltwater crocodiles. Tigers still take 50 or so humans in the Sundarbans every year, and crocodiles may account for another 20 (the day we left, a fisherman and a fisherwoman were eaten by a tiger and a crocodile, respectively). That adds an element of excitement/danger to any trip there.

The trip down the river to enter into the main body of the Sundarbans was full of dolphin activity. Since it was monsoon season, the water was relatively fresh, and so the more salt-loving species weren’t really around. But the endangered Ganges River Dolphins (Platanista gangetica) were visible often, and we saw a couple of Irrawaddy Dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) as well. I accidentally deleted the one good photo I got, but here are some looks at the characteristic lack of dorsal fin in the Ganges River Dolphin.

Though we enjoy all wildlife, our trip members were focused on looking for reptiles and amphibians, so that’s what our guide targeted for us. When we got into the main body of the Sundarbans, we moved into the “herping boat” and set off into the forests. We were helped by the fact that our boat driver, Mojibor, was incredible at spotting snakes. Despite a boat full of 9 herpers, several times Mojibor called our attention to a snake deep in the branches that none of us had seen. The most common species we saw was Spot-tailed Pit Vipers (Trimeresurus erythrurus)

There were also a number of vine snakes. Here was an unfriendly Long-nosed Vine Snake (Ahaetulla nasuta):

A 2010 paper described Brown Vine Snakes (Ahaetulla pulverulenta) in the Sundarbans, an enormous range extension from their previously known distribution in the Western Ghats of southwest India. We were able to confirm that find:

The main mammals seen during our time were Spotted Deer (Axis axis), which were extremely common. Here they can be seen with a Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta):

Closer to dark, if the mud-flats were at low tide, you could see Dog-faced Water Snakes (Cerberus rynchops) in large numbers. We were able to spot over 30 in just an hour or so!

The water snakes were primarily feeding off of mudskippers, which were quite common on the mudflats.

Crab-eating Frogs (Fejervarya carnivora), a remarkable species that can survive in partially salty water, were also seen.

In the blur of Dog-faced Water Snakes, I yelled for the boat to turn around when I spotted a snake that looked different than the others. Sure enough, it was a Glossy Marsh Snake (Gerarda prevastiana).

On our next-to-last day we made our one foray onto real land. This area had a look-out tower with a nice view:

Besides large herds of spotted deer, there were a number of frogs, skinks, and geckos:

juvenile Indian Bullfrog (Hoptobatrachus tigerinus)

Our guide Emile, a wonderfully intelligent and friendly man with a heart for conservation, was walking back towards the boat when he spotted a cobra. This was my first wild cobra, the Monocled Cobra (Naja kaouthia), a species that is rather fond of the water:

Here it is leaving into its natural habitat as the rain began to come in:

A rainstorm ended our time on land. Rainstorms during our trip were quite spectacular, with the angry, rolling clouds looking like they were being stirred up by a god before our eyes:

During/after the rains our boat cut a narrow path through the jungle. The beauty of the waterway was spectacular. Water Monitors (and at least once a Bengal Monitor) regularly traversed across the stream in front of us.

Quite a few bird species were spotted in the trees drying off after the storm. A partial list of notable species seen here includes Buffy Fish Owl, Osprey, Brahminy Kite, Black-shouldered Kite, Shikra, Crested Serpent Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Lesser Adjutant, White-throated Kingfisher, Collared Kingfisher, Brown-winged Kingfisher, Ruddy Kingfisher, Black-hooded Oriole, Chestnut-headed Bee-eater, and Jungle Fowl.

On occasion we saw tiger tracks making their way up the bank, though this is as close as we got to the elusive predators (at least, as far as we know).

On the last evening, we were in the main boat in a major channel when the driver ran downstairs and yelled “crocodile!” We got to the side just in time to see the shape of a Saltwater Crocodile’s head as it swam in the opposite direction of the boat, with none of us able to get a camera on it in the dusk’s fading light. That would be our only look at this heavily endangered species.

On our way out of the Sundarbans, we checked with a couple local fishermen to see if they had come across any sea snakes in their nets recently. Here’s Caesar showing them sea snake pictures from Whittiker and Captain’s “Snakes of India”.

They told us that the sea snakes are much more common during the winter months – perhaps because they, like the ocean dolphins, prefer the water a bit more salty.

At the end of our trip, we stopped in town to wait for our train. I can’t waste time in a city without getting the urge to herp whatever I can find. So I got off the boat and engaged in a bit of city herping.

The first find was a Common Indian Toad (Duttaphynus melanostictus)

And then a number of skinks and geckos. Besides Brook’s House Geckos, Spinytail House Geckos, and Yellow-Green House Geckos were these little skinks, which I believe may be Common Indian Supple Skinks (Lygosoma punctata).

But the best was yet to come. A conversation with some local guys led me to a hospital with some extra space. In that extra space I started looking under pieces of concrete, and soon came across a blind snake. I immediately recognized that this wasn’t just any old Brahminy Blind Snake, but what appeared to be a White-headed Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops albiceps). I thought right away that it could be a possible range extension, perhaps even a country record.

No, really, you can tell it’s different. Here’s a better picture of it in a plastic box (courtesy of Scott Trageser):

Sure enough, it appears that this species has never been recorded from Bangladesh – in fact, we are 700km or so from the closest known range. We’re still trying to confirm the find – there’s a chance that it may be a Slender Blind Snake (Typhlops porrectus), but the scales are so tiny that we need to get some better lab equipment to be able to count them accurately.

Not that it would be too difficult for a a cryptic species of blind snake would go unrecognized for so long. There are likely plenty more species waiting to be found in the country – in this trip alone we saw several snake and frog species that had only been recognized in Bangladesh in the last year, and Caesar himself has found four new Bangladesh records in Lawachara National Park in the last three years. There’s a lot of herping waiting to be done here.

I have a sad update on this story. On December 9th an oil tanker sunk and released a major oil spill into the Sundarbans. Caeser and others involved recently spent a week getting initial data on the extent of the spill and its effect on wildlife there. The Bangladesh Python Project’s 2015 trips will include three days of focus on on documenting the effects of the spill on herps of the region.

If you are interested in participating in the next expeditions with the Bangladesh Python Project, which will be held in June and July 2015, contact Scott Trageser through his Nature Stills website.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on January 11, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , ,

Bangladesh Python Project: Animesh and the Green Explore Society

One person who was a real treat to have along with us was Animesh Ghose. Animesh was an ecology student at Shahjalal University with a special interest in frogs. He had assisted the project on his own time over the last couple of years, and was a valuable assistant and guide to our group.

Caesar, Dr. Rashid, and Animesh talk to the villigers about tortoises

Caesar, Dr. Rashid, and Animesh talk to the villigers about tortoises

Animesh (foreground left) helps Max inspect a python.  Photo courtesy of Even Arambul.

Animesh (foreground left) helps Max inspect a python. Photo courtesy of Evan Arambul.

Animesh was one of several students who helped found the “Green Explore Society”, a student-run environmental group, on the campus of Shahjalal University of Science & Technology. They deploy an impressive membership roll of 300 students into research, media, and animal rescue wings. Not many people are environmentally inclined in Bangladesh, but GES is actively trying to change that.

Halfway through our time at the national park, Animesh brought fifteen of his fellow GES students to our dorm. Scott Trageser and Ash Wisco led them in a workshop on wildlife photography, with a practicum where the students worked on macro shots of spiders and distant shots of gibbons.

Scott explains digital photography techniques to the GES students

Scott explains digital photography techniques to the GES students

Hands-on instruction

Hands-on instruction

IMG_0501 (2)

The primate diversity they went out to photograph was extensive. Despite its relatively small size and human impact, Lawachara is one of the top reservoirs of primate diversity in Bangladesh, with seven different species found within the park boundaries. Our group got to see the following species during our time there.

Rhesus Macaque (Mucaca mulatta)

Hoolock Gibbons (Hoolock hoolock)

Capped Langur (Trachypithecus pileatus)

Phayre’s Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus phayrei)

At night we split up the group and took them on trail transects, python and tortoise radio-tracking, and road cruising surveys. But the highlight of our time with GES was when we convened for a group experience-sharing session.

The first to share were the foreigners. We each had a story we hoped could inform or inspire them – wildlife impact assessments we had worked on, expeditions we had gone on, even snakebite experiences. I shared about my work with a citizen science project (NAFHA and the www.naherp.com database) that resulted in land being conserved for native species.

Then someone asked if the students had any stories they would like to share. Animesh and Hasan, the president of GES, told us a fantastic story of a two-year process over which the Green Explore Society managed to put an end to an illegal bird market in Dhaka. Wild-caught birds like Common Myna, Jungle Myna, Hill Myna, Spotted Dove, Eurasian Collared Dove, Baya Weaver, Bronze-Winged Jacana, Black Hooded Oriole, Purple Swamphen, and several parakeet and finch species, as well as mongoose and other mammals, had been sold during a religious festival. Many of these birds are protected under the Bangladesh Wildlife Preservation Act and also in Bangladesh Preservation and Security Act.

Red-breasted parakeets at bird fair (photo courtesy of animesh ghose and and the green explore society)

Red-breasted parakeets at bird fair (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Hill Myna (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Hill Myna (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Baby Mongoose  (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and and GES)

baby Mongoose (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

After false starts with the police camp, the regional office of the Bangladesh Forest Department, and the Bangladesh Police and Rapid Action Battalion, GES decided to team up with Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (a national environmental organization) and PRADHIKAR (a student based organization of Sylhet Agricultural University working for animal welfare). Together they submitted a letter of concern to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the Divisional Forest Officer and the Deputy Commissioner of the District Council.

When nothing happened, they decided to go on site and perform a raid themselves! After trying to convince the traders to stop selling the birds (with predicable results), the students called the Metropolitan Police from the site and they sent a police force with three members!!! With the police assistance the birds were confiscated and the market was shut down. Eventually the manager of the fair was brought in, and by the next year the wild bird trade at the fair was shut down completely. (further details can be found on the Living Alongside Wildlife blog)

Green Explore Society arrives at the bird fair (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Green Explore Society arrives at the bird fair (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Bird seller trying to escape (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Bird seller trying to escape (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Police officer confiscating illegally-caputured birds (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Police officer confiscating illegally-caputured birds (photo courtesy of Animesh Ghose and GES)

Animesh also gave us a description of the group’s Snake Photography Exhibition. Under the auspices of an art exhibition, the group had displayed local snake photographs in a university common space for six days, with detailed information on the ecological benefit of snakes. The university’s vice-chancellor inaugurated the exhibition, over one thousand students left notes in the exhibition’s feedback diary, and GES reports that they’ve already seen a visible change in their fellow students’ attitude towards snakes.

Another highlight of our trip was when Animesh took our group to the Ratagul Swamp Forest. The Ratagul Swamp Forest is the last swamp forest left in Bangaldesh, a remnant of an ecosystem that used to span over a much larger area. Animesh grew up near the swamp forest, and is planning to study the swamp’s frog assemblage.

Our group drove to a small village on the outskirts of the swamp so that local villagers could take us in two small boats. We were waiting on the edge of the canals that lead into the swamp forest and hadn’t even taken off yet when Evan Arambul, a field herper from Arizona, noted, “Is that a snake over there?”

I exclaimed, “Yes, it is!” and Lockie Gilding and I went running into the water to corral it. The young snake dove and resurfaced several times, but the two of us were able to corner it and soon Lockie had it in hand.

Lockie Gilding holds Painted Keelback (photo courtesy of Scott Trageser)

Lockie Gilding holds Painted Keelback (photo courtesy of Scott Trageser)

It was a gorgeous Painted Keelback (Xenocrophis ceracegastor)! Not only was this the first Painted Keelback I’d ever seen, it was the first one that had ever been recorded from this part of Bangladesh. The group is publishing the find in Herpetological Review.

IMG_0501

After that exciting start, we got into our canoes and began exploring the swamp forest itself. Dusk soon turned into night and we used our headlamps to scan the waters and shores.

Caesar, Max, Lockie, and the author in the boat (photo courtesy of Evan Arambul)

Caesar, Max, Lockie, the author, and a locale boater (photo courtesy of Evan Arambul)

The most common frog in Ratagul was the Bhamo Frog (Humerana humeralis), an interesting species that our group didn’t see anywhere else during our time in Bangladesh.

By far the most common snake was the Checkered Keelback (Xenocrophis piscator). Our group saw around a dozen of these, some in the water and others on shore.

Checkered Keelback Xenochrophis piscator Bangladesh

A number of other frog species were also spotted, including Indian Bullfrogs (Hoptobatrachus tigerinus), Terai Cricket Frogs (Fejerverya teraiensis), Skittering Frogs (Euphlyctis cyanophlyctis), and Common Indian Toads (Duttaphynus melanostictus).

IMG_0505

Future Bangladesh Python Project trips hope to return with Animesh to the swamp forest to make a better survey of the area during both day and night hours, in order to see whether a wider array of herp species (possibly including Rainbow Water Snakes, Red-necked Keelbacks, Buff-striped Keelbacks, Indian Rat Snakes, Monocled Cobras, and a number of species of kraits). I want to thank Animesh and all of GES for sharing these places and their experiences with us, and am looking forward to seeing them again next year.

If you are interested in the Bangladesh Python Project, you can read more at the project’s Facebook page.

If you would like to go on next year’s trip, contact Scott through his Nature Stills website.

If you would like to donate to support the Bangladesh Python Project, you can do that through The Orianne Society.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 10, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Bangladesh Python Project: Helping herps and humans get along

No ecosystem in the world exists without a human impact. Humans currently use 50% of the Earth’s landmass, and they affect 100% of the Earth’s ecosystems in one way or another through water use, resource use, climate change, topsoil depletion, introduced animals, and air, water, noise, and light pollution. There is no longer a habitat that can be considered “untouched”, and the question going forward is not how we can protect the environment from human impact, but how we can learn to coexist.

In Lawachara these issues are even more apparent than usual. Lawachara contains some beautifully dense jungle and tranquil streams…as well as thirty villages scattered within and just outside of the park. Tea plantations surround the park and betal root is grown and harvested within the park. Villagers collect firewood and fruits from inside the park, and occasionally even hunt animals. Illegal logging gangs sometimes enter the park at night to steal high-value trees from the “preserved” forest.

A look at the tea plantation that surrounds much of the park and is staffed by several villages in the area.

A look at the tea plantation that surrounds much of the park and is staffed by several villages in the area.

One of Caesar’s goals for the Bangladesh Python Project is to help villagers to work together with scientists, conservationists, and government agencies who want to preserve the park in the long term, for their good and the good of all the plants and wildlife that live within it. We are currently working towards that aim by educating local people on the value of wildlife, employing locals in the project, maintaining positive relationships with local communities, and working towards solutions when human communities and wildlife are in conflict. Caesar has even begun to train local volunteers to take ecological data, giving them both a better understanding of the forest and a real role in conservation work that goes on there.

The Bangladesh Python Project trip included efforts to reinforce the education aspect. Before we released the first radio-tortoise back into the wild, we wanted to thank the community that had brought the tortoise to us, share information about tortoises with them, and encourage a positive relationship with Lawachara’s wildlife.

Other interactions occur on a more frequent basis. One of the most regular are the “snake calls”, when someone from the villages calls Caesar because they’ve spotted or caught a snake. We went on one of these calls only minutes after I’d arrived at the park. A local had caught a slightly emaciated Copperhead Trinket Snake (Coelognalthus radiatus), which he handed over to Caesar when we got there. The regular snake calls give significant data to the Bangladesh Python Project researchers, help prevent locals from killing snakes or (in the case of venomous species) getting bit by them, are an opportunity to educate villagers about the positive impacts of snakes, and ensure good interactions between villagers and researchers.

One of the most memorable experiences of the trip was when we took the initiative and made a village “snake call” all on our own. Kanai Das, a Bangladesh Python Project staff member who grew up in Lawachara and has been working for Caesar full-time for three years, led us on an expedition of Fulbari Village. Kanai is the main community liason for the project, and also helps out with radiotracking and dog and equipment care. Several of the team members hoped to find a krait during this trip, and while most snakes species prefer the less altered forests, kraits thrive around the villages and in the rice paddies that surround them.

Fulbari Village, like many of the villages within the park, is actually a worker settlement for one of the tea plantations. These tea workers work hard and long hours picking tea leaves while living in poverty on the outskirts of the fields.

Kanai did a great job of greasing the wheels wherever we went, chatting it up and even getting a couple of men to join us in our search. The Bangladeshis spoke to each other in Bangla, while the Westerners communicated to each other in English, with Kanai and I occasionally switching to Hindi in order to speak with each other and then translating that out to our respective cohorts. In this manner we poked and prodded the ditches and huts and fields.

After 1.5 hours of searching, we had made our way to a fallow rice field on the outskirts of the village, well out of earshot of the villagers who had gathered around televisions cheering Italy’s loss. As I crossed the field my eyes caught a striking black-and-yellow pattern intertwined with the grass. “Krait, there’s a krait!” I yelled. And even better yet, “It’s eating a wolf snake!” Not only had we found a beautiful Banded Krait (Bungarus fasciatus), but it had a still-moving Indian Wolf Snake (Lycodon aulicus) in its jaws.

Photo courtesy of Scott Trageser, www.naturestills.com

Photo courtesy of Scott Trageser, http://www.naturestills.com

Unfortunately, not all interactions are so pleasant. While we were enjoying the successful hunt, Caesar and Swapon Das (another staff member from the local village) were out with other team members, radiotracking the pythons and tortoises. Everything was going fine until they began to track Chaity, a nearly 9′ male who in recent weeks had begun moving towards Radhanagar Village. Tonight the radio signals led the team to the village. And every time they stepped nearer to the settlements, the beeps got louder…until they tracked Chaity to a spot right behind someone’s home.

Here was the dilemma. The primary purpose of Caesar’s radio-tracking study is to gain a better understanding of python biology, especially their home ranges and activity over time. The worse thing he could do to interfere with the study results would be to move the pythons. But here was the python practically on the doorsteps of someone’s home, where little good could happen. Do you capture and relocate the python, thereby interfering with the study, or do you let the python keep doing its thing? Do you risk the likely result that it will encounter the villagers? Caesar and the tracking team chose to leave the python there and returned to the dorm that night with worried looks on their faces.

Sure enough, Caesar received the snake call just after dawn. A python had gotten into a villager’s duck pen! Caesar, Swapon, and I jumped in a car and went to check it out. Before we even reached Radhanagar Village we were met on the road by an angry crowd with a large bag. They thrust the bag at us. Sure enough, it was Chaity.

The young male python, surprisingly, was unharmed. The same could not be said for the duck, which the villagers had also helpfully placed in the bag for us. The man who gave us the bag went off on Caesar and Swapon in Bangla. I asked Caesar what the man was saying. Caesar couldn’t maintain a straight face as he translated for me:

“He’s saying that it’s our fault the pythons are coming to the village. He says that we put the radio transmitters inside of them, and now they want to go to the village. He’s not making any sense at all. I tried to explain to him, but he was angry and wouldn’t listen.”

The author helping to hold the python as it is being measured.

As we returned to the dorm with Chaity to do a health check and new measurements (he stretched out to 8’11”, showing nearly a foot of growth since October), Caesar went back and forth over his options. They weren’t particularly good.

Do you leave the python until the last possible second, or do you proactively relocate it whenever it gets too close to a village? Relocating the python interferes with the home range data and displaces the python from its territory, but if the python takes prey from the village, then someone is going to catch it and force the relocation anyway.

Do you reimburse the villagers every time a python takes a duck, or do you work out some other long-term solution with them? Reimbursing the villagers may help keep them from seeing the pythons’ meals as a negative impact on their bottom line, but it also reinforces the notion that their ducks belong there and the python doesn’t.

Do you tell the villagers that this is the natural behavior of the python and convince them to find a way to coexist with typical python behavior, or do you try to find a way for pythons to exist within the villagers’ current framework? It’s possible that asking the villagers to switch from ducks to chickens would be an effective compromise – ducks frequent the water where the pythons prefer to hunt, and chickens tend to stay out in the clearings that the pythons avoid. But would the villagers agree to such a life change, and would it even work if they did?

Behind these practical questions are deeper ones. Can major predators like pythons still survive in parks like Lawachara? The big cats, wolves, and wild dogs are already gone. The largest terrestrial predators left are a few pythons, the rare king cobra, jackals, and occasional small cats which may not be permanent residents. Is it possible that there’s just not enough space preserved here for predators and people to get along? That’s the greatest question that Caesar has to answer – whether or not there is enough land in Lawachara for these incredible creatures. How much land does a python need?

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 9, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , , ,

Bangladesh Python Project: Stream and trail transects

Of course, there are a lot more reptiles and amphibians in Lawachara than just pythons and tortoises. What other snakes, lizards, and frogs did we see and how did we find them?

Each night, while part of the team was radiotracking tortoises and pythons, Caesar, Scott, or Animesh would lead other members of the team on field transects. These night transects were systematic searchers for the herps in a designated area. In jungle habitats like Lawachara, such transects are often the most fruitful means of finding reptiles and amphibians.

On my first night, we were only ten minutes into the search when I spotted our first snake of the night! It was an Assam Slug Snake (Parea monticola), a species I had never seen before, making its way along the forest floor:

IMG_0151

On this particular trail several species of frog showed up regularly. Frogs of the microhylid family were the most commonly encountered herps on the night walks. Here is a Berdmore’s Narrowmouth Frog (Microhyla berdmorei).

Berdmore's Narrowmouth Frog Microhyla berdmorei

Invertebrates of all types were also common. Unusually green weevils and unusually spiked spiders were two nocturnal trends.

Less than 30 minutes after I found that first slug snake, Scott found a second one of the same species perched on a plant:

A little while later another team member spotted a Emma’s Forest Lizard (Calotes emma) sleeping on a branch above the trail. Emma’s Forest Lizards look similar to the Oriental Garden Lizard (Calotes versicolor), a species that can be found in every city in south and southeast Asia. However, Emma’s Forest Lizards are never found in cities, preferring undisturbed forest habitat. The main way to distinguish an Emma’s Forest Lizard from its more common cousin is by the spines that protrude from behind the eye.

Some of the invertebrates spotted were unusually large. Here a leaf insect nymph and a pair of mating stick insects are shown to scale.

The last snake spotted on this particular night was a Zaw’s Wolf Snake (Lycodon zawi). I found this snake just as it was finishing a meal, most likely a small forest skink.

Several mammals were seen during the night transects – most spectacularly when Ash Wisco spotted an Indian Crested Porcupine running away. Barking deer, jackals, wild pig, bats, and arboreal rats were also seen. Slow loris and civets are present in the park, and some small cat species make very occasional appearances.

On other nights, we did a trail transect through the oldest section of forest in the park. This area is notable for the many species of frogs that appear to prefer the mature forest habitat.

My favorite find on this transect was a Bird Poop Treefrog (Theloderma asperun) that team member Max Jackson found sitting on a leaf. This aptly named treefrog uses an unusual method of camouflage.

Right where Max found the Bird Poop Treefrog, Scott captured an Inornate Froglet (Micryletta inornata). This southeast Asian microhylid was unknown to Bangladesh until earlier this year, when a specimen from Lawachara was identified and published for the first time. Our team found that the species was common in the park. However, there are some morphological differences between the frogs in Lawachara and their cousins in Bangkok, and so we believe that these frogs may actually be a closely related but distinct new species.

Only a few meters from those two finds were a pair of juvenile Vampire Frogs (Leptobrachium smithi). These ridiculous-looking litter frogs get their name from their bright red eyes and their unusual stilted walk. Here is a photo of one of those juveniles taken back at headquarters.

The bug was a bit odd:

The stick insect was shorter, but more massive, than the other more common species in the area:

Here is another Zaw’s Wolf Snake, one of four spotted in quick succession on this night. Zaw’s Wolf Snakes were unknown to Bangladesh before Caesar published their occurrence in Lawachara just two years ago, but they were easily the most common snake we encountered on our nighttime transects.

IMG_0676

On a different day our team was able to hear beautiful Twin-spotted Treefrogs (Rhacophorus bipunctatus) calling from the upper branches of trees on this trail. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to locate one low enough for a photo. While the treefrogs were calling, though, we did manage to find a sleeping Fan-throated Lizard (Pyctocolaemus gularis). Animesh Ghose helped me take this excellent photo.

Another very common sight on all of our trail transects were the bent-toed geckos. These slender and agile geckos hunted insects on the forest floor at night. Studies of bent-toed geckos in tropical Asia have resulted in a dozen new species being discovered in the last fifteen years. While the Khasi Hills Bent-toed Gecko (Crytodactylus khasiensis) was formerly believed to exist in our area, all of the bent-toed geckos we found in the park were actually Ayeyerwady Bent-toed Geckos (Cyrtodactylus ayeyarwadyensis), a species only recently found to inhabit northeast Bangladesh. Here are a couple of the ones we spotted on this trail:

Finally, the other type of transect our team performed at night was a stream transect. For this transect we followed the route of a stream instead of a trail. One of the unique species encountered in this type of transect was the Point-nosed Frog (Clinotarsus alticola). This one was calling from a rock formation:

An unidentified egg mass in the stream:

IMG_0382

The highlight of our stream transect was this mating pair of Vampire Frogs.

This Fan-throated Lizard was sleeping on a branch above the stream

Cope’s Assam Frogs (Sylviarana leptoglossa) were common:

IMG_0133

As were both species of Microhyla, Berdmore’s Narrowmouth Frogs and Ornate Narrowmouth Frogs (Microhyla ornata):

Some specimens were captured during the transects, to be systematically identified, photographed, and then released back where they were found. The identification of a reptile or amphibian can be complicated, requiring a ton of data to be collected. Here is a sample “ID sheet” filled out for an unusual kukri snake:

IMG_0277

Cantor’s Kukri Snake (Oligodon cyclurus)

Here are some photos of a few other specimens that were found during our nighttime explorations:

Spot-tailed Pit Viper (Trimeresurus erythrurus)

Himalayan Keelback (Rhabdophis himalayanus)

Green Cat Snake (Boiga cyanea)

Green Cat Snake (juvenile)

Zaw’s Wolf Snake

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 8, 2015 in Herping adventures

 

Tags: , ,