Friday, May 26, 2017

Welcome Home

Name: Eileen Connon
Class Year: Class of 2019
Hometown: Monterey, CA
Internship: Cape Parrot Project
Location: Hogsback, Eastern Cape, South Africa

There's a tradition in South Africa where the people you meet say "Welcome Home" when you arrive, even for the very first time, because South Africa is quite literally home to all of humanity. It's super cheesy, but I do love it! The oldest evidence of modern humans is found here, and other new hominins are still being found. In modern terms, the people I've met in South Africa have been incredibly welcoming, open, and kind, and have made me feel at home from the minute I got here. So, as I post on this blog throughout the summer, I hope you enjoy learning about my new home, and maybe you'll even get to come home sometime soon. 

Part of me still can't believe that I'm here! After about two weeks traveling with my May term class (Large Animal Ecology and Conservation), I've finally made it to Hogsback. I've been here for nearly a week now, which means that I've (mostly) recovered from exhaustion and settled in to the rhythm. For the first couple of days, Delaney (the other intern- she was here last summer, so she's old hat at this stuff) and I were on our own as the researchers from the project were attending a conference in Borneo. Despite the lack of supervision, we still observed the parrots flying in each evening and even woke up early to record some vocalizations, although we only managed to do that once. In between observations, we took a couple of lazy days to catch our breath, but we can only sit still for so long before we get bored, so we took about five hours one day to hike to Big Tree and Madonna and Child. Big Tree is... exactly what it sounds like. A Great! Big! Tree! It's a Outeniqua Yellowwood tree.The Yellowwood is incredibly important to the Cape Parrot, which eats its fruits and nests in its cavities.

so big it can't even fit in a photo!
Our hike to the Big Tree supposedly led us through hyrax territory, but we didn't see any, which is a definite bummer, although we did get an incredible view over the valley and across to the Hogs, which are the mountains that give the area its name. After sitting with the Big Tree for a while (outside of the fence that protects it from people), we decided to continue our hike for a little while longer. We took a detour along a stream, where I laughed at Delaney for a misstep that led to her right foot getting soaked, until the exact same thing happened to me just ten minutes later. After a while, we came to a fork in the trail. I won a game of rock, paper, scissors, so we headed towards Madonna and Child. Along the way, we met a group of people staying at a local backpackers. There was a man from Germany, a man from Canada, a woman from the States, and a woman from Australia. It was fun to chat with them about their travels. We've also ended up running into them three more times in town since then- Hogsback is not that big! 

The hike to Madonna and Child is about 4 kilometers, and with uneaten lunches in our packs getting heavier by the minute, we began to despair that we would never reach it! We had almost given up when a nice old man with two dogs, a Jack Russell and a Border Collie, approached us. He asked if the Jack Russell was ours, which was weird, because I assumed it was his! Luckily, Delaney knew that the precocious creature lived near the trailhead and liked to "take people on walks." The man then informed us that we had nearly reached our destination! We slogged our way up the last hill, across the last boardwalk, and over the last rocks, and when we finally arrived, all of our hard work and exhaustion became worth it. Madonna and Child is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen in my life, and we plopped down on a rock to eat our lunches and soak in the splendor (and the mist). It would have been nice to emerge from the  

seriously, can you believe this?

trail there and enjoy a leisurely stroll back home (home meaning, in this case, the Boscobel house of the Cape Parrot Project, now one of my favorite places on Earth), but unfortunately, we had to turn around and hike the 4 k back to the original trailhead. 

Now, you're probably thinking to yourself, "Eileen, this doesn't sound like work at all! This sounds like a prime vacation!" might be right! At least about my first few days in Hogsback. Luckily, the night we got back from our hike was the night that Cassie and Kate, the researchers for the project, finally came home from Borneo! Since they've gotten back, the real work has started. The first full day after their return they, very reasonably, wanted a lie-in, so we didn't have to wake up early (score!). We had breakfast and chatted about our plans for the next chunk of the internship. That evening, Cassie, Delaney, and I drove out to a hill overlooking nearby Alice so that we could watch the parrots fly out to their nighttime roosts and get an estimation of numbers. It's pretty hard to count flocks of nearly 100 parrots in flight! It was a little hectic, but it was incredible to see them fly so close overhead. The next morning, we woke up dark and early (can't be bright if it's before the sun rises), packed our yoghurt and muesli breakfasts, and drove back to Alice to wait at a pecan orchard for the parrots to return. We tried to record some of their vocalizations, but there were too many calling at once, and too much wind, for any good data. We did manage to get plenty of counts and movement data for Cassie's research with the Project. We then drove back and ate second breakfast, which is one of my favorite things about living here. That afternoon, we practiced rigging up a mist net, because we might be capturing a parrot to track its movements at some point later in the summer. 

The next day, we woke up early again, this time for Kate, Delaney, and I to head out to Zingcuka (the "c" is a click!) Forest for observations. It's a relatively short ride, but my college student self was definitely able to take a nap on the way! When we got there, Delaney took the vocal recording equipment and stayed in the forest to work on her specific research, while Kate and I took separate posts on an open ridge to record the number of parrots and their movements. It was an incredible view, when I could focus on something other that how cold my hands were! In case you've forgotten, it's winter time down here in the Southern Hemisphere, and it isn't fun to forget gloves when you have to be outside before the sun comes up. Despite the chill, we had a successful morning. Kate and I combined saw about 200 parrots! I also saw a fair few crows and doves, and I could hear some calls that I didn't recognize. Delaney saw some cows... and a few parrots, don't worry. After the last parrots flew by, we headed back to Hogsback to prep more for future steps, including a plan to start reading lots of primary literature and providing the information to each other, so we can a) learn everything we possibly can about the Cape Parrot, b) find even more primary literature, and c) figure out what we still need to study. 

And, because internships can't always be fun, we've also been working hard since that afternoon to clean up around the property and inside the house, because some important funders of the project are coming by to see what we do. Let me tell you, raking leaves on a lawn that's in the middle of the forest is not an easy job! Working with a friend always makes it easier, though, so we did our best to make it fun. And to make things even better, we made some fun new African wildlife friends! 

This skink was hanging out in our garbage pile in the back of the bakkie (truck to us Americans)
but luckily I grabbed him before he went into the rubbish bin

A handsome praying mantis fella who Delaney found in the house!

Well, that's all for this post, folks! I'll keep you updated on our internship whenever I can for the rest of the summer...winter...swinter... whatever we're supposed to call it. It's sure to be a wild ride!

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