Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bundle of Joy Born in Borneo!

Multitasking Matriarch: Indah filling up on fruit while balancing a new baby
© Jess Stitt/OuTrop 2012
Here's one more article I wrote for the OuTrop blog: announcing the birth of a new baby orangutan! I was lucky enough to be able to confirm the pipsqueak's existence at the beginning of December, after another researcher (hey hey Amanda) thought she spotted a newborn with one of our longterm resident females, Indah. It's all very exciting when you gain a tally in the win column for an endangered species. Here's the link in full to the post for What's Happening Wednesday!

Mom sharing some love with her miniature marvel.
© Jess Stitt/OuTrop 2012

Sunday, December 9, 2012

GUEST POST: Teaming Up with Team Forestry!

Guess what?! This is a guest post, brought to you by my friend and coworker at OuTrop! How treerific. I'll leaf it to her to do the talking...
Hey everyone!  I’m Cassie, one of Jess’ colleagues here in the jungle.  Since I’m very good at updating my blog, and Jess admits that she’s not so good at updating hers, we came up with a little one-post blog swap.  You’ll be reading my ramblings today instead of hers! 
To the Tower! Cassie perched high in the sky.

So to start off with, a little bit about myself.  I’m also from the U.S., although I’m not entirely sure what state I’m from anymore. My parents live in Minnesota, I went to college in North Carolina, and then skipped up to NYC for grad school at Columbia.  I just got my M.A. in Conservation Biology this year.  My thesis was on post-fire peatswamp forest regeneration and the role of seed dispersal in that process, and all of my field work was done here at one of OuTrop’s remote sites (for more information on why this place is important, Google “Mega-Rice Project”).  I came back this year to work as a coordinator for our volunteer program, and now am transitioning into a new role as forestry scientist with a little bit of project managing mixed in.  It’s interesting being here in camp now, because there are very few Western researchers (3, to be exact) that are not primate-focused, and soon 2 of them are going home.  That leaves just me to hold down team forestry- a big job, but I’m looking forward to it. 
Okay, now to the task at hand.  Jess gave me three prompts for this post, so I will now answer them in no particular order (actually, in the order she gave them to me, but who’s keeping track?)

What is it like seeing the forest for the trees?

Really nice, actually! Since most of my work focuses on trees, I’ve been able to learn how to identify quite a few since I started here. Most people learn the trees that are most relevant to their work (i.e., the main feeding trees of their favorite primate), but since ALL the trees are relevant to my work I’ve been trying to learn them as best I can.  I think I see the forest in a different way from most other people here; I know a lot about the different zones of the forest, which species are likely found together, and how they contribute to overall forest ecology, which compliments the way others see the forest.  Plus, I get a major bonus in that I never have to wake up extremely early to go searching for my study organism and they never move, which is more than I can say for all of my primate-inclined friends at camp!

How have your experiences in Indonesia influenced you?

They’ve made me more adventurous and more inquisitive.  They’ve also gotten me interested in a part of the world that I never really thought I would ever visit, but it turns out that I really like it here and I have a feeling that I will be spending a good bit of time here as my career develops Most importantly, my experiences here have showed me that I’m studying/working in the right field, and they have given me the opportunity to do some great things.   
The downside is that my experiences here have made me a little bit grumpy about life in America.  The people here don’t have very much stuff, but they’re so happy and friendly and always willing to share. This stands in stark contrast to us in the U.S. where we feel like we always need to newest thing and still aren’t happy.  There is a major cultural difference between Indonesia and America, and I think I feel worse culture shock when I go home than when I come here! 
Blueberry Slai O’Lai. Discuss. 
For those of you who aren’t in the know, Slai O’Lai are these magical little cookies we take into the forest with us for energy on long days.  They come in three flavors: blueberry, pineapple, and strawberry. I can say with 100% certainty that blueberry is the best, and there’s no discussion needed. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar.
Based on the conclusions drawn here, I have been deemed a liar - on my own blog - as I contend that the strawberry Slai O'Lai cookies are far superior. Alas, at least we can agree that trees and Indonesian adventures are awesome. To check out more of Cassie's stuff, you can visit her blog (which is much more up to date):

Thanks, Cassie!

Time to Rinse Off The Mud and Get Back to Work...

It has been a while since I last posted. I have been a bit swamped in the swamp; bogged down by the field work here in Borneo, while wading through grad school applications in virtual reality. The mud has really caked onto my blogging boots, causing me to drag my feet. So apologies to you (both for the delay, and for the re-peat of puns).

A good soak in the red delicious peat water is just the thing for shaking off the mud and stress after a hard day's field work. 

To pull myself up out of the mire of these missing months and re-convene our chipper chats, here are some links to articles I have been writing over at the OuTrop blog!

This one's an intro to me, and an overview of my early forest experiences: 

A pensive flanged male orangutan.
Jess Stitt/OuTrop ©2012
And this one goes into detail about my tarsier sighting*:

Bug-Eyed Beauty of a Beast
Jess Stitt/OuTrop ©2012
I didn't write this next one, but I was there for it! A very surreal, awesome experience: 

A most startled yet lovely loris.
Bronwyn Eva/OuTrop ©2012
Another one or two more posts by me will appear over there in the coming weeks, but I definitely recommend exploring/following the OuTrop blog as it is full of awesome news and events going on at our field site, and all around Indonesia and Borneo as well.

If you are so inclined, you can also buy a calendar for the shiny new year of 2013, filled with my furry forest friends! The guy pictured above is in there, as are shots of all sorts of critters we've seen over the course of a year. Proceeds go towards supporting our conservation initiatives here in the field. Check it out here:

Plenty of pitcher plants, to quench any ant's thirst.
Jess Stitt/OuTrop ©2012
*My first, of three, tarsier sightings. So many tiny primates! I've now spied the double trifecta of primate species here (six total), getting to glimpse the orangutan, gibbon, and kelasi, plus the macaque, tarsier, and loris. Lucky me! Few can boast such a feat, so I am humbled by my forest fortune. Photos and stories in future posts, I promise. Cross my peat swamp heart and hope to dive/fall in a hole.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Beware Those Crazy Ground Apes

By now, most people know that Jess is off monkeying around in Borneo. But what am I actually getting up to day in and day out? Well, it's taken me some time to get to the bottom of this riddle myself, but I've finally worked it out. Basically, I am here to play hide and seek with the orangutans. Usually, the auburn apes like to do the hiding and I try to find them before it gets dark. If they win, I go home and count to eight hours of sleep before trying again. But if I win, I get to follow them around the forest all day! 

This bold little girl gets bored of hiding all day - she'll come close and try to push down a tree nearby to get your attention.
© Jess Stitt/OuTrop 2012

Miraculously, this game of ours lines up with the two main activities I am assigned to do here in camp: Mencari and Menikuti.

Mencari (to search) involves walking slowly along transects cut through the forest, with lots of pauses to listen for orangutan sounds. The acoustic clues include tree swaying, branch breaking, and snag crashing - which all happen to sound like the wind when it gusts through. So it also helps that the orangutan is a messy eater: dropping lots of fruity bits from the canopy onto the dry leaf floor below, chewing loudly, and "popping" the seeds of certain fruits (they use their massive jaw strength to break open a seed and access the tasty nutrient-rich core). When they go a-hunting for rayap (termites), they make sounds strangely similar to someone tearing apart rotten wood… likely because  they are using their impressive upper body strength to tear apart rotten wood. And push down big dead trees. As such, it's usually best not to stand too close when they're binging on invertebrates.

The whole family goes wild for a big dead tree feast ful of termites! Even the littlest learns how best to pick them out of the wood. (Females pictured, from top to bottom: Georgia, Gracia, & little Gretel)
© Jess Stitt/OuTrop 2012

Menikuti (to follow) starts once the jig is up and we've tracked down/stumbled upon an orangutan in the woods. A team of observers (usually two humans) will follow the individual all day, taking data on the activity and location of the orangutan every five minutes. This is the heart and soul of the orangutan behavior project, and it (usually) is as fun as it sounds to follow a wild orangutan around the jungle all day. There are endless awesome ways of traveling through the treetops to witness, a bit of quadrupedal walking on the ground to try to keep up with, lots of feeding on fruit and flowers (to sample), and every once in a while a social get together! The juveniles will play together and sometimes the adults join in - swinging upside down, grabbing at the young hooligans, and play-biting each other. And you never know who will show up to hang out: maybe an aunt, perhaps a cousin or two, or why not a big flanged male to really stir things up? By the end of the day, when all the feeding and moving and playing is done, and the sun is setting over the equator, orangutans will go their separate ways and clamber up a tree to build themselves a night nest. Expertly engineered, they pick specific tree species with just the right amount of bend to their branches. Some of the good ones have really big leaves that make for great padding. There are a few females here who like to "sing" to themselves while they work, blowing raspberries as the fold and snap and twist the branches. (I just read a paper all about the awesomeness of orangutan nest building recently, let me know if you want to have a nerdy conversation about arboreal architecture!)

Once the nest is built and the simian is done singing and snug in their swaddling, we observers are free to head home. We mark the tree where the nest's been built, to return to again in the morning. Orangutans tend to be up from sunrise until nearly sunset and, as it happens, those two are equidistant from each other year-round here at the equator. So 12-hour days are common for nest-to-nest follows; ample time to amble with such amiable acquaintances. 

An unflanged male turning the tables to observe us. I bet we make a fascinating study species.
© Jess Stitt/OuTrop 2012

I often find myself wondering what the orangutans think of us as they peer down upon the hairless hominids who always seem to struggle stepping through the swamp and brambles on two legs. Why us crazy ground apes don't just shimmy up the nearest pohon (tree) is probably beyond our graceful great ape cousins.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Forest Fit for Fancy Footwork

Moving around the forest here is not as linear as you would expect. The hiking tends to be a bit more like rock climbing mixed with a slalom through small trees, which suits me just fine. However, there are no rocks here, and the ground is quite flat. Everything is biotic, meaning it is, or once was, living material - often mixed with a healthy dose of water in the form of mud. I like to think of my daily treks as Bio Bouldering ... notched up a level if it's done in the dark!

The ground around you is peat, mud, leaves, fallen trees bits, and roots of all sorts ("normal", buttress, stilted, pneumatophore, secret tripwire, etc.). The "walls" of your clambering cathedral are vines, lianas, tree trunks, small pointy plants, and branches - sometimes covered in ants or caterpillars, sometimes not. Most often, spider webs are strung up across the path to shower whoever gets to walk through the forest first that day in celebratory streamers. The invisible threads tend to go well with the confetti of dirt and leaf litter that rains down upon you all day to add to the mud, sweat, and scratches.

Some of the flora underfoot: a lovely set of pitcher plants!

But back to the Bio Bouldering. In rock climber lingo: edging, high stepping, and crimping come in handy (and footy) for your traverse. Precise foot placement is important, as you don't want to miss that slippery root you are aiming for, since a knee-deep mud hole certainly awaits your misstep. Or that seemingly-innocuous dry leaf could be covering yet another deep peat dip, so step carefully and stick to the sticks. The childhood game of "the ground is lava" comes in very handy here, as said ground is an unknown mix of mud and material in various stages of decomposition to slow your travel. Now, as many know, I am a big fan of mud, and gravitate towards it wherever I can find it. Yet this slog in the bog can be a bit heart-wrenching at times, as every sink into the substrate completely saps any forward momentum you may have had. But there's no denying the cooling capabilities of a good ol' mud wallow. Babi the forest pig might be onto something...

Many a fallen tree bar your path, so the higher your leg can reach to help pull you over, the better. Going around the downed giant is not an option, as it has a huge root structure at one end, and a massive tangle of branches at the other. Upper body strength is always welcome to aid in pulling yourself over or out of the mud, and help surmount those fallen trees. Finger and grip strength assist in these endeavors as well - at least when the tree being gripped is not fully rotten. Core body strength seems to help across the board, as balance is paramount, especially on early morning boardwalk walks.

Two boards side by side on the boardwalk is a luxury that lasts only a few dozen meters into the woods.

Two additions to make the scampering even more fun-filled are those small pointy plants, known as Pandan and Rattan. Pandan  (Pandanus sp.) is kind of like a little palm fern which can cover large swaths of the forest floor and grow taller than a person, but seems to like stopping its growth at eye height. It is covered in smallish spikes that all point outward and make bushwhacking through its green opulence a scratch-tastic experience. Those eye-level tips of the fronds are also sharpened to a spike, and have jabbed more than one wary walker right in the cornea. The only retaliation we can take against it seems to be either stepping on it at the base, thereby flattening it momentarily, or pulling it out at the root and eating the base of the plant. Not too flavorful, but it could sustain you for a time. Plus, biting down and impaling the plant with those spikes of your own tastes of sweet and refreshing revenge. 

Rattan is thankfully a less common companion in the forest, but one you don't quickly forget. It has very thin tendrils covered in very sharp spines that will ensnare you for a solid (painful) minute if you are caught unawares. The best/worst encounters are when both you and your fellow observer get caught in the same set of tendrils and alternate yelping until breaking free of the tug of war with the near-invisible menace.

After the first couple weeks, the maneuvering becomes a tad easier, and as it is the dry season, the mud holes have been shrinking. However, I haven't been in camp for several days and the rains have been coming in more frequently ... if the rain spirits decree, I'll get to soak up more thigh-high mud again soon!

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air

Coming to you live from the edge of delicious rainforest, with this first report of life in the peat-swamp forest of Indonesia. And life is good.

The Sabangau forest and the facilities at Base Camp both are above and beyond my expectations – with a wealth of biodiversity and fun muddy terrain to greet me in the forest, and delicious food plus good company to welcome me back to camp each night. Though the highlight for me might be waking up to the singing gibbon duets almost daily ... more to come on that in a later post. 

Camp Bed
The mosquito-free accommodations where I'll be  kicking back in for a spell.

Base camp itself has no internet access (let alone electricity for more than a few hours per day), but every couple weeks I take a day off in the nearby town of Palangka Raya to recuperate and reintegrate (briefly) into the wired world. [Hooray for US Women’s Soccer and the landing of a rover on Mars!] Blog posts are born during these brief stays in town; I head back into the great green garden again tomorrow. 

A small little pitcher plant I managed to capture and take as my prisoner.

Gaining access to the canopy-covered camp, where the orangutans dwell, has three steps:

Step 1. Take a local taxi to the outskirts of town to get to the harbor.

Kereng, the town on the edge of town. They have the boats.

Step 2. Board a klotok (small outrigger canoe) for a delightful journey down a broad river flanked by dense palm-like pandan.

The sun and the breeze are quite divine when traveling by klotok.

Step 3. Hop out of the little boat and hop into a “lorry” (mini-train) to chug up an old logging railway and reach base camp once more!

Down the track, clackity clack.

On the charismatic megafauna front, many lovely beasts have made themselves known in the forest thus far – from gibbons to a wild pig (who I think is charming) to the star of the hour and/or next six months: the orangutans! My tally to date is three separate females, each with a young baby; one juvenile male; and one shockingly large flanged male.* I am still in training, learning how to walk in the muddy forest and search for the big red apes, and how to follow them once I find them. Add in a dash of trying to identify the different individuals by sight, plus learning basic Indonesian on top of it, and you’ve got one tired new orangutan intern. A daunting learning curve to be sure, but one that requires me to sketch lots of ape faces for practice! Photos are also encouraged. The project I’ll be working on will have me trying to find as many females as I can and hopefully witness some of them interacting to gain a better sense of female social networking out here.

Mom & son (Feb & Fio), snacking on some flowers, as orangutans are wont to do.

Other fun creatures seen include a whole bunch of new birds like the Brahminy kite (looks a bit like a bald eagle), a teeny pit viper or two among other snakes, praying mantises, tree shrews, fire ant armies, macaques, turtles, and a species you’re certain to hear more about from me: red langurs – cool little monkeys that are fun to follow too!

Babi the Pig is a stunner ... staring you down out behind the kitchen.

I’ve linked this post to some of my photos up on Picasa – they sum up my time going from Jakarta to Palangka Raya to Base Camp pretty well … but are a tad lacking in forest photos as of yet. Though I tossed in some baby orangs to make up for it for now!

Small Fio learning termite etiquette.

As well as the art of true downtime.

Enjoy the photographic journal I’ve made you, and “sempai nanti” (until next time), 

Jess, signing out!

*What the heck is a flanged male you ask? Here’s a sketch I did of one a little while back: 

Flanged males: they've got big cheek pads (flanges) and throat sacs, and some also sport inspired hairdos.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jess in Jakarta!

Jess here, out and about in a new place across the Pacific! I am dusting off this blog in an effort to record my new adventures following orangutans around the Indonesian wilderness. At present I am in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. This post is intended as an overview of what I would be up to, if things manage to go according to plan!
WHERE: I am going to be living in Indonesia, an island nation (made up of ~20,000 islands) just north of Australia. Specifically, I will be on the biggest one, known as Borneo. It is shared between a few countries, and the Indonesian share is called Kalimantan, which encompasses the southern two-thirds of the island’s landmass. Within Kalimantan, I will be working in a tropical peat swamp that is part of the Sabangau Forest. Lots of acidic water, relatively “flat” marsh/land, and copious amounts of wildlife! I think. Photographic evidence forthcoming.

WHEN: I arrived in Jakarta today (19 July), where I will be until paperwork clears; once that hurdle is overcome, I shall head on over to the far less urban jungle. I'll be staying at a field station in the Sabangau Forest a large majority of the time, making forays to the nearby village/town/city of Palanga Raya every few weeks. The camp does not have internet, and so it will only be during trips into town that I may update this lovely electronic diary of my monkey-minded mania. The plan is to remain at camp until mid-December, whence I intend to begin my journey back towards the Americas. Five-ish months.

WHAT: I will be working as the orangutan intern at camp, taking part in research on mainly the orangutan population’s behavior and ranging within the Sabangau Forest. This means trekking around muddy woods staring up at apes in trees for twelve hours a day. Needless to say I am excited (mud, trees, apes, what’s not to love?). There are only two places in the world where orangutans live, and both are located within Indonesia. The islands of Borneo and Sumatra each hold one of the two subspecies, found living in pockets all over each island. I shall be endeavoring to add to humanity’s cache of knowledge regarding the Bornean orangutan.

WHO: Me, Jess extraordinaire. I will be working with an organization called the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, OuTrop for short. They have been monitoring orangutans at this site for nine years now, and are the reason this forest is protected as well as supported by the World Wildlife Foundation. In addition to recording “Days Of Orang Lives” as the local soap opera, they also run studies on gibbons, biodiversity, the forest ecosystem, red langurs (type of monkey), and a clouded leopard study using camera traps! Needless to say, lots of exciting things.

WHY: Getting the chance to work with orangutans has kind of been a life passion of mine. Not to mention, getting to sit and walk around a jungle for almost half a year does a naturalist’s mind good. Lots of food for  PhD. directed thought. In addition to conducting field research, I hope to squeeze in time to not only take an absurd number of photographs, but also do a fair bit of sketching!
When I was in the US, I was practicing my visual observation skills by visiting zoos wherever I happened to find myself! Here are some sketches I’ve done traveling around the US…

Out in Seattle (Woodland Park Zoo):
Komodos & tapirs.

All sorts of birds.

Turtles, vipers, tree kangaroos, & horned lizards, oh my!

African oddities: the hippo & the giraffe.

Down in DC (National Zoo):
A few relatives lounging about.

Close ups of gorillas.

Menagerie of small creatures: tenrec, marmoset, burrowing owl, naked mole rat,  meerkat, oh and the not-so-small cheetah.

Sun bathing sun bear.

Around NYC (Bronx & Central Park Zoos):

Fangs & monkey frogs.

Primates, pythons, & a parrot.
Life Aquatic: puffins, a funny bird, & a seal.

Red pandas,  snow monkeys, and the emperor himself.

Hopefully this serves as enough of an intro to keep your interest for a while; I likely won’t be updating again anytime soon until I get settled in at camp, and figure out just what is required of me. But I intend to return triumphantly with smashing snapshots, daring drawings, and less embarrassing employment of the Indonesian language.

Goodbye for now! Selamat tinggal!