Every night after dinner we put on our mud boots, slough the dried mud off our now dry clothes, put new batteries in our headlamps and head out into the nighttime rainforest. We slop through creeks and through deep and sticky mud to start our transects; a line drawn through the forest from which we get a random sampling of the reptile and amphibian life that abounds here. In this case our transects follow trails and roads- it’s easier. We mark our path using GPS, making marks along the way for every animal we find. The data gets stored on a data sheet that notes where the animal was found, how far from the observer, and what it was doing at the time it was seen. Sometimes we bring the animals back to the lab to take photos and describe more fully. Every person has a job on the transect: Paul and Morley are photographers, and the rest of us switch off between GPS/ animal collection and data recording. We go out in two teams to cover more area, and going out is where the beauty begins.
Sometimes we hike a ways to get to the transect which heightens the anticipation. It’s dark, frogs are calling, invertebrates humming, and the occasional owl hooting. Once on the transect we walk very slow, using our headlamps to look high and low for frogs, lizards, salamanders, and snakes. Along the way we find all kinds of life: caterpillars- some as long as my hand stretched out (and most with a hairy sting), mating stick insects, grasshoppers, and the occasional mammal- like the Kinkajou we saw way up high in a tree one night. Sometimes the distraction of an invertebrate or other animal is the magic that slows down time enough to see what we are looking for.
Suddenly 4 or 5 hours have passed, we’ve found around 30 species for our records, and the night life of this forest has shown itself to be the hottest party in the campo. We pass back through the transect at a faster pace as we travel homeward, arriving back at camp dewy from the humidity and ready to compare our finds with the other group over a midnight snack of popcorn.
Though it is work, data collection is another excuse to get outside and see what´s there. And because of our focus the seeing is more mindful than I´ve experienced from the average hike through the woods. I look forward to each night for the chance to wonder and listen as we greet the night´s inhabitants. Beautiful forest, beautiful insects, beautiful frogs and snakes, beautiful night, beautiful data.