Thursday, September 15, 2011

Back to the Bush

So I survived the drive from Pretoria to Bloemhof and made it back to the field site. It feels good to be back. I miss the good times with my hostel friends but I love the quiet, and the stars, and the jackals that my field site offers.

I thought I would be terrified the entire drive back--but I was not. I also predicted I would be scared to be alone in the middle of nowhere---but I am not. Isn't it funny? I obviously do not have a realistic perspective on what I can handle. I think I will continue underestimating myself however, so I can continue to be pleasantly surprised.

Spring is in the air at the reserve. All the scorched areas are turning from black to bright green and budding even though there has been no recent rain. Baby squirrels are popping up everywhere! Wild flowers are blooming in every colour imaginable and birds are starting to molt into breeding colors. It is a wonderful time of year in South Africa-- no long bitter cold but not yet too hot either. The snake experts should be here next wait to continue the mobbing trials. I can't wait!

Friday, September 9, 2011

talk to me now

I have this song that has been wedged into my brain for quite sometime and I think the lyrics sum up how I feel about Pretoria:

In this city
self preservation is a full time occupation
I am determined to survive on these shores
you know I don't divert my eyes anymore
in a man's world I am
a woman by birth and
after 19(or 26) times around
I have found
they will stop at nothing
once they know what you are worth
talk to me now

I am planning on leaving Pretoria for the field again. It is bittersweet. I love field work and my nerves will finally get a break but I have met so many wonderful people and I am going to miss getting to talk with everyone at the hostel. Wish me luck on the drive down to the reserve. I am hoping I don't get lost!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

In Pretoria again doing lab work!

I feel guilty for not posting. Things are moving pretty quickly here and it is hard to have time to think let alone relfect and then write. My supervisor and the honour's student I came here with have left. My husband came in at the begining of August and stayed for three weeks as well. It was amazing getting to share a bit of this experience with him. I think extrordanary experiences are better when shared.

Now I am here in South Africa alone. I am still enjoying myself but it would be nice to have someone to turn and comment to when you see a funny sign or a beautiful bird.
I am feverishly working out the lab portion of my project. It is going well but it seeems like every piece requires fretting, researching, and thinking over. Lab work leaves me feeling drained and insecure. There are so many things I do not understand well. I knew this already but doing lab work for me is an especially humbling experience. I have the uptmost respect for fulltime labratory researchers.

It is a Saturday now and I have come in to make some gels and pour them in my dishes. I had a wonderful walk into the University from the hostel with another guest. He wanted to see the University. We stopped in at a Spring festival and I ate a delisious falafel wrap and bought a braclet made out of saftey pins for 3 rand. I found some old field guides for snakes, and fish and mammals to share with my biologicaly inclined friends when I get back.

Today has been the best day so far since Chris has left and I think it was because I had someone to share it with. Thank you Antony.

Monday, August 1, 2011

monotony is key

It is hard to think of things to say when you do the same thing every day.
I have been conducting sent trials with snake sheds to see if Cape ground squirrels use their sense of smell in the recognition of snakes. So in other words I spend hours everyday out on the floodplain chasing squirrels down burrows, placing cubes covered with snake odours by the burrows waiting for them to come back up, and then recording their behaviours when(if) they re-emerge again. I record what the squirrels are doing on my ipod (thanks dad!) and in the evening I transcribe my recordings into spread sheets. It feels a little odd talking to myself and then listening to myself for hours. I am predicting I may come back a little stranger than when I left. People who know me well are probably pretty worried by that remark. People who know me really well probably are having a difficult time imagining how anyone could get any stranger. Rest assured. I can.
In all seriousness though-- the monotony is not bad. I am handling it better than I thought I would. I find the day in and day out routine of field work meditative. My mind comes alive with ideas and songs. Since I am testing the same 10 colonies of squirrels over and over I even see the same wildebeest everyday. I have named him Bruce.
I think there is something amazing about visiting the same piece of nature consecutively for a span of time. You are no longer a tourist from the outside looking in. You are right in the midst of it-- looking around. I have felt this way before doing field work. When you visit a forest everyday for a while animals that run and hide start to come out. Critters habituate and you can really watch them.
I think everyone should get to know a forest at least once in their life. It does not need to be a rainforest or a savannah the forest down the street is just as good—if not better. Nothing feels more satisfying to me than recognizing all the voices of the birds in a forest or seeing Bruce first thing in the morning snoozing.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

This is home

When I started this blog and this field work I thought I would be talking about how different and unique my experiences in Africa would be. Hence the blog name. Now that I am here however, I am more moved by the simularities I find between here and so many other places I have visited, lived, or worked. Don't get me wrong the Southern African flora and fauna are very unique but because of convergent evolution (I guess) the quiet, shy impala remind me of white-tailed deer and the bounding springbok remind me of pronghorn. The singing jackals-- coyotes? The sneaky mongoose---a weasel? The veld grassland reminds me of my prarie home in Manitoba and the breathtaking landscapes in Namibia made me nostalgic for Arizona. The people here are not so different either. Some of the political and social issues I am learning about are sadly very familiar to other places I have been. To the country I was born in.

Why did I expect South Africa to be an alien land? What is it about Africa that seems so foreign to me and other folks? I think one problem is ignorance. I know I am embarrassingly ignorant of all the different countries on this vast continent and I think that tends to create a lumping effect-- thinking of an entire continent as one country of "Africa".

This is Africa. It is so familar that it feels like home. Maybe it is because if you follow the family tree back long enough the roots are buried here in this red earth. We are all Africans. Maybe that's it.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What it's all about...

I guess I have not really explained why I am here in South Africa. I am here conducting my masters research. Broadly I am interested in behavioural ecology. That is the study of animal behaviour within an evolutionary context. Instead of looking at an individual’s behaviour I am interested in a population or a species and also the interactions between species in an ecosystem.
My project is looking at anti-predator behaviours in the Cape ground squirrel. How animals avoid predation is an important aspect to the whole idea of survival of the fittest. An individual must survive long enough to get their genes into the next generation and one of the big impediments to survival for many animals is predation.
There are two main focuses to my research. First I want to look at predator discrimination. The first step to avoiding being eaten is recognition. There are usually many things in an ecosystem that could be potentially harmful though not all predators are created equal. I am interested in investigating at what level animals discriminate and what sorts of behaviours follow this discrimination.
My second focus is cooperation. Evolution favours the selfish- it is a dog eat dog world. What I mean is that individuals are interested in surviving and reproducing above all else. If you look at the natural world however you see cooperation everywhere from eusocial insects, to group living ground squirrels, and even in the cells of your own body. So obviously cooperation can be beneficial to the individual or it would not be so prevalent. One of the hypothesized benefits for cooperating in some animals is anti-predation benefits. I am interested in how animals cooperate to avoid predation.
I chose Cape ground squirrels for my study animal for several reasons. First, previous research done by my supervisor and her lab has made my life easier by already studying the social system and breeding system in the Cape ground squirrel. So I know from her research that Capes live in social groups: females live in small groups of related individuals that all share a burrow cluster: and males also live in separate but also amicable groups of unrelated individuals moving around several female groups. Their social system makes them an ideal animal to study cooperative anti-predator behaviours. My supervisor has seen this species band together and harass (called mobbing) some terrestrial predators which is the observation that sparked my research.
Another reason I chose Capes is because they are a good species to look at predator discrimination. Being a ground squirrel in Southern Africa means they have many predators. I will be focusing on snake predators in which there are many different types with different hunting strategies and venoms making it a great system to study fine scale discrimination.
So that is the gist. Hopefully this gives you guys a bit of a background to my project and why I am all the way over here for the next six months without boring you to death!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Glorious field work

It has been quite a while since I have been able to post. After visiting Pilanesburg we left the busy city of Pretoria and I felt a weight being lifted. We finally made it out to our field site at SA Lombard. The reserve is small- 3500 ha. It does not have any of the big five and I prefer it that way. Elephants and lions are fun to visit but when it comes to logistics it is so much easier to not have them to worry about. The park is not open to the public and is used as an ungulate breeding ground. There are Black Wildebeest, impala, Springbok, Orynx, Zebra, Blesbok, warthog, and Black-backed jackal to name some of the common sights on the park. It is more beautiful here than I expected and the field house is more comfortable than I could have imagined.

We set the field house up and then took off to Namibia. My supervisor previously worked in a park in Namibia and she had stored a majority of the field gear there. So we took a road trip up through Namibia to a tiny town called Maltahoe. Every town in Namibia is a tiny town (except the capital city). Namibia feels very empty with enormous skies and dramatic landscapes. It is a very beautiful country. I was sad to cross back into South Africa again but relieved to get back to the field house that already feels like home.

Since returning we have fallen into a nice routine. We wake up at sunrise to set traps our boots crunching on frost covered grass. As we walk across the plain we are greeted with amazing sunrises and the grunts of wildebeest giving us the hairy eye. We work our squirrels and release them back to the feld with PIT tags and dye marks so we can follow their movements from far away. So far we have captured and released around 50 individuals. Starting in July we hope to start our experiments. The background data we are capturing from each individual is essential before we do so. It feels so nice to finally be doing what I have set out to do.

In the evening we go down to the pan which is filled with water and watch the sunset and look at the water birds that roost around the temporary lake. Or we go for a run down the roads listening to the jackals calling and watching the springboks bound across the road ahead of us.