Written by Laura Kahane
Cover photo courtesy of Florian Schulz
Neuro-toxic venomous snakes, big cats, and being waste deep in a croc ridden Aguada – where do I begin to recount my stand-out moments from Mexico 2018? This is my 3rd consecutive expedition working with OpWall and every year my eyes are widened and my mind inspired. As a Bat scientist, I’m most familiar with anti-social hours, uncooperative animal subjects and long nights on a tarp sharing stories and watching shooting stars. 2018 however has produced by far the most colourful and intellectual experience of all, and beyond that a Stella introduction into the true Mayan-Mexico – a land shoved in legends, history and personality. If there were a top of the pops chart of outstanding moments, here’s Friday nights count down;
6. Training national park rangers from Belize, Guatemala and Mexico – having spent much of their working lives in the forests, I learnt more from these guys in 7 short days than any guide book could ever teach me. They’re humbleness, professionalism (& terrible jokes!) and authentic compassion for nature, reassured me that the species we are all working so hard to protect are in safe hands.
5. Catching my 1st vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus) – On that unexpectedly intrepid night at the dry Aguada, Mancolona nets were cut, students were uncontrollable with excitement and I was dizzy with anticipation…and caution.With needle-sharp incisors, blood grooved lip and an unmistakeable hiss, this species’ charisma was everything I imagined and so much more.
4. Mist-netting in a Croc-infested Aguada (Non-standard/opportunistic survey) – 69 bats, 11 species (a Batter’s paradise) and 2 new species for our season included the bizarre Ghost-faced, and Davy’s Naked-backed Bat. Even with a 4 strong bat team and 6 other staff to assist, the night was hectic from start to finish, but the most fun a batter can have!
3. Fer-De-Lance Confrontation – Leading a weary team back from a long, wet survey, through Snake valley at 3am in Dos Nas, optimistically the ‘Fer-De-Lance’ was the only subject on my mind, since first seeing it in Guyana. Bam! Suddenly, there she was – a beautiful, 6ft, adult Fer-De-Lance (one student had mistaken the name for ‘Fertile-ants`- hence the title!) not 2ft from me, waiting for her next meal on wheels – or legs. As a closet Herper, I know that most snakes are naturally shy of humans, but can’t help thinking that another snake, at another time may have tried their luck. The combination of exhilaration, fear and curiosity (illustrated through choice words, and a nervous jig) was unforgettable and ignited a deeper passion for Herps in me.
2. The Bat volcano – Ezequiel, an OpWall Bird guide personally escorted us there. After a short forest trail and climb, suddenly we we’re surrounded by Mimops, Myotis, Molossus 3 other genus’ which we rarely see otherwise, pouring around our legs like smoke from a campfire, the clumsy juveniles tantalisingly clipping our camera lenses. I’m used to observing Bats emerge singularly at dusk, as well as handing, but nothing compared to this experience – behold their aerobatic navigational genius – instantly I was reminded of why Bats are my speciality! Feeling the breeze from their juvenile wings flashing past my skin, before our very eyes, a 2 million, 7 species strong bat colony swarmed from a 100m deep cylindrical cave, vortexing into the skyline and over the forest vista like an impressive scene from trippy sci-fi movie. The intense smell of Guan and visual phenomenon immerse you! And the piste de-la resistance – we spotted a small white bat in the liquid centre of the mass. It could only be one species – The Northern Ghost Bat (Diclidurus alba). The Mayan legend goes that if you see the one white bat amongst the masses, you will be granted good luck! The Alba is a ‘life-list bat’ for most and seeing the raw excitement in each other’s eyes in realising what we’d shared was palpable – something I’ll never forget.
And then the crème de la creme…
1. Jaguar! It was 2am we were standing on the road waiting for the truck home after a slow Bat survey at the ruins when I on heard a crack in the forest. I was already scanning the trees for eye-shine. Suddenly, my torch caught some at knee level and I called Billy, an RA to investigate further. I took approx. 30 secs before our eyes adjusted and large crouching cat became apparent. My instinct initially said Puma. I instructed Billy to freeze, and then make himself as big as possible due to its position and stance – a mere 4.5m from us and in a potential hunting position. Several seconds later, and with a stronger setting on the head torch, we could then see every single colour and pattern on his head, as if it were in HD – IT WAS A JAGUAR! I took several deep breaths, and indicated to Billy that this was as about a good a sighting as anyone could every wish for, and that we should enjoy the moment together. For two whole minutes, we stared out a wild male, sub-adult Jaguar. As we should mimicking one large animal in reflection, Billy was calm, but I was conscious of our every movement, and breath which the Cat before us could read meticulously. I’ve never experienced such Adrenaline and bewilderment. You imagine a similar situation time and time again, but are never prepared for how you will naturally react. The realisation that you have been watched, for some-time, have zero defences, vastly inefficient senses in comparison and you are essentially, in that very moment, potential prey is exhillerating. This is why we are here – this why we dedicate our lives to conservation. The moment passes, and he slinks away slowly into the forest. I hug Billy, and we high five, knowing that we’ve shared something unforgettably special. Recounting the story time and time again the next day, I feel blessed – or like I’ve won the lottery. It was only chance that offered us that experience but I’m truly grateful to Mexico, to Op Wall and to the Mayan gods that graced us with a life changing sighting!
Among the countless other moments that will stay with me for life – spotting a Tyra, Coati troops and duelling Ocellated Turkey whilst road running at KM20, seeking out False Vampire Bat roosts inside ancient Mayan Ruins, campfire story-time at Dos Nas, observing a grey fox predating a 5ft Boa Constrictor, eating authentic homemade Tamales at Fernando’s home in Hormiguero (made with a lifetimes worth of love by his grandmother), being stung by a hornet in the face and being nicknamed ‘Pink-Ork’, catching the 1st recorded Woolley false Vampire Bat in a site, being pooped on by Bat Falcon (the irony) and experiencing the loudest, closest thunder crack in Dos Nas (elation for the chance of a shower, but terror for the gun-shot sound) – this expedition has yet again gifted me friends for life, developed me professionally, given me a newfound appreciation for water as a critical life resource and produced countless unique, magical memories. I can’t wait for next year!