Thursday, November 06, 2008

Bottomless Ghaut

Toward the end of the trip we took a hike down into Bottomless Ghaut, one of the volcanic canyons on the windward side of Montserrat. Relatively inaccessible and protected, it is a refuge for rare species such as the Montserrat Oriole and the Sturnira bat. A "ghaut" is pronounced like "gut" in English, and apparently means a ravine of volcanic origin.

Our mission was to find and capture the rare bat Sturnira thomasi which is suspected of being an endemic species on the island. The plan was to attach radio transmitters to as many bats as possible and then return the next day to find out where they roost. To get to the netting location we had to hike carrying our nets and poles down a steep and muddy trail, which Scott cleared with a machete. We did manage to capture one Sturnira that night, but when we returned the next day with the radio receiver and antenna, we were unable to re-find her. So the mystery continues. We were lucky enough to glimpse the endemic Montserrat Oriole and see its nest, and hear many mountain chickens (actually frogs) although we didn't see one.

Only later did we realize the trail somewhere crossed a nest of chiggers, spawn of the devil. They provided me with an itchy souvenir of the trip that lasted long after my return to San Francisco.

After the volcano

Of course we did take some time out to ogle the volcanic destruction on Montserrat. This photo is a view across what used to be a lovely golf course in the Belham Valley toward what surely used to be a lovely home. You can see the top of the volcano in the background. This volcano is different from others I have seen before in that it spews mud and ash (in a pyroclastic flow) instead of molten rock. While the river of super-hot mud is just as destructive and deadly as a river of molten lava, the result looks quite different from what you might see on Hawai'i for example. The dust gets into and onto everything.

We had one exciting moment when the volcano warning system loudspeakers announced that an eruption was imminent and we were to evacuate immediately. This was indeed possible, as an eruption had happened a week or so before we arrived. However, the timing was suspicious in that it happened exactly when the noon bell was due, and in fact later we heard that someone pushed the wrong button.

Processing bats at the Wide Awake

Of course we also did research work on Montserrat although happily it didn't involve any killing of bats. We put up nets in areas that had been studied for many previous years in order to monitor activity and populations over time. On Montserrat it's especially interesting to look at the effect on bats of volcanic eruptions (pdf). For example, when the mango trees are covered with ash, the fruit-eating bats often have very bad teeth. In fact many of the bats we caught did have discolored, ground down or even missing teeth.

Many of the places we netted were in populated areas. They may not have started out that way, but since the big eruptions what's left of the population has migrated to the northern side of the island which is now starting to get crowded. One night we netted not far from our favorite bar, Gary Moore's Wide Awake, and took the bags of bats down to the bar for processing. We just parked in front of the bar and worked out of the back of the car. Some of the bar patrons were quite interested in the work.

We were on Montserrat during the Beijing Olympics and spent several post-batting evenings consuming Carib beers and watching the big-screen TV in Gary's bar.

Feeling hot hot hot

For the second part of my Caribbean bat research trip we went to the island of Montserrat. This island is not a tourist destination at all and is most famous for its active volcano which destroyed the capital of Plymouth when it woke up again in the 1990's.

Of course we were there for the bats but I got an unexpected thrill when I learned that Alphonsus Cassell, a.k.a. Arrow, the King of Soca music was from Montserrat. Of course I had to visit his store, fabulously named Arrow's Manshop, to buy a CD with his famous song Hot Hot Hot. He was gracious enough to autograph it, and the team danced to Hot Hot Hot the rest of the trip.

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