Heads in the clouds
In June 2014 we set off on an exploratory visit to a unique location in the Alta Verapaz mountain range; around 20 km from Coban. Located in the Chicchen valley the area consists of a beautiful mix of pine /oak forest, pure cloud forest and farmlands/plantations managed in a variety of ways. Our base of operations was the Sierra Chilaxha reserve run by Community Cloud Forest Conservation, with our hosts Rob and Tara Cahill; two Americans who put a huge amount of energy and passion into safeguarding the surrounding habitats and providing much needed agricultural training, social and sexual education and schooling for the local Mayan population.
The site itself was once a Pre-Classic Mayan city and many interesting finds and structures have been unearthed. The journey, by bus from Guatemala City, was in itself an experience passing through wonderful scenery and a range of different habitats. After a warm and informative welcome from Tara we had an immediate sign that we were going to get on well in our new surroundings; the very first log we looked under (after dropping our bags and heading for lunch) turned up a red backed coffee snake (Ninia sebae) and a Müller’s mushroom- tongued salamander (Bolitoglossa mulleri)! Three very happy herpers!
Things continued in this way and by the end of the first 24 hours we’d encountered a total of 14 species of herps! These included a number of rare and endemic frogs such as Plectrohyla pokomchi and Ptycohyla hypomykter and a number of wonderful glass frog metamorphs (Hyalinobatrachium fleischmanni) – literally having just left the water, with tails still evident.
Reptiles were represented as well with the endemic anole Norops cobanensis. Surveys were carried out in a variety of cloud forest, riparian and mountain stream habitats as well as more human altered environments. The grounds of the reserve itself produced some wonderful finds; the truly stunning emerald spiny lizard Sceloporus taeniocnemis was seen a number of times; a blunt headed tree snake (Imantodes cenchoa) turned up in the building site of the new research station/dormitory/library complex that is currently under construction and a huge milk snake Lampropeltis triangulum was found by Rowland not far from the shower block!
The trip (only a quick 3 day rapid sssessment) gave us a total of 22 herp species, and the end was very similar to the beginning; on our last night we entertained some reserve guests from the US with a number of our catches and then headed out for one last attempt to find what had until then been a very elusive animal; the Critically Endangered Morelets tree frog (Agalychnis moreletii).
I had earlier in the day spotted an old sink; full of water with some broad leaves hanging tantalizingly over the water…upon checking this at night we recognised the distinctive tadpole behaviour of Agalychnis; we then looked up and saw a mass of eggs on a leaf, with tadpoles visibly twitching inside, followed almost immediately by the call of a tree frog!
Then we reached new levels of excitement as we saw two individuals sat nearby – success!! I suspect at this point the owners, visitors and staff were convinced that they had three lunatics of their hands as we shouted and danced around in a circle! Searching for herps can often be difficult and doesn’t always provide results; targeting a single species is even more difficult and to achieve this on the very last night was a spectacular result for us!
It didn’t even end there though! The following morning, bags packed and waiting for our lift, we heard a workman shout out ‘snake’ and managed to catch a beautiful speckled racer Drymobius margaritiferus; without any doubt one of the most beautiful animals i have ever seen and my favourite snake (so far – lots more to see!)!
A wonderful and fitting end to an amazing few days, with a great haul of species and some stunning forest habitats that I will never forget. In the time we had there we barely scratched the surface and I am 100% sure that there are many more herpetological treasures to be found there and documented. With absolutely awesome forests, hills, caves, rivers and an abundance of wildlife coupled with excellent (and soon to be even better ) facilities we are convinced that future Indigo volunteers will have an unforgettable experience.
TESTIMONIAL: Gary Powell, June 2014 Expedition to Alta Verapaz