para la tierra, Reserva Natural Laguna Blanca
Santa Rosa Del Aguaray, Paraguay
We were met at the gate to Laguna Blanca by Becca, the Primate Project Coordinator at Laguna Blanca, despite being about 40 minutes late. We threw our bags in the back of the ute and were driven through a soy plantation, then a patch of Atlantic forest, and to a clearing with a few buildings and a beautiful white sand beach leading to the lake.
On one side of the clearing is the tourist resort, and on the other the housing for employees, interns and volunteers at para la tierra (PLT) where we would be staying and volunteering. PLT is a conservation and research organisation that studies the species of the Laguna Blanca Reserve. As the reserve has various different habitats, it is home to a huge variety of animals, some critically endangered.
We were shown to the girls and boys dorms, and given a tour including an explanation of the dodgy electrics (only one person can shower at anyone time and the kettle and hair-dryer can't be used at the same time), the garden and the aquaponics pond. We met the rest of the team and learned about each of their roles and projects over dinner.
Everyone at PLT (currently either Scottish or American) is absolutely lovely, extremely welcoming, and really passionate about what they do.
Becca, who collected us, runs the Primate Project. She studies the Capuchin monkey population in the Atlantic forest, as well as a few Howler monkeys when they can be found.
Joe looks after the interns and supervises their projects, as well as studying the White-Winged Nightjar, a cute-as-pie little bird that nests in the grasses of the Cerrado (sandy grass and scrub type habitat). There are only 3 known habitats and about 1000 of these birds left, which is not surprising when you read about how easy they are to approach.
Kevin only joined the team a week or two before we arrived. His job is museum curator, collecting, photographing and organising specimens for the museum (including scorpions, lizards, moths, butterflies, beetles and more). He will also supervise volunteers at PLT. Lindsay managed to contribute early on by spotting a scorpion making its was across the porch towards the front door. This one turned out to be one they hadn't yet caught and also quite dangerous.
Bridget arrived only a week before us. She is an intern and will spend the next 3 months studying frogs, tracking seasonal movements. Emily is another intern that arrived 2 days before we left, who will study possums and small rodents.
Karina is the Executive Director of PLT and was instrumental in its conception. While we unfortunately didn't get to spend much time with her, she was a huge help and a wealth of information on reaching PLT as well as travelling through Paraguay in general.
PLT has some Forrest Guards, Jorge and Conce, who look after trail building and various other responsibilities, and Greselda, who makes delicious lunches and dinners and keeps the PLT house in order (we were so spoilt!).
There is also a guy called Paul, who lives elsewhere in Paraguay, and is the expert on all species of Paraguay. Kevin would send a bunch of photos off each day to be identified by Paul, and Paul would feed back instructions of what specimens needed to be kept for the museum, etc.
Finally there is what seems to be an ever growing pack of "guard dogs", who's job is meant to be scaring away the feral horses. Acero, a husky that only ever pretends that he's willing to jump up and make an effort. Lobo, who's not very bright, but compensates with immense enthusiasm and will chase horses, even after receiving a kick to the head. Dobby is the latest addition, though she's not 'offically' part of the family yet. She's too small to chase away horses, but always willing to tag along and chase off smaller things.
So, the scene is hopefully now set. After our health and safety briefing the first morning, the first part of the reserve we went for a tour of was the Atlantic forest with Becca and Jorge. We drove back along the entrance road and pulled over near a trail entrance. As we pulled up, Jorge said he could hear the monkeys calling to each other. We listened for a while but Becca wasn't sure it was them, as she had only heard alarm calls from the unhabituated monkeys in the past.
We made our way to a clearing in the forest where they have set up some tables in an effort to catch some activity on camera traps. Becca and Jorge set up the cameras and we helped cut some fruit to put on the tables to attract the monkeys. When we returned to the car, Jorge spotted the monkeys hanging out in some trees not far from the road. So the noise was them after all!
We climbed up on the ute and watched and took photos of them for half an hour, maybe an hour. It was incredible. As they moved through the trees and threatened us by baring their teeth and shaking branches, we just stared back in amazement. Soon they started to move away, and it was time for our lunch. According to Becca we were the first to have been lucky enough to find the monkeys on our first forest outing.
After lunch, we went with Bridget to help her finish setting up traplines to catch frogs. These traps consisted of plastic sheeting, staked into the ground in a zig-zag, with buckets in the corners dug into the ground. When frogs, lizards, or anything else crawling along the ground hits the plastic, they follow it along and fall into the buckets.
We returned to the house, and accepted Joe's invitation to go Nightjar spotting. Kevin, Bridget, and us sat in the back of the ute for the 15 minute drive to the neighbouring property, via the house to tell the guard we were there with a spotlight so he didn't think we were poachers, which was a good idea as he was walking around with his shotgun when we arrived!
From the airstrip of the property, Joe drove slowly along while Fergus shone the spotlight into the scrub. Our aim was to spot the shining eye of the nightjar, which we did fairly quickly. Once trapped in the light, the nightjar freezes on the spot, making it easy to approach and observe.
Joe stayed at the car holding the bird in the light, while the 4 of us armed with head torches trudged through the grass to get a closer look. We were all able to creep to within a metre of the bird, that sat stationary in the grass. We took some photos and closed in, just enough for the little fella to freak out and decide to fly away. In doing so, he flew directly at Ferg's crotch, then landed a few metres away. We were able to repeat this process a few times (one time he flew at Lindsay's head), before we decided to leave the little chap alone. Such a little cutie!
On returning to the car we showed Joe our shots and informed him this was one that he had tagged. He told us that it was male, as only they have white on the underneath of their wings. On the return drive we also spotted some owls and bats.
After returning, we all scrubbed up a bit and headed to a 59th birthday party at a house across the road from the main entrance. It was a little awkward. We were seemingly a bit late, even for Paraguayan time (which is late), and arrived just as one of the eating shifts was finishing up. We sat for a bit while 4 guys started playing some tunes and singing, apparently some songs were to us, something about enjoying Paraguay. We listened while sharing warm beers (the sharing part is customary, not sure about the warm part).
Soon it was the foreigners turn to eat. We sat obligingly at the table and were served a meat of some description, some empanadas, rice and sopa de paraguaya. As the story goes, the sopa de paraguaya, which isn't soup at all but bread, had something to do with corn soup being cooked for so long until it turned to bread. Dessert was some cake, there was 3 or 4 cakes for some reason.
After eating dinner then listening to some more music, it was decided the awkwardness had exceeded an acceptable level, and so we thanked the host and left.
We awoke early the next morning to assist Kevin and Bridget in collecting whatever had fallen into their traplines. There were some set up along the stream, some throughout the cerrado, and others by the lake that we had helped set up the day prior. In all the walk was a good 6 or 7kms. We found a scorpion, some lizards, beetles, frogs, and plenty of spiders, centipedes and millipedes that are not currently being collected.
That same morning, Karina and Joe left for Asunción for a meeting with a conservation organisation called Guyra. They had received bad news not long before our arrival, that the owners of the reserve have put it up for sale. Their father had owned the land, and he had wanted to keep it for conservation. He left it to his 9 children when he died, and they have put the land on the market for US $5 million. The purpose of the meeting was to see if Guyra could purchase the land so PLT can continue to operate there and manage the site.
That afternoon the rain was threatening. Storms had been forecast, and no one wanted to venture out to get stuck in a downpour. We pottered around a bit after lunch, caught up on some blogging, and checked out some of the specimens in the museum.
The rain didn't come as early as expected so we also had a chance to help Bridget finish off a trap we hadn't had a chance to dig into the ground the day before, and help Becca set up another set of camera traps on the other side of the Forest. Emily arrived that afternoon just before the rain hit. The evening was quiet, and most of us turned in quite early.
We had planned to get up for a 6.30am departure the next day to go and find the monkeys, but it had been absolutely bucketing down and storming all night, and was continuing to do so into the morning. Lindsay went back to sleep for a bit, but Fergus got up followed Kevin's lead drinking an excessive number of coffees (though not a lot else can be done when the power is out).
Bridget and Kevin went to check traps in the rain along the stream and in the cerrado. When they returned, Emily joined them to check the traps near the lake. We assisted Becca with photographing some moths that had been drying out to set in the museum, Bridget returned elated. They had caught approximately 50 of a species of frog that only comes out for 2 weeks of the year for mating, and by chance it appeared her project had coincided with the start of this mating season.
After helping Bridget measure and weigh the 8 or so specimens she returned with, we then got into some waders and our rain jackets for a return trip to help her continue checking the traps. When we got there, she showed us the bucket that had caught the majority of these frogs. Inside was a writhing mess of mating frogs, with a few poor members of other species that had been caught up in the mix. A few other frogs and creatures were found as well in other buckets.
The afternoon cleared somewhat, so Becca suggested we go and search for the monkeys while giving Emily a tour of the forest. To our surprise, we were lucky enough to find them again. We ended up watching them for close to 2 hours. Becca said that was one of the longest encounters they had had. We had managed to catch the monkeys as they were settling down in their sleeping spot for the night.
At first, they made alarm calls (their "humans are around" call), bared their teeth and shook branches at us. Some even threw a few sticks though we weren't in range for them to hit us. One in particular who we called "Mr Angry" until Becca was later able to identify him from the photos, jumped up and down and back and forth in a large tree, seemingly not understanding why we didn't run away from his fearsome act.
Others moved through the trees, scratching themselves to show their discomfort, until eventually they seemed to accept our presence and quietened down. Some of them got bored and moved away, then returned, but Mr Angry and a juvenile stayed put the whole time. As they became more comfortable with our presence, they started showing normal behaviour that Becca hadn't before witnessed, such as grooming. One juvenile even gave up on our presence and curled up to sleep. Seeing these guys in the wild really is an exceptional experience!
Eventually it got dark and we had to make our way out of the forest. We returned to the house to tell Bridget and Kevin about our afternoon, which only disappointed them as they hadn't yet seen the monkeys. We celebrated with a beer though were in bed by about 9pm.
We had now sadly reached our last morning at Laguna Blanca. We all arose early and departed at 6.15 to see if we could catch the monkeys before they left their sleeping site in the morning. We returned to the same area, and while we did have some small sightings, we weren't fortunate enough to have an encounter like the previous two. The monkeys made no calls and weren't really moving around, so spotting them was difficult.
We returned to the house with some time to throw everything into our bags. We said our goodbyes, and we jumped in the back of the trike so Conce could drop us back to the gate to catch the 10.30 bus back to Santa Rosa. There had been concern that the buses might not be running due to the rain, but someone had seen the earlier buses so we thought it would be ok.
We got to the gate around 10, and waited an hour and a half, in the rain. No bus came. As the PLT car was in Asuncion with Karina and Joe, we didn't have the option of being driven back to town, so our alternatives were to flag down a truck and hitch, or return to PLT. We decided to give it half an hour and see what passed by.
12 hit and we were just about to give up when a truck came along the road. We flagged them down and asked if they were heading to Santa Rosa, and if we could jump in. They agreed. We went to the door of the trailer, and discovered some other hitch hikers on board already: a man, woman and little girl, we assume a family. For some reason the man had no pants on, and our presence spurred him to his feet to pull them on! Perhaps he knew this would be a long journey and he wanted to be comfortable?!?
Our bags were thrown in and we climbed up. The only place to sit was on a stack of beer cans, as the sacks of rice and grains were already taken. We assumed our cramped crouch position on them and off we went.
The journey was slow going, and upright beer cans are enormously uncomfortable on a bumpy road, where you have nowhere to put your feet or hands to help cushion the bumps! Fergus managed to puncture a few of his cans along the way making his sitting platform a little skewed as well. All the while we crossed our fingers that the gas cylinders bouncing around behind us wouldn't explode.
While the bus on the way to PLT took an hour, this truck took 2 hours for the return journey. By the time we arrived in Santa Rosa, we vowed never to complain about the state of any bus ever again. We slipped the driver 20,000 Gaurani which is what the bus would have cost. It didn't seem necessary to pay for the ride, but we thought we should at least give him something for the punctured beer cans!
At the bus terminal we were both in need of a toilet. Fergus went first while Lindsay minded the bags. Lindsay was about to go when a bus pulled in with Ciudad del Este on the front. So, no toilet stop for Lindsay until we were on the bus and on our way! We had a giggle at that point when we could relax a little at how ridiculous the previous few hours had been. We also noted how fortunate it is that we won't need to explain to each other why our arses have circular bruises.