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Progress continues, long after the trip ends

29 June 2014, Christchurch, New Zealand

It may have been 18 months since I returned from Nigeria, but it is never far from my mind. I have been busy identifying the plants, learning plenty of new taxonomic terms along the way. There are now close to 1000 images on PhytoImages from the trip.

I contacted Marco from the West African Plants - A Photo Guide website, and he was very happy to take my photos too. Our little reserve is a biodiversity hotspot so has many plants interesting plants that are not found elsewhere.

International researchers are now finding my images on these websites and requesting them for their publications, so the Project is getting even more of a profile as a research destination.

I am still working on identifying plants, now that the easy ones are done it takes a bit longer, and sometimes I can only get them to genus level.

To help the field assistants collect good photos I have created a brochure to photographing plants, available here: Which Part of the Plant should I Photograph. (PDF, 5.2MB). A spanish version is also available after a request by researchers from USA researchers who are working in Central America.

On cold winter nights I long for the warmth of the Nigerian forest, even if it has hairy caterpillers and stinging plants. I dream of all the plants still waiting to be photographed. 

The first 500+ photos now online 

11 June 2013, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ

It has been several months since I returned from the field station, but the work continues. My evenings and weekends are still full of thoughts of Nigeria as I sort the photos and identify the plants. Every photo I look at brings back the memories of the day I photographed it, from the sound of the birds in the forest to the itch of the caterpillars crawling down my arms.

The first set of photos have been uploaded to PhytoImages with the keyword Ngel Nyaki. These are all species that I have identifications for. There are still many more plant photos to follow, so I will be busy for some time to come.

The identification process has been fun, working my way through the various flora and online keys to try and narrow down the options. I have recruited experts from around the world to help identify species where I cannot find good description information.  Some of these collaborators have expressed interest in working with us further - so watch this space.

I have found the website West African Plants - A Photo Guide very useful, but it does not contain many of our plants - so I have offered them my photos. By including my photos this website will become more useful to future researchers at our field station and at other sites in Africa as well. 

Cuisine, Nigerian style

10 December 2012, Ngel Nyaki field station

Clambering around in the forest gives you an appetite. Thankfully we have cooks at the field station to keep us fed. On previous trips I have struggled to get enough food as I eat rather a lot, though where it all goes I have no idea. This time I brought with me some protein powder, but have only used a small amount, as the food is plentiful.

Our staples are rice, beans, spaghetti, yam (like taro), plantain and sweet potato with a tomato based sauce. These are supplemented with eggs, peanuts, avocados, papaya and pineapple. Sometimes these items are served alone; sometimes they come in, what is to us, weird combinations. Have you ever had rice and spaghetti with a tomato sauce, plantain chips, pineapple and an omelette all on the same plate? I have and it is a delicious combination.

Our daily bread comes in unsliced loaves, all the better for me to cut thick slices to drizzle honey over for breakfast. We get a range of different brands, depending on what is available in the village, my favourite brand is Uncle UC, maybe UC has more of a presence on the plateau than we realise.

Charles has brought a chicken which we will have tomorrow night, my last night. Hazel has always refused to allow chickens to be raised at the field station due to the early morning crowing that tends to accompany them. But this one has been rather subdued, so far, not crowing until after we are safely up at 7am.

In the village you can get everyday items such as packets of biscuits, tins of milk powder and the occasional Star beer.

Treats such as oats and snickers bars can be brought up from Jalingo, over 5 hours away by car. At present there is someone coming or going each week, so you don’t have to wait long.

A big thanks goes to Usman Two and Sambo for preparing our daily meals, without a full stomach it would be impossible to work long days in the field, and evenings in the lab.

Usman Two doing the dishes

Usman Two doing the dishes, he has been offered an indoor sink, but prefers the outside tap.

Tree climbing

In the forest. Idriss the photographer, Hamasumo the plant expert and Peter the tree climber. Many of the plants have leaves out of reach, so an able tree climber is necessary.

Home again

16 December 2012, Christchurch, New Zealand

Made it back to NZ, after a long tiring journey. Ended up having 2 nights in Yola as the flights were full on Thursday due to the American University starting their christmas holidays, luckily I had a day up my sleeve for just such an event. In Nigeria, this sort of incident happens regularly so you have to be prepared to go with the flow and hope it all works out in the end - which, from my experiences, it usually does.

Arrived in Lagos at 2pm Friday, in time for the 5pm check-in for my Emirates flight.

So after flying back to the other side of the world my eyes are a bit bloodshot, my brain a bit fuzzy and my head ready to hit the pillow.

With a good nights sleep I should be all set for a day in the office. This will also me my last day in the office for the year as my next adventure starts Tuesday!

A slow walk Sunday

9 December 2012, Main forest, Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve

When I am out with my camera, I walk slowly. If I move too fast I miss the detail, which is where many of my photos are hidden. This usually causes annoyance to anyone with me, as we do not get very far, very fast. This is compounded when I am botanising, especially in a new environment, as there is just so much to see.

So I was a little concerned this morning when Sasha Joined Idriss and I to walk down the Ndombo Ingishi track through the main forest. Luckily Sasha had a last minute thought to go and grab one of our homemade butterfly nets, now she had something to slow her down too.

We proceeded slowly down the track; I kept finding new plants to photograph, Sasha new butterflies to catch, and Idriss a bit of both.

Idriss, it turns out, is an expert butterfly catcher. He claims he learnt his technique, which looks a little bit like a whirlwind, from me. I am not so sure.

We came across an area covered by small red sticky seeds. We investigated closely as Sasha is looking for more seeds for her experiment. My guess of Pittosporum, turned out to be correct when I later checked the identification. We collected a small bag of seeds before continuing to peer at plants and squeeze butterflies to death.

You must always be aware of what you are standing on in the bush, as ants are everywhere. The little ones are no problem, but the red soldier ants can inflict a painful bite. These soldiers took a dislike to Idriss standing on their trail, attacking him with vengeance. He quickly retreated a safe distance, whilst beating at his ankles to dislodge the attackers.

We made it back to the field station around 2pm for a late lunch. Sasha has over 20 new butterfly specimens, and I, 230 photos to add to the database. A very productive Sunday walk.

Idriss and Sasha in the forest searching for butterflies

Idriss and Sasha in the forest searching for butterflies, and posing next to large leaves for me, to add scale.

Ants - do not make them angry.

Ants on trail - do not make them angry.

Herb with white flower - to be identified

Herb with white flower - to be identified.

But wait there’s more, so much more

11 December 2012, Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve

Tomorrow morning I begin my journey home, it will take 4 days. But there is so much still to tell you. Today was no less busy than any other day. We were on the path by 7:30 am today, and not back for until almost 2pm for a late lunch.

Todays mission was to go down to the stream at the bottom of transect 5. Today was the day of the caterpillar, with hundreds descending from the canopy on silken threads. I took over 350 photos, mostly of plants, not the hairy caterpillars.

During my time here I have taken over 3500 images, I have over 500 of them in the database already, leaving a lot to still add to the database. This is a job I can continue to do during the journey home.

Prince, one of the Industrial Training (IT) students from Gombe State University arrived last night for 5 days. Each year the Project hosts up to 6 IT students at the field station, for a period of 6 months. They are BSc degree students who are based here to gain research skills. He is starting on a grassland survey and will really benefit from the photos that I have taken of the plants, as we will now be able to identify most of the species.

Even though we have many different researchers here, there are so many yet to be asked scientific questions. Each night we hear bats, what role do they play in pollination and seed dispersal in the forest? Coffee trees grow in the villages, could they be grown as a cash crop? Is burning the grassland the best land management practice? Insects – where do I even start, we know almost nothing about what is here?  Could eucalyptus trees, for timber and fuel, reduce the impact on the plateau forests?

So if you, or anyone you know, are interested in researching in a little forest in not-so-remote West Africa, I can definitely recommend this one. The climate is awesome and the people are absolutely fantastic.

Each year Hazel produces an annual report for the Project.  It covers the research and activities happening at the field station, from the conservation club to the dung beetle research. They can be viewed and downloaded here. There is also a Facebook group you can join to stay updated on activities with the Project.

There are so many more stories waiting to be told here, but they will have to wait until my next trip.

Early in the morning I will go with Bamanga, our driver, to Jalingo (5.5+ hours) then take a car to Yola (2.5+ hours). Thursday I will fly to Lagos via Abuja. On Friday evening I will board an Emirates flight to Dubai, then another to Sydney, then another to Christchurch. Arriving Sunday afternoon. Monday morning I will be in another world, back sitting in my office, dreaming of my next adventure.

I hope you have enjoyed joining me on this African adventure, it has been fun writing.

Descent of the hairy caterpillars

Descent of the hairy caterpillars, there were heaps of them in the forest today.

Flowers of Chionanthus sp.

A bird in the hand, and me in the bush

8 December 2012, Fragment C, Ngel Nyaki Forest Reserve

Have you ever seen a furry bird? I have. This afternoon I joined Charles at the forest edge to mist net birds for his research.

Charles is building an interaction web for sunbirds and the trees that they pollinate. He would like to find out how the birds interact with the trees and which are the dominant species.

Sunbirds are amazingly colourful birds, with bright metallic coloured feathers. They are much like hummingbirds in size and flight habits.

The birds are being caught to measure how much pollen they are carrying in the feathers around their heads. By also identifying the pollen, he can work out which trees the birds have visited.

He has also been measuring visitation rates and abundance of sunbirds. This work is towards his PhD at UC. Once he has finished he will return to his lectureship position at Gombe State University, about 10 hours drive from here.

I was not much help with the mist netting as I disappeared into the forest with my camera, so as not to scare the birds. Along the steam I found plenty of new plants to photograph, including tree ferns and an amazing orchid, which had a flower spike that looked like a hairy caterpillar.

When I emerged from the bush, prompted by calls from Charles, he had caught two birds. One was a willow warbler and the other a mousebird.

The speckled mousebird (Colius striatus) is endemic to Africa and has very unfeather-like feathers. The feathers lack apteria at their base, which makes them appear more like fur than feathers. Thus the name mousebird.

 Speckled mousebird

Speckled mousebird with fur like feathers.

 Hairy caterpillar like orchid

Hairy caterpillar like orchid flowers.

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