Category Archives: Volunteering

The Capybaras of the REGUA wetlands by Katja Seehawer

Inspired by my Grandfather’s (Helmut) stories of adventure in identifying orchids and my Father’s (Klaus) passion for snakes, I visited REGUA as a volunteer in 2015.   I want to pursue a career in biology and my focus then was on which mammals venture to and from the wetlands and which routes they choose to take, using camera traps positioned on visibly active animal trails.

I showed that trail building in an around the wetlands is almost exclusively done by the Capybara, who permanently live in the wetlands though other animals would also use their trails.   These animals like to use the main tourist trails but between the wetland lakes and the major routes also exists a network of minor “social” trails.

Katja Seehawer with Capybara (© Klaus Seehawer)

The Capybaras’ stronghold is the wetlands but they leave the wetlands for feeding.   This was done on three major routes leading to neighbouring farmland, adjacent wetlands and into reforested Rainforest with remnant pastures.

I returned to REGUA in March 2017 and observed all the major routes still existed. There was no change in the trail network although there was an obvious change where the Capybaras stay during daytime.   The object of my stay was to to determine how the Capybaras live in the wetlands.

Based on different counts I estimate that there were 50 – 70 capybaras living in the wetlands in March/April 2017. These numbers were less than we expected.   I did not count them in 2015 but I have the feeling their numbers have declined.

In 2015 there were seemingly two major groups of Capybaras and they were apparently present everywhere in the wetlands. This was not the case this year.  There was only one group left and other individual Capybaras were scattered.

In 2015 I also noticed that many Capybara had wounds and cuts especially on their rear body parts.   Some Capybaras were seriously wounded and were noticeably limping.   I could witness several moments when Capybaras bit each other.   They seemed to be quite aggressive between each other.

The wounds were not as obvious this year.   Fighting still took place but the wounds were not as numerous and not as severe.   I have the feeling there may have been over-population in 2015 and the lower numbers could have diminished social pressure in 2017.

Katja with curious Capybara (© Klaus Seehawer)

I also observed that only the group near the volunteer houses remained and concluded that the animals also formed “Capybara nurseries”.   A group of 20 to 30 Capybaras would gather on an island and look after the new born and young less than six months of age and guarded by three to six adults.   The young were clearly protected with the adult guards looking in every direction supervising the group.   This nursery island was abandoned about one hour after sunrise each day, the young guided to their day area and to other Capybara groups.   The majority of Capybaras live loosely dispersed on the shores and islands all over the wetlands.

Aside from the nursery, I could not find evidence of a constant group of Capybara larger than five animals during my three week study.   I could not mark any Capybara and there are no individual markings on any Capybara body to distinguish them apart.  From the pictures of the camera trap I could see that there were no uniform constant groups. Capybara would go alone or form differently composed groups daily.

Over the past three years there was a noticeable relocation of the Capybara population towards human housing especially during night time.   This behaviour could be the result of a clear increase of larger predators in the wetlands.   We have seen at least three large Caimans (Caiman latirostris) longer than two metres and there was a clear evidence of an increase of big cat activity in the wetlands.   I had read tales from African safari camps of alternating behaviour of animals with young moving towards humans to avoid their predators.

It is possible that the whole population of the REGUA wetland Capybara are in fact a loosely connected society but their behaviour may vary seasonally.   This has to be verified.

The REGUA wetland Capybaras give me the impression of a healthy population that very well adapts and regulates itself by wandering off to the adjacent habitat and perhaps also through increasing predation.

For future work on the Capybara and to study their social behaviour I will have to find a way to mark individual Capybara.  Radio tagging would only make sense when and if we could get funding for a major work on Capybara.

There are excellent conditions to study the life in nature of Capybaras and other wildlife at REGUA because wildlife is diverse and abundant and almost free from human pressure.

I look forward to returning and conducting further research work at REGUA.

Katja Seehawer

A new born Jararacussu found on REGUA trail by Klaus Seehawer

I am fascinated by snakes.  My father, Helmut, is an orchid specialist and he knows of over 680 species of orchids that can be found in the cloud forests of the Serra dos Órgãos mountains in South East Brazil.   This is a really important area for biodiversity.

Accompanying my father on his trips to the Atlantic forest starting in the late 1970’s we frequently stumbled over different species of snakes without really knowing them.   I became interested in what was creeping between our feet.   Looking closer, my fascination for these creatures grew and looking even closer I finally fell in love with snakes.  Over the time I have specialized on true vipers and pitvipers.   In the past 30 years I studied female Bothrops jararaca and other snakes in upland habit of the Atlantic forest.    Looking for snakes at REGUA is quite a different story because it is lowland habitat and snakes behave quite differently.   Generally higher temperatures give these poikithermal animals even less reason to expose themselves to the sun.   Snakes are well camouflaged, shy and secretive. Especially vipers will hide most of their lives.   All this makes snakes very hard to find for the naturalist.   However,  on 9th of April 2017 I found something very special here at REGUA, a new born Jararacussu (Bothrops jararacussu) on one of its trails.

The little snake was only a little over 20 cm long, which is small for this species.   Literature gives 26-28 cm for this species but it is not mentioned if this data was taken from captive animals or those in the wild.

Breeding of the genus Bothrops takes place between November and March.   Bothrops are ovoviviparous; Juveniles are born alive or under breaking a transparent egg hull.   Up to fifteen young can be born simultaneously.    This happens usually at the end of the rainy season.

Juvenile snakes are difficult to identify.   In this case it had to be determined whether it was a Jararaca or a Jararacussu. The unicoloured top of the head, the more triangular shaped head, the slightly upturned and sharper edged snout, the more rounded A’s on the snake’s flanks and the little spots along the snake’s spine between the A’s make this snake a Jararacussu.

The Jararacussu is a large heavy bodied terrestrial snake. Females longer than two metres are frequently encountered.   Males are smaller.   Preferred habitat is rocks in close proximity to water.   It is often said to live in semiaquatic conditions. Generally it prefers damper habitat and is by far less abundant than its generalist cousin Jararaca (Bothrops Jararaca).

Please forget your possible fears and dislike for snakes for a moment and have a look at this beauty.   This tiny, vividly coloured creature already has all the scales that it

Jararacussu (Bothrops Jararacussu) (© Klaus Seehawer)

will have when it is a two metre giant.   So these scales are only micrometres small and still are individually coloured in grey, brown, black and white or even have a pinkish hue.

Did you notice the snake’s pale tail?  Many Bothrops as juveniles feed on frogs.  By waving the tail a worm is imitated and frogs are lured into striking range.   Remember Bothrops are born at the end of the rainy season when young frogs are numerous also.  Growing up, Bothrops change their food preference to warm blooded rodents.   At this stage the tail colour changes to the ground colour or black in this species.

The location site of this snake was well off the regular tourist trails.   Venomous snakes are very rarely seen on REGUA trails.   Still everybody should remember venomous snakes could be encountered everywhere in tropical areas.   Snakes will never attack unless seriously cornered or hurt.

Give snakes their space and try to enjoy the rare adventure of seeing a snake in the wild, and if you are lucky enough to find one remember to take a good look, get a sketch, photograph or video and as much information as possible to enable an accurate identification.

Please give snakes their space, have respect and try to enjoy…

Klaus Seehawer

Possible new snake for REGUA by Klaus Seehawer

Whilst counting Capybara, Katja and Helmut Seehawer found a wonderful green snake in the REGUA wetlands.   It has been provisionally identified it as Chironius multiventris.   If this is confirmed it would be a new snake for the REGUA snake species list.

Chironius multiventris showing blue irridescence (© Seehawer family)

The Chironius family of the Atlantic forest consists of five species of elegant green, grey, brown or black snakes.   The green variants are especially difficult to identify.

The common name of Chironius multiventris is cobra-cipó – liana snake.   It is a non-venomous snake that grows to nearly two metres.    The snake is diurnal and actively hunts for its prey in trees and on the ground.   It preys – good news for you birders out there! – mainly on amphibians.

The snake seen at noon right in the middle of the wetlands was 120 cm long and of a wonderful green colour with a blue shimmer reflecting from the sky above.  It was observed for a while and obviously distracted by hunting.

With the growing number of species across many taxa in the wetlands the number of snakes will also increase.   In intact Atlantic Forest habitat (without human snake killing) 80% of the snakes encountered will be nonvenomous.

Chironius multiventris well camoflagued (© Seehawer family)

On a separate occasion the Seehawer family encountered another large green snake on Green Trail.   This snake was possibly Chironius exoletus or Chironius bicarinatus, but they were not able to make a reliable identification as the colour and back marking was in between these two snake species.

Give snakes their space and enjoy the rare adventure of seeing one.

Klaus Seehawer

N.B. it should be noted that snakes are not easy to find at REGUA, their natural defence means they are well aware of human presence and will slip away rather than be found.  The Seehawer family are very experienced in finding snakes and walked in the forest with REGUA Rangers.

 

 

A Volunteer’s Story

Thor Smestad looks back on his time at REGUA.

“Well I am back in Canada now .. after six fantastic weeks at REGUA.

I accomplished what I went there to do – to learn as much as I could about their reforestation program, and also have a great time.    I had the opportunity to collect tree seeds in the forest, help with the process producing seedlings from these in the REGUA nursery, and even plant some trees too. I plan to go back .. for the tree planting season – this was only the beginning for me.    

Thor Smestad Planting Terminalia acuminata (© Nicholas Locke)

The constant stream of researchers that stay there too, looking at everything from bats to frogs and owls .. made things even more interesting.

For anyone interested in tropical reforestation and ecology, I highly recommend spending some time at REGUA. Thank you to all the people at REGUA, you were wonderful – and so was the food and accommodation, I think I even put on a little weight.
Thor”

Thor’s Project – part 3

Thor has returned from the north of Brazil, and revisited REGUA and his cuttings in our nursery on his way home to Canada.

Marianeira cuttings (acnistus arborescens)

Talking to him about the progress of his project made interesting conversation.   He enjoyed the whole experience of being in Brazil, and making new friends at REGUA and found his time with us an excellent opportunity to learn about different techniques of tropical forestation.   From helping in the nursery, planting the seeds in prepared pots to planting the trees, Thor took on board the whole process.

He particularly enjoyed his time walking with Mauricio [head nurseryman] and Barata [forest ranger] in the forest, collecting seeds and trying to identify the myriad of  tree species.

As for his project – to experiment with taking tree cuttings rather than germinating seeds.   Thor has just re-checked his samples.  Although they were probably not take at the ideal time of year there were at least a dozen new plants from the Marianeira (acnistus arborescens) species  and a couple of Tabebuia cassinoides.

Thor plans to return at a different time of year and next time maybe use hormone rooting powder.    As he says

“REGUA and many other projects in the tropics are still having problems germinating some species of tree and if I try at a different time of year we may have more success.  

Thor with one of his successful cuttings. (© Sue Healey)

I also want to go and see other projects here in Brazil.   Before I come back however, I need to tackle identifying some of the tree species and they are overwhelming here.   I would recommend REGUA totally as an experience, with its peace and quiet and such welcoming people, I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here.”

REGUA looks forward to Thor’s return.

 

Thor’s work continues

Thor Smestad is a Canadian forestry expert of many years experience.   He volunteered at REGUA with a brief to try to improve our plant propagation programme.   See our first news on Thor’s visit here.

Thor with his cuttings in the REGUA Nursery (© Andrew Proudfoot)

Many Mata Atlantica tree seeds germinate easily and only require to be collected from the forest, placed in a soil-filled sleeves, watered and sheltered from direct sun in the nursery. However, germination rates for some can be poor.    For trees from the fig family for example, success may be limited.    Perhaps Brazil nuts are the best illustration of this dilemma: fewer than 5% of planted seeds germinate.

The way ahead is to use cuttings of shoots dipped in rooting hormone and placed in soil.   In this way, rare plants, not found in fruit, and species with seeds of low viability can be restored to the new forest plantings here at REGUA.

Symbiotic micorrhizal fungi are another issue investigated in Thor’s project.   We do not know how central these fungi are to successful forest establishment and vigorous growth. By experimentally including/excluding forest floor debris (which will carry the fungal spores), the impact of micorrhiza may be assessed. Better information improves reafforestation outcomes and so there is understandably a lot of interest in Thor’s work.

Andrew Proudfoot
REGUA Volunteer

Volunteer Thor plants his first Brazilian tree

REGUA volunteer Thor Smestad hails from British Columbia, Canada. He came to Brazil to fulfill a dream, to plant trees in Brazil.

Thor Smestad Planting his first Brazilian Tree (© Nicholas Locke)

With a diploma in Forestry Technology and a degree in Forest Resources Management, Thor brings a new approach to our propagation model. As he is a specialist in propagation from from cuttings he started by taking cuttings from four Brazilian species to test how successful they are in rooting. This would be a major breakthrough in reducing reforestation costs and his cuttings placed in buckets with small air pumps lay in tubs of water waiting to root. Thor has seen the re-forested areas and the latest areas planted and is amazed at the scale in which REGUA is working. He has offered some valuable contributions in improving the quality of planting. We were able to reward Thor by planting two very special seedlings of “Guarajuba”, (Terminalia acuminate) donated by the botanist Pablo Prieto.

We had heard about these endangered trees from Pablo, a senior researcher at the Botanical Gardens in Rio de Janeiro. He is involved in compiling the Red data list of plants of the Atlantic Forest. Guarajuba wood was well known for its high quality timber which was used to for buildings and boats. Being valuable led to trees being cut down in huge numbers. There are six individual Guarajuba trees in the Botanical Gardens of Rio de Janeiro, but when botanists started searching in the forests around Rio city and in the best remaining tracts of forest, none could be found. It was thought that the species had been lost in the wild.

Volunteer Thor plants a Guarajuba Tree (Terminalia acuminata) (© Nicholas Locke)

However upon researching the Tijuca forest last year, botanists came across 28 examples of this very species. They had probably been planted in 1861-1874 when Major Archer spearheaded the reforestation of the degraded hill under Christ the Redeemer as its water sources had dried up. Pablo found some seeds under this tree and germinated them at home. He generously brought two examples for us to plant at front of REGUA.

This is just terrific and short of opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate we are overjoyed that Thor could plant both the trees for us and hope that in a few years we shall also have seeds to plant elsewhere.

Meeting old friends

Past volunteers
Ian Loyd, Raquel Locke and Henry Cook at the Bird Fair, 2016 (© N Locke)

It is always a pleasure to meet up with friends and especially REGUA’s past volunteers who have contributed so much to the project. This gives us the special feeling that we mutually benefited from opportunities at an important point of time.

In the case of Henry Cook and Ian Loyd, nothing could be more agreeable than seeing them at the British Birdfair this year. Both had stayed at REGUA in 2013 to help guide visitors at REGUA and both are phenomenal birders and lovers of nature.

Henry is currently working at a nature reserve in North Wales and Ian is now working for a wildlife tour company. We wish them all the deserved success and thank them for having spent time with us.

Clive Saunders – Volunteer Bird Guide

azure-gallinule-4242-clive-saunders-420w-2
Azure Gallinule Porphyro flavirostris, REGUA wetland (© Clive Saunders)

After seven weeks I still am amazed by the beauty of REGUA. My time here as a volunteer bird guide has been fabulous and is providing the perfect career break, after 20 years of teaching, that I was definitely needing.

REGUA is the perfect base for exploring and there have been plenty of opportunities to visit the higher elevations of the Red Trail and excursions out to other sites in the Serra do Mar mountain range.

It has been a steep learning curve to try to get to grips with the bird calls and songs and it does take time. However, I appreciate the opportunity to spend time on the trails and local guides Adilei and Igor have been fantastic teachers!

The REGUA wetland continues to develop as a habitat and still continues to attract new birds. Azure Gallinule Porphyrio flavirostris, first seen in November 2014 by Richard Thaxton, was a new bird for Rio de Janeiro state as well as REGUA, and in September White-winged Swallow Tachycineta albiventer was added to the REGUA list.

Nicolas and Raquel make all visitors feel very welcome and Cleia has done a fantastic job of feeding and looking after us! Four weeks of my visit to go and not ready to go home just yet!

If you are interested in volunteering as a bird guide at REGUA then please complete our application form and email it to our Volunteer Co-ordinator, Rachel Walls, at volunteer@regua.org

A Birding treat for our volunteer bird guides

Volunteer bird guides Wes, Jerome and Clive have worked hard in supporting Adilei (our resident guide) in guiding our guests over the last two months and they deserved a well-earned break.    A window of opportunity presented itself with a few days without guests and I suggested a trip to the southern area of Pereque, Ubatuba and Itatiaia, where we might find some new birds.

We left early one morning and in spite of the rain, we saw our two most wanted species Black-hooded Antwren, and Fork-tailed Tody-Tyrant.   These species have a tiny distribution, and Pereque which is located at sea level is one reliable area to see them.    The latter species has been seen at REGUA, but is by no means a regular sighting.

Our three fantastic Bird Guides
Our three fantastic Bird Guides (© Nicholas Locke)

We steamed off for Ubatuba to prepare ourselves for the next day.    Leaving early for our hotel we birded the renowned Fazenda Angelim where we had great views of Ferruginous Antbird,  Buff-throated Purpletuft and Spotted Bamboowren, all equally challenging species.

The afternoon saw us at the Sitio de Jonas.   This is a world famous spot for hummingbirds with sixteen species possible.    Mr Jonas retired from a job in Sao Paulo city and is now feeding hundreds of hummingbirds – using over 4kg of sugar daily!    The two species everyone wants to see are Festive Coquette and Sombre Hummingbird.    We had great views of both species and with time available, headed up to Engenheiro Passos to spend the night in a magnificent hotel visited by the Emperor Don Pedro himself over 100 years ago.

Needless to say the birding along the first six kilometers of the road leading to Mount Itatiaia was just amazing.    The road is easy to bird, the species kept popping up and the guides just kept finding new species.    Red-breasted Toucan, Red-breasted Warbling-finch, Thick-billed Saltator, Golden-winged Cacique, Plovercrest, Sharp-billed Treehunter, Mouse-coloured Tapaculo , Serra do Mar Tyrannulet, Olivaceous Elaenia and Black-capped Piprytes were all seen here.

Black Hawk-eagle
Black Hawk-eagle (© Nicholas Locke)

With Black Hawk-eagle at the higher areas we also added Araucaria Tit-Spinetail and the Itatiaia Spinetail amongst many-many other species, everyone was left deeply impressed. Wes patiently called in the spectacular Speckled-breasted Antpitta, and we craned our necks to get a view within the tangled undergrowth – a joy that left us all enraptured.
Finally, we arrived to spend the night at the Ipé hotel and in the evening still had a chance to see Buffy-fronted Seedeater, a nesting Blue-winged Macaw, Magpie Tanager at the feeders and before turning in, Tawny-browed Owl.

The following day, an early start once again, and we had Robust Woodpecker flying into the mist   During the course of day we had magnificent views of the Large-headed Flatbill, White-throated Spadebill, with more Buffy-fronted seedeaters all around chirping in the high canopy whilst they fed on bamboo.   Brown Tanager, Brown-breasted Bamboo-tyrant and Drab-breasted Bamboo-tyrant, Lesser Woodcreeper, Slaty Bristlefront, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Star-throated Antwren were all seen here and finally after a tough climb through the bamboo undergrowth we found White-bearded Antshrike.

Black-hooded Antwren
Black-hooded Antwerp (© Nicholas Locke)

Soon it was time to return to  REGUA – a thoroughly tired but satisfied group.

Well done everybody!

Nicholas Locke