Monday, September 16, 2013

A Herpy Birthday

Yesterday, Sept. 15th, was my 24th birthday and it was without a doubt one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had! Interestingly enough, this year is the Chinese Year of the Snake – which was also the Chinese year when I was born, in 1989. “Your year” only occurs once every 12 years… and this was the first time I was actually aware of this, thanks to Sheila. I thought this was pretty cool, and especially fitting given that I am surrounded by snakes of all shapes and sizes out here. In fact the day prior to my birthday, a friend of Sheila’s and visiting researcher from Singapore, Mary Ruth, found and caught a few spectacular snakes that I can’t help but share with you. Mary Ruth is studying reticulated python populations in Singapore and has a bunch of snake-snagging experience. Appropriately, one of the snakes she caught to share with us was a baby reticulated python. A fearsome and impressive animal when they’re fully grown, the juveniles are no less magnificent and much easier to handle. Thanks to her elegant snake-handling expertise, we were able to snap a TON of fabulous photos of this cute creature. 
A sssssexy snake
We were basically like the snake paparazzi, snapping loads of pictures every time he moved. It was lots of fun, and after we had all gotten our fill of snake photos and loaded down our memory cards, Mary Ruth released the little guy not far from where she had found him so he could slither away in peace. Later that evening, just as I was bedding down for the night – Mike came in to wake me up and let me know that Mary Ruth had found another snake… this time it was a Blue Krait (Bugarus candidus)! These are easily one of the most dangerous snakes in the jungle… their venom can kill a full-grown man with no problem. Needless to say, I jumped out of bed and hurried to catch a glimpse of this warlock. 
One bite = death
Despite the Krait’s humble appearance, we all knew that this serpent was to be taken seriously. The snake team happened to be driving by while Mary Ruth was flushing the Krait out of the bushes, and they lent her some snake tongs so she could pull it out onto the road and we could snap a few pictures. This guy was a lot less photogenic than the python, and petting him to calm him down was not an option. Constantly squirming to get away, I didn't manage to get too many pictures that weren't blurry. However, I did capture this video of Mary Ruth bagging this snake like a pro. She wasn't just showing off, the snake team wanted to process it as part of their ecological communities study.

The next morning when we woke up to start our survey for frogs at dawn we were in for a big surprise. The upper dam pond, even though it only had a puddle in it, had recently become super active with frogs. Thanks to the girls deciding to go star-gazing one evening… they discovered that our frogs are in fact out in force at the upper dam pond, despite the lack of water. As a result, we have shifted our focus from the lower dam pond to the upper dam pond, and suddenly, we are up to our ears in work. Instead of only working from 4 -5:30 am, we are now waking up around 2:30 and working until around 8:30 or 9 in the morning, sometimes longer depending on the evening. Our new typical schedule involves getting geared up, driving up to the upper dam pond, searching for around 2 hours while catching any gravid (sort of the frog version of pregnant) females and then a male to match with each female we find. Then we head back to the lab where we set up the males and females in tanks and hope they reproduce. Any egg clutches that we find we’ll set up with a time-lapse camera to observe the female’s parental care behavior, the primary focus of this study.
A female hansanae tending to her eggs
The girls whispered “Happy Birthday” to me as they headed upstairs to hit the hay, while Mike and I donned our headlamps and boots. I whispered “Thanks!” back and then we headed towards the truck. Our commute is roughly 15 minutes up the windy road to the top of the hill... and always interesting. We keep our brights on and our eyes peeled for any creatures that we might spot on the roads. Not long ago, we came upon a barking deer … an animal commonly heard here (it’s called the barking deer for a reason) but rarely seen. Anyhow, we didn't see anything that particular morning. As we walked down towards the pond, I couldn't help but smile to myself. It’s not often that people wake up at 2:30 am to go to work and can say that they truly enjoy it… but I couldn't be happier. The frog chorus greeted us like a deafening stadium of fans cheering as their team enters the field. Definitely the most unique start to any birthday I've ever had. We ended up coming back with 11 new pairs, a new record for us. 
The backseat of our truck... filled with baggies of froggies
Only a few days ago, we only had data on 11 clutches that we've housed in the shed… throughout our entire time here. Sheila’s goal for her research was a minimum of 100… and with the field season more than half over, I was beginning to get a little concerned. However as I am writing this, we are presently up to clutch 46, and counting! There are many more frogs currently in amplexus (behavior where the male latches on to the females back so that he can fertilize her eggs as she lays them)… which means more clutches are on the way. We have so many frogs that we have run out of tanks to house them in individually and we had to dedicate two large tanks for holding males and females, separately of course. They are essentially on the waiting list for available rooms. When it rains, it pours!
A glimpse inside our lab... only a few days ago, most of these shelves were empty
Needless to say, my birthday was off to an exciting start. The only downfall of having so many clutches and therefore lots of work to do was that I missed a Skype date with my parents in the morning that I had scheduled about a week prior. At that time, I had expected to be all done with work around 6 am as we had been on previous dawn shifts. So I headed up to the internet porch to try to see if my parents were still awake, but was having trouble getting online. While I was there, Sheila came up to talk to me about plants and show me where I could find the ones we had been using for the tanks… since we had used up all of our previous supply on our new crop of frogs. So I wandered over towards the shed with her, and noticed the latch was undone. Since the shed can only be latched from outside, this usually means someone is inside. I didn't think too much of it though, and opened the door. 

The start to an awesome adventure
Much to my surprise… Sara, Tesco, Mike, and Mary Ruth were all standing there to greet me with a friendly “Herpy Birthday!!” (In case you don’t get it, or worse – think I may need to see a doctor… this pun is based on herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians.) I was really grateful that they cared enough to go through the trouble to surprise me. Little did I realize at the time, that was only the beginning!

 Sara smiled and said, “We have a letter for you!” I was expecting a nice card with everyone’s signatures and maybe some sort of corny joke…. since I’m constantly bombarding them with horrible puns. What I got was a million times superior. It was the beginning of a treasure hunt!! I can’t possibly imagine anything that I would have rather gotten for my birthday. As these guys know well, I love riddles and at the start of the field season I was constantly getting them to figure what happened to random dead guys with yes or no questions. So this couldn't have been more perfect. I haven’t done a treasure hunt for many, many years… and I was super stoked. The first "task" even rhymed! 

At first I was so stunned and pleasantly surprised that I didn't even realize that this message contained a clue. Although after standing there smiling stupidly for a bit, I reexamined the text (thanks to some helpful encouragement) and then slowly gathered I needed to return to the internet porch. Actually, the last line was a little more in depth than I originally realized (and also part of a silly inside joke) which eventually brought me to Taksin’s office. There I found another clue, and the adventure continued! Each hint was different, ranging from deciphering well-drawn pictures, to riddles in Spanish, and everything in between. I even had to climb one of the towers to get a clue! 

Learning my destiny from a lofty location
The initial note was not kidding about heading all over Sakaerat; I trekked all the way up to the top of the hill to find one of the messages. Thankfully I was able to unscramble the “Damn Doper Pup” clue into “Upper Dam Pond” in order to get one step closer to my prize. With every clue, I was more and more impressed with all the work that these three (Tesco, Sara, and Sheila) had put into making sure I had a special day. They confessed it was just as much fun for them to make it, which I completely believe – I've made treasure hunts for friends before and it’s always a blast. I could tell they enjoyed “watching me ponder” each hint and struggle miserably while my brain slowly kicked into gear, decoding lots of cleverly weaved inside jokes and cute illustrations. Nonetheless, I felt very honored to be on the receiving end of this splendid, extremely well-planned gift. 

 Each clue was even placed inside a miniature plastic Ziploc bag and firmly taped into location, so that this treasure hunt could withstand wind or rain with no problem. These girls were on top of everything. Despite the fact that we were very busy with data clips to analyze and other work, Sheila considered this mission of top importance... what a fantastic boss! If only there was a "RateMyFieldResearchBoss" website... haha. 
Where to next?
Eventually, I found my final clue… and headed towards the upstairs porch to unearth the treasure. When I rounded the corner, I was even more amazed. They had given me beer! But not just a bunch of the beer that we have access to every day at the grocery store, but select different beers from all over the world. WOW! How did they do it?? I was impressed, and absolutely delighted – to say the least.

I'm a very happy camper!
These guys have clearly gotten to know me well! Beer and a treasure hunt, it really doesn't get better than that. It’s crazy to think that I only met these people a few months ago, and yet they treated me like a member of their family… even if I am the crazy older brother that makes weird loud noises all the time and laughs like a maniac. They went above and beyond the call of duty, taking extra care to make sure I had a spectacular day. This really meant a lot, especially since I am on the opposite side of the world from all my other friends and family. And yet, I felt like a little kid again – running through my house looking for a little hidden piece of folded white paper while my neighborhood buddies trailed close behind. 

After asking more about how they pulled this off without me having any idea, they admitted that this project has been over a month in the making! WOW.  I never expect much from a birthday, and honestly I was pretty happy when I got this job and realized that I would be away for the entire month of September. That eliminated having to plan any sort of celebration… I could just go with the flow.

And so I did go with flow, but the whole time I was astounded with how much thought and preparation had gone into creating this lovely stream of events. The next stop on this lazy river of great times was a visit to the nearby local café for lunch, where we ate a delicious and relaxing meal.
Mary Ruth, Tesco, and Sala at lunch
After lunch, we came home and I took a short nap… after all, I had been up since 2 in the morning and running around during the treasure hunt had worn me out. When I woke up, I helped Sheila out in the shed for a few hours… shuffling around tanks to make room for more frogs and recording data on the frogs that we are currently housing. That took us quite a while, and meanwhile the others started cooking dinner, Massaman curry… one of my favorite dishes that I've discovered while here. This was the only part I was ready for, since Sara had asked me a few days ago what I wanted for dinner on Sunday. The meal was even better than I expected since she added lots of lentils this time, and the best part was I was able to pair it with a cold pale ale from Cooper’s brewery in Australia. This was the first time I’d tasted a pale ale (my favorite type of beer) in over 2 months, and it was absolutely out of this world… especially when wed with the slight spiciness of the curry lentils. I was in heaven!
Extremely fulfilling birthday dinner, complete with beer!
The icing on the cake to this fantastic day was, well… the cake. After dinner, Sara and Tesco disappeared for a while… and then returned with a plate full of five different slices of gourmet cakes, each adorned with blazing candles. Apparently they had snuck out yesterday, while I was napping, to go to a nearby restaurant and picked up these scrumptious delicacies. Once more, I was in awe of their dedication and thoughtfulness. Many pictures were taken, and then we all dug in! We each ate a few bites of all the pieces of cake, so as not to miss out on any part of this delectable dessert. 
I had my cake, and ate it too! 
We snapped a few “family photos” to commemorate the special moment. To tell the truth, I usually don’t like to make a big deal about my birthday. In high school I used to go the whole day without telling anyone – I just didn't like to make a scene. In general, I prefer to help someone else celebrate their birthday, that way the pressure is off on how you react to every move… and yet you still get to have fun and eat some cake. So with all that being said, I certainly didn't expect this much from friends that I've only known for a short-time. But clearly, these people are different – and after living and working together for a few months, we've developed an awesome connection and shared many, many laughs. It’s impossible to really express how grateful I am to be working with such great people. I am truly blessed, not only to have such marvelous new friends – but also because I know I have wonderful friends all over the world, and of course an extremely loving and supporting family at home. So thank you ALL, for an amazing day. Just knowing that so many people took time to think of me on my birthday is a fantastic feeling. Thanks for reading… and I hope to have a few more long-overdue blog posts published soon. Until then, Peace Out!
Family Photo
 P.S. If you are so inclined, please send some positive vibes towards my Uncle John (pretty sure I inherited my laugh from him!)... he is currently suffering from some severe health issues after taking a bad fall and also has cancer, so he can use all the help he can get. Thanks!

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