Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 2

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 2: Cave stream survey

Today we started our surveys around 1:00pm.  Most reptiles and amphibians are not to active during the days in this area but we know of a hidden gem… a cave stream! The land my team has been surveying is a small piece of the Western Ghats that has never been formally surveyed, that being said, the possibilities of finding new species, rare species and documenting range extensions are endless!  Documenting our findings can play a huge role in conserving this beautiful habitat.  That’s what this is all about and what we are all about; conserving the land to conserve and protect the species we are so passionate about. After a short hike over some rocky hills then back down, we enter the mouth of the cave.  For safety’s sake, we only explore the first 100 meters or so inside the cave.  Along this stream we found an adult wolf snake (Lycodon travancoricus), many night frogs (Nyctibatrachus sp.), gigantic Indian bullfrogs (Hoplobatrachus sp.), cave crabs, vinegaroons and cave crickets.  Outside of the cave more Indian cricket frogs (Minervarya sp.) and a ton of spiders.  We also noted hoof prints and mud wallows of an Indian bison called a gaur (Bos gaurus). Not bad for a day time survey in this part of India!

Time for some samosas, chai and data logging.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

Here at the zoo we have over 420 staff members working hard to save wildlife, but our jobs as conservationists don’t end when we leave the zoo for the day. We all want to go above and beyond to do everything we can to save wildlife, and our unique program called the Staff Conservation Fund allows us to do just that! The Staff Conservation Fund was created as a way for staff to participate in wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Each year, zoo employees can donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to the fund. This fund is then used to provide support to staff members who successfully create or enhance a conservation project and apply for funding to bring the project to life. To date, this fund has made it possible for 63 staff members to carry out 43 projects in 14 countries around the world!

One of the latest projects is being carried out in the northern Western Ghats region of India by Chris Bednarski, a senior keeper in the herpetology department. The Western Ghats is home to one-third of the plants, almost half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known in India. Unfortunately, this strip of rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate due to logging and conversion for agricultural uses. In 2013, the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust purchased 3500 acres in this region and began implementing several conservation initiatives. Chris’s goal is to survey within this section of land and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild! Chris has been documenting his trip, and sent us this journal entry to share with all of you about his first day in the field:

“After 22 hours of flights, a quick nap and several cups of chai my team and I were headed to our first survey zone.  It’s a beautiful plot of primary and secondary forest surrounded by several rice fields and pineapple farms.  It is a “sacred forest” that the local villagers have set up shrines and a small temple.  No plants or animals can be removed or harmed within this forest which makes this area so important for us to survey.  Over the years we have documented over 20 species of reptile and amphibian, too many birds to count, leopards, tigers, elephants and amazing invertebrates on this property.   

This is our first survey post monsoon this year and we had high hopes.  Past years have produced well for us and this trip was not a disappointment.  Our searching began at around 6:30pm as the sun was setting and we wrapped up around midnight.  We walked forest paths, streams, and around the temples.  In the lower branches of the trees we documented a critically endangered species of bush frog (Psuedophilatus sp.), in the streams an endangered species of Indian cricket frog (Minervarya sp.), and along the temple walls a plethora of Brook’s geckos (Hemidactylus brookii).  Many other species were found but these were the high lights for sure! 

Time to get all our data logged into our computers and get ready for the next day of surveys!”  

Tackling Plastics Pollution on the Texas City Dike

If you live in the Houston/Galveston area, chances are you have either made a trip to the coast to go fishing, or have friends and family that do. Here at the zoo, many of our own staff enjoy fishing too, and want to make sure that we keep our oceans and beaches clean so we can all enjoy this pastime for years to come! The Houston/Galveston region has several plastic pollution groups that make up the P3 Partnership. Through this partnership, the idea came about to get a number of organizations to team up and identify some of the major threats that plastics pollution poses to our local coastal birds and marine wildlife. This group, made up of members from the Audubon Texas Coastal Program, Galveston Bay Area Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, Houston Zoo, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -Galveston Bay Estuary Program identified discarded fishing line as one of the biggest threats to wildlife like pelicans and sea turtles.

As a group, we felt confident that discarded fishing line was a problem along the Texas coast, but how could we know for sure? You certainly don’t want to work on finding solutions to a problem without knowing if that problem actually exists…so what do you do next? You identify an area to explore and search for evidence! The Texas City Dike (TCD) was selected as the area the group wanted to work in because of its reputation as a prime, year-round fishing spot. Once this study area was chosen, the group decided that the next step would be to take a trip to the dike, and collect discarded fishing line from specific locations along the dike to see just how much line was present. This collection of line took place on December 4th, and Sophie, one of our sea lion staff members, gave this account of her experience:

Over the last three years, the sea lion team has been focusing on the monofilament reduction efforts and cleanups at the Surfside Jetty, and I am so excited to now be a part of our first campaign to reduce the presence of fishing line at the Texas City Dike. Over the three hours that we spent at the Texas City Dike, I noticed a few things different at the dike than what I typically see at the Surfside jetty. The first thing was the lower presence of general litter. When walking the jetty, I typically find lots of beer cans, plastic bags, bait bags, cigarette butts, etc.. It may be the fact that I focused only on a few hundred square feet at TCD, but the presence of these larger waste items was lower. However, we could sit ourselves down in one spot and stay occupied within arm’s reach as we collected all the pieces of line; short, long, monofilament plastic, string, entangled in plant life… the list goes on. It seemed that the nature of the TCD (more natural ground, dirt and grass vs. the cement of the jetty) lends itself to accumulating more line itself, and offers more possibilities of the pieces of line to get tangled instead of just blowing into the surrounding waters. We ended up collecting close to as much line in a hundred square feet as we do on the entire surfside jetty, and in less time.

As we move forward with this project, the next step is to talk to the anglers and find out what the barriers are that stand in the way of containing their fishing line, and ultimately recycling it. I find myself wondering if the anglers at the TCD will say the same thing as the anglers at Surfside, or is there a difference that adds to this seemingly higher presence of line at the TCD? The line at the TCD was also far less encumbered by the man made debris that we normally find it weighed down by at Surfside; weights, hooks, litter… the most common entanglement we found during our TCD survey was line wrapped up in some plant life, possibly some with a few small weights and hooks. Why this difference? As we move through this campaign, and hopefully replicate it at the Surfside jetty, I hope to find these answers and continue to get closer to the successful prevention of monofilament entering our marine environments.

Thanks to an amazing team of volunteers, we were able to collect a total of 21.9 pounds of fishing line at the Texas City Dike on December 4th. Stay tuned for more updates coming in 2018!

Staff Saving Wildlife in Vietnam

One of our amazing veterinary technicians is currently in Vietnam training staff from the organization, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Jess, our talented vet tech is training staff in Vietnam on medical procedures for animals including blood collection, animal handling skills, intubation techniques and how to respond to different anesthetic situations.

Developing these skills in the staff at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife will help them further develop their animal health assessments of critically endangered animals such as pangolins. Jess started her work immediately upon arrival, when the organization rescued a total of 32 pangolins, bringing the total under their care to 77. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Jess’s work is fully-supported by our Staff Conservation Fund, a grant for Houston Zoo staff, funded by Houston Zoo staff to support their passion to save animals in the wild. This is a unique program to the Houston Zoo and has allowed our staff to carry out 43 projects around the world to save wildlife over the past 10 years.

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 5

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program (MAC) to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

Departure

The day before departure the Mariana fruit doves receive a colored band and are placed in the transport boxes. This is the last time they will be handled before they are released. The doves do not receive color combination bands like the Rufous fantails because they were banded with a metal band that has a unique number engraved on it.

On departure day the birds are taken to the dock and moved onto the boat. Everyone involved from US Fish and Wildlife and the MAC program shows up to help and to see the birds off and wish them safe travels. It is a joyous occasion with a great sense of relief. The birds are just hours away from being released to their new home. A crew of mostly US Fish and Wildlife employees and three MAC plan representatives will accompany the birds on their journey.

Once they reach their destination the transport boxes will be loaded onto backpacks. They hike up a mountain to the pre-selected release site. Below is a photo of Anne Heitman demonstrating the backpack.

The rest is up to the birds. In the coming years the department of Fish and Wildlife will do population studies to make sure the birds are reproducing.

It was quite an honor to be involved in this project. It is amazing to work for the Houston Zoo and get opportunities like this one!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 4

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

When the bird room is full of Rufous fantails and Mariana fruit doves the veterinarians do a medical exam on every single bird. We had two vets, one vet tech, and four bird keepers helping with the exams. It was great having this many people on hand to complete this enormous task as efficiently as possible.

During this process a small amount of blood is taken from the underside of the wing with a capillary tube, just like when a person is checking their blood sugar levels. The blood is put onto a slide; this is called a blood smear. The slides are looked at under a microscope to see if the blood cells are normal and to make sure the white blood cell count is normal. If the white blood count is high that could mean the bird is fighting an infection.

Medical exam performed on a bird as it prepares to be translocated for conservation purposes
Blood from each bird is looked at carefully to ensure the blood cells are normal and the bird is healthy

After the blood is collected the bird is given a physical. The vet checks the body condition, sound of its heart and breathing, and checks its eyes to make sure it has no issues with vision. If the bird seems less than the pinnacle of health, the bird is released and not translocated. We want to make sure every bird has the best chance of surviving in its new home.

Each bird is looked at carefully by wildlife professionals

The last thing done during the exam is a feather collection. The feathers are collected so that the gender of the bird can be determined. This is not determined while we are there, but it takes about a week or two for an outside lab to do the work. This information is recorded for future data analysis.

All these things are noted for each individual bird’s records. Note cards are kept with the birds while they are in our care and we write down everything that happens. The birds’ weight, where it was found, diet consumption, bands (identification), and medical notes are all written on these cards.

Records are kept for each individual bird

Next time the birds will be prepped for departure and we will watch them sail away towards their new home!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part III

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

The bird room for native birds who are being relocated to islands without the invasive brown tree snake

When the birds come in from the field, it’s time for some important record-keeping. The birds are banded, weighed, and their wings, legs, and tails are measured. They are also given a physical to make sure they are in good body condition. We check for signs of nesting as well (such as a bare spot on their belly). Each bird gets a metal band with a unique number engraved on it. This helps us to identify each bird and more easily keep track of them as we feed and monitor their condition.  Below are several photos of the process for both the fruit dove and the rufous fantail that we met in the previous blog entry.

Measuring the tarsometatarsus length
Measuring primary feathers
Measuring tail feathers
Checking feather quality
Measuring tarsometatarsus length
Banding the birds-putting small tags on the birds for identification purposes

After they receive their physical they are placed in their own individual box. The dove boxes are larger than the boxes for the fantails because they are much larger birds. They will then travel to Guguan (another island in the Mariana region). This travel time also gives us a chance to collect feather, blood, and fecal samples in order to determine sex and the stress level of every bird. Disney Animal Kingdom sends a team from their veterinary clinic to collect these samples for a study they are doing on cortisol (stress hormone) levels. I will go more in depth on the process of the medical exams next time.

Dove boxes
Fantail boxes

Every day the fruit doves are fed a mixture of papaya, Kaytee exact high fat formula, and water. This is done three times a day. The rufous fantails get fed meal worms and flies four times a day. The idea is to have them eat consistently to ensure they are as healthy as possible throughout their journey.

Next time we will see our rufous fantail friend get a medical exam.

Rescued Sea Turtle Returns to Wild

This blog post was written by Heather Crane, a Houston Zoo staff member in our Sea Lion Department. The sea turtle release described below would not have been possible without prominent sea turtle conservationists at NOAA Galveston who provided all care and support to rehabilitate the sea turtles mentioned in this blog.

On October 30, 2016 a group of volunteers and I were at a scheduled Sea Lion team Surfside Jetty cleanup when we discovered an entangled green sea turtle. Cleanups are executed monthly by the Houston Zoo Sea Lion Team. Through a partnership between the Houston Zoo and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), fishing line is removed to prevent wildlife entanglement and pollution. We notified NOAA of the entangled sea turtle by calling the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. While we waited on a NOAA scientist to arrive, the turtle became more entangled and appeared distressed. My worst fear started playing out before me: this endangered turtle was drowning. Help was still 30 minutes from arriving. I made the decision to enter the water to disentangle and retrieve the sea turtle. My team of volunteers stood close by to assist and ensure my safety. Our Conservation Intern of the time, Taylor Rhoades, also entered the water to free me when my shoes also became entangled in fishing line. The in-water dangers that exist pose a threat and it is not recommended that members of the public enter the water. NOAA biologist, Lyndsey Howell, arrived and removed the fishing line that was tightly wound around the front left flipper of the turtle. She took the green turtle to the Galveston Sea Turtle Facility to begin what would become a seven month rehabilitation and recovery.

Green sea turtle entangled in discarded fishing line
Houston Zoo staff and intern retrieve sea turtle from in-water entanglement by fishing line

On Friday, May 19th, the sea lion team was invited to watch the rescued green sea turtle be released back into its natural habitat. This was an unexpected surprise and a very special and generous invitation from NOAA, which will forever have an impact on my life. NOAA was scheduled to release five green sea turtles on Friday. I was surprised when we were told our team would help release some of the turtles. We got a lesson from the biologists, Lyndsey and Heather, on safe handling and release practices before being allowed to release the turtles. I took the first turtle to the water and when it touched the surface of the water, it knew exactly what to do. I watched it until it disappeared into the water about 15 feet in front of me. Next, my supervisor, Sophie Darling, took a turn releasing a turtle too. After four turtles were released, the only one that remained was the turtle I had rescued in October.

Houston Zoo Sea Lion staff and NOAA biologist prepare a green sea turtle for release back into the wild
Houston Zoo Sea Lion Supervisor, Sophie, prepares a green sea turtle for release back into Galveston Bay
Houston Zoo sea lion staff helps return a rehabilitated sea turtle to the wild! This turtle was cared for by NOAA Galveston

The surprises just kept coming. Not only would I have the opportunity to watch the turtle I rescued go home, I was also going to be the one to release him! I had never imagined I would be part of this endangered animal’s story, and certainly never thought I would see the full circle process. When I peered in to the container in which the turtle had been transported, it appeared healthy and active. And WOW! It had doubled in size too! I would recognize this turtle anywhere, even if it had doubled in size. The posterior edge of the shell had a small hole in it when I first encountered it in October. Additionally, due to the tight fishing line that was wrapped around the front left flipper, there was distinctive line entanglement scarring. As I walked towards the water, I stopped to take a picture with the turtle before wishing it farewell and good luck. As I waded out into the shallows, I only felt excitement. I think I was still in shock that NOAA had included me in this turtle’s journey. I lowered the turtle to the water and it took just a moment for it to start swimming. First, it swam backwards, which both confused and humored me, but then, it swam gracefully away towards the deeper water. As I watched, I could think of fewer greater moments of joy in my life.

Houston Zoo staff member, Heather, was overjoyed to help release the green sea turtle she helped rescue from the Surfside Jetty just 7 months ago.

The Houston Zoo has empowered me to take an active role in conservation of wild animals. The Houston Zoo’s partnerships with NOAA and other conservation organizations are invaluable and are what make our conservation programming successful. I feel proud to know that this is only one example of how the Houston Zoo lives its mission of saving animals in the wild. Many people have thanked me and have told me how I impacted the life of the green sea turtle I rescued that day. In the end, we both impacted each other. When I reflect upon proud moments of my life and career, this experience will always be amongst the experiences of which I am most proud. I am proud, too, to be a part of team dedicated to ensuring clean waterways through the dedication of time and energy every month to cleaning the Surfside Jetty. And I could not be more thankful to NOAA and all the work they do to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these beautiful and endangered turtles.

To watch a short video of the green sea turtle being released, please visit: Sea turtle release

You can help protect sea turtles in Texas by disposing of fishing line properly. Place fishing line in designated monofilament recycling bins, or take it home with you and dispose of it in your trash so it does not blow into the ocean where animals like sea turtles, fish, dolphins, and birds can become entangled. 

Look for these bins when fishing-you can dispose of your fishing line here and it will be kept out of the ocean where it can harm animals like sea turtles!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part II

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

Field days are long and hot. In this blog entry I will walk you through a typical day in the field. With lots of photos!

We wake up at 4:00 am to be ready to head out to the field by 4:45 am. We get to our site at 5:15 am and unload the gear for the day and start opening the mist nets (a net used by ornithologists and biologists to safely gather birds for research and conservation purposes). At 6:15 all the nets should be open and then we wait. Nets are checked every 15-20 minutes for birds. All non-target birds (those birds we are not relocating as part of this conservation effort) are released immediately.

Mist nets are used for to safely catch birds for research and conservation. Here is our team setting up the nets for Mariana fruit doves.
Ellen, a Toledo Zoo staff member safely removes a wild bird from the mist net. Trained zookeepers who work with birds daily assist with this task due to their extensive background and training in handling birds.
A Mariana fruit dove
Birds are transported to a transport crate using soft cloth bags.
These transport crates are used to safely move birds.

There is a second field site for a different bird species, the Rufous fantails. The nets used for this species are not as tall and the mesh is also smaller. The fantails weigh about 8 grams while doves weigh about 75 grams.

Another mist netting site, setup to locate another species of bird, called the Rufous fantail.
Each bird is kept safe in a labeled cloth bag before it is moved to a transport crate.
Transport boxes for the birds.
Each label from the cloth bags is placed on the transport crate to identify the individual bird.

Flies are then collected and put in the box for the bird to eat. The fantails are very active birds and need to eat constantly. We catch flies by placing buckets over a tray of fish. If only you could smell through the internet!

Collecting flies for the birds to eat.
Modified petri dishes are used to collect the flies. The petri dishes are then placed in the box with the bird and the lid is removed quickly so that the flies don’t escape.

Someone makes runs out to both field sites to pick up birds every few hours to take them to the holding room.

At about 4:45 pm we will close up the nets and head back into town.

Next time I’ll tell you what happens to both this fantail and dove when they get to the “bird room”!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

Houston Zoo bird staff is currently assisting the MAC (Mariana Avifauna Conservation) plan. This year I am helping out in Saipan where we will be focusing on two species, the Mariana fruit dove and the rufous fantail.

Mariana fruit dove at the Houston Zoo. The Zoo works to protect all the wild counterparts of the species we have here. Houston Zoo bird staff are currently overseas, ensuring this species is protected in its’ natural habitat.

For those who don’t know, the MAC plan’s goal is to establish self-sustaining populations of Mariana forest bird species on uninhabited northern islands. Due to the invasive brown tree snake damaging the local bird population, it is important to create other healthy populations of local birds where brown tree snakes are not a threat. The work done here is an insurance policy for local birds.

After 3 flights and 24 hours of travel I made it to Saipan. They didn’t waste any time putting me to work either. I spent half of my first day in the field finding fruit doves, more on that later. The second half of the day I helped with community outreach by manning a booth at the Flame Tree Festival.

The Flame Tree Festival is a celebration of the Saipan community and culture of the Chamorro people. The local children perform their musical talents on stage. Local dances are also performed. There are art booths and food stands. The festival seems is very popular and we had a successful night discussing bird conservation.

The photo below is of the booth we had set up. The wheel on the right was popular with the kids. They could spin it and win a trading card with one of 15 local Mariana forest species on it. We had two little boys who kept coming back and spinning it for a new card. It was a lot of fun interacting and educating the public about bird conservation. It’s important to let them know that there are things they can do to participate and help!

Discussing local birds at the Flame Tree Festival.

Next blog l will talk about how a field day runs. In the coming entries we will follow a bird through the whole process of moving to another island!

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