Divide and conquer

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Tuesday, May 17th

Everyone was up and ready to roll by 7:00 this morning and after struggling to obtain multiple cups of coffee for 16 people at breakfast, we all broke off to tackle separate tasks. Rather than everyone going to the field at once and waiting for Mahalet to get permission to enter the forest, most of us would stay and homogenize soils at the hotel while Amare and Mahlet headed to the forest first. It wasn’t easy getting up so early just to go back to our hotel room but we have learned from experience that homogenizing as we go is much better than trying to do all 50 soils in one day of lab work. I offered to sacrifice my room to the mess and we lined up three little bedside tables so that four of us could homogenize at once. We got some music going and discovered that cleaning sieves was much easier with a toothbrush (extra ones from the hotel, not our own!), we worked our way through all 15 of the soils from the previous day’s forests relatively quickly. Mahalet and Amare were dealing with the local government and didn’t get back till noon. They found all of us either asleep or reading in our bed, just waiting for the call to action.

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View of the center of Mekan Eyesus from my hotel room

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View of the mountains from behind the hotel

Once we were given the all clear we quickly broke in to two bare-bones teams so we could resurvey two forests at once. They were right across the road from each other, probably 3 km apart. Peter S took me, Robyn, Kate and Mahalet to the slightly closer forest, while Cat, Max, Amare and Misgano took off for the forest that was supposed to be super steep and very difficult. We were walking up opposite sides of the valley and it was fun to watch the other group wind their way through the fields across the valley. We had no problem getting into the forest and the small crew was very efficient at dbh, seedlings and soils. Pete would go locate the next plot while we worked so we were able to move quickly. It was one of those rare forest where no kids or students were following us around and it was so pleasant to not be distracted.

IMG_9771We knew we would finish before the other group so we hung out on the far side of the forest looking over the valley next to us. It’s really incredible to be able to hear the animals and people so clearly from all the way across the valley. It was the perfect spot to hang for a minute and enjoy the weather but Pete wanted to move so we could watch for the other group hiking out of their forest. The benefit of the new location was a couple of big rocks to stretch out on, (“Happiness is my butt on a rock, a dbh in one hand and a roll of bread in the other”-Robyn) and a nice tree for Mahalet to climb. It took her not 5 minutes to be 20 feet in the air! It was a bit more of a struggle getting her down when we saw team 2 heading for the car but with some help from a local we managed and arrived back at the car at the same time.

IMG_9774It was already 4pm because we had such a slow start but Cat was determined to get one more forest done before calling it quits. This one was right in town and we had a strategy to get all three plots surveyed between our two teams before sun down. The walk up was absolutely stunning, with the the early evening sun lighting up with high mountains in the distance. We gathered quite a gaggle of kids since we started walking from town and my group ended up acquiring two little helpers. A young boy carried all of Robyn’s things and a very young, adorable girl followed Kate around, holding tree branches out of her way and helping move the seedling plot. Our group was able to do two plots, finishing the last one just as the sun went down. Misgano was taking the eucalyptus soil cores as we left the forest and by the time we got back to the van it was dark and the moon was out over the valley.

Back at the hotel we had another late, big group dinner and planned for the next day. Cat would be leaving the day after next and had a million things to take care of before then. All we could do to help was to go back to my room after dinner and continue homogenizing. Carrie joined us and it was several very entertaining hours of music, stories and laughter. By the time everyone left for bed my room was a muddy mess but I felt much better about where we were than I had in the morning. We had a plan and if we stuck to it, everything could get done!

 

Taking care of business

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Friday 19th

Today we decided to split up in order to optimize our time in Bahir Dar. Robyn and Kate went with Pete and Misgano to visit two small forests close to town but which would require a bit of a hike. Max and I remained with Amare and Carrie to get through a backlog of lab work and data management so we could hit the ground running on new soils when the rest of our crew returned.

We had plenty of data entry to catch up on, which didn’t require being in the lab, so Max and I hung in the hotel lobby for about 3 hours, taking turns reading and typing lists of dbh measurements, seedling IDs and transect descriptions. Amare came back from teaching a class around 11am and after a couple failed attempts to download DropBox software on the sketchy wifi we decided to head to lab.

IMG_9875What was initially supposed to be a casual start in lab turned pretty hectic when we got in and then realized a phosphorus extraction needed to be done immediately. Max, Amare and I dealt with that while Carrie started labeling vials. Two hours later we were finally able to break for lunch. We headed over to the ficus-tree cafe and grabbed the only empty table, off in a corner of the pavilion. Shortly after sitting down a monkey climbed down the tree next to us and started watching us intently. His intelligent stare worried me but the rest of the group was taking pictures. Then, as we were minding our own business, he jumped directly to a pole of the pavilion, right next to our table. Carrie shrieked, I jumped away from the table and Max scared him back in to the tree but everyone in the cafe was staring at us now. A woman at the table next to us warned me that the monkey would take our food and then Amare said the monkeys have been known to steal coffee cups, drink the coffee and then throw cups back at the ground. I packed up our whole lunch except a roll of cookies and sure enough, 5 minutes later the monkey made its move, jumped from tree to pole to table, snagged the cookies and was off and up in another tree before we knew what had happened! To add insult to injury the monkey proceeded to eat the entire roll where we could watch, occasionally accidentally dropping one to the ground where a female monkey would scavenge them. It was simultaneously hilarious and infuriating but at least made for an exciting break from lab.

 

Unfortunately, upon our return we realized there was no running water in lab, making it extremely difficult to wash the dishes we needed for the next day of extractions. Before we could get very far in our work, the field group returned from a short day in the field that involved a long walk across hot fields. They looked burnt, both physically and sun burn wise. We had just decided that they should go back to the hotel to rest and then homogenize when Bruhanu showed up with the dean of the college. Carrie talked to them for a while about our project and they insisted that if we needed anything, we need only ask. Shortly after the dean left, Bruhanu told us that the president of the university was coming by too! BDU is trying to become one of the top research universities in Africa so collaborations with foreign universities are extremely important. The president seemed very interested in the project and was so happy to have us, again offering that if we needed anything it would be taken care of. Somehow Carrie’s questions about chemical waste disposal and running water were not issues that could be addressed in this context and we would have to rely on Bruhanu for help. Apparently our lack of water was due to an empty water tank on the roof and usually it wouldn’t get refilled until after the weekend but he pulled some strings and said we’d have water in the morning.

We sent Robyn, Kate and Peter back to the hotel to rehydrate and tend to their sunburn. They weren’t totally off the hook though because asked them to homogenize the soils from their trip. The rest of us ended up working in lab until 7:30 pm but we did manage to get everything on our to-do list done! We came back to the hotel for a late, slightly delirious dinner and then went immediately to bed, knowing how much work we would have in lab the next day.

The Road to Mekan Eyesus

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Monday, May 16th

Cat was on fire this morning, fully prepared to do whatever was necessary to get all 16 of our crew in to the vans and on the road by 7:30 am. Those of us from the Jacaranda were good to go but when we went to pick up the university group, Benebru was not feeling up for the trip. It would have been great to have him, but we weren’t complaining about having one less body in the crowded vans. We drove about an hour our of Bahir Dar before pulling over at a little village where Mahalet and Amare got some more permissions papers signed. The kids in town were very interested in us and came right up to the van windows to see what we were up to inside. Another healthy dose of bumpy dirt road took us to a new forest that required a short hike in. Our very large group obviously attracted some attention, but not nearly as much as then forests closer to the city would have.

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Kids gather as Cat waits for our permissions papers to be signed

Pete K and the social scientists got roped in to a beer ceremony with the priests so the ecology cohort kept a wide berth and waited for the all clear. This would be our first time setting up a completely new forests from scratch and also completing transects. For each plot we complete the same steps:  pick tree one and orient the plot, lay out the 14m tape along the diagonal of the square, roll out the perimeter string, decide which trees are in or out, start seedling plots, litter plots, soil cores, measure dbh, tag all trees, collect foliar samples, pound in permanent stakes, make a map and figure out which direction to head next. I pretty much stick to my litter and soils, Pete specializes in plot lay out and foliar collection but everyone else rotates among the other tasks. Because Max is a rock climber, he started off on foliar with Pete and soon they were both way up on the trees. The also constructed a “leaf retrieval system”, aka a rock, tied to a string, wrapped in orange tape. The rock, aptly dubbed Pumpkin, is tossed over a tree branch and then both ends are pulled on until a sufficient leaf sample is collected. It’s an art form that Pete is slowly perfecting.

At our last plot we had plenty of little kids helping us and we were just finishing up when the social science and transect teams walked by, telling us that rain was coming and we should definitely hurry back to the car. We still had two hours to Mekan Eyesus and we really needed to get there before sun set. It was great to get some new scenery on the way, heading in to the upper mountain region. If our driver hadn’t pulled in to a hotel I would have gone straight through the town without blinking at it. The entirety of Mekan Eyesus appeared to be one intersection with a round about, a hotel, some tiny shops and a TON of mud passing for roads in the rainy season. The hotel was no Jacaranda but after such a long day, all we wanted was a shower, food and bed. I would have slept anywhere and could have fallen asleep instantly but I rallied to shower and go to dinner with the crew. It took a while to get food for 18 people from the tiny kitchen but I was glad I had showered because after dinner the water wasn’t working in the hotel so I was at least able to go to bed clean! The PIs had an efficient game plan for the next day and I was excited to see more of the upper montane region.

An Ethiopian Dinner Party

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Sunday, May 15th

Today was a day off from the field. Even though we all had the energy to keep working, today was the only day for all four Colgate PIs to sit down together to plan the rest of the trip and discuss how everything was going so far. The rest of us were up early for our boat tour of lake Tana. Max, Robin, Sarah and I grabbed a quick breakfast and met our guide to walk along the lake shore to the dock. It seems that most people in Bahir Dar have Sunday off from work because there were lots of people down by the water relaxing, swimming or doing laundry. We had the little tour boat to ourselves and enjoyed the hour-long trip across the lake. As the morning haze lifted we could see tons of lake birds and Sarah took pictures with her professional camera while Robin tried to ID them with Carrie’s Lake Tana bird book. The highlight was definitely seeing the ears and snout of a hippo briefly before it sunk back under the water. We were at the smallest end of lake Tana and sometimes the haze would make the horizon blend in with the lake and as Sarah said, it looked like the edge of the world just dropped off right in front of us. IMG_9617

We had a great tour of the monastery with a wonderful guide who explained the symbolism of the church and the beautiful murals within. If you want to read more about what we saw and learned, check out my post from the last time I went! (“A Day Off in Bahir Dar”- January 12th, 2014) After buying some souvenirs from the local artists, we got back on our boat and went to check out a river where hippos are known to hang out. We were all very quiet, scanning the water for ears or rocks that might move at any second. Even though the hippos were apparently taking a day off from entertaining tourists, it was still a beautiful day and we didn’t mind the extra time on the lake.

After we returned from our fruitless hippo search we went in search of lunch at Wude coffee house. This is definitely not a tourist destination and we were without our usual Ethiopian colleagues to help translate for us. Sarah, Robyn and I all ordered familiar shiro dishes but Max felt brave and just ordered something none of us recognized off the menu. We also got some really amazing coffee which was certainly necessary because while we all could have really used a nap, we were expected at Amare’s parents house for dinner! We a all changed in to our very nicest, least dirty, field clothes and headed out.

Amare and his family had really pulled out all the stops for us. It seemed like his whole extended family was there, including his parents, wife and two year old daughter. They had slaughtered two lambs for the party and the women were cooking it in a huge wok-type dish out in the court yard. They pulled all of the couches out of the house and there was a woman starting a coffee ceremony too. As soon as we arrived, Amare pulled out a crate of soda and beer and began loading our plates with food. He could not remember, or chose to ignore, that Robin, Sarah and I were vegetarians and kept trying to give us more lamb. Fortunately, we brought along a secret weapon, aka Max, who could eat Ethiopian meat for three meals a day, in quantities that would feed a small family. We were all thoroughly entertained with watching Amare shovel seconds and thirds on to Max’s plate before he even appeared to make a dent in what he had in front of him. Then came bananas and oranges for dessert, coffee with popcorn, more beer and finally a bottle of ouzo.  After dinner they lit a bonfire, we enjoyed coffee and drinks and took lots of pictures. Amare’s parents both made very sweet toasts with Mahalet translating, Cat got a little choked up returning the sentiments. Pete S gave a very eloquent speech about how difficult the path to getting to this point had been, and how grateful we were to be collaborating with the university and such wonderful people.

It was such a lovely atmosphere that we were sad to leave but we needed to get packed up for our tip to Meken Eyesus the next morning. It will never cease to impress me how generous the Ethiopian people can be to us and I hope they know how grateful to share these experiences with them!

Many hands make dirt work!

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I woke up today excited to get started on the 50 soils we’d collected so far and only slightly disappointed to be missing out on a field day because you never know what might happen out in the field! Amare will be doing all of the soils analysis on his own after we leave so Carrie and I needed to teach him all of the procedures for determining bulk density, water content, available Nitrogen (N), available Phosphorus (P), nitrogen mineralization rate and microbial biomass N. Of course the first step to all of this is homogenizing the soil samples, which means passing every sample through a sieve to create consistent surface area. In theory, this is a simple process but because of the rain many of the soil samples were thick clay consistency that was a huge pain to work with. The undergrads started in on this task while I weighed the soils and Cat started unpacking and organizing the lab. Once we were ahead on these things, Cat would take the undergrads in to the field to tackle sites 25 & 26.

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Max and Robyn work by headlamp to homogenize soils when the power cut out

Amare, Misgano and Dr Bruhanu were assigned the task of equipping the lab and making it functional for our purposes. They tackled everything that Cat asked of them including, but not limited to, getting the fume hood to work, installing a drying oven, getting the water running, then calling a plumber when the sinks all started leaking and flooding the lab, finding a shaker table and making liters and liters of deionized water with an actual distillery. We also encountered the issue of constantly discovering cabinets filled with old bottles of chemicals and solvents. Colgate Environmental Health & Safety would have a panic attack if they saw the state of chemical management in this university. After a few hours of problem solving and slowly homogenizing, Cat came to the realization that we would need all hands on deck if we wanted to get these soils done in one day. Peter Scull and Mahalet were sent out on scavenger hunt to buy more soil sieves,  batteries, locks for the doors, various silverware (not for eating purposes necessarily), food for lunch and myriad of other things that could be used for make-shift purposes in lab. IMG_9599

Once the decision was made to stay in lab for the day, hours started passing quickly as we settled in to our assigned roles. Sarah was helping the undergrads homogenize, Carrie was teaching Amare the basic chemistry of our procedures, Cat continued to problem solve as issues inevitably arose, and I was on the scale. Each soil samples needed to be weighed for three nitrogen procedures, phosphorus, and water content. I was only able to get through one site’s worth before we realized it was 2 pm and we should break for lunch. Today’s meal was a luxurious affair since Mahalet had picked up bananas, barley and cookies to accompany our PB&J. Kate wasn’t feeling great so she went back to the hotel to sleep while the rest of us headed back to the lab. Mahalet and Misgano joined me in weighing soils and we slowly started making a dent. Homogenizing was done around 5 and Max and Sara switched to data input while Pete, Carrie, Amare and Cat worked on chemistry. With three of us on the scales we finished weighing and got the samples extracting by 7 pm.

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Carrie puts Pete S. and Sarah to work on nitrogen extractions

It had been a marathon but everyone felt like we had seriously accomplished something important.  Exactly 12 hours after we left the hotel that morning we returned to what felt like a celebratory dinner of pizza and beer. Poor Kate was down for the count with a stomach bug but the rest of us stayed up talking and trading travel stories, far too many about bot flies, but also of Cat and Carrie’s time in Costa Rica, the Petes’ trips to Uganda, and Robyn and Sarah’s trips to South America. Finally we had to call it a night because even though the PIs would be sleeping in and spending the day project planning, the rest of us had were going on a boat tour of Lake Tana in the morning. I was dubious that a day in the lab had tired me out as much as a day in the field but I had no problem falling asleep.

Why did the cow cross the road?

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For our third day in the field we really thought everything was ready to go. We had learned from the mistakes of the past two days and we were ready to knock out 3 forests. They were all for forests that had been surveyed in 2015 and with Pete Scull and his gps finally back with the team, we shouldn’t have any more problems with finding plots. These sites were a haul away from Bahir Dar, at least an hour down the main road, plus it was market day so we every town we drove through was a bit of a madhouse with people lined up on the main street and streaming down the side roads. We stopped on our way to pick up a priest who is in charge of the local diocese. We brought him to a church located right in the middle of a small town to get papers signed that would give us permission to work in this area. While we waited we for that to happen we did some casual birding and Cat told stories about how she got involved with tropical ecology, what brought her to do research in Costa Rica and the challenges of being a woman trying to break in to the world of tree climbing. Even though our time waiting can be frustrating, it’s always a valuable opportunity for learning and team bonding.

Our next site was technically close-by, but every street we turned down was more and more crowded with local merchants and shoppers. At one point we almost got on a clear, gravel road, but the van couldn’t get traction so we all unloaded and had to push it back on to the dirt road. Fortunately there was a detour, which is not always a given here, but unfortunately it took us right through a massive cattle market. Pretty much all of the Americans in the car thought this was a terrible idea but our driver just laid on the horn and slowly parted the hoards of farmers and their cows. There were hundreds of people holding on to their most prized possession, a cow that would bring them 4,000-8,000 birr a piece ($200-$400). It was a slightly traumatic 20 minutes because I was convinced the van would slide backwards in the mud and hit a cow, or just as likely a bull would decide it didn’t like the look of our van and hit us with a head on tackle. Finally we broke through and made it on to an open road. We were in a really beautiful agricultural area and I could already tell that this forest would be nicer than the previous few. IMG_9555

True to her word, Mahalet was able to get us working in the forest within 30 minutes and with Pete and his GPS, we located the first plot within minutes. Despite our delayed start, working with a full crew allowed us to finish by 2 o’clock. Our original  plan was to also hit two small forest that required a bit of a hike but Cat quickly revised that plan so we would return to finish site 27 and then get back a little earlier to start some lab work. We met up with the social science students and ate a quick lunch under the massive ficus at the foot of the hike that had left us soaked the bone the day before. It cannot be overstated how helpful Pete Scull is with finding our plots, especially considering he was the only person in this group who had been in these forests last year. We learned from our previous mistakes and hustled through the last measurements as the afternoon thunder storms started to roll through the valley.

Our last stop was to collect a few soils cores I’d forgotten at plot 7. Max and I were just going to run up to the edge of the forest quickly but Kate decided to come too and just as we found a spot to take the cores, Misgano and Birara came walking up the path too. Max and I sprinting up the trail had attracted the attention of all the kids and we had quite a crowd as we headed back down. After a few wrong turns through the fields and almost getting chased by a nasty looking guard dog, we found the van again and headed back to Bahir Dar.

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View of the flood plains from site 7

Waiting for us at the hotel were Carrie and her student Robyn, as well as Sarah Hewitt- a professor at University of Calgary who spends her summers working as a science journalist. With their arrival our crew was finally complete! Four American professors, three American undergraduates, two BDU professors, three BDU graduate students, Misgano, Mahalet and myself makes 15! We were going to drop by the lab to unpack all the gear that Carrie had brought but it was decided that could be done in the morning. The plan for tomorrow was to unpack the lab and then half the crew would go to the field while Carrie, Amare and myself would start on soil chemistry. We ate Ethiopian food for dinner which both Robyn and Sarah thoroughly enjoyed, and caught everyone up on our progress so far. Losing the battle against jet lag and exhaustion, we all turned in early to rest up for another big day.

Thursday, May 12th

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A pared down, efficient ecology crew left with the goal of hitting three forests today. We just needed to resurvey them, which only entails re-measuring tree diameter, taking soil cores and counting seedling plots. We should have been in and out of this forest in an hour but unfortunately had some trouble getting permissions quickly. First we had to wait for the priest to walk to the forest to meet us and then Mahalet had to do some negotiations. Meanwhile Cat, Max, Kate and I couldn’t do anything but look at the birds, which seem to be far more prolific than when we were here in the dry season. I can’t wait for Carrie to get here because we have seen so many beautiful song birds, eagles and cranes and she is our African bird expert. IMG_9500

We were able to walk around the circumference of the forests while we waited and it looked to me like the forest was in even worse shape than 2014. They definitely have moved their agricultural fields closer to the edge and within the forest there are several new juniper plantations, which they will grow and sell for the purpose of building new churches. The distinctive features of this forest last time were an old rusted out tank sitting on the edge of the fields, which had been removed, and the awful burning thistles, which are fortunately not in season in May. It took almost two hours but we finally were given permission to start our work. Despite the small size of the forest (2.5 ha), we still had a difficult time finding our old plots. Part of the problem is that justica, a woody weed that grows like crazy, tends to take over any area where a tree has been cut down. We had to check almost every tree in the forest to see if their diameters matched what we had measured two years ago. What should have been an hour or two of work ended up taking about 5 hours. The highlight for me was a group of 4 little girls that walked around holding hands a few steps behind us and were just so sweet and shy.

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Mahalet with our little posse of curious young scientists

We ate lunch on the road, which consisted of just bread because we left everything else in the other van, and headed to a forest that had been measured out in 2015. We had to hike about 1.5 km up a very rocky path that took us up to a plateau with an amazing view of the valley and lake Tana below. We could hear thunder coming in but the storm was moving away from us and just left us with a wonderful cool breeze while we watched the monkeys and birds running around in this forest. Mahalet went to find the priest while we did the walk around and this forest, despite being the same size as the last one, was much more beautiful. I’m sure part of it was the view, but they also had a wonderful wall, much greater diversity of trees and much fewer people. We were able to talk to the priest more quickly this time and decided just to locate our plots before heading back to Bahir Dar. After finding out second plot we could hear the thunder getting louder, another storm moving in, and decided it would be prudent to leave sooner than later. About two minutes after we left, it started to down pour. Max, Kate and I tried to out run the rain but quickly the road turned in to a stream and was too slippery. I just gave up, embraced the rain and by the time we got back to the van we were soaked to the bone and I had mud up to my knees.IMG_9527

The ride home was a soggy mess, all of us had puddles in our boots and for the first time since arriving in Ethiopia I was actually cold. Peter Scull had arrived while we were out in the field and after we tracked mud through the hotel and dried off, we had  dinner at the hotel. Despite only having gotten here two days before him, we had lots to catch up on and Cat was already explaining all of the problems they needed to address in the coming week. Slowly but surely our crew is growing to full capacity!