Can You Spot Them?- by Suha Subhani (Bangor University)

Suha Subhani took part in the first Uganda Field Course in September 2018. The blog post below was written as an assignment for the module. It is published here with permission.

Suha on the lookout for monkeys in Kibale (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

Can You Spot Them?

A guest blog post by Suha Subhani (Y2, MZool Zoology with Animal Behaviour, Bangor University)

The trip to Uganda was better than anything I had imagined. From the forests of Kibale National Park (KNP) to the sprawling savanna of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), there is not one thing I would change about this eye-opening trip. Of all the moments that enthralled me, those that brought me most joy were times when I realised how I had procured and developed new skills required for working in the field: accurately identifying and sexing the animals we studied, understanding and explaining their behaviour, as well as describing the environment they lived in. These are skills our outstanding field guides from Makerere University Biological Field Station (MUBFS) have mastered so thoroughly that even from quick glimpses at the animals and their environment they could ascertain and provide a great deal of information. This expertise left me in awe. I was not sure I would be able to obtain any of those skills, especially within the time we had. However, during our data collecting for our projects, I realised that by observing our guides, using their eagerly provided knowledge and by simply being exposed to the rainforest on a daily basis, I was slowly gaining the abilities I admired so much. Of course, I am no expert like our guides, but by the end of the trip I no longer felt it was impossible to one day hopefully, eventually, hone the ability to accurately and efficiently describe and analyse an environment I am working in and the animals that it sustains. I recognised improvement daily, as I discerned the different species of primates in the rainforest, identified what sex an individual was as it jumped rapidly from tree to tree and described the several behaviours it was displaying.

Mother (possibly) and infant black-and-white colobus. Infants are born snow white. Their fur colour develops as the grow, often greying after 2-3 months. (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

We encountered almost all the primate species that dwelt within the rainforest. Most common were the Black and White Colobus monkeys or Western guereza (Colobus guereza occidentalis); a habituated group that was often seen quite close to the MUBFS. Another fairly common species was the Ashy Red Colobus (Pilicocolobus tephrosceles), which my group and I studied for our field project. Some were rarer and more difficult to locate, a prime example being the L’Hoest’s monkey (Allochrocebus lhoesti), which during the whole trip we only caught a quick glimpse of once scampering across the trail. Many of these primates often moved in large groups, especially the first two mentioned.

A rare glimpse of  L’Hoest’s monkeys on Karambi Road at Kanyawara, Kibale National Park (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

You would think that would make them easy to locate. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Whether open canopy or dense foliage, the first few days trying to spy these monkeys proved quite tedious. Their habit of spending most of their time high in the canopy made that task no easier. Our guides however, with sharp and experienced eyes were always able to spot them, even if it was only a single individual sitting still on a branch, covered by leaves. This was a skill that baffled me. How do you spot something sitting so still, something so well hidden behind all the foliage, high in the canopy?

Spotting monkeys high up in the canopy: a skill that takes time to develop (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

And it was not that alone. From whatever angle they saw the individual, our guides could almost always identify the sex of the animal and what it may be feeding on in the trees, an ability that was extremely helpful when my groups field guide, Richard, aided us in gathering data for our project. These were the talents I not only admired, but sincerely wanted to master.

Fortunately, we spent every day in the forest, so I took every opportunity to try for myself, keeping my eyes up towards the canopy, scanning branches individually as quickly as I could as we trekked through the forest. I looked for any small movement in the trees, listened for any rustling of leaves and branches, and tried to sharpen my eyes to distinguish a shape of a monkey sitting in the tree tops. At first it seemed too difficult, often others could spot them before myself. However, as the days passed, and mostly during the collection of our group data, I improved. Keeping my attention in the trees, and my ears and eyes on alert, I finally began to be able to spot a monkey from afar, moving or not in the trees.

Catching a quick, partial glimpse of a red colobus travelling high above in the trees – can you tell its sex? (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

By the end of the trip, I was fully capable of identifying an individual in any amount foliage, and provide its species and sex, as well as its level of maturity. I was also able to accurately describe its behaviour, monitoring its movements and gestures as it clambered in the canopy above. From barely being able to notice them, I was rather surprised at realising the extent of these skills I had come to acquire. There was also, I must admit, I great sense of satisfaction and pride.

Uganda was a mixture of excitement, adventure, and wonder. The skills I am proud I have managed to obtain in our short time there have given me hope for a future where I can successfully work in the field, a future I can now appreciate with more depth than I have had before. But more than anything I am grateful. This experience has given me the chance to understand the requirements of working in the field, as well as the many circumstances that come with it. I have come to appreciate that although it is a most enjoyable, it can be an extremely challenging and strenuous task. However, I have also realised how enthusiastic I am to facing those challenges, and how immensely I would enjoy learning and perfecting the skills I was privileged enough to witness and make a start in adapting. Our field guides have inspired me to carry on working at these abilities, and to look for opportunities that will allow me to do so. I could not be happier with our time in Uganda, and am thankful I was able to be a part of such an amazing and fulfilling adventure. I cannot wait to go back to the field someday, maybe even Kibale. Afterall, I did promise Richard I would.

In the field with my project group, including our brilliant and hilarious field guide Richard (middle, top tow). The other members are David (first from the left), Kate (front centre), and Ann-Sophie (third on R top row). (Photo: Alex Georgiev)

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