Trekking into Fairy Walk and tracking down our frog. 

Looking north to the Centre Hills. Fairy Walk to the right. Photo: Jeff Dawson / Durrell

On paper the plan was quite simple. Go out to Fairy Walk. Find the female frog. Move her down to the male’s location. Do regular post-move monitoring to check on how they are doing. As with almost all fieldwork though things are never that straightforward and just because the female was found a couple of weeks previously didn’t mean that she would be found every night we went looking for her.

First some context on the setting. Fairy Walk is located on the east of the Centre Hills range, close to the volcano exclusion zone and was always one of the best sites for mountain chickens. The ghaut is strewn with rocks and boulders, with the narrow valley slopes climbing steeply up to each side. Getting to it requires quite a bit of effort – over an hours hike up and down steep inclines in 28°C heat and high humidity. We’d set off walking from the vehicle just after six pm, arriving in Fairy Walk after dark soaking in sweat. We’d then spend a couple of hours searching for her and another couple in the area doing further field work before heading back out, usually getting back to the vehicle well after midnight.

The beginning of the long trek into Fairy Walk (left) and some of the ridges to cross (right) Photos: Jeff Dawson / Durrell

A common question I have been frequently asked is, ‘how do you find mountain chickens?’ The simple truth is that you walk around and look for them. Fortunately, we knew the general area she was in, as it was where she has been found consistently over the last seven years. However, trying to find a single frog in a fairly large area, strewn with rocks and boulders, crevices, steep slopes, some dense vegetation and numerous hiding places at night isn’t easy. Unlike the male frogs, the females do not call meaning they are even trickier to find. Aside from just looking we also set up some game cameras facing likely burrows in case that was where she was hiding. These didn’t provide any leads though and the words needle and haystack came to mind a number of times as the nights went past with no sign of her.

Fairy Walk at night with Blacka searching for the female frog (right) Photos: Jeff Dawson / Durrell

This is in stark contrast to how Fairy Walk was before 2009 and the outbreak of chytrid when, as Blacka recounted, you could find over 200 frogs along a 200m stretch and would have to nudge them out of the way with your feet. This was a startling and sobering reminder of how close this species has come to extinction.

For nine nights Blacka and I trekked out to Fairy Walk and back again; initially with Steph until she returned to the UK and then with Luke from ZSL who arrived that week. Nine nights with no sign of her. Lots of cane toads were seen however, which as the nights wore on, started tricking the mind at first glance. Maybe it was because it was a full moon and very bright or that there had been little rain recently, meaning she was staying hidden underground or perhaps she was just elsewhere. On a couple of nights as we were walking in and out the male was heard calling in the distance. Hearing him calling, knowing that there was no female frog to hear him definitely encouraged us to persevere. So each night we were optimistic this would be the night, but as time went on thoughts were being had of what to do if we didn’t find her.

 

Jeff Dawson, Amphibian Programme Manager, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

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