Wildest Animal Experiences, Part 2

This week continues our series of wild field experiences shared by our staff members. The Field Conservation Team has really done some amazing things!

“After graduating from Auburn University (War Eagle!) and before I officially started grad school at Georgia (a slightly less enthusiastic Go Dawgs,) I worked as a field technician at the site where I would complete my graduate field work. The Jones Ecological Research Center is a beautiful longleaf pine plantation and is home to an incredible suite of reptiles and amphibians, from secretive sirens to eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, but on one of my very first field days we tackled a species we only handled a few weeks a year: the alligator snapping turtle. These behemoths look like dinosaurs come alive. I had never seen one in person, but I was thrilled to be doing the survey, even as I chopped fish heads and guts to fill the Gatorade bottles that would serve as our bait. (To give you an idea of the massive strength of these snapper jaws, the bottles would be easily crushed and emptied by the turtles if they entered the traps). We made our way down the scenic Flint River to set the oversized hoop traps in likely spots in a small aluminum Jon boat with a tinny fishing motor. 

The next day, my boss and I hopped in the jon boat and trawled down the Flint. My boss– one of the best bosses I’ve ever had– was a tiny woman, and one of the best field biologists I’ve ever seen. When we got to the first trap, she balanced deftly on the front of the jon boat, and used a snake hook to snag the trap, which she lifted to show an empty trap. At the next location, she tossed me the snake hook. I climbed up to the front of the jon boat, leaned out, hooked the trap, and pulled up. 

Nothing moved. 

I was embarrassed. I physically towered over my boss, who had done this with ease. I tried a more upwards angle. Nothing. I shook my shoulders, set my feet, braced, and pulled with all my strength– which, instead of moving the trap, tipped me and half of our equipment off the boat. The river was deeper than it looked, too, so I went in completely over my head. When I popped up spluttering, I indignantly swam over to see why the dang trap hadn’t shifted for me. I thought it might be stuck. Instead, it was full. TWO alligator snapping turtles were stuffed like sausages into the trap, which contained well over 250 pounds of turtle. I dragged the trap to the steep bank, and together my boss and I weighed and measured them, using a spring scale and a hilariously oversized pair of calipers. The larger turtle was a two-person carry, but the smaller of the two was a mere 85 or so pounds– so enjoy the blurry picture below of me completely soaked but beaming, hefting my first alligator snapper! (Holding them like this, if possible, is the easiest way to get the measure of the undershell, or plastron.) Memories like this are some of my favorite parts of being a field scientist! “

Cara McElroy, Research Associate

A smiling woman in a blue t-shirt and gray field pants holds up an enormous alligator snapping turtle at hip height with both hands. The turtle's belly is towards the camera, and it beak is open in a threat display.

“I used to share my home with a sun conure (Aratinga solstitialis) named Birdie; some say he shared his home with me. Sun conures are parrots native to northern South America, and they’re listed as endangered under the International Union of Conservation of Nature. Sun conures are loud, gregarious, intelligent, and very social animals and very colorful. After 15 years with me, he died. It became my “mission” to see this parrot in the wild, and they live in the remote wilderness of the South America. Fortunately, I found a group familiar with Guyana, a place where the parrot may still be found. This group had done several nature trips to Guyana but never to where the conures live. Nevertheless, they had enough contacts to make it happen, and said, “let’s go”! As many birders and nature observers know, there is never any guarantee of seeing a target animal, especially a rare one.  

Our journey to find sun conures, or sun parakeets as they are called in Guyana, was an amazing one through varied landscapes and cultures. Our destination was a small town called Karasabai, near the border of Brazil, and it’s inhabited by indigenous people from whom we required permission to stay in the community.

A man in a yellow shirt and black pants and a woman in a khaki vest, sun hat, and sunglasses stand side by side smiling at the camera against a backdrop of tropical scrubland.
Julie Lisk with guide Theodore in Guyana.

The landscape is largely savannah bordered by dry forested mountains and bisected by a river – habitat known to support sun conures. From Karasabai we traveled off road by jeep through savanna until we reached the Ireng River. Here we boarded a small motorboat to travel upstream to the forested hillsides where we were met our native guide, Theodore; he would lead us to the parrots. From a hilltop dwelling we stood and waited and waited some more. I was tense; would we see the bird? Then, I heard the very loud and familiar sound of the sun conure, and chased off into the direction of the raucous calls. The thrill and the joy of seeing this bird in the wild was amazing! A small flock flew overhead, and they were dive bombing a raptor. I thought, “that’s my Birdie.” In his memory, I left a feather of his here. 

Two colorful parrots with orange heads, yellow bodies, and green wings and tails perch together in a twisted tree against a backdrop of blue sky.
The very sun conures Julie saw in their native habitat. Photo credit: Tom Murray

My journey with parrots began 30 years ago. Birdie was my first parrot, and although he was raised in the United States in captivity, it wasn’t until later that I learned wild sun conure babies are poached from their nest sold illegally worldwide.  This is a tragedy for many parrot species.  One Earth Conservation has recently started monitoring sun conures in Guyana: https://www.oneearthconservation.org/post/2017/11/01/protecting-the-sun-parakeets-in-karasabai-guyana.  ]

As pets, parrots can be demanding, messy, loud, and they live a long time. This results in them being surrendered to shelters or handed down to multiple homes. Since Birdie, my parrot companions have come from shelters. My husband and I currently share our home with Tigger, a white-breasted caique. He came from the home of an elderly couple who could no longer care from him.”

Julie Lisk, Field Biologist