David Willyams' Diary


Sunday, February 19, 2006 Friday, July 7, 2006
Friday, July 14, 2006 Saturday, July 15, 2006
Sunday, July 16, 2006 Monday, July 17, 2006
Tuesday, July 18, 2006 Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Thursday, July 20, 2006 Friday, July 21, 2006
Saturday, July 22, 2006  

Sunday, February 19, 2006 Two weeks ago, I was very busy planning this July’s field experiments for Alcoa and thinking “but what if I get accepted for Earthwatch?” The next morning, I had an email waiting for me saying that I was going to North Vietnam to study rainforest butterflies!  Fantastic! After ringing my wife, I went and told my workmates, and they were even more excited and pleased than I was. They are great people to work with and very supportive. So, I’ve rescheduled all the Alcoa work to June and August and raided my local library for books about butterflies. I work with plants, so it will be strange working with things that get up and fly away when you try to measure them. I don’t know anything about insects, so this expedition will be a real challenge for me.
 
I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I have heard of the park where the study is based. It’s world famous for its high biodiversity forests, and this makes it a very special place. The study sounds really inspirational and useful. I just feel so privileged to have been chosen. The researchers are using butterflies to indicate the health of regenerating forest. Hopefully I can pick up some methods and ideas that we can test in Alcoa’s mine rehabilitation in Western Australia. 
 
I work in the Mining Department’s Marrinup Nursery, doing plant tissue culture research and field testing the plants in mine rehabilitation. I’m especially keen on comparing our tissue cultured plants with those in the forest, so it’s a good idea to start learning about insect pollinators. It will be great meeting the other expedition members and staff, as they seem to come from all over the world and have a wide range of backgrounds. Their ideas and interpretations will be most interesting, and hopefully we’ll have a lot of fun, too.
 
This afternoon, my 12-year-old son was watching a David Attenborough TV program about bugs, and he called me in. There was a segment on butterflies in Taiwan’s rainforest. He asked “Is that like what you’ll be doing, Dad?” My grin from ear-to-ear told him all he needed to know. Now, I’ll have to find something adventurous for him to do, too. My daughter is older, and she thinks it’ll be nice for me to get away on my own and try something new instead of sitting on the sidelines supporting her activities. Actually, it was more like “it’s about time you got a life of your own!”
 
July is winter here, so it will be really great to go somewhere quite a bit warmer, as I’m not that keen on the cold. Plus, to be honest, I’m really looking forward to eating Vietnamese food every day!

Friday, July 7, 2006 It’s been six months since I was accepted for an Alcoa Earthwatch expedition, and tomorrow I start both my annual leave and my packing. It’s going to be a busy weekend of preparations for all the family, as one of my children is playing in a hockey tournament all next week, and the other will be on a study week course preparing for her final high school exams. I’ll miss my family, but at least I know they’ll be active, too.
 
I’ve spent the last fortnight completing all my mine rehabilitation field planting trials and as much work as I could back at Alcoa’s Marrinup Nursery. It was only yesterday that I finally felt happy that my work was under control. Now I can take this trip with a clear mind and totally focus on the expedition and its research goals.
 
Trip preparation was quite involved. There were flights and accommodation to book, work and home activities to plan in advance, a visa to send off for, vaccinations to get, travel insurance to organize, books and websites on butterflies and Vietnam to read, and long walks after work to improve my fitness. I finally got it all completed this week. My good intentions to learn a bit of Vietnamese before I went hasn’t done so well, however. I only know a few words and basic phrases. Looks like a crash course next week when I get to Hanoi!
 
I’ve learned a lot about my local butterflies while preparing for this expedition. Our state conservation department sent me a list of the butterfly species that occur in our local forest. We have less than 10% of the number at Tam Dao National Park, and we don’t have any known conservation problems. This was great news. The jarrah forest here in Western Australia is one of the top 25 places in the world for plant diversity, so it did surprise me to find out that the diversity of our butterfly species is fairly low. I’m going to be very interested to find out what makes the Tam Dao area so rich in butterfly species.
 
The principal researcher maintains an excellent website, with photos of Tam Dao butterfly species. This week, I’ve spent the evenings looking at them after dinner and trying to learn a few names, but truthfully, what I can remember is that there are some really pretty blue ones! They look so beautiful that it makes me realize just how precious butterflies are for conservation. I’d been focused on the scientific value of this study, but now I’ll make sure to step back sometimes during the survey work and just appreciate the butterflies as they are.
 
This autumn, we had many monarch butterflies in my home garden, and I practiced taking close-up photos. It’s not easy, as they don’t sit still for long, eh!
 
We haven’t had a good start to winter so far. It hasn’t rained much, and it hasn’t been that cold. However, I’m still thinking of how warm it will be next week and am looking forward to this. Hanoi sounds like a fascinating city, and the expedition should be exciting. My colleagues have been wishing me well this week, and I’m all fired up to go now. TAXI!

Friday, July 14, 2006 I’m meeting the Earthwatch researchers and the other expedition volunteers today at a hotel in Hanoi. It will be quite a full day, I think.
 
Yesterday, I spent the day walking around Hanoi and getting my bearings and a feel for the place. The people all seem kind and relaxed, and the city is very easy to walk. The footpaths are wide, and there are lots of tall trees for shade. I’d heard the traffic was hectic, but it wasn’t bad at all. It’s a bit noisy, though, as everyone uses their horn.
 
The main historic sights are all within a five-kilometer (3.1-mile) radius, so it was a pleasant day helped by lower-than-expected temperatures. I hadn’t appreciated just how far north the city was, so the weather was pleasantly warm rather than full tropical heat.
 
Hanoi is a tidy, green, and well-planned city. However, there’s currently a building boom, so there may be challenges ahead.
 
The first Earthwatch person I met at the hotel was Steven, a quiet English butterfly expert who had considerable experience in survey work. He later proved to be a valuable source of skills and a sharp eye for finding the most camouflaged butterfly species. Shannon—a lively teacher from Brooklyn, United States—arrived next. I was pleased to finally meet Glenda, the other Alcoa team member. Andrea from Durham, United Kingdom, came last, and then Dr. Vu Van Lien arrived with his brother Viet and welcomed us. The last team member was Jim from West Virginia, whom we collected at Noi Ba international Airport on our way to Tam Dao National Park. 
 
The final approach of the 50-kilometer (31-mile) drive to Tam Dao village was impressive. A narrow winding road snaked its way up a very steep mountain. The lower slopes were covered in introduced pine trees, but higher up, tropical rainforest took over. 
 
The village was larger than expected and had several high-rise hotels. However, it was still very green, and the views down the mountain were spectacular. Living in a fairly flat part of the world (Western Australia), it was brilliant to be back on a mountain. 
 
Lien gave us a great welcome during dinner, and then we settled into our rooms, as most of the team members were tired after a big change in time zone. Vietnam is only one hour behind Western Australia, so I hadn’t had any problem adjusting.

Saturday, July 15, 2006 Roosters! That’s one way to wake up! Five a.m.! Anyone for rooster curry?  Then the cicadas started, and they must be the biggest, meanest, loudest cicadas in the world.  Cicadas are fairly loud in the bush at home, but this was more like a large hovercraft starting up!
 
This got to be a pattern. Go to bed earlier than usual every night and wake up with the roosters. It got to be a great start to the day, especially as the early mornings were often misty and cool. It was good to have a walk through the village before a shower and breakfast. 
 
Tam Dao village has enormous value for Hanoi residents, as during the July hot season the village is up to 5° Celsius cooler than the city. So every weekend, all the hotels fill up with city folk having a rest from the city and getting in touch with nature. However, as we found out later that night, Tam Dao is also the weekend karaoke capital of North Vietnam. I had wondered why the expedition briefing included earplugs in the list of essential items to bring. 
 
The morning was spent in a workshop learning the survey concepts and methods. We also started learning how to identify the common local species using an excellent photo guide given to each team member. 
 
After a tasty lunch, we did our first survey along a road transect near the hotel. I was able to recognize many insects from families common in Western Australia’s jarrah forest. However, the Tam Dao species all seemed to be giants! And there were a lot more species than I could have imagined. The term “biodiverse” really took on some meaning! 
 
Lien said there were more than 360 butterfly species in the park. So for the first couple of days, it was straight to the guidebook before I could identify anything. Every second butterfly I saw was a new species to me. Only one-fifth of the butterfly species in the park are common, with the rest being either uncommon or rare. This is a true sign of a global biodiversity hotspot. 
 
One of the key aims of this project is to monitor common butterfly species as indicators of regenerating forest quality. Lien said that in undisturbed mature forest, there are very few butterfly species. Most species actually prefer more open vegetation, where the forest has been logged or cleared. This is partly because they need a diverse range of plants present for both the caterpillars and the adults to feed on. The highest plant diversity is the boundary where the forest meets disturbed vegetation. 
 
So the biggest learning for me on the first day was that I was going to see a lot more butterflies along the village roadside transect than in the thick rainforest. In addition, the measure of successful forest regeneration was going to be a decrease in butterfly species and numbers (rather than an increase in butterflies, which was what I had expected!).

Sunday, July 16, 2006 On my early morning walk, I made a major discovery. Bananas! The biggest Australian banana plantations were destroyed by a tropical storm early in 2006, and since then bananas have been a scarce and unaffordable luxury. I usually eat bananas every day, so after six months without eating any, it was truly heaven to see entire large bunches readily available in the market. Some really, really unsubtle hints were made to the project leaders over breakfast. I’m not proud, but boy, did I enjoy those bananas every day after that! They came in handy, too, whenever anyone was off their food a bit.
 
Today, Lien, Steven, and I climbed up into the bamboo forest to carry out our transect. This forest has very few plant species other than bamboo. Bamboo doesn’t have nectar in its flowers, as it is wind pollinated. This makes the bamboo forest especially low in butterfly species, as food for the adult butterflies is scarce. Also, most butterflies like open space for flying, and the bamboo stems are very close, restricting flight. 
 
Having told us all this on the way up the track toward the bamboo transect, Lien was stunned to see a very different butterfly within the first 100-meter (328-foot) section. It turned out to be a moderately common lowland rainforest species of butterfly. However, it had never been seen at such high altitude before. This proved to be a very clear sign of global warming. 
 
I’d never pondered why Tam Dao mountain range is such a mega-diverse area before. It seems that the range is at the interface between the full tropical zone and the subtropical zone. As you go up the mountain, the evergreen tropical lowland rainforest disappears and is replaced by a tropical deciduous forest, which in turn is replaced by bamboo forest. Above this (on the mountaintops) is a cooler, more subtropical vegetation typified by the presence of rhododendrons. Also, one side of the mountain range faces the South China Sea (where the monsoon rains come from,), so it’s much wetter and has more lush vegetation than the inland mountain slopes.
 
This means that Dr. Vu Van Liens’ study is not just an excellent in-depth survey of butterflies and forest regeneration. It will also be a key measure of the impact of global warming on these precious North Vietnamese mountain ecosystems. Sadly, I suppose that as the world climate warms up, the mountaintop rhododendron forest will disappear eventually. It is also predicted that the butterflies that live on the cool mountain peaks may decline or die out.

Monday, July 17, 2006 I was off my food today (which, for people who know me, is like a dog being off bones). At least I had a partial explanation as to why I didn’t have any stamina climbing up through the bamboo forest yesterday. 
 
Having grown up in mountains, I had been surprised at how tiring it was. Mind you, it’s hard to get fit for mountain trails when you currently live on a coastal plain. Perhaps I’ll get my mountain legs back later in the week. 
 
It started raining today, which I had expected given that it’s both rainforest and the rainy season. However, Lien had to cancel the day’s survey work because the butterflies are too fragile to fly during rain. Oh! I hadn’t thought of that. Rain isn’t that frequent in my part of Western Australia, so I get a bit forgetful about its impact on nature.
 
After a light breakfast of crusty French bread with local honeycomb (thanks, Shannon—that honey was a marvelous purchase), we learned how to enter the previous day’s data into the computer. Lien showed us the trends in the data and its strength (believability) by generating the P values. It was fantastic to have a researcher prepared to explain the need for statistical analysis of the survey data before the results can be accepted. This made me appreciate just how detailed and world-class Lien’s work is. 
 
In the afternoon, I’d already had enough of being stuck inside, so it was great that everyone wanted to go out in the rain for a walk. We climbed up to a local temple, which looked wonderful with all the mist swirling about. We were lucky enough to see some very large painted paper animals being delivered for a future ceremony. They looked quite surreal, appearing out of the mist and then disappearing up a steep path through the forest. 
 
At night, Jim gave a stimulating talk and slide show on his last Earthwatch trip to Russia to study folk songs. Jim must be an institution at Earthwatch by now, as this is his thirteenth expedition! His very interesting previous trip tales reinforced just how inspiring and valuable Earthwatch research is. I was lucky enough to have Jim as a room partner, so I was able to pick his brain for ideas for my own future trips and to clarify some of my thoughts about this expedition. I was humbled by how fit Jim was. I’ll need to do a lot more walking before I can match his level.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006 It was still raining in the morning, but fairly gently. This meant we couldn’t survey butterflies, so after breakfast, we all climbed up to the temple again. We were very privileged to watch the entire two-hour ceremony. All the paper animals, paper money, and other offerings were blessed during a series of dances. Traditional music was played during each dance by local musicians. For each new dance, the celebrant would change her costume, so it was a highly colorful event. Near the end of the ceremony, the paper animals were taken to the temple incinerator and burned. I was told that the aim was to burn away one woman’s bad luck and bring her peace. 
 
During lunch, the rain stopped and the clouds cleared somewhat. Lien decided that we could survey in the afternoon, because butterflies are often in high numbers immediately after rain. 
 
We all did the road transect through the village, and it was great to be working together as a single group. Professor Anh was a delight to work with. I love working with people who have a strong passion for their science and yet still retain a sense of wonder and fun. Both the professor and Lien have this infectious enthusiasm. 
 
The butterflies were active all afternoon, and we were able to make a worthwhile contribution to the week’s work. With all of us looking, we were also able to find some interesting beetles and butterfly caterpillars. At one point, though, our group looked hilarious. It was pretty funny to see a group of tourists taking photos of a road sign! Then they told me they’d found a stunning gold butterfly pupa hanging off the bottom of the sign. Lien took the pupa back to the hotel to hatch out. He could then identify which butterfly species it was. 
 
Part of Lien’s study includes learning the life history of each butterfly species. This includes knowing the food plants for both the caterpillars and for the adults, plus what each species’ eggs and pupa look like. This will help us understand the biology, ecology, and distribution of each butterfly. It will also help with the creation of a butterfly farm in Tam Dao.
 
Apart from more obvious value as a teaching and tourist resource, a butterfly farm should help reduce the number of wild butterflies being collected. Many of the butterflies are valued by foreign collectors, and selling wild butterflies is one way poorer villagers can earn some money. If the villagers can be shown how to farm these butterflies, then there would be no need to collect wild specimens. This would be a great gain for butterfly conservation in Tam Dao National Park.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 A beautiful morning! Jim, Shannon, and I climbed the tower transect with Lien. Our progress was a bit slow, because there were so many butterflies to count! But that’s what we were there to do, so it was a good thing. 
 
Lien was very kind and didn’t mind waiting while we took a few photos here and there. Later, I discovered that he was taking photos of us taking butterfly photos. On the last day, he gave us all a CD containing some of his results and photos. And there we all were in the CD photos, having fun while working during the survey! Lien likes to have a bit of fun while he works, and it really made the whole trip completely enjoyable. 
 
The view from the top of the tower transect made the climb up well worthwhile. Mist was creeping onto one side of the Tam Dao peaks, while the sun shone on the other side. Combined with numerous butterflies circling around, it made for a special place and time. Then we had to get stuck in and count all those butterflies! This proved to be a very good butterfly recording event for this transect (which normally has less butterflies during July).

Thursday, July 20, 2006 “The really pretty blue one!”  I finally got a great photo of the iconic butterfly that had stood out in my mind before the trip. Its real name is Stibochiona nicea, but I think I’ll just keep calling it “the really pretty blue one!” Now I can identify quite a few butterflies without using the guidebook, so I can be of more use in the survey work.
 
During the road survey today, I was able to spend a little time just admiring the butterflies and watching them flutter by. Butterfly science is brilliant, but the sheer beauty of the Tam Dao butterflies is what I’ll remember the most. I’m happy that I managed to enjoy the butterflies for themselves and for the pleasure that they can bring to park visitors.

Friday, July 21, 2006 Today, we worked as a single group again.
 
Tam Dao means three mountains. During the morning, we climbed to the top of the first peak. This was the first trip where all the Earthwatch volunteers climbed to the top. The other volunteers were all fit by the end of the week and made it up easily. I struggled a bit with the last 20 meters (65 feet), but I got my breath back and made it up okay.
 
We had a neat picnic among the rhododendrons while having a bit of a rest. It was great to be up in the mist on the top. However, the mist meant the butterflies were a bit low in numbers, but there were hundreds of beautiful dragonflies to admire. On the way down, I found many pretty flowers and plants. Funny thing was that I hadn’t seen them on the way up, being too focused on just getting up the mountain! 
 
After a week looking at butterflies, I was starting to think about my own type of work again. Perhaps one day I can come back to North Vietnam to look at orchids, ferns, trees, and other rainforest plants. Tam Dao’s forests have a high diversity of plants, and these are of great value, especially given how close the park is to Hanoi.
 
After dinner, Lien gave us a summary talk on our survey results. They usually record 66 species in Tam Dao in July, but our group recorded 77 species. Lien will have to explain this later; perhaps we had favorable weather conditions? 
 
It will be highly interesting to see how the butterfly species composition in the park changes over time. Global warming, the spread of Hanoi, and forest regrowth should all influence the butterflies of Tam Dao. By the end of the survey, I was convinced that the butterflies truly are a key indicator of forest health in this valuable national park.

Saturday, July 22, 2006 This was the end. After an early breakfast, we said goodbye to the nice folks at the hotel. As the minibus left Tam Dao village, we had our last look at a lovely part of the world. I hope it manages to retain its casual, friendly, and natural feel into the future. Most of all, I hope it remains a place where butterflies are prolific. I think the work Lien, Professor Anh, and Earthwatch are doing will play a key role in this.
 
I’d like to thank Lien, his helpful brother Viet, Professor Anh, my fellow team members, and the people from Earthwatch and Alcoa for sharing their time, knowledge, and experiences with me. I was humbled by how valuable this project is and the great work being done by Earthwatch. 
 
Thank you to Alcoa for this experience. I have learned a lot and will try hard to incorporate some of these new ideas in my own work. 
 
Most of all, I owe a huge debt to my wife, who stayed home looking after our children and house while I wandered along forest tracks doing what little I could to help conserve Tam Dao’s butterflies.

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