By the Light of the Headlamp

Aug 30, 2017

Get an inside look at science as it happens in the Caribbean. This week, we shine a light into a world of darkness in the field on St. Kitts.

Beyond the narrow beam of the headlamp, the world is dark. There are no streetlights here, and the forest canopy blocks out the moon and stars completely. A festival of sounds fills the cool air: chirps and tweets and the ping of the mountain blacksmith.

A river runs through the forest, right here at my feet. It swirls through the holes in my Crocs and around my toes. It does this because I'm the sort of person who walks up a rocky forest stream in the dark, alone, in my Crocs. And because, at the moment, that's my job.

Field work at night is an adventure. It is mysterious, sometimes holding a hint of danger. To be alone in nature is a great joy. The solitude at night is immersive and absolute.

The night is a critical time for studying all kinds of animals, too. A half-hour walk from here, a team of scientists are catching bats with near-invisible mist nets. I'm searching this stream for crayfishes and other nighttime aquatics. Every few meters a Cane Toad jumps into the stream with a plop.

The beam of the headlamp is fantastic for one's focus. It is easier to spot camouflaged critters like stick insects. Whatever is in that small circle of light is sharp and clear. Free from the need to process a full field of vision, he mind wanders. What is this stream like in a wetter year? How long have people depended on it for water? Why are there no river gobies swimming here? When was the last time it ran all the way to the sea?

Satisfied that I had spotted every crayfish species living here, I began to head back downstream. My thoughts drifted back towards the rest of the world. Were the bat people having a good night? Were they frustrated and ready to pull down their nets and go home?

I brushed a branch that was hanging over the stream and it exploded. Zebra Longwing butterflies roost together at night and this was their chosen spot. Dozens of pairs of tiny wings flapped against my face and arms in a swirl of black and yellow. I stopped for a minute to watch as they settled back down one by one. Then I started down again, towards the team and the truck and the town below.