They Came, They Saw, They Birded

There is a whole lot to say about my first independent guided tour of Costa Rica. There were highs and lows. Some highs: ziplining through the Cloud Forest, birdwatching from a hammock strung above a seaside overlook, and kayaking through mangrove forest. Some lows: ziplining late in the day during cold pouring rain, renting a coastal bungalow during peak millipede season, and trying to play human tetris to get several people and their bags into a car that was certainly not–despite what I was assured by the rental company–a “fullsize SUV.” I learned a lot.

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Still didn’t find them a sloth, though. In fact, one of them found this before I did. I’m still pretty salty about that.

Out of professionalism and respect for my client’s privacy, I won’t go into detail on the trip. But bottom line: It went well. Not as great as I’d hoped, but far better than I’d worried. My clients had a good time. And so did I.

This is what I like best about guiding, in concentrated, personalized form. I got to be the one to observe, firsthand, someone’s encounter with their first parrot or monkey. I got to lead them myself through the jungle, pointing out animal signs and explaining the life history of strangler figs. I got to savor their reaction when I prepared them for, and nature delivered upon, leafcutter ant highways or lizards that run across water.

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Jesus Christ!

Everyone was safe. There were no injuries or tropical illnesses. They all respected my rules and heeded my advice on jungle safety. We all stayed on the trails and had no close calls with snakes or whatever.

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Pictured: whatever.

On top of that, the weather was great. It only truly dumped on us once, and that was just enough that I feel vindicated for having warned my people about tropical rain. The usual classic charismatic megafauna of monkeys, coatis, and large snakes made their appearance. Birding was phenomenal: Quetzals in full plumage, toucans right above the cabins, motmots that practically posed for photos and in fact wouldn’t get out of the way after a while.

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Look at this guy, giving a little-the-shoulder-look like a supermodel. He knows he’s pretty.

Costa Rica, you didn’t disappoint. Did us all proud. This was a trip I had been planning for about six months. This is a career path I have been moving towards all my life. I’m back in the Monkeyverse now, hard at work, but with a little luck, plenty of agency, lots of patience, and some newfound confidence, I just might be able to pull this off again in the future.

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It Has Come to This

There comes a time in every young naturalist’s life when he meets a special someone.

It may not be obvious at first. The relationship may start casual, ordinary even. But soon it becomes clear that this person who has entered his life will change it forever. They make him feel like nothing and nobody has ever done before. Something occurs–a single moment where the naturalist knows he will never be the same again. It is a certain proposition:

They offer to pay him.

Me, I had resigned myself to a life of simple volunteerism. One of unpaid “work-studies” and “internships,” buoyed by the occasional modest stipend or travel expense to get by. Over the last several years I worked seasonally, in between the odd manual labor or teaching gig. Sometimes a generous tip from a grateful tour guest would double my month’s earnings. But I have never had the chance to earn real money from doing what I do best: walking through the forest and telling people about things.

All that is about to change.

For the past few months, I have been putting the finishing touches on what I hope will be the first of many self-designed, self-promoted, self-organized, and self-led Costa Rica ecotour travel packages for a private group. Using local contacts and relying on my own skill as a guide and trip leader, I put this whole thing together on my own.

And I’m gettin’ paid, y’all. I’m a professional now.

So I’ll be going silent briefly, since my priority over the next few weeks will be making sure my clients get the best attention and service they can for their money. Which is real. And is going to me. I think? It’s been a while since anyone actually gave me money.

It has been my dream–literally–to one day be able to support myself by doing what I love. My ultimate goal is to eventually run my own ecotour business, preferably focused on education and sustainable business practices that benefit local efforts. Also maybe coordinate with researchers and volunteers. I’ll need a brand and everything. Maybe link it to this site? But all that’s wayyy down the line. For now, I got people coming in. Very special people.

This Month in Snakes, part 3

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? After the overabundance of rattlesnakes from a few months back, I was hesitant to do this again. But ever since the Dry Season hit, it seems like snake diversity has been playing catch up. Here we go!

Early on in the month, I nearly stepped on this enormous Oriole Snake sunning itself in a small clearing. It quickly escaped up some vines and into the trees, but I got a shot of it as it was crossing overheard. It was more black than others I’ve seen, which may indicate a different color morph in this region.

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Length: 1.5 meters. Venom: none. Bite risk: high. Interest: moderate.

Second, unfortunately, has no photos, and I only got a quick glimpse since I was walking second in line and my coworker in front of me was the only one who got a good look. Which is a shame, since it was a Rainbow Boa, which we determined after a little research based on his description. I recommend looking it up. It’s a beautiful and rarely seen snake.

Next, gahh–this picture isn’t very good either, but I believe it’s a Salmon-bellied Racer. This one nearly crawled on me as I was sitting, then bolted for the trees. My camera died before it got too high up, so I was only able to get this washed-out shot after I changed batteries.

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Length: 1.1 meter (approx). Venom: none. Bite risk: unknown. Interest: moderate, but it was a slow day.

Next, we’ve got–whoa, holy crap guys, big freaking snake!

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Length: over 2 meters. Venom: none. Bite risk: very high. Interest: nerdgasmic.

Boa constrictor, man, boa constrictor. A big one, too–huge! Enormous!

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That’s a person in the background–a real, normal sized person! And a big-ass snake!

Holy herpetology, just look at that monster! It’s, like, over two whole meters of solid reptile. Just lying there, all cool and stuff.

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The monkeys where like, “Ahh!” and the snake was like, “Leave me alone, I’ll eat you later,” and I was like, “I wanna pet you,” and my coworkers were like, “Nooo…”

Merry Christmas, folks.

Interspecies Conflict

One good thing I can say about Capuchins is that they tend to be equal-opportunity bastards. That is, they don’t specifically target humans with their awful behavior. Rather, they are more than happy to terrorize, annoy, harass, rob, or poop on any kind of animal, as long as they aren’t a direct threat or potential food source. The shrieks, toothy threats, and falling branches that we endure as we follow them all day can also be directed at a number of other creatures, even other monkeys.

Guanacaste Dry Forest is also home to Black Mantled Howler Monkeys, and we regularly encounter them in the reserve. To us, they’re generally more of a distraction. Or a tease. I once spent several long minutes crashing through underbrush to stakeout a sleep tree where someone had seen monkeys the evening before. When I heard the first throaty beats, like an immense truck revving its engine, I knew that we’d been duped into tracking the wrong monkey and the morning was wasted.

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Most people have their morning ruined by traffic or a broken Keurig. Me? Chasing the wrong monkey.

But sometimes the two species encounter each other, and when they do, it rarely goes well for the howlers. See, as strict herbivores whose diet consists mostly of leaves, they tend to be sluggish and require a lot of sun-warmed siesta time to digest their food. They’re also heavier, and so they can’t climb on thinner branches or jump as far. This makes them easy prey for the Capuchins, when they get in their default mood of “let’s make life hell for everything around us.”

On an easy day, the worst the howlers have to endure is a few tail-pulls and dropped sticks. They react to this the way they react to most things: with nearly infra-sonic hoots and half-hearted attempts to move. But the other day the when the two troops overlapped in the same tree, the howlers had babies with them. That was when the Capuchins’ asshole dials went to 11.

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Don’t worry–this isn’t going to end they way most of these stories do.

Several adult capuchins lunged for the baby howlers, who were still riding on their mothers’ backs. Some were tiny–newborn, maybe. Had the capuchins grabbed them, they wouldn’t have stood a chance. As it happened, the females were trapped at the base of large branches. If they had attempted to climb, it would have exposed their babies to the little monkeys. They didn’t have the speed or claws to fight back.

In the end, one large male howler–who I can assume was the alpha–bullrushed the monkeys and sent the scattering, using nothing but his bulk as a weapon. It was the fastest I’ve ever seen a howler move, and sure enough, it worked. The capuchins fled, but stuck around long enough to bare their teeth some more from a safe distance.

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Demonstrating that, along with everything else, they are also cowards.

What the capuchins were planning to do with the babies, I don’t know. Or, I probably do, but I’m not sure why. Would they have eaten them? While Capuchins commit infanticide all the times, there’s no record of cannibalism. But would it have counted with another monkey species? Did they view the howlers as a threat? Was this a demonstration of dominance among their own group? Were they just bored?

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If it was an interspecies thing, does that make Capuchins racist, too? God, it’s easy to hate these things.

To the relief of myself and my new coworkers, no howler babies were killed that day. But we’re coming up on peak dry season now. Animal ranges shrink, and there is more competition around food and water sources. The forest dies back, and there is simply less to go around. Not everyone will survive. I’ve been warned to steel myself.

The Night is Drunkest Before the Dawn

Working a fulltime field gig abroad like this is in some ways like living a double life. For work, I’m either outside in the forest all day getting sweaty, muddy, scratched, and bug-bitten. My clothes are drab, worn, splattered with god-knows-what, and selected for functionality. At home, I’m a recluse, spending my time recovering, catching up on sleep, processing data in an office, and generally trying to find a little peace of mind (ie, privacy). I rarely wear pants.

But this is Costa Rica. People here have a high standard of hygiene, dress, and etiquette. You are expected to spend time getting to know your neighbors and community. Social events are all day (or all-night) affairs. In some ways, it’s the polar opposite of what’s expected from a field researcher, a terrible, terrible irony. Which meant that I was faced with a significant challenge last night: the annual Tope Nacional.

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Everyone (and everything) in this photo has been drinking.
Once a year, our tiny town hosts a nationwide Tope, a event that combines horse parades, rodeo, county fair, block party, and drinking. Lots of drinking. It lasts several days, culminating in a 1000+ parade of prize horses around the streets, with the riders dressed as cowboys strutting their stuff and belting out traditional songs. While I can be a bit of a misanthrope–sleep deprivation and festering chigger bites or no–and generally shy away from large crowds, I resolved to make an effort to get involved on this final night, especially since I had been invited by a local friend who I’m going to call Jorge. It would be a valuable cultural experience, and I really need to get out of the house once in a while.

Jorge took me to the start of the event, where trailer after trailer pulled up and unloaded a number of horses that dwarfed the town’s normal human population. I soon learned that it was impolite to walk around without a beer in one’s hand, open container laws be damned, and after several I was thankful that Costa Rican beer is light enough to be bitter water. We picked a spot to watch the caballeros go by, whereupon Jorge started wolf-whistling at any and all women who passed by, they did their best to ignore him, and I did my best to pretend he was a stranger to me.

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Sexual harassment and machismo in Costa Rica is an extremely ugly and complicated issue that I am in no way prepared to address properly at the moment. Sorry, not all my captions are snark.
When the event started, I learned that the riders would march their horses together grouped by the province or town they represented, and stop their horses at outdoor bars for drinks along the way. The riders and the horses, that is. Yes, most cowboys would down a quick rum, while shotgunning a cold brew into their horse’s foaming mouth. The streets soon became a mess of fallen cans, and the gutters ran with a mixture of spilled drinks and horse piss.

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My god, it’s literally a Country Music song come to life.
Jorge and I ended up in a crowd, backed against a bar by a phalanx of thirsty riders and thirstier beasts. He knew the bartender, and she let us behind the bar to avoid the crush. However, in the chaos, someone grabbed my shoulder from over the bar, and I turned to see a cowboy-hatted man waving a bill in my face and gesturing to the drinks. I served him, but he was immediately replaced by someone else. So I ended up inadvertently tending outdoor bar to a bunch of cowboys and their horses. No one seemed to mind, and I got a few free cold ones.

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Cold beers, that is.
My energy didn’t last long. I met up with some coworkers and we hit up the street food and music scene. We drank some more, and I think I lasted about 5 minutes on the dance floor while the party started to spin around me. Priding myself on at least making an effort to be social like a normal human being, I clocked in around 11, far past my normal working bedtime.

And you know what? I had a good time. Living the double life of a foreign field naturalist means sacrifice and occasionally getting out of the comfort zone. One annual equine fiesta isn’t too much to ask, and I played it safe, not drinking too much or staying out too late to be ready for fieldwork again and all that nature could through at me. I drifted off to the lingering sounds of the party a few blocks away, fulfilled and content.

At least, that is until around 4am when I felt cold paws and matted fur climb over my forehead in the dark. Fearing rats–or, illogically, mongoose–I jumped up and spent several minutes with my disturbed roommates trying to find the culprit. When it started knocking over things on the shelf, I was only slightly relieved to find that it was not a rat but rather a baby possum, although God knows how it even got inside the house, let alone on my bed.

I grabbed it by the scruff and while it drooled and played dead, my thoughts were as follows: What the hell, nature? I make an effort to be human and this is what you do to me? Send vermin into my own room, for Christ’s sake?

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Good morning to you, too.

I mean, what’s the point? Why pretend? Did I enter some kind of dark pact with wild animals at some point? Is this revenge from the primeval gods? Can’t I just get one night of peace, one night to indulge the culture in which I live, that tolerates my animal-related behavior the rest of the year?

I threw the possum into a box, taped it up, and left it out in the kitchen for my housemates to find. I’ll release it later. Let it get out of its comfort zone, and maybe lose some sleep. Serves it right.

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Child Care

Warning: Graphic Cuteness ahead. Side effects may include babytalk or outright incoherence. Prolonged exposure may trigger reminders of Biological Clock. Fertile couples are advised against viewing. Continue at your own discretion.

Monkeys are ugly. It’s a fact. They are simply aesthetically unappealing. It’s empirical. Anyone who says otherwise is either lying or clearly never seen a monkey up close.

White-faced capuchins are, anyway. There are things like tamarins and marmosets that look like little gnomes, but capuchins and most Cebids fall into an uncanny valley of anthropomorphic characteristics. They have humanlike features, but animal proportions–their faces protrude, their eyes are sunken and beady. Their lips stretch and their teeth are gapped and pointed. Their hands look like ours from a distance, but up close the fingers are too long and clawed.

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It doesn’t help that they often maul each other into wretchedness, either.

But the babies, however, are just too damn stinkin’ cute. They check all the boxes for triggering the protecting instinct in humans: the large eyes, bulging forehead, and massive sideways ears that combine to tell us that the animal in question is adorable. That it is immature, helpless, curious, vulnerable, and needs our attention. The aesthetic is selected for and programmed into us, so strongly that it can cross species boundaries. You look at this thing, and your primitive mind tells you, “Aww!”

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Don’t tell me it doesn’t.

But it’s also their mannerisms. Baby monkeys act very much like, well, baby humans. The growth and development might be a little sped up, but monkeys pass through the same stages of infant, baby, toddler, child, and adolescent that we do, and tend to behave the same along the way.

For the first day or so of their lives, monkeys do little more than cling to their mother and try to sleep off the first impressions of the world they’ve just been put into. But once they start to open their eyes and move around, they are like rugrats. They clamber over anything and anyone with clumsy gait but strong grip. The world is their jungle gym, whether it be over branches, rocks, or their own relatives. Other monkeys, trying to sleep or eat, may attempt to discourage them with a light slap or reel them in by the tail, but there is no truly stopping a baby monkey for long. The energy is inexhaustible. Even when they’re sitting still, they’re often pulling their own tail or counting their own toes. I watched one play with a blade of grass, bopping it back and forth while its exhausted mother took a much-appreciated nap.

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New parents–you feeling me?

And then there’s the mouth stuff. Monkey babies, like human babies, will put their mouth on anything that they can’t fit into their mouth with their own hands. They try to explore their world by taste and texture, ignorant of health and hygiene. When they’re not nursing, they’re eating. When they’re not eating, they’re licking. When they’ve found nothing to imbibe, they’re just sticking their tongue out as if daring the universe to put something in their open mouth.

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“Bansaii!”

But the most human thing I’ve seen them do is the staring. Monkeys, like most animals, avoid direct eye contact for long. It’s considered provocative by most social animal standards, something only done among close relatives and allies. But babies stare. Like, deep into your soul stare. A constant, steady, wide-eyed, whites-showing gaze that suggests they are committing every detail of you to memory. It combines curiosity, surprise, and suspicion into one piercing package.

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“You lookin’ at me?”

This makes sense. Monkeys live complex lives, and rely on many inputs to survive day to day. They eat a wide variety of foods which must be studied and analyzed for ripeness or edibility. They move about in a chaotic and vertical environment where slipping would mean falling to your death. They rely on complicated social structure based on hierarchy and cues. All this means that they must adapt quickly to many factors and sensations, all stored in a relatively large brain. Much like humans do.

Babies–humans and monkeys alike, have to deathstare and stick things in their mouths. It’s the best way to find out what things are and what’s safe to eat. They have to clamber over objects and relatives–they have to learn how to move and explore. And also test the limits of patience of the adults in their lives.

So it’s no surprise that we pick up on many similarities during development. And sometimes some wires get crossed and we pick up on their developmental cues. Especially when those babies are being just so dang wompin’ cute. I mean, come on!

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Oh my god.

A Wee Little Tap on the Head

(Update: I’m fine, no concussion, just a skin-deep head wound and a bitch of a headache.)

Yesterday, a coworker and I were trying to keep up with a certain monkey who realized she’d left her baby behind several trees ago. She bolted through the canopy, and we struggled to follow. As I tried to force my way through a tenacious tangle of vines, they stretched and then snapped, sending me hurtling forward in a headfirst sprawl. I tucked and braced for impact, but there was a rock.

It was small, maybe roughly American-football sized and similarly shaped. Something dark and volcanic, its surface rough and jagged. It sat alone, about half-embedded in the ground, about two and a half meters from where I began my fall. I know this because if it had been any closer it would have gone into my head. As it happened, it only sort of glanced, scoring my scalp. But I still hit it pretty hard.

The first thing I did was to roll over and not try to stand up. I was already dizzy, and knew that if I tried to rise too fast I would only fall over again. I shouted something to my partner along the lines of “stay with the monkey” while a second coworker caught up to me. I told her I felt fine, was perfectly lucid, and that I didn’t even think there was any blood. She took one look at me, pulled out some gauze, pressed it to my head, and showed me the result: it was red. Very red.

We quickly reconvened and did a sitrep. We were near the top of a nasty cliff in a section of forest infamously known as the Anus. It’s a small valley filled with a messy tangle of thick brush, old landslides, and fallen trees. The only trails are poorly maintained, even for our standards. The nearest decent road was about 300 meters away in a straight line, which I knew from experience could take an hour or more to crash through. There were only three of us, and we were about to lose this group of monkeys which were particularly hard to find.

The way I saw it, I had several options. I could sit until the worst of the dizziness went away, then try to walk to where we’d parked that morning and wait there while my coworkers stayed with the monkeys. That way, I’d have the option of an early extraction, but we’d keep the monkeys. I could leave with one person to monitor my condition, but this would leave one person alone in the field. Seemed risky. We could also all leave, immediately. This was the most sound, but we were sure to lose the monkeys. Alternatively, I could swaddle my head in bandages and tough it out. This didn’t sound promising. I could also be left alone while the other two kept the monkeys, until my condition improved or I was finished off by wild animals. This didn’t sound promising either.

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Behold: my evac route.

So there I was. Bleeding and reeling. The monkeys were rapidly moving on. I was isolated by some of the nastiest terrain this reserve can offer, above a cliff overlooking a valley of vines and thorns. At some point, there would be a river to cross. And possibly wasp nests. Most definitely ants. So, the question is: what did I do?

Trick question! The correct answer is: it doesn’t matter! Since I had a potential concussion, all my rational judgement may have been compromised. What I decided to do didn’t amount to shit. My coworkers would’ve just ignored it. In the end, saner minds prevailed. We called our boss, who strongly suggested that they get my punch-drunk ass home, stat, where I could then get proper medical attention. They did.

And that, folks, is the story of how I hurt my head while chasing a monkey deep, deep into the Anus.

Ah thank you.