Missed Information

As a naturalist and guide, I like to know (or at least appear to know) a little about everything. To have something to say about anything I might find in my particular habitat. My goal is to be able to, off the top of my head for any given plant or animal, rattle off the name, general classification, ecological role, and a couple of cool facts. For those IDs, one out of three should include personal anecdote or story. For those stories, two out of three should include some kind of bodily horror.

Coati…related to the raccoon…omnivorous and diurnal…once bit me on the ass.

But sometimes I get utterly stumped. It happens. Sometimes a client or student or I will stumble across a creature or plant that I have no idea of. No frame of reference. No clue. And when it happens I can lose my mind.

Now, I am not above uttering my 3 least favorite words (“I, Don’t, Know”). I am perfectly fine swallowing my male academic pride and admitting defeat in the face of identification. And I even relish a little challenge in investigating, trying to pin down an ID of a new encounter.

But in those first few moments, as the confusion sets in? I can get a little dramatic. Especially if it’s something I feel I should know. Or if I run into something I was simply not prepared for. Below are a few of those moments, as I remember them.

#1 Praying-crick-roach

Check out this bug! It’s got the back legs of a cricket, middle legs of a cockroach, and the front legs of a mantis. That’s nuts! It’s like someone glued together three different bugs. An insectoid chimera. A bug manticore. Bugticore?

It’s just so wrong. There’s too much going on her, too many parts on one body. It’s 50% cricket, 50% roach, 50% mantis, and no I did not do that math wrong. 150% of bug. That’s too much bug. Three Orders in one.

Update: I still have no idea what this is.

#2 Blow-Up Frog

What a cute little frog! Never seen this species before. It’s like, 3 centimeters long. Man, there’s so many different kinds here. This is tough. Need to check its feet. Gonna poke it…

Oh my god, he just puffed himself up rose up on his legs as a threat display! Like a tiny wrestler. That’s adorable! You go, little guy. Look at you, all tough and stuff.

Update: Still not sure what this is, but since it came from the Amazon, not Costa Rica, it could be one of hundreds of species.

#3 The Katy Perry Bird

This one has no photo because I never got a visual ID on it. Rather, I heard its call. And it sounds–and I mean really sounds–like the chorus riff from the Katy Perry song Dark Horse. If you know the song, you can hear the call. It’s spot-on. Uncanny. And the fact that I’ve never been able to actually see this bird calling is maddening. Plus, every time I hear the call it puts that song in my head, just like this paragraph put it in yours. Sorry.

Update: Still haven’t IDed this, but friends suggest some kind of antbird.

Other Update: No, I don’t generally listen to Katy Perry. Why do people keep asking me this?

#4 Red-Touching Black Snake

(OK, obviously I knew this was a snake, but the lack of specific knowledge led to a critical incident)

Ok, my PI just handed me a snake. This day rules. I wonder what species it is. I don’t usually handle snakes I can’t ID, but this guy knows best, right? I mean, he’s an entomologist, but should know better than to pass around unknown snakes. He’s got a PhD after all. I’ll ask him…

What do you mean you don’t know what kind of snake it is? It could be a coral snake! What’s that, boss? “Red touches black…?” That rhyme doesn’t work in the Tropics, you bug-loving maniac! Some coral snakes are red and black. You could’ve gotten me killed! I’m never trusting you again.

Update: It was a harmless tree snake.

Other Update: I never trusted him again.

A Day in the Life of a Real Naturalist

Years back, an ecolodge I worked for commissioned me to write a guest post for their blog. It was supposed to be a “Day in the Life of a Naturalist” post, and someone had heard that I had my own personal blog going at the time. However, the boss clearly had no idea of the tone of said personal blog and its, shall we say, irreverence. The piece I wrote was true to form and, while accurate, didn’t really fit with the professional, family-friendly official page. It was rather off-brand. So the Director himself decided it was in need of much re-writing, a task he did on his own.

And I didn’t even mention ants.

The resulting post wasn’t so much re-written as ghost-written. Gone was the spite and sarcasm. Gone were the gory details. Gone was the actual day in the actual life of an actual naturalist. In its place was a squeaky-clean bit of G-rated ecotour propaganda. I allowed it to be posted only with my name removed, and decided to post my original work on my own blog.

But then I remembered that I was under contract, and that technically what I had written belonged to the organization. Plus, I was under a kind of NDA and some details pertained to work. Plus, I was trying to be professional, and didn’t want my employer to think I was a dick.

Well I just learned that that place is no longer in business so they can’t do squat! Below is my original post, along with their edits in bold.

My day begins at 5am dawn when the monkeys wake me up by dropping guavas on my roof. My first coherent thought is deciding whether or not to go outside and yell at them to imagine all the animals I’m going to see today. Then I shake the spiders out of put on my boots and head to the dining hall where I fill myself with as much rice, beans, and strong coffee as is medically possible eat breakfast and drink a cup of coffee. This is the jungle and I can’t waste daylight.

Monkeys are awful little tree gremlins interesting creatures.

The first tour of the day is usually birdwatching. After passing out binoculars, and helping the one or two chuckleheads who try to use them backwards, we head out to see what’s around. Depending on the year, we can get all sorts of migrants and visitors from the Northern Hemisphere flying in and making a lot of noise. Sometimes we see migratory birds too. The campus is great place for birding, with plenty of open areas, forested habitat, flowers, fruit, and tall trees. Sometimes we visit a ledge overlooking the river with a great view of the valley, which also happens to be my favorite spot to pee a very relaxing place.

If nothing is scheduled, I like to head over to the campus farm to lend a hand. Agriculture in the Tropics is a never-ending rewarding job, as the growing season is year-round. The food goes right from the dirt to the kitchen. Lunch is typical Costa Rican food, generally organic rice, local beans, homegrown veggies, and a meat dish with fresh fruit. Along with, of course, more coffee.

Ok, he was trying to plug the farm here. I get that.

Afternoons are for more activities. If we’re in luck, we’re hosting a researcher, and they always need someone to play Tonto an experienced guide. Or Sherpa a helpful assistant. Throughout my time here, I’ve assisted with forestry techs, bat catchers scientists, herpers biologists who study reptiles and amphibians, butterfly geeks lepidopterists, and camera trap nerds specialists. Onsite, we have our own research on seed dispersal, reforestation, mycology, and a poor resident moth intern who stays up all night counting bugs an ongoing moth survey.

Throughout the day, I like to make myself available to guests to tell stories, point out animals, and answer their questions. I hear all sorts of things. “What was that animal we saw that looked like a large guinea pig?” Probably an agouti. “We heard a strange call last night.” This is where I start making animal sounds until they hear the right one help them find out what it was. “Is it true that there’s a bug that lays its eggs in your brain?” Um, not sure about that one. No, but the Director once got bit by a botfly.

What he hell, man? That isn’t even MY anecdote.

Dinner is similar to lunch, and afterward is my favorite activity: night hike. A few hours after sunset, I pass out flashlights, slap on some bugspray, and hit the trails with a group of wary excited guests in tow. Nighttime is when the jungle really comes alive. We can count on seeing all sorts of critters nocturnal wildlife, from massive insects, ghostly owls, and absolute hordes of frogs. If we’re lucky, we might even see a kinkajou which is a Costa Rican mammal that looks like a large squirrel. We often rarely see snakes.

Exhausted, delighted, and very sweaty, everyone heads back to the cabins to dream of weird animals they’ve never seen before. It’s been another day in the life of a naturalist.

How to Fight Animals

Life on a small island with no large snakes to speak of has been comfortable, but has left me little inspiration or material. So I went through my old drafts and found this, which I planned to turn into a book at one point. Here’s a sample.

If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself in combat with wild animals. How the fight began–whether from competition for resources, an insult to honor, for the right to eat one another, or because you were just bored–is irrelevant. But due to the great number and wide variety of species that I have fought or still plan to fight, I thought I would submit this to the archive of the internet for the public good.

Please treat the following information with all the respect it deserves. Also, note that if you are already fighting an animal, it is too late to seek advice. You must do battle with nothing but your own wits. Good luck.

Stop reading, put your phone down.

Snakes

The obvious first entry. My bread and butter. A significant threat, a worthy foe. According to one good book I read, snakes have been mankind’s enemy since one gave poor dietary advice to two nudists. Also, they bite.

If you can’t ID the snake, assume it is venomous. But venom or no, all snakebites can be dangerous.

My experience is extensive and so is my advice about them. Ask anyone who’s spoken to me for more than 5 minutes. But key points to summarize: snakes are only dangerous at one end. This may seem obvious, but remember that once you immobilize that business end you can pretty much do whatever you want. Snakes, it seems, sacrificed their arms and legs in exchange for turning the rest of their body into one large limb, a gamble that may not have necessarily paid off when humans entered the picture. Granted, some snakes are strong enough to overpower a human with the rest of their body, but these are rarely encountered by humans and are usually so large that they lack the energy to go a whole 10 rounds. They tire quickly, and also have vital organs along 70% of their body that are sensitive to a sharp jab or a good tickling.

However, one important caveat: snakes are fast. Faster than you. Don’t be fooled by sluggish behavior–a free head is a bitey head, and can strike from roughly ⅓ a body length away. And some species can jump. But while you cannot be faster than a snake, you can be smarter. Try to predict where the head will go, and then go somewhere else. Wait for it to move, then go for the neck.

Like so.

Unless it’s a kind that spits, of course. Some do that. And mole vipers bite backwards. You know what? I should probably do an entry just on snakes. Moving on.

Large Flightless Birds

Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh. Ratites and cracids and kin are no joking matter. These ain’t your barnyard chickens, which can already be pretty nasty. Ask anyone who’s gotten on a rooster’s bad side.

These are the birds who haven’t forgotten that they’re dinosaurs. The ones that traded working wings for serious claws. Your ostriches, emus, and rheas. Jungle fowl. Freaking cassowaries. I’ve tangled with a curassow that had been fed only fruit, and was trying to supplement its protein-starved diet with my fingers. Then it flew up to short branches and went for my ears. I soon discovered a reliable technique: the kick. A good hefty kick with a booted foot. Unblockable, Daniel-san. So sweep the leg and watch your surroundings.

Curassow: like a large jungle turkey. Females are brown, males are black. Both are ornery.

Bears

Full disclosure: I’ve never fought a bear. But I did hug one once, while it was sedated. It was one of the greatest moments of my life, and I never pass up a chance to tell the story. But while I was in its deep fuzzy embrace, I learned something: bears smell really, really, bad. I thought this was worth keeping in mind. If you do end up fighting a bear, you wouldn’t want to be taken off guard by its stench. Lord knows bears have enough going for them already.

Monkeys

If you are fighting a monkey, you have already screwed up. Terribly. There is no victory here, at least not one with any shred of dignity. There is no way to emerge completely unscathed. Step one is considering the life choices that brought you to this moment. Where did you go wrong?

Where didn’t you go wrong?

Monkeys are horrible creatures. Expect the craftiness and dexterity of humans with the raw aggression and strength of a wild animal. I had one capuchin grab me by the hair, yank my scalp back, then shove me face-first into a concrete path. And I was lucky. You don’t know fear until you’ve been curb-stomped by a primate that comes to your knees.

Seriously, monkeys eat ants. These things have no limits.

My only advice? Hold nothing back. Use every dirty trick and item at your disposal. Weapons. Fire. Explosives. Feint and scream. Fight Harkonnen-style: deception within deception. Don’t fight with honor because you will see none in return. Convince that monkey that it will face utter destruction at your hands. Only then will it consider cutting its losses and losing face. In fact, subjugation and dominance is one of the few concepts monkeys understand.

But they understand them well.

Oh, and note that my experience only extends to New World monkeys, which tend to be small. I’ve never fought, say, a baboon. And I don’t plan to. Baboons eat people.

That is all for now.

Wunderbaer

The first word I learned in the German language was the word for coati: nasenbaer. Part of the reason it stuck with me is that it means, literally, “nose bear.” How great is that?

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Side note: there are no coatis in Germany, and no bears in Costa Rica. How’s that for weird?

Apparently many German animal names work this way. The kinkajou is the “honey bear.” A sloth is a “lazy bear.” Delightful. It’s almost genius in its simplicity. Name = adjective or notable trait + bear. But this has led me to an odd thought.

I have never been to Germany, but seeing that they apparently use the bear as their sole reference for new animals, I have to conclude that the country is populated exclusively by bears. Bears everywhere. Just bears. And when Germans travel abroad, they can only interpret foreign wildlife through the lens of the only animal they know, that is: the bear.

So as a service to any potential German travelers out there, I would like to offer this helpful Costa Rican bestiary, which I hope to publish one day under the title A Field Guide to Costa Rican Bears (German Edition).

Willkommen to Costa Rica!

Costa Rica is a beautiful and lush tropical country known for its proud history of conservation, and for its wide variety of native bears. This guide will provide a brief description of the many bears you may see during your visit.

Some of the most striking and most popular are the feathery wing bears, many of which are endemic to the country. Because of its geography, Costa Rica hosts a great number of bear species as they migrate across the isthmus, and many bearwatchers are drawn here to add to their lifer bear lists.

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With some experience, you may be able to identify a bear by its song.

Of course, at night, the little flappy wing bears come out in spectacular diversity, with Costa Rica supporting several dozen species. Here, you may find wing bears that have specialized to eat fruit, nectar, insects, fish, and even a few blood-drinking vampire bears. Don’t worry—they very rarely feed on humans.

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It’s a well-known fact that these bears sleep upside-down. Some, even under leaves.

Look up in the trees of the rainforest for nasty tail bears. Always iconic of the tropical forest, they are amusing and fascinating to watch as they socialize and forage. However, for your safety, please do not ever feed the bears.

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For their safety as well as yours. Some human diseases can spread to Tropical bears.

While you may be concerned about long scaly deadly bears, most of these are shy and rarely encountered. But be sure to keep your eyes out! Most of the ones you will see are only long and squeezy.

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Some very long, and very squeezy.

Around the rainy season you will see and hear plenty of slimy jumping bears, which come out to sing and breed when conditions are wet. Make sure to look and not touch, as many of these bears are toxic.

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Green-and-back poison dart bear.

It’s my duty as a guide and naturalist to accommodate all peoples and as many languages as I can. If you are German, I hope this has been helpful. I hope that you will keep Costa Rica in mind when COVID is over and you can leave Germany, where you are currently isolating, no doubt surrounded by bears.

Invisibird

Look at this picture very carefully.

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The photo quality isn’t doing you any favors, I know.
See the bird? It’s like a Where’s Waldo only if Waldo wore a gilly suit. I’ll zoom in.

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More like one of those Magic Eye things, but with less headache.
Better now? That is a hatchling Pauraque, a type of nightjar. Nightjars are nocturnal insectivorous birds that tend to perch and nest directly on the ground. They rely on powerful camoflauge and the ability to sit perfectly still as a defense mechanism. I think I’ve posted photos of them before.

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Ah yes, there it is.

Nesting under brush or on natural terrain, they are impossible to spot. You have to practically step right on them, which now that I think about it is how I usually find them. Or I see them out in the middle of the road. With their bright reflective eyeshine, they can usually be picked out from several hundred meters off when caught in headlights, appearing as a disembodied pale green light floating a few centimeters above the ground. It’s eerie, and their habit of not fleeing until the last second can cause drivers to jump and flinch, or send them into the grills of passing cars. This has earned them another local nickname: “suicide birds.”

But they have another defense mechanism, one that appears in a few species of similar ground dwelling birds and was demonstrated dramatically by the parent of that chick above. If a predator gets too near to the nest, the parent hops and flops around, holding one wing at an awkward angle as if broken. It fakes its own injury to draw the threat away from the nest, calling and flipping and dragging itself through the dirt until it’s at a safe enough distance to fly off. It’s a neat tactic, and if you ever see a bird doing it, don’t worry–it’s not really injured. But watch your step, since the nest is nearby.

I stumbled across this one near where I work. Parent nearly gave me a heart attack, and I lingered only long enough to snap those grainy photos with my phone. I didn’t want to distress the bird any more than necessary. Although nesting on the ground doesn’t strike me as the best strategy. I mean, these things have wings, right? That’s the whole point of being birds. They could nest anywhere else. Suicide bird, indeed.

 

How Many Can Sing a Duet?

Ok, quick little interlude here, and it doesn’t have any photos to go with it, but I have to put this out there:

The other day I was sitting in my room, which has a large screen window that faces into some low forest. I was playing guitar. And a toucan landed on a branch right outside my window and stayed there, unmoving, until I finished the song.

It was a Yellow-Throated Toucan (previously Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, because birders can never keep names the same for long), and we get them all the time on the property. Many of the trees around the residential building are Ficus or Cecropia, which have ripe fruit this time of year. But toucans are canopy birds that generally feed high in the trees. This one was about 4 meters from the ground. My room is on the first floor.

And it just sat there, not hoping or swaying its head as they do. I can’t say for sure where it was looking, but it had one side of its head turned to me, giving me one good eye the whole time.

It was surreal. It was magical. It was as close as I will ever get to being a Disney Princess. Seriously—I was singing to the wild animals. But I just don’t understand why.

Was it a fluke? Just a coincidence? Was it reacting to the sound? To the pitch? The rhythm? I’ve heard a few animals are known to react to human music, but I don’t have any precise data on that. Toucan calls don’t sound particularly much like guitar to me.

So here’s what I collected from my little case study:

–The song was in the Key of G, and contained only the chords G, C, and D (Yay for Bluegrass, everybody!)

–The song was 4/4 time.

–My guitar was slightly out of tune as I discovered later (G chord was a little flat)

–Yes, I was singing too. I have a pretty low voice. No comment as to its quality.

–The tree right outside my room did not have ripe fruit. The nearest food source was about 5 meters away and 2 meters up.

 

So what gives? Has anyone heard of this before? I’ll be sure to post if it happens again.

The Manakin Challenge

Many people come to Costa Rica for the birds, especially now that the Northern migrants are all flying South for the Winter and end up getting funneled down this narrow isthmus of a country. Birds and birdwatchers both. So if you want to be a guide, it’s worth knowing your fowl. By appearance and by sound.

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Like Summer Tanagers. Or, as they call them here, “Winter Tanagers.”

However, this can make secondhand ID’s kind of tricky. I get a lot of guests saying something like, “Oh, we saw this bird, but I don’t know what it was,” and while I can usually ID it down to species if given even a blurry phone picture, when people only hear the birds we hit some kind of language barrier.

Trying to describe animal calls is like improvisational comedy. It’s usually totally pointless, reliably goes off the rails, is far removed from whatever you’re trying to imitate, and can be unintentionally funny the harder you try for it not to be.

I’m also hopeless at imitating bird calls, so I end up resorting to creative descriptions. “Did it sound like Daffy Duck on helium whooping right outside your window at 5am?” Wood rail. “More like a Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker cackling nonstop for like 10 minutes in a tree?” Laughing falcon. “Gnome having an orgasm at night?” Nightjar.

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I dare you to look it up. I also date you to tell me I’m wrong.

But there is one bird whose call I can imitate spot-on, and that is the Long-tailed Manakin, Chiroxiphia linearis. It’s Spanish name Toledo comes from it’s 4-note trill  “Tooddle-EE-doo” that’s at a pitch I can whistle accurately.

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Although contrary to what the name suggests, they are really bad at sitting still.

What’s also cool about these guys is that they, like some other birds, engage in elaborate courtship rituals called lekking. But while most lek displays involve a single male singing or dancing on a perch for females, these manakins do so in pairs. They hold duets. They practice for days until they sing in perfect synchronicity, and rehearse choreographed movements like jumping up and down in turn.

Manakins are generally tiny little colorful birds that are rarely seen clearly, so this kind of behavior is just icing on the birding cake. People love these guys. They’re just too cute. One species even includes dance moves like a Michael Jackson slide in its lek, and one clicks its wings like a tap dancer.

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Look that one up too. These guys are the best.

But I’ve started using an App to identify and playback bird calls. Because while the birds might be triple threats–singing, dancing, and hamming it up for the crowds–I know my limitations.

 

Whatever’s There

“What are you looking for?”

It’s a question I get asked a lot, usually as I’m walking past an outdoor seating area in my rainboots, flashlight and camera in hand. People see me peering between roots, gazing up into the trees, and shuffling my feet through dead leaves. Curious, they ask this simple question, but for me the answer isn’t so easy. Nor is it satisfying for them. I usually answer: “whatever’s there.”

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Pictured: whatever.

The thing is, I’m not looking for anything. At least, I don’t have a specific target in mind. I’m not so much searching as I am, in technical terms, “pokin around.” I’m not a predator on the hunt, I’m a dog with its nose in the dirt. A cat staring out a window. I’m just flexing my senses, observing my surrounding, and relying on the jungle not to disappoint. Which it usually doesn’t.

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Like this: King vulture spotted just outside our center. See? All I had to do was look up and there was giant bird with a head made out of giblets.

That’s not to say some times I don’t have expectations. And there are some times I’m deliberately checking likely spots to see specific animals, even individuals. I’ve had birds return to nests at regular hours, or lizards that pick the same sleep site that they’re practically neighbors. And snakes, well, it’s fair to say I’m never not looking for snakes.

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Like this guy, who I named “Mr. Sixteen.”

I know to stake out water holes for frogs, or fruit trees for monkeys. There are patterns here once you know what to look for. And you don’t have to go far to find something interesting, not out here. Hell, sometimes people will catch me patrolling the outsides of buildings or garbage bins in the evenings for nocturnal wildlife. And if they ask, my answer is always the same:

I’m looking for whatever’s there.

Nest Drama

Update: The recent break in my blogging is due to lack of proper computer, my previous laptop having suffered an early death at the hands of tropical humidity. I’ve been making do with a smartphone, but tiny screen, miniscule keyboard, and crappy camera meant that any writing project was difficult, painful, and altogether not worth it. Oh well, back on track now and I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

It was a nature mystery: sometime in the night, probably during the wind and rain, a nest had fallen out of a tree. The birds had recently laid, and the eggs were now in pieces. Except, something was off. Some of the egg fragments were white, and some were blue.

I approached it like a crime scene and took stock of the area. I knew that several doves roosted around there, but I had also seen a few species of cuckoos around. Which led me to my conclusion: the nest was a case of brood parasitism, where one species (probably the cuckoo, notorious for being this devious) had laid its egg in the nest of another bird (probably the dove, notorious for being really freaking stupid).

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Sorry doves, but…you know it’s true.

This is a tactic that works depressingly well, with parent birds unable to distinguish their own offspring from a different species, even when the invaders can grow to several times their size and kill their nestmates. I was unable to confirm the cuckoo culprit in question, but look up some photos of this–the images are incredible.

It’s funny how little investigations into the animals around us can uncover surprising little dramas. Birds are characters. The other day, I noticed a pair of wrens constructing a nest in a palm near my office. Later, however, the nest was visited by something that was definitely not a wren. Intrigued, I grabbed my camera and staked it out.

Turns out, the wrens spent the morning building their nest, weaving in small pieces of leaves, plant fiber, and animal hair. After a few hours they left, presumably to feed on insects which are more active during the hottest part of the day. Only once they were gone, however, did the other bird show up–a banaquit, a small fruit- and nectar-feeder about half the size of the wrens.

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This guy.

After a furtive glance around to make sure the wrens were gone, it grabbed a beakfull of batting off the wren nest and flew off. I followed. Not 10 meters away, it was building its own nest out of pirated materials, just on the other side of a building and out of sight of the wren couple. The tiny bandit made these short raids all day, until about late afternoon when the wrens returned, looked at their pilfered nest, and went right back to work.

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“Eh, they won’t miss it.”

This kind of saga is amusing (or horrifying, depending on whose side you’re on), but makes sense. Instead of selection for size or strength, we’re seeing selection for guile. And pressure against gullibility. Seriously, birds–get with the program! That was clearly not your egg!

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Wrens: not much better than pigeons, it seems.

I’m trying to keep tabs on all the comings and goings of this environment, and appreciate the birds for being so out and obvious with their activity. But clearly, they’ve got secrets of their own.

 

Nominal Doubt (With Apologies to Australia)

It finally happened. Something that I had been suspecting and joking about for years–someone actually called me out and accused me of making up animal names.

It’s not like I can blame them. It was on a tour where I had already introduced them to a kinkajou, a coati, and a kiskadee. We heard a shrill scream overhead, and I IDed it as a Caracara.

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The bird so nice they named it twice.

Costa Rica has an interesting history when it comes to animal names. I’ve mentioned this before. Most of the fauna unique to the Tropics–the kinkajous, coatis, tapirs, and cavimorph rodents–have no reference in the Temperate zones and thus require their own unique root names. It doesn’t help that most of these names come from South American indigenous languages, where the first English-speaking naturalists IDed them. It also doesn’t help that most local bird names are onomatopoeic–there usually based off the sound the bird makes. This gives you things like caracara, kiskadee, toledo, and chachalaca.

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“As in, Boom, chachalaca?”–every tourist ever.

I hear Australia has a similar problem. Australia, the land of the wallaby, the quokka, the numbat, and the jongowumpas, names so outlandish to English ears that you probably didn’t even catch that I made one of those up.

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And I’m never telling which.

But back to Costa Rica, where some of our animals sound like rejects from Harry Potter. Lizards here have names like basilisk, or -something dragon, just adding to the mythological flair. Or Pokemon. Have you ever seen a student roll their eyes when you pointed out an olingo? Or gotten a blank stare when you excitedly explained that you could hear a Quetzal? Or heard someone actually snort out loud when you mention the high local density of Titi monkeys? I have.

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It’s pronounced “Tee-Tee” monkeys, you comedians.

Look, I get it. Guides are notorious for hating to say they don’t know an answer. And I’m sure we’ve all had the temptation to bullshit or outright lie. But please give them the benefit of the doubt. Names and sounds are relative. Foreigners might very well react the same to creatures in your backyard. In fact, I had to boot up Google to prove to a skeptical Spaniard what a “marmot” was.

And sometimes the names are important. Disbelieve at your own risk. Here, you really do need to watch out for pica-pica vine. In Madagascar, don’t laugh when they warn you about Fossa. And in Australia, beware of the cassowary, the dingo, and the dreaded furbompowhispel. And yes, I made one of those up. Probably.

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Seriously, don’t laugh about the fossa.