This Happens Every Year?

A few weeks ago, I was here:

Clouds? Check. Forest? Check.

Now, I am here:

Pictured: none of those. But kudos if you saw the bird.


Over the course of a few dozen miles, covered in a few hours, albeit down some hair-raising and stomach-churning mountain roads, the landscape has changed dramatically. Cloud Forest to Dry Forest. Cold and misty to hot and dusty. Two completely different environments an afternoon’s drive apart in a country roughly the size of West Virginia.

Part of it’s the timing. It’s Dry Season–what Costa Rica calls “Summer.” Days may be short, but the sun is always out. Up on the mountains, the only way you could tell was that the clouds would occasionally lift and rain would be infrequent instead of omnipresent. Here, though, rain is a memory. Water is scarce. Rivers are thinning and pools are shrinking. The forest has withered and trees have become skeletons.

Making potential prey all the more visible.

Yes, tropical Dry Forest trees are mostly deciduous–they drop their leaves as if it were Autumn in the North. This limits perspiration from the leaves, minimizing water loss. But it leaves the forest denuded, our trails hardly recognizable. The once dense green tangle is now a thick carpet of dead leaves, bare rock, and loose sand. It’s still a tangle, though. It’s not like the plants drop their thorns, after all.

And the animals feel it. With fewer sources of water, large animals are forced to concentrate around the few remaining rivers and streams. They alter their diets–omnivores eat more plant stems and bark rather than fruit or plump insects. The lucky ones just grow lean, while others starve off completely. And everybody gets a little more cranky.

Not that some aren’t cranky to begin with.

It’s not like this is unusual. We’re not in a drought. This place has to deal with these conditions every year, even in optimal times. This is a check on the abundance provided by the sun and rain for the other eight months of the year.

Dry Season is supposed to peak around early March. The forest should thin out even more by then. In several ways.

Meaning I might have to deal with fewer of these things.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Towering Inferno

Guanacaste’s Dry Season came fast and sudden, like someone switched off the water overnight. It’s gotten hotter and dustier. Plants have already started to shrivel and the bugs have started to die. The pattern extends throughout the relatively flat and homogeneous region. So I was all the more surprised when a brief, 45-minute drive took us to a familiar and dramatically different environment: Cloud Forest. Courtesy of our small, hometown resident volcano Miravalles.


Miravalles sits to our Northeast, looming over the plains in an aura of clouds, swatting down cold fronts like bothersome flies. Its position and elevation create a localized rainshadow effect, with wet air from the Caribbean caught against its steep slopes and forced to stay put, depositing their vapor in gentle mists. The mountain thus stays green all year, and constantly feeds the surrounding parched land with rivers like a greedy despot.

Ahh…about those rivers.

The volcano itself, I am told, is inactive. That is, there’s been no activity from the caldera at the summit, which blew itself up along with the upper third of the mountain in some forgotten cataclysmic age. But the surrounding area, from the foothills to the slopes, is a hot zone for thermal vents, with sulfurous water boiling straight from the ground in several places.

This place is in no way fucking around. Non-Spanish-speakers, here’s a hint: it doesn’t say “WET FLOOR.”

It’s a pretty dramatic area. Ever since Guatemala, it’s been obvious to me how volcanoes lend themselves to nature worship. It’s a literal expression of greater forces beneath our feet, movements of the very bowels of the Earth, unstoppable and endless fonts of heat and energy. I stood by a hole that gurgled and spat diabolical-smelling mud and realized that no amount of human ingenuity would be able to produce the kind of energy that powered this tiny suppurating mudhole. That’s humbling.

“Look upon my works, ye mighty…”

But it gets better. See, last year Costa Rica suffered one of its worst hurricanes of the century: Tropical Storm Otto. The Eye passed right over Guanacaste, and the rainfall against Miravalles was tremendous. The leached, rocky soil–precariously placed after decades of gentle misting–collapsed into landslides and floods. One scree pile took down an entire swath of forest and landed in a river, causing a freshwater tsunami of a flashflood that continued down into nearby towns below. A local family I spoke to during the visit described a wave of water, silt, and debris 5 meters high that tore a brand new riverbed into their backyard. They were lucky to keep their house.

The scars of the storm are still visible in the forest, with boulders resting out of place amidst trees and trees resting among boulders. Raw rock, unstained and freshly carved, still screams of the force of the storm and its floodwaters. Concrete fragments and twisted rebar testify to the puny attempts of humans who dare to build upon this mountain. A mountain that bleeds heat and shits flashfloods. This is where a natural disaster combined with another natural disaster. Where a volcano mated with a storm. This is where nature said to humanity, “I see your global warming, and I raise you one Apocalypse.”

We’re not worthy.

Sorry. That got a little out of hand. But you see what I mean? How can you not stand in awe of this kind of thing? Plus, the small, isolated spot supports a beautiful ecosystem, made all the more precious by its fragility in the face of such destruction.

It also helps that some of the flowers look like alien pineapples.

Back in the Dry Forest in early Dry Season, I can still see Miravalles in the distance, peeking out from its cloudy shroud. I look with reverence and respect. And also wariness. You never can know what the mountain has in store.

Diversity of Diversity

So, yeah, it’s been a while.

Long story short, I wrapped up the high school course and moved to a new project up in Guanacaste. I wasn’t able to upload photos from my camera, and rarely had the time or bandwidth to post much of anything. So there’s a lot to catch up on. On top of that, this new monkey project has me constantly exhausted and extremely busy, and it’s only been a few days. I think I’ll upload older, pre-written posts every few days, which will give me enough time to put this current experience into words that aren’t swears and groans.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, I wrote this down about a week ago.

One lesson I have to learn over and over again is that, in the tropics, niche habitats are infinitely nested. Even in a country roughly the size of West Virginia (check your encyclopedia–it’s true), which you can carve up into regions, then divide further into life zones, and even further into Reserves–there is still enough local variation in biodiversity to make two similarly categorized places seem like two different worlds.

With some of the animals right out in the open. I literally took this shot from my bed.

Case in point: Monteverde and Las Cruces. Both Cloud Forest. Both, technically, on the Pacific Slope of Costa Rica. Both affected by similar weather patterns. But countless other factors, from historic human influence to micro-micro-climates cause these forests to look and feel unique.

Here, monkeys and coatis are rare and shy. Agoutis are so bold and common we’re practically tripping over them. Bird assemblages are different, although many migrants show up in both places.

Like Motmots: grumpy and judgmental looking in multiple habitats.

The biggest difference, though? Weather. Here, fog is thicker and more present, especially in the evening. Many of our dinners are enjoyed enveloped in a grayish, light scattering void, with the silhouettes of trees and valley ridges popping in and out of view. It’s pretty dramatic.

Missing the forest for all the clouds.

None of this is a complaint, by the way. I’m racking up new species and seeing plenty of flashy new megafauna to keep the students moderately engaged, at least. Night hikes have yielded glass frogs, a kinkajou, crested guans, and, of course, large bugs.

A crested guan here, harassing a hawk, lower right. Because rare and exotic or not, animals are generally still a-holes.

Keep ’em coming.

Life on the River

I think I may have jinxed us with that last post, as today we finally got some rain.  That is, we got a light ten-minute shower followed by off and on pelo de gato, “cat hair”, the local name for gentle sprinkling.  Really just heavy fog that mostly falls downward.  But it was enough to dampen this thirsty forest, put down the dust, and bring out the animals.

It feels like the forest is waking up.  Sure, down by the river, we’ve had plenty of activity, as it’s become the only source of water for kilometers in any direction.  In fact, just focusing on our little microhabitat workspace, you wouldn’t even know there was a drought on if it weren’t for the level of the water.  This high in the watershed though, the animals don’t mind, and besides our damselflies we’ve had steady sightings of hummingbirds nabbing spiders off of webs in preparation for nesting, coatis passing through on their way to more important things, and water anoles on rocks looking like they’re posing for shampoo commercials.

Dove: For reptiles.

In the water, too, there’s stuff to see.  You usually think of crabs as sea creatures, but Costa Rica hosts a number of freshwater species that come as high as the montane cloud forest.  While these are not as abundant nor, thankfully, as bold as the coastal ones, they’re a common sight scuttling in and among the leaf litter, munching on algae.  Crayfish, too, are here, rarer but much larger than ones I’m used to in the US.

What I would call eatin’ size.

As for the damselflies themselves, by now I’ve gotten a full portrait of their life cycle.  After a long period as a flightless aquatic nymph, they crawl out of the water and go through a kind of mini-metamorphosis as they develop their adult body parts.  When the adults ecclose (I love that word.  It means “emerge from a cocoon or exoskeleton”.  Man, scientists have a word for everything) they are bright, near-luminous yellow, as their chitin is still soft and their wings are delicate.

Reproduction is far less romantic.  After a male locates a female, he uses the cersi on the end of his tail to grab her by the neck until she agrees to receive his sperm or he gets bored.  If she relents to this awful courtship that I will not anthropomorphosize further for reasons of decency, she curls her tail towards him and they create the copulatory wheel.  She then lays her fertilized eggs underwater, and the circle of life continues.

They make a heart. Because nature has a twisted sense of humor.

Dry Times in the Cloud Forest

This is not what a Cloud Forest should look like:

Is that…sunlight?

I know this is the dry season, but this is unusual.  The plants here are wilting.  The characteristic ferns are curling up and crisping.  Some streams are completely gone.  Trees are falling over more than usual—small ones, too—not because of erosion and drainage but because the soil around them is turning into powder.  In the wind, I thought the trees had dandruff until I realized that they were shedding their epiphytes.

Costa Rica is in a severe drought.  I know this is the dry season and it happens every year, but the rains stopped early this time and we haven’t seen much of the fog and mist up here in the mountains that should be year-round.  Lake levels have fallen severely, and many communities are completely without water.  So far, Monteverde is doing OK, but now that their springs and rivers are failing them, farmers may have to water their crops, which will put further strain on the already overburdened regional aquifer.

Remember, this river feeds over a dozen towns.

El Nino did few favors here, it seems.  Costa Rica has long been a breadbasket of an agricultural economy for a country smaller than West Virginia, but it is quickly loosing that privilege.  That small size works against it when it comes to very specific yet dramatic weather patterns.  Especially if they are chronic.

I’ve heard that over the years, rain has fallen later and less.  When it does fall, it falls harder for briefer periods.  That indicates a pattern, one that means plants will die, exposing more soil, which will dry even faster and then get washed away by torrential rains.  That will lead to erosion, increased silt runoff, and a continuous downward spiral of environmental health.

We need rains here.  I know I’ll be kicking myself for saying it once I’m living in a research station again in the middle of a downpour, but bring on the wet.  This place is dying.

The Christmas Quetzal

Back again from my family Christmas vacation within a vacation.  At least, that’s what it felt like.  True to form, my family works, exercises, and agonizes over plans far more when they are traveling than when they are not.  I’m exhausted, back at work, and have over a week’s worth of wildlife photos to post and write about.  So I’ll be breaking this past week into multiple parts, trying to play catchup.

So here goes.

The trip kicked off to a great start with a visit to the Cloud Forest Preserve, a place where, surprisingly, I had not returned to in some time.  Within minutes, we managed a few blurry photos of the classic yet illusive Resplendent Quetzal, a male in full plumage, no less.

Dressed appropriately for the holidays.

This was followed by howler monkeys, impressive ficus trees, some spectacular scenery, and a long, photogenic montage of hummingbirds at the feeders.  We sat there, enjoying our lunches in full view of the colorful birds, and concluded that it had been a truly successful visit.  We were perfectly content.

And then an olingo crawled down a tree in full view of everyone and proceeded to perform what I recognized from the more regrettable of college parties as a keg-stand on one of the hummingbird feeders.  He power-chugged it dry in seconds, and then moved on to the next one while several dozen tourists shot photo after photo while the bewildered guides tried to explain why a usually nocturnal and shy animal was going on a junk food binge in broad daylight.

Rough night? Breakup? We’ll never know.

Which turned out to portend a week of similar encounters with wildlife that should otherwise have required at least a little effort to see.  Things that I have raved about, along with other more seasoned naturalists, things that normally necessitate days spent in the field for a single, out-of-focus photo.  The things that should be special, rare, illusive, but frustratingly refused to even act uncommon.

Manuel Antonio National Park had so much wildlife, I felt lame for taking pictures.  Not even a kilometer down the main road we were directed by guides toward a white-tailed deer, a brown vine snake, and a three-toed sloth.  Hacienda Baru–a less well-known and severely underrated alternative—turned out to be less active but still yielded a monkey fighting a green iguana, something I had not realized how much I had wanted to see until I witnessed it.

The monkeys won, but only after the whole troop ganged up and drove the iguana under a bridge. It’s OK, iguana. You did your best.

Turns out, my family are some of those people who just have the best luck when it comes to spending a brief time an area and seeing all the rare wildlife.  The kind of people who usually drive me crazy with envy.  Like the puma group a while back.  But this time, I got to go along with them, and join in their unearned jungle fortune.  To partake of their Beginner’s Luck Feast.  And it was delicious.  At last, I learned what it felt like to casually tell a lifer local naturalist of the day’s haul, and display pictures that would make them seethe in their rainboots.

And it only got better from there.  Tune in tomorrow for “The Return of Elepigorse”.

Tricks of the Trade

It’s been a slow week, but I was going through some old drafts and found one from about a month back that I never posted.  Here it is:

One of the groups staying here spent the morning in the Cloud Forest Reserve, where they hired a private guide.  They came back with all kinds of stories.

“Our guy was amazing!  We were just walking along, when he spotted this green snake way up in the tree.  It wasn’t even moving!  I don’t know how he saw it.”

I was impressed by the sighting, but not by the guide.  See, the snake they saw was a Sidestriped Palm Viper, which usually don’t move for days at a time after feeding.  If you locate one in a tree, you can usually find it in the same spot for up to a week.  But I’m not offended.  They’re guide had probably used a tactic that I use all the time.

This guy?  He ain't goin' nowhere.
        This guy? He ain’t goin’ nowhere.

If you get used to touring the same area, you can start to predict what you are likely to see.  For example, I know a certain stretch of trail is very popular for glasswing butterflies, little guys with transparent wings.  They often congregate around patches of their host plants.  I know where specific bird nests are, or trees that have fruits that attract monkeys.

Inga trees.  I sense a great disturbance in the force.
   Inga trees. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

It’s good to be ready and to know what to look for, but it’s no fun having your trip spoiled.  People like to be surprised.  That’s why some guides, myself included, sometimes scout a trail beforehand and make note of what the animals are doing and what plants are obvious.  This, together with my foreknowledge of the trail, lets me tell people what to watch for, or what to expect just around the next corner.

Nothing impresses an audience like having your predictions come true.  Yesterday, that thing with the butterflies worked perfectly.  I described the glasswing right before we got to the area, then watched as a student spotted one on their own.  They felt proud for having IDed it, and they could do so because they knew exactly what to look for where.  Sometimes I play it up a little.  Last night, we passed a pond hidden in some tall grasses.  Without explanation, I told the kids all to turn off their lights and make no noise.  Then I plunged my hand into the brush and emerged with a frog the size of my shoe.  They were thunderstruck.  “You’re a wizard, Harry,” said one.


But I came clean afterward.  I explained that there are usually frogs in the area, since they breed in the pond.  I didn’t act like I had just discovered it, and somehow spotted it through the plants.  There’s also a resident tarantula who never leaves her burrow on one of the trails, and when I point her out I never act like I’ve just found her accidentally.

There’s a limit to how far I will go to impress visitors.  I’ve got my tricks, but lying is not one of them.  Maybe Cloud Forest Guy really did just spot that snake.  But most likely he was already looking for it.  I hope he owned up to that.

When a Tree Falls in the Cloud Forest

Last night I was awoken by a familiar sound, although one I haven’t heard in about three months.  It was a harsh cracking that grew above a low rumble, and culminated in a fantastic crash that shook the ground.  A tree had fallen over.

Back in the lowlands, we used to hear this all the time.  Once the rains hit, and the ground softened, many of the tall trees with shallow roots toppled over, pulling others down with them by the lianas that connected the complete canopy.  It happened about once a night.  It is that level of commonplace disturbance that characterizes tropical lowland forests, allowing for patchy regrowth in an otherwise primary forest.

Damn, was that really just three months ago?
Remember this place?  Damn, was that really just three months ago?

Which may be the primary distinction between that forest and the one I am in now.  For three months now, I have been trying to put my finger on it–why is this forest different?  I now think it has to do with disturbance.  Everything here is growing, yes, but it is growing steadily with no interruption.  Plants here seem more stable.  More complete.  There is less of a sense of frantic, chaotic climbing and spreading of leaves before the next tree fall of canopy closure.

I’m halfway through my post at this station, and it’s good to be still learning things.  Although I shouldn’t be surprised.  I haven’t even lived through a seasonal change at this climate yet, but already I’m noticing changes.  The rainy season is building up to a finale now.  There are fewer light showers and more heavy downpours that arrive, like clockwork, at almost exactly midday and continue on to early evening.  In between deluges, we get a thick fog that hides even the sides of the valley we’re in.

That is not lens flare.  It is actually that foggy.
That’s not lens flare. It is actually that foggy.

They say the rains hit their peak sometime in October.  So we can probably expect more wet ground and falling trees.  Let’s hope the guests come prepared.

A Walk in the Park

I was enjoying a morning coffee when two of my fellow naturalists asked if I would like to come with them to retrieve some camera traps from the reserve.  Recalling that our last trip was about two hours round trip, I agreed, pausing only to grab my hat and camera.  We wouldn’t be gone long.

Not much had changed since I’d been there last time to camp, about a month ago.  The rivers had, if anything gone down in the brief dry spell known as the veranillo, the little summer.  As we passed into a different life zone, species composition changed abruptly.  Almost at once we spotted a slaty-backed nightingale thrush, a good indicator for the lower montane zone.  We overturned a nest of tiger beetles I’ve never seen on our campus.  And we were soon walking amongst tree ferns and rocks slick with liverworts.  It was soon shaping up into a nice day hike.


My concerns started when we reached what I thought was the end of the trail.  It appeared to peter out on some boulders crossing the river in a narrow gorge.  I asked where the next camera was.

Our guide pointed at the cliff.  “Up”, was all he said.  And then we started climbing.


The key to rock climbing in the rainforest is that there is no rock to climb.  There is dirt, and there is plant.  As far as handholds go, those are your only options, and neither one of them is very stable.  Your best bet is to dig deep into the soggy ground with toes and fingertips and rely on lateral roots for grip.

And, of course, watch out for snakes.  Remember my rule of never putting a hand where I can’t see?  Well, climbing usually requires you to do that constantly.  It makes it a very tricky process.  We had climbed about fifty meters and made about five in horizontal process when one of the naturalists looked back at a woman making a particularly tricky maneuver and made the familiar call: “Snake snake snake!”

She froze.  “Where?” she asked calmly.

“Oh, it’s gone.”  Indeed it was.  But we all checked our handholds more carefully after that.  The camera retrieval itself was a little anticlimactic, so we opted to climb a little farther.  After a while, our leader asked if we wanted to turn back, as he couldn’t make out the trail any longer.

I looked around.  We had just climbed straight through a patch of vegetation at a seventy degree angle.  I didn’t realize we had even been on a trail to begin with.  Anyway, as it was getting close to lunchtime and none of us had packed for anything more than a brief stroll, we voted in favor of our stomachs rather than our egos and headed back, slope unconquered.  Maybe next time.

If there had been a view, I'm sure it would have been fantastic.
If there had been a view, I’m sure it would have been fantastic.

But it was the descent that proved even trickier.  And far more treacherous.  We were so high that the floor of the gorge was hidden in cloud, and the ground was soggier than ever.  With our center of gravities higher and our heads facing outward, we soon found it was easier to simply slide down on our butts rather than try to climb.  Some of us discovered this accidentally, and dramatically.  One of my footholds gave way and I dropped a meter or so before grabbing a sturdy root. One woman went a whole five meters on a muddy slip-n-slide near the edge of a cliff.  We arrived back at the comedor muddy, soggy, our clothes stained by leaves and twigs in our hair.  No one asked why.  They were used to it.