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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Gulf Coast Waters

The research department here at UGA is always on the lookout for new places to send field trips and tour groups.  So sometimes our manager puts together a group to scout out some up-and-coming ecolodge or field station.  Currently, we’re trying to expand our research and education attention to cover the coast of the Gulf of Nicoya, the lowlands extent of our biological corridor.

Yesterday a small group of us went to a small fishing town on the coast.  The climate was similar to what I lived in back in the Osa.  That is to say, really hot.  We were a little north of Puntarenas, so the ocean breezes were pretty diluted this far up the Gulf, depriving us of even that little air conditioning.  Our hosts were a family running their own butterfly garden and boat tours through the mangrove swamps.

As you read this, put a hot towel on your face and try to breathe through it.  That's what it's like to live here.
As you read this, put a hot towel on your face and try to breathe through it. That’s what it’s like to live here.

Mangroves are one of the few types of tropical forests where there is noticeably low biodiversity of vegetation.  The titular mangrove tree is usually the only large plant species and defines the ecosystem.  There are several species of mangrove, but all of them are small trees that grow up on thin stilt roots within the tidal zone.  At low tide you can see their roots embedded in mud, but at high tide they appear to grow right out of the sea.  They can do this with a number of key adaptations for salt water and dynamic conditions.  Their leaves secrete salt absorbed with seawater.  Their seeds germinate while on the branch and drop into mud at low tide, taking root before the tide rises again.  If they fail to take root, they can float for days to try again.

Mangrove forests are like a living jungle gym.  With no solid ground to speak of, animals and people must move through by tightrope walking prop roots and swinging from branches.  The lower trunks are covered in oysters and the trunks are alive with arboreal crabs.  There are generally few mammals, but plenty of seabirds.  It makes a good place for perches or nests safe from most predators.

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Our tour was by small motorboat that started on a beach crawling with black vultures feeding on the decaying carcasses of fish.  We circled around several small islands teeming with birds, then followed a river up into the mangroves.  It being low tide, we almost ran aground several times in thick mud and hidden sandbars, and headed back with fiddler crabs waving little good-byes.

You can take the towel off now.
           You can take the towel off now.

I was impressed.  The gulf of Nicoya often gets a bad name for the amount of pollution dumped into its waters, something we were reminded of by the enormous sugar factory looming over a good portion of the coastline.  It’s the sink for agricultural runoff for hectares of pineapple and palm oil plantation, not to mention the livestock.  But the birding is still worth a trip.  I had a great time, and it felt like a real vacation, something I was missing somewhat in Nicaragua.  Here’s hoping we end up taking a group there.  I’d be happy to tag along.

Go on.  Make a Booby joke.  I dare you.
      Go on. Make a Booby joke. I dare you.

Nicaragua and Back

Wow.  It’s been quite a week.

The Nicoya Peninsula was a nice little vacation.  The ferry ride over from the coastal town of Puntarenas was slow, even by ferry standards, but it gave me plenty of time to take in the view.  My companions and I ended up in Montezuma, a fairly touristy town that I was originally planning on avoiding, but turned out to be pretty neat after all.  Besides, it was the off season, and the usual crowd of surfers and potheads was at a minimum.  The beaches were still nice, though, and a little exploration led us to some great waterfalls and swimming holes.

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However, I had to break away and head to Nicaragua alone for my new visa.  Now, my usual plan for traveling alone in a foreign country is to pick a destination, find a cheap hostel in said location, and then introduce myself to the first Kiwi I find to serve as a trekking buddy.  In my experience, Kiwis are generally a friendly, easy-going, and adventurous people who you can find in any given hostel.  They are my go-to preferred traveling companion.  Israelis are a close second.  Anyway, my search was over even before it began when a woman asked around the bus stop in Montezuma if anyone else was going to Nicaragua.  She spoke with a distinctive accent.  I had found my Kiwi!

She had picked out a place called San Juan del Sur that was only a few hours from Omatepe, the island I was headed to.  Since I wasn’t going to make the journey to the island in one day, San Juan seemed a decent enough place to overnight.  So my Shiwi and I set out across the border and together we faced the Nicarguan bus system.

Say what you will about Latin American buses, Nicaragua has imposed some effective order on what appears to be absolute chaos.  Buses are rarely on time and posted schedules are practically nonexistent, but everybody around the station seems to have memorized the routes, times, and even lots the buses park in.  If you’re new to the system, a little Spanish goes a long way towards planning the next leg of the journey.  Just don’t ask cabbies.  I found they will blatantly lie to you about where the buses go and won’t go to try to scheme an extra fare.  Bus drivers, on the other hand, will usually double-check all their passenger’s destinations and somehow commit this to memory, calling out specific stops as they arrive.  After about a dozen bus transfers, I never missed a stop.

So this process brought us to San Juan del Sur, a nice spot for surfing and not much else.  So I skipped town the next morning after bidding farewell to the others at the hostel.  Which is when things started to go downhill.  About halfway through the first busride, the fever kicked in.  I’m not sure what I got, but it worked fast and I deteriorated rapidly.  It wasn’t stomach related, thank god, so I didn’t end up wrecking any toilets, but I did end up feeling faint and curling up on a bus stop around my bag, waking up several minutes later with my pocketknife stolen.  At least my wallet was on the other side.

Thinking the sickness would pass, I traveled on to Lake Nicaragua, and boarded another slow ferry, Mount Concepcion looming in the background.  Once on the island, though, I made it about halfway around the base of the volcano on a local bus when another wave of faintness hit me and I asked to be let off at the next town.  From there, I found a hotel within staggering distance, groggily checked in, and collapsed into bed.

Which is pretty much where I stayed for two days.  I just lay around recovering.  The hotel was a decent family run affair, right next to the local school which, I learned, hosts a champion drumline team.  They get to be so good by practicing late into the night.

Yesterday I felt well enough to travel, so I caught the same buses backwards and retraced my routes to Costa Rica and from there to Puntarenas.  I was too late to catch a bus up the mountain to Monteverde, so I reluctantly spent another night in Puntarenas in a shifty hotel where I was awoken at three in the morning when the police broke into the room next to mine to arrest a man who wouldn’t pay a prostitute.

So this trip was kind of a bust.  I had to scrap most of my travel plans, including climbing the volcano Mt Concepcion.  Which makes this one of the lamer trips I’ve ever done.  Bummer.  But I’ll be needing another visa renewal in three months, so I’ll get another excuse to try this again.  And this time, I’ll be more prepared for Nicaragua, buses, and cheap hotels in general.

For now, I have to get back to work.

Until next time.
  Until next time.

Transplanting

Tomorrow I leave this station.  One boatride, several busrides, most likely a few awkward requests for directions later, and a little luck later I will be in Monteverde, starting my next internship with an institution there.  I’ll cover it in more detail on location.

The point is, I’m not leaving Costa Rica, and will continue work as a naturalist, but in a completely different environment.  I’m bidding goodbye to the coast and heading for the cloud forest.  Can’t wait to see what’s in store.

So I’ve said goodbye to the staff, my fellow interns, the docile tapirs, the omnipresent crabs, the puntable toads, warm ocean and intertidal life.  But the thing I’m going to miss most?  Ocean sunsets.  You just can’t beat that.  There’s something primeval about watching the sun go down literally over the edge of the world, setting fire to half the sky before disappearing over a perfect horizon.  It’s been a spectacular phenomenon for the entirety of human history, and it still takes your breath away.

So I’m letting all that go.  For now.  I’ll be at least six months in Monteverde, and after that, we’ll see.  Look out, cloud forest herps.  Here I come.

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And so long, you magnificent bastard.

Sirena

(Written May 28)

A fellow intern and I got a local connection to get us a discount on a boat ride to Sirena station, located deep within Corcovado National Park.  The station itself is just a few huts on raised platforms for a guard and camping areas, but it’s many miles from the edge of the reserve.  And the remoteness shows.

The first tapir didn’t even wait until we were off the boat to show itself, in broad daylight, walking along the beach in full view.  It didn’t even seem scared, and in fact didn’t give us enough space after we all got pictures and our guide tried to have a little orientation.  It just lingered in the background, munching leaves and crashing through brush.  After the next three tapirs, it felt a little gratuitous.  Hello, tapirs?  We already saw you.  Give the other supposedly illusive animals a chance.

Just keep moving, tapir.  You're not special anymore.
Just keep moving, tapir. You’re not special anymore.

A tamandua passed right overhead during one of the talks.  We watched a crocodile sink underwater and reappear closer several times while we sat on the riverbank.  Our guide somehow spotted a chest-high vine that turned out to be an eyelash viper coiled by the trail.  And the day was topped off by two ctenosaurs, or black iguanas, sunning themselves on driftwood on the beach.

This is a ctenosaur.  Yes, dinosaurs do exist.
This is a ctenosaur. Yes, dinosaurs do exist.

Most anywhere else in Costa Rica, in fact, all of Latin America, that kind of wildlife is rarely seen, and never in such abundance.  Corcovado has been around long enough for animals to adapt to peaceful human presence, for new generations to appear that do not fear hunters.  It’s an invaluable natural phenomenon.

Location Location

Since internet has become more infrequent than I thought, I’m going to start writing these out longhand and uploading them when I get the chance. So posted date may be different than the date they were written.

I should give a little exposition on the setting here. Near the southern end of Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is the Peninsula de Osa, a large piece of land curving around the Golfo Dulce. The environment is typically wet lowland rainforest, with steep narrow slopes heading up small mountains inland. I’m working at a private nature reserve with a small research station right on the coast near Corcovado National Park. This time of year, this “wet” rainforest is relatively dry, especially on a south-western facing beach.

The bugs aren’t too bad at all this time of year. Neither is the mud, the other big downer of tropical travel. This spot is especially good for birding, as macaws and trogons are abundant. Large cats, jaguars and pumas, are also found here. There are coral reefs just offshore, but they are not terribly healthy.

This place is set up for school groups, research teams, and the occasional boatful of tourists. We get all kinds here. Anything from wide-eyed American middle schoolers to families on holiday looking for a cheaper alternative to the resorts. Everyone comes in on a boat, as the closest paved road is several hours away on foot.

This is a small operation. Only three fulltime staff on-site, plus the manager, plus the occasional cook or two. Then there’s a couple of people like me: the wayward volunteer.

So that’s it. Sorry—no names. If this place sounds good you’ll have to find it on your own.