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.


It had been six days since I’d been in the field. A combination of illness, injury, and three straight days of rain had prevented us from getting any work done, and I had barely left my room. The house was damp and musty. Everything was flooded. I was even starting to miss the monkeys. Well, almost.

So when a friend of a friend offered to take us to Palo Verde for the day, I jumped right into my boots. I had never been to the National Park despite its proximity and the fact that it’s the largest protected Wetland in Costa Rica.

“Wetland” being somewhat of a joke in that it’s hard to find a place here where you are not, at some point, rather wet.

Tropical Ecology, regardless of environment, usually operates between extremes. Resources are only ever offered in abundance, or not at all. There is no middle ground, no moderation. Any addition–water, sunlight, etc, triggers a dramatic shift. Example: a Rainforest is nutrient-limited, and and addition of organic matter (animal carcass or fallen tree) causes an explosion of activity to reclaim it. A desert is water-limited, and any rainfall portends a mass emergence of sprouting plants and thirsty animals.

But Palo Verde is a Wetland surrounded by Dry Forest–an ecological oxymoron. And it doesn’t work the way you’d expect. Rather than mitigating each other, the two environments create a massive expanse of dynamic micro-habitats that push and pull at each others’ resources, constantly in flux and constantly disturbed. And if there’s one thing tropical biodiversity thrives off, it’s disturbance.

And if there’s anything biologists thrive off, it’s disturbing.


We arrived after a long rainfall, but after enough time had passed that the flooded plains had shrunk to isolated pools. Vegetation had been uprooted and waterlogged, then left to decompose high and dry. Aquatic life had been allowed to flourish, then trapped and concentrated. It was textbook Trop Ecology. Life was busy here. Things were happening. Everybody was out and about.

Spiny-tailed iguanas basked on every available surface and only grumpily moved out of our way when we got close. I plucked one of the biggest milipedes I’ve ever seen off the middle of a trail. Ponds swarmed with fish, some of which were squirming through the mud or even across the roads to find new water.

Making then easy prey for hungry birds and curious naturalists.

And the birds. My god, the birds. Palo Verde is a known birder’s Mecca in the dry season, but even now it didn’t disappoint. One spot, just off the road, was full of Wood Storks, White Ibis, several species of small heron, and all three species of egret. All perched together or wading through the flooded grass. I saw several Northern Jacana–small, delicate wading birds–along a boardwalk. We even caught a glimpse of Scarlet Macaws, something not often seen up North.

The Jacana–I admit, I had to look most of these up. Birds are too mainstream for me.

Oh, there were mosquitoes, too. Like, swarms and swarms of them. It was awful. Some didn’t just itch–they actually stung a little when they bit. We couldn’t stop moving, and every retreat to the car was followed by a swatting party as we tried to massacre all the ones that had followed us into the car.

But one place we managed to escape them was a lookout, a high point on a pinnacle of karst limestone that overlooked the river and flooded plain. It was a great view, with perfect weather. We took advantage of the fact that both the weather- and mosquito- gods were showing us mercy and took it all in.

It was almost enough to make me decide to invest in a new camera that isn’t several field seasons past its prime. Almost.

Machete Therapy

Making a trail through a temperate forest is a simple process: pick a direction, hack away the plants, clear the debris, maybe reroute around some larger trees, and then just keep tramping down the path with booted feet. The vegetation usually learns its lesson, and after a while you have a more-or-less permanent open trail.

Not so in the tropics. Here, the forest either ignores your puny efforts to make any sort of open space, or else laughs in your face. “Is that disturbance I feel? Meet vines that grow year-round.” “Oh, what’s that? You were planning on walking where those bushes just grew up?” “I’m sorry, was that your trail I just dropped a tree on?” Freshly-cut rails disappear practically overnight, trail markers are swallowed up by moss and vines, and any negative space is quickly reclaimed by sun-hungry plants.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the tropics is nature on crack.

But still, our project requires the occasional passage that isn’t pure thorn scrub and wasp nests, so the last day of each month is spent maintaining–or rather, reclaiming–some of our “trails.” With the whole forest to work with, this means that each trail gets attention about once a year, plenty of time to vanish beneath vines, shoots, and debris. Some disappear completely. The coverage is mainly light, but thick and often elastic. Thus, into play comes the trailblazer’s best friend: the machete.

I’ve mentioned before how in a climate like this, nearly every campesino, field researcher, and park personnel carries around one of the large knives at all times. People seem practiced with them, even at a young age. I’ve seen children wielding blades nearly as long as they are, opening coconuts and the like. The things are practically an extension of their arm, and the safety skills are ingrained.

In the hands of a foreigner, a machete becomes–at best–a novelty weapon or–at worst–a toy. It becomes a cool sword; a stage prop. Many’s the time I’ve unthinkingly handed off a machete to a student or tourist, later to turn around and see them swinging it like a swashbuckler. Or trying to actually use it and endangering everyone around them.

Now, I’ve spent enough hours in agriculture or trail maintenance to properly use one, and to know better than to keep it out of the hands of the swordplay-inclined. It really is the best tool for clearing away fast-growing vegetation, and during trail clearing days it serves another more psychological purpose: therapy.

Tail clearing is the one time to–literally–cut loose and release all pent-up frustration, putting it behind the slashes and chops and you brutalize the forest that for the last month has been making your life miserable. It’s a glorious example of constructive destruction–guilt-free, necessary, and utterly cathartic. It’s exercise, psychology, and science rolled into one.

Especially since we’re not allowed to kill the monkeys.

As I cut and hacked, I pictured every monkey that had ever peed on me or fled halfway through a follow. I imagined every ant, mosquito, and wasp that had tormented me as vines and shoots I obliterated. Bushes and shrubs were every ignorant bureaucrat and border agent who had needlessly complicated my work here.

Sap flowed and leaves fell. Stems crashed and bark shriveled. I sweated and grunted. Blisters formed on my hands, simmered, then erupted. My machete became my fury, my revenge, my human technological advantage against the landscape that had made me hurt, itch, sting, fester, and bleed for so long.

R-selection? Disturbance-positive? Fuck you. I am Man–hear me roar!

God, I needed that.

Can We Please Talk About Something Besides Monkeys?

I’m so tired of monkeys. I see them all the time. Not just in the forest, I mean–everywhere. When I sleep. When I close my eyes. In my mind. Constantly. Everything is monkeys now. I’m a monkey. You’re a monkey. We are all monkey and monkey is all. In the beginning was monkeys and monkeys it shall forever be.

Are you a monkey? If you are, you have to tell me. That’s monkey law.

So I’m going to try to focus on all the other critters running around this forest. Granted, I haven’t seen as many as I’d expect after all the time I spend out there, but there’s several reasons for that. Dry forest, while still tropical, doesn’t have nearly the same level of abundance and diversity as the other areas of Costa Rica. Second, this area has seen a lot of human impact over the years, from habitat fragmentation to fires to overhunting. What animals remain tend to be a bit skittish and wary. But mostly, the issue is this: crashing through the brush and hollering at the top of your lungs about what the monkeys are doing is a bad way to sneak up on wildlife. My guess is, there’s plenty out there, but they know when we’re coming.

But there have still been good days. We see and hear plenty of birds in the open fields and rivers, but early on I spotted what looked like a heron that had flown face-first into a brick wall and doubled its bill over like Daffy Duck. I admit–I had no idea what it was and had to look up the ID. Turns out, it was a boat-billed heron, and the oddly stout bill is natural, not comically accidental.

However, when startled it did jump away on its head shouting “Woohoo! Woohoo!”

I’d like to give a shout-out to the myriad bugs of the forest that aren’t drinking my blood, spraying me with acid, or injecting venom into my skin. But I’d especially like to mention the spiders, the harmless crawlers whose webs I destroy by the hundreds each day by walking through them. Seriously, these guys are great–they eat pests and I render them homeless on a regular basis. Plus, some of them have some neat coloration.

I often notice this as I’m picking them off my face.

As for mammals, we get the usual–agoutis, coatis, and the occasional deer, all of which tend to book it when capuchins are around. Go figure. There’s also plenty of howler monkeys sharing the trees, but they usually ignore us and their simian cousins alike. However, yesterday was a rare treat when we stumbled along a family of armadillos foraging at the edge of a field.

These things are just so darn cute.

However, I must complain about the noticeable lack of snakes, especially since I was forewarned about how common they would be in the dry forest. Besides that one rattlesnake a few weeks back, the only other I’ve seen is the back-half of dead speckled racer that some bird left in a tree. The monkeys screamed at it for a while before nearly dropping it on my head.

Not sure if this counts.

I’ve got another 11 months to go. I’m bound to fine something else by then.



The Monkey Saga Begins

A couple million years ago, a fistful of magma rose up from the Earth’s mantle and delivered a punch into what would later be called Central America. The land–which up until then had been peacefully laying down layers of sediment–buckled and sprouted a few volcanos. Over the geologic ages, heavy clouds crept over from the Atlantic and unloaded burdens of tropical storms that carved the landscape into steep gullies and rugged hills, surrounded by wide open plains.

In case it’s not obvious, I am not a geologist.

While this was going on, the young new subcontinent went through puberty and started to grow a five o’ clock shadow of thick vegetation. However, due to lazy rainstorms refusing to carry water all the way across the land, plants on the Western side had to deal with a temporary drought once a year while also withstanding the heavy leaching and erosion of the wet season. Thus, the plants grew to be especially mean and hardy, or else quick and temporary.

In addition to challenges of climate, the plants soon found they had company: hordes of animals marching from both directions, North and South. You see, the newly risen land hand created a narrow bridge between two massive continents, which had until then been in relative evolutionary isolation. The distinct life forms of both worlds were eager to expand into new territory and learn which of each other were edible. From the North came canines, felines, and hoofed ungulates. From the South came marsupials, anteaters, and monkeys. Called the Great American Interchange, the migrants bottlenecked into the narrow isthmus, munching as they went.

Came right in and acted like they owned the place.

Sessile and vulnerable, plants were having none of this. Intense competition and an abundance of resources kicked off a rapid arms race of defense mechanisms, symbiotic relationships, and specialization. The only species to emerge were those who could reproduce faster than they were consumed, solicit aid from insects, co-opt each other’s growth, or convince would-be predators that they just weren’t worth it. The animals living among these plants adapted to the conditions, or else continued to migrate further North/South in search of more cooperative vegetation.

This is Guanacaste. The Tropical Dry Forest. My new home.

Those plants I just described? That is my workplace for the entirety of the day. It’s brutal. These plants have earned their right to be here, and have no interest in making it easy for me to get through them. What isn’t thorny is spiny. What isn’t spiny is toxic. And everything–I mean everything–is covered with ants. Trail conditions here fall into the following categories: good, bad, nonexistent, and “kill me now.”

This? This is considered a “good” trail.

Other unfriendly fauna includes several species of biting wasps, killer bees, swarms of mosquitos, chiggers on every goddamn surface, rattlesnakes, toxic caterpillars, and, of course, monkeys.

Oh yeah, monkeys. Did I mention they’re the reason I’m here?

I’m in for a lot more of these.

Yes, the reason I spend all daylight hours crashing through ant-covered thorny brush is to watch monkeys, a project I may elaborate on during my year here. But I hope to pad out posts about monkeys with other stuff, trying to keep a holistic naturalist perspective. Besides, I deal with monkeys all day, and it’s nice to talk about something else for a change.

So we’re in for a long year. I’m already tired and I have bug bites everywhere. I’m learning to ID monkeys by their faces. I might pop up every now and then to bitch about work or rant about ants or discuss the best way to run through spiny plants for days on end without going completely insane. Wish me luck.

Kill me now.

Transplanted Again

I missed my last chance to post from Monteverde, so we’ve already moved sites to Guancaste, Costa Rica’s northernmost province.  Back in a field station–a proper one this time, complete with rickety bunk beds, no hot water, and a regular assemblage of clumsy insects circling the lights at night.  None of these are complaints, by the way.  I’m not upset, just nostalgic.

Anyway, our drive here took us about half an hour on the highway and a full hour on an access road that covered about a quarter of the distance.  It was more ruts than road, and wound through a relatively cleared section of tropical dry forest.  The environment was pretty typical until we heard thunder and the rain opened up.

Rain?  In the wet season?  Who would’ve guessed?

There’s a proverb in the Pacific Northwest that it will not rain as long as you wear a raincoat.  Rain waits for you to be unprepared and take off your waterproof gear before coming down.  If that is the case, then drought-afflicted Guanacaste can thank this unwise bunch of soggy gringos who waited too long to cover the bed of their truck with a tarp, and packed their raincoats at the bottom of their bags.  It dropped a true, honest-to-god tropical downpour on us, turning our already primitive road into a slurry of red clay and debris.

We bounced along in our cab, packed in with groceries and whatever bags wouldn’t fit under the tarp, alternating between AC and lowered windows to stay cool.  It was during one of these latter periods that we brushed past a lowered branch that scraped into the open window frame and deposited a dozen angry cicadas into the cab.  We bottomed out several times on exposed rocks and flooded creekbeds.  But the only time we stopped was when we spotted a tortoise crossing the road.  Then, of course, we had to pile out to take photos.  Typical biologists.

It wasn’t like either of us were in a hurry.

But we eventually made it to the field station, an open hacienda-style affair near the base of Volcano Orosi.  It was getting dark when we arrived, but I had a chance to take in the view in the misty twilight—a long, flat expanse of reclaimed forest.  No doubt full of damselflies.