Morale Compass Declination: An Over-Extended Metaphor

I was twenty when I first learned about Magnetic Declination–the fact that Magnetic North can vary significantly from place to place depending on local magnetic forces in the Earth’s mantle. It surprised me that I had gone so long and had so much compass use without learning something so important. Moreover, it struck me that something I had assumed to be precise and empirical was, in fact, subjective.

To me, a compass was absolute. Hard science. Quantitative and unbiased. How was I supposed to deal with the knowledge that its directions were subject to the whims of local geography? To little swirls and eddies in the liquid ruminations deep below, all mixing and layering and simmering for some time?

Have I mentioned that I am not a geologist?

I’ve come to realize that so much of science is based off data that is–(yes, I’m using “data” as a collective singular word, deal with it)–is not as absolute and empirical than everyone would believe. Just like a compass, it is affected by “local geography,” so to speak, or to put it in other words: “deep ruminations, simmering for some time.”

You get it? It’s our minds. The psychology of the researchers collecting the data.

“I think they get it.”

Morale. The project-killer. The devil in the footnotes. The qualitative bull in a quantitative china shop. The curse of bias. The Heisenburg Unhappily Principle. During stressful periods, I worry that data is tainted by biases of the mental/emotional states of myself and my fellow researchers.

Examples: One day earlier this week was perfect. Good weather–overcast but no rain. We found the monkeys by miracle and stayed with them all day. The took us through a good area, nice and open with few thorns or ants. Crisis struck: my friend stepped into a sandy gully and sunk up to her thigh. Quicksand! I helped haul her out, and we laughed it off despite the fact that she was now soaked in what looked like concrete from the knees down. The monkeys let us catch up and we collected a record amount of data.

Few days later: Pouring rain. Miserable. Personal trouble at home had put everyone on edge. We followed monkeys through soggy brush and rough terrain, griping all the while. Summoned the energy to do a few observations while sinking in mud. I had ants crawl up my pants and grumbled about the stings all day. Observations were incomplete owing to visibility. We followed protocol, but ended up with little to show for that day.

Nothing except several bites in places I’m not going to show. Here’s a picture of a caiman we saw instead.


Morale might be the greatest, most significant factor that never appears in any scientific publication. When’s the last time you read a paper that gave a margin of error in its results, but then said something like, “also, these reports were entered after a long week of rain.” Or, “two of the three individuals conducting this study had just suffered a difficult breakup.” Or, “the following protocol was sound, but for several days the PI had gone a long time without a smoke break.”

I try to keep things together as best I can. This doesn’t mean I put on puppet shows or tell Dad jokes to elicit laughs from my coworkers, but minor things like checking up on everyone without being too nosy. Or keeping our workplace relatively clean of cockroaches and mold. Or cooking big satisfying dinners and the occasional warm baked good. I don’t do this because I’m a social butterfly or natural entertainer. Nor am I anyone’s maid or personal chef. But group morale has an actual, significant effect on data, and I know it’s the little things–little shifts in local geography–that can get that compass needle to point back to True North.

For me personally, the best method is small doses of giant reptile, administered regularly. This doesn’t have the same effect on everyone.


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.

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”.


(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.

Empanada in Paradise

I love the tropics. As I write this, I am drinking a passion fruit juice from fruit picked a block away. The chicken empanada cost me about 50 cents. There is a foot long iguana in a mangrove a few feet above my head. I cannot express how happy that makes me.

This is a biologist’s dream. Multiple factors—high energy sunlight, relatively stable climate, landmass confluences—contribute to fast growth and extreme biodiversity in the belt around the equator. There’s just so much life here. Even if you don’t care for the heat, or the bugs, you gotta love this place.

I’m off to a place where the rainforest meets the beach and looks postcard-stupidly-pretty. Delicious fruit and weird animals run wild. If that ain’t your cup of mate, no worries. Enjoy wherever you are. If it is—don’t get jealous. Get studious. There’s work to be done in places like this, if you’ve got the skills and expertise. I’m an ecologist by training, and a herpetologist by preference, and there’s no shortage of things scaly or slimy here. And more different birds than you can shake a field guide at. New species are found more often than you think, and we need to keep our fingers on the pulse of this fragile and disappearing ecosystem. Ecologists, take note.

There are scarlet macaws flying overhead. The butterfly that just went by was iridescent blue and size of my hand.