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”.

What’s in a Common Name?

I have had this conversation, or one along these lines, many times during a guided hike:

Me:  “Look!  An olingo!”

Guest:  “What’s an olingo?”

“It’s like a squirrel-monkey-cat…similar to a kinkajou.”

“Well, what’s a kinkajou?”

“It’s a squirrel-monkey-cat…look, there goes a paca!”

“And what’s a paca?”

This is a paca.
This is a paca.

“It’s like a large agouti…which is sort of a long-legged guinea pig.  Or a tailless squirrel.”

I resort to similar descriptions for other local wildlife:  Coati?  Raccoon with a long nose.  Tayra?  Giant tree weasel.  Tamandua?  Anteater Scissorhands.  I already mentioned the Tapir, the horse-pig-elephant.  I now carry a field guide with good pictures to provide a visual while I go into greater detail on natural history and taxonomy of the animals we see, but the point is that much of the megafauna here is so different from that outside the tropics that even the names provide no familiar context.

This is called a Silky Anteater.  But seriously, what the hell am I looking at?
This is called a Silky Anteater. But seriously, what the hell am I looking at?

There are several reasons for that.  Mainly, general animals names like dog, cat, and bear, tend to be fairly accurate taxonomically.  Especially for mammals.  These families have their own common names in English, and are easily recognized by most American tourists because they exist in Europe, where English first appeared, and in North America where most guests are from.  But bring into play cavimorph rodents (agoutis, pacas, capybaras) or non-raccoon procyonids (kinkajous, olingos) and people are lost.  There simply is no visual reference.

This is a grisson, a smelly water badger?
    This is a grison, a smelly water badger?

And then there’s the fact that all these things have different local Spanish names.  Here, I have to relearn all these animals without reference.  This is because most New World-specific animals were first studied in Brazil, where naturalists used the local Tupi people’s names for them.  Indigenous people here had their own names for their animals, and many are still used today.  In Costa Rica, coatis are called pizotes and pacas are tepuzquintles.

This makes it even more important to study up ahead of time.  Or just leaf through a field guide with color plates to get an idea of what to expect.  And learn scientific names.  They are hard to memorize, but this way it’s difficult for everybody equally.

Going that Extra Kilometer

I’ve had a good week to settle in.  This place is already starting to feel familiar.  I’ve been kept busy enough shadowing various other interns leading tours and giving talks.  And no, the rain has not let up yet.

Night hikes here have been wildly successful.  You’d think that with denser secondary growth and the constant white noise of rainfall, it would be harder than usual to locate animals.  But this place is divers on a micro scale.  Reducing everything to just the narrow area lit by your flashlight forces you to focus harder on that area.

Last night was the last night for a group of American students that had been here a week.  I’d gone along with a couple of their tours, and some of them were pretty impressed with night hikes.  They opted to do one last one, unscheduled, and requested me and another naturalist personally to lead.  Not bad for the first week.  Within five minutes we saw two olingos by their eyeshine in the trees.  This was followed by a pond full of calling frogs in the middle of a flooded cattle pasture.  Already satisfied and pretty wet and tired at this point, some people started making noises to turn around and call it a night.  We called a vote, and decided to push on a little more.

Within a few minutes we had a unicorn katydid, a sleeping tinamou, and two snakes, one of which had the hindquarters of a lizard sticking out of its mouth.  Well worth the extra hiking.  It’s probably a good thing the group left today.  There was no way to top that.

I know this is a crap picture, but I was trying to do it quickly.  I don't like people watching me while I eat either.
I know this is a crap picture, but I was trying to do it quickly. I don’t like people watching me while I eat either.