Archive for August, 2010

I go birding this morning and see no new birds. However, I do see a toucan and White-capped Parrot very well, as they are only a few meters from me.

After breakfast, we go near the bull fighting ring to Steven’s property, where the combination of cows overgrazing and heavy rainfall washed out a huge gully. The erosion dumped tons (literally) of sediment into the surrounding watershed. The gully must be about fifty feet wide and tall at its worst point. TFI comes in to plant trees, legumes, grasses, bamboo, and living fence posts (posts recently cut from trees which are stuck in the ground and embedded with barbed wire. These posts will resprout after some time, and as the tree grows, its roots will prevent erosion and hold the fencepost securely, preventing cows from entering the area, which would exacerbate the problem.) to control and prevent erosion.

I am charged with gathering bamboo sprouts to plant in the field. Chopping it is somewhat difficult, but, once the correct technique is mastered, becomes very easy. I chop one down. It is very heavy as it is about thirty feet high. Jeff chops one down and it become stuck in a tree branch. He does not think it will come down. I beg to differ. As I pull down, the bamboo snaps in half. One half which was under tension hits me in the head leaving a small cut and a nice bump. The other half bends in the other direction, slicing open my forearm and embeds a piece under my fingernail. I do not even notice the cut until Martin tells me that I am bleeding. I return to TFI and patch myself up. Too bad we did not see any leaf cutter ants, as indigenous people used their mandibles to close wounds.

I head back and help taking the bamboo shoots back to the truck. My finger hurts me more than anything else. The Chinese really knew what they were doing. We see army ants pouring across the road. Their aggression is frightening. They march over everything and kill and devour anything in their path. A caterpillar does not get out of the way of the swarm, and is soon covered by the large, black army ants. They are like the wolves of the arthropod world. We also find a strange slug. It is yellow and about three inches long. It has a forked tail and horn-like protrusions on his head, in addition to thin spikes on its back. Finally, we see an odd black and white arachnid on the bamboo which we cannot identify. It takes about two hours to plant everything.



Army ants attacking a caterpillar

After lunch, we uncovered the biochar (terra pretta) pit. Unfortunately, we did not get the fire going hot enough and it failed at creating any charcoal, as the wood did not burn enough. Everyone disperses except Martin and I, who work to build up a roaring fire. The fire is so hot that when I bent over to put in a log, the heat singes my hair. I hear crackling and smell a strange odor: the smell of burned keratin. After that I dunk my head in a stream, as I did not quite believe Martin when he assured me that my head was not completely aflame. We then put another two layers of logs atop the fire and cover it with a thinner layer of soil. Atop that, we place banana leaves to prevent water seepage. Our previous attempt did not have enough fuel, buried the fire too thickly, and had the banana leaves compressed over the fire, smothering it completely.

After finishing our second attempt at biochar, we eat dinner and have a short lecture regarding Costa Rican history. Once this concludes, I go out on another night hike. On the water trail, I only see a spider eating a cicada, and a gecko. Next time I plan to take the normal trail up to the primary forest. Perhaps that will yield more wildlife.

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I wake up early to go bird watching. Surprisingly, Ricardo does not, so I go by myself. Unfortunately, this makes it much more difficult to identify birds. Well, this will be a trial by fire. I do see a few birds I know, like the Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, Tropical Kingbirds and a Blue-gray Tanager. My one new bird is a Black-shouldered Seedeater.

Tropical Kingbird

After breakfast, we work on our projects. We put in a few water bars on the trail. The water bars divert the flow of the water off the side of the trail and reduces the speed of the flowing water. The amount of erosion taking place is a function of water volume and speed. We cannot control volume, but with water bars, we can control speed to some extent. The bars must be at a certain angle so that they can be self-cleaning and not accumulate leaves and branches. There is no set formula for this in the tropics, however, and more often than not, we must work around trees and roots to install the water bars. We also move from 300-500 meters, clearing alternate routes, adding water boards, and new switch back trails. The last section of trail by the bean field is somewhat foreboding. The only solution is to bypass the section using switchbacks on a bit of ridge through the tick primary forest. Then we have to reconnect with the bean field trail. While scouting out a trail, I see signs of charcoal. This is odd because there was no terra preta done here and no fires in recent times. Also, I am treated to seeing a red and blue poison dart frog with a tadpole on her back deposit her offspring in a hollow of a tree filled with water. I follow her for about ten minutes as she hops around in the undergrowth, carrying her precious cargo. All the while, I am being eaten alive by the mosquitoes. This is the first time that I notice their size and ferocity. Their tenacity may be caused by their increased numbers following the rains we have been having. They seem to draw a pint of blood before my hand can reach them. I also spot a bird in the underbrush, but despite my crashing through the undergrowth, I am not rewarded with a better view. At least no snake bit me as I rushed in chase.

Red and blue poison dart frog with tadpole

Back at TFI, we eat lunch. After this, we try lighting a fire in a pit to produce charcoal for terra preta. Where Ricardo and Jeff failed, Martin and I succeeded. After inhaling smoke for about fifteen minutes, we light a nice fire. My lungs burn from being inundated by the thick fumes. I find it hard to breath as I am slowly smothered. Fortunately, the fire roars to life and I can get out to see the flames crackling and dancing between the logs.

Starting the fire for Terra Preta

Covering the pit to make charcoal

Terra preta, or biochar, was used by Native Americans in the Amazon region to add to the fertility of the soil. Despite the productivity of the rainforests, soil is very poor. Hydrolysis produces clays here, particularly aluminum and iron suscoxide, which have an expanding lattice structure. This allows them to absorb and hold nutrients and water. However, as they weather through hydration, the clays become amorphous. The lattice breaks down and the clay’s ability to hold nutrients and water is lessened. The only way anything grows here is due to tight and rapid nutrient cycling which can be bolstered with nitrogen fixing legumes and added nutrients from silt. The main limiting factor here is phosphorous, which the mycorrhizae provide to the plants in exchange for sugars. After the clays break down, their cationic exchange capacity, the ability to hold positively charged nutrients like phosphorous, is lessened. They then loose the nutrients, which are leeched out of the soil with rainfall. Indigenous people used charcoal to increase fertility of the soil. Charcoal binds to the nutrients and holds it there for a long time. Add this to slash and burn agriculture at a reasonable scale and a long enough fallow time and the large quantities of organic matter (usually lacking due to rapid decomposition) and extra nutrients and the soil becomes much more fertile.

Once the fire is burning, we add a layer of banana leaves and cover the pit with dirt to make the process anaerobic so wood does not completely burn.

Before dinner, we have a further lecture on biodiversity. Afterward, I work on drawing a mural in the common room. I draw some of the creatures which can be found here, including a red and blue poison dart frog, Common Potoo, trogon, heliconia, Violet Sabrewing, and a Chestnut-mandibled Toucan.

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Today I wake up rather late. After breakfast we take a forty-five minute drive up to another hilltop. There some of us are to chop and plant trees in the fern tangle, while others are to chop down trees and haul them to the truck at the top of the hill. I sign on to work with Greg, Noah, Mary, Lauren, Isidra, Sarah, and Oscar, hauling and chopping logs. We are thinning out a plot of amarillo trees, a fast growing tree which was planted as a monoculture here. The first tree we try to fell gets stuck in the canopy, but with some pushing, it comes down with a thunderous crash. Carrying the logs up the steep slope is exhausting, but chopping down the 3-6 inch diameter trees with a machete is probably even more tiresome. We chop up three trees. Unfortunately, the first tree was not exactly felled on target and we almost hit Isidra and Sarah. Well, Sarah and I are even. Tit for tat. We conclude our work with a caber toss. It was interesting to work cutting down trees in order to help the rainforest return to its original state. Outside of the wooded area, we are treated to a view of the ocean. The view is beautiful, but gringos have come and pay for plots of land. They then clear swathes of forest to create an ocean view and huge house. Naturally, this creates targets for thieves, and in turn, a paranoid environment. The ocean view is nice, but not worth the sociological and environmental damage.

After riding back and talking with Mary, we eat lunch. I go play soccer with the Ticos. I seem to be improving, as I score two goals against Luigi’s team. That puts me even with Jose for killing me at chess!

After soccer, we go to the waterfall. The forty foot cascade is straight out of a movie. The cool, translucent water crashes down upon the black rocks with the sound of rolling thunder. Spray is spattered in all directions. People who arrived before me show me where they do cliff jumps. After two shorter 10 foot jumps, I move up to a higher, 20 foot jump. The feeling of jumping is exhilarating. I initially fear that I may under-jump, but after overcoming that worry, I jump without any problems, landing with a smack on the glassy water surface. Later, I swim under the falls. The power of the water is incredible. The water begins as a massage, but eventually I succumb to the pounding force. I stand up. The pressure almost forces me back down, but I manage to get vertical. At that point, the water forces me out of its way and pushes me into the pool. There, the cool water fills my pores and invigorates me. Leaving is a tedious task because of all the boulders we need to climb over to get down. The moss is treacherous and every step leaves me in a precarious position where I could be swept further down river.

The Waterfall

Back at TFI, we have a lecture on the incredible diversity here and what causes it. Scientists still have no simple answer to this question and it seems to be a combination of intense interspecies competition, heavy predation, high primary productivity, and climatic stability. I want to go on a night hike, but the rain makes this impossible. Soon, the lights go out. So, to avoid the pandemonium, I go to sleep.

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We wake up and study a bit more. The test begins. I do not feel that it was difficult and believe that I did well.

After lunch, we head to Dominical and the beach there. I am immediately struck by the amount touristy distractions that are present here. I see long lines of colorful beach towels, scores of vendors trying to sell their wares, and American themed restaurants. I am disgusted by all of this. It is inauthentic and mars the otherwise fun and, for me, unique experience of this gorgeous coastline. I would certainly like the people to have work protecting, preserving, and maintaining this place in some way. However, I know to hate the game and not the player.

At the beach, we all go to the ocean. The water is warm and very pleasant. People inform me about the riptide, a fast section of current in the ocean which can pull you out to sea. As I jump into the water, I remember that the water is salty. Too late. The power of the waves is apparent and incredible. It is an experience for me just to stand in the water and feel the force of the waves strike me. I bob up and down lightly in the rising and falling waves as white foam of the breakers floats around me, contrasting the deep blue of the ocean waters.

Later, I go for a run along the coast. The view of the ocean is fantastic. All I see is an immense plane of blue. One could not pick out the horizon, despite the fact that you could see for, literally, hundreds of miles in 180 degrees. After some time, I happen upon large boulders in the surf. I see blue crabs walking around and trying to hide in crevices in my presence. A bit further on, on another boulder, I see a 3 foot long ctenasaur, a member of the Iguanid family. The large lizard was sunning itself, but when I moved closer, it scurried into a crack in the rock. Near the end of my run, I stop to collect shells. I find these infinitely more meaningful to me than anything I could buy on shore.

There is a large cliff at the end of my run. I hesitantly climb up it. Part of my trepidation is caused by fear for my safety. I would hate to fall into the crashing waves below, which may suck me back to the iron grasp of the cold ocean, who would be unwilling to let me go. The other reason I worry is that this may be on private property. I would hate to be caught trespassing in another country. The waves crash into the cliff, roaring with every impact, sending a white spray of foamy water reaching up like a giant hand, which then slaps down upon the rock. I sit down upon a rock and watch the waves for some time. I prefer the coast to the beach for the calm tranquility which can be found there, which juxtaposes with the ferocity of the waves. Nearby, Frigate Birds and Brown Pelicans plunge dive for their supper. They fly high above the waves and then fall as if shot of of the air, coming back above the surface after a few seconds, sometimes with a reward for their efforts.

I am excited by my discoveries here. I find that several members of my group are eating at a nearby restaurant. After eating, we walk around and head back to the beach. To our right, we could see a sunset slightly obscured by the clouds. Slowly the bright flame would be extinguished by the cool, dark waters. On our left there was a vast storm cell. It is black and churns with a boiling anger. We are in the dark soon and gaze out at the lights of fishing boats flickering in the distance. This leisure time relaxes me and I think about nothing but the slow, constant rhythm of the waves. Perhaps the beach can be pleasant, if only in short durations.

Fortunately we miss the storm and we head back to TFI in the dark. Once back at TFI, we go to sleep, but not before discovering a few new friends in our cabin. A one inch wide column of ants is marching across our porch, a preying mantis stalks one of our support beams, and a tarantula has taken up residence in our sink. Our last guest startles us by his size (as big as my hand), girth, and hairiness. But, he is harmless enough and makes for a good guard.

Our guard tarantula

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We wake up again. I was fortunate enough to find an extra blanket, which has kept me significantly more comfortable at night. We pack up our things and leave Aula Global. I am sad to leave. This is probably the last time that I will be in this place. I will certainly miss bird watching from the porch, hikes through the primary we montane forest, and the sense that we are alone; isolated from the rest of the world by a stretch of mountainous rainforest. A sense of independence that I rarely feel back home. All I can tell myself, however, is that there are other places like this which I may visit, and there are other fantastic environments which I have yet to experience.

Our class meets Israel where we parked. I think he was the Tico with whom I most connected. We pack our bags in the bed of his pickup, Several of us ride in the back of the truck with the bags. We hop with every bump in the road. The cool, crisp mountain air blows my hair in the wind. This is a great way to travel.

We say goodbye to Montaverde, to Israel, to the mountains, and to the cloud forest. As we ride back, I study for the test, so I see little around me. I do realize, however, that Jeff has gotten lost. We stop at the Crocodile Bridge and wait for Jeff to find us. At the Crocodile Bridge, we see about seven of the large crocodilians: old-timers which have changed little from the time of the late Cretaceous. They must be about 12 feet long! They simply lie in the muddy bank as rain drizzles down, perhaps waiting for an unlucky shore bird to come nearby. I also spot a number of birds on the shore. I see a Purple Gallinule. This is a strange bird with huge yellow feet, probably the size of my hand. It also has a red, yellow, and white bill and multicolored body. Elise spots a large Great Egret, whose white figure quickly flies away. Finally, we see a Great-tailed Grackle in a tree. This large ubiquitous bird looks much like the ones we have back home except twice as big. He swoops down to the ground and puffs up his chest and raises his wings. This is probably an effort to impress two females below. Unfortunately for him, it does not work.

Purple Gallinule


Big Crocodile

Not a caiman

Black-bellied Whistling Duck

Eventually, Jeff rejoins the caravan. We depart for Tres Piedras. There, we eat dinner and study for the test tomorrow. I am still a bit nervous about it.

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I wake up early again and make eggs. I think I am getting the hand of this. Our Green Hermit and Violet Saberwing are back. Unfortunately, the weather here is erratic and what began as a pleasant morning has degenerated into a downpour. Israel meets us and tells us that although the forest would be beautiful, hiking to the Santa Elena Preserve is out of the question.

Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve

We go to the cars instead. I drive with Israel and Sarah in his blue pickup. We learn much about his family, including his wife’s battle with leukemia, epilepsy, and osteoporosis, his daughter’s education (one, coincidentally, is studying at Nichols High School in Buffalo) and his experiences in the rainforest.

All of us arrive at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. I am initially struck by the low numbers of people here, but this could be explained by the rain. Beginning the hike, we enter 20 year old primary forest. The climate becomes wetter and wetter as we gain altitude, peaking at a ridge. Ricardo points out leaves of the begonia family, which are identifiable due to their asymmetrical leaves and toothed edges. He also shows us costas, which have spirals, as well as solenacae, which are tomato-like plants with alternating leaves and a red fruit. In front of us, a Slaty Nightengale-thrush bobs up the trail. As we are at a lower elevation than La Georgina, we encounter more diversity of trees, vascular plants, and bryophytes. We see many aerial roots, which are developed by epiphytic plants for more efficient nutrient uptake. Thanks to the moisture here, they do not dry up.

A huge gap, probably a result of high winds in January, is pointed out. Here, tree ferns, rapid colonizers, are seen in abundance.  Ricardo shows us a perfoliate plant, which has its stem in the middle of the leaf. He also notes that the higher elevation makes the trees smaller and cooler temperatures make lianas and climbers uncommon.

Hiking in the cloud forest

Professor Israel, as we lovingly call him, explains that the candle-like flowers of piperaceae are a food source for bats. Also the cecropia leaves that fall here provide hiding spots for insects and other animals in the understory.


As we pass through more primary forest on the other, drier side of the ridge, Israel says that he saw a Quetzal fly by. I wish I had his eyes. A Quetzal sighting would be very rare now, as they are much more active earlier in the year when they are looking for mates. Despite that, we see a mixed flock including a Grey-breasted Wood Wren, Bush Tanager, and a Redstart. A hummingbird interested by my red coat hovers but an inch away from me. Discovering that I am not a flower, he darts away, his iridescence shining in the sun.

Exiting the park, I spot a big black bird in the undergrowth. This is a Black Guan. We eat lunch and head back to the cabin. Before dinner we talk about coevolution, the evolution of two species together as a result of pressure put on each other. This can be caused by mutualistic, parasitic, and predatory relationships. After dinner, we once again are treated to fireflies. It is nice to forget the would-haves, could-haves, should-haves of the day and simply clear the mind. I am amazed by the silent beauty of this place as we watch the sun set. The cloud forest calls to me with its sounds, in a whisper; nearly inaudibly, but it is intoxicating. The deep greens of vegetation shrouded in blue grey mist excite my eye. the smell of fresh air, clean water and dark decaying leaves fill my nose, and the sound of silence rings out deafeningly.

Jeff, Sarah, Bryan, and I go out on a night hike. We see a number of spiders and walking sticks, but nothing else.

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I wake up early in the morning to do some bird watching. I spot an Emerald Toucanette flying across the front of the porch. This bird has a large yellow and purple bill much like a toucan, but is smaller and colored a brilliant emerald green. We also see a Slate-throated Redstart flitting around the cecropias in front of the porch. It is a small black, sparrow-sized bird with a yellow breast and rusty path atop its head. Jeff put a number of hummingbird feeders around the porch. Soon we pick up a number of bird friends. A Green Hermit, a large green trap lining hummingbird frequents our feeders. Trap lining hummers go to a set order of flowers for nectar. In this way, they have a nearly constant supply and the flowers are pollinated regularly and in a order conducive to their reproduction. A Purple-throated Mountain Gem and Violet Sabrewing, both hummingbirds, come by to check out the feeders. It is nice to simply sit here and not think. Instead, we just exist in that point in space and in that point in time. We also spot a Ruddy Pigeon, a Common Bush-Tanager, whose green and yellow form can often be seen leading mixed feeding flocks, and a Tropical Parula, which has a blue-grey back and yellow-orange chest.

Green Hermit

After breakfast, we move up the hill for a field trip. Over the day, we reach 5,000-6,000 feet. We see some orchids. These flowers have complex reproductive structures geared specifically for pollination by Euglossine bees. Many of the bees pollinate just a single type of orchid. In return, the orchids produce chemicals which contribute to the bees’ longevity.

The moss is similar in color to that found at La Georgina. We also see bromiliads and palm fruit. Further up the trail, we see a heliocampus, a tree with what is known as sunfruit. This early successional tree puts all of its energy into growth, and as a result, has no chemical defenses and often has holes in its leaves.

An eracea elephant ear with its characteristic Jack-in-the-Pulpit-esque flower and heart shaped leaves is found. An aricacea, with is leathery leaves is also found nearby. Due to the dampness of the area, leafy liverworts dominate. This corresponds to the increase in nonvascular plants with an increase in elevation. Nonvascular plants can grow where they cannot in lower elevations, like on vascular plants. this happens because at lower elevations there is more heat and desiccation. There are also fewer flycatchers and insects for vascular plant pollination. Nonvascular plants, on the other hand, only need water for reproduction. Here there is so much water and so many non-vascular plants, that old leaves will become overgrown with bryophytes.

Also near the cabin is a ceracia, a composite flower (multiple flowers in the same head). The ceracia goes from herbaceous to woody. These belong to the rubiaceae, which is part of the coffee family.

Ricardo points out two types of stranglers: figs and eclusea. The figs start out on other trees’ bark and have alternate leaves, while the eclusea starts primarily on branches and have oppositely arranged leaves.

On a stump we find a number of bryophytes. There is a turquoise basidial lichen, which has gorgeous green swirls of color, thallus liverworts, which are flat, club, feather (more common with less moisture stress), filmy, and cushion moss (adapted for drier conditions). Ricardo also shows us a nearby strange seed pod. This brown legume is called makina and is a host plant for Morpho butterfly larvae. It also has a painful urticating hairs. While smelling it (it has an almondy smell), I accidentally stick my nose a bit too close and get pricked. Naturally.


Terrestrial crab

Basidial lichen

A nearby piperaceae, with its candle-like inflorescence/flowers and jointed stem, catches our eye. Nearby is a jelly lichen, as well as a foliose/thallus lichen. We also see a club moss and spike moss, both of which are not true mosses, but are vascular.

Filmy fern

Tree fern


On a nearby stump, we see liverworts which are very green. Most lichen are leathery and dull colored. There is also a hornwort. This bryophyte is thinner than liverworts, which have scalloped thali. Hornworts, on the other hand, have a long pole that splits as its reproductive structure. It takes part in sexual reproduction, as it involves spores. Thalus liverworts have two kinds of reproduction: sexual and asexual. They have little reproductive cups which produce gemmae inside. This is asexual reproduction. It also has a palm tree-like reproductive structure which is sexual (spores).

Toward the end of the hike, we pass through primary forest, where we hear black-bellied wood quail and see a fantastically colored walking stick.

Big tree in primary forest

Walking stick

After lunch, the trail crew heads up with Ricardo to fix up the trail. I spot a weevil and some leaf cutters, which is odd for this elevation.

We have a dinner discussion about the Montaverde are, some of which I already mentioned, after which we study for the upcoming test.

Late at night, we stand out on the porch watching fireflies. Their flashing amazes me, as I rarely see them at home. I recall how sometimes they self-organize to synchronicity. Fascinating behavior, but their sporadic glowing is enough to hypnotize me to slumber.

Evening in the cloud forest

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