We wake up at 5 am. I slept surprisingly well in the cabin. My layers suited me well. those who decided to sleep in only their base layers did not fare nearly as well. They leave their beds rather slowly. The sunrise is absolutely gorgeous. The orange fire burns brightly behind the blue-green mountain. The blue-gray clouds rise majestically from their nightly slumber in the mountains. It is a calm, magical moment. Unfortunately, my shoes are still soaked. I did not want them to burn, so I kept them too far away from the fire for them to dry.
The class eats a light breakfast and heads out. We are treated to the Turealbo Volcano smoking in the distance. Periodic ash from the volcano leaves the Mesada Central fertile. In the cloud forest, we further discuss the great diversity of moss, lichens, and liverworts. As I mentioned, lichens have no leaves. Mosses have pointed edges and usually a midridge. Liverworts have rounded leaves. However, there are no fast and true ways to differentiate them because the rules have exceptions.
Professor Andrus points out a tree which is a microcosm of the forest around us. We find some cushion moss, which clumps to retain water. The golden feather moss, the most prominent moss in this cloud forest, festoons everywhere. The tree also yields jelly lichens which have an almost slimy texture. A red bromeliad catches our attention. The red vs green coloration is a result of different chlorophylls accepting and reflecting different wavelengths of light depending on where they are in the canopy. These microclimates are common here. Sun on one side of a tree can lead to desiccation there, and thus, a completely different set of plants, primarily lichen. Paddle ferns, single leaved ferns, grow from the base of the tree. The fern diversity in the forest is incredible, and everywhere you look there is a new species. Lower plants like these reproduce using spores. They need water to transfer male and female gametes. Later, we see a filmy fern. This one needs very damp conditions. Their leaves are small and translucent. A fuchsia is nearby. The flowers are red and tubular to attract hummingbirds. Further down the trail we see a melastome, whose leaves have characteristic parallel veins with smaller horizontal cross veins.
Andrus takes a soil sample. It consists of mottled gray and red soil under a thick layer of organic matter. The grey is a result of anaerobic conditions reduction in the soil. This can be seen in marshes and swamps around the world. The red colored soil is a result of dry oxidation where FeO goes through a chemical reaction with oxygen in aerobic conditions to result in Fe2O3. The roots here are shallow due to low nutrient content. Several people have slipped on them. On a tree we see a liana, which is rare at this elevation. Lianas are vines which start from the ground and creep along the ground using negative phototaxis, moving toward shadows (cast by trees), until it hits a vertical object. It then uses positive phototaxis, moving toward the light up to the canopy. These are uncommon here because of the low temperature. Green plants compete for light to photosynthesize. To complete this process, the plant needs water from the roots. Lianas take in water from turgor pressure created by evapotranspiration of water through the leaves, resulting in negative pressure. However, as it is cool here, evapotranspiration is low; thus long lianas do not compete well here.
A nearby group of pixie cups, lichen reproductive systems, catch our eye. An eracea climbs up a tree, its alternating, heart-shaped leaves leading the way. On our way out of the forest we see 3 different lizard species basking on rocks in the sun. One, probably a male, is bright green and shows off his blue dewlap by doing push ups. Later we see King vultures cruising the thermals. A nightingale hopping in front of us, a big footed finch, and a Rufous-collared Sparrow raise our spirits. One last look at the cloud forest fills us with awe, as the drops of mist sparkle like diamonds in the trees when the sunlight pours through the branches.
The group now heads to San Isidro and are treated to more great landscapes. After about an hour of driving down winding mountain roads, we reach our destination. The city is smaller than Alajuela, but has a similar feel. In both cities the gutters are nearly a foot tall, giving me a shock as I step of the curb. Once there, we buy muck boots and a machete: a red letter day. The store itself is a big odd: it sells a bit of everything…microwaves to machetes.
The way to TFI turns to a dirt road. Big potholes impede our progress, but gives me more time to appreciate the nearby vegetation. However, the ride is bumpy and not necessary comfortable with Jeff’s new bike and chick at my feet. Upon making a pit stop to speak with the locals, we play some soccer and observe a long line of leaf cutter ants. These guys are a force to reckon with. They can lift many times their own body weight. The leaves they carry are not eaten, but rather digested to fertilize a single fungus species. They are nature’s agriculturalists. They use pheromones, chemical signals, to inform ants where food is located. As more and more of these converge, the ants self organize into a path. Even if two equally spaced bridges are placed between the ants and the food, one bridge will win out as a result of this.
Our car notices a farm with many cattle. Too many. It is excessively intensive and causes tons (literally) of erosion. However, the farmer refuses any help from TFI to slow the erosion. Some people will never learn.
We finally reach TFI. It is 79 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% humidity. Soon, it begins to rain. However, nothing dampens our spirits. We get settled in our cabin. I am bunked with martin and Greg in the Cabina de Tucan. Perhaps we will see one. Our cabin has a faucet and hammock. I wash the leaked shampoo from out of my bags. I hope they will dry. After getting settled, I head to the main cabin. It is beautiful with a central table, kitchen, and lounge areas. We head to a swimming hole at the river. Our first attempt through barbed wire and back is blocked because the river is swollen and rose from a large creek to a reddish brown torrent of class 3 or 4 rapids! The swirling eddies and crashing waves are a power to behold. We move to another swimming hole a bit further down the road. This one is cool and refreshing. A nearby cascade provides for a great water slide. Although it is deep, I still manage to slip on the rocks. A great time is had by all in the rain. People passing by from Tres Piedras, the nearby town, all wave at us and seem friendly. Costa Rican men call themselves Ticos; women are Ticas. We, the whites, are Gringos. There is nothing derogatory about any of these names, and one should not take offense to them.
After swimming, we head back to the cacophony of insects as we pass cows and pastures. Although I have seen rainforests in documentaries, this is an incredibly visceral experience. To touch, feel, hear, see, smell, the rainforest….I love it.
Following a delicious dinner, we begin our first lecture on physical geography, or what affects climate. This includes simple facts like the tilt of the earth, its rotation around the sun, and the earth being spherical.
Our TFI station is at about 9 degrees latitude on the Pacific side of the country, which gives us a 3 to 4 month dry season. The rainy season lasts from April to December. Soon, however, we can expect the little summer. In the dry season, it becomes hot on the Pacific side of the country. This pulls moist air over the mountains in April. Rain falls, cooling the area, ending the pull of moist air. This results in a two-week dry spell in the beginning of July, the middle of the so-called rainy season. Then, the Intertropical Convergence Zone moves north, beginning the real rainy season. Despite this slight seasonality, there is little effect on the trees. It only really causes decreased numbers of epiphytes.
We set up our mosquito nets before bed. They give the room a typically jungle feel and protect us from the creepy crawlies, or little friends, whatever you wish to call them. The insects and frogs serenade me to sleep.