Posts Tagged ‘Herpatology’

Birdwatching today is a huge success. Any doubts about my aracari sighting yesterday are placated as I see two more today. They appeared to be a pair. Ricardo claims that the aracaris stir up the other birds. Perhaps he is right, because I also see another Bananaquit, a Dusky-capped Flycatcher, which I identified by its color, crest, and lack of visible wing ba rs, and a Red-legged Honeycreeper, whose reddish or pink legs pointed me in correct direction for identification.

Fiery-billed Aracari

Fiery-billed Aracari

After breakfast, we head to Playa Ballena. This is a relatively small beach and a national park. Immediately upon driving into the parking lot, we see howler monkeys. the howlers found here are the Golden-mantled Howler Monkey. The males have a dark gold collar of fur. They lie around lazily as howlers often do. Their characteristic, booming vocalizations are not heard. We see some males, females, and two babies. The latter are the most active. But, perhaps someone should provide them with more instruction, as Ricardo mentions that most monkey autopsies (I smell a CSI spinoff) reveal broken bones from poorly executed jumps.

Golden-mantled Howler Monkey (male)

Golden Mantled Howler Monkey mum and baby

The beach is much nicer than the one in Dominical. There are no other people here besides us, so we can enjoy the waves and swim around.   We have the beach all to ourselves. The blue green water rises and falls in a froth of bubbles resulting from the crashing waves breaking just offshore. The water is warm, so simply floating on ones back with the son on your face is a wonderful feeling, as you bob up and down on the waves.

Playa Ballena

Playa Ballena

After swimming, we begin our lesson. Ricardo points out an amarillon tree, which are natural to this area. They produce nuts which are known as beach almonds. The shells are hard to crack by any animal, save for the strong bills of macaws. The nearby coconut palms were planted, but their seeds can survive for long durations in the ocean, making them a very successful species here. Unfortunately, they do not hold the beach soil as well as the amarillon.

In the distance, we see several islands. There are three small ones to our left and one large one toward the right. These islands are classic sea bird nesting sites, because there are no predators, the birds can nest on the ground (their feet are adapted to paddling; not perching), and the sea breeze helps them hunt.

On our walk, we see breadfruit, which brings to mind Mutiny on the HMS Bounty, and Balsa wood, whose remarkably light wood feels hollow if rapped with your knuckles. We also spot crabs on a rock spot just a few feet off of the coast, as well as two Scarlet-rumped Cacique. They are generally insectivorous, but here, they seem to stare hungrily at hermit crabs scurrying from coconuts on the ground.

Scarlet Rumped Cacique (Photo by Greg A.)

Scarlet Rumped Cacique (Photo by Greg A.)

After lunch, we sit on the rocky beach, watching the waves. It is absolutely serene. The waves roll in, and as they go back out to sea, they pull pebbles with them, making a rumbling sound if the waves are not too close together.

Playa Ballena

Aptly named Blue Crabs

Just before we leave, a long, thin, green snake falls on my legs. Matter of factually, I say, “Oh, look…a snake just fell.” Sarah, who was sitting next to me, responded with, “Wait…what?” followed by kicking. The snake, now agitated, slithers up closer to me. Now, the situation is a bit out of control, so I shake it off of me.  Ricardo claims that it is a vine snake as it sends its head from branch to branch in the tree above us with great agility. It is not venomous. Had I known that, I may have grabbed it, but perhaps Sarah’s response was the safer one in that sudden situation.

Vine Snake

Vine Snake

Back at the base, I go for a hike. I learn about TFI’s money problems from Sarah, so we decide to try to get funding from the Student Association. We also see a female Blue-crowned Manakin. Admittedly, it is not a male, nor is it a lek, but an awesome find nonetheless. It was particularly astounding as she is very difficult to see due to her fantastic camouflaged green plumage. Perhaps the cryptic coloration of the female is another way to hide the nest. After the hike, we have further lectures on deforestation and go to sleep after a long day.

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I wake up to do some birding. We see a Palm Tanager, who can be identified by his tanager shape and posture, but he is rather plain colored for these exuberant and enigmatic birds. We also spot a Golden-hooded Tanager. This bird is exceedingly beautiful with its rich blue body and bright yellow cap and throat patch. We only see him at some distance, so his colors are not as easily visible as they could be, but just the sight of this bird reminds me why it is worth it to come out here in the mornings.

Golden-hooded Tanager

Greg is badly ill with terrible stomach cramps and a fever. Courtney and Katelyn are in a similar situation. I hope it will pass soon.

After breakfast, we head up to Milton’s saw mill. In doing so, we passed over a thin suspension bridge dangling about thirty feet above the river. It is only just wide enough to let us through. The cables creak as we get on and the bridge itself wobbles, buckles and shakes. Only one car can pass at a time. And to think that this bridge supports cattle laden trucks!

The mill is a fascinating operation. Milton, the owner, is a nimble, quick-moving fellow. I notice that he is doing his work in sandals. He built many of the machines in the mill by hand, including the sugar cane press. His mill primarily produces lumber to be used for homes and furniture.

We set off to work in the nearby field, protecting a natural spring from erosion by planting one hundred threes around it. Hopefully, the roots will arrest the soil and prevent the spring from being filled. I chop grass with my machete, Allison follows me digging holes, and Kate plants the trees. The sun beats down upon us with no respite.

About half an hour into the work, Jeff shouts that he sees a terciopelo, a fer-de-lance, and that it was headed towards Sarah. Oscar quickly dispatches the serpent with his machete. This may seem cruel, but ecologically, killing this snake will not matter, and it is certainly safer than having a venomous viper slithering around the workers, who have little experience with snakes. I notice that from this point on, my grip on my machete tightens and my concentration increases. This increases my terciopelo count to two, as yesterday, I saw one grappling with a frog. It is surprising that he went for prey so much larger than himself, as venom is difficult for the snake to produce and the frog seemed to have escaped unscathed.

Terciopelo (Fer de lance) grappling with a frog

After two hours, we finish our planting. Back at the saw mill, Milton agrees to show us the process by which sugar cane is turned into brown sugar bricks. First, the sugar cane is crushed by pushing it through a grinder consisting of two rotating drums, one atop the other. This creates a pulpy, green juice. The juice is then put through at strainer to remove any particulates and then poured into the concave top of a giant kiln. After two hours of boiling,most of the water is evaporated, leaving a thick liquid, which is then poured into molds and let dry to a solid. The sugar is very sweet from beginning to end. We sucked on the cane, drank the juice, and sampled the finished product.

Gathering sugar cane

Back after lunch, I set out for a hike. I walk to about 200 meters, where I stop to watch a small lizard on a branch a few meters away from me. Then, in a flash, a large, dark shape enters my field of vision. It is a Double-toothed Kite. The large bird of prey grabs the lizard and flies further away to enjoy its meal. I am amazed by both the power and grace of this bird. I am also glad that I am too big to be considered a target for this hunter.

Further up, I see some poison dart frogs. I also note a bird nest at the end of a heliconia leaf. The nest is an inch wide and four inches deep. Unfortunately, before seeing the parent, I scare the mystery bird away. I do notice that there is a dime-sized white egg inside the nest.

Unknown (the owner shall be revealed in the next post) nest.

Pleased with myself, I head back down in order to go to church. I try to run there, but my shoulder still hurts too much as a result of the chopping. On the way there, I see a tree filled with vultures. I wonder what died nearby. Before mass, everyone gathers in front of the church to talk. In this way, the church serves both a religious and social function. The priest comes to Tres Piedras every two weeks. The church is small, barely the size of a classroom back home. It is also decorated very plainly with cloths and a sign with states that, “Your word, Lord, is my word and my salvation.” A tinny electric guitar supplies the music while a group of four women sings out of tune. The lack of formality (I am there in muddy clothes and bare feet) adds to the experience. Everyone is happy to be there. They clap during the songs and always respond with a gusto that is lacking in churches in the United States. We simply mumble the words in responses in order not to be “embarrassed.” There are no formal readers or long, wordy sermons. It is pure, sweet, and simple. I think that this is the way that mass should be done: children laughing and playing in the pews, a priest who laughs and smiles with his parishioners, and a church without gold. Despite the relative poverty of the area, people still give money during collection and dress in their best clothes. The gospel is that of the parable of the sower, who sows seeds on poor soil, thorns, rocks, and finally, fertile soil, the only place where they grow and produce yields. I cannot understand everything but my experience allows me to more or less follow along. The sign of peace is a particularly wonderful part of the mass here. Instead of simply nodding coolly to their neighbors without showing our emotions or, for that matter, our true self, the Ticos and Ticas get up out of the pews and address everyone with a hearty handshake, a hug, or a kiss. They smile and say “Peace be with you,” with great enthusiasm. Back in the US, this would be considered chaotic, but here, it is the only way things are, and in my mind, the way they should be.

We leave soon afterward so that we can attend lecture. The lecture is about Indigenous people. Elise, Ricardo , Sarah, and I have a big discussion about indigenous people and their ability/need to exploit the natural resources for resources. Elise has the opinion that they would not, given the chance and means, exploit the natural resources.  Ricardo and Sarah said that they would, citing examples like Bronze Age Europe, the Easter Islanders, and the Aztecs. They think that it is simply a matter of human nature that they will do anything it takes to improve efficiency to survive. My own opinion lies somewhere in between the two. Part of me says that responsibility, self-restraint, and tradition would certainly prevent, to some extent, complete destruction of the resources, but history usually points in the other direction. We also discuss cultural relativism. Cultural relativism entails that your view of other cultures through the lens of your own culture, and because of this, you can never truly understand the other one. Thus, you should not judge them. However, most of us came to an agreement that some things are simply wrong on any and ethical or moral scale.

We go back to the cabin and check on the tarantula. Yesterday, we gave it a sacrifice of two cicadas. We capture no bugs except for cicadas. They are particularly annoying because they will sit on the wall for hours, buzzing loudly as if they were electrically charged, preventing any sleep. Also, they are the only insect that has a habit of flying into your face if you walk nearby, which is not only annoying, but also unsettling, as they are large bugs. Thus, we trap them under a cup while they rest on our wall and then place the cup over the hole where are tarantula lives. Then, during the night, the “Rancor” takes his meal. It has worked twice in the past two nights. After this, I promptly crash in bed.

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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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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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