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Posts Tagged ‘Tropics’


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

Crikey!

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.

Caterpillar

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.

Makina

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

Piperaceae

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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We wake up and head to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve in the Montaverde region of the country. On the road there, we see moist forest transform to rice, banana, and palm oil plantations. It is truly a harrowing sight to see the most diverse ecosystem stripped down to a monoculture for pure economic and industrial efficiency. The housing and working conditions for the imported Nicaraguan labor is also horrendous.

Our caravan drives into Santa Elena. We stop and eat at a small bakery. There is a high gringo presence here, as a result of the tourist industry. I find walking amongst the gringos to be boring and left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Where are the Ticos? I can only imagine the culture shock when we return to the US. Most people here discuss their plans for going on ATV tours or zip lining. This is disappointing, as it has driven the commercialization of this fantastic area, overdevelopment, leading to infrastructure problems and deforestation, and does not provide any real appreciation for the natural world here. It is nothing more than a cheap thrill for these people. That is not to say that ecotourism cannot be a positive force in protecting the environment. This model, however, is not sustainable.

Orchids

We meet Israel, our guide to Aula Global. He is a stout man with bright, flashing eyes. We drive to the parking lot a few miles from the cabins at which we will be staying. I pack extra fruit and milk in my pack. Just as we begin the trek, we see a small orchid. It is white and very pretty. It is, however, quite different than the large orchids you see in florist shops. Unfortunately, the rain begins as we disembark down the trail. Soon, it is absolutely torrential. I pray that my trash bag lined backpack will keep my clothes dry. Despite the rain, I am having a fantastic time. This is an experience that I will likely never forget: walking in the cloud forest during a torrential rain storm. Crossing the foot wide fallen tree bridges over fast flowing rivers, climbing over steep muddy embankments, and hiking down muddy slot canyons gives me unexpected pleasure. Interesting little mud stalagmites form as a result of the falling rain, much like the limestone pinnacles in Madagascar. We finally reach our cabin. It is spacious with a ladder leading up to a bunk. It is a fantastic spot. We unload the food. I am amazed at how much we brought, but I suppose that is what it takes to feed 21 people for three days. Also, I find that my clothes are all dry.

Cloud Forest

Unfortunately, we discover that there is no running water to the cabin. The faucet which pumps water from the river must have clogged with sediment. So, Noah and I go stumbling through the dark with a 20 gallon bin. We find a stream and fill it up using a cup. As the water level slowly rises, we wonder how we are going to carry this back to the cabin. We pick up the huge weight and groan under the strain. We slowly plod up the slick, muddy trail with our heavy, precious cargo, carrying it like the Ark of the Covenant. The water spilling as we trip and slip over roots drenches us more than the rain, chilling us to the bone. We continue our journey slipping and sliding in the mud and the pitch black darkness until, after a nearly hour-long ordeal, we reach the cabin.  Ricardo cooks up some rice and pesto and green beans with garlic. It is very filling and quite tasty. Exhausted, we quickly fall asleep on our sleeping pads.

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I wake up to go birding. This morning, we are treated to observing the national bird of Costa Rica: the Clay-colored Robin, which is a surprisingly dully colored selection for the country’s avian pride. We also see a Long-billed Starthroat, a hummingbird with a blue cap and very long bill. Finally, we see the aptly named White-shouldered Tanager.

After breakfast, we take more trees up to the bean field. On our way up, we see a Lineated Woodpecker, which is about the same size as the Pale-billed Woodpecker, but has only a red crest. There is also a big owl butterfly with a yellow eye-spot on the back of its wing which I have seen in the same place on the bean field trail for the past few days.

Owl butterfly

After dropping off our trees, we head back down the hill to do trail work. We decide to change the path near the stairs again by making another switchback in the trail. Once the machete work is done, we pick out an edge in the trail to make it flatter and easier to pass. We then move up to a higher portion of trail. At one point while machete chopping, Sarah cut a liana and a large branch fell but a foot away from me. Naturally, she is very apologetic. At any rate, no harm, no foul, but this is an example of what can happen here. The forest is physically connected by a network of lianas, mycorrhizae, and tangled branches. One small chop can bring something big from the top crashing down. That is a perfect metaphor for the interconnectedness of living systems and how they interact nonlinearly. We finish the switchback and pick it out. Sarah leaves because she was still not feeling 100 percent. Bryan and I work for nearly four hours today. I have to convince Bryan to finish the picking in the trail. The work is exhausting, but rewarding. It also makes the beer taste better.

After lunch we go to a local reptile zoo aptly named Reptilandia. They have an excellent collection of snakes and lizards from Costa Rica, and some from around the world. Perhaps my favorite was the emerald tree boa. It has a beautiful green color that is, as Steve Irwin would put it, “gorgeous!” The Komodo dragon is also interesting to observe. I particularly like how the plates had both Spanish and English. In this fashion, I learn new vocabulary like aves y pajaros (birds), serpientes, viperos, y culebras (snakes), ramas (frogs), murcielagos (bats), and sacco y mojado (dry and wet). Not all the snakes are out in the open and the banality of life in the cages makes me once again consider my stance on zoos. Although they can be a useful educational tool, they can also be depressing and cruel. Perhaps if all animals in zoos were captive bred or being rehabilitated then this ethical dilemma would not be an issue. Strolling in the garden is fun. It was nice to walk slowly and leisurely. I have not done this in quite some time. The one rule of strolling, I find, is that you must have your hands behind your back, as it signifies that you have no fear of falling. On our way out we learn that the owner was bitten by a venomous snake a few days ago. He was administered antivenin and made a full recovery. His passion is amazing to me, especially because it is a dangerous one.

We return to TFI. On the way back, I spot a Barred Antshrike, whose crest and black and white stripped coloration make him look like a jail bird (pun intended). I also see a Blue Dacnis, whose bright blue and black coloration and small size make him impossible to mistakenly identify. We also see a Violacious Trogon, which is a medium size sallying frugivore, that is, he will fly up and dive down, grabbing fruit from trees as he flies. His red orbital ring, purple head, yellow breast, and black and white striped tail makes him easy to identify.

Back at base, we talk about the vast diversity of arthropods here in the tropics. Because of their great diversity and abundance, they in part drive the diversity higher up in the food web. During lecture, while I am scratching my arm, I notice a large bump on my elbow. Upon further investigation, I notice that it is an engorged tick! The little bloodsucker must have been on me for some time, judging from his size. He is quickly removed and terminated with extreme prejudice. After dinner, I pack for Montaverde trip and fall asleep.

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