Adventuretimes by Day, Writingtimes by Night

It’s been difficult to blog the past few days, in part because I’ve been booked solid from 6:30 am till midnight or later every day and in part because I’ve been doing so much writing that I can’t fathom choosing to do more. But I just couldn’t wait to explain all my adventures from today!

Jimena, Sammi, and I are working on a project in which we’re sampling stream invertebrates at various elevations along a tropical mountain stream, which sounded fairly simple at the time of inception- go find the stream, walk up and sample, walk down and sample, sort out the bugs, analyze data, and done, right? But then it got fun- we couldn’t walk far down the stream from our top point, and when we found it again it was down a very steep ravine. Eventually, we found a road that crossed and asked the… interesting gentleman… who lived in the adjacent house-type object if we could use his backyard for Science. He was very enthusiastic and probably a little bit altered in state of mind, and was thereafter referred to by our group as “shirtless booty-shorts guy.”

After sampling the stream in his back yard, the epic journey continued down the mountain slope. We talked to probably twenty different townspeople (using my rudimentary and Jimena’s more real Spanish), and encountered what we termed the “Tiny Dog Gang” (which is definitely what I’m going to call my next bank-robbing venture).


We bravely continued onwards and downwards until we reached the Monteverde Butterfly Garden, where our Spanish was greeted with blank looks and an “excuse me?” They actually did give us directions to a super-secret path down to the stream, which we found after a bit of extra walking. Our other extremely valuable acquisition from the garden we named Nacho- he ran up to us as we arrived and then followed us out as we were leaving. I know it’s bad to pat stray dogs, but his enthusiasm and his big brown eyes reminded me too much of Murphy, one of my dogs at home, and I just couldn’t help myself.


Nacho followed us for four hours, scrambling down rocks, splashing through the stream (downstream of our study sites, luckily), scaling ravine walls, inspecting unexpected river crabs, and sharing my lunch. He cheered us on when we thought we were lost, and definitely became one of the crew. Our most noble pathfinder, our scarer-of-birds, our little sleepyhead in the later afternoon, and our constant companion, Nacho just made the sampling process a happier time.





After our last sampling site (possibly in private property, definitely not road-accessible, potentially the best spot in Monteverde for spotting Blue Morpho butterflies), we headed back up through town, stopping at a grocery store to pick up necessities (loofahs, chocolate, nuts, sunscreen…) and catching a cab for the last long hill. Nacho went home when we headed for the grocery store, and I miss him already, but today was definitely a good one for the story-telling later on.

Just remember, kids, adventure is out there!

Photo on 1-24-13 at 12.58 AM #2


And now back to editing, editing, editing papers. Ah, well, an adventure in journal research awaits…

Everything is Green. Except When It’s Not.

Okay, finally going to be caught up to the present. Ish. I’ve got a huge backlog of things I want to tell you about- how can I encapsulate everything we’re doing (and how exhausted it makes me) in just a few pictures per day? We’re now in Monteverde, a beautiful cloud forest preserve on the continental divide of Central America. You can actually see both oceans at once from a certain point along the ridge.

Because of the constant winds and the moisture coming off of the seas, Monteverde is more or less constantly damp, especially as you climb the mountain upwards. From the field station here (a gorgeous, and to our minds luxurious building) you can climb trails that take you straight up the elevation and corresponding moisture gradient. This is really the most classically “jungle” spot we’ve been- everything competes for light and space, decomposition happens almost at the speed of light in order to keep every bit of nutrient in the cycle of life, green and brown vines hang from almost every tree and rock, and epiphytic bromeliads adorn tree branches and collect tiny pools of water in their leaves. 



It’s so much harder to see animal life here- apparently there are lots of Resplendent Quetzals (my spirit animal, remember?), ocelots, jaguars, tapirs, hummingbirds, butterflies, and frogs, but in the riot of dense green makes it so much harder to spot anything. Somehow, we managed to spot this little froggy, though it took me nearly a minute to find him in the leaves (we moved him for this picture, don’t get too impressed with your frog-spotting skills)!


Other than the occasional insect or bird, though, almost everything else is plants. And the plants don’t disappoint. More on them soon!

A Bit of Sand and Sun

After our first week and a half of science boot camp, we took off for a few days at the beach to hang out, explore, and look for turtles at night. We didn’t find any turtles, sorry to ruin the suspense, but if you know me well you know that I live for ocean. Set me up on the beach with a towel, a book, and a pair of goggles and I’m set for pretty much ever. I had really wanted to see baby turtles hatching, but so it goes- we saw lots of other awesome stuff.

One thing I had not expected to find at the beach was a giant walking stick, which has been on my list of must-see animals from the beginning of this trip. I love stick insects- their camouflage is fascinating, their stick-like behaviors are so fun to watch, and they are so gentle. All species of walking sticks are vegetarian, usually munching on leaves of the rosaceae family (but branching out too- I had some stick-bug friends at the Bohart Museum of Entomology last year who hailed from Australia and ate eucalyptus), and make really good hats.




I spent hours in the sand right at the waves’ edge- I’ve found that people often think of white, sandy beaches as inert, simply there for suntanning and waves, mostly devoid of life, especially if the life isn’t obvious (turtles, jaguars, sharks, etc.), but right where the sand meets the sea a whole host of little critters are partying it up. Literally millions of little striped snails oozed in and out of the wet sand with each wave, and little greenish-grey crabs used the points on their sides to dig themselves in as well, leaving only the top of their carapace and their pointy claws showing. Big snails, small snails, crabs of at least 4 varieties, tiny fish, probably clams, and felt-but-not-seen jellyfish were all through the surf, so as we dove through the waves listening for dolphins and whales, I was always on the lookout for smaller friends. Image

Somebody besides me knows about the wealth of little critters in the sand. These little birds were foraging, probably for the snails’ little filter-feeding arms.


This beach was beautiful beyond words, and a much-appreciated break. 


More on mangroves soon! (Playing catch-up- we’re at Monteverde now and I’ll have lots of good photos from here soon as well. Yikes!)

Scales, Feathers, and Spines

Today’s big excursion was a boat trip down the Tempisque River, a brackish tide-influenced river that provides a home to many dinosaur-descendents: birds and reptiles, egg-laying, feathered or scaled, and all nesting at this time of year.

We saw wood storks:


Iguanas bathing in the sun and attracting females, careful to keep their tails out of crocodile-reach (apparently about a meter out of the water… which was considerably higher than the edges of our boat, but nobody seemed too worried…):


And the big beasties themselves, both in the water and hauled out on the bank, watching us with teeth prominent and eyes narrowed:


From my favorite precarious perch, I saw three more crocs of ascending size stalking prey in the swamp as the sun was setting. Here’s the tower again, from whence I think deep thoughts and track big lizards and birdies while letting myself be actually alone for a brief period:


And one of my similarly-pensive friends down in the swamp:


My last picture for today was from a short hike Molly and I took up the hill, toward the bluffs and through the dry forest. Tropical dry forest is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world… very little of it is left and what is left is constantly threatened by poachers, invasive species, human development, and of course the changing climate. Though it’s not the forest you imagine when you think of a jungle, or a tropical forest, or even Costa Rica, the dry forest is crazy cool- deciduous but tropical trees tower in a canopy overhead while agoutis, coatis, three species of monkey (find them all in previous posts!), ctenosaurs, jaguars, tarantulas, and hundreds (thousands?) of other species scamper about below. Today I saw a huge tree with peeling tan bark and hints of startling green underneath- this tree actually photosynthesizes (makes its own sugar out of sunlight) with its chloroplast-filled bark, and is known as “el indio desnudo” or the tourist tree because of the bark’s resemblance to peeling sunburns… and nestled below that tropical gem was this little baby. Don’t you just want to cuddle it?


My Life is a Million-Ring Circus?

Spotlight on the praying mantis- best emcee we’ve ever had! Image

And for our first act, we have Young Lady Reaches for Doorknob and Misses the Mark:


And after a short snack break,


Our acrobats really get going.


(The stars of tonight’s show: 1. the praying mantis, 2. the Costa Rican Tiger Rump tarantula, and 3. and 4. the spider monkey!)

Swamp Stomping

Today we began our first student-initiated project of the trip, developing our own experiment and collecting data to test a hypothesis. 

As might be expected, it was at first a total disaster. None of our methods were effective, none of our ideas were clear enough to explain easily enough, it seemed like we would never have enough time to get anything done but at the same time had an endless day of frustration ahead of us… and then suddenly it got better. We waded out into the marsh with little more than a net, a sharpie, and some plastic bags, and got down to doing science. 

Maybe more tomorrow about the actual experiment, but for today here are some pictures of what we saw and how we went beast-mode out on that swamp:

For a while we were up on the cracked mud- the wetland dries up every dry season (it’s dry season now, who knew? It’s supposed to snow in Hanover the rest of the week…) surveying appropriate patches of invasive vegetation for sampling. Pretty much the whole marsh is in a state of constant invasion, and it’s hard to tell exactly what is native vegetation at this point. Image

We soon got up over our knees in the wetter part of the marsh… boots full of snails, plants, and water were the result, and nobody really wanted to mention that under those conditions it would be very difficult to get away from the 10-foot crocodile we saw on the first day out near where we were wading… But the resultant boot-waterfalls were a great photo-op.



Long day. Hard work. But we’re the toughest.



Tommy asked for a photo of the watchtower:


Doesn’t look like much, but I promise it’s ricketier than it looks and more interesting than it seems.

Going Batty

Know what flies loopier than me after a really long day and little sleep? 

Bats. They’re the only mammals that fly… but they’re also crazy diverse in themselves. There are 70 species in Palo Verde alone, and 113 in Costa Rica! They eat insects, nectar, fruits, fish, frogs, small mammals and even other bats, and come in all shapes and sizes from palm-sized to almost a meter across with winds extended. Their wrinkly little faces and their big ears (all the bats in the Americas are Microchiroptera, and mostly evolved for echolocation) make them look like scary, creepy old men with a penchant for self-obsessive high school girls named Bella… *ahem* now I’m just off-topic… but honestly they’re fascinating and super important to keeping the balance in this crazy complex ecosystem. Sergio, the naturalist at this field station, studies bats and brought some in to show us tonight. 



Check out the wing structure and those tiny, flexible bones- like dude, do you even lift?

Who Watches the Watchtower?


The watchtower is sort of a weird place for me to return to continuously. It’s rusty and partially held up by a tree, and shakes like a leaf in the strong winds that come through every afternoon here. There are spiders, and the ladder is only attached at the top by its own weight on hooks. Better yet, the bottom of the tower is actually in the marsh, wherein wait the crocs. Sitting on the top of the tower I am pretty much constantly facing several fears at once- fear of losing my stuff to the wind, fear of being blown off myself, fear of getting stuck up there, and fear of falling into a silver-screen nightmare of snapping jaws and splashing water. Why am I drawn back every day? 

The view from the watchtower by the marsh is more or less unparalleled. I’ve seen tens of species of birds, lots of plants, and the ever-present crocodiles every day from its top, watching the sun fall down across the sky. It’s a very lonesome view, and very zen. All you can hear is the wind and the birds, and it all goes on below you without your help or interference. There have to be some risks involved in getting that front-row seat- there must be some cost to climbing up so high. 



(To the concerned: I’m pretty sure I am imagining most of the dangers of this tower. My self-preservation instincts are kicking in, which just makes me think about this stuff while I’m high in the air. I’m not just being stupidly reckless.)


Big Flappy Things, Little Diggers, and Leapers

Big flappies. Most of the time, people call them birds, but not in my house.

This one’s a curaçao, about 3-4 feet tall. She’s a female, which is why she is brown- the males have black bodies and bright yellow faces, but I actually think the females are prettier. They’re more complex, and slightly more camouflaged, or as much as one can be when one is a giant land-dwelling bird with curly head-feathers.


These next two are obviously parrots. They are nice.


The little diggers are Antlions, the larval form of a type of biggish dragonfly-like insect (order Neuroptera, the net-winged insects). They build little cone-shaped traps in the fine dirt by the road, and when ants fall in they pretty much never get back out again.


I went for a short walk to take a break from work this afternoon, and came upon the same troop of capuchins (I think) that I’ve seen near the road a few times. They watched me watch them as they sat high up in the trees and cracked nuts with their teeth, seeming more wary and curious than scared. As it got darker, they decided to head for their sleeping-place and had to make several very impressive flying leaps across the road.


Goodnight, little monkeys.

Creatures of the Night

Went for a night walk after lecture and work time in the classroom, motivating myself with thoughts of jaguars and bats after a long day in the hot sun moving ants around from acacia tree to acacia tree. (There is a cool ant-tree mutualism in which the tree provides special food supplies for the ants, called Beltian bodies and extrafloral nectaries for protein and sugar respectively, and the ants in return ruthlessly attack any intruder on their territory, including unwitting backpacks.)

I guess like me there are a fair number of critters who can’t fall asleep out here. No jaguars were met (yet) but we saw some other night hunters, including bats and, more excitingly, tarantulas. They move like predators, cruising over the leaf litter on their delicate feet keeping their more impressive mouthparts and fuzzy bodies aloft. 


We saw a spider near to this one catch a sizable cricket and consume it hungrily before our eyes. The tarantula seemed unmoved by this view, and more interested in continuing its own explorations.

Almost back at the station, I spotted a reddish-orange eye reflection in the shrubs. The spiders’ eyes had shone back white or blue-ish, and cats were supposed to glow green, so I wasn’t sure what it could be. On closer (careful) investigation, we found this little guy staying perfectly still on the ground, blending in perfectly except for those reflective eyes.


Can you see the bird? It’s a paraque, a fairly common night bird often seen on roads and in clear spaces. Not sure what it was doing there or why it would want to perch so still on the ground with so many hunters around, but a good find nonetheless. 

Bedtime now, for me at least. The howler monkeys will be up at 5, and I have breakfast at 6:30, but the party (for some) rages on outside while predators of all sizes swoop, crawl, slither, pounce, and wait outside.