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?


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.

Day of Reflection

Today was a day of reflection- we went on a morning walk and identified birds with the park naturalist, but were then set free to wander the woods and the marsh on our own. When we’re not in a big group, it’s easier to slow down and check out the little stuff, turn over rocks, sit and watch a capuchin for twenty minutes (and thoroughly piss it off), spot the baby crocodile eyes in the water, and get REALLY close to a ctenosaur.

This capuchin tolerated my observation for 15 minutes, continuing to crack open those seed pods you’ll see in the picture and drop them more or less on my head. Eventually, however, he or she seemed to get tired of me and climbed out of the tree, showing me teeth.


The ctenosaurs were all over today, and they blend in well enough to the surroundings that you could almost walk right over them… except that they are 3-foot lizards who do not appreciate such actions. If you get really low, though, and come up quietly, they’ll let you get reasonably close before diving into a hole or running away (or biting you, if you’re very unlucky and/or tasty-looking).

Also sometimes they sneeze? Not sure if that was an aggressive behavior or just a virus.Image

Our last stop of the day was the top of “La Roca,” the local high point overlooking the tufa marsh and the experimental patches of mowed weeds (there are lots of invasive-plants problems limiting the bird habitat nearby) along with the Tempisque River and the nearby mountains. The view was described to us as “soul-changing,” and I think it might actually have lived up.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of good views in my life (the Annapurna mountains in the Himalayas, Yosemite and its waterfalls, glaciers and snowscapes and coral reefs, to name a few) but this one… people talk all the time about how important diversity is, and how great nature is, and science and identification and harvesting the knowledge that the planet still holds from us, but looking out from that rock was special. There’s a spirituality in science, at least for me, that takes the research and the insight and the millions of questions still left to answer and makes them sacred. I don’t feel it in the everyday dirt and grind of school and research and reading, but above it all, my spirit or mind or whatever wants to leap up and glide on the updrafts with the wood storks and the hawks, and look down on it all, and ask and answer all the questions. Image

Where in the World is Costa Rica?

It’s crazy diverse, due to the confluence of North and South Americas and their respective flora and fauna, the trade winds and mountains creating microclimates and heavy rainfall, and the fairly consistent year-round temperature. (Among other things.)

It’s bordered by both the Pacific and the Atlantic, between Nicaragua and Panama:

(photo from US Dept. of State website)

And I’m slowly (or not so slowly) falling in love with it.


The Orientation Continues

Today was sort of our first real day (they keep telling us that, and then we have another “first real day”- yesterday was our first whole day in Costa Rica, today was our first day in the field, tomorrow we have a full day of lectures and prep for work, and the day after we actually start on projects). Essentially, we continued to dive into our plans and prep for the trip, arriving at Palo Verde, our first field site, just before lunch.

Interesting language note: a “ferretería” is not, in fact, a store that sells ferrets. (A panadería sells pan or bread, and a zapatería sells zapatos or shoes, getting the pattern?) So my dreams of a big store full of nothing but ferrets and supplies for their care were dashed, but I learned that a ferretería is, in fact, a hardware store. 

Palo Verde is fairly distant from any such frivolity, in any case. We’re a bit remote, at this first OTS field station, in the largest preserved area of dry tropical forest in Mesoamerica. Dry forest is more or less what it sounds like- not a rainforest, but a super diverse deciduous forest of trees and lianas, populated by monkeys, coatis, agoutis, curaçaos, ocelots, snakes, ctenosaurs, a million types of birds (that might not be an exaggeration… it is unclear) and bugs, bugs, bugs. Among the highlights were the spider monkeys, capuchins, and howler monkeys we heard and saw in the trees, giant ctenosaurs (black iguanas), and a boa constrictor that we caught slithering along the path. 





We headed from the dry forest then down toward the marsh at the bottom of the hill. At the beginning of the dry season (now-ish, I think) there are fewer mosquitoes (but they’re still here…) but still water in the wetlands, where we saw more birds than I could count and a few crocodiles who were given a wide berth by all. We stuck around the observation pier and tower there until sunset, which wasn’t actually too buggy and was definitely very beautiful.




More to come soon on Costa Rica in general, and the way it it pretty much the coolest place to study all of the things!


Day 1- San Jose

It’s not the end of the day yet, but it feels like we’ve done a lot. After breakfast, we headed to OTS (the Organization for Tropical Research or, for those who speak Spanish or pretend to (like me) la Organización para Estudios Tropicales). Here’s their website, in case you want to check them out- I recommend it! They do a lot of neat tropical biology for conservation, expansion of knowledge, and inspiration of the people of the world, according to their director of educational programs:

We hung out outside there for a while, just kinda chatting and checking out the cool trees- pretty much everything here is interesting to look at, even the landscaping. Epiphytes on everything, huge leaves, strangler ficus, new birds… 

We went shopping after that, mostly just for entertainment though a few people needed to replenish sunscreen, shampoo, and notebooks. In a little mall, we found some shops selling medicinal plants like aloe and something that looked like daisies.

ImagePracticing my Spanish with the restaurants, shops, and people around me has been challenging but awesome. I’ve lost so much… but I remember a lot, too, and it’s great to actually put this stuff into good use. As my Dartmouth drill instructor used to exclaim: