Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Coatiwhatsits: a raccoon by any other name...

Coatimundis are in the same family as raccoons. And certain familial traits are very apparent. Long snouts. cute tails. Love of garbage-picking. Sly.

Now, we have these large blue plastic garbage cans for paper / plastic / cans / organic compost around La Selva. They seemed quite smart. Right up until this afternoon when I had the pleasure of watching a coatimundi discover how to open them.

As Sam Neill's character said in Jurassic Park... clever girl.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Monkeys like bridges too...

Where else in the world do you walk across a suspension bridge every morning, and have the opportunity to be surrounded by howler monkeys?

This is why I love this place.

babbling bats

So last night I came home from dinner to find a bat in the kitchen. He (or she? though the stubbornness not to listen to me about how to get out suggests not) was flying in rapid circles - small, fast and... wingy... After nearly getting pegged in the head - resulting in a duck-and-run to the hallway that was probably quite amusing to anyone watching from a distance - we opened the door. It was a tough call - let the insects in and the bats out - though considering that the bat was possibly insectivorous, I felt there was a lure for the bat and a deterrent for the insects.

Somewhere in my hiding behind doors and doing my best Navy SEAL impression of getting into rooms and dodging bats flying out of them, the bat finally departed.

Only to make a reappearance in my housemate's room in the middle of the night. I apparently slept through a lot of door opening, jumping and ducking and a final bat departure...

Apparently the young bats have difficulty finding direction. Even more fascinating, apparently baby bats 'babble', much like human infants, as they try to figure out all the calls and echolocation.

An amusing evening, to say the least.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

birds of a feather

Rather shamefacedly, I must admit to having mocked my mother. I believe that she is aware of this fact. We've had words over the disrespect. And I must admit to having extended the mocking to various ecotourists in Costa Rica and a whole host of people who seem to think it's completely reasonable to wake up at ungodly hours of the morning to haul around a massive pair of binoculars and an oversized guide book to look at not-particularly-charismatic and not-particularly-bright creatures with hollow bones and overly-developed (particularly in the morning) voice boxes. And I'm not talking about howler monkeys. While they too have over-developed voice-boxes - which they generally choose to exercise in the middle of the night and early in the morning, I find howlers to be kind of cute and furry and entirely endearing. I'm talking birds. The not particularly bright, feathered things that fly into jet engines and chirp excessively loudly early in the morning.

But now, I must apologize to all the birders in my family for the mocking. (Well, for the mocking about the bird-obsession, at least. The other mockery still stands.) After a little over a week at La Selva, I have been waking up around 5:30am. Voluntarily. I find myself grabbing my camera and wandering out my door and moseying towards the bridge. And, with the aid of my 200mm lens, and feeling reasonably cool for not hauling the Birds of Costa Rica book, I watch birds. I don't worry about names or origins or lists. That part hasn't hit me. Yet. Until yesterday, I was justifying it as 'looking for wildlife' and 'taking photos in the morning light'. I have to admit, though, to a strange pull to the birds.

I'm a colour junky. The toucans are my favourite - the chestnut-mandibled, to be precise. I still haven't got a quality photo of them, but I'm working on it. Then there are the parrots - bright green and... loud... The red-legged honeycreeper (?). The lovely grey tinnamoo. One of the myriad of hummingbirds - that love the nectar from the purple-flowered bush next to the comedor patio.

My best photos, though are of the tree turkeys. Yes, you read it right. Tree turkeys. Much like jungle chickens, they're large, dark bodied, and don't fly particularly gracefully. They go in pairs, though. There's a whole nuclear family on the trail to the River Station - the two adults separate and try to distract you if you get close, but in the middle of them (easy to find because they squawk and fly away in opposite directions. they're a few sandwiches short of a picnic, if you know what I mean.) there's a nest, with a few chicks. Very sweet.

In the forest, they're tricky to photograph. Out in the clearings around the labs, however, they're a little easier. I found this pair when walking with a couple of more serious birders (binoculars, guide books, the whole nine yards). I don't actually remember the species or common names, so for now they're tree turkeys. Identifications and clarifications are welcome.

Not that I'd be interested in the species of the birds or anything. So I'm not a birder. Really.

Friday, April 24, 2009

what's in a name?

So this workshop I'm currently helping out with is all about Long-term changes in the Tropics, and I've been taking the chance to get to know the participants. In particular, we went on a guided natural history walk yesterday. Some groups went about 300m in 3 hours, pausing to look at every bird and every plant along the way. Other groups - namely, the one I joined, took a bit more of a hike, and covered a little over a kilometer of trails - looping from secondary forest into old-growth forest. Of course, 'old-growth forest' here in the tropics isn't untouched, and as Deedra mentioned in her talk on La Selva this morning, there is no such thing as 'virgin rainforest' in the Neotropics. Even here at La Selva, there's a history of selective logging, and human occupation over the last few thousand years. I was intrigued to learn that there are pollen samples suggesting ancient agriculture.

But enough of a digression. Our group for the natural history tour included several people on their first trip to the tropics, and many who had never been to Costa Rica. While the guides are used to dealing with hard-core birders, none of us really knew what a tinnamoo was, let alone the different types of motmots (sp?). (A tinnamoo kind of looks like a small brown/grey turkey, nests on the ground and makes a surprisingly beautiful sound. Unlike the parrots which make a noisy, squawky sound, providing further evidence for my theory that the prettier birds are, the uglier they sound, so it all balances out in the end. (The scarlet macaws being the ultimate example of beauty = gnarly squawkiness). The toucans are in the intermediate range - lovely beaks, but they provide a noisy clacking sound that echoes through the selva. But what would you expect from something that eats Fruit Loops?

While we failed miserably at learning to identify bird calls, despite our guide's best efforts, we did learn quite a lot: Pentaclethera (lovely mimosa-tree with feathery leaves) is actually quite toxic - so nothing eats it. That might seem like a good idea, but if the birds don't eat the seeds, then it's difficult to disperse your offspring - so the large seedpods are apparently designed to crack open at high temperatures.

More traumatizing, I learned that those little strawberry dart frogs with blue legs have apparently been observed to move their eggs around in such a way as to require the entire species being moved to another family. So while I have been calling them Dendrobates ever since my Tropical Biology course in 2001, they now belong to a whole different family. I can't remember which family they now belong to. Still, no matter what they're called, the "I can't believe it's not Dendrobates" remain my favourite amphibians in La Selva. After all, a Dendrobates by any other name looks just as sweet, right?

Friday, April 17, 2009

In the blink of an eyelash...

I've been to Costa Rica many times, and my list of 'creatures to see' has shrunk to very few. While seeing sloths and glass frogs are always at the very top of the list, I have seen (and held) both of those. (Yes, I have a penchant for picking up troptical creatures. Don't ask.) What I had never seen (nor held, but that didn't happen today, tempting as it might have been) was an eyelash viper. But these morning I finally found one - out in the woods of a smaller trail at La Selva, the OTS research station here in the lowland Caribbean. (Correction - one of the OTS guides found one, and showed me... I can't quite claim discovery on this one, as I walked right by him (her?) the first time).

The eyelash viper - Bothreicheis schlegelii - is a thing of beauty. They are surprisingly small - coiled up, it would have fit in the palm of my hand, had I been so inclined. Not to say it wouldn't have packed quite a punch of a bite, if I had gotten too close - one must always be suspicious of eyelashes that long. Besides, they apparently jump. Fortunately, my camera has a long lens. What you can't see in the photos are the inordinately yellow eyes. Quite... striking...

Other highlights of the morning? The families of peccaries, which have apparently exploded in population, possibly due to a decrease in predatory (ie, jaguar and puma) populations in the area. They were snuffling outside my room this morning. I'd like to claim they woke me up, but after minimal sleep yesterday, that honour went to the howlers. And my purposely obnoxious cell phone alarm clock. Not sure which one is scarier. When breakfast ENDS at 7:30, you don't want to sleep in... Then there were the poison dart frogs, who after a long-awaited rain are out in full-force. The toucans, the coatimundi, all lovely.

But really, nothing can beat those eyelashes.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 2009 Field Expedition

So it's another year, complete with another field trip... I think they're slowly progressing to be more and more insane as the year's go by, but as I'm sitting in Denver International waiting for my flight, I thought it was time to restart this blog so as to keep everyone posted on my whereabouts. So here's the overview: 4 weeks in Costa Rica, coordinating a course on climate change in the tropics for OTS (the Organization for Tropical Studies) - it's a 3-week course, but I'm going down a few days early to prepare (read:...uh... figure out what we're going to do? come up with a talk or two?). It's a field course (so we're traveling around a bit and staying at various field stations), mostly grad students, but a few post-docs, NGO-types and other professionals for variety - with backgrounds in a combination of biology/ecology/economics/conservation/education. Let's leave it at: I think I'll be learning more from the participants than they'll be from me. Then it's pretty much straight to Finland for a field campaign in Hyytiala - "straight" involving a 6-hour layover in DIA - but since that involves not only changing airlines, but also going through US Immigration (because, really, who doesn't want to go through that for a layover), it will be extra-fun.

DIA is not really worth taking a photo to post. It's your pretty standard large hub airport. There's amazingly little open at 11pm. And the baggage storage facilities are excruciatingly expensive (so I checked my little 'Finland' bag - maybe I'll want the extra turtleneck at La Selva?). The one perk of the late-night flight is a non-existent security line.

Rumour has it that there's wireless internet in the San Jose airport - things sure have changed since I was there in 2000, when the bags from ALL the flights were tossed into a pile at the unlabeled baggage claim. So perhaps, as I wait for the bus to La Selva, I will have more excitement to share. Or perhaps, considering the 20 high school kids who just came SCREAMING (quite literally) into the departure gate like a herd of wildebeest, I will just need to vent. One of those two.