Wednesday, May 27, 2009

First impressions

Were I to broadly generalize from my limited experiences in Hyytiala to the rest of Finland, I might come to certain conclusions.

For example, I might generalize that Finland looks eerily like Northern Ontario: full of lakes and pretty flat (except when I go for a run, and then I find that it becomes an Escher drawing, made entirely of up-hills). I might generalize that the entire country is littered with flux towers and expensive aerosol chemistry equipment (there are THREE aerosol mass specs here right now. Three?? That's more than in the entire country of France). And from the about 100, mostly large, burly & male foresters I've met here at the field station, I might generalize that all Finns are quiet and eat a lot of potatoes. But I have decided that my first impressions and preliminary generalizations from a week and a half of an atmospheric chemistry field campaign might be slightly skewed.

I've been working on the foresters for over a week now, and have found that some of them do indeed talk (relatively speaking). The tree-cutting types, not so much: but the soil scientists and at least one summer researcher from Lapland are a little more willing to practice their English and indulge the crazy American girl (the fact that I don't drink much beer, see lots of vipers and go running every afternoon leads to some interesting generalizations about North Americans). And every person I've gotten to know surprises me in some way. For example, there's a big guy from Kuopio who might fit the Finnish stereotype: he drinks a lot of beer, plays ice hockey, and is the drummer in a heavy metal band (this makes sense: Finland is at least as big a fan of hockey as Canada, and as for Eurovision, just google Lordi). However, he also likes a canned alcoholic grape drink that tastes eerily like a wine cooler (one of the fruitier drinks that I gave up drinking in college. Early in college). We have since developed an excellent relationship: I help him fix his instruments, and he drives me into town to buy cider and chocolate.

There's the resident handy-man, who looked like a standard forester until I spotted him one evening decked out in leather riding a motorcycle. And the station director, who is one of the tallest people I've ever encountered, and, despite his initially intimidating demeanor - carefully constructed to scare incoming forestry students, I think - turns out to also be one of the nicest people I've ever encountered, patiently translating signs and checking in on my instruments.

So my initial generalizations and first impressions of the people at Hyytiala (quiet, beer-drinking, slightly intimidating) were clearly wrong. Except for the potatoes. They do eat an awful lot of potatoes here.

Finnish variants in Parseltongue

I naively thought that leaving the Neotropics for Northern Europe would reduce my rate of serpentine encounters. Silly, silly me.

Yesterday, while I was waiting for the foresters to start burning down the forest (how often do you get to say that?), I looked down from where I was standing, on the boardwalk leading to the instrument shed where my equipment is located. (Boardwalk because this is Finland, which as far as I can tell is one gigantic boreal forest bog, and boardwalks are brilliant approaches to trails in bogs). And right next to the boardwalk was a snake. A very well-camouflaged snake. He (or she, wouldn't want to be gender biased here) looked just like one of the lichen-covered sticks that litter the forest (bog) floor.

This is a Vipera berus: not particularly lethal (though they apparently give a wallopping painful bite, and do kill older people and young children, and people who are allergic to them - not that you'd know that you're allergic to them, because I don't think 'viper bite' is included in the usual retinue of allergy tests?), not particularly aggressive (though he wasn't as scared of me as I would have liked), but surprisingly interested in eddy flux measurements. He coasted all around the base of our flux tower, before I turned away and then lost sight of him.

But not to worry: this afternoon, walking from the main field station to my measurement site, I came about 20cm from stepping on yet ANOTHER viper. This one was juvenile (about 15-20cm), and light brown with black zig-zags down its back.

That's TWO vipers in as many days. Most people around here have never even seen one in years of research. I have decided that the local viper family is just very interested in my experiment (really, who wouldn't be?), and that as long as they keep out of my mass spec, and I stay off of their tails, we'll get along just fine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Too many potatoes

Last night, I simply intended to take advantage of the never-ending daylight and go for an evening run. In my shorts and sweatshirt (it's surprisingly chilly), I left at about 7pm. I had a goal of 20 minutes. Just as I was walking out the residence hall's main door, I was hailed by a tall Finn dressed in a matching blue running outfit. With my now standard smile-shrug of shoulders-apologetic 'sorry i don't speak Finnish', I started to put my headphones on and stretch for my run. The man had other ideas.

At first I thought he was asking if I needed directions - he was waving a stack of topo maps at me. Then the English became clearer, and I realized that he was part of a larger group of people I had seen at dinner, and that he was asking if I wanted to do an 'orienteering route'. I tried to plead that a.) I hadn't gone orienteering since I was about 12, b.) I didn't have a compass on me, and c.) I was just planning on going for a quick run. My excuses were not acceptable: orienteering was for everyone (age was not an excuse) - apparently it was going to be very fun and I wouldn't need a compass to find the first few markers. And I could run the course, as several people were doing (practice for orienteering competition).

I decided that when in Finland, do as the Finns do - besides, I felt bad turning the map down from such an eager person. Even if I got lost, it doesn't get particularly dark out, and there aren't really any dangerous animals (though there is a viper that lives under the boardwalk at the field site. but it's rarely lethal and less aggressive than it's Costa Rican cousins, so I'm not too worried). The result was a 40 minute run, much laughing at myself, about half of the markers (and I was quizzed at breakfast this morning about how many I had found), and many strange looks from other people taking the course a little more seriously in full-out orienteering gear (cleats, compasses, and bright blue spandex outfits. yes: families were decked out in matching gear. awesome.).

And while the spandex made me laugh, I have to say that the activity was a good excuse to get outside and walk around the lake...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tropical-temperate transitions

36 (?) hours. 9 time zones. 4 airports. 2 airlines. What about that seemed like a good idea?

I only got to my new field site a day and a half later than expected (which gave me a day to sleep and a few hours to explore Helsinki. In particular, the Kiasma - the Museum of Contemporary Art. Which was the trippiest, most messed up 7 euros I've ever spent. Highly recommended for pure... weirdness...).

But, as of Monday morning, I am in Hyytiala, Finland for five weeks. This is a boreal forest (read: bog with pine trees) about three hours north of Helsinki - not too far from the city of Tampere. The Finnish researchers seem to either love it or hate it - typically the foresters love it, and the atmospheric scientists... prefer Helsinki... I came in with mixed feelings (no fresh mango every morning and no morning monkey entertainment. But porridge and a beautiful lake!). The first two days were spent living in my own personal timezone - I think I overshot Finland, and was somehow living in around Malaysia time - fixing instrumentation for which, while I had never seen it before, I am now responsible. It's a long story. But now that the instruments are working (huge thanks to some Finnish scientists I'm working with), I can settle into life. I have a bike reserved, and instructions on how to get to town (walk to the road and take a bus going in THAT direction, accompanied by vague hand-waving).

But last night, after getting everything running, having dinner and sending some emails, I decided to settle into the really important part of Hyytiala:

Hot sauna. Cold lake.

Pura vida.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Building an ark

Two days ago, it rained at La Selva. And I don't mean just a few drops - I mean a deafening roar worthy of building an ark. Loud enough to cause - or at least provide the excuse for - my sleeping through my alarm clock in the morning. So much water that there was some concern that the Stone bridge would be flooded. A true reminder to the rainforest that the several meters of rain it receives in the year doesn't not come from a Vancouver-inspired constant drizzle, but from true tropical rainstorms with large enough drops that even the mosquitoes cannot always avoid.

But the strangest result of the massive rainstorm did not take place on the washed-out roads, the rising river or even in the rainforest where the scent of peccary was so strong. Nor was it the very aggressive, very large (2 meters is a conservative estimate) fer-de-lance (yes, those rumours of them approaching flashlights in a hunting stance is entirely true, and quite possibly one of my scariest experiences of my life. Ever). It was in the La Selva swamp.

There, at around 9pm, we encountered a deafening roar reminiscent of a night club. And indeed, the party would have put Studio64 to shame. It started with one little tree frog on a leaf over the boardwalk. Then we noticed a couple of yellow frogs calling to each other. And as soon as you realize what you're looking for, the swamp is ALIVE. We were surrounded by frogs on the prowl - flirting, looking for mates, and, later in the evening, contemplating their success - or lack thereof. At least, that was our anthropomorphic interpretation...

Ah, swamp love...

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A rare sight!

It's been a long time (as in, ~40 years) since there have been scarlet macaws at La Selva. Recent efforts to conserve almond trees may be successful - we had the joy of hearing their call (I get in trouble for calling it a gawdy shriek by the more serious birders) this morning.

Then during a meeting, we saw one in the trees above our residence. Unfortunately, my camera settings were all wrong from this morning's peccary photoshoot, but after much enhancement of the digital image, I managed to catch a glimpse of bright red beauty in the trees before it flew to find its squawking mate.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Frontier reflections

Eight years ago, I came to Las Alturas with the OTS Tropical Biology graduate course. For many reasons, the 8-week field course altered my perspective on life, science, and my sense of self and while every site we visit in this Global Change course gives me pause for reflection, walking up to Las Alturas was particularly nostalgic.

The site doesn't seem like much - essentially, a one-story shack at the edge between a farm and the Amistad Biosphere Preserve - the trans-border park that straddles the Costa Rican and Panamanian border. Many things make this place astounding - the sense of remoteness, the vast expanse of forest stretching to one side, the beauty of the tree ferns scattered along the trails or the kites flying overhead. But when I walked to the station, I was flooded by memories: my first bat netting experience (we found a wrinkle-faced bat - though they're not supposed to be this far south), sleeping outside on the porch, learning how to key plant families and bat species, climbing up the inside of strangler fig trees (that was before I discovered just how many insects live in the tropics, and how many of them bite), and searching the streams for Begoniaceae plants for a field project.

This was my introduction to tropical biology, and my realization that I could be passionate about these forests for the rest of my life. It was special to return to this place - as a course coordinator, and with Deedra, who was one of the coordinators 8 years ago. Las Alturas has changed a lot: a wind storm swept through and blew off the tin roof, smashing flatware and breaking windows. Much of the damage has been fixed, but the site hasn't been used in months? years? There were dead lizards in the sink.

The cows are still near-by, though the grass has grown taller. The trails were too over-grown to walk on, so we took the road. But the mist still floats in the canopy, and when you turn around and look up, the blue mountains still stretch to Panama with white clouds connecting them.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Las Alturas, though, is its story: originally a large farm and logging operation, a wealthy software developer from California bought up the thousands of hectares a few years ago, to create his own preserve. It's a little like a real-life version of Sim-City: he has a town, runs the farms (he's turning them organic, no mean feat in the tropics), created an apiary, and has taken a militant stand against hunting, logging and artifact removal. OTS courses stopped visiting the field station for a while in there, but the owner has recently decided that research is a worthwhile investment, and is now partnering with OTS to rebuild and maintain the field station.

Most interesting to me was the pride taken by the property manager, Francisco. In a story taken from a movie, Francisco was the helicopter pilot who flew this wealthy American (who's name remains elusive, but was apparently scared of flying in the helpicopter at first) over the land when the sale was being considered. Francisco is a true Tico with a love of nature and the old way of life. He described the difficulties with poachers, the attempts to reduce cattle grazing while maintaining the local way of life, and the interest in maintaining vast patches of untouchable forest.

Fernando is one of the last real cowboys - a true frontiersman. And Las Alturas/Amistad is perhaps the last of the untouched frontiers in Central America. I wish him luck.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Observations at Cabina Passilflora

Las Cruces Biological Station, Costa Rica

Two tires exploded. As a result of the first, we watched large crocodiles watching the cattle. As a result of the second, I bought a second-hand turquoise shirt from American Eagle with "Costa Rica" written on it. We mourned a bat that hit the windshield. We paused for an hour in Puntarenas to walk along the beach - admittedly, not the most beautiful beach, but sand and ocean and pre-lunch ice cream nonetheless. I learned about strained relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica - an overabundance of contrived nationalism, a history of US interference and an employment situation reminiscent of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US. I watched the horror of palm plantations fly by the window. I enjoyed the salsa party at the back of the bus. I reflected on a beautiful (Chagas-free, I trust) stay in Palo Verde and laughed at the final game of soccer - aka, mudball - in which we played after a rainstorm beneath a double rainbow and in about six inches of mud, resulting in not only a layer of mud on my skin, but also war paint on my face and an hour of entertainment for everyone involved - spectators included.

The 9-hour trip took 15 hours, and while I normally find long bus drives particularly painful, this one flew by.

Las Cruces is one of the most beautiful sites in Costa Rica. It is right by the Panamanian border, and houses the Wilson Botanical Garden - one of the largest collections of tropical plants in the world. Just as I remembered from 2001, the gardens are permanently hung with mist, and the bromeliaceae are filled with water and frogs. Flowers abound, and palms stand regal. The snake population is of minimal concern, and the food is excellent.

Though, somehow, we all got confused over dinner and my entire table picked up cookies with the entree, dipping them in barbeque sauce and bean juice. And there was only enough for one cookie per person.

Oddly enough, that's the second time I've mixed up the salty and sweet. The first was in the blur of morning in Palo Verde, in which I vainly chose not to wear my glasses, I mistook pancakes for corn tortillas and poured rice, beans and salsa lizano over them. Surprisingly tasty.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rain in the dry forest

Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica

I have a love-hate relationship with the OTS field station at Palo Verde. Love, because the monkeys play in the trees in front of the comedor, large and beautiful birds constantly fly overhead, and ctenosaurs (pronounced "tinnosaurs", long, iguana-like lizards that prompted the one-word response from our charismatic participant from Trinidad: "tasty". Now that I think about it, she has that response to many creatures we see. As a vegetarian, I remind myself that field courses are as much anthropological experiments as ecological experiences) lie in the sun and scuttle across the metal roofs. The hate part is not the unquenchable heat and negligible humidity, but instead reflects my bias against the insect world: the mosquitoes, the scorpions, the spiders, the pseudoscorpions. You name it, they have it - and worse than just being around, these bite-y creatures have a tendency to crawl into one's boots, clothes and, worst of all, bed. There are mosquito nets over all the beds for a reason.

My paranoia peaked when, just as I'm ready to go to bed, a visiting researcher mentions in passing that he found a 'kissing bug' in my room a few days before. I had forgotten about these critters - they have long snouts, bite you and then defecate in the wound. That part doesn't actually bother me. It's the eventuality of Chagas disease. Wikipedia it if you'd like to stay up at night. Personally, I checked my mosquito net carefully before going to bed. Several times.

So far, no suspicious insects and no suspicious bites. A hike up the limestone cliffs has restored my love of Palo Verde, and the constant entertainment of trying to photograph spider monkeys has kept me laughing all afternoon. The coatimundis are bushy-tailed and fearless, and the tiger herons form regal silhouettes in the trees. I watched cowboys head out on their horses to herd cattle in front of the soccer field around the research station.

It rained last night - the first rain since November. It was enough to keep the plants happy and the forest smelling strongly, but hopefully not enough to engage the mosquitoes. The sight of a flying stork brought me luck, as did, I am sure, the post-lunch session of cleaning Guanacaste tree seeds. A rather messy session - but amusing due to the constant competition for a large pile of seeds, and exciting, due to the prospect of necklaces and ear-rings hand-made by our multi-talented cook - a wizened Costa Rican man, Romelio, who is not only the most unlikely-looking chef, but also the most unlikely-looking jeweller. Last night's chocolate cake with home-made dulce-de-leche icing was fantastic. I am sure that the necklaces will be of a similar caliber.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The nightingale sang. The quetzals did not stay.

Monteverde, Costa Rica.

It has been eight years since I stepped into the shroud of fog that literally encapsulates the upper slopes of Costa Rica's Arenal watershed. Eight years was too long. Monteverde is a magical place - having grown up in a temperate rainforest, the sight of water dripping from every frond, the shades of green that characterize the lush landscape, and the ever-present fog that is blown across the tree canopy seems at least slightly familiar. As is the sight of tourists expecting warm weather, huddled under hastily-bought ponchos, clutching their bird guides and looking longingly at the locals' sensible fleece and unflattering rubber boots.

Tourists come here for the quetzals: charismatic, bright green birds with red bellies (reminiscent of gaudy Christmas decorations, now that I think about it) that eat avocados and other members of the abundant Lauraceae family. I did not see any this trip. I won't start in on that - the lengthy hikes, the obnoxiously early morning birds hikes, the interrogation of (seemingly) EVERY OTHER PARTICIPANT on the course who saw them.

Aside from the quetzals, the Monteverde cloud forest was made famous by Allan Pounds' studies of frog extinctions - the tragic story of the golden toads, the population of which enigmatically (that is to say, without simple explanation) crashed. After a particularly disheartening lecture, we found out that it wasn't only the golden toads - so many other 'harlequin frogs' have likely gone extinct that they stop being numbers of adorable frogs and start turning into more global change statistics. The frog crashes are interesting, though - while they initially seem a simple story of an invasive Chytrid fungus that infects the frogs, rapidly disperses between individuals and species, and kills entire populations in a matter of years, climate change clearly adds a degree of complexity and vulnerability, as does habitat loss, changes in plant dynamics (and thus leaf litter on the forest floor). Putting these components together is non-trivial, and seems to have spawned some interesting and ...animated... scientific discussion among herpetologists.

But enough of the depressing climate science, and on to the hotbed of political scandal into which Monteverde has apparently devolved. Yes - political scandal, corruption, and drama worthy of a soap opera in the hippy / new-agey towns of Monteverde and Santa Elena. To cut a long and convoluted story short, there are several conservation groups that are vying for prime real estate - such competition that two of the major conservation groups (including the main cloud forest reserve group) was locked in a legal battle over a broken promise of land donation. A near decade of legal fees and a pending case in the supreme court was - rumour has it - resolved when the director of one organizaiton sarcastically suggested in an open meeting that instead of asking for the land that was promised to them by the other group, they should instead 'donate all of their land to the allegedly back-peddling organization. This motion was rapidly seconded by a visiting member of the competing organization, voted upon, and actually resulted in the donation (?) of land in the opposite direction than had been originally planned and was under legal dispute. The cases have apparently all been dropped. I have no verification over this story, but it is so bizarre that I actually believe it.

Then add in a fight over stream water rights involving enterprising restaurant owners, some ecologists and a community of activists that was side-lined by political corruption - several respected scientists were accused of 'inciting a riot' during a municipal meeting and locked in YEARS of legal defense, federal Ministers of the Environment made (ahem) suspicious decisions, and all the forms regarding environmental impact assessments involved blatant lies that were conveniently ignored (Does the stream provide habitat to threatened species? Does it provide water to communities downstream?). This place is fascinating.

But perhaps what surprises me the most about this place - other than the splendid beauty of the cloud forest, of course - is the rampant rise in tourism. Supposedly 'eco-tourism'. Which in and of itself is not a bad thing - people who want to conserve the environment and are willing to pay for it must be some of the most positive forces in this country. But when development is unregulated and precious water supplies are being diverted from habitat for the very creatures (the quetzal and the bell-bird) that all the tourists come to see, you have to wonder how much money changed hands in this supposedly so environmentally-oriented country to allow this to happen?

But while I saw an over-abundance of tour groups and an under-abundance of quetzals, I did become enamoured with the wind chime call of the nightingale. An eery sound that echoes through the cloud forest during the day and almost made up for the lack of charismatic wildlife...

I never saw them.