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Close to home June 17, 2018

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You may have noticed that a lot of the stuff I’m mentioning is close to where I’m working and sleeping, rather than off in distant parts of the forest. This is because the project I’m currently working on, while really cool, has an even higher lab-to-field time allotment than my dissertation research. I can collect enough insects in a couple of hours to keep me busy in the lab for a couple of days. And since the plants I’m collecting insects from are really common, I decided I might as well start with the ones that are nearby, at least until I get to the point where I’m targeting particular species rather than just grabbing everything because it’s all new.

While this means I’m unlikely to see a cat or anything else really dramatic, I’m still seeing cool stuff. It just tends to be small (like the leafcutter ants) or so fast I don’t get a chance for photos. This morning, as I was crossing the suspension bridge from the labs to the dining hall, a clueless and possibly young broad-billed motmot* stayed sitting on the handrail with an insect in its beak until I was within a couple of feet. What was really amazing is that I was walking and talking with someone else, until we got so close that I noticed it. If this is a typical example of its survival instincts, I suspect it may soon receive a Darwin Award.

*I couldn’t get a photo of this one, but broad-billed motmots are beautiful. They have rusty orange heads that fade into olive green bodies and turquoise tails, with a little black bandit mask around their eyes. They really like the bridge and the riverbank, and since my cabin is close to both, I’m sometimes woken by choirs of motmots before dawn. But they’re much easier to sleep through than howler monkeys, so I’m appropriately grateful for them.


Ant trails June 13, 2018

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June 13, 2018

One of the easy cool things to see at La Selva are leafcutter ant trails. They’re not quite everywhere, but they’re very common, especially along the edges of human trails. The ants fill the space so uniformly they might as well be obeying road signs declaring that particular strip of concrete or earth a designated ant lane. (The trails are certainly “painted” with pheromones, but I’m not sure how the ants know to put them right along the edges.)

Right now, the trail outside the lab I’m spending most of my time in looks particularly cool because the ants are mostly carrying tiny fig fruits rather than leaves. That makes it easier to see the trail over long distances. (It’s the reddish-brown line along the right side of the trail continuing into the distance.)

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I was going to post a video that’s almost shot from an ant’s eye view, but it looks like WordPress wants to charge me for that. So I’ve put it on YouTube.

Snakes, crabs and bats June 10, 2018

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June 10, 2018

La Selva seems to be to venomous snakes what Palo Verde is to mosquitoes. Except the worst the Palo Verde mosquitoes will do is make you scratch yourself bloody, while the venomous snakes at La Selva are, well, venomous. Two nights ago, the professor who’s basically my co-supervisor came into my lab to tell me that, FYI, she’d been struck at by a young terciopelo* right outside my cabin. It missed, but people are reporting two or three snake sightings a night around the labs and cabins. Apparently, this is worse than usual, and people are saying it’s probably a combination of it being time for young snakes to spread out, a bunch of wild rodents in the lab clearing, and the extra leaves and branches on the ground from the storm. Personally, I haven’t seen any snakes other than one terciopelo that was curled up behind a building that someone pointed out to me, and I’d be happy to keep it that way.

I have seen some less alarming animals. That same night, a land crab got into the lab:

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I love how it looks like that beetle is backing the crab up against the wall. 😀

And today, I was getting ready to collect this rolled-up leaf

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to look for insects when a bunch of disc-winged bats flew out of the top! I didn’t get a good look at the bats, but they have little suction cups on their wings that they use to hold onto smooth surfaces like leaves.


*This is basically a fer-de-lance, except someone seems to have decided that ‘fer-de-lance’ should only be used as the name for a closely-related species that only occurs in the Caribbean. On the other hand, that part of the Caribbean includes islands that actually speak French, unlike Costa Rica and the rest of Central America. Terciopelo apparently means ‘velvet’ in Spanish, which is a pretty good description of how its skin looks, even if it isn’t your typical scary venomous snake name.

And now for something completely different June 6, 2018

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June 6, 2018

This summer, I’m doing research at La Selva, which is a wet forest* on the other side of Costa Rica from Palo Verde. It’s a lot more like what people think of when they hear ‘tropical forest’:

La Selva is not just different from Palo Verde, but also different from when I came down briefly in March. A few weeks ago, there was a microburst storm that did a lot of damage. A microburst is apparently the opposite of a tornado: fast winds blow down to the ground, then move outward. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but tons of trees were knocked down, along with the station’s canopy towers and various bits of infrastructure.







That last photo is of a blocked trail that I scouted out in March and decided would be perfect for my project. They say it’ll be clear by Monday, so here’s hoping.

*Technically, La Selva isn’t a ‘rain forest’ because it isn’t humid enough, although it’s difficult for me to imagine being someplace even more humid…I left a dry shirt on the foot of my bed last night and it was damp when I woke up.

Me and the moon August 13, 2017

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It feels like my Saturday began and ended with the moon. Really, it began with howler monkeys and ended with my mom’s cat, but the moon still bookended my trip home. After a completely unnecessary 4 AM howler monkey wake-up call, I decided I might as well do something I’ve always wanted to do: hike up to La Roca to watch the sun rise. When I started off at 4:50, the three-quarter moon was still bright in the sky, which meant that I could do almost the whole walk without my headlamp.

Once I got up on the ridge leading to the overlook, I could see the first glimmer of sunrise,

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but it took until I reached the base of the rock for me to see leaves as green, rather than the odd blueish gray you know must be green because the only things that color are the plants. I think this means I saw my vision transition from rod to cones cells between one moment and the next, but I’m hardly an expert.

On the rock, sunrise was glorious:

The light and rising mist quickly hid the setting moon, and I didn’t see it again until 11:30 that night, when it was rising, huge and yellow, over the airport in St. Louis.

A menagerie of monsters August 12, 2017

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IMG_20170701_140950One of the things everyone loves about old maps is the monsters they filled into the undiscovered corners.  One of mine is that I’m not a very good guest correspondent.  It turns out I’m quite bad at sitting down to write down my memories.

I think it’s not surprising that the world outside was beautiful.  For a layman, the variety of crazy caterpillars.  The howler monkeys walking across three trees just to smack someone upside the head before falling asleep (I would do that if I were a howler monkey, I’m afraid).  Nor the feel of the human company.  All wonderful, open people, but a sort of agatha christie setting, in which there’s nowhere to go and no one to come visit, and so the same people just are themselves in scene after unaccompanied scene.

But, I think everyone’s favorite part of travelling is the unexpected.  Like this guy, who won’t move for thirty minutes (as I expect of an iguana), and then launches himself off the dock, flying off into the marshland to eat every hyacinth in sight.  And then, nap again.

But another wonderful part of traveling, at least as a young man, is just having to let go.  Take this guy: pretty cute, but then his owner caught my eye, and said “hey kid, what are you doing?”  And when I told him some humbug about going on a guided tour of Monteverde, he told me to drop absolutely everything and drive four hours north to climb an inactive volcano.

This is my language.  The form of my imagination.  Inquisitive dogs, importunate strangers, big lakes, volcanoes.  Total failure to foresee what the next day will bring.

So I drove off, of course.  Gave a ride to a passing hitchhiker, a butterfly-trinket salesman and an evangelical preacher.  We talked about the imported chinese butterflies (“costa ricans”, he informed me with devout charity, “are lazy, and never make anything”), and how he got along with Catholics (right idea, wrong execution).  I asked him how to make sense of the Hindu woman I live with, with her paintings of animal-headed gods.  He smiled, and explained to me that understood that “some of those hindu women are damned fine.”

“My middle aged landlady, thank you.”

He got quiet and, far from his stated destination, asked me to leave him by the side of the road.


There were of course, also, the obligatory giants, their grey cloaks loose about their shoulders.

But, it seems somehow insincere to leave out a couple of more straightforward monsters.  A nighttime stroll in Monteverde showed these guys.  Somehow, I’d taken “plants are photosynthetic” and “leafcutter ants eat plants”, put two and two together, and decided the ants must cease their business in the dark.  Something captures my imagination about these guys, ceaselessly going about their business, while I grow weary and rest.

And so they bore off a smattering of my cares.  Sins of the world I can nor pardon, nor carry, nor lift.  Parochial concerns, and the kind of status transactions Keith Johnstone would love.IMG_20170705_202354

Of course, no wayfarer’s aide would be complete without its monsters.IMG_20170706_165437

But, the far reach of this journey was, as the poet said, to continue new adventures at home.IMG_20170711_195125

Almost there August 10, 2017

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It’s my second-to-last night here, and it feels like things are under control. **cross my fingers, knock on wood, and all the rest** But I have a sincere expectation that I’m not going to be up until midnight tomorrow night packing everything up. And a couple of days ago, I even had the time to hike all the way up the longest trail in the park and take in the view:

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The egg is in the nest! August 6, 2017

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A pair of tiger herons, possibly the same ones as last year, have again built a nest in the big tree right next to the lab. Despite the proximity, it’s hard to keep an eye on what’s happening, both because you can’t look down into the nest and because it’s usually backlit against the sky. But when I stood directly underneath the nest this afternoon, I could see an egg inside. (Think about that for a moment.) I can’t really say that tiger herons are crummy nest builders, because this works for them, but they seem to like brutalist architecture.

Or arrivals August 3, 2017

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Almost every prediction I made on Sunday turned out to be wrong, which is exceptional even for me. Right after the undergrads left on Monday, two women from Belgium arrived and stayed the night before moving on to another national park. Tuesday, a PhD student planning to study epiphytic bromeliads showed up to scout Palo Verde for potential research subjects. On the weather front, it’s gone back to being dry. The mud did get packed down, but the mosquitoes seem to have decided that the remaining water has become suitably stagnant and are out in force.

Equally unexpected were the two chicks that the female curassow brought by the comedor at breakfast on Tuesday…I didn’t even know that curassows had chicks at this time of year. I didn’t have my camera, and the chicks looked unremarkable—like brown goslings without the webbed feet and pointier beaks—but it was the most exciting animal sighting I’ve had this week.

Departures July 30, 2017

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I only have 13 days left, and it really feels like the field season is coming to a close. My field assistant left Saturday morning, and the three students who’ve been working on their undergraduate thesis projects are leaving tomorrow. After that, the only researchers here will be me and the graduate student studying iguanas, and I don’t think we’re expecting any tourists. I thought the rain had left to give us our typical dry spell, but it’s come back with a vengeance. I hope it will at least pack down the mud near the wetland. Maybe it’ll even cut down on the mosquitoes. Here’s hoping!