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Arrivals June 29, 2015

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June 9, 2015

One field course arrived yesterday, along with my field assistant. Another course, run by the same organization, arrived today. I don’t know who came up with that scheduling idea, but the station is packed. We were originally going to be sleeping at the ranger station, but there turned out to be one room left for us.

I’m glad my assistant’s arrived, and not just because I’m overworked. It took us a while last year to get really comfortable with each other (two introverts with a language barrier does not an instant friendship make), but we did. Google Translate and laughing about animal antics can help quite a bit with camaraderie. And between the field seasons we used email to work on our language issues. I wrote in Spanish, she wrote in English, and we corrected each other. It definitely improved my Spanish, although more for discussing biology-student activities and logistics than any generally applicable social conversation. Her English is better too, but our combined field and lab notes are still a mixture of English and Spanish that would probably seem illogical to anyone else.

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Glorious mud June 24, 2015

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June 4, 2015

It’s rained three times in the last week, and it’s finally mucky enough for rubber boots, at least in the wetland, although “wetland” is still a misnomer. Where there would normally be several feet of water, there’s none. Instead, there is a flat expanse bordered by the forest and the spikes of reeds where there is still water near the river. In between, it looks like a kitchen sponge seen from the viewpoint of an ant. The ground is level but riddled with cracks and holes and covered with a creeping spiny tomato relative like a Brillo pad.

At first the fine black silt was dried in geometric clods, appearing nearly crystalline. Enough pressure turns the clods into tiny round beads, and rain has dissolved them into real soil and real mud. Farther up, on the road, there is even a puddle or two.

It’s official… June 20, 2015

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June 3, 2015

The park parataxonomist* thinks my handshake is funny. When he came to the station last year to identify some of the plants my caterpillars eat, our introductory handshake seemed to turn into one of those extended squeezing contests that supposedly establishes which of the participants is the stronger guy. Since a) I’m not a guy, b) he’s at least six feet tall, and c) his hand could cover most of my head, I had a little trouble believing that a firm handshake from me was enough to set off a strength contest. Maybe he just crushes everyone’s hands.

However, we went over to the rangers’ station for a celebratory dinner tonight and I can now make a definitive report: it was a squeezing contest. When we shook hands this time, I got a firm, non-crushing handshake. Afterwards, he made a fist, said “duro” (hard), and laughed. At least I’m memorable?

Speaking of memorable, he also gave us nance fruit to try. I find asking for English names for a lot of the fruits here pretty useless—either they don’t have one, or they won’t mean anything to anyone who isn’t already familiar with tropical fruits. Nance, as far as I can find, doesn’t have an English name. Each fruit was about the size of a gumball, yellow, and mostly seed. The texture and taste were unique: mealy apple with an undertone of overripe orange. To be fair, these were reportedly a little under-ripe, but I’m not feeling very motivated to give them a second chance.

* A parataxonomist is someone who isn’t formally trained as an academic taxonomist but is extremely experienced at identifying specimens. An academic taxonomist is usually an expert on particular families of plants (or insects); a parataxonomist is usually an expert on the plants (or insects) in a particular area. This parataxonomist literally wrote the book on the trees of Palo Verde.

At second glance June 16, 2015

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May 28, 2015

It turns out that not quite everything is brown and dry. There are some trees and bushes here that keep their leaves all year round. Their leaves are extremely small, extremely tough, or sometimes both. They stand out to me like green beacons, and they must be as easy to find for the moths, because they have plenty of caterpillars, some of which were new to me.

The caterpillar is in the middle of the photo and reddish brown with a couple of black spots

The caterpillar is in the middle of the photo and reddish brown with a couple of black spots

This one is especially odd, because it’s on an acacia tree. Acacias feed and house ants that are supposed to protect the trees from herbivores trying to eat them and other plants trying to grow into or over them. But some ant species aren’t very aggressive and they don’t help the trees, or even hurt them. Since I didn’t get a single sting while I was working at this tree, I don’t think these ants are very good at their jobs. Not only did the caterpillar built its web around some of the hollow thorns the ants are supposed to live in, but it was drinking from one of the nectar glands that’s supposed to feed the ants!

The caterpillar is in the middle of the photo and reddish brown with a couple of black spots

Getting there June 11, 2015

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May 26, 2015

As I stood in the Customs line last night at the airport, I had started to relax. I felt that the hard part of my trip was over once I hauled my bags off the carousel. I’m not sure whether that’s another sign of repetition or a symptom of last year’s problematic return flight(s). Getting to my hotel, from the hotel to the bus depot in Alajuela, from Alajuela to Bagaces, and from Bagaces to the field station seemed simple enough compared to the vagaries of airlines. So once the bus pulled out of the depot, I started looking forward to Palo Verde. I got even more excited when I realized just how much traffic and wasted time I’d avoided by boarding at the depot in Alajuela (west of San José), rather than taking a taxi into San José and boarding at the very beginning of the line.

I got less excited once I was in a taxi heading from Bagaces to Palo Verde and I saw how dry it was. All the plants were a dusty brown except for the irrigated green of sugar cane and the yellow flowers of Tabueia trees. I have nothing against Tabebuia flowers themselves—they are large, bright gold, trumpet-shaped, and generally attractive. The problem is that Tabebuia trees bloom in the dry season. The wet season at Palo Verde is supposed to start in late April or early May. I haven’t seen Tabebuia flowers since 2012, when I came here in January.

The closer I got to the station, the worse things looked. By the time I was unloading my bags, I was comparing the landscape to the one right before the climax of Disney’s “The Lion King”. This isn’t totally ridiculous; both dry forests and savannas aren’t incredibly wet at any time, but a drought makes them look like they’ve been reduced to sticks and tinder.PV15 05-27-15 (14834)

Repetition June 8, 2015

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May 24, 2015

A question that is always asked in the weeks before I leave for the field is “Are you excited?” After several tries, I’ve settled on a satisfactory answer: “I will be when I get there and don’t have to go anywhere for twelve weeks.” Packing for a field season is always a mixture of mind-numbing meticulousness and last-minute rushing. Doing this for the third time, the details have become rote: count out pen needles and glucometer strips thus, put over six hundred vials in a box like so. As I sat on my bedroom floor stacking vials into a cardboard box the same dimensions as the one I used last year and the year before, I realized that there is even a particular person I call while I do this. She can be relied upon to keep me entertained.

Unfortunately, I have not gotten used to the last-minute rushing, probably because it’s always caused by something different. This time, it was a smashed bottle of insulin, last year it was a misplaced gadget. I’ve decided that putting together an exhaustively itemized inventory would be worth the effort, but that can only prevent some problems. It can’t forestall a second’s fumble and the intersection of a glass vial and a ceramic tile floor.