Archive for the ‘guest author’ Category

On the Osa

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

This is compressed due to the amount of catching up that needed to happen, but that’s probably preferable to reading about every blister and chigger I encountered. So here it goes:

Corcovado Eco Lodge is inland and to the south of Drake Bay on the Pacific side of the Osa Peninsula. The lodge is officially part of the hamlet of Los Planes, which consists of a handful of rural dwellings and various forms of agriculture (cattle, mahogany, pineapple). There is some tourist development here, especially in Drake Bay, which is sort of a beach bum town though it looked to me like it wasn’t much of a destination anymore. The lodge is owned and operated by a Canadian-Costa Rican couple — the Canadian woman lives in Toronto and has a few kids, while the Costa Rican man lives at the lodge. The property was smallish, but manicured and had all of the typical tropical flora you expect to see, and some you don’t. Cashews were abundant again (btw, they can induce a bad rash like poison ivy, as they are also in the same family and produce the same noxious oils).

Our first casualty of the trip got sick when we arrived, but this didn’t seem too serious. The bunkhouse supported the students in some pretty basic quarters, including tents for some of the men. We had cabins that were connected to each other by wooden walkways suspended over a small depression in the land and nestled in forest, which had a Swiss Family Robinson feel. Chris and I shared a cabin while Christina and Peter had their own individual cabins. I slept in the top bunk while Chris got the matrimonio, or double bed. It was hot and fairly humid and a cold shower felt unbelievably refreshing. We all crashed a little early after the exhausting travel day.

The next morning we learned that two students had been sick, one having been up all night vomiting. Our plan was to hike in the morning to a river in Corcovado park, which Chris had been to before and leads to a small waterfall. Because the trail entrance was a short distance away and would require walking in full tropical sun, we decided to get a ride from the lodge. But they took us somewhere else, only Chris couldn’t say anything until we got there (because he was in the back of a truck). We were dropped off at the Los Planes ranger station and were able to get a ranger to help us find a path to the river. We started hiking slowly, looking and explaining. After a few hours and1.3 kilometers, we stopped for a breather. Chris wasn’t sure we should continue on because he didn’t know where the trail led and was becoming suspicious that it didn’t lead to the river at all. That’s when Chris got sick on the trail.

We set the students loose to “observe something” for 30 minutes (as convenient as that sounds, this was a premeditated exercise to get them to think for themselves instead of just looking to us to explain things, and the timing coincided well). During the exercise, I went looking for fungus-farming ant nests that are built on the undersides of largel eaves (palms, heliconias) and I found one! I kept it in a vial that I still have–they should be fine so long as they have oxygen, water, and their fungus to eat. One of the students also spotted an eyelash pitviper hanging out on a large leaf next to the trail and I got some great photos of it–from a healthy distance.

This could go on and on if I let it, so I’ll sum up the next few days here. Illness has bounced around slowly.  Chris was pretty sick the next evening and now Peter (the other prof) is currently sick, but recovering. I’ve lucked out, as have most people actually, but I live in fear of contracting whatever it is. We did some night hikes, some batnetting, some insect lighting, all with moderate success. The weather is extremely dry here, normal for this time of year, but this is an abnormally dry year. This seems to have reduced the insect diversity and there are almost no fungi (but there are some, surprisingly). On our night hike we saw three snakes: a venomous hog-nosed viper, the infamous fer-de-lance, and a snake-eating mussurana. The mussurana actually eats fer-de-lance and is immune to viper venom. I have good pictures of all of them. As for birds, toucans have been fairly common and a mot-mot slunk around the garden every morning. I saw a nice trogon in the forest and we also discovered that a slaty-tailed trogon was nesting in a termite nest right next to our cabin.  We hadn’t noticed it for three days! The insects were amazing, including some incredible red-striped white aphids with Crematogaster ants tending them in exchange for honeydew.

The day before we left we took an hour-long boat ride to Isla del Caño, a national park about 20 km off the mainland in the Pacific.  Between the lodge and the beach we saw a three-toed sloth, which was a harbinger for an amazing day of wildlife viewing. During the boat ride we saw a yellow-bellied sea snake (wow!), an extremely venomous elapid related to coral snakes and cobras, soon after followed by a mother humpback whale nursing her infant! It was an incredible and unexpected sight. Only a few minutes after the whale sighting we saw a swordfish leaping out of the water. I have photos of all of these.

Finally we landed on Isla del Caño to do some marine ecology (a.k.a. snorkeling) and beach-bumming. Our snorkeling adventure included a run-in with the coast guard, who gave our captain a ticket for improper paperwork and no insurance, and a face-mask fiasco, but we eventually saw a green sea turtle and many fish. My favorite sighting was watching for several minutes a snake eel swim with two fish chaperones (sorry, I don’t know what kind) that were either waiting for the right time to take down the eel or (more likely) steal its food. We also witnessed some dolphins chasing a school of flying fish and a frigate bird swooping down to snatch the flying fish when they leaped into the air.  What a sight! Other birds of interest here were brown boobies and a black mangrove hawk (that apparently swooped down and grabbed a sandwich presented to it by our lodge manager).

Now that we are at the Osa Biodiversity Center, it reminds me of how special a place the Osa is. The area around the Corcovado Eco Lodge was heavily disturbed and degenerated, which cast a disappointing light on the already dismal accommodations (unpotable water, scorpions, bad food). Here we have eco-consciousness (100% sustainable architecture and solar power) and high standards of accommodation (satellite internet, comfortable beds with mosquito netting, UV-sterilized water throughout the campus, open-air showers) coupled with a refined sense of nature and biology.  In fact, this station, run by Friends of the Osa, is closely connected to Adrian Forsyth, a conservationist and author of the well-known and excellent book Tropical Nature. I didn’t know this before now, but it turns out Chris Darling, the main instructor for this course, is an old friend of Adrian’s. In any case, this is the Tiputini of the Osa.

Here scarlet macaws and toucans are as common as crows. Last night we saw another fer-de-lance in a pond near our cabins. Today the students were set loose to come up with an independent while we had our first free time to pursue our own interests. Chris baited euglossine bees (males visit orchids to collect floral fragrances used in attracting female mates) and dung beetles (I provided the bait), Peter slept off his night of food-poisoning-like symptoms, and I went looking for fungus-farming ant nests. I was unsuccessful, but I did play with some ant lions by attempting to feed them ants (they aren’t very adept at capturing large leaf-cutter workers), saw a stunning bare-throated tiger heron and white ibises, and happened on a tree in fruit that had attracted a troop of spider monkeys, a troop of white-faced capuchins, and a marauding group of coatimundis. The coatimundis came within six feet of me before they realized I was there, and obviously couldn’t see me.  I also saw an aggregated group of hairy caterpillars with a huge pile of moldy frass below them. I collected the moldy frass and we returned to where I found them tonight only to find that they had left (probably to go feed). On our way back we saw amazing, huge caterpillars on heliconia leaves, which we have figured out are morphos caterpillars.

So far the sighting that tops the list this trip so far was when Petersaw a mountain lion with a tinamou in its mouth this afternoon. It’s like we’re living in a PBS nature documentary.

The dryness here is really impressive and I much prefer the rainy season. Snakes seem to be a lot more abundant and we’ve now seen three fer-de-lance (but then again, the number of pairs of eyes on the trail is also a lot more abundant). We sleep from 10 to 6 and I’m already looking forward to the strong coffee, guanabana juice, and the possibility of a jaguar or a harpy eagle sighting in the morning. Considering what we’ve seen this trip, I wouldn’t really be surprised if we saw both.

First legs

Tuesday, February 17th, 2009

OK, here’s the short of the long of the past several days: We left San Jose on a tourist bus driven by Reinier with our luggage strapped onto the roof and covered with a tarp, and cruised into the cloud forest, at 2400 m. We stayed at a small “hotel,” which was pretty rustic and not very well cared for (we didn’t have enough blankets or a space heater, though the temperature plummets at night). We hiked their trails and saw lots of a quetzals (I think I have at least one respectable photo), but not much else. I got a photo of a nightjar, but then accidentally deleted it later (!). Our night hike there was strenuous and we didn’t see much, but it was a good initiation for the students (we got theme xpecting to do hard work, so that haven’t complained a whole lot).  The forest at this place was heavily disturbed and had some oaks, but also a lot of large Podocarpus trees (a gymnosperm). I hadn’t seen Podocarpus trees before (or didn’t know it) and at a glance they look like redwoods, but not nearly as tall and have smooth bark (instead of having deep vertical furrows).

When we left the Albergue de Quetzales, we drove south along the  Inter-American Highway, first climbing nearly 1000m while passing through elfin forest into paramo. We stopped at the summit of Cerro de la Muerte to hike through the shrubby paramo. Everyone enjoyed it and we got some nice vistas into clouds on the Pacific side (I’ve been there before and had better views, but it’s still impressive). Our route dropped us quickly from the Talamancas on the western slopes into San Isidro, a grungy tropical town with a large church and a few misguided tourists, and finally into Palmar Norte and Sierpe, on the river that leads into the Pacific. We arrived later than expected, so we had to grab a quick bite at a restaurant before we screamed down the mangrove-lined Sierpe river and out on the Pacific to Drake Bay.  We unloaded the boats on the beach at Drake Bay, only to load them back onto a bus for the short 20-minute ride inland to the Corcovado Eco Lodge.

[Bryn didn’t write anything about the Corcovado Eco Lodge until 18 February—the narrative from the 17th just skips to the day they left it.]

We had a late breakfast (8am) with our estimated departure time of 9am. It’s always later that expected when you’re trying to coordinate 19 undergrads. And especially when you’re trying to coordinate 19 undergrads in Latin America.  But we got off around 9:30. We drove a Blue Bird short school bus (white and red, unfortunately) from Los Planes (the official town where the Corcovado Eco Lodge is) across the peninsula to Palmar Sur, up and down two small mountain ranges and winding through agricultural valleys with lots of cattle. The roads are lined with cashews (in flower and some in fruit right now) and mangoes (not in flower or fruit…:-( ), among other, lesser plants.  The dirt roads are extremely dry and dust flies everywhere. We inhaled a lot of particulates and diesel fuel.

When we reached La Palma (2.5 hours later), we reconnected with our bus driver from San Jose, reloaded the touring bus with our luggage, and set off on the hour ride to Puerto Jimenez on the coast of the gulf. Along the way we learned that our driver had arranged for us to change vehicles again in Puerto Jimenez, for the last 45 minutes to the station. Of course, this isn’t what had been planned beforehand, but such is life when you’re traveling in Latin America. Negotiation ensued (luckily, we have two native Spanish speakers in our crew and then the station director appeared), and after the dust settled (we have inferred that the complicated nature of this arrangement was largely a consequence of machismo — saving face by out intrepid driver from San Jose who didn’t want to take his bus on the potentially damaging road to the field station) we had two hours to kill in the tiny gulf town. Guido, the station director, brought the four instructors to a marisqueria (seafood restaurant) right on the promenade along a picturesque bay overlooking anchored fishing and sailing boats and the hazy, forested southern Talamancas framing the ocean on the horizon as far as you could see, north and south. I ate ceviche (good, but not remarkable) and a taco with chicken, and downed two cold beers. Then we stocked upon essentials (beer, Coke for our rum, snacks, and Cipro), loaded into the new truck (a small commercial delivery truck converted into a passenger taxi with benches along the sides and a canvas covering) and finally got to our destination.

We’re a 20 minute walk from the beach, surrounded by excellent primary forest and a handful of rich landowners (probably mostly from the U.S.), and have satellite internet access and beer. The facilities are excellent. Everyone has a bed with a mosquito net, though the rooms sleep at least four in two bunk beds, which will make for some less-than-private accommodations.  Oh yeah, we saw two coatimundis on the way here (pisote in Spanish, apparently, which seems odd because its not like coatimundi is an English word!).

I’ll have to take up the rest later, as now it’s dinnertime. The next installment will include anecdotes of some amazing animals sighting! (whales!!!)