Saturday, May 27, 2023


My wife Mrs. Dr. V texted me this morning to let me know that I'm supposed to spell Hamster, Hamster, and not Hampster.  That is, of course, true.  However, in Costa Rica, where you have the frightening mega-fauna version of a Hamster, the traditional spelling "Hampster" is used.  Here, the Costa Rica Cloud Forest the Hampster is climbing a giant tree to go to it's nest.

This was a special day.  We're at a field station in Monteverde.  The station is right on the dry side of the cloud forest, so it's not TOO wet and cloudy.  The view is toward the west, and from the high perch of the station, you're looking over the bay and toward the Pacific.  We've been so busy (6am to 12pm for me yesterday - most of the students went 6 or 6:30 to 11pm, what with writing their journals), that I haven't had a chance to take any pictures of the field station.

Our goals for Saturday was to first take our trusty bus to the hummingbird gardens, then hike up to the continental divide, and then listen to Richard DuVal, a world-renowned bat expert.  I'll report on that tomorrow.

We started the day eating breakfast.  Jenna started the day working on different folks ailments.  Here, shes fixing Isabelle's kinked neck.

A cool gecko we saw near the trailhead.

A howler monkey just walking around.  Later this same day, some students saw a spider monkey.  So now our group has seen 3 species of monkey.

At the hummingbird garden, we saw many species of bird.  Mark says there are about 30 hummingbird species in the area.  Our other guide Deb was kind enough to identify this for me as a green violetear.

Mark discussed coloration, and explained how some coloration was physical and some was mechanical.  The physical is when birds just have colored feathers, like a cardinal or some such.  With the hummingbird the coloration is mechanical.  The feathers break the light up into different wavelengths, not unlike a prism or rainbow.  So, with the hummingbirds you get the vibrant colors.  More interestingly, the feathers act sort of like a window blind and can be twisted to make the color show - or not.  That's why something like our own ruby-throated hummingbird often just looks black, but then can also suddenly have the vibrant red throat.  Mark also pointed out how the coloration is typically in the front of the birds, to use in warding off foes and attracting mates.  Here left is a striped-tailed hummingbird and right maybe another green violet ear.

Deb said this is green crowned brilliant.

Female green crowned brilliant on the left, and a bird on the right.

Here Mark explains the strategy of this plant.  As we walked through the trails, it was amazing (but not surprising) to see how much the other guides respected Mark.  He's been working in the cloud forest and throughout Costa Rica for over 30 years - longer than most of the guides have been alive.  Every guide we passed knew Mark.

We took off on the trail toward the continental divide.  It's about a 1 1/2 mile hike, mostly uphill.  I spend a lot of time talking to the students, and for some reason that I still don't exactly understand, people tend to tell me lots of things, surprising even themselves, maybe.  What I'm seeing though, is pretty much every student is stepping out of their comfort zone and growing in some way.  

For some, it's physical and it's a personal challenge to complete these difficult trails.  For others its mental, and its a challenge to keep a grip while viewing or handling creatures that they fear -either in the woods, or in the research station barracks.  Some have issues living and learning in such close proximity with others.  For some, the unusual food and trying new things is a significant challenge.  

Just learning to keep track of all their belongings or breaking or losing gear out here where it's just not replaceable can be significant.  This is always a very strong life - learning experience, in addition to the conservation / biological component.

This is a strangler fig tree.  Left of center, you can see where the original stranger fig seed landed on a tree, grew down to the ground, and started dropping these tendrils which eventually surround the host tree, killing it.  The tendrils fused together to form a lattice, which makes the strangler fig tree. This tree grew very high and then went over the path and a good way to the other side.  I'd guess this tree is about 15' from one side to the other, but it's not solid.  It's perhaps 100 feet high.

Here's Olivia hiking the trail.  Luckily, this was a dry day. These concrete pavers keep the trail from washing away.  You get an idea of the density of the forest.

Another view of the trail, the forest, and canopy.  The camera makes this picture lighter than it really is in the forest.  It's cool, moist, and dark.

Mark shows a golden groin frog that Jenna found on the trail.  Earlier, Mark spent a while explaining how to properly handle animals.  He (and we) are very gentle and after photographing, discussion, and questions, replace the animals in the same spot we found them.  Respect.  There are a lot of things you might not think of.  No one wears insect repellent or any lotions or creams on their hands, without washing it off before handling animals.  Mark will often put animals in plastic bags to protect them from the roughness and trauma that even careful handling would cause.  However, he's careful to not reuse the bags, for fear of putting say, a frog, in a bag that previously held a snake, the frog's mortal enemy.  This way, the frog isn't traumatized by the exposure to the smell of its enemy.  Respect.  Care.

Mark discusses how falling trees create light gaps - clearings where shade intolerant species can grow in the middle of the dense dark shaded forest.  We found several orchids here.  Mark discussed how some orchids have roots with a hard outer cover / sheath over a soft functional inner layer.  The outer layer prevents the inner layer from drying out.

A swinging bridge gave us a good view of the canopy, plus, who doesn't like a swinging bridge?

And here's a view of that canopy.  Even with my amazing photographic skills, these pictures don't really even begin to capture the expanse, height, depth, and complexity of the forest.

Mark tries to coax a tarantula out of it's hole.  Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful.  Later, Olivia did get a picture of another tarantula she found.  The quality of the pictures the students are getting on this trip is amazing.  Basically, we have 12 curious people with cameras and an unspoken goal to out-do each other finding cool things.  They plan to create a group to share these so their family and friends can view them.  I imagine you'll see a lot of very cool pictures, far better than mine.

Jenna met a friend on the trail.  Jenna walked quite a while holding this little girl's hand, while the parents walked right on ahead, around the corner, and out of sight.  I'm not so sure I would have let my daughter out of sight with strangers, even one that has a friendly smile.

There are many many many flowers blooming in the forest.  Mark knows the natural history of most of them.  What's cool is the way he interweaves the physiology of the flowers and their pollinators, seed dispersal, and colonization.  Most flowers are matched to one or two species of pollinators, so the flower and the pollinator co-evolved to have shapes and strategies that are mutually beneficial.  

Truly, Mark is a master of telling the story of nature.  I notice as the trip moves along, the students are more and more comfortable speculating on how the plants make a living based on what they learned about techniques other plants with similar features use.  To me, as an educator, this is about as good as learning gets.  The skill of extrapolating knowledge from one situation and applying it to another is a very high level of both comprehension and learning.

View toward the Atlantic side at the continental divide.  Notice the Caribbean clouds blowing in on the breeze.  The continental divide is the highest point between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.  When we ate lunch on top, if we dumped our water bottle one way, the water would head to the west coast and Pacific Ocean, if dumped the other way, the water would go to the east coast and the Atlantic Ocean.  Very cool.  After lunch, the students were left to find there way back to the bus, singularly or in groups, using any of the several trails they liked.

Here, I look stoic eating my sandwich, and Isabelle looks contemplative (maybe wishing she didn't eat her sandwich at an earlier stop, completely devouring her lunch shortly after breakfast).  Will kindly contributed this photo, which all parties concerned agreed looks far better than the other photo where I look doofy...

Here, I caught up with Aidan and Ryan.  We spent quite a while trying to find a Quetzal.  There's a nest box with a nesting couple here.  Aidan is almost certain he saw one, and though we waited and looked a while, we never did see them.  That's how being a naturalist is.  Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

This was a cool example for you.  Here, we noticed a light opening in the forest, you can see Aidan walking through it....
and here, we found the giant tree that fell to form the light gap.  Ryan is standing there for scale. So earlier, the students learned about light gaps, and here they found their own gap...and the tree that formed it.  Again, taking knowledge they learned in one situation, and applying it to a new, unique situation.


We made it back to the trailhead.  Danielle took this totally upstaged photo of me drinking a refreshing frosty beverage with the label totally accidentally turned toward the camera, while looking dramatically out at the cloud forest. 

I'm lucky tonight.  I'm writing this blog entry while the crew is out with Richard LaVal catching bats in a mist net...and, from the relative safety of the field station dining room, I hear the rain starting again....  I'll report on the bats tomorrow.  We're also going to join Deb Hamilton, a bird conservationist in measuring trees.  What do trees have to do with bird conservation?  Tune in tomorrow to learn!



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