Bird Watching in the Killing Field

When the first settlers moved into the area around Dominical in the early 1900s, they found primary forests comprised of hundreds of thousands of species of living organisms. Over time trees were felled and the highly diverse forests replaced with several species of grass intended for the exclusive consumption of domestic animals which in turn would be slaughtered for human food. The ecosystem that evolved around this reality was much lower in biodiversity than the primary forest it had replaced. However, certain species that humans consider pests, such as vampire bats, ticks, lice, grasshoppers and rats, experienced population explosions; and, in the case of birds, the number of species increased significantly to include those that thrive in open spaces and near livestock.

At first glance it may seem strange that deforestation fomented an increase in the number of bird species. Had therainforest been eliminated entirely, the number of bird species would certainly have decreased, but this was not the case. When I first visited Hacienda Barú in 1972, approximately half of the rainforest was undisturbed, about 170 hectares (420 acres.) The rest had been cleared and planted to pasture or crops. All of the rainforest species were still present. The new ones that migrated in as the forests diminished, required different conditions. The deforestation of Costa Rica generally began in the northwestern province of Guanacaste and spread southward. The migration of bird species that thrived in open areas with few trees followed.
Before Hacienda Baru started to cater to bird watchers and ecological tourists from all over the world we kept about 150 head of cattle and a dozen horses. These grazed in pastures that were fenced into sections that varied in size from two to ten hectares (five to twenty-five acres.) As anyone who has lived in the tropics will attest, weeds literally grow like weeds. Keeping unwanted vegetation under control is a constant chore. Clean pastures produce more beef than weedy ones. Some ranchers used herbicides, but I preferred mechanical methods. The most efficient method of cleaning lowland pastures is with a farm tractor and a mechanical mower called a “bush hog,” that chops or mows everything down to about 15 cm. (6 in.) Two or three times a year, after the livestock had completely grazed a pasture, we went in and chopped the area, leaving a weed-free pasture. At that time cleaning pastures with the mower was my favorite job. It was also my first experience in bird watching.
One morning, bright and early, I started up the tractor, hooked up the bush hog and headed out to a seven hectare (17 acre) pasture that was overdue for chopping and thick with undesirable grasses and brush. My son Chris rode on the fender of the tractor. We first cut a swath around the perimeter and then continued going round and round. With each circuit, the unchopped area diminished. About half-way through the second round, Chris tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the sky in the direction of the mangrove estuary. “Look Daddy, here come the garzas.” A group of white cattle egrets was breaking out of their typical V-shaped flight formation and descending, ultimately flaring their wings to land in the newly cut vegetation near the tractor.
At the time, these were probably the most populous birds on Hacienda Barú. Their history is fascinating and relevant to our theme of deforestation resulting in increased diversity of bird species.
The cattle egret is native to Africa. Ornithologists speculate that the first ones to reach the Americas were blown across the Atlantic in a storm. Furthermore, they believe that this may have happened on several occasions, but prior to the late 1800s, conditions in the Americas were not favorable for the egrets. The first officially recorded sighting was in Surinam in the year 1877. By then there had been sufficient deforestation and creation of cattle ranches in South America to support a viable population of cattle egrets. As ranching expanded so did cattle egret populations. They were first recorded in Costa Rica in the year 1954 and today are found as far south as Argentina and as far north as the southern United States.
Why is deforestation and cattle ranching essential for the survival of cattle egrets? You need only observe feeding egrets for the answer to that question. The handsome white feathered birds with yellow beaks and legs stand about as high as your knee. Cattle and horses typically graze with heads down, moving slowly through a pasture and disturbing insects within the grass. Sharp-eyed egrets walk alongside, snatching grasshoppers, beatles and other large insects that flee the large animals scuffling hooves. If you pay close attention, you will notice that each egret defends a territory which consists of a two-meter (6 ft. 8 in.) swath around one cow or horse. On occasion I have seen egrets pick external parasites, such as ticks, from the hide of a resting cow. I have seen them feed on caterpillars that attack pasture grass. Experienced rice farmers know that if inch worms attack the young rice plants, there is no need to spray insecticides, because the egrets will soon come to feast on the pests.
Our tractor and bush hog didn’t move through the pasture on four legs, but it sure did stir up insects, and that’s what the garzas liked. It moved faster than livestock and the birds constantly took to flight, moving ahead of the machine and jockeying for position, rather than trying to defend a territory. There was plenty to eat for all. Again, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Daddy, look up there, the bone-breaker just arrived.” Chris was refering to the crested caracara, named for its habit of carrying bones high into the air and droping them on a hard surface then landing to pick the nutritious marrow from within.
“Over there. Look at that rat. Uh oh, here comes a hawk.” The roadside hawk was dropping fast on a bee-line for the rat, flaring its wings at the last moment and extending its talons. But the rat dodged, changed directions and evaded the raptor. Out of nowhere the caracara plunged and snatched up the panicked rodent before you could blink an eye then carried its prize over to a cleanly chopped area near the trees and ate it. The bone-breaker preferred standing on the ground to an arboreal perch.
The roadside hawk lacked the skill to make a clean kill but instead, finished off rats, lizards and frogs that the egrets crippled but didn’t swallow. The egrets’ strong, straight beaks worked fine for snatching insects, but they have no way of chewing and swallowing larger prey. One would occasionally try to gulp a frog, but was quickly plagued by companions pulling on the amphibian’s legs, trying to steal a morsel. As larger prey fled the blades of the mower, the nearest garza usually delivered a powerful blow to the head with its sharp pointed beak and left the crippled animal for some lucky hawk or vulture.
As the work continued the freshly chopped area of pasture increased and the brush covered portion diminished. After a couple of hours an island of weedy pasture remained completely surrounded by a cleanly mowed swath several times its width. Straight ahead a large iguana made a break from the island. Egrets scattered, some taking to flight, as the large lizard barged through the flock and made a beeline to the trees at the edge of the pasture. Nothing intervened and the iguana safely reached its goal, a large poro tree where it took refuge in the upper branches. On the next round of the machine a tyra slipped silently and almost nonchalantly from the opposite side of the island. “Hey, look over there,” I nudged Chris’ leg. “There goes a tolomuco (the tyra’s Spanish common name.)” The black member of the weasel family, about twice the size of a large house cat, didn’t waste any time finding cover, but it certainly wasn’t frightened. None of the hungry predators present, other than the bush hog, was capable of harming it. Its self-assured attitude coupled with its agile body and sleek black coat captured my admiration and respect. The tolomuco turned slightly and looked back at us as it entered a brushy area at the edge of the pasture where we were working.
The hungry birds remained until the job was done. By then, both black-headed and the turkey vultures had arrived to pick through the aftermath. The bone-breaker joined them. Although this magnificent bird is an adept predator, having earlier demonstrated its ability by killing the rat, it is mainly a carrion eater and is often found feeding with the vultures. The large black birds generally defer to the smaller raptor. The following morning I saw a female coyote with two pups nosing around in the chopped vegetation hoping to find a morsel. In addition to the numerous small organisms that the egrets and hawks had eaten there remained much that had been killed by the machine. Land crabs were the most prevalent, but lizards, snakes and a few small mammals could be found as well. Within a couple of days nothing edible was left. The traces left uneaten by the carrion eaters was consumed by the ants. Nature leaves nothing to waste.
By this point you may be asking yourself, “What is the point of this gruesome tale of blood and guts? Surely Jack doesn’t expect us to emulate this example of wanton slaughter.”
All I can say is that in those days I made my living raising cattle, and clearing overgrown pastures was a necessary part of ranching. Experiences like this did help to spark my interest in tropical nature and influence my decision to convert Hacienda Barú into a refuge for wildlife of all kinds and a haven for ecological tourism and bird watching in Costa Rica. Additionally there are a number of lessons to be learned here.
With only three or four months of overgrowth a weedy pasture becomes a haven for life of all kinds, from tiny insects to mammals. These species feed on one another and begin to develop a balance amongst themselves, the beginnings of an ecosystem. When we quit raising cattle on Hacienda Barú and allowed the pastures to return to their natural state, biodiversity increased rapidly and after more than 30 years harbors many times the number of life forms that existed in the overgrown pasture described above.
Mother Nature recycles everything. All animals must eat. When one animal becomes injured or sick it is easy prey for one of the predators or scavengers described above. Every living thing on this planet sooner or later becomes food for some other living thing. In the case described above, human intervention created a “killing field” and a feeding frenzy for the meat eaters.
The success story of the cattle egret illustrates the concept of the niche. Though these impressive white birds may have been blown across the Atlantic on many occasions, there was no niche for them and they failed to establish a viable population. Once humans began the process of deforestation and cattle production, the garzas found their niche, and as the niche expanded so did their populations. Cattle egrets originally evolved and found their niche in Africa, where humans also evolved, and the the bird’s success is closely tied to human activities.
Now that Hacienda Barú is a National Wildlife Refuge, 95% of the pastures have reverted to secondary forests, but the cattle egrets have not disappeared. They now come here to nest in the mangrove estuary, perhaps feeling shielded by the buffer of natural vegetation. Each day they fly out to feed in the two pastures where my wife has her horses and in the pastures and fields of neighboring farms. In the evening they return to the mangrove of the refuge to roost along with several other species of birds.
The cattle egret found its niche in this hemisphere and, in a little over a century, has spread throughout both American continents. The road side hawk, the crested caracara, rat, tyra, iguana, coyote, vultures and land crabs all occupy their niches. Without human intervention they, together with uncounted other organisms, will arrive at a state of dynamic equilibrium, constantly changing yet intricately balanced by the activities of infinite living organisms, each occupying its own special niche. I often wonder about the human niche. Exactly where do we fit in? Or do we simply run roughshod over every species that competes with us for food or gets in our way and appropriate all the niches we want? Maybe that’s why our planet is growing less hospitable. Maybe we should find our proper niche and learn to show respect for the millions of other species with which we share the planet. If not, I fear that Mother Nature may resort to more drastic methods of bring the Earth back into her bosom.

A Real-Life Superwoman

The Hardships, Tragedies, and Challenges of Women in Rural Costa Rica

How many women do you know in their early 60s who have given birth to thirteen children, most of them at home, and without the assistance of a mid-wife? Eleven of this woman’s children are still living and have, up until April 2013, given her 15 grandsons and 11 granddaughters, who in turn, have given her one great-granddaughter.
In spite of having lived through years of hardship that most women can barely imagine, Doña Porfiria Gómez carries her 64 years well. My impression was that of a mature, self-confident woman who looks upon her family as her reward for a lifetime of sacrifice and perseverance.
Her humble home is located in San Miguel de Aguirre, seven kilometers from the nearest place where a person can buy a bag of rice or a bar of soap. For the last 15 years she has lived in a real house with a tin roof and wooden floors, where previously she had known only thatch-roofed structures with dirt floors. Her husband, Don José, with the help of some neighbors, built the house. The only power equipment used in its construction was a chain saw to mill the boards. Everything else was done with hand tools.
She proudly showed me their solar electrical system which generated enough electricity during the day to power three light bulbs at night and enough energy left over to charge her cell phone. Incidentally the Costa Rican Electrical Institute (ICE) installed this system about ten years ago, and charges only 1000 colones ($2) a month. She said that two years ago ICE had promised them a regular electrical hook-up within a year. “It’s now been two years,” she said. “When they told us a year we figured it would be three.”
“We’ve always been poor,” she told me, with no trace of regret or complaint. “I was born in Guanacaste. My mother wasn’t married, and we didn’t have a house of our own. A man let us stay in a rancho on the condition that my mother take care of his pigs. She agreed to the deal, but told the señor that ifel tigre (the jaguar) came to eat the pigs, she wasn’t going to defend them. That rancho had a thatched roof and walls made from the bark of a soft-wooded tree. At night we slept in a loft and locked up the pigs in a pen under the house. The ladder to the loft was made so that after we climbed up we could pull the steps up after us. That way el tigre couldn’t climb up and get us. We were lucky. He never came.”
“I never had a chance to go to school, and never learned to read or do numbers. All I ever did was work. We had to carry water for the house from the creek in buckets and go there to wash clothes and bathe. There was no place to buy detergent and even if there had been, we had no money to pay for it. We used crushed papaya leaves for soap. When you soak the leaves in water and rub the clothes with them they foam.” Doña Porfiria went on to explain that they made their own tableware with clay. They molded a mixture of wet clay and fine sand with their hands into the shape of a bowl, set it in the fire and covered it with coals. More than half of the bowls broke. The ones that endured the fire they kept or sold.
One month after her fourteenth birthday Porfiria Margarita Gómez married José Artávia Jiménez, nine years her senior. There was no work where they lived in Guanacaste so the newlywed couple decided to move away and start a new life somewhere else. José had a brother-in-law who had some land in a place called San Miguel south of Quepos so that’s where they decided to go.
They set off with the few items they could call their own, all of which they carried on their backs. Neither of them even owned a pair of shoes. It took three hours to walk to Jicarál where they boarded a wooden boat made from a hollowed out tree trunk. The boat ride took them to Puntarenas where they stayed the night, though they weren’t able to sleep much. Very early the next morning they boarded another boat for an eight-hour ride to Quepos, and from there went by bus as far as the Savegre river.
They walked across the suspension bridge, which was limited to light vehicles and foot traffic. They walked and caught rides as best they could on the rough and rutted road from Savegre to Hatillo, 12 kilometers. The three weary travelers walked the last seven kilometers on a horse trail that led to San Miguel. They had reached the place where they would live to this day.
To appreciate the enormity of this trip we need to reflect on the psychological trauma that young Porfiria must have endured. Here was an adolescent girl, recently married , who said good-bye to the only family she had ever known not knowing if she would ever see them again, left with her new husband, and walked and rode for two days to a strange place in hopes of finding a better life. What must have been going through her mind?
Though the young couple had arrived at the place where they would make their home, the challenge ahead of them seemed insurmountable. They had no place to live, no place to build a hut, and no money. They moved into a small rancho with José’s brother-in-law, Eladio Céspedes and his family. José was young, strong, and a good worker and found occasional work with several different land owners around San Miguel, all of whom had come from elsewhere in years past and had experienced difficulties similar to his own. He helped Eladio plant corn, beans, and plantains. The young couple got to know their neighbors and came to like the area. One day a neighbor named Rafael Céspedes offered to sell José seven manzanas (12 acres) of land for 300 colones.
“I’d love to own the land Don Raphael, but where am I going to get 300 colones,” shrugged José.
“Don’t worry about the money,” replied Raphael. “Pay me when you can.” They shook hands on the deal, and, after that, whenever José had 5 colones to spare he made a payment.
With his brother-in-law Eladio’s help José began building a place for the young couple to stay. That first home was a one-room pole structure with an earthen floor. The walls were made from boards of balsa wood and milled with a long bladed hand saw with a handle on each end. It took two men to push and pull the saw back and forth. The roof was made with the broad leaves of the salt plant. It wasn’t much, but it was theirs.
I asked about mattresses.
“Mattresses? The only mattresses we knew for years were nothing more than a couple of balsa boards shoved together. If we were lucky we had a piece of cloth to put over the boards so we wouldn’t get splinters.”
“What about clothes,” I asked?
“I’ve never had a sewing machine,” replied Doña Porfiria. “I made all of our clothes by hand with a needle and thread. We bought cloth in Quepos or San Isidro and I made everything we wore.”
She showed me the iron that she uses to this day to iron clothes. It is shaped like an electrical iron but bigger and has a lid. Coals from the cooking fire go inside of the iron. She sprinkles the clothes with a little water, passes the iron over them, and shirts, trousers, and undergarments come out just nicely as if ironed with a modern day steam iron.
Before they had electrical lights from the solar panel their only lighting came from kerosene lamps they made at home with a glass jar, a cotton wick, and a spout. It burned with a small flame at the top of the spout, much like that of a candle. Their flashlight consists of an empty, oblong, sardine can as a reflector with a candle inside and a stick for a handle. They still use these sources of light when the solar system isn’t working.
Bowls and spoons were the only eating utensils. Today they have ceramic bowls, and metal spoons, but up until recently they used the shells of the jícaro fruit for both. Though she now has a store-bought broom, Doña Porfiria still keeps a broom like the ones she used for years, made from brushy plants. In the past she used the seeds from the Guanacaste tree as detergent. Clorox, disinfectant, and scrub pads were things she had heard of but never used until recent years.
Doña Porfiria served us home-grown coffee from some coffee trees she grows near the house. “First you pick the coffee,” she explained. “Then you have to dry it in the sun and shell it in the pilón” (A big, heavy, wooden bowl carved into a trunk of wood.) She showed me how they put the coffee beans in the pilón and pound them with a big blunt piece of wood called a mano. The beans then have to be toasted and ground. The ground coffee is placed in a tightly-woven cloth bag, and hot water is poured into the bag over the coffee. It streams into coffee pot placed beneath the bag. The coffee was delicious.
“For years we cooked with a fogón, but now I have a nice wood-burning stove.” She proudly showed me the cast iron stove located in a corner of the kitchen with a pipe extending up through the roof, carrying the smoke out of the house.
There is a high incidence of lung cancer among rural women in Costa Rica from years of inhaling smoke from thefogón, an open fire built in an elevated wooden box filled with earth, sand, or concrete. However, Doña Porfiria assured me that she doesn’t have any lung problems.
Doña Porfiria’s first child was born in their first home several months after they moved in. When the labor pains began, she wasn’t sure what was happening, but as the pains got stronger, and her water broke, it became obvious that the baby was coming. They sent word to the nearest mid-wife, a woman named María who lived a good distance away and had to come on horseback. By the time María arrived it was almost too late. She took one look at the expectant mother, smiled, placed her hand on Porfiria’s swollen belly, and the baby was born, a healthy young boy. They named him Miguel Angel. Three months and eleven days later Miguel Angel died at home from gastro-intestinal problems. They buried him in the cemetery in Hatillo. The young couple was heart-broken, but before long Porfiria became pregnant with their second child, another boy. This time they didn’t bother to call the mid-wife. María had explained what needed to be done, and José did it. Porfiria, of course, did 99% of the work.
By the time she had five children running around the house, the Health Ministry opened a basic rural clinic in Matapalo. Doña Porfiria had managed to get herself and her children to the clinic on the rare occasion of a doctor’s visit. Among other things the doctor told her that she shouldn’t be having her babies at home, that this posed a grave danger to her health, and that she could die during child-birth. She took the doctor’s words seriously and after completing the eighth month of her seventh pregnancy, went to stay with friends near Matapalo. Several people in Matapalo had cars and there was a good possibility of finding a ride to the hospital in Quepos. When Doña Porfiria felt the first labor pains she told her friend that she wanted to bathe. “I’m all sweaty, and I don’t want to go to the hospital like this.” After showering she told her friend “I don’t think I have time to go to the hospital. I need to lie down.” She did, and the baby was born. “After that,” she told me, “I figured that doctor didn’t know what he was talking about.” Her next four children were born at home. As roads and the availability of transportation improved, she and José decided that maybe it was time that she should have medical assistance with her births. Her last three children were born in the hospital in Quepos.
Living as they did, far from the comforts and conveniences enjoyed by most Costa Ricans, Doña Porfiria learned a great deal about the use of natural remedies for common ailments. The nearest doctor or source of medication to be found was at the hospital in Quepos. A handfull of over-the-counter medicines like aspirin and eye drops were available at the small general store in Hatillo, but nothing more. The most common health problem with the children was internal parasites such as worms and amoebas. Intestinal problems have always been the primary cause of infant mortality in Costa Rica, and, though impressive progress has been made, continue to be so today. Learning how to deal with intestinal problems and parasites was an absolute necessity for raising kids in San Miguel.
Once a year a representative from the health department visited the family, vaccinated the children for childhood diseases, and distributed medicine for dysentery and parasites. “That worm medicine from the health department never worked,” she told me. “I always gave the kids a tea I made from the stem of the estrella plant. Make sure you cut only stem, no knots,” she emphasized. “I chopped it up and boiled it in water. You couldn’t believe the rolls of worms that came out of those kids.” She went on to explain that she used bark from the nance tree cooked together with avocado to treat gastritis in the children. Another remedy that has always been and continues to be popular in rural Costa Rica is what is called the sobada or deep massage of the lymph nodes. This is used to treat what is called el empacho, a term used to describe an uneasiness in the stomach that keeps on for days and won’t go away.
In March of 2013 Doña Porfiria and Don Jose celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. This is ironic because in this day and age many people would be horrified at the thought of a 14-year-old girl marrying a 23-year-old man. Yet in the rural Costa Rica of 1963 their marriage was not considered unusual. When I was with them they laughed and teased each other and were obviously a happy couple. Tell me dear reader how many couples do you know who have been happily married for 50 years?
Today many things have changed in the nearby communities, but life is much the same for Doña Porfiria and Don José. In spite of all the hardship this life has brought them I never detected the slightest indication that they considered themselves to be victims of poverty or that life had dealt them a lousy hand; rather they were thankful for their good health, the roof over their heads, the food in their stomachs, and above all the health and prosperity of their extensive family.
The most amazing thing about this story is that only the details are unique. Many rural Costa Rican women have lived equally difficult lives with the same hardships, tragedies and challenges.

Up and down the Kapok trees

Every forest has its old timers, trees that stand out from the rest because of their size, form and distinguishing characteristics. Many, because of their advanced age, have rotted on the inside, leaving them partially or completely hollow, often with gaping holes to the outside. This is why old-growth forests are so important for the maintenance of biodiversity and the ecological balance. The younger trees of a secondary forest don’t provide the nesting holes so necessary for the proliferation of many of the rainforest birds such as the larger parrots, toucans and macaws among others. Also, mammals such as the kinkajou, olingo, tayra, several varieties of opossum and, of course, the many different species of bats covet the dark hollow chambers as roosting sites. Iguanas and ctentosaurs love the hollow portions of the old trees where they often take refuge when alarmed. Untold multitudes of insects lurk in every nook and cranny of the interior shells of the old stalwarts of the jungle: scorpions, millipedes, beetles galore, termites and spiders, to name a few. These old grandfathers of the forest become worlds unto themselves as they gradually move into the final stages of their existence.

The most noteworthy old tree of Hacienda Barú that has passed on during my time here was an enormous ceibo tree (Ceiba pentandra) — known as the kapok or silk cotton tree in English — that dominated the skies between what are today the Hacienda Barú Restaurant and the El Ceibo Service Station. Its familiar form, tall straight trunk and distinctive umbrella shaped top, was a well known landmark in the area. The parcel of tillable land surrounding it was known to rice farmers as the ceibo lot. Though it stood about half a kilometer from the beach, it was clearly visible for several kilometers out to sea. The local fisherman used to determine their positions relative to this tallest, most distinctive fixed point while fishing in the vecinity of Barú and Guápil Beaches. The wood storks roosted in the umbrella-shaped crown of the ceibo for a few nights each year on their annual migration. Barn owls frequented the inner chambers often calling loudly in the night even to the point of disturbing the neighbors’ sleep. Chestnut mandibled toucans made their nests there and at least one variety of bats resided in the darker recesses. Clouds of the small furry mammals poured from a gaping hole in the trunk about 20 meters (65 feet) above ground every evening at dusk.

Today the remains of the old ceibo, whose trunk once measured more than 2.5 meters (8 feet) in diameter, have been broken down by natural processes and recycled by the secondary forest and the cacao plants that now occupy the area around its former base. During the early morning hours of May 11, 1989, three months prior to the inauguration of Bomba El Ceibo, it reached a point in its existence when the once strong fibers of the stem, now weakened with age and natural processes, finally let go. The tree came crashing to earth, falling exactly down the rows of cacao, barely fitting between two lines of trees spaced at 3 meters apart, and not damaging a single one. Sleeping neighbors as far as one kilometer away were awakened by the loud crack when the thick trunk snapped. Three of the old ceibo’s progeny, one near the Hacienda Barú Restaurant and two near Bomba El Ceibo gas station, remain in remembrance of the old patriarch who once dominated the skies.

Four enormous old ceibos located in the highland rainforest of Hacienda Barú still tower over the surrounding trees. Though big and mature, these monsters show no sign of age deterioration and will be around a long time eliciting exclamations of admiration from visitors to Hacienda Barú. The largest of these we call “el abuelo,” or grandfather. This was the first tree we climbed at Hacienda Barú over 15 years ago, when we decided to offer canopy exploration as an extraordinary ecological experience for our visitors. El abuelo, though tremendous in girth, is less than 40 meters high (130 feet,) not particularly tall for a ceibo. Possibly its crown was once damaged by lightening because it consists of only one tier of branches rather than two or three tiers so typical of the kapoks. Since there are no higher branches where a climbing rope may be fixed, ropes must be tied to the lowest branches, and it isn’t practical to climb up onto the branch to sit. For this reason, we never took Hacienda Barú visitors into the crown of this magnificent tree, but our first guides, including myself, learned to climb there. Pioneer tree climber and author of Above the Forest Floor, Dr. Donald Perry was our instructor.

Less than 200 meters from el abuelo are two more enormous kapoks. Though slightly smaller in diameter, these are at least 10 meters taller than el abuelo, and both have three layers of branches in the crown. One of these kapoks, is ideal for climbing and is the first tree where we took our visitors. Two of the climbing ropes were attached to a branch in the middle of the crown and the third was attached to a branch near the top. This meant we could climb past the first branches, and swing over to sit on them. This was the tree where we inaugurated the “Tree Climb Tour.”

At this point, you may be wondering how we got into the crown to attach the climbing ropes. Actually, it isn’t as difficult as it seems. With a cross bow we shot a fishing line over one of the branches. With the fishing line we pulled a nylon cord over the branch and with the nylon cord we pulled a ½ inch climbing rope, over the branch. Tree climbing rope is thicker and stronger than rock climbing rope. The rope for the initial climb must be more than twice as long as the tree is tall, because the end must be pulled over the branch and all the way back to the ground and anchored to the base of a neighboring tree. Then we climb the other end and fix the ropes that will be climbed by guides and visitors, securely in the upper branches.

The idea of scaling a rope 40 meters (130 feet) into the crown of a rainforest tree seems like a formidable task to the uninitiated, but with special equipment and technique, the feat isn’t so bad as you might imagine. The main pieces of equipment are a harness, a pair of stirrups, a pair of devices called ascenders for climbing, and a figure eight for descending. The weakest piece of equipment has a breaking strength of about two tons, and the rope will hold three tons. Straps are used to attach the ascenders to you, the upper ascender to the harness and the lower one to the stirrups. Ascenders will slide up a rope, but not down. After attaching the ascenders to the rope, and sliding the upper one as high as possible, you sit. From this position you lift your feet while at the same time raising the lower ascender. Then you stand in the stirrups while raising the upper ascender. Again you sit, and the process is repeated. Your legs do most of the work. Once you get the hang of it, you go right up the rope. I’m not trying to tell you it is easy, only that with a little effort, most normal healthy people can do it. I will warn you though, tree climbing is addictive.

Climbing into the crown of a mature kapok is an overwhelming experience. Though you might think climbing is dominated by fear, I haven’t found this to be the case either with myself of with visitors to Hacienda Barú. I have heard it said that people are afraid of edges rather than heights. In other words, looking down over the edge of a building while standing on the top at 40 meters (130 feet) above the sidewalk, may scare you half to death. However, dangling from a rope at the same height doesn’t seem to have the same effect. I remember the first time I climbed the kapok. I felt no fear, even at 40 meters (130 feet) up, until I sat on one of the branches. My fear was totally irrational. Dangling from a rope, I felt fine, but when I sat on a branch, still attached to the same rope, I felt fear. It wasn’t a flimsy little branch either; it was close to a meter thick, too big to straddle. I had to sit with my legs straight out. I tried to think through my fear. I was afraid of falling off the branch, yet my mind knew that I was still attached to the rope. The difference must have been that dangling on the rope there is no edge to look over. In ten years of guiding people into the rainforest canopy, I never had anyone panic on the tree climbing tour. A couple of people did get nervous at some point and tell me that they would like to go down. But afterwards, back on solid earth, everyone, even those who never went all the way to the top, commented about what an extraordinary experience it had been.

Speaking of coming down, you are probably wondering how we do that. Actually, coming down is a piece of cake. When you are ready to descend, the guide puts the figure eight on the rope between the two ascenders and attaches it to your harness with a strap. Then he removes the ascenders one at a time, leaving you hanging from the figure eight. You then rapel down, just like those special forces guys who jump out of helicopters. For safety sake a guide on the ground can stop you or slow you down by simply pulling on your rope.

We no longer climb the big kapok because we were worried about compacting the soil around the roots and causing damage to the tree. After a couple of years we moved on to a different tree. We have climbed several different lechoso trees (Brosimum utile) and are now climbing a large camerón (Licania operculipetala.)
Though I have climbed hundreds of times, every time I go into the canopy I see something I have never seen before. Come to think of it, that happens to me every time everytime I go into the rainforest. You should try it.

Turtle season

The date was October 16, 2008, the time 4:30 PM. Steve and Peggy Sue watched as the bulky form emerged from the shallow waves and began dragging itself up on the moist sand of Barú Beach. It was a strange sight to behold, especially in the afternoon. Olive Ridley Marine Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) don’t normally come out of the sea and lay their eggs during daylight hours. In fact, they normally steer clear of the moonlight, only appearing on the beach when the night is pitch black. But here she was, in all her glory, awkwardly pulling herself up the beach with flippers that looked better suited for maneuvering around in the sea than dragging a hundred pounds of dead weight across the sand. When she reached a point where thousands of years of accumulated instinct told her that the beach looked right, the female began to dig with paddle-like rear flippers.

The digging continued until she could reach no deeper. After positioning her backside over the hole  she began to expel the flexible, white, leathery spheres shrouded in thick mucous, each about the size and shape of a golf ball. The eggs plopped into the hole one by one until no more remained inside the reptile. The female began scooping the sand back into the hole covering the precious eggs that would assure the future of her species. She positioned her hard bony underplate, over the mound of sand and, using her flippers, raised her heavy body into the air and quickly let it fall with a resounding thud, repeating the process until the nest was firmly packed. Near exhaustion, the female Olive Ridley Turtle began her labored trek back to the water’s edge stopping frequently to rest until, at last, she was swallowed by the vastness of the sea. Noticing the encroaching darkness, Steve glanced at his watch. The time was 5:30 PM. “We’d better get back to the lodge,” he said. “Nightfall comes quickly in the tropics.”

For many thousands of years this scene has been played out on hundreds of beaches with millions of turtles of many different species. Later come the coyotes, raccoons, coatis, peccaries and even pumas and jaguars to dig out the nutritious white blobs. The ever present and persistent ants take their toll. Depending on weather and temperature, the eggs that escape the predators hatch sometime between 45 and 60 days later.  The hatchlings drag themselves out of the nest hole and up onto the beach, zero in on the movement of the waves and begin walking toward the surf. The first to hatch are usually able to evade the crabs waiting in ambush and traverse the 30 meters (100 feet) or so to the water. Next they must evade the many species of marine creatures waiting to gobble them up. But after those first few a passing hawk, frigate bird or vulture will spot one of the hatchlings and swoop down to snatch it up. Other birds follow. All the mammals noted above and even the white-faced capuchin monkeys sometimes take part in the feast. Almost none of the remaining hatchlings survive. Maybe as many as five of the original hundred tiny turtles, each less than half the size of a hockey puck, succeed in entering the sea. With luck one female from every ten nests will grow to maturity and return to lay her eggs on the same beach ten to twelve years later. What she does in the mean time, nobody knows for sure.

That was before the arrival of Homo sapiens on the scene as a primary actor in the process. Now, maybe one nest in a hundred even has the opportunity to hatch naturally. Human poachers efficiently detect and remove all of the eggs before any other predators find the nest. Few escape their careful search. The eggs in one nest can be sold to a local cantina for $15 to $20, more than the poacher could make working eight hours a day at an honest job.  In the cantina the eggs are opened and dropped into a glass; tomato sauce, lemon juice, Tabasco and rum are added, and the whole mess is swallowed raw. It is considered the “manly” thing to do. Most cantinas call the  drink “Poor Man’s Viagra.” The truth is that scientific evidence shows that any effect on sexual potency is purely psychosomatic.  The tragedy is that this myth could eventually bring about the demise of the marine turtles.

When Steve and Peggy Sue returned to their cabin at Hacienda Barú Lodge, they stopped by the reception office and told me about their extraordinary experience. I called Eduardo, the head park ranger, and told him about the strange incident. He told me that in seven years of working with marine turtles he had never seen or heard of a female laying her eggs during daylight hours. After the phone call, Eduardo headed for the location the people had described to me. He soon came across the caterpillar-like tracks left in the sand by the female turtle and followed them to the nest. Probing carefully with a stick, he quickly located the chamber where the eggs rested. With bare hands, Eduardo dug into the sand until the eggs came into view. He measured the distance from the surface at 17 cm (6.5 inches) and carefully recorded it in a small notebook. Now he donned a pair of plastic gloves, retrieved the eggs one by one, counted and carefully placed them in a clean plastic bag. There were only 36 eggs in the nest, the smallest so far this year. This was probably the first laying of this particular female. That could explain her strange behavior, coming out of the sea in the afternoon, he surmised. Eduardo measured the depth and diameter of the nest. The chamber was considerably smaller than normal, the average being 22 cm (8.5 inches) to the first eggs, 38 cm (14.6 inches) total depth and 30 cm (11.5 inches) in diameter. After making the notations in his little book, Eduardo walked back to the ranger station where a local environmental organization, the Asociación de Amigos de la Naturaleza (ASANA) kept a turtle hatchery.

When Eduardo reached the hatchery, he first located the site for the next nest. Next, he dug a hole the same dimensions as the one from which he had retrieved the eggs, 32 cm  (12.3 inches) deep and 24 cm (9.2 inches) in diameter. He then laid the eggs carefully in the hole.  Finally he covered the eggs with sand which he packed  to the same firmness as the nest on the beach. There they would rest for a period of 52 days on the average. There were 117 nests total in the nursery. After five days the nest would be marked with a  number and date. Previously they had marked each nest immediately after planting the eggs. One night when the rangers were out patrolling the beach, some poachers raided the hatchery and stole the three most recent nests, those that were fresh enough so the eggs could still be consumed.

Back in the ranger station, Eduardo transferred all of the information in his notebook to a ledger which was locked in a drawer in his desk. A couple of times a week Ronald, the coordinator for ASANA would stop by and retrieve the updated information, take it back to the office and tabulate everything on the computer. Once each month a marine biologist visits the site to inspect the hatchery and check the records.

Eduardo checked back to see if any nests were due to hatch soon. A small depression had appeared over one of the nests the previous afternoon; this meant the first turtles in the nest were starting to break  through their shells and would begin emerging onto the sand approximately 36 hours later. That would be tomorrow morning.

Eduardo retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and made a couple of calls. The first to ASANA, in case some local school children wanted to observe the liberation of the hatchlings and the second to the Hacienda Barú Lodge office. I notified Steve and Peggy Sue as well as the other guests. Anybody who wanted to see the baby turtles needed to be at the beach at 6:00 AM the following morning.

Some people have suggested that we should carry the hatchlings into the water and even take them out past the breaking waves before releasing them, thereby eliminating a great deal of effort on their part and hopefully enhancing their survival rate. Nevertheless, marine biologists believe that walking across the beach and entering the water is essential to the well being of the young turtles. Apparently a small sample of sea water and sand enters a tiny organ near the nostril and remains there for the life of the turtle. An identical organ on the other side remains empty. According to the theory, ten to twelve years later, when the female turtles return to the beach to lay, they are able to find the exact location of the beach where they entered the water by comparing samples of sea water with the sample taken when they first entered the water as hatchlings.

A small group of people watched as Eduardo released the hatchlings. Each person was allowed to hold a small turtle in their hand and set it on the sand. The observers were cautioned to remain behind the hatchlings which will walk toward the first movement they see. Mother Nature wants them to home in on the surf, which is the correct direction to walk. Extraneous movement confuses them. Once on the beach and focused on the breaking waves, the babies use their tiny flippers to scoot across the sand. Each has a yolk sac which contains enough sustenance to get them through the ordeal and into the sea where they will hopefully find plankton, their basic food at this stage in life. If they don’t find food before expending the entire contents of the yolk sac they die. Later in life they will diversify consuming a variety of sea life, including jellyfish.

Steve and Peggy Sue were lucky. Many people walk up and down the beach at night for hours and never see a turtle. There are , however, certain times when you are more likely to see turtles than others. The Olive Ridley marine turtles begin laying eggs on Barú Beach in mid July each year. August and September are the months when most of the eggs are laid. The laying continues at a slower rate through the month of October and dwindles down to nothing in November. Very few turtles come onto the beach during the week of the full moon, but seem to time their egg laying to the rest of the month. They have an uncanny sense that tells them what time of night the moon will rise and set, because they are seldom seen on the beach in the moonlight. Seeing baby turtles is a little easier. The big hatching season is late September through early November when turtles hatch and are released several times each week.

Over the years, with advice from marine biologists, ASANA personnel and the Hacienda Barú park rangers have refined the handling and recording procedures used in the marine turtle rescue project. Over the last eight years an average of 88 baby turtles have been successfully released into the sea for every 100 eggs acquired. This amounts to over 70,000 hatchlings liberated since the year 2000. ASANA has also provided assistance to the nursery at Matapalo Beach, about 12 km northwest of Barú Beach.

The first hatchery on Barú Beach was a project of the owners and employees of Hacienda Barú initiated in the year 1984. The project was taken over by ASANA in 1990, but the nursery has always been kept at Hacienda Barú. There have been many contributors over the years, but this year, 2008, financial support for the project came from Marina Pez Vela, Plaza Pacifica, Pitzer College, Yale Student Alvaro Redondo, and Hacienda Barú.

Crowned Woodnymph

The early bird gets the worm

Do you think birds are boring, and don’t see why anyone would want to watch them? Don’t put this article down yet. Let me share with you one interesting tidbit of information about birds, and see if you still think they are boring.

Many member of the cuckoo family are freeloaders. Ornithologists call them brood parasites. They lay their eggs in other birds nests, dumping their responsibility as parents in other birds laps, while saving themselves the time and energy of incubating eggs and feeding chicks. The various bird species that end up as unsuspecting foster parents have devised certain tricks with which they try to outsmart their unwelcome boarders. A truly fascinating method came to light recently in Australia where researchers were studying the behavior of the superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus.) Mother wrens sing to their eggs, and, in so doing, teach their embryonic offspring a password, even before they hatch. After hatching, the chicks don’t get fed unless they include the password in their begging call. The cuckoo chicks that hatch in the same nest don’t know the password, don’t get fed, and end up starving to death. The female wrens conserve their own energy and devote it to raising their own young. Every mother wren uses a different password, presumably to prevent the cuckoo chicks as a species from learning how to get fed. You can read the entire article at:

It occurred to me that it would be a lot simpler if the wrens could just evolve the ability to recognize the cuckoo eggs, which are considerably larger than wren eggs, and throw them out of the nest in the first place. I am sure Mother Nature has a good reason. Maybe someday we will know what it is.

Counting Birds

As this issue of Quepolandia comes off the press, a group of about 40 ornithologists and highly qualified birders will be counting birds in the official 2012 bird count in the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor. You may ask why anyone would want to count birds, or even watch them, for that matter? I mean, what’s the big deal? Why do people get all worked up over chasing after birds while lugging along spotting scopes, tripods, binoculars and bird books. Why don’t people watch frogs, for example, or bats, monkeys or fish? Why is bird watching so special all over the world, and especially in Costa Rica?

In addition to a multitude of interesting aspects of bird behavior, such as the example cited above, I believe the answer lies in the great diversity of birds, not only in terms of number of species — around 9800 worldwide — but also diversity of habitat, being found in places as different as the polar caps, tropical rainforests, deserts, far out to sea, and even the very center of large cities. Their diversity in appearance is equally extreme, some being colorful, others drab, and some so well camouflaged as to be nearly invisible. Many birds have a melodious song, some are downright obnoxious, and others mute. Some soar high above the ground floating listlessly on thermal currents, some fly like stunt planes, others streak through the sky like fighter jets, and some are flightless. Their sizes range from that of the tiniest humming bird, only slightly larger than a bumble bee and weighing no more than a couple of paper clips (1.95 grams,) to the enormous Andean Condor with a wing span of 3.4 meters (11 feet) and a weight of over 14 kilos (30 pounds.) Even larger is the Ostrich which can reach a height of 2.7 meters (9 feet,) a weight of 155 kilos (340 pounds,) and, though flightless, can run at speeds of up to 70 kph, (43 mph.) Birds, in all their extremes, are fascinating, and for that reason bird watching attracts more enthusiasts every year.

Another reason that people love to observe, identify, list and count birds is that for over a century the American Audubon Society has diligently gathered, organized and disseminated information about them. One of the best known activities of the society is the Christmas Bird Count (CBC.) This tradition actually began as a bird hunt with competition between different groups of hunters to see who could kill the most birds on Christmas day. In the year 1900, the activity was taken over by the Audubon Society and converted into a bird census, with different teams counting in different areas. The purpose of the CBC, as it is practiced today, is to gather information about bird species in many locations throughout the Americas. It is probably the most effective tool for bird monitoring that has ever been devised.
Our local bird count in the area around Hacienda Baru is called the Path of the Tapir annual bird count. It takes place in an area that extends from the mouth of the Hatillo Viejo River, south to the mouth of the Morete River in Uvita, and from the coast about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) inland to the other side of the Tinamastes Ridge. The altitude ranges from sea level to 1300 meters (4225 feet.) The habitats represented include sea shore, river mouth, river bank, mangrove estuary, wetland, pasture, farm land, secondary forest, primary forest and swamp forest. This diversity in terrain adds up to a lot of different birds, both in species and individuals. The count for the entire area, in any given year, usually falls between 350 and 395 species. The largest count was in 2009 with 393 species identified. In the nine years since the first Path of the Tapir CBC, on January 3, 2003, a total of 488 species of birds have been identified within the entire count area.

In addition to being a great stimulus to bird watching in Costa Rica and this region, the Christmas Bird Count is an effective and accurate method of gathering and compiling useful and interesting information about our feathered friends. And, all of us birders are pleased to know that, in spite of a great deal of damage to some natural areas, the result of uncontrolled development in past years, there are still plenty of birds to watch in the Path of the Tapir.

Early Birds and Early Birders

Back when I was a kid, more years ago than I care to remember, our family lived near a park with a big, beautiful lawn. I remember seeing red-breasted robins plucking worms out of that lawn, and always imagined that that old saying about the early bird getting the worm was written about those robins. The truth of the matter is that I wasn’t an early riser in those days, and have no way of knowing if robins got more worms in the early morning or not, but they got plenty of them during the rest of the day. In my ripe old age I have become an early riser. In Costa Rica, I have never seen a bird eat a worm at any time of day, but I can assure you that they do start their days early, and early birders definitely see more birds.

This morning, shortly after daybreak, I went outside with my binoculars and scanned the area near the house. During a leisurely ten-minute walk around the yard I identified nine species of birds, the most exciting of which was a Tropical Screech Owl asleep in a tree. Owls, of course, aren’t “early birds,” rather they are “night owls,” and sleep all day. There was also a flock of orange-chinned parakeets noisily waking up, several species of flycatchers and doves, a woodpecker, and a palm tanager. A half hour later, with the sun peeking over the tall trees, I went out for another ten minutes, and added four more species to my list for the day. These early morning hours almost always yield the most diversity of bird life. I had searched for a total of around twenty minutes, in an area limited to our yard, and had come up with 13 different species. I tried it again at noon, and got only three species in twenty minutes, one of which was a black vulture circling overhead. After 3:30 in the afternoon bird activity tends to pick up again, and I usually see five or six species on a ten-minute walk from my house to the office. All of this is during the good birding season.

The best birding season is right now. November through March, the time when the northern migrants are here, around 200 of them. In all of Costa Rica, not counting Cocos Island, there are about 600 year around resident species. The Asociación Ornithológico de Costa Rica officially lists 857 species, including the migrants, on the mainland and 19 species on Cocos Island. Another 17 species have been identified here at one time or another, but were considered to be here by accident, and can’t be counted as true species of Costa Rica. These might include birds that people had in captivity and later released into the wild, or perhaps a bird that blew in with a storm. It is also interesting to note that this total of 893 species for tiny Costa Rica is more than the total number of species identified in all of the mainland United States and Canada combined.

One morning last August, I was going about my morning chores when I heard a strange sound, krwa-krwa-krwa-krwa, coming for outside the house, so strange that our dogs ran outside barking. I grabbed my binoculars and followed. In the leafless top of a cecropia tree perched a bird I had never seen before. It was a dark, metalic green, had a long curved bill and a body that resembled that of a common water bird called the white ibis. After retreiving my bird book I quickly determined that I was looking at the green ibis (Plegadis chihi,) a bird found on the Caribbean side of the country, and not very common even there. It was very strange indeed to find it here on the Pacific coast. My luck held and it stayed put long enough for me to get a couple of photos. It was a new bird for my lifetime list and a new bird for Hacienda Barú.
All birders make lists, daily lists, yearly lists, trip lists, and lifetime lists. At Hacienda Barú we have been identifying bird species for the last 26 years, and in that time have made definite identifications of 363 species. That is our lifetime list, and we still add one or two new species to it each year. So far in 2012, we have positive sightings on the green ibis, already mentioned, and the shiny cow bird, another species usually seen only on the Caribbean.

Bird watchers who come to Costa Rica for the first time add many new species to their lifetime lists. Bird Watchers come from all over the world. One of my first experiences as a guide was with some birders from England. I was the guide, but they taught me a great deal more than I taught them. The British are very serious about their birding and are really good at it. In addition we have hosted birders from the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Japan, and China. When the couple from South Africa made their reservation the lady asked if there was a chance of seeing a hummingbird during their stay. I told her she could stay for free if she didn’t see at least one hummingbird every day while she was here. She wasn’t disappointed. We have 18 different species of hummingbirds at the Baru National Wildlife Refuge.

Are you ready to try it? All you need is a pair of binoculars and a bird book. Just start looking at birds and identifying them. Each new bird goes on your lifetime list. The more you learn about them the more enthralled you will be. Let me warn you though, bird watching is addictive.