Vacation’s all I ever wanted…

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Ok, so you know how I’ve been insisting this trip is NOT just a vacation? Well, we did get to take a few days off now that we have survived the first two weeks. Since we were crazy busy at Cabo Blanco and Palo Verde writing papers, going to seminars, editing papers, and doing scientific research, Jane and Jenny decided that we deserved a break. So on our way to La Selva Research Station, we did a pit stop to refuel our energy in Monteverde: the infamous cloud forest.

 

We knew these few days would be different than the last two weeks immediately. For one, our accommodations were within walking distance of a town! What a treat! Also, we weren’t doing a research project at Monteverde. We were free for our three day stay to relax and recharge our batteries. And finish up our research papers. And practice public speaking. And learn from Pat Walters, formerly of Radiolab, how to tell an interesting story. And hear natural history lectures about the area. Ok, so maybe we weren’t completely free to do what we wanted, but we learned a lot and all of these activities were super fun.

 

My favorite day was when we got to take a hike through the Monteverde Reserve with Mark, a resident naturalist. Our first stop was hummingbird feeders that have been hanging in the same spot for 20 years! Because of that, there were about 30 hummingbirds buzzing around, feeding on the nectar and not being scared of humans at all. Most of our group was able to have a hummingbird actually land on their finger by merely toughing their hand to a feeder. And while we stood there trying to identify all the species, the birds would whip in-between us, barely missing a shoulder or a nose. I’ve never seen so many hummingbirds in one place before and it boded well for the hike, though it was hard to pull us away from the feeders.

The rest of the hike was beautiful, despite us being peppered with rain off and on. We were all excited to be in the much cooler, greener cloud forest, and we asked questions about everything. We saw tons of birds and plants, a few white faced capuchins, and an incredible view at the end of our hike. There was also a point where James, another student, spotted a quetzal, which is a rare bird in Costa Rica and though many tourists try to see one, few actually do. We needed binoculars to see it, but we can definitely check it off the bird list!

 

The next day we did another hike to the San Gerardo Field Station, which was gorgeous as well. I couldn’t get over how green and lush everything was. All the ferns and dripping water everywhere reminded me of New Zealand. But there was also a lot of mud we had to trample through. Luckily we all have rubber boots so we plowed straight through. This hike was all downhill for the first half, so we took our time enjoying, again, many plants and birds. We also managed to see a huge tarantula in the middle of the path, which was orange and black. Pretty hard to miss. At the end of our hike was the San Gerardo Field Station. There was a ping pong table inside and hammocks on the porch that overlooked Arenal Volcano, which was covered in clouds. In the short time that was left before lunch, we all split into different areas based on the amount of energy we had left.

 

But once lunch came, we were all the comedor. And lunch was amazing! It was by far the best meal we’ve ever had. Which was sort of good and bad, because we all ate a lot to fuel our return hike, but it was all uphill and we were stuffed. So the hike started out rough because we were tired and full, but then it became even worse when the torrential downpour started. A large majority of us got soaked, right down to our cellphones. By the time our clothes dried several hours later, I was definitely missing the dry heat of Palo Verde.

 

All in all, we really enjoyed our stay in Monteverde. Breakfast and dinner was spent on a large back porch of the property, which had a glorious view right down to the Nicoya Peninsula, which is where Cabo Blanco is located. It gave us the perfect backdrop for late nights of chatting and game playing. But all good things must come to an end, so after a quick 3 nights, it was time to pack it up and move out. Everyone likes to sing and dance…

 

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View from our porch. It was usually cloudy, but I caught it in a clear moment. Great bird watching spot too!

 

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Best lunch ever! Though this is our typical meal (rice, beans, meat, salad), the tortillas and avocado made it outstanding!

 

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Hiking downhill to the Arenal Volcano overlook, though there wasn’t much to see once we got there. Too cloudy.

 

Quetzal that we saw. We definitely did not see it this close, but this is what they look like. Really hard to spot in a bunch of green trees so James did a great job finding him!

 

Large spider in the cloud forest…

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Large spider in the cloud forest...

Cloud forest tarantula (Megaphobema mesomelas), Santa Elena Reserve, Monteverde, Guanacaste Province. A common spider in the premontane and lower montane forests of Costa Rica, above 1300 m.a.s.l. Even with this evil appearance, this species is easy to handle, but its sting could be painful, and its a good idea stay far from its abdomen (it has poisonous hairs that could blind your pretty eyes (“cégalo Satanás”=the most important thing the students have learned after observe Costa Rica matches in the World Cup). By other hand, this tarantula looks cute…right? (o va a llorar?)
Pura vida maes 🙂

Costa (Af)Rica part dos

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I landed in Costa Rica questioning if science has anything to do with where I wanna be in the next few months, let alone years. Do I really wanna be that weird nerdy kid who studies shit that no one else really cares about? Or that asshole who seems to keep getting in the way of actual conservation work being done by real warriors with his hypotheses and experimental tests and god damn p-values. I was always that loud obnoxious douchebag pounding too many beers and screaming my lungs out for the Bokke, the Lions and Chelsea (yes, in that order). So what the fuck am I doing in a room full of scientists?

 

One of those scientists is named Nate Sanders. This dude is most probably the Don Corleone, or at least the family consigliore, of the ant mafia. Stop laughing, this shit is real. And that’s all I’m allowed to say about that. Nate-dawg pushed me to understand the cascading effects of a single species on the rest of the ecosystem. The harlequin land crab appears to be driving evenness of plant diversity along the Costa Rican coast line. If this is true in Costa Rica, there has to be key species other than the usual elephants, rhinos, lions and leopards that are having far reaching effects on the South African ecosystems. I guess I’m gonna have to start giving shit about animals other than the majestic beasts we all love to look at while driving around Kruger, drinking breakfast beers and having a kak praat.

 

Another one of these “nerdy” scientists is Buck Sanford. This guy is a genius. He’s fluent in Swahili, Shona, Spanish and a variety of Native American languages I couldn’t begin to spell correctly. He taught me that human settlements from hundreds of years ago are one of the drivers of animal movement and dispersal in Kenya. As the human populations relocated to different locations on an average of 3 to 5 years, they spread vital nutrients to soils for plant growth. This has created islands of browse and graze material in an otherwise unpalatable dry season. Let that sink in for a second… If we can map the movement of traditional cultures from Southern Africa we could potentially gain a much deeper understanding of the drivers of animal movement and dispersal allowing us to make actual tangible conservation gains.

 

So shit, I guess I was wrong again. Not all scientists are those weird nerdy dudes or those assholes who slow down actual conservationists. Some of them can pound beers with the best of us and scream louder when Costa Rica beats Uruguay than any other gringo in that bar. And then wake up the next morning and knock science out of the park. Some of them are geniuses who know more about Africa than most Africans. Who have been inspired by a continent and all of her people and are driven to help her grow. So yeah, I’m a fucken scientist.

 

 

WHAT? Costa Rica destroyed Uruguay!

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Robert “Buck” “Sanford Jr.

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The Harlequin land crab

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Ole Ole Ole Ole, Ticos, Ticos!

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Cabo Blanco’s beach. boom.

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Costa (Af)Rica

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I was driving home from the pub one at night at like 1am after one too many beers when I get an email on my phone. I glance over at it to see who it’s from and I quickly make out the letters OTS, yeah I’ve been waiting for this one for a while. This is that generic rejection email that we’ve all had to read at least once in our lives. So I burn it home dodging as many cops as possible so I can get this over and done with, like removing a plaster from a cut when you’re a kid. I open the email and the first word I see is “Congratulations.” Before I even bother to keep reading I’m running around my place high fiving myself (yes, I appreciate how much of a loser I looked like) and jumping for joy.

 

The next morning I wake up with a hangover and a severe lack of sleep and go over that email one more time just to make sure it’s real. Then it starts to sink in. I’m gonna be spending six weeks traveling around Costa Rica with at least fourteen other Americans studying a part of the world I never thought I’d see. Hang on though, aren’t Americans those loud ignorant tourists who take over Kruger and run around the country shooting lions trapped in a can? Aren’t they the idiots landing at O.R. Tambo dressed in full khaki gear or “safari suits” expecting to see elephants strolling down Vilakazi street and leopards patrolling up and down Jan Smuts avenue? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what an American is, right?

 

Wrong. These Americans are nothing like those assholes we get back home. These Americans are actually pretty fucken smart. This one dude Forest (yes I appreciate the irony of a dude named Forest studying the forest) can literally play any instrument I can name. He knows more about cockroaches that I even knew was possible. This guy Dan understands the intricacies of habitat fragmentation and the use of eco-corridors that just blows my mind. Jenny (rockstar #1) is studying poison dart frogs, yes those kick ass little dudes we all saw in Apocolypto, compliments of Mel Gibson. Jane (rockstar #2) is studying such a diverse array of climate change effects and is genuinely contributing to a vital knowledge base. Aidan knows literally every single ant in the world! All of them. Aviv (the Jew from Jersey) is a statistics magician and somehow manages to be bitten or stung by every possible creature out here. Emily has been studying the sudden and rapid decline of amphibians in Central America, most probably as the result of the introduction of a South African clawed frog which spread the chytrid fungus. Colleen can identify a bird at the drop of a hat. Shelley knows more about plants that I never even knew existed. Then there is Sofia the Puerto Rican, who is doing vital work using an appreciation of the ecological-social system and Maanav, the Indian, who is trying to save the big cats of Asia.

 

So yeah, I was wrong. Americans are pretty cool. They can stay. Thanks to a series of drunken parties, the camaraderie of supporting Costa Rica against Uruguay in a local pub that turned into a massive fiesta and the exchange of knowledge across continents, my mind has been changed.

 

Aviv (the Jew from Jersey)

mosquito protection

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Shelley, Emily, Maanav, Aviv, Buck, Me

 

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That crazy day when dreams came true and Costa Rica Beat Uruguay.

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The team at Cabo Blanco

 

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Next Stop: Dry Forest

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Shortly after arriving at our second site, I realized that a few things I had been considering a chore earlier had become more of a habit. Number one was waking up early. Before this trip I considered 8 am “early”, but after waking up at 6 for the past week, I noticed that I was waking up at 6 with or without my alarm. Number two was toilet paper. On day 1, we were told that due to Costa Rica’s horrible sewage system, we had to throw all toilet paper into the trash can at all times. I was sure this would be a hard task to remember, but after a week without screwing it up, it is weird to think of doing it any other way. And last but not least, was no caffeine. Those of you that know me well know that I usually drink at least 1 Diet Dr. Pepper a day. However, here in Costa Rica there is no Diet Dr. Pepper and at the field stations there isn’t even any Diet Coke. So I have been forced to give up my habit, and though it has been difficult, I have persevered and I am no longer a caffeine addict. Yay!

Our second site, Palo Verde, which means “green stick”, was also beautiful but in a completely different way. When we first arrived, it was hard to believe we were still in Costa Rica. The flat grassland that rolled on for miles in between beautiful mountains made me think I was actually in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, but I had to keep in mind that we were in dry forest territory. There were no lush jungles, no wind swept beaches. Instead there was a large wetland in front of the station we stayed at, with tons of birds. Colleen, another student in the class, is keeping a list of birds we see on our entire trip. She let us know that within one day at Palo Verde, we doubled our previous bird list. I’m not that into birds, but it was hard not to get excited when everyone else was pulling out their binoculars and identifying birds in the trees. On our first day, we saw one of the most exciting birds at the site: the jabiru. It is a huge stork with a black head and a white body that is apparently fairly rare at Palo Verde. Although we didn’t get too close, they looked to be as big as people. Super cool!

But, my favorite bird we saw was the jacana. It is a beautiful bird that looks like it is wearing a bright orange mask. Apparently the females are polygamous and fight each other to guard their territory, while the males protect the eggs. Another thing I am getting used to is walking around with permanent tour guides, because no matter what we find, someone can almost always identify it or tell us more about it than I would know alone. So we are learning a lot from each other. Another cool thing we got to experience at this site was baby crocodiles! The field station guides were collecting and sexing baby crocodiles to track the male to female sex ratio as part of a conservation effort. And because of that, they had a ton of baby crocodiles in captivity so we got to hold them! I was a little wary of squeezing too hard, but luckily I got a calm little guy. They are so cute up close with that permanent smile.

But again, no visit is complete without a project! There were three more awesome projects awaiting us. One of them looked at caterpillar diversity within wet and dry areas, and found that although more caterpillars were found in the dry area, there is actually more diversity in the wet. The other two groups got to clomp around the dry forest, and that was really fun. One group was measuring gaps within the tree canopy and comparing them to measurements taken in 1978, before fire was introduced to the area. They found that although there are more gaps in the canopy, their size is smaller, which could have an effect on forest composition. And the best group was my group! We were studying whether dry forests can serve as a carbon sink by uptaking carbon dioxide and converting it into tree mass. Most forests are carbon sinks, but we wanted to see exactly how much carbon was being taken up by dry forests. We found dry forests are carbon sinks, but how much carbon is converted depends more or less on precipitation.

Of course, we had to take time out for the world cup too. We streamed the Costa Rica vs. Italy game and it was fun to hear the Costa Ricans scream with rage as the internet would suddenly decide to cut out at a critical moment. Luckily it functioned well enough for us to see Costa Rica win! We are all excited to see how they do in the next round, and I am rooting for them to go all the way. The break from the field was much needed, as this field work was a lot more difficult than the last. At least 3 people were stung by wasps as we dug around looking for trees. And we were always on the lookout for snakes, but we didn’t see any. There were some prickly trees though, such as the pochote and the spiny palm, both of which have sharp spines running along the length of the tree trunk. There was also one more tree with spines, but the spines were thick and harmless so it earned the nicknamed “barnacle tree”.

Overall, the week flew by. We spent most of our nights working in an air conditioned classroom, which worked out well because the mosquitos were fairly bad here. Though, ironically, they were the worst in the bathrooms. Must be all that available water left in the showers. So, although we climbed onto the bus scratching our legs and arms, I will miss Palo Verde. It was the first site we could towel off with a dry towel! That was huge! But… here we come Monteverde: the cloud forest.  

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View from a hike we did in Palo Verde. The wet lands aren’t that wet yet, as the dry season is running long, but it is beautiful.

 

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Jenny, our amazing coordinator, and Megan, another student, showing off the super cute baby crocodiles!

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Measuring trees to see how much carbon these dry forests store. Sometimes it was super hard to measure their diameter.

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The awesome and spiny barnacle tree. This was a fun tree to take the diameter of.

 

 

Ecological Paradise

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So, three days after leaving the beautiful Cabo Blanco Absolute Reserve, I finally have a moment to reflect upon my experience there. First of all, it was gorgeous! Our dorms were a short 200 feet from the ocean, so each night we fell asleep listening to the waves crashing on the beach. Unfortunately we didn’t get to go swimming because there were tons of sharp rocks everywhere, but we did get to go snorkeling! We got to touch sponges, see a nudibranch, and even hold brittle stars, which are my favorite invertebrate. If you have time, look up a youtube video of them moving. You won’t be disappointed.

The food was amazing! Delicious rice and beans for every meal, including breakfast. We’ve been told we’ll be sick of them by week 6, but for now they are still new and exciting to our taste buds. And the fresh juice! Even though we couldn’t always tell what kind of juice we were drinking, it was amazing and gone by the end of the meal. And all the buildings were so open. There was no air conditioning anywhere: not in the dorms, not in the dining hall, not even in the classroom. So all that openness meant that, of course, there were bugs everywhere! This would probably freak most normal people out, but we happen to have some scientists that love cockroaches, ants, and beetles so we all got to learn the names of the organisms we were spending so much time with.

But it wasn’t all just oohing and ahhing over the scenery. We also had work to do! We split into three groups and did three super fun projects! There was a bat group that looked at… bats! They set up their nets during sunset and then would go around collecting the bats at night. They caught some super cute and cool bats, including a vampire bat! Don’t worry- none of us were bitten by one. Apparently they will nibble on your toes while you sleep and we slept inside. Another group, the seedling sisters, looked at how a fungal disease spreads from seedling to seedling along a stream bank. They had some interesting results that showed as seedling density increases, so does fungal occurrence. Very cool. And last but not least, was my crew: the crab team. We looked at land crab density and how it changed the forest structure. That meant we spent a lot of time on our knees crawling around to measure tree seedlings. All of our projects were hard work, but we all had a blast and learned a lot. Swimming in a cold nearby river with a waterfall at the end of long, sweaty days helped keep morale up as well.

In the middle of our stay we got to take a trip to “town” to see the Costa Rica vs. Uruguay soccer game and it was incredible! People were packed into every nook and cranny with a TV. We chose a sports bar, and a beer company had hired drummers from a marching band to come and pump people up! It was hard to hear most of the time, but it was also hard not to get swept up in the excitement with each Costa Rican goal. By the time they won, we were all screaming and dancing right along with the Ticos. It was a great way to take a break and get to know the local people.  

Unfortunately most days weren’t filled with fun activities like that though. We normally dealt with lectures in a boiling hot room, statistics courses, lots of field work, and the humidity. By the end of our stay, everything we owned was wet. Nothing would dry, especially towels. The humid, wet tropical forest combined with the ocean spray to make sure everything stayed damp. But luckily we all have amazingly positive attitudes so we stayed happy. The scenery helped a lot too. The coast looked like the set of “Survivor”. After a long day, our favorite place to hang out and talk was on the huge back porch that was behind our dorms and looked out over the ocean. At night you could hear animals rustling in the bushes and hermit crabs (there were hundreds) scuttling through the sand. In the morning we would hear howler monkeys calling out, their noises sounding like they belonged more to a gorilla than the smaller animal they actually are. As this is a 6 week class, I think this first week was really important for setting the tone for the rest of the trip. All 14 of us got to know each other, without internet or phones to distract us. And I think we are all excited to be spending the next 5 weeks together! At least I am…

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Cabo Blanco coastline. It looks rugged and beautiful because it was.

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We weren’t just on vacation! We had to work a lot too… Here’s Jeff and Aidan from the crab team, holding our equipment as we walk to our next site.

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Costa Rica wins! Victor, our Costa Rican TA, is salsa dancing with Sofia. Everyone was excited!

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Crab team’s animal: the beautiful land crab. Also known as the Harlequin crab. We saw a lot of these on the path along the beach