The Personalities Behind the Podcasts, How Hummingbirds Stole the Show in Monteverde


I was thrilled! The cards, or in this case the random numbers we use to choose projects, were in my favor. I was assigned to the podcast project on the Colibri Cafe bordering Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. It became clear early on that our story would focus on the controversy surrounding feeding birds an unnatural diet so close to the reserve. We spent the morning recording sound bites from cafe employees, tourists, and reserve employees. The story came together well before our scheduled rendezvous to head back to campus. This left me with a lot of time to do exactly what I hoped we would have time for… snapping some intimate photos of of my favorite birds.


After five minutes of being inundated with zipping, zooming, whizzing, and buzzing, I found myself rethinking my whole perspective on hummingbirds. These little birds were battling it out for their food resources, and the number of feeders drew quite the crowd.


With the help of my field guide, I quickly learned the species around me. By watching them a little longer, I started to figure out who was boss, who picked the fights, and who tried to get in and out unnoticed.


One of the first hummers you might notice is the Green Violetear (above). These guys have conspicuous purple feathers on either side of their heads. In a defense display, these birds erect those feathers like “ears,” giving them their peculiar name.


The male Purple-throated Mountain Gem (above) looked small next to the Violetear, but he made up for it in might. These little birds picked fights with everyone, and aggressively defended perches by flashing their purple throats and vocalizing frequently.


The Coppery-headed Emerald (above) is endemic to Costa Rica, making it one of the coolest birds at the feeder. Small in size, this species seemed to avoid physical confrontation with larger species. However, when it came to members of its own species, it was always on the offense.


So you might be wondering who “king” of the feeder is… This title is indisputably held by the Violet Sabrewing (above). By hummingbird standards, these guys were MASSIVE! Unless another Sabrewing was around, they rarely engaged in physical conflict. All they had to do was fly up to the feeder, and all the other species scattered. Looks kind of smug, doesn’t he?

Now sometimes a girl with a not-so-great point-and-shoot camera happens to take a photo she will never forget. Right before we left the cafe, I was lucky enough to get an action shot of a Stripe-tailed Hummingbird (below) in a defensive display. These birds, like the Emeralds, mostly picked fights with birds their own size. In this case, a Mountain Gem decided that he needed that perch. The Stripe-tailed Hummingbird simply wasn’t having it, and sent him off with this grand gesture.


Despite the controversy surrounding the feeders, I genuinely enjoyed my time there watching the birds. I hope that in the near future, the Cafe can use native plants instead of sugar water to bring in birds. It’s in their plans, and I hope it becomes a reality. I came to the cafe thinking I would learn about the personalities and perspectives of the people there. I left having learned a whole different world of “personalities”, in tiny feathered packages.

Lauren Phillips, Graduate Student in Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University. 



Explorations into natural history


We disconnected from the outside world for a week to explore the coastal habitats of Cabo Blanco Absolute Natural Reserve, the first protected area in Costa Rica. No emails, Facebook, Twitter, or connections to our normal lives. Instead, we connected to the people, animals, and landscape of this amazing place. The students worked with faculty mentors (Eben Broadbent, Nathan Muchhala, Noelle Beckman, and myself) to come up with some fun projects.

My group studied the natural history and thermal environment of a caterpillar feeding on Terminalia catappa, commonly known as the Indian or beach almond tree.

cabo blanco caterpillar smallWe don’t know the species identity of this caterpillar. But, we’re hoping to figure it out. Dan Janzen and Lee Dyer helped us narrow our search down to Family Notodontidae and, most likely, subfamily Nystaleinae. In response to our inquiry about the caterpillar’s identity, Dan replied, “Welcome to the Victorian tropics”.

I love to imagine what the experience of early explorers was like. Natural history studies thrived in the Victorian era thanks to Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace, and many others. These naturalists transformed the field of biology and provided a solid foundation for scientific discovery.

As an ecologist, I’m inspired by and in awe of tropical biodiversity. It’s exciting to discover a species that expert lepidopterists can’t identify. With ~8000 species of moths in Costa Rica, it’s probably not uncommon to encounter one that’s not easily recognized.

Despite not knowing the species name, we studied the thermal ecology of this caterpillar. After observing caterpillars crawling down a tree trunk, we decided to examine the thermal environment of these caterpillars and diurnal variation in leaf temperatures. We also examined the effect of temperature on caterpillar performance (survivorship and feeding rates).

caterpillar on the move small

We found that (1) caterpillars show preferences for leaf temperatures around 30 ºC, (2) caterpillar movement out of the canopy down the tree trunk peaks in the late afternoon, when leaf temperatures are higher and more variable, and (3) caterpillar performance is reduced when leaf temperatures are elevated above or below ~30 ºC.

Many studies examining potential climate change effects on insect performance do not consider microhabitat variation in temperature or insect behavior and movement. Our study highlights the importance of considering these factors when examining insect response to elevated temperatures.

The Adventure Begins

PV D1 small

OTSgradcourse sporting the latest mosquito net fashions

Palo Verde Day 1: The adventure begins for the OTS 2015 summer graduate course (Tropical Biology: An Ecological Approach). We’re off to a great start with an awesome group of students, 21 strong, and four fantastic visiting faculty (Kasey Barton, Beth Pringle, Miguel Acevedo, and Tomas Cárlo). The students braved a swarm of mosquitos to explore and learn about tropical dry forest ecosystems, an endangered habitat type in Costa Rica and across the world due to habitat loss and land-use conversion.