Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Semana Once, Week Eleven (3/14/16-3/20/16) Monteverde, CR

I'm back! I will finish this, there isn't much more to go and still much to be retold.

To be totally honest, this week was poorly executed on my part. Sleep deprivation is a thing and really doesn't help. My final paper for Tropical Ecology and a Spanish presentation were all completed at last minute due to my shear lack of planing. But it was worth it, because this week the Institute worked with the US Fish and Wildlife service catching and banding migratory birds. And I got to help. Monday morning at 4:45 AM, I got up and out the door to be on time for the 5:30 AM start of the week long study. I was well-intentioned but, to be honest, I had forgotten to ask where we were meeting! I sat around at the institute for half an hour before running into the Institutes director who was also running the project. We headed up into the reserve behind the institute to join the rest of the group. The mist nets were already set up, fine swaths of netting with holes the size of silver dollars, woven of sturdy nylon threads. We checked the nets every half hour and gently, oh so gently, removed any birds we came across. We measured the birds wing length, weight, cranium density (to see if their skill was fully formed, it helps indicate maturity) and then clipped a tail feather to let us know if we had recaptured a bird. Now, when you release a bird there is none of this 'throw it into the air and watch it soar away' silliness, you simply point it away from the trees or anything else it could run into and open your hold on it. If you throw it and the bird isn't ready, you can seriously hurt it. Dropping like a stone to the ground feels bad to everyone.

We caught so many birds that week, well strictly speaking I was there for at most thirty captures but still. Hummingbirds aplenty, several ovenbirds which we happily banded, wrens and so many more. My least favorite to handle were the woodcreepers. They were actually some of the larger birds we were catching, closer to the size of your hand than the size of your palm. Their feathers are a russet red, the different species have variations in patterning but were near impossible to tell apart from a distance. Their tail feathers have shafts that extend past where the colored barbs end, allowing the birds to balance more easily on trees. They also have decidedly strong survival instincts that lead them to aggressively peck at the hands holding them and attempt to projectile defecate into peoples mouths (the first one we caught got within centimeters) or all over their cloths. Lots of fun to clean up, let me tell you. Now, my favorite bird that we caught was a chestnut caped brush finch because I loved the coloration of its feathers but the most beautiful bird we caught was undoubtedly a male long-tailed manakin. With his red head, blue belly, black everything else and two long streamers for a tail, the bird just really couldn't be beat. The females are a pale green with much shorter streamers, as are the immature males. We caught several of these but only one mature male. It also was the start of breeding season so the plumage was especially lovely. Manakins are actually fascinating birds, not only for their plumage. They perform a rather complicated mating ritual involving two males, who dance and sing what amounts to a duet for the attention of a single female. There is an alpha male and a beta male, the alpha being the one to primarily mate with the female but the beta will also do so, but more covertly. It is actually an excellent way of insuring greater diversity in the gene pool. Also, I learned to imitate their mating call and on several occasions got the manakins to call back to me!

I also had real life to deal with that week, more precisely classes. Which ended up being more excursions than true classes. One day we visited the family farm of one of my professors and hiked around in the forest above the cultivated land. We encountered a ficus in the middle of a field that, with the help of the twelve of us, we could barely encircle with our arms. It was absolutely magnificent and reminded me again of why the strangler figs are considered sacred. We then had a meditation session where I happily took in the voices of the forest and took the time to relax, which I sorely needed. We then headed down to the main farm house where our last surprise of the day awaited. My professors brother is known for rehabilitating animals and at that time had a baby sloth which he was keeping at his parents house. Fluffy, tiny and sleepy, we crowded around it with cameras extended and not as quiet as they probably should have been coos of joy. It was absolutely adorable. We ended up staying long into our lunch break and returning to the Institute in a rush of hungry students.
Our second excursion involved tech. GPS tech, which was all well and good but I ended up carrying a ridiculous looking antenna that had more in common with the Queen of England's scepter then your average car antenna. We then proceeded to hike a trail and take data points every so often to help us make an accurate map of the area. This wouldn't have been bad at all, the area was lovely and the three waddled bell bird was screeching his heart out tantalizingly close, but the path was steep. I mean really steep. Up and up and up we go where we stop I do not know kind of steep. It was exausting, I won't lie. Then we had to configure our data into maps on computer programs that hated me. Just me. I kill technology, not sure what it is, but what ever I touch dies a painful techy death.

My poor host family saw almost none of me that week, I ended up leaving before they even woke up and arriving home only to crash. Oops? Ah well, I got it all done. I will never regret taking that week to learn more about the birds.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Week 9 and 10, Semana nueve y diez, (3/3/16-3/13/16), Monteverde CR

I'm putting week nine and ten together as this entry begins most of the way through week nine, on a Thursday.

The week after we came back from our Spring Break were crazy. We had so much to get done and almost no time to do it in. I had the bad fortune of getting sick the moment we got back to Monteverde. I had a fever Friday night and a bad sinus headache and sore throat for the next three days. The headache kinda went away except in the mornings but the sore throat stuck around for two weeks. It was not fun. In the slightest. In the time I was sick, I was supposed to be collecting data for my final project for my Tropical Ecology class. I did get all of my data collection sessions in, but it was a close thing. My saving grace was the fact that I didn't need to turn in my paper until several days after my final presentation on my project. The presentation got done, not early or anything but it was finished and, I believe, went well. I am pretty good at public presenting so generally I'm OK. We went out to get vegan ice cream afterwards, as we have three vegans in our group, and I got pistachio. It was a nice treat and we got to spend some out of class time with our professor, who is such a cool lady. Honestly, otherwise I just got a few grades back, not great ones but I'm not failing anything. We also went on a field trip to visit local businesses and see how they work with the sustainable model. It was interesting. I am always impressed by how hard the people of Monteverde work to keep their town healthy and pristine, even with a quarter of a million tourists visiting every year. Oh! We also spent one morning when the Institute internet was scheduled to be down in a local bakery, Jimenez, and had tea and pastries for breakfast. It was very appreciated. Honestly, being sick and swamped with work occupied so much of my time that this was my whole week. The only other thing was that when I was at the Institute Sunday night, I ran into the director. We chatted and she mentioned that starting the next morning, the Institute would be mist-netting birds up in the reserve for a week. It was something I had been looking forward to and so I asked her at what time it started; 5:30 AM was my answer. But that is a story for next time.

OK, so some other stuff did happen. I generally hole up at the edge of a balcony in front of the Institute and to the side of it is a Cecropia tree. Currently nesting in said tree are White Masked Tityras. They are a beautiful bird that sound like squeaky toys. It's great and I love to see them. They are sexually di-morphic and the male is the white one, the female is more brown. Also, one day my host families dog followed me to school. It's a twenty five minute walk and he just stayed with me. He was at the Institute with me all day too and then we walked home together.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Spring Break? Our adventure continues! (2/25-3/2) Junquillal and Santa Rosa, CR

Crossing the boarder was easier and faster the second time through. We did have to get our bags scanned but all in all it was easier than an airport. We continued through the dry forest, soon to learn how well deserved that name was, towards the coast. We had lunch at a house that doubled as headquarters for the small tourism agency that would provide us meals for the next three days as well as act as our guide on a snorkeling trip. Then took our bus the last few miles to Junquillal beach.

Junquillal is a protected area, all of Costa Rica's beaches are public but the area around Junquillal is part of a large, interconnected series of protected areas. The beach sits on the edge of tropical dry forest, which isn't another name for dessert, it means that though it does get several feet of rain per year it also goes long periods with little to no precipitation. We were there in the dry season and it looked like something I would find in my back yard in New England during the fall, with the addition of cacti. The trees are bare of leaves, the ground is dry and cracked and the only relief from the dry brown of the world are the occasional cacti. It is still stunningly beautiful though and hot like summer. I was convinced for half the trip that I had stepped into a world where the opposite seasons had conjoined and Winter and Summer had become one. It was quite a strange feeling.

I spent my first afternoon walking up and down the beach, careful to avoid stepping on large thorns from acacia trees that lined the beach. Seriously, nails would be more pleasant to have shoved into your feet, they at least lack the potential for being full of angry ants. I found tiny, beautiful shells, the delicate skeletons of sea urchins and very little trash, which made me really happy. On my way down to the other end of the beach, I was joined by our lone boy. We walked, bird watched and, much to my absolute delight, found evidence of large reptiles. We found a crocodile trail, which was concerning as we were both standing right by the water but I'm writing this with all my limbs so it didn't get me and that's all that matters. We found what I believe were turtle egg shells, really sad as it meant that poachers were digging them up and, my absolute favorite, turtle tracks and nests. There were no turtles, but we found two sets of tracks and two nests. I was thrilled and we rushed back to inform the others of our find. We also found a bunch of dead puffer fish and pulled one of the menacing looking spines off one so we could claim that we had found a giant dead shark head. They believed us for about five minutes too.

The next day was our snorkeling day. We visited a small fish farm first, it was interesting to see the set up and how the people running it were avoiding polluting the environment. Then we took a windy, bumpy, cold boat ride out to the little cove where we were going to be snorkeling. On our way we saw a sea turtle floating in the waves off our stern, swimming towards shore. The water was cold but I didn't care, there was too much to see to really allow me to concentrate on how I was shivering. We saw starfish in a myriad of colors, pitch black sea urchins, brightly colored fish and so very many nifty rocks. My favorite part was the speckled eel that swam slowly out from one crack in a rock and into another right underneath me. When I was one of the last people in the water and shivering so hard I could barely keep my snorkel in my mouth, I headed back to the boat to dry off in the sun. This turned out not to be my brightest idea as after lunch, which I spent walking up and down a scorchingly hot beach in the blinding sun, I got sun burned. I had put sunscreen on but it didn't seem to have mattered too much. I was not thrilled. That evening we went on a walk in the dry forest behind our camp site. We saw magpie jays, tiny owls, trogons, spider monkeys and lots of lion ants. It was lots of fun.

The next morning we packed up camp and headed out to Santa Rosa National Park where we would be spending almost all the rest of our trip. It is dry, hot and full of really cool insects, spiders, snakes, birds and other organisms. Our first night we went on a walk to a water hole in a dried up river bed. We didn't see any animals come to the hole but we did see cane toads, snapping turtles and giant water beetles. It was slick around the edge and I fell in, soaking my foot. On the walk there we saw a snake-worm thing that I really am not sure what it was, giant cockroaches, lots of little spiders and scorpions. Apparently scorpions will glow under violet light, it looks awesome. Our second day had us hiking around the park and looking at important historical sights. Santa Rosa was the sight of two vary famous battles and is a national monument as well as a national park. We looked at various seeds, different life zones and saw lots of beautiful birds. It was lovely, if a bit too hot for me. That night, the rarest night, we went on a very successful night hike. We saw tons of cockroaches and scorpions, psudoscorpions, a lizard asleep on a vine, three snakes (only one poisonous, a coral snake, the others were imitators...we think) and a tarantula. It was awesome.

The next day we headed out early, we had plans to see two renewable energy plants and needed to get there in time. We went first to a solar plant, it was nice but not nearly as interesting as the geothermal plant we visited next. The geothermal plant looked like something out of a science fiction movie or a little boys (or girls, I loved it) daydreams. It was full of tall buildings, brightly colored pipes, steam and flowing water. It was awesome and really well managed. The system is really environmentally friendly and a wonderful source of renewable energy.

After our two tours, we headed off to a hotel equipped with hot springs. They were hot, scorchingly hot and unaccountably hot. There was also a slide and a sauna. I had a good time, we all did and the facilities, rooms and food were excellent.

We stopped by a wind farm, full of slightly old turbines, and a source at the bottom of lake Arenal for a hydroelectric plant. Both were really interesting but we were wearing a bit thin by that point, having traveled so much the last week. We reached home that evening and were able to flop down and crash in our own beds that night. Even with the knowledge that we had Spanish class the next afternoon it still felt like a much needed break.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Spring Break (2/23-2/25) Granada and San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua (How we renewed our visas. Legally.)

On the twenty third I got up at four fifteen. It was awful, but the bus left from the parking of what was, less than a week ago, Johnny's at five and I needed to be awake enough not to forget anything. I grabbed cereal, wolfed down two pieces of sweet bread and stuck two apples in my pockets. Then grabbed my duffle bag and back pack and headed for the Nicaraguan border. I am here on a tourist visa which only lasts for ninety days as student visas for Costa Rica are for all for years. It's totally legal, don't worry. But we needed to leave the country for a few days before we could come back in for the second part of our program. The drive to the boarder took about four hours, we went from cloud forest all the way down to dry forest. I'll come back to that later but just so you know, the dry forest is a very different life zone. Very different.

We hit the border at around ten, having stopped for a quick breakfast at around eight where we lost an hour. The boarder is actually two boarders, one where you leave Costa Rica and one for entering Nicaragua. It wasn't terrible. It was just bureaucratic nonsense which had us stopped at the Nicaraguan side for two hours in the baking sun as we got permits for the bus. It's apparently a very good spot to sell cheap touristy items as there were stalls set up all along the edge of the parking lot and several people were carrying their wares around on their shoulders. It was a bit much after the comparatively mellow Costa Rica but not too bad. It was hot though and we had to exit the bus for the entire time we were being registered. I confess that I spent time hiding in the shadows of other group members. (I burn people, I'm pretty pale skinned.) I got laughed at for it, but no one really minded.

Once we were cleared to enter the country we piled back into the bus and spent the next two hours staring at Lake Nicaragua and the multitude of wind turbines along its banks. Hundreds of them towering to the sky, I hadn't ever seen this many before and I was thrilled. (And annoyed. We could do this if we wanted, but that's not really and argument I want to get into right now.) We arrived in Granada a bit after noon and checked into our rooms at hotel 'Con Coarzon'. It's a nonprofit hotel that donates all proceeds to charities for children and the disabled. It is lovely and I would absolutely recommend staying there. It has a pool, beautiful rooms and is very close to a large square full of music, parades (it is getting close to holy week and people in Nicaragua take their religion very seriously), and street vendors. It was great. The first afternoon we all went and got food together, paying with dollars as we hadn't found a ATM yet. The food was good and relatively inexpensive. We spent the afternoon shopping at the tiny street market. I didn't actually buy anything but I spoke with a bunch of people in Spanish which was great. For dinner, I and two girls from our group went to the restaurant right next to where we had lunch. The food was even better this time, I had a really spicy chicken dish with chips, salsa and guacamole. I'd forgotten how much I missed spicy food until that night. We headed back just in time to catch the other part of the group and recommend the restaurant to them. The three of us watched half of Stardust (which is a great movie if you like fantasy adventure) before crashing.

The next day we actually split into our dinner groups, not intentionally but it just worked out like that, and my group went to explore the city while the other part went on a kayaking trip on Lake Nicaragua. Granada is gorgeous. All the buildings are brightly painted, the churches tower to the sky and every where you look Spanish, Mexican, Arabic and Western styles blend together into something new and beautiful. We found a cathedral with a tall tower that we climbed, which was an experience in itself as the stairs were first a tight spiral and then a set of floating stairs, up to the top from where we could see the whole city. It is lovely, lovely, lovely. The inside of the cathedral is nothing to sneeze at either. Stained glass windows, statues around every corner and paintings everywhere you looked. The front of the church was being redone but it was still beautiful. From there we wondered down the streets, looking for a place to eat lunch and gosh all mighty did we make a good choice. It was kind of strange, but we stumbled across a small Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Granada called Pita Pita. It advertised as vegan friendly and as one of our group was vegan, the other lactose free and I don't eat red meat, we decided it was probably our best choice. We were right. The restaurant is gorgeous, the seats are comfortable, the atmosphere pleasant, there is a small central garden with a lovely fountain that cools the whole place and, best of all, the food it to die for. I got a tasting plate for two (I was hungry and it was an appetizer, sue me) which included hummus, stuffed grape leaves, fresh goat cheese and baba ganouch. I have never had baba ganouch that good before. Sorry mom. If you are ever in Granada, go to this restaurant. It is so very worth it.

After lunch, we walked down to the beach at Lake Nicaragua, which was view-able from a slightly raised overlook. It was interesting as I'm used to beaches being occupied by tourists, not cows. But to each their own. The area was very nicely built but deserted. It was really interesting as the rest of the city was relatively hopping. Oh, I would also like to say that cat-calling is very much a thing here and that the fake kissing sound, sounds like spitting and is just gross. What would your mother say.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, but I did make a quick stop at the market to buy some earrings for my friends and family. They better like them, I did. I wrote in my journal and psudo-napped until dinner, when my three person group went back to the restaurant. I got a lava cake, baba ganouch and a margarita. It was just as good as I remembered. We finished Stardust that evening and, probably due to the heat, crashed again.

The nest day we, sadly, left Granada for San Juan del Sur, which is a VERY touristy beach town. We made some stops along the way, the first at a pottery shop that does hand made pottery in a traditional style. We got a tour and a demonstration which was fun. They use pottery wheels, but powered by their feet, it was awesome to watch. After, I bought a pot and a candle holder I adored and know I will use. Now I don't have to clean my mothers sliver ones every time I make pysanky! The town is on the edge of a large crater lake that has serious winds coming across it. We almost got blown over several times! (We would have gone over for real if we hadn't been used to the trade winds coming over the mountains in Monteverde every day and I do mean every day.) We had lunch and headed down to the coast. I honestly didn't like San Juan del Sur. I'm not a huge beach town person and really don't like tourist traps and this place was both. Also, it was kinda skeevy. I'm almost certain I saw an old American (yes, I may be stereotyping, but he looked it) man with a barely legal (if even) local girl who, I feel terrible saying, was probably a prostitute. Which says so much more about the man and the town than about her. I took a walk on the beach which was kinda nice and then headed back to the hotel which was OK. There was a very offensive mural painted on the wall of the hotels restaurant that just got worse the longer you looked at it. I basically just wanted to leave the entire time we where there, which was thankfully less than twenty-four hours. Dinner wasn't bad, we got pizza, but it wasn't great either. The hotel staff were nice but I just didn't like the feeling of being a white female tourist in that town.