Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Night Fright!

Last night was especially warm. I was sitting out on the deck, watching a movie with headphones on. There was a snoring sound laid over the soundtrack, like a segway into the next scene. But the snoring continued and so did the scene. So I popped off the earbuds and realized that the sound was coming from just outside the cabin, near the base of the stairs. With a sudden rush of adrenaline I perceived it to be the long slow snarl of rabid dog about to strike! But the snore just continued, rhythmically, too staccato for a dog. I got up quickly and turned on the lights, then ran upstairs to get my heavy-duty Maglite, cautiously approaching the edge of the deck and shining my lamp into the darkness. Nothing. Then I heard it again, moving away, and then approaching, even louder. Just there, in the trees, moving left to right. So loud! Like a jake-brake on a big rig coming down a steep grade.


Big cat! What else could it be?! Thrilled and terrified at the same time, I continued shining my beam into the night, though never saw the deep green eyeshine gleaming back at me. The sound continued for about 10 minutes, gradually diminishing. The next morning I scoured the ground for paw prints but found nothing. I Googled for animal sounds--click the sound link in the middle of this page to hear what I heard: Purring Jaguar.


At yoga class the next morning, I shared my thrilling tale, only to learn that Pumas are sighted from time to time locally, and even Jaguars had been spotted (pardon the pun). There are six species of wild cat in Costa Rica; check them out at Wild Cats.


Yikes!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Things That Go "Blink" in the Night

As a kid growing up in Southern California, I was captivated by the idea of "lightning bugs". They seemed about as real to me as

dragons or unicorns. Whenever these fanciful fireflies ever came up during class in grade school, there was always some lucky kid who'd actually seen them, like on a family vacation or something. I was so envious! I even recall a teacher who'd grown up among them, regaling us with tales of their niftyness. And those children's stories of collecting fireflies in a jar and using them to light the way home―like how cool is that!


Imagine my delight at witnessing a winged flash in the flesh for the very first time. By then I was university educated and wise to the ways of bioluminescence. Yet I experienced the moment with my giddy inner child―a unicorn come to life! On passing more and more time in humid tropical climes, I've come to appreciate the diversity and ubiquity of "lighting bugs"―yet they never cease to thrill me!


There's one here on the Osa that glimmers with a faint luminous green gleam, then suddenly fires up to a glowing hot orange as it takes to wing, as though igniting a second stage booster rocket. Then there are those big ones with the pair of headlamp beacons that actually illuminate leaves, branches, walls, and ceilings as they fly by, like the landing lights on a 747. I still vividly recall walking down a dirt road one night on Nicaragua's Pacific coast.

There had been a hatch of fireflies; thousands of twinkling pinpricks of light. With the incessant blinking and constantly shifting visual frame of my walking pace, it was like watching a collage of images from the Hubble Telescope deep space view―far better than any laser light show from my rock 'n roll youth.


Last night I got up to pee and saw a lightning bug on the wing, its green navigation lamp bright enough to illuminate the floor of my open-air bedroom. It flew along, a slow pulsing glow, gradually homing in on the steady green blink - blink - blink of the solar charge controller at the opposite end of the room. My firefly

converged on the rhythmic LED, seemingly intent on fulfilling a timeless ritual, and then went dark, as if embarrassed to have been tricked by a winking mechanical counterfeit.


As I awakened early the next morning, my mind replayed the blinking ballet between my mythical firefly and the cold white metal circuit board box. I recall thinking at the time that I must get my flashlight and check this out, then remembered that my light was downstairs, so I just laid back to resume my slumbers. But as I roused myself in the dim light of dawn, I started to wonder; had I really witnessed a false mating play between insect and LED? Or had I imagined it all in a sleepy waking dream state?

Night Blooming Jasmine Just Floors Me!

Night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum) just floors me. I caught a whiff of its intense perfume and immediately rose to my feet, sniffing and orienting myself to the heady scent. It seemed a dense cloud, wafting around the deck and into the kitchen, not diffusing as you might expect, but hanging tight as though somehow the fragrance compounds cohered to one another.


My response was involuntary and deeply stirring. Made me sympathetic to the moths who pollinate these intensely fragrant flowers. Sweet obsession. Yum! (Native to Asia, with unfortunate invasive tendencies in some areas, though seems well-behaved around here.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cidada!

The other morning as I sat down to my desk, I noticed a cicada dead on its back. I picked it up to flick it out, when I felt his legs stir and cling feebly to my thumb, steadying himself like some beer-soaked frat boy slowly rousing himself and wondering whether he'd had a good time last night. I retrieved my camera with my free hand and clicked (below). Then, without warning, he just went off: "whhhrrrRRRLLLclclclCLCLCL!"
Listening to a chorus of cicadas, you'd assume you're hearing a host of hundreds or thousands. But holding this little dynamo in my fingers, I sensed the power of one. A mere quartet of these little virtuosos could produce a mighty sound. And when their numbers really swell, the racket can be deafening! A locally seasonal species known as the Dawn and Dusk Cicada, whose sentinel call bookends the day, has a much deeper more resonant twang; as though channeling an "Ommmm" from a faraway Tibetan monastery through a Jimi Hendrix fuzzbox.

Remember those little metal cricket clicker toys, with the strip of spring steel that you pushed "click" and released "clack"? Clickclackclickclackclickclack... Drove my mother crazy! Cicadas are about the same size. If those cheap little made-in-Japan noise toys of my childhood had evolved along with Japan's consumer products technology revolution, they would probably resemble the metal-flake sea-green gossamer-winged fellow I held in my fingertips (the modern version being fully automated, lithium ion-powered, and GPS-equipped; with downloadable "whhhrrrrRRRclclCLCL" tones on the website).

Like so many other insects, cicadas are drawn to light at night. They're big enough to make quite an impression when they come hurtling in, as you sit quietly dining by candlelight. They may be reckless but they're hardly malicious; just clumsy and easily disoriented. Landing on the table and sitting perfectly still, they'll hesitatingly start to crawl toward the object of their obsessioncandle glowand suddenly launch themselves full force into the candle vase (Slam!) then lay languishing on their backs, stunned unconscious, before stirring and having another go (Slam!).

I was cleaning up after dinner when something big landed on my nose
I was helpless, both hands in dishwater. With a cross-eyed downward glance, I detected out-of-focus metallic blue-green, dislodged the little bugger with a shake of my head and upward puff. What is it with these guys, anyway?!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Year of the Locust

For some reason, there have been a lot of grasshoppers around this year. Big ones. From a distance they look like birds or bats in flight, only giving themselves away by the clumsy way they land. At peak density a couple months ago, it seemed there was always one or two in flight wherever you looked. And when a troop of monkeys passed through the canopy, a dozen or more grasshoppers would take to wing at once (being a tasty treat among Spider Monkeys and White Face Capuchins). On one occasion, I watched as spider monkeys moving through the mango tree let loose a volley of grasshoppers, one of which was picked off on the wing by an enterprising Roadside Hawk who'd been lurking in the shadows.

Ever wonder at the difference between locusts and grasshoppers? I did, so I asked (Ask.com). Turns out, not much. Physically, you can't tell them apart. Locusts are known for having a swarming phase, usually distinct morphologically. Many locusts are now known to be just the swarming phase of a previously presumed different species. And some grasshopper species sometime engage in gregarious (swarming) behavior.


So far, no swarming. Lucky me.

The Eyes Have It

While a single candle provides only a feeble flame, an array of a half dozen provides plenty of light for dining. Plus, candles conserve battery power and aren't nearly as attractive to annoying insects as electric lights. We were about to sit down to a candlelight dinner when I saw that one of the candles had gone out. Going to re-light it, I noticed a large leaf sitting on the sand bottom of my improvised candle holder, so I reached in to pluck it out.


It turned out to be a large moth that had flown in (now my prime suspect as flame snuffer) and had probably exhausted itself trying to escape. This enabled me to handle it easily while Diane snapped a couple photos. The large false eyespots are normally hidden under the upper wings, and in it's resting pose the moth is well camouflaged (leading me to think it a leaf). But if disturbed by a predator, it need only spread its wings to reveal a pair of large menacing eyes, startling any would-be predator into believing that it may be about to become prey to a much larger beast, causing it to flee.


According to my trusty Mariposas de Costa Rica, my startling specimen was probably Automeris metzli, in the Saturniidae family. False eyespots are not all that uncommon in moths, especially among the Saturnids; although eyespots as large and distinctive as these are truly extraordinary. Interestingly, no sign of the deep dark spot is visible on the underside of the wing. And the upper wing, camouflaged to appear like a leaf when folded, has an eyespot on its underside (though not nearly as spectacular as the lower wing eyespot depicted in the photo).


And now, back to dining by candlelight...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Arachnid Peek-a-boo

Charismatic megafauna get all the attention. You know, panda bears and their ilk; cuddly with big brown eyes and human-like traits. They're the poster children of wildlife conservation. Here on the Osa, monkeys and such fill the bill. Or macaws; big and colorful, squabbling raucously like a quarrelsome old couple, they even form life-long pair bonds. Biologists have a word for critters that embody a collection of human-endearing characteristics: fubsy.


Spiders are not fubsy. But they are no less interesting for the lack. They inspire phobic fits in many, which is understandable since most are venomous, some spectacularly so. But they are best known for their unique method of hunting: the web with which they ensnare their prey (later to deliver the coup de grace--a toxic bite).


The Golden Orb Weaver (so called because of the color of its spider silk) is big, up to 3 inches across or more, and beautiful, with jewel-like dots and patterns. They're also prodigious web builders, capable of throwing up an astonishing amount of spider silk, literally overnight. Which is why you want to keep a weather eye out for webs on morning jungle jaunts.


When hiking the trail early one morning, I immediately knew I'd walked into a web. Stop, back up, and kind of corkscrew yourself away from anchoring vegetation, raising your arms and shaking your hands to lift the threads and shake them off. Clear of the hazard, I continued on my way, quickly forgetting the incident.


Imagine my astonishment when, 15 minutes later, the owner of the forgotten web decided to rappel off the bill of my cap and position himself an inch in front of my right eye. Yikes!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Nature Awe

Awe. Good stuff. Not easy to come by. Different people get it in different ways: art, music, sport, film, meditation, fast driving, slow dancing... Awe happens when the experience of the moment is so complete, so all-encompassing, that for an instant, there's nothing else in the world. The lucky ones among us have lots of ways of getting there. For me, the intimate experience of nature is among the best.


Morpho Alert! When a saucer-size, electric-sky-blue butterfly wafts into view, I'm immediately transported. Makes me feel like an "extra" on the movie set of Fantasia. (Cue music! Roll camera!) Usually, observing extraordinary nature leaves me wondering about adaptive mechanisms and their evolutionary significance. But Morphos just transport me and leave me smiling.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Flying Bananas

Sighting a toucan in the jungle is a precious moment. You hear them more than you see them, with their ghostly echoey calls, back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes they're so close, you know they're RIGHT THERE, yet they somehow evade detection. Other times, they're right out in the open. Generally solitary or limited to pairs or very small groups, once in a while they'll aggregate. As they fly, one by one, across a clearing, I have a hard time not seeing them as flying bananas.


There are several species of toucan in Costa Rica. The one most commonly found on the Osa Peninsula is the Chestnut Mandible Toucan. With their bright yellow beak and yellow bib, all stretched out on the wing, the resemblance to a flying banana is unmistakable; all the more realistic for the brown bruise on the bottom (the chocolate-colored mandible).


Just a little food for thought for you birders...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ode to an Orchid

I am not a poet. Nor have I ever taken a particular interest in the art form (nothing against it, just not my thing). But I was recently moved to verse witnessing pollinator visitors at our Catasetum maculatum orchid. An epiphyte, this denizen of the canopy is only sparsely distributed throughout the jungle; ours came to us as a tree-fall orphan (plucking wild orchids off their host trees is BAD!).


Part of the drama is the build-up. Plants generally go about the business of growing at their own slow pace, and orchids are no exception. A flower spike may take weeks or even months before individual buds become conspicuous. And then it can be further days or weeks of anticipation before they open. Some orchid flowers persist for weeks, others for just a day. In the case of our Catasetum, the flowering peak lasted just a few hours, but an intense time it was, marked by a frenzy of bees.


Ode to a Catasetum


Bees hover

Alight!

Pulsating abdomen tiger striped

Unsated, obsessed,

hover anew…

(How do they know? What are they thinking?)


Object of desire

Sweet cinnamon licorice scent,

Glossy promise of sex.

Chemical trickery!

Pendent, maroon, all-knowing,

Mute goddess


What possessed these bees? Investigators observe that these bees are not collecting a "nectar reward", the typical reason bees visit flowers. Rather these bees, exclusively males, are collecting fragrance compounds, which they use as a sexual attractant for that "come hither" scent. Researchers further suggest that the specificity of the fragrance compounds between different bee-orchid pairings serves as natural reproductive barriers, helping explain high rates of species diversity in geographically uniform habitats like the jungle.


(Here's a short video of the bee action--orientation is sideways--ooops!---so just turn your head.)

video

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I’m a birder now…

I’m a birder now. Not for finally laying eyes on the secretive Resplendent Quetzal, nor for stalking the wily Motmot (been there, done that). No, I earned my wings for killing one. A chicken.

I’m mostly a vegetarian now. Not out of concern for the tender sensibilities of my fellow creatures; rather from caring for the planet. After power generation, industrial meat production is the next largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, methane farts and all (transportation ranks third). Not to mention the absurdly large portion of the earth's surface devoted to making meat, and all the habitat destruction, groundwater contamination, etc. For more grim meaty facts, check out Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or this TED talk by food writer Mark Bittman; also on YouTube (by the way, if this your first visit to TED, go explore—refined essence of brilliance from the world’s best and brightest).

All the same, you gotta eat, right? Pablo, owner of the small tropical homestead where I’m staying, keeps poultry. A paltry few. Layers and fryers. They eat kitchen scraps; a convenient and tidy relationship. The layers are easy, and truly fresh eggs are a treat. But when a Boa Constrictor started picking off the fryers, we figured it was our turn.

Eat what you kill, kill what you eat. So I did the deed (they really do keep flapping and twitching long after they’ve lost their heads). Then you pluck ‘em. Boiling hot water scalds the skin, and feathers come out in messy wet handfuls. Smells like wet dog. Then I steeled myself for the gutting. “Just like cleaning a fish,” I told myself as I reached in. Only it was warm inside, and made sucking sounds as I pulled fistfuls of entrails out of the cavity.

Gradually, it started looking more like the chickens I was familiar with—naked and headless! I was finally on firmer ground, foodwise. A mess of minced garlic, handful of garden-fresh chopped basil, olive oil, salt, pepper; work it under the skin and into the cavity; roast for an hour at 425. Voila!

I wish I could say it was a tender and delectable treat. But this was one tough old bird. Tasty, but chewy. Thinly sliced, the breast meat will be good for a few sandwiches. The rest should make some fine chicken stock for soups and sauces.

Anyway, that’s how I earned my feathers. Braawwk!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hatch of the day...

The jungle seethes with life. Plants grow rapidly, clambering over one another, competing for light, nutrients, moisture. Grazers eat this bounty, and in turn get eaten. That’s life! While things may appear to be in a stable equilibrium, that’s hardly the case. Life not only seethes, it surges and pulses. Remember the lynx and the hare (from your high school biology class)? Predator and prey populations crescendo and crash. Natural selection favors the unpredictable, making it difficult for predators to set their alarms for meal times. One strategy is to burst on the scene in vast numbers, sating predators while allowing plenty of survivors to reproduce, securing a place in the next generation.

Last night there were insects. (OK; there are always insects, especially at night, little moths attracted to the light.) But these were unexpected visitors, just last night. Little black ones (sorry entomologists out there, I know I should try harder, at least ID to Family, but it’s after hours!). Drawn to my candles and kitchen light, they were everywhere, perversely having timed their arrival for the day I had the house cleaned! Sometimes they’d land on you. They don’t sting or claw or bite; just a bit of a tickle. You ignore them until they bug you enough, then flick them off—they don’t come back like annoying flies. They’re just as likely to land on the cutting board while you’re chopping. Or on your plate while you’re chomping. Anyway, they’re hard to see, especially because you dim the lights to minimize the onslaught.

So there are insects in my food. It might have been better to prepare the meal in daylight, dodging the hatch. But you don’t know they’re coming until it’s too late. (That’s their strategy, right? Burst on the scene unexpected and unannounced…) Will they be back tomorrow? Will I bother with early prep in anticipation? Anyway, dinner was delicious: Ensalata Caprese with fresh mozzarella from the cloud forest zone dairies of Monteverde, a gorgeous red ripe tomato from the farmer’s market, and fresh-picked basil from the garden; drizzled with olive oil and balsamic, accompanied by fresh whole wheat walnut bread, all rinsed down with a fine glass of Chilean Cabernet. Yum. Bugs and all!