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


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.)