Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Life in the Hills

Our new temporary life in Costa Rica is off to a good start. The hills are still turning us into red-faced, drenched versions of ourselves, but we think we’re having a slightly easier time of it now than a week ago.

The Kekoldi station entrance is about 10 minutes by bus from Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. From the entrance, we hike up a forest path about 30 minutes to get to the station. There are various trails around the forest, most of which we still don’t know. In fact, one of our first days of bird banding here, we accidentally took the wrong trail in the early morning hours on our way to meet the team, and had to backtrack up an even steeper part of the hill than our usual route. We haven’t made that mistake again!

Emily with Keswar (left) and Duaro (right). Most of our banding
stations are in the field and we sit on a tarp. 

Here, we have a table!
Our team consists of Daniel Martinez, who’s been leading the operation since 2006, Bribri brothers Duaro and Keswar, Aaron, who’s just joined us from Kentucky/North Carolina, and us. They’re all very nice and intelligent, and the three of us Americans attempt to converse in Spanish as much as possible, only switching to English when we’re not sure of a word or phrase. I think our Spanish is improving, but it can be exhausting trying to think in another language all day.

Birds here have continued to be interesting, and for mammals, so far we’ve seen sloths galore, white-faced capuchins, and an olingo (which only Mike has seen so far, even though it apparently comes by the station every night). Favorite birds since last time, seen, not netted: a pair of spectacled owls during the day, great potoo that hangs out by the station, white-collared manakins that have leks all over, and woodpeckers of various persuasions including cinnamon, pale-billed, and black-cheeked. Oh, and spring raptor migration is happening! On any given day, we’ll see groups of hundreds of them—mostly turkey vultures, Swainson’s hawks, and broadwinged hawks—flying north, just over the span of a few minutes.

Spectacled owl...figures the long lens was back at the station.
This is cropped from a 50mm lens.
A few days ago, we had time off and went to nearby Manzanillo for hiking (both of us), snorkeling (Emily) and kayaking (Mike). The water here is a great temperature, and the reef is right off the shore—though the best reef is probably further out than swimming distance. There are boat trips for snorkeling, but we’re trying to be good about our budget.

Speaking of budget, here’s a question for you all: once we’re done with our program here in June, should we spring for a trip back to Brazil before we return to the states in July? We went to the Pantanal several years ago and had to purchase expensive 5-year visas, which expire in another few years. But since we’re in this part of the world already, maybe it makes sense to return on this trip, before we go home and “settle down” more permanently. It’s not cheap or super-close to get there, and the Pantanal and Amazon require guided tours and stays at fairly nice places. This could be our last chance for quite a while, though, and we’d still really like to see some big cats (and small cats!) and the ridiculous giant anteater. Last time, we saw Brazilian tapir, birds galore, and other neat creatures. But what if we return home jobless? Maybe we’ll regret the additional expense. The economy still seems pretty slow. Check out our poll on the right and tell us what you think. Other suggestions of favorite places with excellent wildlife viewing opportunities that come at a reasonable price?

Coatimundi, from our trip to Brazil in 2009. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Last days in Peru, first days in Costa Rica

Our last few days in Lima, camera aside, were enjoyable. We stayed with Narda and Alexis’s family again, saw Chris of FFT and met his family, and had a few great outings. Narda and Alexis took us to Pantanos de Villa, the only reserve within Lima, and we had an awesome time birdwatching with them. We searched in vain for burrowing owls—found a nest, but owls were hidden—but did find the hilarious Peruvian thick-knee, one of the silliest-looking birds we’ve ever seen.

Chris helped us set up an outing with his friend Guillermo, a guide in Lima, to the Lomas de Lachay, about 100 km outside central Lima. It’s full of rolling hills that are apparently cloud-forest-like in the wet season, but were more desert-like when we went. We still saw a bunch of neat birds, including two pairs of burrowing owls and the elusive Andean tinamou. Apparently, the entire countryside in the area outside the reserve used to be similar habitat before ranchers and loggers pretty much turned it into the desert it is now. Even in the reserve, in a less-used entrance, there was a squatter illegally grazing his goats. The park service must be either powerless or turning a blind eye. However, they are trying to reforest the area inside the reserve, collecting seed pods for planting, which was neat to see.

Kekoldi research station
When we arrived in San Jose, we stayed the first day at Hotel Kekoldi (same name, no relation to the indigenous reserve where we are now). Lots of errands including doctor visit (Emily: just finished the resulting course of anti-parasitics and anti-bacterials…stomach in slightly better shape), haircut (Mike), bus ticket purchase, and eating. We both agreed that San Jose has really grown on us since our first visit in 2004. It’s walkable, pretty safe, and has some attractive parks.

Emily and
white-whiskered puffbird
The Kekoldi Indigineous Reserve, where we’ll be doing bird research for a while, has a nice research center run by the incredibly hospitable Sebastian, Maritza, and their Bribri family. They cook tasty food and are eager for us to have a good time. We need to revise our thoughts that Peru would be hotter than Costa Rica, though: it’s been a lot sunnier and more scorching some days here. Mosquitoes are still a problem, and there are leishmaniasis-carrying sandflies, too. Hoping we’ll stay healthy!

The place is super-hilly, too, and makes us feel out of shape and sweaty. Hopefully we’ll get used to it!

Birds from the first few days of mist-netting and banding were very cool: a tiny hawk (that’s really what it’s called), white-whiskered puffbird, tanagers, woodcreepers, and tons of hummingbirds, which thankfully have all flown off okay.

We're actually pretty worn out...this trip is no relaxing vacation! But we're doing well, and looking forward to the next few months.

Three-toed sloth
Bronze-tailed plumeleteer
Mike measuring hummingbird
Sunset from observation tower
Tiny hawk
View from observation tower
Sleeping tree frog (points to whoever can tell us which kind)

Camera and customs

We’re able to take pictures again! This is no thanks to the evil customs office in Lima or the ineptitude and just plain unhelpfulness of DHL. But with plenty of thanks to my (Emily’s) father, Dave, Chris, Narda, and Alexis, whose valiant efforts to help reunite us with our/a camera are greatly appreciated.

As it turned out, when DHL sent the camera to Lima, it got flagged as an item for inspection, and they delayed it for nearly a week, then promised it would be ready for delivery to Chris on the day before we left Peru. That day, they then told him it would not be ready, and with numerous phone calls to DHL (Lima and US) and attempts to call the customs office, we learned that they wanted almost $400 in taxes for our camera before they’d release it (!) and that even if we marched in with the money (which wasn’t really an option), they still refused to release it for days more—by which point we’d already be in San Jose; our airfare did not allow changes. They also claimed they hadn’t received paperwork for the camera which Chris had already sent them twice, by fax and email. So then, we would have had to send it on to Costa Rica for another…hmmm…at least $50 if not $100, and gotten re-taxed in Costa Rican customs (where they would not even send it until we’d paid the Lima customs)! We probably wouldn’t have gotten it for another month at that rate, and would probably be close to $1,000 more in the hole—aside from the outrageous original cost of shipping. Sadly, we ended up having to refuse delivery of the camera, so it is hopefully on its way home by now.

We decided to get a backup camera, and Narda and Alexis devoted a substantial part of their evening to going to an electronics store with us. We’d found one that was marginally compatible with our lenses (would need to manual focus with our big lens and our wide-angle), but the bank had apparently decided the transaction was too big and sketchy-looking and declined the card—and their fraud-protection office was having technical issues. When we left for San Jose, we figured we’d just have to end up with a point-and-shoot.

One of our first pictures with D90
and Tokina 11-16mm lens
Panama City’s international airport is one of our new favorite places. It is a mecca of duty-free electronics, and on our layover we found a Nikon D90 that’s far more compatible with our gear, though sadly not great in the low-light conditions of the rainforest. We bought it, holding our breath while the credit card transaction came through, and tested it in the airport. It’s been doing pretty well so far, though we haven’t yet had great photo opportunities.

You might ask: why would we go to the trouble of buying a new camera body that’s somewhat similar to ours? Why not just have ours sent onward? Well, there’s that $1,000ish in taxes/shipping that we’d never see again, the month we’d be without the camera, bringing us to half our trip without it, and there’s another thing: there’s a definite camera shortage here in Costa Rica, and lots of ex-pats who like photography, so we should be able to sell this one for about what we paid for it before we leave the country. And if worse comes to worse, there’s eBay.

Many thanks to everyone who helped us along the way! Moral of the story: we highly recommend never shipping electronics internationally to yourself unless prepared to pay through the nose and deal with extremely difficult people.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fauna... forever!

The past month has been an experience like none we’ve ever had. Sure, there’s been plenty of rain and we haven’t been able to go out as much as we’d originally planned, but we’ve also been out in the forest plenty and have gotten to see some fantastic things. Here are some highlights (and a few lowlights) since we last wrote:

Emily and night monkey. Photo by David Johnston.
Way back on Valentine’s Day, we were in town. Here’s how we spent the day: Mike – at the house with a stomach bug; Emily – machete-wielding with the group to clear the trails of a few trees at Anaconda Lodge. ¡Que romantico! The night before, the group had gone to La Balsa, an open-air disco next to the river, a pretty neat place. Our last day in town was spent at the Amazon Shelter, building and improving enclosures for the animals they take in. One owl monkey in particular took a special liking to Emily and had to be pried off her shoulders. Dave's picture of it appears in a cool interview with Fauna Forever leader Chris Kirkby.

Praying mantis.
Photo by Naun Amable Silva.
Next came Casa ITA, run by Reserva Amazonica on the Madre de Dios river, which has all the access to RA’s trails, but with considerably more rustic accommodations a mile or so away. The trails themselves were a bit worse for wear because of four straight days of rain while we were there, and more before we’d arrived, but among other things, we saw a sleepy porcupine at eye level a few feet away, saddle-backed tamarins (cute, tiny monkeys), and a quick glimpse of peccary (wild, hairy forest pigs). We also found a fantastic leaf-mimic praying mantis. The insects in general are out of this world.

Our mist nets were in between thigh-deep pools of water, which we’d been dreading, but which didn’t turn out to feel as horrible as we expected. Especially since one of the birds we netted was the very large, very cute black-fronted nunbird, one of Emily’s favorites.

Mike with whip snake caught by
herp team. Photo by James Spence.
The best part about Casa ITA / Reserva was the canopy walkway, which we took advantage of with Naun whenever possible. There were some truly amazing birds, and the view of the forest was incredible.

Because our next destination unexpectedly closed for a month, we ended up back at Sachavacayoc Center for our last part of the program, which was fine with us. We were able to go out bird netting/banding most days, and the herpetofauna (snakes, lizards, frogs) team took a lot of night walks and other excursions.

Trails were in overall better shape, and we saw tons of mammal tracks including tapir, deer, and peccary. We briefly saw some peccary through heavy foliage, and Naun—lucky Naun—actually saw a tapir at the mist nets, then, later in the same day, an ocelot! We were just far enough behind to miss out. Years waiting to see an ocelot while traveling in the tropics: 7. Moral: walk right on your leader/guide’s heels.

James, putting his trust
in Emily, who is in the
process of making him
unintentionally bald.

What we did see, in the morning before we came back to town, is the rather rare harpy eagle. It flew across the field at Sachavacayoc, landed in a tree for long enough to get a good look, then took off again before we could call the others. Think about a giant bird…maybe a red-tailed hawk for those of you back home in the States. Now double or triple it in size and give it a cool crest (with a color change to shades of gray). Awesome.

Now, we're in Lima for a few days. Then, time for Costa Rica. More to follow. Anyone have any favorite animals you’d like us to try to see for you?

Many thanks to Dave, Chris, Naun, Brian, James, and Tania for making our time with Fauna Forever Tambopata memorable and enjoyable!

Emily oohing and ahhing over black-fronted nunbird.
Photo by Naun Amable Silva.
Mike with green-and-rufous kingfisher.
Photo by Naun Amable Silva.
Musician wren. Photo by Naun Amable Silva.