Costa Rica, Part Dos: Not in Kansas Anymore

This was actually my third time in Costa Rica. The Mate and I visited Son One when he was first working there six years ago. Then there was the time my zoologist dad took me deep into the jungle for an Organization of Tropical States conference when I was sixteen (I was too scared of the rainforest to walk alone–correctly, as it turned out, because the assembled biologists later discovered an extremely venomous fer-de-lance viper on the trail).

But it’s still a shock to realize how DIFFERENT Nature is there. Oh, it looks inviting as all get-out, from above.

Up near the Monteverde Cloud Forest, where usually, Son One told us, you don’t see anything but cloud.

But get in close, and it’s red in tooth and claw–even the plants. Like this ficus, or Strangler Fig, enthusiastically murdering its host tree.

Whatever you do, don’t imagine this process sped up.

In the jungle, it’s everyone for itself. Even a lowly fencepost becomes a host.

Kind of cute, unless you’re the one who has to keep replacing the fenceposts.

And don’t even get me started on the army ants. (Not pictured: army ants. You’re welcome.)

Because Son One is a classic naturalist, which is to say nuts about dangerous critters, he was REALLY hoping for a sighting of either a puma or a fer-de-lance–preferably both. We struck out on both, this trip, although we did score some stunningly large paw prints, and this official Pile o’ Puma Poop on the trail:

…You’re welcome?

Son One did manage to find one fer-de-lance (terciopelo, in Spanish, which means velvet–has anyone actually stroked that snake??), but he hasn’t sent me the photo yet, so here’s one from our last visit:

And this is why we hike in rubber boots.

But of course, of COURSE, Costa Rica is way more than things that want to kill you. It’s also a splendid riot of sound and scent and color. Like this motmot which welcomed us on our first afternoon:

¡Hola amigo!

And of course, of COURSE…monkeys. Since Son One’s specialty is taking people far from the madding crowd, we had an entire troupe of Capuchins to ourselves. (Here’s where I decided I need to invest in a zoom lens for my phone, but you get the idea.)

Son One, who speaks fluent Capuchin, warned us not to stand underneath. They like to pee on your head.

This thrilling wildlife encounter was somewhat undermined when we stopped for coffee at a place which puts out fruit for the birds…which the monkeys, of course, gorge on.

“Hey, I’m done with my banana. You gonna finish that muffin?”

As we headed back down toward the lowlands on a road whose steepness I couldn’t possibly capture with my phone, this tree caught me eye. The locals call it “Gringo Tree” because it looks like a white person with bad sunburn. But this particular one looked like E.T.

Phone home.

I‘m not saying North American Nature doesn’t have weird stuff. Just not THIS weird. Or wonderful. See you in the lowlands for Part 3!

Letting Nature–And My Son–Be My Guide: Off to Costa Rica

Son One has higher internet privacy standards than I do, bless him, so I can’t just re-blog his posts about life as a naturalist in Costa Rica. But in honor of the fact that, by the time you read this, The Mate, Son Two and I will be on our way to visit him (if not already being led through the jungle on a night tour, looking for creepy-crawlies–emphasis on creepy), I thought I’d share a little of his world, in his words and pictures.

Here’s a post from last month:

The thing in the image below is not mold, or shadows, or a water stain.  No, the reason the wall appears to be sprouting a happy trail is because it is covered in a huge mass of Harvestmen.


Harvestmen, or Daddy Longlegs, are arachnids, but they are not spiders.  They are in their own Order Opiliones.  They appear to havee only one body segment, no venom, and do not make silk.  They are completely harmless, and generally nocturnal.  During the day, they often congregate in swarms for defense.  When they gather, they usually shiver, or “bob”, and when taken together the swarms look like a single mass or large furry animal, deterring predators.  This behavior also has the benefit of combining their deterrent scents, another defense.  This is effective enough that sometimes other animals use the aggregations as cover from their own predators.

We came across this group while giving a tour of an abandoned house near the edge of our property.  The house has been neglected for years, and is now the home of several colonies of bats.  The bats were the selling point for the tour, but the Opiliones ended up stealing the show.

I have seen aggregations before, but never this big.  It nearly covered the entire wall.  And what the pictures don’t capture is the fact that it was moving.  Vibrating.  Shimmering.  Each Opilione was bobbing, and bobbing into the one next to it, causing the whole mass to writhe and pulse.

Being a nature enthusiast with poor boundaries, I immediately dared a fellow naturalist to touch it.  He, in turn, demanded I do it first.  So I did.

His caption: "Good luck sleeping tonight."

His caption: “Good luck sleeping tonight.”

It was like petting an overly hairy dog.  Or running your fingers through wiry lace.  Lace with legs.  Legs that moved.  As soon as I did so, however, the Harvestmen’s other defense kicked in and they dropped from the wall, en masse, each one landing on another and causing a chain reaction that resulted in a cascade of delicate little spidery bodies, legs flailing, onto the ground and over my boots.  It was beautiful.

Yup–beautiful. That’s Son One. Can you tell why he loves his job? And why we love reading about it? And why we’re so excited to let him guide us around his beloved cloud forest?

He’s also funny. Here’s another recent post:

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Armadillo

This is one of those stories with no point, but I still have to tell it while it’s still fresh.

We had a family visit represented by three generations:  a grandmother that only spoke Chinese, her daughter who spoke a little English, and a baby that didn’t speak much of anything.  While the language barrier would have been tricky enough, especially in most cases where conversations had to be translated twice and then back-translated every time a question was asked, things went poorly right from the start when immediately after checking in they returned to reception requesting that they be given a different room because theirs had a caterpillar on the door.

Our receptionist wasn’t sure what to make of this, but issued them a different key anyway.  They returned with that one, too.  The reason?  This room had spiders in it.  This level of guest attention continued for the rest of the day and into the next morning, when they returned from the Cloud Forest audibly complaining that they did not see enough animals.  Clearly, these people thought they were in some kind of zoo.  Or maybe a resort.

So this is what I knew before accompanying them on a guided tour of a local coffee farm.  The grandmother complained non-stop during the walk over to the point where her daughter eventually just stopped translating and joined me in trying to ignore her.  I’m sure if I had paid better attention I might have learned the Chinese words for “too hot”, “too steep”, “what the hell is wrong with these cows?”, and “why won’t these dogs stop barking?”, but my mind was on the tour and respecting our host who was giving us a tour or her home and family farm.  The guests’ minds, however, were not.

Instead of greeting our host, they both walked past her and began taking pictures.  They rapid-fired questions faster than I could juggle them in two languages.  For most of the tour and demonstrations, the grandmother kept talking and playing with the baby, who mostly ran wild and overturned baskets of coffee beans.  Our saintly-patient guide and I shared look after look as we skipped ahead in an abridged version of the tour.

However, at one point the farmer’s dogs started going crazy and barking in the bushes.  Her daughter arrived at a run and asked us if we would like to see an armadillo.  She then led us to the spot where two dogs were trying to find purchase on the back half of an armadillo sticking out of a freshly dug hole and quickly vanishing into the ground.  Their claws and teeth just slid off its shell as the terrified creature burrowed further.

While the little girl and her mother tried to hold the dogs at bay, I tried to explain what was going on.

“Look, it’s trying to escape!”  I, too, tried to pry the creature out of its hole, but armadillos are well designed with no edges to speak of when cornered.  It was like trying to pick up a basketball with one hand from out of a toilet bowl, while the basketball is giving off clearly distressed grunts.

“Is that…a turtle?” I was asked.

“No, it’s an armadillo!”

“Can you spell that?”

“A-R—“ and the armadillo kicked about a pint of dirt into my face and mouth.

While I picked dirt out of my teeth, everyone, from the old lady, our guide, and even the baby, howled with laughter.  The dogs returned to their fruitless assault.  The ice broken, the tour went a lot better after that, and we also saw an agouti, an oropendola, some parrots, and even a weasel that darted across the road.

On the walk back, there was far less complaining.  Tiger Grandmom even smiled at one point, and said something to me that her daughter translated.

“She said we saw more animals here than in Monteverde.”

So, am I hoping for a wall of arachnids? Or an armadillo? Or something as cute as this possum?



Know what? I’ll take whatever Nature wants to share with me.Won’t even care if it’s excessively venomous. In fact, that would make Son One will be especially happy.

Not going to blog while traveling, so for now…Happy New Year! Be safe, everyone, and see you in 2016!


Red in Tooth and Claw and Paralysis

Feel the need for an empathy workout? Think of one of the most horrifying creatures you can imagine–GIANT SPIDER!!! Got that? Good. Now try feeling sorry for it.

Having trouble? Don’t worry. My son the naturalist will help you get there. Read on.

Pura Vida Stories

Nature is not a friendly place.  Life is often nasty, brutish, and short, and death is no picnic either.  There are some truly sadistic ways animals have dreamed up to dispatch and consume each other.  Most fish swallow each other whole, leaving the prey to suffocate in a sack of stomach acid.  Spiders immobilize their prey in webs and make them hang there, helpless and dreading, until they decide to liquefy them from the inside.  But even spiders deserve some pity for what can befall them.

Hold on to your stomachs, folks.  This is about to get national geo-graphic.Hold on to your stomachs, folks. This is about to get national geo-graphic.

Pictured above is a tarantula hawk wasp.  The unfortunate critter nearby is a tarantula.  The spider has been stung and paralyzed by the wasp, and can’t move much more than a groggy twitch.  The wasp is currently excavating a burrow in which she will drag the tarantula, safe from the prying…

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