Archive for December, 2016


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The holy grail of Monteverde bird watching:  the resplendent quetzal. Photo by Kim

There- you have the reason everyone goes to the Cloud Forest:  to see the resplendent quetzal.  This member of the trogon family is understandably a key fixture in Mayan and Aztec legend.  Apparently, the quetzal lost its most beautiful song when the Mayan lost their country to the Spaniards, and will only sing again when the land is once again free. These striking birds symbolized freedom since they reportedly would kill themselves in captivity. In fact, a breeding program at Zoológico Regional Miguel Álvarez del Torohas produced only about a dozen birds since 2003.  The song they sing is, for the time being, distinctive.

When we arrive, there is a pair of resplendent quetzals in trees by the parking lot. Astonishingly, some people decide they will skip the tour because they’ve seen what they came to see without leaving the parking lot.

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Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve is internationally famous and so amazingly busy.  We are advised of two things:  arrive for the first tour if you want to see any birds, and hire a guide.  If you get there late, the throngs will chase the birds away.  And if you think your untrained eyes will find birds and animals, well, good luck to you.

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The potoo on super zoom. Seriously, not finding this one by myself due to camoflauge.

I learn thoughout this trip why ecotourists should hire local guides.  It’s not just for their sharp eyes.  Guides at reserves share with each other information on where there are potoos posed still on a nest within a broken snag, bats roosting for the day, sloths sleeping, and hummingbird nests with young. You are benefiting from the sharp eyes of many guides.

And along with dollars that go to lodging and food, your guide fees and tips give the local communities reason to preserve these lands, to let the jungle come back.

At Santa Elena Reserve, our young guide tells a tale of wanting to guide only for the tourist dollars.  “I knew nothing about our birds and animals here,” he says. “But it was better money than cattle farming at home with my family.”

An older guide gave him a pair of broken binoculars.  He managed to fix them, and  found his world transformed when he saw his first bird in fine detail.  It stopped being about tourist dollars right then:  he was instantly hooked on his country’s wildlife .

When we walked with him, he demonstrated excellent tracking ability and found a quetzal breeding pair in the forest by subtle sound.

In Monteverde, the guides have equally interesting stories. Our guide walked us throught the complex life cycle of the strangler fig as if it were a suspensful drama, an unfolding story.

These strange trees are completely dependent on pollination by the fig wasp, which in turn depends on them. These are not bad trees, according to our guide, despite their name. “Tourists hear that they strangle trees, kill them, and they want them all to be removed,” he tells us.  “But they are part of the forest.  They’re natural. They help the birds and animals.”

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I think about that rule- removing things that kill other things- and how ironic it would be if we applied it to ourselves.

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Looking up inside a strangler fig that has swallowed its host.

Our companions on this tour are two artists that sit for coffee with us in the cafe afterward.  Greg Frux has completed multiple trips to beautiful Death Valley, first as an artist-in-residence because, he said, the artist who was supposed to go didn’t realize he or she would be camped out in a tent in the desert.  He shows me his wonderful field book and says he wants to do a painting of the strangler fig.  I don’t see anything from Costa Rica on his website even today, but he’s had many other grand adventures.

Aside from the wonderful coffee shop, there is a good gift shop with work from local artisans.  And there are hummingbird feeders.  The day is darkish and foggy, as it should be in the mist-shrouded mountains, and my photographs are only marginal, even though there are unbelievable numbers of hummingbirds there.  A local woman weaves nearby, and I’m interested, but I don’t know if we share a language.

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It’s hard to compete with the brilliance of hummingbirds, but this weaver was just as colorful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

montehummer1After the tour, we walk the trails, but it is getting hot now, with the sun out.  The guide has said the sun shines more than it should in the Cloud Forests.  “Climate change,” he tells us.  “Sun will destroy the forest.  It needs clouds, and mist, and cool.”

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The next day, we traveled to Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, much smaller and more peaceful. This is a community-run reserve, and it has a much more intimate feel.  It has fewer rules than Monteverde, so the guide takes us in the opposite direction of the other tour groups.  This is where we track the sound of a quetzal dropping fruits in the forest, and hear the “rusty gate bird”- the black faced solitaire.  It does sound like its common namesake, but its song resonates through the forest and with the song of the lonely toucan, means Costa Rica to me from there on out.

I learn an important differentiator of my home and this place, something that should have been obvious.  The trees here don’t have rings.  I learn this when I ask the guide about a large, old cedar. Radiocarbon dating, he says.

At Santa Elena, I find beauty in forest plants.  They are dramatic, sculptural and embossed with hairs and modified leaves and flowers.  They grow where ever they can, on the ground, all over the trees, hanging in the air.

At this less crowded reserve, we lingered.  We ate lunch, drank coffee, enjoyed listening to people talk. We bought gifts in the small shop adjacent to the cafe tables. Sure, the ride up to Monteverde was rough. I was still struggling with a respiratory infection, but the moist air felt good on my lungs and I understood exactly why we had come here. It was for the resplendent quetzal and everything else wonderful about this place.

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After 3 years, I haven’t made it back to Costa Rica yet.  I wanted to go back the next year, then the next, and- well, I’m too curious. I wander too much and am easily distracted by new adventures.

But I can tell you why I really want to go back.  It’s not the adventure travel activities and resorts, because my friend and I avoided those like the plague when we traveled to the Pacific coast in 2014. It’s the quiet lodges at refuges where the owners and communities are working to save what is left of the rich wildlife in the country.

This post is about the first leg of our trip, from Liberia to our lodging near the Cloud Forests of Monteverde and Santa Elena. Our trip started in Seattle, with clear skies as we flew over sleeping Mt. Rainier. Mt. St. Helens rises above the clouds in the background, a stubby reminder of what happens when our Cascade stratavolcanoes decide they are too symmetrical and lovely.

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Our travel plans led us to the smart choice of flying into Liberia.  Sure, we drove out past 40 kms of road construction leaving town, with men mixing and pouring concrete from wheelbarrows in 90F heat.  But after we flew out of San Jose at the end, I would recommend Liberia instead.  At the very least, Liberia wouldn’t be hosting the Costa Rica vs. Paraguay soccer game at the national stadium as San Jose was when we were passing through.

We had a stopover in Dallas both ways.  Don’t do this.  Or at least, if you must, give yourself about 4 hours to lay over in this airport.  We almost missed our connection on the way back, making a Chariots of Fire dash in our socks out of security and reaching the gate within a minute of closing – and this after our flight landed 2.5 hours before.

I can’t remember the airline we flew, but it doesn’t matter: the leg room and service are minimal on all of them when you’re in economy class. The only weirdly wonderful, throwback service I’ve experienced is from Air North going to the Canadian Arctic. Expensive to fly, but they have real food, free wine and capuccino and hot, moist towels before and after meals. Oh, and leg room.

I flew with an awful respiratory infection.  A doctor sent me with prescription nasal spray and Sudafed to avoid rupturing my full eardrums.  It was brutal to clear my ears, and the second takeoff felt like a near disaster.  My right ear has had a slight ringing ever since.

We landed in the early evening in Liberia, taxied to our nearby hotel, and sat on the veranda eating fruit and drinking juice in soothing warm air,  listening to night creatures chirping.  A gecko appeared on the wall, making an amazingly loud sound.

The next morning didn’t start out as a dream vacation. We gathered our rental 4WD, after finding the price skyrocketed over the quote with insurance coverage.  Since an automatic was twice the price as a manual transmission, we got the manual. This meant I was doing all the driving because Kim doesn’t drive a stick and that’s all I’ve ever owned.

The Korean SUV was a true Rent-A-Wreck; the suspension was shot by a thousand tourist yahoos and the air conditioning died within 10 minutes.  We kept the windows shut to keep out dust from the 40 km of aforementioned road construction.  That pretty much cooked us.

Then we took a couple wrong turns.  The first wasn’t too bad, but the second was a wrong turn out of Cañas onto 142, instead of continuing to 145.  People complain about the road to Monteverde, but they’re talking about 145.  The connector between was a steep, bone jarring, unsigned route.  The scenery was gorgeous and it was the type of lonely I like.  Kim- well, between no signs and bouncing around on lousy suspension in a crappy 4WD with no air conditioning, she was understandably losing patience.

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Kim, taking a much needed break from the hot, suspensionless SUV on the road to Monteverde.

2222014_sharetheroadThe upside of the drive was that we weren’t lost, and we saw one cause of decline of the resplendent quetzal, a charismatic bird everyone going to Monteverde Cloud Forest wants to see:  a fragmented travel corridor between the mountains and the sea. Cattle ranches have denuded forest, leaving flying quetzals vulnerable to winged predators.

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In the middle of nowhere appeared an “Info Center”- with no facilities or people to give information.  Had to stop for the picture, anyway.

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A sign! The speed limit is the funniest one- at that speed, our vehicle would disintegrate.

We finally made it to Cabinas Capulin.  It was a little hard to find someone to check us in: the lodging operation is operated on a restored portion of a working dairy operation. They, like others, are adding ecotourism to their portfolio to weather the uncertainties of farming and to benefit from local tourism.  They’re not as connected as some, so we had to set up our own guide reservations in the Cloud Forest Reserves, which require certified guides.

 

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Our cabin was small and comfortable, with great deck and views.  The wood in the cabins was from fallen trees that can no longer be harvested because they’re endangered.  We learned on the trip that wood is poached along with exotic animals and birds from tropical forests.

The view from the deck was filled with lush, beautiful trees with birds fluttering everywhere.  The family built trails as the jungle began to restore itself, but clearly, some trees had been there awhile.

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We wandered the trails the first day, and I met my first strangler fig.  These tropical plants earned their name by their survival tactic:  they begin to grow in the canopy of a live tree, drop roots to the ground, slowly surrounding the host until they shut it down and become a tree of their own.

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The Capulin strangler fig was on one trail, and on another, enormous ant mound that would be dwarfed by the underground complex and satellite mounds we couldn’t see.  A parade of leaf cutter ants marched along the trail, bounty on their backs.  The leaf pieces are not for their dinner table, but to feed the fungus they farm underneath the dirt. Awesome video of these ants is at Deep Look on YouTube.

 

leafcutterantsThus my first view into the complex, interconnected world of the rainforest:  an environment where any creature that plows the soil and recycles organic important is absolutely critical.  Even a soldierly group of ants with a labyrinthine underground world.

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Emerald Toucanet

We saw other birds here, including an emerald toucanet and pale-billed woodpecker, and came upon the other ubiquitous feature of Costa Rican tourist areas:  the zipline. Cabinas Capulin has a small one, which we did not avail ourselves, but up the road is apparently the Big Daddy of ziplines, and an aerial tram.  We passed.

cabinas_palebilledwoodpeckerCabinas Capulin was really our jumping off point to Monteverde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves, which I’ll cover in the next post.  Suffice to say, it is an inexpensive place to stay, and a coworker recommended it when we couldn’t get into the Ecolodge San Luis, a branch of University of Georgia. And Cabinas was a secluded, relaxing place to be after our rather inauspicious start.

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This is what I do when it gets dreary at home in the winter:  go through my trip photos from the last year, and plan my trips for next year.  It’s a damp, chilly sub-freezing evening that went dark at 4 p.m., and I’m sneezing. In other words, time to spend time bundled up with cups of ginger tea looking back and forward to adventures.

On a September road trip to Montana, I took a day to go to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on the advice of a coworker.  She is as much a student of nature and wildlife as I am.  She has a niece in West Yellowstone who drove her to Red Rock Lakes NWR about a month earlier.

It was an excuse to speed away from the madding crowd. I needed the break from Yellowstone National Park, which I love and support but grieve over as it becomes overrun. The drive to Lakeview was a trek:  50 miles of gravel roads winding from Henry’s Lake over Red Rock Pass by Mt. Jefferson before dropping into the Centennial valley.  The drive was first an adventure in elk avoidance, followed by swerving to avoid barreling trucks loaded with logs from a fire prevention project in the refuge.

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Elk crossing the road by Henry’s Lake

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Elk that ran across the road on the mountain, running i nto the woods

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Logging truck coming down the more benign South Valley Road

I unwound on the lovely and wonderfully lonely drive. The road was lit up by groves of aspens that glow different hues of gold depending on how the light falls. I wanted to stop everywhere to take pictures of fall colors we never see at home, but, well- logging trucks. Enough said.

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In Lakeview, I wandered around the refuge headquarters, which were closed since the rangers were in the field. I read signs and chatted a bit with a maintenance person. We lamented house prices in my area, where his kids live.  Way too high, but property was also too expensive around Lakeview, he said.  A recreational lot was for sale for $87,000.  That much, and only 3 acres! He was shocked.  I was, too, because you need a snowmobile to get there in winter.  And spring brings snowmelt and swampy roads.  So you’re using that lot from May to September-ish.

I walked the Sparrow Ponds Trail, despite a recent griz warning.  The refuge worker told me the bruins lurk in the willows if they’re around.  This one wasn’t, nor was much else except for birds.  I wanted to see a moose, but got there too late in the day, he said.

The waterfowl were having nothing to do with me. I tried being sneaky, but a great paddling of wings greeted me as they fled across the lake.  I sat huddled on a dirt mound by the shore in the cold wind for as long as I could stand it.

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Two trumpeter swans, at a very great distance

Then I moseyed on toward Lower Red Rock Lake.  I traveled past the road to the lake out of curiosity, and came upon a little homestead cemetery. I gingerly opened the chain and walked in.  The sign is defiant, protective of the crumbling headstones and resentful of the refuge, a last stand to respect the people who clung to a tough, hardscrabble way of life.

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The last person was buried before I was born. No one really lived that long except Mr. Shambow, the last to be laid to rest here.  Maude, perhaps his daughter, breathed air for only nine days. If there was a Mrs. Shambow, she’s not buried here; perhaps the tragedy of losing an infant drove her away from this place.

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It’s not clear whose headstone this is, but the farewell is resigned, a drop of the hands to the sides. The words convey exhaustion, defeat by a rough land and rough weather.

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redrockscampgroundAfter visiting the windswept cemetery with its oblivious gophers heaving the hallowed earth into mounds, I drove to Lower Red Rocks Lake campground. The gates and the signage speak to the neighbors and their manners.

 

There was no one at the campground, perhaps because it was so exposed.  The upper campground looked full as I passed.  I tip my hat to the National Wildlife Refuge System for installing a handicapped-accessible site in the middle of pretty much nowhere.

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This area, from my perusal of the Web, is a good one to photograph pronghorn antelopes.  The fastest of North American land mammals, they evolved anatomy and physiology to escape long-extinct cheetahs.  The bounding gate, large eyes with 320-degree view, and rump flagging must still be serving them well still- as long as the predator isn’t carrying a firearm with bullets that travel faster than they can run.

redrocksswansI wandered around the campground, took swan pictures rendered fuzzy by heat waves, and then escaped the wind in my car.  I pulled out to the entry road to eat lunch from the shelter of my vehicle, taking photos of the pronghorns.  I thought I might hike Odell Creek trail on the way back, but it was closed for the logging operation, so I wandered back slowly to West Yellowstone, stopping while cowboys moved cattle to winter grounds.

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I wish I had camped, really, instead of coming for the day.  I could have wandered among the aspens, waited until the rangers returned to the office to browse through exhibits and skins and feathers, watched for moose in the cold early morning.  But I needed to get back to my motel whether I liked it or not because my gear was there, along with my food.  Next time I will linger.  No more town life.  Not next time.

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