A Note from Cano Palma, Costa Rica
Somewhere between the Red Bull models on our birdathon, Christmas dinner at a remote jungle station, and the Barred Forest-Falcon we caught on my 25th birthday (along with the visiting Japanese prince, the Bullet Ant bite that knocked me unconscious, and the December flood to end all floods), I’ve noticed a few things about Costa Rica: (1) panaderias – like bakeries on steroids - absolutely rock; (2) Costa Ricans have no idea what a taco is; and (3) nobody, not the Ticos, not the Gringos, and definitely not the weather forecasters, ever really knows the weather.
A violent thunderstorm struck just as I arrived at the Cano Palma Biological Station yesterday. Though this is the “dry” season at Tortuguero, on the hot and humid northeast Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, we got more than 12 inches of rain overnight (!) while lightning and thunder crashed alarmingly close. In early December they had half a meter of rain in less than seven hours, the canal flooded above the kitchen table, and a guy accidentally cut the powerline when he drove his boat over it.
As I walked in the door, Alex, who’s PIT-tagging Eyelash Vipers as part of a graduate project, showed me his hand, which was swollen to the size of a softball. “Snake got me right before you guys arrived,” he explained, shirtless in the heat. Todd, the brawny station manager and an equally passionate herpetologist, simply nodded in agreement as he shook my hand.
I was taken aback by their laissez-faire attitude. “An Eyelash Viper?” (Their bite tends to kill you, and rather quickly.) “Aren’t you a bit worried?”
“Naw, it was just a Cat-eyed Snake we caught yesterday,” Alex said, still staring at his hand. “Rear fanged, so they don’t usually bite. I handled it a bit rough though so it finally chomped me. Anyway we’ve got antivenom on site, but I thought the swelling would have gone down by now.”
In between severe weather fronts, life is generally great in tropical winter. My visit to Cano Palma arrived in the midst of a three month bird banding stint as part of a long-term monitoring project which has been active since 1994. While news of disastrous snowstorms keeps trickling south, I’ve enjoyed a steady diet of birds, rice and beans in the warm lowland rainforest.
February has been an especially great month. I’ve spent the season banding with my good friend Ed, who I worked with last year at Point Reyes Bird Observatory in California (we applied to this job separately, and didn’t know we’d be here together until we were both hired; small world). We kicked off this month with a three-day birdathon, raising money for the Costa Rican Bird Observatories by blitzing across Tortuguero, San Jose, and the high Talamanca Cordillera to sweep up as many species as possible.
On the second day of our birdathon, organizers staged a main event at INBioParque, a Smithsonian-like institution near San Jose. The general public was invited to a one-day bird festival which included face painting, exhibits, tours, and – best of all – two beautiful hired models from Red Bull (since, after all, “Red Bull gives you wiiings”) who drifted around the birders like they were in a sports car exhibition. These Costa Ricans know what they’re doing: 1,700 people showed up for the birdathon. Imagine!
The following week, I turned a quarter-century old on the same day that Ed and I unexpectedly caught a Barred Forest-Falcon in a mist net in Costa Rica’s highlands – definitely one of the coolest birds I’ve ever handled. And the next morning, we rented a mini car, took off for the warm Pacific, and spent five vacation days birding our brains out, staying in surfer hostels by night and stalking the jungles by day. By the week’s end, we’d found just over 400 species of birds.
But the best is yet to come! After almost three months in the country, I’ve got just two weeks left. The end of my Costa Rica trip will be spent birding the Caribbean foothills and the remote Osa Peninsula, where Scarlet Macaws, jaguars, and Baird’s Tapirs are still relatively common. Maybe I’ll even see a Harpy Eagle.
And then? Well, other adventures are afoot.
Back at Cano Palma, the rain continued until mid-morning. Todd ran outside in the middle of the night to investigate a loud crash, which turned out to be a tree that had fallen on the library building, but otherwise the only lasting indication of the storm was another flood – I had to wade thigh-deep in water to reach a mist net that had been set on dry ground the previous afternoon.
Alex’s hand was still swollen from the snake bite, but he didn’t hesitate to show off a large, yellow morph Eyelash Viper in a cardboard box labeled “Danger: Venomous Snake,” which he’d managed to catch during the night.
“This is about as big as they get,” he said, proudly lifting the snake onto a special hook in the middle of the screened-in kitchen to display its entire writhing body. “And yellow ones are hard to find.”
Saludos to that, amigo. Every day in the jungle brings something new!