GREEN MANSIONS

I hear a soft scuffle behind me. Holding my breath, I wait.  A Puma?  A Jaguar?  More likely a Tamandua (silky anteater) or an agouti (a large rodent).   A healthy jaguar population exists not far away, but here at Costa Rica’s Las Cruces Biological station, I am too near the village of San Vito.  The scuffle is that of a young jogger–probably a graduate student working with the tropical plants for which the Las Cruces Biological Station is famous.

Light on her feet, she trots by with a smile and a wave. A young woman running in the jungle led me to think of the novel, Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson.  The book, set in the American Neotropics, is a fable about how often the innocent are misunderstood and destroyed. 

One of the book’s main characters is Rima, a young girl living in harmony with the wilderness.  Other inhabitants find her confusing and frightening.  They decide she is the cause of their misfortunes.  Eventually, they capture and kill her. The plot is an apt metaphor for what I observe.  The overwhelming fecundity and beauty of the tropical jungle is easy to romanticize.  Unfortunately, my next realization is how much has been obliterated because it was not understood.

A few decades ago, the jogger would have been dodging either coffee plants or cattle.  Just 70 years prior, however, this area was wilderness.  In the 1950s and 1960s, settlers, including Europeans and North Americans, with encouragement from the Costa Rican government, attempted to convert the area to agriculture.  One of the early settlers, when in his eighties, published two books about their struggles.  He begs forgiveness from future generations.  “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he says.  He explains that if they had understood the soil and the complexity of the natural environment, they would have known their efforts were doomed.  The area was too steep, the soils, as always in the rainforest, were too poor and easily eroded once uncovered.  Agriculture continues, but much of the region consists of exposed and battered soils and shrubby, brushy areas indicative of unwise land use. 

Besides the dense, often impenetrable scrub an invasive vine marches up the steep hillsides to cover failed banana plantations and the remaining native trees.  Fortunately, the nearby highlands were not heavily settled.  Five hundred and seventy thousand hectares in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama are preserved as part of the La Amistad National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  At lower elevations, there are still forest remnants, and there are restorations such as the location where I encountered the jogger.

The Las Cruces Biological Station originated on land reclaimed by Robert and Catherine Wilson who had owned a nursery in Florida.  Through their knowledge, arduous work and with financial support from an English patron, the Wilson’s established a world-famous garden. 

In 1973, the garden became part of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a nonprofit consortium of universities and research institutions from the US, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia.  Subsequently, the OTS purchased nearby forest remnants such that the location has become well-known for its natural history as well as the experimental plantings.

The OTS does important work studying methods of restoration and educating the next generation of tropical researchers.  It also provides training for teachers and students from all over the world. I have visited all three of the OTS locations in Costa Rica.  I am always encouraged when I encounter researchers and students.  I am delighted these places exist for their benefit and ours. 

The “garden” as the local ex-pats refer to it, has become a favorite place for my wife and me.  We have rented a house less than ten minutes away on nearly ten occasions and, a couple of times, have stayed in the station’s comfortable cabins.

On this trip, we made a mistake.  Not enough time. Sometimes it rains.  I am watching the rain and flooding rivulets from our cabin’s small balcony.  I am thwarted from looking for euphonias–an interesting group of tiny neotropical birds; with the males being colorful, some spectacularly so.  Perhaps their color is why they were originally lumped with tanagers. Now known to be more closely related to finches, there are up to twenty-seven species depending on which taxonomy guide you follow.  I have been fortunate to have spied eighteen. 

We had arrived at mid-day and a birding group was raving about a spectacular invasion of euphonias.  Six species had been seen including the stunning Elegant Euphonia and the often difficult-to-find White-vented.   The former has a deep purple back and face, azure blue cap and nape with a rust-red throat and belly.  The White-vented represents about half of the group by having a deep blue-black back and yellow belly.  Otherwise, this group differs by whether the throat is yellow or by the extent of yellow on the head.

The White-vented had been a target of mine for years until I finally saw a couple nearby the previous year.  I was eager to see one again.  I found the location recommended by the other birders, pulled out my sit-upon and began to watch the trees.  A yellow flash, but not a euphonia…a Common Tody-flycatcher.  For once, the moniker “common” is appropriate; this bird is easy to find in a variety of habitats.  They have a bright yellow iris set off by a jet-black head. Underneath, they are bright yellow. 

Then, another yellowish flash, not so bright this time.  It is not a euphonia either, but a Mistletoe Tyrannulet, another common flycatcher.  Then soft rain.  No matter.  I open my small jungle umbrella, so light I can balance it on my shoulder and still use my binoculars.  Raining harder now, starting to drip off the umbrella.  But ok, although concerning.   Now, too hard!  This is not ok.  I look around.  Not good.  The sky is uniformly dark gray in all directions.  Here it comes, un aguacero tropical muy fuerte—a downpour. 

Fortunately, it is pleasant on our porch.  As the rain roars, a usually dry ravine on the bank below becomes a torrent.   Through the gray curtain to the southeast, four large palms emerge from the forest gloom. There are other species of palms in front of me, mixed in with bamboo, tree ferns and smaller ornamental plantings which are particularly attractive to neotropical migrants. 

Fittingly, I spy a Chestnut-sided Warbler foraging.  In Costa Rica, these are typically dismissed as “just another” but he does not know that. This territory is his world.  He may have defended this shrub for several years.  I hope so. I like to think of his successful travels from Costa Ria to the northern border of the Northeastern United States. This afternoon is not so different than a rainy early-summer day in Southern Ontario from where he has returned after a four-month romantic sojourn.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I watch an agouti take shelter in the shrubbery below.  They are strange looking, purportedly good to eat—mahogany brown, about the size of a large rabbit.  They have tiny front legs which make them appear to be all hindquarters.

This day goes on to be a complete rainout. I observe only twenty-two bird species and neither of the euphonias I hoped for.  My rainy afternoon, however, is sustained by thinking of past visits.

If you asked what my favorite solo activity is, I would unhesitatingly say it is creeping, walking, sitting in the rainforest.  Perhaps, I have had more such days here at Las Cruces than anywhere else.

One morning, as the sun was rising, I started down the Rio Java Trail.  I was already thinking of Marbled Wood-Quail, knowing others had seen them nearby.  North Americans know about quail. There are the vanishing Northern Bobwhite of the Midwest and South—a bird of pastures and brushy fields.  As a youth, I encountered them commonly in Illinois—being startled as they rose with a flurry of wings and noise.  In the west, are the adaptable Gambel’s Quail; although declining overall, this species can acclimate to subdivisions with large yards and remains abundant wherever minimal habitat remains. 

Wood-Quail are different.  A more appropriate name would be Forest-or Jungle-Quail.  They live in the shady understory and although prone to noisy calling, are challenging to see.  They may not be particularly shy; it is just that they live where no one can see them.  Costa Rica has four species.  On the day of this hike, I had not yet seen any. 

Within minutes I spied the familiar shape of quail beside the trail.  Soon one was joined by another and another.  I inched forward. There were four.  There was a small horizontal limb propped by other vegetation or smaller branches one or two inches off the ground.  Only about ten inches of it were unencumbered by air plants or thick moss. One of the quail climbed on. Then another and another.  The fourth attempted to join them but the space was not wide enough. A bird on the end fell off.  

The lone bird circled back and shoved in between two of its brethren and again, one on the end fell off.  The birds made no sound.  There did not seem to be a dispute, but they continued to calmly jostle for position as if they were certain there was room for four if they only could get it right. But they could not.  Usually, they all faced the same direction, but one finally tried ascending the branch while facing the others. That did not work either.   Was it a game like “musical chairs?”  I could not imagine. I watched and watched.  Ten minutes later they were still doing it.  When I came back hours later, I checked the branch, just in case, but sometime during the day they had departed.

North Americans are also familiar with Swainson’s Thrushes.  Here, the online reference “Birds of the World,” demonstrates a northern bias. The entry describes them as a “secretive denizen of forests and woodlands across the northern portion of the continent.”  That depicts their lives from about mid-May to mid-August. What about the rest of the year?

Even though they nest on property my family owns in Colorado, I may only see them one, two or three times per year, but in Costa Rica they are an abundant passage migrant.  Early another morning, I was starting down the same Rio Java trail at Las Cruces.  Just as the canopy coverage and shade became complete, I noticed birds on the ground. I slowly raised my binoculars.  I counted seven Swainson’s Thrushes—in a single view, and there were more nearby. In the open—on the ground—behavior one would never see in North America.  My checklist for the day listed forty Swainson’s Thrushes with a note that it was likely an underestimate.

Swainson’s Thrushes surprised me another time at Las Cruces.  I was hoping to see a Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner.  Foliage-gleaners are strictly neotropical–mostly brown, and secretive. They spend their lives skulking in the undergrowth searching for insects.  Ruddy Foliage-gleaners, for reasons unknown, have a spotty distribution.  They are nowhere common, but Las Cruces has historically been the best place to see one in Costa Rica.  It was only after several fruitless attempts that I finally saw one.

On that lucky day, I was hoping to find an antswarm because Ruddy Foliage-gleaners will sometimes join army ants.  I heard bird commotion off the trail ahead.  Slowly, I moved closer.  I could see birds flitting about.  It was an antswarm, but these were not antbirds!  There were two Swainson’s thrushes amidst the ants.  They dove for food and then would jump in the air, either for another prey item or to rid themselves of the ants. I did see a Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner and a Black-faced Antthrush, but I was most surprised to see the Swainson’s Thrushes attending the antswarm.   Birds of the World needs to live up to its name and describe the complete history of the Swainson’s Thrush.

The Rio Java trail descends through an area bisected by small streams with steep banks. The exposed soil is a rich orange. Also sporting rich orange is a forest species called Rufous-tailed Jacamar.  These have an appearance of a giant hummingbird because of their long bills.  The purpose of the bill is not to slurp nectar but to catch large insects.  Once I watched one shake and batter a beautiful blue morpho butterfly until the wings fell off and the body could be swallowed.

Jacamars, because they nest in holes in steep banks, are often found near streams.   The trail here consists of steps cut into the orange earth.  As I began to ascend, a portion of a step appeared to move.  I reached down and caught a recently fledged jacamar.  I could not find a parent.  It was well-feathered, vivid auburn and emerald, but when I put it amidst vegetation on the steep bank, it disappeared. I looked again. Still there.  The brilliant orange and green were perfect camouflage for this environment.

Another memorable Las Cruces sighting was my first of a Chiriquí Quail-Dove.  Chiriquí, an indigenous word commonly used in Southern Costa Rica and Northern Panama, refers to a Pre-Colombian civilization that inhabited the area. Like Wood-Quail, Quail-Doves do not respond to recordings and even where common, usually remain unseen.

When Quail-Doves are encountered on a trail, they walk rapidly into the dimness of the undergrowth.  I have learned to move slowly and scan the trail ahead with my binoculars.  Occasionally, my method is successful.  Well ahead, I saw a Chiriquí Quail-Dove.  The bird slowly pirouetted in the sun as it looked toward me. The top of the head, except for the bright red eye, was gray. Below the eye, the head was white.  On the neck were black stripes. The legs were red.  I was fortunate to obtain such an excellent view before it strolled into the darkness.

On another occasion, I heard loud snapping—a sound reminiscent of “cracker balls,” a little firework that pops when thrown at the ground.  I realized I was listening to White-Ruffed Manakins. Manakins fly as if instantly jet-propelled. Sometimes they bounce off one perch to land on another leaving the would-be viewer focusing on a quivering branch while the bird is elsewhere.  These are a species that dance at a lek while snapping their wings. Blue-black with a white throat, the males are handsome as they dash about a horizontal log they have cleared of vegetation.

Often, the forest is deathly silent. Suddenly, the ringing whistles, phureee-phree phuphree, of a Rufous-Breasted Wren burst into the air.  Attractive, with a red-rufous breast, belly, and cap, accentuated by white cheeks with black streaks and spots, this is the most common wren of the Las Cruces Forest.  Although more active early, it may shatter the stillness with its beautiful call at any time. 

Again, I see what I am most desirous of.  One, two, then three and four dark shapes flash across the trail—a few feet off the ground.  An antswarm!  I back up to a tree (quickly checking for spines and insects) both to lean on and break my outline. I wait. I am fortunate. The activity, which can sometimes be frustratingly close, but not close enough, is in full view. Insects are escaping the horde of ravenous ants. They leap into the air and scurry away only to be plucked off by hungry birds.  Here a Black-faced Antthrush. There a Chestnut-Backed Antbird. Next a Ruddy Woodcreeper, and then another. Antswarms are not as species-rich here as in lowland forests, but they still provide excitement.  Then the birds are gone. The jungle stillness returns.

Even when all is still. even on a sweltering afternoon when nothing seems to be happening, I appreciate the jungle. I sit quietly.  Now is when I notice a spider’s web, glistening, illuminated by a shaft of light. A leaf twirls. I perceive striations on leaves and how they collect and funnel any raindrop that manages to fall this far through the canopy.

Light rain is a strange phenomenon until one becomes accustomed. You hear it but you do not feel it.  Up to forty percent of rain is seized before reaching the ground in a rainforest.  The thick canopy of trees, vines, and bromeliads takes an enormous share.  A heavy rain may cease, except not in the jungle. Rainwater continues dripping downward. When hastened by a gust of wind, it sounds and feels as if the storm has resumed.  Entering a clearing will prove otherwise. 

One still afternoon, I was eating lunch by a stream.  Movement! A mere five meters away, a Great Tinamou arrived for a drink.  Gray-brown with an awkward appearing beak and neck, this chicken-sized inhabitant of the understory alternately dipped its beak in the stream and raised it so the water could trickle down. After a few swallows, it ambled off. The Great Tinamou makes one of the signature sounds of the rainforest.  One guidebook describes the call as: …powerful whistled notes…organ-like in their velvety swelling quality…tremulous. The sound is eerie, particularly because Tinamous call most often as night descends.

Great Tinamou

Besides the Rufous-breasted Wren, my other favorite daytime sound at Las Cruces is that of the Black-faced Antthrush. The day I was sitting in the heavy rain on the porch, I heard the familiar “three mellow whistled notes” keep-two-two.  If you do not know the call, search for it on your computer, and listen. Picture yourself on a dark, dank jungle trail when that sound suddenly punctures the silence.  I find it mysterious and compelling. 

One more strange call to describe: chu-choodle-woo; complex and musical but at a low register—the Black-bellied Wren. Deep brown black, but with a bright white throat and upper chest, this wren prowls impenetrable thickets.  It will respond to a recording of its song but may remain within its dark domain yielding a shape as the best possible sighting.

The most alien sound in the jungle is the cacophony of crashing branches and falling leaves produced by a troop of White-faced Monkeys.  Despite the din, they are often difficult to locate.  Or they may pass overhead, being sure to show teeth while giving you an ornery look in the eye. And yet, often, I spend an entire day with no sign of them. Each day is different.

I have described antswarms, but they are rare.  The mixed flocks I encounter most days are also variable.  Sometimes the flock is comprised mostly of neotropical migrants.  Tropical tanagers are predominant in the next, or maybe a mixture of both.  There is usually a woodcreeper, commonly an Olivaceous or a Streak-headed.  Once a mixed flock included the weird Brown-billed Scythebill, aptly named for its two-inch plus decurved bill.

These are all residents of the garden—a garden that is part natural and part ornamental.  It is a stunning place, full of surprises.  From my porch that rainy afternoon I see an interesting mix of colors and shapes—mostly greens—pale green–yellow green. I see big waxy leaves. I note that a tree fern’s green has a brownish cast, but on one limb resides four big yellow-green leaves, a bromeliad, topped by a bright pink flower.

It is all so beautiful, and it is a relic. I consider the birding group I had met. They are having an exciting time, delighted with memorable sightings. Do they recognize what has been lost or are they victims of generational amnesia? Do I wish they would return home and tell everyone how wonderful this place is, or that it is a vestige of what was.

I think of the Wilsons when the Coto Brus area was vastly less populated. When reclamation efforts had hardly begun. They surely looked out, from their big house on the hill while rain fell in their garden. Did they think it was paradise?

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