Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the dry forest

   Some Tico friends just took us on a two day odyssey to the dry tropical forest on the Nicoya Peninsula. The cabin near Paquera where we stayed belongs to friends of our friends and is rustic in the extreme. The rooms are on the second floor and if anyone rolls over in bed, the entire structure shakes. We love going there not for sumptuous accommodations but because the cabins are deep in the forest near a river and we are the only people there when we stay. At dawn we awoke to Mantled Howler Monkeys roaring from the trees near the cabin. It's a wonderful wild sound. Some people find it scary, but one should keep in mind that they are vegetarians. During the day, Mr. Rududu took this portrait.
  On the ground level of the cabin is a cooking area. The essential piece of equipment for a trip like this is the electric rice cooker. Unfortunately the cord was forgotten at home, but with typical can-do spirit, Juan found a live wire up in the rafters and wired the cooker directly into the cabin.
You can see some of the drinking straw left after he cut pieces of it to use as little insulators where the wires were connected. The beans were cooked over a wood fire, a method that Ticos believe makes them much tastier.
   In the morning, we went for a long walk along the river. We must have crossed the river about two dozen times and Michael, the local friend who guided us there, kindly built a lot of bridges of stepping stones and helped us gringos across so we wouldn't get our feet wet.
We saw many interesting birds and this Kinkajou. It's a member of the raccoon family and difficult to see as it's mostly nocturnal.
After the hike, we went for a dip in the swimming pool filled with fresh river water that pours in so fast that there is a complete water change every hour or so. It's very hot there and it's wonderful to swim in such clean, chemical-free water.
   On the way home, we made a stop to get mangoes from a friend's tree. Our friends have a big family and lots of friends to share mangoes with. We're lucky to be among them.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Macaws! Macaws!

In and near Carara National park one can see dozens of Scarlet Macaws a day. We saw 14 fly out of one tree at one time. Wow!
 We headed to Carara for a few days of birdwatching this past weekend to get away from the noisy festival happening near our house. With newly improved roads it only takes two and a half hours to get there from Monteverde.
  We were very pleased with the relatively new place we found to stay near the park. More details about Cerro Lodge and other logistical details at the end of this post.
  The trails in Carara National Park are quite short even though the park itself is 47 square kilometers (18 square miles). Even so, Mr. Rududu and I happily spent three mornings of six hours each birding the park. Birdwatchers are notoriously slow walkers. Excellent birding is when you walk 100 meters from the entrance and simultaneously see three really interesting species and need to spend a half hour in that spot watching them. It really especially slows forward progress when you see new species and on this trip we added five new species to our Costa Rican list.
  One of our favorite birds of all time is the Streak-chested Antpitta. It's so little yet rotund. It has virtually no tail so it looks like a little ball on legs. Maybe we just aren't serious birdwatchers; we really go for the cute factor.
 We also were amused by this Boat-billed heron, one in a large group of these birds we saw roosting. They need big eyes because they are nocturnal. For some reason they remind me of elderly tailors.
  There are several trogon species in the area. This Baird's Trogon was a cooperative photo subject.
Every late afternoon we went for a walk along the road near the lodge and saw numerous macaws, parrots, motmots, and even a trogon. The northern dry forest habitat ends at the Tarcoles River so the lodge is at the end of the range for some birds. Because it's several kilometers from the highway, it's very quiet—something which can't be said about Carara National Park, where the sound of trucks using their motors to brake mingles with the calls of antpittas and antthrushes. At the lodge we saw this common lowland species: the Turquoise-browed Motmot.
I want to stitch a temari in his honor. See my previous post about the temari in honor of the Blue-crowned Motmot.
The Nitty Gritty
We got to Carara with our friends at Quality Transfers. It's so luxurious to not have to drive. Once there the lodge arranged for a local guide to take us to and from the park in his luxurious Hyundai for $15 each way.
  Cerro Lodge is only a few years old and is on a hill over looking the mangroves and a distant view of the ocean if it's not hazy. There were no moderately priced options in the immediate area so it's a welcome addition. The cabins have screens and ceiling fans. They are planning to increase the natural ventilation of the rooms. In April, the hottest month of the year, the ceiling fans mostly push hot air around. Fortunately there is a pool and a nicely designed outdoor restaurant and lounge area that gets a breeze so there's somewhere nice to hang out in the afternoons. Everyone's favorite feature of the cabins is that each has an outdoor bathroom with a little garden surrounded by a privacy wall. There is something hedonistic about taking a shower outside.
  They serve meals semi-buffet style; you order your main course of chicken, pork, fish, or vegetarian and choose from a variety of sides and an excellent daily soup. They are very accommodating about cooking special meals to order. They told me they would prepare any Costa Rican style dish I could think of. The non-meat options that they made for me included Chinese Rice without meat (what we call fried rice in the US), macaroni and cheese, and a pasta dish they called ravioli and cheese that was more like a thin manicotti. The food was tasty and extremely plentiful. If you need to order off-menu you will need to be able to explain what you want in Spanish.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Playing with colors: the Bobo ball

For my latest temari, I took color inspiration from one of my favorite birds: the Blue-crowned Motmot. It's also known as pajaro bobo, what one might translate as dummy bird. If it is overly trusting of people, that just gives us more opportunity to consider its lovely color combination. By the way, motmots are not sexually dimorphic—the male and female look identical. First I used a fun site called Kuler to create a color palette from a photo. It's surprising to see how many different colors are actually on the bird, including some shades I hadn't noticed. Unfortunately Kulur will only make a palette of 5 colors because the bobo has many more than that, but it was a good starting point.
   Next I got out my thread collection and chose those colors I had that best match the bird. (Naturally I felt like I need more colors of thread.) I stitched on a ball that is such a dark blue that it looks almost black. The design of this sampler temari with 20 faces is the April challenge on the Temari Challenge, a Yahoo group.
I filled most of the faces with kiku (chrysanthemum stitch) and with five-pointed stars, trying to use as many different color combinations as I could. Around the equator, I stitched pine-needle stitches in one of the predominant colors of the bobo. So here you have it, my homage to the bobo.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Elvis lives

  This weekend we went to a wonderful place that is both nearby and very far away at the same time. It feels like it's in the middle of nowhere but is only a short but difficult hike away. It's the San Gerardo Biological Station in the Children's Eternal Rainforest, Costa Rica's largest private reserve. The road down is rough, suitable for horses or all terrain vehicles. Not having either of those, we walked.
It takes us about an hour to an hour and a half to go down—and it's mostly down. The goal is to not fall because it's steep and always muddy. As you hike down and down, you can meditate what it's going to be like hiking back up.
  The station has rustic facilities. There are bunk beds from which you can see the Arenal volcano if you are lucky. We have even seen lava flows on it during the night but there are often clouds obscuring the volcano. The dry season is described as lasting 0 to 2 months and it rains more than 4 meters/13 feet each year. There are flush toilets and cold showers. Electricity is from a generator only in the evenings. Sheets, towels and meals are provided so you can pack light. The station is often used by school groups and the board walls have no sound insulation so I find earplugs useful. The good part is that everyone is usually so tired from hiking that it gets quiet fairly early.
  Why go to a lot of effort to go to such a rustic place? At this time of year for birder watchers a major draw is a chance to see the endangered Bare-necked Umbrellabird.
This reincarnation of Elvis in his later days has a large black crest, a glossy black body and an outrageous red throat sac which he can inflate to impress lady umbrellabirds. Attached to the sac is something that looks like a neck tie that ends in some bristles. Just like Elvis, he has a memorable set of moves. Males gather on a lek to attract females by inflating their sacs, making a hollow huumph sound and tossing their crested heads about. It's a spectacular sight and we've been lucky enough to see at least one bird on every one of our five visits to San Gerardo over the years.
  There is no guarantee that you are going to see Elvis. The best chance is to know where a fruiting wild avocado tree or a lek is. The station's caretaker can give you information but you still have to be lucky. Going to a lek at daybreak is no guarantee as we found out on Saturday morning. We have actually had better luck in midafternoon and have seen umbrellabirds at just about all times of the day. This trip we had a really wonderful prolonged look at a male on Saturday afternoon that gave Mr. Rududu opportunity to take some good photos. A black bird in deep forest is a challenge.
  There are lots of other interesting creatures to see as well. There are many different birds than Monteverde since San Gerardo is on the Caribbean slope and at a lower altitude. Among others we saw a few Resplendent Quetzals, some Three-wattled Bellbirds, and a King Vulture. Interesting insects included this colorful tarantula hawk wasp. Check out its curled antennae.
During a rest stop on our hike out,  my pack it was investigated by this Orange-kneed Tarantula. These spiders are rarely seen in the daytime and are not aggressive.This one seemed more curious than most.
The hike out involves a significant gain of elevation. Three quarters of the route is on the road rather than on forest paths, so if the sun is out it can be very hot. We were very happy that it was mostly cloudy and even misted on us for a short time. It takes us about 2 hours of strenuous hiking with frequent rests to make it back to the parking lot of the Santa Elena Reserve from whence one can take a shuttle or taxi. Or in our case, get a ride from some kind German tourists.
  For information about visiting San Gerardo, contact the Monteverde Conservation League which manages the reserve. April to June are excellent months for seeing birds as many are mating.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Counting birds

We are always very happy when we are invited to take part in a bird count in the Monteverde area. It means we go out with people that know the local birds like few others. We see and learn a lot. Although our contributions are small, the more eyes and ears on a bird count the better. Usually groups of three to five people go out together. This is a particularly large number of people to be counting together and they're very excited because they just spotted a Resplendent Quetzal.
In the past week we were lucky enough to be invited to two different counts in the San Luis valley including one at a reserve that is normally closed to the public. The counts were at very different altitudes so the birds we saw in each place were different. This month excitement was high because many migrants are passing through on their way to North America. The ones we saw included Scarlet Tanagers, plentiful Baltimore Orioles, and this female Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
    The idea of a count is to record all the individual birds seen or heard. (There's no better way of learning bird sounds than by going out with experts. It's fascinating to know what birds are around even when you can't see them.) Counts are repeated each month or two depending on the design of the study. The data is recorded and is used to watch trends in bird populations—we are having fun while contributing to science.
   Bird counts don't usually result in a lot of good photos because each photo represents a combination of lots of time, patience and luck. But sometimes, Mr. Rududu gets a photo like this one of a Golden-Olive Woodpecker coming out of his nest hole. Sweet.
   The idea of the bird count is to count every bird. On the count at the University of Georgia's Costa Rica Campus and Ecolodge last month we counted this Resplendent Quetzal. Note to avid birders: guests at the Ecolodge can arrange to go on a bird count if they are there when one occurs.
We also counted the exceedingly common Yellow-faced Grassquit that lives in hedgerows and fields. It's common, easy to see, and very cute. It didn't get the attention the Quetzal did, but it did get counted.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Playing with colors: mixing thread

I've been making a series of very small (1-2"/2.5-4.6cm) thread balls because I've gotten interested in how the colors mix. The fun part of these balls compared to knitting is that I don't have to worry about whether the colors look good on me. I'm going wild with bright colors like orange and pink that I don't wear.
 Some color combinations produce unexpected results.  For example, light green and red together look sort of metalic. These balls have one or two tissues in the middle, some yarn and then some thread. I might add some embroidery—and do further tests of color combinations, or I might just enjoy them gathered together. They look especially wonderful in a stainless steel bowl.
 This week I also finished one of my most elaborate temari yet. I got the pattern on the Temari Challenge Yahoo group. Each month one of the group's members posts a pattern, some of the member use the pattern during the month and post photos of their results. It creates a feeling of community and one can ask questions if need be. It's very interesting to see all the different interpretations of the same pattern. My "interpretation" featured one or two mistakes, but I'm very happy with the overall effect. Here are the top and side views. In choosing the colors for the obi around the middle, I used that old Fair Isle knitting trick of using several shades of blue with white. I wouldn't mind a sweater with these colors. Doubtless one day my temari color experiments will affect my knitting.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Library Bee

   People often ask us what we do with all our free time. Besides goofing off a lot, we do some volunteering. When we are in Monteverde we go to the work party every Monday afternoon at the Friends' Library.
This free library open to everyone is next to the school and meeting house that the Quaker community has in Monteverde. It's the only library in the area and is run with a miniscule budget. Almost all books and labor are donated so it's quite amazing that it has some 20,000 books. That's even more amazing when Jean, who has a Masters in Library Science and has been leading efforts at the library for decades, estimates that each book represents about 45 minutes of work to catalog and prepare. Most of the collection is in English, because that's what most of the donations are. There is a real need for more Spanish language books.
   On a typical Monday afternoon about 6 volunteers are working away at reshelving books and preparing books for the collection. There's always a backlog of books awaiting our attention. The store room of donations usually looks like this. Sometimes the task seems sisyphean. (Although we like it that so many people check out books from the library.)
 Recently Jean organized a bee and invited other people to get a bunch of books on the shelf. During the afternoon some 20 people stopped by to help out, including high school students from the Friends School. Here's one group at work by the wall that holds the Spanish collection.
After the bee the store room looked like this. See all those empty shelves? Let's just ignore that pile of boxes on the left for now.
   The library is a bit of a time capsule. Because it is open for many hours on a self-service basis, there is no computer available. The catalog is a on cards in a wooden case. To check out a book, you sign your name on a card. It's a bit quaint and many of us would like a more modern system, but it works. I always find plenty of interesting books to read.
  People often ask if they can donate books. Of course, if you are in Monteverde and have a nice book to leave behind, it's welcome. But please don't bother to mail books; someone needs to drive several hours to pick them up at customs and there is often a hefty customs fee. Donations of money are always appreciated and you could specify what your donation should go towards, such as to purchase Spanish language books or essential library supplies. Go to this link for information about donating. If you are in Monteverde on a Monday afternoon (from about 2 to 4), you are invited to come and help. You can meet some locals and also get one of Susie's cookies.