Steve Yanoviak, tropical biologist
Thursday, 31 Aug 2000
MONTEVERDE, Costa Rica
Last night, a few minutes after I emailed my diary entry to Grist, an owl flew onto my porch, grabbed something, and flew off — all in the blink of an eye. I am not sure what it caught, but I assume it was a mouse. Mice are like cockroaches with fur. (Although I am an entomologist, I am not fond of domestic cockroaches.) I can sleep through strong winds and torrential rains battering my tin roof, but the sound of mice running through my walls keeps me awake all night. Believe me, a little natural predation around here is very welcome. At times, I have even considered snatching a large boa constrictor from the forest to use as mouse control.
Today was a great day to be in the forest — the air was calm and cool, and no major rains came until the afternoon. Also, Rigo and I stumbled across more animals than usual today. Mosquitoes and horseflies were by far the most numerous critters we encountered (I have lots of bites to prove it), but this is typical for the wet season here. We also saw a black-faced solitaire perched on a vine over the trail. These birds are pretty common at this elevation, but I rarely see them and none have been calling recently. The solitaire call is two long notes that, like the notes of the nightingale thrush I mentioned yesterday, sound a lot like microphone feedback.
I also heard the call of a three-wattled bellbird. The males of this pigeon-sized, brown-and-white bird have three black fleshy things (wattles) hanging off their heads. I never saw the bird, and one rarely does when standing inside the forest — they generally perch on the tallest twigs of the very top branches of canopy-level trees. The bellbird call is an occasional, very loud “BONNNK!” which can be heard for several kilometers. The one I heard today is a bit of a late bloomer; males typically do most of their calling during the dry season.
Resplendent quetzals are another bird that is most commonly seen in the dry season, but we stumbled upon a pair in the forest today. (Of course, it was Rigo who spotted them first.) Both male and female are bright iridescent blue and green, about one and a half times the size of a robin. The male also has a bright red breast (not red like a robin’s breast — I mean really red) and very long (30 cm or more) iridescent green tail feathers. They have a fluty, almost owl-like call, but breeding season passed months ago and none are calling now. The male of this species is certainly one of the most beautiful birds in the Western Hemisphere.
We also saw two snakes today. The first was a brown relative of garter snakes that hangs out in the leaf litter. They are very common, and I frequently see them sunning themselves on the path to my house. This snake does not move especially quickly, but it is surprisingly difficult to keep your eye on one when it is in the litter (mostly because this species doesn’t have a conspicuous pattern). The second snake we saw was a chunk-headed snake (Leptophis sp.), which is mostly brown with tan splotches on its back. Its body is pencil-thin, but its head is the size of your thumbnail (hence the name). Chunk-headed snakes are laterally flattened (almost fish-like), with special scales on the edges of their bellies that enable them to climb even relatively smooth tree trunks and branches. They specialize on tree frogs for food.
We did not smell or see peccaries in the forest today. Although I made a special effort to note any odd smells, I have none to report. The air just smelled clean and fresh to me, as it usually does in the forest. Except for the ever-present howler monkeys and squirrels, we did not see any exciting mammals today. However, we did find tracks of a large cat in the mud along the trail. I have never seen any wild cats here, but they are definitely around. We see tracks of jaguarundi, pumas (mountain lions), margays, and/or ocelots almost every time we go out.
Rigo and I saw a lot of other interesting things in the forest today, but I’ll end up writing forever if I do not stop here …
This is my final diary entry for the week. If you are still interested in the ecology of tropical forests and forest canopies after wading through all of my text, then there are several ways to get more information. First, you can join ICAN — the International Canopy Network. ICAN has a special feature called Ask Dr. Canopy, which is an appropriate mechanism for you to get answers to very basic questions about canopy biology. Most submitted questions are from children, but don’t let this deter you. ICAN also has a canopy email list server, but I should give you fair warning that most of the postings to the list are technical comments between scientists.
Another site that may interest you is Cloud Forest Alive. Many of the photos posted on this site were taken near my Monteverde office by Jason Roberts, who manages the site. Jase has lots of high-tech equipment that he uses to photograph nesting quetzals and hummingbirds visiting a feeder outside his office window. There may still be a photo of a quetzal posted at this site, although nesting season ended two months ago. Jase might even be willing to send you a quetzal photo if you email him at firstname.lastname@example.org — tell him I sent you.
Second, you can ask me directly via email at email@example.com if you have questions specific to what I have written or what I am doing in Monteverde.
Finally, there are several good books — both technical and popular — that deal with rain forest ecology and canopy ecology. My No. 1 picks for general tropical ecology are: A Neotropical Companion, by J. C. Kricher; Tropical Nature, by A. Forsyth and K. Miyata; The Tropical Rain Forest, by P. W. Richards; Monteverde: Ecology and Conservation of a Tropical Cloud Forest, by N. M. Nadkarni and N. T. Wheelwright; and An Introduction to Tropical Rain Forests, by T. C. Whitmore. Some descent books about forest canopy ecology include: Life Above the Jungle Floor, by D. Perry; The High Frontier, by M. Moffett; Forest Canopies, by M. Lowman and N. Nadkarni; and Canopy Arthropods, by N. Stork, J. Adis, and R. Didham. The quality of writin
g is marginal in the first two of these books, but they do contain some amazing photos. The latter two are aimed at a fairly technical audience.
In my idealistic (and equally cynical) view of the world, I expect people to become educated about their surroundings. I firmly believe that education, especially outdoor education, is key to the successful coexistence of future human generations with their environment. As E. O. Wilson so thoughtfully pointed out in his book Biophilia, humans are born with a fascination for nature. Scientists, activists, and environmentalists need to tap into this innate appreciation with greater effectiveness. Again, education is the key.
Sharing my thoughts and experiences this week has been a great pleasure for me. I sincerely hope that you have also enjoyed it, and most of all, that you learned at least one new thing along the way.