Dispatch from the jungle

This week, Dispatches from the field welcomes guest poster Dr. Alice Boyle, who tells us about some of her adventures doing fieldwork for her dissertation in Costa Rica.  For more about Alice, see her bio at the end of the post.

In 2004, I spent a year doing field work on the wet, Caribbean slope of Costa Rica. It was the 4th and final field season of my dissertation studying altitudinal bird migration. Each month during that year I worked for a week at each of three different sites spanning an elevational gradient from lowland to premontane forest. Only at the low elevation site did I have email and phone access. I was assisted by 1 to 4 volunteers, and we would work very hard for 23 days straight, after which they had a week off. While my assistants were visiting beaches and volcanos, I enjoyed some downtime and prepared for the next round of sampling. I also wrote letters to my family; my father has always maintained that I ought to publish those letters. Here I offer some excerpts from the early April letter.

The view up, La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

The view up, La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica

“Dear family. Greetings from the jungle! Once again I have a few days to catch up on what, for normal people, would be every-day tasks. The biggest news this month is that the kind people of the USA will fund my research for the rest of the year![1] I can hardly tell you have what a relief it is. A few days before leaving La Selva last month, a friend heard that his proposal had been funded. Because I hadn’t heard anything, I feared the worst. The dread of receiving bad news weighed upon me for two weeks. But March 31 was a happy day. Not only did I receive the good funding news, but when we arrived in San José later that afternoon, Jenny[2] was reunited with her boyfriend Mark after 3 months apart. The four of us went out for a celebratory fancy dinner, well lubricated with wine. The following morning Kyle headed off to Nicaragua for a few days and Jenny and Mark went to climb Chirripó. I spent 2 days in San José taking care of such exciting tasks as picking up 180 infertile canary eggs, replacing my rubber boots (after 4 years of hard use), and trying to figure out how to tell all the species of Melastomataceae apart at my study sites at the INBio herbarium.

I always enjoy these days at La Selva by myself. Inevitably, I work. But I get things organized which makes me feel more in control the rest of the month. I also get to do things at precisely the pace I choose, which is usually fairly leisurely. Today after lunch, the natural history guides told me that there was an Agami heron less than 1/2 a km from the station. I strolled down the trail and found this spectacular bird beside a small footbridge. The Agami heron is among the more secretive of the Central American herons, stalking around forested sloughs and backwaters. Its steely blue-and-maroon feathers are set off by a handsome silvery-blue filigree on its crown and neck. This individual was sublimely uninterested in my presence, focusing entirely on spearing hapless invertebrates with its needle-like bill.

Rara Avis waterfall in flood

Rara Avis waterfall in flood

This month had some ups and downs. We were fairly lucky with the weather, at least. What is “iffy” weather in the lowlands can be truly nasty up at Rara Avis. As an indication of what NASTY means, let me tell you that in an average March, Rara Avis receives ~ 400 mm of rain—one of the drier months at that site. By March 17th this year, >600 mm (more than half a meter) of rain had fallen! But we soon after we got up there, the rain tapered off. Among the ‘downs’, José (my Costa Rican assistant) killed a harmless snake. He mistook a non-venomous snake for a Fer-de-lance, and believing himself to be in serious danger, he broke the snake’s neck with a stick. Coming as it did, midway through the third week of working long and hard every day, everyone was shaken by the incident.

You may be wondering why I need 180 infertile canary eggs. I actually need 400 canary eggs! During May I have an artificial nest predation experiment planned. In addition to doing all our other sampling, we will spend the first week of May placing 50 artificial bird nests at each of 8 different sites at different elevations spanning the entire elevational gradient of Braulio Carrillo park and surrounding private reserves. Then, while one team continues the monitoring of bird, fruit and arthropod abundances at each of our regular sites, another team will re-visit the nest sites every week to monitor “predation” rates on the eggs. The idea is to establish if elevational gradients in predation risk could explain why birds migrate altitudinally[3].

This nest predation study is a planning nightmare. The fact that I was only picking up 180 canary eggs this week is one of my ongoing concerns. I was assured by a remarkable canary breeder in the Central Valley that obtaining 500 would be no problem. However, I think he got tired of setting eggs aside for me. Now that I’ve cleared his fridge of the first 180 and reinforced the idea that I REALLY DO need a lot more, I’m hoping he’ll be more consistent in saving the infertile eggs from his 600 females during the next month. My most recent challenge was to find a vehicle to rent for a month at a reasonable price. The hire companies gave me outrageous quotes. As with everything in Costa Rica, the solution to this problem came through personal contacts. When visiting INBio I asked around for a 4×4 to rent. Sure enough, someone has an old gas-guzzler he’s trying to sell and is willing to rent me for a fraction of the price the hire companies quoted. I’m just hoping I can pull all the other threads together as smoothly![4]

[1] I was very fortunate to be awarded an NSF-DDIG. Good thing too, because I embarked on a 12 mo field season with funds for only 4 mo!

[2] Names changed

[3] The nest predation study was eventually published in Oecologia. It and my other papers are available on my website.

[4] Spoiler alert… some of the other threads came spectacularly unwoven before it was all over! If I am invited for a second blog post here, I will continue the story.

Alice in action, banding birds in Costa Rica

Alice in action, banding birds in Costa Rica

Alice Boyle is now an Assistant Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. She continues to study the evolutionary ecology of tropical birds, but has also fallen in love with the tall grass prairies surrounding her new home. Consequently, she has been chasing Grasshopper Sparrows for the past 2 years and learning just how different prairie ecosystems are from tropical wet forests.

Distressed travel voucher

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to welcome guest blogger Vanya Rohwer, a veteran of many field seasons and a teller of many great stories!

Field work requires a change in mentality. Small details of day-to-day city life, like tidy clothes, dry shoes, regular meals, and hygiene, lose importance during field work. And the speed at which this transition occurs can be impressive.

In mid-March, many years ago, we departed Panama City in a helicopter, flew 55 minutes north, and landed on a sandbar of the Rio Chagras, perhaps the only river in the world that flows into two oceans (thanks to the Panama canal). Cathedral-like trees lined the edge of the river and the helicopter’s rear rotor trimmed overhanging vegetation as it landed. For this trip, the transition from city to field was immediate.

For the next four weeks we surveyed bird communities in the Rio Chagras drainage. We were completely alone and lived in a self-constructed shantytown of blue tarps and tents. During thunder showers we huddled under tarps and ate US military rations, each of which contained over 2,000 calories and came with a personal bottle of Tabasco sauce—ration shelf life trumped ration flavor.

The animals were stunning. Highways of leaf-cutter ants undulated across the forest floor like green ribbons; Russet-crowned Motmots, adorned with serrated bills, caramel colored heads, and tail feathers that look like tennis rackets, wagged their tails with metronome-like precision; Crested Guans tip-toed the length of narrow Cecropia branches with a calm sense of grace; Chestnut-mandible Toucans patrolled the canopy like hungry marauders crusading for their next meal. The forest teemed with life, humidity, and sounds.

Four weeks passed quickly and, when the helicopter returned, we departed our blue tarps and poor hygiene for what seemed like one of the fanciest hotels in Panama City. None of us had seen a mirror, and our clothes had both a dampness and filth that permeated every fiber. Our tans were either real from tropical Panamanian sun, or fake from an impressive combination of humid air and accumulated sweat and dead skin.

I suspect the receptionist knew that our tans were the product of exceptional filth. As we entered the air-conditioned hotel, our overall appearance, chaos of field equipment, and odor filled the foyer. We were a full-sensory experience. My mangy but highly coveted patches of facial hair were bristling, and I stroked them with pride. Our clothes were filthy with food and bloodstains, and our body odor was strong enough to make eyes water and plants wilt. After four weeks of eating MREs, our mouths watered at the thought of fresh fruit and vegetables. Indeed the transition from blue tarp to faux-marble-floor hotel was abrupt.

Perhaps it was our smell, our embarrassing use of the Spanish language, or our disheveled appearance, but immediately upon check-in with the receptionist we received, complements of the hotel, “distressed traveler vouchers” good for one free drink at the bar.

That night we showered, shaved, and sipped piña coladas. They were delicious.

Vanya RohwerVanya Rohwer is a PhD student in the Department of Biology at Queen’s University. He studies bird nests and the selective mechanisms shaping different nest morphologies, and tries to spend as much time outside as possible.