Pura Vida


After months of messing with government permits and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, delays due to blizzards, and many, many iterations of my plans for the project itself, I have finally arrived at La Selva Biological Reserve in Heredia, Costa Rica. The reserve is classic lowland tropical rainforest, the kind you learn about in elementary school, complete with toucans, monkeys, and giant Kapok trees. Most of you who will be reading this know that I have had some experience working in the tropics as a field assistant before, but this is my first time developing and heading up my own project of this scale. It’s certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever tried to tackle both logistically and intellectually. But, while it’s been a little bumpy, I’m starting to figure it out:

 Step 1: Find birds

I arrived at the station in the afternoon on Tuesday, Feb 17. I went into the office and met the assistant station director who asked me, in an unsettlingly skeptical tone:

“So, you want to work on the red-headed ones? …Have you seen them here before? Do you know where to look? Did your advisor tell you where?”

Red-capped manakins are listed as “common” in the field guide to Costa Rican Birds, and are marked “abundant” on the station’s bird list. A former member of my lab, Kim Bostwick, did a whole chapter of her dissertation here at La Selva on the displays of these birds and the snapping wing sounds they produce. I figured, they’re everywhere, and La Selva is the place to go. I’m a decent birder, how hard could it be?

“Nope!” I replied, suddenly feeling like a total idiot.

It turns out they’re pretty tough to track down, and most casual wanderers in the forest will miss them. The asst. director told me of a rumor that songbirds have been in decline at La Selva for years, red-caps included, and that he hadn’t seen one in years. I set about interviewing anyone I could about potential lek locations. Manakin leks purportedly can persist in the same area for decades, with young males coming in to replace the elder statesmen that pass on. This is a good thing, because while the other researchers here (Hi Soren, Amanda, Nicole, Carlos, Erin, Susan, Diego!) kindly promised to keep an eye out for the little red-and-black guys, none of them had ever seen one, and the most recent time any of the station’s professional naturalist guides had seen birds displaying was at least five years ago. I was able to gather some intelligence on a few spots to check, but I was pretty gloomy and a little whiny when I recorded this video after about twelve hours of searching turned up nothing:

Not my best moment.

The next day, I was up at 5am and back out on the trail. I decided to push a little farther than I had the day before, and just as I was hatching plans to pack up and move to a new site in Panama, I heard the distinctive “hip, hip, hooraaaaay!” of a Red-capped Manakin. I immediately dove into the palms and lianas, and found him sitting smugly on his branch about 20m off trail. As I’ve found out in the last week or so, the only remedy for a dearth of manakins is LOTS of wandering around and careful listening. At this point, I’ve hiked every major trail in the reserve at least once and identified two busy leks and nine other potential lek sites. Woo!

Apparently the guides don’t take visiting groups very far from the station, so they never have any reason to trek deep into primary-growth forest that the Red-capped Manakins prefer. They’re out there, they’re just sneaky.

There is still a potentially troubling issue of the level of activity and the numbers of individuals at each site, but as my colleague Teresa told me before I left, if the birds exist at all when I show up, I should consider the trip a success. So, Step 1: check.

 Step 2: Don’t die

I’m not actually too worried about this, but it’s worth noting that there have been some unforeseen sources of trepidation beyond the garden-variety tropical risk factors like venomous snakes and malaria. A few days ago, I had scoured all the trails near the station but I had only found one reasonably active lek. I had a hunch about some other areas, but they were all around the far perimeter of the reserve, so I planned an all-day loop. Around midday, I had just heard a manakin calling in the distance when there was a crash in the trees above my head. It was a troupe of adorable capuchin monkeys! I was like, “Hi guys!” and they were like, “Screw you!!!” As soon as they noticed me, they all started grunting and grimacing and shaking the leaves. When I didn’t move, they started breaking off sizable branches and hurling them down at me! So rude!

Continuing with the “slightly stressful interactions with wild animals” theme, I also had several run-ins with ill-tempered peccaries. Called “chanchos” in Spanish, we have a group of these hairy little wild pigs that hangs out in the lawn around the station. I often have a few sleeping in a pile outside my cabin. They’re usually really chill, and we mutually ignore one another. The chanchos at the far end of the reserve, however, are not so used to people. Numerous times during my hike I found myself in a faceoff with a bristling, tusk-gnashing peccary that decided it didn’t want me in his space. At first I tried to simply ignore them, but this just emboldened them. I tried running at them, and it mostly worked, but there was one guy who totally called my bluff. He charged at me and without thinking I did the exact same thing the monkeys had done to me earlier in the day- I started yelling and grabbed the nearest sapling, giving it a violent shake in his direction. Totally worked! Thanks, last common ancestor of monkeys and humans! The only bummer is that if I have to do that, it also scares off all the birds.

The other source of trepidation so far is bullet ants. These are not your momma’s ants. These ants are inch-long, solitary hunters with huge jaws and a bad attitude. They are called “bullet ants” because, as close relatives of wasps, they supposedly pack a sting as painful as a gunshot. In my previous experience, bullet ants were something to watch out for, and avoid on the rare occasions that you came across them. But now I’m slowly becoming resigned to my fate as a bullet ant victim. This whole place is el mundo de bullet ants. They’re EVERYWHERE, especially in the habitat where my birds are found. I’ve been encountering dozens per day and have stumbled across several nests already. It’s only a matter of time…

Step 3: Relax and Enjoy… I might turn out ok! …maybe!

I guess all in all I’m a little scared because I am coming to terms with how SUPER HARD this is going to be. It was tough enough just to find the birds, and this next week my goal is capture and tag some of them, which is probably going to be fun and exciting, but also much harder.

Perhaps because this project is so personal, the specter of failure is creeping around in my mind a lot more than it normally does. This is in some ways the culmination of a dream I have been hatching for a long time now. Since I started down this path to becoming an evolutionary biologist, my goal has been to be, at least in part, a field biologist. To get my hands dirty, and to take the time and have the patience to experience the wonder and beauty of the organisms whose history I am trying hard to comprehend. Maybe it’ll totally suck. Maybe the whole project will implode and I’ll have spent just over two months getting crapped on in the jungle, collecting useless data and wasting a boatload of money.

At least I’ll know that I tried, that I didn’t just give up because it got hard.

For the time being, I’m glad I’m here. Hearing the howler monkeys every morning reminds me that I’m exactly where I’ve worked so hard to be. I’ve seen so many wonderful things already in my forest wanderings, much more than I have space to write about- I’ll try to highlight more of the biodiversity awesomeness in future posts. And who knows, maybe it’ll all turn out great!

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