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Central American Adventure

We had a marvelous trip to Costa Rica in 2006. First we went to a no-frills jungle lodge called Rara Avis (rare birds) fifteen kilometers into the jungle. It takes three or four hours to travel that distance. It’s an amazing, wet, green rainforest scene.

On the trail we found tiny bright red frogs with blue legs. These are called “blue jean” or “strawberry” frogs. They are one of the brightly colored tropical frogs with toxic skin secretions known as poison dart frogs. Related species of these frogs were/are used by native hunters in South America to poison the tips of their blowgun darts. We learned that these little warning-colored beauties have an extraordinary life history. The males establish territories and staunchly defend them. Occasionally during the breeding season they can be seen (looking like tiny sumo wrestlers) struggling with each other over a tiny piece of the forest floor from which to sing a love song described as “insect-like chirps and buzzes”. His calls attract a female. As she approaches, a male will ceremoniously deposit a wad of semen on a fallen leaf and move away, inviting the female to come and lay her eggs. If his song has “moved” her in that special way, she will deposit three to five eggs. A week or so later when the tadpoles hatch, she returns, and backs into the glob of newly hatched tads until one wiggles up onto her back. Then she climbs up a tree with the tadpole hanging on like a slimy little fanny pack. Up in the tree she finds a pineapple-like bromeliad air plant that has water trapped in its leaves. She lowers herself into the pool and the little tad swims away into what has become the nursery pool. She makes several trips back down the tree until she has all her tadpoles in the pool. Then she returns every couple of days and backs herself into the pool. Her tadpoles wiggle their tails excitedly at her approach. When she senses their presence, she deposits unfertilized eggs for her babies to eat! The tadpoles eat them by “biting a hole in the jelly capsule and sucking out the contents.” Slurp! How ‘bout that for a child-care system!

After marveling at the frogs, a little further ahead we came upon a 5 foot boa constrictor crossing the trail. I had had a pet boa just like this when I was a teenager. I spent many hours with that critter. Here in the wild was a snake just like the one I had as a pet. It was living free and literally crossing our path at this moment in time. I begged the guide to let me “mess” with it. In his best English, he replied, “Okay but, eet’s gonna bite you, man!” I gently picked it up and let it crawl through my hands, marveling at its thick, strong body and then I passed it to Todd and he handled it for a few minutes. Then when I reached for it to take it back, the snake saw my rapidly approaching hand as an attack and it went into a defensive mode and rather dramatically bit me; my punctured hand bled dramatically (as superficial punctures are prone to do). All this totally amazed the other guests. (Boas are not venomous, by the way, and it healed up in a couple of days.)

We spent the next few days roaming trails, seeing all sorts of flowers, birds, frogs, and mammals, like coatimundis, which look like streamlined coons with long erect tails. We saw rare, intermediate, nether-world type creatures like a caecilian, which is a primitive amphibian that looks like a huge lavender-purple earthworm, and the rare velvet worm which looks like a soft-bodied centipede. The velvet worm captures its prey by ejecting a glob of clear mucous that entangles the hapless critter. The one we saw in our flashlight beam had just caught a small roach.

There was even a tapir that came onto the grounds of the lodge. A tapir is the size of a burro and related to the horse and rhinoceros. It has three toes on its feet and a stubby, almost elephant-like snout. It is generally considered the wildest and shyest of the rainforest creatures, but this one had gotten used to the folks at the lodge and came to visit almost weekly especially when lured by one of the guides who cut a branch of its favorite food tree (Clusia) which usually grew out of its reach. They had named him Miguel. There he was standing in front of the dining hall munching leaves off the fresh cut branch. Miguel had a strange backward pointed penis. He regularly urinated a stream straight back from between his hind legs. Hint: Don’t stand directly behind a tapir.

It was astounding to me that this proverbial wild, timid creature actually enjoyed being rubbed and patted. It even lay down to get its belly scratched and allowed me to pull some huge ticks off. When it ambled back off into the jungle I followed along (but not directly behind.). I wanted to prolong and maximize the experience of being with this critter, but when it got into the forest, it became wild again, became suspicious of me and would not allow me to get close.

Todd carried his camera practically everywhere, documenting everything he could and was incredibly alert and observant. We all saw twice as much because of him.

Our time at Rara Avis helped us acclimate and prepare for our upcoming sessions at the more upscale resort called Sueno Azul (“Blue Dream”) where we helped to coordinate Omega Institute’s Family Week in the Rainforest.

Family Week in the Rain Forest

At Sueno Azul we met with former Omega friends Stephen and Lila Pague and put together a fun week of activities for 27 people– about 7 families with varying numbers of adults and kids. Our activities included music, singing, skits, and crafts, like vine baskets, dream catchers and palm crafts from materials we gathered. We swam in clear jungle rivers and explored the rain forest, observing monkeys, toucans, sloths, snakes, bats, etc. We had exciting experiences catching young caimans (Central American ‘gators), huge toads, and other critters at night; and butterflies and lizards during the day. We harvested tropical fruits (guavas, coconuts, citrus). We not only fished with hooks and line, the kids cleaned their catches (tilapia/mojara) and cooked them on an open fire that Steven started without matches using a bow drill. bThere was also yoga and chi-gong in the mornings, supplemented by resort-sponsored activities like zip-lining through the rainforest canopy from tree to tree (swinging for a mile or so on cables sometimes 90 feet up), whitewater rafting, horseback riding, etc…not to mention incredible regional food.

bEvery night Todd would come back into the gathering area with amazing critters including small caimans, large geckos, and one night, a Northern Jacana, which is a bird (like a quail-sized coot with long legs ending in huge heron-like feet.) On its wings at the “wrist joint” there was a bright yellow pointed spur, supposedly used in defense of territory (more on that below). Jacana spinosa is the scientific name; spinosa likely referring to that spine or spur.

bWe were astounded when we researched this strange bird’s natural history. Jacanas are appreciated by “feministas” because of the “reversal of typical avian sex roles.” Males do all the nest building, incubation, and child care. It is the female who defends her territory. As soon as she finds a mate, he creates a smaller territory of his own within her larger territory. She mates with him, lays her eggs and leaves that male on the nest to brood the eggs and tend to her young. Then she takes up with another male, makes a nest, and mates with him in another part of her territory, leaving him sitting on that batch of eggs in another nest, and so on…. One female has been observed mating with four different males in one hour. As promiscuous as this sounds, she does remain true to “her guys,” mating with the same males year after year and she helps them guard their nests and defend their territories. This “simultaneous polyandry” is rare in birds and might have evolved because the high rate of nest failure and egg and hatchling mortality in the unstable watery environment where these creatures live and breed.

The Costa Ricans were extraordinarily upbeat, friendly and really supportive of our efforts to speak Spanish, though many in the resort speak English. It was really heartwarming to work with Todd and Yanna (and Steven and Lila) as a team. Sometimes we’d all be together and other times Yanna would have some people weaving baskets in one area. Todd would have a group of kids playing soccer or exploring the lake. I’d be doing a walk Steven would be playing guitar music. Sometimes Steven, Todd and I would play tunes and the whole group would sing and carry on together. Great experience for us all. Maybe you might like to join us in 2007 (Easter Week, April 7-14).

In the picture below we are showing a 6 foot Sabanera, the beautiful green, yellow and orange flecked, very snappy (but not venomous), bird-eating snake. (It also bit me shortly after this picture was taken.)