Monday, July 08, 2013

Kids Planting Trees

This is a photo of our tree-planting squad:  Armando, Armando Jose, Danny and, making his first appearance, little Byron.  We waited until more reliable rainy weather to plant the Cenizaro trees out in pastureland, where they will have one good growing season before the next dry season puts their survival to the test.  These trees will join many dozens of hardwood trees already planted over the last several years and growing well.  We already have numerous mature Guayaquil trees growing throughout the forest but, after years of searching, realized that El Tigre hosted absolutely no Cenizaro trees at all!  So, we decided to remedy this with the kids today!

Here is a shot of Byron and me after planting his Cenizaro tree, which will soon tower over both of us.  We showed the kids how to tell the difference between Cenizaro and Guayaquil trees, as even experts get them confused.  It’s easy to identify them while in flower, however:  Cenizaro has pink flowers and Guayaquil has creamy yellow flowers.  When not in flower, it’s much more difficult.  We showed the kids that the Guayaquil has a gland in the middle of the petiole, which is absent in the Cenizaro.  As with all Mimosas, both trees have alternate, bipinnate leaves with stipules, but we have found that other differences in the bark and leaflets can vary hugely out in the field, so are not always reliable indicators.  The key to distinguishing between Guayaquil and Cenizaro is noting that gland in the center of the petiole= Guayaquil (Albizia guachapele,syn. Pseudosamanea guachapele, F. Fabaceae-Mim.); no gland = Cenizaro (Albizia saman, syn. Samanea saman,  F.Fabaceae-Mim.).

This is a shot of Danny and Byron with the dogs.  Byron learned quickly during this outing that you need to watch where you stand!  If you stand on an anthill, the ants will soon climb up under your socks and bite you! So, we had to clean the ants off him and sooth his bites with a cooling herbal lotion.  However, soon he was distracted playing with the dogs and enjoying the scene again.  Lesson learned.  And, with no further mishap, we planted all five Cenizaros in different types of soil and locations in the pastureland.  The kids will now measure the differences in the growth of the trees over the years, as yet another ongoing experiment.

This shot shows Armando and Armando Jose with one of the newly planted Cenizaro trees.  They will join many others in the Mimosa sub-family of Fabaceae growing nearby – Guanacaste blanco (A. niopoides), Gavilancillo (A. adinocephala), Guanacaste, Acacia species, Cojoba arborea, Ingas, Lysilomas, and Sotacaballo (Zygia longifolia).  The kids planted this particular tree in rich, forest humus in full sun, and my bet is on this one for the fastest, healthiest growth.  However, Nature has thrown curve balls many, many times in the past, and we can only wait and see – observe and document.  Thus, we teach the kids the scientific method – hypothesize, and then experiment to test the hypothesis. And, if the experiment does not confirm the hypothesis, as often happens, we learn from that too.  Every trip out in the field, we like to check on trees planted years back and see how the forest changes, as fast-growing trees shade out the lower growth.  Where we once saw lots of Chan and Tuete plants, we now see faster growing trees towering above them.

And the fastest growing tree of them all, Robin and I agree, is Cecropia.  Here’s a silhouette of a Cecropia growing just below the house, which volunteered itself by seed less than five years ago.  Yet already it towers above everything else.  If you want fast-growing trees for secondary growth besides species of Cecropia, choose Balsa, Cupania, Luehea, Miconia, Psidiums, Sapiums, Vismia, Guazuma, Guachepelin, Tecoma stans, Trichilias, and many legumes, like Madero negro, Cojoba, Sennas and others.  However, keep in mind that some legumes grow very, very slowly – e.g. Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), Cristobal (Platymiscium pinnatum) and Nazareno (Peltogyne purpurea) amongst others.  As a general rule for trees:  the harder the wood, the slower the growth.  However, both types of trees are important for the ecosystem:  the fast-growing, abundant-seeding but short-lived softwood trees provide humus for the slower-growing trees nearby.  But don’t forget that all these trees that I’ve been mentioning are forest trees or, at least, for very large gardens.  If you have a small garden, choose fruit trees, and blend them with ornamental and edible plants. It’s so much more fun to wander about the garden, if you can pick berries, fruits and herbs along the way.  As organic gardeners, we need to mix it all together anyway to confuse the plant-chomping pests but it doesn’t have to look chaotic if you design it carefully.  I normally don’t design anything but, after allowing Nature time to do her thing, the groupings all start to blend and harmonize together, with a minimal effort of selecting out.  There is a good reason for allowing ‘weeds’ to join the groupings too:  to attract pests away from the other plants.  Tuete (Vernonia patens) is an excellent cover plant, which attracts and tolerates pests, thereby keeping them away from other nearby plants.  Also, Tuete has well-known coagulant properties, which we use occasionally for first-aid with the animals.

Here is a shot of a huge Granadilla, next to a red bell pepper for perspective.  Currently from our gardens here, we’re bringing in our first big harvests of avocados, mangas, sour citrus, Moras (thank you Hugo), Bolsas de Amor, and Chaya; and this new bounty now joins the basketfuls of greens and vegetables that Armando has been bringing in weekly from the more established plantings.  And, what joy, down in our experimental garden in the horse pasture, we have finally begun harvesting asparagus, after waiting three years for the plants to mature!  Soon we will feast on this succulent vegetable, even though it does impart a noticeable odor to one’s urine…
Village news:  After waiting nearly four years for the road between Ciudad Colon and El Rodeo to be fixed after the last devastating landslide, it finally began last week.  However, last night, part of the works collapsed, and now the road is completely closed for at least a week, as it is too dangerous to pass!  This means that we are marooned here unless we take the very long route through Piedras Negras, Jaris, etc. almost to Puriscal…

 Meanwhile, construction on the new village Salon Comunal began several months ago, despite the perilous road, and work will begin soon on the new elementary school designed by the famous architect, Piano.  At least, that was the plan until last night!
What’s more, fundraising is now underway for the design and construction of a new village Catholic Church.  Yes, we all love the current picturesque church of El Rodeo, but many residents would prefer a new church in the center of the village, rather than make the long trek to the current one.  Nevertheless, we all hope that the existing, charming little church shall always grace the winding road to El Rodeo. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Brits and Pals Celebrate

This is a picture of me, Marj, Natasha and Lorena, just arriving at the British Charity Picnic in Santa Ana.  The British community raises funds at this annual event, and all proceeds go to Costa Rican schools and clinics, as well as to the Red Cross.  We had just harvested a slew of mangos at the Finca, so I made and donated jars of Mango Chutney for the charity sale.  However, I also had to stock up on my favorite Brit foods:  Branston Pickle and Picallili.
Natasha rode a pony at the Picnic.  Until recent years, the British Ambassador always hosted the event in the Residence - Georgina Butler began the tradition with a group of dedicated British volunteers - but I found that this year, everybody loved the parking and ambience at Zamora Estates in Santa Ana.  We behaved like kids again all morning and then, when the kids hit the swimming pool, the adults congregated around the Pimms Bar, Silent Auction, Penny’s Used Books, back to the Pimms Bar…
You can’t just walk past this flower!  Isn’t Hylocereus costaricensis absolutely gorgeous?  First of all, you can only see the night-blooming flowers of the Hylocereus (local name Pitahaya) cactus at dawn.  I took the photo of this plant at 5:30AM.  The huge, trumpet-shaped, fragrant flower starts budding at dusk, and then blooms all night long until about 6AM.  By 9AM, the flowering show is over.  This photo is unusual because you can see the flower’s center in full bloom, with stingless bees pollinating it – note the numerous petals and stamens; finished flowers from the night before on the right; and a developing fuchsia/magenta-colored pitahaya fruit on the left.  When ripe, you pick the pitahayas (before the monkeys get them), slice them in half, scoop out the delicious magenta fruit in the center and eat it all!  This is best done alone else you will have to share!  Perhaps we shall have three pitaya fruits at once and then I can invite over a friend or two for a special feast!

Here’s a shot of Danny standing with the blooming Pitahaya cactus flower.  We took this picture at about 7:30AM and the show was over by breakfast.  The mostly epiphytic Hylocereus grows on trees and can really bunch up together, as this one did on a big tree stump located just outside the house at the edge of the forest.  It seems to grow easily here in the Zona Protectora El Rodeo, and some people cultivate it to sell for making ice-cream.  There is just nothing quite like it – delicious.
Our little pal, the injured sloth, continues to convalesce in Rodolfo’s capable hands at the Refugio Herpetologico of Costa Rica.  Many thanks to everyone who helped to mitigate the little fellow’s vet bills.  And we could always count on David Holmes (an English friend) to send us the jokes:  “How can you tell that a sloth has recovered from anesthesia?  What’s this about a Sloth Fund!”  You can still donate, if you wish, to the good work they do rescuing injured forest animals and releasing them after recovery.  You can also get up close and personal at the Refugio exhibit, with rescued animals too tame to survive if released back into the forest.  There you can get very close to tame scarlet macaws, parrots, owls, monkeys, and many other birds, animals and amphibians.  It is a must-visit place for tourists who would like an hour or two of something really fun to do in the Santa Ana area, west of San Jose.  Check out their website:

Just by pure coincidence, I saw a forest sloth just outside the house the other day, along with a bunch of cavorting monkeys.  The capuchin monkeys visit all the time to raid the orchards – the dogs ignore them and I rather enjoy observing the monkeys as they surreptitiously observe me.  So, at first I thought the big creamy creature lounging amongst the monkeys in the forest was just a mature, male capuchin.  The juvenile monkeys playing nearby always leave a large berth around grumpy old males.  But then I looked again, and then got out the binoculars and really looked!  It was a sloth!   I’d never seen capuchins together with a sloth before and wondered how they would behave.  In fact, they just ignored each other!  Even though the monkeys knew full well that the sloth was lounging and munching on a cecropia tree, they jumped and played together all around him, jumping from tree branch to branch very close by, but completely ignoring him.  I guess the monkeys sensed that the sloth was neither prey nor predator, so was not worthy of further attention; kind of like the human sitting down there on the terrace.  Not worth another second’s thought…  The monkeys often come up and sleep on trees near the house – perhaps they perceive the house as offering a kind of security from predators, but I’m not sure.  Next morning, they are always gone and this was true again.  And the sloth left too.  They’re not that slow when they want to relocate!
All of Costa Rica is still reeling over the murder of conservationist and turtle guardian Jairo Mora.  I truly believe there are more good people on this planet than bad but, at times, the good people have to pull together and hit hard.  And this time we must hit hard the thugs and criminals who rob turtle nests and kill, in cold-blood, dedicated and brave protectors of nature; we must not let them get away with murder!  This has happened in the past in Costa Rica, and I join all the voices here and around the world:  “Capture and prosecute these thugs to the full extent of the law!”  Let’s walk the walk Costa Rica!


Sunday, June 02, 2013

Sloth Survives Surgery

Our rescued sloth survived surgery yesterday – apparently anesthesia is a tricky business for sloths – and he is now convalescing well, with two metal plates and various pins ensuring that his fractured bones knit back together properly.  He had compound fractures of both an arm and a leg.  I am so impressed with how vets must understand all these different animal physiologies in order to diagnose and treat.  We human healthcare workers only need to study human physiology, although I assume that much is the same. 

photo: Sloth receives titanium plate during surgery at the Refugio Herpetologico of Costa Rica.
Fractured bones sometimes need titanium plates and our little sloth received the human kind.  He will now need several weeks to recover before release, and so will remain at the Refugio Herpetologico de Costa Rica, in the capable hands of Rodolfo and his team of volunteers.  You can follow all the rescued animals Rodolfo brings to the Refugio by consulting their website at, where you can also make a secure donation (at the Gift Site tab) if you would like to help support the good work they do with rescued animals.  This little sloth will return to the wild only when Rodolfo feels he is completely recovered and ready.

Capuchin monkeys at Refugio Herpetologico de Costa Rica. We, like sloths, have plenty of company living in a forest.  The white-faced, capuchin monkeys came right up to the house this morning and started raiding my baskets of citrus just out on the terrace.  The whole tribe with babies all came up to the house for the feast.  They’re not used to me being back living in the house; they think it’s still empty.  Well, I’m home now, and I want all the wild life off the roof and terrace and out of the pool.  The monkeys don’t need to eat my baskets of fruit sitting on the terrace – they can eat plenty of fruit growing in the orchards and the forest.  Out…Out…Fuera!  And that goes for the Green Iguana in the pool, as well!  I keep our spring-fed pool fastidiously clean, as the humans around know all too well, and I don’t like any species mucking it up…  There is abundant spring water just below in the forest; so go – shoo!

When I hollered at the monkeys this morning to get them off the terrace, they shrieked and hissed at me – the adults have to give the juveniles an example of how to hiss at humans – but the whole tribe did retreat just a few meters back into the forest.  From there, however, they settled down to eat the oranges they’d stolen and observe me, as I observed them back from the balcony.  But then a pair of swallow-tailed birds living out on the balcony, who also resented my coming home usurping their privacy, whooped and fluttered about, letting me know just how they felt about me too.  And they didn’t even have a nest there to protect (I always tolerate nests – leaving the birds in privacy until after the fledglings leave)!  So, all the forest creatures will just have to get used to me again, as I’m back now, outside on my balcony, living my own forest life.

We have collected a bumper crop of seeds from the forest trees during this dry season, and so they are FREE to a good home.  Available are:

Sura/Guayabon (Terminalia oblonga), Guayaquil (Albizia Syn. Pseudosamanea guachapele), Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), Cedro amargo (Cedrela odorata), Cascarillo (Lafoensia punicfolia), Jabillo (Hura crepitans), Volador (Gyrocarpus jatrophifolius), Ceibo verde (Pseudobombax septenatum), Ceiba pentandra, Yuco (Bernoullia flammea), Peine de Mico (Apeiba tibourbou), and a few vines.

Come and get them!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Rescue and Return

On Sunday morning, Armando found an injured sloth while out walking in the forest below the University for Peace.  It was a Two-Toed Sloth, Perezoso in Spanish, (Choloepus hoffmanni) and it was slumped at the base of a tree nursing a broken front arm.  Armando realized that it would die a slow, miserable death if he could not find help immediately.  So he called Yaneth, who called me; then I called Alice, a friend of Rodolfo Vargas Leiton, Director of the Refugio Herpetologico de Costa Rica, who then called him.  Rodolfo and the good people at the Refugio rescue, cure and release, if possible, all the wild animals brought to them, only keeping those that would not survive in the wild in a beautiful, oasis-like setting in Santa Ana.  There, visitors can interact closely with cute capuchin and squirrel monkeys; an ocelot; lots of rescued and permanently injured tropical birds, especially parrots and macaws; and many reptiles and amphibians that private owners, overwhelmed by their crocodile in the bathtub, release over to  Rodolfo.  A visit to the Refugio is a wonderful experience for the whole family.  The staff and helpers there give  great tours, telling the rescue stories of the animals, and many of the creatures are very tame and will interact with children.  That’s one reason that they can’t return to the wild.  They are too used to human creature comforts…
Anyway, in less than thirty minutes, Alice and Rodolfo raced to the scene, and Armando helped them carry the injured sloth back to the car and to safety.  Armando said that the sloth was in very good health apart from the injury, and actually appeared grateful to the humans for helping him – he seemed to sense that the humans meant him no harm.  Rodolfo and Alice then transported the sloth back to the Refugio.  Many, many thanks to Rodolfo and Alice, and also to Armando, for the rescue of this gentle forest creature.

During my visit to the Refugio yesterday, I watched vets operating on a hawk with an infected claw.  I also took the picture above of the injured sloth, who awaits surgery by a specialist on Thursday.  He has a compound fracture which will need to be held together with a titanium plate in order to secure the bone.  The good news, however, is that, with the plate in place, he should make a complete recovery.  Coincidentally, I also have a titanium plate screwed to my clavicle, after I broke it a few years ago.  It sometimes bothers me but the bone is stronger with it in.  And, like me, the sloth will have to get used to his plate when Rodolfo and Alice release him back into the forest some weeks from now, after he completely recovers.
Alice wrote to me about his current condition and the need for donations: “We really need funds to pay the vet and the after surgery medicines! We already got out the voice with our visitors at the refuge and have already $200 for him.  We need $600 to pay $350 to the vet and $250 for his special diet and the medicines."
Please help us save this sloth, by going to the secure site of, where you can make a donation at the Gift Shop tab - any amount, large or small, would be so much appreciated.  You can visit El Refugio Herpetologico in Santa Ana, Tuesday through Sunday 9am - 4pm, located on the old road to Santa Ana, Alto de las Palomas, tel: 2282-4614.
Take a look at this huge higueron that collapsed across the road to the Finca on Monday afternoon.  Half of the massive tree keeled over last rainy season, and then on Monday - the day before I arrived - the other half collapsed, blocking the road out to Reserva El Tigre!  However, all the neighborhood guys worked together most of Tuesday to clear just enough of a path so that I could get home from the airport.  Thank you Jose, Jorge, Armando, Hugo and everybody else who helped me arrive home.  I took these pictures on Wednesday, when they were still trying to clear a better path. 
Jose really is amazing with a chainsaw – not many could successfully tackle a tree of that size.  Jose is also amazing playing football (soccer).  You can see YouTube footage of Jose and his team winning the championship game of their Division somewhere outside Puriscal a few weeks back.

 This picture is of Jose, Danny and the new Mariola bees’ nest located just under the carport near his house.  Jose wears many hats – gardener, cowboy, mountain biker, mechanic, wild-life manager, animal technician, and now, bee-keeper.  ‘Problemitas’ like a downed tree become more like challenges and opportunities here at the farm.  When the higueron tree came down, Jose and Armando rescued a bee hive filled with delicious honey of the very best kind – from the tiny Mariola stingless honey bee – Tetragonisca angustula.  This is a highly prized bee because the honey has so many medicinal and nutritional benefits.  Can you imagine all the plants they get to pollinate around here?  Jose carefully removed the intact part of the nest within the branch (at night while the bees slept) and relocated the entire thing, together with sleeping bees, to a nicely prepared new home in a wooden box for them that he had previously fabricated.   These sweet, tiny honey bees never sting, pester or buzz into your hair!  After three days relocated, the Mariola bees have begun transporting material from their old nest in the fallen tree back to the new wooden box, where they are busy constructing and settling into their new home; we are hoping that the queen does well and goes back to laying eggs after that shocking event and subsequent relocation.  Armando is well trained in apiculture from a previous experience, and the fallen tree gave us a great opportunity to begin this new adventure; and Jose discovered how to make the wooden box from an internet site at the University of Costa Rica…
 Have you ever eaten honey straight out of the hive?  There is nothing like it.  That Mariola honey was so good that I just ate it all – all that they gave me from the nest - chewing it down to the wax to absorb it all.  I was so fully sated that I actually walked away from a big breakfast of fruit from the garden – granadillas, mangas and papaya, toast, coffee and our very own orange sweet marmalade.  I walked away from it all, needing nothing else after consuming that incredible honey.  Now I so better understand Winnie the Pooh!

Armando also rescued this Rhipsalis from the fallen tree.  An epiphytic cactus, it would not have survived long where it was, but now is thriving on nearby Guitite and Madero Negro trees.   The fallen higueron, with its soft wood, will remain where it is, returning to the earth and providing shelter for many species.  The rain will soon break it all down.

Take a look at this Green Iguana that Armando Jose photographed just below the house.  A pair of them, each measuring nearly two meters long, has taken up residence in a tree nearby, and occasionally they go swimming in the pool…    Doesn’t this fellow look ancient – like a dinosaur?  Adult iguanas are very fast and will zip up a tree in a flash if they sense danger.  As you may recall if you are an avid reader of this blog, Jose relocated a huge Green Iguana some months ago when he wandered up to the house as if he owned the place.  I was concerned that he would get into the hen house so asked Jose to relocate him to the Cedrela tree.  Well, it turns out that, although juvenile Green Iguanas are carnivorous, adults prefer to eat plants.  Thus, they are unlikely to attack the hen house or compete with cats for prey.  These Iguanas are big – and no longer green – so the cats avoid them, and the dogs are now ignoring them, after some initial curiosity.  We (the humans) tolerate them, as long as they stay away from the hen house.  They are like the monkeys, sloths and other wild animals we see just outside – we observe them but don’t interact with them or feed them.
We do, however, keep our cats and dogs well-fed.  The cats are mostly out at the stables, where they keep the snakes and rodents at bay.  And, although people say that cats cause damage to the ecology hunting birds and other prey, we have observed that our well-fed cats are too lazy to hunt, or at worst, they are only occasional opportunistic hunters.  In fact, both our cats and dogs are scared of the forest, where bigger predators lurk, and stay close to the house or stables most of the time.  Fea La Gata never hunted.  In fact, Fea had an odd assortment of bed-fellows – small green frogs or a favorite tarantula often shared her sleeping box!

Here is a shot of Coquetta La Vaca and her calf, Alejandra, born just moments before, on May 25th.  The guys had a busy weekend.  Armando and Jose needed to help Coquetta give birth to Alejandra La Vaquita – who was delivered hind-feet first.  Happily, we did not need to call a vet, and Armando injected Coquetta with medications to eject the afterbirth, prevent infection and relieve pain.  And I can now proudly announce that both mother and calf are doing very well indeed.  But Alejandra sure took her sweet time making an appearance - our previous calves Negrito and Little Gerry were both born on Gerry’s birthday in March, but Alejandra didn’t appear until Jose’s birthday weekend.  We are all thrilled.  And now that she is all cleaned up and looking well, we can see that Alejandra la Vaquita will be even more beautiful than her mother, Coquetta.  And best of all, we will soon eat home-made yoghurt and cheese once again after so long…

Here’s a shot of an Africanised bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating an Una de Gato vine, a species of Mimosa vine in the Fabaceae family.  Africanised bees are perfectly safe to photograph while busy pollinating flowers - just stay away from their hives!

I have written about Hymenoptera before, as I find these winged creatures utterly fascinating to observe, whether parasitic, predatory or, as in our case here, phytophages (plant eating).  Bees (Apidae) are likewise phytophages, and amazingly there are some 650 species of them here in Costa Rica.   And as we observe the bees visiting flowering plants, we can more fully appreciate the circle that takes places in the ecosystem, connecting animals with plants in a beneficial manner.  Every species has a role - even humans.
Here’s a shot of Palicourea guianensis now in bloom.  This is a beautiful native shrub and very ornamental for the garden.  You never need to water this in the dry season.  Butterflies are also currently visiting flowering Stachytarpheta, Lantana, Mimosas and many other plants that begin blooming at the start of the rainy season.  If you want to see butterflies, high season here is June - August when so much shrubbery is in bloom. 

Despite my chaotic welcome back, it’s so good to return home to the forest.  I drink freshly squeezed orange juice and feast on fruits that the guys bring in from the garden – granadillas, mangas, bananas, pitangas, moras, mimbro, Guisaro (Psidium guineense), many types of citrus, and that’s just to start.  Armando also brings avocados, herbs and greens for salads.  A few days ago, Jose brought me our very first cuttings of asparagus!  Hugo cut Chicasquil leaves, and Dona Rosa made us all a delicious picadillo with them.  We are all busy in the kitchen processing the garden abundance into assorted recipes, sauces and chutneys.
We have planted numerous fruit trees this month - citrus and peach trees (experiment), and also some hardwoods, particularly Cenizaro (Albizia saman).  We already have lots of the cream-colored Guayaquil (Albizia guachapele) and wanted to add the pink-flowering cousin.  There’s no greater pleasure than watching trees grow over the years.  The most hardy of all trees are those that seed themselves.  In that lucky case, all you have to do is select out in the garden.  Do you really want to weed that tiny plant that could be something rare and important?  We don’t weed so much as select out.  Armando is good at recognizing seedlings and what they will become.

Village News.  You can now put your recycling out every Monday in El Rodeo, for pick-up by Servicios Ecologicos from Ciudad Colon.  A meeting was recently held in the village to explain everything but only two men and a dog showed up.  Where was everybody?  Out at Reserva El Tigre, we have to recycle by necessity because we have no garbage pick-up of any kind.  We reuse, recycle and reject (don’t buy anything that might end in a landfill) and feel empowered by this lifestyle.  All kitchen waste goes to the chickens and turkeys, who give us delicious eggs in return.  It’s amazing how little true waste you produce by just becoming more conscious. 

The Museo Nacional has just published a book about the Zona Protectora of El Rodeo.  A meeting was also held about this important work, but this too was, sadly, sparsely attended.  Where is everybody?  This Brenesia publication is a must read for anyone enamored with this beautiful forest located so close to San Jose.  Go to the Museo Nacional website or just buy the book at the ticket office in San Jose.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Just Another Night in the Vieux Carre

So there I was sitting in Ryan’s (modestly self-proclaimed jolly good hostelry - see accompanying picture), minding my own business, quaffing a pint of ale, when suddenly an air assault began…  At least, that’s what it sounded like.
A deafening, sphincter-stimulating roar drowned out all conversation and other pub-related noises, as a large number of enormous, matte-black helicopters flew over the place, at roof-top level, with no lights on at all, no less!
The reactions of my fellow imbibers reflected their own life experiences (legal and illegal), and mental states, and were rather interesting to note (cowering, disappearing out the door in a split-second, open-mouthed curiosity, cursing belligerence, etc.). 
For my part, I demonstrated the phlegmatic, stiff-upper-lipped, sang-froid of an Englishman, of course, continuing to sip my pint while the noise grew overwhelmingly loud and then finally began to ebb, the choppers eventually passing overhead to cause havoc in other parts of the French Quarter.
But it was not until a couple of weeks later that the local newspaper informed the populace that it had been an unannounced, special operations, urban warfare training exercise, conducted just after the Boston Marathon bombings, using unlit Blackhawks and other unnamed, sophisticated weaponry. 

Just another night in The Quarter – laissez les bontemps rouler y’all

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Coquetta La Vaca Lost and Found

Have you seen this sweet looking cow?  Coquetta La Vaca was last seen March 4th, 2013, just outside the stable gate, awaiting her daily grooming and feeding.  Every day, Jose gathers and chops together lots of fresh grains and grasses for a feast for our two cows and three horses.  The chickens and turkeys feast on this mixture too, as well as all the other kitchen scraps.  The daily feast is the main reason why our animals don’t stray far from the stable and don’t vagabond out into the forest where predators lurk.  Bovines, Equines and Avifauna - all of them come back home from pasture to the stable yard for the daily feast.  However, having said that, we have learned from experience that bovines are vagabonds by nature, and will push right through the fencing if they’re determined to get to the greener grass on the other side.  Horses will respect fencing but not vagabonding cows!  We suspect that Coquetta meandered out of the pasture and onto the public road, and got caught up in a cattle run by the neighbors that same day.  But, alas, Coquetta could not be found amongst his herd when we phoned and inquired.  We have been searching for her in pastureland all over the mountainside and, at this point, we are very worried.  It’s not easy searching the steep, overgrown paths in the forest, especially on horseback.  I went to help last Friday and was more hindrance than help.  Remember – inside the tropical forest inhabits the feared Fer- de-lance – Bothrops atrox.  The horses are used to this sort of terrain so down we went, looking for signs of a lost bovine.  Well, first I lost my phone and then  I got knocked off Lucero as he trotted under low growing branches.  I fell sprawling and ripped my favorite green shirt.  Later, the girls took it away to the laundry shaking their head and muttering:  One day she will kill herself riding out there like a cowboy.   But as with all riders, whenever you fall off your horse, you jump right back on.  Lucero looked at me, head hanging with droopy eyes as if to say:  “The branches weren’t too low for me!”  We quickly tracked the phone down by phoning it…but still no Coquetta.  We thank the entire neighborhood of El Rodeo for looking out for Coquetta La Vaca.  Jose has spread the word.  Coquetta’s calf, Bambi, is disconsolate - and we humans can forget about homemade yoghurt this summer…NEWS FLASH:  Jose found Coquetta yesterday – in the same area where I lost my phone.  The guys brought Coquetta home after eight days marauding in the forest and mountainside.  She returned scratched and scraped and infested with ticks.  She went straight to the bath and first-aid and doing okay now.
Here's a shot of Matchi out in pasture.  Jose rode Matchi in the Cinta de Carreras Sunday, as part of a huge village fundraiser, called a ‘turno’, for the new Catholic Church which will soon be built in El Rodeo.  Jose reported that Matchi performed just fine – even though it poured down during their part of the competition.  They got drenched but had a great time.  Everyone loves a drenching tropical rain in the dry season, and even festival attendees rejoiced in the rain.  We are thrilled about the new Catholic Church and have made a donation in memory of mom’s recently departed husband, Cyril Pombier and Patricia Patrizi, his beloved sister.  They died within days of each other in February and our entire family grieves for these two extraordinary siblings.
Here’s a shot of Mr. Rooster and Mr. Turkey.  Our criollo (local, healthy and big) chickens are giving us delicious eggs, and our new female turkey has made a nice comfortable nest for her eggs.  Her new mate, Mr. Turkey (thank you Denise) gets along just fine with Mr. Big Rooster, who rules the roost of hens.  The chickens and turkeys generally live well together – the males are of different species and do not compete for food or mates.   But if we attempted to introduce a second rooster into the stable-yard, then the two roosters would probably fight.  Only the strongest and biggest criollo rooster makes it to rule the roost.  We trade-out Mr. Rooster every 6 months or so just to diversify and enrich the criollo bloodline.
Here’s a shot of Cortez amarilla – Tabebuia ochracea – you see in gorgeous yellow bloom all over the Central Valley of Costa Rica.  These trees also bloom in pastureland and throughout the forest, where the yellow blooms sparkle within the green tapestry.   Tabebuia trees drop their leaves during the dry season, so the flowering trees look like huge yellow lollipops.  And all those pink lollipop blooming trees you see along the roadsides in the western Central Valley, belong to the same Tabebuia genus – the pink Tabebuias are commonly called Roble de la Sabana - and are probably Tabebuia rosea, but there are also, taller, less common of Tabebuia species with more intense hues of pink flowers.

You can see from this shot of the Tabebuia ochracea flower that Cortez amarilla is in the trumpet vine family – Bignoniaceae. 

Here’s a shot of Petrea volubilis now in bloom out in the garden.  Petrea is in the Verbenaceae Family but some think it has more in common with the Bignoniaceae.  As with all native plants, once established you never need to water Petrea.  You can grow it as a vine or train it as a shrub.  Petrea vines grow also in the forest, and that glint of flowering blue up in the canopy might not be a Lonchocarpus: you might be looking at a Petrea vine.  There really is a lot in flower in the tropical forest during the dry season – the list is too long to mention here, but remember this flower gardeners: Save your Water, Plant Native Plants.  Native plants, vines and trees burst into bloom during the dry season without needing a drop of water.   

We love vines – they coexist with the trees.  Don’t cut down vines unless you need to protect a particular tree.  We even leave the strangler fig alone– usually strangler Ficus starts to grow and prospers on host trees that have already reached the peak of their shorter life-cycle, e.g. old Miconia, Guazuma,  etc..  The Ficus tree will actually someday replace the old, host tree and become a massive, spectacular forest tree and also… food bazaar, shelter and bridge for monkeys, pizotes, birds and all the other local wildlife.  The thick, dense roots of the Ficus tree also hold up the entire mountainside and prevent erosion.   We have several Ficus species growing at El Tigre: Ficus cotinifolia, F. elastic, F. goldmanii, F. insipid, F. obtusifolia, F. costaricensis, Ficus Jimenez and Ficus pertussa.  Perhaps there are others not yet ID’d.  Ficus trees and should not be planted near homes or water lines as their roots will invade.  The Ficus roots also protect and stabilize the mountain.  Think that before you chop down your massive Higueron out in pasture.
 Apart from the wonderful tropical shower El Rodeo enjoyed last night, the climate has been dry since last December.  This is great seed collecting weather!  Armando has collected many seeds of forest trees and we currently have them drying in the library upstairs.  In this collection you can see Sura – Terminalia oblonga, Family: Combretaceae; Ceibo verde - Pseudobombax septenatum, Family: Bombacaceae (yes I know the whole Malvales order has been thrown into Malvaceae);  Peine de Mico - Apeiba tibourbou, Family: Tiliaceae (yeah, ditto, now also called Malvaceae); and Yuco – Bernoullia flammea, Family: Bombacaceae (I know, I know, it’s now called a Malvaceae but I just love those magnificent giant trees once called Bombacaceae.  We are also collecting the seed cottons from the massive Bombacaceae trees - the seed padding from Ceiba, Ceibo, Pochote and Balsa are all so much softer than cotton! 
Pictured here you see seeds of Cascarillo – Lafoensia punicifolia, Family: Lythraceae; Volador – Gyrocarpus jatrophifolius, Family: Hernandiaceae; and Cedro – Cedrela odorata, Family: Meliaceae.  We have also collected a large sack of seeds from Cocobollo - Dalbergia retusa and Guayaquil - Pseudosamanea guachapele (Kunth) Harms, Family: Fabaceae.  Botanists often confuse Guayaquil with Cenizaro – Samanea saman (Jacq.) Merr.   This is because Cenizaro and Guayaquil appear very similar when not in flower.  The Guayaquil tree, which predominates here at Reserva El Tigre, has cream flowers that later turn kind of yellow-ish, and you can also distinguish Guayaquil by the gland in the center of the petiole.  The Cenizaro tree has pink flowers.  They are both beautiful forest trees.  I believe botanists now call both Samanea and Pseudosamanea by the Genus Albizia.  Taxonomists sometimes shift and merge botanical names as they learn more about the plant.  Linnaeus was just the first, the grandfather of botanical and zoological taxonomy.  You need to learn the scientific names if you want to have a conversation with other botanists worldwide.  Sometimes the Latin plant names are the only words you will have in common.  But it’s a start…
Now here’s a metaphor for nature.  I came home to find this scorpion on the wall and it had just stung the grasshopper.  The grasshopper was in the throes of death, while the scorpion just calmly held on to it until it died.  We could do nothing to save the grasshopper’s fate and could only photograph the scorpion start to eat the dead grasshopper’s head.  The scorpion paid no attention to numerous flashes and photos as I moved closely around him.  Perhaps he thought I would tolerate him as I do the geckos and the tarantulas.  No dice, however.  We kill all venomous wildlife that gets into the house – a rare event now that we have screened the house completely - but we do, after all, live in a tropical forest…still, the house is my territory.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Green Iguana

Take a look at this Green Iguana strutting out in front of the house.  I spotted her (her, we think) first through the window, then watched spellbound as this prehistoric creature walked right in front of three slumbering dogs on the terrace.  She almost got past them and down to the pool but Dilly woke up and roused the other dogs to the presence of this very odd creature.  We have seen Iguanas often down in the forest, but this is the first time one of them has brazenly come up to the house.  A few weeks ago, Jose saw a male nearly twice as big as this one down near the Ceiba tree.  Perhaps they should meet and mate!  One thing’s for sure:  we can’t have a Green Iguana hanging out at the house.  I know that some forest people keep Iguanas as pets – even letting them lay around together with their cats and dogs.  But we firmly believe that wild animals belong in their own (wild) habitat.  We don’t feed any of the wildlife, be they Capuchin monkeys or hummingbirds.  They have plenty enough to eat and we can often view birds and wildlife coming up close occasionally to feed on fruiting trees.  Over the years, we’ve had to relocate many animals that moved in too close – Pizotes, Collared Ant-Eaters, Boa Constrictors, large lizards and more.  But why? 
Well, we don’t want them near the hen house.  One time, we unfortunately had to kill a Boa Constrictor because he came right back to the hen house after we’d relocated him back to the forest.  Apparently, he knew a good meal ticket when he saw it!  However, that was the only time we had a problem.  In our experience, when a creature interacts with a human (Jose) in the act of relocating him, the creature is never seen again.  In the case of this Green Iguana, we decided to move her to the foot of a huge Cedrela odorata tree.  Jose let her go and the Iguana quickly climbed to the top of it, where she surveyed the scene below her for the rest of the day.  The next morning she was gone.  We hope she found that awesome male Jose spotted a few weeks before…

The weather has been very dry:  no rain since early December, apart from a couple of showers.  However, this is an outstanding year for collecting seeds.  Trees don’t seed every year but this year is particularly abundant.  We’re busy collecting seeds to dry before the rains come.  Yesterday, Armando returned just before an afternoon shower, with bags of seeds for drying.  He had collected Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), Guayaquil (Pseudosamanea guachapele), Volador (Gyrocarpus jatrophifolius) and Peine de Mico (Apeiba dibourbou).  We now have them drying in baskets in the library.  Come and get them, if you’re interested.  First come, first served!  Also flowering and seeding now are species of Albizia, Cassia, Senna, Inga, Lysiloma, Acosmium, Gliricidia, Erythrina, and many other species of legumes, as well as Cupania, Jacarandas, Manilkara, Picramnia, Luehea, Laurel, and also the glorious, colorful Tabebuias!  There is nothing more gorgeous than driving past a Roble de la Sabana in full, glorious, pink bloom.  And then you see the bright yellow Cortez Amarrillas – another Tabebuia giving us a mouth-dropping show.  The Costa Rican dry season is truly spectacular for flowering shrubs and trees – and these native trees don’t require a drop of water, as they are adapted to the long drought conditions.  Still, all species (including humans) rejoice on those rare days when it does rain – if only to refresh and dampen down the ground to resist forest fires.  Rain for us forest-dwellers is a great relief in February.  So many farmers still burn pastures this time of year, and it only takes a strong, dry wind to lose control of a fire.  Each rainfall, no matter how brief, reduces the risk of forest fire, thereby reducing the stress level for all of us.  The top layer quickly dries as the water is absorbed, and we will be out again collecting seeds throughout this incredibly productive season.  Seeds expected in abundance in March are: Ceiba pentandra, Pseudobombax, Bernoullia flammea, Ochroma pyramidale, Cordia, Brosimum, Ficus, Maclura, Hura crepitans and many more.

Our animals also do very well during the dry season.  The horses have shiny, healthy coats and are full of energy for long rides.  Coquetta the cow is expecting her calf in March.  Will it be another Gerry birthday..?