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The Bush Dog

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By Jack Ewing

3 bush dogs in jungleRarely is a new mammal discovered anywhere on the planet. Insects, yes. In fact so many new insect species are being discovered every day that it is not even newsworthy. Species of reptiles and amphibians new to Costa Rica are found at least once a year, birds occasionally, but 2016 was the first time a new mammal species has been confirmed in Costa Rica during the 48 years that I have lived here. I am referring to the Bush Dog (Speothos venaticus), a member of the canidae family sometimes called the Savannah Dog or the Vinegar Dog. A video of a pair of them was captured on a trail camera by biologist Jan Shipper in the Talamanca region at 1493 meters (4900 feet) above sea level. Prior to that time there had been several unconfirmed sightings in the Osa Peninsula, but no photos. It was believed that Shipper’s video was taken at the highest elevation where bush dog presence had been detected anywhere throughout its range. A couple of years later Dr. Mike Mooring, of the Talamanca Large Mammal Survey, captured photos of several groups of these canids at an elevation of 2086 mt (6844 feet). Prior to Jan Shipper’s video the species was not known to exist north of Panama.

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A Passel of Jacks, Jills, and Joeys

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I have seen lots of Jacks and Jills and even a few Jills with bunches of Joeys, but I have never seen a passel. In fact I just recently learned what one was. I know you have heard of a pride of lions, a herd of elk, and a troop of monkeys, but how about a passel of opossums. Since these mammals are solitary by nature and don’t hang out in groups, I doubt if the word sees much use. Jacks, of course, are the males, Jills the females, and Joeys the babies. I don’t know if a Jill with a bunch of Joeys on her back is considered to be a passel or not. If so then I guess I have seen a passel.

The common opossum (Didelphis marsupialis) is a nocturnal, marsupial mammal found throughout this part of Costa Rica. They are not the least bit charismatic, and certainly won’t win any beauty contests. Being stinky when up close doesn’t win them any fans either. The Bribri Indians even consider them to be messengers of death. Not being picky about their food often gets them into trouble with urban dwelling humans for invading garbage cans. Rural families despise them for raiding chicken coops, killing chickens, and eating eggs. They will eat almost anything from fruit and grass to birds, insects, small reptiles and even carrion. With a diet as diverse as that they need lots of teeth of many different kinds. Opossums have more teeth than any other mammal. There are 50 in total including incisors, premolars, molars, and canines.

In spite of their bad reputation opossums are really pretty interesting. Let’s take, for example, the fact that they are immune to snake bite. Scientists have been searching for the source of this immunity for some time and have recently discovered a chain of amino acids in their blood serum that appears to neutralize snake venom. The really good news is that they have been able to pass this form of immunity on to mice in a laboratory, and there is hope that someday soon it will be available for snake bite treatment in humans.

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Are Insect Populations Really Decreasing?

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By Jack Ewing

Cockroach

Cockroach

We didn’t have cockroaches in Colorado where I grew up. At least I never saw any. The first time I heard of them was on television. For those of you who are old enough to remember it was on the Jackie Gleason Show. Every week there was a skit called “The Honeymooners” in which a couple named Ralph and Alice lived in a rundown apartment somewhere in New York City, One day Alice was complaining that she had seen a cockroach in the apartment. I asked my mom what a cockroach is and was told that they are horrible bugs that are only found in slums. Later in life I found out that in the tropics they live everywhere.

In the 1970s Diane and I and our kids, Natalie and Chris, all moved to Hacienda Barú to live. Our lighting was from kerosene lanterns and was pretty dim. Cockroaches love dim light and would come out at night and climb all over the walls. We played a lot of different card and board games for evening entertainment, but our favorite game was cockroach hunting. We had a fly swatter that consisted of a plastic pistol with a spring that shot a plastic disk at the flies. Once a month we would roll the dice to see who got to go first. If you killed a cockroach you got to shoot again. If you missed, the pistol passed on the next person. We kept going until there were no more cockroaches to be found. Each game wiped out the entire population, and we would have to wait a month for them to replenish their numbers before we could have another hunt. We didn’t worry about controlling the roaches with insecticide or anything else, because it was so much fun hunting them.

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THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF THOMAS J. BROWER

The First Gringo in Dominical

by Jack Ewing

Thomas beside old tractor

My swamper, cat & I on the road to Dominical

When Thomas J. Brower first came to Costa Rica World War II was raging, and the US was worried about the Panama Canal. If it were to fall into enemy hands allied naval capacity would be severely crippled, and in the late 1930’s a land route, imperative for the defense of the canal, did not exist. Building one became top priority, and the Pan-American highway was the result. The US government contracted with the Charles E. Mills Construction Company to build the 300 km stretch of road from Cartago to the Panamanian border.

Tommy Brower landed in Dominicalito with the construction company in 1940. A crude dock was built and heavy machinery unloaded. Part of the crew, with the help of local labor, built a camp for the company workers, and the rest started building a road to San Isidro. Once the trocha, as the rough cut road was called, reached San Isidro the workers split into two groups with one working toward Palmar Norte and the other toward Cartago where they would eventually meet up with other crews working from those locations toward San Isidro. It was a major operation, the magnitude of which had never been seen in Costa Rica.

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WHAT ON EARTH IS A FLITTERMOUSE?

Amazing Diversity of Our Flying Mammals

By Jack Ewing

Bat flyingWhat looks like a mouse with wings and flitters around the house? Of course it’s a bat. The name for “bat” in old English was “flittermouse”, I imagine because they somewhat resemble a mouse, and their wings flutter or flitter. In middle English it was “bakke” which evolved into “bat” in modern English in the late 1500’s.

What comes to mind when someone mentions bats? Probably nothing good. They have been associated with everything from witchcraft, darkness and Halloween to vampires and death. Terms like dingbat and batty have been use to describe people who are foolish or silly or you might hear it said that a person who acts goofy has bats in their belfry. If there are any terms or sayings that show bats in a positive light I have never heard them. These sayings and ideas all come from a time when superstition ruled people’s lives and science was in its infancy. Today we have a wealth of scientific knowledge about bats, much of which is truly fascinating, yet it is virtually unknown to the general public. For example bats comprise over 20% of all mammal species on our planet, and are the only flying mammal. According to Wikipedia there are 5416 mammalian species on earth and over 1200 of them are bats. In Costa Rica, and I suspect in most tropical countries, over 50% of mammalian species are bats. The smallest mammal in the world is a bat, Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, also known as the bumblebee bat, which weighs a mere two grams (.07 oz.), about the same as two paper clips. The fastest mammal in the world is also a bat, the Mexican long-tailed bat, which has been clocked at 160 kph (99 mph), much faster than a cheetah which has a top speed of 120 kph (74.5 mph).
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Land of the Fat Cats

But There Aren’t Any Sloths

By Jack Ewing

I have always wanted to see a jaguar in its natural habitat, but had resigned myself to the reality that it wasn’t going to happen in Costa Rica. From the moment I heard of the Pantanal, the best jaguar viewing location in the world, it became number one on my bucket list, and it finally came to be.

jaguar

With an area of 355,000 square kilometers, a little over seven times the land area of Costa Rica, the Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world. Parts of it are found in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and the largest portion in Brazil. In August of 2018 my daughter Natalie, and I spent eight days in the Pantanal National Park. It was definitely the most incredible eight days of my entire life. Our main reason for going was to see jaguars, but we also had giant anteaters, giant river otters, tapirs, and capybaras on our wish list. We saw more than we had ever imagined: fifteen jaguars, two giant anteaters, nine families of giant river otters, five tapirs, approximately 200 capybaras, 3000 to 5000 black caimans, and 128 species of birds including about 200 jabiru storks.
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King of the Jungle

King Vulture flying

Riding along the edge of the forest on horseback I caught a whiff of something rotten, and a moment later a big, beautiful, black and white bird with a multicolored head came into view. It was pecking away at the stinking carcass of a dead opossum. There was a bunch of black vultures hopping around nearby mostly just watching, but occasionally darting forward and snatching a morsel of the decomposing flesh and quickly withdrawing. All kept their distance from the magnificent creature which calmly ate its fill paying little attention to the others.

King Vulture on a branch“What is that beautiful white bird?” I asked Orlando. “The zopilotes sure give it plenty of space.”

“Of course they do,” replied Orlando, a slight smile on his face. “He’s the king. We call him El Rey de Zopilotes (King of the Vultures).”

“I never knew a vulture could be so beautiful?” I blurted out in amazement. “I can see why you call him the king.”

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The Return of the Scarlet Macaws

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Once upon a time there was a Bribri Indian chief named Pabru Presberi who was master of some big, exceptionally beautiful birds called “Pa”. Everywhere the chief went large groups of Pa flocked around him. Some were red and others green, and all were covered with stunning, bright colored plumage. One day some strange men with beards from a far-away place called Spain arrived on the shores of Costa Rica. Awed by the beauty of the Pa the Spaniards killed them for their feathers which they took to their homeland as gifts for the royalty. The word “la” in Spanish means “the” in English, so they referred to the birds as “la pa” which was later shortened to “lapa”. As time went on there were less and less lapas. The Spaniards had killed all but the large flock that followed chief Pabru everywhere he went. Eventually the chief led a revolution against the Spaniards, so they captured him and took him to Cartago where he was imprisoned. The lapas followed. Eventually the Spaniards executed the chief and the red lapas flew away to the Pacific coast and the green lapas to the Caribbean coast. To this day that is where they reside.

Of course, in English, the lapa roja (Ara macao) is the scarlet macaw, and the lapa verde (Ara ambigua) is the great green macaw. Their numbers have diminished drastically over the years to the point that the great green macaw is now listed on the IUCN red list as endangered. The scarlet macaws, which were once seen in large colorful flocks up and down the entire Pacific coast, have also diminished, but not to the extent of their green cousins. It is estimated that today there are about 600 scarlet macaws in the Osa Peninsula and 400 in Carara National Park. They disappeared from the area between Manuel Antonio and Uvita in the 1960s.

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TAPIRS ARE SO COOL

And Costa Rica Is Their Last Best Hope for Survival

By Jack Ewing

Baird's TpirBiologist and tapir specialist, Charlie Foerster, once told me about an experience he had while standing on a high spot looking down over an embankment into a river when a tapir walked across a shallow area and continued into a deep pool until its head was submerged. Its elongated nose stuck out of the water like a snorkel until the animal reached the deepest part of the pool, and it too went under the surface. The water was clear and Charlie could see hordes of small fish surround the tapir and peck away at all of the ticks, lice and other external parasites attached to its hide, while the tapir blew bubbles. After a while the large mammal surfaced, took several deep breaths and sunk back to the bottom repeating the process a couple more times. Finally it walked out of the pool free of all its unwelcome hitchhikers. Now that’s what I call cool.

The Central American Tapir (Tapirus bairdii) sometimes called Baird’s Tapir, is the largest land mammal in Central and South America. They are about the size of a small cow—an adult will weigh up to 350 kg—but are shaped more like a pig. A long, prehensile snout, that has also been called a short trunk, is used to grasp vegetation and pull it into the tapir’s mouth. The front feet have three large toes and a fourth smaller toe located a little bit higher on the foot. The back feet have only three toes. This puts them in the same family as the horse and rhinoceros, the odd-toed ungulates. They love water and are seldom found far from it.

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THE SPIDER MONKEY AND THE GARLIC TREE

One of Nature’s Many Puzzles

By Jack Ewing

Fluffy yellow flowers carpeted the trail. How beautiful. Then the odor overwhelmed my nostrils. Garlic! “Oh my god,” I exclaimed turning to my friend Juan Ramón. “Are these flowers from the ajo tree?”

Juan laughed. “There it is right over there,” pointing to a tall, thick, straight tree about 20 meters off the trail. “Haven’t you ever seen the flowers before? I know you love the tree.”

As you can see in the photo the tree is not only enormous, but also tall, thick, and straight. The wood is strong and very resistant to water. Ranchers sought them out, felled them and used the wood to make boards for corrals. It was also one of the preferred woods used for railroad ties when Costa Rica’s railroads were being built. Other uses include structural supports for bridges and buildings. In the last century so many of them were cut that very few are left.

40 meter tall Ajo tree

40 meter tall Ajo tree

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Once a Beautiful River

By Jack Ewing

A few short years ago I wrote an article about the Barú River and the otters that could still be seen there at that time. (Read it HERE.) I proclaimed that the Barú was the most beautiful river on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, proudly stated that no other river bridge on the coastal highway could boast such a magnificent view, and expressed the hope that the community of Dominical would fight to keep it that way. At the time there were a number of companies trying to acquire permits to extract gravel from the river bed. The community of Dominical, having seen the destruction created by the mining of other rivers such as the Naranjo, went before the authorities, opposed the exploitation of the river for removing sand and gravel, and won. Everybody was happy, and the Barú retained its fame as the most beautiful river on the coastal highway. That was about four years ago.

Barú River before

One day in February of 2018 while driving from Hacienda Barú to Dominical I happened to glance up river while crossing the bridge. My God. It’s gone. What happened to that beautiful view? What on earth is that monstrosity running down the middle of the river? I couldn’t believe my eyes. That spectacular view from the bridge, a veritable treasure that distinguished the community of Dominical from so many others whose rivers had already been ruined, had disappeared. Almost overnight it changed from the photo above to this:

Barú River now

I am not an engineer, but I’m pretty good on common sense, and I can’t even imagine what that aberration of sand and gravel running down the middle of the river is supposed to accomplish. I suspect that it has something to do with protecting the property of people downstream who have chosen to build homes and businesses on the floodplain of a major river. As often happens when you try to alter nature it will most certainly bring some unexpected and unwelcome consequences which nobody can predict. I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought. Of course the new dike is only temporary. When Mother Nature decides that the time is right she will remove it and give us our view back.
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Life Before and After Janet

By Jack Ewing

When the paths of powerful storms take them near the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica the accompanying low pressure systems draw in the weather from every direction including across the country and out into the Pacific aOcean. As the clouds move toward the Atlantic storm they are halted by a formidable obstacle, the Talamanca mountain range. As the moisture laden air rises in an effort to clear the mountains it cools, condenses, and falls in torrents on the Pacific side of the country. One recent example, tropical storm Nate caused millions of dollars of damage, 11 deaths, and 11,700 people displaced from their homes. In the 46 years that I have lived on Hacienda Barú, we have on occasion experienced torrential rains caused by Atlantic hurricanes: Joan in 1988, Cesar in 1996, Mitch in 1998, Stan in 2005, Nate in 2017, and many lesser storms.

Hurricane Janet pathBut from what I have been able to learn from people who were living on the Pacific coast in 1955 all of these storms were mere thunder showers compared to Hurricane Janet. She slowly made her way across the Caribbean on a course similar to that of Nate with the difference that Janet was a category 4 hurricane, not a tropical storm. Those of you who experienced Nate can only imagine the fury of Janet. On her trek northwards along the coast of central America and into southern Mexico, she became the first category 5 hurricane in the history of the region and the first to cause over 1000 deaths (according to Wikipedia).

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Elusive Wildlife

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By Jack Ewing

The tropical rainforest contains more biodiversity and more biomass than any other habitat on our planet. The amount of life in the forest is overwhelming. The rainforests of the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica are home to many animals that are seldom observed by humans. We are going to have a brief look at 12 of these species. All of them have either been captured by trail cameras or seen on rare occasions by Hacienda Barú guests, guides, park rangers, and researchers. I first came to Hacienda Barú in February of 1972. During the 46 years from then until today I have never seen a puma, ocelot, margay cat, or false vampire bat, and have sighted each of the other 8 species less than 10 times.

Puma

Puma (Puma concolor) The first sighting on Hacienda Barú was in the year 2010 by two of our guests. Since that time there have been about a half dozen sightings per year and many photos and videos taken by trail cameras. The fact that the ecosystem is robust enough to sustain a large predator speaks highly of the biological health of the region. This photo of a young puma was taken by a trail camera.

Ocelot

Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) – These are the second largest feline in the area, with mature adults weighing about 15 kg (33 pounds). I have never seen a live one in the wild, but my wife Diane has seen two during the time we have lived here. One of the workers at Hacienda Barú killed one in the early 1970s because it was eating his wife’s chickens. The sight of the dead body of the magnificent spotted cat affected me deeply, and set me on a path that led away from cattle ranching and toward the restoration and protection of natural habitat and the wildlife that it harbors. This photo was taken with a trail camera.
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Ocelot Factory

Ocelot

Photo: Daniel Allen

By Jack Ewing

On September 14, 2016, one of the Hacienda Barú guides sent me a photo of an ocelot killed on the coastal highway in front of the Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. From the spot pattern on its neck and shoulders I was able to identify it as a young male, about two years old, who I had previously named “Frodo”. His identification was made possible by comparing the photo of the dead ocelot with photos and videos of Frodo taken by our trail cameras. Every individual ocelot’s spot pattern is unique, and this facilitates identification. There are tunnels under the highway at Hacienda Barú, and most of the ocelots use them. I assume Frodo had never crossed the highway before and didn’t know about the tunnels.

Dead ocelot on the roadA couple of months earlier a new mature male, an enormous individual who I named “Brutus”, had ousted the male who had reigned for at least three years. I would imagine that Frodo, who was probably a son of the ousted alpha male, and who was approaching reproductive age, felt threatened by Brutus and was forced to leave the territory where he was born and raised. The death of the beautiful, young spotted cat was saddening, but not cause for alarm. There was at least one producing adult female and an immature female, “Tinkerbell”, about a year from reproductive age. There was also quite possibly a second mature producing female within Brutus’ territory. So the death of Frodo wouldn’t have a major impact on the population. We thought.
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Osa Gold

Osa Gold HeaderIf you saw a small Irish man with a beard and bushy eyebrows who lives in the forest, loves the color green, and has a passion for gold you might think he was a “Leprechaun”. But if that forest happened to be on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, more than likely it would be my good friend Patrick J. O’Connell, commonly known as “The Goldwalker”. Unlike the Leprechaun he is not the keeper of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but he has lived the most extraordinary life of anyone I have ever known, walking from one end of the Osa to the other for 26 years buying gold.

Jack and Patrick

Jack and Patrick

In 1964 Patrick and three friends drove to Costa Rica in a 1958 Dodge panel truck. All were veterans of the Korean war and out for adventure. They came to Costa Rica for the hunting. For three years he stayed in the Talamanca mountain range in southern Costa Rica near a place called Potrero Grande. Then Patrick moved to the Osa Peninsula where the hunting was spectacular.

As it is today the Osa of the 1960s was one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet but that is where the similarity ends. At that time there was no national park, no tourism, no roads, and most of the residents were fugitives from the law. After the civil war of 1948 many of the soldiers from the losing side fled to the Osa to escape execution. Additionally criminals of all sorts took advantage of the remoteness of the peninsula and went there to escape punishment. It was a place of exile. No criminal act was terrible enough to bring the police to the peninsula. If someone was killed in a barroom brawl the others just dragged the body outside, and in the morning someone would bury it. The government didn’t care.
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