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Bird Watching in the Killing Field

By Jack Ewing

Egrets Feeding

Egrets Feeding

When the first settlers moved into the area around Dominical in the early 1900s, they found primary forests comprised of hundreds of thousands of species of living organisms. Over time trees were felled and the highly diverse forests replaced with several species of grass intended for the exclusive consumption of domestic animals which in turn would be slaughtered for human food. The ecosystem that evolved around this reality was much lower in biodiversity than the primary forest it had replaced. However, certain species that humans consider pests, such as vampire bats, ticks, lice, grasshoppers and rats, experienced population explosions; and, in the case of birds, the number of species increased significantly to include those that thrive in open spaces and near livestock. 

Hacienda Baru

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The Luxury of Living in the Third World – Life in Southern Costa Rica in the Good Old Days

Dead-eye After Surgeryby Jack Ewing

Back in the late 1980s we still didn’t have telephones in the coastal communities, and we were just starting to do some bird watching and ecological tours at Hacienda Baru. The lodge didn’t exist yet. For booking the tours we shared an office with a travel agency in San Isidro and communicated with them by radio. One day I was at the phone company in San Isidro, which was also the electrical utility, seeing about getting an extra phone installed in the office. The whole process should have taken about ten minutes, but we kept having power outages. The computer that the clerk was using didn’t have a back up battery, and every time the power went out she lost all the work she had done up to that point. When the electricity returned, she had to start from scratch. The third time the lights went out she let out a exasperated shriek, “I can’t stand this anymore. What the hell is wrong with the power?”

Hacienda Baru

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Has the Time Come to Say Good-bye to an Old Friend? I Hope Not!

By Jack Ewing

River Otter Eating Fish

River Otter Eating Fish

Back in the 1970s Diane and the kids and I lived in the casona, the old Hacienda Baru home. We didn’t get around to digging a well until the early 1980s, and every year, the free flowing spring that supplied our water would dry up in mid February. To deal with the situation we carried drinking water in 5 gallon plastic containers from another spring two kilometers away, and water for washing dishes and flushing toilets from the river in 55 gallon drums. The girl who worked for us went to the Barú River to do laundry, and every afternoon around 4:00 PM everyone went to the river to bathe in the crystal clear water. The village of Dominical was out of water too, so most of the town – about 8 people at that time – met us there, and the afternoon bath became as much a social event as one of personal hygiene. 

Another daily visitor to the bathing ritual was the Neotropical River Otter (Lutra longicaudis.) No sooner did we started splashing around than a couple of otters would appear from down river, swimming toward our location at the “Paso del Guanacaste.” They would swim directly at us at high speed, and about four meters short of our location they would dive. Sometimes they stayed underwater only a few seconds and sometimes longer than a minute. When they resurfaced it could be anywhere, but it would definitely be at least four meters (13 feet) from the nearest person. It was like they were playing a game with us, but only to a certain point. 

Hacienda Baru

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Top Predators: Pumas in the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor

Puma FaceBy Jack Ewing

In the rainforests of Central America the jaguar (Panthera onca) is at the pinnacle of the food chain, and the next largest feline, the puma (Puma concolor,) is one step below. There isn’t much that will confront a jaguar except the larger crocodiles that lurk in some of the rivers. The presence of these magnificent spotted cats in a rain forest is a strong indication of the biological health of the ecosystem. It means there is enough for them to eat, and enough for their prey to eat. It suggests that the ecosystem is well balanced and productive. It also means that hunting is under control.

Hacienda Baru

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Wars, Politics, Roads, and Bridges

Stuck in the River 1985

Stuck in the River 1985

By Jack Ewing

In 1974 President Daniel Oduber began his four-year term as president of Costa Rica. Several months after the inauguration a small article appeared in the daily La Nación mentioning that the president and the minister of transport had stated that the planned coastal highway would be finished during his administration. The highway took a lot longer than four years to get to Dominical, and a lot more political promises were made and broken before its completion. The southern part of Costa Rica is one of the last areas of the country to develop. The roads and bridges that facilitated that development didn’t come easily, and they have a long and interesting history. 

Hacienda Baru

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The Early Bird Gets the Worm

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

By Jack Ewing

Be Careful Bird Watching is Addictive 

Do you think birds are boring, and don’t see why anyone would want to watch them? Don’t put this article down yet. Let me share with you one interesting tidbit of information about birds, and see if you still think they are boring. 

Many member of the cuckoo family are freeloaders. Ornithologists call them brood parasites. They lay their eggs in other birds nests, dumping their responsibility as parents in other birds laps, while saving themselves the time and energy of incubating eggs and feeding chicks. The various bird species that end up as unsuspecting foster parents have devised certain tricks with which they try to outsmart their unwelcome boarders. A truly fascinating method came to light recently in Australia where researchers were studying the behavior of the superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus). Mother wrens sing to their eggs, and, in so doing, teach their embryonic offspring a password, even before they hatch. After hatching, the chicks don’t get fed unless they include the password in their begging call. The cuckoo chicks that hatch in the same nest don’t know the password, don’t get fed, and end up starving to death. The female wrens conserve their own energy and devote it to raising their own young. Every mother wren uses a different password, presumably to prevent the cuckoo chicks as a species from learning how to get fed. You can read the entire article at: http://www.nature.com/news/wrens-teach-their-eggs-to-sing-1.11779#b2

Hacienda Baru

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A Snake in the Attic But No Bats – A Grand old House

La Casona 1977

La Casona 1977

By Jack Ewing

Forty years ago the interamerican highway was full of holes and had even more curves than it does today. It took Ricardo and me four hours to drive from San José to San Isidro de el General. Pulling into town we filled the Land Rover with diesel at the Gasotica, one of two service stations in town. The other was the Texaco which was located where today there is a Pizza Hut. The highway was paved, but all the streets in San Isidro were gravel. After buying some supplies at the central market, where today stands the cultural center, we drove through town and asked a man on horseback for directions to Dominical. He pointed us down the street that ran along the west side of the park. It took us past the airport, which stretched from where today we find the new central market, south past the soccer field, and all the way to the bar called “Uno Mas.“ Soon we were on the outskirts of town stirring up dust on a bumpy gravel road which eventually took us up some extremely steep hills and straight over the top of El Alto de San Juan. Even though the road was dry we wouldn’t have made it up that hill without 4WD. Two and a half hours from San Isidro, after passing through four small villages and fording four streams, we arrived at our destination, a place called Hacienda Baru. That was my first view of la casona hidden behind a grove of mango trees 100 meters from the road.

Hacienda Baru

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The Plight of the Olive Ridley Turtle

Turtle Season 2012 Is Here

Laying Eggs

Laying Eggs

By Jack Ewing

Beliefs are often formed on the basis of a combination of myth and wishful thinking. Since the first pioneers began to settle the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica they have exploited the marine turtles, patrolling the beaches during turtle season, and digging up the freshly laid eggs. They have always done this not because their families are under nourished and need the eggs for their nutritional value, but rather because they believe the myth that turtle eggs will increase their sexual potency. This is ridiculous, of course, but it is, nevertheless, what motivates people to dig up the eggs and consume them. For this reason populations of marine turtles are diminishing.

Hacienda Baru

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Fat-Handed Cats

Caged Chicken Killer

Caged Chicken Killer

By Jack Ewing

The sleek, spotted cat rested with her chest and thick front paws on the log, her eyes peering over the top, waiting patiently for a spiny rat or some other small rodent to scurry along the other side. She had been there since moon rise, but so far no prey had ventured past. An uneasy feeling enveloped her body like a mist that penetrated to the very core of her being. She waited and watched. A faint sound reached her ears, and she became aware of the source of the unpleasant feeling, dogs, their distant howls drifting on the cool night breeze. The unwelcome wail was not new to her ears; it signified the most fearful thing in her environment. The thought of climbing a tree briefly flickered across her mind, but if the dogs caught her scent and found the tree, she would be trapped, an easy target for the humans that always come with the dogs. The other choice was to put distance between herself and the howling dogs, but the forest wasn’t that big, and she could only run so far. The female ocelot decided to wait and listen. Maybe the feared canines would go a different dirección. She crouched down as if to make herself smaller. But the sound kept coming closer, and the moment arrived that she had to make a move.The beautiful spotted feline sprinted through the forest keeping well to one side of the approaching dogs’ path. The terraine was familiar and she moved quickly and easily, making a wide circle around the oncoming dogs. She crossed their path well behind the excited howls, the area still strong with the dreaded scent. She headed for the stream and the one tree that meant safety. Crossing the swift current she came to a the giant fig with the buttress roots on one side reaching into the water. She climbed the trunk to an opening far above the ground, crawled into the hollow core, lay down on a ledge, and remained still, waiting, listening. After a time the baying of the dogs turned to a frenzy. They had probably cornered a paca in its cave. The sleek, spotted, female ocelot relaxed; she was safe until another day. — Crouched in her hiding place vivid memories flowed through her mind of another night long ago when her mother had hidden her and her brother in another hollow fig in a distant forest, and had then run away from the hiding place intentionally leading the dogs astray. She remembered the three loud bangs that had reached her ears, the bangs that only came from humans. Her mother never returned. The following day she and her brother had ventured down from the tree and into the forest. They were old enough to make it on their own, but life wasn’t easy. They had stayed together for a short time, and then each had gone its own way.

Hacienda Baru

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Further Adventure of that Little Ball of Fluff

Quigley 1

Quigley 1

By Jack Ewing

About a year ago in an article entitled “A Ball of Fluff Called Equinox” I told the story of an owl called Equinox who, on March 20, 2009 was nothing more than a little ball of fluff that came walking into my office at 6:30 in the evening just as I was thinking about closing up and going home. It was obviously a very young owl, nearly ready to fledge, but not yet able to fly. We had heard an adult owl calling near the office on quite a few occasions, and I surmised that this owlet had fallen out of its nest, and that its chances of getting back were almost nil.

Normally I believe that it is best to let Mother Nature deal with her own creations. Her ways may sometimes seem harsh to us, but if a baby is separated from its mother and destined to die, nature has a good reason. I don’t feel we should interfere in this process. But this cute little ball of fluff was too much for me. I couldn’t bring myself to shoo it out of the office and into the cruel world outside. Instead, I called my wife Diane, who totally disagrees with my philosophy about survival of the fittest, and asked if she would be interested in trying to rescue a helpless owlet. “Do you have to ask?” She replied. “Bring it over.”

Hacienda Baru

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The Scream Maker

Corallus ruschenbergeriiBy Jack Ewing

Nothing penetrates the consciousness like a woman’s scream. I’m not talking about an ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill scream, like when her husband spills coffee on the new table cloth, or even like when she sees her two-year-old standing on a chair, reaching for a pot of boiling water. I’m talking about one of those screams that pierces to the very center of your being, like the cold winter wind whistling through the trees. I’m talking about a scream of sheer terror. That’s the sound that sent chills up and down my spine, shocked me out of my day dream, and snapped me instantly back into the here-and-now. A moment earlier the only danger to myself and my family was the possibility of me dozing off at the wheel, but my wife’s scream changed all that. Her first expression of hysterical panic was followed by yelling: “Jack, Jack, that snake, that snake.” Without even looking, I knew what surely must have happened.

Hacienda Baru

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A Bridge to Nowhere

Arial photoBy Jack Ewing

Those of us who live within the bounds of the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor are among a privileged few. With most of the world suffering the impacts of over development we live in one of the few places in the world where biodiversity is increasing and has been doing so since the mid 1980s. This is due to a number of factors including the work of many people who live here and understand the importance of restoring wildlife habitat. The work of the Asociación Amigos de la Naturaleza del Pacífico Central y Sur (ASANA) on the biological corridor project has been the driving force that has influenced the change.

Hacienda Baru

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Up and Down the Kapok Trees

Kapok By Jack Ewing

Every forest has its old timers, trees that stand out from the rest because of their size, form and distinguishing characteristics. Many, because of their advanced age, have rotted on the inside, leaving them partially or completely hollow, often with gaping holes to the outside. This is why old-growth forests are so important for the maintenance of biodiversity and the ecological balance. The younger trees of a secondary forest don’t provide the nesting holes so necessary for the proliferation of many of the rainforest birds such as the larger parrots, toucans and macaws among others. Also, mammals such as the kinkajou, olingo, tayra, several varieties of opossum and, of course, the many different species of bats covet the dark hollow chambers as roosting sites. Iguanas and ctentosaurs love the hollow portions of the old trees where they often take refuge when alarmed. Untold multitudes of insects lurk in every nook and cranny of the interior shells of the old stalwarts of the jungle: scorpions, millipedes, beetles galore, termites and spiders, to name a few. These old grandfathers of the forest become worlds unto themselves as they gradually move into the final stages of their existence.

Hacienda Baru

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Troubled Times in Costa Rica: Dinner with the Dictator

 By Jack Ewing

El Pelotón

El Pelotón

The late 1970s and through the 1980s were times of turmoil in Central America. Costa Rica had been a stable democracy since 1948, had no army, and was the only nation in the isthmus that was not involved in some sort of internal conflict. Nevertheless, some of the violence from neighboring countries was bound to spill over. When I think back on those years, it seems strange that life could have once been so different in this small, peaceful nation where we live today.

For many years, Nicaragua had been a dictatorship ruled by the Somoza dynasty. The beginnings of internal resistance began to appear in the early 1970s. Then, in 1974, a major earthquake destroyed much of Managua and killed over 10,000 people. Financial aid poured into the country from all over the world. The Somozas are said to have kept most of the money for themselves rather than rebuilding the capital city. That was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. It triggered the Nicaraguan Revolution, which ended with the ousting of Somoza in 1979.

Hacienda Baru

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Costa Rican Moonshine

Clandestine Still

Clandestine Still

 By Jack Ewing

I haven’t had a drop to drink, of any alcoholic beverage, since May 17, 1977. I quit drinking because I figured that I had already drunk enough to last me a lifetime, and it wasn’t necessary to drink any more. Prior to that date, I was quite an expert on all things relating to alcoholic beverages including Costa Rican moonshine, known locally as guaro contrabando.

Hacienda Baru

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