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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Tree Mining, Cardboard Boxes, & Poison Sawdust

By Jack Ewing

Gmelina arborea leaves

Gmelina arborea leaves

Carpenters, builders and sawmill operators love it; chicken and pig farmers hate it; and environmentalists have mixed feelings about it. I have heard people say that the gmelina tree (Gmelina arborea) is a plague that should be eradicated from the face of the earth, yet others believe that it is a miracle tree with great potential for the recuperation of ecosystems and the environment. Regardless of what you believe about the gmelina tree – native to southeast Asia – the story of how it got to the Americas and how Costa Rica came to plant 25,000 hectares of it, is a fascinating tale.

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More than Sustainable

By Jack Ewing

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word “sustainable” as: “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or seriously damaged.” The word has been in use for a long time, at least since 1727 according to Merriam-Webster. In recent years, with increased interest in our environment and concern over the rate of depletion of our natural resources, the word has come into popular usage. Information about how to live sustainably is readily available, as are products for sustainable ways of doing things. Energy efficiency is of utmost importance followed by water efficiency, social responsibility, general environmental friendliness and others.

In environmental terms being sustainable means that we don’t use resources faster than they can be reproduced. Our actions do not cause the environment to deteriorate. If we are sustainable we can continue to do things in the same manner indefinitely and the environment will remain pretty much the same. The word doesn’t necessarily mean that the environment is in great shape; it only means that it is not getting any worse. 

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A Ball of Fluff Called Equinox

Boy What a Good Bug

Boy What a Good Bug

By Jack Ewing

Equinox is a Latin word meaning “equal night.” Twice each year, when the sun shines directly over the equator, day and night are the same length all over the globe. These two dates are called the March equinox and the September equinox. The March equinox, which marks the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere, always falls on March 20 or 21, and the September equinox, which marks the beginning of fall, always falls on September 22 or 23. The March equinox in the year 2009 fell on March 20, and that was the day that a little ball of fluff 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 owl calling near the office on quite a few occasions, and I surmised that this youngster had fallen out of it’s nest, and that its chances of getting back were almost nil.

Hacienda Baru

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Turtle Season, 2011

Returning to the Sea

Returning to the Sea

By Jack Ewing

The date was October 16, 2008, the time 4:30 PM. Steve and Peggy Sue watched as the bulky form emerged from the shallow waves and began dragging itself up on the moist sand of Barú Beach. It was a strange sight to behold, especially in the afternoon. Olive Ridley Marine Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) don’t normally come out of the sea and lay their eggs during daylight hours. In fact, they normally steer clear of the moonlight, only appearing on the beach when the night is pitch black. But here she was, in all her glory, awkwardly pulling herself up the beach with flippers that looked better suited for maneuvering around in the sea than dragging a hundred pounds of dead weight across the sand. When she reached a point where thousands of years of accumulated instinct told her that the beach looked right, the female began to dig with paddle-like rear flippers. The digging continued until she could reach no deeper. After positioning her backside over the hole  she began to expel the flexible, white, leathery spheres shrouded in thick mucous, each about the size and shape of a golf ball. The eggs plopped into the hole one by one until no more remained inside the reptile. The female began scooping the sand back into the hole covering the precious eggs that would assure the future of her species. She positioned her hard bony underplate, over the mound of sand and, using her flippers, raised her heavy body into the air and quickly let it fall with a resounding thud, repeating the process until the nest was firmly packed. Near exhaustion, the female Olive Ridley Turtle began her labored trek back to the water’s edge stopping frequently to rest until, at last, she was swallowed by the vastness of the sea. Noticing the encroaching darkness, Steve glanced at his watch. The time was 5:30 PM. “We’d better get back to the lodge,” he said. “Nightfall comes quickly in the tropics.”

Hacienda Baru

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A One-Colored Big “Small” Cat

Puma Concolor – photo by Alan Olander

Puma Concolor – photo by Alan Olander

Where have all the coatis gone?

By Jack Ewing

Gatun Lake was created when the Panama Canal was built. Before the area was flooded there was nothing but primary rainforest. Once the lake was full only the top of a mountain remained above water. Today that 15.6 square kilometers of forest covered mountain top is known as Barro Colorado Island, and it is one of the most intensively studied rainforests in the world. At some point scientists noticed that bird populations on the island were diminishing, and they endeavored to find out why. As it turned out, the root of the problem had to do with big cats. When the lake was flooded a few pumas and jaguars ended up on Barro Colorado. Since the island was too small to support even one large cat for any length of time they all eventually swam to shore. That’s when the birds started diminishing. Without pumas and jaguars to prey on the coatis and raccoons their populations increased rapidly. Both of these mammal species are omnivorous, both are semi arboreal, both are opportunistic predators, and they wreaked havoc on the nesting birds. As often happens when Mother Nature is allowed a free rein, the problem eventually solved itself. From time to time a large cat will swim to the island, stay and hunt until the prey base is thinned considerably, and swim back to the mainland. This keeps populations coatis and raccoons more or less under control.

Hacienda Baru

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