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Agoutis: Precocial Rainforest Rodents

William Faulkner once said of Ernest Hemmingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary”. Though I certainly don’t pretend to place myself in the same class as Hemmingway, I readily admit that the same criticism could be leveled against my writings. I try to use words that people use in everyday conversation, not words that will send you to a dictionary. But here I am going to make an exception. I’m sure that many readers have never heard the word precocial, or its opposite, altricial. Most farm animals are precocial like a colt, lamb, or a calf for example. All of these are born with their eyes open and can stand, nurse, and follow its mother shortly after birth. Puppies and kittens are altricial, born with their eyes and ears closed and helpless for days after birth. Most rodents are altricial, but agoutis are an exception to that rule, being the only precocial rodent I know of, though there are likely some that I don’t know of.

Biologists often compare agoutis, who are diurnal, to their larger nocturnal cousins, the pacas, and often to rabbits, excepting the long ears. Agoutis hop like a rabbit when startled, and even when not startled they are impressive jumpers. I once set a trail camera near a pool in hopes of getting a video of otters, which to my delight, came to the pool daily. In addition to the otters, the camera captured many videos of pacas and agoutis, who came to the pool to drink, and several species of wading birds that fed in the shallows. One day a mother caiman moved in with about a dozen babies. None of the wading birds would go near the water, and the two mammals kept their distance. One brave agouti walked to within a meter of the pool, which was about two meters wide, leaped high in the air and all the way across the water, landing safely on the other side, a jump of about three meters (almost 10 feet). I’m not sure a rabbit could jump that far.

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The Nature of Mother Nature


I have never written a book. The two that have been published with my name as author, Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate, and Where Tapirs and Jaguars Once Roamed, are collections of articles that were previously published in local magazines, mostly Quepolandia. So, when I decided to write a book, I was in for a new experience, and like all new experiences, it didn’t go as smoothly as I had imagined. It is moving forward, albeit slowly, and I would like to share a couple of excerpts with my readers.

monkeyI am not a biologist or any other type of scientist, but I have the good fortune to have lived in or near a tropical rainforest, the habitat that contains more biomass and biodiversity than any other on the planet, for the last 50 years. I learned to love what I call the jungle and have spent a good deal of my time within its embrace. Incidentally, the word “jungle” is looked down upon by most biologists, but I love it and will use it often. To me “jungle” is synonymous with “rainforest”.

I think my love affair with Mother Nature began with my first sighting of a monkey in the wild. A movement caught my attention as I was hiking by myself, and there it was, a monkey in the middle of the jungle. A storybook animal in a storybook setting. For me, a novice, the sighting was so extraordinary that it didn’t quite seem real. I had seen monkeys in the zoo, but this was different. It turned and looked at me. For one fleeting moment our eyes met and held. Then the monkey scampered on up the tree and disappeared within the leafy fronds at the top. That was the beginning of a life-long relationship, and it has been growing and evolving ever since. It has now reached the point that I feel compelled to write about Mother Nature, and what She is to me.

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Monkeys are Made of Mangoes

Jack holding two big mangoes, header

Hacienda Barú, where I live, was roughly half rainforest and half cattle pasture when we first moved here in the early 1970s. Today it is much different, mostly rainforest and is a well-known destination for ecological tourists and biological researchers. Living with the transformation of the land from cattle ranch to nature reserve has given me a wealth fascinating experiences, one of which I will share with you here.

variegated squirrelIn 1979 we planted about 10 hectares of cacao, the stuff chocolate is made with. The uphill side of the plantation was adjacent to a rainforest and the lowland side bordered pasture and rice fields. After six years just when the plantation reached full production, the price of cacao plummeted to the point that cacao beans cost more to harvest than they were worth on the open market. We abandoned the cacao and the white-faced capuchin monkeys from the rainforest moved in and added cacao to their already hodgepodge of a diet. They don’t eat the cacao seeds, only the sweet-and-sour tasting syrup that coats them. That story is told in my first book, Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate.

Prior to the arrival of the monkeys, variegated squirrels were the only wild animals that ate our cacao. They didn’t eat much, so we didn’t worry about them. When the monkeys began frequenting the plantations on a regular basis, the squirrels disappeared. We could see them at the ecolodge and in an area that was planted with teak trees, but they were absent from the cacao plantations and forested areas.

Hacienda Baru

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Strange Creeper Cats

Strange Creeper Cats header

When I first laid eyes on the two black “kittens” a quote from a Robert Heinlein novel popped into my mind. It has been so many years ago since I read it that I can’t even remember which of his novels it was, but I remember the quote. In referring to a complex subject Heinlein said that making sense of it was, “… like searching in a dark cellar at midnight on a moonless night for a black cat that isn’t there.” These two kittens were that black without a hint of any other color. Even their eyes were black. In addition to their extreme blackness there was always an air of mysteriousness about them. They didn’t walk like ordinary cats, rather they walked all crouched down, more of a creep than a walk, like they were constantly stalking something. They never made any noises other than purring; they never clawed the furniture; they were never underfoot, and never got into trouble of any kind. There was always something strange about them. We named them Hocus and Pocus.

Hacienda Baru

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The Bat Guys header

“Would this be a good place to put the net?” I asked Otto. “You said you wanted an open path through the jungle.” I stepped into the shallow water of the narrow stream. “I can take one end of the net to the other side and hold it while you secure this end. Then you can join me.”

Otto hesitated. “Is there anything in this water that will hurt you,” he asked in heavily accented English.

“There are caimans and crocodiles” I replied, “but with all the noise we’ve been making they’re probably all gone by now.”

“No, no,” he exclaimed, “I mean little animals that live in the water.”

“Not that I know of. We walk through this water all the time and have never had any problems.”

Bat caught in a netFinally, he agreed to string the mist net across the stream, but was extremely careful not to get water inside of his rubber boots. The natural corridor formed by the stream was a good choice. Over the next hour we captured five different species of bats in the net, including one bulldog bat.

One evening several days earlier I was returning to Hacienda Barú from San Isidro just before dark and noticed three men at the side of the gravel road near Tinamastes extending some very fine nets. I wonder what they’re doing, I thought. They look like foreigners.

Two days later a familiar looking rental 4WD drove up to my house at Hacienda Barú. Three men got out of the car, and I recognized them as the men at the side of the road with the nets. The older man introduced himself as Otto. The other two were Fabio and Gunther. They were chiropterologists he explained from Erlangen University in Germany.

“What on earth is a chiropterologist?” I asked.

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The Story of Land and Sea in Costa Rica

The Story of Land and Sea in Costa Rica header

Costa Rica is best known for its lush tropical environment and conservation ethic: monkeys, sloths, toucans, peccary, iguanas and agoutis all in a rainforest setting, in addition to whales, dolphins, and underwater wonders. This is what the visitor to Costa Rica will see and tell about. This is ecotourism at its best.

Those of us who live here love seeing the flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine, but by virtue of being here all of the time we have the opportunity to see a deeper picture of our environment. We are able to see the environmental gains and losses, problems and solutions. Let’s have a closer look.

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Jack and Diane

On December 13, 1970 when my wife Diane, our 4-year-old daughter Natalie, and I, accompanied on our flight by 37 head of cattle, arrived at El Coco International Airport (SJO) on a DC 6 four-engine propeller plane, we thought that we would be staying for four months, the duration of my work contract. We never dreamed that on December 13, 2020 we would be celebrating 50 years in Costa Rica.
The country where we had landed had a population of less than two million and was considered to be part of the Third World. The Central Bank had reserves of less than one million dollars. The exchange rate was ¢6.63 colones per $1.00 dollar. Not knowing anything about the money, or anything else, I went to a bakery to buy a loaf of bread and paid with a ¢50 colon bill, but they didn’t have change for a huge bill like that. The price of the bread was 50 centimos. To make a call from a public phone, you had to put a peseta, a 25 centimo coin, in the slot, dial your number, wait for the peseta to drop, and start talking.

Hacienda Baru

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Payments for Environmental Services


Incentives for People Who Plant Trees and Protect Forests

Primary forest

Primary forest

Many years ago, when I was still in the cattle business, I visited the San Carlos ranch of a cattleman I knew. “We’ve cut all the trees”, he proudly declared. “Trees attract bot flies, so we cut them all down. Every single one”. His ranch was a totally desolate landscape. At that time I didn’t yet consider myself to be an environmentalist, but even so, just driving through his property and seeing those barren pastures gave me an uneasy feeling. Hacienda Barú was a cattle ranch too, but we still had trees on some of the fence lines and small copses within our pastures as well as a mangrove forest in the estuary near the mouth of the Barù River, and primary forest in the highlands. When I left that treeless ranch, the uneasy feeling stayed with me all the way home.

Hacienda Baru

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Sins of the Past

Aerials photos comparing 1972 and 1997

nature and Local history logoBy Jack Ewing

Today the Pacific coastal region of Costa Rica south of the Savegre River is covered with forests, wetlands, mangroves, and other natural wonders. Biodiversity is increasing in much of the area, especially the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor (PTBC). National parks, wildlife refuges, and private reserves abound, as do other attractions of interest to ecological tourism. It has been called “The Land of Big Parks and Small Hotels”. But it hasn’t always been that way. Beginning in the 1940s a major deforestation of the area took place. Trees were felled and burned, land was cleared, and crops and cattle pasture were planted. The destruction continued for four and a half decades, until about 1985, which marked the beginning of a period of restoration that has persisted to the present day, and hopefully will continue for many years to come.

You may ask, “Why would the government allow such devastation of the rainforest”? The truth is that the government encouraged the deforestation. I came to this region in the early 1970s, 12 years prior to the peak of the clearing of land. In those days the forestry department was part of the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of the Environment didn’t exist. What little tourism that came to Costa Rica was centered around night clubs and museums in San Jose, with an occasional trip to a volcano. The national income from foreign visitors was insignificant. The mainstays of the economy were beef, bananas, and coffee, and you can’t grow beef, bananas, and coffee in a rainforest. So this fascinating habitat, which harbors more biomass and biodiversity than any other on the planet, was viewed as an unproductive wasteland. “Cut it down, and make the land produce”, was the message the government sent to any who were hardy and willing enough to brave the wild, tame Mother Nature, and work the land.

Hacienda Baru

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What to Do When the “Most Important Living Being on the Planet” Becomes an Obstacle to the Return of a Charismatic, Locally Extinct Species?

The dilemma of the bees and the scarlet macaws header

Beginning in January of 2014 scarlet macaws began visiting Hacienda Barú and the surrounding area on a regular basis after having been locally extinct for 50 years. The macaws’ behavior suggested that they might be scouting out nesting sites. We decided to put up nesting boxes in four trees that the big red birds frequented and see if we could help them out. Many types of boxes are described on Internet, but we chose a wooden one measuring 35 cm x 35 cm x 70 cm. All were mounted about 20 meters above the ground. We waited for the macaws to move in, but that never happened. The boxes just hung there, empty, we thought.

Hacienda Baru

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The Mixed Feeding Flock

HEADer, Army ants attacking a large wasp

By Jack Ewing

Pair of Yellow Crowned Euphonias

Yellow Crowned Euphonias

My obsession with tropical nature began with my first monkey sighting. I had seen them in the zoo, but there is no comparison between zoo monkeys and wild ones. My first toucan was another special moment. “How can it even fly with that huge beak?” My first sloth, boa constrictor, kinkajou, king vulture, and terciopelo viper were others. But it wasn’t until more than 15 years later that I was to witness one of the most complex and intriguing phenomenon the rainforest has to offer, the mixed feeding flock, a congregation of many different species of birds in a small area each busy consuming its own special food in its own special way at its own level of the forest.

Though the rainforest as a whole had already captivated my soul a number of years earlier, and I lived in a bird watcher’s paradise, it wasn’t until 1987 that I got interested enough in our feathered friends to start actively looking for them, identifying them, and making a list. In those days there were no field guides to the birds of Costa Rica. Birds of Mexico and Birds of Panama were as close as we could get. My bird list grew rapidly at first and then gradually slowed. Then on one special day I added 11 new species in less than an hour. It was about six months into my birding career when I was to wander into a bird watcher’s dream, a mixed feeding flock. It is a phenomenon that every birder and every bird watching guide prays for. For the aficionado it will assure new species for the list, and for the guide it is sure to result in a group of very happy visitors.

Hacienda Baru

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Sighting Felines in the Wild


Cool Cats header

Experiencing the sight of a wild feline is about the most exciting thing that can happen to a nature enthusiast in Costa Rica. Most humans share a fascination with cats, whether it be the tiny Oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) the smallest cat in Costa Rica at 2 kilos, or the enormous Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris), at 240 kg, the largest cat in the world. As they are naturally secretive and wary of humans, seeing a wild feline is not an everyday occurrence. We have five feline species at Hacienda Barú.

JaguarundiI have lived here for 47 years and have only seen one, the Jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi), which I have seen on multiple occasions. One of those sightings was particularly memorable. A neighbor who lived close to the lodge bought some young chicks to fatten for meat for the dinner table. They grew quickly and soon the roosters among them began to crow. I know of no sound more irritating than the crowing of an adolescent rooster. It seemed like there was a competition among them, and each day they started a little earlier and crowed a little louder. Soon the racket began shortly after midnight. Of course our guests complained about it, but the neighbor, Ricardo, was uncooperative. One day I saw two jaguarundis cross the driveway heading toward his chicken coop. Word soon got out that they had killed a couple of chickens. Knowing that Ricardo would try to kill the cats, I called the wildlife department and asked if a game warden could come and have a talk with him. One happened to be in the area and stopped by that same afternoon. He told Ricardo that if anything happened to the pair of beautiful black cats they would know it was him, and that the fine would be enormous. Ricardo killed all the young roosters that same day, and put them in the freezer. I don’t think that these beautiful black cats are seen more frequently than other felines because they are more numerous, rather it is because they are diurnal, less wary of humans, and spend most of their time on the ground. At 5 kg the jaguarundi is the third largest of the five Hacienda Barú species.

Hacienda Baru

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Extinction in Costa Rica

Never to be seen again header with a Harpy Eagle

I love Costa Rica and its wildlife, and I sometimes envy the pioneers who lived here in the early 1900s and were able to know and appreciate some of the wildlife that are no longer with us. I am thinking of one mammal and one bird in particular, the Giant Anteater and the Harpy Eagle. Both of these truly magnificent species once lived in Costa Rica. Today the former is almost certainly gone forever, and there still may be a few of the latter in several remote locations in the country. Though it is not yet extinct, I will also mention the Jabiru Stork. Let’s have a closer look.

Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

Giant anteater showing its long tongueThis large mammal is similar in many respects to the anteater many of us know today as the Tamandua (Tamandua mexicana): long curved nose, long curved claws that tuck completely under like a fist and obliges them to walk on their knuckles, and both eat ants and termites. The biggest difference is the size. A large tamandua can weigh up to 5 kilos and is about 60 cm long, and the giant anteater, sometimes called the “ant bear”, weighs eight times as much, and is more than double the length. In Costa Rica they are called Oso Caballo in Spanish, which literally translates to “Bear Horse”, presumably because of its large size and big, round, furry appearance. I had the good fortune to see two giant anteaters on my once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Pantanal in Brazil. Both were at night, and neither would let me get close enough to take a photo. Our guide told us that they eat mostly ants, first digging an opening into the ant hill, inserting the long narrow snout as far as possible, and then inserting the sticky, snake-like tongue, which is as long as a man’s arm, deep into the nest to retrieve the ants. He said that the anteater can flick its tongue in and out at the awesome rate of about twice per second. After a very short time it moves on to another nest. This may be because the soldier ants that guard the nest from intruders quickly come out in force. With their long powerful pinchers they may be able to penetrate the thick hairy hide that protects the animal from ordinary ants.

Hacienda Baru

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How Old Are The Rainforest Giants?


When I was in junior high school, now called middle school, I was fortunate to have an exceptional science teacher who’s lectures were so interesting that I still remember much of what I learned in that class. I still remember the day we learned about determining the age of trees by counting the growth rings. In a temperate climate, metabolic activity is dormant during the cold winter months, and the tree doesn’t grow. Then when summer comes along the trunk will increase in girth by adding another ring. Since there is a new ring each year, counting the rings will tell us how old the tree was. Today this can be done on a living tree without cutting it down. A small core is cut from the trunk and the rings counted on the core.

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Killer Monkeys

Killer Monkeys header
Monkeys in the zoo are fun to watch, but observing them in the wild is almost like watching an entirely different species in a similar body. My first wild monkey sighting was a very emotional experience, and each subsequent encounter with white-throated capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) nudged my curiosity a bit farther. Even today, 47 years after that first glimpse of a black and white primate scampering up a tree, they still fascinate me. Capuchins are always coming up with surprises and exhibiting never before seen behavior. Later I was to learn that they are the most intelligent of Costa Rica’s four monkey species.

In the 1970s and 80s written information about wildlife was almost non-existent. There were no bird or mammal books to be found, no internet, and not even any laminated information sheets with photos. For the next 18 years, until the first field guide, Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, was published, personal observation, as well as listening to campesino friends, neighbors, and workers provided the knowledge I so sought after.

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