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Hello Frogs, Fish, Bats, & “Golondrinas” – Jack Ewing

Bye-Bye Mosquitos

Many years ago, before we had electricity, I had a small fish tank. I couldn’t use an air pump to oxygenate the water, so I had to struggle to keep everything in balance as best I could. Fish need oxygen, which is produced by green plants, which need nutrients, which are provided by fish feces, which comes from fish that eat everything from green plants and fish food to mosquito larvae. If you feed the fish too much, the excess food will lie on the bottom of the aquarium and decompose, a process which depletes the oxygen. You need just the right amount of each thing, fish, plants, and fish food. Snails are important too. They clean the algae off the glass. My fish were common guppies. A couple of tiny tree frogs also found the tank to their liking and added their presence to the mix. Plants, water, and mosquitos. What else could a frog want. This added a new twist to the balancing of the tank. Guppies like frog eggs and tadpoles, and tadpoles eat mosquito eggs, larva, and pupae. Is it any wonder that I failed to create a perfectly balanced aquarium and had to empty it out and start over a couple of times? It was quite a challenge which I never got exactly right, but I learned a lot about nature and especially about the dynamics of aquatic ecosystems.

That fish tank was the beginning of my understanding of mosquitos. After 53 years of living in the tropics, where mosquitos thrive, I’ve learned a lot. When Hacienda Barú was engaged in rice farming we had hordes of mosquitos. I remember one night when I had to wear a jacket, leather shoes and gloves, lather my face with repellent, and sleep under a mosquito net to keep from being ravaged. When we quit farming rice, and spraying insecticides all over the fields, the mosquitos diminished. In addition to the insects that damage rice, the insecticides kill a lot of other things, some of which prey on mosquitos, including dragonflies, spiders, frogs, geckos, and fish.

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Wounds, Scars, and Testosterone

More information flows from trail cameras than I ever could have imagined back in 2011 when I started using them. Hiking or wandering through the rainforest is interesting whether or not you see any charismatic fauna of which there are 100s of species including anteaters, agoutis, all kinds of snakes, poison dart frogs, many different species of birds large and small, bright, and dull, and several species of carnivores. But how often do you see a jaguarundi, an ocelot, a tayra, or a puma? I recently retrieved and reviewed the memory card of a trail camera that was located at the edge of a swampy forest that bordered an open area. On the computer monitor I saw 11 different species of mammals, including three carnivores, six different birds, and one reptile. During the fifty years that I have lived near the rainforest I have seen all but one of the animals that were captured by the camera. But I had to walk 100s of hours to see some of them. Looking at the photos on that one camera taught me things and stimulated me to investigate things that otherwise would have taken me years to learn. Let me give you an example.

The memory card contained over 4500 photos all captured during the two months since I put it in the camera and flipped the “on” switch. As always, the first three photos were of me moving out of the field of view of the camera after turning it on. The fourth photo was a coati with a large wound on the side of its head. The quality of the photo was good, but even so I couldn’t be sure if the coati’s left ear had been torn off or not. As the wound healed more photos of the same animal appeared on the camera and it became obvious that the ear was still there right where it was supposed to be and in good shape. It was also clear that the wound was healing properly.

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Snake Stories from the Jungles of Costa Rica

Are it’s Eyes Open? – Jack Ewing

One day, just as the sun was peeking over the mountain tops, I was hiking up a hill on a narrow trail in the dim morning light with a friend. “Hold it”, he cautioned, grabbing my arm. “Something’s up there”.

“I saw it too. It’s right there”, I pointed. Juan hastily dug a flashlight out of his backpack and shined it where I pointed. Right in the middle of the trail, coiled and posed to strike was a terciopelo viper (Bothrops asper). Normally we would have just gone around it and left it alone, but the trail was cut into the side of a hill with a steep upward slope to the left and an equally steep downward slope to the right. I found a long, forked stick and nudged it, assuming it would move out of the way. To our surprise, it attacked. While holding it off with the stick, we retreated backwards on the uneven trail with an occasional stumble. A fall would have been disastrous. It finally quit lunging at us, crawled off the trail, down the hill and let us pass. We both let out audible sighs of relief. It was a good sized terciopelo, about a meter and a half long and as big around as my wrist. Holding it away with a stick had been quite a tussle.

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Feral Pigs

Feral Pigs – Why Aren’t There Any on Mainland Costa Rica? by Jack Ewing

In the mid-1980s I had the opportunity to visit Caño Island in a small and none too speedy boat. The trip from Drake Bay to the island took more than an hour. Capitan Felix, owner of the boat, was a talkative soul, and fortunately his chatter was not the least bit boring. We learned the story of the island which had, at one time, been plagued with feral pigs. In 1976 when the government created Caño Island Biological Reserve the wildlife department decided it was important to rid the reserve of the feral pigs. Capitan Felix was part of a group of four local hunters who had been contracted to hunt the pigs down and kill them. They assumed that hunting feral swine would be like hunting peccary on the mainland, but then they found out that the wildlife department wouldn’t let them bring their dogs into the reserve. Their only alternative was to walk the length and breadth of the island repeatedly and shoot every feral hog they saw until none remained.

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Locally Extinct Little Red Deer

In Spanish they are called Cabros de Monte or simply Cabritos, meaning Jungle Goats or Little Goats respectively. Non forked antlers in the males resemble goat’s horns. Red Brocket Deer (Mazama americana) are locally extinct in much of their former range. During my 52 years of living in the country, I have seen one, and that was in the Corcovado National Park. I believe they are found in Carara National Park as well. The old timers from the south Pacific zone of Costa Rica remember the days when there were many of them.

One story I have heard about hunting brocket deer in the 1950s tells of a hunter who was driving from San Isidro to Dominical and saw a group of the little deer near the village of Barú. Stopping his jeep, the hunter retrieved his rifle from the back seat, leaned it across the hood, and shot every single one of the deer, about 20 as the story goes. Considering that the story is probably an exaggeration, I think there is enough truth in it that we can assume that 60 to 70 years ago there were a lot of brocket deer in the area around Hacienda Barú, and that large numbers of them were killed by hunters until the population dwindled down to nothing. I came to Hacienda Barú 50 years ago and only heard mention of brocket deer from older friends, employees, and neighbors. When they were mentioned, it was always in the past tense.
A visiting biologist saw a buck brocket deer in 1996, and one of the Hacienda Barú guides saw one that same year in the same area. It was possibly the same animal. I saw some scat and footprints about that same time and in the same part of the hacienda. No, brocket deer, scat, or footprints have been seen since.
I started working with trail cameras about 15 years ago and have never captured a photo of one. The environmental organization ASANA monitors wildlife with trail cameras throughout the area within the Path of the Tapir Biological Corridor which comprises a strip of land about 80 km long and 15 km wide along the coastal ridge between the Savegre River and the Térraba river, and during the five years they have been monitoring with cameras, have never captured a photo of a brocket deer. I think it is a pretty good bet that the species is locally extinct.

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Cunning Canids

Remember Wile E. Coyote who wasn’t quite as wily as Beep-Beep the roadrunner? Unlike Wile, real coyotes are indeed cunning. According to Mark Wainright’s excellent field guide The Mammals of Costa Rica, coyotes have even been known to play dead as a ruse to lure in scavengers whom they then kill and eat. I guess Wile didn’t know that trick or it didn’t work on the roadrunner. In Mexico the term muy coyote is used when referring to a shrewd or crafty person.

When I was a kid growing up in Colorado in the 1950s, I used to shoot every coyote I saw. I remember how pitiful it was seeing a flock of my dad’s sheep that had been maimed and killed by them. We would have all been very happy had they been completely exterminated. In fact, there was a government program to do exactly that. The agricultural department gave us traps, each of which, had a corn cob screwed onto to a short tube. When the coyote pulled on the corn cob the trap shot a pellet of cyanide into its mouth killing it instantly. When we set the traps, we painted the cobs with pheromone laced oil. Coyotes couldn’t resist the aroma, grabbed the corn cob with their teeth, and ended up dead. Either the government has given up the program to exterminate the coyotes, or the coyotes are wilier than the government. There are still as many coyotes as ever, and they have adapted to many different habitats, even including cities.

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“Hey Eduardo! Look. Somebody cut this coconut husk open, and it is full of all these little crabs. Boy, do they stink”.

“It’s not the crabs that stink”, he laughed. “It’s the rotten coconut. They love it. When I need fish bait, I just look for a coconut husk that’s been cut open. If there’s still any rotting coconut meat left, it’s sure to be full of colonchos. See…” He stuck his hand through a hole in the coconut and pulled out one of the colonchos, which I later learned are called “hermit crabs” in English. Eduardo held tight to the shell, a little smaller than a ping pong ball, grabbed the crab’s head and pincher, and pulled steadily until the little invertebrate came free of its protective home, which Eduardo dropped on the ground. The head looked like a crab and the back part more like a fat worm. “Fish love them”, he said with a smile. Reaching into his bag, Eduardo pulled out a hand reel with some light fishing line and a small hook which he stuck through the crab and tossed it into the estuary. It didn’t take long before he had a nibble. After several tries, he hooked a fish he called a machaca. In half an hour he had four. They weren’t much bigger than his hand, but he took them home anyway. “My wife knows how to fry them up real tasty”.

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All Good Ideas Have a Downside: Biofuels

By Jack Ewing

The problem with fossil fuels is that they put carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. To be clear, I am talking only about new carbon, not what is already on the surface of the planet, in the atmosphere, the biomass or the soil. Carbon is only detrimental when you bring it up from deep within the earth and add it to the carbon that is already here. That’s why biofuel is considered to be an environmentally friendly source of renewable energy. It is derived from carbon, that is already available and doesn’t add any new carbon to the atmosphere.

Ethanol, with a few simple modifications to your engine, can be substituted for gasoline. It can be derived from many raw materials but is usually produced from corn or sugarcane. Since the carbon contained in corn and sugarcane is already here and available, ethanol doesn’t add any new carbon to the atmosphere. Plant fiber is made up primarily of carbon; so, to grow and produce biofuel these plants need to acquire carbon from their environment. A carbon dioxide molecule is composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms (CO2). The green stuff in the leaves of growing plants is called chlorophyll. The plants get their carbon through a process called photosynthesis which involves sunlight, chlorophyll, and atmospheric CO2. In greatly simplified terms, the plant captures the carbon dioxide molecule from the air, keeps the carbon atom and uses it to build fiber for its own structure, and releases the two oxygen atoms into the atmosphere. When the corn or sugarcane plant is ready, we take it and turn it into ethanol. Cool, right? We get fuel for our cars and trucks and, at the same time enrich the earth’s atmosphere with oxygen. Well, not exactly. I must confess that I left out a few steps. Let’s have a look at how corn and sugarcane are grown.

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By Jack Ewing

Costa Rica was still a third-world country when I first came here over 50 years ago, and part of me wishes it still was. Some of my most treasured memories are from that period in the early 1970s when I worked on a large ranch on the Caribbean side of the country. It was only accessible by a narrow-gauge railroad called the Northern Railway. I hadn’t been there long when I met a great guy, an Englishman by the name of Johnny James who came to Costa Rica in the 1930s, before the concept of the third world had even come into being.

I once accompanied him on a four-day adventure, during which I learned much of what I know about the Caribbean side of the country. It all began in a place called El Cairo in a restaurant owned by Juan Quiros Ching. No sooner had we finished our coffee and empanadas than the owner of the burro carro, our mode of travel for the first leg of the journey, walked in and shouted to Johnny that he was ready to go. The burro carro was a small platform with four railroad wheels. It was drawn by a mule. During the hour it took to reach the creek at the end of the spur, Johnny talked non-stop. “Years ago,” he began, “the immigration of Chinese to Costa Rica was prohibited by law. But what can I say; you know how it works. Laws are for common people like you and me, not for the wealthy, especially not back then. At the beginning of the century lots of Chinese were brought here to work as indentured servants in the households of well-to-do Costa Rican families. After a certain number of years of unpaid service, their debt was fulfilled, and their masters had to free them. Most took the last names of those same former masters and eventually acquired Costa Rican citizenship. Just like Juan Quiros”, Johnny continued. “He and his wife were betrothed as children and came to Costa Rica from China at the age of ten or eleven. To put it bluntly, their parents sold them to a rich Tico. They had to work for fifteen years to earn their freedom. Then they moved out here to the jungles of the Caribbean, along the railroad, and proceeded to make their fortune. They worked their butts off, but today they’ve got the business, a farm, and a pile of money”.

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By Jack Ewing

Years ago, I was hiking in the Hacienda Barú rainforest with my friend, Juan Ramón. Though uneducated he had a vast knowledge of the environment, which had partly been passed on to him by his father and grandfather, and the rest he had learned through personal experience. “Juan”, I commented, “I was thinking that earlier we passed through an area where there were lots of gallinazo trees, then there eight scattered ojoches, over there are half a dozen jabillos, and right now we are admiring three big ceibos. I wonder why they grow in the same general area like that”.

“They grow in places they like”, was his simple reply.

His way of putting it was not the least bit scientific, but his answer really made sense. Perhaps certain species thrive in soils with certain nutrients that are abundant in some locations and deficient or absent in others. Different species may need different trace elements. I’m sure that many other environmental factors were in play, but his answer still made sense to me. I thought of people having cravings and remembered a time when Diane and I both were struck with an irresistible urge to eat radishes. For a week we couldn’t get enough of them. We ate them at every meal. We ate them as snacks, whole, in salads, and even in sandwiches. After about a week, the craving simply went away. We figured that our normal diet must have been lacking some essential nutrient that was readily available in radishes.

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Frijolito, The Killer Squirrel

While sitting at my computer one day, a woman’s scream jolted me from my train of thought, brought me to my feet and hurried me off toward the call of distress. In the living room I found Cecilia, our housekeeper, wringing her hands, blood running down both sides of her face, and tears streaming down her cheeks. She didn’t have to say what happened. It was obvious, but she said it any way. “Fue el asesino,” The killer squirrel had struck again.

My wife Diane and I both love animals. I love seeing them in the wild, and Diane loves keeping them as pets and caring for them. So, when one of Diane’s dogs found a helpless baby squirrel, about the size of a bean-shaped egg, it promptly became part of her menagerie. Small and black, the name “Frijolito,” meaning “Little Black Bean”, fit him perfectly. Diane nurtured and fed him with a tiny baby bottle and nipple. He grew like wildfire and soon had his eyes open. Later he climbed over our arms and shoulders, and even got up on top or our heads. He was a real charmer, and everyone came to love Frijolito.

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Every Good Idea Has A Downside – Wind Power

I am old enough to remember when the Sandhill Crane was an endangered species. There were less than 1000 left in the wild. Due to lots of hard work and diligence from a lot of nature lovers, there are now close to 100,000. Many of these beautiful stork-like birds with a distinctive call migrated every year to the Rio Grande Valley in Southeast Texas. Then, along came the wind turbines. My friend and fellow environmentalist Pamela lives in what used to be one of the best birding spots in the US. She still lives there and can tell the story better than I.

The Rio Grande Valley is in the world’s greatest migratory flyway. We have several sites labelled as the World’s Birding Center because of the number of migrants that pass through each winter. Birding has been the largest source of income for the area. Each year one of my greatest joys was the migration of the Sandhill cranes. They flew over my house in such huge flocks that my windows vibrated with their calls. I would stand outside and watch them fly overhead so close that I could look into their eyes. I would drive down the roads that have now been taken over by wind turbines and follow the flocks. I’d sit in my truck with my binoculars and watch them.

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Every Good Idea Has A Downside

Back in the 1970s and the early 80s, before we got electricity in our Hacienda Barú home, Diane and I often lamented the lack of hot water in the shower. Cold water was okay on a hot day, but it was bad news on a chilly, rainy evening with a cool breeze blowing outside. One scorching summer afternoon I returned to the house from work and stuck my head under the faucet to cool off. The water wasn’t very cool, but I was hot and sweaty, and it was still refreshing. Without warning, it turned scalding hot. Letting out a yelp, I jerked my head from beneath the tap. After a short time, it cooled down enough that it again felt good on back of my neck. “Now I know why all of our neighbors leave the water running 24 hours a day,” I bemoaned. Very few people lived in the area, and each household had its own source of water, usually a creek or a spring. There was never a shortage of water, and it didn’t cost anything, so there was really no reason to turn it off. All of our neighbors left it running all of the time. Many homes didn’t have faucets and couldn’t stop the flow even if they wanted to.

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Survival of the Fittest

Somewhere between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago we humans decided that we were superior to Mother Nature and were no longer subject to Her laws. As our intellect grew, so did our ability to harness energy and bend it to the exclusive use of our own species. Our numbers burgeoned while countless other living beings on Earth paid the toll. Few humans in this day and age realize that we are still, and always have been, subject to the whims of Mother Nature. In the wilds, species that become too numerous or that capture too large a share of the available resources eventually become victims of some sort of calamity that extinguishes their numbers entirely or severely reduces their population. It is obvious that humanity has been capturing a grossly disproportionate share of the earth’s resources for the exclusive use of our own species and continue to invent methods to capture an even larger portion. One day we will add that proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back, and Mother Nature will unleash her power on humanity. At the moment she is just setting us up. She is smiling while we turn ourselves into a bunch of weaklings. Let me illustrate with a couple of examples.

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The Bare-Throated Tiger Heron & the Snake

I had lived and worked on Hacienda Barú for 23 years before sighting my first bare-throated tiger heron, so called because of the featherless, yellow skin on its throat. Today, 30 years later, with much more natural habitat and less hunting, we see them on a daily basis.

First day out of the nest

Earlier this year, Diane and I noticed that a pair of tiger herons were carrying sticks, twigs, and other nesting material to a tree near our house, but the branches were so thick that we couldn’t find the nest. About two months later, a ball of white fluff could be seen moving around in the part of the tree where we suspected the nest was located. It grew rapidly to near adult size, molted, and one day fledged, now with the speckled plumage of a juvenile. I took lots of photos that first day as the young heron explored its new world. I had seen adult tiger herons in many different positions, hunched over, stretched up, neck twisted or arched, or feathers ruffled, but this youngster took the tiger heron’s shape-changing ability to extremes. The photos tell the story.

Adult with a big snake

Trail cameras are lots of fun because when you insert the memory card from the camera into your computer, you never know what is going to pop up on the screen. About a year ago a camera near the house captured an image a large adult tiger heron, wings spread, with a snake’s head in its mouth, and the body dangling down in an S-shaped curve all the way to the to the ground. I stared in amazement at the photo. Herons can’t chew, and I doubted it could swallow a snake that size 60 to 70 cm (25 inches) and as big around as a broomstick. “Maybe it’s just killing the snake”, I thought, “and is going to leave it for the scavengers”. Then it occurred to me that maybe I had it backwards. Maybe the snake was biting the heron. The photo wasn’t clear enough to be sure. I posted it on Facebook, and a couple of the viewers thought the snake had bitten the bird just above the beak and gotten its fangs stuck. “We’ll never know for sure,” I decided.

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