Oct 042010

Beto & Patricia - El Copal Reserve OwnersWhat started as an unproductive sugar cane and cattle farm has been transformed into a leading ecolodge and biological reserve. The El Copal Biological Reserve is the result of a decade’s hard work and determination by Beto and Patricia Chavez; owners, operators, and advocates for sustainable sources of income in rural Costa Rica.

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Sep 022010

Milky Way Galaxy over the jungles of Costa Rica

The star viewing over El Copal was absolutely fantastic and gave me a great opportunity to practice some astrophotography in the evenings. I’m still refining my techniques, and my equipment isn’t great at handling long exposure noise, but this is by far my best attempt at capturing the Milky Way and all the potential of the universe! Of course, when I see photos like this one I realize I have a long ways to go, but that just means I have an excuse to keep trying!

Aug 092010

Our final day at El Copal started a little later, only 5:45am! The birding was much improved this morning over yesterday with a few new species added to our total bird list for the lodge. One last traditional breakfast of eggs, rice, beans and another fresh tortilla, and a relaxing morning of packing, bird watching, and having a last look at El Copal, for the time being of course! Maya (our taxi driver) arrived at noon, just as it began raining, so after a hurried goodbye to Beto and Patricia, we tossed our gear and Andrew into the trunk of the 4×4 again and off we went back towards San Jose. Maya’s son Johnny ended up driving us from El Humo to San Jose, but only after they shared some raw sugar cane with us. That is some sweet, sweet grass! Surprisingly it wasn’t as sweet as regular granulated sugar, but the liquid extracted from the cane was extremely tasty and made a good supplement for lunch en route. I had the middle seat in the back of the 4×4 which got to be fairly uncomfortable after 2.5 hours, but Johnny was a great driver and a lot of fun. We got back into San Jose about 3pm, just as the skies opened and the rain poured down again. Some more confusion at the Adventure Inn, but eventually we had our room, our baggage and our computers back on the ‘net! After each of us enjoyed a warm shower and some clean clothes we headed off to the conference to register and meet up with old acquaintances and new friends. A little rant, but it seems that the student registration doesn’t include the congress monographed satchel and coffee press, which were reserved for the full price “Delegate” members, even though I would guess it’d be appreciated by students more than professors and research scientists. That’s pretty damn ridiculous in my mind, and doesn’t seem to encourage students to attend these meetings if they are to be treated as second class scientists, but nothing much I can do about it besides this little rant! We decided to walk from the conference centre back to our hotel (about 20 minutes) and picked up some peanut butter, Nutella, and Bimbo (Latin American bread, similar to Wonder Bread) for dinners over the next few days to save some money. We walked back to the conference centre for the opening night mixer, and were pleasantly surprised to find an open bar and lots of high-quality hors d’oeuvres! It was great getting to meet other Dipterists and become reacquainted with those I’d met before. After a few hours of socializing and wine/dining we headed back to the hotel en masse via taxi. The driver had a good night as he swindled all 12 of us for $2 US a piece for a 3 minute cab ride. Dipterists are generally a cheap bunch to start with, but faced with the injustice of this cab ride, there were a lot of pissed off fly specialists! Luckily we’re also pretty laid back, so a few minutes of griping and we were back to normal and ready for bed. Polishing and publishing my backlog of blog entries for our time at El Copal finished off my evening, and the pillow was calling my name from across the hotel!


Aug 092010

Today is our last full day here at El Copal Lodge, so I tried to make the most of it by getting up at 5:15 to catch the sunrise and snag some photos before birding with Joel until breakfast. The birds must have decided to sleep in however as there wasn’t much activity today. Patricia prepared another traditional breakfast of eggs, rice, beans, cheese and fresh tortilla to fuel our collecting for the morning, and we headed off to the Mariposa (butterfly in Spanish) trail. The clouds decided they were going to roll in early today so the collecting wasn’t nearly as good as the last 2 days, but we did hit the target groups and each got some interesting specimens. Apparently the mosquitoes didn’t get the message that it was going to be cloudy today though, as they were the thickest we’ve had to deal with yet. It turns out our malaise didn’t survive the previous night’s rain, with the duct tape and twine failing us. All of our hard work and MacGyver training for naught! Oh well, that’s the way it goes sometimes. At least we won’t have to worry about setting it up in Guanacaste! A lunch of steak, salad and palm heart finished off with freshly made rice pudding took our minds off the malaise failure however. The rains came again this afternoon, meaning time to pin our meager catch from the day and relaxation time in the hammocks processing images. Our final dinner at El Copal Reserve, and Patricia outdid herself again (pan fried fish, fried potatoes, fresh salsa)! Tonight has been the first night where the clouds and rain have stuck around, so the 5 of us just hung out and talked late into the night. Beto had enjoyed a little too much wine with the birder’s who came today, and came out to join us around midnight to thank us for coming and to encourage us to bring our friends in the future! It was a great way to spend our final evening at the El Copal Ecolodge.

We tried putting some fruit out today in an effort to catch more flies (and see more birds), but it didn’t work as well as we had hoped for either. A few vinegar flies (Drosophilidae) were all we saw.

Everyone seemed to be able to find micropezids except for me, with Joel, Andrew and Gil each contributing 2 apiece.

Andrew Rick-Rolled us while walking along the trail…

A colony of army ants decided to crash the lodge today and were swarming over the porch and into Gil and Andrew’s room. Sandals weren’t a good idea tonight!


Aug 092010

5:30am and the sun is just peeking over the mountains; time to go birding! Without leaving the grounds of the lodge, we had a good hour of birding before breakfast with about 20 species confidently identified. A hearty breakfast of arrepes (dense pancakes), eggs, and honey and we were off. Beto needed to walk into town today for groceries, so we had to fend for ourselves on the trails. Gil wanted to revisit the grassy bog at the top of the mountain, so he lead us on a break-neck death march, getting us to the top around 8am. After about 3 hours of steady collecting we came back down at a leisurely pace, collecting and shooting when we found something worthwhile. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be as much moving around today, so it wasn’t quite as good as yesterday, but we did manage to find 2 genera of Micropezidae that we hadn’t seen yet. I experienced how cold the mountain-fed showers were after we got back (and they were cold alright, but refreshing after the hike) then Patricia called us in for lunch (marinated chicken, potato & beet salad, broccoli, and of course, rice). The clouds were beginning to look ominous, but Patricia reassured us that it wouldn’t rain this afternoon, no problemo. Turns out she was a little off, as half an hour later the clouds opened and it started pouring!

Before dinner and during a lull in the rain, Joel, Andrew and I figured we better set up the malaise trap, since we brought it all this way! Now, this isn’t your ordinary, off-the-shelf malaise trap! Oh no, this is a hack job that Joel and I put together at the last minute while packing last week. The netting itself has long seen better days and the head was composed of a urine sample vial with the bottom cut out, a plastic pasta sauce jar with a hole cut in the side and a mason jar screwring glued to the mouth, finished off with a large Nalgene screwed underneath, plus a healthy proportion of duct tape and hot glue! We decided to set up the trap across a small trail in the hopes that the local flies would be using it as a super highway, and strung it up with a few dozen feet of twine and some sticks acting as pegs. We had high hopes for our contraption, but when the urine vial peeled off the pasta jar, and we added a few more feet of duct tape, we began to think we were fighting a losing battle. Perseverance, plus some more twine and duct tape, and we were set to catch us some insects! It started raining right before we finalized the set up, so we didn’t have time to really admire our handiwork, but hopefully it’ll still be in one piece and standing tomorrow morning. A quick run through the jungle in the rain to avoid getting my camera gear wet and we were back at the lodge and ready for dinner! Another excellent dinner (marinated cubed beef, pasta, rice, dulce square) was followed with a long conversation with Beto & Patricia about the history of El Copal, the environmental issues facing Costa Rica, and how we came to find out about El Copal. I truly can’t express how great this lodge and the owners are! Conversation was cut short (a figurative term as we sat there talking for over an hour) when Beto ran out listening to an owl. We never did see the owl, but the sky was so clear, the star viewing was even better than last night. I spent a good half an hour making new images of the Milky Way, before going inside to show the others what I had captured. Beto & Patricia in particular were very excited to see the shots and also some of the insects that we’ve encountered on their property. While everyone else headed off to bed, I saw that the star conditions had further improved, so I spent another hour outside playing and making images. By far and away the most amazing nightscapes I’ve ever seen, and I couldn’t be happier with the pictures (they need some more advanced post-processing, but I’ll have them up here shortly after getting back to Canada).

We came across a huge colony of army ants swarming the trail this morning, providing a nice break from the brisk pace Gil set. Seeing thousands of ants swarming through the undergrowth is a pretty neat experience. Collected some army ant-associated thick-headed flies (Conopidae: Stylogaster) and Tachinidae.

Gil had me try and get some shots of hovering Ornidia (Syrphidae), which presented a new challenge that will need some practice, despite the flies staying relatively still while hovering.

Onidia Syrphidae hoverfly hovering


Aug 092010

Here comes the sun! Waking up at 6:30 for breakfast (eggs, rice, beans, freshly made tortilla) is easy when the sun is up and the flies are flying. Everyone was itching to get out into the jungle, and so we headed up towards the peak of the nearest mountain. We definitely had some great collecting, with each of us finding a few specimens of our respective study/hobby groups, and I’m fairly happy with my photos from this morning. Getting exposures correct in the shadows of the jungle can be difficult, and there are a lot of black backgrounds, but it certainly beats nothing! After making it up to the top of the mountain (altitude = ~1300m) we came back down to our lunch while rain clouds started to blow in. With perfect timing we got back to the lodge only minutes before the rain hit and just in time for lunch (pasta, fried pork chop, coconut & dulce squares). The food here has been awesome, and Patricia has been spoiling us! After lunch we proceeded to pin the day’s catch and make our notes for the day. With the rain still coming down all afternoon, the only thing left to do was sit in a hammock and hope the insects came to us. A bit of a slow afternoon, but the morning made up for it! After dinner (broasted chicken, mashed potatoes, broccoli, and rice) the rain had finally ceased, so we stepped out for a quick night walk to look for herps, then sat and looked at the Milky Way, visible to the naked eye so far from the light pollution of major cities.

There were a ton of reptiles and frogs hopping around the trail today, so many that I think we may have seen more species here than I have seen in all my other trips combined!

The clouds seem to come and go in the blink of an eye, revealing dramatic landscapes of rolling mountains one second, and concealing all but the closest of trees the next.

Well, it seems that the rain is determined to keep us lodge-locked for the rest of the day. Hopefully tomorrow morning will be as nice as today was so we can get out and find some more flies!

Beto had us believing that our dinner tonight was actually Crested Guan (a large native chicken-like bird); he is certainly a big fan of practical jokes!

Tonight was the night of the giant wolf* spider it seems, with an orange species courting Andrew’s laptop (which is also orange) and a black species waiting for Nichelle to come to bed. Being inquisitive, we figured we’d try feeding them with some freshly caught moths. The orange species put on a good show, pouncing on the moth the moment it hit the floor and then running between Joel’s legs while he was squatting, while the black species didn’t seem to be hungry. Both were released outside before bed!

Costa Rican Wolf Spider Close Up

Despite having experience with feeder roaches back in Canada, Andrew had a bit of a freakout after a large cockroach landed on his shoulder in the common room. Hilarity ensued!


* – I say wolf spider with a grain of salt as I’m not an arachnid expert by any means, and Neotropical spiders are a little more diverse than back home!

Aug 082010
Time to head down south for some fun in the jungle and the largest gathering of Dipterists this grad student has yet to see! I figured I’d try and make a travelogue of short entries for this whole experience day-by-day (including the days when I have no internet, so expect some days with multiple posts) which will include some of the highs, lows and miscellaneous stories each day.

Today, we go into the jungle! After a relatively slow, but very good, breakfast at the Adventure Inn, we piled into what was to be our first of three taxis to begin our journey to El Copal Reserve. Our driver Roland was extremely helpful, especially when he realized that the city we were trying to get to was much further than he had originally thought when we had agreed on a fare the night before! Without missing a beat, he drove us to Cartago, found us a 4×4 taxi, and made sure that the driver was ok with splitting what we had paid Ronald! Altogether some amazingly nice people. Mario then drove us through the winding and progressively worsening roads to El Humo, where we met up with our final driver of the day, Maya. After loading all of our gear (and Andrew) into the trunk, we set off for one final, wild ride up into the mountains. As we climbed higher and higher up the mountain and the clouds began to draw closer and closer, the habitat around us changed from sugar cane and cattle farms to beautiful tropical rain forest with flowers blossoming all around. Before we knew it, Maya had us into the lodge with only a few minor scrapes on the underside of the truck! Since Gil is the only one able to converse in Spanish, the rest of us got to look around and ogle over all the amazing places we’d be exploring in the next 4 days, while he arranged our ride back to San Jose and how the lodge worked. The station itself is rustic, but comfortable, and our hosts couldn’t be friendlier, or better cooks! Beto and Patricia welcomed us with smiling faces and freshly prepared lunch (rice, palm heart, coleslaw, and fried beef) and after getting settled into our rooms, we headed off into the jungle to find us some flies!

The weather today wasn’t overly great with constant overcast, making the collecting a little slow and the photography rather uninspiring, but we each came out of the jungle 4 hours later with new insects we had never seen before and ideas about how to make the next few days as productive as possible! A quick rest to pin our insects and tally our birds, then off to dinner (vegetable soup, rice & a burger pattie) and pleasant conversation with Beto and Patricia (thanks to Gil), topped off with dulce, a raw, condensed sugar cane product that was a great way to finish off the evenings meal. Talk of an evening hike quickly ended as each of us realized our beds were calling ever so loudly! Perhaps tomorrow night…

The sections of San Jose and Cartago that we drove through today were some of the better looking Latin American towns that I’ve had the chance to travel to. No mountain-side slums, few run down buildings, plenty of people out dressed for work and ready to go! And the driving was far and away the safest I’ve seen south of the USA!

We heard Total Eclipse of the Heart in both Spanish and English on the way to El Copal, in 2 different taxis… what are the chances?

The drive from San Jose to El Copal was about 2 hours, including 2 taxi changes and some mountain road construction.

The bird fauna here is not what we were expecting, with more lowland Caribbean species around than we thought we’d see.

When we mentioned we studied flies, Beto asked if we knew Monty Woods or Jeff Skevington, who both work in Ottawa at the Canadian National Collection! Jeff is actually my co-advisor, and had been at the station only 2 weeks before we got here. Small world!

Speaking of small world, I happened to notice that the t-shirt Beto was wearing on our arrival was from the YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington, two cities that are about a half hour from Guelph. This is getting weird.