Nature Watch in the Jungle

large red flower with white marbled petals.  Tightly closed in the centre with petals opening towards the outer edgesIt is 5am on Christmas Day and I have been awoken, partly because I need to go to the loo, but the sky is lightening and the birds are singing.  The Howler monkeys are not so loud here as they were in Puerto Jimenez but maybe they are just drowned out by the medley of birdsong.  I have tried to record it on my phone but the result doesn’t really do justice to the beauty and clarity of the sounds that are all around me.  Apparently more than 100 birds have been recorded in this small peninsula in Costa Rica and judging by the myriad calls I am listening to I think they are all singing now!

wooden lodge in jungleI am staying in a tent hung in a wooden platform which I hope is snake proof but suspect is not.  Snakes are my only real fear.  Insects are a nuisance especially in the evening as the sun goes down but apart from reacting to the bites with large red weals as I do, they are mostly harmless.  The mosquitos here do not carry malaria and we have seen little sign of any anyway.  Javier told us that Costa Rica has only just recently been declared malaria free.  There are bats in the toilet behind my sleeping quarters which fly hurriedly out of the window when I unzip the door. I have to wipe the guano from the toilet seat before sitting down (TMI, sorry!)

red flower which is oval shaped and has separate petals pointing upwards. orange bird of paradise flower looking upwards through star shaped red spotted leaves.I am looking out immediately onto shrubs and with brightly coloured leaves and flowers in what seems to be a well planted garden surrounded by the tall trees of the jungle. A hint of steam rising from the tops of the trees gives an ethereal feel and, at this time of day, the temperature is deliciously cool.  As the birds awake a new song joins the throng and others fade away.  Few birds can be seen but every now and then tiny little yellow and green birds flit across my vision, then a flash of brilliant red and high up I see the silhouette of macaws accompanied by their raucous screech. A pair of brilliant red, green and b;lack birds have just flown noisily across right in front of me and landed in a tree opposite, and then a pair of black with almost fluorescent red wings birds whizzed by too!

Christmas Day is the hump day on our trip – the exact midpoint and it could be a difficult one for some who are more than a little homesick.  However, they are pulling together and supporting each other and all very excited for Secret Santa and the prospects of the day.

Today’s walk gave us the opportunity to look around us and enjoy the scenery and learn about the plants and animals we could see.  It was a 10km circular walk around the lodge, just a day pack, some snacks and water.  This evening I tried to write down as much as I could remember of what Randall told us but couldn’t get all of it.  So, for our reflection I asked the girls to all tell us something that they learned today.  What a wondrous thing crowdsourcing memories is! Here are the facts in no particular order.  This website gives some additional information.

The Ceiba tree (pronounced sayba) is sacred to the Mayans and has sharp spikes all the way up the trunkThe Ceiba Tree – this is a sacred tree to the Mayans who believe that the Gods live high up in the branches and the long vines that hang down to the ground are the connection to the underworld.  The roots are deep and give life to the tree and to the people.   The sharp spines that cover the trunk help protect the tree from the Strangulator trees as do the colonies of fire ants that seemed to be hosted by the tree that we saw.  They can grow up to 200ft tall and are often the only trees to be spared when a forest is cut down.  The canopy of the tree is home to epiphytes which also provide space for myriad animals, insects and other plants to exist.

tall, smooth barked tree, with foliage high up.The Surá Tree – this tree is tall and has very smooth bark.  Randall told us that it is a special tree for the Mayans and mythology says that in the beginning there was only land.  When the tree grew too tall the monkeys chewed the trunk until it fell over.  It created such a large space in the forest that the ocean formed in the space it created.  I can find no literature about this on the internet but it is clear that many civilisations believe that trees are the givers of life and connect heaven and earth or the spirits and the people.

strangulator tree, vines come down from above and form trees around a treeStrangulator Tree (Higueron) – this actually starts life out as an epiphyte and is a member of the fig family.  The seeds are dropped by birds in the tops of trees and the vines that grow from them reach down to the ground where they take root and thicken. As they thicken the light is taken away from the host tree and it gradually dies.

The “Naked Indian” Tree –  this tree obviously has a botanical name but because of its red peeling bark Ticos call it the Naked Indian tree.  Randall told us that the it is the bark where photosynthesis occurs in this tree.  The blog to which I have linked the name of this tree also describes the multiplicity of uses this tree has.

walking tree the roots are all splayed outwards and "walk" in search of lightThe Walking Tree – so the story goes that the mini trunks that look like splayed roots on these trees actually “walk” in search of light to help the tree grow. But this could easily be a popular story that guides tell trekkers just because…well, they can! Who knows?

Waramu tree - the guide to the right is pointing at the rings on a tree which has a slim straight trunkWaramu Tree – well, I can’t find this tree on the internet using this name so maybe I misunderstood the name.  Anyway, there is a photo so someone may recognise it. He said that this is a tree that the sloths like as the leaves are tasty.  It is hollow and so when the trees are young they were young they were used by the Mayans to make pipes. It also has a symbiosis with ants – they live in the hollow part and if the tree is attacked they swarm out and defend the tree.

white milky sap from the vaco treeVaco Tree – this tree is called the milk tree or the cow tree and produces a white milk like sap that seems to be high in iron.  It is used in medicines to treat anaemia. Randall also told us that the wood is used for building and so many of these trees were cut down by the Conquistadors.

large leafy shrub which has many properties useful to manA plant the name of which I can’t remember but which Randall called the jungle man’s friend.  Just like the New Zealand Bushman’s friend, this large soft leaf can be used when you are caught short in the jungle.  But its uses don’t stop there; it can also be used as sun shade if draped over your head, folded over the back of your neck it has cooling properties, if you break the stem and chew on it, it will numb your mouth so it has been used as an anaelgesic and crushed and rubbed onto the skin it acts as an insect repellent.

Havillo – this tree can grow tall like the Ceiba but when small it has sharp thorns all over it.  These were used by the Mayans as poison darts; once they took them off the tree they would stick them in poison dart frog to get the poison. The sap of the tree is also poisonous.

golden orb spider in its web. the male which is much smaller is to the leftGolden Orb Spider – the female is much larger than the male which is to the left in the image.  They are not harmful to humans and the webs are so strong that research is going on to see if scientists can reproduce the silk to use to make bullet proof vests.

Ant Facts

  • If you kick an anthill, the warrior ants come out to protect the queen.
  • Big ants were used by Mayans as sutures on wounds.
  • Leaf cutter ants release an acid that kills the vegetation in their path to clear the way.

white butterfly with clear black markings and red stain down the inner edge of the wingsbrown butterfly with white vertical stripe down the middle of each wing, smalle white dots on outer edge of wings and red spots on lower inner edge of wingsButterflies – we saw so many beautiful butterflies while we were in Costa Rica.  The beautiful Blue Morpho flashed by often, rarely settling long enough to get a photo, brilliant green and gold and red butterflies and the stunning Owl Butterfly.

Concepcion: Volcano Climbing

early morning cloud over volcano
Our goal “Volcan Concepcion”

A 5am start in what can only be described as a brisk, overcast and windy day by the standards of these climes.  Our aim 1,200m up the active volcano of Concepcion.  The summit was highly unlikely; even if the weather conditions had been favourable, I think it would have been foolhardy to attempt the last 400m of exposed, loose volcanic rock to the summit with a group of inexperienced walkers. We had been talked out of Maderas which we had hoped we could summit on the basis that it was not so high and did not have an exposed top.  However, Eduardo, our local contact, told us it was a muddy, uninspiring walk with not so many views, fewer possibilities of seeing wildlife and that the summit was in the trees so there was no real view from the top or sense of being on a summit. We felt a little “bulldozed” by him but in reality we have no option but to trust local knowledge especially when we are responsible for a group of teenagers.

Howler monkey in tree
Howler monkey

We were thankful of the cool breeze as we walked up the steep hill.  The first part on the flat was hard work because of the deep layer of volcanic sand we were walking on but the girls set a good pace.  Once the ascent started we were in the forest and the terrain was hard going because of the roots and the uneven ground and the pace slowed.  We were excited to hear the calls of Howler Monkeys and even more excited to see them high up in the branches of the trees.  They seemed quite alarmed at the wind and howled even more as the branches shook as the gusts blew stronger.  We could also hear the calls of the Uracca – the national bird of Nicaragua.  It has bright blue and white tail feathers like the flag and we saw them darting between the trees but they were just too difficult to photograph.

trekkers resting in the branched of a tree buried by volcanic ash
Sitting high up in the branches!

We stopped for a break at a large tree the low branches of which made great perches for us.  Moses, our guide, explained that we were sitting in the upper branches of a tree that had been buried by ash from an eruption of Concepcion.  All the other trees around were new and had grown in the new layer of ash.

large tree half buried by volcanic ash

We saw more Zanate birds and some smaller green birds in the trees and large birds of prey rode the thermals and the wind high overhead. One of the girls spotted a shy little Capucin monkey scampering along a branch; he sat still for a moment but not long enough to take a photo before he darted away again.  Very exciting to see animals we have only before seen in zoos!

view of Lake Nicaragua from halfway up Volcan Concepcion.  clouds in blue sky
View of Lake Nicaragua from Concepcion

As we slowly ascended the tortuous path, placing our feet carefully between and on the network of tree roots, butterflies of all coulours fluttered around.  A beautiful black and green one landed on a twig, closed its wings and immediately blended into the environment and looked just like a browning leaf.  We also saw brilliant blue ones, red, orange and pale yellow as well as the impressive “Owl” butterfly.

cloud line on Volcan Concepcion.  trekkers battling against the wind.
Reaching the cloud line

The wind seemed to be getting stringer as we climbed and the sky became more overcast.  The base air temperature was still warm though and we were glad of the cooling effect of the wind.

As we climbed the forest changed; amongst the coffee trees there were bananas and then the trees were smaller untilo we reached an area of quite compact shrubs.  The sense that we were close to our end point was strong and as we walked aloing the tunnels between the shrubs, we started to be able to see over them at the view beyond.  Not far from the bush line, but still in trees we came to an abrupt halt.  At the back we didn’t know why but the message was passed back that a large white bull was blocking the path.  Even Moses the guide was scared when it put its head down and started to charge! There was a stand off for a few minutes then Moses valiantly cut into the forest to get above it and chase it downwards to where the rest of its group were waiting.

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White bull in the forest.
Little White Bull!

Small pink, white and purple flowers poked their heads out of the long grass as we emerged from the scrub and in to the open grassy slope.  The wind was really strong now and it almost blew us off our feet.  We almost had to crawl to keep ourselves from being knocked over by the gusts.  There was already a group sitting in the lee of a tree from where we could hyave had a view down into a funnel.  We decided that caution was the better part of valour and stayed where we were, crouched on the slope all together for safety. It was an exhilarating yet scary time all at once.  Some of the girls were genuinely afraid of getting blown down the hill and when we moved, linked arms to make themselves a bigger entity to knock down! After taking photos, marvelling at the view and the stupidity of two Americans who seemed hell bent on becomiung Darwin Award contenders by climbing to the top, we retreated to the shelter of the forest to have our lunch.

soft spiky pale pink flowers on the treeline of Volcan Concepcion trekking group having lunch in the shelter of the trees.

Going down tested some of those who had seemed like mountain goats on the way up and gave others new found confidence in themselves as they picked their way agilely over the roots and stones.

We were back at the hotel by 1pm – sore legs, hot and tired but buzzing with a sense of achievement.