May 2009 Archives

Final Day


The last day had a productive final round of sampling even with the frequent rain. Many new butterfly species were recorded including many individuals of a rather uncommon species typically only found in intact forest. Upon reviewing the notes and data for the butterflies the highest areas of diversity were, as expected, in the disturbed forest patches that did not have tree monocultures. The tree plantations especially the teak stands were very low in butterfly diversity. The butterflies of the teak areas were the most common species that were present to nectar on the lantana. The tiger pattern mimetic complex of Heliconians, Ithomiines, and a single Charaxinae was very well represented in the two main disturbed forest patches. For the ants diversity was greatest in the forest patch bordering bird points a-n. There were several dominant species of ground dwelling ants. Their dominance should lessen as the restoration process continues and the leaf litter becomes thicker. This gives less dominant species more available niches and microhabitats to live and forage in, and it makes it more difficult for dominant species, like the fire ant Solenopsis geminatta, to establish colonies.

Final Ends!

Well, we've come to the end of our research and it was a sad but really awesome end. Today was a test for me and at first I was a little bit nervous about it but it turned out really well. This is because I did not have Geovanni with me to help me identify the birds today. However, I did have Dr. Brown for the first half which was amazing and we got alottt of the birds down. For the last half I did on my own which went wayyy better than I expected it to go. I am sad that I am leaving tomorrow, but I am happy to go back to dallas. Yesterday was our free day. We lots of cool animals on our boat ride including the golden monkey and a snake bird. They were awesome. Going through Canuonegro reminded me of going through Essequibo River back home. It was a really sensational experience. Taking all the trees and weather and animals was just very sensational. Costa Rica has been an amazing experience and I am really happy I came. All the people here are really nice and really hospitable.The tour guides are really passionate about what they do and everyone seems to have this really great appreciation for life. Anyway, I am off, not feeling so well right now so will pack and go to bed. Until next time, Esta muy pura vida y adios. 

More about the project @ the animal rehabilation center

I'm both excited and nervous about the coming week.  I'll be relatively on my own and in charge of my own project at Alvaro's animal rehabilitation center and I don't know what I'll find there.  Consequently, my plans for the interpretive guides are rather amorphous.  I am certain that, given a good look-around tomorrow, I'll have a much more clear idea what I want to focus on and what Alvaro expects.  I've learned a lot this week from Nick about how ant communities relate to the forest as a whole and how different species interact.  This in mind, I have carefully packed some tuna fish and am plotting to set some bait sites for observation.  I'm also planning on classifying their soils and generally determining the floral, faunal, and habitat types that are present.  I'm rather excited about this project and hope that I have internet so that I can continue the blog.

Pura Vida!

Final Field Day

Well, we've just about finished the last day. For scheduling reasons we swapped Field Day 5 with the free day, so yesterday the group spent their field day with a boat trip along Cano Negro. The students are posting their comments, but this year we saw quite a few good views of unusual birds, Caimens, and all three types of monkey (howler, white faced, spider). This was followed with an hour in La Fortuna, and some time at the reserve that Giovanni is managing.

Here is a photo of the students on the boat trip (from left: Nick, Aliza, Kathryn, Natalia):


Today, the final field day, has been a day of tidying things up. We retrieved the last HOBOs (automated water temperature samplers), and both Aliza and Nick have been collecting their last field data. I've also converted the Trimble data into a form that can be used by Aliza and Nick in their write-ups. I've created a new map with bird nest locations. The plan is to add bird nest locations each year as their own layers, so it should be possible to compare the number of bird nests over time. Marcy reports that there are a lot more bird nests this year than in the 2008 field season. This is good news. An intermediate version of the map should be online before we leave Leaves and Lizards. Aliza is preparing a set of photographs for each bird nest point. I shall publish these later in the week after we return. I'll post a note when these are completed.

This weekend has been glorious. The end. Haha no but seriously it has been a little piece of wonderful. First, the horseback ride through the mountains on Friday. Then Saturday was our "free day". We took a boat tour in search of MONKEYS!!! and other animals/birds of water down el Cane Negro that reaches the Nicaraguan border. Our journey began with a 5am wakeup call, a 3 hour car ride to the river, and a successful boat ride. We saw howler monkeys, spider monkeys, white-faced monkeys and the "light haired" monkey (apparently a very rare monkey). We also saw "caimanes" (or crocodiles) and many, many birds (my favorite being the kingfisher). Our tour guide, Dauren, brought lunch for us on the boat form a nearby restaurant with actual dishes and silverware and a table with a was just precious! We had this huge boat all to ourselves and it was so fun! Then we went to the teeny town of Fortuna to visit Geovany's Parque Natural, which was "Natalia-friendly" ;) since it had nice clear and snake-free dirt trails with many gorgeous flowers among all the trees. After that we did some souvenir shopping, had dinner and crashed when we got home. Today I went bird watching with Aliza before Kat and I went to Mass in the lovely church in Monterrey. I have to mention that the homily was great! However it was a bit comical that there was a tiny chihuahua running around the open-doored church during mass and no one thought it was strange at all..! haha It was actually quite funny because Kat and I had to walk from church to the "Super Christian" (the town grocery store) and find a "ride" (what they call taxi rides) back to Leaves and Lizards or else we'd have to hike up 3 km of rocky roads..luckily we found one and just spent the afternoon packing. It's our last night here in Costa Rica--a little bitter sweet, but all in all I can say it was a satisfying and happy week..totally worth the "Murphy's Law" ailments..ha! ;)

Winding down

The work here is definitely winding down, and while we still have some final loose ends to finish, energy levels are sometimes low, and so we all need a break.  While the girls went horseback riding for their break, Nick had some well-needed rest, and Rich and I went over the data thus far.  Things look good.  The first major discovery may be Nick's finding of a new Azteca form (still pending examination under the microscopes in the lab).  Though his blog entry might seem more calm, this is a great find.

Several pieces of data from the bird and habitat studies have become quite important as well.  Unlike last year, we are finding quite (through Aliza's work) a few bird species breeding on the property, and so we plan to add the locations to the map soon.  From Natalia's work on photopoints, it is evident that the vegetation has grown significantly from last year, with the teaks quadrupling in size, and much of the mixed forest filling in.  This is a good sign for Steve and Debbie's work on reforestation, and the changes are immediately evident from the research.

Posting to the blog may be limited tomorrow--the students will have their free day, and we plan to travel the Cano Negro river with a guide. This will be a switch from the original free day planned for Sunday, but nicely gives them a chance to go to Sunday mass in Monterrey rather than Saturday night.  Finishing touches on the research will fill the rest of Sunday, and then the packing and travel will begin.  Watch for more news here on any  last-minute discoveries....
I've just published all the panoramic photos, and they have been aligned (as best as is possible). Just go to the main menu and go to the panoramas page, and click on one of the thumbnails. This will display the photo comparison program which lets you fade from one year to another. You can also select different locations.

The red lines on the left and right edges mark North. I will make this more explicit in the descriptive text when I get back.

Not much other news: I've taken lots of photos for PhotoSynth, but it isn't practical to do process these until we're back (Microsoft in their wisdom wrote PhotoSynth so that it only processes when online).  Oh, and another big rock/lava fall on the north side of Arenal visible (and audible) from the cabins. Two in one week. Activity does seem to be swinging around to the north side.

Your field assistant's glamorous day

Oh my, my rear end is quite sore.  I spent the morning literally galloping around in fields on a horse and then took a plunge into a gorgeous pool at the foot of a waterfall in the middle of the rainforest.  I made my glamor-quota for the trip!  I was getting worried, actually, since I've mostly been (happily) mucking around in the mud like a Monty Python peasant.

Next week I am very blessed to be able to stay in Costa Rica.  Debbi knows a man named Alvaro who runs an animal rehabilitation center.  I get to go help out for the week.  They have arranged a home-stay and I'll be in charge of creating some interpretive guidebooks and explanations for visitors.  It should be a lot of fun and I'll try to continue the blog while I'm there.  I spoke to Alvaro on the phone today and his first words are, "Hello Katheryn, we are waiting for you!"  He  probably didn't intend to sound creepy and was aiming for enthusiastic.

Kaieteur Spirited Away!!!

Well there was no new changes to the hummingbird nests today unfortunately. It's been doing pretty much the same thing. However, we've seen some new birds. It was unbelievable and fun. After breakfast I did three things that I have never really done before in my life. Well not too well anyway. I horseback rode an amazing horse named Bomberro and I horseback rode a hiking trail andddd I swam in a waterfall. It was soooo much fun. It was great. However tiring but it was great. Everyone was feeling a bit better today but still a little off but it's been a great day and I think everyone has really enjoyed today. Oh wait. I forgot. We recorded 15 birds nest on the GPS which is pretty amazing for birds including the Green breasted mango, Squirrel Cuckoo and many many more. We still have a few left to do. But it's gonna be great. I am so exhausted but I am so happy for tomorrow. Until then, Esta Pura Vida y Adios. 

El Dorado

Today I found El the barn! Haha This morning Aliza, Kat, and I went on a 4 HOUR horseback riding tour in the mountainous rain forest...annd it was GREAT! It was most def my favorite activity I have done here in Costa Rica. We started at the Leaves and Lizards resort and rode to this hidden water fall through some forest areas and some open grass areas. At first I was under the impression that Dorado was just a theraputic horse for children to ride, but later on Debbie--one of the owners of Leaves and Lizards--told me that Dorado was a barrel racing I took advantage of that. As soon as my non-chalant attitude changed, Dorado became loads more spirited and even felt confident enough with me on him to run pretty fast and far in the open grass trails. It was unbelievably cool! I wish I had ridden everyday and could continue riding everyday..even though I'm super sore already, ha!

New Ant?

Today I woke up sore and groggy from all the wasp and ant bites yesterday. So I rested from 9 until 1. During this period I sorted and identified ants. A vial of Azteca sp. I compared to the various described Azteca of Costa Rica. I didn't really match any of the species and could possibly be a new form or even species. This is very exciting, and when back in Dallas I'll further examine the ants. Hopefully it is something new. 

Challenges of collecting data

One of the most difficult realizations a student in a tropical field course encounters is that data collection presents challenges unlike those seen in a lab.  For the bird work, long periods of time are spent hiking to and standing at a single point to identify everything that flies by, all the while trying to ignore the mosquitoes and to watch your feet to make sure ants aren't around.  Collecting the habitat and abiotic data requires significant troubleshooting the equipment that is bound to fail at least twice, requiring repeated visits to the same place to collect the exact same data and gaining accuracy each time.  The insect data takes getting up close and personal with a group of organisms most people pay good money to avoid and eradicate, and exposing yourself to potential harm from the organisms you are trying hard to admire for their resilience.

On Day 3 of data collection, some of these challenges hit frequently and simultaneously, but the resolve held.  Although Nick had some stings, he found himself being congratulated for how strong he was by Carlos, our fellow guide who wields a machete like it is a part of his arm.  To be considered strong by a Tico who has faced worse is a high honor.  Similarly powerful is Natalia's ability to get out there each and every day and pull on her boots and wade through knee-high brush that she feared five days ago.  Aliza is gaining the respect of our guide who has led tours for nearly 20 years, and he's quite proud of the fact that he's helped to cultivate a new and excited birder. 

I'm quite proud of these guys, and am keeping an eye on or trying to avoid the stings, scrapes and big setbacks.  The students can be very pleased with what they've gotten out of the work, though, and for meeting these challenges head-on.

Our first panoramas are up!

We re-shot two of the panoramas this morning, and I've been working on data processing. Although there hasn't been any careful alignment with 2008's photos yet, we have two of of the 2009 panoramic photos up:

(the new panoramic photo view requires the Silverlight 2 plugin installing)

As you can see, the growth around Bird Point C is quite amazing. Look at the teak saplings in the distance, and the cabins (in 2008).

I should have all of the panoramic photos processed by tomorrow, and then I'll start aligning them. First impressions are that alignment is not as critical as I was fearing. (I am also starting to experiment with PhotoSynth - more news when I have something to show)

In other news, this has been quite an adventurous day but everyone else has covered that. The main message is that parents should not be worried!

(oh and there was a small explosion, well really a burp, from Arenal - unusual in that I was actually watching and saw it before the sound reached us)

Jumanji come Alive...

It was an awesome day. Starting pretty early may not have been very easy but once up I was ready to go. We finished all our bird counts early today and we've seen so many new amazing species of birds including alot of the bird nests that we're going to try to gps and put on the map tomorow. We saw a swallow nest, blue gray tanager nest and we finally saw the Cuckoo and it's baby. We also saw a baby Antshrike. It is awesome and just really great. The afternoon was spent hiking through the jungle practically and after a few slight scares because a my team members got hurt by stings and so on, it became a wonderful hike through undisturbed forest. We saw two snakes - a coral and another as well as a Manakin and Nun bird. They are sooo beautiful. Hiking through the Orlandos brought alive my Jumanji experience because I was just waiting for Anacondas or other really koooll animals but there were none unfortunately. Overall it was a great day with new wonderful experiences. Can't wait for tomorow. Until then, esta Pura Vida y adios.

Ant politics

I've decided that ant colonies are archetypal for certain undesirable human political systems.  Take leaf cutter ants for example.  The individuals function solely for the sake of the colony and each ant is entirely disposable.  The mechanism by which the colony functions is rather ingenious. These ants spend all their time transporting bits of leaves back to the colony where fungus then breaks the leaves down and excretes usable nutrients for the ants to feed upon.  The system is efficient, but Nick and I noticed that where the ants got tripped up by sticks and other barriers, there was inevitably a pile of leaves.  The ants would accidentally drop their leaf and continue marching back to the colony, clearly unconscious that the leaf was the point of the expedition.  Ants simply act as they are programmed to do.

I quite enjoy observing ants.  They put me in a good mood since I can congratulate myself on being human and reasonable.

Ants, Laurel, Wasps and Benadryl

Today began after breakfast at about 9 with a hike through the various forest patches on the property. Many new species of butterflies for the property were found, and an incredibly interesting ant species was found in some young laurels just outside of a forest patch. The ants build their colony out of what appears to be some sort of fungus, and they tend to scale bugs which they take out to the laurel to graze and guard the bugs and every inch of the laurel very aggressively. They have little satellite structures dotting the laurel that store different groups of scale bugs and contain no ant brood. After this at about 2:30 we went to a relatively undisturbed forest preserve nearby. It was a really interesting hike and everything was going well until I walked by a wasp colony and was stung several. That hurt quite a bit and was really startling. After this temporary setback we continued with the hike and saw lots of interesting animals and plants.We arrived back at the main house, and Debbie thankfully gave me Benadryl and Advil, which really helped. And now I must eat dinner.

a walk through the jungle

another trying day in the rain forest...apparently our whole team has fallen prey to "Murphy's Law".. today we ventured into the jungle and nick--our insect guy--got stung several times by angry wasps..we saw some pretty interesting creatures in the forest like the "blue jeans" frog and the "nun" bird. we also saw a snake--my biggest fear--and it made me cry..I know..a little wimpy, but it was seriously scary! thankfully we had our two trusty tour guides--Geovany and Carlos--who took the machete for protection..ha! anyway, my favorite part was when a hungry hummingbird flew straight at Dr. Brown and me and just barely missed us by centimeters when it realized we didn't look particularly appetizing :D sadly I'm still waiting to see a monkey..I don't even think my monkey calls bring them out to play..bummer. cross your fingers b/c I can't leave without seeing a cutie monkey!

Students doing a great job so far!


Just a quick note from me for this evening as I try to avoid the moths attracted to the computer LCD.  As may already be evident, the trip has been quite full of experiences, and perhaps it can be challenging at times for them to process everything completely.

I should mention that all of them have their own strengths that have contributed to the project.  Natalia, even as a non-biology major, has been game for all the fieldwork, and has overcome fears of dark spaces and hiding creatures.  She is doing a great job with our pilot study of soils, and is applying her skills to the photopoints.  Her side project is going to be a small orchid study, which we hope will yield a small orchid book for the property owner. 

Aliza has gone from knowing nothing about birds to processing huge amounts of information about Costa Rican species--even at times feeling comfortable enough to disagree with our guide on an identification.  She sat in the rain today watching the Green-breasted Mango hummingbird, and is diligent in her notetaking.

Nick has brought a whole new area to the research by examining butterfly and ant diversity.  In our first day here he had identified 30 different butterflies, and is now at nearly 50.  It is amazing to watch process of setting out tuna as bait, and bringing in the ants for identification.  He managed even through a sudden nosebleed (taken care of quickly) to net a new butterfly and to collect his ant traps.

Katheryn has been a great and energetic field assistant, and has worked with all the groups on data collection.  She has been especially effective during Nick's emergency, and has walked rough and steep roads to do the shopping for the group.  I'm very glad she's part of the team.

As for Rich and I, we feel this is a great project that has many more years of new discoveries.  We've had our fun watching the students learn, eating termites with them, and  find Costa Rica almost like coming home!

Yes we arrived here safe and sound. I'm sure everyone else has filled you in on what we've been up to. It is amazing how much has grown in the last 12 months. It should show up well in the panoramic photos. We have a smaller group this year but we've been making lots of progress. Natalia and myself have completed most of the panoramic photos although they need some formatting. I have also just updated the map with Nick's ant trap locations (marked with insect icons - I need to update the key when I get back), and a modified location for one bird point which we had to move due to fence/path changes.

The weather has been co-operative. Lots of rain but it is typical rainy season weather, arriving mid-afternoon. So we have some clear mornings, like the photo below of Arenal that I took this morning from our cabin.

It is quite common for strong winds across a prominent peak (eg. a volcano) to form a "cap" cloud or lenticular cloud (similar but above it), as the air is forced up, condenses, and then sinks again. Here we have the 'cap', but the hot steam from Crater D is being carried down the west (right) side of the volcano in the downdraft. Then when the downdraft stops, buoyancy takes over and we get the convection cloud on the right. And this has two lenticular clouds of its own above it!  A photograph for the meteorologists, I think!


We have also seen land slides (?active lava?) on the north east side for the first time - this was yesterday lunchtime in the grey area to the right. A large amount of rock fell and it almost reached the vegetation. This has become more common in the past year and many people think activity will switch to this side soon.

Your field assistant has accidentally become an amazon woman


Perhaps I shouldn't be allowed to make any descisions for myself while in tropical climates.  We were hiking up to the 1993 lava flow on Arenal Volcano and were mired in the middle of a thick patch of forest.  Our guide Donald bent down and poked at termite mound until the creatures swarmed up onto his hand.  Normally, I would have begun preparing myself for the inevitable.  Costa Rican guides like to shock Americans.  He held out his hand and said, "Have a termite."  Unfortunately, I said "Okay," and quickly consumed two!  It was as if my brain failed to receive and reject that proposition.  I think it must have hit my spinal chord and then bounced right back to my hand.Termites taste like wet earth, not carrots.  I would eat them if I was hungry.

Darwin is Right!

The entire Costa Rican experience is so amazing so far. It is impossible to summarize it all in one blog entry. Even though we either had no sleep or little sleep on Sunday, we all got here safe, encountering little to no problems.When we got here we travelled around a little visiting a few places - The Fortuna Park and the surrounding towns. We travelled through Monterey and arrived at Leaves and Lizards at about 6.00 pm, three of us having no idea the adventure that awaited us here. We all settled in comfortably and took an early night, even though sleeping was hard to do since we are all so excited. On Monday, every one got a lot of rough work and preparation for the rest of the week. It was amazing. Geovanni, Dr. Brown, and I discovered 56 species of birds and many of them were new from last year. On Monday as well, we hiked up Mount Arenal, the active volcanic mountain in the pouring rain. It was a refreshing experience. When we came down the Mountain, we watched it erupted. Mount Arenal is so magnificent. Tuesday was equally exciting. I discovered a Green Breasted Mango, a species of Hummingbird for my hummingbird study. Even though sitting in the scorching heat with many ants and bugs and dogs, it was well worth the experience. I learned a lot about the nesting habits of the Mango. One thing that was especially interesting about the Mango is not only it's territorial behavior when it is nesting but also the fact that the male Mango is the only parent that was observed so far incubating the young. We've seen so many new bird species from last year, including the Breasted Mango as well as nine plus species of hummingbirds and a few that can't come to mind right now. The rest of the experience is very refreshing and thrilling. Hiking through forests and encountering bugs, possible snakes and the RAINFALL is all an extremely wonderful experience. My Darwin experience - standing beneath this fully shaded tree and still getting wet from the rainfall. It is really intense. The Costa Rican food is amazing and some of the best I have had in a few months. Dr. Brown and Mr. Marsden have helped us so much and Steven and Debbie have been so hospitable to us as well as Madesia. Gotto go. Until next time, hasta la vista.

Trip Recap


Here's a  brief attempt to recap the first three days, take two. The trip has been incredibly exciting, and to research in the tropics is something I've always wanted to do. The experience has been better than I expected. Its easy even easy to wake up at 5:30 in the morning. This is something that I haven't said too often, if ever. The insect diversity is breathtaking, and its really a joy to be able to study the butteflies and ants of Leaves and Lizards. Ant baiting has been really interesting. It not only works as a sampling method, but its also a great way to observe ant behavior. One of the most amazing examples is of some trap-jawed looking ants in the genus Odontomachus. They are large impressive ants that come to feed off of the small ants feeding on the bait. We saw the volcano errupting and a great example of a habitat in restoration while hiking the Arenal lava flows. Well I need to leave now, but tomorrow I'll post some pictures.

hump day (i.e. day 4) in costa rica

We've been here 4 days, but hadn't been able to connect to the internet.. I am once again reminded of all the luxuries I take for granted living in the city..AC, internet, cell phones, fro-yo, walking outside without applying bug spray or putting on my wellies.. however, I do think I'd enjoy a quick holiday into the rain forest, or any non-urban area, for relaxation in the future. Since day 1 I keep picking up on many similarities between Costa Rica and the country side of Colombia (Chia, Zipaquira, etc.) and it makes me want to hop a plane and fly down to see my family in Bogota soooo badly! But when the "light" thunderstorm causes thunder and lightening strong enough to shake my cabin like an earthquake and you can smell the rain from INSIDE I do wish I was back in the city. I have been testing soils all week and hiking up and down the mountainous property taking photopoints with Mr. Marsden and I can say I've never had more dirt under my fingernails or such sore calves in my life, crazy! Today it was incredibly rainy so we only got to work in the morning..not that that is a problem seeing as we wake up with the sun and go to bed with the joke..5am to 8pm..mhmm. Okay, I must go for today because Aliza and Kat still have to jot their thoughts down.. P.S. look back to blogs from days 1-3 once they're posted to see how the first couple of days went :)

Just about packed

We're just about packed and ready. Within 12 hours we'll already be up and on the way to the airport.

As with last year, we'll have blog updates from everyone during the study period. We hope to have some other updates to the site - including the maps, and panoramic photos. Student reports will be posted after they return.

There is a strong chance that Leaves and Lizards won't have an Internet connection when we arrive on Sunday, so do not worry if blog posts are slow to restart. Service should be back by about Wednesday.

Students are ready

We will be leaving tomorrow, and I believe the students are ready.  They spent yesterday creating project protocols and a timetable for the five full days of data collection, and gathered their equipment.  Part of the course requirement is that they will need to take their equipment and all of the clothing they will need for eight days in one large backpack.  The hope is that in the course of planning they can be efficient in their packing and pare it down to the essentials.

Before tomorrow we will be posting the protocols and annotated bibliographies for some added technical background.  We hope to be able to post daily blog entries and photographs, pending having the ability to get online. 

For now, we can share a photo of what will be our first stop in Zarcero  The city is known for a topiary garden in Parque Francisco Alvarado adjacent to Iglesia de San Rafael.  The photo below is from Google Earth.


Building anticipation and excitment with Preparations.


We are in the middle of our last preparation for our trip for Costa Rica. I am really excited and kind of nervous, hoping everything I need to do gets finished properly and accurately. Today is pretty exciting because I had to wake up at 6 am to go bird watching with Dr. Brown and Natalia. It was a very good learning experience and I learned a lot about birds. I even remembered a few of the bird sounds, which I am happy about. Natalia learned a lot about testing the soil color and pH, which is good experience for her. I am a bit more confident about my preparations but still a bit unsure and nervous about what I need to do. In class today, we learned how to use the panoramic photos and designed our objectives and goals for the trip. We're currently working on our timetables, materials and datasheets. It is exciting. Hope all goes well. Also, I am so happy that my lab assistant and I have so much in common. She's so smart and pretty and interesting, I want to be her, even though she told me to say this to amuse her friends. HaHa. :P

Hi Marcy, Richard, Katheryn, Nick, Natalia and anyone else I don't know by name.

Best wishes on your upcoming visit to Costa Rica. May the rains be just enough, but not too much to rain out your work. May the volcano erupt just enough so you can say your seen that geologic excitement, but not enough to put a damper on your efforts. Students: ask Richard about the Wellie whanging competition.

Jim Varnum

A little something from the non-science major in the bunch...


So, day 3 of Field Ecology and I don't still feel like I'm going to fail, or worse, get eaten by snake...actually my newest fear is a fatal attack by army ants!
As the only non-science major in the bunch, it seems like I have plenty more preparations to do than my classmates. Nick, the "insect guy", and Aliza, the designated "bird watcher", are ready for action. After our first class on volcanoes, and then our second class on the habitat (which will be my project), I'm getting more eager to trek through the rain forest of Costa Rica.
Yesterday's class was about the project that I am in charge of: the Habitat. I think it will be interesting and refreshing seeing as I usually have my head buried in politics books rather than out observing the trees from which the paper came. My grandfather had a greenhouse and a fruit tree cultivation in Colombia so this is definitely a project I am somewhat familiar with and excited to head. This year we will be studying soils in addition to water and plants. In class we heard a detailed overview of different soils and their characteristics--who knew there were so many elements to dirt? (Just kidding..!)

The Preparations

The classes are now in full swing, and excitement for the trip is building. We've all been assigned to a specific niche to focus upon. Each aspect of research, habitat sampling, insects, and birds, are out. The first day of classes on volcanology was really cool. It gave a pretty exciting introduction to the dynamic environment of Arenal, and some pretty neat views should be instore.

Nick Kanakis

Mainly technical news from me today. This morning, Microsoft added a "Content Delivery Network" to their Virtual Earth maps. I've already updated the EcoMap Costa Rica maps to use this. The changes aren't noticeable here in Texas, but should be quicker for other parts of the world (Microsoft claim up to 80% faster).  Of course we have been using our own "Content Delivery Network" since April for the ASTER satellite image and the aerial photograph, so Microsoft are a bit slow in this department!!    (we are using Amazon's CloudFront service for these aerial photos, and the larger downloads such as student reports and the panoramic photos)

I've dusted off the camera attachments to take the panoramic photos. We will use the same procedure as before: Taking 16 photographs at 30deg intervals using a Panosaurus panoramic head, and a Canon EOS with 20mm lens.

This year we have the comparison tool (which I see Katheryn mentioned yesterday) that allows us to fade from one image to another. A big problem is going to be image alignment. Last year's images were marked with the "North" direction, so lateral alignment should be straightforward. Vertical (azimuth) alignment will be more difficult. Also we are going to have to be careful to choose the exact same spots. We have the coordinates (good to 6m), our memories, and printouts of last year's photos.

For the photography, I am also going to try Microsoft PhotoSynth. This is a sort of pseudo 3d photo technology. Here is an example of our back yard. It takes a bit of practice, and the back yard example could be done better. We may have a lot of trouble with the forest. PhotoSynth does not work well with lots of similar objects - so teak plantations are probably not going to work. I also suspect loreals are going to give trouble. However we could try creating a PhotoSynth for specific areas such as around the cabins, or around the main house. The limited back yard example took over 100 photos. Are there any snap-happy students who would like to help?

Your field assistant checking in


[I've copied Katheryn's comment into an proper blog entry as she intended - Richard]

My arduous task today was to post a blog regarding my thoughts as I prepare to return to Costa Rica in a few days. While assuring Dr. Brown of my great competence as a field assistant, I apparently can only figure out how to "comment" on preexisting posts and have no idea how to submit my own. Who knew that blogging could be so mysterious?

My thoughts? In class this morning as we went over the details of our reforestation project for the students, Dr. Brown pulled up a panoramic photograph of one of the bird-points. Having spent 10 minutes a day simply sitting at this particular point counting birds, I was not surprised to remember specific trees and plants. It will be interesting to note how each bird-point has changed over a year's time. I think we are going to take yearly panoramics of these set points.  Then, with our demonstrated technical expertise we will stick them in some sort of program that allows you to move a scroll bar and blend the images as the years progress.

 I was surprised that the picture conjured up more complex memories of smells you can almost taste, the chatter and sounds of colorful tropical animals and shockingly large insects, and the clammy feel of humidity under my ever-present poncho. I am excited!

I am currently resolving to find my poncho. As much as I despise sporting the garbage bag look, and as much as I dislike being trapped in my own Turkish bath, I would not want to be attacked by tropical rainstorms without it. We are practicing low-impact living, but in some cases it is best to keep a plastic barrier between oneself and nature.

Volcan Arenal Status

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This time next week, we'll probably be hiking across an old lava flow in the shadow (and earshot) of Arenal, so time to check the status:

Here is last week's entry from the Smithsonian's volcano pages:

6 May-12 May 2009

OVSICORI-UNA reported that during April activity originating from Arenal's Crater C consisted of gas emissions, sporadic Strombolian eruptions, and occasional avalanches that traveled down the SW, S, and N flanks. Acid rain and small amounts of ejected pyroclastic material affected the NE and SE flanks. Small avalanches of volcanic material traveled down several ravines. Crater D showed only fumarolic activity.

The new implementation of the Virtual Earth map that uses the MapCruncher-produced satellite image and aerial photograph, is now the default map:

The original MapServer/OpenLayers map continues to be available here:

None of the commercial map systems have sufficient coverage of the Leaves & Lizards property, so in 2008 I had to implement our own maps using MapServer and OpenLayers. In the past year it has become practical to create our own satellite tile layer using Microsoft MapCruncher. This has made a usable Virtual Earth map a practical proposition. Debbie at Leaves & Lizards supplied the aerial photograph which has also been included in the new Virtual Earth map.

9 days and we shall be at Leaves & Lizards for the 2009 field season...

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