Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Feb 11 2017

In The Subduction Zone

Published by under Travel

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Subduction landscape along the Costanera Sur, vicinity of Quepos (photo by Kate St. John)

Reflections on a trip to Costa Rica, Jan 27-Feb 6, 2017:

One of the unusual features of Costa Rica’s landscape is the bumpy-looking surface in the subduction zone.  Pennsylvania has nothing like it.

Near Costa Rica’s Pacific shore the Cocos tectonic plate dives under the Carribean plate.  This slow but relentless movement causes ripples in the landscape with small stand-alone hills and pockets where the surface was dragged under. (Here’s a diagram of tectonic subduction.)

The photo above was taken in the subduction area on Route 34 near Quepos.  Below, I’ve marked light pink circles for each small hill and dark pink for the visible subsidence pockets among the grass.

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

Hilltops (light pink) and pockets (dark pink) in the subduciton zone near Quepos, Costa Rica (retouched photo by Kate St. John)

This isn’t a stable place to build anything.  Even the road has dips and ripples.

We don’t have a subduction zone in southwestern Pennsylvania but we know something about subsidence.  In Washington and Greene Counties, longwall mining machines remove the coal seam and then back out of the mine causing the roof and surface to collapse.  You can see its effect in the roller coaster appearance of Interstate 79 in Washington County.  Click here for DEP photos of longwall subsidence problems on Interstate 70 and here for a map of locations where longwall mining has undermined both I-70 and I-79.

Pennsylvania’s man-made subsidence has a cost.

 

(photos by Kate St. John)

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Feb 06 2017

Magnificent Butterflies

Mariposa morpho, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Blue morpho butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

While looking for birds in Costa Rica it’s impossible to ignore the magnificent butterflies.  Though February is a slow time for them there are many wonders to see.  Here are just three of Costa Rica’s 1,500 species.

The common blue morpho (Morpho peleides), pictured above, is one of 29 species in the Morpho genus.  Huge and beautiful with a wingspan of 5 to 8 inches, its color comes not from pigment but from the blue light reflected by its dorsal scales.  It hides from predators by closing its wings to show off its spotted brown ventral side (click here to see).  In the rainforest it flashes blue — on and off — as it flaps its wings.

The glasswinged butterfly (Greta oto) has no problem hiding since most of its 2.2 – 2.4 inch wingspan is transparent.  But does it need to hide?  Perhaps not.  Its caterpillar host plant is Cestrum, a member of the toxic nightshade family that probably makes these butterflies poisonous.

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Glasswinged butterfly, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

With an 8 inch wingspan the owl butterfly (Caligo memnon) is the largest in Costa Rica.  It earned its name from the large ventral spot that looks like an owl’s eye, perhaps reinforced by its crepuscular habits.   Its caterpillars feed on Heliconia and bananas, so this butterfly is sometimes considered an agricultural pest.  Alas!

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Owl butterfly (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Butterflies are most plentiful in Costa Rica during the rainy season, June to November, so I’ll have to come back later if I want to see more.

Goodbye, butterflies.  I’m flying home today.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Day 10: Fly home

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Feb 05 2017

It Started With Volcanoes

Published by under Travel

Turrialba Volcano erupting, 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Turrialba Volcano, erupting in 2014 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

100 million years ago, during the time of the dinosaurs, North and South America were far apart and Costa Rica didn’t exist.  Instead the oceans were connected by the Central American Seaway that flowed from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

North and South America approach each other. Water flows from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Central American Seaway (image linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

North and South America approach each other. Water flows from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Central American Seaway (image linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

 

The earth’s crust kept moving, as it still does today.  The North American Plate drifted close to South America and two smaller tectonic plates smashed into each other at the site of Costa Rica (center of the diagram below).  The Caribbean Plate still remains on top and the Cocos Plate continues to dive into the subduction zone.

Plate tectonics near Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Plate tectonics near Costa Rica (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Subduction zones are geologically active places with earthquakes and volcanoes.  They often create archipelagos like Japan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.  Costa Rica began as a group of volcanic islands but the plates kept approaching and accrued land around them.  Eventually a bridge formed at Panama 3 to 15 million years ago (the timing is disputed).

And then, three million years ago, mammals of all kinds began walking across the bridge from one continent to the other.  Llamas walked out of North America into South America where they live today.  Porcupines and armadillos walked north. The armadillos are still walking.

Today Costa Rica and Panama are narrow mountainous countries with enormous biodiversity for their size, not just because they’re in the tropics (where biodiversity is naturally high) but because they are the bridge, the mixing zone, where north meets south and both cross over.

Panama’s volcanoes are dormant but not so in Costa Rica.  Recent ash eruptions from Turrialba Volcano, pictured above, closed San José’s airport in January.

Costa Rica started with volcanoes.

 

(image credits:  Turrialba volcano and Central American plate tectonics from Wikimedia Commons; click on the images to see the originals.  Map of North and South America approaching each other is linked from Woods Hole Oceanus Magazine, April 2004)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte, return to San José

 

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Feb 04 2017

Silky Bird

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Long-tailed silky flycatcher, at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher at Cerro de la Muerte, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip to Costa Rica:

This bird with unusually silky feathers is only found in the mountains of Costa Rica and western Panama.

The long-tailed silky-flycatcher (Ptiliogonys caudatus) is one of four birds that used to be in the Waxwings’ family.   Like their former relatives, long-tailed silky-flycatchers eat fruit, flycatch for insects, and flock together in the non-breeding season.  They also have a fondness for mistletoe berries just like North America’s only Silky-flycatcher, the phainopepla.

This blurry photo from Wikimedia Commons gives you an idea of how easy it is to find a long-tailed silky-flycatcher if you’re in the right habitat.

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed silky-flycatcher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I think I’ll see one today.  We’re birding at Cerro de la Muerte where these photos were taken.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.)

Day 9:  Forest trails at Cerro de la Muerte

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Feb 03 2017

Tomorrow Should Be Resplendent

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent quetzal leaving nest hole (photo by Joseph C Boone via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’re traveling up-mountain to 7,000 feet above sea level to San Gerardo de Dota, the cloud forest home of the resplendent quetzal.  This legendary trogon is the national bird of Guatemala and a must-see species for birders visiting Costa Rica.

Resplendent quetzals (Pharomachrus mocinno) live in moist, cool, mountain rainforests from southern Mexico to Panama where they eat fruits in the avocado family.  Both sexes have iridescent green bodies but the male has a deep red breast, a helmet-like green crest, and a magnificent long green tail.

Their genus name, Pharomachrus, means long cloak and refers to the male’s “tail” which is actually four long upper tail covert feathers.  At 30+ inches, they can be three times the length of the male’s body — so long that when he enters the nest hole his tail remains outside.  In the photo above, a male is leaving the nest while his tail is still going in!

Legends of the resplendent quetzal date back to Mayan and Aztec cultures where he was considered the “god of the air” and a symbol of goodness and light.  In Guatemalan legend the quetzal guided Tecún Umán in his fight against the Spanish conquistadors.  When Tecún Umán died, the quetzal’s breast became red from his blood.  The quetzal is also a symbol of freedom because he could not be kept in captivity, dying so quickly in a cage.

And so tomorrow I will have my fingers crossed, hoping to see this resplendent bird.

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica (photo by Francesco Veronesi via Wikimedia Commons)

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 8: Traveling to San Gerardo de Dota

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Feb 02 2017

Be A Bird Sleuth

Published by under Quiz,Travel

Rufous-tailed jacamar, male (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Quiz: What bird is this? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Back in 2011 I made a bird identification quiz that featured this bird because it looks cool and I’d never seen it before.

Today I’m in Costa Rica within this bird’s home range.

Follow the link below to figure out what bird this is.

Quiz: Be a Bird Sleuth

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

(*) p.s. As I mentioned on Jan 27, I wrote this article before I left home so I couldn’t know if I’d see this bird.  I’ll let you know when I get back.

Day 7: Las Cruces Field Station

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Feb 01 2017

I’m A Woodpecker

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

Olivaceous piculet (photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Smaller than a golden-crowned kinglet this bird is actually a woodpecker!

His common name, piculet, is a double diminutive of the Latin word for woodpecker, picus.  He’s distinguished from 27 other “little-little-woodpeckers” by his olive color so he’s “olivaceous.”

The olivaceous piculet (Picumnus olivaceus) moves among the trees like a nuthatch, using his tiny bill to dig out and eat ants, termites, beetles, and cockroach eggs.

He lives in a wide variety of habitats from Guatemala to northwestern Peru and is a specialty at the Esquinas Rainforest Reserve where we spent the day yesterday.

Like the golden-crowned kinglet, his name is longer than his body.

 

(photo by Neil Orlando Diaz Martinez, Bogotá, Colombia via Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

Day 6: San Vito, Las Cruces Biological Station

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Jan 31 2017

Not Always Blue

This beautiful bird is a male red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) in breeding plumage in Costa Rica.  He’s not the same subspecies as those found in Espírito Santo (ES), Brazil.  (Alas, the beautiful video filmed at that location was deleted by the user.)

In southeastern Brazil the red-legged honeycreepers are members of the subspecies holti.  Their “type specimen,” the bird that defines them, is in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Back in 1940 when E. G. and M. L. Holt collected this bird in Espírito Santo, he wasn’t considered a separate subspecies.  Then in 1977, Kenneth Parkes determined that he is indeed unique and named him Cyanerpes cyaneus holti.   Field guides for southeastern Brazil refer back to this exact specimen at Carnegie Museum, placed here on his page in the Handbook of the Birds of the World.

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

Type specimen of Cyanerpes cyaneus holti, placed on his page in Handbook of the Birds of the World (photo by Kate St. John)

 

Red-legged honeycreepers are common in Costa Rica, too, (subspecies carneipes) so I was looking forward to seeing this stunning blue bird while I’m here. However, I’d read on the same page (above) in the Handbook of the Birds of the World that Costa Rican males molt from blue to green right after the breeding season:

“In Costa Rica, male acquires eclipse plumage mostly between about Jul and Oct, and for the last few months of year almost all adult males are in eclipse; males in some stage of greenish “transition” plumage present in every month except Mar–May, when breeding.”

Oh no! Not always blue? What if they are all green like this?

Fortunately the males are very blue right now. Whew!

 

(video by Fabricio Vasconcelos Costa on YouTube. Type specimen photo by Kate St. John)

Day 5: Esquinas Rainforest Reserve

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Jan 30 2017

Jacobins and Sabrewings

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

White-necked jacobin, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-necked jacobin, Costa Rica (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Hummingbirds!  Costa Rica has 50 species plus four extremely rare ones.  All of them are year round residents except for one:  our own ruby-throated hummingbird.

This makes it hard to pick two hummingbirds to highlight during my trip so I’ll go with two that have exotic names.

The white-necked jacobin (Florisuga mellivora) is a medium sized hummingbird that forages in wet lowlands and foothills to 3,300 feet.  As with other hummers his name is based on his appearance.  “White-necked” comes from his white neck patch.  “Jacobin” refers to his hood, similar to that of Dominican friars. (Click here to see.)

Why isn’t he called a “white-necked Dominican?”  Well, Jacobin was the French name for the Dominicans because their monastery was attached to the Church of Saint-Jacques in Paris.  Unfortunately a political movement wiped out that innocent meaning.  During the French Revolution a group of radicals met at the Dominican monastery to plan their Reign of Terror.  The Jacobins terrorized France from 1792 to 1794.

At six inches long the violet sabrewing (Campylopterus hemileucurus) is the largest hummingbird in Central America.  Common from 3,300 to 7,900 feet, some descend to lower elevations at this time of year.

Violet sabrewing, Costa Rica (photo by Sonja Pauen via Wikimedia Commons)

Violet sabrewing, Costa Rica (photo by Sonja Pauen via Wikimedia Commons)

Male violet sabrewings are very violet and though you can’t see his wings in this impressive photo, they’re the reason he’s called a “sabrewing.”   Cornell’s Neotropical Birds site explains:

In the male, the outermost primaries are thickened and somewhat flattened and are curved at an angle; this combination of features resembles a sabre.

There’s one cool thing about this bird that I’ll miss, even if I see one.  During the breeding season, which corresponds to the rainy season May to October, the males gather in leks of four to twelve birds to sing and attract the females.  Wow!

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 4: Hacienda Barú Wildlife Refuge

 

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Jan 29 2017

Monkeys And Macaws

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-headed capuchin monkey, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On a birding trip in Costa Rica:

Today we’ll be birding at Carara National Park on the Pacific Coast where I expect to see monkeys and the park’s most famous bird, the scarlet macaw.

Encountering monkeys in the wild is a new experience for me.  Because we humans are the only primates who live outside subtropical zones most of us only see primates in captivity.

At Carara we’re likely to see white-headed capuchins (Cebus capucinus), shown above. These diurnal monkeys are highly intelligent and very social, living in troops of about 16 individuals that are mostly female kin because the males move around.  White-headed capuchins love to use tools and are so smart that they can be trained in captivity to assist paraplegics.

If we hear an otherworldly roar like a dinosaur, it’ll be a mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata).  The howlers roar both day and night but can be hard to find.

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mantled howler monkey, howling in Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Click here to hear the howl while a woman searches for the source. Perhaps they “sound like dinosaurs” because the foley editors used howler voices in Jurassic Park.

 

Today’s highlight, though, will be the beautiful wild scarlet macaws (Ara macao).

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet macaw in Puntarenas Province, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These huge members of the parrot family have a wide range — from Central to South America — but they need a lot of territory that’s remote from humans in order to survive.  Carara provides that space.

I hope to see scarlet macaws flying, as in the photo below.  I’ve seen green-winged macaws (Ara chloropterus) in free flight at the National Aviary but seeing scarlets — and in the wild — will be a real treat.

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Scarlet macaws in flight, Costa Rica (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

 

And for those of you who love reptiles, there’s a bonus.  Carara National Park has American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus).  No, they are not alligators. Click here to see.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

Day 3: Carara National Park

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