Monday, February 22, 2016

A gift from the windstorm

Our hike was almost canceled due to wind. At breakfast on our first full day in Cuerici, we were told it was too windy to walk up in the oak forest. This was unsurprising news, since the wind was still blowing in violent gusts, just as it had been doing all night. The wind forecast was not looking promising for a hike for a few days, so our walk was put on hold. Luckily for us, by lunchtime the weather was surprisingly calm, and our hike was put back on the schedule for the afternoon.
            We headed up the mountain led by Don Carlos, the owner of Cuerici, who may also be Santa Claus’s younger Costa Rican brother. He would stop frequently to teach us about what we were seeing, and with Erika to translate,  it quickly became clear that Don Carlos knows a lot about his forest home. The beginning of the trail goes through 40 and 60 year old secondary forest that had been logged by Don Carlos’s grandfather. The forest was lush and green, but there were no oak trees, only the fast growing jaoul. People say that once you cut an oak forest, it never can come back. This is true if you are thinking about “never” in terms of a human lifespan. The oak forest won’t return in our lifetime or the lifetime of our grandchildren, but with hundreds of years, the mighty oaks can return.
            When we get into the primary oak forest, it is stunningly gorgeous and unlike any place I’ve seen before. The trees are tall and strong, with moss clinging to trunks and draping off branches, while bamboo and palms grow in the understory. The forest still needs some help though, since many of the palms that used to be abundant had been cut down. Don Carlos is working on restoration of these palms, and may be the only one who is doing a project like this.  He’s keeping track of what works and what doesn’t to help other people who may want to do similar restorations.
            The path continued to head upwards, and Don Carlos soon pointed out that we were around the transition area where the lower altitude species switch to the higher altitude species for the two species of oak and the two species of bamboo that grow in the forest.  He also passes around two different species of mosses that are growing in this area. The moss is important for collecting water, which I can tell it is very obviously good at from feeling the damp moss samples. One of the species is yellow and stringy, and Don Carlos tells us that people will harvest oak forests just for this moss. Erika made us guess what the moss was used for, and we guessed bedding, medicine, and water absorption before she told us it is used as fake hay for nativity scenes. In the past, they would cut down the whole oak to harvest this moss and use the tree for charcoal.
            As we stopped to talk a little farther up, I noticed that the sunlight was glowing through a very fine mist of water. The sun made the water seem golden and magical as it drifted down through the tall trees. Despite this image of the mist still in my head as we reached the mountain overlook, I was so surprised to see a rainbow arching over the peak. As we stood there looking for miles across the mountain range, the rainbow became clearer and I could just begin to make out a faint double rainbow right above the first.
            The forest was just as gorgeous on the way down, and Don Carlos continued to teach us, pointing out the bamboo that hasn’t flowered since 1992. It is common for bamboo to have long periods between flowerings, but no one was keeping track before the last flowering, so we don’t know when it will flower again. All the bamboo will flower at once when it does, even bamboo taken from the mountain that is now far away in greenhouses across the globe. After flowering, all the bamboo will die, making room for other understory plants to grow before new bamboo shoots up.
            Back at the station, a rainbow had followed us down, arching right over the roof of the smaller building, making the view from the porch even greater than normal. I suddenly realized that we had only seen the rainbow at the lookout because our hike was postponed. If we had gone in the morning, the sun would have been shining the other direction and any potential rainbows would have been on the other side of the mountain. The windstorm didn’t ruin our walk at all, it made it so much better with the gift of some rainbows.
Erin Gashott
Grinnell College

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The farm in the clouds

What is the stereotypical depiction of Costa Rica? Probably something close to a hot, buggy, humid rainforest full of monkeys, snakes, jaguars and other things from the jungle book. Definitely not trout farms, 45 degree temperatures or oak forests, right? Well Cuerici biological station, you can see all of these unlikely characteristics in the highlands of Costa Rica. 
About a week ago when we arrived at the station 2,600 meters above sea level, none of us knew what we were in for. We had traveled high enough into the highlands that the clouds were nearly at eye level. It was definitely a surprise and ended up being my favorite site of the trip so far. The site manager, Don Carlos, greeted us with a warm smile and unwavering hospitality. Nighttime was chilly, but that was combatted with the best hot chocolate this world has to offer and the coziest wood stove imaginable.
Our first day, we were supposed to head into the oak forest but were delayed due to a storm which posed a danger of falling branches. We did, however, get to walk with Don Carlos and see his trout farming operation as our teaching assistant, Jose-Antonio, translated. Don Carlos raises the trout to harvest for his family and also sells individuals and eggs to other farms. Prior to this encounter, I had no idea that rainbow trout could possibly survive anywhere in Central America; as it turns out, with higher elevation comes lower temperatures and the necessary dissolved oxygen that the delicate trout need. I was blown away by this sustainable system that provided income for the station and also food for Don Carlos and his family.  
The following day, the winds calmed down, allowing us to ascend on a hike with Don Carlos so he could show us how amazing the rest of the property was. We walked along a skinny little trail that progressed from newer secondary forest into primary forest, which looked like a place that Tarzan would call home. The view from the top was nothing short of exceptional. The clouds blocked our view of the pacific but provided us with a vibrant double rainbow cascading in front of the mountains.
On the way down we encountered a tropical oak forest. Don Carlos estimated that some of these towering oaks pushed 1000 years of age. He talked about how important it is that we preserve trees like this from loggers, who salivate at the site of the towering straight trunks. He explained that he was once a logger and now feels adamant about fighting against the practice after seeing the extent of damage first-hand. He explained that regulations for selective logging are not strict enough to be sustainable, and that changes must be put in place to prevent irreparable damage.
Later that night we had a fireside chat with Don Carlos and he went into further detail about his opinions regarding conservation and government involvement. He and some associates were able to found the Cuerici station with the goal of conserving the land that at one point served as a cattle pasture for Don Carlos’ Grandfather. The station is an extremely interesting case from a conservation-policy standpoint because it is entirely devoid of government involvement. The Cuerici association has the goal of creating a sustainable preserve of forest, allowing research groups to come and stay but avoiding tourist activity. This rare case proposes a system that I had never heard of before, and I wonder if it could be replicated in other areas. A frequent problem with government incentives to preserve and conserve private land in Costa Rica is that they do not provide enough income for the landowners, where other less environmentally friendly practices would. Here, Don Carlos is breaking the mold and creating a system built around sustainability from within the property while preserving the land. 
Peter Saunders
Providence College

To the Paramo!

On our first night in Cuerici I was sitting in lecture, learning about high altitude ecosystems. Most of the lecture centered around an ecosystem called the Pá​ramo, which is a high altitude ecosystem (3000 meters above sea level). It contains many shrubs and grasses, and has rapidly-changing and unpredictable weather. People normally imagine Costa Rica as this very hot and sunny place with temperatures always in the 80’s, but those sort of people may be in for quite a shock if they visited Cuerici and the Pá​ramo! The high altitude means it is colder than expected – around 40 degrees Fahrenheit most days - and not many plants can survive the extreme climate changes.  
            Our first visit to the Pá​ramo disproved any thought I ever had about Costa Rica always being sunny and warm. Upon arrival to our hiking spot, it was misting from the clouds moving over the top of the mountains. The mist itself was not terrible, but the added wind made conditions less than desirable. We all returned to the station freezing cold and wet, but our second visit went much differently. It was bright and sunny, cold with a light breeze, but not cold enough to require anything more than a long-sleeve shirt. No stormy mist to block the view of the valleys, mountains and Pacific Oceana much more enjoyable visit.
            Both visits to the Pá​ramo were extraordinary, sparking interest in how anything survives in such climates. As previously mentioned, the Pá​ramo consists mostly of shrubs and grasses. We saw some Poaceae (the bamboo family), Rubiceae (shockingly enough, the coffee family), and Asteraceae (the daisy family). If you visit, you’ll notice none of the plants are large growing plants, since being smaller helps protect against wind, and there are not many nutrients available, meaning larger plants have a much harder time surviving. In fact, the whole trip, we only saw two plants that were any higher than our waists!
            Out of all the adaptations, I find the one performed by flowers to be the most interesting. Some flowers found in the Pá​ramo will grow with the petals growing almost straight up. This helps reflect the light off the petals and into the center of the flower. Pollinators looking for heat amidst the cold will take shelter in the warm center of the flower, pollinating the flower in the process. The flower usually does not have much nectar to attract or offer to the pollinator, which makes this adaptation that much more interesting and sly. It’s almost as if the flower is falsely attracting the pollinator, since the normal pollination relationship involves an insect receiving nectar and the flower is pollinated. While the interaction is still mutualistic, since the pollinator still receives the benefit of warmth and the flowers pollen is still carried, it is different than the expected relationship.
            The Páramo is by far one of my favorite places we have visited so far, even the stormy weather was amazing to hike in, and I cannot wait to visit later. It showed that even tropical countries can be cold, even if it isn’t cold enough to snow. The plant adaptations demonstrate just what is needed to survive within a “tropical” climate, and just how variable the ecosystems can be across Costa Rica. 

Bridget Gross
College of Wooster