Postcards from Costa Rica

San Jose, Friday, January 20, 1995

I've always wanted to see a Quetzal, but that wish became a longing last year after I read a book called Bird of Life, Bird of Death: A Political Ornithology of Central America by Jonathan Evan Maslow. Maslow's book recounts his travels through Guatemala in the mid-80s searching for the Resplendent Quetzal, the bird of life, but finding mostly the Black Vulture, the bird of death, in that violent and impoverished country. He describes the lure of the Quetzal:
A bird of such incredible beauty that for two hundred years European naturalists thought it must be the fabrication of American aborigines. A bird so sacred to the ancient Maya that to kill one was a capital crime. A bird so closely associated with its lofty home in the Central American cloud forests that as the forests vanished, so too did the bird. A bird that has been a symbol of liberty for several thousand years--not the shrill, defiant liberty of the eagle, but the serene and innocent liberty of the child at play.
The invading Spaniards described the people of Central America as preferring the plumes of the Quetzal to gold. Quetzal feathers were a precious trade item carried as far north as New Mexico and as far south as Peru. The liberty-loving birds could not be kept alive in captivity but males were captured briefly when their breeding plumage was at its peak and released unharmed but minus their long, shimmering green-turquoise tail plumes. For hundreds of years after the Spanish conquest, killing a Quetzal remained a capital crime, but in the 1980s Maslow heard of Guatemalan boys using them as practice targets for their slingshots. In theory, Quetzals are protected, especially in Guatemala, where they are the national symbol, but in fact their cloud forests are disappearing so rapidly that the Quetzal may have gone extinct in Guatemala during the decade since Maslow was there. (He managed to see a few Quetzals in a preserve owned by a private university. He wrote of being told that a Quetzal had appeared in full plumage at a memorial service for the man who had founded that preserve and who was later gunned down in the street by a death squad.)

Now, at last, we are on our way to one of the remaining cloud forests to see Quetzals. We spent last night at a hotel at Newark Airport in order to catch a very early flight to Miami, which left on time despite the heavy wintry fog. Sitting in the departure lounge, we chatted with a man who was on his way to Costa Rica for wind-surfing. He seemed surprised that we didn't know that Lake Arenal is one of the wind-surfing hotspots of the world. We, too, hope to visit Lake Arenal, but I doubt we'll be wind-surfing.

The flight from Miami to San Jose, Costa Rica, left late because of a couple who insisted upon getting off the plane after the doors had been armed. (They said they had been on the previous leg of the flight and had come back on board to pick up a very large bag they had "forgotten". We suspected this was a ploy to avoid taking that bag through Customs.)

I whiled the two flights away reading John McPhee's La Place de la Concorde Suisse, the story of the weeks he spent with a Section de Renseignements of the Swiss Army, going on patrol with them while they gathered intelligence on putative invaders of Switzerland. The Swiss Army has a strong rule that troops on patrol are not allowed to enter public restaurants, but this patrol couldn't pass by one restaurant high on a mountainside; they parked their rifles in the umbrella rack and ordered fondue:

From Birgisch, as this village is called, the patrol is to return with an aerial sketch of the valley environs of Brig. Pierre Gabus looks out the window and draws one, deftly.

Fondue arrives--authoritative with kirsch and bubbling with the Fendant of Valais. An alcohol flame spreads flat on the bottom of the pot, browning the edges of the cheese inside. There is a transition from beer to wine. Massy pours....

Long forks are flying. The fondue is surpassingly good. Four new customers have taken seats at a nearby table. They see the situation and are obviously amused. They are men, dressed in wool shirts, and are stopping in from work--farmers probably, at any rate civilians, but, of course, they are also in the army. They laugh. They jeer. They exhibit a mixture of mockery and empathy. When Massy lifts the transceiver and reads off a set of numbers, they moo in unison, helping the command post to imagine a bucolic scene.


"La gare de Brigue a ete detruite par les saboteurs."


"A battalion of enemy motorized fusiliers has landed in the plain of the Rhone between Turtmann and the river."

"Compris! Compris! Moooo."

Massy holds the transceiver even higher, turns it upside down, and stirs the fondue with the antenna. He wipes it off and calls in another message: "A peasant in Oberwald has seen four armoured cars coming out of St. Niklaus and heading for the valley."

Our first view of Costa Rica was of the high central valley surrounded on both sides by brown denuded mountains. The sight of mountains without trees always chills me; I never got used to it in Scotland.

We got a good long look at the countryside, as the pilot aborted his first landing attempt quite close to the ground and circled to wait for the wind to die down. The second landing attempt succeeded and we were soon going through a curious ritual at Budget Rent-A-Car, inspecting a car and marking all its nicks and dents on a diagram in conjunction with a man from Budget, so there will be no dispute when we turn the car back in.

Driving into the city, we had jagged mountains on both sides. The sun was bright and hot, and the tradewinds that had made the landing difficult had become a pleasant breeze. Traffic was heavy, with lots of buses and lots of bus companies. Finding our hotel got easier once we figured out that the even-numbered streets are on one side of the city; the odd, on the other. The streets are narrow and filled with honking, but very clean.

The hotel is quite comfortable; the flowers in its lobby are voluptuous. We immediately unpacked our binoculars and bird book and headed for a couple of nearby parks. These were quite lovely, with old carved stone benches and walls and monuments and elaborate plantings that seemed to thrive despite the heavy exhaust fumes from the surrounding traffic. In the first park, we watched Great-tailed Grackles feeding their nestlings. We thought at first that there must be some sort of parrot there, too, but the parrot-like cries we were hearing were just one of the many calls of the Grackles.

In the second park, there were fruiting trees full of Great Kiskadees (large yellow-breasted flycatchers with rufous backs and black-and-white striped heads) and little Cerulean Warblers (the males blue-grey with white breasts and the females warbler-colored, i.e., olive backs and pale yellow breasts). We also found one small completely red bird and spent a long while trying to photograph it and identify it. How hard could it be to identify a completely red bird sitting still in bright sunshine? It was brick-red like an Hepatic Tanager is supposed to be, not rose-red like a Summer Tanager, but the bill was definitely pale, which indicates the latter. All the while, there were noisy flocks of small parrots flying overhead but never sitting still to let us get a good look at them.

After a nap, we had dinner at an Italian restaurant. We sat in front of an open doorway, enjoying the equable climate and the passing crowds. As the shops across the street closed for the night, people came out and wet-mopped the sidewalks in front.

Tomorrow night, we will be near the clouds.

Monteverde, Saturday, January 21, 1995

After a quick pass through the parks that yielded only grackles, we packed the car and headed down Avenida 1, which was festive with Saturday morning vendors and shoppers.

Despite there being very few traffic signs and despite our inability to translate many of the signs there are, Lee quickly got us onto the Inter-Americana headed north into the Tilaran Mountains. For miles outside the city, there were vendors of fruits and other foods seated along the highway in the hot sun. The countryside was fairly lush with plant life, but also brown and dry. After a couple of very hot hours, we reached the turnoff for Monteverde, which was slightly better marked than we had feared from reading the guide books.

The road up to Monteverde is only 32 kilometers, but it took us two hours to drive it. It is called a dirt road, but "rock road" would be a more accurate description. There are no ruts or potholes, but it is solid bumps. The bumps and the dust made it a rather tiring trip, but the views were refreshing. As soon as we started up the mountain, we could see our goal, the clouds settled on the very top, which looked cool and inviting. Almost all of the land below the clouds is deforested and brown and terraced by years of cow traffic.

The road zigzagged up the mountain, often revealing views out to the Bay of Nicoya, a large inlet from the Pacific Ocean. The air currents rising around the mountain were filled with vultures, mostly the Black Vulture, easily identified by its grey head and the white patches at the tips of its wings. There were also Turkey Vultures, with their bright red heads. We stopped at one point to watch one soar very near the road. It landed about 20 yards away to eat something it had found on the road, giving us a chance to photograph it. At another place where we stopped so that Lee could photograph the view down to the ocean, I noticed a hummingbird feeding high in a nearby tree and was surprised that there would be hummingbirds in such an arid place.

Lee's itinerary for our trip had included tentative plans to make two day trips down from Monteverde to the coast. By the time we were half way up the mountain, I was mentally negotiating that I would be willing to do one of the trips (preferably the one to the mangrove swamps), but only one of them. I was relieved a while later to hear him say that it didn't seem as though the day trips would be practical.

We finally reached Monteverde and quickly found our hotel. Monteverde was originally settled in the 1940s by five Costa Rican families "fleeing the rough-and-ready life of the gold-mining fields of nearby Guacimal". In 1951, eleven Quaker families from the United States came here after the men were freed from jail, where they had served sentences for resisting the Korean War draft. (Among Costa Rica's other attractions was the fact that it had recently abolished its army.) The Quakers bought 1500 hectares of land and began dairy farms and a cheese factory. They had the wisdom to decide to leave the highest third of their land, the cloud forest, undeveloped (in order to protect their watershed).

Some of them drove trucks here from Alabama; others simply flew to San Jose and drove from there, but it was an ordeal either way. The road we just drove was an oxcart path then; trucks had to be winched up it.

(The oxcart is one of the enduring symbols of Costa Rica. Traditionally, these are wooden carts with solid wood wheels. The carts, and especially the wheels, are painted in very bright geometric designs and flowers. Oddly, the yoke for the oxen passes over their horns, rather than over their chests. Though most Costa Ricans in Monteverde seem to have chosen the motorscooter as their favored transport, some of the Quaker farmers still deliver their milk to the cheese factory in brightly painted oxcarts. Nowadays, however, the oxcarts have rubber wheels and sometimes are drawn by horses.)

What we wanted most when we got to the hotel was a hot shower; that was followed immediately by a nap. But we woke in time to watch the splendid sunset. Our room has jalousied windows looking down to the Bay of Nicoya and the peninsula beyond it. Immediately in front of the window is a bed of white irises. Next comes a small lawn with a simple stone bench and then a bank of bright violet Bougainvilleas. Beyond that lay deep green forest, layers of blue hills, the shining Bay, the purple peninsula, and above that the orange sunset, shading to yellow, shading to deep blue. The sunset was raucous with the calls of Large-tailed Grackles settling in to their roost in the bank of pine trees planted between the hotel and the road to keep down the dust.

We watched the sunset until it had faded entirely and then had a pleasant dinner in the hotel diningroom. When we returned to our room, there was a small frog calling from a ginger plant just outside, but he was too well hidden for us to find.

Lying in bed reading Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence, I made Lee laugh out loud with this bit about a friend who was very late arriving from the airport:

He told me what had happened and, as usual with Bennett, it was all so unlikely that it had to be true. The plane had arrived on time, and the car he had reserved, a convertible, was waiting for him. The top was down, it was a glorious afternoon and Bennett, in an expansive mood, had lit a cigar before heading toward the autoroute. It had burned quickly, as cigars do when fanned by a strong breeze, and Bennett had tossed it away after twenty minutes. He became aware that passing motorists were waving to him, so in return he waved to them; how friendly the French have become, he thought. He was some miles up the autoroute before he realized that the back of the car was burning, set on fire by the discarded cigar butt that had lodged in the upholstery. With what he thought was tremendous presence of mind, he pulled on to the hard shoulder, stood up on the front seat, and urinated into the flames. And that was when the police had found him.

"They were terribly nice," he said, "but they thought it would be best if I brought the car back to the airport, and then the car rental people had a fit and wouldn't give me another one."

Tomorrow, we will look for Quetzals.

Monteverde, Sunday, January 22, 1995

Lee had arranged for us to go to the Monteverde Preserve this morning in a small group with a guide, so we got up and dressed as soon as the alarm went off. Only after we had wandered into the hotel's completely empty diningroom did we realize that he had set the alarm clock an hour ahead, so we spent some time roaming about the beautiful property and checking out the birds. The things in the dusty pines were definitely all grackles, except for some tiny yellow birds that were little more than streaks.

At breakfast, we sat in front of a window that looked out onto a garden of blooming ginger and other tropical plants. There was a hummingbird feeder there being visited by two different species of birds. This was my first ever good look at hummingbirds, and I had no hope of identifying these from among the almost fifty species in Birds of Costa Rica. However, we got an extremely good look at one of them, because it sat down to preen itself on a branch right by our window. We were amazed at the sight of its long tongue darting out from its long bill.

Our guide for the morning turned out to be Ian Watson, an irrepressible Belizean who lives to watch birds. He took us first to the Hummingbird Garden just outside the Preserve. It is an amazing place. The garden has several kinds of plants and bushes in bloom for attracting hummingbirds, as well as three feeders. The air was alive with hummingbirds, darting about, swerving to avoid people, shrieking at one another in their shrill little voices. One could stand inches away and apparently not disturb them at all. Ian kept calling out the species names--there were half a dozen different ones, as well as males and females of each--but I couldn't get my mind wrapped around them at first because they moved so quickly. We also watched two small non-hummingbirds, a Bananaquit and a Common Bush-Tanager, manage to get some of the sugar-water from the feeders.

I could have watched the hummingbirds forever, but Ian led us off to the preserve proper, to the El Camino Trail, where he started pointing out beautiful small birds all around us. The ones I remember: Tawny-capped Euphonia, Blue-hooded Euphonia, Collared Redstart, Slate-throated Redstart, Black-faced Solitaire, Gray-throated Leaftosser (yes, it was tossing leaves), Buff-fronted Quail-Dove, Streaked-headed Woodcreeper, Prong-billed Barbet, and Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher. Also a Pygmy Squirrel.

The forest around us was absolutely lovely rainforest, in many ways very reminiscent of that we visited in Queensland, but different for being at so much higher an elevation. It was misty and verdant, and there were epiphytes (ferns, mosses, orchids, bromeliads, etc.) swathing the trees. The trees included Strangler Figs and Fern Trees much like we'd seen in Australia. There were many flowers, mostly in reds and shaped to be pollinated by hummingbirds. Bright pink Impatiens were blooming all through the forest; they are a native here.

We hadn't gone far along the trail when Ian spotted the first sign of a Quetzal, an aguacatillo seed. The aguacatillo is a very large tree of the avocado family that bears small avocado-like fruits that Quetzals love. They swallow the fruits whole and then sit for a while to digest the fruit before regurgitating the seed. This seed looked much like a regular avocado seed, but slimmer (about 1.5 inches long by half an inch in diameter).

As the mist turned to rain, the trail became slippery, so Ian led us onto another trail that was completely surfaced, partly with rounds of wood topped by wire mesh and partly with concrete blocks. We'd never hiked on such a luxurious trail but could see that the surface did a good job of preventing trail erosion and the trail widening that happens when people try to avoid muddy places.

Soon we reached a place where Ian had promised us "there are always Quetzals", and he was right. There were Quetzals there, and they were indeed Resplendent in their breeding plumage.

The Quetzals are very quiet, and it takes some looking to see them. The first one pointed out to us was a female (the hembra or hen). She had come up behind us and was sitting quietly a few feet away in the mist. Pictures show the female to be green shading to brown, with a bright crimson underbelly and a black-and-white striped undertail. But much of a Quetzal's color is due to iridescence, and this one appeared to be violet where she "should" have been green.

After a few minutes, another female appeared quietly in the trees in front of us, and then finally, a male (the macho) flew in with its long train undulating behind it. The male is about 15 inches long from the tip of its yellow beak to the tip of its white undertail feathers. It has a brilliant red breast, and its head and back are what can only be described as Quetzal Green. In breeding season, it has also four long plumes of Quetzal Green that extend another 25 inches beyond the end of its regular tail feathers.

Photographs of Quetzals for the most part show Quetzal Green as being close to Emerald Green, but today this male was an incredible shimmer of turquoise-green that film probably can't capture. We watched him eat some aguacatillos and then settle to rest, keeping his back and his wonderful train turned toward us. While he was sitting, an Emerald Toucanet jumped onto the same branch, obviously disturbing the Quetzal and (luckily for us) causing him to fly to another perch much closer to us. He kept his back turned to us, so we got no glimpse of the crimson breast, but even so there was no doubt in our minds that people don't exaggerate when they say that this may be the most beautiful bird in the world.

I suppose I should tell you more about the Toucanet, too, since away from a Quetzal it would be an astounding bird. Maslow describes it:

The most curious bird of the mixed flock was the Emerald Toucanet, wrestling with some small fruit about thirty feet above ground level. The Emerald is one of the smaller members of the toucan family, well known in American zoos for their clownish curved bills and acrobatic eating methods.... The Toucanet's bill looked like a yellow-and-black-striped party nose tied onto its face. It swallowed by throwing its food into the air from the front end of its bill, tossing its head back, and catching the morsel in the deep part of its throat. Sometimes it missed.
The Toucanet we saw was about a foot long (including its bill), much smaller than our macho Quetzal, but that bill was formidable enough to disturb the Quetzal. The Toucanet was quite a handsome bird, mostly green with a blue throat and a chestnut tail. Ian tells us that Emerald Toucanets prey on Quetzal nests, eating both the eggs and the nestlings.

Another remarkable bird eating the aguacatillos while we watched for Quetzals was a Black Guan, a turkey-like, shiny-black bird with a blue face. It looked as though it should be a ground bird, but it got along quite well leaping from branch to branch high in the canopy.

We stood watching the Quetzals for quite a long time until Ian made us come away. As we walked up the beautiful trail toward the edge of the Preserve, I found that tears were streaming down my face. This bird is so beautiful and so near to being destroyed that it has become for me the symbol of all the destruction we are wreaking on the earth. I hadn't realized how badly I needed to see for myself that some of them still exist.

We returned to the hotel and had lunch with two delightful Englishmen, who shared our dismay on discovering that the plants outside the diningroom had all been chopped down and that the hummingbird feeder was gone. Ian had told me during the morning that the species we were most likely to see at that feeder were the Rufous-tailed and the Fork-tailed Emerald. I now managed to identify the pretty green-and-brown hummingbird forlornly searching for the feeder as a Rufous-tailed.

Our lunch companions have been in Costa Rica for three weeks searching for both birds and butterflies. They stayed for a while in a hacienda in the southern part of the country. On their first afternoon there, they went out birding and found themselves being approached by quite a tough-looking hombre carrying a machete. They were somewhat alarmed until they noticed that he was also carrying a copy of Birds of Costa Rica. He told them in Spanish to follow him, which they did, and he showed them many wonderful birds.

After lunch, Lee and I opted for another nap, but when we woke we quickly gathered up the binoculars and cameras and headed up the mountain to the Hummingbird Garden. We thought at first that the golden-furred animal hanging by its tail and drinking from one of the hummingbird feeders was a monkey, but then we could see that it was more marsupial. It turned out to be an Olingo, a member of the raccoon family. It allowed Lee to approach rather closely to take pictures, while I settled down to look at hummingbirds in the misty rain.

We stayed long enough for Lee to take many hummingbird pictures and me to feel that I had learned to recognize the male Violet Sabrewing (which is very large for a hummingbird, being about 6 inches long), the male and female Magenta-throated Woodstar (the smallest species here just now, about 3.5 inches), male and female Green-crowned Brilliants, and male and female Purple-throated Mountain-Gems. There are still several others that I haven't gotten into my head, and we are really enjoying the little Bananaquits, with their bright yellow bellies and perky black-and-white heads. They must wait until the hummingbirds splash some of the sugar-water, since a Bananaquit's beak won't fit into the openings in the feeders.

It is fascinating to watch the hummingbirds feed. Standing very close, one can see their tiny tongues dipping into the water. Most of them actually perch on the feeder, which allows one to get a "stop-action" view of them, but the little Woodstars hover, their wings a blur.

We stopped on the way back down, just at the edge of the cloud forest, to photograph a rainbow, and again to talk with a man who had Iowa license plates on his car that indicated he was from the Cedar Rapids area. (The road is so bad that people go slowly enough that it feels natural to decide to stop for a conversation.) The man from Iowa had sold all his property and driven the entire way here by himself, having a good many adventures along the way. He was in the midst of trying to get permission to move to Costa Rica for good, a process involving much paperwork.

We stopped, too, at Stella's Bakery to buy goodies for tomorrow's breakfast, but we got back to our room in time for the violet phase of the sunset, which comes before the gold. At the end, there was a green stripe between the gold and the blue for a short while.

At dinner, we were relieved to see that the hummingbird feeder had reappeared among new plantings and that a Rufous-tailed had found it.

Monteverde, Monday, January 23, 1995

We got up early, gobbled down some of Stella's lemon bars, drove up to the Preserve, and headed straight to the Quetzal spot. On the trail, we flushed a covey of pretty little Black-breasted Wood-Quails. We had the Quetzals all to ourselves for the first half hour. We stayed for a couple of hours, savoring their beauty and trying to photograph them. We saw at least three different males and several females. One male without a train sat nicely on an exposed, well-lit perch for a long while. We also got a good long look at a Black Guan, much nearer than yesterday. A hummingbird kept visiting a flowering vine right by us, but always fled as soon as we looked its way.

By the time we left the Quetzals, the rain was fairly heavy, so we spent a while in the shelter of the Hummingbird Garden, where we watched a male Green-crowned Brilliant defending one of the feeders against all challengers, and I finally recognized a Green Violet-Ear.

The shop by the garden belongs to a British couple who are well-known nature photographers. We visited their gallery and found many wonderful photographs, but not the perfect photograph of a Quetzal. They had done a very nice postcard of a Quetzal with an aguacatillo in its beak (looking much too large to be swallowed), but no prints were available. We were definitely tempted by their photograph of a Sunbittern in a defense posture flashing the "eye spots" on its wings, but some of their photographs of the local snakes would have guaranteed nightmares. We were delighted to find that the shop sold an annotated local birdlist compiled by one of the owners.

Our next stop was the used bookstore in the small neighboring town of Santa Elena. It is actually a combination bookstore, laundromat, and espresso bar, and it had some useful pamphlets about local wildlife.

We decided to try one of the two pizza places for lunch. The "pizza" had all the proper ingredients, was quite tasty, and was almost, but not quite, completely unlike pizza.

Another shop nearby had really lovely turned-wood bowls and plates. We had difficulty deciding which ones we liked best.

It was interesting to note as we walked through town that even though here, down below the clouds, it is dry enough for the road to be quite dusty, some types of trees manage to wring enough moisture from the air to keep the sidewalks beneath them wet. Thus, a forest here can keep itself in water, but without trees the land dries out.

I was eager to study our new birdlist for a while. It divides the area into several zones and shows which birds are common, fairly common, etc., in each zone. Our hotel is in Zone 2, which would be tropical forest if it weren't cleared, but which wouldn't really be rainforest, because it is below the clouds. The town is built at the top of a cliff; Zone 1 is below the cliff; the land is drier there, and the birds are quite different. Zone 3 is "The Triangle" area of the Preserve, all cloud-forest, and again the birds are quite different from those in Zone 2. The other four zones are mostly in non-public portions of the Preserve.

The hotel has its own private preserve and we'd not yet had a chance to explore its trails, so we spent part of the afternoon there looking for Zone 2 birds. It is a really lovely place. I think it is mostly old second-growth forest, but some of the trees are clearly ancient. There are many vines and some Strangler Figs but almost no epiphytes, because the forest is not moist enough to sustain them.

There were many birds, mostly hiding high in the canopy. We had barely entered the woods when Lee spotted what was probably a Blue-crowned Motmot, a bird I'm longing to see, which of course disappeared before he could tell me about it. We soon got to know Brown Jays, large, loud birds that protested our presence. In a lightly wooded area, we got to watch a flock of Yellow-throated Brush-Finches foraging. Nearby, there was an enormous squirrel with a tail that looked like chinchilla. In several places, we spotted processions of leaf-cutter ants, each ant carrying a piece of leaf much larger than itself. Coming out of a wooded area, we found the owner of the hotel inspecting the progress on a pond he is having built to attract more birds.

Late in the afternoon, there was a slide show at the Hummingbird Gallery. Every photograph was splendid, and we got a very good introduction to the amazing wildlife of the area. There were almost more pictures of gorgeous snakes swallowing hapless little creatures than I could endure. Those were capped by a stunning sequence of a hummingbird being attracted by the bright yellow of a pit viper, but discovering its mistake just in time to escape the outstretched jaws.

One really sad sequence showed Monteverde's famous (and very beautiful) Golden Toads, residents of the elfin forest high in the Preserve and found nowhere else. In fact, the nucleus of the Preserve was funded by the World Wildlife Fund in 1972 specifically to protect the Golden Toads. In 1988, 1500 of the toads gathered for their mating season; in 1989, only 1. Since then, none have been seen. Their decline seems to be tied to the worldwide decline in frog and toad populations. Other frogs and toads in the Preserve are growing scarcer, too, as are the snakes and birds that prey on them.

After the slide show, we spent a while longer in the Hummingbird Garden, and I got to learn the male and female Coppery-headed Emeralds. I asked a guide who was there why we've seen none of the female Violet Sabrewings and he said that the females are very shy and stay in the woods.

We stopped at Stella's to buy chocolate muffins for breakfast and then headed back to the hotel. The sunset this evening was misty and pastel, but very pretty. We had a pleasant dinner, after which there was another slide show, this time by Ian Watson, who filled us in on both the human history and the natural history of the area.

Ian still hopes that the Golden Toads are hibernating, but of course that hope is growing quite thin. He said that there are now about 250 pairs of Quetzals here, and they are doing well. Quetzals nest in rotted trees, usually enlarging a woodpecker hole. One danger of this is that the heavy tradewinds sometimes blow the nest trees over before the young are fledged. The naturalists at the Preserve are experimenting with nesting boxes for the Quetzals; last year five of the boxes produced young. Nest predation by weasels is a problem, but that is addressed by putting electrified wires around the base of each nest tree. Predation by the Toucanets is much harder to prevent. There is also some fear of pressure on the Quetzal population here because of the demand for Quetzal plumes in Guatemala. The naturalists have put radio collars on some of the Quetzals to study their dispersal to lower areas after the breeding season. They would like to expand the Preserve to protect some of those areas.

They are also working hard to bridge the gaps between various of the private preserves and national parks in order to provide a large enough contiguous area to assure that jaguars can breed successfully. Nobody really knows how much land a jaguar requires, and of course there must be a fairly good-sized population for long-term survival. (Jaguars are not the only cats in these forests; there are also pumas, margays, ocelots, and jaguarundis. Of course, there is essentially no chance that we'll see any of them. We do hope, however, to see some monkeys; there are Howler Monkeys, Spider Monkeys, and White-faced Capuchins in the Preserve.)

Ian spoke of the role of the Quaker settlers, comparing their lifestyle to that of the Amish. (This brought a protest from a Quaker in the audience that Quakers are very different from Amish.) It's clear that the Quakers here have benefitted their neighbors. The cheese factory they started is now a cooperative owned by the local farmers; it produces a substantial portion of Costa Rica's cheese. The Quakers have also worked at building a market for local handicrafts. We plan to visit their craft shop while we're here.

Another success story that Ian told was that of the Santa Elena Preserve, 310 hectares of pristine cloud forest on a very nearby mountain peak that belongs to the local high school. There was a plan to clear the land for use as a farm for teaching agriculture, but efforts by members of the community and several international organizations made it possible instead to convert the land into a community-owned preserve, which brings considerable revenue to the school and has allowed it to build a computer lab and other facilities.

He also mentioned that the climate (both temperature and moisture) is so constant in the cloud forests here that the trees have no growth rings, so one can't determine their age.

Monteverde, Tuesday, January 24, 1995

Our plan this morning was to get up early and head down to the hotel's preserve. When we were there yesterday, we found a viewing stand high on the side of a hill that should be good for seeing canopy birds. It was raining quite heavily when we woke, however, so we spent some time sitting at our window watching the clouds roll down the mountain into the valley below and otherwise lazed around for a couple of hours until the rain cleared.

I've been reading a book called Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman. It purports to be a collection of letters written by a very Anglophile, Cambridge-educated Indian to a woman who befriended him when he first entered British governmental service in India after leaving school. The letters continue for the rest of his life, as he rises to be an eminent judge and watches helplessly as the British lose power in India as the result of their wanton taxation and other follies:

Government training out here is rather apt to do this to all of us. To dry up our humanity, and block our outlook with files, so that unmoved we are able to look on those who starve for food, or for understanding, and feel that if such a thing does not come under Reference 23c, it must be quite inevitable and we can do nothing about it....

Meanwhile, New Delhi must be seen to be believed in the splendour of its marble pillars, its palatial buildings, its gardens and terraces.

When we did go out into the forest, we found almost no birds, other than the Brown Jays. The wind was so high that we could barely hear bird calls, so we gave up after a while and went to CASEM, the Quaker-founded artisans' cooperative. There we found some really lovely embroideries, mostly of birds. I got myself a reversible jacket with Quetzals on one side and hummingbirds on the other (after asking Lee how much 20,000 colones is and finding we could afford that). We left with a stack of gifts for friends and family, most with Quetzals embroidered on them.

At lunch in the hotel, we chatted with a young couple from California with whom we had seen our first Quetzals on Sunday morning. They were leaving Monteverde after lunch to "go bumpity-bump down the mountain" on their way to another part of Costa Rica, where they will do some white-water rafting. They had spent the morning at the nearby Ecological Farm and had been much luckier than we: "We saw a big yellow bird and a pretty blue one and a group of monkeys with a baby, and, oh yes, a male Quetzal sat a few yards away from us for quite a while. We thought of you." Sigh.

As the two Brits had also told us they'd had good birding at the Farm, we decided to head there for the afternoon. Walking to the Farm, we came upon a van stopped in the middle of the road and a bunch of German birders gazing raptly into the woods. When we stopped, they kindly pointed out the Blue-crowned Motmot they had spotted. That made the day for me!

This Motmot is a really lovely bird, closely related to the Rainbow Bee-Eaters that delighted us so in Australia. Although in Mexico the Blue-crowned Motmots have blue crowns, the race here is described as having "blue diadems". The birds are a shimmer of blue/green/gold and have red eyes and a long tail with two "racquets". (A racquet is a feather that extends beyond the other tail feathers and that has weak barbs except at the end; after the bird has preened these feathers for a while, the shafts become bare except for the bit at the end, which is shaped approximately like a tennis racquet. Milliners do the same thing to make hats with "stripped feathers"--it's very attractive in both cases.)

The "Farm" is basically another private preserve. Though its elevation is lower than that of our hotel's preserve, it seems to be right in the flow for the clouds going down the mountain, so it is closer to being a true rainforest and is quite beautiful.

Unfortunately, we had barely gotten onto the trail when the skies opened and heavy rain continued for almost an hour, during which we saw few birds. The surface of the trail was wet leaves over wet clay, so we both took several muddy falls, the most thrilling being a tandem slide along a portion of the trail cut into the side of the cliff, with a very long drop to one side. But the forest was so beautiful that it really didn't matter. We were all alone with some spectacular views of a deep river valley and beyond, down to the Bay. (Despite the rain, the sun shone brightly the whole time, so there were many rainbows.)

After the rain let up, we got a good close view of an Emerald Toucanet, sitting on a limb just a few feet above us. I'm having some difficulty not being judgmental about the Toucanets and their nest predation.

The trail dipped down along the wall of the cliff to cross a stream. It was a particularly moist area with big old moss-covered trees and shafts of sunlight spotlighting the banks of pink Impatiens among the ferns. Climbing up to the next ridge, we came to the "plantation" part of the Farm, a few acres on a south-facing slope planted in coffee bushes and banana trees intermixed. There were coffee berries spread out on the ground to dry, reeking of rancid coffee.

Up on the next ridge was a thicket of thorny berry bushes, where we played hide-and-seek with some little warblers who were careful not to let us get a good look. There was a side trail going to a waterfall, but after we saw how far down it was going (and thus how far back up we would have to climb), we decided to leave it for another time.

Back at the Farm's information center, we stopped to photograph a pet White-fronted Parrot eating seed on a window sill. The very friendly teen-aged girl working there took us to see the feeders on the ground at the edge of the woods. (It was a pleasure to see how her eyes lit up when she showed off "her" birds and identified them for us.)

Her birds were well worth showing off. The most beautiful were a pair of Gray-necked Wood-Rails, who looked as though they were made of velvet shaded from gray to rust. These are a Zone 1 bird, and she shyly told us that the first record of their being up on the cliff was here. They were timid, but by standing very quietly we got a good look at them.

In addition, there were an Ovenbird, a White-eared Ground Sparrow, and an Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush, all of which we had had little hope of seeing (though Ian had pointed out the call of one of the Nightingale-Thrushes deep in the woods at the Preserve).

She also showed us their hummingbird feeders but confessed that she is still learning the hummingbirds. We saw a male Violet Sabrewing and a Magenta-throated Woodstar. When the Woodstar first flew up, it seemed so small that I had a moment's hope that it might be a Scintillant, Costa Rica's smallest hummingbird (2.5 inches, 2 grams).

Also at the feeders was an Agouti. The Agouti is a member of the rodent family, about a foot tall, with a pointy face and alert eyes. Seeing it, the word that came to my mind was "Eohippus". My immediate impression was that this is what horses looked like very early in their evolution when they were no bigger than this. The word "agouti" took me back to my genetics courses; many animals have a coat-color gene called "agouti", named for the fur on this animal, which has ticks of different colors on each hair.

By the time we had hiked back up to the hotel, we were mostly dried out but awfully muddy. The hot shower felt just great. Our Birds of Costa Rica has become so water-logged that it may soon dissolve entirely (and it's becoming heavier every day). I've been studying some of Ian's adaptations to the rainforest. He carries what seems to be a booklet made up of only the color plates from Birds of Costa Rica, and they appear to have been laminated in plastic. I've noticed, too, that his binoculars have little attached rubber caps to protect the lenses from the rain. I intend to adopt both of these strategies for next time.

I talked briefly with Ian before dinner. He said we should easily find Long-tailed Mannikins in the hotel's preserve. (This Mannikin is one of the "cover birds" of Birds of Costa Rica, a rather spectacular Zone 2 bird, black with a bright blue back, a vivid red crest, and two thin black streamers extending way beyond its tail.) Ian also promised me a Keel-billed Toucan on the trip we'll be taking with him on Thursday. (I keep telling myself that I can't expect to see all 400 birds that have been recorded here in the few days we have, but I'm hating to miss so many of the "common" ones.)

We had planned to go down the street for dinner at a restaurant that had been particularly recommended to us, but we agreed unanimously that we were too tired to walk a whole block no matter how good the food was.

At dinner, we introduced ourselves to the man who had spoken up about Quakerism in the slide show last evening. He turned out to be the clerk of a new monthly meeting on Long Island. He had recently visited Lee's meeting in New Jersey (the Rahway and Plainfield Monthly Meeting), but nobody had told him the news about its having been moved from Rahway to Plainfield (in 1788), so he took the train to Rahway and then had an expensive cab ride.

We also chatted with the two nice Brits. When I asked them what their best experience has been here at Monteverde, they mentioned being at the Santa Elena Preserve during the rain this afternoon. Despite the wet, the forest had been alive with small birds. We commiserated with them over not being able to find a photograph that shows the true beauty of a Quetzal. We were amused that they, too, had concluded that the most common Quetzal postcard for sale here must be a picture of a stuffed bird set up in a tree. And one of them added, "with button eyes".

Monteverde, Wednesday, January 25, 1995

The weather had cleared when we woke this morning. The sign had said that the Ecological Farm opens at 7, so we were there at 7, ready to hike their trails again. However, nobody showed up to open the gate until 8. We've become accustomed enough to the pace of this place that that didn't bother us much at all. We just sat scanning for Motmots until a friendly man showed up and let us in.

There was also a Coatimundi waiting for him. This is another member of the raccoon family, grey-striped like a raccoon, but much bigger and fluffier. The man took out a jellyroll and began breaking it up in bits and throwing them on the ground, and the Coatimundi was delighted. I was standing watching it eat (and watching Lee take its picture) when I was startled by loud angry shrieks just behind me. Another Coatimundi was on the tin roof of the little information center and he was extremely displeased by this intrusion into his territory. He came down quickly and chased the intruder away. The man explained by gestures that the cut on the first one's face had been inflicted by the second one. Coatimundis seem to be rather cockatoo-like in both their voices and their personalities.

The trails were really pleasant this morning. Surprisingly, they were almost completely dried out and no longer slippery. Rainforests are incredibly efficient at recycling nutrients and water; water that runs off in streams is clear, not muddy, and the soil tends to be quite thin, as most of the nutrients are always tied up in plants.

The forest here is so rich and lovely! The trees are huge and draped with vines, and there are flowers everywhere. When we got to the cliff edge, the views out over the valley were even more dramatic than they were yesterday.

While we were stopped in the "plantation" to photograph some bananas, I watched a female Rufous-tailed hummingbird sipping nectar from the flowers of a fruiting palm. This was my first-ever occasion to identify a hummingbird in the wild!

Later, we saw a pretty little Wilson's Warbler (yellow and olive with a black cap). We have managed to see more "North American" warblers here than we've ever managed to do in North America. What a lovely place they have chosen to spend their winters, and how fragile their future is as a result!

Shortly after, I looked up to see a Black Vulture perched in a tree just above us, the closest look we've had at one of these very common birds.

Back at the information center, we watched the little Agouti for a while and hoped for another glimpse of the Wood-Rails, but they were not around.

We drove to the Farm this morning (we're both tired and ache a bit from all our falls yesterday), so on our way back to the hotel we stopped at the Gasolinera to get some gas. When Lee got out of the car, a small boy of about 5 or 6, with sparkling eyes and an engaging grin, leaned in and grabbed the steering wheel and stood there happily making automobile noises while pretending to drive.

After lunch, we headed back up to the Preserve to hike the River Trail. That is said to be the best place to see monkeys, and we are beginning to worry that we'll have to go home and tell our colleague Serge that we completely failed to see monkeys. (Before we left, he admonished us, in his primatologist persona, that we mustn't look just at birds, we must also look at monkeys.)

I also had a small hope that we might see a Kingfisher on this trail. (Kingfishers are called Martin Pescador, Martin the Fisherman, here.) And I was hoping we'd make it up to the "elfin forest" high in the Preserve, along the Continental Divide, where the Golden Toads once lived.

The early part of the trail goes through a flat area of second-growth forest. There we saw our first "mixed flock", a group of little birds of different species foraging together. Fortunately, it was quite a small flock; I don't think I could cope with one of the fabled mixed flocks of hundreds of birds from the forest floor to the canopy. Of this little flock, I did well to identify some Three-striped Warblers and a Common Bush-Tanager.

The trail was steep but beautifully laid out. There were even handrails in places. Lee posed me holding onto one of them as a souvenir for our friend A.J., a city boy who was surprised on his first hike in Vermont by the lack of handrails on the Appalachian Trail.

Part way up, we took a side trail to see a really lovely waterfall. The deep valley cut by the stream was filled with mist and green, one of the most verdant places we've ever been. As we stood watching the waterfall, a pretty little Collared Redstart was hopping about in the ferns on the bank behind us.

It's hard to describe how beautiful the River Trail was, as it climbed up and up along the wall of a valley. One looked out at canopy level to enormous old trees laden with epiphytes. The serenity of it all was twice jarred, however, by loud explosions, apparently somebody doing some blasting not far off.

Higher up the River Trail, we met a young American coming down who paused to chat. He reported that he had seen White-faced Capuchins up ahead, so we quickened our pace. Not long after, a couple of very serious young German birders caught up with us. They reported that they had talked to "the American" and that he had seen a Sunbittern. "He didn't tell us that!" "He didn't know what he had. He told us he had seen a bird fishing in the stream, so I opened the book to the right page and he pointed straight to the Sunbittern! He said he'd rather see a Toucan."

This Sunbittern is a rare and and very beautiful bird, "one of four small families ... that survive from a diverse and ancient stock in the Southern Hemisphere that was divided by continental drift". It is described in Birds of Costa Rica:

In display, often in agonistic context, the Sunbittern spreads its wings, with the richly colored upper surface tilted forward, and fans out its raised tail to fill the gap between them, thereby forming a semicircle of plumage, in the midst of which the head stands.... The upper surface of the wing is striking, with a "sun" pattern in chestnut, yellowish-buff, black, white, olive, and gray (revealed when the wings are spread).
However, the day was growing late and our legs were growing weak, so we had already decided to turn around. (We really should have allotted an entire day for this wonderful trail.) I graciously told the Germans that in case they shouldn't find this Sunbittern, Ian had mentioned to us that they can sometimes be spotted from the bridge by the cheese factory. They received that tip with the gratitude of inveterate "listers" out after a rare one and then charged on up the trail.

We had just barely started back down the trail when we began hearing loud bird calls nearby. It was inadvisible to run down such a trail, but we did, as quietly as we could manage, and arrived just in time to see a large bird fly away from a tree near the trail. I have no idea what it was. The calls were somewhat parrot-like, but I don't believe that any of the parrots here are that large. It was no doubt a Three-wattled Bellbird or an Orange-bellied Trogon or some other glorious bird we're longing to see. Drat!

When we were back down to the flat area near the beginning of the trail, we again heard loud bird calls nearby. They seemed to be coming from about 100 feet away in the woods and, oddly, to be coming from quite low in the trees. These woods have only light undergrowth, so we felt we should be able to see whatever it was, but we couldn't. We looked and looked and were soon joined by two young men who stood on the trail helping us peer. Finally, they couldn't stand it any longer and charged off into the woods, returning shortly with grins on their faces. The "bird" was a Coatimundi; it had just discovered that its favorite refuse container had a new latch that it was unable to open, and it was not pleased.

We couldn't pass by the Hummingbird Garden without stopping there, although I was so worn out that it was a struggle for me to climb the twenty or so steps. One of the feeders was dry; the Olingo had been there ahead of us. The American who didn't tell us about the Sunbittern was also there. He was very pleased when we showed him how to see the hummingbirds' tongues.

We gave him a lift back to his hotel in Santa Elena. He is leaving here in the morning without having seen a Quetzal ("I looked through the closed door of the shop at the Preserve and saw their stuffed one") and without having seen a Keel-billed Toucan. He was grateful when we stopped at Stella's on the way and introduced him to her brownies and cinnamon cookies--he'd been wondering how he was going to find something to eat before his 6am bus trip.

There was no consideration given to walking a block to dinner this evening, although we did take the time to look at the stars for a moment after dinner, before heading to bed and plotting our plans for tomorrow. "The American" told us that he had noticed the Capuchins only because he heard the sounds of their movement; they were quiet otherwise. I'd been thinking it wouldn't be hard to notice monkeys if there were any nearby. We'll have to try again tomorrow.

Monteverde, Thursday, January 26, 1995

Our goal this morning was the Santa Elena Preserve, the one established by the high school. We had the usual bumpy ride there through pastures. One advantage of travelling at that speed is that one can watch birds while driving along, especially if there are fence posts and fence wire for them to perch on all along the road. We got a good look at two Mountain Robins, a species we thought we were glimpsing in the hotel's preserve, and had the leisure to make sure they weren't actually Clay-colored Robins (which are Costa Rica's national bird).

As we approached the Santa Elena Preserve, we began noticing that the few big old trees in the pastures were dripping with epiphytes. This would be cloud forest if it hadn't been cleared. Indeed, there were ferns and mosses and even bromeliads growing on the wooden fenceposts.

We stopped outside the information center at the Preserve to photograph an exquisite spray of small white orchids growing there.

The trails at Santa Elena are excellent. What an incredible lot of work to haul the concrete blocks to line the trails! But it really seems to pay in preventing erosion.

Where the trail entered the Preserve was second-growth forest. There were a few big old Strangler Figs and other trees, as there are still in the pasture outside. All the rest of the trees were just about the same size (canopy tall but still thin), presumably because they had started growing at the same time. There were large numbers of vines and epiphytes, but not yet quite the richness of the real thing. A sign said Bosque de sucesion, Inicio de recuperacion 1977 ("second-growth forest, recuperation begun in 1977"). We were amazed that so much could have been recovered so quickly. Of course, this is right at the edge of a large, extremely rich forest. Ian says that bats play the most important role in quickly spreading seeds to lands that are being allowed to "recuperate".

Once we were in the older forest, we could see that it was the richest, moistest forest we've ever been in. This is the image that the word "jungle" conveys. Even the bamboos were covered with mosses, and the air was thick with air roots and vines. It was all incredibly green and lush, and there were "house plants" everywhere--philodendrons climbing up big old trees to reach for the sky.

There were a good many little birds cavorting so high in the canopy that we got dizzy watching them. Coming around a bend in the trail, we surprised a Highland Tinamou, a handsome cinnamon-colored ground bird, about 15 inches tall. It scuttled into the woods, but not before we got a good look.

Further up the trail, we came to a place where a very large old tree had blown over recently, taking down several other trees and lots of vines as it crashed to the ground. We could see that somebody has begun sawing the trunk crosswise to make more rounds for surfacing the trail, but they have a big job left to do.

The trail ascended along a ridge. Looking down, we could see blue sky on two sides, but still we were in the midst of a jungle. We reached a lookout that had a sign saying the elevation was 5606 feet, and all around were fern trees and bamboos and butterflies and flowers that were clearly designed for hummingbirds--not our traditional image of a mountaintop. From the lookout we could see Monteverde, its mountain clearly higher than this one. On the rare really clear day, one is also said to be able to see the Arenal volcano from here.

The trail continued through very thick forest, though the ridge was only about 20 feet wide. The next lookout faced the other direction, toward the Bay of Nicoya and was right on the Continental Divide. I looked up into a big tree just above us and saw a hummingbird sipping nectar from the pale pink flowers of a kind of fuschia growing as an epiphyte on the tree.

The hike down was equally lovely, pure delight. When we got down to the parking area, I watched a Collared Redstart from very near, and then chuckled over a little boy of about 3 holding a stick for a handlebar and making completely realistic motorscooter noises as he zipped around the parking area, with his little sister, in her lacy pink dress, coming right after him but not so expertly.

Driving back through the pastures, we stopped to inspect two "warblers" that turned out not to be warblers. They were warbler-colored (yellow breasts and olive backs) but had pronounced finch beaks, which we both got a good look at. We suspect that they were female Painted Buntings. Painted Buntings do winter in Costa Rica, mostly on the Pacific slope, but they aren't listed in the Monteverde bird list.

After lunch at the hotel, seated right by the hummingbird feeder, we headed off to Arenal. The party consisted of Ian, Lee and me, and a friendly (and very good) driver. We went in a big four-wheel-drive vehicle belonging to the hotel.

The trip took us northwest through high plateau country with rolling hills. We went through a few small towns, but it was mostly farms. Almost every farmhouse had a few milkcans standing out front waiting to be picked up by the truck from the cheese factory. We passed a man on horseback with several large bags of coffee berries slung across the horse's back, heading to the coffee processing cooperative and then we passed the cooperative itself, where we could see several men raking the berries on a concrete platform. We passed a sawmill where two men were pulling a big saw back and forth to cut an enormous old tree into rounds.

Ian had promised us birding along the way, and the birding was quite good. The first bird I spotted was big and yellow and sitting on a fencepost; I think it was an Eastern Meadowlark, but I hadn't the Spanish to ask the driver to stop, so it got away. Shortly after that, Ian pointed out a flock of Smooth-billed Anis foraging alongside the road. We saw several Scarlet-rumped Tanagers, spectacular black birds with bright red backs. A flock of White-winged Doves nicely flew about to let us see the white crescents on their brown wings. There were also several different flycatchers, coming in such rapid succession that I couldn't get my mind wrapped around them.

The road varied from the rock roads we've become accustomed to, to nice paved highway, but because of rainy-season washouts, the paving was here and there non-existent or reduced to massive potholes, so the "paved" road was more difficult to drive than the rock road and was the reason the trip requires a four-wheel drive. There were a couple of Black Vultures sitting at the edge of the road right by one of the worst of the washouts, as though they were waiting for someone to take that stretch of the road too fast.

After a couple of hours, we reached Lake Arenal, a huge artificial lake built in the 1980s. I can indeed report that there were many wind-surfers there. More important to us, when we got near the lake we had our first good view of the Arenal volcano. It was really a sight! It is an absolutely classic volcano, a perfect cone. From that distance, it appeared to be a pale lavender, and there was steam coming out the top. (It has been active continuously since 1968, when it had its first recorded eruption, which generated large lava flows and killed dozens of people.) We stopped to take in the view, and as we watched there was an explosion that sent up a big puff of smoke.

We came to a place where traffic was stopped and discovered to our delight that it was because of a Howler Monkey crossing the road. We watched as it crossed the road and then climbed up a vertical bank by using the grass as handholds. As we drew alongside, the monkey was walking along the top of the bank and Lee was on the car floor aiming his camera up to get a picture and Ian was exclaiming, "A monkey on the ground!". The Howler was dark brown all over and larger than I had expected.

We stopped again on the dam that formed the lake. There were dozens of Black Swifts swooping about quite low to the ground. Off in the woods, we could hear a troupe of Howler Monkeys (yes, they were howling).

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Tabacan, which is a resort built around the hot springs that flow from the volcano. Ian took us into an elegant restaurant (I was severely underdressed in my muddy bluejeans) where the entire staff greeted him with obvious delight. We were shown to the best table in the place, immediately in front of an open archway that perfectly framed our view of the volcano. (Our chairs were about 3 kilometers from the top of the volcano, as the asbestos crow flies.)

Lee immediately set up his tripod and cameras and began taking pictures, while Ian went off to deliver small Monteverde cheeses to all of his friends. We had been there only a few minutes when we heard the sound of an enormous explosion and we finally realized what the "blasting" we heard yesterday at the Preserve had actually been. (The trail we were hiking was about 30 kilometers from the volcano.)

With our binoculars, we could see that the trails of smoke wending their way down the volcano were caused by large boulders that had been ejected and were bouncing down the cinder cone. It wasn't easy to gauge the size of the volcano and the boulders, but it became clear from the fact that the boulders seemed to be falling slowly that the scale was larger than our minds were prepared for.

After a while, Ian returned and shared a nice Monteverde Edam with us and pointed out the birds in the gardens below the archway, which we had barely glanced at until then. Channels of steaming water ran through bright green lawns, which were bordered with lavish blossoms of tropical flowers. Golden-bellied Flycatchers were dashing gaily over the lawns and flowering bushes. (These are very much like the Great Kiskadees we saw in San Jose, but smaller and with less rufous in their wings.) Beyond the beautiful manicured gardens, there were some green woods that stopped at the base of the volcano, which was covered with gray ash.

Somehow, the garden and the pretty white archway framing the volcano made it seem surreal. We weren't frightened, even when there was another very loud explosion, nor later when the light began fading and we could see that those boulders were actually red hot.

When the time came to order dinner, we chose a traditional Costa Rican Casado, a delicious meal of stir-fried beef with peppers, rice, and refried beans. Ian suggested a traditional Costa Rican dessert, Arroz con Leche, a very nice rice pudding with lots of cinnamon. (To show his loyalty to his adopted country, he had a second serving.)

After dinner, Ian went off to soak in the hot pools for a while, but we preferred to sit and watch the volcano. Lee had chats with several diners, mostly German, who came over to see his camera and tripod. As the dusk settled further, a cloud began to form around the top of the volcano, so we were destined to miss the sight of the fiery volcano erupting at night, but we were content with the show we'd already had.

There was more greeting of Ian's friends as we left the restaurant. A film company making a movie called Congo is headquartered here just now, and some of Ian's friends have jobs driving trucks for them and so forth. The movie crews were just coming to eat ("That reservation for a party of 6 at 7:30 now needs to be for a party of 20") as we left for the long trip back home.

One of our first excitements was the driver forgetting one of the washouts until he was upon it, which resulted in Ian crying out, "Aieeee, Muchacho!". Soon after, Ian spotted a coral snake warming itself on the road.

After we'd been driving for a while, the CB radio suddenly came to life with a very American voice saying, "Breaker. Breaker. This is Mancuso in Costa Rica calling anybody in the States." Ian instantly grabbed the microphone and in his best American accent pretended to be answering from California. Mancuso was obviously delighted; he appeared to have been trying to reach the U.S. by CB radio for some time. After leading him on for a while, Ian broke off and, turning to us, said, "Well, that was our joke for the evening." Then one could see the pang of conscience, "What if he's out on the ocean?" So, he called Mancuso back and asked him where in Costa Rica he was. The answer was, "In Guanacaste state near Lake Arenal"; he was probably only a few miles away from us. He said he had a 50-foot antenna for his CB radio. Ian continued the conversation for a while and then said he was entering a valley, so he'd call back in an hour. After that, there was much delighted imagining of Mrs. Mancuso being ordered to get dinner on the table right away so her husband would be free for the call, and perhaps the neighbors (who had doubted he'd ever reach the States on his CB) being invited over to witness his success. Ian says that almost all Americans who retire to Costa Rica come from California.

When we got to the next sizable town, we made a rapid tour up one street and down the next looking for a pay phone that didn't have a line of people waiting to use it. When we finally found one (the driver knew them all), Ian hopped out to phone the hotel. When he came back, he reported that they'd immediately asked if we were all safe, having heard the explosions of the volcano even at the hotel.

The rest of the ride was relatively quiet. It was a beautiful clear night, very dark in this sparsely-populated area. I had the car window wide open as we drove up the mountain, so that I could dazzle myself with the view of the Milky Way, so much brighter than we ever see it at home.

San Jose, Friday, January 27, 1995

We were up early again and were at the Preserve before it opened. We went straight to the Quetzals' tree and stayed half an hour (with nobody else about) to say goodbye. We have gotten fairly good at spotting them now, even when they are just sitting. One simply scans the dense foliage for a patch of crimson or turquoise. The trick then is to be able to spot that patch with one's bare eyes to be able to direct another's eyes to it. One patch of crimson that I found (but was completely unable to guide Lee to) turned out to be a female and that gave me the best look I'd yet had at one, especially of the black-and-white striped undertail, which is really more scalloped than striped. We also saw two males and a Guan and a squirrel before we left (ever so reluctantly).

We also wanted to say goodbye to the hummingbirds, so we went to their garden and stayed until we had seen all the species we've come to know. I was afraid we were going to have to leave without seeing a Violet Sabrewing again, but one arrived at last. And then there was a parting gift of two Azure-hooded Jays who flew to a tree in the garden just as we were about to leave. (This is a good-sized jay, midnight blue, with a sky-blue "hood" and red eyes, very striking.)

We headed back to the hotel to pack (and tote up our purchases for Customs) and then check out. While I was standing by the car in the parking lot waiting for Lee, I finally got a really good look at the little yellow birds that had been tormenting me all week by flitting across the parking lot at light-speed--Tennessee Warblers.

We stopped outside town to look back, having recognized both the roof of our hotel and a remarkably ugly house that we'd seen on one of our hikes, and that view finally made the geography of the place come together in our minds. (The maps we had been able to acquire were rather feeble.)

The trip down the mountain took two hours. As we got out into the completely cleared areas, driving down the very bumpy, winding road with no trees or guard rails and very long drops, I had a rather severe attack of acrophobia and was fairly panicked for about 15 minutes. This had happened to me only once before, a couple of years ago, when we were driving down Mount St. Helens, where I spent an hour in agony. (This seems so odd and very unlike me, but of course even small babies have an instinctive fear of a visual cliff.) Here, however, unlike on St. Helens, I was able to divert myself by looking very hard for hummingbirds. I actually spotted two of them, but didn't get a long enough look to identify either, and I was disconcerted a bit when one of them headed off the edge and drew my gaze that way. Lee soon stopped to show me some Grooved-bill Anis he had noticed and I managed to get myself pulled back together.

When we were about half-way down the mountain, we stopped because our attention was caught by some very loud bird chatter. We got out and looked at the tree where the noise was coming from and saw a male Hoffman's Woodpecker excavating a nest hole. This is a really handsome bird, buff-breasted with a black-and-white barred back, a red crown, and yellow on its nape and belly. As we stood there, it continued excavating its nest, only about 10 feet above our heads.

Since our experience of woodpeckers is that they are not much given to chattering, we kept looking and found two pairs of Orange-chinned Parakeets. They were sitting high in the same tree devouring its small fruits. After a week of enduring flocks of parrots flying tauntingly over us, we've taken to muttering "Damned parrots!" every time we hear one, so it was a pleasure to have a chance really to see (and even photograph) these. They were about 7 inches long, mostly parrot-green with some yellow under the wings and an orange spot on their chins (so useful for identifying them from below). We stayed quite a while, until we became uncomfortably aware of the man by the barn across the road eyeing us suspiciously and the female Hoffman's clinging to the tree near her new nest also eyeing us suspiciously.

Further down the road, we spotted an iguana (about 15 inches long and pale blue-green with a black-and-white striped tail) running across the road ahead of us.

Even almost all the way down the mountain, as we passed through an arid area that might have been in the Texas Panhandle, I saw an enormous old Strangler Fig that surely must have started its life in a forest wet enough for it to sustain itself in a crevice high in the branches of another tree.

Once we got down to the highway (much of which had been paved while we were at Monteverde and which seemed unbelievably luxurious), the car became quite troublesome, stalling whenever we slowed down and sometimes when we were just driving along. After a while, we concluded that taking it into San Jose traffic would be suicidal, so we decided to head for the airport.

The fruit vendors were out again alongside the highway, despite the heat, which was so intense that there were Black Vultures sitting in the shade.

The Budget man found no new nicks or dents, so we were soon off to the city in a taxi and settled back in the same hotel, where we finally ate the nice boxlunch that had been packed for us in Monteverde. I headed for the shower while Lee went out to look for a store where he could buy folk music. Fortunately, he found one with a good selection and came back laden with cassettes and CDs.

At dinner, we could see street vendors selling fantastic airy ship models made of balsa and a gossamer fabric.

I've been re-reading the Maslow book on Quetzals. (One of the blurbs in the paperback edition refers to "the joyous blue-green iridescence of the blood-breasted Quetzal".) He speaks of the significance of the Quetzal to the native population of Guatemala:

According to this legend (for the Mayans never practiced the distinction between history and myth, and the Spaniards had no scribe there to witness the events), the Quetzal was spiritual protector (Nahual in Maya Quiche) of the Indian chiefs. The bird would accompany them on all their undertakings, aiding them in battle, dying when they died. Thus when the Spanish forces arrived in what is today the city of Quezaltenango (the place of the Quetzal), the bird appeared over the battlefield, crying out and pecking at the Spanish interloper Alvarado with its beak. But the Quetzal's magic proved no match for European military technology: mounted on horseback and shooting firearms, the small party of Spaniards decimated 30,000 Mayan fighters in that single day. At the exact moment when Alvarado pierced Tecun Uman with his lance, the sacred Quetzal suddenly fell silent and plummeted to earth, covering the body of the regal Indian with its long and soft green plumes. After keeping a deathwatch through the night, the bird that rose from the cacique's lifeless body at dawn was transformed. It was no longer the pure green of jade. Its breast had soaked up the blood of the fallen warrior, and so, too, became crimson, the shade of Mayan blood, as it has remained to this day.

Princeton, Saturday, January 28, 1995

We were up very early this morning and off to the airport to fly to Miami and then Newark. The trip took all day but was completely uneventful, and I ignored it all by immersing myself in Boswell's Life of Johnson:
Much enquiry having been made concerning a gentleman, who had quitted a company where Johnson was, and no information being obtained; at last Johnson observed, that "he did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney."

It is well known that there was formerly a rude custom for those who were sailing upon the Thames, to accost each other as they passed, in the most abusive language they could invent, generally, however, with as much satirical humour as they were capable of producing. Johnson was once eminently successful in this species of contest; a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, "Sir, your wife, under pretense of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods."

I suggested a doubt, that if I were to reside in London, the exquisite zest with which I relished it in occasional visits might go off, and I might grow tired of it. Johnson: "Why, Sir, you find no man at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."

We are home now, relishing being in clean nightclothes, lying here surrounded by purring cats and last Sunday's London papers, beginning to catch up on the world that we didn't miss at all while we were away.

Love to you all,

Melinda Varian / Office of Information Technology / Princeton University / Melinda@Princeton.EDU
28 Jan 1995