Saturday, November 24, 2007

The start of my senior year... it's November already?

I made it home from Costa Rica and suddenly all communication stopped…. It’s not you, it’s me, I swear.
It has been one crazy semester. I discovered, for the first time in my life, that my time can not be infinitely subdivided. Unfortunately I didn’t realize this until after it was too late to drop a few of the 19 course units I had signed up for. So, my excuse for dropping off the edge of the virtual world is 4 courses, senior thesis research, ultimate Frisbee, lab work, Co-op house work, and a wee bit of homework.
This semester I signed up for Evolution, Biomechanics, Plants and Fungi, and Statistics (listed in order of increasing distain). Actually, Evolution and Biomechanics have turned out to be pretty interesting classes. Even the plants and fungi class, once we moved beyond the life cycles of various colored algae, turned out to be alright. But that leaves statistics…… (gag, cough, retch) I should really clarify, I don’t hate statistics as a subject, I just despise my class and feel that nearly every minute I sit in that desk is a minute of my life I am going to wish I had back in about 70 years. This class has been going since august and it took us until chapter 22, last week, to learn about P-values and confidence intervals. I think it is great when professors take time to explain the material, but this is just absurd! The rumor has it that we might make it to t-tests by the end of the semester, but I wont hold my breath.
In addition to “normal” classes I have been spending a decent chunk of my time working on an independent research project (code named Project Salamander Fungus, not to be confused with various other shenanigans such as Project Potato Power -aka taking over the world one starchy tuber at a time). Anyways, I still manage to spend my time tromping through mud in the pouring rain looking for dirt brown colored salamanders on brown dirt. The results of my summer work were pretty cool, and I was able to present a poster at a conference in Arizona earlier this month. The conference was neat and I learned a lot. Possibly the most amusing part of the weekend was when I ended up stranded in the hotel lobby for almost 4 hours because the rest of my group hadn’t made it to the hotel yet. It wouldn’t have mattered at all, except my bags were with them, so I didn’t really have any entertainment. Four hours: I tested out most of the chairs, coerced one of the desk clerks into letting me play with the gecko, took a nap by the pool, scouted out the first floor of the hotel, retested the chairs…. It was quite a way to spend an afternoon.
I returned from the conference Tuesday night for a really enjoyable midterm on the life cycles of various colored algae on Wednesday morning. I was there and ready to take the test at 9am, unfortunately the professor had sort of completely forgotten. Ooops.
Don’t despair, we rescheduled and a mere three hours later I was able to showoff my quasi-impressive knowledge of when Volvox sp. is haploid and diploid.
The next week I had two delightful midterms: evolution and biomechanics, on the same day. It was nearly painless, except for that time when I almost didn’t make it to my evolution midterm because I didn’t know what building it was in… oops. I was in the bio building, where I had assumed the test would be, and I ran into another student who was panicking because she couldn’t find the test. To her dismay, I didn’t know where the test was either, but thirty seconds of near-panic later another classmate walked by and divulged the secrete midterm location. So, we all made it to the test. Hurrah!
Finals don’t start for another few weeks, so thanksgiving almost feels like a holiday. Except for that homework.

I am going to try to restart this whole bloggermajig. We will have to see how it goes. Amusing things still seem to happen on an hourly basis: chasing escaped frogs across the animal care room, discovering that the house foosball schedule conflicts with my bedtime schedule, cooking dinner for 40 on 6 hours notice…. All good stuff, and potential fodder for my keyboard.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Summer

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote something and pasted it here. Of course I could blame this sudden burst of babble on great literary influences or other such impressive notions, but that would be lying. Really, the only reason I suddenly feel the urge to write is because I have two hours to wait until it is my turn to read the house copy of Harry Potter and I currently have nothing better to do. I mean, it’s not like I could be doing anything productive, like laundry, right now; though I do think that pile of dirty clothing in the corner may have mutated into a member of the order Xenarthra and be slowly advancing across the room towards me.
So, asides from wrestling children’s book away from my equally mature housemates, what have I been up to this summer?
Errrrrr… being a scientist? Yeah, that sounds good…. Mmmmm…. Science.
No, really, I am playing scientist this summer, I even got me one of those mythical, magical, mysterious entities know as “grants” (evil cackling goes here). While still in Costa Rica I applied for summer research funding and someone in an office of money related matters must have liked my proposal (I bet they were awed by my impressive command of English grammar). So here I am in Berkeley for the summer with a large but dwindling pile of salamanders.
Yep, the salamanders and I get a lot of quality time together, because not too many other folks are around Berkeley this summer, bummer. The unfortunate salamanders that I am studying seem to have run into a nasty infectious amphibian fungus, that, preliminary results show quite conclusively, greatly reduces their success at staying alive. I think I can sum up my current research results as intellectually exciting, but emotionally depressing.
But enough about science, research, and salamanders; as astounding as it may sound, there is actually more to my life then those. I am still playing Ultimate, but on a pretty mellow team this summer. We practice two to three times a week unless we get chased of our field by a horde of several hundred summer camp kids. You would be surprised at how often that happens.
Living in a an urban setting like the Bay Area really makes you appreciate nature, especially when “nature” presents itself as a dead vole that needs to be turned into a museum specimen. And this brings me to another activity that I seem to have acquired; working at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology on campus skinning and stuffing small mammals. It is pretty much taxidermy for research purposes. Weird, smelly, usually slightly gross, but also kinda cool in a very twisted rat brains on my t-shirt sort of way. I think this will really be a skill that will give me that extra boost needed in today’s competitive job market.
That pretty much sums up the more odd bits of my life right now. Really there is nothing more of interest to discuss. My social life is really not something that anyone would find the least bit entertaining; especially not that part about a boy….

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Even more pictures, because uploading is so much faster here then it was down there.
doing some fieldwork up in a tree, the trail in the cloudforest behind the station, a lot of dirty wet shoes, and a great lake for swimming as long as you don't mind leeches


More Costa Rica pics... Dendrobates pumillio, Epidendron radicans, doing some hardcore birding, and baby hummingbirds in a nest

I lost my camara but found some shiny frogs

I am now back in the states, home in Santa Barbara. My last few days in Costa Rica were a whirlwind of adventure from Monteverde, to Arenal, to San Jose. After a hectic day of turning in final papers, finding missing socks, and packing overstuffed suitcases we all found ourselves on the trailhead to Arenal (big active volcano!)at 8am on Friday.
We were given ample time to say our goodbyes to the cloudforest as we spent 6 hours hiking through it in our usual sodden state. The recent arrival of the rainy season had turned most of the trails to mush and much of the hiking was actually sliding through foot deep mud.
So much mud calls for special consideration, care... and mud-ball fighting.
We eventually emerged from the forest, soaking wet and covered in mud, took a boat across Lake Arenal, and found ourselves once more in civilization. Big volcanoes make for big tourist stops.
We stayed at a big goofy hotel complete with a light up waterfall shaped like a volcano and a bunch of sketchy water slides. If the hotel wasn't enough, that night we went to hot springs. It was pretty funny to see the faces of the other people at the pools when thirty college students showed up and headed straight for the bar.
The next morning we eventually rolled out bed, were herded onto a bus, and went careening across Costa Rica back to San Jose. We had one last night of group togetherness and flying through large Central American cities in seatbeltless taxi cabs, and then it was Sunday morning. The end. sniff sniff, sob sob.
My flights back to the states were completely uneventful. I had my major reverse culture shock in the Dallas Airport when I paid three bucks for a cup of coffee. Three dollars! I could get a whole meal, and a drink, and probably dessert for that! Nothing like Starbucks to say "welcome back to the states"

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Well, my project is done... ok, that's a lie... I still have to edit my attempt at translating my abstract into spanish. definitly a project for tomorrow. Tomorrow, thursday is our last day in Monteverde... for now but hopefully not forever. Today a few of us hiked up to the continental divide (it only takes an hour to get there from the station). As I stood watching the clouds roll from the Atlantic to Pacific slopes of Costa Rica it finally sank in that the semester is almost over. wierd. Ok, enough with the quasi sentimental bullshit, time for some funny stories about the idiotic things I have done lately...
So, we are tromping through the elfin forest up at 1800 m when suddenly I realize that the results to this paper I had to read about 15 times to understand could really be best summarized in a song. So, sliding through the mud while simultaneously singing about global warming and amphibian decline... and if you think that is bad, shortly thereafter we composed a song about how predation and herbivory drive speciation.
In other news...
I still can't figure out how so much water can fall from the sky. Every afternoon it is like some one turns on the faucet and suddenly the whole world is soggy. And then we get the lightening. I got accused of being undeniable odd yesterday for sitting with my computer near a window, with the lights out, so i could write my paper and watch the lightening at the same time. I guess I never said I was normal.
It's funny, when I finally have the time and energy to sit and write something there is really nothing to write about. Actually, this is not so surprising because usually the things that are interesting to write about are also the things that make me pass out with my shoes still on at 7pm. Really, for a while I was on a grandma schedule; waking up at 5:30am and going to bed before 8pm.
ok, time to meander my way to bed... tomorrow is my last day and i have lot of souvenirs to buy.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

where has my time (and my socks) gone?

long time, no write...
Life here has been super busy as our semester comes to an end. independent projects are wrapping up, all field work is done, data analyzed, and first drafts turned in. It turns out that moss photosynthetic pigment ratios can change along a natural vertical grandiant... or in english... the thingies in moss are different depending on how high up in the tree you climb to find it. Yep. that was three weeks well spent.
Yes, on paper I may have the boringest project ever, but the field work ROCKED. Some of the trees we climbed were incredible. Though most were between 30 and 40 feet, a few were as tall as 60. It is an incredible feeling to sit IN the canopy, in the crown of a tree, and look out and down at the rest of the forest. So, it looks like i can now add tree climbing to my resume, its a very useful skill to have.
Stuff here is winding down, well perhaps that isnt a good description... It is more like suddenly everyone realizes that we have a week left, a million things to do, and a sucky-ass final report to write like we were real scientists. Sleeping is currently not part of the time table. Sanity and logic both got misplaced (I like the spanish way of saying this : se me perden.... "my things got lost but it is their fault not mine...") at approximatly the same time that the computer frying lightening storms started. At the first sound of thunder the estacion bursts with activity like a disturbed ant farm as everyone runs about trying to disconnect anything electronic. And then comes the rain...
Rainy season has started. My laundry will never be dry again. I guess i will just extricate the mushrooms from my ears when i get back to the crispy dry lands of california. Despite the pervasive dampness, rain can be fun. One night some of us decided it would be a good idea to walk to a concert/bar in the pouring rain. Not only did we arrive dripping, but i added a little extra decoration to my clothes in the form of mud. A mile from home, but still a mile from the bar, i tried to move off the road for a coming car, except where I stepped turned out to no longer be road... splash , thud.
Ok, i have a paper of mossy doom to finish, yuck. This painful assignment is the cause of my first, and only, bout of home sickness... midnight last night... " I hate moss, I want my mommy, and I am going to bed!
sometimes I feel like such a grown up, like that time (last night) when I instigated an invisible machete fight with flashlights.

Monday, April 16, 2007

when slingshots don't work, throw rocks

My adventures with my "research" project continue. My project has now turned into looking a photosynthetic pigments in moss along a height gradient up a tree, because pretty much every tree has moss. Climbing trees is really really cool. Unfortunatly, rigging them to climb is really really difficult.
How to rig a tree:
Take a small roundish object, tie a string to it.
Take slingshot, try to shoot roundish object over desired branch
repeat 100-500 times until object goes over branch and falls all the way to the other side
Do happy happy dance
tie slightly larger rope to string, drag over branch
tie climbing rope to first rope, pull over branch
think about climbing......

My slingshot skills have drastically improved, but this is still a bit time consuming (it took two days to rig one tree). One of the TAs came out with us this afternoon to try to impart some tree rigging secrets. It turns out that throwing rocks might actually work better then the slingshots... except i am a girl and can't throw. With the slingshot i can shoot something up about 60 feet, when i throw the rock it goes up maybe 15 feet... embarassing!
So we climbed our first tree, it was amazing, sitting 50 feet up on the canopy... so cool! I got my first set of samples (little baggies of moss) and figured out how to process them. Four hours later I had ony two samples to finish and they locked the door to the room where i was storing them. I guess that's one way to tell me to get out of the lab and get a life!
In other exciting news... my homestay mom and I have reached a food truce. She now only gives me enough food for two people (instead of 8) and in return I eat it all. It turns out there is only so much fried food one can eat before wanting to curl up in a ball and puke.... here is a normal breakfast: some combination of fried rice, fried plantains, fried cheese, eggs scrambled in oil, toast coated in butter, some fruit, and coffee. mmmmm fried food.
When not eating liquid fats I spend time playing with my new "sister". She and her 8 year old cousin spend hours devising imaginary games that involve elaborate story lines and somehow require my presence. Having the rules of some complicated game yelled at you simultaneously in spanish by two kids is a great way to learn spanish.

Friday, April 13, 2007

slingshots suck

We made it back to Monteverde, where they promptly dumped us off with homestay families. My family seems nice. On my first day I met about 30 different people, all of who were some how related (my cousin's sister's, youngest daughter....). I have a 5 year old "sister" who is enthralled by my flashlight and intent on preventing any sort of studying I might want to do. My "mom" seems to think I don't eat enough, which might explain why she gives me enough food for 6 people, at every meal.
Life is pretty interesting, my alarm clock... aka the rooster next door.... goes off at 4:30. My family gets up around 5:30, and we have all had breakfast and left the house by 6:45am. I make it up to the station around 8, and then try to work on my independent project.
Ahh, the projects:
mine is on changes in photosynthetic pigments in a plant (i cant figure out which one) going up a tree. So far, no data. My first day was spent learning how to climb trees, and more importatnly, how to get back down. Going up is pretty easy (Jumars!), going down isn't so bad (repelling with a figure 8 device), but swiching between the two at the top of the tree is a little tricky. So I spent most of wednesday hanging three feet off the ground from a tree in front of the station, practicing with the gear... in the pouring rain. Thursday was even less productive. To get up a tree you first have to rig the tree. rigging a tree involves using a sling shot to shoot a metal weight with a string over a branch 100 feet up in the canopy. 6 hours of mosquito bites and tangled fishing line later, still no rigged tree. Oh, and the plant I was planning on studying actually doesnt grow in the area with the trees we are going to climb. So, I can now use jumars, shoot a slingshot, and, ummm, thats about it.
lunch time....

Saturday, April 7, 2007

John and Erik: Preparing for some very intense caving

A view of bird island

A few more photos for your viewing pleasure.
We have just returned from an extended fieldtrip and I seem to remember promising to update this blog at some point. So, here it is, 2+ weeks of our adventures, somewhat faithfully recorded and then sloppily transcribed onto a computer. If I can give you six pages of prose you could at least send me a two letter email that says “Hi” (not that I am bitter or anything…).
Enjoy my grammar-less ramblings!

Penas blancas
We hiked out of Monteverde, over the continental divide to Pen_as Blancas (translates to white cliffs, though I never did see any of those) where we camped for four days. The hike was beautiful, all 6 dripping hours of it. We stopped for lunch along a river and it was a great, albeit chilly, place for a swim. I put my backpack on again and then proceeded to slosh my way up the trail for several more hours. All in all an excellent day.

Penas Blancas Dia dos
We woke up to the sound of pouring rain beating on the metal roof. So much for that 6am bird watching we had planned. We sat on the porch with our coffee and watched two scarlet rumped tanagers flap wetly between the distant trees. We had lecture for a few hours while hoping the rain would let up: how to tell the difference between the aracae genera. At 10am the rain showed no signs of relenting and the powers above (aka the professor) announced it was time to go see some plants in the field (which was quickly becoming a swamp).
Off we trudged and learned. After lunch we went on a second hike in the rainforest. I have decided I really like the rainforest, in fact it may be my favorite place ever.
Dinner was an adventure: spaghetti with tomato sauce, beans, and rice. Really, it isn’t a meal if there aren’t beans and rice. After dinner we headed back into the forest for a little frog hunting. It was funny to see 20 people stomping together by the light of their headlamps, because usually I go out at night with just a few others. There were fewer frogs then hoped (one live and one dead) but I felt special because I saw a norops and a Fer-de-Lance (my first Terciopelo!) and that makes it a two snake day because I also found a cute little rear fanged snake on our afternoon hike. I was looking for salamanders but all I got was a snakes, that we played with and later found out were slightly venomous. Anyways, the Fer-de -Lance was intense. There were just two of us left on the nighthike and the other guy was ahead of me on the trail. He took a step and I looked down to see this brown patterned snake with a triangular head right in front of me on the trail, which then prompted me to say, very intelligently: “snake, snake, ummm… I think that’s a Fer-de-Lance”. Pretty much awesome. Why must dangerous things be so beautiful?
Other exciting bits of that day: learning how to play chess. I am proud of myself because I now know the names of the pieces and how to set up the board. At this point I have yet to make it to the end of a game (free time is limited) but I am very excited at this newly acquired hobby.

Penas Blancas: day 3
Yesterday was fungus diversity day. We spent the first few morning hours being lectured to about various fungus forms and were then sent out into the rainforest on a fun filled fungus finding adventure. While searching for assorted fungus forms (polypores, birds nest fungus, etc) I found a very nifty green snake, and of course I didn’t have my camera, and the nine people who walked by also didn’t have cameras. We were pretty sure that the snake was a colubred, but after it attempted to strike at us a few times we decided not to mess with it. A bit later I found a three legged frog that I decided would be safer then a snake to bring back for show and tell. When I made it back to camp my tales of an orange eyed green snake were completely over shadowed because some of the guys had caught a large coral snake mimic and were showing it off. Apparently I am a wimp for not picking up a snake that wanted to eat me. Ha.
In other exciting news, we were given some free time in the afternoon and one of the TAs announced she was going to a waterfall only 45 minutes away. Two hours and several submersions in the river later we made it to the waterfall. It was gorgeous even if I was soaked head to toe before ever going swimming.
Another round of rice and beans for dinner (rice and beans must be served at every meal, or else) and then off on another night hike. This one was optional and only 6 students really felt like slogging our way through the swamp for the 4th time in one day. It was worth it I think: a coral snake, a toad, some froggies, and an assortment of nifty arthropods. At the incredibly late hour of 9:30 we stumbled our way back into camp where most of the group proceeded to mock me for accessorizing my rain pants with an ample quantity of duct tape. Some people, and by that I mean me, just shouldn’t bother with rain pants , this is the second pair I have ripped this year. I think I may give up on the duct tape and amuse myself with the knowledge that I am the sole owner of a pair of rain chaps.

Penas Blancas: day 4
Butterfly diversity day
I am a failure as a butterfly catcher. To learn about butterfly families we were given nets and sent into the forest. When we met to compare our spoils of butterfly battle my single catch looked pretty measly compared to the 5-6 most other folks brought in. On a positive note, I did discover that butterfly nets can be used to catch lizards.
We IDed our butterflies, released them, and then had a painfully long lecture on the families and subfamilies of Lepidoptera. I think I can cross butterfly-ologist off my list of future careers. In the afternoon we had time to plan our independent projects and consult with a prof. Unfortunately after meeting with our rather critical prof most of us felt like a) crying b)feeding self to jaguarondi or c) not wanting to do a project. None of those were really viable options so most of us just moped around instead. After dinner, mac and cheese with rice and beans, we went out to harass the local herps, yet again. Two hours and three frogs later we realized we were exhausted and the 4 of us treked back to camp. When we arrived at the oh-so late hour of 10 everyone else was asleep.

Day 5
6 am breakfast: we are like a pack of starving locusts, if you aren’t at the table when it is served then you don’t get any food. So I fought my mosquito net, escaped and went to breakfast. An hour later we had all been prodded out the door, packs on, marching to Poco Sol. We had a glorious, but as usual, muddy, 8 hour hike to the other edge of Bosque Eterno de los Nin_os. About an hour away from the Poco Sol station we started to fantasize about what treats the prof who was meeting us there was going to bring. Topping the list were guacamole, hummus, clean clothes, and beer. None of these were available, however he did show up with a large box of assorted sugar forms and we happily foraged for at least an hour. In other exciting news, I lost a chess game in four moves and had my first encounter with leeches.
There is a lake near the station we are staying at and we all jumped in because murky lakes are just as good as soapy showers. After I climbed out of the water I looked down at my toes and there were leeches, cute little leeches, but still leeches. Though, in short time I was leech free and on my way.
After dinner the powers above deemed it to be an excellent time for an ornithology lecture. I passed out shortly after the diagrams of avian respiratory systems and got poked awake an hour later to hear the recordings of local bird calls. Oh, the embarrassment… night lectures, 14 hours after waking up, after a 9 hour hike, just don’t agree with me.

Day 6 Poco Sol
6 am bird watching. Oh yeah. I actually don’t dislike bird watching, in fact, compared to most of the folks in the group I appear down right enthusiastic about the topic. After some quality time with an assortment of tanagers there was breakfast, and more lecture. We were released from learning at noon and given until 4 to harass the rainforest as we pleased. I set out with a few other folks in search of a waterfall. While passing the lake I caught a really pretty frog (Rana warswitcheii, I can’t spell….) that had almost iridescent green splotches down its back. We also found two Eleutherodactylus fitzingeri sitting on eggs clusters under a log. Still not a salamander, but very cool. I am starting to think that I am destined to never find a salamander, but in the process of looking I find a lot of other interesting things.
Back to the waterfall walk: The trail ended at a drop off looking across a gorge. Through the vines we could see a huge waterfall with its white sprays of mist highlighted on a background of brilliant forest green. Glorious. We briefly, very briefly, attempted to bush whack our way down there, but gave up after reaching another cliff edge 30 meters down.
The trail back passed below a giant tree dripping with Oropendula nests. These noisy birds weave together their teardrop shaped nests in clusters 50m up in a tree crown. And then they squabble and croon amongst each other in a cacophony of squawks and hanging upside down babbles. When we reconvened for more learning we had another lengthy bout of birding and were then released for dinner.
After dinner we had a statistics lecture. We were terrified of the thought of a three hour lecture; luckily this was not the case. We did a linear regression comparing our individual rum rankings to the nasty alcohols’ price. Ten samples of rum later (during which most of us decided we like statistics, but didn’t like rum) our lecture relocated to a campfire and the festivities, and rum sampling, continued to escalate. Several hours of ¨statistics¨ induced, off key singing later….

Day 7: Poco Sol to Tirimbina
No one made it out of bed for 6 am birding this morning. Most of us stumbled out of our mosquito nets around 7 because the threat of a missed meal was more terrifying then the act of waking up. After our morning dose of rice and beans we learned a pile of new plant species and had a lecture on bats. At noon we said goodbye to Poco Sol and deposited ourselves and our mud covered belongings into the back of some very sketchy pickup trucks. For the next hour we bumped and jostled our way out of the mountains, stopping once at a bridge to walk across so the trucks would be light enough to cross. We eventually hit a paved road, got ice cream, and met up with the bus. Along the drive we stopped for ice cream again (one of our profs really likes ice cream I think). We also took a few minutes to walk around an arts and culture faire that was happening in the town square. While checking out the handicrafts we encountered some of the most terrifying clowns known to existence. We are fairly sure that some of the most frightening we, in fact, women, which refutes our hypothesis that clowns reproduce through binary fission and popcorn shaped spores. Yep, we are nerds… we actually had a lengthy dinner conversation about what our favorite chemical reactions were.
Anyways, we made it to Tirimbina and there was much excitement over showers, sheets, and semi-clean clothes. On an amusing note, we finally had access to ¨The Savage Book¨ (pretty much the golden bible of all things scaly and slimy in Costa Rica) and had time to look up some of the critters we had annoyed in the past week. We discovered that the striped snake we had all played with was a colubred, but a rear fanged venomous one. Woops. We also read up on the nesting frogs. It turns out that the last/only other report of that was from 1930, and counting the eggs in those two nests might have made a note or something. I guess this is a good reason to never go anywhere with out the Savage book.
So, Tirimbina is supposedly stuffed full with highly poisonous snakes. We were expecting great things from the two days spent there…. Bushmasters??? Alas no

Day 8: Tirimbina
Today we hiked across the Tirimbina reserve. We started at the field station and hiked down into the rainforest. As usual, we slogged through mud and learned new plant species. It was a very nice, but very wet hike. I am now fairly certain that my raincoat was lying when it said waterproof. On a positive note, my hiking boots were dry for the first time since day one in Pen_as Blancas. I forgot how nice it feels to not squelch my way down the trail.
In the afternoon we had a lecture on tent-making bats. The most entertaining part of the lecture was when our prof, who was translating for the folks who don’t understand Spanish, misheard the speaker and with a bemused look announced that some bats can modify thermal vents to use as nests (what was actually said was termite nests). After that I stayed awake to learn what other unexpected things bats could do. After the bat lecture we went off into the forest to look for some bat tents. Actually, we just followed our lecturer, who showed off one of the tents/bat groups he was currently studying. It was really cool, we looked under a heliconia leaf (like a banana tree) to see three cute fuzzy white bats.
Conveniently located in the same area as the sleepy little bats was a nicely swampy frog ridden patch. A few of us spent several entertaining minutes chasing poison dart frogs around the woods (Dendrobates pulmillio: bright red and blue, only sorta toxic). After our bat hunt we headed down to the river where the more adventurous members of the group jumped into the frighteningly green and murky water. Ok, I am a wimp, and for once I just didn’t feel like getting wet.
Additional excitement of the day: bullet ants, giant ants named for their painful sting that apparently feels like getting hit with a bullet. For this reason three folks in the group decided it would be a good idea to harass these relatively mellow ants into stinging/biting them. 10 hours later they were all still sort of whimpering. Note to self: never mess with a bullet ant.
Anyways, after bats and bullet ants we bounced our way back to the station (via taxi vans) for dinner and lecture… the effects of pineapple plantations on Costa Rican ecology. As interesting as evil fruit corporations may be, sitting still for lecture gave me time to realize how many really itchy bites I had. It’s probably my own fault, I was too lazy to put up my mosquito net the night before. Sooooo itchy, soooo very itchy. I started to feel sorry for myself and then looked across the table at one of the bullet ant victims and suddenly didn’t feel so bad.

Day 9: Tirimbina
What I thought was a few mosquito bites turned out to be several hundred chigger bites. Everywhere. It made for a very itchy day. While not attempting to tear my skin off I tried to look interested in the pineapple plantation and managed forest our “humans in the tropics” class was visiting. The lectures and papers for that class are painful but the field trips do tend to be interesting. Quite randomly, the pineapple plantation is owned by The Collin Street Bakery, a Texas fruitcake company that mom used to get fruitcakes from every holiday season: small world. The managed forest was interesting. By mapping out and carefully selecting which trees to cut the foresting company is actually able to maintain an okay looking forest.
After dinner we had a “talent Show” which eventually digressed into the standard revelry and insanity.

Day 10: To Panama
After a late night of much excitement we all had to be up at 5:45 to pack and leave for Panama. Miraculously, at 7:30 all bags were packed and loaded, and so were we. Reunited with the bus we went careening down the Atlantic side of Costa Rica. Lunch (pizza) took place on a beach that was vaguely reminiscent of Dr. Seuss’ Truffula tree forest. All the trunks of the numerous palm trees were painted in a variety of shiny bright colors: a little weird, but very cool. After lunch, which for some inexplicable reason, half the folks didn’t want to eat, we continued barreling on to Panama. We came to the border at around 2 and proceeded to jump through metaphorical hoops for the next hour. Eventually passports had been stamped, copied, stamped again, and checked a 4th time, and we were allowed to continue. At this border crossing Costa Rica and Panama are separated by a rickety bridge that makes disturbing creaks while being walked across and distressed grumbles and squawks under the weight of a bus. The bridge stayed put, and we entered panama, where they once again ordered us to show our passports.
Not too much later we made it to the Bocas del Toro harbor, juggled our stuff from bus to boat, and head to Bocas del Drago on Isla del Colon (in Bocas del Toro province, Bocas del Toro region, and near the city of Bocas del Toro… not at all confusing). On the ride I thought the prof said “don’t put your hands in the water… there are piranhas”. Not quite, there are certainly no piranhas, just “poop”. Ok, gross.
We eventually made it out into the poop free waters of the archipelago, set up our bug nets, and called it a night.

Day 11: Panama
I woke up bright and early to the sound of one of my bunkmate’s sandy flip flops noisily smacking across the floor: it’s becoming a daily ritual. The morning was spent learning new Atlantic side, Panama species. Some new trees, biting sand flies, and a unique color morph of the local poison dart frogs. Our afternoon homework assignment was to read a chapter in our reader on marine diversity and spend at least 30 minutes snorkeling. After skimming over the names of all the marine critter orders I went splashing into the bathtub temperature water of the Caribbean. We all meandered through the meadows of sea grass and islands of slightly bashed coral to see some shiny fish and other creatures… like fireworms (why must such tactile-y painful things look so tantalizing to touch?)
After diner we had a lecture on coral reef ecology and I stayed awake the whole time… I am so proud of myself.

Day 12: Panama: A day on the water
We headed out onto the reef at 8am with snorkels and sun block in hand. We baked for several hours in the morning, and then several more in the afternoon whole admiring the shiny, squishy critters under the sea. One of the interesting places we swam in the afternoon was along the mangroves. The sea bottom was covered with hundreds of jellyfish that sometime back in their evolution got confused, flipped onto their backs, and settled into the murk with their tentacles waving up in the water like a frilly anemone. These jellies sat quite peacefully on the bottom until someone didn’t watch where they kicked their fins and suddenly the water was filled with sediment and floating balls of potential pain. EEK! Also cool: big stingrays.
Other interesting notes: I learned how to play dominoes, the big kid way with multiples of 5. And, the island we are on has very limited fresh water (drinking water only). The ocean is our bathtub… who needs salt for a tequila shot when you can just lick yourself?

Day 12: Panama: of biggish cities and bat caves
In the morning we were turned loose in the city of Bocas del Toro, a bumpy 45 minute drive to the other side of the island. With commands of “ be back by two” and “make sure you are sober for lecture at 7” we wandered off into the maze of tourist stalls, bars, and other assorted entertainment. After two hours I was in possession of a woven bag and a traditional beaded bracelet and it was time to find some internet. Fun stuff… looks like Berkeley will let me back in next semester. Excellent.
After our brush with civilization we retreated back into the wilderness to check out some bat caves. The first cave we splashed through was an educational experience with hundreds of sleepy, annoyed, bats roosting in the stalactites above our heads. Very cool (I seem to find myself saying that a lot these days). The adventure in the second cave was more for the fun of goofing around in caves then bat viewing. We spent a very enjoyable hour wading through waist deep water and slipping across bat guano. Once again, very cool…. I think I might like caving.
We emerged, covered in muck, squeezed into a minibus and bounced our way back to our side of the island where, clothes and all, we hopped into the ocean.
After diner we had a lecture during which one of our instructors presented her thesis work she had just finished on high altitude tropical birds. The lecture was interrupted when a few of us in the back row noticed that Benito, a guy who worked on the island, was sitting behind us proudly holding a very large, very irritated vine snake. After a brief snake break, the bird talk continued. Eventually we were released from learning. I hung around hoping to use the pay phone and pathetically lost another chess game (favorite comment on my playing: “either you are luring me into a brilliant trap, or that was the dumbest move I have ever seen…”)

Sometime several days later:
I knew it was bound to happen: one day I just wouldn’t feel like writing anything and my journalistic attempts would fail. Here I will just outline the highlights (i.e. what I can remember) of the last few days.
-The last day in Panama: we went to “Bird Island” where boobies, frigates, and tropic birds nest. I was actually looking forward to birding, but when we arrived they handed us our snorkels and pushed us overboard. Birding is pretty awkward through a mask and snorkel. In the afternoon most of the group went out for more snorkeling but the other Herp-nerd and I went out in search of the island’s frog species. We had fun crashing through every spider web in a four hectare patch of rainforest, chased by fiendish mosquitoes as we chased the frogs.
-Leaving Panama: After heavy partying on our last night in Panama (read, drunk folk falling from hammocks and embarrassing attempts to dance) we loaded ourselves and our stuff into boats for the trek back to Costa Rica and eventually Tortuguera. On a side note, It is never a good idea to wash your hair with biodegradable soap and salt water. IT DOES NOT WORK.
We made it back into Costa Rica and at some point had lunch in a restaurant with a large portrait of Mao on the wall. I think it might have been Chinese food. More bus, then boat… the boat broke down, but eventually started to work again… and we finally made it to Tortuguera. Highlight of the day: Showering! I love running water!!!
-Next day we did some learning, ate ice cream, and bought sea turtle t-shirts (I tell myself that this supports conservation). The powers above decreed that we were more likely to see nesting turtles in Parismina, a town a 2 hour boat ride away, so in a flurry of packing, off we went. Several hours later we found ourselves marching single file down a black sand beach, in search of sea turtles to harass. Eventually one was found to watch. Turtles are amazing, especially when they are 5 feet long and laying tennis ball sized eggs. Two hours of marching around later and we were released to bed (sometime after midnight, don’t they know my bedtime is 9:30?).

Day ?: La Selva
We headed out of Parismina and began the journey to La Selva, a big research station in lowland Atlantic forest. We arrived in the pouring rain, which is appropriate because it is the rainforest. La Selva is an interesting place. It is a BIG research station on a large reserve maintained by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). The OTS folks are a little neurotic (Rubber boots or Else!!!!). The administration decided to encourage research farther into the forest by creating paved concrete trails through the trees and providing bicycles. It gives the whole place a slightly Disney-esque feel, especially with their strictly enforced boot policy on their neatly groomed concrete trails.
So we settled in at La Selva, the administration lectured us about the large poisonous snakes that wanted to get us, and then our profs ordered us off into the wood to find said snakes.

La Selva: day 2
Morning time spent in lecture and learning, first in a classroom and then on a neatly paved trail (concrete in a rainforest is soooo weird). The afternoon was more lecture because theoretically it was “Herp diversity Day” and we had to learn the family of every creepy crawly vertebrate in Costa Rica. After lecture we were sent out on Herp walks (wait, isn’t every walk a Herp walk?). We all got split in groups and I managed to find myself in the least froggily enthusiastic group, who then left me in the woods. Moderately sucky.
Following dinner another night hike was announced. Everyone looked quite unenthusiastic until the Prof mentioned that the hike was going to end at a bar and the drinks were on him. Suddenly 8 kilometers didn’t seem so far. We eventually ended up at a bar, which upon the entrance of so many gringos promptly changed the music videos from mariachi to old CCR.
We eventually left La Selva Land and meandered our way into San Jose, where nothing was open because it is Semana de Santos (Easter week). We hit up the fast food restaurants, because they were the only thing open, and it suddenly dawned on me that Passover was going to be hell to keep in this country.

Monday, March 12, 2007

I survived our first midterm! yay. and I wrote my paper, and I did the stats homework.... but i forgot to do my spanish, oh well, 3 out of 4 isn't bad. After my midterm I took a very nice hike through the cloud forest and rediscovered how off kilter my sense of direction is. It turns out that it is possible to hike over the continental divide without even knowing it, woops. I did have a fairly obvious clue to my misdirection when the weather changed from dappled sun (the pacific) to pouring rain (cuz thats what it does on the Atlantic side). I eventually did manage to meander my way back to a recognizable trail and then slide my way back down to the station. On my way down I was accosted by a flock of butterflies. There is a species of butterflies that roost in groups during the day down here. The ruckus I created while tromping down the mountain woke up about 20 of these flying terrors and sent them flapping straight into my face. Almost immediatly, we both realized our mistakes and headed in our separate directions. Shortly there after I came across a large gathering of army ants but after my butterfly encounter I figured it was best to leave all 6 legged critters alone. Also, from recently acquired experiance, I now know how much ant bites/stings hurt. Acacia Ants (Pseudomyrmex spinicola to be exact) are not toys! Amusingly, for that project we did with the ants and acacias, we managed to pick the most aggresive ant species and harass them at their most aggressive time. woops, again.
On an entirely random note, I have finally found a Costa Rican food (actually we aren't even sure this is a Costa Rican food) that I will not eat. Today for lunch we had a "banana bean wrap". ummmm, yeah. beans wrapped in mashed sweet plaintains topped with cheese. It was a unique meal that I hope never to have to experiance again. On the plus side, we got mango juice at breakfast and at dinner today, and mango juice is pretty much the best thing ever (it's up there on my list with sleep, salamanders, and chocolate). Actually, I think the possibility of mango juice is really the only thing that forces me to get out of bed for a 7 am breakfast..... mmmmmmmmm.... mango juice.....
Coffee is good too, we drink a lot of it here. I will be returning home an even bigger caffeine addict then when I left. It turns out that coffee (with milk and sugar) makes an excellent growth medium for tropical fungi. I forgot a mug on my desk for a week or so and the results were a little frightening. I won't be doing that again. On that very disgusting note I am going to bed (where hopefully there will be no scorpiones, or stinging wasps, or crunchy beetles).

Friday, March 9, 2007

more from Monteverde

I have now been in Monteverde for almost two weeks. Everyone is thoroughly busy right now as we have our fist midterm this tomorrow. In celebration of this quickly approaching torture I am procrastinating by watching a film of fighting beetles set to very up-beat music.
The last week has contained many exciting events. Last Saturday we did the tourist thing and went to the ziplines. We spent a thoroughly enjoyable and un-educational morning flying over the forest canopy. After the zipline adventure I finally got the milkshake I had been dreaming of. One flavor tried, 20 more to go!
The week days are filled with class, lots and lots of class. Most days have biology related lectures from 8 until 3 and Spanish class from 3:30-5:30. I am starting to feel that studying and classes are getting in the way of my learning (and by learning I mean tromping around in the cloud forest whenever I feel like it). My Spanish vocabulary is expanding. I now know such useful words as querida (mistress), mapache (raccoon), and aguas muertas (neap tide).
Some days we get a break from the usual lecture format. Yesterday’s exercise in biology could best be described as “High Speed Field Biology: Survivor Style”. At 8 am we were divided into groups of 5 and presented with our research question. All field data was collected by noon. After lunch the data was analyzed, background research was conducted, and a 15 minute powerpoint was constructed. A mere 11 hours after learning of our research topic we presented our results (statistics, discussion, relevant articles… the whole shebang) to the whole class. My group analyzed the nest distribution in a species of high altitude neo-tropical bees. It turns out that Crawfordapis luctuosa (aka big friendly bees that didn’t sting us even though we hovered over their nests for 2+ hours) display a clumped nest distribution. Yay.
Today’s lecture started off with a two hour hike through the cloud forest, over the continental divide, to the lecture hall. I really think all classes should start like that. We hiked up the Pacific side and then slid down the much wetter Atlantic side of the mountain. While mud-skiing down the Atlantic side I managed a thoroughly graceful, and apparently very noisy, swan dive into the mud. While untangling myself from a guilty tree root I was told to shut up so as to not disturb the hummingbird nest someone had just discovered. It was incredible; a hummingbird had built a nest right along the trail and stuffed inside were two almost full grown chicks. That might have been the best thing I saw this week (there were also about 20 Quetzals on a different hike, but I think the hummingbirds were cuter). Anyways, at the end of our hike we popped out of the forest at an insect museum (random, I know). The rest of the day was spent learning insect orders, how to tell a true shrunken head from a knock off, and the difference between a butterfly and everything else in the order Lepidoptera. The grand finale of the day was definitely when the owner of the insect museum (a former opera singer) performed the Costa Rican national anthem on his organ followed by the US anthem on the accordion.
I guess there is only so much procrastinating one can do at any one time, so I am now going to think about studying.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

We have now been in Monteverde for almost a week, and as the weekend approaches I finally find myself with a bit of free time. Unfortunately I used those three minutes of free time trying to find my socks, so now I am just eating into my sleeping time. It’s ok though, because sleep deprivation makes everything suddenly hilarious. Like sloths, talk about funny…. Actually, what was really funny today was Spanish class. I am in a class with three other people and we spent most of our time just practicing conversational Spanish. Somehow in today’s two hour class I ended up having to explain reproduction in kangaroos and the 1918 Influenza… in Spanish. It was amusing, probably more so for everyone other then me. (El conguro tiene una bolsa, y en la bolsa hay un bebe……etc)
Classes have been really intense for the last few days. I need a weekend just to catch up on all the studying and assignments we have. Of course I also have lots of important plans for this weekend like going to the zipline, buying at least one milkshake (a monteverde diet staple), sitting under a quetzal roost until one of those damn birds flies by, finding some frogs in the woods, and other stuff.
There are plenty of adventures to be had at the station we are staying at. Like last night, I was quietly studying and minding my own business when a very large moth barged into the room and proceeded to make a ruckus. So, of course I did the most logical thing and grabbed a butterfly net. For the next several minutes the moth and I went in circles as I slipped and slid across the hardwood floors in my socks. The flying distraction was eventually caught and released outside so that studying could once again occur.

some pictures

hanging out in the cloud forest

heading to Corcavado

playing with toads

it takes forever to load pictures, so I might attempt to put more up later but I am now on a mission to buy a milkshake (the monteverde quakers have a cheese factory with the best milkshakes in the world, or so I have been told).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Palo Verde

First, a few random thoughts about my attempts at blogging:
1. I can't spell (grammer is also a little sketchy). I am fully aware of this, and will probably continue to ignore such basic literary conventions for an indeterminate length of time.
2. I have been in Monteverde for two days now, but I am a wee bit behind in typing up the stuff I wrote out during our field trip. So, Monteverde is awesome and I am sure I will blather on about it in the near future.

OK, time to talk about Carara, ECMar, and Palo Verde! (also time for me to lay off the coffee... twitch twitch giggle giggle)
In Carara we spent the day hiking about and learning the names and natural histories of endemic plant species that I will never in my life see again. When we stopped for lunch we were accosted by a pack of hungry Ctenosaurs (2 foot long igauna things) that apparently are fond of pizza.
We then headed towards the Guanacaste region, stopping to gawk at some absolutly enormous crocodiles (20 feet long, I swear!) We spent the night at ECMar (estacion de ciencias marinas) and did a little bird watching and some mangrove swamp tromping. We also sat on a slightly gross beach (public trash cans have not made it to rural Costa Rica) and watched a glorious sunset. Of course, there was also a bit of learning to be done: some 20 new species and a lecture on plant identification.
As the week progressed we moved from the excessivly damp heat of Corcavado to the instant dessication brand of heat offered in Palo Verde. Palo Verde is in the much drier northern area of Costa Rica. In the wet season it is a giant mosquito breeding swamp. In the dry season (what we are in now) it becomes a haven for about a zillion different birds. I think I might actually be starting to enjoy birdwatching. I think it was the brilliant epiphany someone shared with me: "birds are really just like screwed up, feathery mutant lizards". Really, that makes ducks sooooo much more exciting.
In Palo Verde I also spent some quality time with Ant Acacias (and their nasty stinging ants). We were split into groups to do a day long field project and my group was investigating the correlation between Acacia thorn size and the number/development stage of the ants inside. Perhaps this requires a little bit of explanation: Acacias are shrubby trees that have a symbiotic relationship with ants. The tree gives the ants food and housing and the ants terrorize anything that is within biting/stinging distance. The results of our project showed that bigger thorns housed more ants and ant bites hurt like hell (nasty nasty little buggers).
Hmmm, what else? Someone found a scorpion in their bed on the first night, that was exciting. We mist netted for bats. One of the bats died (not from my group!) and the guys pocketed it in hopes of playing a really evil practical joke on someone. Unfortunatly, egg-fryingly hot weather does really bad things to dead mammals and the bat carcass did not last long enough to make its way into anyone's mosquito netting. Disappointing, but there was a great prank pulled off envolving a very large cane toad and a professor's tent, so all is not lost.
Our adventure continued to Liberia. We stayed in Liberia for two days, but each day took a trip to reserves nearby. Santa Rosa: trees, monkeys, monkeys in trees, monkeys in trees hunting down a squirrel and then eating it in a rather disturbing manner. We happened to be in Liberia at the same time the town was having a giant party in celebration of its existance. Pretty much drinking in the streets and sketchy carnival rides and a bull ring that might have collapsed at any moment. I walked back with two of my classmates and somehow managed to get lost. We got a cab and discovered 30 seconds later that we had been about 2 blocks ( and 1500 colones, less then 3 dollars) from the hotel.
The next day we visited Rincon de la Vieja (a very nifty park) and only had to learn one new species (it was a day off). We hiked to an awesome waterfall/swimming spot, watched a group of spider monkeys chase off a group of white faced capuchin monkeys, saw a 2 m long Tiger rat snake (I think thats the name, I am too lazy to go check though), and pretty much had an awesome day.
Sometime after all this excitment we made it to Monteverde, but those stories will have to wait because my caffeine buzz is starting to wear off and I still have to memorize about 100 species' information before I go to sleep (which reminds me, I want to breifly groan about my lack of sleep... why must breakfast be at 7am, with class at 8am.... EVERY DAY!? like today: 7am breaky, 8am-3pm species reports while hiking straight up a mountain, 30 min walk to spanish class, 3:30 -5:30 spanish class, 6 pm dinner, 7pm epiphyte lecture, 8pm until I pass out from exhaustion = study time. And it all starts again tomorrow. I am loving every minute of it, but at the same time, this is actually more exhausting then school at Berkeley.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


Two weeks ago we left behind the internet access and air conditioning of San Jose and went careening down the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The city was rapidly replaced by leafy walls of green as our quasi-suicidal bus driver (this is actually a compliment, because all the other drivers down here are completly suicidal) deftly manuveered the vehicle down the tangle of asphalt known as the Pan-American Highway. In Sierpe we learned about mangroves, bug bites, and certain group members' inability to tolerate boats. The next day, armed with our newly acquired knowledge of who was most likely to puke over the side of the boat, we set off for the San Pedrillo station in Corcavado National Park.
Pretty much AMAZING, yep, that sums it up. We camped for 5 days along the beach and I discoverd how silly I was to have brought a winter sleeping bag... it hasn't left my backpack. There was much learning to be done, despite our classroom's existance as a tropical paradise. It turns out that this program will be a lot of work, probably a good thing, I guess.... An adequate course description might be "Knowing everything about everything". I predict some serious study time in my near future. I admit, I should have studied in Corcavado, but each night seemed better spent tromping through the rain forest harassing poisonous snakes and poking rare frogs... four nights in a row and I still haven't seen a Fer de Lance in the wild, so disappointing... but the spider monkeys, gladiator frog, tamandua, crocodile, Turnip tailed gecko, howler monkeys, rocket frogs,.......etc.... all might make it worthwhile.
Our days, and often nights, were filled to the brim with things like island biodiversity lectures, organized lizard chasing, species reports, and sunscreen application. So much to do and see, soooo little will power to sit down and put it to paper.
To sum up for the time being, the other folks in the program seem to possess an adequate amount of nerdy biologist-ness to make for a very entertaining and cohesive group. The profesors and TA s are awesome. I have decided that I am rather fond of rice and beans (also beans and rice, and beans mixed with rice, and rice mixed with beans....really the options are endless). Our first field trip continues to Carara National Park and perhaps some time in the not too distant future I might be convinced to write again (stranger things have been known to happen).

Friday, February 9, 2007

Made it to Costa Rica

I have arrived in Costa Rica! Our first day was quite an adventure. I have been in the country less then 24 hours and already I have had an orientation lecture, toured a history museum, visited a center for producing snake antivenom, and survived being dropped off at El Mercado Central with the assignment of buying an assigned fruit and learning its natural history and cultural importance.... in spanish.
The best part of the day... a toss up between learning how to make chile relleno from a shoe sales person (my fruit was a chile, and we were loking for rubber boots)and watching incredibly poisonous snakes be milked for there venom (yep, thats a Fer-de-lance!)

Right, so there are about 6 people who really want to use the internet and are hovering behind me.... so, now might be an excellent time to relinquish the ethernet cord. alas.

Saturday, February 3, 2007


Pictures from my trip to Texas. The salamander pictures were taken at the National Fish Hatchery and Technology Center in San Marcos, Texas (conveniently located in the same town as my grandma).
Eurycea rathbunihehe, this is cool

Salamanders are nifty!Eurycea nana
Scorpions: they give you much more interesting pictures after being poked.I rolled all these logs and all I got was this lousy scorpion!

(probably should mention that the scorpion was all of an inch long and at 40 deg F outside, was not moving very fast)