¡Pura Vida!

It’s a questionable move to base your choice of university on the field course options they offer, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t influence my desicion at all. The chance to travel to Costa Rica in the easter break of my second year was too great to pass, and so I found myself wandering around the narrow rainforest pathways that snake throughout La Selva Biological Research Station for one glorious week in April 2016.

Still lacking a DSLR at this point, I took with me my sister’s Panasonic and my iPhone 6S. Rather foolishly, I massively underestimated the humidity of a cloud rainforest on the equator in April, and very nearly returned with neither. I think that camera still hasn’t fully recovered.

Landing in San José, my coursemates and I spent the first day of our trip on a guided tour of La Paz animal sanctuary and waterfalls, and the (supposedly) magnificent Poas volcano. I say ‘supposedly’ because, unfortunately for us, low cloud cover and high altitude meant we never actually saw the crater thanks to the thick fog we were engulfed in. Still, it was a wonderful day in a beautiful setting, and resulted in some of my favourite pictures from the trip.

If you ever get the chance to visit La Paz, you will find a small paved clearing in the centre of the sanctuary that contains a tree adorned with several bird feeders. Here, hundreds of hummingbirds of countless different species gather to feed in a spectacular display. They’re wild, but tame, and completely mesmerising. They’re also very difficult to photograph without a camera capable of keeping up with their sudden and rapid movements, so unfortunately I returned with very few good shots of them, despite spending over an hour stood in their midst.

Elsewhere, a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds recline in their enclosures. One of my personal favourite sections of the centre was the series of rooms filled with free-roaming red-eyed tree frogs and poison dart frogs, where I was able to photograph these captive anurans to my heart’s content. The toucan enclosure allows visitors to walk in and see these magnificent birds up close – something which really highlights the impressive nature of their enormous bills. Some birds in the centre are even free to roam around, such as the crested guan pictured below, although I was fortunate enough to see these again in the wild once we reached the research station later on in our trip.

The next day, we headed to La Selva, a short drive north-east of the capital. It’s truely stunning here – miles and miles of primary cloud rainforest, all accessible by a network of winding pathways and dirt tracks (although you’re advised to stay on the concrete ones if you want to avoid the snakes). The dorms and living facilities are linked to the laboratories and study centre by a bridge that floats high above the dividing river, with the forest stretching back behind this as far as the eye can see.

The biodiversity here is unlike anything I have ever seen before, with hundreds of species of birds in glorious colours and the opportunity for close encounters with all three monkey species found in the country – spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and white-faced capuchins. I was fortunate to see all of these. Caiman and peccaries are a dime a dozen, and if you look really hard you might see a three-toed sloth, an opossum, or an agouti. There’s even a puma known to live in the swamp just minutes from where we slept.

For my field project, my group and I conducted a survey of mammals in the area using camera traps and acoustic recorders. The first night we set up the cameras, I spotted a fresh puma print in the mud below the walkway that ran through the swamp, and from then on we returned every night in the hope of catching a shot of it. Unfortunately this notoriously illusive animal outsmarted us every time, but we were able to gather some great data about the rest of the animals found here, capturing peccaries, a nine-banded armadillo, an agouti, and numerous other non-mammalian species such as a green ibis during our short stay. Please be aware that the date and time stamps on the camera trap images shown below are incorrect – the settings on each camera were configured by laboratory technicians prior to us obtaining them, and we were not able to change these once the project had begun.

With regards to the acoustic recorders, we obtained data relating to over 300 individual bats from at least nine species, while our whole cohort of thirty coursemates were able to identify over 160 species present in the area across several different research projects. Specifically, my group were looking at whether or not the mammalian species composition of ‘open’ areas of the centre differed to that of ‘forested’ areas, and ultimately found that while the bat species found in each habitat are different, we could not collect sufficient camera trap data in such a short space of time to draw effective conclusions. Regardless, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to work with this technology, as I think it holds great promise in the future of wildlife filmmaking and scientific research alike, particularly when it comes to capturing footage of rarer species in less accessible areas.

By the time we left, my camera was seriously struggling. My pictures were appearing increasingly grainy or out of focus, to the point that you can probably use the image quality to judge when I took them. Understandably, most of these have not made it to this blog. Nonetheless, the images shown here are some of my favourites from my three years at university.

I remember at one point, while showing our lecturer a picture I had taken of a bird to ask him what species it was, he remarked that he thought I took good photos. I later found out that he has worked with the BBC’s natural history unit on a few occasions, so I take this passing comment as a major compliment as I expect he’s seen far better from them.

Hopefully one day I can return to this part of the world and build on the collection – I still regret not getting any good shots of the monkeys, or that sneaky puma.

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