Ecology in action at the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste

My trip to Pitilla (Biological Station, Costa Rica) this year started with a high speed chase. I had stayed longer than I planned at the ATBC conference, and when my taxi reached the bus stop, the bus had just left. The woman who ran the little soda next to the bus stop, however, had the driver’s cell phone number, a rendezvous was arranged, and the taxi driver dove back into the taxi and careened through the streets of San Jose to the bus waiting by the side of the highway. Only in Costa Rica!

When I arriDianePhone20122013 450ved at the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste, six hours later, I found all the park guards and parataxonomists with Bushnell binoculars around their necks, a copy of the Birds of Costa Rica (Spanish edition) in their hands, and a frenzy of excited activity. Everyone was compiling a bird list for the last week, part of a program created by Maria Marta Chavarria and Frank Joyce to train park personnel in bird identification. Spinoff benefits included having park personnel more intimately involved in understanding the biodiversity around them, and providing a skill easily transferable to ecotourism. Another big initiative underway was selling carbon credits, originating from recently purchased land undergoing reforestation. The proceeds of the carbon agreement are to go towards funding the parataxonomists salaries for another five years, a welcome bit of job security.

All is not rosy in the park, though, with a large political storm brewing over the government’s intention to cut down 1000 ha of pristine old growth tropical rainforest on the slopes of Rincon de la Vieja to build a geothermal plant, despite attempts by the ACG to find a less destructive compromise. Relations have deteriorated, to say the least. On the eve of my arrival, the government had impounded the field vehicles used by some of the parataxonomists who work with a well-known tropical biologist.

One of the main reasons for my trip to Pitilla was to sit down with the managers of the Del Oro orange company, who have let us access for the last six years a number of forest fragments embedded in their orange fields. This research has generally shown that forest fragments are not identical to intact forest in functioning and biodiversity, but are similar enough that they are important in maintaining in the landscape.  Del Oro is currently using biological control on part of its lands, in an effort to reduce populations of psyllids that are potential vectors of a devastating bacterial disease, and I was able to tour their large parasitoid rearing facility that produced millions of parasitoid wasps each year.

My other reason for the trip was to take microscope photographs of bromeliad insects to supplement our growing website for bromeliad insect identification. As we look closer and closer at the insects, we are starting to see diversity within diversity; what we thought was one species of orthocladine chironomid is now at least two, possibly three, species, indistinguishable under a hand lens!

Horses, birds and bromeliads – all in a day’s work

This blog startsDianePhone20122013 464 and ends on a horse.  The park guard, Ronald, had asked me to accompany him on a ride around the park, and I jumped at the chance. Our first job on horseback was to find the white mare and the mule that had gone AWOL. A few years ago, almost all the horses were stolen in the night, so missing horses are always a concern. But the mare and mule were found, so it was time to settle in the saddle and start birdwatching. Horses turn out to be great for birdwatching, like a seat in the sky, until they start squirming. Of course Ronald merely glanced at the toucans (both species) before fixing his attention on some little brown birds in the shrubs, whereas I was transfixed like a tourist on the flashy big stuff like oropendulas and trogans. I was excited to find some patches of large Vriesea bromeliads, approaching the densities that there once were at Pitilla before the forest shaded them out. We stopped for coffee at another field station, before leaving the road for a trail that closed in around us until it was like a limbo contest to avoid the overhead vines and branches. Soon we were travelling across hills of regenerating secondary forest punctuated by valley of more mature forest with streams, hanging on to the saddle strap as the horses plunged down muddy slopes. By the time we got back to the station, after 8 hours of riding, pretty much every part of my body was sore!

The inspiration of Pati Ortiz

The bioluminosa left by Pati at Pitilla, one field course
The bioluminosa sticker left by Pati at Pitilla

In the equipment room, at Estación Biológica Pitilla (Costa Rica), there is a sticker on a cabinet that says “bioluminosa” – the artistic signature of Patricia (Pati) Ortiz – with the letters morphing into trees, ferns, wings, insects…everything that Pati loved. Pati died tragically 7 March, 2013, by the San Luis waterfall near Monteverde, when she ran to help a student struck by a falling rock and was herself fatally hit in the head by another rock. I first met Pati in 1997, the first year I started doing research at Pitilla, when my weeks of solitary research in the jungle were interrupted by the arrival a field course of rambunctious Californian undergraduates. Ably sherperding them was Frank Joyce, and his team of TAs drawn from throughout Central and South America, including Pati – from Ecuador. We instantly became friends.

From Frank Joyce.
Pati and son Genero, in 2012 (photo courtesy Frank Joyce).

She was a dynamo of energy, enthusiasm and passion for ecology, as delighted in showing students a mite on an opillionid leg as teaching them the Spanish lyrics to songs on her guitar. Over the years, I learnt a lot about tropical ecology by hanging out with Pati and Frank on the annual visits of the field course to Pitilla, backpacking with them to Peñas Blancas, or visiting them at Monteverde. However, I probably learnt even more about how to be a whole ecologist. The extraordinary thing about Pati was that she managed to integrate ecology with every part of her being, whether it was as a scientific researcher, an educator, a filmmaker or an artist. Pati did a MSc at the University of Costa Rica, and when I visited her there she was eager to show me the video she had just shot of an unusually complex courtship behaviour of her study organism – a fly. That video became a short film that was shown to acclaim at film festivals, and Pati enrolled in a New Zealand program to learn the ins and outs of natural history film making.

It was a few years before I saw her again, amazingly once again at Pitilla where she had rejoined teaching the field course. We had both become mothers then and had almost identically-aged children, but nothing else had changed: Pati was still bursting with delight in life and nature. She was just completing a one hour documentary, telling the story of a river from its source on the slopes of Monteverde to its finale in the mangroves of the Pacific coast. At first she tried to simply narrate it, but then decided that she had to put herself in it, swimming up to her underwater camera to point out a caddisfly on a rock. She also composed music in which she overlaid the sound of the river with her voice singing. It was this same river that she would later die next to, the one that she was so much a part of and was so much a part of her. Everything she was comes together in that tragic moment: the rainforest, the river, the teaching and helping others. Pati Ortiz left far more than a bioluminosa sticker at Pitilla, she left the imprint of her joy in nature in me and a thousand more. Thank you Pati.
Pati talks about her teaching at:
Pati’s “El Rio” water music: