Archive for the ‘Jim Karr’ Category

Costa Rica’s Natural Heritage

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

James Karr, Smithsonian Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip. Smithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

***

A Smithsonian Journeys expedition to Costa Rica is like a birthday party: you know you’ll get gifts, but you don’t know what. You can guess some gifts from the itinerary, but the best ones are the surprises—the unexpected encounters, the memorable experiences.

People. The camaraderie of our groups is always a gift: It’s a pleasure to meet travelers, who, no matter what their backgrounds and reasons for choosing a Smithsonian trip, inevitably form a cohesive and communal group. The enthusiasm of fellow travelers is contagious and enriches all of us. But nothing matches the welcoming smiles and friendliness of the Costa Ricans themselves.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Visits to a local school are a highlight of our travels in Costa Rica.

Places. Two volcanoes have star billing on our Costa Rican itinerary, yet both can be hard to see as clouds swirl up their slopes and around their peaks. But in February 2013, we had clear skies from horizon to horizon and got a spectacular view inside the caldera of Poas Volcano.  This was the first time in eight trips that I saw Poas in full splendor. Wow! What a gift!

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Fog characteristic of cloud forests often partially or, as in this case, completed obscures the volcanic caldera of Poas Volcano only a few hundred feet away. March 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Poas Volcano caldera unobscured by clouds and fog. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

As we travel, we crisscross the Continental Divide, the ridgeline splitting rainfall flowing to the Caribbean from rain flowing to the Pacific. The scenery is magnificent, with forests—often protected in national parks and reserves—giving way to cattle ranches and farms growing bananas, plantain, pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, mangos, and more. The last days of our trip, we walk a sheltered Pacific Coast beach, feeling relaxed, meditative.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

A special dinner on the beach during our last night at the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. March 232, 2013. Photo by Edward Getley.

Plants and Animals. The multicolored splendor of flowering trees in the tropics is rarely matched in any temperate forest. And when the fruits ripen, we find many mammals and birds lured to the fruiting tree. White-faced and howler monkey troops travel along treetop highways, seeking food, defending territories, and watching over their young.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A curious white-faced monkey encountered during a boat trip on the Tempisque River. March 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Our daily bird walks usually produce a group list of 140 to 160 species. The resplendent quetzal, a species considered one of the world’s most beautiful birds, is a must-see for many traveling with us, and we are often lucky enough to find one. Sometimes, we’ll also spot the tiny six-inch ferruginous pygmy owl, which hunts insects at dawn and dusk, and hummingbirds feeding their young in the nest.

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

A ferruginous pygmy owl forages in the trees on the grounds of the Hotel Casa Conde del Mar. February 22, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr

We rarely see snakes, but the five-to-six-inch orange-kneed tarantula sometimes startles us.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

An orange-kneed tarantula observed on a night walk at Monteverde. March 21, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Experiences. Some of our most memorable events are serendipitous. Once, a restaurant lunch stop led to an invitation to visit a server’s relative, who was harvesting a local palm wine, and  we were treated to an impromptu wine tasting.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

A Costa Rican farmer and his son filter and bottle palm wine collected from the trunks of palm trees. March 31, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another time, our tour director invited us to his family home, where the garden overflowed with 800 species of orchids. We met his family,  including his grandfather, who, at more than 100 years of age, tends the orchids every day.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Orchid expert and tour director Randall Obsney (right) with his parents and grandfather at the family home and orchid garden. February 15, 2013, Photo by Jim Karr.

Then, pausing in a shelter to avoid an afternoon downpour, we found a gift of artwork: motorbike tires crafted into toucans!

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

Toucan art crafted from a motorbike tire. February 15, 2013. Photo by Jim Karr.

 

Each trip gives new gifts to everyone, not least of which is the chance to share them with fellow Smithsonian Journeys travelers.

***

To learn more about out our Costa Rica’s Natural Treasures tour click here.

In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal

Friday, May 25th, 2012

James Karr, Smithsonian Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is Professor Emeritus of Ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. Below is the second of two posts about the trip.

At our welcome meeting in San José, several participants spoke of their hope to see the legendary quetzal, the near mythical trogon with an iridescent emerald green back and, in the male, a ruby red breast and belly. Making the male even more gaudy, he sports on his 15-inch body, iridescent green feathers that extend up to 30 inches beyond his tail.

The group had its chance to look for the quetzal a few days later while visiting the Monte Verde forest. The search for quetzals often involves finding a fruiting tree in the avocado family, a favorite food of quetzals; the search also involves listening for their characteristic “kyow, kyow” call. To our dismay, we reached the end of our trail at a waterfall without finding a fruiting tree or hearing the call of the quetzal. Local workers even noted that the quetzals had moved out of the area.

But fear not, we had an even better treat ahead. Shortly after we turned back to return to the visitor’s center, we found a pair of quetzals, with the male working diligently to excavate a tree cavity for a nest site. After watching the birds for an extended period, we moved down the trail. As a bonus, our return route took us past yet another pair of quetzals, also excavating a nest cavity. In this case, the female was excavating while the nearby male called. By the end of our walk, we saw as many as 8 to 10 quetzals. I have visited this area of Costa Rica many times, but this was the first visit giving an opportunity to see adults excavating nest cavities.

Quetzals, Costa Rica

Quetzals excavating nest cavities. (The dark forest made it difficult to obtain high quality photographs without disturbing the energetic birds only a few feet away.) Photos (left and bottom right) by R. Tinko-Russell; photo (top right) by Jim Karr.

A Resplendent Quetzal, Costa Rica.

A Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Jim Karr.

Another highlight of our travels in Costa Rica was seeing a male green basilisk lizard sunning on a streamside rock.

Basilisk lizard

A male green basilisk lizard. Photo by Jim Karr.

Throughout the trip, the tour director, coach driver, and I were able to show participants things that I have seen many times before. But I was also delighted to see plants and animals not seen on earlier trips. We saw more in two weeks than many early explorers were able to see in months of demanding travel.

Smithsonian Journeys group by a waterfall in Costa Rica

The Smithsonian Journeys group near a waterfall at Monte Verde before the first quetzal spotting. Photo by Jim Karr.

Read Jim Karr’s previous post, “Sampling Exotic Fruits in Costa Rica,” and learn more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Costa Rica adventure trip here.

Sampling Exotic Fruits in Costa Rica

Friday, May 25th, 2012

James Karr, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderSmithsonian Study Leader Jim Karr is professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Washington, Seattle, specializing in tropical ecology, ornithology, water resources, and environmental policy. He also served as deputy director of Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for four years in the 1980s. On his most recent trip with Smithsonian Journeys, he guided a group to some of his favorite locations in Costa Rica. In the post below, the first of two about the trip, Karr provides a guide to some of the exotic fruits encountered (and sampled) by the group along the way.

Volcan Poas

Looking down into the crater of Poas Volcano. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Carlos Reusser Monsalvez.

Poas Volcano, the primary destination for our first day in Costa Rica, is one of several active volcanoes in the country. After a short walk to the caldera rim at 8,740 feet, we descended the mountain and encountered the roadside fruit markets so characteristic of the Costa Rican countryside. A quick stop yielded a basket of plump, sweet strawberries grown in the rich soils on the slopes of the volcano. The strawberries disappeared within a few minutes!

The next day, en route to our hotel at the base of the Arenal Volcano, we again stopped at a roadside market to see and taste fresh tropical fruits. The group recognized many familiar supermarket staples. Even familiar fruits, however, picked locally at the peak of ripeness, provided unexpected taste sensations: pineapples, bananas, mangoes, papayas, and others.

Papaya and Guanabana (soursop) fruit

Papaya and Guanabana (soursop) fruit. Photos by Jim Karr.

Other fruits were unknown to most on the trip. A refreshing drink from guanabana (soursop) tempted us often over the two week trip, and we sampled the soft flesh of cacao to find the seeds, which are ground to yield chocolate.

Cacao fruit

Cacao fruit. Photos by Jim Karr.

Another exotic fruit, the marañón has two distinct segments, a soft apple-like fruit and an appendage that includes the nut we know as a cashew. One can make a jam, a refreshing drink, or ferment the fruit to produce wine. The attached shell contains the cashew nut, but it must be roasted to avoid its naturally toxic content.

Marañón (cashew nut) fruit

Marañón (cashew nut) fruit.

Read Jim Karr’s second post from the trip, “In Search of the Resplendent Quetzal,” and learn more about Smithsonian Journeys’ Costa Rica adventure trip here.