Zip-lining through the mist in Costa Rica

January 23rd, 2015 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
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One last bird, before I return to plants! The blue-crowned mot mot, photo by Michael Hobbs.

After reading through the blog posts about my recent trips to Cuba and the Costa Rica trip just concluded, I have realized I am becoming one of those people. You know. Bird people. The ones who get excited about the birds they are seeing, missing out on the fabulous plants altogether. Okay, well maybe not that extreme – I still get pretty excited about the plants, but I am starting to see the attraction of birds. Especially large, colorful birds like the mot mots, which sit still long enough for you to find them in the binoculars. I don’t expect to become a birdaholic like many of my fellow travelers, especially if it means getting up before dawn, but I do see the attraction.

As for plants, in addition to the Gunnera insignis that I mentioned earlier, my second favorite new species in Costa Rica is probably Pitcairnia brittoniana. It is a epiphytic bromeliad that grows on the sides of trees or embankments with an impossibly red inflorescence that also grows sideways, rather than the upright form of most bromeliads. Its vibrancy shouts “look at me!” through the gloom of the cloudy forests of Monteverde.

 

The dramatic Pitcairnea flower.

The dramatic Pitcairnea flower.

Another favorite at Monteverde was a liana in the pea family. For many years it has been known as Mucuna urens, but recent studies have thrown that species into question. The seeds are quite large and the pods have an interesting reticulated pattern. They provide nectar to the bats which pollinate the flowers, food for the larvae of the beautiful large blue morpho butterflies in the forests, and the large seeds are food for agoutis, a common large rodent. And they look cool.

Our guide, Jimmy, show us the large pods and seeds of Mucuna.

Our guide, Jimmy, show us the large pods and seeds of Mucuna.

It was also fun to see so many of the houseplants we grow in their native habitat. The split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa) was everywhere. Plants in the African violet family, like Columneas (goldfish plant), were both understory and epiphytic plants. Dieffenchias (dumb cane) found in every bank lobby in North America, are tropical understory species that are a favorite food of peccaries, a kind of wild pig. And the orchids were amazing – we visited an orchid garden that had only orchids found in Monteverde – and there were hundreds of them.

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The view from our water taxi as we sped across Lago Arenal towards Monteverde.

But back to the trip: we left Volcan Arenal by boat, specifically an open-sided sort of water taxi that unofficially operates on Lago Arenal, a lake greatly enlarged by a dam to generate electricity. “Unofficially,” because the government agency that manages the dams does not want it used for such things, though it is clearly very common. It was misty as we crossed the water, landing at a location that is apparently a major ferry stopping point for travelers (lots of backpackers!) making their way between the cloud forests of Monteverde and Arenal. Despite the apparently hundreds of people using the site for embarking/disembarking every day, we scrambled up a muddy slope. Our guide, Jimmy, said that they do not put in pavement and steps because it is an “unofficial” landing spot.

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The ferry landing near Monteverde, with mobs of backpackers coming and going.

We bumped along in our hired van for about an hour, before landing at our very nice hotel, with fantastic views out to the Pacific Ocean. The next morning we had our excursion to the cloud forest, where we reveled in spotting the Resplendent Quetzal. In the afternoon several of us experience zip-lining for the first time. It was supposed to be a canopy line, but it was VERY cloudy – and windy – as we allowed ourselves to be clipped to cables to zip off into the unknown – truly unknown because you could not see more than a few yards into the clouds. Forget seeing much of the canopy. It is bizarre to see your friends zipping off and disappearing into a cloud and even more bizarre to do it yourself. More than once, we questioned our wisdom at embarking on this journey, especially as the winds whipped at us. By the end, they were sending us down two at a time (legs of the rear person wrapped around the body of the front person) to increase the weight and prevent us from getting stuck part-way across because of our cable attachments “braking” on the cable as we were tossed around by the wind. It was a grand adventure but we were all (except maybe Jana) relieved to come to the last of the eight lines.

After the intense experiences we had together, it was sad to have our final dinner, knowing that by early morning some of us would be heading home, while others went on to further adventures in Costa Rica. It was a great group to travel with! We shared some amazing adventures and I can’t wait to meet up with them again soon.

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We visited an orchid garden in Monteverde, where our young enthusiastic guide reminded me of our own gardener, Riz Reyes.

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Our happy group. Our guide, Jimmy, is kneeling in the front and our driver, Enrique, is standing in a blue shirt.

 

Getting a Glimpse of the Elusive Resplendent Quetzal

January 16th, 2015 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
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Our Resplendent Quetzal, captured by using a cell phone through a spotting scope, not the best way to document his resplendentness.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, resplendent is defined as “shining brilliantly” and “characterized by glowing splendor.” Having now fulfilled a dream of more than 23 years, I have finally seen the bird given the name of “Resplendent Quetzal” and I have to say, the name is not adequate. It should be the “Amazing, Unbelievably Resplendent Quetzal.”

The species is becoming increasingly rare, as its habitats in Central America are lost to development, especially for ranching. Our guide, Jimmy, warned us that it was be very unlikely that we would see one at Monteverde, a cloud forest region of Costa Rica. But knowing that they primarily eat fruits from the avocado family (Lauraceae) he asked the local guides where there might be one in fruit, and led us to it. Sure, enough, a gorgeous male bird sat high on a branch! He sat there very obligingly, allowing us to find him with a spotting scope and binoculars. Frustratingly, though, he sat where no matter what angle we tried to get, his head was blocked by either a leafy branch or some moss dangling down. But we were able to clearly see his brilliant red belly, vibrant iridescent green back, and the streaming green tail up to two feet long! Amazing. Unbelievable. Resplendent. Indeed!

Quetzals are classified as trogons, an order of colorful tropical birds. They are large (easy to spot!) and primarily eat plants and insects. Trogons are found worldwide, but the Resplendent Quetzal is found only in cooler forests from Guatemala to Panama. It is the national bird of Guatemala and the name of their currency is called the quetzal.  Another beautiful trogon, the Cuban trogon, is found only in Cuba and was a top find in our previous trips there.

Finding and communing with this beautiful bird was deeply satisfying. After years of looking, I was able share moments with this rare and elusive bird. It also leaves me a little sad, having met my quest. What should I be looking for next? What will be my next biological pursuit?

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Resplendent Quetzal. Photo by Frank Vassen.

In Pursuit of Costa Rican Birds

January 12th, 2015 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

What a day we had yesterday! My husband Brian and I woke early to go on a bird walk with our guide, Jimmy, and Michael and Janka Hobbs. Michael is quite an expert on birds and Janka is pretty good too. We did not see much in the way of birds, but there were two classical fountains out in the middle of a pasture that made no sense at all. I presume that someone got a good deal on them and put them out to water livestock, but why put out the entire thing and not just the base?

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This classical fountain was one-of-two mysteriously found in a pasture near Volcan Arenal.

 

Anyway, after breakfast we headed out to the Arenal Hanging Bridges. They are about 5 miles of a loop trail that takes one across several high hanging bridges at the level of the canopy. The bridges would be pretty scary, except that we have been over a number already at other sites and are something of pros at scampering across. Still, 9-10 stories high on a flimsy swinging bridge is pretty sobering.

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Brian Reichard exits one of the many bridges at the Arenal Hanging Bridges. Many of the swinging suspension-bridges are more than 90 feet from the bottom.

 

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Great Curassow. Photo by Tambako the Jaguar

This started out as a nice hike. We spotted a male Great Curassow  who played hide and seek with us in the underbrush. We hiked along for a while and then Jimmy spotted a few birds downhill that got his interest. We stopped and as we looked we realized there was a huge mixed flock of birds a ways downhill from us. As he and Michael called them out and pointed with a green laser where we should look, Jimmy realized that they were all ant eating birds. He theorized they were following swarming army ants. Then the birds got progressively closer to us, which made them much easier to see, but it also meant the army was heading right for us. We were seeing both broad-billed and rufous motmots, several tanagers, ant-eaters, etc. etc. We all got very excited and were calling out names and yelling “where? where?” as each new species was called out. It was very intense. I meant to step back and take a photo of us being intense, but it was so intense that I forgot to take a photo of us being intense. Let’s just say, when other people came down the trail, we tried to explain and they just gave us a look that said “ooooookaaaaaayyyy” as they quickly slipped by.  This went on for at least an hour. It got to the point where we could see the swarm of ants (though they were very small, so no good photos) and other insects scurried to get out of their way. Pity the poor pillbug like bugs. As they got close, the birds were so close we could nearly touch them. Finally, the ants got to where we had been standing and we had to move or be bitten ourselves. It was amazing. Michael Hobbs, our bird expert, said he added about 15 new life species to his list in that hour. There were at least 20 species following those army ants.

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Great Curassow. Photo by Amy McAndrews

But the surprises where not over. We went back to the hotel for lunch and a look around the area, then headed out to one of the hot springs around Volcan Arenal. As we headed down the long road to the main road, our driver, Enrique, suddenly stopped. We all looked to see why and next to us, sitting in the grass, was a crested owl. There was a moment when we all sat stunned, looking at it and going “WHOA! What the heck!” and then we all dove for our cameras. Unfortunately, before we could get them ready, he flew off into some adjoining trees.

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Crested Owl. Photo by Amy McAndrews

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The somewhat fuzzy bird in the central right part of the photo is a broad-billed motmot.

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The bridge seen in the lower part of the photo was one we had crossed earlier. This was taken from a bridge.

Living the Pura Vida in Costa Rica

January 9th, 2015 by UWBG Communication Staff
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Iguanas bask in a tree near a rest stop where we got amazing ice cream.

On the morning of January 7th, after our typical breakfast of amazing fresh fruit, eggs, and gallo pinto, the national breakfast dish made of yesterday’s leftover rice and beans, we headed out to the Organization for Tropical Studies field site, La Selva. In 1991 I took the 2 month field course in tropical ecology and much of the time was at La Selva. It looked much the same, with the same bridge high over the Rio Puerto Viejo, the same dining hall, and the same space where feverish students struggled to make sense of the data they had collected earlier in the day. We had a local guide with us, but our guide, Jimmy, used to work there and also knew the place well. Right away we saw some peccaries, a sort of wild pig, that can be smelled before seen (a sort of skunky smell). They seemed to know we were no threat, since they lived on a very large natural preserve, and just did their thing. We first hiked in second growth forest, which is obvious not just by species composition, but also by density of understory. Primary rainforests have little understory and that is mostly palms. On this hike we observed a very poisonous eyelash viper from a very safe distance. We also enjoyed watching a pale-billed woodpecker industriously remodeling his hole in  a tree snag.

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A pale-billed woodpecker grooms his home.

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Peccaries root around the forest floor.

After lunch, we went to a place where we learned about the indigenous people of the region. A local woman, Irma, is from a tribe native to Costa Rica, though not necessarily the group from the Rio Sarapiqui area. I had always heard that the indigenous people were not as productive and interesting as the Mayan, for instance. But Irma told us that the three tribes in the region came from Colombia, based on linguistics, but that they all developed their own syntax and customs. The group from Rio Sarapiqui were notable because they were matriarchal and polyandrous (women, especially high-ranking women, could have more than one husband). They also had interesting burial customs, burying the dead in a part of their conical-shaped hut.

From there it was a short walk away to La Tirimbina Reserve. There we hiked a bit and came to a hut where where we were told about the discovery of chocolate and our guide took us through the history of how it developed. We got to taste the goo around the fresh bean (very tropical fruit tasting), and then every step of the drying and roasting. They demonstrated making traditional hot chocolate (no milk, but spices like pepper, nutmeg, chili, etc).  We got to make our own custom blend. They then beat cocoa butters into it to make smooth and very delicious dark chocolate syrup. Then we got to taste solid milk and dark chocolate made there. It was a great afternoon!

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Janka Hobbs learns how to grind the roasted beans.

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We make our own custom blends of hot chocolate.

This morning we headed to Volcan Arenal. This Volcano was active for many years, but has been silent for about 5 years. When I was here in 1991 it was VERY active, spewing huge boulders out at us very stupid students who decided hiking up it was a good idea. After lunch and looking around La Fortuna, we headed up slope. We passed countless HUGE hotel complexes that were built during the active years and now are struggling. We kept going up and up, and then came to the entrance to our hotel, the Arenal Lodge. We then kept driving up their private drive anticipating our arrival. We were probably 15 minutes on this narrow winding road and were giving up ever arriving and then suddenly it was there. We were welcomed with a special cocktail (the gatekeepers had called to say were were on the way up, so they had plenty of time to prepare them…). We then went to our rooms, which are gorgeous and have what is probably an amazing view of Arenal, but we are socked in with mist right now. Hopefully it will clear up in the morning, when we have an early morning bird walk.

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Volcan Arenal, visible during a rare break in the clouds.

Tomorrow there are canopy walks (rumors of a zip line) then on to one of the many hot springs in the area. Knowing Holbrook’s knack for finding the best of the best, we are anticipating a very special afternoon and then dinner at the hotel where the spa is located. Just another day of what the Ticos (Costa Ricans) called the Pura Vida.

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Mother and kit racoons raid a bird-feeding station, just like at home. Seattle and Costa Rican racoons have much in common.

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Primary rainforest with a palm understory.

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Deadly eyelash viper.

Costa Rica Dispatch

January 7th, 2015 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

Wow. Just wow. We have been here less than 48 hours and it feels like a week! In a good way!

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A beautiful tropical valley.

We gathered together Monday morning, many of us meeting for the first time. We set off early, doing some cultural site-seeing. For instance, we saw the world’s largest ox-cart and a church made out of steel in the late 1800s. Then we were off to Else Kientzler Botanical Garden to start acquainting ourselves with the native flora. We then headed over the mountains from the Pacific side to the Caribbean, stopping at a couple of places that did a great job of attracting a variety of birds. We saw about 8 species of hummingbirds just on the first day (there are 48 species in the country, so still a ways to go). We also saw a new Gunnera species, well, new to me, Gunnera insignis. I loved it! I don’t think we can grow it but it was nice to add it to my life list. Then we landed at Selva Verde, an eco-resort owned by Holbrook Travel, the company we have used for our trips. It is a large parcel of second-growth forest, with lots to see and do. After a night walk that revealed the glowing eyes of a caimán and other interesting critters like a transparent frog, we settled down to hard rain beating on the metal roof that put us to sleep.

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Gunnera insignis! This was in a lovely park.

Many of us got up early for a bird walk, then after breakfast we set off for another hike through the forest, seeing interesting birds and plants. A highlight of this walk were the lovely plants in the coffee family known as “Hot Lips,” for the red sepals that attract pollinating birds. But as usual, sigh, it was a bird that stole our hearts. A large semiplumbeous hawk posed for us, while looking disdainfully down at us.

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A large semiplumbeous hawk.

This afternoon, my husband, Brian, Janka Hobbs, and I opted for an adventure river rafting down the Rio Sarapiquí. With all the heavy rain last night, the river was high and we had some good adrenaline rushes, without much danger. We saw several howler monkeys with their young in the trees above the river, and large orange iguanas sunning themselves high in the trees. The rest of our group opted for a more genteel cruise on a milder part of the river. They are not back yet, so their adventures are yet to be heard. Stay tuned! Tomorrow we visit a primary rainforest, which will reveal many interesting plants and animals!

 

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Our group scoping birds in the early morning.

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The world’s largest ox-cart!

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Gunnera insignous beside a beautiful waterfall.

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This church is made entirely of steel.

Orchids and Monkeys and Quetzals – OH MY!

July 28th, 2014 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

An Upcoming UW Botanic Gardens Adventure in Costa Rica

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Adventure awaits in Costa Rica with UW Botanic Gardens. Photo by Joanna Livingstone

One of the best things I did for myself during my graduate school days – no actually, in my whole life – was to take a two month tropical ecology class in Costa Rica from the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). Besides being in an incredibly beautiful place, I found myself in experiences that challenged me. Because I am a serious plant geek, I have always chosen projects relating to plants, but OTS would have none of that – we were assigned to work with various biologists and did projects relating to their specialties. Therefore, I spend a very memorable night trapping bats with a noted expert from the Smithsonian Museum, with a dawn serenade from howler monkeys all around us. I also worked on leaf cutter ants and poison dart frogs – and plants.

It was such a wonderful experience, that I felt no need to return to Costa Rica – until now. Holbrook Travel has organized a great trip that has many of the experiences I had with OTS, but a little safer. For instance, Holbrook can arrange for us to float in a raft on the Rio Sarapiqui. This river flows through the OTS La Selva station. Our field work was usually done in the morning and we would often run up the river a ways and then jump in the water fully clothed and float back to the field station to cool off before lunch. Between rocks and caimans we were probably flirting with more danger than we should, but we were in our 20s and had that live-forever mentality. I also spent a memorable evening with others in the class on Volcan Arenal, an active volcano, that resulted in our wandering in the dark as the volcano erupted, trying to find the bus that was coming to pick us up. Holbrook has placed us in the lovely Arenal Lodge, where we will be able to view the volcano and engage in a number of civilized activities.

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Photo by Dain Van Schoyck

We will also be visiting the high elevation Monteverde Reserve, where I am determined to see the Resplendent Quetzal! Despite many attempts to see this bird in Costa Rica and Guatemala, all involving me getting up in the wee hours of the morning, I have never seen it. In Guatemala I went to the place listed in all the guidebooks as the place you were guaranteed to see one. I heard them calling all around me (lovely call, by the way) but never saw one. To add further insult to injury, the woman who owned the property showed me a time-stamped photo taken the previous afternoon of three of these gorgeous birds sitting on a wire by her house! This time I will see one – I just KNOW it!

So come with me to Costa Rica! I can’t promise caimans and bats (and apparently not a Resplendent Quetzal), but I can promise fun and new experiences. We will very likely see all sorts of critters and certainly some amazing tropical rain forest plants. Oh and here is a tip – when we go out for a night walk to see nocturnal animals, bring a flashlight, but not a head lamp –a 6 inch moth banging into your head repeatedly is very distracting!

Download the itinerary for January 04, 2015 – January 13, 2015. Space is limited so register today!

It’s the People, People: UWBG Heads to Cuba AGAIN!

July 9th, 2013 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

The first time I heard about the plan to issue “People to People” licenses to travel legally to Cuba and have significant interactions with Cuban people, I knew it was something I wanted to do. My memories of hearing about Cuba go back to some of my earliest years.  I applied to the U.S. Department of Treasury that first year, was awarded a license, and off flew our intrepid group in 2012.  We met amazing people and had adventures both in Havana and in the nearby countryside and beyond.

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Talented young students in the KORIMACOA Project entertain us near The Bay of Pigs

 

During the second year our trip was organized under the auspices of another licensed non-profit called the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. This trip also visited many of the same sites, but we were much more successful at bird-watching on this trip and it was a revelation to me.  Our skilled guides helped us to see more amazing, endemic, birds than I could have ever imagined.

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Miquel Salcines explains about some of the products made at the organic farm near Havana

After I returned from this trip, I thought I would not return for at least a few years. Two years in a row was fun, but there are so many other great places to visit. But – the people I met in Cuba stayed strong in my mind. There was our first guide, Frank, whose mother got him through the starvation of The Special Period by getting him to focus on playing the piano. Our second guide, Yuli, talked frankly about being a young woman growing up after the Revolution. We watched her transform from a city girl who thought nature was icky, to an avid binocular-grasping birder calling out bird names in one afternoon. On both trips, my counterpart at the National Botanical Garden, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, talked with the same passion about “her” Garden as I talk about “mine.” Miquel Salcines and Norma Romero shared with us their stories about how Cuba was forced during The Special Period to embrace the principles of organic gardening, and how their innovative Alamar Organoponic Garden has provided food and so much more to the cooperative.  On this last trip, we met with Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, for a very frank discussion about Cuban-American relations. We saw very talented young people perform at both the Opera de la Calle and the KORIMACAO Project. And the person who returns to my mind most often is a young botanist, Alejandro González Álvarez, at the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture, who was filled with enthusiasm about plants and about the future. He would dearly love to be able to attend botanical conferences and workshops outside of Cuba. I have been unable to make this happen, but I do intend to keep trying.

I left Cuba this year, fully intending to not return for a few years, if at all. But people continued to ask me about whether I was going in 2014 and after a while, I realized that I was not ready to part from these people. One thing that really surprised me was that even though American visitors  to Cuba have greatly increased the last two years, all of these people, and those who stopped us on the streets of Havana, were so excited to meet us and share with us. I was stunned to find that in 2013, the people we had met with in 2012 – even just once – remembered me and were happy to see me return with more people. Our first guide, Frank, recognized me in a restaurant and warmly greeted me. Alejandro wanted to show me things that had changed since my first visit, with great pride.

So… UWBG is going to Cuba in 2014! Come with me and make memories of your own! Enjoy the stories, the plants, gardens, agriculture, birds, and so much more.  But it really is the people that will stay with you, people. Don’t miss this opportunity to share with them on our People-to-People trip. I plan to lead a trip to New Zealand in 2015 and because it would be at about the same time, I really won’t be going back for a while after this.

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Our nature guide in Soroa, Alberto, tries to lure birds by making very realistic calls, while our guide Frank (in red) and members of our tour watch

Cuba is for the birds!

March 29th, 2013 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
Cuban tody, Todus multicolor. Photo by Jerryoldenettel.

Cuban tody, Todus multicolor. Photo by Jerryoldenettel.
Despite appearances the Cuban Tody is not related to hummingbirds.

I like to study plants for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is that plants sit very politely waiting for me to come along and find them. And they continue to sit until I am through examining and enjoying them. Birds, on the other hand, must be hunted down and no sooner to you find them, then they fly away without any consideration for my desire to admire them. I enjoy bird-watching, but find it to be very frustrating.

Our 2012 trip to Cuba did nothing to change my opinion. Oh sure, we saw the Cuban Emerald hummingbird, but despite valiant tries, we were unsuccessful at finding the Bee Hummingbird, the smallest bird in the world. One of our group saw the Cuban Parrot, but the rest of us were unsuccessful.

So, while birdwatching was one of our planned activities and I dutifully took my binoculars, I had low expectations. Wow! Was I wrong! We pretty much saw every bird on our list. And I have a new favorite bird, one who totally stole my heart, the Cuban Tody.  That is one adorable bird!

Our bird-watching was supposed to start in Soroa, where we had again engaged a wonderful naturalist named Alberto to lead a walk. Unfortunately, Alberto called in unavailable that morning, and our terrific trip guide, Yuli, made some frantic phone calls and soon we headed to Las Terrazas for a very nice 4.5K hike with a guide named Miquel. That is where I saw my new avian love, the tody (could it not have been given a more suitably adorable name?). It sat over the trail on a branch and sang for us. We also saw the CubanTrogon which is the national bird of Cuba because its colors mimic the colors of the Cuban flag. It is also one good-looking bird. We also saw the Yellow-headed warbler and the Red-legged warbler on this walk.

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Bee Hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae. Photo by jonycunha.
The Bee Hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world.

This walk was not only exciting for me – I think it may have converted Yuli to a nature girl. Before we left Havana she said she was a city girl and did not like the countryside (she specifically mentioned frogs as undesirable denizens of the countryside). But on this walk, she borrowed Miquel’s binoculars and soon was knowledgeably tossing out names of the birds we saw a second time. I teased her later that when she finishes guiding she was going to become an ornithologist.

But our next hike, on the Zapata Peninsula, was truly amazing. When our bus pulled up, our hike guide Orlando, met us and asked if we would like to see the Bee Hummingbird. Seriously? And there they were, swarming around palm flowers. If he could deliver those 60 seconds after we were off the bus, we were in for a great walk! And we were. Later he took us to a stump with a couple of holes, positioned us, and motioned for us to be quiet. He went over the stump and scratched it with his fingernails and out popped a male Screech Owl! After that, he confidently said we would later see the Cuban Pygmy Owl, the smallest owl in the world. I thought to myself that there is no way he could be sure of that and he really should not promise it, but…sure enough, later on he pointed to a branch and there was the owl! I could not see a tether on his leg, so I assume that Orlando had just lived there so long and was such an avid birder, he knew where each individual bird hung out.

Cuban screech owl, Glaucidium siju. Photo by lgooch.

Cuban screech owl, Gymnoglaux lawrencii. Photo by lgooch.
The Cuban Screech Owl is found only in Cuba and nest in abandoned woodpecker holes.

Cuban pygmy owl, Glaucidium siju. Photo by copepodo.
The Cuban Pygmy Owl is the smallest of the world’s 200 owl species.

Another fun bird that we saw here, as well as at our hotel in Soroa, was the Great Lizard Cuckoo. These birds are quite large, with very long tail feathers. The way they move around a tree looks exactly like a squirrel. They were great fun to watch.

As for the rest of the birds we saw in Zapata…all the birds we saw in Las Terrazas (Todys!) but also the Magnolia Warbler in on its winter vacation, the Black-throated Blue Warbler, West Indies Woodpecker, Northern Flickers (looking much like the ones in my garden in Seattle), Zenaida Dove, and so many other species that I don’t have room to write them all.  We did NOT see the Cuban Crow, despite much looking. I guess there is a reason to go back…

I may not shift to studying birds instead of plants, but I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into bird-watching in Cuba. I think I understand now why people work so hard to find those little winged jewels in the trees. And they have so amazing endemic species, found only in Cuba, that it was a real treat to be able to see them.

As we approach one month from our return, I am still pondering what I have learned in my two trips to Cuban. I will try to share my thoughts in the coming week.

Cuba, Una Vez Más

March 21st, 2013 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
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The student musicians at the KORIMACAO Project sang several wonderful songs for us. The singer in red on the left was excellent and would be an easy winner for Cuban Idol, if that existed.

[Note: Because last year I blogged about the various legs of our trip and activities, and this year had many of the same events, I am taking a wider view. However, Joan Wells, one of our 2013 trip members, is blogging about her experience. You might want to follow along for Joan’s vibrant descriptions]

At the end of February, another band of intrepid adventurers joined me for my return trip to Cuba. Since my last reflections on the previous trip, I have continued to read about Cuba and 2012 previous travelers have had two reunions and traded numerous emails and articles about this fascinating and confusing country. I was very curious to see what my reactions would be for this trip.

What was the same? We went to many of the same places and heard from many of the same people. Even when there were different people, the impressions were often the same. For instance, I was again impressed with the musical abilities of so many people. Again, we almost always had live music in restaurants and it was common on the streets. Last year we saw a rehearsal by a very talented group of young people at the KORIMACAO Project in Zapata. We did enjoy them again this year, but we also saw a powerful performance in Havana of the Opera de la Calle. This mix of professional and amateur artists has a great musical show that starts out telling the story of Cuba in Spanish, and then somewhat surreally breaks into “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (in English), as shown in this video from a previous performance. Following that song, they moved into a beautiful rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon. This is always a powerful song, but tears came to my eyes when the Cuban singer looked out into the small, almost entirely American audience and sang:

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace”

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After a fun but soggy hike through the clinging mud of Mil Cumbres, our group attempts to scrap about 50 collective pounds of mud off of our boots.

Indeed. Imagine what these young people’s lives could be. Should be. I never understood that song more than in that minute. Imagine what the last two generations of Cubans could have become and done if U.S. and Cuban politics had not hijacked their options.

 

The beauty of the country is also unchanged. Havana has marvelous colonial architecture in states between ruins to restoration. The countryside is still gorgeous, even though we had some very Seattle-ish rainy weather while we were in the countryside. Everyone’s spirits were up and no one complained, though hiking in red Mil Cumbres mud resulted in impressive accumulations of mud on our boots, leading us to drag our feet like we were wearing 10 lb. ankle weights. I had particularly been looking forward to seeing ethereal Viñales again and sharing it with the group. It was still beautiful, but our desire to explore the town and surrounding areas was…dampened.

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Beautiful Viñales in the sunshine, 2012

 

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Beautiful Viñales in the rainy mist, 2013

What was different? It is a little hard to say, but it seemed like Cubans felt more comfortable with us. I did not sense the anxiety about tips from our group. Yes, they wanted and needed them, but it seemed like they were less concerned that they might not get them. They seemed more giving in talking about the political situation there. Perhaps less concerned about the consequences of being frank with us?

One notable discussion was arranged by our travel partner organization, the Fund for Reconciliation and Development. Our speaker was a retired former diplomat for the Cuban government, with friends obviously in high places. We had a very open discussion about the rights and wrongs of both the Cuban and American governments over the past 50 years and beyond. Last year we danced around the subject of the Cuban Five and Alan Gross, but here we laid out the arguments. I felt emboldened to raise the issue about the lack of free press and access of almost everyone to the Internet (there are no Internet cafes and even at our very nice Havana hotel, the Internet was not available most of the time we were there, and out of the price range for ordinary Cubans). He quickly agreed with me that Cuba will not advance without either and surprised us by saying that since he is retired, he also no longer has access to the Internet! Imagine that – we have smart phones that allow us to access the Internet anywhere, but in Cuba even retired government officials have limited access to it. That we were even having this conversation, however, made me hopeful for their future.

There are still lessons we can learn from them, however. The visit to the Alamar Organoponic Gardens and the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture [note that I am not linking you to the actual institutional websites because they do not have them] was again inspirational. Their practical attitude about food security and food sovereignty may have been born of necessity from The Special Period but it is taking them in a direction we could learn from. And at Las Terrazas, we heard from the Director of the field station that they have 30 years of data about the phenology (timing of plant flowering, leaf growth, etc.) that gives them a good record for tracking climate change. Not many places here have that.

On this trip we also had a wonderful time bird-watching. Bee hummingbird? Cuban tody? Pygmy owl? Sí!  More about that next…

Travels to Cuba – Reflections on a Resilient Country

April 11th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
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A tobacco worker takes a break by a curing shed. Photo by Stephen Wescott

We have been back from Cuba for about a month and I am still sorting it out in my head. As I said before, it is a far more complicated place than I expected to find. My fellow adventurers continue to email new articles and books they are finding about Cuba, suggesting that they also are trying to reconcile what we experienced.

What do I mean? Well, for starters, this is a communist country, right? I am not a terribly political person, but my understanding of communism is that the state owns everything, and the state redistributes the wealth. People work for the state and the state provides for their needs. That might work IF there is wealth. But what if the country is not wealthy, has few lucrative exports, is relatively small, and has 11 million citizens? Then the wealth that is redistributed to the many citizens is insufficient to support their basic needs. Oh, but what if there is another communist country that is able to provide support, especially when the first country is strategically located near the second country’s greatest enemy? That can work! But then the first country relies on the second country, and when IT then experiences problems…the first country is last in line for the support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, that prop was gone and Cuba crashed into its “Special Period,” which is a strange way of labeling a time when people were starving. In more recent times, Venezuela and China have helped, but clearly this is not a sustainable solution.

Many people will cite the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba as the source of the problems. While that has certainly not helped the Cuban economy, they do have other trading partners and they do, actually, receive imports from the U.S. – one report claims that the U.S. is the 5th largest exporter to Cuba. One Cuban tourism professional we talked with said that the embargo should be lifted, but a lift of travel restrictions would do more to help the average Cuban.

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A driver leans on his taxi. Photo by Stephen Wescott

The increase in tourism is helping. We found ourselves tipping everyone, including professionals such as architects and biologists for the park system. It felt strange to be tipping people I consider my peers, and it may have been strange for them to be accepting them, but it is survival. I have been told that professionals such as doctors and biologists are giving up their jobs to drive taxis, to enable them to get tips from tourists. The more recent ability to take in paying guests into homes, or open private restaurants is an acknowledgement that the state payments to their workers is insufficient to sustain them.

The Cubans we met were very friendly and happy to see Americans. Martha was greeted warmly by this cigar salesman. Photo courtesy of Martha Clatterbaugh

Despite their at least implicit acknowledgement that the current system does not work, the people we talked with about these subjects are very resistant to any sort of outside interference. After learning more about the Bay of Pigs incident, I can completely understand it. But without a free press, how do you know what is inside, and what is outside, interference? For instance, our guide, Frank, was very adamant that a well-known dissident blogger from Cuba was supported by Cuban exiles’ (so now American) money and therefore suspect. When I asked him how, without a free press, he could be sure of that, he sort of admitted that he couldn’t.