Category Archives: Bugwoman on Location

Dogs and Cats and Bats

Rt Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King with one of the Pats

Dear Readers, last week, while I was in Toronto, I visited the home of the first Mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie. He was the grandfather of the former Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who lived from 1874 to 1950. Mackenzie King was a a solitary man, with no close relatives and a small circle of friends. He seems to have distrusted his fellow human beings, and no woman could ever live up to his mother. He lived alone with his dog: he had three Irish Terriers during his lifetime, each one called Pat, and wrote about them in his diary. He described his first ‘Pat’, his constant companion for over 17 years, as ‘a God-sent little angel in the guise of a dog, my dear little saviour’.  It is said that the dog was often asked about matters of foreign and domestic policy, the enthusiasm of his tail-wagging being a clue to how to proceed. When the dog died, Mackenzie King communicated with him by means of seances and a Ouija board.

Every Christmas, Mackenzie King sat down in his armchair beside a glowing fire and read the whole of the Christmas story to his dog, everything from the shepherds to the Magi to the birth in the stable, with special emphasis on the role of the animals around the manger, so that the dog would feel that he, too, was part of the nativity.

I was touched by the image of this man, so isolated from other human beings,  reading aloud to his dog and attempting to make the dog feel that he, too, had his part in the divine plan. I imagine the dog looking up at his master and reacting to his emotions, rather than his words. Who is to say that this is not love of the purest kind? Whatever we pay attention to grows and develops in mysterious ways, but what we sometimes overlook is that this is a two-way process.  The man reads to his dog, and the dog  repays him with unconditional love.

Willow showing relaxed indifference, her normal state.

My cat, on the other hand, had disappeared completely when we got home early on Saturday morning. Sometimes she rushes down the stairs to greet us, wailing the whole way. This time she hid under the bed for two hours before slinking down the stairs and presenting herself to me while I was on the phone catching up with Mum. The cat yowled and demanded to be stroked, tail trembling as she danced in tiny fraught circles. It took a lot of attention to bring her back to her normal state of relaxed indifference.

The cat seems to find me less intimidating when I’m sitting down or laying in bed, which makes me wonder how she actually sees me. Someone once wrote that when they lay down on the floor, their pet rabbit went directly to their hands, the only part of them that was familiar in this new scenario. And Oliver Sacks writes about a man who had been blind from birth, and was then able to have an operation so that he could see. This was not such an unalloyed blessing as you might think, especially at first: we ‘learn’ to see, and to understand the pattern of light and shadow that designates a staircase, for example. But what was most surprising was that, although he could identify his pet dog with his eyes closed, when his eyes were open he had difficulty in identifying his pet from different angles – a dog from the side looks completely different to a dog from the front. So maybe my cat is reacting to my towering, looming height, or maybe she just doesn’t recognise me as the same person when I’m sitting down.

Jackdaw

The garden has exploded into green and white. All the bare twigs are clothed, the reeds and purple loosestrife are three times the height of the plants that we left. The hawthorn is clothed from head to foot in white flowers that smell faintly erotic. The duckweed is advancing across the pond as usual, and is impossible to remove without a genocide of tadpoles. Water hyacinth has popped up, in full flower – I planted it over five years ago and it’s never done anything until now. A jackdaw has been feeding from the bird table, and I wonder if it’s the same one that visited in spring last year. He watches us as we tiptoe around the kitchen, his grey eye attentive, his frosted neck reflecting the sunlight. Sometimes he chases other birds, and once he is in turn pursued by a magpie.

A wood pigeon floats up from the roof and claps his wings, once, twice, before drifting off in a great loop.

And on Sunday evening, at dusk, I stand watching a single bat looping around the narrow side return. My climbing hydrangea is just coming into bloom, and I wonder if the bat is roosting in it during the day, but mostly I just watch, amazed, as she works tight little figures of eight in the confined space, sometimes silhouetted against the turquoise sky, sometimes disappearing against the black of the fence. I see a moth rise, the bat fly past it and then turn sharply and catch it. I see it happen again. I watch and watch, afraid to blink. And then the bat leaves, and the sky is empty, and the insects that have escaped this onslaught start to disperse.

It seems to have been a year for bats: in Costa Rica, in Collingwood, and now outside my own window. And of all of these, it is this homely bat that gives me most pleasure, because it implies that for all the failures, I must be doing something right in the garden. My mind moves to things that I can do to encourage the insects that the bat needs: should I plant a window box full of nicotiana, for example, or is it my pale cream rhododendron that is attracting them? All I know is that a garden is never finished, but that if we pay attention and are humble it will tell us what it needs, and how to work with it.

Maybe ‘home’ is whatever and whoever we pay attention to. And maybe attention is just another word for love.

My birthday rhododendron from my friend J, in full flower.

Bugwoman on Location – Royal Botanic Gardens Burlington

Serviceberry outside the Royal Botanic Garden visitor centre, Burlington, Ontario

Dear Readers, every year when I go to Toronto I make the journey to the Royal Botanic Gardens outside Burlington, about an hour’s train ride from the city. There, I meet my friend M who drives up from Youngstown in New York State. For a few hours we wander the trails and my friend shares her knowledge of North American nature with me. Sometimes we think about meeting somewhere else, but this is such a magical trail and there is always something new to see. This year, for example, we saw a great blue heron (Ardea herodias), a much larger version of the grey heron that’s common in Europe – this magnificent bird can be 54 inches tall (‘Almost as tall as me!’ as my friend said). It has a wingspan of up to six and a half feet, and when it takes off it seems prehistoric, as if it’s been rising from marshland from before the advent of humans and will probably continue to do so long after we’re gone.

The orange hue on the beak and the legs, the plumes on the animal’s back and the black crest show that this bird is coming into full breeding fettle. It is always moving to see such a large, impressive creature at such close quarters, but this was not the last surprise that the walk was reveal.

There were all the usual delights too, of course. The trout lilies and trilliums were just starting to reveal themselves. I love the delicacy of woodland flowers and the way that they disappear as soon as the canopy of leaves shades them out.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum)

Trillium and windflowers (Trillium grandiflorum and Anemone canadensis)

What I hadn’t noticed in previous years were the banks of lesser celandine, a European native. It looks very pretty in the dappled sunlight, and was being visited by a variety of small bees, but is being treated with herbicide by the Botanic Garden staff as it’s seen as being invasive, and shading out the native plants. It will be interesting to see how different things are when we visit next year – apparently they have attempted pulling the plant up, but it spreads by means of tiny bulbils and is so very difficult to get rid of.

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

Some birds had started breeding early – several pairs of Canada geese had goslings already. They are fiercely protective of their youngsters, especially as they are not only vulnerable to other birds, but also to large fish (of which there are many in the lake).

Canada geese with goslings

We leaned on a rail by the boardwalk to watch some geese feeding, and noticed a most unusual creature hoovering up the sunflower seeds.

Muskrat

I had never seen a muskrat out of the water before. The fur was so dense that the undercoat was perfectly dry. No wonder the Hudson’s Bay Company valued their pelts so much (along with those of beaver, fox, ermine, sable…..). S/he kept a healthy distance from the geese, who are much inclined to peck at this time of year. I explained to one young woman that this was a muskrat, not a ‘rat – rat’ and that, as we know from David Attenborough, they sometimes share lodges with beavers. It was originally thought that the muskrats were just freeloaders, but the Attenborough film showed the muskrats helping to repair the lodge, so it seems that they do their bit to help with the chores.  I am also rather taken with the muskrat’s tawny eyes, which look rather lion-like to me.

On the way into the trail, we met an elderly man who was feeding the birds, but stamping his feet at the  squirrels.

‘What good’s a squirrel?’ he asked. The response ‘And what good are you, human’ never quite made it past my lips, but it does occur to me that this anthropocentric view of the world is responsible for a good proportion of the mess that we’re currently in. It’s not all about us.

Anyhow, further along the trail we were accosted by a very fine American red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), rather smaller and shyer than the usual grey ones (and not the same as the European red squirrel). I love the hopeful, watchful  expression as s/he tried to work out if I’m a friend or a stamper.

We were also very lucky with birds this time. There were of course the usual red-winged blackbirds, calling from every tree – confusingly these are not thrushes like  the European blackbird, but Icterids, a New World group.

Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

But how about this little beauty? I wasn’t sure what species I was looking at, but it turns out that it’s the perfectly named yellow warbler. They can be found throughout North and South America, and there are no less than 33 subspecies. Their Latin name means ‘moth-eater’, and they are voracious predators of all kinds of flying insects. As they buzzed through the leaves they were like small streaks of lemon feathers.

Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia)

But what about this bird? I do believe that I might have had a brief spotting of a Baltimore oriole, though my friend and I both thought that the bird looked a little small for that. If it was an oriole, it was my first ever sighting. Let me know what you think, North American friends!

There were many other delights on the walk: a raccoon sleeping in the crook of a tree, some Carolina wood ducks pottering about, a downy woodpecker popping in for a very close visit.

Carolina wood ducks (Aix sponsa)

Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

But my biggest surprise came at Aldershot station. I was sitting in the station waiting room when I looked up idly at the transmission tower opposite as a huge bird came in to land.

Good grief.

Yes, a pair of ospreys have made a nest overlooking the railway station. My friend M and I saw an osprey fly over last year, but I had no idea that such large birds of prey would happily make their homes so close to human habitation.

This bird used to live in the UK in some numbers, but was persecuted until it became extinct in the country in 1916. It recolonised in 1954, and there are now between 250 and 300 breeding pairs, mostly in Scotland. Worldwide, there are 460,00 ospreys, a third of them living in Canada during the summer and over-wintering in South America. This bird is found on every continent except Antarctica, and their presence is said to be a mark of the water quality – ospreys, being at the top of the food chain, are very susceptible to the impact of pollutants such as DDT and PCB’s.

I have never seen ospreys in the UK, a country which seems to delight in shooting anything that looks like a bird of prey, but what a joy it was to see them so unexpectedly in Canada, and what a wonderful end to a day full of friendship and nature. Roll on next year!

Red bud (Cercis canadensis) tree at the RBG

 

Bugwoman on Location – Collingwood, Ontario

Dear Readers, when we arrived in Canada on Saturday 28th April it was something of a shock – the temperature was just above freezing and it was trying to snow. The next morning when we took Charlie the wheaten schnoodle for a walk, the boardwalk was half-covered in ice and I needed every layer of clothing that I’d brought with me, plus a borrowed hat. But by Monday the sun was out, the ice was gone, and there was a sudden, almost instantaneous burst of spring. Coltsfoot had sprung up almost instantaneously, raising their hopeful yellow heads.

The red-winged blackbirds were calling from every tree.

And all this was somewhat expected. But this was not.

There were three large-ish bats flittering around in search of gnats at two o’clock in the afternoon. I was worried at first that they were victims of a fungal disease called white-nosed syndrome, which has destroyed the bat population in some areas such  as New Brunswick. In some areas it has had a fatality rate of almost 99%. These bats looked healthy as far as I could see, and I sincerely hope that they were just roused to such unusual activity due to the late cold spell, and a need to get out and feed regardless of the time of the day. However, I have a call in to the local Batwatch team, so I will keep you posted.

I think that the bats are Hoary Bats (Lasiurus cinereus) – they have a kind of frosty tinge to their fur, and a white mark on their ‘wrist’ area which I think I can see in the photo below. It was such a pleasure to watch them, and I wasn’t the only one who was amazed – a young couple nearly fell off their bicycles when they stopped suddenly to see what I was looking at, and a dog walker came back to tell me that there were some more bats further along the path. People in Collingwood are very happy to stop and spend the time of day, and in that they remind me of the people in Mum and Dad’s Dorset village. It was a great start to my Canadian holiday to spend a bit of time in nature. It’s a bit harder to spot critters in downtown Toronto.

On the lake itself I was delighted to see several pairs of red-breasted mergansers. I had never had a good look at their beaks before, and was astonished to see how long they were.

Male red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator)

Mergansers are members of the sawbill family of diving ducks (the Latin species name ‘serrator’ means ‘sawyer’) and they use that elegant long  beak to catch fish, frogs and newts. They are also the fastest duck ever recorded, with one red-breasted merganser being timed at 100 m.p.h when ‘pursued by an airplane’. The mind boggles. What was an airplane doing chasing a duck? I also had no idea that planes could fly as slowly as 100 m.ph without stalling. If anyone out there is a pilot or the kind of person who studies duck speeds, do let me know.

Red-breasted merganser drake and duck

What moves me most about the change of seasons in Collingwood is how quickly things move on. The violet leaves are springing back into life after being submerged in snow, and I suspect that the woods will soon be smelling sweetly of their perfume. The swan is incubating her eggs, and soon the cygnets will be peeping from the nest. I capture a moment and then things move on, and I’m not there to see what happens next. But how good it feels to know that this place exists, and that it is a haven to birds and turtles and invertebrates and frogs. Canada is a big country, but all over the world wetlands are under threat, which only makes this spot, with its reedbeds and shallows, all the more precious.

‘Fashioned From Nature’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Beetle wing dress circa 1868

Dear Readers, on Friday I went with my friend A to a preview of ‘Fashioned From Nature’, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum which, as the title suggests, explores the relationship between fashion and the natural world. I was prepared to be upset, as the history of humans and the rest of the planet’s inhabitants hasn’t been (and still isn’t), an equitable one. Take the dress pictured above and below, for example. Each of the ‘beads’ is the wing case from a tropical beetle.

Or this muff, made from the breast feathers of a peacock.

Or this ‘hat’ made from a stuffed bird of paradise

So much of our history has been about viewing the world as a cornucopia of treasures that we could plunder endlessly with no repercussions. All of the creatures of the world were available for us to use not just for food, but to convert into whatever trivial object we wanted, and there is nothing so frivolous as a party dress. And if this was all the exhibition was about it would be very depressing indeed. However, there are some beautiful things here that are inspired by nature but don’t involve violating it. Take this waistcoat, for example, with its embroidered macaques.

French embroidered waistcoat 1780-1789

Or this wall hanging with its delightful caterpillar.

And I was particularly taken with this ensemble, with its embroidered representations of the sexual organs of a plant.

It occurs to me how closely entangled art is with the plants and animals that surround us. The first cave paintings were of horses and mammoths, woolly rhino and camels. Once we started making fabrics we not only dyed them using plant dyes, but we represented plants in floral textiles. Just looking around as I sit at my laptop I see a bag with William Morris’s flowers all over it in one corner, a mug with a giraffe on it holding my pens and pencils, another bag made by my Mum featuring some patchwork cats, and a pair of discarded socks with fox terriers on them. Of course, I am probably more ‘nature-oriented’ than many people, but I bet most of us could look up right now and see a representation of a plant or animal within eye-shot. As we have become more ‘civilised’ we have on the one hand decided that we are separate from (and superior to) ‘nature’: at the same time we find ourselves yearning for our erstwhile companions, the plants and animals that we have lived alongside for most of our history. We fill our houses with plants and pets, and we cover our walls, our furnishings and our bodies with representations of them. How lonely we became when we decided that we had outgrown nature, and how foolhardy.

It is the third aspect of the exhibition that I found most inspiring because, as Stella MacCartney the designer recently said, the fashion industry is the most wasteful in the world. It encourages people to throw away their clothes every season, with side-effects for landfill, for the textile industries of developing nations, for workforces where labour laws are not as protective as they are in the West, and for pollution. However, there were plenty of examples of how that doesn’t have to be the case.

The leather industry is one of the most polluting on the planet, operating alongside the meat industry – leather isn’t a by-product, it’s an actual reason for some animals to be farmed (and don’t get me started on python and alligator leather). The trousers below were made from ‘leather’ made from mushrooms.

Trousers made from mushroom leatherThis dress is made from by-products of the wine industry.

This silk dress is made from ‘Ahimsa’ silk – it is woven after the moth has emerged from the cocoon.

This ensemble was made from waste wool and scrap cloth. It’s a shame that it looks rather as if someone has run through a jumble sale, but I’m sure something rather more wearable by the average person could also be made. Plus, wouldn’t the trousers show the underwear? And be a bit draughty? And scratchy?

There were lots of other examples too. The man who started the Burtons chain of men’s outfitters wore a Harris Tweed suit for over twenty years, on the basis that something classic never goes out of fashion. There’s a lot to be said for this approach – I’m trying to make my clothes last longer by buying items that can be accessorised in different ways as fashion changes. I have also noticed that if you keep things for long enough, they will come into fashion again. Someone told me that my dress was ‘on trend’ last week, much to my astonishment, so I’d say that the cycle is probably about ten years.

And I was rather taken by this dress, made by persuading plant roots to grow into a grid pattern.

And just when I was settling down, I was suddenly outraged all over again.

But wait. The whole of this ‘leopard-skin’ dress is made out of tiny glass beads.

And so, everything is not what it seems. We have reached a point in our development as a species where we can have all the beauty of a leopard without hurting it, and we can have the suppleness of leather without polluting the planet. Which will it be, I wonder? Humans often remind me of Wily Coyote, just about to go over the edge of the cliff. It might be that we’ve gone over it already, and are peddling in mid-air, but maybe, just maybe, there’s enough creativity and will in the world to turn us back. Exhibitions like this make me question how the companies that I shop with are managing their ethical responsibilities to the environment and to their workforces, and make me think about the questions I should be asking of my preferred brands. If you are in London, I would definitely recommend a visit.

‘Fashioned From Nature’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, until Sunday 27th January 2019.

A Garden of Character

Dear Readers, some gardens are grand. Some are charming. But some acquire something  even better – character. I love the garden of my Aunt Hilary because it speaks to me of the love that she and her sister Morwenna have put into it over nearly 50 years. It includes just the right combination of plants that are managed, and plants that have been allowed to naturalise and roam free, such as the primroses above, which pop up in every colour from cream to palest pink to rose to cerise.

In the autumn, the cyclamen take over.

The controlled anarchy of it all, with flowers bursting forth in the lawn, by the stumps of trees, in every corner, seems almost paradisaical to me. If Adam and Eve walked on this primrose-studded lawn I’m sure they’d think themselves lucky.

But it’s not all about the primroses. The wild lesser celandine combine with a handsome white periwinkle to make a little spot of semi-wildness.

Purple windflowers (Anemone blanda) hide shyly away alongside the dense conifers at the end of the garden, which are alive with wrens and goldcrests.

The rookery on the other side of the field is in full swing, with rooks croaking and conversing.

A sparrowhawk flies in over my head, long and low, for the second time in two days. She catches nothing, and swerves away, but the sparrows set up an anxious chirruping, as if discussing what has happened. In a few minutes, one is back on the roof of the old garage, which itself has a fine patina of age. The variety of lichens and mosses, here in this area of clean air, is impressive.

I wander over to the vegetable garden, and notice these two sparrows huddled against one another. I know we’re not supposed to anthropomorphise, but they look like friends to me. Could they be recently fledged nest-mates, I wonder? Surely it’s too early? But then, Broadway has a lot of long-established hedgerows which provide just the conditions that these birds need – food, shelter, and lots of thorns to keep the sparrowhawks out.

When I look at a garden like this, it makes me wonder how many iterations it has gone through, how many plants have been tried and rejected because they aren’t happy in the conditions. There’s a lesson here about when to give up and try something new, when to persevere, when to intervene and when to let well enough alone. A garden can teach us many things, if we let it, and if we recognise that, in the end, we can either work with nature or against her. After almost fifty years this garden is still evolving, but is full of ‘happy accidents’ that have been allowed to multiply. Imagine how much poorer the garden would be if the first errant primrose had been dug out, instead of appreciated.

Nature touches the most unlikely things with beauty, like the roof of this bird table. I love the different textures and colours of the lichens, the way the one on the right looks as if some sea monsters are rising up and wading through the shallows. The one in the middle is as crumbly as birch bark. The lichen towards the top of the roof reminds me of the surface of a sphagnum bog. All of this is happening here on this few square inches of wood. There is so much abundance here, so much possibility. It’s hard to spend time in nature without being touched by joy.

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica – Monteverde

Female green-crowned brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula) photo by Lesley

Dear Readers, on a day when the weather in London is so cold that I’ve put plastic buckets over the frogspawn in my pond in case the water freezes, it’s a real pleasure to think back to the last part of my holiday in Costa Rica. The final stop was the cloud forest around Monteverde in the central part of the country. These areas are not called ‘cloud forest’ for nothing: it was surprisingly cool, and we were relieved when we got to our hotel to see that we had duvets on the beds instead of the usual sheets. There was also a fine example of towel art.

We started off with a canopy forest walk in Selvatura. In truth, I’d been a bit worried about this: as I’ve gotten older my head for heights has disappeared. I’m fine walking up and down the mountain tracks in Austria, but present me with one of those bridges with a see-through metal grid to walk across, and you might find me wobbling a bit.

Photo One from By Comrogues from San Francisco, California (Selvatura) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A hanging bridge from Selvatura (Photo One)

What would happen if I froze halfway across, and was unable to move on? Would I have to be rescued by a handsome Costa Rican? Would he have to winch me up into his helicopter? Anyway, moving swiftly on, when we arrived and actually saw the bridges, it seemed that I was not the only one with a problem. At least half of us spent the next few hours walking briskly across the bridges, eyes front, hanging on to the rails on both sides. Our guide, Walter, was Very Disappointed with us.

‘The idea is to see the different levels of the canopy’, he said. ‘You could stop and look and see what you could see’.

Yes, that would be lovely, but stopping and looking was an impossibility, because then I would notice that I was 240 feet above the ground.

We had clearly let him down, but at least no helicopters were involved.

Every so often there was a scream as someone shot by on a zipwire hanging from the very top of the canopy. And good luck to them, I say. I was just glad when bridge number eight was completed and we were back on solid ground. It had gotten a little easier as we’d gone along, and I was glad that I’d done it, but still. I was looking forward to the next day when we would go for a nice, normal walk through the forest.

Begonia involucrata( ( think) – Angel Wing begonia

One thing I didn’t expect to see in a cloud forest in Costa Rica was a wild begonia, but they were everywhere. While it doesn’t surprise me to see the bromeliads and the ferns, I suppose I’d never given a thought to where our humbler houseplants come from, but here they were.

And here is another plant that I didn’t expect to find:

Bizzie lizzie (Impatiens walleriana)

This plant is an East African native, but the plant as we know it ‘escaped’ in Costa Rica many years ago. One of these wildlings caught the eye of Claude Hope, an American horticulturalist living in Costa Rica. It was he who turned the plant in to the popular bedding plant that it was until very recently, when downy mildew caused its downfall. This one was living very happily in a shady spot, much as it did in gardens on both sides of the Atlantic.

Our walk was brought to a halt by the presence of a very confident coati mundi, snuffling along the roadside and ignoring us all. He had a damaged front paw, but was otherwise in lovely condition. He spent so much time with his head down that getting a shot of his face was impossible (for me, anyhow).

Costa Rica has raccoons, oppossums and coati mundi, and seems to manage without shooting any of them. Take note, governments everywhere. You don’t have to massacre your wildlife.

There are a fine array of red-flowered plants, just waiting for a hummingbird to pop along to pollinate them. The red shrimp plant has its stamens positioned so that they tap the hummingbird on the back of the neck and deposit some pollen while s/he is feeding, like the Queen dubbing a Knight with her sword.

Red shrimp plant (Aphelandra sp)

More Aphelandra…

We spent some time looking into the fist-shaped holes in the banks of the forest. These are made by tarantulas, and by the look of it the place must be a positive tarantula party-zone after dark. One of the guides found a hole with a resident, and shone his torch in so we could get a glance of a shy spider’s bum. I decided not to take a picture to preserve the creature’s privacy. They are largely self-effacing creatures, with no desire for publicity.

I remember visiting the Bug Museum in Victoria, Canada when I was on my honeymoon, and getting the chance to hold a tarantula. The poor thing actually cringed when I gently stroked its abdomen, and it taught me two things. One – never again to handle a creature that didn’t want to be handled unless it was in danger and needed to be moved. Two – I had married the right person – my husband is not comfortable around insects, and yet took me to a place full of hissing cockroaches and giant millipedes so that I could enjoy myself.

Photo Two from https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlestilford/3884161756

Costa Rican Zebra Tarantula (Photo Two)

We walked to a look out point, where we could look out over the trees without feeling vertiginous. The wind nearly blew us over when we came out of the cover of the forest, but there was a patch of blue sky ‘just large enough to make a sailor’s breeches’ in the distance, and the weather cleared within a few hours.

The cloud forest trees are hung with moss and lichens, which are making the most of the damp, humid atmosphere. Each tree is its own ecosystem, with its branches hung with epiphytes and bromeliads, and its trunk smothered in vines.

We met a rather attractive giant millipede climbing up one of the trunks. It had a rather trilobitic look to it, I thought ( and I do believe that ‘trilobitic’ is a new word)

However, compared to the giant millipedes of West Africa, this creature is decidedly medium-sized.

Giant millipede from Cameroon. I rest my case.

Incidentally, millipedes are herbivorous and do not bite. Centipedes are carnivorous, and some of the larger tropical ones have the most painful bites in the animal kingdom, so it’s as well not to get them muddled up.

When we arrived back at the bottom of the trail, we had a rest at the cafe, which has put up some hummingbird feeders. Seven different species come to drink the nectar, along with some very large wasps and an occasional bat. It was such a privilege to sit and watch these jewel-like birds zapping in and out. They are mightily feisty for such small creatures, and you wouldn’t want to make one cross I suspect – some of them are armed with beaks longer than their bodies, and although these have evolved largely to enable them to feed from specific flowers, the birds are not averse to skewering an opponent.

Female green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula)

Male violet sabrebill (Campylopterus hemileucurus)

And so, it was time to return to our hotel, and almost time to go home. But I had one last treat in store. On a walk around the hotel grounds with my camera, I spotted this fine bird, who posed on top of a streetlight for a good ten minutes. S/he is a blue-crowned motmot, and apparently spends lots of time sitting around and scanning the area for the lizards and frogs and large insects that s/he eats. What you can’t see in the photo is the rather splendid tail, which is bald apart from two round areas of feathers at the end. These are swung in a pendulum-like motion, giving the bird the alternative name of ‘clock bird’.

Blue-crowned motmot (Motmotus motmota)

And so, it was time to head back to the UK. Costa Rica is a great introduction to the treasures of Central and South America, with its well-functioning tourist infrastructure, friendly people and wealth of natural treasures. It feels like a place that should be supported in its endeavours to be ecologically and socially responsible, a small country with a big heart. We have much to learn from Costa Rica about the right way to build a community. I hope that, one day, I’ll be back to explore the Pacific coast, home of the jaguar and the macaw. In the meantime, adios Costa Rica, and gracias.

Photo Credits

Photo One from By Comrogues from San Francisco, California (Selvatura) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Two by Charles Tilford at https://www.flickr.com/photos/charlestilford/3884161756

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bugwoman on Location – Costa Rica – Arenal

Dear Readers, after the watery world of Tortuguero we headed inland to the volcanoes of the Arenal area. Mount Arenal itself was originally a huge draw for tourists – they could sit on their hotel verandahs in the evening and watch the lava trickling down. Sadly, as a live volcano ages, the crater deepens, and so no one has been able to see lava for a while. As a result, the many many hotels have had to be creative, and the one that we stayed at made a big feature of its thermal pools.

It also made a point of featuring the volcano everywhere, as in my Volcano dessert. It was only a ball of ice cream with a conical biscuit cover and some strawberry sauce, but it looked very impressive nonetheless.

We arrived after dark, but the following morning the clouds had cleared, and we saw this:

Mount Arenal now has nine separate craters (each new eruption changes the morphology of the area), and you can see how the volcano is emitting steam. Tourists are (very sensibly) not allowed to go walking up to the summit in case they get scalded to death/knocked on the head by exploding rocks/mown down in a stream of lava. Nonetheless, several tourists were killed when an unlicensed guide decided that it would be fun (and probably lucrative) to take them up for a look a few years ago. Stupidity and greed are unfortunately universal (as are generosity, responsibility and kindness, though they don’t get such extensive press).

John and I decided to go for an early morning walk around the extensive grounds of the hotel instead of risking immolation, and spotted some crested guans in one of the ornamental trees. It is always a privilege to see such wild creatures so close up. They seemed mildly curious, but kept a decent distance.

A crested guan (Penelope purpurascens)

On the way back down the hill, I stopped to look at, and film, some leaf-cutter ants. They are a delight as they go about their business, harvesting great chunks of twig and leaf and taking them back into their nests. As I was filming, I sensed that I was being watched. I looked up to see an attractive young couple dressed for the spa.

‘What are they?’ asked the chap.

‘Leaf-cutter ants’, I said. ‘Do you want to know about them?’

My temptation is always to launch into a full lecture, but age has taught me that a) people are sometimes not interested and b) they often know more than I do, so I tend to be more careful than I was.

However, on this occasion, they both gave a kind of interrogatory shrug, which I interpreted as meaning ‘tell me in brief, but I am on my honeymoon you know’.

So I told them quickly about what the ants were doing, and how they grew fungus on the plant material.

‘So,’ I said with a flourish, ‘really they’re farmers!’

And then, the young man spoke up, and I was somewhat taken aback.

‘Can I ask how you know all this stuff?’ he asked.

Well. How do I know all this stuff?

‘I’m passionately interested in it, and so it just kind of sticks’, I said, with rather less eloquence than I’d have hoped. But it seemed to do the trick.

‘Good answer!’ said the chap, and then the two of them sashayed off to loaf around in the springs and no doubt drink martinis.

I do wonder about his question, though. Was he accusing me of ‘fake news?’ Did he not know how people found about stuff? Or was he just surprised that I knew about ants?

I really should have a ‘Bugwoman’ business card to hand out, to legitimize my interest in things buggy.

Lounging about in a thermal pool was not for us, however. We were off on a river trip. The nearby Rio Frio is an extremely biodiverse river, and we were going to get the chance to explore it. The boat was as usual kitted out with what seemed like garden chairs, but it had a roof (a fine feature when it can bucket down with rain with little warming) so we were delighted. Its captain, Herman, took us for a brief spin in the shallow part of the river, which was full of wood storks and a couple of roseate spoonbills. While the wood storks have fleshy, vulture-like heads and are in shades of black and dun and dirty white, the spoonsbills are cerise, a most exceptional colour. They were smaller than I expected, but at one point they started to skim the water with side to side sweeps of their bills. Mangrove swallows skimmed alongside the boat, their feathers iridescent purple and green.

Wood storks (Mycteria americana)

Roseate spoonbills (Platalea ajaja)

We had heard howler monkeys before on the trip, but this time we had a chance to see a little group feeding. Every Costa Rican male has got the howler monkey’s call down pat, and Herman and Walter both tried to engage the heavy-set male howler in conversation. However, he was a taciturn individual and, after a few grunts, turned his attention back to food. When one of them jumped to another tree, the others thought about it for a few minutes, and then followed. Seeing these creatures free in the trees makes me regret the impoverished lives that captive monkeys live – there is no human-provided substitute that can make up for the loss of the variety and sheer scope of their wild lives.

Mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata)

Male mantled howler

Herman was a gentle and considerate captain, and we moved slowly and carefully from one bank to another. We came upon a group of white-faced capuchins in a date palm, and were able to approach to within ten metres. One of the monkeys looked up and bared his teeth at us in a threat display, so we came no closer. The monkey continued to dissect the tastiest morsels from the dates, and a few others became visible. They are so attentive and concentrated as they feed, their hands are so delicate and precise that they reminded me of jewellers, selecting the right stones for their pieces and then preparing them in an appropriate way. It was our only time with this species on the trip, but they are very charismatic – they are called ‘the apes of Central/South America’ and they have a intelligence which shines through in their nut-brown eyes. When you meet the eyes of one of these creatures you are definitely encountering a ‘person’, a being with thoughts, needs and a personality, not just some generic ‘monkey’. I suspect this is true of all sentient creatures, if we only took the time to look.

White-throated capuchin monkey (Cebus capuchinus) (Courtesy of Ian Brett)

Capuchin Monkey1 Feb 18

A busy capuchin (thanks to Lesley)

Capuchin Monkey Feb 18

Photo courtesy of Lesley

In the UK, you wait for a long time to see a kingfisher, but here they were everywhere, along with the elegant anhingas (a type of cormorant that swims with just its neck exposed) and a bird called a sun grebe, which is not closely related to ‘ordinary’ grebes, and which only rarely dives (unlike your standard grebe, which waits till you’ve focused your camera before disappearing for ten minutes).

Male Amazon kingfisher (Chloroceryle amazona)

Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

Sun Grebe (Heliornis fulica)

And there on the bank was a very relaxed crocodile. With so many fish and birds and frogs and the occasional clumsy monkey to munch upon, no wonder s/he was grinning

But what I loved most of all was a fine view of a sloth. We’d seen a sloth before, of course, but as we rocked about on the boat and got our binoculars focused, it became clear that she was not on her own.

Can you see those tiny sloth ‘hands’ ? What a warm and cosy home for a new baby, wrapped up in his or her mother’s fur. What a heart-warming sight.

All too soon it was time to head back to the bus. A trip that took us two hours as we meandered up river took us just fifteen minutes as we cruised back. But what a ride! We were lucky to see so much, and to have such knowledgeable and sensitive guides. As we ate our rice and beans afterwards, we all agreed that it was one of the highlights of the trip.